Taste and Tension

Day 50: Even cowgirls get the blues

(iPhone photo #50 in my 2012 365+1 project)

I wish I could remember where I first ran across the idea that expressions of superior taste in music, art, literature, food, and so forth were nothing more than expressions of prejudice against people perceived to be of a lower class. I should have taken note of the context for this idea because it changed my life. It made me realize that the world was a richer place for me if I did not try to police the tastes of others, or indeed even of myself.

If you teach upper level classes in literature or art or whatever, or if you run a fine dining establishment, or if you work as a professional musician, a certain amount of your professional credibility rests on policing taste. You want people to believe that what you have to offer is superior in some way to the dregs that do for the rest of the world.

If you write poetry or literary fiction, there is a bit of professional snobbery required as well. If we’re honest, though, we’ll admit that the lines of demarcation are largely manufactured for self-serving purposes, and that what matters in the end is that you are writing something that speaks in some way to other human beings.

Fine dining, likewise, I imagine is only really fine if people actually want to partake of it.

Still, this is built into the culture of “the cultured.” We show contempt for things that we consider to be beneath us socially and intellectually and in all matters of taste.

I’ve been thinking about that this week as I’ve watched basically two types of posts steadily stream through my social news feeds:

1. People posting memories of Whitney Houston, links to Whitney Houston songs, and comments about Whitney Houston’s death or funeral or family.

2. People mocking or expressing some form of disdain for those talking about Whitney Houston.

It’s all a matter of taste I suppose. If the subject interests you, you will join the frenzy of other people talking about it. If it does not interest you, you will join the mockers off to the side talking about their own social superiority to the frenzy. We have all been on both sides of this equation. We flip and flop between the two depending upon the situation. Sometimes you’re the player. Sometimes you’re the hater. But you’re almost always in the game.

I’ve been thinking about this in context of what kind of resolutions I want to work toward this year, and this is one thing I know I can improve upon. I hope I will learn to refrain from playing the part of the taste police. I hope I will learn to be joyful for the joy that others feel and to respect the sorrow that others feel and to embrace the beautiful diversity of interests and tastes that make up humankind.

I hope I will remember that even grown women who constantly quote from Twilight books deserve my compassion and respect.

This is something that I read today as I pondered what it means to refrain from posturing as culturally superior: “Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all of their wealth behind” (Psalms 49:10, New Living Translation). This idea that the wise die the same as the foolish is repeated several times in the Bible. I daresay you would find something similar in most religious texts. Regardless of our prejudices, regardless of our feelings of superiority, regardless of our belief in our own wisdom, we all come to the same end after all.

Give up a little pride and learn to live and let live. That’s my resolution today.

The forest of good intentions

Day 48:  Lost in a forest of good intentions

(iPhone photo #48 in my 2012 365+1 project)

I have nothing in particular to report today. I did walk, but I didn’t keep it up as long as I’d hoped. I’m still recovering from feeling blah and beaten earlier in the week. I guess we’ll have to call it a win that I got out there and tried.

Good intentions are like all other good things. You hit the point of diminishing returns all too quickly. One or two good intentions at a time are okay, but if you take on too many, everything falls apart.

I should probably follow that statement up with something to explain what I mean by it, but I’m just too tired. I have every good intention of posting something useful to this blog every day as I track my progress toward fitness and health and other nice dreams, but this is all you’re getting from me today. I’m just adrift right now, wandering aimlessly in a forest of my own best intentions.

4 out 5 Doctors Recommend

Day 47:  Go Methodist

(iPhone photo #47 in my 2012 365+5 project)

Once when I was giving a lecture on Shakespeare or something like that, a student raised his hand and asked if my name was really Dr. Gerald. I said yes. He said, “What kind of doctor are you?” I said, “A cardiologist,” and went back to talking about Shakespeare. Since this one guy kept calling me Dr. Gerald for the rest of the semester, I feel fully qualified to hand out some advice.

If you are feeling strung out and worn out and like you are probably going to have to spend a few days sitting under your desk pretending not to be there if you manage to show up for work at all, you should first try packing in some extra sleep. Last night I went to bed at 7:30 and got up at 7:00 this morning. I had a much better day today.

If that doesn’t work for you, maybe a spin on the Methodist bike would do it. I would have taken it for a spin myself today. It was awfully tempting sitting there unattended. But I think it belongs to a preacher who is the son of a man who once taught me Emerson and Thoreau. I’ve been reading some from the book of Leviticus this week, which I recommend as a general sleep aid. If you want something with more literary appeal, you should probably skip ahead to some Psalms. I’m sure there must be something in Leviticus, though, about not driving the Methodist bike without permission. Especially not if the preacher who owns it recognizes you and can tell his dad on you.

Anyhow, if you don’t have a Wesleyan activity on hand to make you feel better, sleeping for 11 and a half hours straight ought to do the trick. Try it. Four out of five doctors of philosophy (and literature) recommend it.

Meltdown Monday

Hit the pavement

(iPhone photo #46 in my 2012 365+1 project)

But it’s Wednesday, you say? Even worse!

I’ve had sort of a rocky week, which is why I have no resolution accomplishments to report today. I don’t have any other kind of accomplishments either. I went to work. I taught my classes. I sat in my office long enough to tend to maybe one or two critical issues. But then I left. I have a good excuse. I went to a funeral. I almost backed out on the funeral because I had so much to do, but it’s not like you can make up a funeral next week if you don’t show up today. You either go or you don’t. I went. I’m glad I did. I was a very lovely service for a very lovely person.

By this post is about my meltdown, and I might forget why I’m having one if I devote too much time to talking about a nice person.

You see, it all started Monday morning. Actually it started Sunday. What happened was I spent most of Sunday afternoon making out a test to give on Monday. I knew I was going to have to print it out (meaning all 50 copies of a 5 page test) on my own printer at home because we’re not allowed to print at the last minute at work, and I needed to give that test. Maybe I would have been better off if I’d started printing in the afternoon, but I wasn’t in any real hurry. I didn’t know I needed to be. I worked on the test for a bit. I did a few other things. I watched Downton Abbey. Wait? Downton Abbey was two hours long this week? I’m not even starting to print until 10?


Of course the printer didn’t work. I had to fiddle and faddle. I was up until midnight at which point it was no longer possible to sleep. I was too aggravated with myself.

So I got up Monday after having no sleep and attempted to teach my classes and attempted to post my stuff for my online classes and attempted to go get some exercise. The day classes were alright. There was a test. For the online classes, I posted the wrong stuff in the wrong place and generally made a mess. For the walk, I got caught in a cold rain and came home only to realize I sort of had a cold if the headache and the fever and the sniffles were anything to go by.

I don’t remember what I did after that. It probably involved attempting to sleep.

Tuesday, I got up to car trouble. The day sort of kept going like Monday.

Today, I did better, but I was only there for half the day, and I left feeling like I should have been having a bigger meltdown than I did on Monday.

I’m sort of having a Lucy week, only it’s not one of those clever, funny episodes. It’s like Lucy stumbled onto the set of The Biggest Loser, and things aren’t looking so well for her.

Such is life. Some days you’re the windshield. Some days you’re the bug. And sometimes your bug days go on a little longer than normal.

I would say that I plan to do a bunch of grading tonight to alleviate some of my stress, but that would be an outright lie. What I plan to do is take a hit of cough syrup and crawl in the bed in hopes of finally getting in Sunday night’s sleep. If that happens, maybe I’ll manage to finish Monday tomorrow.

Take care, everyone. If anyone actually bothers to read my blog these days, I do so apologize for choosing this year to make daily reports on my progress toward self-improvement. With me, progress is not so much the linear upward slope that you might hope. If I tried to graph it, I imagine it would look like a three-year-old’s depiction of a roller coaster.

That’s okay. I still live in hope that by tomorrow I’ll be off to a decent Monday.

I don’t know who the artist is for the chalk art above. It was in the parking lot at the church today. It made me smile.

One person’s trash

Day 45: There's a story behind every find.

(iPhone photo #45 in my 2012 365+1 project)

In poetry school, people always want you to confront some aspect of human existence that is deep and dark and complex and emotionally difficult. They want to see the individual struggle that somehow represents the common struggle of our kind. I spent a lot of time in poetry school. This is why I remember best and appreciate most lines from prose like Anne Lamott’s in Bird by Bird that we are all just bugs swimming on the surface in clear view of the trout beneath.

I thought when I started blogging that people wanted emotional honesty from a blog in the same way that poetry workshops wanted to slice you open and spill the worst parts of your childhood (real or imagined) for everyone to peck apart like self-appointed intellectual buzzards.

Turns out there’s a reason not that many people read poetry, and not that many people read blogs by people who are sad or sick or frustrated or disheartened. For the most part we are simple creatures — once we find the courage to walk away from the seminar tables of our graduate schools — and we just want to feel better from reading what someone else has to say. That’s not to say we are shallow. If we have an interest in a topic, we’ll take a little pain with it to get to the information we want. We just aren’t much interested in inviting ourselves to any pity party we could possibly miss, and there’s no reason we should be.

Hence, I have to wonder how to navigate the thin line between whining and being refreshingly honest.

I read The Happiness Project recently, and I did not enjoy it because I thought everything was too easy for this person. I thought she came across as self-important simply because she didn’t have enough bad days. She didn’t have enough failures. I thought the story didn’t ring true and didn’t come across as emotionally worthwhile because she didn’t admit to enough genuine human struggles.

That’s the problem with memoir. If you are writing fiction, making your character suffer is called creating tension. If you are writing life, admitting to suffering is called complaining. The only thing worse than writing a memoir about happiness and coming across as unrealistically happy would be writing a memoir about happiness and coming across as disgruntled. You can hardly fault the book for turning out to be about a happy person after all. It’s just that I went to poetry school, and I needed there to be some dark irony somewhere right around the corner. It’s no one’s fault but mine I didn’t find it.

Still I ask myself how much I should say about my day.

Should I tell you it was pretty dismal and that I took a sick day, most of which was spent at the car dealership attempting to find a problem that may or may not exist? Should I tell you that I came home with a headache and a fever and aches in my bones that made me wonder if I was dealing with a potentially serious flareup of a chronic condition? Should I tell you that I am not sure I can keep up my fitness challenge, that I actually think I’m kind kind of crazy for starting it?

I don’t want to say any of those things. Maybe I won’t even think they are true by tomorrow. Maybe I’ll be posting that I walked seven miles, caught up all my emails and felt terrific, not that I started out to walk and quit, then looked at my emails and cried at the number.

I should probably just not say anything and hope tomorrow is a better day.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the flower in the picture above really was found in the Walmart parking lot (where I stopped to get cold medicine and ended up with $150 worth of stuff I can’t afford and don’t need). While I was there I decided that maybe I should stop trying to be a vegan because I might need extra protein and extra B vitamins if I’m going to do a fitness challenge. I bought eggs and cheese. I brought them home and put them in the refrigerator. I’ve looked at them a few times today, but I have talked myself into eating them yet. Maybe tomorrow I will know how that is going as well.

And now my sister has called to remind me that there is somewhere I am supposed to be, which is in fact a funeral home. The very fact that I was thinking about how overwhelming life was because I had a cold and had to get my car worked on and was sore from the past few days of walking seems nothing more than silly.

Perspective is everything. There’s our lesson of the day.

The Right Wrong Way

Day 44: Which way is the right way?

(iPhone photo #44 in my 2012 365+1 project)

I ran across this site called Marathon Makeover, and I thought, that’s it! This is what I’ve been trying to do. I want to go from exercising exactly 0 miles per day to having the capacity to complete a marathon (26 miles?). With the Marathon Makeover program, they challenge you to get in shape to run/walk a marathon within 40 weeks. That’s about the amount of time I thought it would take me to reach the point of walking more than 20 miles in a single day (one of my current goals).

There is a local chapter of MM, and I would consider joining, but I prefer to do things my own way — largely incorrectly and mostly against medical advice. Mainly I’m just afraid that showing up for meetings would require all of the good intentions I have to put into this, and I’d have nothing left to devote to the actual exercise.

Right now I’m just working on reaching the point where I can walk the length of a marathon spread out over the course of a whole week. If I can do that without killing myself or taking the whole next week off work, then I’ll start worrying about how to make it to a new goal.

To walk 26 miles in a week, I’d need to walk 4 miles for 4 days and 5 miles for 2 days. That would allow for one day off per week. You’ve got to have a day off. Even Moses took a day off each week from walking across the desert, and the swelling in your ankles will never go down if you don’t prop your feet up in front of a Buffy marathon every once in a while.

I have no trouble walking four miles at a time. I really don’t have any trouble walking five miles at a time. You’d think it would be a piece of cake to walk four or five miles a day every day in that case. On the contrary, I am here to tell you that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. Today I walked 2.6 miles. I quit more than a mile and half away from my goal for the day. I quit, not because I was too tired to keep going (though Mondays are kind of rough), but because I was wet and cold. It started raining while I was out on my walk. It was 47 degrees, and my hair was soaked, and I was afraid someone would see me and call my mother to report that I was bedraggled and making bad decisions.

Sometimes there’s nothing more you can do than stop at 2.6 when you meant to go for 4. But this is just the exception, right? This doesn’t happen every day. This is just the rare glitch in an otherwise smooth plan.

Wrong, wronger, and wrongest.

Every day is the hard day. The easy day is the rare exception.

Possibly this means I should just be okay with being a 2.6 kind of walker and give up the fantasies of one day starting out from Georgia and hiking north through three or four states. Possibly. But if I ever reach the point where I can walk ten miles at a time on a trail right near my house, that will be about seven miles more than I’ve ever been able to walk in one day before. They say it’s not the destination but the journey that matters (they being Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aerosmith if not a million or so others). I say it’s not the journey so much as the dream.

Right or wrong, reality or fiction, I will go somewhere this year if for no other reason than because I have stared down the road.

Here’s to getting up and trying again tomorrow. Here’s to sunny skies. Here’s to 4-6 miles and a Buffy rerun at the end of the day.

Go to the dogs

Day 43: Gone to the dogs

(iPhone photo #43 in my 2012 365+1 project)

My rule of the day for walking your way to better health and better moods is to make friends with the neighborhood dogs (especially if you live in a neighborhood without leash laws like I do).

This guy is the old man of my neighborhood. He doesn’t move like he used to, but he hasn’t given up. Every day he ambles down the street and sits staring at a little yappy poodle until he decides to amble home again. Dogs are social creatures. This is why you should get to know them. They want to know you. If you are shy and socially awkward like me, that is not always true of human beings.

In The Psychopath Test, someone makes a point about how psychopaths always have dogs because dogs are slavishly devoted to their people no matter how awful those people are. I don’t have a dog, so of course I spent a few months gloating over this factoid whenever I encountered someone gushing over how much his/her dog loved him/her.

I don’t have a dog because I’m too cheap to spring for a fence. If I had a fence, it would probably be full of dogs. I happen to love dogs. I love them more than people.

Despite that fact, I’m still shy of meeting new dogs wandering loose down my street. You just never know. They might lick your hand, or they might sniff your butt, or they might follow you back to your house and eat your trash. They might also growl and chase.

There’s this one black dog down the street that came out every day to meet me as I walked near his house. He jumped around and barked and followed me a little ways down the street. He was getting to be a problem. Finally, I decided I’d had enough of the barking, and I stopped one day to pat him on the head. Turns out that was all he wanted. Now when I go by his house, he runs out, I pat him on the head, and he goes right back to his porch without making an issue of it. If only everything in life could be this simple.

Dogs are good for the spirit because — as long as they are properly cared for — they are unfailingly cheerful and friendly. Every day is a whole new reason to be excited for the chance to run and sniff and jump and chew. If I took more time to run and sniff and jump, maybe I’d be more excited to face the world too.

Make friends with the dogs you meet along your path. This will relieve you of unnecessary fear and irritation, and it will provide you with some moments of friendliness you may not find anywhere else.

Today I walked five miles and spoke to eight dogs. I’ve had worse days than that before and no doubt will again.

Chase the ugly away

You are my sunshine

(iPhone photo #42 in my 2012 365+1 project)

I’ve been reading the biography of Steve Jobs lately. It’s a fascinating story and one I couldn’t possibly respond to in one sitting, but today I ran across something that I wanted to share. When Steve Jobs was working on a deal with U2 to collaborate with Apple and iTunes, at one point Bono said, “The job of art is to chase the ugly away.”

Isn’t that what we all spend our days doing, whether through art or some other means? Every day is a whole new struggle to chase a little bit of ugly away.

I’ve been trying to chase the ugliness of feeling anxious and overwhelmed away by exercising more. It works when it works. Sometimes — like when I have blisters on my feet, or it rains one day and turn bitter cold the next — the exercise itself becomes part of the burden.

Still, you either have to get up every day believing you will find some beauty, or you have to give up, crawl under the bed and stay there until someone comes to cart you off to the state mental hospital. That’s why I prefer walking outside even when it is cold over any other kind of exercise. You are much more likely to surprise yourself with something that truly chases away some ugly if you just step out your front door.

I don’t know how most people keep from being overwhelmed by life. I imagine they might do it by a combination of medications and giving up on the idea that they can do everything they set out to do. I’m not a big believer in medications. I don’t mind if other people take them. I just don’t like to take them myself. It’s sort of like my approach to being a vegetarian. I have no opinion on whether you eat the bacon. I only have preferences to avoid it myself.

In lieu of taking something to alleviate my anxiety, then, I am forcing myself out the door every day in search moments that chase away the ugly.

It works when it works. Usually, if I’m able to get in a good walk of three miles or more, I reach a point where whatever is bothering me no longer seems so important.

Thus, my first rule of chasing away the ugly without taking medications is to just walk away from worrying about it.

My second rule is to wear two pairs of socks. That will help keep you from getting blisters. This I learned the old-fashioned way by walking around with blisters for a week.

I have more rules, but these are enough for now. Today I walked three miles, and I napped for three hours. It might be time to make up a resolution about getting enough sleep throughout the week, but for now I’m just going to say I’m instead pondering a rule about embracing the beauty of a good collapse whenever you can get away with it. And don’t forget to wear two pairs of socks. Keeping your feet warm while you sleep helps your circulation (maybe…I may have just made that up).

Rest in Peace, Good Intentions

Crepe Murder

(iPhone photo #41 in my 2012 365+1 project)

All my good intentions are dead as last year’s branches of my crepe myrtle tree today. I blame the rain. I blame the blisters on my feet. I blame a potassium deficiency from not eating enough potato chips. I blame my hunter-gatherer ancestors from whom I probably inherited insomnia and crooked toes that do not fit properly into shoes. I blame fatigue and self-doubt and the Great American Dream of a worry-free weekend.

“What’s a weekend?” you say, in your best Maggie Smith impression. I’m not sure I quite know, but I am endeavoring to start one today. Rest in peace, failures of the week left behind. Long may you sleep.