Stepping up

What if there were something you would like to be able to reach and it is just a little too high to get to? Not a problem. You get a little stool and climb up on that. And if you have calculated the distances correctly, that solves the problem.

If what you want to reach is still too high, you get a higher stool. But then you have the problem of how to get up on such a high stool. Not a problem. You get a little stool that will help you get up on the higher stool which will let you reach it.

Obviously, this could go on and on and at this point I am just going to rely on your imagination. So we can have something concrete to imagine, let’s say that there is a trophy up on the top shelf. [1] In fact, the “trophy” is coherent thought and expression. I always desire it, but sometimes, it is out of reach.

What to do, what to do?

I remember a device I used in the early spring of 1974 when I was writing my dissertation at the University of Oregon under considerable time pressure. I’d go in to my office early in the morning completely unable to do the work that had to be done. That kind of work was simply out of reach. But I did have a plan.

First I would take a book off the shelf and open it at random and start to read it. It would be an author whose style I liked. Often it was John Kenneth Galbraith. When I began to track the ideas I was reading and even more the beauty of the language, I would put the book back and turn to my typewriter.

Yup. Typewriter. Writing something was something I thought I could do once I was up on that first stool. And I would just start hitting keys; any keys. Whatever keys my fingers wanted to hit. That was fine for my fingers and it was an action in a sense that the reading was not, but it got boring and I began to want to actually say something. That’s the second step stool: saying something.

I would just keep typing and watch how the keystrokes eventually formed words and sentences. Units of meaning. Not very useful ones, of course, but what use does a step stool have beyond helping you reach something higher than you could reach from the floor?

Once I got that far, it was often far enough. Well, high enough. If it wasn’t, I’d roll a page into the typewriter and write a letter to friends or family. That usually did it. From that step, I could reach for the document I had abandoned yesterday and start making a little more progress. At that level, I had reached the ‘trophy,”—being able to think and write—and I could get to work.

I still do that. There are three things I should be writing this morning. None of them are this essay. But I know I can write this essay. It is the lowest step stool this morning. When I finish it, I may be able to do one of the other pieces. I need first to realize that I can’t reach what I need to be able to reach. That is hard sometimes; realizing it is hard sometimes. [2] I am tempted sometimes to just bull my way through it as if effort alone could summon coherent thought or fluent expression. But when I admit how futile that is, I search my mind for a small step stool.

When I do good work at that level, a come to feel that I can reach the next step stool. And, if necessary, the next one, until I can reach what I need. It’s a kind of 12 Step program except it requires fewer steps. It does begin by admitting that I cannot do in my present state what I want and need to do. It does recognize that I simply cannot do, by forging ahead and forcing the pace, what I need to do. I have to be able to hear the music.

This process produces a subtle, but powerful change for me. First I have to assess what I have just done and call it good enough. That’s not too hard given how low I have set the bar. But there is more to it. First, it commits me to a predictable future. I have done this a lot of times. I know what happens next. I know where it winds up. It winds up with being able to do the task I had in mind when I started. Second, it cashes in “successes” other people would be ashamed to admit, but each such success is a step up.

Sometimes, having gotten to the end of the process, [3] I produce a sentence or a paragraph that I am still proud of years later. After one such experience of “stepping up,” I wrote this: “I was raised by a cool systematic father and a warm episodic mother.” That was in 2001 and I still think of it every now and then and I am comforted by it.

[1] Trophies aren’t the kind of thing I win. People who are more talented or who work harder than I do win trophies. But trophies are something I notice. Back in the very old days there was a Greek word tropaeum, which meant, ”the monument of an enemy’s defeat.” You put a pile of stones at the place where the tide of battle turned and the bad guys had to retreat. I notice trophies like that and I might just have one up on the shelf in my closet.
[2] My friends who are of a more suspicious cast of mind would insist that “admitting it’ is what is hard. That is sometimes true, but not this morning.
[3] There are two tests. The first is how good it feels when you are writing. The second is when you finish it and read it and find that it actually makes sense.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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