This post from 2011, which I’ve freshly updated, deserves another chance.
I hang my most-used kitchen knives on the wall next to my sink so they’re always at hand. Use wears them down, of course. When they won’t glide right through a tomato or when a roasted chicken shreds rather than slices, I know it’s time to visit my father. Dad has mad sharpening skills.
When Dad returns my sharpened knives he always says the same thing. “Now,” he begins, with an air of authority, “these knives are sharper than the day they left the factory. They will cut you deeply. You will probably see your blood before you feel any pain. But they are now safer than when you brought them to me. A dull knife tears rather than cuts. It is more dangerous because it can do more damage.”
It is obvious that a sharp knives work best. On the face of it, it seems just as obvious that a sharp person works best, but that’s been a hard lesson for me. I have pushed myself too hard for too long on many occasions, bringing on exhaustion so deep that recovery took weeks or even months. I’m definitely a type-A personality, and maybe I’ve had a bit of a martyr complex too. But fortunately, I’ve figured out that taking good care of myself gives me the resources to be the man I want to be – kind, patient, giving, involved, and effective.
I guess most people find that middle age brings deeper self-insight, but I’ve found it startling just the same. Happily, that insight tells me how to stay sharp:
- I need at least seven hours of sleep each night. I can get by on less for a few nights, max, but then I become very grouchy.
- I need to talk through things that trouble me, even small things. Just telling them to a friend helps, but it’s even better when my friend can ask questions and give feedback. I find that when I talk through these things, I am more likely to resolve them rather than let them molder and become big problems.
- I need to hang out with bright, articulate people with whom I can have meaningful conversations.
- I need to spend time with my sons, who are my favorite people in the world. I like to hear their stories and just hang out with them. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sons.
- I need to spend quality time at home almost every day. My home is the center of my world.
- I need regular quiet meditative time. My thoughts and feelings run at a hundred miles an hour. They need a break, even if it’s for just ten minutes.
- I need to sing. It’s cathartic.
- I need to have personal projects that I can work on at my own pace. My career is full of discussing strategies, planning projects, building schedules, leading people, and driving deadlines. The pressure can be very high. I need little things I can do with my hands and finish them at whatever pace I choose. It feels freeing to work on them whenever I darn well please, and when I finish, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
- I need hobbies that let me explore and learn. This is why I taught myself how to write code as a teenager and why I take pictures with old film cameras today. I find it exciting to build deep knowledge by discovering it through direct experience.
Sometimes life conspires to keep me from these things. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I don’t need them. When it happens, I soon find myself tired and irritable. If I let it continue, my reserves are soon tapped and I risk depression and exhaustion.
Do you know what you need to be whole, loving, and full of grace? I’d love to see your list in the comments or, even better, on your own blog with a link back here.
I’m rerunning this 2011 post because it didn’t solve the problem the first time. Try, try again.
IN THE COURT OF PEEVES, CROTCHETS, AND IRKS
CAUSE NO. _________________________
ALL ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE
PETITION FOR INJUNCTION PROHIBITING
MISUSE OF THE WORD “AMAZING”
The Petitioner alleges against the Respondent and states as follows:
- That the word “amazing” means “causing a sudden, overwhelming sense of surprise, astonishment, or wonder;” that without all three points of this definition, namely sudden, plus overwhelming, plus surprise/astonishment/wonder, the word amazing cannot apply.
- That the Respondent has, in recent years, taken to using the word “amazing” in contexts beyond the word’s originally contemplated meanings:
- That although the Respondent may say that their children are amazing, that they routinely fart and belch, and fail to do their homework and receive poor grades, and play too many video games, and text their friends during dinner; indeed, their lives are spent engaged primarily in non-amazing activities.
- That the Respondent is known to call church worship services amazing when, in fact, the experiences were merely uplifting or deeply moving. An amazing service would involve God being bodily present, healing leprosy and making the lame walk.
- That when the Respondent takes in a sporting event and calls the score, the players, the coach, certain plays, the arena, and even the hot dogs amazing, just as he/she did at the previous sporting event, and the one before that, that such events are therefore common and not amazing.
- That the meal the Respondent had at the fine restaurant, or that the Respondent’s mother made at the last major holiday, may have been quite delicious, and may have introduced delightful new flavors to the Respondent’s palate, but remained far from the realm of amazing.
- That the Respondent’s last vacation to a distant location may have provided many exciting experiences not available at home. But given that the location has its own problems, such as widespread poverty, confiscatory taxation, a shortage of drinkable water, or a wicked tsumani season, it is inaccurate to call the location amazing.
- That when the Respondent, in the execution of his/her duties at his/her place of employment, calls the company’s offered products or services amazing, that this is just marketing puffery intended to mask the problems the Respondent knows to exist in the products or services. Moreover, the rare product that may have initially caused true amazement, such as the iPhone, quickly becomes widely adopted, irreparably harming its ability to amaze.
- That Respondent’s overuse and misapplication of the word “amazing” has cheapened the word and rendered it nearly meaningless, causing it severe damage. As such, the word needs the Court’s protection.
- Therefore, the Petitioner seeks injunctive relief from the Respondent, requiring them to consider whether synonyms of “amazing” such as “astonishing,” “astounding,” “stupefying,” “awe-inspiring,” or “mind-boggling” could accurately be used instead, and if not, to choose an adjective that accurately describes the event, person, object, or situation.
I affirm under the penalties for perjury that the foregoing representations are true.
I’ve significantly revised and updated this post which first appeared here in 2009.
This is Michigan Rd. at 86th St., a major Indianapolis intersection.
Michigan Road is eight lanes wide here – three northbound through lanes, two southbound through lanes, plus several turn lanes. It needs all those lanes; this is the gateway to the Northwestside’s best shopping and many of its employers, as well as to I-465.
This intersection is always busy, but it’s especially so at rush hour. It can be a dangerous place – in 2007 there were 227 accidents here.
It is hard to imagine now just how far out in the boonies this intersection once was. This video, compiled of screen shots of historic aerial imagery found at MapIndy, shows you. Watch the years melt away.
I got such beautifully colorful results when I shot with my Kodak Brownie Starmatic last year that I knew I’d want to try a roll of black-and-white film in it. At the time, Croatian film producer Efke still made a black-and-white stock in size 127, the last one in the world. I ordered two rolls. And then their equipment promptly broke down, and the company decided to throw in the towel. At least I decided to buy before the film became unavailable.
The Starmatic was among the most expensive Brownies ever made, costing $34.50 in 1959. That’s equivalent to $277 in 2013. The Starmatic cost so much because it offered automatic exposure, an unheard-of luxury feature among Brownies. It used a selenium meter to vary aperture (down to only f/8) around its single shutter speed, which is probably 1/30 or 1/60 sec. It adjusted for the film speed you set using a dial atop the camera, from 32 to 125 ASA. The ISO 100 Efke seemed like a perfect match for this little plastic camera.
Yet after I shot the roll, I got a set of muddy, low-contrast prints back from the processor. I use Dwayne’s to process my 127 film, and they don’t scan 127 negatives. My scanner doesn’t handle 127 negatives, either, so I have Dwayne’s make prints, which I scan.
Last time I used the Starmatic I put ISO 160 Kodak Portra in it. I set the film speed to max, 125, and hoped for the best – and got very nicely exposed images. Perhaps the selenium meter in my Starmatic is a little weak, and I would get better results with the Efke 100 if I set the Starmatic to 80 or 64. I am also curious whether I’d get better results if I scanned my negatives rather than the prints. I’ve wanted a scanner that can handle medium-format negatives, as my Epson V300 is limited to 35mm; maybe now’s the time to finally buy.
I fiddled with my print scans in Photoshop Elements. This helped, but didn’t entirely solve the muddiness. Here are the photos I liked best from this roll. I shot this tire among the rolls of hay near an abandoned, unfinished bridge.
My friend Dawn lives out in the boonies and she keeps two of her neighbor’s horses on her property. Here’s one of them.
When I walked the streets of Indianapolis with my Polaroid SX-70, I wore the Brownie around my neck, too. I thought this tree was dramatic, so I shot it.
I finished the roll at home after work, as the sun was starting to set.
You can see more photos from this roll, as well as the roll of Portra 160 I shot, and a scan of a Kodacolor II print from another Starmatic I owned when I was a teenager, in my Kodak Brownie Starmatic gallery.
I didn’t want her.
We already had two dogs and three cats, which I thought was more than enough pets. And I was concerned about bringing this stray dog into our home where our curious and active baby boy might accidentally provoke harm. But my wife’s boundless compassion for unwanted animals overruled better judgment. After a couple days of driving by the golden dog who hid in the bushes of a nearby Shell station, she stopped, coaxed her into the car, and brought her home.
The filthy dog was starved and had been beaten, presumably by whoever dumped her. My wife cleaned her up as best she could, and as she healed and gained weight she became quite beautiful. She had the size, color, and general markings of a Golden Retriever, but the thick fur and purple-spotted tongue of a Chow. My wife named her Gracie.
Thanks to the abuse she suffered, Gracie was highly anxious around us. She growled in fear every time I or my teenage stepson entered the room, which led us to believe that her abuser had been a man. Whenever the doorbell rang, you could hear abject fear in her barking. She tucked tail and ran every time somebody stood up near her. But she didn’t run from Sugar, our Rottweiler. Subtly and gently, Sugar befriended Gracie, and soon wherever you found Sugar, you found Gracie. Gracie remained high-strung and anxious, but Sugar’s friendship helped Gracie find security and let her slowly settle into her new home.
And so we went along for about five years, until my marriage fell apart. I moved out and hardly saw our dogs for a couple years. When I found myself unable to properly care for an especially difficult cat that my sons had given me, I asked my ex if she would take it, and she said yes – but only if I traded her for the dogs. And so Sugar and Gracie came to live with me.
Sugar died less than a year later. I’m just going to admit it: I wished it had been Gracie. Sugar was an outstanding dog – happy, smart, gentle, easygoing, and loyal. Gracie, on the other hand, was still anxious, needy, and demanding. She was also deeply attached to Sugar. When Gracie figured out that Sugar was never coming home, she fell apart. In her grief, she destroyed a great number of my possessions, including chewing a huge chunk out of a solid wood table. I never knew what destruction I would find when I came home from work. I was still recovering emotionally from my divorce, and I was pretty fragile. Coming home to find one more thing destroyed could unhinge me.
The veterinarian prescribed Prozac, and within a couple weeks Gracie calmed down. In parallel I built new routines with Gracie to help her find anew the security she lost when Sugar died.
And then, bit by bit, Gracie bonded to me. Hard. I’d never experienced a dog becoming so deeply devoted to me before. She became expert in reading my moods. She would quickly figure out my internal state and respond accordingly. When I was happy, she was energetic and eager to go for a walk or explore the front yard with me. When I was ill or depressed or angry, she would rub against me and lean into me and stay near my side.
Gracie became my devoted companion. When I’d sit in my office to write, she always curled up in the corner created by my two desks. She loved to be in the yard with me when I worked in it. And she loved to ride along on my road trips. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as she was there, too, all was well in her world. And what a blessing it was to me. It took me a long time to recover after my destructive divorce, and except for the time I spent with my sons I mostly wanted to be left alone to heal. But the other side of that coin was loneliness, and Gracie gave me wonderful companionship and affection.
But she still had a damaged psyche and was a bottomless pit of need. No amount of attention satisfied her, and she remained at best skittish around, and at worst outright frightened of, people she didn’t know very well. Her constant demands could overwhelm me, especially when I needed to unplug after a tough day at work.
It didn’t help that I had to leave her home alone a lot – minimally nine hours a day, five days a week. It was very hard for Gracie. I gather that Chows were bred to spend all of their time working with and protecting their families, and are happiest when they are always surrounded by their people. Even though Gracie was only half Chow, she had this trait fully. To ease her separation anxiety, I developed some happy routines around my going and coming. But even when I was home, I had things to do. I couldn’t make enough time just for Gracie.
As a divorced man who lives alone, Gracie anchored me in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. She was always at home eagerly waiting for me, and she showed me plenty of devotion and affection, things that were in short supply in my life and so were deeply welcome. But she was also always at home eagerly waiting for me to come let her out and put kibble into her bowl – I could be away from home for only so long. Because of her emotional issues, I couldn’t board her or let anyone other than a close family member check on her at home. My sons and I have always began and ended our vacations in my hometown of South Bend because my parents were willing to care for Gracie. But South Bend is far enough away to be practical only when I would be gone for several days. Weekend trips with my sons and overnight business trips have been impossible because of Gracie.
Despite all Gracie gave to me, and despite how deeply I cared for her, I was ready not to have a dog.
And then Gracie lived for a very long time.
Gracie came into my life fully grown 16 years ago. That’s mighty old for a dog that size, and predictably, a few years ago she began wearing out. First, her hearing faded. When it failed entirely, I worked out a set of gestures and hand signals to communicate with her. Meanwhile, her eyes went cloudy. Then when she and I drove the National Road across Ohio together in 2011 she struggled for the first time to jump into the back of my little hatchback. On what ended up being her last road trip, in 2012, I had to pick her up to put her in my car. She hated that. Soon even routine car trips became uncomfortable for her. And lately her stamina faded. When I’d take her for a walk, she often pooped out before we got home. More than once we finished the last block of a walk at a snail’s pace because she was spent.
Then this summer she began rapidly losing weight. An x-ray revealed a swollen liver; blood tests showed highly elevated liver and kidney numbers. “This is going to be the end of her,” the vet said. “But it’s really hard telling how long she will live. She’s so very old that I recommend you just keep her comfortable.”Antibiotics and steroids helped her feel better, and her weight increased.
My parents have both retired now and will move to Indianapolis soon. I hated to make Gracie spend 2½ hours in the car this past Thursday, but I didn’t want to miss the last Thanksgiving in the house where I grew up. I knew something wasn’t right with Gracie on Thanksgiving morning when I picked her up to put her in the car – she cried a little from discomfort. Then she was unusually unsteady on her feet in the car. When I let her out of the car at my parents’ South Bend home, she seemed oddly disoriented. But shortly she settled in and seemed to be her usual old self. She was happy to see my parents’ dog and was constantly underfoot in the kitchen looking for a handout while Mom cooked. She happily ate the table scraps Dad gave her after dinner, and she gobbled down her kibble as usual.
But while I was drying dishes Dad came in and said, “Gracie is standing out in the hallway all hunched up. You need to come look after her.” She was clearly very uncomfortable. Her belly was hard and a little distended. I thought it might be constipation, which had troubled her in her old age. I tried a usual remedy, but she wouldn’t eat it. I tried letting her outside in hopes she’d relieve herself. She just stood uncomfortably in the yard, so I signaled her back in.
When she reached the back door, she fell. I lifted her up and she fell again. I lifted her into the house, and she stumbled into the kitchen and fell, legs splayed out. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth and onto the floor. I knew it was bad.
While we tried to reach the emergency vet on the phone, Gracie slipped away.
I will probably always wish I could have better met Gracie’s considerable needs. But given where she came from, she was very fortunate and had a good life. And now I’m left with the conflicted feelings of having the dog-free life I’ve wanted for the past few years – and missing my friend and companion terribly, expecting to find her in the usual places around the house and wishing I could feel her lean into me one more time.
Good night, Gracie. I’m so glad you didn’t have to suffer long or hard, and that you died when you were ready. Rest well, my girl.
Continuing a theme of thanksgiving, here’s a post I wrote in 2008.
A couple years ago a friend sent me a link to an article (which I can’t find now) about the virtues of thinking each day of three good things that had happened. She and I decided to try it together, e-mailing each other our list of three every evening. I was surprised to find that on all but the most challenging days I could find at least three pleasures, even as small as “I enjoyed my cheeseburger at lunch,” and recalling them actually relieved some of the day’s pressures. But optimism never swelled in me, as the article promised, and I started to lose interest. I think my friend did, too, because our e-mails became intermittent and then stopped.
One of the themes of Ecclesiastes is that life is difficult, so enjoy the good things God gives you while you have them. The book calls out several good things – spouses, children, youth, food, drink. The more I encountered that theme as I studied Ecclesiastes late last year, the more I thought about the aborted three-good-things exercise. I decided to give it another try – but this time, I would tell my three daily things to God, since he gave them to me.
In these prayers I soon found myself grateful to God for each day’s good things. Moreover, I started to see that God was there with gifts on every single day, and the more difficult the day, the more subtle – but sublime – the gifts. I started to feel like a child on Easter morning looking for hidden eggs.
Last Thursday I was driving home from a trip to Brown County with my sons when my car’s transmission started to whine, pop, and grind. I wasn’t sure the car would get us home, and we had 50 miles to go. I was worried about being stranded and about the repair bill. But I also felt the breeze softly touching my skin through my open window and enjoyed the long shadows the trees and cornfields cast onto the highway in the afternoon sun. As the car rolled with the highway through the old farm towns, my sons and I sang along with the CD playing. I really enjoyed the drive even though the car occasionally popped out of gear. Not long ago, I would have experienced and remembered only the worry. Looking for God’s daily gifts has made me more receptive to them when they come. And knowing that there are daily gifts takes some sting out of the difficulties. My mechanic just called to say the transmission is fried, and that it will cost upwards of $3,000 to replace it. I’m sure God has hidden a gift even in this.
Footnote: I replaced that transmission, and then promptly ran a red light and totaled the car. (Read about it here.) The gift hidden in all of this? I had only lately become financially fortunate enough that none of this created a money crisis for me, and these expensive events helped me to see it – and relax about money.
I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.
I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.
So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.
The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.
A sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.
So I asked, because this came up during Sunday school. And the teacher said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”
It left me more puzzled than satisfied.
But as I studied on it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.
This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. Going on ten years ago now, my life fell apart. I had made some bad choices, and I reaped what I had sown and more. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.
Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.
It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.
Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.
And sacrifices – you should feel them. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.