Wordsmith Unlocked

Lively
words that had been lorn, alone,
burst into flower,
gathered new life,
again filled my mind.

Slowly,
words that had been locked inside
trickled past brain cells,
slid through fingers,
tumbled over keys.

Quickly,
words that had been lost in space
covered blank pages,
flew through ether,
trembled with meaning. 

Lovely
words that had been left unsaid
found voice in darkness,
fell on keen ears,
gave substance to love.

How to Procrastinate

How to Procrastinate

I’ve been thinking of ways I procrastinate when I have a major project to do, and can’t seem to get started. If you’re like most folks you, too, manage to find other things to do, things that probably don’t need to be done anywhere near as much as “The Project.” Sometimes, it’s hard to even think about those things, so I provide, below, a short list of ideas that might help you do a good job of procrastination.

You can do any or all procrastinations for any effort, in no particular order and depending on how desperate you are:

  • File your nails—this task can take as few as ten minutes or, for greater procrastination, you can make it last for a half-hour.
  • Polish your nails—you have options for a half-hour quickie or a full, all steps included, job that can take a mere 2.25 hours, or as much as 3.75 hours. It depends on which preparations you make before you actually apply polish, how many coats of polish you use, and how long each takes to dry.

I usually go for the big job that includes cuticle preparation, an oil soak for 10 minutes, and five different kinds of clear polish that take ten or fifteen minutes to dry satisfactorily. (Actually, the final coat takes about two and a half hours to dry solid, so I can bump into something and the combination of polishes doesn’t smear.)

  • Check all your pens and markers to see which ones are out of ink and can be thrown away—this is a fairly quick procrastination device. The length of time to allow for it varies proportionately to the number of writing and coloring instruments you can find. You might survey only those implements on your own desk or you could scavenge the whole house, including the bedroom of your thirteen year old daughter.
  • Load more paper into your printer—a really quick intervention. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes unless you have to unwrap a whole new ream of paper, in which case you might stretch it to ten minutes.
  • Make that appointment with your dentist—the length of time to accomplish this exercise depends primarily on the number of people in your dentist’s office. Time elapsed can range from ten to thirty minutes. It’s a matter of how long you are on hold.
  • Straighten, delete items from, or add items to:
    • Desk drawers—allow at least fifteen minutes per drawer; if you get carried away, you may take a half-hour for each drawer.
    • File drawers (those in file cabinets)—Consider how deep the drawers are from front to back, how tightly packed they are, and how much reading you must do in order to decide what to keep (and/or refile somewhere else). For each drawer you can take between a half hour and a whole hour.
    • Kitchen and/or Pantry drawers / shelves / cabinets—these require, at best, only guesstimates. Each could take as few as fifteen-to-twenty minutes or as long as a half hour or more. If you go all out, probably you can spend at least a half day, maybe a whole day, getting your whole kitchen straightened up. If you are compulsive enough, and think you can take the time, you can wipe each surface clean as you go, and add another five to ten minutes to the time you estimate for each component.
    • Clothes closet(s)—Oooh! This one’s pretty big. You can simply go through a closet and scan the contents for things you can / should remove and discard or donate. You might add to that a re-organization—by type of garment, for example, or you can go all out and arrange the garments by color, length, where you are likely to wear them, or how often you wear them. You almost certainly have a much better idea than I of how to plan for this work.
    • Garage—the garage, most likely, is the biggest activity of all options for the procrastinator. A real quickie, for the average two-car garage in which both cars are usually parked, should take only two or three hours. But, for the same garage with no cars ever parked in it, you can easily spend a full day, or more. Beware: nearly all predictions for how much can be done in how long turn into final reports of time taken that are approximately twice as long as predicted.
  • Balance your bank account(s)—here, I hesitate to prognosticate. This activity can take as little as twenty minutes or as long as two hours (and, possibly, the account still doesn’t balance). Variables include how many transactions you’ve made, whether (or not) you recorded them as they occurred, and, possibly, how good you are with basic arithmetic. 
  • Work on your photos / albums—the first variable, here, is the number of photos involved. The depth of your work may be simply gathering all loose photos and sorting them by album, or you might be really anxious to get all of your photos really properly organized and securely positioned in their intended albums. It seems to me that the best thing to do is decide on how long you will give to this task, work that long and only that long, then quit before you find yourself trapped into twice or three times the allotted time.
  • Make lists, of everything—I love lists and practice their usefulness as often and as much as I can. The amount of time you devote to list-making is entirely up to you and may be restricted to only one list for the hardware store or an overall list (perhaps of lists) that encompasses everything from phone calls for the day to Excel charts for long-term planning. The lists listed below are only a few suggestions. I am sure your list of lists (even if it exists only in your head) is the most practical for you and your situation.
    • To Do
    • People to call / email / send a note or letter
    • Things you need / want
    • Recipients of next December’s Holiday Greetings / Newsletter
  • Call as many people you can think of (especially the long-winded folks)—I’m sure you know better than I how long you want to talk with each contact. Probably, you will want to set aside a block of time available, rather than predict actual time involved.
  • Work in the garden—some people can spend as little as fifteen minutes in the garden. Others like to take a half- or whole-day. It’s entirely up to you.
  • Exercise / Walk—I have to procrastinate to do either of these, so I’ll leave it up to you.
  • Take up bird-watching—the amount of time you spend on this activity depends on your particular circumstances and/or need to procrastinate.
  • Start a New Project—this strategy is for only the most serious procrastinators. You can take a few minutes (say a half hour) to sketchily outline your new project. At the other extreme, if the New Project will take as much or more time and effort as your current Project, and you need to provide a detailed proposal, it can take days. Only you can determine and make an educated guess about how long it will take you to create a plan and complete work on your New Project.

I’m sure I’ve left out many opportunities for procrastination. You will think of some yourself, as you read through those listed above. At least this is a start.

Good Luck! Enjoy your status as an Official Procrastinator. You’re in the best of company. 

Review: “Grendel,” by John Gardner (1971)

“Tastes like milk,” said my mother-in-law of John Gardner’s Jason and Medeia, and I realized that she was, as I am, a synesthete, able to experience sensations in unexpected ways, like hearing colors or seeing smells. It is a relatively rare, and very pleasurable, talent.

Grendel, by John Gardner, doesn’t taste at all like milk. It is far more potent in its poetry, like a hunter’s kettle roiling atop broken tree limbs, filled with the remnants of several days in the woods: body parts, meat and bones, dried blood, wild berries, mushrooms, and pungent spicy leaves. 

It is also orchestral music, rising and falling in multiple movements, occasionally punctuated with puns and sudden childlike outbursts. Grendel tells his own story in fragments, an ongoing threnody insinuated beneath and between the details of the familiar Beowolf legend. He emerges from and retreats to the cave where his mother still lives in a stuporous haze, visits a pontificating dragon whose ultimate words of wisdom, after almost twenty pages, are “seek out gold and sit on it,” and observes and makes raids upon the local Danes until a stranger comes across the sea with a challenge for him alone. 

I first picked up a copy of Grendel in a bookstore a number of years ago, but did not buy it at that time. I put it on my list of “Books to Read Soon.” A couple of months ago, I finally got a copy; I read it straight through. I was so enthralled I sent an e-mail to six friends, recommending it as a delightful read. Two of them quickly replied saying that they, too, had recently read and very much enjoyed the book! Go thou and do likewise. You won’t be sorry!

You Cannot Help Doing Your Best

When my developmentally disabled stepson Andy reached ten years old, we felt we needed a professional evaluation of his potential. Our goals were to ascertain the best educational placement for him and to predict a long-term prognosis for his future, so we could make plans for what might lie ahead.

We took him to The Exceptional Children’s Foundation at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Clinics, in Baltimore, Maryland, a highly esteemed institution. We had great expectations as we approached our two-day sojourn there. We were to be greatly disappointed. 

Everything went wrong, mostly because the testers did not pay attention to the materials Andy’s teacher and I had provided. By the end of the second day of tests, when we were called in for The Evaluation, our hearts were heavy. We were prepared for the worst but we could not, even so, have anticipated what we heard.

“Your son is untestable. He will never learn to speak. He will never learn to read or write. You must put him in an institution immediately. If you do not, his care will cause your marriage to fail and damage any other children you might have. He will be a drain on society. There is no alternative.”

I felt so angry, I dared not speak. 

The next day, as we drove home, Richard began to talk about placements. I agreed to visit two boarding schools, but we could not afford to spend Richard’s entire salary on either of them. I would not have agreed to spend a penny on such a venture, anyway. I knew Andy would talk like the rest of us. (I did not, then, realize he had brain damage and a linguistic challenge.) I knew he would read and write, and live alone, and have a job and a car. I knew I would help him realize these things; and I knew no one and nothing would stop us.

When Andy reached adolescence, as happens to many autistic/schizophrenic youth, he often became violent. While I underwent the most frequent expression of his temper, others felt it too. The private school he attended expelled him. He then went to a succession of public school classes before he finally landed in a good situation in a high school class with one major advantage. They had a contract with Goodwill Industries for job training; Andy participated in that program.

However, his temper frequently got out of control on the high school campus. One day, his guidance counselor called me. He told me Andy had so much difficulty because I put too much pressure on him to be “normal.” He said, “Andy will never get a job. He’ll never have a place of his own and a car. He’ll never go to college. You have to tell him he cannot do these things so he won’t feel so much pressure.” I argued with the counselor, but I could not, in the end, argue with the fact Andy had fights almost daily, so I agreed to an experiment. I would try to do what the counselor recommended.

That evening, I talked with Andy. I told him the counselor called and told me about the many fights. The counselor thought Andy had too much pressure. I said, “Maybe you won’t be able to have a car and a place of your own and go to college, after all. Maybe you don’t have to try so hard. Maybe you can take it easy.”

It didn’t work. Things didn’t really get worse. They couldn’t get much worse. But Andy became angry at me again. He didn’t act violent toward me; he just stopped talking to me. Busy in graduate school, I really didn’t think about it or pay attention to his anger, in the moment.

He did graduate from high school. He got a job. He went through an independent living program and got a car and his own apartment. When Governor Jerry Brown mandated each state hospital had to hire a quota of developmentally disabled persons, Andy became the first person hired at Fairview Developmental Center. (He retired from that job, with full benefits, forty-two years later.) He also attended the community college, where he took art classes. With twenty-three years of diligent effort after work and on weekends he got his AA degree!

After the first couple of years of independent life, however, he went through a pretty rocky period of clinically significant psychosis. During a touch-and-go month, he managed, with the help of many friends and his parents, to keep his home, his car, and his job. One morning, after a 3:00 am bail-out by his Dad with a tank of gas in the middle of nowhere, he called me in a rage. He ranted for nearly an hour about nonsense. Finally, he started talking about the time I’d told him he couldn’t get a car, a job, or a college degree. 

“Why did you do that?” he screamed at me through the phone.

I sensed, somehow, this to be the crucial point of everything. I took a deep breath and paused to be sure I got it right.

“Because,” I said, “the counselor told me to. I didn’t want to. I didn’t think it right. Remember? I always said you could do those things. I always believed in you. I had worked hard for years to help you get that far, and I wanted you to go all the way. But you were having big problems at school. You were fighting with the other kids all the time. The counselor told me it you did it because I put too much pressure on you, and I had to stop. I had to make it easy for you. The counselor said the teachers and the principal all thought so, too. I didn’t like it; I cried. But I had to do it. They were the authorities, and I just the parent. You see? I did the best I could do!”

A long pause followed. 

All the rage gone from his voice, Andy said, “I didn’t know all that. You should have told me.”

We talked for about a half-hour about that, and other things, too. His psychotic episode ended right then.

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. Something I’d said for years is true. We all do the best we can do at any moment in time with whatever we have to work with: ourselves, our minds, our feelings, our education, our experience, our caring, our surroundings. Right now, this minute, in this circumstance, we do what seems best. It is the best we can do; we can do no different and no better. No one can judge us for it. In that situation, they would do just the same. What we do is the best we can do.