The year in review: 2015

I don’t think I’ve ever done an end-of-year post before. Often they sound to me like Christmas letters, sanitized and self-promoting. But my previous post summing up what we’ve learned over the past ten years has put me in a reflective mood, I suppose. And I’ve recently recommitted myself to following David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) discipline, which includes a time where you review the past week’s work and plan for the next week. And I’ve also come across suggestions online from trusted sources that an end-of-year review can be helpful in spending the next one productively.

So below I’ve gathered and summarized the past year’s accomplishments and failures, which I’m glad to share for the sake of accountability and perhaps inspiring others who are dealing with similar challenges. But please keep in mind these are mostly notes to myself. I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit, not expecting anyone to read from beginning to end. I plan to follow this one with a second post (much shorter!) reviewing what I hope to get done in 2016.

Our cash flow went positive. This is not so much a specific accomplishment as it is a notable turn of events, the result of many other efforts converging. When we set out in 2001 to find a different way to live, our cash flow immediately went negative and stayed that way—intentional, but still scary at times. Not that we lived entirely off savings, but the things we did for income produced varying amounts, and never covered our expenses. But for many different reasons our expenses continued to drop, and eventually I found a path which produced a small but steadily growing income while still allowing me to do meaningful work of my own choosing. And it’s been comforting to watch our bank balance go from ever shrinking, to hovering at a nervously low level, to slowly but steadily increasing again, all without extraordinary measures on our part. On our small budget we can eat well and buy all the things we need and many that we’d just like to have—but, of course, that ability depends heavily on what we’ve come to think of as eating well and things we need and things we’d just like to have.

I got my eating under control. This was big for me, as you might imagine. I started this effort at the beginning of October 2014, have lost 80+ pounds so far, and expect to lose another ten or so, probably by mid-March, before adjusting my eating so that I stay stable. As with many of these items, there is much I could say. But here are a few observations about the experience.

  • I call it “getting my eating under control” rather than “dieting” or “losing weight” because that describes my approach, one I think was critical to both current and future success. Before this my eating tended to control me, though in subtle ways. I wasn’t powerless before food, but I looked at it in ways that limited my control—as a reward, a treat, a comfort, something I deserved or had earned, an indulgence, an entertainment, a defense against hunger, a defense against boredom, something to appreciate the finer points of, and on and on. Now the only essential thing to me about food is that it is fuel, i.e. in order to live I need to eat a certain amount. Saying it that way probably gives the wrong impression, suggesting that I am now indifferent to food. Disinterested might be a better word. I still enjoy what I eat as fully as can be—but I can also leave my favorite food untouched if that’s what circumstances call for, e.g. I’ve eaten enough.

  • I used a scale to track my progress, but after awhile only to be sure my weight wasn’t rising. There were occasional short stretches when the needle didn’t budge, and the rate slowed towards the end. I started out with a target number in mind, but a bit of research taught me a couple of things. First, my target number, or imaginary ideal weight (where I had been when I got married) was about twenty pounds too high, based on the weight charts. And second, it wasn’t really the scale number I should be concerned about, but excess body fat. As I approach the end I can see very clearly the amount and locations of what body fat remains, and so I am only guessing that I have another ten or so pounds to go—the true goal is to have that fat gone, whatever the ends up landing on the scale.

  • I generally do my eating between 11am and 5:30pm, starting with a large salad at lunch, followed by an apple, banana, and grapefruit during the afternoon, and then a modest supper. There’s nothing sacred about that menu, but it’s easy for me to follow, and after lunch I’m no longer hungry, not even when I first wake up in the morning. I get hungry towards lunch, but I view that as a positive practice. There have been occasional times when I’ve had to go hungry much longer before eating, and it doesn’t bother me much—it’s just hunger, and I know I’ll eat before any true physical problems like faintness set in.

  • I look at my current pattern as the default from here on. The main change when I’m done losing weight will be no longer preparing a separate supper but just eating a modest amount of what the rest of the family is eating. What gives me hope for continued success is that even now I don’t feel deprived. I like my salad, and my fruits. I watched birthday desserts and Christmas cookies and pies and cakes go by, perfectly content. (In fact, I expect I’ll be skipping those things from now on, just to make room for calories in forms I prefer.) There is nothing in particular I’m looking forward to eating “once the diet is done.” I ate both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner as the family did, but eating modestly—plenty of my beloved turkey, a little stuffing, a little sweet potatoes, some corn and green beans, a buttered roll—that was more than enough.

I made GTD a regular practice. I’ve written before about David Allen’s approach to planning, called Getting Things Done (GTD). It is a discipline, not a panacea, and only provides benefits to the extent one practices it properly and diligently. If you haven’t made it a habit the practice is an easy one to let slide, and especially in this day and age the path to making something like GTD a habit is vague and puzzling. I’ve tried multiple times without succeeding.

But this time around it seems to be sticking. Most important, there were bits and pieces of the practice I had continued to do for their own sake, e.g. keeping a todo list, zeroing my inbox daily. And I kept reading advice other GTD practitioners had to give. A common refrain among them, which originated with Allen himself, is that “If you aren’t doing the weekly review, you aren’t really doing GTD.” And that most people who fail at GTD do so because they don’t do weekly reviews. I heard the refrain often enough that I finally decided to settle down and figure out why that was, and what I needed to do to establish the habit.

A weekly review is nothing more than a set-aside period of time where you do no work, but simply gather together all the relevant information (emails and such), then review in detail the things you accomplished last week, plan your tasks for the week ahead, and brainstorm about longer-range things. Simple, but also vague and superficially non-productive, making it easy to finesse. I decided to simply set aside a time for it for a season, where I would worry less about whether I was doing it right and more about not doing anything else during that time. These days we have a two-hour stretch on Sundays between breakfast and leaving for church, so that was the time I designated.

After two months, I’m comfortable that the habit is established, and also that it was the missing piece. GTD insists that you look at all your responsibilities, figure out the next thing you need to do for each one, and put those things on a list. The genius is this: once you’ve done that, you can rest assured that everything is covered. No more wondering about what you should do next—it has to be one of the things on the list. No more wondering if there is something you ought to be doing—if it isn’t on the list, you don’t need to be doing it.

Imagine if you could go through life not worrying about what you should be doing, or if you were missing something! I think the key role played by the weekly review is that, beyond helping to insure that everything is covered, it builds your confidence that this is really true. Spend enough time repeating the cycle—and seeing the truth confirmed in your everyday life—helps you achieve a very high level of peace. I had this peace partially through my imperfect efforts, and the 1-2 hours I now spend reviewing the week pays back in almost total peace that things are under control, which allows the energy previously spent on worry to be spent on new things.

I learned how Christian character can be developed. This is something I’ve written about a lot on this blog during the past year, so I won’t repeat it. The main turning point for me was rediscovering Dallas Willard. As I caught up with his later books and re-read the rest, all the bits and pieces began to fall into place. I’m working my way through his books again, and it still rings true. My sole objection is that Willard was only partly successful in making his insights concrete—which is really to say: if only his life had been three times as long! So there’s much more work for me to do in order to realize those truths in my own life. Work I continue to do.

I learned how to read about Zen. Again I’ve written about this before on this blog, so I won’t repeat it. Simply put, I was finally able to make the connection between the Zen vision of harmonious living and my own growing understanding of the Christian life as a matter of aligning oneself with God’s economy. One happy result was that when I started looking into kindness as a key Christian virtue, I was able to recognize as I did some research how important kindness is as a Zen concept.

I learned a different way to read the Bible. I haven’t mentioned this much, and won’t go into detail here. But a friend pointed me to the work of Andrew Perriman, and in effect gave me new eyes through which to see the Biblical story. Perriman’s narrative-historical hermeneutic didn’t turn my understanding upside down so much as it realigned my thinking with Scripture. Things fit together much better now, to the point where I feel like I have a handle on the truth and don’t need to dig any deeper. I continue to read Perriman and other theologians with interest, but not looking for answers—rather, I’ve turned my attention fully to accounts by folks who are trying to live out a particular Christian vision.

I improved the health of my back. I’ve had back trouble for a long time now, every few years being immobilized for multiple days by back pain. I never did anything about it besides being slow to get completely upright in the morning and moving cautiously the rest of the day. Then during 2014 I became increasingly uncomfortable sitting at my desk, something I needed to do all day—not just back pain, but general aches and pains.

This was around the same time we began hearing the refrain “sitting is the new smoking”. I don’t believe that—as Esther Gokhale points out, sitting is not exactly a recent innovation—but it put the spotlight on deskwork and pointed out some alternative approaches, in particular standing desks. I figured any option that got me out of my chair was worth exploring, so I put together one of these. (Actually, I use a second IKEA table to hold my second monitor, so my standing desk cost me about $40 total … but, still!) Because I have both a desktop computer for working in Frankfort plus a laptop computer I use to take my work with me to El Paso when I visit my dad, I set up both computers in Frankfort, one at the standing desk and one at a normal table, and switch between them. In El Paso I set the laptop on a single-table standing desk and a connected monitor/keyboard on the table beside it, allowing me to switch between standing and sitting, but giving me only one screen rather than my usual two.

This has been a major success. It took awhile to get used to standing while working, and when concentrating deeply I still prefer to sit, but I probably spend half or more of my computer time standing. For those who might explore this possibility, some notes:

  • Both at my standing and sitting desks I elevate my monitors so that the top of the screen is more or less level with the top of my head, allowing me to look straight on without tilting my head, seeing all parts of the screen by moving my eyes. As monitor stands I use stacked reams of printer paper from Sams, making the stand roughly adjustable, and using three per stand at $2.50/ream, it’s a cheap and solid solution.

  • I splurged on a quality desk mat, which keeps me very comfortable while standing for hours.

  • I also keep a children’s step stool at my feet so I can vary how I stand—which I do, and it helps a lot.

After using the standing desk for awhile, I happened to mention it to my boss, who also has back problems. He told me that his own problems had mostly gone away once he started regularly doing “core exercises” . I had to Google it, of course, and came across this particular slideshow of exercises, which strike me more as stretching routines than exercises—just my speed! So I began spending 20 minutes each morning on this—it’s a regular practice now, and I think it has helped a lot, replacing the hour or so it used to take me to slowly get upright.

After mentioning all this here on the weblog, my friend Kelly gave me the best gift of all, a reference to Esther Gokhale’s work. I watched an hour-long presentation she gave at Google, then a couple of other videos, then bought and read her book. I’m a convert! Gokhale’s approach is precisely tuned for a pre-modern geek such as myself, one who marveled when he learned about Weston Price’s work. (The idea? Basically, if you’re wondering about the source of and remedy for a modern malady, study one or more pre-modern cultures that doesn’t suffer from it.) Gokhale’s method is to encourage a certain kind of posture common to pre-moderns and still seen around the world today in less industrialized societies. I’ll spare you the details, but I’ve slowly incorporated her ideas into my own sitting, standing, and walking, and though there’s a lot of work left to be done I can feel benefits, and have been able to establish some new habits.

One thing Gokhale suggests is “stacksitting”, sitting upright without leaning against the back of a chair. To build that habit I switched over this summer to sitting on this IKEA stool at my desks. It is the right thing, but lack of core strength plus bad habits made it difficult for me to do properly—I would start out sitting upright, but soon would be slumped and then uncomfortable, eventually remembering to sit upright again. I didn’t track my behavior closely enough to know if I was improving at all. Then just last week I read about this gizmo, basically a back brace that makes it easy and comfortable to sit upright. Mine came yesterday, and so far I’m thrilled—it feels good just to use it, though it puts enough pressure on the knees/shins that I’ll need to build up some stamina. Users also claim that the effect carries over, i.e. that your posture will become better even when you aren’t using it. We’ll see. It’s compact, and definitely coming with me to El Paso, where I find sitting around even more difficult.

I returned to programming. Even after leaving the corporate world in 2001 I tried to keep my hand in as a programmer, but only as a hobbyist—no one else needed me to write programs for them, and I had little need of such programs in my own life. But when I took on the job of managing a network of bluegrass teachers, I could see that much of the job could and should be automated, and after spending the first two years developing office procedures I spent the next two creating a program-backed website to do them for me. That has given me a lot of unexpected pleasure, since it’s an area where I have both natural gifts and decades of experience to draw on.

In 2015 I continued that work, plus took on a side job as on-call IT guy and webmaster for Earth Tools, a locally-based seller of walk-behind garden tractors. I ported their main website to a new server, created an online store for them, and am about to give the main website a major overhaul. I am also sometimes able to help shoestring operations I like with their websites, such as EcoFriendly Foods, the farm where Maggie is now working.

I don’t expect to be seeking out such business in the short term, but work such I’ve done above puts me in a good position to do that if it ever becomes necessary. (As I mention below, I need to continue working for at least another eight years, until I hit 70.)

I started gardening again. Since we moved from the farm in May of 2012 we didn’t plant a garden that year, and continued not to plant one until this year. It was pleasant, in a lazy and self-indulgent way. But I recognized that it wasn’t healthy not to be growing food when it was an option, and so I took re-starting the garden as an opportunity to think hard about how to approach it in a way that would be incremental, sustainable, foundational, and above all enjoyable and satisfying.

We decided to plant tomatoes, the only homegrown produce I dearly missed. We plowed up a small bit of land right out the back door, where we would constantly see it. We bought some seedlings from Lowes, and dealt with the consequences of that bad decision (fungus problems all season). We planted eighteen plants, easy enough to maintain yet still producing more than we could eat. I made a point of diligently weeding in the early weeks—very easy, with so few plants—and experienced the blessing of a nearly weed-free garden for the rest of the year. The work took perhaps 10-15 minutes a day, less as the season went on, and we enjoyed a bounty of garden fresh tomatoes from late July through late September.

The project was successful enough that we’re certainly motivated to do another garden in 2016, a bit more ambitious, a bit more thoughtfully managed. I remembered in time to order some stiffneck garlic seed, which the kids planted in this year’s plot last month. The prospects of next year’s harvest, plus the many blessings that flowed from growing some of our own food, and thinking about it deeply from seed to plate, made the practice far more to me than a matter of putting delicious tomatoes back on the menu.

I began visiting my dad regularly. This began in January 2014, just after he had a health scare (which ended well, he’s again as healthy as an 86yo could hope to be). I started making long visits to him, partly to lend support but mostly to offer company. This eventually became a three-weeks-every-three-months pattern, which continues.

Although the change in pattern was ostensibly for the sake of my dad, I benefited in many ways. It was good that I was forced to look around and come to a quick decision to make the change, and to figure out how to make it work. It was good to decide things solely on the basis of what was helpful to others, both here and elsewhere, and still find a solution that was workable and even beneficial for me. It has been good for me to commit to spending extended stretches of time living in a way I wouldn’t normally choose, and still find a way to make it pleasant and edifying. It has been and continues to be good to get to know my dad better.

One unexpected benefit was that it prodded me to clean up my working procedures. I now have a setup where I can work on either of two computers while in Frankfort, or throw my laptop into a bag and take everything to a customer elsewhere in town, or to El Paso, and continue my work uninterrrupted. Plus copies of my data all live contentedly in three locations—the laptop, the desktop, and the cloud. Much better than it used to be.

I confronted my mortality. My dad’s health scare came as I was about to turn 60, encouraging me to spend some time pondering the fact that my own time here is limited and drawing to a close. For years now nothing has filled me more with dread than the prospect of being caught up in the modern healthcare system. And as I age that becomes ever more likely, so I’ve started to do what I can to ward it off—hence the weight loss and the back work. I’ve also tried to get smarter about how the healthcare system works, how to avoid needing its tender mercies, and what if any alternatives still exist.

If I could get folks to read just one book about this, it would be Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which will probably surprise you as it tells truths about being elderly in today’s society.

And if I could ask people to do just one thing to prepare for their golden years, it would be to become thoroughly familiar with their own Social Security situation. I happen to think that SS will continue to be around in more or less its current form for many years, and I have no qualms about using it. And the two most important facts I’ve learned about SS lately are: (1) Although I am eligible for the “full benefit” at age 66 (your situation will vary), the amount will actually increase each year I choose to defer it, up to age 70; and (2) A surviving spouse can choose to receive either the amount their own benefit, if any, or the amount of the other person’s benefit, which they will receive until they die. Given that Debbie is seven years younger than me and will therefore receive my benefit for many years after I’m gone, I would do best to maximize it by waiting until age 70 before taking it.

I stopped performing music. The stopping began in early 2014, when I started making regular visits to El Paso to visit my dad—being gone for multiple weeks at a time made for unpredictable gaps in our schedule, and, well, after four straight years of weekly performances we were ready for a break. Taking a break felt good. And then a regional bluegrass band asked Chris to fiddle for them, so he did that through the end of 2014 and it was enough music for him.

This year we both stayed stopped, mostly, with Chris moving on to other things himself. We reunited briefly for a few weeks in June when a Lexington restaurant asked us to play one of their events, partly for the fun, partly to make sure we could still do it. We rehearsed for a week, played a church picnic, plus two Sundays at our old coffeeshop venue, then the restaurant gig—and then we were done, glad to have done it but just as glad to have the time back again.

Thus concludes a project which began nearly 13 years ago. I could probably write a book about the value both Chris and I gained from it—if I ever see any value in writing such a book.

I stopped looking for Christian community. This began in September 2014, when we moved to a local Baptist church simply because it was nearby, as an acknowledgment that we no longer getting any spiritual sustenance from church attendance and weren’t likely to in the future, but still holding out hope that spending time with our neighbors might lead to something more. That hasn’t happened, but attending Sunday services down the street is not a burden, is a good family practice for the younger kids, and holds some interest to me as an observer (the church is old and dying, very sweet people who seem to know that the old patterns no longer work but have no idea how to proceed).

So I hadn’t quite stopped looking when we made the move, but have come around to that thinking over the course of 2015. Over the years I’ve seen various sorts of promise in different forms of Christian communal living, and we’ve tried a few—but none have delivered on the promise for us, and meanwhile we figured out a way to live and flourish as a family. I don’t rule out the possibility of finding a deeper Christian life than we currently live in some sort of community, for others or even for ourselves. We wouldn’t turn down more, but what we currently have is enough—I think.

I stopped writing publicly. This was mainly a decision to focus my writing energy elsewhere, or at least a certain sort of it. A post like this may be a good example, being more a set of notes to myself which I’m glad to share. Before I would have taken the time and effort to tighten things up, address the reader properly, and say more substantial things. That approach now needs to be applied to pieces of writing which I think are best developed privately. The blog will catch the rest. Which may be liberating, or may eventually lead to radio silence—I’m not sure yet.

I failed to walk regularly. I got a start on this, but failed to establish it as a habit and it went away. Mostly I didn’t want it enough, and tried to make up the difference with will power, which never works for me in the long term. I enjoy walking when the weather is good, not too warm and not too cold. I started in El Paso this past winter, with temps ranging from cool to nicely warm. During a winter stretch in Frankfort I toughed it out, sometimes walking in box stores just to get the steps in—those two things told me I’d have a problem later on. Finally it got hot in Frankfort and very hot in El Paso, and I found reasons to let the walking slide.

I do want to give it another go. I will probably start up during my next visit to El Paso, which comes in a few weeks, and then maybe continue at a local indoor walking track when I get back. But it still sounds dutiful, which is where failure begins for me. I want to want to take a daily walk, and still haven’t put together the pieces to get there. I hope that a short season of dutiful walking will give me further insight into what else I’ll need so that can happen.

I failed to learn Spanish. Having spent a quarter of my time for the past two years in the perfect place to learn and practice Spanish, I have still done basically nothing about this. I have a list of priorities, and this one never rises to a level where I decide to spend time advancing it. This is disappointing, but I know exactly what has to happen before I will make progress—something else has to go on the back burner. And so far I’ve preferred the things I’m currently doing to the task of learning Spanish. But the years stretch out ahead, and I hope that as other projects are completed this one will rise high enough up the list for me to turn to it.

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4 thoughts on “The year in review: 2015

  1. Perhaps your walking will be encouraged if you use the time to focus in a particular way — say, intercessory prayer, or an appreciation of God’s creation (I’m a Charlotte Mason-type homeschooler). I’m thinking about perhaps learning a bit about something that interests you (Birds? See Jon Young’s Bird Language Basics DVD, which is awesome; Clouds? Lots of great resources out there; Stars? Trees? Seeing Trees is a great book; Etc.) Even just exploring with your senses — I’m thinking of Franklin Sanders’ Dogwood Mudhole books, as his very sensitive nose can tell him about the latest flowers in bloom, etc. Just looking at manmade stuff can be far more interesting that you’d think. Check out Outside Lies Magic, by John Stilgoe — just a single one of the essays will be worth your time to explore all the possibilities of seeing the manmade landscape with new eyes.
    We bought a canoe this fall from an older gentleman and his wife, who lived on a little lake. They told us that every day, they walk all the way around it (4 miles). Think of the intimate knowledge they have of the movements of the water, the flora, the fauna, etc. over so many years of living there. It makes me think of Wendell Berry walking his property over so many decades, delightedly discovering and rediscovering with each walk, as the seasons turn. It seems sometimes we need new eyes to appreciate what has been there all along.
    It may also help to bear in mind the Nordic saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Being intentional about outfitting yourself for any weather so you are comfortable (or, as comfortable as you can be) may help, too.
    I read Being Mortal this year, too — it is as excellent as you say. If you haven’t seen it, I’d highly recommend listening to RadioLab’s podcast called The Bitter End, in which he discusses a survey of several hundred medical doctors, done by a few fellow doctors, on what end-of-life care they would prefer. The results were quite unexpected, and the reasons were, to my mind, quite shocking and deserve to be better known.
    Thanks for the thoughts you do share here, and the honesty and transparency with which you write. Your wrestling to find the right philosophy and put shoe leather on it never fails to inspire me to give consideration to how that could/should play out in my own life.

  2. I have heard good things about GTD from a few other people — I bought the book and went so far as to do the brain dump, but I don’t think I did anything beyond that. This year when I was KonMari’ing my house I threw all that out. I don’t even remember what it was when I wrote that stuff down. Maybe I’ll try just doing the end of week review for a bit and see if that helps me focus. I feel so scattered. I’ve done a bit of journaling this year, but for me journaling is more about processing my emotions, so I never want to reread that junk. Whenever I fill a book (I buy those sewn composition books when Walmart has them for 50 cents a piece) I send it out with the burn trash. Good riddance. But maybe a GTD-style review would be productive.

    I’m glad the Gokhale book has been so helpful. I first heard about it from the Deputy Headmistress, and it’s been a great help to me too. It’s made me realize how badly we Americans use our bodies. Unless our kids are involved in some sport or are learning a musical instrument from a teacher who emphasizes good form they’re not likely to learn anything beyond “sit up straight,” and I think most parents don’t even bother with that any more.

  3. Kelly,

    As I said above, the genius of GTD is that if you do it thoroughly and diligently, you can have almost perfect peace that everything you need to do will come to your attention at the proper time, no need to worry about it until then. The “thoroughly and diligently” sounds daunting, but it really isn’t, as long as one keeps in mind that it is a system for managing what one is actually doing/will be doing, and freeing up the psychic energy usually spent on constantly revisiting one’s responsibilities to be sure that no balls are being dropped. It can take awhile to inventory all the projects you currently have in process, but after that the weekly review is just a matter of looking over what you did, updating your list of next things to do, and (optionally) a bit of brainstorming about what else you might be able to add into the mix—or, on some inspired days, subtract from it!

    These days I am able to focus on my to-do list, which reliably tells me what needs doing next … and when I cross off the last item, I know nothing else is waiting for my attention.

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