Greeting the Morning Dimly

I confess to being a night owl, or at least I used to prefer staying up late and sleeping in. As father time’s influence deepens, I still stay up late and inexplicably rise at hours I would have formerly considered cause for questioning my sanity, i.e., 5 a.m. This week my son’s usual ride to high school is in the shop, so Dad here has to play bus Mom, and that means leaving the house by 6:30 or so. In the past, that would have included a lot of moaning, whining, and stumbling about for car keys. Now I’m already up, showered, and finished with the morning paper.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the quiet and stillness of early morning, especially the chance for some inner reflection and maybe even a little journaling before the intellectual pollution of the day begins in earnest, as it does every day on my commute to work. Part of me would enjoy shifting my work day to begin and end earlier. I had a friend long ago who worked a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift as a systems analyst (before it was popular to do so). I thought he was crazy getting up that early but was always jealous that he had 2-3 hours after work to run errands while stores were still open.

I used to respond to this new insanity by starting with a hearty breakfast followed by some serious time wrapped in a blanket cuddled in my reading chair for a dreamy post-breakfast nap (don’t laugh, benefits of napping are real). THAT was pure decadence, something I thought inaccessible for the hoi-polloi. Lately though, I’m finding I don’t luxuriate with sleep as much as I spend the time catching up with online reading. Nap time has become laptop time.

As we age the common belief is that our bodies will need less sleep. I can’t tell whether I’ve reached that stage or it’s the affect of my new coffee addiction that’s fueling the expansion of my waking hours. Whatever the reason, I intend to try and make the most of it and and at least catch up on my musings here, if nothing else. Besides, if the muse fails me I can always doze off in a blissful post-breakfast stupor.

Saku-Taku-No-Ki

This wonderful Japanese phrase translates to mean the instant a chick pecks on the inside shell while its mother pecks on the outside and the shell cracks, and new life emerges. The author Jane Yolen in her insightful book “Take Joy: A Book for Writers” connects this phrase to what happens to a writer: a story idea physical taps inside our minds, we answer with intent to write, and a story emerges as the two come together.

If you want to read an uplifting, “feel good” book about writing performed for the joy of the process, then pick up Yolen’s book and cancel the evening’s appointments. There are so many wonderful thoughts, anecdotes, quotable quotes in this thin paperback that I’d spoil it for you if I mentioned to many of them, but here’s one that puts things in perspective:

“I contend it’s not the writing that makes writers miserable. It is the emphasis on publication.”

We all struggle with hypchondriac-like symptoms: the process, the rejections, writer’s block, you name it. Writers at times seem more intent on defining ways not to put words on the paper as they are in producing daily word counts. But at least, with Yolen’s advice, one can turn the process into something joyful.

Making the List

Some people make New Year’s Resolutions while others tend their goal-gardens year-round in hopes of keeping the weeds out and encouraging the flowers of progress. Whatever your method, instilling a passion to improve makes a difference in whether you’ll be successful wholly or partly in your personal improvement endeavors. And what better way to crack the steel doors of success than by setting passion-inspired goals.

Another way to approach the goals, resolutions, and to dos of our lives is to create a lifetime achievement list. I did one of these about ten years ago, and have to admit that I haven’t been as proactive in maintaining it as I should have, so after I finish writing this I need to go check my list to see whether weeds or flowers have sprouted there since last I looked.

The Houston Chronicle this morning carried William Hageman’s article from the Chicago Tribune “A List for a Lifetime – Catalog what you want to do in life — then do it” chronicling the lists of three people who’ve embraced this approach to goal setting with great success. A lifetime list is one where you list all the things you’d like to do during your life, so long as they are realistic (defined as obtainable, feasible…”I want to fly to the moon” is not realistic, but “get my pilot’s license” certainly is). When I created my list long ago, I structured it as the “100 things I want to do in life.” I’ll admit that I didn’t unwrap 100 things from my psyche, but I now realize that setting a finite number makes no sense. The point is the process, not the count.

So brew up a fresh cup of coffee, let the cat outside, put the phone in the freezer, and spend some quality time with yourself and a yellow pad and pen. Find a comfy chair and let your mind wander, writing down anything that surfaces that reflects your passions, lost opportunities, or just cool things you think would be sweet to do. Then keep this list handy through the years and add new things as they unfold and revise to suit your evolving life. It’s okay to laugh or cry at the absurdity of your choices, so long as you keep moving forward. When success strikes, pause and let its sweet taste inspire you for even greater things as you make your lifetime achievement list that much shorter.

Some Thoughts on Reading

“So many books, so little time…” goes the infamous refrain (would love to find out who said that first). For avid readers, this mantra seems to be a way of life. Who among us ever catches up with our reading pile(s)? My reading “pile” used to be a series of piles, with piles within those piles. Got all piled up, one might say. In times past my reading pile would became so unwieldy that on occasion I actually bought a book that was already resting nicely in the pile. That was my signal that things had gone too far.

On that fateful day I spent some quality time with my tomes and purged them deeply, leaving only those books I had a chance of reading within the next three months. The rest went back into the bookshelves. Now I use a “reading shelf” (note the singular, not plural, noun!), and on that shelf rests those books I expect to read within a short period. If my reading shelf develops severe obesity, I simply do another session of contemplation over their comparative merits and reduce them to fit on the shelf with the rest going back into the bookcases.

This method has also helped reduce the omnipresent guilt of not enough time to read them all, and makes me far more realistic about what’s possible, thus improving my reading choices. All in all a win-win situation.

Avoiding the Silo

Most folks I know tend to read within certain categories and don’t usually go outside those safe zones. In business this behavior is known as siloing, as in living/working in a silo while not sharing or interacting with anyone else…in other words, staying in one’s comfort zone. While a silo approach can provide a deeper knowledge of selected subjects, it tends to close the mind to new thoughts and concepts.

A few years ago I started a reading program to try and bust out of this well-oiled rut earned through numerous books consumed over time. Periodically (usually 3-4 times a year) I select a book from a topic that I have absolutely no interest in, one I would never choose, one that if given as a gift I’d surely return for…you guessed it…one more familiar.

What amazes me about this approach is that I’ve enjoyed every one of theses books and learned a great deal about subjects that I would not otherwise choose to read. Maybe it’s just me, but I would like to think that if the spirit’s willing (and the choice is good), anyone can read outside their silo and enjoy it.

I’m not suggesting, however, that you grab just any book. The goal is not simply to read a horrid book, but to read outside your static reading interests, the farther the better. I try to make sure that my selections are notable books in the topic, or at least ones with good reviews. Some of them come through the influence of an interview heard on NPR, others from bits read in newspapers, magazines, etc. In the beginning the books were not easy to choose, but the process has become easier to the point that I have a backlog of them waiting patiently for me (again these damn growing reading piles…they’re like rabbits in the spring).

Both of these tips won’t help if you can’t find some serious reading time every day. I have no magic dust to sprinkle on you to cure that affliction, other than to suggest approaching your reading the same way they say you should eat an elephant:  one bite at a time.

Dancin' With the Deadlines

Every writer faces up to that cruel taskmaster, the deadline, by using unique ways to deal with (or avoid) the myriad of problems that struggling towards a deadline seem to bring about. When you think about it, “deadline” is a really negative word. Reminds me of “dead” fish combined with a “line” in the sand…an ultimatum (which after all is what it really is). How much easier it would be to think of deadlines as goals instead, a much more positive way to spin essential the same thing.

At the end of each year, we all go through the same truly silly exercise of establishing, then promptly ignoring, new year’s resolutions. The best intentions combined with the worst process usually results in consistent results…as in, not much changed except perhaps a brief flurry of “feel good” vibes for the few weeks after we each convince ourselves that this year will be different, this year we’ll see those resolutions through to completion. There’s a word for that which also happens to be the noun for the pile of odorous waste found in a bull’s pasture. As Peter Drucker said, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Success with a deadline or goal is usually achieved through small victories rather than one big battle (the new year’s resolutions approach). And small victories made often enough will compound to bigger ones, eventually resulting in new paradigms resulting in an improved process to set and acheive deadlines or goals.

For myself, I always work better with a defined deadline in place. Writing projects tend to be organic in nature, yet I seem to need the sense of that projected closing date in order to manage my time and do everything I need to do. Every time I’ve taken on a writing task with the well-intended requirement of “whenever you can get it done,” I never seemed to be able to get it done, at least not until refreshed by the setting of a real deadline. And I’ve found that if I set the deadline it doesn’t work unless I set some tangible rewards (or penalties) for performance.

So how does all this relate to goals? Simply that goals are by nature essentially deadlines, and can be treated the same way. You wouldn’t take a writing assignment due in 30 days without immediately sitting down and planning the tasks compared to the time available. And so you shouldn’t assign a goal without the same preparatory dedication and loyalty to some type of schedule designed to achieve that goal by the desired target date. (And you are assigning a target date to all your goals, aren’t you? If not, they’re not really goals, just wishes.)

Anthony Robbins once said (paraphrased) that you make a life change through one of two reasons: either perspiration or desperation. The same reasons are usually why goals are won: either by sweat and hard work, or after you’re finally desperate enough to want to make it happen (extreme motivation). For me, a long-procrastinated goal was to lose weight down to a clinically healthy body, partly to feel better, but also to resolve some growing health issues we all face eventually as we age. I can’t tell you at what point things finally clicked to make me get serious about shedding the weight, but part of the credit goes to my Dad via his role model as a survivor of a quintuple-bypass heart operation. Needless to say, bells and whistles went off in my head after that event. A little voice whispered, actually screamed, it’s now or never.

To help me keep focused on some of my goals, I’ve posted three of them on the side margin here at inkmusings, partly in hopes of embarassing myself into improving as the weeks go by. I’ll be indicating weekly progress, both in quantities and whether I’ve improved, fallen down, or stayed lazily the same via the small symbol indicators after each goal. These are not my only goals, just the one’s I’m willing to cut open a vein and bleed for in front of my blog readers.

Looking for Mr. OFR

Every now and then I find myself trying to resurrect some bit of technology from the past. As Satchel, the dog in the strip Get Fuzzy) once said, “I love living in the past…it’s so predictable.”

I’ve decided it’s time to replace my faithful audio sidekick, a portable radio that I got to help past the time doing carpentry work back in the 70s. It’s still working, but senility has invaded it’s plastic mind: the radio dial is kaput (fine if you like the station at the very end of the dial), the volume knob has a short (two choices: barely audible, and teenager blaring), it no longer likes batteries (contacts corroded long ago), and while the paint spatters offer a nice patina-like effect to the outside, it looks like hell sitting on the bathroom sink counter where I like to listen to the BBC while getting ready in the morning. No problem, except the BBC doesn’t come in on the station at the end of the dial.

Easy to replace, right? Not so fast, boombox breath. Seems like this type of radio mostly exists in the minds of old farts like me (I’m not quite in the old fart category yet, still working towards my old-fart merit badge). Oh, you can find portable mp3 players, boom boxes in all shapes and sizes, and strange looking morphs of plastic and colors that allegedly offer sound (if you can decipher the instructions), but to find a good old portable radio the size of a hardback book is a challenge. At least it has been so far. I’ve been to four stores with no luck.

But I’m determined to find my OFR (old-fart radio), even if I have to start visiting pawn shops and flea markets in the process (or maybe garage sales at old folks homes, but that’s probably a bit extreme…or maybe not!).

I’m sure I’ll find it, and at this point it’s become a principle-sort-of-thing challenge. It may take awhile, but I’ll persevere. Guess when I finally find one, I’ll have to buy two so I don’t go through this again in another 30 years. I can always put one of them next to the Lava Lamp to keep it company.