Go Pantsers.

It was a muggy afternoon in Midtown Memphis almost 17 years ago, and I had agreed to meet my ex-girlfriend in the Starbucks on Union Avenue. The ghost of Elvis was nowhere in sight. If he had any sense, he was hiding somewhere there was air conditioning.

We had been broken up at that point for many months, but we were still friendly. But tomorrow, I was leaving to move to Raleigh, NC, and when I told her, it made sense to see each other one last time to say goodbye. I was pretty sure I wasn’t coming back.

We sat at a table by the door.

“So, what is your plan for when you get there?” she asked.

“I found a room in a rooming house on Craigslist and sent them the money for the first month to hold it. I’ll find a make-do job, and then work on my freelance writing to make a living.”

She stared at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just remembering why we broke up. You do realize that isn’t a plan, right?”

She was right. It wasn’t a plan. But then again, she was a planner. I am a pantser.

There is an old joke to the effect that there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I’m one of the ones who do. And I think most people are either planners or pantsers.

We took her kids to Dollywood once.

She had prepared a three-ring binder. With tabs, one for each day we were to be there. Each day had a written agenda. There was a map of the park she had downloaded from the web, with the optimal route highlighted. There was a daily anticipated budget.

My plan had been, “Show up at Dollywood.” But then again, I’m a pantser.

I like the term pantser, and am actively lobbying for its inclusion in the broader cultural lexicon. It’s someone who does not plan but prefers instead to fly by the seat of their pants (pants. Pantser. Get it?).

I first heard it when taking a course on writing fiction, and the teacher contrasted the two styles of plot development. Some actively plan, usually with detailed outlines and charts, the direction of their story. Joyce Carol Oats advocates this view by saying, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

Others (like me) try to write one true sentence and then another, and the current sentence tells you what the next one should say. All I know for sure is the sentence I’m writing right now. “Outlines,” says Stephen King, “are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

Ouch. But yeah. #TeamPantser

This past Monday, my wife and I celebrated 13 years of marriage. And like the pantsers we are, we did it by taking a whirlwind weekend trip to New Orleans – some three hours down the road. We had a few solid blocks in place before we got there. The purpose of the trip was to see the Van Gogh Interactive Exhibit before it left town. Beyond that, our goals consisted of things like “Eat good food” and “Have a good time.”

The night before we left to go down, I went on Priceline and got us a decent hotel room. When we got to the hotel and checked in, I went on Yelp, searched by “distance” for restaurants that were $$$ and under, and we sat in the hotel and discussed the merits of our options. We ended up eating amazing tacos from a local taqueria. The next morning we grabbed hotel breakfast, then the Van Gogh Exhibit, and then we went on Yelp again, looking for a nearby restaurant for lunch.

The highly praised gumbo restaurant around the corner was a pandemic victim and sat empty and silent. The burger joint with patio dining was a cramped convenience store with a broken picnic table under a tree. Then we tried finding a place that promised “New Orleans Soul Food,” and we never did find it after driving slowly up and down the street three times. Finally, in frustration, we stopped at a barbecue joint just because it looked open. After an hour of driving around looking for food, anything would have tasted good.

But it was delightful. The food was good, if not amazing. The atmosphere of the place was legit, and the people were fun. We talked about the exhibit and marveled at what we had seen, and talked about the 13 years we had spent getting there. It was, in every way, a good meal.

Would the meal have been better if I had made reservations at a fancy place in the Quarter two weeks before? Were we missing out by not having planned the weekend? Had we built an agenda and scheduled more “fun” into the 24 hours we were in the city, would it have been a better trip?

Maybe, but I doubt it. But then again, I’m a pantser.

What I’m Not Gonna Do

“It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.” – Marcus Aurelius

In 2003, I started a blog.

At the time, I owned a small bookshop in a historic part of Memphis, TN, and I thought it would be an excellent way to market the shop. Blogging was a small world in those days, and we had meetups where Memphis bloggers would meet up in real life.

It was a different time. But the key takeaway is that I got used to talking about my work in public.

Here’s a neat thing we are selling. Here is a picture of this new author that popped by. Here is what I think of Peter Taylor’s books (Spoiler alert: swoon!).

Here is something I noticed and wanted to share with you.

I learned to watch out for things that were worth sharing. And by sharing them, we attracted people who were the same sort of weird we were. I loved that shop.

(It is also worth saying that I was detoxing from a decade of working in one toxic environment after another and was just learning how to be weird. I feel like I owe a constant apology to everyone who knew me in those days. It was season one, and we were underfunded and were not yet sure who the characters were.)

When I transitioned to nonprofit work a few years later, I learned to write newsletters as both a way to share my work (here is this cool thing that happened and what I learned) and also as a way to raise money. And the more I shared my work, the more money I could raise.

I learned two things doing that, neither of them good.

The first was that my being angry in public made us money. I remember a fellow nonprofit ED telling me she didn’t have enough money for payroll that month, and she wasn’t sure what she should do. I told her that when that happened, I would find something on social media that pissed me off and write about it.

I was only sorta kidding.

Somewhat related to that was the second thing I learned: The danger of having your public identity tied to your vocation. I was a subject matter expert on homelessness. For perhaps 5 years there, I was in the air most months going to speak somewhere on a stage in front of people. I lectured at seminaries and colleges and spoke at festivals. I was published in national papers and all over the Christian press and was interviewed on NPR, Fox, and Al Jazeera. Going viral happened pretty regularly in those days – which was good, as my internet presence was the small nonprofit I ran’s primary fundraising mechanism.

Their survival depended on my being angry and inciting anger in others.

How messed up is that?

Then I was exhausted and burned to a crisp and decided I couldn’t do that work anymore, so I spent a year wrapping it up, and I moved. Somewhere between North Carolina and Mississippi on I-20 I lost all desire to talk about my vocational work on social media. I didn’t want to be the angry guy anymore. I didn’t want to anger other people to raise money for good work. And most importantly, I did not want to tie my public identity to the work I’m doing in the world.

I just want to have an ordinary life. Write my stories. Send my newsletters. Go for my walks. Make people feel known, loved, and heard. Especially people for whom that has not been historically true.

That’s not all I’m doing. It’s just all I really want to share on social media these days. I don’t want to tell voyeuristic stories about vulnerable people to raise money. I don’t want to “build my brand.” I don’t want you to be impressed by my good works and treat me like some poor man’s Mother Theresa because I had a conversation with a man who lives in a tent. I definitely don’t want to write angry memes so you can share them so I can build a “following.”

A following of people who like to share angry memes is probably one of the surest definitions of hell I know.

I don’t have a brand. I have a life.

And I can tell you from my hard-earned experience that when that stops – when you quit writing the voyeuristic stories, quit the angry blog posts, stop the divisive memes – it’s easy to forget who you are. It’s easy to forget that you are not the avatar that your “following” has crafted from the curated view of your life. It’s easy to then spiral into a deep depression and want to disappear forever.

Ok, maybe that last part was just me. But maybe not.

And yet.

I still have the urge to talk about my work. To “show” my work, so to speak. To tell you about the good stuff I’m involved in. The people I meet who change my life forever. The actions I’m a part of, the policies I’ve helped change, the work I do in my small way to make the world as it is into the world as it could be. Or, at least my corner of it.

But I won’t be doing that on social media. Never again. I don’t think I could survive it if I did that again.

So, I’m starting a minimally viable email list about the justice-centered, faith-based work I do here in Mississippi. I’ll send something out about once a month. I might do it less than that if there is nothing to report. I might ask you to help me do something by donating to something. I might tell you about other people you should be donating to instead. I’ll probably share stories because that is what I do. And when we know better stories, we can imagine a different reality than the one we are stuck in now.

And maybe along the way, we can find folks who are the same sort of weird we are.

You can, if you are interested, sign up here.

The Whole Story

Some years back, my wife and I were in the grocery store. It was our regular grocery store, and we were just going down the aisle, discussing groceries and putting things in the cart. The store was busy, but not unduly so.

A woman I had never seen before came up to us.

‘Hi, Hugh. Hi, Renee!”

I had no idea who this person was. I looked at Renee. She obviously had no idea who she was, either. Our confusion must have been evident.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Maria. I go to [large church I had spoken at the year before], and I follow you on Facebook and read your blog and newsletters.”

I’m always a little uncertain about what to do next. I thanked her for reading my stuff.

“It sounds like you had fun at the beach. And what a cute beach house! And I hope Felix [our cat] is doing OK after that scare at the vet last week!”

She was harmless. But it felt just a tad creepy. It was the first time I had really experienced what I have come to call the “knowledge differential.”

In the first lines of Walden, Thoreau said, talking about his writing in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Like Thoreau, I only know myself well, and even that knowledge evades me at times. I write from my own experience and only feel qualified to tell my own story. The advantage to this is relative expertise on the subject matter, but a disadvantage is that our relationship – mine and yours – is asymmetrical.

You know a lot about me. You don’t know everything because I have boundaries, but my life is well documented. Frequent readers know my cats, hobbies, favorite candy bar, anxieties, hopes, and goals. There are probably 75 of you I know some amount of stuff about. For another couple of thousand of you, I know (or at least have) your email address. And that’s about it.

This asymmetrical quality sometimes makes having friends really difficult. But not as difficult as making friends.

* * *

I was in a strange town on the East Coast for a few days, and I had mentioned in my newsletter that I would be in this town and was happy to grab coffee on a given day if anyone was game. This is how I ended up across the table from Steve.

We have an hour or so, and I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture when he shows up at the coffee shop. I ask him a question or two – the sort of small talk you do when getting to know someone – and then, in response to something he says, I begin to tell him that I can relate because of this thing that happened to me.

He interrupted me.

“Yeah, I know that story. I read about that when it happened.”

He then asked me a bunch of questions about that thing, including some that were boundary crossing. The next 45 minutes felt like an interview. When we left to go our separate ways, he took a selfie with me that went on his Instagram, and then he told me that he was my biggest fan.

Maybe it’s my age, but I always hear that line in Kathy Bate’s voice.

* * *

It’s weird, this asymmetrical relationship we have, you and me. When I run into people I have not seen in ages, they tell me about things that happen in their life, and then they comment on my life – they mention the trip I just went on, my depression struggles, and my cats. I hesitate to mention things I have written about because I don’t want to repeat myself if they already know, and I don’t want to assume they read my stuff (how annoying is THAT guy? “As I said in chapter 9 of my latest book, …”).

And so, when I meet people for the first time, I find myself reluctant to bring up my writing. Like I want to have a person in my life who is not a consumer of my words, who only know the IRL version of me and not the curated version, who only knows what they observe and can gleen. Friends who never worry if I am going to write about them. Friends who get excited when I tell them about the big thing that happened to me and who don’t already know how the story ends.

I’m not complaining. I signed up for this gig. I enjoy writing, and I write confessionally and openly. I enjoy it. It’s changed my life. Hell, it’s saved my life.

But it’s important for you to know that the Hugh you know from here is curated. I mean, it must be, by definition. So you don’t know if we would be best friends if we met. Maybe I chew with my mouth open, and that would annoy the hell out of you. (I don’t, but it’s an example – just go with it).

And I guarantee that you don’t know the whole story.

Experience

I used to believe in talent. These days, I’m not sure I do.

In high school, I took the ASVAB test – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Basically, it was a tool the military-industrial complex used to filter students with skills that would be valuable to the military into the recruiter’s hands.

Which is pretty screwed up if you think about it. But anyway.

A thing that absolutely shocked literally everyone who knew me was that I scored ridiculously high on the mechanical portion of the exam. Things like they show you a series of interlocking gears, numbered 1-7. And then they ask, “If gear #3 turns clockwise, what direction does gear #1 turn?”

Like that. I did really well on it.

I was not known for my mechanical ability. I was known for my reading. I was known for my acne. And that was pretty much it. If I had a talent, it was not anything mechanical. It was reading and writing.

We had shop class, which I liked the idea of, but it was filled with what I would now call toxic masculinity (including the teacher), and even then, it felt icky. Even today, I seldom fit into all-male spaces and don’t do bro-culture well.

My Dad was very handy. I would much rather read a book. It used to frustrate him to no end that he wanted to teach me how to work on cars, and I wanted to read.

“Hugh’s just not talented,” people would say. “He’s more of a bookworm.”

I don’t really think that’s a thing. I mean, I did well on that test – I obviously had an aptitude for thinking about things mechanically. But I still couldn’t use a hammer to save my life. And since Dad’s effortless way with tools was my basis of comparison, I felt uncomfortable and awkward. I was comparing my 2 weeks of experience to his 30 years of experience and was mad because he was better at it than I was.

He wasn’t necessarily more talented than I was – he had more experience than I did.

This Sunday afternoon, our kitchen sink clogged. This was particularly annoying because it clogged right after I had made waffles, but before we washed the dishes. I emptied the sink of all the dirty dishes and then plunged for a while. Nothing doing.

I then went to the hardware store and bought a 25-foot-long drain snake (I thought I had one, but maybe not because I couldn’t find it). After 30 minutes of cursing, I had a clogged pipe AND was the owner of a drain snake. Wherever this clog was, it was more than 25 feet away. But the washing machine drained fine, so I knew the clog was between the sink and the washing machine.

I went back to the hardware store and bought some sulfuric acid. Poured it down the drain and went to bed.

Monday, when I woke up, the drain was clear. Yay! I ran water for a while, and it worked. I set about my day. Just before lunch, I began to wash some dishes and realized it was clogged again. Dammit! And I had an afternoon of meetings scheduled.

Last night after supper, I climbed under the house and saw the culprit – a section of the drain pipe that had been repaired long ago just before where the washing machine drains was catching debris from the disposal and had clogged. The repair was questionable in the first place, and the drain pipe was cast iron, original to the house. I could buy a 50-foot drain snake and probably get it, but the problem would still remain.

So this morning, I was at Home Depot at 6 am, and I bought a 10-foot length of 2-inch PVC and two generic fernco couplers (to connect the PVC to the cast iron) for about $30. I crawled under the house and, using my $14 angle grinder, cut the cast iron pipe on the downhill side of the suspected blockage. It was relatively dry, so it looked like my thesis was correct. I connected the franco coupler and one end of the PVC pipe to the cast iron.

I laid the PVC pipe along the existing pipe to measure 10 feet and then cut the cast iron pipe. This time, it was filled with nasty water, proving the blockage was in the 10 feet I was removing (probably at the damaged spot). In 10 minutes, I had the fernco coupling connected and had moved the plumbing strap from the old pipe to the new one.

I went inside and washed my hands and face in my unclogged sink.

14-year-old me would have been amazed at 50-year-old me’s “mechanical ability.” Lots of y’all think I am “very handy.”

Nope. I just have done this before. I have replaced bad pieces of drain pipe before, did a shit ton of research at the time, and learned about fernco couplers. I have used an angle grinder before. I knew how to get under my house.

But the first time I did it, I didn’t. That was when I bought the angle grinder. That was when I did the research and when I watched all the YouTube videos. This time, I didn’t have to. I wasn’t talented – I just had experience.

The other side

When I was 10 years old, my 5-year-old brother got appendicitis. His stomach was hurting intensely, and after a period of home remedies, we took him to the doctor, who diagnosed him with a swollen appendix, and he went to the hospital.

It turns out his appendix was swollen, and they did surgery to remove it before it burst. This was the early 80s, and as I recall it, he went into the hospital one afternoon, spent the night in the hospital, had his appendix removed, and then spent another night in the hospital before coming home.

The evening before his surgery, I was talking to Monty, the elderly lady who lived next door to me and who was, in my objective AF opinion, the best cook in the world. She was born in 1910 and had lived through two world wars, the flu pandemic, and a global depression, had raised three children – two whom she had not given birth to – and all as a well-digger’s wife. She had seen some stuff.

When I told her my brother was in the hospital, she asked what had happened. I explained he had appendicitis and that he was having surgery in the morning, but I had seen him at the hospital, and he was doing OK. She began to weep, then cry, and finally wail. Huge alligator tears ran down her weathered cheeks, and her wrinkled hands covered her face.

There was no air conditioning in her house. The windows were wide open, and the box fan hummed in the corner. Otherwise, it was silent, except for her heaving, low wail. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I didn’t understand – I had read books that mentioned that the appendix was not a necessary organ. I had read that appendix surgery was very low risk. I thought it was sorta cool that he was in the hospital. Honestly, I was sort of jealous.

She got up and left the room. I sat at the chrome and Formica table and watched the dust waft through the sunlight as it came through the window, low in the evening sky. Eventually, she came back, and neither of us spoke of what had just happened. Soon, I was walking home through the pasture that separated our houses and got home in time for supper. I don‘t remember what we ate that night, but I remember Mom was not there – I think she was at the hospital – and it was just Dad and me.

I told Dad what had happened.

“But I don’t understand why she was so upset. Appendicitis is a simple surgery. You don’t even need your appendix. He’s going to be fine.”

Dad explained to me that to us appendicitis was not dangerous. But Monty had buried many people who had died of things that were no longer really dangerous but once had been. Before vaccines, before antibiotics, before ambulances, a lot of people died. And in her head, she was remembering all the people she knew who had died because their appendix had burst.

Earlier this summer, a dear friend of mine got COVID. He was traveling for work, and somewhere along the way, he was exposed and then tested positive. When I heard, I was devastated. He is one of perhaps 3 people I would drop anything and go where they were, anywhere in the world, if I was needed, no questions asked. When I read the text message, I just wept.

He assured me his symptoms were mild. He had all his vaccines and boosters. He was sick, to be sure, but was under a doctor’s care and would be fine in a few days.

I know this intellectually. But in my head, all I could think about was the folks I personally know who died from COVID. The endless stream of names on my timeline of loved ones of friends who had died. The horror of dealing with Dad’s death from COVID.

There was every reason to think he would be fine on the other side of this. But in my head, it was the summer of 2020, and folks were dropping like flies.

I don’t know how long this will last, or if I’m just changed, the way Monty was forever changed because of the pain she had lived through. But I do not like it.

Not one little bit.