Something’s Gotta Give

I tend to keep my schedule very full. My day-to-day activities are usually pretty meticulously planned out, with dedicated time slots for writing, exercise, work, this blog, etc.

But of course, special projects and opportunities happen all the time, and I like to make sure that I have the ability to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise. Since I can’t imagine just leaving hours of time listed as “TBD” on my calendar each day, it’s important to have a framework for deciding what to de-prioritize when the time comes.

This is important for a few reasons. First, if you don’t have a system in place to help you decide what things to put on the back burner, you’ll just end up being scattered and stressed and doing less of everything. It’s totally okay to say that you’re going to take a break from your painting classes because you’re in a marathon soon and you really want to train hard for it. If you don’t do that, you’ll just end up being stressed at painting class because you’ll be thinking about how you’re not training for the marathon and then on marathon day you’ll do horribly because you didn’t train. If you chase two rabbits…

The other reason is that having a formal system for back-burner-ing certain tasks makes it far more likely that your temporary hiatus won’t turn into a permanent one. If you let yourself get stressed to the breaking point, you’ll throw up your hands in frustration and say “ugh, I just can’t do painting at all right now, maybe I’ll pick it back up again when things are calmer,” and then even after the marathon, things won’t ever be “calmer” and those brushes will gather dust and guilt alike.

If you instead just accept yourself as a vessel with a limited volume for rocks, you can be okay with planning the ebb and flow of your activities. You can say, “Okay, the marathon is on June 8th, so I’m going to officially sign out of painting classes until then. The next class after that is June 12th, so I’m pre-registering for that one now in order to keep myself on track. And I let my class know I’m in the marathon so they can cheer me on!”

I’ve taken on a lot of special projects in the last few weeks. Most of these will be done by the end of the year, but before then they all represent a pretty intense time commitment (did I also mention I just accepted a promotion at work, because I’m a crazy person?), so there are definitely some things that have to get de-prioritized for the next month.

As much as I’m enjoying my new higher reading levels, it’s not a short-term essential, so for December I’m going to take it off the “to-do” list. Same with my daily workouts. Both of those things are long-term important to me, but neither will kill me to take a month off as long as I’m active about planning when I’ll pick them back up. And neither will fall off completely – I enjoy doing both so I’ll still lift both weights and books in whatever spare minutes I find, but I’m going to prioritize my overall mental health by allowing myself to say that these other projects are both just as enjoyable and more short-term beneficial.

It feels strange, especially to me, to say that an active part of healthy goal-setting is taking certain goals off the table for a time. But I’m not superman, and I have to stop pretending that it’s a failure if I can’t spin twenty plates at the same time. Neither are you, so keep your goals healthy and achievable. And thus, may you achieve them!

No Good Ideas

A good idea and a dollar fifty will get you a cup of coffee.

The world is absolutely dripping with good ideas. They’re mostly useless. No matter how good they are, they’re ephemeral – they don’t do anything. It takes a tremendous outpouring of work to make anything real of them.

But good ideas aren’t actually necessary to make work worthwhile. You can avoid ever having a single moment of epiphany but still be very successful and happy with hard work, diligence, and prudence. Brilliance is not required.

Work is not only what turns ideas into value, it’s also the crucible in which ideas are tested. Ideas always seem brilliant when viewed in your own mind, but only exposure to the hard light of day can tell you for sure. Even telling a few other people takes some work – figuring out how to explain things, taking the time to do so, etc. And 90% of ideas won’t pass even that basic test.

Of course, even if ever single “good idea” was truly as good as its originator assumed, you still couldn’t act on them all. Ideas are infinite; juice is finite. All humans, whether the originators of ideas or not, need some criteria to decide what ideas (our own or others’!) to put our work towards.

One of the best ways to make your idea stand out is to work on it yourself. Think of ideas like single snowflakes – infinite in variation and possibly beautiful, but fragile, weightless, and lacking in any appreciable impact. A million of them gathered together might have some weight, but on their own they do little. But starting with a single snowflake, you can start to pack more and more snow around them, gathering momentum and weight; that’s the work you put in. Soon, that snow can be shaped into anything – and the bigger it gets, the more people will notice. If the thing you’re building appeals to them, they’ll want to help.

You can build a fine house without ever having a brilliant innovation in carpentry. But a brilliant architectural thought is meaningless without work. Cultivate the habits of work, then – don’t just sit around thinking. Do. The ideas, if they’re truly good, will come as they come.

Red Letter Day

Had quite the adventure today; while heading towards Pittsburgh and about 100 miles from home, my two youngest kids simultaneously got sick all over the car. And while it might have been possible to power through it, we were much closer to home than to our destination and the possibility of them being more than just carsick (which they’ve never been before) caused us to decide to turn around. Perhaps I was too cautious, but I don’t want to have two of my kids be sick over a long weekend hundreds of miles from home. Personally I’d rather have them not be sick at all, but if it has to happen, I want it to happen in my own fortress. You do you.

But despite the setback, we’re still thankful for a lot. I’m happy that despite the troubles, we have the capabilities to address them. Right now all my kids are in their beds, and for the moment appear not to be vomiting. That alone is worth celebrating, but the reality is even in the face of disaster we’re a capable bunch and we endure. Hard times give way to easier ones soon enough. Don’t forget as you come upon difficulties in difficult times, like when your kids get sick on a holiday road trip and your phone gets run over by a passing truck as you try to help them (yup), that there’s still something else to be thankful for, somewhere, even if it’s not what others expect. After all, it’s your gratitude to offer and your life to live. You do you.

Kant Stop, Won’t Stop

Immanuel Kant says that we need to always treat people as an end in themselves, and not just a means to an end. I think that’s extremely true, but I also think that will often mean violating the ol’ Golden Rule – “treat people as you’d like to be treated.”

First, I’ve never liked the Golden Rule. I think it should be “treat people as they’d like to be treated,” because I’ve discovered that treating people the way I’d like to be treated often makes them very upset. I’m weird and I don’t like a lot of the same interaction patterns as other people, so imposing that on others doesn’t seem very kind. But I’m all for treating people the way they’d prefer.

Except, of course, that lots of people would prefer to be treated as means to and end rather than as the ends themselves – even if they don’t know it.

Imagine a young man who spends a disproportionate amount of his income on a flashy car in the hopes of attracting mates. He doesn’t want to be seen as an end in himself; he wants to be seen as a means to wealth and status and prestige for the people he’s attracted to. Or a less negative example: A doctor doesn’t want everyone to treat him only as an end; they probably wouldn’t pay him very well for that. For at least some people (his patients), he wants to be treated as a means to better health – and he, in turn, wants to treat patients as sources of income, not as dear friends.

Being treated as an end in ourselves means that we have to accept that the buck stops with us. We aren’t conduits towards something better for the people who choose to share parts of their lives with us. We don’t add value to them because we make them richer, or healthier, or wiser – we simply are. Take us or leave us.

Sometimes when you look at someone as an end, that end is found wanting. We can easily find ourselves frustrated or upset because the end isn’t what we want it to be.

If you have to put a nail into wood and you pick up a wrench by mistake, it’s natural to say “this wrench isn’t very good at pushing nails into wood.” But it makes no sense to be upset with the wrench for not being a hammer. It never was a hammer – it never could have been, and it can’t become one now.

So you either love it as a wrench or you get frustrated. But what does it mean to “love it as a wrench?”

We are the sum of our actions, and we work every day to meet our needs and desires, and of those around us. We need means for that. If people are deserving of love and respect simply because they’re people (and I believe they are), then that must naturally apply to all people – all the many billions of them. That doesn’t then help you much when deciding which of those people you’ll go to in order to get your car or your kidney fixed. You can be a phenomenal wrench, but that doesn’t mean I have any bolts that need tightening.

Maybe Kant just meant that we should never reduce someone to only being a means; even if that’s the role they play for a day or a year in our lives, we should always remember that there’s a person of intrinsic value behind the white lab coat or flashy car. We should take a moment with every cup of coffee we buy or phone call we make to reflect on the real, breathing, complex person on the other end of that interaction. And treat them as they’d like to be treated.

The Long Way Home

Travel and exploration for the sake of travel and exploration is a good thing.

That old canard about only using 10% of our brains isn’t true. But we definitely use less than 10% of our environment. Whole streets we never drive down, whole stores we never go into. Whole forests we never smell, whole lakes we never cross.

Go get lost. Flip coins to see which way to turn at an old country road. Disable your GPS and look around.

This isn’t just for the sublime beauty of it. It’s also because your environment is useful. There’s all sorts of cool stuff out there that can make your life better, and it’s worth it to take a look around and see where it is. It’s worth it to see what fits with what.

Go wander.

Days Gone By

My oldest daughter is already one of these “holiday purists” who vehemently opposes the holiday creep of ever-earlier yule-tide decorations infringing on her Thanksgiving turkey or, heavens forbid, even her Halloween candy. The fact that homes and stores are already adorned with tinsel and holly offends her a great deal. I asked if she’d prefer that people wait until after Black Friday to decorate, and she was even more extreme: in her view, a week before any holiday is the earliest you should decorate for it.

I’m with her in spirit, but my reasons are different.

I’m a total humbug. The Grinch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Johnny Roccia. Not just Christmas, mind you. I’m generally not a fan of any particular holiday.

I would very much like to make some sort of principled stand against commercialism or capitalism ruining the pure spirit of any given holiday, but truth be told, the total reverse is true. I adore commercialism and capitalism. As far as the “spirit of the holidays” goes, I’m all for it – I like Christmas music, I like pretty lights, I like peppermint, I like a general sense of both mercy and wonder that we can let into our souls during the cold long nights of winter. That’s all great.

What I don’t like is disruption. I’m a creature of habit. If you’re one of the few strange travelers who reads this blog with any regularity (or just knows me outside of it), you’ll know that I very frequently force myself out of my comfort zone. I constantly solicit new experiences from the world – I go on adventures, I consume new content, I strike up conversations in elevators.

There’s a reason for that. It’s because it’s absolutely not in my nature to do so. I am very capable of living a very grey and featureless life and never really noticing. Because I believe there’s virtue in not doing that, I’ve set up a series of mechanisms by which I fight back against it. But the fact remains that all of those things are weapons I employ against my innate self, and it takes a great deal more mental strain and spiritual effort on my part than you may appreciate for me to do it.

The one thing all of those choices have in common, though, is that they’re… well, choices. I choose to go to new places, eat new foods, listen to new music. I create specific spaces in which those things happen, and I build a framework to support them. When outside things push me, I don’t always do well with it.

As an illustrative example: my wife and I once visited the Vatican. As a tourist, it’s very, very crowded – crowded to the point where you don’t have any choice but to move with the glacial tide of that crowd. You couldn’t stand still or move faster if you wanted to. My wife commented as we got out the other side that it was the worst she’d ever seen me – I looked ready to fight, fists clenched, jaw set, eyes narrowed, practically snarling. It wasn’t that at any point I was doing something I wouldn’t have wanted to do, but I didn’t feel in control.

It has perhaps, on occasion, been gently suggested to me that I may have something of an issue with control. I think the word “freak” may have been used in a less than complimentary manner. I do not dispute the accuracy of this claim, but it’s oddly specific in my case – I have no problem yielding control over pretty much anything… as long as yielding control was a conscious choice on my part. I can be the most “go with the flow” guy you’ll meet, but it’s because I decided to be. I’ll go anywhere, but I don’t like being pushed.

Holiday celebrations of any kind represent a forced disruption to my routine; a structural weak point in my framework. Obligations and events and costs and interactions that I don’t choose to have, even if I otherwise would. Some, even many of these things are downright pleasant when I’m able to let myself believe that I would have chosen them, but it doesn’t change the fact that not choosing them makes my skin crawl.

This definitely means that left to my own devices I’d celebrate no holidays of any kind. I don’t begrudge anyone else their celebrations – Grinch and Scrooge may have been a bit of an exaggeration, as I’ll enjoy any sparkling house I happen to pass – but it’s just not in my nature to decorate.

Of course, I’ll die nowhere near this hill. I recognize that this puts me so far outside the norm for my culture that there’s virtually no chance of me even explaining it without sounding like a huge jerk, so instead I try to make the conscious choice at the beginning of every holiday season to “go with the flow” for a few months and be okay with all of the disruption. Maybe even that’s good for me. No one can be in control all the time, and maybe the biggest holiday lesson I can learn is that it’s good for me to lose my grip a little each year.

Rabbits

I once heard an absolutely amazing piece of wisdom; supposedly a Russian proverb, so who knows its origin. Doesn’t matter – truth is truth no matter who says it. The quote is:

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

The first time I heard that, let me tell you – it sank in. Hit me like a ton of bricks, really. I was chasing, conservatively, about three dozen rabbits at the time. I was scattered and wasn’t giving anything the attention it needed to thrive.

Few things will bring success like single-minded focus. Whatever thing you’re doing, that has to be the thing you do. Distractions are a killer.

I don’t think this means that your life has to be so narrowly focused that you have no room in it for more than one objective. Rather, I think it means that everything needs to have its place, and that place has to be respected. When you’re working, work. When you’re reading, read. When you’re running, run.

I think it also means to keep your reach within your grasp. Set attainable goals. Your goal can be “catch rabbits,” and you can be single-minded in your pursuit of that goal, and still fail if you try to do too much. I see so many people fail in their goals because they don’t start with something reasonable and attainable. They discourage themselves because they try to be a hero about their task.

Set a reasonable goal, and then pursue it with all you’ve got. If you catch the first rabbit, you can always catch another. But one rabbit – and one rabbit only – has to be your first target.

Deserve

No one deserves anything.

I don’t find the concept of “desert” (in the “just deserts” sense) to be a meaningful or helpful concept. (I obviously find the concept of desert as an after-meal treat to be a highly meaningful concept.)

Appeals to desert fall on deaf ears. If the universe is in fact ruled by an intelligence beyond our own, they clearly don’t care about what we think we deserve in the earthly realm.

I don’t like to categorize ideas as “right” or “wrong.” Such a classification smacks of a hubris I’d rather not embrace. But I’m very comfortable categorizing ideas as either “helpful” or “unhelpful,” and desert is definitely an unhelpful idea.

You get what you work for, seasoned liberally with what random events dish out to you. Crying foul about your lot in life might be cosmically true, but no one is listening. No universal force will respond to your appeals. You just have to pick yourself up and try again.

And this isn’t some hopeful missive tainted with privileged naivete – I’m not saying “If you just keep at it you’ll eventually succeed!” No way. Many people try their whole lives and fail, unsuccessful and unfulfilled. I acknowledge it. I embrace it. Rather, this is simply helpful advice: what else can you do?

Every second spent grousing about injustice is a second you could have been building a boat. Sowing a garden. Learning a language. Hugging a friend. Telling a joke. Chase meaning or chase joy – chase both if you can catch them, but there’s never been a single instance of anyone getting what they deserved because the universe agreed with you.

Your existence begins anew every instant. Whatever your circumstances are right this very second, those are the starting conditions of your new life. If you see an injustice you can fix, fix it. If you can’t, fix something else. The noblest form of life is the person that says, “Everything about my life is terrible, and none of it is my fault – so I’m going to plant a tree.”

Notes, November 2019 Edition

Here’s some very cool music for you to enjoy. As always, no rhyme or reason (well, I guess some rhymes), but remember that listening to music that you don’t already know is one of our true exposures to the sublime.

Tragic Kingdom, by No Doubt. Gwen was, and still is, cool as hell. My long-standing love of that certain whiskey-and-cigarettes female vocal style very likely started here, but this album is so much more than that. It ranges all over and plays with so many different stylistic influences, and remains an absolute classic, so defining of its era. This is road trip music, heartbreak music, and party music – and few albums represent that kind of diversity while still being a cohesive whole.

The Grand Wazoo, by Frank Zappa. I’m certain Frank Zappa is not human. There’s no way the same process that evolved the rest of us could possibly have created that mind. Whatever unique combination of genetics and environment produced that genius, I’m thankful for it. This is a “jazz”(?) album by Zappa, and it’s so thoroughly deep it just takes over your thoughts while you’re listening. This isn’t background music. Put this on when you need your body to do one thing and let your mind take a trip, like working out or taking a 40-minute shower or something.

The Next Hundred Years, by Ted Hawkins. You can’t feel pain the way Hawkins can, but if you want to come close to the divine experience, listen to him sing about it. In the same way that working out damages your muscles in order to let them heal stronger, this will do that for your soul; damage it and then let it come back more robust than it was.

Plum, by Wand. If the Smashing Pumpkins were a Beatles tribute band, you’d get close to what this is all about. I’ve only just started living with this album in my rotation (and thank you for the recommendation!), but I’m enjoying the vibe so far. I definitely think they’re both talented and not afraid to mess around with structure a little, and that’s a good recipe.

The Black Parade, by My Chemical Romance. I’m a sucker for a good concept album; storytelling in this medium fascinates me. A lot of the songs on this album don’t stand well on their own, but the whole thing comes together so well as a complete tale. When I first listened to this album, it was definitely not cool for my demographic to like MCR, but that taught me a lesson as well – (not/)liking music because of your social demographic is so unbelievably dumb I can’t believe there was ever a part of me that entertained the idea. Great music is great no matter who listens to it.

Enjoy all that music has to offer, my friend. And if you offer me some suggestions in return, I won’t complain!

Superpowers

My daughter and I have a game that we play regularly, called “Let’s Make Stuff Up.”

It’s a pure imagination game. It has no object and you can’t win. The way it works is this: One of us (usually her) invents some fantastical concept, such as a tree in the center of the Earth that can grow all types of food or alien cars that can turn people into more alien cars, or (in today’s case) a ring that presents you with a choice between two super powers and then stipulates how you can use the one you pick.

Once the concept is created, the game is for me to ask her questions about that concept that she has to make up answers to, turning the concept ever more real. In the tree in the center of the Earth example, I asked her how people get to it, how much food it can produce, why that doesn’t destroy the economy of the world, what happens if bad people try to cut off access from it, etc.

The rules of the game are the rules of good storytelling – she’s not allowed to dodge questions or say “just because.” She has to develop her concept. The tree is a unique species that absorbs energy from the pressure at the center of the earth, and is both magical and sentient, so it can transform its energy and the minerals around it into whatever kind of edible material humans want. It is served by an army of “treemaids” (Like mermaids, but they swim in the lava and have leaves for hair) that keep anyone from restricting access to the tree; all are welcome. But if you’re bad, the tree only makes you bad food. You still get fed, but it tastes gross.

This is a fun game.

Today’s example – she invented a ring that grants a single super power. When you put the ring on, you’re presented with two choices via pop-up screens that each show a future image of you heroically using one of the two powers. You touch one of the screens, get that power, and that choice is forever removed from the ring. Then you have that power, but it vanishes if you try to use it for evil.

The next person that gets the ring gets a different choice – whichever power you didn’t choose, plus a new one to fill the other screen. In this way, no two people get the same power from the ring, so theoretically anyone can get any power, but only of two possible choices. You can’t trick the ring by taking it off and putting it back on again; it remembers you. If you don’t like your options and so you give the ring to someone else to pick first, you miss your chance and the ring won’t let you get any powers.

Running through it, she first chose Ice Powers (like Elsa from Frozen) out of a choice between that and Flight. I chose next, and picked Flight over Plant Control. My wife was not present, but my daughter decided that she would get “The ability to clone herself, except all the clones don’t get tired so she gets to sleep for everyone while the clones work.” My wife seemed extremely happy with the choice later.

Then my daughter mentioned teleportation as a choice, which raised the age-old question: which would you rather be able to do, fly or instantaneously teleport?

She immediately chose teleportation. Her reasoning: “That way, if you have to do homework but there’s a crime, you can just teleport right to the crime and stop it, and then go right back to doing your homework.”

I replied: “Yeah, but wouldn’t flying be so much more fun?”

She clapped back: “We’re not here to have fun. We’re here to fight crime.”

These karate lessons are paying off, people. My daughter is a vigilante-in-training, and I love it.

I love the super powers she invents, and I especially love the super powers she already has. Her unflagging moral compass (note how unprompted she always puts some sort of “you have to be a good guy” clause in her magic), her absolutely incredible imagination, and her riotous sense of humor. She’s a cool, noble kid – and that’s definitely the best power of all.

Except Ice Powers, of course.