roles

On flight 2478, the cohorts of rows 21 and 22 contort faces at the 10-month-old of 20D, making him grin and squeal. We play our role to keep him entertained.

From 20D, the 10-month-old looks back upon the audience in rows 21 and 22, open mouthed smiles and drool to make them laugh. He does his best to keep them occupied during the 1 hour, 38 minute flight.

25-year rake

When we were first married, new homeowners, there was the long list of requisite tools and hardware. One by one, we assembled hammer, pry bar, shovel, pipe wrench, level, drill, rake.

I remember specifically getting the rake. I had a choice between the 5-year rake, the 10-year rake, and the 25-year rake. Apparently, rakes and their family of garden instruments are rated according to how long they’re expected to endure. Instead of horsepower or speed, you pay for longevity.

I went for 25 years, seduced by the solid yellow handle and the sturdy tines, but also by the immortality it promised. At the time, I thought that this was forever. In so many ways it was, because it was the extent of my own lifetime. The 25-year rake was a commitment into the future. It was a statement. It said that I was willing to pay more money on the gamble that I would still be raking the dirt in the garden of our home a quarter century (my entire lifetime’s duration to that point) into the future.

Today I was looking at that rake, grading out the gravel for the back patio. It’s the third property that this rake has worked upon. It twists a little to the left, and I can see that it’s looking into the horizon of its lifetime limit. And here we are, rake in hands, still pulling out stones and smoothing grades, even as specks of rust start to settle in.

things I like in a coffee shop

First of all, cappuccinos should only come in one size. And, the person behind the counter should know what you’re talking about if you ask for it “dry” or “wet.” There should be a cup and saucer.

The door should squeak a little and be fussy in one way or another. A little too hard to pull or doesn’t latch quite right. The floor boards should be worn. And, that is to say, there must be floor boards.

I like the woman behind the counter who calls me “honey,” sometimes “doll.” This isn’t required, but it’s nice.

Even though I don’t want to talk to anyone (besides the barista who calls me “doll”), there should be conversation. Old men, or old stories, or new friends, or new drama. I like the conversations that refer to time spent in prison, big trucks with big engines, past loves. Conversations in coffee shops should be conversations only had in coffee shops, about the time you spent in prison, that past love, that big engine—those things you don’t talk about with your spouse at home, the only other woman who calls you “honey.”

In this coffee shop, some people do not have tattoos, but they aren’t judged.

There are two tip jars, each labeled with the answer for a question that day. Given the one labeled “Victoria’s Secret Models” and the other associated with the baristas at this local shop, I put my extra change into the latter, helping to fund more tattoos, I suppose. The other jar is mostly empty. The women behind the counter don’t pay it any attention as they tap espresso in the sturdy metal tool and a hiss reverberates, in good time with the whine of the door, old men’s conversations suppling the bass line underneath it all. I sip my cappuccino from a ceramic cup.

mess

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.