Travels with Charley.

[cover to Travels with Charley]During my high school English classes in the mid 1980s, we were required to read a lot of John Steinbeck: The Pearl, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath. And during our cross-country RV trip a decade ago, I made a point of reading East of Eden. I liked all of these books.

The John Steinbeck book I didn’t like is one that I think most people enjoy, Travels with Charley. I don’t remember much about the book now because I read it in college, probably in 1989 or 1990. I know it’s a travelogue documenting Steinbeck’s drive across the U.S. with his dog, but I don’t remember much else and I don’t remember why I didn’t like it.

During a walk across town with my dog the other day, I found a great old copy of Travels with Charley in a Little Free Library. I picked it up.

(Corvallis has a couple hundred Little Free Libraries. They’re everywhere. They’re also dangerous — for me, anyhow. As a guy who likes free things and likes books, free books are just about the best thing on Earth. I pick up a lot of them.)

As Tally and I strolled along, I read the prologue. (The book doesn’t have proper chapters, but it does divide each section. The first section is basically a prologue to introduce what comes next.) Now, in my fifties, I thought it was great. I thought it was so great, in fact, that I decided to type it up to share here.

Because my blockquote CSS is shitty (and won’t break paragraphs properly), I’m going to type this up as a separate section below. All of the next section is the prologue to Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I hope you like it as much as I do. (Note that I’ve added additional paragraph breaks to make this more readable on the web. Steinbeck liked long paragraphs.)

Travels with Charley

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.

Nothing has worked.

Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from.

Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination.

And last he must implement a journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away.

In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.

Travels with J.D.

I understand it. I understand what Steinbeck is describing here. I feel it deep in my bones. I’ve been itching lately to get out again and see the world. This was the reason for my month-long journey to England, Norway, and Iceland this summer. I was scratching that itch.

Some observations:

  • First, note how lovely is Steinbeck’s craft. His sentences are a joy. They’re mostly short but with sufficient variation in length. His words are obviously carefully chosen to impart rhythm and rhyme, to sort of sing from the page. There’s an artistry here seldom seen in modern writing.
  • Second, I identify so much with his sentiment here. I didn’t care to roam when I was younger. And there’s still a large piece of me that wishes to remain permanently in place, to have deep roots. But larger part of me wants to roam. I too am something of a bum, I guess. My friend Becca once described this state of mind as “Roots with Wings”. That’s an apt characterization.
  • I love this sentence: “I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.” This sounds remarkably like the reason I’ve decided to resume writing here at Folded Space — and the reason I started blogging in the 1990s to begin with. I’m not doing this to instruct others (although that’s a happy side effect); I’m doing this to inform myself. Writing is how I process my thoughts and feelings. It’s how I synthesize everything to see what I know and understand and believe.

Anyhow, I’m not convinced I’ll like Travels with Charley any more today than I did thirty years ago. But I might. I’m going to give it a shot. I have it sitting on my nightstand, and I’ll set aside my ongoing exploration of the Tao Te Ching in order to journey across the U.S. with Steinbeck and his dog.

Today I am only four years younger than Steinbeck was when he wrote the book. There’s a very real possibility that I’ll be much better able to relate to it now.

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I’ve had a metaphor in my head for a couple of years, but haven’t found a way to share it until today. I’d intended to use it at Get Rich Slowly but never got around to it. Let’s use it here instead.

Last weekend, Kim and I took the dog into the hills outside Corvallis to go mushroom hunting. (Well, the dog barked at things. We hunted for mushrooms.) We were walking back the car down a steep trail and I was kind of lollygagging and staring off into the trees when bump! I stubbed my toe against a stone and stumbled.

When I was younger, a stumble like this would have meant a fall. I would have instinctively panicked, and that panic would have caused me to overcorrect or to stiffen, and I would have ended up on the ground. This certainly would have happened when I was a kid, but I think it would also have happened into young adulthood.

Wu Wei: The Art of Effortless Action

Now, at age 54, I rarely fall when I stumble. I can’t remember the last time I did so. I’ve mastered the tao-like secret to staying upright: When something causes me to miss a step, I do nothing. I let my body continue moving forward at the same speed even though it feels like I’m falling. That’s it. That’s the entire secret to stumbling without falling, in my experience: Do nothing. (This really is tao-like. It’s wu wei, the art of effortless action.)

By doing nothing — by not trying to correct but instead continuing with my normal stride — I keep from throwing myself out of balance. I think the reason I used to fall so much after stumbling was my overcorrections. I was causing myself to fall.

Now it’s true that I don’t wholly do nothing when I stumble. I still have to get the foot that stumbled forward to catch the end of the stride, so that means lifting it over the obstacle quickly and planting it, but it’s no different than what I would have normally done if my toe hadn’t stubbed a stone, right? It’s just a sort of unintentional stutter step.

I suspect it’s very clear how I want to use this as a metaphor. (Or maybe this is complex enough to be an allegory? I don’t know.)

Often in life, we make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of being human.

Mistakes, in isolation, are rarely catastrophic. They’re usually very minor, in fact. What exacerbates a mistake is how we react to it. We’re better off not reacting at all.

Cataloging My Mistakes

As a human — and a particularly flawed specimen — I have a lot of experience with mistakes, and with overreacting to them. Here’s a catalog of ways I’ve made things worse in the past.

  • “Well, I fucked up. Because I already fucked up, I might as well continue making this mistake.”
  • “Oh shit! I fucked up! I feel so bad! I will assuage my guilt by making the same mistake — or a similar mistake — to comfort myself.”
  • “This isn’t a mistake. It’s just a one-time thing. It’s only a problem if I make the mistake over and over again, if it becomes a habit.” And, of course, I proceed to make the mistake a habit.
  • “Oh shit! I fucked up! I am such an awful, terrible person. I can’t believe how pathetic I am. Since I’m such a fuck-up, it doesn’t matter if I make more mistakes. That’s just who I am, I guess.”
  • “This isn’t a mistake. Nope. It feels good. I like it. I know that popular opinion says it’s a mistake, and that there’s tons of scientific evidence that says it’s a mistake, but I am a Special Case. It is not a mistake for me in this instance.” (Spoiler: It’s almost always a mistake.)

When I react in these ways, I turn a mistake from a stumble into a fall. I am especially bad at catastrophizing, as my therapists and romantic partners will attest.

Here are some specific examples of turning stumbles into falls:

  • “I didn’t mean to drink today. I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine. Well, since I already started drinking, I might as well have another glass.” (There’s a saying attributed apocryphally to F. Scott Fitzgerald that encapsulates this common problem: First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.)
  • “Oh shit, I inadvertently offended somebody whose opinion matters to me. I feel so awful! To compensate, I will eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Karamel Sutra. Maybe two.”
  • “Crap. I’ve already wasted two hours playing Hearthstone today instead of doing yardwork. What an idiot. Since I’ve already wasted most of the day, I might as well continue playing. Maybe I can get my rating to 7000!”
  • “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Next night: “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Next week: “Oops. That piece of chocolate wasn’t on my diet. Better not make that a habit.” Etcetera. Etcetera.
  • “I can’t afford to buy this book, but I’m going to do so anyhow. And since I’m buying this one book, I’ll buy this one. And this one. And this one too.”
  • “I can’t believe I forgot to do the work I promised to have done by today. I am such an idiot. I’m a loser. Why does anyone bother to ask me to do anything? I suck.”

Anyhow, you get the point. A stumble is only a stumble unless we choose to make it a fall.

Stumbling in September

I bring this up because the entire month of September was a metaphorical stumble for me. (Or an allegorical stumble?) After nearly nine months of concerted effort with my diet and fitness, after losing 25 pounds since 13 December 2022, after building a regular routine at the gym and establishing healthy eating patterns, in September I pretty much abandoned everything.

I ate poorly. I drank too much beer. I went to the gym only twice. I re-installed Hearthstone on my iPad and played many, many hours. (I’d uninstalled it in April and had gone without playing for months.) I stopped reading. I stopped watching films. In fact, you can see precisely when I went off the rails by looking at my Letterboxd profile.

My recent Letterboxd diary

I’m not kidding. See how I went from watching many movies a week to suddenly not watching them at all? That’s precisely when I stumbled with everything else.

Now, I’m not exactly sure why I stumbled. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that I don’t allow this to become a fall. And to do that, I need to do nothing. I don’t mean that I ought to keep drinking beer and eating crap and playing Hearthstone. No, I mean that I ought to resume the things I was doing before. I don’t need to panic that I’ve “wasted” a month. I don’t need to overcorrect by adopting extreme measures. No, I just need to subtly shift my habits back to where they were, say, six weeks ago.

(Sidenote: Actually, maybe I do know why I stumbled. After a long period without using pot, I started ingesting it again when I got home from my trip in late June. “I’m doing fine,” I told myself. “I can gradually re-introduce it.” Well, I think this stumble is a result. Since stopping my marijuana use last week, I’ve already begun to feel more motivated and be more productive.)

Because I knew I’d stumbled, I’ve avoided looking at metrics for the past couple of weeks. As a nerd, I keep a daily spreadsheet of my fitness stats: weight, body fat, blood pressure, and so on. I was scared to look at the numbers.

This morning, I looked at the numbers. Turns out, they’re not so bad.

Yes, I messed up. The numbers aren’t as good as they were a few weeks ago. But they’re not terrible either. Here are my numbers for the past two months:

My recent health stats

This is a clear stumble. Everything is up, especially my blood pressure. But none of this is catastrophic unless I choose to make it so. And it’s good for me to remind myself where I started last December:

My recent health stats

Choosing Not to Fall

Last night, I struggled to sleep. The stupid dog had something to do with it: grumbling and burrowing her hot doggy body close to mine. Ugh. While I was not sleeping, I was beating myself up about my recent poor choices. I told myself that when I woke up, I’d seek comfort by making a big breakfast: sausage, pancakes, syrup, more pancakes, more syrup. But you know what? I’m not going to do that.

I’m sipping my coffee now. I’m not hungry, so I’ll wait to eat. (When I’m being healthy, I don’t eat until 11:00.) And when I do eat, it’ll be lots of protein and a complex carb. No sausage, pancakes, pancakes, syrup, and syrup.

I have stumbled, but I will not fall.

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Jump into watercolor!

In my crazy post yesterday about talking animals, I briefly mentioned that I am working on watercolors. This made me realize that I failed to provide an update to my earlier failed attempt to take art classes.

I’d intended to take both Realistic Drawing and Ink Pen + Watercolor from the Corvallis Community Center this autumn, but the classes were cancelled due to low enrollment. Boo! (Apparently this is a thing since COVID, especially in older progressive communities like Corvallis.) Rather than give up, though, I heeded advice of Folded Space readers and looked for alternatives. I found one at Linn-Benton Community College.

I’m now taking two painting classes each week: Jump into Watercolor I on Tuesdays and Jump into Watercolor II on Thursdays. When I registered, I thought they were two sessions of the same class. They’re not. The Tuesday session is “part one” of the course, and the Thursday session is “part two”. The instructor (whom I like very much) offered to let me drop the Thursday session, but also said I could take it with the understanding that it’s stuff I won’t really understand. I opted to stick with it.

So, now I’m nearing the end of my second week working with watercolors. It’s fun. It’s also humbling.

I feel like I’m a freshman in high school taking my first art class. I see what professionals are capable of producing, but as a raw beginner my work is far from their results. I can’t even get the paint to do the simple things I want it to do! It’s as if I’m learning to write and all I can do is produce big blocky letters written in pencil on pulpy paper when what I really want is to write Harry Potter or something.

But hey. This is how all things start, right? You have to learn the fundamentals.

The in-class stuff is tough for me. Most of the other students have some level of art experience. They’re taking this watercolor class to expand their toolbox. There’s one other guy in the Tuesday class who has never done this before. He and I are both slow and methodical, so the class sessions whiz by and we’re way behind. That’s okay. I come home and repeat the exercises over and over again.

This Tuesday, for instance, we were supposed to paint a jellyfish. The other students were able to produce something roughly resembling a jellyfish during our two hours. Not me. My painting looked like a bunch of blobs. So, I came home and did another. More blobs. Then I watched some stuff on YouTube and made a third attempt. Better. Smaller blobs. Today, I’ll make a fourth attempt, but this time I’ve written out a plan — a “recipe”. I know which paints I’ll use in which order and with which brushes. I know when I’m going to let paint dry and when I’m going to paint “wet on wet”. I’ll probably still produce blobs, but I’ll bet the blobs will look more like a jellyfish.

My messy watercolor work area.

I have some other random thoughts about this process after ten days at it.

First, it’s amazing how quickly I enter flow state while working with watercolor. Time breezes by! Our two-hour classes seem like twenty minutes. And when I work at home, I have to be very careful not to miss other scheduled activities. The other night, I almost forgot to make dinner. I went downstairs to the library at 13:30 to begin mixing my paint (my new palette arrived, and I wanted to get my color wheel set up in it). Before I knew it, it was 17:00 and Kim would be home soon. Wow.

Second, I’m being very J.D. about this whole thing. I am a slow learner. When I learn something, I learn it well and often become quite good at it. But it takes me a lot of effort to get there. My learning isn’t linear. It’s more like a cubic curve. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the fundamentals, which means I lag behind classmates (or co-workers). But once I have everything figured out, I rapidly improve my skill. I’ve always been like this, so I’ve just surrendered to it. I expect I’ll spend the next three months s-l-o-w-l-y learning basic stuff that others pick up quickly. But once I have it figured out, I’ll be able to put it together well.

Third — and this is sort of related to the last point — I’ve found YouTube tremendously helpful in figuring some of this stuff out. As much as I like my instructor, she assumes a lot of knowledge. I have plenty of basic questions, like:

  • How much water am I supposed to be using?
  • Are there fixed ratios for mixing colors? Mixing purple from French Ultramarine and Quinacranone Rose was simple enough. Basically a one-to-one ratio. But getting my green from Phthalo Blue and Lemon Yellow was tough. I had to use way more yellow than blue. (And getting my yellow-green was even more difficult!)
  • It seems like nearly all the watercolor work I see is with paint that is water-diluted, usually with a lot of water. Do you ever work with thick pigment and very little water? I like the intense colors and want to use them undiluted, but maybe this doesn’t work well? (I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t done because they end up bleeding easily when exposed to moisture or something.)

Anyhow, YouTube is filling in a lot of gaps. I particularly like the videos from Liron Yanconsky. Many of them are too advanced for me, but his tutorials are fantastic. I watched this video on how to do a “wash” yesterday, and everything just clicked. It was my first aha! moment with watercolors.

I also like the videos from Dragonfly Spirit Studio. The presenter doesn’t assume anything and gives lots of detail in his explanations. He covers the whys as well as the hows. So helpful for the way my mind works. Here are two great examples:

Those two videos are exactly the basic sort of things that I’m missing from my in-person classes, so I like that I’m able to supplement the things my instructor teaches with the added detail I need.

I don’t just watch basic videos. I sometimes watch professional artists doing amazing things. I especially like when they explain their thought process. This video about painting clouds from Noelle Curtis is great!

Honestly, if my mind worked differently than it actually does, I feel like it’d be possible to learn any sort of art using only YouTube videos. For the past year, I’ve been building a YouTube playlist that I call “art school” with lots of great tutorials on drawing and painting. What’s funny (to me) is that my absolute favorite art channel is Kezoo Sketch, which is entirely in Korean. I can’t understand a thing he says — hooray for subtitles! — but I love the way the presenter works.

Okay, that’s far more than I intended to write about my first ten days working with watercolor. I’m really enjoying it, though, and it’s helped to share this stuff. Right now, though, I need to head downstairs to complete my homework before class starts at ten.

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Talking animals.

Warning: This post will probably make some of you think that I’m crazy. 😉

The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece called “The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?”, which explores research that shows animals communicate. With language.

This might be surprising to some people. It’s not to me. For decades, I’ve been arguing that animals are just as smart as people, and that they have rich internal lives. We, as a species, like to believe that we are unique. Some of this is inherent anthropocentric myopia. Some of it is residue of religion. Some of it is just plain ignorance. Nearly everyone believes that Homo sapiens is set apart, superior to other creatures.

I don’t believe this. I believe that we are not unique. We are just like the other animals. And the other animals are far more intelligent than most people believe.

More and more, research proves this. I started my (currently broken) animal intelligence blog three months after starting Get Rich Slowly. At the time, news about animal cognition and behavior was, well, rare. I’d find maybe one article a month about the subject. Now it feels as if we’re in the golden age of animal-intelligence research. The news and stories are constant. (Hmmm. Maybe I should revive my broken blog!)

Different But Equal

The New York Times article I mentioned is fascinating. Here’s an excerpt:

With each discovery, the cognitive and moral divide between humanity and the rest of the animal world has eroded. For centuries, the linguistic utterances of Homo sapiens have been positioned as unique in nature, justifying our dominion over other species and shrouding the evolution of language in mystery. Now, experts in linguistics, biology and cognitive science suspect that components of language might be shared across species, illuminating the inner lives of animals in ways that could help stitch language into their evolutionary history — and our own.

This, to me, is a simple, effective summary of the current state of research into animal intelligence. The more we explore the subject, the more we realize humans differ from other animals only in that, well, we’re a different animal. In short, we are not special.

Whenever I bring up the subject of animal intelligence, people try to argue that animals act on “instinct”, implying that humans do not. This always sounds to me as if the other person is arguing that humans have free will but animals live in a deterministic universe. It doesn’t make sense. Whether or not you believe in determinism or free will — and that’s a big debate on its own — the same rules apply equally to all animals.

If you’re religious (or Christian, anyhow), you’ll probably dismiss this idea outright. Your scriptures tell you that Man is special and apart from the other animals. But if, like me, you believe that humans are no different than other animals aside from our current success at over-running the Earth, then it shouldn’t be such a stretch to see that all animals are created equal. Different but equal.

All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.

It’s just that for so many years — millennia! — we haven’t taken the time and effort to actually try to understand the animals around us. Now that we’re doing so, scientists are finding that we’ve been far too anthropocentric in our views.

Anyhow, this is an interesting story and a good read.

Animal Intelligence in Real Life

On a related note, I’ve come to realize that the biggest barrier to my dog’s intelligence and ability to communicate is me. Most people “train” their dogs up to a certain point, then stop. I feel as if Kim and I have done better than most in this regard. We’ve continued to teach Tally new things for the entirety of her seven-and-a-half year life. She’s constantly learning new words and concepts. Yesterday, for instance, I taught her to play “hide and seek”. She loves it. Silly dog. (On Sunday, I taught her the word “window” while riding in the car. She learned it after three repetitions. “Window,” I’d say, and she’d turn so that she could stick her head out the window.)

Tahlequah also did something remarkable yesterday. I was downstairs practicing watercolor in the library when I heard Tally whining. I stepped into the basement and there she was, facing the closed “pet closet”.

“What do you want?” I asked. “What is it?” (“What is it?” is one of our keywords with her.)

Tally whined more and stared straight ahead at the closet. So, I opened the door. She immediately lunged forward from her sitting position and nuzzled a package of toy balls on the floor of the closet. These are her favorite “bacon balls”, scented plastic squeaky balls (that only squeak for about ten minutes until she breaks them, thankfully). And the lunge she did was the same lunge she does whenever she’s eager/happy to grab something.

My goofy dog knew there were new bacon balls in the closet, so she asked me to open it so she could have one. (She loves getting a new bacon ball!) And this, of course, is what led me to teach her “hide and seek”.

Okay, here’s another related story, one that I still find hard to believe.

Several years ago, our cat Avery lost his collar. We bought him a new one. He hated it. He was constantly trying to pull it off.

A week or two later, Kim and I were sitting together in the hot tub on the back deck when we heard the scrabble scrabble of Avery climbing over the fence. He hopped down and there in his mouth was his old collar. WTF? Kim and I were amazed — and still are to this day. If either of us had been alone, the other would not have believed this story. But we both saw it.

I got out of the hot tub to replace Avery’s hated new collar with his acceptable old collar. (And that’s the collar he wears now to this day.) The reason Avery wanted the collar off? There was a pointy bit of plastic still in it from the price tag. He was in pain from the new collar, so he retrieved his old collar from the place he knew he’d lost it.

I know, I know. These are merely anecdotes, and they don’t prove a thing. That’s true in isolation. But if, like me, you believe that animals are intelligent, it’s just a glimpse at a tiny part of the Big Picture.

Crazy Man

Like I say, I’ve come to realize that the biggest barrier to my dog’s mental growth is me. She is able and willing to learn as much as I will teach her. She already has a vocabulary approaching 200 words/phrases. But at the same time, I’m learning to “speak dog”. I’ve learned to listen to what she is saying to me.

They were all alike...

It’s remarkable the paradigm shift that occurs when you accept the premise that everything your dog does is purposeful. When I view Tally’s actions through that lens, when I view the world through her eyes, everything changes. I’ve come to do this whenever I walk her. It’s made the walks so much more enjoyable because it’s truly as if she and I are having an ongoing conversation about where to go and what to do. (Exception: When she’s in “hound mode”, all bets are off. She’s being a dog and wants no part in communicating with her human. There are squirrels to be had!)

Okay, more anecdata.

When I walk Tahlequah during the summer, I do not carry treats. When she enters “hound mode” — or when she feels strongly about something, such as going a particular direction or extending the length of the walk — she can be very stubborn. She plants her feet, stares at me, and leans the direction she wants to go. I either give in or I squat to explain things to her (which I’m sure people think is crazy).

But during the cooler months (which are just beginning here in Oregon’s Willamette valley), I usually wear a jacket or sweater. And those jackets and sweaters have pockets where I keep dog treats. Tally knows this, and her behavior changes. She still requests that we do what she wants to do — stay out longer, go to her favorite places, seek out squirrels — but she’s more amenable to what I want. She gives in quickly. However, when she acquiesces she “demands payment”. She looks at my treat pocket, asking to be paid for complying. So, I pay her.

Many folks would say that I shouldn’t reward her for doing this sort of thing, that I as the human should be the “alpha” to my dog. I don’t buy the whole alpha thing. And I don’t consider myself to be my dog’s “master”. I’m not superior to her in any way. I’m just another creature who happens to be a part of her pack (along with Kim and Avery). So, I think of these situations as negotiations. I’m stating my will; Tally is stating hers. If I don’t have a good reason to overrule her request, I don’t. We extend the walk or we go to her favorite squirrel spots. It’s no different than when Kim and I try to choose a restaurant. I’m not joking: This is exactly how I view it.

By now, some of you probably think I’m crazy. I don’t care. My belief in animal cognition is one of my most strongly held beliefs. It’s only becoming more strongly held as time goes on.

If this is the case, then why am I not vegetarian? Hold onto your hats, folks, because this is where I really get crazy.

The older I get, the more I suspect that plants are intelligent too. And insects. There have been a couple of recent articles about insect intelligence. And believe it or not there are many books — and a growing body of research — about plant intelligence. My best summary of it is that J.R.R. Tolkien came close to capturing plants when he created the Ents. (I’m not well-versed in the plant intelligence stuff yet, though, so won’t belabor it. I buy the premise, though.)

If plants have intelligence too, if the lines between plant and animal are largely arbitrary, then choosing the position of “ethical vegetarian” (as I did for a year when I was younger) is largely meaningless. If I truly want to keep from harming an intelligent creature, I have to be a “fruititarian”, a person who only eats fruit that has fallen from the tree. (Hat tip to friend Kris Becker who wrote a poem in college that espoused this notion. I found it amusing at the time; less so now.)

Final Thoughts

I don’t expect to have persuaded anyone to my viewpoint through this piece. That wasn’t my intention. But I do hope that I’ve opened a few eyes to the idea that humans might not be so special as a species. There’s plenty of evidence (and more every day) that animals are intelligent, sentient, and capable of behaviors we’ve long classified as human.

Not only that, research is beginning to shed light on the worlds of plant intelligence and insect intelligence.

Am I crazy? I don’t think so. But then I think a lot of other people are crazy for their beliefs while they think they’re sane. So maybe I am crazy. I don’t know.

In any event, it’s time to take Tally for her walk. It’ll be a long one today. “Dog’s choice,” I tell her as we start these long strolls. She does not understand that phrase and probably never will, but she understands plenty of other stuff. (My rule of thumb: If Tally is interested in something, she can learn the word/phrase for it.) Interacting with her as we walk across Corvallis is the highlight of my day, and it’s because I’ve elected to believe that she and I are equals who communicate and negotiate as we enjoy our romps through town.

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New phone.

Every few years, I get a new phone. This is one of those years, and today is the day. A shiny blue iPhone 15 Pro Max is wending its way too me even as I type.

Back when I had a large, constant stream of income, I’d upgrade my phone every year or two. Dumb? Yes. But I did it. Nowadays, though, I hold out until I have a compelling reason to upgrade. In this case, my old phone has a failing battery. Plus, I’m keen on the new phone’s camera. I gave myself permission to upgrade this year. And I’m hoping to go even longer this time before upgrading (my goal is 4+ years instead of three).

This year, I’m conducting an experiment. I’m generally a fan of smaller phones rather than larger ones. If Apple offered a small phone (like an iPhone SE) that had all of the specs of the large phone, I’d buy the small phone. But Apple does not offer such a phone. Too, I use an iPad Mini for stuff like reading, playing games, watching movies. I’m curious: Could an iPhone Pro Max replace an iPad Mini for these use cases? Could I get away with just having one device? I think it’s possible, so this time I’m buying a jumbo-sized phone as an experiment. If I don’t like it — and there’s a solid chance I won’t — then I’ll revert to a regular size in a few years.

As an aside, I’m one of those weirdos that doesn’t use a case for his phone. Why not? I tell this true story.

For eight years — from 2007 to 2015 — I was caseless and never damaged a phone. Then Jesse Mecham (from You Need a Budget) sent me a customized case for my birthday one year. It had the Get Rich Slowly turtle logo on it, and I loved it. I started using the case.

Within two months, I had dropped and broken the phone. I got it repaired. A month later, I broke it again. I got it repaired. Then, a few months later, I broke it a third time while the case was on. WTF? So, I removed the case. It’s now been seven years since I took the case off, and I haven’t once damaged my phone.

So, I have fifteen years of case-less iPhone use with zero damage (despite a couple of drops) compared to nine months of cased iPhone use with three different costly repair bills. So, I go caseless.

That might change, though, depending on how the “Max” form factor feels to me. Will the larger size lead to more clumsy moments and/or drops? If so, I might get a case. But I doubt it.

I do other things that make me kind of a phone weirdo.

One simple but telling choice is that I don’t keep the Phone app in any sort of easy-to-access place. I tuck it into my app library. Why? Because I rarely make calls. When I do, it’s no issue to go find the Phone app. And when I receive calls, I don’t need the app; the incoming calls just appear on the screen, right? Kim thinks this is strange (she hates hunting for the Phone app on my phone), but I don’t care.

I’m also particular about how I arrange my apps.

I don’t like how cluttered Apple’s default grid-like layout looks, so I use various hacks to keep things de-cluttered. I use David Smith’s invisible home screen icon template to create “blank” spaces in my app layout. Like so:

[image of my phone app layout]

On my previous phone, I also created substitute icons for the apps that lived on my home screen. I used the built-in Shortcuts app to create custom aliases to my most-used apps, then linked those aliases to new icons. I really really liked this because it slowed me down and forced me to think every time I went to use my phone. It was an instrument of mindfulness. But the downside is I didn’t like the launch sequence that Shortcuts has to go through to open the linked apps.

[image of my old phone app layout]

I’m considering doing this again with the new phone.

But probably my biggest piece of weirdness is that when I get a new phone, I don’t do the automatic migration. I know that doing so would save time, but I also feel like it leads to an accumulation of digital cruft. Unused apps remain on the device. Old settings stay without any sort of thought behind why I’m keeping them.

So, I set up every new device — phone, tablet, computer — manually.

Even doing this, there’s plenty that happens automatically. After all, much of my life lives in the cloud nowadays. All of my data is on Dropbox. Most of my settings are in iCloud. My passwords are also cloud based. So, a part of the setup process remains automated even when I do much of it manually.

Again, I do this because it forces me to mindfully evaluate which apps I’ve been using and which apps I want to use going forward. It’s like a forced digital housecleaning, and I like it…even if it does get a bit tedious for a few hours. To me, the tedium is worth it.

This year, there’s one final piece of weirdness to my phone setup. This year, I’m going to try to complete my divorce from the Google ecosystem. I will not sync my Google accounts to this phone. This may cause problems, but I hope not.

My concerns:

  • In 2020, I moved from gmail to Hey. While I don’t love Hey 100%, I like it enough. Plus its methodology helps me maintain a clean inbox. Still, I do get important messages at gmail addresses from time to time. I’ll have to check gmail accounts via the web now and then.
  • Similarly, I’ve moved from Google search to paid Kagi search. This is a newer change. I made the switch this summer, but I have zero regrets. I haven’t tried to set up Kagi on an iOS device yet, and I’m worried there might be barriers. Fingers crossed that it’s as easy as it should be.
  • I haven’t yet broken up with Google calendars, and that’s a problem. Right now, I’m running a mixed system: Apple and Google combined. I don’t like it. So, one of my goals for the next month is to migrate completely to Apple calendars. I’m worried that I’ll miss something, though. So, I’ll keep Google calendars on my desktop computer for now.
  • What about YouTube? As much as I’d like to not use YouTube (because it’s Google owned), there’s no real alternative. So, I use YouTube. And using YouTube requires a Google account. I might be able to use the YouTube app by manually entering my account data, but I doubt it. I’ll bet the app requires that I put my Google account on my phone.

My goal this year, then, is to discard as many of my four Google accounts as possible while setting up this phone. I should be able to discard three for sure, but it may be that I have to retain one (the one I use for YouTube and for commercial transactions). We’ll see.

There you have it: More than 1000 words about my weird phone use. It seems silly to write so much about it, but then this is the device I use more than any other, right? I use it all day long, and I use it all night long too. (As part of my sleep routine, I keep an audiobook playing throughout the night. This is probably why my phone batteries deteriorate so quickly.)

As is the case for many people, my phone has become my primary computer and communication device. It seems smart to spend some extra time thinking about how I set up and use it.

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Small engine repair.

I am not a mechanical guy. Growing up, I was into computers not cars. I could build a computer for you, I could program it, I could diagnose problems, and so on — but I was hard pressed to figure out basic engine maintenance. My father did teach me to change the brake pads on my 1982 Datsun 310 GX, but that was about the extent of my car knowledge.

This hasn’t been a problem until now.

During the early stages of Covid — April 2020, to be precise — Kim and I bought an $850 shredder/chipper from Home Depot. Since everything was shut down, we figured we might as well use that time to do a bunch of yard work. And since we had a vast yard at that time, one filled with all sorts of trees (and their branches), it made sense to buy an expensive machine. We didn’t realize we’d be selling the house less than a year later.

We used that chipper/shredder a lot during the summer of 2020. In the fall, as we were working on our last pile of branches, the thing ran out of gas just as we were nearing the end of our work. “Great!” we said. “We don’t have to worry about draining the fuel!” We put the chipper/shredder away…and we haven’t thought about it sense.

This summer, we’ve been on a crusade to purge all of our Stuff. We held a successful garage sale last weekend, we’ve given things away, and we’ve made donations to Goodwill. We also want to sell the chipper/shredder.

Unfortunately, it will not start. Bummer.

I remembered that we’d run it out of gas, so I added fresh fuel. I expected the beast to start right up. It didn’t. I added oil. No dice. I bought a new spark plug and made sure the gap was correct. No luck. I replaced the air filter. Still nothing.

My neighbor across the street, Wade, is good with small engines. He does a lot of maintenance on his own equipment. He saw me struggling with the chipper/shredder, so he’s been helping me diagnose possible problems. He and his college-age daughter sit in the driveway and we play with possible solutions. None of them ever work.

Despite our failure to get the machine going, I’m having fun. I think that’s because I’m learning something new. I know nothing about engines, so all of this is like learning a new language. I’ve done a ton of googling, which leads to manuals to read and videos to watch.

This afternoon, the three of us made another attempt to start the engine. We were unsuccessful.

“At this point, I don’t know what’s wrong,” Wade said. “If it were me, though, I’d replace the carburetor. You can get them cheap on Amazon.”

It never would have occurred to me that I could replace a carburetor myself, but looking at the instructions it doesn’t seem difficult. And while the official part costs $65 at Amazon (and $84 from other sites), I can get a knock-off part for $16. I’m going to try that. (I asked Wade and he says he’s had mixed success using knock-off parts. “Read the reviews,” he said. The replacement I ordered gets good reviews.)

I’m skeptical that replacing this will work, but according to Wade there’s very little else that could be wrong here. Plus, it’s only $16 (and a bit of time) to give it a shot. That seems worth it to me. I’ll get to learn how to remove a carburetor and install a new one.

If this does work, I’ll immediately list the chipper/shredder for sale on Facebook Marketplace. If it doesn’t…well, I don’t know what I’ll do. I still might list it but for less. Or I might see if there’s a next step in the troubleshooting process (although Wade makes it sound like there really isn’t).

I’ve begun to think that maybe I should drain the fuel and add new stuff. The manual is clear that the fuel must be 87 octane with no more than 10% ethanol. I have no idea what kind of gas I put in. I probably got a gallon of premium, but it didn’t occur to me that I ought to be paying attention — so I didn’t. I could easily have bought a lesser fuel.

In any event, this is a fun learning project that’s occurring in s-l-o-w motion. It’s taken over a month to reach this point. Fingers crossed that it doesn’t take another month to solve the problem.

And after I’m done with the chipper/shredder? Well, then it’s time to sell my motorcycle…

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Life before electricity.

One of my frequent complaints about us as Americans is that we have no real sense of history. We are very focused on the recent past and pay little mind to things that happened even forty or fifty years ago. This leads to some odd gaps in understanding and knowledge. People don’t grok how we got from Point A to Point B — and have no interest in learning — so when they see something from Point A in isolation, that thing seems offensive or weird.

I’m not immune to this behavior, of course. And perhaps it’s not a peculiarly American habit. Maybe it’s just part of being human. Maybe we’ve always been like this and always will be.

I’ve been thinking about this because last night I stumbled on one of my own blind spots.

The Path to Power

I’m currently listening to the The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s highly-regarded biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s a fascinating book and I can see why it’s so highly praised. I particularly like how Caro is unafraid to spent entire chapters (and dozens of pages) on digressions that provide context and color to the story. It’s entertaining, informative, and effective.

Midway through the book, for instance, Caro spends two entire chapters exploring the electrification of rural America, and particularly rural Texas. He opens chapter 27 with this bit:

Electricity had, of course, been an integral part of life in urban and much of small-town America for a generation and more, lighting its streets, powering the machinery of its factories, running its streetcars and trolleys, its elevated trains and subways, moving elevators and escalators in its stores, and cooling the stores with electric fans…It was not a part of life in the Hill Country.

Caro then spends pages and pages and pages describing what rural life was like without electricity: the grueling hours of work for men and women (and children), the monotonous repetition of chores necessary to obtain basic needs like water and heat, the endless work of food preservation, and the boredom of life without radio or electric light.

Life Before Electricity

Here’s a sample of the kind of effort that it took to simply live in rural Texas:

And so much water was needed! A federal study of nearly half a million farm families even then being conducted would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four-fifths of a ton, of water each day—73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. The study showed that, on the average, the well was located 253 feet from the house—and that to pump by hand and carry to the house 73,000 gallons of water a year would require someone to put in during that year 63 eight-hour days, and walk 1,750 miles.

Caro summarizes life for the rural farm family this way: “No radio; no movies; limited reading — little diversion between the hard day just past and the hard day just ahead.” (Aside: I’m curious why he uses semicolons in that sentence instead of commas. Is it the dash?)

Caro spends the entirety of chapter 27 describing what life on a rural farm was like during the mid 1930s. There’s zero mention of Lyndon B. Johnson at all. It’s simply pages of context and color. And the book is so much richer for it!

Electrifying Rural America

The next chapter delves into the politics behind electrifying rural America, and Johnson’s role in that process. At first, it’s the electric companies that refuse to to provide power to farms. To them, it’s bad business. It doesn’t make sense. They’ll never recoup the costs of building the infrastructure. Never. So, they refuse to do it.

When President Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration on 11 May 1935, the tables turned. The government would help subsidize (and administer) the electrification of rural areas — but now it was the farmers who felt skeptical. Were the benefits of electricity really that great? And what about the costs? To them, electricity seemed outrageously expensive. How could they afford it?

The reluctance of the people sprang from simple poverty — “It cost five dollars [to apply for electricity], and a lot of people didn’t have five dollars,” says Guthrie Taylor. And it sprang from fear.

They were afraid of the wires. The idea of electricity — so unknown to them — terrified them. It was the same stuff as lightning; it sounded dangerous — what would happen to a child who put its hand on a wire? And what about their cows — their precious, irreplaceable few cows that represented so much of their total assets? “They were so worried,” Lucille O’Donnell recalls. “They would say, ‘What’ll happen if there’s a storm? The wires will fall down and kill [electrocute] the cattle.’”

It was a young Lyndon Johnson who helped champion the electrification of the Texas hill country (where he was from). He met with President Roosevelt and persuaded him to fund the project. In September 1938, the U.S. government did so. And about fifteen months later, electricity came to rural Texas.

Caro writes:

One evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different.

“Oh my God,” her mother said. “The house is on fire!”

But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said. “The lights are on.”

They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”

These two chapters are a fascinating glimpse into a piece of American history that has largely been forgotten. We take electricity for granted nowadays. It’s difficult to imagine that less than 100 years ago, there were still large parts of this country that didn’t have it.

The Electrification Acceleration

In 1935, when the Rural Electrification Administration was created, about 85% of city homes had electricity — but only 10% of farms did. This graph from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that much progress was made in ten years, despite the outbreak of World War II. By 1945, about 40% of farms had been electrified (compared to about 90% of city homes). And in 1955, the gap had closed to almost zero: about 95% of all homes in the U.S. had access to electricity.

[graph showing share of U.S. residences with electricity]

But even that last fact kind of boggles my mind. Less than fifteen years before I was born (in 1969), there were still 5% of U.S. homes without electrical power!

I’m fond of doing historical comparisons to gain perspectives on timespans. Let me give you an example. Thirty years before I was born — in 1939 — there were still 15% of city homes and nearly 90% of farms without electricity.

Now, to gain perspective, think about thirty years before today. It’s 2023. What will kids born this year look back on and think “wow, I can’t believe this is such a recent technology”. Maybe it’s the internet? That’s not a perfect example but it’s close. I’m not sure their was a rural/urban divide in internet adoption, but it’s a technology that probably had around 10% use in 1993 (or maybe 1994 or 1995, not sure), but now is nearly ubiquitous.

Anyhow, I’m starting to ramble.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed these two chapters from The Path to Power so much that I read them twice. Then I read them a third time while writing this article. It makes me realize that I haven’t been paying near enough attention to this book, so I’ve purchased a copy for Kindle and plan to read it in print in addition (simultaneously?) to listening to it.

Most of all, I can see why people praise Robert Caro. Can you imagine making the Rural Electrification Administration interesting? Yet he does. In this two-chapter digression from the story of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro paints a clear picture of what life was like in the mid 1930s and why Johnson became a powerful political figure. And yet Johnson barely figures into the text for these 27 pages.

Footnote: I know little about Lyndon B. Johnson and didn’t choose this book because I wanted to learn about him. I chose this book because again and again I see people praising Robert Caro’s writing, and I wanted to experience it. The Path to Power is the first of four volumes in Caro’s biography of Johnson. For more than a decade, Caro has been working on a fifth and final volume. He says he has ~630 manuscript pages but still isn’t anywhere near finishing. He’s 87. I hope he’s in good health, because I look forward to reading all five volumes of this biography.

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Fall art false start.

For two years now, I’ve been talking about taking art classes. I want to learn how to draw and/or work with watercolors. I’m dabbled with both a tiny bit in my free time, but I’m not so good at being self-directed. I’m much better when somebody imposes structure on me, especially when it comes to study. (Left to my own devices, my ADHD takes over and I flit from one thing to the next.)

I’ve been talking about taking art classes, but I haven’t actually taken any. Why not? Mostly it’s because I’m scared. Not scared as in “oh my god I’m going to die!”, but scared as in “trying something new that’s a bit uncomfortable”. Why am I scared? I have no idea. It’s not rational. It’s just how I operate. Starting new things can be tough for me.

Anyhow, I finally overcame my trepidation about a month ago, and I signed up for two art classes at the local community center: Realistic Drawing on Monday mornings, plus Ink Pen + Watercolor on Tuesday evenings. I’ve been super excited about finally making this leap. Go me!

I gathered all the class materials and set them in two piles on the kitchen table. They’ve been waiting there for an entire month, reminding me that I’m about to learn how to do art.

[photo of my art supplies]

Then last week, the community center called to let me know that the Ink Pen + Watercolor class had been cancelled due to low enrollment. I was sad, but at least I had the Realistic Drawing class on my schedule still.

Well, just a few minutes ago the community center called to say that class had been cancelled due to low enrollment also.

This is all funny in a sad sort of way. After waiting so long to register for art classes, I finally took action — only to have my action nullified. Haha.

I’m not going to let this stop me, though. I already have it in my head that I’m taking art classes this autumn, so I’m going to check out the website for the local community college. I’ll bet there are some similar options (although they’re probably more expensive).

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My favorite website.

As I re-adjust to writing at Folded Space once more, I’m struggling to know what qualifies as “worth sharing” and what doesn’t.

In the olden days, I’d simply sit down and jot a note about whatever was going on in my life — or whatever silly things was tickling my brain at the moment.

But during nearly 20 years of writing at Get Rich Slowly, I became much more selective about what I published. I spent much longer on the articles I wrote, and I carefully considered what was worth sharing. (I never actually published about half the stuff I finished. And I only finished about half of the articles I started.)

Obviously, I’ve been erring on the side of “share longer, more interesting things” here. But a part of me hates this. It’s putting a filter on myself.

So, I’m going to make an effort to share a lot of little stuff for a while. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be, but I’m going to try. And I’m starting right now! I’m going to share one of my favorite websites.


The internet community I’ve been a member of longest is MetaFilter. I joined the site on 09 August 2002 (although I had been reading it since it started), and I’ve been mostly active ever since.

MetaFilter is a “community weblog”. Think of it as a proto-Reddit. There are no sub-sites for different topics (although there are broader divisions I’ll explain in a moment); everything is posted to the main “stream”. Comments aren’t threaded, but you can “favorite” the stuff you like most. It’s all very very 1999, and to me that’s a lot of the appeal. It’s lo-fi and I love it.

MetaFilter has a handful of subsections.

  • There’s a Projects subsite where users can share the cool things they’re working on. (It’s also where I first announced Get Rich Slowly!)
  • There’s a seldom-used Jobs section where mefites can hire other mefites to work for them.
  • There’s a Music section for creators to post their songs.
  • There’s a fairly active section called FanFare where mefites geek out about their favorite media.
  • Best of all, there’s a section called Ask MetaFilter where you can recruit the “hivemind” to help solve your problems. Or to comment on them, anyhow.

In recent years, the main MetaFilter site — “the blue” — has become increasingly politicized. Posts and conversations are decidedly left-leaning. Opposing viewpoints are not tolerated. I happen to lean left myself, but I find MetaFilter currently to be a dogmatic echo chamber that’s sort of a parody of modern self-congratulatory liberalism. I read it less and less with each passing month.

Ask MetaFilter

But AskMetafilter? AskMetafilter remains great. Sure, the userbase is the same as the main site (so there’s plenty of politicalization that occurs), but AskMe is still largely a gorgeous, chaotic mess of questions and answers about all sorts of stuff. It’s a pleasure to peruse.

(As an aside, AskMetafilter is the source of one of my favorite mental frameworks: Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture. It’s a way of looking at how people relate to each other and why sometimes conflicts arise. I come from a “Guess Culture” family where we don’t explicitly ask for what we want. This causes me no end of headaches.)

Here are some examples of recent AskMe questions I found interesting:

But here’s the real reason I’m writing about AskMetafilter today.

The Best of Ask MetaFilter

This morning, I found myself scrolling through the site’s all-time most popular questions. While the vast majority of questions at AskMe get maybe ten to twenty responses (and a handful of “likes”), these questions have hundreds of answers and, in some cases, thousands of likes. This list is going to give me reading material for the next couple of nights. And it’s going to give you reading material for the next hour or so haha.

Here are some gems:

Those are just a few examples. There are many more.

Ask MetaFilter is my favorite website, and it has been for a long time. Something about it has a perfect balance for me. There’s enough new stuff (maybe 20 posts a day?) without being overwhelming. The questions and answers are diverse and interesting. People are genuinely trying to be helpful. The quality of responses is far superior to the stupid shit I see on Reddit. And so on. For nearly two decades, Ask MetaFilter has been a daily read for me.

The Lo-Fi Web

Anyhow, here’s my MetaFilter profile (which could use some updating!). Here are my AskMe questions and my AskMe answers. Really, though, I think you get a good glimpse into my interests by looking at the posts and comments from others that I’ve favorited over time.

Related: As time goes by, I find myself drawn more and more to what I call “the lo-fi web”. MetaFilter is an example of this. I’ll certainly write more about the lo-fi web in the future. (I just excised three tangential paragraphs about it from this post!) If you’re interested in the meantime, check out two articles: “The Small Web Is Beautiful” and “The Lo-Fi Manifesto”. Neither of these perfectly encapsulate what I mean by the lo-fi web, but they both come close. I’ve just ordered (but have not yet read) Cory Doctorow’s new book, The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, which promises to explore similar ideas.

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Beginner’s mind.

For a long time now, I’ve embraced the Zen concept of shoshin (or beginner’s mind). The notion is simple. When approaching any subject, do so with the openness and enthusiasm of a novice, leaving aside preconceptions and prejudices. Basically, forget what you know — or think you know — and start from the beginning.

I’ve been reminded of this notion while working on my project to interpret (not translate but interpret) the Tao Te Ching for my own personal benefit. The Tao often uses children and newborn as metaphors. But this morning I got a stark lesson in the need for beginner’s mind in real life.

This year, I’ve been focused on fitness. In the past when I’ve tried to get fit, I’ve been overly attuned to my weight. As a result, I lose weight but struggle to keep it off. I reach my goal (usually about 170 pounds) then, because I don’t have a new goal, I gradually regain all that I’d lost. My problem, I know, is that I’m too centered on the results instead of building good habits. (This is similar to folks who get out of debt but can’t stay out of debt because they focused on the outcome rather than the process.)

So, while I’m certainly tracking outcomes this year, they’re not where my attention has been directed. Instead, I’ve been teaching myself to make smart choices with regards to food and fitness. I’m losing weight much more slowly than past efforts. Three times in my life, I’ve lost 50 pounds in six months. Right now, I’m down only 25 pounds in nine months. The difference, though, is that nothing I’ve done feels onerous. I’m not starving myself. I’m not working out like a maniac. I’ve made small changes that feel natural to me, and I’ve never felt deprived.

My exercise has largely consisted of two activities: lifting weights and walking.

I love to walk, so it hasn’t taken a lot of willpower to do more of it. I’ve simply elected to walk when normally I might drive. I walk the 0.9 miles to the grocery store, for instance, or the 2.7 miles to downtown Corvallis. I don’t do this every time — I won’t do it when I run errands today, for instance — but when time, weather, and mood allow, I make it a priority.

I don’t love lifting weights, but I do love the results. Lifting makes me feel strong and confident. But lifting is hard. It’s difficult. It takes effort. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Still, I’ve put in that effort and I’ve enjoyed great results. It took me six months to reach a level of strength that required two years of progress back in 2011-2013. It pleased me to no end that at age 54 I could match (and sometimes beat!) personal bests I’d set at age 44.

But the problem with lifting is that it’s hard on my body. The squats hurt my knees. (In theory, they shouldn’t hurt if I have good form. In reality, even when I’m laser-focused on form, the knees still hurt.) Any kind of overhead press — military press, bench press, whatever — hurts my shoulders. Pull-ups hurt my shoulders. Push-ups hurt my shoulders. Lunges really hurt my knees.

I want to lift weights, but I feel like I need to take a break and find some other fitness activity that is less stressful on my body.

Enter swimming.

Our gym has two pools. One is a small, warm pool for water aerobics classes. The other is a 25-yard, five-lane lap pool. They both get plenty of use from members.

I don’t mind swimming, but I tend to hesitate making it part of a fitness program. I know that it’s a difficult, frustrating experience when done for exercise and not for fun. Back in 1997, when I first lost a bunch of weight, I made swimming a regular part of my workouts once I’d reached 170 pounds. And that’s part of the mental barrier I currently have. I’m at 190 pounds and feel like I’m twenty pounds away from being able to swim.

To me, swimming is the peak exercise activity. It’s as if there’s a pyramid of exercise based on difficulty and fitness. At the bottom is walking, which is generally easy for everyone. (I’m old enough now to realize that some folks struggle with it, but for most people it’s the base of the exercise pyramid.) Above walking are stretching exercises and yoga. Above those are weight lifting. Above lifting is running. And above running is swimming. (This is my personal exercise pyramid; yours might be different.)

Because I have this mental construct, I tend to put off trying to swim until I’m near peak fitness. I’ve been doing that all year. Kim has been prodding me to swim, but I’ve been resisting. “I’ll swim once I’m below 180,” I tell her. Or, “I can’t swim until I can run a 5k without resting.” Stuff like that.

This is silly, right? Especially now that I’ve realized my knees and shoulders are in shoddy shape. If I think swimming will benefit me — and it will — then I need to go swim.

So, this morning that’s what I did. I got up at 6:30, like I always do, and I went to the gym. I told myself that even if all I did was familiarize myself with the swimming facilities, that’d be a win. And that’s what I did.

I walked around and looked at the pools. I felt the water temperature. I checked out the hot tubs. I went into the steam room. And then, since I was already there, I got in the pool and I swam. (This is a trick that I’ve learned: If I tell myself that all I have to do is go to the gym to succeed for the day, I’ll usually do some exercise once I’m there.)

I didn’t swim far. In fact, I only swam four laps (or 100 yards). But I swam. And I would have done more but man oh man, my form sucks. I remember now that when I was swimming 25 years ago, it took me a long time to figure out proper breathing and form. At first, I felt like I was flailing around. And I struggled to catch my breath. Well, the same was true today. Perhaps more so. My first two laps were okay, but the last two were crazy hard.

I’m not discouraged, though. Instead, I’m practicing shoshin, beginner’s mind. I swam four laps today. I’ll swim six laps tomorrow. And before I swim those six laps, I will read (and watch videos) about proper form and breathing. I will be patient. I will forget what I know (or think I know) and learn from scratch. I will practice. And in time — probably less time than I think — I’ll be able to swim greater distances.

On my way out this morning, I stopped at the front desk to leave a note for the gym’s swimming instructor. I asked her if she’d consider giving private adult swim lessons for a fee. I think it’d benefit me to take three or four classes with somebody so that I could get the basics down.

It may be that this is just a temporary whim, but I hope not. I feel like swimming could be a beneficial tool in my exercise arsenal. It could, especially, be an important skill as I grow older. I want to learn how to swim effectively, and to do that I need to forget what I know and adopt a beginner’s mind.

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