Karyn and I have talked about how there’s very little room for genuine conversation when someone talks about how busy they are. “How are you?” “So busy,” we say. Driving the kids—going to the events—work has us ragged—the overcommitments—and oh-how-tired-we-are. We are all, so, so busy. It’s not actually an interesting discussion, and in large part I think it’s because we’re all so busy with our own things that we don’t need to hear about the others. Who has time for that?

But it’s more than that. “Busy” is not only a waste of time, it’s uninteresting. I think we use it as a placeholder for something more meaningful that we can’t quite express. It reveals our — and I put myself into this group — lack of eloquence and inabilities to ponder only slightly more deeply. Or, perhaps just as frequently, we use it as a badge. It’s both bragging rights and an excuse. I can’t be more interesting or more constructive in this social interaction: just look at all of the baggage of my busy-ness.

That’s an overly busy introduction to argue that “busy” is an unhelpful crutch. “Busy” says and means mostly nothing. We are all occupying our time, our hearts are beating, and we all have a list of projects and tasks.

In my ever ongoing task to try to understand both who I am and what I’m doing, not to mention how to be a socially acceptable conversant, I do find that I need to fill the place of that “very busy” response. “How are you? What have you been up to?” Let’s be fair and admit that this is a nearly impossible entrance into conversation that can actually go anywhere.

For me, I can literally say that things are a mess. Step into my office and there’s a pile of 1-gallon jugs of glue, a topography of papers and folders across the desk, and a new solar panel in the corner. Who has a solar panel in their office? It’s next to the pendulums and the collection of lab supplies in purgatory, being shifted from lab to office to car to classroom, or the other way around. And why 6 gallons of glue? Because the other 4 gallons were already moved or used up. It all strikes me as ridiculous; it would be harder to make this up.

At home it’s no different. I have scattered piles of stones that I’m assembling into a patio, one leveled rock at a time. I barely put away a pile of clean clothes that had been sitting on a chair for two days. There are books stacked on the nightstand like a perverse booby trap, and I’m not at all sure what to do with the desk besides close it tight before files start to spill out. It’s slapstick comedy in slow motion.

None of this would bother me or be noteworthy except that I don’t think it represents the person I really am. I could be deluding myself. A pot rack just randomly fell out of the wall, as though it wanted to join in the symphony of entropy. Maybe this is who I am. One fear of mine is that people see these things and pass judgement because they know this isn’t how I really operate, but another, more depressing possibility: What if they know a truth about me that I’m not willing to admit?

So, there’s a project, continually, to fix the mess. That is, after all, a part of some cycle of progress. The mess comes from an assembly of things for tasks. Some are necessary pieces contributing to a backyard patio or a summer course, while others are the remnant pieces waiting to be re-shelved, physically and mentally. If the messes aren’t there, then maybe neither am I.

There’s possibly another moral in this. I could learn to embrace the mess. If I’m not careful, I could end up spending more time fussing about it and others’ perceptions of it, rather than just working through it. For me, the mess is both a symptom of what’s wrong with my workflow and a byproduct of what’s worth doing. If there were no mess, then there are no things being done.

Without the mess, then perhaps there isn’t any re-ordering and making sense of things. Writing, of course, is a selfish act of assembling phrases into order as I make sense of the ideas that are piled up around me, and I feel better about where my head is at. I put in stones, one awkward, rough edge at a time, and I see a plane of rock that I can fit my chair on starting to take shape. And the remaining 6 gallons of glue I organize on the shelf, alongside the solar panel and the pendulums to get ready for next week’s class. There are surely better systems for organizing this work, but for now I’ll keep at it one task, one idea, one stone at a time.

It keeps me busy.


For a camping trip, the most essential planning is in the route and destinations, maps and guides and permits. The packing is the easy part, I’m reminding myself. Those basic needs, food, clothing, and shelter, are all that I need to really prepare for. There’s a philosophy that we could just fill a can with trail mix and continue to eat until we’ve reached the bottom, the signal for turning around and heading home. It will be cold, so besides pants and shirt I’ll pack a hat and coat; and the tent was pulled from its shelf with a faith that all the poles are bundled in the sack with coherent fabric to stretch across and make a temporary home. There’s comfort in the simplicity of it all.

But it will be nice to have a book to read at night. And, also, a headlamp to read by. And maybe some ice in the cooler and cans of beer for thermal ballast. Come to think of it, if we’re bringing the cooler we’ll have capacity for fruit. Maybe a pineapple. And I wonder if it’s too much to bring an extra pillow — this is vacation after all. And camp chairs, and some firewood. And so long as we’re going to the trouble, maybe marshmallows.


This is the image of the stone people’s flatbed dump truck doing a pretty good job of finding the right target. Just moments before, the truck carried a distinct pile of sand, a separate pile of gravel, and a square stack of red stone on the pallet near the cab. In all, there was a four-ton delivery being deposited alongside my driveway.

I was astonished at two things. First, there’s the magnitude of it all. A ton of sand, a ton of gravel, and two tons of the red stone. Second, it all stayed stuck to the bed of the truck until friction gave way and it all started to slide, no longer separate piles but a conglomeration in the avalanche of rock. I stood back both to take it in and to make sure I wasn’t crushed or maimed.

It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite place it.

A few hours later someone asked me how my summer was going. I have a hard time with that question, so I tried to explain that there’s a new routine to the new season. All kinds of usual tasks are concluded and tied up, but all the things I couldn’t get done during fall, winter, or spring get organized onto a flatbed and transported to summer. And then it’s all dumped into one, singular, falling-down-the-ramp-onto-the-driveway kind of pile. I have to sort out which things to do first, how to re-organize them, and figure out how to get them done in the first place.

Starting with, of course, the patio project composed of all this gravel, sand, and stone.

old guys in the coffee shop on Friday morning

They’re around the big table, nursing yellow ceramic mugs ordered “to stay” and talking about old Chevys, the numbers of cylinders and years and such being tossed about. They’re alternately leaned back in chairs or hunched over elbows on the tabletop, shooting the shit and rarely actually sipping at the coffee. Hand gestures and adamance steer the conversation. From above, shiny bald heads and dark socks in sandals paint their picture.

I think about my occasional outings on Wednesday evenings, a couple of beers with friends. We have more hair but less character.

The group waves goodbye to “Bruce,” who walks that old man walk, slightly hunched and stiff legged, one foot with more drag than the other. There’s an extra chair left behind. The metaphor, my future, isn’t lost on me.