51sqvxnwhhlCartoonist Scott Adams (Dilbert) has a unique take on, well, just about everything. I’m reading his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, which articulates some things I’ve suspected and taught me some new ones.

Adams’s approach in this book may itself be unique—at least I don’t think I’ve encountered it before. What he does quite deliberately is to lay out his thinking about life together with the events in his own life which led to that thinking. The result is a sort of intellectual memoir, but of an everyday practical sort—as he says, kind of the story of his life, but only the parts which ground his outlook.

One anecdote he tells I just love. It happened during a Dale Carnegie public speaking course:

Eventually someone volunteered, and then another. Our speaking assignment was something simple. I think we simply had to say something about ourselves. For most people, including me, this was a relatively easy task. But for many in the class it was nearly impossible.

One young lady who had been forced by her employer to take the class was so frightened that she literally couldn’t form words. In the cool, air-conditioned room, beads of sweat ran from her forehead down to her chin and dropped onto the carpet. The audience watched in shared pain as she battled her own demons and tried to form words. A few words came out, just barely, and she returned to her seat defeated, humiliated, broken.

Then an interesting thing happened. I rank it as one of the most fascinating things I have ever witnessed. The instructor went to the front and looked at the broken student. The room was dead silent. I’ll always remember his words. He said, “Wow. That was brave.”

My brain spun in my head. Twenty-some students had been thinking this woman had just crashed and burned in the most dramatically humiliating way. She had clearly thought the same thing. In four words, the instructor had completely reinterpreted the situation. Every one of us knew the instructor was right. We had just witnessed an extraordinary act of personal bravery, the likes of which one rarely sees. That was the takeaway. Period.

I’m with Adams. I wouldn’t have seen it that way. And I’m glad for the young lady, and for the lesson it teaches me, that the instructor had been trained to see more deeply than me into such a situation.

Talking to children

It’s been a long, long time since I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds all the way through. But last year while visiting my dad I watched about half of it on Turner Movie Classics (great channel!)—something came up, and I never got back to it.

It’s a good movie, but what struck me this time around is a snippet of dialog that is not really connected to the story, except maybe to throw a bit of light on Lydia (Mitch’s mom, who is none too thrilled about the budding relationship between Melanie and Mitch).

I’m not this way, you know. Not
usually. I don’t fuss and fret over
my children.
When Frank died…
You see, he knew the children, he
really knew them. He had the knack
of being able to enter into their
world, of becoming a part of them.

That’s a rare talent.


I wish I could be that way.

Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I’ve never seen that mentioned as a desirable parenting skill. And yet I’d say it’s at the core of how I relate to children, my own and anyone else’s. I don’t think I developed it until I had kids of my own—no opportunity to exercise it, really.

But since then I’ve learned to have long, respectful conversations with children of any age. Once I was working the sound system at a church, and after the service the pastor told me that he had come over to tell me something, then come back a few minutes later, then come back later a third time—and finally given up because while I was setting up I was also chatting with a seven-year-old whose father was out of town for the week. I was able to enter into her world enough to have a substantial conversation about what was going on in her life at the moment. It didn’t strike me as unusual, but it seemed very unusual to him (in a good way).

Put down that Flaming Sword of Righteousness!

I have a very short list of writers I treasure for their common sense. (These folks also write in a spare, flowing, lucid, and generally delightful way that I admire—I think there’s a connection.) I expect I’ll cite them often in the months to come, basing my own thoughts on things they’ve written.

Megan McArdle is one of them. I began reading her pieces in The Atlantic, and followed her when she moved to Bloomberg News. She writes about economics from a libertarian viewpoint, but never lets theory get in the way of practical, sensible thinking. And she is fearless about drawing illustrations from everyday life, so much so that they often interest me more than the political or economic topics she applies them to.

In a recent piece about political divisions and how to heal them, she began with this:

Shortly before I got married, I received a piece of sterling advice that I have been mulling a lot over the last year: “You have a big decision to make: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be right?”

Even a good marriage offers a lot of opportunities for grievance. Suddenly, you cannot make any major decision without consulting this other person — who will, inconveniently, often have very different ideas from yours about where to live, what to spend the money on, how to raise the children, and whether to turn the basement into a home theater space or a library. (The correct answer, for those who are wondering, is “library.”)

Although I grant that this leads solidly into her main topic, the illustration is way more interesting to me than political divisions. Marriage may be where we first confront this dilemma, but it really encompasses all relationships in a life—in the case of conflict what should be more important to us, peace or victory?

If you spend your marriage trying to ensure that everything is always rigorously fair and just, and grabbing the flaming sword of righteousness every time some minor wrong is done to you, you may soon find that you spend more time fighting than you would have picking up their towels or going into the other room to watch a movie because your spouse is in a bad mood. Or you may find that you have a peaceful, clean house that’s exactly as you want it — because you’re living there alone.

I can’t say when the shift began for me, but by now there is hardly any situation where I will insist on getting my way, or that someone else meet my standards. Which isn’t to say that I never steer things in a preferred direction, but only after due consideration of the needs and wishes of others. And I am always on the lookout for potential conflict, and will concede just about anything to avoid it.

A related point I’ve lately been trying to convey to my kids: too often we only bring fairness and justice to bear when it will gain us something. That is, I never hear “That’s not fair!” from the person who got the better part of the deal. Which is also why I’m reluctant to resolve any such conflict between kids with “fairness”. There’s a real temptation to dole out justice as a means of exercising power, making it clear that the household must be run according to my standards—something that itself could do more damage than the wrong I am supposedly righting.

One final observation: where McArdle writes “… do you want to be right?” I can only read it as “… do you want to win?” I’ve found it very helpful to remember that being right doesn’t require that anyone acknowledge I am right. And it is often more gracious and loving to yield to someone else’s notion—it’s rare that following any path forward, however suboptimal, will do more damage than wielding the flaming sword of righteousness against it.

The year ahead: 2017

After nearly a year of not writing regularly on this blog, I’ve decided I miss the exercise. I had vaguely hoped that not writing in public would spur me on to write in private, but it never happened. And recently I was reminded by some old blog posts that the steady practice yielded major benefits—I think more clearly now than then, and learned to convey those thoughts more clearly and directly. So I want to return to that frame of mind somehow. And I suppose that gives me my word for 2017: write!

Am I allowed more words? I’ll claim them anyway. The grandest one, lurking in the background and coloring all the rest, is mortality. I don’t know that I gave it much thought until I turned 60, but since then it has loomed ever larger, taking its place in my word pantheon alongside humility. In fact I suspect it was my long obsession with humility that enabled me to confront my mortality, even to begin getting comfortable with it—at least to move on from study to submission, getting on with the job of pulling together the threads of my story into some coherent whole. And so prune will be another word for 2017, looking at my too-scattered interests and whittling away those that won’t play a part in bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. Goodbye, theology! So long, philosophy! Studying you has been helpful, but rather than seeking out new knowledge I now need to take what I’ve already learned and practice it.

This year I won’t chart an elaborate plan as I did in 2016. It was a useful exercise then, but isn’t a comfortable fit right now. I’ll just note that my practical efforts will center on my health, physical and mental and spiritual. I will also be devoting much of my spare time to getting back into programming, in part to teach my kids how to do it, but also to prepare myself for (maybe) doing pro bono work when I retire in seven years. Those projects likely won’t yield much to write about, so I’ll need to lower the bar a bit when selecting topics. What I write will be lighter fare than in days past, but I’ll try to keep it helpful and at least mildly entertaining.

Bilge Ebiri, Slate Magazine

Something Godfrey Reggio told me, years ago, when I noted that his aesthetic in films such as Koyaanisqatsi had been co-opted by ads for everything from cars to gas utilities to aircraft companies: “We created a language to describe the beast, and the beast took our language and used it to describe itself.”

3Q2016 Review

This is the third and likely last recap using the framework I started with, since what I set out to do is either mostly done or was dropped from the list. Meanwhile, new games are afoot.

Word. It started as integrate, but morphed into re-evaluate. As the year wore on I turned up some large gaps in my knowledge—not new enthusiasms, but topics that aren’t covered well by my accustomed sources of wisdom. So I’ve been dipping into different wells, mainly Buddhist philosophy, evaluating its core principles against what I know … and re-evaluating what I know in light of what it teaches, at least the parts which ring true to me.

Studies. Mindfulness continues to be my main study, but I think I am familiar enough with the basics, and have identified teachers who are not only solid but accessible to my extremely Western mind. My reference shelf is now in place, and I’m adding mostly personal histories—biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs—seeking glimpses of how it feels to move this knowledge from head to heart.

Meditation. I’ve continued this daily for 180 days now, but without heroic inclinations. I’m pleasantly surprised that sitting upright on a cushion for 25 minutes is possible and even pleasant—that’s all the encouragement I need. My top goal right now is to continue—what I accomplish during a sitting is less important.

But not unimportant. I experiment with different suggestions about how to detach sufficiently to observe thoughts, emotions, sensations, and even observation itself. Progress is slow, but the process itself holds my attention, and I’m certain enough of the path that I don’t need short-term payback to keep me going.

At some point I would like to take the plunge and attend a 10-day silent retreat. That’s an easy goal to set, though, because it will be many years before my responsibilities will let me be completely out of touch for 10 days.

Writing privately. None. But I’ve had an idea or two about how to get back to blogging regularly.

Handwriting. For copywork, I started copying a short book that I’ve read twice now and regard highly, Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs. Wow, it takes awhile to do just a couple of paragraphs, at least for me! I am nearly through the first chapter. I only do this sporadically.

My other practice is copying my Twitter archive onto index cards. About five years ago I began using Twitter to record favorite aphorisms, collecting a thousand or so before deleting my account. But I did download my tweets beforehand, and a few weeks ago I thought it would be pleasant to work through them by copying them onto cards. I also have some vague hope that a library of index cards with good thoughts will be of help in organizing my thinking overall.

Eating. The new normal continues to be highly controlled eating during the day, then a normal meal with the family at supper. I no longer skip breakfast, not due to hunger or because I missed it, but because I wanted to increase the protein in my menu, and a simple way to do that was eat a bit less in the afternoon and add a high-protein morning item.

First I tried a couple of hard boiled eggs, which are fine but not as protein-filled as I’d like. Then I learned that tofu is very high in protein, and it turns out I like it a lot, especially accompanied by just a bit of soy sauce/rice vinegar/sesame oil. I also added cottage cheese to the rotation, also high in protein. And in the afternoon I kept the apple but dropped the banana and grapefruit in favor of 1/4 cup roasted salted soybeans.

Posture. Nothing to report beyond ongoing gratitude to Kelly Cumbee for introducing me to the Gokhale Method, which eliminated my back pain.

Walking. I continued my daily morning walk until the heat became too unpleasant—and during my summer visit to El Paso, it was very unpleasant, highs over 100 for the whole three weeks. Since returning to Kentucky I’ve walked off and on, depending on the temperature, and now that it’s cooled off for good I’m walking daily for 30 minutes. Definitely a habit now.

If we define meditation broadly as practicing being in the moment, then I have begun experimenting with meditative walking. That is, I work at staying focused on the walking and the sensations it brings, rather than allowing a train of thought to carry me into the future or the past or just off into some fantasy.

Garden. The potato yield was disappointing, maybe 2:1, but the potatoes themselves are fantastic, full of flavor, dense rather than watery. Tomatoes as always were well worth growing, and not much trouble—early and diligent weeding kept the plot clear for the rest of the summer. We ate tons but had more than enough, with the first ones ready about August 15, and the last picked on September 30. I’ll be dreaming about them as I shift back to store bought in my salads.

I don’t know if we’ll plant garlic again this fall, since last year’s yield was so pitiful.

Board games. The kids are interested in other things for now, which is fine with me since I’m only mildly interested in the games, they were just an excuse for a shared activity. But we have plenty of those.

2Q2016 Review

On New Year’s Day I wrote a post laying out some paths I expected to follow in the year to come. Three months later I wrote a first-quarter review, and now it’s time to recap the second three months.

Word. I don’t know now if integrate will be the word for the year. It served me well for the first four months, but as I worked on integrating what I’ve learned I also discovered some important gaps that needed filling, so I’ve focused more on that this quarter. Once I get comfortable with the groundwork I’m doing in those areas I may return to integration–but there’s no rush, since the groundwork turns out to be its own reward.

Studies. One of the items on the original list was mindfulness, and as I reviewed what I knew, I discovered I was ignorant of vast swaths of the territory. So I set out to remedy that, both in knowledge and in practice, by taking an extended tour of western Buddhist thinking.

I have no interest in Buddhism as a religion, only as a psychology and an epistemology. Fortunately for me there is a 50-year tradition of westerners who have approached Buddhist thought, stripped it of its religious elements, and translated the rest into a western-friendly framework. Writers I’ve found especially valuable for this are Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor, Mark Epstein, and Daniel Ingram. A good popular introduction is Dan Harris’s book, an entertaining memoir that gently but accurately conveys the basics of vipassana (insight) meditation and Buddhism.

Anyway, I’ve read a lot of introductory material about Buddhism, and my to-read stack is still pretty deep.

Meditation. Buddhist thought has a heavy practical/empirical emphasis. Over and over again you will hear teachers (and the Buddha himself) say, “Don’t take my word for it, try it out and judge the results for yourself.” Seems fair, so I began daily meditation (90 days ago, according to my timer app). I don’t have much to say about this yet, except that (a) I’ve found it worth continuing, even working at, and (b) without the practical experience I don’t think I would understand much of what the Buddhists are actually saying.

Some practical notes:

  • The moment I finished Dan Harris’s book I sat down for a 10-minute session, and have meditated daily since, so it goes on my short list of Books That (Actually) Changed My Life.

  • I started in a chair, and everyone says a chair is just fine. Although I generally use a cushion now there are times when a chair is more convenient, and the session is no less for it.

  • One reason I started in a chair was that I worried my back wouldn’t tolerate sitting on the floor. Now I find that I prefer the floor. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the year-plus I’ve spent on improving my posture using Esther Gokhale’s method.

  • Six weeks in I signed up for a beginner’s course meeting weekly in Louisville (two more sessions to go). I already knew most of what the teacher has said, but hearing it from a teacher in the company of students is different and has been helpful. It is also a good way to break the ice regarding group meditation, something that might be otherwise intimidating for a first-timer.

Writing Privately. None of this. Perhaps this is because I’m currently busy learning and digesting … or perhaps that is just an excuse.

Handwriting. I finished Fred Eager’s exercises for both calligraphic and cursive script, but since then have not worked on this, partly because the time I used to spend on it now goes to meditation and reading, partly because of laziness. I still expect to resume this, in the form of copywork, but not right away.

Eating. My eating routine continues to be the new normal—or, really, slightly below normal, since I have lost another 5 pounds over the course of three months, with a bit more still to go. I don’t think about it in pounds anymore, though I weigh myself daily as part of monitoring myself. What needs to go now are small deposits of fat here and there, a few pounds total (I’m guessing). And I really don’t care how long it takes for them to go, as long as they are going and not returning. I no longer prepare a separate supper for myself, but almost always eat whatever the family is having. But I still skip breakfast, eat a salad for lunch, and fruit in the afternoon, and I expect to continue that pattern from now on.

Posture. I don’t work on this actively, and there are parts of Esther Gokhale’s method I have not tried at all yet. But I continually monitor myself based on what I’ve learned from her method, and I think it has changed my posture for the better. I stand and walk differently, and am able to sit on a stool without a back for long periods without pain. And bouts of back pain seem to be a thing of the past.

Walking. This is now a daily morning routine, 30 minutes in Frankfort and an hour in El Paso, walking the neighborhood. I don’t fret about missing a day when the weather is bad or the timing is inconvenient—rare enough occasions—but I never skip a walk out of sheer laziness. Part of what has helped me stick with it is that I don’t view walking as a calorie-burning activity—I do it for general health, maintaining flexibility, getting some fresh air, having an enforced break, trying out concentration techniques, etc. I’ve come to enjoy it.

Garden. The potatoes grew like crazy, and the vines are beginning to die back one variety at a time. We’ll probably be digging the first ones in a few weeks. Our homegrown seedlings, on the other hand, did not grow properly. Fortunately Maggie had some extras from her own garden which she contributed to ours, so we have fifteen plants which need to be staked in the next few days. None of the greens made it, but Elizabeth loves to grow basil so I picked up some seedlings for her at Lowes, and they are doing well. The horse manure composted well and we’ve been using it on the garden. Chris is away for the summer, but when he returns I expect he will haul multiple loads to the house so we’ll have it for next year.

Board games. These have tailed off, with the kids forgetting as they find other things to occupy themselves with. But I keep myself available on Sundays, and when they remember I play a few rounds with them.