Thursday, February 26. 2009
Driving the through the countryside, taking the back roads to the NC Zoo in Asheboro, we saw lots of "real" North Carolina:
At the zoo, I felt myself melting in with the rest of the people there. I was just another parent with their kids. For so much of my life I've carried around a feeling of specialness, apartness . . . "I'm not like them", "I'm better than them." I could feel that softening, disintegrating. I am really not much different than any of these people.
And yet . . . I saw a man telling a woman, "All I ask you to do is to keep them with you and out of trouble," sounding calm and rational and like he's never, ever actually had to take care of children. The woman seizes a child, whacks him on the bottom several times, her face vicious: "Don't you walk away! Ever! We'll do this old-school!" Then, later, on the tram behind us, she tells her son: "You stop crying right now! It's because you don't listen to Uncle Tom." Ah . . . "Uncle" Tom. The boyfriend. And mom's beating on the kids because she's terrified the children will drive away her man. Evidently step-parenthood is contagious.
The kids had the most fun on the playground. It was a good one, with really squishy half-artificial mulch that had almost enough spring in it to feel like a trampoline. The play-sets were done in an elegant garden theme: knobbled squash big enough to climb on, twenty-foot-tall spider web, a praying mantis just begging to be ridden. The boys played so hard they eventually shed their coats and sweaters, charging up slides and hanging from giant vines with goofy grins on their faces. You can surround them with marvels, but they will still take the most joy in moving around and climbing.
They wore me out. For the first time, I'm the one who was tired and cranky at the end of the day, while they kept on rushing from one exhibit to the next. At the last stop, the Aviary, I succumbed and sat on a bench, telling them I needed to rest for a bit, and letting them roam on their own. I felt so old, more like Grandpa than Daddy. But I can't sit for long. "That parrot can bite. Don't try to touch him . . ."
Friday, January 30. 2009
Shameless plug for my wife's (literal) fifteen minutes of fame:
On our local NPR station, WUNC, my wife Janet performed live today with some select members of the Women's Voices Chorus on "The State of Things". The Chorus is performing a concert tomorrow at Duke Chapel of music inspired by Jewish poets. You can hear her radio debut here. Marvel at the fact that someone you know has been heard by hundreds of thousands of people.
Thursday, January 8. 2009
Here are my goals for the year. I post them, not because I think people are dying to know what I'm doing, but because psychologically it makes all the difference in the world for me to make my goals public. The people who matter most in my life will read this; that's all I need to make the commitment stick.
An important aspect of sustaining my writing life is making sure I have the money to do so…especially in these hard times.
You might have noticed there are a lot of "do-every-day" goals in this list. Many experts suggest that committing to doing something every day is a tough resolution to keep, and any failure will immediately break your spirit. I agree, in principle; but in practice I've found I have to structure my life to do something every day if I want to do it with any consistency at all. If I had a 5% failure rate on any of those goals, I would still count it as a successful resolution.
Tuesday, January 6. 2009
Once I've made an internal assessment of my goals at the highest level (What do I want? What must I do? How will I do it?) I start trying to break it down. Several years ago I stole a page from Steven Covey's First Things First and made goals for every role in my life. It's a good way to make sure no important aspect of your life gets neglected. The primary roles of my life are, in order of importance:
You might ask, "Where is God in this list? Doesn't spirituality deserve a slot?" Ah, excellent question. I don't have an entirely satisfactory answer. I would like to be smugly pious and say, "God is my number one priority," but that wouldn't really be true. I don't have a relationship with God. God is behind a "cloud of unknowing". To the degree I understand what God wants for my life, it manifests in all the roles listed above. To the degree I don't know what God wants, I look for the answers in these roles. More than ever, I have come to believe in Augie Turak's vision of spiritual life: there is no spiritual life, apart from the life you lead. Spirituality cannot be compartmentalized away from everything else in your life. Your day-to-day life is your spiritual life. (I know that some people have specific spiritual practices, especially meditation, that are supposedly 100% spiritual, and which can in theory be compartmentalized from the rest of your life. I am not one of those people. Once I was, now I'm not. Maybe some day I will be again.)
The other thing that is slightly shocking about this list is that my explicit goals were mostly about the bottom of the list, and not the top. I have lots of specific goals about my health, my work in the community, my writing and job obligations . . . but I had given almost no thought at all to questions such as, "How will I be better father this year?" or "What do I need to do to help my wife reach her goals?" Hmmm . . .
Monday, January 5. 2009
Drum roll, please. The goals for 2009 are . . .
Wait a minute. Let's talk about methodology here for a moment. How do I go about setting my goals, and what factors do I consider?
Monday, December 29. 2008
Thursday, December 25. 2008
Today is Christmas. The traditional news cycle demands a frothy story about the best gifts, a tongue-in-check column about how to cope with your family, and a feel-good story about people spreading cheer to those less fortunate. This news cycle is as inevitable as Chipmunk music in malls.
Except this year. We have no stories of spreading cheer to those less fortunate, because for some reason everyone feels like they are the "less fortunate" this time around. The rich have seen their wealth evaporate in a financial crisis and/or scandal; businessmen are seeing profits dwindling; working class are losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Typical fare in the news: "How to Say Goodbye to your home on Christmas". "In Hard Times, Houses of Worship Turn to Chapter 11 in Book of Bankruptcy." "Little holiday cheer" has been repeated in so many headlines and lead-ins that, were the Grinch's heart still two sizes too small, he would rejoice. "They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!"
Where are the Whos? I am standing on the top of Mt. Crumpet, looking across the land, desperate to find someone who still remembers how this story is supposed to end. Even if we lose #$@%^ everything, we still have cause to sing in the morning. I bring you good tidings of great joy: life has a meaning which transcends our material fortunes.
Tuesday, December 23. 2008
Our flight to Philadelphia was delayed for three hours, so I spent a lot of time on Friday looking at people. I saw a lot of military uniforms of every kind: Marines in dress blues, Army enlisted men in light tan camos and stylish rucksacks, infantry sergeants with braids and stars. My wife comes from a military family, and given my conservative and hawkish nature, I was inclined to look upon these men and consider them heroes. But every time I did look at them, the only word that came to mind was "youth." They were all, every single one of them, so young that I almost hesitated to call them men. Not a gray hair among them, and most of them no more than teenagers. You hear the generals in war movies talk about "our boys," and I used to think that it was just a figure of speech; now I see it as literal truth.
The only thing that made them seem different from boys was their seriousness. They did not smile or laugh. Some stood erect and quiet, as if awaiting orders. Most sat hunched over, iPods in their ears, pecking away grimly on cell phones. Maybe music and games were just acceptable tranquilizers, the usual means of tuning out thoughts and dulling pain in the face of long boredom and stress.
A USO volunteer had a little table set up in the middle of one terminal, with a big banner with some good wish for the military personnel. "Until everyone comes home," it said. The young woman stopped anyone in military dress and shook their hands. The men would smile shyly, nod, and walk on. No one was effusive, but neither were they dismissive. It seemed like something was going on in those little greetings. I wish I could know what they were thinking. Perhaps it was relief: "Thank God there are still civilians who know there is a war going on." Or maybe it was rueful: "Lady, you have no idea what I have seen." I was touched, somehow, by this tiny display, so conspicuous in its simplicity. A human being was reaching out to these young boys with the experiences of men, not lauding them or praising them, but simply touching them, as if to say, "You belong here. You are still one of us." I think, perhaps, they really needed it.
Thursday, December 18. 2008
Tomorrow I will be getting on a plane with my two sons to go to Philadelphia. We will be visiting my twin brother and his family, whom we rarely see more than once year, if that. I won't try to write while I'm away -- I'm leaving the computer behind, as a deliberate part of making sure work doesn't follow me on vacation. But I'll pick up writing again on December 23, when I'm back in town.
Wednesday, December 17. 2008
Over ten years ago I read First Things First, Steven Covey's time-management follow-on to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey had the perfect diagnosis for my condition: urgency addiction. I lived my life in a fundamentally reactive manner, always tending to the most urgent matters, regardless of their ultimate importance. I spent all my time putting out fires, using the thrill of responding to emergencies to blot out my anxiety over a lack of direction. The last ten years have been a long, slogging battle against that trend in my character.
I managed to take some ground when I created a schedule for myself, and explicitly made time for important-but-not-urgent tasks: writing, reading, exercise, sleep, financial management, family time. I created routines that defied urgency and ultimately reduced it. That much was all good.
Having made some basic changes in my own behavior (a remarkable accomplishment for someone pushing 40) I was inspired to embark on a writing career. I set the wheels in motion to gradually phase out of my software consulting job into professional writing. And that's when I realized that I had barely scratched the surface of my urgency addiction.
Getting out of my IT job required me to do something I could never, ever do before: say 'no' to my customers. I had trained myself to be a super-reactive, on-the-spot problem solver, and my customers had come to expect that as well. My greatest energy and productivity was activated when someone would come to me and say, "We need your help. Only you can do this." And that love of urgency has consistently plowed under any attempt to develop my writing career. I have been able to rededicate myself to writing every day, and reading the things I should be reading, but that's just keeping my writing on life support; it's not real progress toward real goals. A year after announcing my attention, I have accomplished many other significant life goals (move my mother-in-law, serve the school community, etc.), but when it comes to a writing career, I am no further along than when I started.
Ok. I give up. I am powerless before my urgency addiction. The only way I will develop a writing career is find ways to give it its own urgency. I need an editor, or several editors, who will call me to say, "I need 500 words on so-and-so by Friday, can you do that?" That, or a genuine business concern that requires constant production. Until I get a critical mass of people in my life demanding that I write, instead of demanding other things, this won't get off the ground.
I walked into the Barnes & Noble the other day, loaded with gift cards that were part of a fund-raiser for the school. Out of habit I walked to computer section, but I drifted right through it, feeling nothing. For now, at least, that part of me was burned out. I walked to writing section, and pulled two books on the business of writing non-fiction. "They're probably outdated," I thought, "but I've got to start somewhere."
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