Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Pit Stops of Life


The Pit Stop

The destination is the destination of our planned vacation. We pack up the belongings, the kid, and the dog with an ultimate destination in mind. When someone suggests that we take a pit stop, we say, “Why? We’re making good time here. At this rate, we should arrive at our destination by four p.m., with plenty of time to do much of what we planned.” The fun and frivolity we dreamed up, when we dreamed up this vacation, all took place at the final destination. Pit stops seem like a waste of the precious time we could spend having fun. The dilemma arrives when we arrive at our destination, and we have nothing to do for the first couple of hours.

“[He] never made pit stops,” a woman said of her now deceased husband. “He thought pit stops were a waste of time. He wanted to get there.” 

Well, he’s there now, I thought of joking. He’s at his final destination. It would’ve been an awful, cruel joke. No one would’ve laughed, of course. No one would’ve so much as smiled. How many pit stops did he make to his final destination? Did he go quickly? He wasn’t the type to stop at a lakeside pit stop. “He wanted to get there.”

I didn’t say any of that, but in the midst of my scheme to drop that room-silencing, reputation damaging joke, I realized that I’m a no-pit-stops destination traveler too. I don’t stop to smell the flowers, look at a lake, or carpe diem the moment. I want to get there, wherever there is. I want to have fun, and I don’t want something like a pit stop to get in the way of it. 

When we map out our vacation, it often involves lengthy travel times. Even on paper, we know we’re signing up for a long journey, even when they’re all interstate miles. It doesn’t get any better when we’re doing it. As the miles click by, it begins to feel like a Sisyphean trial of humanity to sit in a small car for that many hours in a row, and it doesn’t matter how large the interior of an automobile is, they all feel small after eight hours. The family might want to smell the flowers and look at a lake, but I’m the “Let’s just get there for all that’s holy. Let’s get this drive over” type of traveler. 

The volume of the consensus breaks us down, however, and we take a pit stop. Their primary goal, after such long car ride, was to get out and stretch the legs a little, go to the bathroom, get the kid out of the car for a while, and let the dog pee. We’re not for it, but we strike a deal with those who are dying to get out of the car. We decide we won’t stay long. We’ll look at stuff, we’ll walk down to the lake and throw some stones in it. We’ll talk to some of the other people who made a similar pit stop, we’ll let the dog run around with whatever joy he always runs around in, and the kid can have some spontaneous kid fun. Then we’ll take that almost cinematic portrait with that crystal blue lake in our background, and we’ll all get back in the car for another three hours. 

I don’t know if I needed the break more than I knew, but I was peaking at this particular pit stop. Some of the times, we have mental peaks, some of the times, we have physical ones, but every once in a great while they come together. Before we turn 25, our whole life is one peak after another. The only stories we tell involve those moments when we weren’t peaking. After 40, we are so impressed with our peaks that we tell everyone we know. Everything in between involves noticing peaks after the fact. I was peaking at that little pit stop. I was in the moment, the moment I stepped out of the car. I wasn’t thinking about the car ride ahead of us, how this pit stop might hamper our pre-planned schedule, or anything else for that matter. Once I stepped out of the car, I wanted to make this stupid, little pit stop as fun as it could possibly be. 

We had so much fun at that little pit stop that it proved one of the best we have ever experienced on vacation. When we finally arrived at our proposed destination, we had all the fun we planned to have, and I remember that vacation as one of the better ones we’ve had. We may have spent four days at our proposed destination, and we only spent 30 minutes at that non-commercial pit stop, but the time we spent there will forever stick out in my memory.

City on a Hill

I love a great line. A great line can make a movie (90 minutes long, on average) or a series (roughly 47 minutes per episode, with ten episodes on average) seem worth it. Anyone who reads this will probably say that it says a lot about me, but my favorite lines are the obnoxiously offensive and repugnant lines of vulgar cruelty. Some heart-warming, positive lines, reach me, but nothing causes me to pause and rewind more than an awful line from an awful character. 

I also prefer shows and movies that depict people doing and saying awful things to one another. There are exceptions, of course, as some shows are awful for the sole purpose of being awful. The great shows, about awful people doing awful things to one another, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men always managed to preserve some relatable integrity in their characters while doing and saying awful things to other characters. We learn to cheer the main characters on, and when they did awful things to other characters, we cheer that on too. 

The Showtime series City on a Hill is not as great as those shows, of course, but it did have one great, repugnant, moment of vulgar cruelty. 

“I can hear it now. The eulogies, the hymns, the bagpipes, everyone forgetting what a lousy piece of [dung] you’ve been your entire life,” the Jackie Rohr character says to his rival J.R. Minogue, on an episode of the TV show City on a Hill. The Minogue character lies in the ambulance, and we know he’s not going to live long enough to see the hospital. We know Rohr’s cruel sendoff will be the final thing the Minogue character hears. “Your wife’s going to be upset [after you die] for about five minutes, and I will … eventually, but this should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell. There’s only this life, right here, right now, and the last thing that you’re going to see in your lousy life is my ugly face.”

Seconds before this scene, Rohr eagerly leapt into the ambulance that carried J.R. Minogue, before the EMTs could close the door. We know this scene. We’ve seen it all before. The main character, a law enforcement official, leaps into the ambulance to hold a fellow cop’s hand, as the man succumbs to death. Even though they’re bitter rivals, Minogue’s a fellow cop, and that goes along way to forming some solidarity between the two. That’s the typical scene, in the typical cop movie, but the writers of City on a Hill had other plans for Rohr. They have him mock his rival on his deathbed, and he lays into Minogue with vulgar cruelty.

Ever since Sopranos, and perhaps beyond, viewers have come to accept the idea that their favorite main characters on their favorite productions can be morally ambiguous, if not downright awful people. Through a dizzying array of scenes, we accept the idea that Jackie Rohr is one such character. Yet, what motivates this character to be this spiteful? We’re to read into it. We’re to wonder if we could ever be that spiteful. We’ve all had people we dislike in a competitive manner, and we dislike others in a more personal manner, but have we ever hated someone so much that we wanted to taunt them into death? Most of us haven’t. I obviously considered this scene an interesting nugget to chew on, and I wanted a more thorough psychological exploration of why, or how, even a Jackie Rohr could be that spiteful and that hateful. Scenes like these remind me why I prefer books to movies.

We understand that when Rohr says, “This should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell,” he does so to inform the viewers that he knows that he’s as awful as J.R. Minogue is. That line sets up the next line well, but after I paused the series at that point and rewound it a number of times, I thought up a better line. 

“There is no heaven, and there is no hell. There’s no such thing as an afterlife.” If the writers seek spite, this might be an altogether different level of spite, because as awful as J.R. Minogue apparently was, he likely tried to counter those evil deeds with some good ones throughout his life. It might be even more spiteful to inform him that those good deeds he performed, and any other attempts Minogue made at good and honest living, were a waste of time, because “there is no heaven.”

Rohr then alluded to the idea that his main point for jumping in the ambulance was to make sure that Minogue’s loved ones weren’t the faces he remembered. Rohr wanted his face, Minogue’s most hated rival, to be the last face he saw. I see the writer(s) working here. I know that they’re vying for one of the more spiteful moments in TV history, but if there is no afterlife, and J.R. Minogue turns to dust, there will be no way for Minogue to remember the final moments that Rohr hoped to ruin. He’ll turn to non-existence, and Rohr’s awful sentiments will die as soon as Minogue does. A better line might have been, “There is an afterlife, and we don’t know where you’re going yet, but if they somehow determine in their mysterious ways, that a piece of [dung] like you is worthy of eternal paradise, I’m here to ruin all that for you by providing you your own personal definition of hell, knowing that my ugly face was the last thing you saw in your time spent on Earth.”

I read an interesting complaint regarding individuals who follow religious philosophies. The complainant suggested that religious people fail to appreciate their lives on earth as much as they should, because they place inordinate focus on achieving eternal paradise in the next life. Whether there is an afterlife or not, even if it involves a level of paradise beyond our wildest imagination, something tells me that we’ll look back on our lives on earth with some regret if we don’t make more time to enjoy the pit stops in life, en route to our final destination.

The Death of the Novel


“There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before,” Terence in the second century B.C.

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” –Andre Gide

“The idea that everything has already been said has already been said.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, someone needs to artistically slaughter the traditional novel, the novelly novel, out in the street for all to see. That which was once so important to us, is now dead. Writers will keep writing novels, and readers will keep reading them, but the era of the novel, as a cultural touchstone, has been on artificial life support for some time now waiting for someone to pull the plug, so we can reframe the real and rebirth it. Some young, ambitious kat needs to step up to the plate and destroy the art form in such a glorious way that its readers know there’s no turning back.

We pick up a book now, in our local bookstore, and the back jacket makes it feel so real, so vibrant and so cutting edge. Then we see it, the dreaded words “a novel” on the cover. We used to think that all it would take is one exciting, “I just can’t put it down” novel to reignite our passion for the novel, but we’ve read too many paint by numbers’ narrative conventions to believe that will happen. We’ve read too many authors depict wonderful and beautiful landscapes, in captivating wordscapes to want to go through it all again. We’ve read too many authors sort through romanticized sentiments in relatable conversations with side characters to give us a sense that they’re all a lot more like me than I ever considered possible. We’ve read too many authors deploy shadowing techniques to display how clever their main character is by showing us how dumb her side characters are. We put that novel back on the shelf, because we now know that in the author’s attempt to wow us with their artistry, they will attempt to please all of the people all of the time.

Our complaint might not be with the novel alone, but the novel used to be our favorite form of expression. The novel allows its author the sort of in-depth analysis of the human mind for which no other art form has the patience. The novel permits us to live, breathe, and be the character. In the more visual mediums, we might arrive at more immediate entertainment, but they fail to capture the intimacy of a great book. For most of my life, there was nothing better than a great book, and I was always reading one. As I write this, I haven’t read a novel in five years, and that was some light fare compared to my unusual favorites. 

Perhaps we’ve read too many novels at this point, but we can spot an author’s agenda a mile away, and most of us don’t want to know what the author’s agenda is. On the off chance that we enjoy it in some manner, her cloaked positions will strike us as derivative and redundant, and we will spend the breadth of the novel thinking we could’ve written it better. Typically, her main characters will be remarkable faultless, and her bad guys bumbling fools. She will engage in tired tropes, such as children being smarter than adults are, and everyone else knowing more about “the industry” than the CEO who spent 25 years in it. Bad guys gotta be bad and good girls, gotta be good. It’s so tired now that we need some new author to have the audacity to shake it up and teach us something different about ourselves.

In the same way Sam Raimi and the Coen Brother’s “Shaky Cam” killed the typical horror movie, essays, philosophical tracts, and the internet ruined the novel. The novel no longer feels as real or as relevant as it once did. It no longer feels substantial, engaging and cutting edge. It could be as simple as short form vs. long form, but we don’t think so. We think it has more to do with our hunger for some version of an author punching reality into our jugular.

The novel died right after we said, “The novel is not dead!” The writer who pines for a best-seller list might say such things, but does an artist who uses the novel as an expressive art form? After reading a novel, we should charge its author as an accessory to its murder. The reader should despise them for violating the conventions they hold dear. The writer should exhaust the reader’s anger until the reader grows to love them. “I see what you’re doing now, but it took me a while sheesh!” should be the first words that come out of her mouth when she’s done being so irritated with the writer that she put the book down numerous times (in absolute frustration) before she finally finished it.

“Don’t insult the reader,” the writing magazines advise. “Pay attention to your reader.”

Those of us who come from a punk rock school of writing think the modern writer should learn all of the novel’s conventions for the sole purpose of violating them more creatively, and we think they should know them so well that they boldly change them in an atypical fashion. If you think you know what this means, invert that thought, and give that a try. Insult the reader, we say, anger them, and make them despise us for writing what we wrote. We need to confuse, confound, and control the reader’s mind, until they come back begging for more. Could one book do all this? It would have to be an incredible book. I’m more inclined to believe it might take a movement, similar to what punk rock and grunge did for hard rock. 

“I did this for me,” we should tell those writing magazines. “By giving you me, I’ll give you you,” as author David Shields would say.

Even if our subject matter is pleasing, we should write in a way that makes the reader uncomfortable. As boring as most novels are, some earn our hard-earned money. Some offend our sensibilities so much that we find them thrilling. We’re on the edge of our seat wondering how this book is going to offend us next. We finish the book on a spiritual high, only to learn that our compadres have their thumbs adamantly pointed down. “I found it so repugnant that it made me feel uncomfortable,” they said. “Me too!” we say from a 180-degree different standpoint.

Your job, as a writer, is to take us to uncomfortable places. Tap into some uncomfortable places in our psyche and force us to explain them. “I’m not a bad guy.” You’re not, but you could be, if I placed you in such an uncomfortable position that you thought about it. “But I enjoy laughing, and I enjoy it when some beautiful text makes me feel wonderful about myself.” Is wonderful what you’re feeling, or is it publicity? How loud do you shout it out? What’s the difference between charity and publicity? That’s it, right in the jugular. Does it hurt? It’s supposed to hurt. A great writer shouldn’t address what we want. They should address need. Novel writers did that at one time. They’re a dying breed now.

We enjoy labeling eras. How about we label this era the era of same same? This is an era of “if it works, try, try, and try it again.” It’s a little narcissist to list the authors who killed the novel as an art form, but let’s just say that they might’ve been there for a rebirth, but they never did anything to help it mature. This sentiment might lead some to consider us jealous that other writers succeeded beyond us. We can assure you this is not the case, as we want some great author to mess the mainstream up with a hyper-real novel that shakes up our whole world. Yet, it’s impossible to defeat that charge, so let’s focus on an analogous comparison.

I loved the authors in question for a time, as much as I once loved Metallica. I loved the Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All albums. I don’t listen to their other albums, but I have no problem with them trying to make a buck on subsequent albums. I just don’t buy them. Other people were angry that Metallica didn’t close up shop after Justice. Why? Let people buy their other albums, let Metallica get rich. We don’t have to listen to their other albums. We have nothing against a guy trying to make a buck in any other field, but art is special. An artist has an added responsibility to the art form that made them rich. After an artist creates their masterpiece, they need to dabble in the art form to expand it and enrich it. To my mind, the great artist creates a masterpiece, and then they spend the rest of their life trying to destroy it. They should appreciate the masterpiece for everything it was, and they should never insult those who loved it and made them what they are, but they should feel a personal vendetta to top the masterpiece. They might never again create another masterpiece, but they should do whatever they can to create the uniquely spectacular after the fact.

The authors in question often come out with a book a year that duplicates the formula of the masterpiece. How many great books does one author have in them? They write one great book, sign a huge advance for another, and in their desire to make that publisher happy, they create the derivative and redundant, and everyone is happy and no one is. “It’s not as good as his masterpiece,” we say. “How many sequels are?” they reply, laughing all the way to the bank, trotting upon the art form as they escape. The question the reader asks themselves is do we want the author to destroy their masterpiece in their next outing, or do we want to remember them as they were, in the manner of the great athlete.

“Punk rock died when the first punk said, “Punk’s not dead.””

If punk rock wasn’t dead, they should’ve killed it. Those who loved punk rock should’ve planned some bloody, very public, ritual death. Never Mind the Bullocks should’ve been the only punk rock album ever made. One album of absolute anarchy and everything after it mimicked the premise and became commodity. The Sex Pistols were a horrible band, and Never Mind the Bullocks was a horrible album, but those who loved it, loved the definitive punk rock album for what it was. It stood for nothing and something that shouldn’t last. If it does last, it sounds more orchestrated and contrived in every form that follows, thus violating everything for which it stood. Everything you believe in is wrong, and all of that nonsense. The whole motif of that album and the movement it started was that everything is dead.

The novel is dead long live the novel. The truth is dead long live the truth. We should have an artistic labeling process that mirrors the Motion Picture Association of America. An M, signifies the author’s masterpiece, a DR designation informs the reader of the subsequent works from the author that are derivative and redundant, and a US rating informs the reader that the novel in question is not a masterpiece, but it is unique spectacular. Such ratings might help us avoid reading another book by an author, other than their best books. 

Tell the truth, then take it out to the side of the barn and kill it. Don’t try to recreate and recapture. It’s retread. Eat the truth and let it work its way through the digestive system and ask others what they think of it.  

“Jazz as jazz—jazzy jazz—is pretty well finished. The interesting stuff is all happening on the fringes of the form where there are elements of jazz and elements of all sorts of other things as well. Something similar is happening in prose. Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms.” –A review of Reality Hunger on Goodreads.

When we read a great novel by an author, do we seek light entertainment, or entertainment-lite, or do we seek truth when we read a novel? Why then do we read 20 to 30 novels by the same author? How many unique novels does one author have in them? I wasted some of my life doing this once. I spotted the author’s template, and I kept reading. I didn’t violate my rule when I did this. I created the rule. I’d never do it again. I hear a song on the radio I might enjoy, and I flip the station. I’ve heard it too many times. I know every lyric, every beat, pause, bridge, and drum and bass exchange by heart. I change the channel just to avoid redoing what I’ve done a thousand times before. When we spot the template, be done with it. End it now. The author revealed the essence of their truth in that one great book. How many times can they recapture that magic, how many times can we join them before it becomes redundant. They know, and we know, that we enjoy patterns, but how many patterns can we enjoy before we end up chasing our own tail with brainless, puppy like enthusiasm?

“All an author needs is one great book,” Truman Capote.

“Everyone has one great book in them,” Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway tried a novel approach to achieving the unique novel after he wrote a masterpiece. He destroyed his life … numerous times. He divorced, remarried, and drank his way to total destruction to pave a path to a new novel, until he decided to destroy his life in an ultimate manner. We might not want to follow Hemingway’s path of destroying his own happiness to achieving creativity, but someone needs to find ‘the road not taken’ to put an end to everyone chasing their tails in novel form.   

Mr. Fehrley was not Just a Dog


“It’s just a dog,” they said. “We can’t help but grow so attached to dogs that we end up loving them, but in the end, they’re just dogs.”

Just a dog? Just a dog?!” we say. “Do you have any idea how much I loved that dog?” In their reaction to our defensiveness, we see that while we all grieve in own ways, some of us console in our own ways too.  

Years prior, I took a vacation. I had another dog that I had to kennel for that time. “What if he comes back different?” I asked in a rhetorical manner. “I’ve heard it happens. I’ve heard that some dogs don’t want to play as much when they come back from a kennel stay. What if my dog is different when I pick him up?”

“Get a different dog,” they said. When I argued, they added, “What is a dog’s job? Their job is to play with you, let you pet them, and provide some companionship. If you pick up your dog, and he’s not doing his job anymore, get another one.” This unemotional, almost mathematical response did not come from Siri or Alexa, but from a living, breathing human.

“When your child begins to turn on you, in all of the rebellious ways our offspring will, are you going to get another child?”

“A child is a complicated human being,” Alexa and Siri, disguised as a human, said, “but a dog is just a dog.”  

In science, a dog is just a dog, and it shouldn’t matter as much as a human does in our pack. In mathematical principles, a dog would have a lesser denominator. When they remind us of the equations involved, it should console us to know that math and science offer more permanent and indestructible solutions that contain order and eliminate the random matters that are so difficult to control, and chasing an emotion like happiness is a messy, chaotic proposition that never ends well.  

Contrary to his anthropomorphic name, Mr. Fehrley was nothing more than a dog who managed to carve out a prominent role in our lives, our family, and a prominent and permanent place on my list of best friends of all time. As painful as the shock and awe of his demise was to us, we all knew we would have to move on in life. As Franz Kafka once wrote, “Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will come back in another way.”

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance are the traditional stages of grief. Everyone grieves in their own way, and some of us go through reeling, feeling, dealing, and healing. In the dealing stage, we accept the idea that “Everything [we] love will probably be lost,” and that it’s the nature of existence for survivors to be left behind, but for some reason the math doesn’t make it any easier to sort through all of the messy emotions involved in trying to achieve the healing stage.  

We’ve all experienced loss of loved ones, and as painful as the reeling stage is of it is, we know we’ll recover. We’ll never forget, but we will move on. When we make some strides to move through the reeling and dealing stages, the pain of routine takes its place. The immediate memories strike us during the reeling period, but when we encounter the little moments of routine, they can prove just as emotionally crippling in the healing stage.

We had a morning routine with Mr. Fehrley, a treats routine, the routine of the “bye-bye” car rides, the long walks to the fence, and the night routine. When that first morning after arrived, it dawned on us that there was a gap in our being that we never knew existed until he filled it by resting between our legs on the ottoman. When the time for the other routines arrive, and the new dog doesn’t respond with puppy-like glee, we realize that we made those routines so exciting. When the wound is still fresh, our routines of life feel just a little more empty, and boring. If we explain this to anyone outside our home, they might smile politely, and they might recognize the power of routine through those they have with their own dog, but they’ll never understand how important these little routines were to us.  

Mr. Fehrley was just a dog, but I never realized how affectionate he was. I never realized what a luxury it was to have a dog who always wanted to be around me, leaning on me, and touching me. I sit on the couch now, and no one leaps into my lap anymore. I go out to the backyard, and no one wants to join me, and no one even notices that I’m gone. I return home, and no one is overjoyed to see me. These are but examples of what a dog can add to a person’s life, and if the reader has a dog who is so affectionate that it can be annoying at times, I ask you to appreciate it for what it is. It doesn’t last forever, as we all know, but we should all take a moment to create a memory we’ll wish we created when they’re gone. 

We had a basketball routine. Every time we went to played basketball at the park, we almost always brought Mr. Fehrley along. Mr. Fehrley stayed on the outskirts of court, sniffing everything available to him, running in circles for no apparent reason, peeing, pooping, and playing with imaginary friends.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll run away?” an observer asked when he noticed that Mr. Fehrley wasn’t leashed, and that he stayed within certain parameters. There was no accusation or condemnation in the man’s voice. He was in awe of the discipline Mr. Fehrley displayed by not running off. 

“He ran off before, numerous times, and we had a number of reactions. One of them was to leash him up. Another was to take him home and not take him on such outings again for a while. After a number of these incidents, he learned that if he wanted to go along with us and remain unleashed he would stay within certain defined parameters.”

It might seem far-fetched to say that a dog can learn lessons in this sense. Most people don’t think a dog can associate not going out with us as a punishment for a momentary, small transgression. Most people don’t think a dog could make that type of connection, especially when an amount of time between outings occurs, but I’m telling you, as I did the observer that day, Mr. Fehrley did make those connections.

A friend of mine once said, “A dog spends their whole life trying to make us happy.” Based on the actions and behavior of my dog at the time, I disagreed with her. Mr. Fehrley taught me that he learned when we’re happy, he’s happy. Mr. Fehrley was a bright dog who learned his lessons well. He was, by far, the best dog I’ve ever owned.

“My dog would never stay like that,” this observer added. “You give him an inch of freedom, and he strives to take a mile.”

The initial instinct is to regard that comment as a compliment to the manner in which I raised and trained Mr. Fehrley to stay within imposed limits. If I didn’t train him to learn those imposed limits, through repetition, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things I did with him. I would’ve had to leave him at home in the manner everyone else leaves their dogs at home when they go out to do such things. Yet, when a dog passes away, and the cavalcade of emotions penetrates all of our vulnerable nerves, we think back on these conversations, and we wonder if we trained him so well that we trained him too well. Did we deprive him of some initiative, and did we inhibit some of what it means to be a dog?   

I initially thought the reeling stage would be the most painful part, but as with the progression of a physical injury, the healing stage proved almost as painful as the reeling stage. The realization that all of the routines we built up for ten and a half years were over proved to be one of the more painful elements. 

We had our little fella for a glorious ten and a half years, so it would prove difficult to appreciate him to the level I wish I would have every day for that long, but I regret some of the moments when I could’ve appreciated him more. Weather permitting we took this little 33lb, Puggle everywhere we went. Friends laughed at us for feeling guilty on those occasions when we had to leave him at home alone. Someone once said, “When I die, I want to come back as your dog.”

As happy as Mr. Fehrley was, and we provided him a fun, full life, I wasn’t spared the road of regret I feel that I took him for granted in some ways.

***

Justanswer.com suggests that there are approximately 68 million domesticated dogs fulfilling families in the U.S. alone. Even if we wonder how they arrived at such a figure, we all know that the figure is very high. What role do these dogs play in all of these households? Visit a home without children, and the dogs’ roles tend to play a more prominent role in that household. Even in homes with children, however, dogs play a prominent role. As kids love their dogs as much as adults do. Most of us love our dogs almost as much as we love our children, but we might never know the prominence they have in our lives until they’re gone.

If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you do when you enter someone’s home is seek out their dog. If you love dogs that much, you’re bound to encounter a dog you don’t enjoy. Some say they’ve never met a dog they didn’t like. I’ve met two. I thought their owners, guardians, or whatever people prefer to call human companions were relatively nice people. I later found out I was wrong, and I realized that our relationships with dogs tend to be symbiotic in that a dog can define a person in some ways, and a person can define a dog in some ways. Our personalities rub off on dogs, and their personalities rub off on us.

How much time do we spend around our dogs? How much time do we spend playing with them, talking to them, petting them, take them to parks for walks, and everything else to shape and mold them? Dogs notice things. They pick up on behavioral cues, patterns, and routines, and they learn how to behave to get along with us better. If we say hello to everyone we encounter in a park, for example, they will too. If we’re confrontational people, our dogs might be more confrontational. How often do our neighbors have to raise and develop crazy dogs before they realize they’re the problem? 

Have you ever met a neighbor you initially considered relatively stable and friendly, only to find out their dog was out of control? Did it shape how we viewed that person? There’s usually a reason a dog is so out of control, and when we find out that that neighbor has another side to him, a nutty, out of control side, when he isn’t leaning over the fence for a chat, we learn to read our tea leaves better. We learn to pay more attention to their dogs. Our personalities help define our dogs, and they define us, and everything in between.

As we often say of those who pass, Mr. Fehrley died doing what he loved best. He died chasing a squirrel across a street. If you were lucky enough to know Mr. Fehrley, you knew that chasing squirrels was his joie de vivre (exuberant enjoyment of life), and he loved it so much that it became his raison d’être (the most important reason or purpose for existence). To deprive him of that would’ve been the more responsible thing for me to do, and I was warned, but I didn’t want to deprive him of that joy. 

Years prior, I saw a junkyard dog check both ways before crossing the street. The junkyard dog was everything you’d imagine. It had various sores, patches of hair, combined with some spots of mange and bald spots, and it also walked with a noticeable limp. I never saw a dog check both ways before crossing a street before, and I considered hilarious at the time. The more I thought about it, however, the more I considered it a little sad. This dog, obviously, had no one to protect it from harm. It obviously had to learn, from firsthand experience, how painful cars can be when they hit. The key to the junkyard dog’s survival involved checking both ways before walking across the streets cars drive on. Mr. Fehrley never checked both ways of course, because he didn’t know any better, because he never had to develop that survival skill. I did that for him. So, I could wallow in the misery that I forgot watch for him that one, fateful moment, or I could think about all the times I prevented him getting hit. Developing coping mechanisms such as this one help, as does having a family with which to share the pain, but when incidents like these happen, we all go through them alone. 

The Quest for the Great, First Sentence


This sentence is the most difficult sentence to write. It has troubled writers since we started writing to entertain readers. Writers often sort through hundreds to thousands of words to find a great sentence, and no sentence is more important than the first. The quest can be humbling for even the best writers. They consider it so difficult that if they write one great sentence a day, that’s a good day, and they figure that about 1% of the sentences they write are great sentences. If that’s the case, what percentage of that percentage are great enough to be provocative first sentences? Some of the most famous admit that they spent so much time (months and even years) trying to find that one great sentence to start new book that it’s no wonder why so many of them turn to drink?   

I wrote a great sentence once. After I wrote it, I couldn’t believe I wrote it. I even took some time out to stare at it and appreciate it. I was so proud. Wow, I thought, that is a great sentence, and I wrote it. It can take writers pages to say what we want to say, and some of the times it takes paragraphs. Every once in a great while, we do it in one clear and concise sentence. When that sentence falls out of our head, no matter how hard we worked to achieve it, it almost seems like an accident.

The problem, I realized soon after I spent a minute appreciating that moment for what is was, was that the great sentence didn’t happen until the conclusion. It felt wasted, because I know that if I am lucky enough to have a reader click on my article, most of them aren’t going read all the way through to the conclusion. With that in mind, I tried something revolutionary for me. I put that glorious sentence in the intro, and I rewrote the entire article accordingly. It paid off in this particular instance, for not only did this new, revised article become one of the best articles I’ve ever written, but it also attracted a number of readers.

If the average writer is anything like me, arriving at a conclusion is a journey. I don’t know how other writers operate, but nine times out of ten, I won’t know my conclusion until I get there. Some writers refer to this journey as the joy of discovery, and this journey often involves writing so much, so often, that a great sentence almost falls out of us every once in a great while. 

***

What is a great sentence? Great sentences, by my definition, are not better than anyone else’s are. We do not write the words great sentence from an egotistical perspective. A great sentence is a relative term, defined by the writer, as the best way of summarizing and synthesizing everything we want to say. It is also the payoff for all the hard work we’ve done leading up to it. When we put in the work to read and understand another author’s point, we do it hoping that there will be an eventual payoff, or an ultimate clarification often found in the conclusion. Writing, or at least my writing, is as much about discovery as it is for readers, and the payoff for all the hard work I put into writing the article is that one great sentence that clarifies everything I was trying to say, wraps it up, and puts what I consider a final, gleaming cherry atop the pie.   

There are also some cathartic feelings I attach to “nailing” that certain something that plagued me before I wrote what I consider a great sentence. When I write an article, I’m attempting to achieve some level of clarity on a topic, and when I’m able to clarify what I’m trying to write to the reader in one, great sentence, it helps me clarify it for myself. 

The few great sentences I’ve written did not arrive in the birthing process, or what some call a first draft of an article. I’m sure it’s happened before, once or twice, but I don’t remember it. To my memory, the great sentences happened after the first draft was complete, and I considered the framework of the article solid enough to begin rewriting it. Prior to achieving that sense of completion, I always experience some angst, fearing that no one will understand what I’m trying to say, because I don’t understand it yet, and I’ll never clarify it to my satisfaction. Once I’m done with that first draft, and I’ve achieved some level of satisfaction that I included the bullet points of my thoughts, I tend to write from a more relaxed perspective. I’m less robotic, more creative and more emotive, and that’s where the great sentences achieve life.

“What’s the perfect way of wrapping all this up?” we think while trying to wrap our article up with the perfect conclusion. When that “Aha!” moment finally arrives, and the writer writes a sentence that could be one of the best lines they’ve ever delivered, it can change the theme and scope of an article. It can also make us think that every hour we spent writing to that point was a waste, unless we realize that we found a better article than the original one we wrote.

***

The internet is a blessing and curse for modern writers, as we can now reach an audience of hundreds of millions by clicking a mouse. The curse is that everyone else enjoys that same privilege. How do we separate ourselves from that overcrowded pack and write a quality article that attracts attention? A remedy, as opposed to the remedy, might be to take the conclusion we worked so hard to sum up our article and make it the lede.

It’s not hard to write an intro in a first draft, as it is often proves to be nothing more than a bridge between what we have in our mind and what we type out onto a screen or page. Yet, we might accidentally appreciate those words for helping us start that we assign them some sort of precious quality to them. When we find a halfway decent start, we might want to show our appreciation to those words for helping us start by rewarding them with their righteous place at the top of the article. We might think it’s good enough to be good enough, and once the intro is complete, it’s completed. We’re grateful that we don’t have to obsess over it anymore. It did its job of moving the idea from mind to screen or paper, and it’s time to move on and worry about the rest. If it’s good enough for us, we think, it should be good enough to attract the reader. If the reader is attracted to it, we’ll reward them with a knock-your-socks off conclusion that might leave a great impression on the reader, a reputation in the reader’s mind, and a click on the subscription button.

In the editing process, however, our focus should turn to the reader, because we know that our readers don’t know how hard it was for us to write the article, and they honestly don’t care. They won’t care how precious those words were to us, and they don’t care about our process. The writer either writes great sentences or they don’t, and if they don’t, the reader heads on over to the dreaded (‘X’) that closes our web page.

Another reason it’s a little depressing when our best sentence doesn’t arrive until the conclusion is that if it’s that good it might transform the article, and if we want to write an article that supports that great sentence, we’ll have to spend another couple hours redoing the entire thing. If we recognize it for what it is, however, we should recognize that at least we found it. At that point, we should drop any facade that we’re a great writer, release ourselves from the leash of the preciousness of our words, and rewrite the whole thing according to that new article we found nestled within that great sentence.

It might sound counterintuitive to make the conclusion the intro, as some sentences have an intro beat to them and others sound more like conclusions, but a great sentence is a great sentence. What is a conclusion, if not a sentence, or series of sentences that summarize the most important elements of a story? What’s the difference between a great intro, or lede, and a great conclusion? Some of the times, a conclusion assumes that we already know the information expressed in the article, but more often than not, that’s an easy fix. It almost goes without saying now that in this age of hundreds of thousands of writers writing millions of articles, it’s vital that we captivate them with a great, first sentence.

If a writer finds a great sentence in the midst of writing, they will need to find proper transitions, of course, but if they are able to accomplish a seamless transition between the paragraphs, the writer might be able to maintain the reader’s attention for at least two paragraphs with the new lede transitioning to our former, dynamic intro.

Most writers know how essential a great first line is, and some of the times, we might find hints of that great it in paragraph three and it might not hit us until the conclusion. The point is if we work hard enough at it, a great sentence might accidentally happen, and if it does we should feed and nurture it in the manner we do any of our other loved ones.

The problem arrives when we supplant that first lede with the original conclusion, and we work to a new conclusion. Does this second conclusion have a sentence greater than the first? Should we supplant the new lede with this second conclusion? Should we rinse and repeat, in other words, and keep repeating this process until we have a 1,400-word article of overlapping conclusions? I’ve yet to encounter such a problem, but if my next, edited conclusion is better than my first, I might go back and do it again, and again, as often as it works. This process doesn’t always work, of course. As I wrote, some conclusions assume too much to be quality intros, but I think that in the age of hyper AD-HD, internet readers, writers have to do whatever we can to attract readers and keep their attention, and this was but one way I found to do it with one article and every article I’ve written since.