Post-Dog Life, Continuing Adventures Of …

One of the decisions we had to make when we put Scout to sleep a month ago concerned what to do with his body afterward. In the past, we’ve buried our late companions — two cats, a rat, a rabbit, a budgie — in the backyard. But Scout was big enough — 50 pounds or so — that it seemed like it would be a real chore to dig a hole long and wide and deep enough for him.

When the event came to pass, our vet told us we could have him cremated individually if we wanted. Afterward, we could scatter his ashes — the coffee-can scene from “The Big Lebowski” comes to mind — or perhaps stow him on the mantelpiece or have him interred at a pet cemetery. Alternately, we could opt for a group cremation and have his remains buried — OK, I admit that the verb I think of is “dumped” — in a common grave somewhere.

I forget what the price was for the different levels of service, but the group cremation/common grave scenario was much less expensive. With the feeling that the most important part of Scout was not his “remains” but our memories of him and the indelible mark he left on our lives, that’s the option we chose. After the wrenching experience of having The Dog put down, I didn’t dwell on where he’d wind up afterward.

But last week, we got a card in the mail, a “certification of country burial,” from Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa.

“This certificate will serve to notify its owners that the remains of Scout were interred in a country setting together with the pets of many other loving and appreciative owners such as yourself feel that their pets deserve more than the other alternatives now in practice. “Country burial” is an expression of gratitude for the unselfish devotion and companionship your pet gave you during its entire lifetime.”

A form enclosed with the certificate informs us that we can memorialize Scout in Bubbling Well’s memorial pet register, located at the base of a monument in the park, which overlooks the Napa Valley. Price: $35 or more, by check or money order. The form hastens to advise us “this memorialization is purely voluntarily and there is no compulsion expressed or implied.”

Image of the area near the country burial site for animals handled by Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. The spot is in Solano County, east of Suisun City.

Naturally, Kate and I decided we’d like to go and take a look at the pet memorial park — which sooner or later I’ll just call a pet cemetery. Kate had looked up the address and come up with a place on Atlas Peak Road, off Silverado Trail just northeast of Napa. That meant one thing to me: It was likely in an area burned in the terrible North Bay wildfires of last October.

And sure enough, as we ascended the narrow road from the valley, we quickly encountered signs of fire — charred trees and shrubs, lots of construction activity as homes in the area are rebuilt.

The pet cemetery was obvious — the Los Angeles Times described it last fall as “an oasis in a sea of destruction” — for the manicured lawns amid a landscape that’s both burned-over and turning summer gold.

The disaster that swept the countryside also swept across the cemetery. While the “memorial garden” areas are nearly all intact, a home and office on the property burned, as did many large large trees. (The facility’s current proprietor, Dan Harberts, was among those evacuated by helicopter the night of the fire. He was forced to leave his own dog, Drake, a black lab, behind in a pickup truck. When a friend made it into the fire zone the next day, Drake was still waiting, safe and apparently sound.)

The memorial park is clearly in a state of rehabilitation, with evidence of heavy equipment having driven across parts of the property, a small heap of burned debris in a parking lot, and a collection of broken pet headstones — broken, I’m guessing, during the post-fire recovery — lined up on a wall.

We showed up around 4 p.m. While there was plenty of traffic on the road adjacent to the cemetery, we were the only people there. No staff. No other visitors.

It’s tempting to poke fun at the many, many pet plaques and grave markers at the cemetery and their sometimes maudlin messages. We saw one for a ferret named Bandit, whose human companions averred, “He was our everything.” One memorial includes what appear to be the figures of St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and a plywood golden retriever with a wire halo. A trio of pedigreed German shepherds is buried together under matching tablets saying, “Rest until we are together again.”

It’s tempting to make light of it all, but I won’t. While my sentiments and beliefs may be different — when Kate and I talk about how we’d like to dispose of these bodies of ours when the only show in town is over, I think of sky burials or Walt Whitman — mostly, I’m impressed by how many people will go to such apparent lengths to remember these presences in their lives.

Jake, 1999-2016. ‘We love our boy.’

When we got the Bubbling Wells card in the mail, I was thinking Scout’s “country burial” was in the Napa area. The picture on the card looks sort of like the lowlands south of the city. The difference between that image and the rugged hillside location where the cemetery sits didn’t compute at first. But as we ambled through the property, we came across a sign devoted mostly to explaining what “country burials” are, where they happen and that you can’t visit the burial site because of the conditions of a land-use permit.

Of course, inquiring minds want to know just where this burial site is.

The sign, below, doesn’t quite address the precise location. In a tone that may reflect having heard the question a million times, the cemetery’s proprietors say, “In all honesty, we can tell you that your pet was buried 20 miles east of Bubbling Well near Fairfield in a lovely country setting.”

A sign at Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park explains the cemetery’s country burials.

After a diligent hour or two of searching public records, that description appears to be more or less accurate.

The site is a little southeast of Fairfield, south of Travis Air Force Base and just north of a range of low hills and, beyond them, the sloughs and wetlands associated with Suisun Bay.

Is it a lovely country setting?

This slice of eastern Solano County is one of the many parts of the greater Bay Area where one can look past all we’ve done to the place and get a glimpse of the intoxicating beauty of California Before Us. That picture on the Bubbling Well card, with the green hills and splash of wildflower gold? It shows the actual place where pet cremains are buried — nearly a cubic yard of them a day on average, coming from hundreds of veterinary and other facilities around the Bay Area. What the picture doesn’t show is the nearby highway, the trucks going back and forth to the county landfill, or the jets coming in and out of Travis. Framing is everything.

How do I feel about Scout’s ashes being out there? It’s hard to say. But he did love every minute he spent outdoors, and I suppose for me there’s a little bit of resolution for me in that.

We came across one headstone at Bubbling Well that was for a child, not a pet. It says simply, “Infant daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Wm. Harberts, July 22, 1914.”

An infant’s grave at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.

That set off some more diligent searching. From the history I can find, the Harberts bought the Bubbling Well property in 1961 — long after the date on the headstone. The history also suggests that the Harberts lived in Iowa or Wisconsin, not California, in 1914. They did come west in the late 1930s and lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where William Harberts, a Presbyterian minister, was a pastor. (Lydia died in Alameda in 1960; William died in Berkeley in 1970; one of their sons, Paul, ran Harberts Sporting Goods here and was a member of the East Bay Regional Park board).

William and Lydia Harberts’s oldest surviving child, John Calvin Harbert, was born in 1915, and it was he who bought the Bubbling Well property and started the pet memorial park in 1971. It’s not clear to me why his infant sister’s headstone — and, one assumes, remains — are interred here. My guess is that the family didn’t want to leave her behind in some far-away Midwestern cemetery and brought her to Napa for reburial.

A couple of other finds regarding Bubbling Well. It’s actually the centerpiece of a fairly important piece of American documentary film history: Errol Morris’s first film, “Gates of Heaven.” Roger Ebert called it one of the 10 best films ever made (surprisingly, no, I have never seen it. We can stream it now, and having been up there, we will).

Cal Harberts also got some press back in the late ’70s and early ’80s for attempting to establish his pet memorial operation as a tax-exempt religious institution, The Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love. In July 1980, the Los Angeles Times profiled Harberts and his argument for tax-exempt status.

A 1980 profile of Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park founder Cal Harberts.

“We believe any Supreme Being who puts the breath of life in you and me and these little four-legged creatures is not going to forget man’s cherished pets in the hereafter. At our church services, the congregation and I say prayers for our departed pets and for sick pets. I read from the Scriptures, recite poetry about pets, talk about the roles pets play in our lives. …

“I spend a good part of my time consoling people, telling them they will see their pets again in heaven. Organized religion doesn’t help them. They have to turn to someone. That is where the religious aspect of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and the Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love come together.”

Federal tax authorities didn’t buy it.

‘Conquering Beautiful Stages’

Thirty-nine years ago this week, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”

I saw “Man on Wire” a few years ago, then again last night while we were packing for our big trip east. I love Philippe Pettit’s description of his obsession “to conquer beautiful stages.” But there’s something powerfully elegiac here, too, especially in the first three minutes or so of the clip below, a montage of the construction of the World Trade Center (the soundtrack is Michael Nyman, “Fish Beach“).

One Last Thing About That Snow

Before I bid adieu to the subject of the Great Groundhog Eve’s Blizzard (a bullet I dodged, I suppose, but whose trajectory I got to enjoy from afar), a couple final keepsakes. First, a segment from Chicago’s Fox affiliate, Channel 32, which takes a look at its coverage of the 1967 blizzard. Entertaining stuff that focuses less on the weather and its effects than on the way the TV and newspapers covered the events. I had my first newsroom job at Chicago Today five years after these clips were shot–our offices were in Tribune Tower, across Michigan Avenue from the Daily News and Sun-Times Building–and the scenes are familiar.

Friday Flashback: The Chicago Blizzard of 1967: MyFoxCHICAGO.com

And next is a short film of New York City’s Boxing Day Blizzard–did anyone call it that?–that I came across while poking around Roger Ebert’s site today. Ebert went gaga over the film (check out that link for a detailed discussion on how the filmmaker shot and edited the movie), and it’s been viewed half a million times so far, so I’m not sure how I missed it. It’s extraordinary.

The Origin Files: ‘Busting a Cap’

The weekend before last, we went to see the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” I liked it, and liked it more than my date, who insisted the 1969 version with John Wayne was more compelling because it depicted a deeper emotional connection between Mattie Ross, the young girl bent on bringing her father’s killer to justice, and Rooster Cogburn, the old manhunter she hires for the job.

So the next night, we rented the original “True Grit” and watched that, too. The capsule review: John Wayne had almost audibly creaky knees. His acting, likewise, was almost audibly creaky. But there were a couple of pleasant surprises: Robert Duvall, who plays the bad guys’ ring leader, Lucky Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper, who has a bit part as one of the gang. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the new movie, with some good observations on the differences between the versions and the performances therein.)

truegrit.jpgOne of Duvall’s moments really stood out, but not because of any piece of acting craft. At one point, Lucky Ned warns Rooster that he’s ready to shoot the captured Mattie: “I never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen. But it’s enough that you know that I’ll do what I have to do.”

That line did not jump out at me in the Coen Bros. remake. And I don’t know whether it’s in the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the movies are based on. [Update: In the novel, Portis has Ned telling Mattie: “I have never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen years but I will do what I have to do.”] But like many others I’ve found comments from online, I thought “bust a cap” and variations like “pop a cap” were more recent coinages. Talking to my movie-viewing partner and speculating on the origin, the one clue I could come up with that would support a 19th century origin was the percussion cap–part of the firing system of guns before the advent of cartridges (a.k.a. modern-day “bullets,” including primer, powder and projectile in one integral unit).

To bust or pop a percussion cap–that would make a certain amount of sense. What’s the evidence that the phrase actually arose during the percussion cap era as opposed to the late 20th century gangsta era?

The source of choice is Google Books–mostly because it allows you to search phrases by date (the caveat: the search only returns sources in print that have made it into Google’s database. Still, that gives some idea of when terms have gained currency). A search for “bust a cap” and variations shows the phrase appearing rarely (fewer than 10 times a decade) up to about 1940, occasionally (say 10 or 20 times a decade) up through 1960, and becoming increasingly common (dozens or hundreds of mentions a decade) since.

Now, there was a mini-burst of “bust a cap” and “pop a cap” references in the 1860s, mostly connected to the Civil War. These, and virtually all of the other appearances of the “cap” phrases up through the 1950s, come from the South. Here’s one, an anecdote published in 1866 in a magazine called “The Land We Love,” (published in Charlotte, N.C., and edited by D.H. Hill, a former Confederate commander). It explains an insult commonly applied to green troops. From a veteran to one of the untried:

” ‘Axin yer pardon, stranger, my old gun is dirty and I wanted to clean her out. I’m jist gwine to pop a cap. Don’t be skeered, honey!’ From this, started the taunt so often used to cowards, ‘Lie down, I’m gwine to pop a cap.’ “

The ultra-modern sounding “bust a cap in your ass”? That phrase and variants, popular in movies since 1972’s “Superfly,” shows up nearly verbatim in a 1907 appellate court case regarding a homicide in Kentucky:

“Dave Grant testified that’ between 11 and 12 o’clock, at Landon’s barber shop, he heard Henry Cooley say ‘he would bust a cap In somebody’s ___ …”

Later, “bust a cap” appears in a form very close to the one in “True Grit.” Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who led the posse that tracked down and killed Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934, is widely quoted as saying he’d been reluctant to shoot Parker:

“I hated to bust a cap on a woman, especially when she was sitting down, but if it wouldn’t have been her, it would’ve been us.”

The oldest documented reference I turned up? It comes from 1865 and was published the following year in “The Index to the Executive Documents of the United States. First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress.” Among many other papers, the volume contains the proceedings of two courts-martial held in the occupied South during 1865. The cases are harrowing and involve circumstances unthinkable in the southern states, and unusual anywhere in the country, before the Civil War: white defendants being held to answer for the murders of black victims. The first case involved a former slave who allegedly stole a horse and was shot and killed by the horse’s owner (the verdict: guilty of manslaughter; sentence: 10 years in a northern prison).

The second case involved a woman, Nellie West, killed by two men in Taliaferro County, Georgia–a former plantation overseer and a young friend of his–who wanted to stop her from reporting earlier maltreatment to the local military authorities. Here’s the overseer, John M. Brown, describing his accomplice, Christopher Columbus Reese, in action:

I was near the railroad crossing, and Columbus Reese was crouching behind the bushes, about seventy-five yards from me, close by the railroad track; I heard him pop a cap, and heard Nellie say, “Yes, I see you are trying to shoot at me.” … Reese then appeared to be putting another cap on his gun, at the same time hastening after her. I hallooed to bim, “Quit, don’t do that,” but he made no reply, but ran after her into the pine. … I then heard the gun fired, and saw him, after firing, turn round and stop. Nellie screamed two or three times, but I could not see her where she stood. Reese came back out of the pines and asked me to shoot my double-barrelled gun into her head to make sure that she was dead.

Both Reese and Brown were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged (their chief defense was that the court had no jurisdiction in the case). Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, endorsed an appeal for clemency in Reese’s case to President Andrew Johnson. As the scheduled execution date in January 1866 drew near, Reese came up with a story—not in evidence previously—that Nellie West was the aggressor and tried to kill him with a piece of scythe blade, that he killed her in self-defense, and that he had falsely implicated his alleged accomplice, Brown, to save himself. The Army’s judge advocate general responded in a letter to Johnson, “The attention of the President is respectfully called to the significant fact that not a particle of proof … to lend probability to his shocking charge.”

The post-script (by way of a footnote in “The Papers of Andrew Johnson: September 1865-January 1866”): Johnson at first approved the hangings. But after receiving appeals for mercy for both defendants—and despite the patently false confession of Reese and the judge advocate general’s opinion that “if the law does not take the life of such a monster of crime as this [Reese], then it is believed that the penal code has been enacted in vain”— he blocked the execution. History, so far as I can consult it on my laptop, doesn’t record what happened to Brown. Reese went on to once more bust a cap—this time in a bar-room brawl in which he killed a man.

The Infospigot Review: ‘Comes a Horseman’

Somewhere back in the ancient past–the late 1970s, I reckon–I went to a theater and saw a modern-day western called “Comes a Horseman.” It is a horsey melodrama with what on paper looks like a terrific cast: Jason Robards as a grasping, off-his-rocker land baron; Jane Fonda as his hard-as-nails rival and one-time paramour; and a young-ish James Caan as the World War II vet just looking to rope a few cattle and breathe free on his own spread in God’s country. (Hard to believe I don’t write this stuff for a livin’, ain’t it?) Alan Pakula, whom I believe directed Fonda in the perhaps much overrated “Klute,” helmed this feature.

However, the movie’s script doesn’t live up to its cast,r and some truly dark bad-guy moments are wasted in a swirl of flames, smoke, and gunfire. In fact, the denouement rolls by so fast and the story ends so abruptly and on such an empty note that it feels like the filmmakers ran out of film and told everyone to go home. Which is why there’s not much reason you’d have heard of “Comes a Horseman.”

One thing about the movie stuck with me all these years, though, and made me want to see it again. Richard Farnsworth plays Fonda’s ranch hand, character by the name of Dodger. His performance is natural and unadorned and is marked by an honest sentimentality. Though he’d been in movies for decades as a stuntman and supernumerary–I see that he’s listed with an uncredited part in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” in 1937, for goodness’ sake–this movie launched a pretty decent late film career for him. For Farnsworth alone, “Comes a Horseman” is worth a spot in your Netflix queue.

Obituary Notebook

Obit in the news: Before I went to Chicago last week, Kate mentioned an obituary she'd heard or seen: Meinhardt Raabe, 94, the man who played the Munchkin coroner in "The Wizard of Oz." Kate being Kate, she dug out a three-year-old story she'd saved from The New York Times: "He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead." Dan Barry wrote the article, which begins, " Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head." It's a playful and poignant piece that reveals a remarkable life that would have otherwise gone unremarked. (One final link: The Times included an audio slideshow of Barry's visit with Raabe.)

Irish funnies: I recently became contentious with a family member who failed to instantly comprehend what I meant when I used the term "Irish funnies." What I meant was "newspaper obituaries." I assumed–in error, as usual–that the reference was transparent. The Irish relish misfortune and loss the way the less soulful might anticipate "The Katzenjammer Kids" (a strip that, shockingly, is still being produced). So when most people are turning to "Boondocks" or "Doonesbury" or "South Park" or whatever's on the comics page now (please tell me "Nancy" is gone; and "Cathy," too), a certain Hibernian-tinged demographic is flipping straight to the death notices. My sister Ann knows a retired Chicago Irish priest who occasionally reads the obits with a ruler at hand. "Look at that," he'll say when he spots an ostentatiously lengthy notice. "Six inches! Good for them!"

When I was in Chicago, Ann was going through the Irish funnies when she encountered a name she knew: John T. Fitzgerald, Jr. One of my mom's first cousins, whom everyone knew as Jack. He was the last of his generation of the South Side Hogan/Fitzgerald clan she came from. We weren't close, and I didn't know much about him. His obituary doesn't help much and reads like it was written by a stranger. It omits his age and the names of any family members. It says he had been "preceded in death by many brothers and sisters" (from what I heard growing up, he had two brothers and one sister). It described him as "a kind uncle to many." The only specific detail: he graduated from Leo High School, on Chicago's South Side, in 1936 and belonged to the alumni association. He was to be buried down at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side. Plenty of other Fitzes and Hogans there (and O'Malleys and Morans, too, from the other side of Mom's family).

Come to think of it, I do remember a couple of things I heard about him and his life. Some of it's best left unsaid. Here's one remarkable particular I can relate, though: He worked well into his 80s as a helper and bus-person at an Italian restaurant somewhere on Chicago's Southwest Side. He was a small, slight guy, and I remember having an image of him lugging tomato-sauce-stained dishes. He didn't do it because he needed the money, from what I heard. He did it just to have something to do.

Sunday Matinee

I heard the other day that the Druid Theatre, from the city of Galway on Ireland’s west coast, was in Berkeley presenting “The Playboy of the Western World.” This morning, Kate and I talked about going. Tickets were $75, and even as I like a good play and love Irish storytelling, that seemed steep. I took a look at the website of the outfit presenting the play, Cal Performances at UC-Berkeley. There was a mention of discounts. Students–and I have a current ID–could get in for half. Good deal. Then I noticed a mention of “rush tickets.” If seats are still available, the box office will tell you two hours before curtain, and you can purchase them at a steep discount beginning an hour before the show. It turned out rush tickets were available, and I wound up sitting front row center, close enough to wonder whether the four actor balanced on a flimsy-looking wooden table might topple over into the audience.

I went alone since my would-be matinee companion decided other business pressed too hard to give up the entire afternoon to a gaggle of very thick Irish accents. After buying my ticket, we walked through downtown Berkeley running an errand or two before the show started. And that gave me the chance to hear a young guy selling a demo recording say to passersby, “Free CDs … free CDs. I’m trying to expose myself.”

The play? It was great to the point I hated to leave the theater afterward and stood watching the stage crew begin cleaning things up. (I had once wistfully thought of going to Ireland to see this company do the play after reading they were visiting the town in County Mayo that Synge visited before writing it. It was worth waiting for.) The production goes to Los Angeles now, and then to the Kennedy Center in Washington and the University of North Carolina. If it shows up in your town, go.

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Bad Fish and Pedaling Machines

[Reposting from my other blog]

A must-see for the TdF fanatic, or even the mildly curious onlooker: “Vive le Tour,” an 18-minute documentary gem by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. The film (available from Netflix and Amazon, among other purveyors), is a real time capsule, especially for viewers (like re:Cycling) whose Tour exposure dates back only to the 1980s.

Viveletour-1

The film depicts moments from the 1962 Tour (won, eventually, by Jacques Anquetil). There’s not much of a narrative thread–it’s an impressionistic look at the race, the racers, and the spectators. The riders’ appearance is striking: they seem old, haggard, and rather beat-up looking compared to the riders we’re used to seeing. In fact, one is reminded of pictures of baseball players in the major leagues’ alleged golden ages: these guys look like working stiffs who are riding as much to make a living as for the competition or some higher “sporting” values.

The shots of the route, the fans, the preceding caravan, the motorcycle corps that accompanies the peloton, the mountain roads–it’s all familiar stuff, but also quite foreign. You see an older, unpolished France here. The alpine routes look primitive. As wild as the crowds get today, there was even less of an imaginary barrier between them and the competitors: fans are depicted giving racers long, long pushes up the climbs. On the flatlands, the riders are shown stopping for impromptu water breaks and “cafe raids”–the latter involving physically running into cafes and carrying away bottles of water, soft drinks or even beer and champagne. We see a velodrome finish, and a slow, tortuous mountain descent.

The physical difficulty of the race and the toll on the participants is also highlighted. One rider–from his number, it appears to be Italy’s Giuseppe Zorzi–is depicted getting back on his bike after passing out and resuming his race. But not for long: he soon slows and topples to the pavement, hors de combat. (Tour references say he quit in stage six.)

But there’s one brief segment that offers a striking parallel to the age of Landis, Rasmussen and Vinokourov. There’s a scene of a very shaky looking rider–Hans Junkermann of Germany, though he’s not named in the film–climbing off his bike and settling disconsolately in a roadside ditch. The voiceover–not sure whose voice–says:

Now let’s talk about doping. In cycling slang, doping is called “the charge,” and “the charge is killing this profession. Now every time someone quits, he’s under suspicion. This racer told us he must have eaten some bad fish. That same day, ten racers quit, and each said he’d eaten bad fish. Contrary to popular belief, doping doesn’t give you extra strength. It simply suppresses the pain. The doped-up athlete no longer knows his limits. He’s nothing more than a pedaling machine.”

Bad fish. That’s one excuse we haven’t heard recently. (But here’s a little more on the “bad fish” affair of 1962.)

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Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

***

And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

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And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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