Thinking hard so I don’t have to

It’s halfway through summer. With all the long days, summer feels like it is lazy. I am not so good at lazy and I woke up this morning ready to start making plans.

Whenever I make a plan, the goal is to set up a system so that I don’t’ have to think about it. Thinking is strong medicine; it’s best to keep it in reserve.

I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He names two systems for thinking, one fast and one slow. The slow one is the one I am talking about keeping in reserve.

The fast one is the one I want to use all the time. It’s a kind of thinking that’s barely thinking–practically a reflex. Some of the basics are things like “Am I thirsty?”

These are things that a baby knows.

For more complicated kind of thinking, I have to set up a structure to make it easy. And that takes work.

A good example is learning the multiplication tables. Seven times nine requires a lot of thought, until I make a point (as a school child) of memorizing the multiplication tables. Once I took the time and effort to put all that information in my easily retrievable memory, it was easy.

The memorization was hard, but after that it was easy.

I have found that many things work that way. If I put in the time and practice for stuff I do–or stuff I PLAN to do–repeatedly, it will save effort.

In the past few years, I have started several new jobs. Since these jobs rely on me to use my brain, for every single new job I have had to learn a set of documents, files processes and systems that are necessary to do the work.

And then there are the parts of the job for which there are no processes or systems. Those parts I have to make up as I go along. Those are the ones that require gathering the information, determining what’s relevant, making a decision and taking an action.

When I am new in a job, I have to think about every decision and action I take. There are a very few things I am sure of–username and password are often the first.

Then I have to go through and figure out the systems and processes for each thing. It takes several months before I’m sure of which ones have a system and which ones are in the make-it-up bucket.

Every workplace has gaps. If those gaps are actions that need to be repeated, then I make up my own system, my own folder and files. Once I have made that decision, then I don’t have to think about it anymore. I just process it and leave my mind free for the situations I don’t have an answer for.

My job is a game I play, a game in which someone else creates the rules. I have to play by the rules or I don’t play anymore. And the rules do change.

I am also allowed to make up my own game. And that is what I do when I come up with a personal project.

If I am serious about making my plans a reality, I have to create a system and a process–a schedule if possible–to let that plan be easy. If I have to think too hard, I will very likely never do it.

That kind of thinking takes effort. It’s hard, and ponderous, and it is way more accurate. That’s the slow thinking Kahneman talks about in the book.

That’s why I like to find a patch of free time, to think about what I want to do, figure out the outcome and the steps it will take to do it. Take it slow, think it through and set it up so that I don’t have to do it again. At least, not for a while.

Can the world be saved by Beauty?

The name of Dorothy Day has been popping up in my readings lately. She’s a religious role model for the Catholic Church, and a writer. I decided to look into this person

I just finished reading Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. It was written by her granddaughter, so there were a lot of personal stories. Dorothy started as a Bohemian and communist in the early part of the 20th century. She was politically active and involved with the union movement and then a communist.

But she surprised her friends when she took a turn in the middle of her activism and joined the Catholic Church. As a convert, she took her Catholicism very very very seriously.

For her, the religious devotion and the social activism formed an alchemy that led her to start hospitality houses–basically homeless shelters–for down and out people who needed a place to go.

She had a never-ending soup kitchen in her hospitality houses, and she fed and sheltered people. She had a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that put forth her religious and political philosophies. It’s still going.

She wrote essays and newspaper pieces. She published books. And she shared what she had with people who needed it.

A lot of people admire her, and right now she is on the shortlist for sainthood.

I tasted ash in my mouth after I finished the book. What about her daughter? Didn’t a mother have some responsibility to keep her child safe and give her a good chance in life?

I don’t romanticize communes. I spent time in and around them and it seems a very messy solution. The book underlines some of that mess.

I knew I didn’t have the picture of Dorothy Day that most people did. This book didn’t give me the reasons why so many admired her. I needed to read more. I picked out Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.

That sounded like admiration. The author Robert Coles had known Dorothy, and he wrote the book with a lot of conversations that they had. So there were stories and her self-interpretation of her life. The picture emerged.

I did like her humility and her intensity. She believed intensely in what was right, but could back away from taking herself too seriously just in time. Holding a high standard in one hand and mercy in the other.

That could create a crowd of admirers. Faithful readers of a column, that might not ask too deeply about how her daughter had not been given enough options in her life to make good choices.

But life is messy. And Dorothy Day was trying hard. She was actively looking to help the needy.

The needy aren’t so easy to help. The needy will steal and drink all the alcohol. Sometimes.

I could see how she made some ultimate sacrifices. And also how in more than one sense, the sacrifices were pointless. The need was too great.

That’s they mystical part, how she believed in what she was doing despite all evidence to the contrary.

I’m not convinced that her methods work. But I am not convinced they are worthless either.

I’ve spent a little time looking at her life. She was very intense. I would not make the same choices that she did. And her choice had very broad effects. She lived a marvelous life.

Know what I mean

Re-visiting some classics, I read “A Modell of Christian Charity” which is a sermon by John Winthrop given to the Pilgrims of America on the Mayflower

This is the sermon where he talks about being “a city on a hill”, which I just this second discovered is a TV series on Showtime.

What? A Pilgrim preacher said something that is now a ShowTime series?

Before it was on TV, it was quoted by Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Reagan.

It’s a good quote.

I’m doing a new project exploring American literature, and this is one of the FIRST big deals for America. (You can check out the project here. Please subscribe)

I’m going back to the beginning and making a list of the significant writings in America.

Reading this sermon was part of the research. It’s not long–only 9 pages on the PDF I found.

But let me say that again. It’s 9 pages of a SERMON. These puritans had stamina for preaching. 9 very dry pages. I’ve heard a lot of sermons, and this one is not like any I’ve ever heard. If it were preached in America today, the whole church would be snoring.

And the good part is on the last page. He took a long way round to get to the part that no one can forget.

And I have to wonder, could he have done with a little editing? Could those first 8 pages be dropped?

Maybe his audience needed to hear that part first before the good part could sink in. I’m not a Puritan. Winthrop was. Maybe his crowd needed the jackhammer of scripture references, and question & answer exposition.

The Pilgrims were very serious. At least their sermons were. My crowd is not that serious. I am reminded of another author, Terry Pratchett, saying serious is not the opposite of funny…Funny can get through the keyhole while serious is still pounding on the door. I’d spice my speeches up with a little laughter.

But it can take some doing to get to the part where it gets through. With writing it take building the right foundation. For me, as a writer, I often have to sneak up on myself to even know what it was I was trying to say.

I don’t know what I mean until I have sad it.

And even then, I am pretty sure I left a lot of material unsaid.

Deceptively, once the bell is rung, it seems so clear and pure that the climb it took to ring it seems inconsequential and unnecessary.

I don’t know why, and I don’t know the exactly amount of extra it takes to ring the bell. But it takes it. The switchbacks enhance the view.


DIY dolphin

We are getting ready to leave our 1950s house and do a very period thing. Our California family is going to Hawaii.

Just like Elvis and the Brady Bunch.

Unlike them, though, the girls in our family have decided to really swim. It’s all Veronica’s fault. She loves the water.

Most of her life, she’s been perfectly happy to splash in the shallow end with floaties.

Most of my life I’ve been satisfied to keep my head perfectly dry and my feet mostly on the ground.

Chris grew up with a pool, so he is the best swimmer. He worries about Veronica. He would not be able to relax with Veronica in the water.

Me neither really.

So, once again off to swim lessons. We’ve done it before.

THIS time though, there is a shark nipping at our feet.


We are going to the big vacation and we need to take this thing seriously.

A local college student is home for the summer and she offered up swim lessons to the public.

Perfect! Veronica can learn to swim.


This could be the moment that I do something I’ve never done and learn how to do this thing I insist my little one do.

I swim like a dog. Head up.

Time I learned to swim like a person.

Today is the third lesson.

I do a lot of things a lot better than my daughter. Fold sheets, for one.

I do not swim better than she does. She already looks like a dolphin.

I am a DIY kit whose instructions are missing the last page. There are a lot of parts, and some of them are more important than others.

Kick with your feet together…And don’t rock your hips in the water. Keep your head tucked

and *GASP* don’t forget to breathe!

Breathing is the most important part. The most immediate part, anyway

What looks from the outside to be a single continuous fluid motion

for me

is a jigsaw puzzle

Without a picture


I am very good at breathing.

I am expert at many many many uses of legs and feet and arms

Not swimming.


Something new, right?

I’m proud of myself.

and I’m not so happy to feel so ridiculous

My teacher tells me I have all the pieces. I think she is sincere.

But the pieces aren’t the picture yet.

And one of the other important things, close to breathing, isn’t even one of the pieces.

It takes a lot of strength to do this.

I may float like a champ, but I’m trying to move. And I use all the muscles that are quite happy to remain unused in every other activity.

I pulled myself out of the pool and could barely walk.

It wasn’t until I got home that I could tell which parts hurt.

My arms. The muscles right beneath my collar bone.

Is this the joy of learning something new at an age when I’m supposed to have it all figured out?

The exquisite realization that I will never have it all figured out? The joy-pain of knowing I am terrible at something and doing it anyway?

My life is filled with the expected, with millimeter gains and games of small stakes.

I am willing to be weak and ridiculous to try something new. It’s a good practice for experiencing paradise.

Making it

“How’s it feel to be the man?”- Ben Folds

So turns out until very recently the American Coast Guard reported to the treasury department. That doesn’t make sense.

What does the Coast Guard have to do with the treasury?

I didn’t even know this strange fact until I read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. He told me a lot of things I didn’t know about the starting of America. Interesting to hear blow-by-blow descriptions of the decisions made from the biographical perspective of someone who was living at the time.

They were not at all sure that they were going to win over big ole Britain. It was not at all a sure thing. But they did achieve victory and started a new country.

Back when they were fighting the British all the shipments that came into America were British ships. Pretty much.

So it benefited the war effort for Americans to be pirates and take the cargo from the British ships. A lot of people thought that was a great idea. They got free stuff.

But then–surprise! –America won. Those ships that were sailing into American sports were not British anymore. They were American ships or ships bringing goods to America and taking away American goods. Our new country wanted to protect these ships. America did know that trade would make them strong.

After the war ended and America was setting up a government, Alexander Hamilton founded the treasury department. He needed to get revenue in the treasury as soon as possible.

I know the feeling.

For a nation, one of the best ways to get money is to have tariffs on commerce. People don’t like personal taxes for sure. So commerce is a great way to generate money.

Hamilton needed to generate money from these ships sailing in an out of America. He needed to protect those ships from piracy.

This was not an easy shift for the American pirates. Before they were sticking it to the man.

Now the tables had turned. And they were the man. Maybe they didn’t feel like they were the man but this new country that they had started needed them not to steal from it.

It was a choice:
Benefit from sticking it to the man, and preserve the status of rebellious victim
Make something

Making something is a lot harder. And there is no guarantee of success.

I could be pretty sure that I could be a successful troublemaker, if that was my goal.

Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson and many others worked to create something, getting paid in dollars while dollars didn’t even have meaning.

Makes me look at their faces on the dollars I use a little differently. Meaning is there to be made.