Lessons from 2020

I’ve talked before about my life as a recovering anorexic and perfectionist. One huge step in overcoming perfectionist/anorexic thinking came when I began to view failures as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than reflections on my value as a human being. Since starting to think that way, I’ve had many such growth opportunities, but never so many as in 2020.

With all the unexpected challenges 2020 threw at us came an avalanche of failures on my part. Oh my gosh, it was — continues to be — is — the greatest number of failures per day, week, month, or year probably in my entire life. I don’t say this as a way of denigrating myself, but to realistically describe the situation. I thrive and succeed based on routine, but even the words “routine” and “2020” hardly fit in a sentence together. Toss me into a new situation, like pretty much every day of 2020, and I’m pretty certain to fail at something in it. Continue Reading >>

NaNoWriMo Day 1: Not a Novel

Digital Doodle

Digital Doodle - Color

I know NaNoWriMo is about writing a novel, or story, or something with a story arc of some sort, but since I’m only sort of participating, I figure I’ll do it however I like. Today I’m not exactly bursting with fictional creativity – there’s something about spending all day around financial forms that seems to dry up that normally overflowing spring (are there springs that don’t overflow?) – but I can’t really blame it on anything other than myself, really. Lots of people have soul-sucking jobs that are far worse than mine, and they still have lots of creative juices. In fact, it seems like some people just burst with it in general, like being in a blank job just gives them time to come up with cool ideas.

Maybe there’s a discipline to creativity, as with anything in life. The more you practice your creative passion, the more you’ve got ideas about it, the more you want to do it, the more you improve and enjoy yourself. Maybe that’s why watching movies (for most of us) isn’t so great. It’s often more a passive absorption than a creativity-stimulating exercise.

But maybe that’s partly because I prefer to watch stupid, feel-good, totally brainless flicks. Judge me if you like; I’m sticking with it. I encounter plenty of pain and suffering and misery in my real life and, indirectly, through the news. If I want sobering stories of the depressing realities of life, I’ll just open up a newspaper (metaphorically – which, incidentally, is why newspapers are struggling! Imagine 30 years ago not getting a newspaper, and now the Seattle Times has barely over 150,000 daily deliveries; but that’s an issue for another time).

So, yes, I like dumb feel-good flicks that don’t force me to examine my soul or life choices. I’ve got plenty of that in other parts of my life. I know that just being alive as an American I’m using more than my share of resources, living more comfortably and with greater waste and excess than any other culture in the history of forever, and that this lifestyle is destroying the planet. I’m already depressingly aware of the hideous things people do to one another, and I don’t need a documentary or some “based on real life” film to fill my mind with even more images of the horrors we inflict on each other. Maybe it’s just that we’re finally approaching the end of what may have been the filthiest, most horrid campaign season ever, but I’m feeling plenty depressed with our cultural choices in every arena right now. No need to watch some movie to rub it in.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Creativity and discipline. As I spend more time as a grown-up, it seems like I keep running up against that old idea of discipline. Now, when I was a kid, I would’ve said that discipline and creativity were diametrically opposed. Isn’t the point of creativity to break the shackles of society’s mores and explore yourself and your ideas in freedom?

Of course, that’s an easily refuted argument. What of artists and musicians and other creative folks who spend years of their lives perfecting their art? Discipline is most certainly required to play a musical instrument well: You can’t just pick up a violin and produce music to make an audience weep… except perhaps from pain. Surely the same is true of artists, writers, and all sorts of other creative types. Only after mastering the discipline of an art can true creativity blossom.

For that matter, pretty much any activity in life goes better with the discipline of practice. We think of hobbies as the thing we do for fun, but how fun is something you never practice at, and therefore (in general) aren’t very good at? I ride my bike with discipline (sometimes) and as a result enjoy myself more when I achieve goals I set. Perhaps for hobbies we don’t think of it as having discipline, since we get to choose to do the fun thing. But I think still there are times you do something for a hobby that requires exerting discipline.

When I slack off (which, full disclosure, I’m doing now, and feeling rather guilty about it), I usually regret it later. I tell myself, “I just need to take it easy and not have to do one more thing.” We definitely have cultural support for this concept, too, the whole, “Go on, you’ve worked hard all day long – you deserve a break from having to do one more thing.” In reality, maybe the fact that we are so utterly drained at the end of the day that we need that complete and total cessation of discipline reflects badly on our (as a culture) life choices.

If we didn’t worship work so much, would we expend a little less energy there, and maybe have a little more energy to other healthy activities? If we didn’t idolize our children, would we give them a little less attention and have a little more time for other relationships? I pick these examples because I’m following the old adage to “write what I know,” and I know those things all too well.

When I started my job, I worked 10 hours a week. But over the last year, my hours have crept up so now I’m doing over 100 hours a month when needed. Some months just don’t have that much work. It’s a cyclical business, to some extent.

You know how I feel when I see my timesheet tipping in at over 20 hours a week? I feel first proud, like I’ve accomplished something. If I’m below 20 hours, I feel like I should try to get a little more done. But the I feel disappointment and shame, because what’s to be proud of? I spent less time caring for my family, less time caring for myself (it’s either bike or work when Benji’s otherwise accounted for, usually a pretty stark choice), less time caring for the house, more time stationary in front of a computer screen. For what? For $20 an hour? So then I’ve used up time and energy and discipline, to fill out forms and answer emails and make phone calls.

And what about idolizing our kids? Don’t take this to imply I think we shouldn’t spend time with our kids. We should, and that’s one of the blessings and curses of being a stay-at-home mom. Yet I think that, in general, there’s this view that we can’t spend enough time with our children. That once they’re born, children should be the pinnacle of our lives, the thing we’re most devoted to, the most defining part of who we are. But all too often I feel like, at least in my family, that becomes a paramount and unquestioned duty, to the detriment of other important relationships.

What about taking care of my marriage, that foundational relationship with my spouse? We take it for granted, yet if that fails, what happens to the kid? We underestimate the importance of investing time in our marriages, I think, because somehow kids seem more important. However, without that cornerstone relationship between spouses in place, the entire family crumbles and falls. We forget that we are more than just “Mommy” or “Daddy” – we are “Wife” or “Husband,” too, and that relationship doesn’t just stay healthy on its own. Will my flabby abs will become a rippling six-pack if I just ignore them? Will my leafy yard rake itself? Will my empty fridge fill itself? (OK, maybe a bad question, since they are moving towards fridges that can reorder food when they detect it getting low.)

No wonder I’m – we are – exhausted by the end of the day, discipline reservoir used up! My life is a piece of cake compared to many, and still it’s hard to force myself to do even enjoyable hobbies by the end of the evening. I’m sure we’re not the only family to collapse in a heap on the couch and watch an episode on Netflix most evenings. When it’s not Netflix, I’m just sitting and reading my own book, which I’ve looked forward to all day.

Nothing wrong with spending time those ways, per se. Movies, books, relaxing – no harm there.

BUT.

Almost invariably, I feel happier and better about myself when I overcome the voice of inertia and laziness. I’ve hardly ever regretted a bike ride, except a few rides where I was sick and should’ve stayed home. I’ve rarely regretted keeping Netflix off in favor of a long, screenless conversation with my spouse. What’s the point here? The point is that everything comes down to discipline. Not punishment-style discipline; self-discipline. When I’ve made my life too busy, too full, too tiring to responsibly exercise discipline in pursuing my hobbies as well as my duties, I – and those around me –suffer for it.

So, yes, I do believe this is turning into the argument for working less and playing more. What a ridiculous thing to have to argue for! And yet I myself easily buy into the idea that I’m more valuable because I work more, or because I parent more, or because I execute whatever my other duties are. Sure, duties have to be done. It’s part of being an adult. That’s fine. But I am more than my job (thank goodness), more than a mother, more than a cyclist or a wife or any of those good things. I am the sum of many things, all of which require my time, attention, and, you guessed it, discipline.

We have a choice, about how many duties we take on and in what manner we execute them. Do we choose to allow any one thing, or a few things, to suck dry our entire spring of self-discipline? Why do we feel those specific responsibilities require such devotion? What makes those duties paramount, worth sacrificing our own ultimate well-being for?

I guess I’m advocating for a theory of moderation in life* that allows us to have the energy and discipline to pursue our hobbies and passions with the same energy that we devote to our duties. I think we’d all be substantially happier, better rested, and overall healthier if we gave this a shot.

Building Character, One Mile at a Time

Yesterday, Dad and I rode Mt. St. Helens. I last did this back in 2011, also, and I remembered beautiful views and difficult climbing, with stiff headwinds on the way back. The roads were nicely paved, though. Yesterday was similar but also very, very different.

So I’ve been thinking about how to approach talking about this ride, because it wasn’t quite the ride I planned on doing. As you know, I normally don’t even mention my rides unless they’re really exceptional. Our St. Helens ride certainly was noteworthy. Yesterday I was going to talk about what went wrong, but after sleeping on it, I’m going to talk about what went well first.

Good

  • The weather wasn’t too hot. This may seem like reaching for good things, but actually, we are normally scorched. Yesterday it was cloudy and high 50s for much of the ride, and then later the sun did come out, but it never got above 70. I actually wished I had my vest for most of the time.
  • A couple other people showed up! We didn’t actually expect anyone, so when two other guys showed up, we were pleasantly surprised. One of the guys was a little slower, but it worked out fine.
  • When the clouds cleared, we got some phenomenal views of Mt. St. Helens, and there were some really pretty stretches of road with nice scenery. One of the really amazing things about this ride is that as you come around corners and over hills, you get these stunning views of the mountain. Here are the pictures I took at the top. They actually weren’t the most beautiful views; some of the viewpoints along the way offered those, but I didn’t want to dig my phone out of my bag to get them. Continue Reading >>

  • Philosophy of Christmas Gifts

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about Christmas presents lately. Not what to get my family (although, of course, I’ve done that, too), but more the philosophy and theory of gift-giving, specifically: Why do we give gifts at all?

    Now, birthday gift-giving seems somewhat logical, with friends giving the birthday-ee gifts to express their appreciation for the friend’s life. Perhaps we’re using presents to say, “You are a gift in my life. Let me give back to you a token to acknowledge all the joy you bring to me by being my friend.” That completely makes sense, although since having Benji I’ve thought that moms should really get the presents on the kid’s birthday, but that a different story.

    Christmas gifts, now. There are two perspectives one could take: Christian and non-Christian.

    The Christian reason I can see pretty easily: God gave us Jesus, and Jesus gave his life, the ultimate sacrifice to give us the free gift of a redeemed life in Him. As Christians, we then would give one another presents to remind ourselves of that truth. However, if that were the only reason to give gifts, presumably we would simply give one another cards, or some symbolic token, like the bread and wine in Communion.

    But we still give one another real presents, and often agonize over what to give, too. This leads us to the same place as non-Christians giving presents: Why? Why do we put so much time, effort, and money into one single day of giving presents? More, what I really want to know is, why do we agonize so much over finding the perfect gift for loved ones? The pressure to find many different people a unique, thoughtful, meaningful present can turn the holiday into a month or two of horror.

    Is this some kind of evolutionary adaptation? Do we have an innate desire to find just the right thing in some evolutionary dive to keep our tribe happy, thereby keeping it together, keeping the individuals safer, and making it more likely to propagate our genes to the next generation? That seems a stretch, especially given the failure rate (how many times have you gotten something not right for you?) and the fact that we often give gifts to people who provide no evolutionary advantage, like old relatives or friends far away.

    So, then, is this gift-giving mostly driven by marketing pressure, businesses spending months braying about finding the “perfect present for someone who already has it all,” leading inevitably to the unfulfillable expectation that we will find perfect gifts for everyone we know?

    If we weren’t so obsessed with finding the exact right thing, presumably we would all give one another gift cards or cash with a note that says, “I love you this much*.” It seems like that should satisfy both the need to show your love for someone and the difficulty of finding an appropriate gift – let the recipient purchase his own thing, but with your money. But gift cards, although frequently given, seem to be perceived as a last resort or failure on the giver’s part: “I couldn’t think what to give her, so I got her an Amazon gift card.”

    This makes me think there’s a happy medium we’ve been missing here. Clearly we value tangible physical objects (or their emotional equivalent), and want to give something real and appropriate to our loved ones at Christmas. And, despite what all the previous discussion may have led you to think, I’m all on board with giving presents in general. I don’t want it to sound like I think we should just toss out the entire tradition. I just feel that maybe it’s time to reassess our assumptions and expectations about what an appropriate gift looks like.

    Christ never cared for stuff, and I can’t believe that He would like our current obsession with giving things at Christmas. He said it was harder to be a wealthy believer, because our possessions really possess us, distracting us from the point of life – loving other people.

    How about if, instead of finding the perfect thing, we relaxed a bit and bought something enjoyable and at least moderately appropriate to the recipient, and called it good? Even more radically, what if we took a friend out to dinner, or went for a walk, or wrote an appreciative note, or made a donation in a friend’s name instead of having to spend lots of money and time cudgeling our brains into a thoughtful, clever, exactly-what-he-wanted (maybe) gift? I suspect that if we gave those kinds of gifts, Christmas would not only be more relaxed and enjoyable, but more authentic. (Plus, we could have much smaller trees, not needing tons of room beneath for lots of boxes!)

    I think I’m going to try this next year, so if you get a heartfelt note from me in lieu of the perfect thing, you’ll know why. I would love to receive those kinds of gifts, too, so feel free to test this theory out on me.

    And, if I don’t get to it between now and next week: Merry Christmas!

    * Note: There seems to be an implied but not universal assumption that we should/do spend more money on people we love more, and therefore you can gauge how much the giver loves you by how much they spent. Again, clearly not true – a homemade gift may be far more loving and heartfelt than an expensive one; plus, many people don’t have the resources to put into that kind of giving – but still this idea does linger, presumably also driven by money-grubbing advertising.

    Construction Joy

    Yesterday Benji and I went for a walk in the morning. On our way was the former site of a gigantic nursery, now (surprise!) being turned into a vast housing complex. While my enthusiasm for this project in general is minimal – I dread the added traffic congestion and increased student load on Benji’s future elementary school – at the moment I can’t imagine a project more thrilling to Benji.

    We walked a little way along an offroad path that parallels this construction site and found a safe, quiet spot where Benji could get out of the stroller and see standing up by himself. (This didn’t, however, stop him from wanting to be held up the entire time. Isometric exercises?) Here’s what we saw.

    image

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    Yes, that’s a huge dump truck dumping a load of tree debris right in front of us. Most of the action was far away, and although Benji seemed to see just fine, this dump truck moment elicited a constant stream of excited babbling. Here’s a link to a video I took: https://flic.kr/p/oxgxx9

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    This was the view in general. It’s hard to make out in the picture, but we watched two bulldozers moving dirt, a digger, dump trucks dump two loads, and one claw-ended digger thing carrying tree parts around. I finally made us leave because we had a playdate with friends, but it was like tearing a cover from a book. We spent the rest of the day on and off recounting, with great excitement, everything we’d seen.

    Boy, life’s thrilling when you’re almost two. Actually, recently Ian commented to me on how Benji feels strongly enough about things to actually feel heartbroken when they don’t work out. Yes, to us, they’re unimportant; grown-ups don’t deeply value putting truck cans and trailers together, or eating apricots, but to Benji, these things matter. When was the last time I let myself feel this strongly, about anything at all? I shield myself from hurt and disappointment by not letting myself feel deeply about anything at all. It’s a defensive strategy we all use, I think. But I’m coming to suspect that our adult lives are poorer for it, since eliminating feeling deep pain means sacrificing feeling deep joy, too.

    And if I’ve learned one thing from Benji so far, it’s that life offers moments of joy constantly. We get to choose whether accepting the risk of embracing those feelings is worth the pain. I hope I can be brave enough to live with the same delight I see Benji finding in life.

    Sunny Day Speculations

    Day’s Verse:
    Don’t procrastinate—
    there’s no time to lose.

    Proverbs 6:4-ish

    Today spring came to Seattle.

    We all spent the month of March (and the previous months from September onward) hunkered down, praying to simply survive the almost 8″ of rain that fell… and fell… and fell. The average temperature remained stubbornly a couple degrees below normal. It was, in a word, miserable, and I think everybody living here felt kind of miserable most of the month. I, at least, found it difficult to get much done; I only wanted to curl up under a blanket with a cup of something hot.

    However, weather in April looks much more optimistic so far. Today, for example, we woke up to clear, sunny skies. The temperature accelerated past 60°, a benchmark we’ve hardly even approached since last fall. Deborah and I had planned to get together for a walk, and she also brought her gardening supplies. So we walked to the paint store in Woodinville and picked out some paint chips for the boy’s room. Then we spent a couple hours sprucing up the front yard, following the sun. It felt so good to spend time in those long-absent warm, golden rays, even pulling weeds. I wore a T-shirt and capri-length pants and left all the house windows open.

    In the afternoon, sun still shining, I rode my bike to REI to use up our soon-to-expire 20% off coupon. I wanted to find another pair of pants with a stretchy waist, which I hope will last me at least for a while. I can’t imagine any normal pants will still fit me in August, but I’m darn well going to keep wearing as many of my normal clothes as long as I can. My goal is to buy as few actual maternity clothes as possible. I’m aided in this goal by the fact that in recent years wearing stretchy clothes that show the pregnant belly has become much more socially acceptable, as opposed to having to wear lots of flowing, belly-hiding maternity-specific clothes like women did when I was born.

    Riding to REI, I noticed something amazing: People looked happy. At a stoplight, I had a very cheerful conversation with a postman who had his window wide open (they drive on the opposite side, so he was close to me). On the 520 trail, I had at least three upbeat exchanges, mainly about the weather, with other trail users, and saw numerous business-attired men walking along smiling. In Redmond, a girl talking on her cell phone while sitting on a bench paused to tell me how much she liked my pink bike. The examples could continue.

    Why is this? In places where sunny days are normal, I don’t think people are happier on average. They certainly don’t seem to smile more, or exhibit greater friendliness than people do in Seattle. Riding along, I decided people are happier because of our rain. It’s not a radical conclusion, but there it is. We need all the rain to keep Washington gorgeously green… and maybe we need to viscerally appreciate the loveliness of a spring day, too. You can’t appreciate beauty without ugliness, satiation without hunger, music without discord, sun without clouds.

    Thus, even more than in other places, when spring comes to Seattle, we celebrate it. We take half-days off work to spend time outside. We go for walks at lunch time. We sit in sunny spots. We take endless pictures of the astonishing snow-capped mountains, of fresh green leaves stretching out in the warmth, of sunlight shining through flowering cherry trees’ blossoms. We congregate on trails and sidewalks, greet neighbors and strangers with animation, and generally bask in a way foreign to denizens of sunnier climes. And it’s all thanks to the dark and drizzle.

    Is Facebook Stealing Personhood?

    Day’s Verse:

    Calling the crowd to join his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Continue Reading >>