Thinking about life

“Every day I write the book” – Elvis Costello

Last episode of the weekly wonder I referenced a book I hadn’t finished yet. I was in chapter 21 of 26.

I’ve heard that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. My friend suggested that lives could be viewed that way. What chapter is my life in right now?

I think about this a lot:

What story am I telling?

Do I want to go where I am heading?

What are the possible directions to head?

A week does not go by that I am not poking at these questions. I’m hard on myself too. At the end of every day, I judge whether I have put the most important things in that day.

I always wish I had filled it even more full. But at the end of the day the only thing I have the capacity to do is sleep.

And I’m not even that good at sleeping right now.

Those characters in books never have to think about what they are doing. They just charge about taking action. Kiss that girl, quit that job, and take that trip. No hesitation, GO!

Almost nobody shows the thinking. Very few characters show up and show us how. Hamlet, Leopold Bloom and Mrs. Dalloway choke on it. And they are mostly famous for not accomplishing much. Too busy thinking to actually do anything.

Real life has sleeping, prep work and planning in order to do things. And doing is not even the target. I want to produce, leave a mark on the world and make it a better place for others. It feels small to me to live a life that is only for myself.

That takes planning. Boring, behind the scenes planning. Set crew to my own life. If I want something in my life I have to go hunt it and bring it in.

But somebody has to. How else is this story going to be beautiful?

Adventures and Accomplishment

 

In preparation to my recent trip to Chicago I picked up The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Augie’s story is almost entirely set in Chicago, and I will say he sure did have a lot of adventures. I’ve followed him around through all kinds of places with all kinds of people.

 

It’s very long, and I may finally be coming in for a landing. Here in Chapter 21 of 26 it dawns on me that Augie has done a ton of stuff but not accomplished anything. All that activity for what?

Dude, you’ve got 5 chapters to turn it around and leave a mark on the world. I don’t think it’s going to happen. He’s most likely to be who he’s always been.

 

There is a big difference between adventures and accomplishments.

 

My day job is all about accomplishments. We call them Scope and Action Items. Accomplishments do not happen by accident. It takes intention and effort. And when multiple people are needed to do it, there has to be consensus on what the goal is.

 

Intention

Effort

Consensus

 

These are big expensive words. Even bigger ideas.

 

I’ve read some political books as well, large academic tomes that describe problems of sexism and racism. Big problems. The academics are full of notebooks and observation.

 

That’s one kind of effort. There is value is defining a problem. Famously, that’s the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

Those books define brilliantly specific instances and circumstances that make up the -isms. But I don’t see a plan for how to change it.

 

Just like Augie March. What are you doing with all this effort? He hasn’t put his effort into consensus with anyone else for long enough to follow through on a plan.

 

Adventures can be enough for some people. Not for me. And for anyone that wants to reshape the world more is required.

Time and Effort

 

“How many times do you plan to come to the gym a week? Which days will you come?”

That’s a loaded question. I can plan to come a lot more often than I actually will come. Still, I knew the answer: “3 times a week: Monday Wednesday and Friday.”

It felt a bit nosy for this gym employee to be asking me such a specific question, but she seemed satisfied with my answer.

“That’s fine. We have to ask this question so people don’t hurt themselves by trying to be weekend warriors.”

People can come in to the gym only on the weekend, and try to do all the exercise for the week on one day. Except it doesn’t quite work like that.

When I was studying for the exam to for Project Management, they had a saying: “You can’t get a baby three months by having assigning three mothers to be pregnant.”

Some things take time. Sometimes you can replace time with effort, and sometimes you can’t.

If time is what it takes, then putting out the right amount of effort and no more is the sweet spot. That’s why I was firm in my answer: Monday Wednesday Friday.

That was enough for me. I wanted to but in a small amount over a long time and get the reward.

I’m not always so sure of my answers. I’ve often fallen into the weekend warrior fallacy. Someone I think if I just try harder I can make up for lost time.

When time gets lost it doesn’t find its way again. I have to find new time. And I do get new time–every day is new.

I must pick what to do with each day. Because it adds up. With time, it can add up to something really amazing.

Bigger

On public transportation, and even in meetings, I see people taking up lots of space. Elbows out, bodies slanted across two lanes of chairs and knees spread far more than hip-width apart–the popular name is manspreading. But when I read Presence by Amy Cuddy 5 years ago, I decided to give it a try.

There is a particular sensation in taking up space. Taking up more than my share of space seems decadence. I wondered about my male colleagues who seem to take up space without a second thought. Do they think that that is their share? Or are they sure that the world will always give them a decadent helping?

Last night I finished In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules by Karen Karbo. The women showcased were quite willing to take up their space.

They had the confidence or the drive–something or other–letting them go against the borders of what could be seen as their fair share. These 29 women were seen, heard and remembered.

Being big makes an impression.

I’m thinking of this as I return from tonight’s acting improv class. This class that lets me pretend–on so many levels–to be what I am not. The teacher coached me “You need to go bigger. The theater requires it.”

She explained that my volume and intensity were fine–if I were having a private conversation.

But I have a bigger audience. Swing for the fences!

I have been told more than once that when I am nervous I speak far more softly than normal. Like a damper took me down 3 notches. I could try it another way.

Say it loud. Show my emotions unmistakably. Make it clear what I want.

This is very practical advice for a theatrical performance. And I am holding it up against the stories of the 29 difficult women. This is how they lived. It’s how they made their mark. I am now contemplating what my various theaters require from me.

Burn it down

I tilted my head back and stared. The high ceiling was molded into deep squares, with a Soviet star in the center. I had never seen anything like it…Plaster molded with stalks of wheat and sickles–and in the middle of each square section a star. It looked like something out of a glamorous movie.
-The Russian American School of Tomorrow

I come from the land of log cabins and Quonset huts. Alaskan structures did not take the time to be pretty. They barely took time to be structures.

Log cabins and A-frame houses could be thrown up in a summer, and give just enough shelter to keep body and soul together. The niceties could be done later.

Except somehow later took a lot longer.

I was the babysitter for an A-frame house whose bedroom walls were sheets for years.

They may still be sheets.

That was a long time ago. I’ve been to cities since then–world-class cities with architecture that blew me away.

This week I went to Chicago. Standing at the window of a 16th story room I looked down at this city–the wide streets and the miles of skyscrapers. This city works.

It works. The systems fit together, the roads are big enough and the public transportation is good.

And the people work. This city sprung to life to work. It started with slaughtering animals to feed the nation, and just kept going. There are mighty unions that work, and everyone walks around with backpacks.

They asked me “How do you like Chicago?”

And when I start to rave about how beautiful and sensible this city is, they tell me “We had the good sense to burn it down. That way we could rebuild it right.”

In 1871 Chicago burned up, a fire famously started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. But it did burn. It was a big tragedy.

There have been a few times in my life when everything burned down. Not fire, but when everything I built up around me for sustenance and comfort scatters. In my mind I call them plagues.

And it’s a sad and scary time.
But it doesn’t stay that way.

Not if I keep moving. Keep working.

Like Chicago. They pulled their boots and on made plans and built it better than before. With room to breathe and drive and grow.

The fire, the destruction is not an end. It’s a chance to do it even better. So I’ll cry when I need to. But I will cry while laying bricks.

writing tools

Last week I gave a toastmaster’s speech on how to write a book. I laid out how to organize the information and how to work at it until it is done.

It was a great speech and it was well received. But I did not address strategies on how to get the actual writing done.

When people ask me how I have written a book, they often ask, “Do you have a time that you sit down and concentrate on writing? Do you get up first thing and write? How many hours a day do you spend writing?”

That’s the story, isn’t it? Getting to work, writing form 9-5 like it’s a job?

But that’s now how I work. Not usually. It’s way too much pressure to write for 8 hours a day. And also, the ideas don’t come like that for me.

I have heard of authors that do something like that. I figured I was the strange one. Aren’t I always the odd duck?

Because I find the most inspiring times to write are in the margins of my day job. Having a set of rather dull tasks to do all day leaves a portion of my brain ready to compose a story.

I just picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He spends a whole bunch of time at the start talking about his job.

His government job that he got after spending a bunch of his life hanging out with all the Transcendentalists. He illustrates beautifully how this work is extremely unchallenging, and it takes almost no thought to get it done. He was ready for mindless creature comforts after his time with Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott.

The conceit of the book is that the “finds” the story of Hester Prynne in the storage room of his job at the custom house. But he wrote it. Of course he wrote it.

And he wrote it while he was utterly secure in his life. He had lunch and dinner every day. He had a regular routine and he could have sunk into a life of napping. His coworkers certainly did.

But whatever it was that caused him to seek out Emerson in the first place kept him awake in the warm afternoons at his customs house.

His mind was not quiet. And in the gaps of his routine, out squeezed his creative work.

That makes perfect sense to me. I am not very creative when I’m worried about how my bills will get paid.

either way

what’s the story this time? And if I tell myself the wrong story will it come true?

Like those horrible be-careful-what-you-wish-for stories?

I am thinking about a bunch of things that might happen. And I wnt them to but I’m afriad to get excited about them.

I have gotten excited before.

I remember telling one person about a job I was sure to get. I’d been on three interviews and it looked very promising. And i told her I was afraid to be excited but I WAS!

She said “It’s okay to be excited. Whatever happens will happen and if you aren’t excited now, you might miss the chance.”

taking steps

 

When Chris and I first met, one of the things I liked best about him was that he could make up his mind. I have loved that more and more about him as we have spent our lives together.

 

Life is full of choices we have to make. Some of them are big and scary. Most of them are annoying and waste my time. How many hours of my life would I get back if I never had to discuss what we all wanted to eat for dinner again?

 

Choices. What is the best choice of the options available? And how do I determine what best means in any given setting?

 

More than almost anything I love taking an action. Beautifully, life gives me chances to take action all the time.

 

For the smaller things, my actions follow a set of rubrics. I wake up when I commit to, I wash my face, I care for my set of dependents–dog, cat, daughter. These choices were decided long ago.

 

Then there are the times I am presented with new situations. That requires me to analyze what is the what.

 

What do I want out of the situation?

What are my choices to get what I want?

What are the costs of each of those choices?

 

It takes time to figure each of those things out.

 

I’ve learned that when I take the time to understand what I want and look at the choices available, I still might not want any of the options

 

I’ve been able to analyze further and come up with better choices from time to time. A longer search on the Internet, a shuffling of this and that and a more acceptable option is available.

 

That new choice came at the cost of effort and attention. But a choice could be made.

 

Like I said, there are always a few choices.

 

One of the choices is to not choose. Even the choice of doing nothing.

 

I can spend a bit more time in researching what might be possible. At a certain point, that’s just delaying the decision.

 

Take the action.

 

Start moving. It may be a terrible set of choices, but if I pick one, and start moving more choices could appear. Or unseen advantages of the current choice will be revealed.

 

I have seen this happen many times. Start moving and the next set of choices appear. That gives optimism to making the hard choice. It gets better. Take the first step.

the day the sky turned blue

The moment Dorothy stepped out of the house into Oz, everything was in color. Her dingy gray dress turned blue.

This was one time that the movie was better than the book.

I’ve known those time. Scales fall from the eyes. The big

OH!

How did I never see that before? I’m NOT in Kansas anymore.

Oprah would call it an Ah Ha! moment

Epiphany

Oprah seems to have them every week. And so…How different are things really?

Dorothy was a lot less excited about her red slippers when the flying monkeys were attacking.

It’s the return to the mean.

I get distracted by the everyday. Most people do. We return to our normal way of being. I have a habit of being happy or bummed, or pessimistic, or irritated with everybody.

That habit doesn’t change with a trip to Oz.

Habits take a lot to change. One way or another, they stick.