Stop, I'm told, and smell a rose. Pause and take a break. So I comply. The smell offends my nose. Why don't you do what others do? I'm asked without words. But I'm not them. Must I pretend to be like you? What's wrong with loving work? Both the process and results? Rest is wearying. But labor refreshes and refuels.
I'm told it'd be better and cost less, If I hired the experts to do it. They reason true. I know. My time's too costly for stuff like this, I should just pay someone else. Again, they're right. I know. But money and time aren't the point, I do it myself 'cause I can. Joy has value. I know.
The rumble of wheels on gravel I prick my ears and take position For years I've tried diligently but failed Today is the day -- I will catch it today I launch with all the power in me It draws near and I lengthen my stride Barking fiercely and closing the gap A mouthful of rubber -- thrill of success Then searing pain and darkness close in As I ask myself why I wanted this.
A little while ago somebody asked me what motivates me to write. I’ve thought about that off and on for a long time, so you’d think I’d have a pretty solid answer by now. I don’t. At least, not really. It’s a case where the real answer is somewhat amorphous and changes shape from time to time depending on the circumstances. When I think I have a relatively complete answer, something around me or in me shifts just enough to alter the answer in substantive ways, and I am left with a hole that hasn’t been filled in yet. That said, there are some motivations that I consider enduring. They have remained consistent and applicable throughout my memory, and I expect them to remain so indefinitely.
First, and fundamentally, I write to please myself. This sounds to me quite selfish, but I believe there is probably an element of selfishness at the bottom of almost everything we do of our own free choice. At the end of the day, I find writing generally rewarding as I pull together thoughts and memories to fashion them into something that I hope is coherent and interesting. Telling a story or writing a poem is a lot like building a project where I have a design in mind, select and collect the pieces, shape and fit them together in a manner unique to my intent, and assemble something that I find useful or pleasing as the end result. I get great pleasure in stepping back at the end of a project and seeing a result that I can be somewhat proud of. Whether it’s a physical structure, electronics project, or string of words on a screen or paper, I like to see a finished result that reflects the care and effort I put into it. It’s satisfying in a way that my daily employment isn’t.
Another factor that motivates me when I write is the ability it affords me to organize, analyze, and assess complex issues. I have a wide range of ideas and ideals that are shaped by a vast array of life experiences, but the linkage between those experiences and the beliefs and ideas is often buried and uncertain. When I sit down to write about those kinds of ideas it give me the opportunity to analyze my beliefs and identify many of the underlying factors that they are founded on. When I write, I can more clearly identify the linkages between and lineage of ideas, and can take the time to choose how to show the connections and deeper aspects. I don’t, however, generally write about fundamentally deep ideas and make them widely available. Those writings are more often than not reserved for me alone.
There are times that I write because I can be more precise about a message I mean to communicate. I’ve often heard it said that written language is one of the weakest forms of communication because you lose much of the context surrounding the message. While that is generally true, I don’t believe that is universally the case. Hastily written messages are, in fact, dangerous because they can be very easily misinterpreted. Non-verbal queues, inflection and intonation, and immediate feedback are all lost due to the delay and separation that occurs when we communicate in writing, so a poorly crafted thought can lead to amazing misinterpretations. However, I’ve found that there are a wide range of topics for which verbal communication is much more dangerous than writing.
Contentious topics or complex issues require great thought and deliberate approaches that are easily screwed up when responding to someone in the heat of the moment. Writing on these topics allows me the time and opportunity to analyze the messages being sent, evaluate them against my purpose in communicating, and adjust them appropriately before the intended audience has received the wrong message. Taking time to write out my thoughts also allows me to analyze the concepts, evaluate the supporting arguments, and ensure my position is well founded. Carefully crafted writing, while missing the nonverbal elements of communication, is uniquely well suited for dealing with thorny, contentious, or complicated issues.
Sometimes I write because it is easier for me to put strong emotions or difficult topics into words when they are written. I find certain things very difficult to speak about with a steady voice and a rational mind. I often use poetry, in particular, to touch on these things I can’t really express otherwise. The ability to address these kinds of emotions without directly speaking to them and in a form that can mean something completely different to each new reader has drawn me to poetry, especially when I’m having difficulty communicating in other ways.
The last reason I’ll touch on is probably the most fundamental and enduring one. I write to leave a piece of me behind. Much of what we know about history comes from writings left behind by those who went before. In our modern world, people have shifted to less and less durable forms of communication. By the time my children are having children, much of what I experienced will be lost to modern memory if it isn’t recorded somewhere. The stories of my childhood won’t be there to entertain and educate my children, grand-children, and great grand-children if I don’t write them down. I want my progeny to know who I was so they can understand a little of where they came from.
To the handful of people who were interested in this, it has fallen victim to the whims of fortune and my current lack of motivation. It’ll be a while before I can afford the up-front costs to get this printed. Sorry for the teaser. You probably didn’t really want one anyway, but I appreciate the thought.
Just finished putting together a “book” of the poetry I’ve written. You can download a crummy low-resolution version of it at the following link: Low resolution proof of “Doc Johnson’s Magic Mix”
I’m thinking of getting a handful actually printed and bound, but I don’t have the money at the moment to print enough to hand out. If you are interested in having a copy and are willing to blow up to $20 on it, leave a comment with your contact info and I’ll see if I can get enough interest to make it viable.
I... Wanted... THIS!!! I wanted this... I... wanted this? I wanted this???
Once fed by melting white snow Tumbling quickly with great energy Living rock yielded to the potent push As it carved deeper and built strength Life's elements careening down stream Then dreadfully harnessed and tapped To suit the intent of designers Pounding and frothing for naught As twist upon turn changed the course Sapping the potential and power Till an inch deep and two miles wide Sluggishly creeping along the way Stagnantly pooling, nearly halting Releasing what was suspended All is lost by expanding too wide
If you read these pages, it should be pretty obvious that I like to write. Why I write is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, and I’m having difficulty coming to a reasonably believable and simultaneously satisfying answer. The truth of it is that there are many answers, but when I consider the implications of those answers the results are highly contradictory and/or unsatisfying.
When I started writing, I pretty much wrote for myself. Writing was a chance to organize my thoughts and either deal with what was on my mind or divert my attention away from it. At times, writing gave me the outlet and strength I needed to continue when I wasn’t sure I had enough in reserve. It gave me something to occupy lonely hours sitting in hotel rooms while on business trips. My writing was then, and continues today, to be predominantly selfish.
As a result of this selfish nature, I find it hard to justify spending much time writing. There are so many demands on my time that it is impossible to satisfy even a small number of them. Many, if not most, of those demands are grounded in service to somebody else. Often family, occasionally friends, and sometimes strangers need help; and this type of service to others generally takes priority over my personal preferences.
I have occasionally tried to convince myself that what I write is of value to others. To some degree, I view what I write as leaving something of myself for posterity. Along the way, there were a few times when my longevity was in doubt, and writing gave me comfort knowing that my kids would have at least some insight into my mind if I weren’t around to see them grow. However, what I write can’t possibly replace the personal experiences and interactions that compete for the time I would otherwise spend writing. Justifying time writing as a service to posterity is a flimsy argument.
I have also hoped that what I write might find meaning in the heart of any random reader. I want what I write to be read and enjoyed. However, almost nobody reads what I write. Furthermore, doing the things I’d have to do to broaden my audience would poison the well from which I draw while writing. If I were to try to commercialize what I write, I’d quickly learn to despise it. Writing for a broader audience doesn’t appear to be a viable justification for the time I spend.
There are a few other things that motivate me to write, but none of them are any more satisfying than those already listed. In the end, I have to conclude that my time writing is mostly selfish. I steal it from other worthy causes. The question I have to wrestle with, then, is whether it’s okay to be selfish so I can fill that particular need within myself, or whether I should just drop this line of effort and let it idle along with so many other projects that await that mythical day when I can spend time on them.
An afternoon unallocated Retreat to the shop, pick something up "Dad!" -- A call for my help It can wait... I whisper to myself As I answer the call of a child An evening to write -- maybe a chapter Open the draft and read what I wrote Memory refreshed, prepared to compose A knock at the door draws my attention A neighbor needs help The story will be there tomorrow I guess The oil needs changing -- maintenance deferred A banging noise calls for investigation It'll only take an afternoon or so Maybe I should just pay someone else But I'll find some time I promise myself Hoping that noise isn't dangerous
Time is a teacher, but many of her lessons are about herself. One lesson time repeatedly and frequently tries to teach me is how fleeting, rare, and precious she is. It always seems I am putting some project or another on the back burner to wait the day when I’ll finally have enough time to finish what I started. In fact, as a college kid I would joke about what I would do when all I had was a day job and school was over. After graduation, I joked about what I’d do when we had enough money so that I could quit my night job and just deal with a regular eight-hour shift. Before that happened, a kid came into our family and complicated things. About the time we could afford for me to drop the second job, I entered graduate school and we had a second kid.
Each new evolution saw me introducing slight variations on the theme of “when I have more time” without really changing the status-quo. It was always a refrain with the same general theme. However, one time sink was replaced by another (and sometimes two) as school was replaced by work that didn’t respect a time-clock, another kid was added to the mix, older kids got more involved in various activities, and so on. After a while, I quit joking about what I would do when whatever milestone I was awaiting arrived and I would have more time. Reality was screaming that I would never really have more time — at least not until my kids were grown, I was retired, and I had somehow lost my enduring interest in a wide diversity of things. I don’t believe I’ll ever have much “free” time.
At this point in my life, I’ve managed to mostly accept the fact that projects I start may take several orders of magnitude longer than they should. Even with the best of plans and intentions, something always seems to get in the way and force me to set it aside in order to deal with external pressures or priorities. The net result is a garage and house full of things waiting on an afternoon or more of unallocated time — a rare event. Just walking out to the garage to get a tool reminds me of work I’ve started but left undone. That is an unpleasant experience for me. I like to finish what I start.
From time to time, Liz will look at one of my projects and ask in a slightly exasperated tone of I’m ever going to finish it. Earlier in our marriage, this happened much more frequently thanks to Liz’s anti-hoarder tendencies, and occasionally it boiled over into a request to get rid of something. However, over the years she’s come to understand that I will use the stuff I’m clinging to, and almost always finish a stalled project eventually. For the most part, she just rolls her eyes and tries not to look too closely when she goes into the garage. She knows it’s important to my mental health to have projects waiting for me should I have unallocated time.
As a quick example of how long simple projects can take, I recently made a batch of soap. In spite of the fact that the actual process is fairly quick once you have everything ready, I started it years ago. The best way to make soap requires a stick blender, so for several years I would look through the small appliance section in every thrift store I came across for a stick blender. It took probably two years to find one — in a thrift store half way across the nation from home while on a business trip. I bought it, knowing I wouldn’t be able to use it for quite a while, and threw it in my suitcase.
Much later, I happened into a reasonably large quantity of beef suet that I didn’t really have a better purpose for. Wanting to use tallow for making soap, I stashed it in the freezer. It stayed there until one evening I finagled some time, pulled it out, rendered it, and put the now purified tallow back into the freezer where it sat. It stayed there for a while waiting for me to find time to take the next step.
The lye I used had a similar history. Thanks to it’s use in making methamphetamine, pure lye is much more difficult to come by than it used to be. Most of the big box home improvement stores don’t carry it anymore. However, one day as I was walking through the plumbing section of a small town Texas hardware store looking for something completely unrelated to soap making, I saw a few bottles of pure lye drain opener. I added it to my cart, knowing that I would need it when I finally got around to making soap. It sat unused in the garage collecting dust for a long time.
The fat, the blender, and the lye could have been viewed as a hoarders treasure. Stuff kept just for the sake of having it. Stuff without a real intended purpose. Stuff that should be thrown away. However, these things were acquired with a specific purpose in mind, and maintained for that purpose. The illusion that they are a hoarder’s treasure, I suppose, comes from the fact that I have had to become comfortable with extended time-lines. Most of the projects I do for myself have rather long horizons, and were I to demand fixed deadlines or quick turn-around times, I would give up on any and all of it and sink into a pretty dark funk. There would be no point in keeping anything (not necessarily a bad thing), and no reason to work on long-term projects (a very bad thing).
This long term view does result in a significant amount of clutter, but I am willing to put up with the mess as long as I have a reasonable expectation I will eventually have a chance to finish a project. I do periodically go through the stack and evaluate the feasibility of ever finishing a given set of projects and get rid of any that aren’t likely to ever bubble their way to the top of the priority stack. Most of the time, the decision to get rid of them is a good one. Sometimes I have regretted getting rid of something later when life conspired to shift my priorities. As a result, I tend to err on the side of caution and have no shortage of productive things to fill unoccupied time. I’m almost never bored unless it’s at work where my time is not mine.
Because I have so many interests and projects, I constantly wonder how people find enough time to spend it profligately on things like television and mindless entertainment. I guess I’m just weird, but I simply can’t bring myself to watch time just blow by unused or abused with things that don’t add value to the day. About the closest I come to wasting my time is organizing my thoughts to write something like this pointless post, plumbing my feelings to write a poem, or taking time to go outside and enjoy the world God made. Even as “useless” as those things may seem, they are done with a purpose that has value to me.
I suppose in the end, though, that this last thought is the one that provides the best insight into how others justify spending time on things I find pointless. I suppose the things I find mindless and pointless fill a need for those who participate in them. While I don’t find anything particularly rewarding or worthwhile in spending a weekend drinking beer and watching two sports teams do what they do, I have to accept the probability that this activity fills a need. Just not one I recognize. I’m willing to bet that those who indulge in this kind of diversion also feel like they have too little time, and they probably wonder how I can spend the time I do writing useless drivel.