1Q2016 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 have gone by, so I thought it would be good to take time for an update.

My word for the year is still integrate, and much of my time has been spent doing that. I’ve been reviewing what I’ve learned over the years, identifying what appears to be valuable, filling in gaps, and working to match theory with practice.

Studies. I wrote that I expected to focus on

  • Zen and Christianity (especially presence and mindfulness)
  • disciplines for building Christian character
  • non-sacramental approaches to Christian living

That has happened, in large part because one item on the list leaped to the front and absorbed most of the time I’ve had for study. Looking more deeply into mindfulness ended up bringing the rest along with it—presence, disciplined character-building, non-sacramental aspects of Christian life—by pushing me to understand and digest what Buddhists have known about life and the mind for 2500 years, much of which is poorly addressed in Christian writings, much of which is not in conflict with Christian beliefs.

At some point I’ll put together a short list of resources that can take Christians on a fairly safe tour of Buddhist thinking. This is a good example of content I would like to populate my braindump website with. So far, however, I’ve spent very little time developing the site itself.

Writing privately. I’ve done very little of this, mostly because I don’t know yet how to approach the task. I’ve kept a journal, starting out with daily entries but recently moving to less frequent updates because so far it is almost strictly a record of what I’ve done, something I’m only mildly interested in having. Since I’m writing in the journal regularly but not at any depth, at least I know there’s nothing burning to get out! At some point I will think about ways to actively dig for such material, and whether I should make the effort or not.

Handwriting. This has gone surprisingly well. I haven’t had the time or the urge to practice it daily—the explicit lessons, I mean, which take 30-45 minutes—but often I will do several days in a row, and if I miss more than a couple of days I will feel (and succumb to) an urge to get back to it. I’m practicing italic script with an edged pen now, what Fred Eager calls calligraphic script, and and am close to embarking on what he calls cursive script, a smaller hand with connected letterforms that can be used for everyday writing.

Copywork. I’ve done a little bit of this, but since I’m using calligraphic script right now it takes quite a while to get a little done. (Mostly what I’ve copied is some excerpts from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.) Once I get cursive italic script under my belt I expect to do much more, some combination of scripture and good writing that I’d like to emulate.

Health. I continue to eat well, and feel now that my routine is the new normal. I’m now down 95 pounds, with another 5 or so to go—I’m guessing, since I don’t go by the number on the scale but the remaining areas of flab on my body. And I reintroduced walking, starting with a daily hour-long walk during my last visit to El Paso, then continuing at a local church walking track when I returned in mid-February. And now that the weather is better I’m walking the neighborhood again.

Garden. More ambitious this year, but still not extremely so. Last year was primarily tomatoes, plus garlic over the winter. This year the major additions are potatoes, both in the ground and in barrels, and greens (lettuce and kale). Chris has taken charge of planning and execution, though we’re all pitching in. The plot is expanded, but still right out the back door to serve as a constant reminder. One priority this year is to enrich the soil, so we’ve begun composting in earnest. We save kitchen scraps and add them to a compost barrel. Chris has found a source of horse manure only ten minutes from home, as much as we care to haul. And since our home-made compost won’t really be available this year, we bought a pickup truck load of already-composted racehorse manure.

Board games. True to my word, we’ve played them every Sunday afternoon this year. For the first two months it was Catan after lunch and Carcassonne after supper. Then in March we added Ticket to Ride to the mix, alternating it with Catan.

Unlimited time for myself

This anecdote has meant so much to me in the 20+years since I first read it that I am surprised I haven’t posted it here before. It appears at the very beginning of The Miracle of Mindfulness, where writer Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a visit he had with his friend Allen.

“Is family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood.

Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

I don’t remember if this was a brand new thought to me when I first read it, but it was close to that. I don’t know if it was the anecdote itself that radically changed my thinking about how to live life properly, but it came at about the same time that my thinking changed. Regardless, it encapsulates two things I came to believe deeply:

  • Life is all about living for the sake of others
  • That’s where you’ll find your happiness

Follow the directions

I mentioned before that one of my projects for the year is to improve my handwriting. I’ll write a longer, more detailed post about the process at some point. The first step was to work through the last book in the Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting Series, which we’ve used to teach all our kids. That was quite enjoyable, and cleaned up my handwriting quite a bit.

Then I moved on to The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting: Cursive and Calligraphic by Fred Eager, who is quite adamant in his book that you follow his instructions to the … uh, letter! I was skeptical of his insistence, but was in no hurry to get the job done either, so I determined that I would do just as he said.

The first section uses a broad round-nib pen to teach the letter shapes, tracing and then copying them. The grid is huge, three lines on wide-ruled paper for ascender/body/descender, and my hand is unsteady enough that I found this part very frustrating. The results were shaky and ugly to my eye. But I kept at it, eventually copying about twenty sheets worth of examples twice. What I could do at the end was much improved over where I started, but still shaky and ugly.

The second section of Eager’s book moves on to using an edged pen on a smaller grid. I had bought a suitable fountain pen awhile back, so this evening I assembled it and filled it with ink. I made a few strokes, then on a whim wrote the letter a. That turned out nicer than I expected, so I wrote the rest of the alphabet.


Wow, was I surprised! Written at proper scale with an edged pen, the results were majorly better. And as I formed each letter I could literally feel the payoff of all the frustrating work I’d done with the broad round-nib pen making letters 5 times the size.

A school for living

I’ve written about Navigators missionary Jim Petersen before, specifically about his book Living Proof, so it surprised me that I haven’t written about the anecdote from that book which affected me the most. I just located it and typed it in for the sake of a friend, and thought it was worth repeating here, along with my comment.

A Brazilian friend, Mario, and I studied the Bible for four years together before he became a Christian. As an intellectual who had read almost all of the leading Western thinkers from Rousseau to Kafka, he had blended together his own personal philosophy that was fundamentally Marxist–with Bertrand Russell as his patron saint. Why he kept studying the Bible with me for four years, or why I stuck with him so long, neither of us can explain today. But there we were.

Since he lived life on the philosophical plane, our Bible studies were often pitched in that direction. One day, a couple of years after Mario had become a Christian, he and I were reminiscing. He asked me, “Do you know what it really was that made me decide to become a Christian?” Of course, I immediately thought of our countless hours of Bible study, but I responded, “No, what?”

His reply took me completely by surprise. He said, “Remember that first time I stopped by your house? We were on our way someplace together and I had a bowl of soup with you and your family. As I sat there observing you, your wife, your children, and how you related to each other, I asked myself, ‘When will I have a relationship like this with my fiencee? When I realized the answer was ‘never’, I concluded I had to become Christian for the sake of my own survival.”

Now, I don’t think Petersen and his family were especially “saintly”. He says “I remembered the occasion well enough to recall that our children were not particularly well behaved that evening. In fact, I remembered I had felt frustrated when I corrected them in Mario’s presence.” I think he was likely living a normal Christian family life–or at least what was the norm in the early 1960s for a family of Christians, mother and father also raised by Christians.

Mario was drawn by what he saw to be so. Doctrinal study only closed the deal. I was converted in the early 90s, and not by what I saw in other Christians–at best it was by the possibilities for living I saw promised in the New Testament. And I hoped that by signing up for the program, by associating myself with the people and practices, that I would eventually see those promises fulfilled in my life.

They were, eventually, but not because of Christian practice or community, quite the opposite. For quite awhile I held onto a hope that participating would work its magic on me, but fortunately I saw that there was no reason not to pursue growth on my own at the same time. So I worked on things that seemed obviously necessary but weren’t being addressed by the church, mostly getting my character in order. I couldn’t have managed it without the hope I had that the church and the community would eventually play an important role. But it was a vain hope, they never did.

I think the crucial change was identified by Thomas de Zengontita in his book Mediated. Folks of Petersen’s generation, and every preceding generation, were shaped at a deep level by their community. They had no choice–there were no options. But that’s all gone now, never to return. All we have is options before us. And neither church nor community has yet figured out how to step up to the plate and guide us into choosing wisely under these very different circumstances.

Back when community did the social shaping the church could focus on spiritual direction. Now I think we’re in dire need of social direction, a School for Living. But I don’t even see glimmers of it, and don’t expect to see them in my lifetime.

Intermittent fasting

This New York Times article talks about diets (not necessarily for the sake of weight loss) that incorporate fasting. It opens by describing a fellow who practices what is called ‘intermittent fasting.’

Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland, has not had breakfast in 35 years. Most days he practices a form of fasting — skipping lunch, taking a midafternoon run, and then eating all of his daily calories (about 2,000) in a six-hour window starting in the afternoon.

“Once you get used to it, it’s not a big deal,” said Dr. Mattson, chief of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences. “I’m not hungry at all in the morning, and this is other people’s experience as well. It’s just a matter of getting adapted to it.”

In a culture in which it’s customary to eat three large meals a day while snacking from morning to midnight, the idea of regularly skipping meals may sound extreme. But in recent years intermittent fasting has been gaining popular attention and scientific endorsement.

I agree that it’s not a big deal—in fact, I fell into the practice accidentally. When I decided to lose weight by restricting myself to 1500 calories (more or less) per day, one good place to cut was breakfast. My habit had been to eat a bowl of oatmeal, buttered and lightly sugared, but it was easy enough for me to give that up. I now have two cups of (very strong) coffee in the morning but wait until lunch to eat. We usually eat around 11am, I eat fruit in the afternoon, and supper is around 5pm, so I almost always do my eating in a six-hour window.

I’m never hungry in the afternoon or at night. I wouldn’t join Dr Mattson in saying I’m “not hungry at all in the morning”, but it’s a very mild sort of hunger that I tend to appreciate, if for no other reason that it reminds me it’s OK to be mildly hungry and not eat in response.

My weight loss is nearly done, around 5-10lbs to go (I don’t go by the scale reading, but rather by whether or not there is flab remaining), and soon I’ll need to adjust my menu to add in some calories. But I think I will stick with skipping breakfast. Except … I do dearly love a bowl of buttered oatmeal. Maybe once a week? We’ll see.

Leo Babauta on unplugging

I really do intend to write a post about my current reading sources, once circumstances cooperate. One is Leo Babauta, who just wrote a helpful post called Opt Out: A Simplicity Manifesto. In it you’ll find a list of excellent suggestions for lowering the volume of low-value information that is vying for your attention.

As he concludes the post:

So what’s left after we’ve opted out of social media and online addictions, shopping and advertising, and the ways that most people live?

We become weirdos! In the best way.

But seriously, once we opt out of the norm … our lives are wide open. Our possibilities are staggering. […]

The point isn’t to opt out of life. It’s to see that life is much more than we dare to believe it can be.

I can vouch for this. First my life was overcrowded. Then I started clearing out portions of my life in order to make room for other things I wanted to include. But once I started clearing simply to make room, I began to see possibilities I hadn’t imagined and might never have seen otherwise.

The Shut-In Economy

This is a pretty good article about how far things have developed in the new online service economy, how much further they may go, and how it breaks down according to class (as the tagline says, “In the new world of on-demand everything, you’re either pampered, isolated royalty — or you’re a 21st century servant”).

As with so many other developments with modern affluence, I’m fascinated that the promised benefits are so clearly just the opposite of what is actually delivered—and yet no one seems to notice.

So here’s the big question. What does she, or you, or any of us do with all this time we’re buying? Binge on Netflix shows? Go for a run? Van Ekert’s answer: “It’s more to dedicate more time to working.”

The very pursuit of what’s promised not only distances you ever further from the goal, but increases your hunger to reach the goal. Doesn’t this sound like the punishments meted out in Dante’s Inferno?

Alfred, maybe, is the inevitable end point of this system. It’s an on-demand assistant that coordinates all the other on-demand apps for you, and it’s aimed at two groups: people who want the benefits of various apps but don’t want to bother setting them all up, and the “air traffic controllers,” who already have so many services coming to relieve their burden that coordinating them has become a new burden all of its own.

With Alfred, you no longer have to open the door for the Instacart delivery: A worker comes into your apartment and stocks food in your fridge. You don’t hand off your dirty undies to a Washio messenger; Alfred puts the laundered undies in the drawer. This all happens by paying your Alfred $99 a month, plus the goods and services at reduced cost through Alfred’s hookups. Alfred won first place in the TechCrunch Disrupt SF conference last year.

One heavy consumer of these services observes:

“I have a strong work ethic and worked 24–7 in college and went to school at night, so I know how to get things done. You have to outsource things that someone else can do for cheaper. To save an hour a day, I would spend $25.” In one hour of chore time saved, Mallon estimates she can make $1,000 for her company.

I’m sure Mallon’s company appreciates the gesture. But in giving up that hour of doing chores herself, does she end up forfeiting more in value than her company returns to her? If they’re rewarding her with money, well, at the logical end point of this the only place she’ll know to spend money is on buying more hours … but to what purpose?