Is it true? How we spend our days is how we spend our lives?

My favorite Dillard book. Thin but dense.

Yesterday I posted one of my favorite quips of good advice: “Whatever you do today is what you do.” I can’t remember the source but a reader sent me a similar quote from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend out lives.”

Following the Annie Dillard rabbit hole – it’s a Saturday and I’ve got a few minutes to wander leisurely – I found this wonderful essay written by William Deresiewicz titled Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard? The essay is putatively a review of Dillard’s new book of essays The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, but it is more of a review of Dillard’s work over the last forty years. The essay captures Dillard’s genius and makes me want to go back and read every word she has written. I immediately dashed off a tweet to Deresiewicz and thanked him for the best ten minutes I’ve had in a very long time.

Not everyone will enjoy Dillard. She is sublime when writing about nature. Materialists will bristle, though, as under every gorgeously described husk of a dead dragonfly she is searching for hints of god. Theists of a traditional sort will feel the same irritation. The god she seeks is not found in medieval scripts.  Whatever your view, I cannot for a moment imagine someone reading Ms. Dillard and not coming away enriched.

The Annie Dillard page on Amazon
Annie Dillard homepage where she tells the truth



Don’t forget The Genius Next Door

Some kinds of smarts are more valuable than others

carWayne Dyer, whom I disagreed with on almost everything important, talked about talking to even the boring and boorish people around you. He found that when he took a real interest in people that they would unfold to him as fascinating and interesting people. This has always been interesting to me. I’ve written about it a couple of times here and here.

I thought about this idea today when I was talking with someone about getting their car worked on. I knew a guy once, he’s passed away now, who rebuilt my car’s engine in a weekend as a neighborly gesture. He was just a guy down the street – I don’t even know what he did for a living – but most nights you could see his garage lit up where he would putter until bedtime. One Friday my car started to act up. “Act up” is the totality of my mechanical expertise. So I walked down the road and found this guy in his garage and told him about the weird gurgle emanating from my car’s engine. “Let’s go have a look,” he said.

We wandered down to my place and I started the car. He laughed and shook his head. “Turn it off,” he yelled. “It’s your cam bearing.” Or something of the sort – I never really knew. “Ugh.” I was smart enough to know that this was bad. “So I have to take it to the garage? Sounds bad.” “Nah,” he said. “You need to drive it down to my place. We’ll take the engine out tonight and then tear it down and replace the bearing tomorrow and put it back together on Sunday.” I’m sure that I had a look like I was talking to a crazy person. “Really,” he said. “Nothing to it.” And that’s exactly what we did. He was completely nonplussed about it as if it was what anyone would do. I was amazed through most of the weekend. What I saw as confusing and complex was simple to him. He just worked methodically step by step to pull the engine and make the repair and then did the same thing in reverse to put it all back together. It really did look easy when he did it. The car was up and running by the time Sunday football came on. He refused to take any money and said that I could help him with something one day but I truly doubted that I had any skill he would be interested in.

So as I keep saying. Talk to the people around you. Ask them about their story. More times than not you’ll find that you are surrounded with interesting people.

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Exercise to Overcome the Onslaught of Luxury

Is your lifestyle killing you?

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Copyright Dennis Mitton
No need for the gym when this chore is done

I talk to my children a lot about luxury and the lives that we live as everyday-run-of-the-mill Americans. I don’t want them to imagine that our lifestyle is anywhere near normal for most people of the world. And though we are able to mask the effects of our luxurious lifestyle using drugs, we suffer from high rates of ‘luxury diseases’. These are ailments that appear to stem from our diets and lack of exercise. The number varies, but it’s commonly said that up to eighty-percent of aging American’s health issues are related to weight and diet.

I thought about this while I lolled on the couch watching the television show Mountain Men last night. My favorite is an old fella named Tom who lives in Northern Montana. It’s been a cold winter in Montana, and Tom’s meat stock is low. He sets out for a hunt, and to use as much of a deer as possible, he hunts with a homemade bow and arrow. A rifle, he explains, destroys much of the meat of an animal while it explodes through the body. But an arrow, if shot correctly, kills as quickly and makes the entire animal usable. tomI have my own qualms about hunting (cf here) but this attitude is refreshing compared to people who hunt elk or antelope for trophies from a mile away using high-powered rifles. On the day of the hunt, Tom drives into the woods, loads up his pack, and walks into the trees looking for deer tracks. There is fresh snow so he is able to follow the tracks easily. Finally, he comes upon a group of does and tracks them for a mile until he spots a buck. Just like humans, he laughs: when there are fertile females around a stag won’t be far behind. He approaches the buck, takes his shot, and then tracks the animal until he finds it dead. He ends the day back at his house butchering the deer in the dark as the temperature drops to less than zero.

Evolutionary psychologists refer to the EEA or Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (cf here at Wiki under Evolutionary Psychology). There is controversy about the environment that humans evolved within but it certainly includes much of the lifestyle that Tom enjoys. His day begins with splitting wood for warmth and for cooking. He walked miles in the snow and cold hunting a two hundred pound deer which he then drug out of the woods. Not bad for a seventy plus year-old man. His waking time, just like our ancestors, is spent burning calories – it’s easy to see why the body wants to hold on to fat.

Do you live like this? I don’t either.

And that’s why I exercise. I spend my working days in an ergonomically adjusted chair at a desk with no sharp edges. I force myself to get up to talk to people rather than use instant messaging all day. I buy fattened cow at the grocery store where they give away free cookies just for gracing the front door. My wife and I prefer clean and healthy food but our schedules often make it easiest to cook up something from a box that is laden with fat, salt, and sugar. Nothing in my evolutionary history has prepared my body for this onslaught of luxury.

It’s no wonder that we suffer from such high rates of heart attacks and cancers and obesity disorders. And without opting out of the normal rat-race I see no organic way to circle around this. (cf here for a book review of someone who did opt out – good stuff!)

So try to mix in a little physical hardship in your day. Do something that makes you sweat. Push the mower. Carry the garbage can to the curb instead of using a cart. Chop some wood. It’s how you were made to work and your body will respond with a thank you of pleasantly achy muscles.


Arriving in Tacoma – pretzel rolls

First stop in Tacoma – Hess’ for pretzel rolls

Copyright Dennis Mitton

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Don’t let the plain facade fool you – there are heavy and gut-filling goodies inside.

One of the first things I do when I hit Tacoma is make a dash for Hess’ Bakery in Lakewood. It’s nothing like the Italian shops in New York – what could be? – but they have the best pretzel rolls this side of Dusseldorf.

It’s easy to miss. It sits somber on a side road by the mall, flanked by a Goodwill  and a couple of strip-mall buildings with tenants that change each time I go to the store. The bakery itself has a no-nonsense brick facade with a no-nonsense sign. There is nothing on the outside that would draw the uninformed to the goodies inside.

Take care pulling into the parking lot. The cars here are mostly old and large, as are the people driving them. Whether or not the drivers can see you or hear you is moot – cars pull in and out of parking spots with no concern for any human or other car. Caveat emptor is the keyword here. Most folks hobbling to and from cars have strong accents and look like Brezhnev or his mother.

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Inside you are greeted with bakery goods and magazines. I’ve tasted most of their breads which tend to be heavier and more flavorful than those sold across the street at Safeway. This is fine with me since I’ve always considered bread a meal in and of itself. The black rye is my favorite. The magazine rack is full of German titles. My only experience with these was as a kid when my German friend and I would scan his parent’s Der Spiegel for boobs. The staff is happy and most speak German to their customers.

unnamed (2)Be forewarned: there is no vegan or health food section here. Deutsche staples line the shelves. You’ll notice right away the space reserved for cabbage. It’s like grits in the South. Here in Tacoma, you might find one sack of grits at Safeway. And it’s been there since 1982. At our home in Florence, SC, every store reserves about ten feet of shelf for ground corn of every kind. It’s the same here with cabbage. Red, green pickled and processed. It’s all here. I bought some spaetzle and  candy and a quarter-pound of bologna with olives. The real prizes are the pretzel rolls. They are made daily by the hundreds. It’s a rare customer who passes through the cash register without throwing a few rolls in their bag. I took home a dozen knowing that daughter Re would eat as many as me.

unnamed (4)Tomorrow we are off the Pike Place Market to take the girls for prayer at the holy shrine that is the first Starbucks.


She Didn’t Even Know She Lived With The Master

She had a house full of Nakashima furniture and didn’t know it

Famous Nakashima Conoid chair design.

In the same vein as other posts this week comes this one about the little old lady from New York. I was living in Gig Harbor, WA, and was building furniture. A woman called the shop and asked if I could fix a chair. She explained that it was the first piece of furniture she bought with her husband and that a back slat was broken. I didn’t normally do repairs but told her that I would come by a take a look. I sensed from her tone that the furniture had sentimental value for her.

I drove to her house and, once inside, my jaw dropped. “Where did you buy this furniture?” I knew exactly what it was and wondered if she did. “This stuff?,” she asked. “We bought it from a guy in New York. My husband was a professor in the Upstate when we first got married. We needed furniture and someone said that there was a guy in town who made furniture in his garage. We went to meet him and liked him. We went every year for twenty years and had him make us something.”

I probably looked like I’d been hit with a stick. “Was his name George?” Now she looked surprised. “George Nakashima?” I asked.  She nodded a yes. “Do you know him?” she asked. “I sure as heck know who he is.”

Nakashima is one of the most famous furniture designers and makers of the twentieth century. She explained that she and her husband had stumbled upon him when he was just getting started. Her collection of a couple dozen pieces showed clearly the progression of his designs that I had only seen in books.  I stroked the vertical slats of the chairs and could feel the ridges made by his hand planes, left sharp without sanding. The family had collected a whole house of Nakashima. They had chairs. There were a table and sideboard. Each bedroom had a desk. She asked if I had any idea of their worth? I guessed that her furniture was worth more than her house.  In the end, I told her that I wouldn’t do the work – her chair was just too valuable and important  – and recommended a very high-end shop in Seattle. She was appreciative and we became friends. I did some odd furniture work for her on and off but mostly I just took any excuse to go see her collection.

Go here to see eight Conoid chairs on sale for $60,000. I’ve never even paid that much for a table!

Nakashima sideboard

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Mr. Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead with masks

Following yesterday’s story, here’s another one about interesting people who cloak themselves as your neighbors. Be on the watch and you just might find that the man or woman living next door to you is actually a fascinating human being.

I worked in construction when I was young and was good at it. I loved craft and had a good sense of detail. And I actually finished things that I started, a rare skill among carpenters. This made me popular with a local insurance company who provided me with a good bit of clean up work after storms. One day I was asked to go talk to an old fella who lived out in the woods. A tree had fallen on his garage and the insurance company needed a bid for the repair.

I drove out to his house and the setting was gorgeous. It was one of the older seaside bungalows in an area not yet leveled for a gaudy faux-Craftsman with a view. The house had clear twelve-inch cedar lap siding – so rare that it wasn’t even available – and wooden window frames. His garage was practically demolished. A stout fir had fallen right through the roof, snapping the ridge and collapsing three walls. I bid on the job and got it and then suffered through three weeks of breathing ocean air and watching waves roll up on the shore while rebuilding the garage. Once we started, the owner, probably as old as that twelve-inch siding, would invite me in for coffee each morning. I noticed that he read the Wall Street from cover to cover, circling articles and investments with a red pencil. I’m a fan of money and am especially fond of giving it away in the stock market so we talked about investing a lot.

One day he asked me to get something from the sideboard near the table. Right next to the papers he needed was a picture of him and a woman, arm-in-arm, beaming with broad grins. “Hey!” I said. “Is that you and Margaret Mead? How do you know Margaret Mead?” He laughed a little and said that he ran the anthropology department at Columbia for twenty years. “I knew everybody!”

With apologies to any family or friends of Ms. Mead, he continued. “We used to go out a bit when she was around. She was one of the best gals I ever knew. Smart as a whip and ready to jump in the sack with any warm body who was up for it!” He thought that was damned funny and let out a huge laugh. I didn’t press him on whether he was up for it or not. I’m guessing that he was. So he taught me a bit about anthropology and lots about investing. And I would have bet a thousand dollars that nary a soul living next to him in their new tract-style home had a clue about what a fascinating man lived right next door.

So you never know who might be dealing with. Stay awake and keep your eyes open.

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The stupidity of boys – and men

I can’t claim to be representative of all males but here’s a quick story about just how stupid boys can be.

I was maybe ten and a voracious reader. I loved sports and sports stories and read a biography of the great football quarterback Johnny Unitas. I was fascinated to learn that he was blind in one eye. How can he be that good and blind in one eye?

It seems that he and his pals, when they were kids, found a stash of 22 caliber bullets. One of the crew – the smart one I’m sure – found a board with a long split. The boys wedged a bullet down into the crack and propped the board up with the rear-end of the bullet facing them. Gathering up handfuls of rocks, they began pelting the bullet and board until they heard the Pop! of the small shell. While the other boys yelled for joy, Johnny fell to the ground in pain. Who knows what happened but the bullet’s head was likely caught in the wood and the explosion pushed the shell backward into Johnny’s eye. The damage was permanent and it’s a testament to his skill that he was able to play sports at such a high level with only one seeing eyeball.

Fast forward twenty years to me and Terry and Alfred and Rocky rummaging around who knows where until we found a few 22 shells. I don’t know how old we were but I remembered the Unitas story. “Hey, guys. I know what we should do with these.” And I told the whole story. We all looked at each other and thought this is the greatest idea we’ve ever heard. Bullet in wood. Rocks at bullet. Bullet blinds boy for good. What could be more fun??

And we did it. We found the right piece of wood and set up the target and never got a bullet to fire. Duds! What a crappy day! No explosion and no one was blinded!

So, if you every wonder about boys being stupid – here’s one vote on the Yes side.