A Writer’s Muddled Meditation on Gratitude

Oh, let those thanks go out to whoever’s listening (and whoever’s left over)

The other day I was walking with my girlfriend in the semi-rural area around my house. There’s a paved road, though it’s narrow, winding through some brushy, forested hills among which some houses are scattered. There’s a section of our walk that rolls up and down and into a small flat stretch that we call “the hollow.”

There aren’t any houses that look directly into the hollow, which is surrounded by trees and scrubby underbrush. That’s why it makes a great drop-off site for all the miserable trash—mattresses, chairs, even car transmissions—that miserable people toss there, probably when they find out that the landfill that’s a couple miles away charges money for their discards. We’re always trying to get the license number of the nimrods that do this littering so we can report them, but we’ve never caught anyone in the act.

Have at Thee, Varlets!
That’s why when we started down the hill into the hollow and spotted the two standing people, half-hidden by their truck, that I moved toward them. I wanted to catch them in the act of dumping their trash. Alice and I had both already started to memorize the truck’s license number, but we couldn’t quite see what the people were doing, because the vehicle was pulled into the dirt on the roadside, and they were behind the highest part of the truck’s cab.

It wasn’t until we moved almost behind the truck that I figured it out: no trash, no dumping, just an old guy holding a bucket, which he was going to use to rinse the heavily soaped head of his companion—his wife, his girlfriend, his sister?—who was obscured by the suds and a big draping towel. I had been moments from saying, “Hey, are you dumping crap in here?” to them, but realized that this was a spot they’d chosen to wash her hair. Because they had no shower. I glanced away, and glanced at the back of the truck, filled with some boxes, suitcases, a couple of big coolers.

Not just a truck, a home.

My puffed-up righteousness deflated.

Complaining as Reflex
I complain a lot about a lot of things. Some things I can’t do a damn thing about, but I complain anyway. Some things I could do something about, but I’d rather complain. Sometimes I even complain about what I do, which is write on a broad variety of subjects, and often people pay me for that. I even get to write stories, and sometimes I even get paid for those, which seems a bit of a miracle.

But that guy, washing his sweetheart’s head, looked like he had some real things to complain about. Maybe he does. But that’s not my business. My business is to pull some perspective from that moment, and have a little gratitude for how good I actually have it. Being able to work out of my house, writing for a living, having people around who care for me. A few weeks ago, I got to house-sit for five weeks in Hawaii, only because I can freelance from anywhere. That’s pretty good. Damn good.

When we circled back for the second part of our walk, I was thinking I’d like to offer those guys some money, but I didn’t want to insult them with any presumption. But they were gone, and the truck with them. All that was left behind was some watery dirt and a tire track. No garbage, nothing, just a temporary whisper that they had been there.

Cat Vomit? No Problem
But I want to hold on to that reminder, of how good things really are, for a little bit. I want to consciously pull it up when I fling an oath because a client hasn’t understood my work, when the cat has vomited on the bed, when my dinner seems slightly too spicy. It is challenging to be grateful about cat vomit, but occasionally, I want to rise to the challenge.

Hope you’re able to find some flowers in your garden (and can step lightly over the stones).

Cold-Air Intakes and the Mountain—Words to Make Livings, Words to Make Meanings

You Know You Want One

A couple of years ago, I had a peach of a ’68 Mustang. Though the creature drank gasoline like a Death Valley marathoner drinks water, it was a clean machine, and fun to drive. But like any car that’s 40+ years old, it had a loose tooth or two. So I scoured the InterWebz for Mustang parts suppliers, and bought a couple of items from Steeda, the company whose recent ad is pictured above.

Sidestepping the phallic push of this incomparable cold-air intake, I was struck by the flatly declarative copy of the ad. Not because it’s sweepingly imaginative, but because there’s such a narrow audience for whom it’s intended. Cold-air intakes, that’s what we got here—all other parties move on. Now the reason this struck me in particular is because I’ve been mulling whether my “one-size-writes-all” copywriting biz is too many things: flowers, trees, sky above, dirt below and cold-air intakes in between.

You see, I write web copy, press releases, marketing collateral, ads, case studies, direct mail, and a bunch of tech stuff too. And I edit all of the aforementioned, and more. In fact, just yesterday I finished editing a small book on how to play any chord on the banjo. Though twangy, it was quite technical.

Towards or Away from the Mountain?
I’ve always enjoyed the variety of writing/editing I do, but sometimes there’s a haphazard, slapdash aspect to the servings in my restaurant: can you trust a place to make great Chinese if they are advertising pizza too? And though I do OK with the dough, it’s not like I can buy a load of Facebook stock (though if they keep going in the direction they have, I can at least buy a bucketful). Amusingly, in the way of how when you begin to mull something, you’ll see signposts and UFO sightings about that subject everywhere, today I watched this commencement speech of Neil Gaiman’s on Tim Ferriss’s blog, where Gaiman speaks (at around 4:20) about whether his ongoing work was taking him “toward or away from the mountain”—the mountain being his deepest goals. If away, he suggests to leave that work behind, if you can.

But “follow your bliss” doesn’t precisely translate in this instance: I love the play of language even in a technical book on the banjo, but I don’t feel passionate about that play. But then again, I’m further muddled about my mountain, because I waffle whether it’s imperative to feel soaring passion about your work when it gives you pleasure at a basic level, and provides a sense of accomplishment, however ephemeral. Still mulling on passion’s place, and where that place might be on my own map.

We all move through our days, trying to figure out what to do if we have a surgeon’s hands and a troubadour’s heart. (I have neither, but I do have impressively large feet.) In the meantime, I’ll contact Steeda and see if they have made such a killing on cold-air intake sales that they can become my patron, and I can simply work on my novel, which has suffered sore neglect lately.

Bonus Book Giveaway
There’s only a few days days left on my giveaway at the Guide to Literary Agents blog of Flowering, my new book of short stories. My essay there is on the weird nature of short story collections within the publishing world. You don’t even need to read my transcendently engrossing point-of-view on that subject to comment, and be in the running to win the book. Do it.