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.

Finding Motivation

“You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.” – Edwin Louis Cole

Discovering motivation, that bane of all writers, is not an exercise for the timid. Without motivation, it’s hard to avoid the siren’s call to do anything, everything, except write. Some are disciplined enough to force their way through the tough times (as defined by moments of intense distraction), while others (e.g., like me) need some inspiration from other thinkers to get started (or keep going).

The OED defines motivation as “The (conscious or unconscious) stimulus for action towards a desired goal, esp. as resulting from psychological or social factors; the factors giving purpose or direction to human or animal behaviour.” and “The general desire or willingness of someone to do something; drive, enthusiasm.” Lofty words, but in essence, that which propels us forward doing something for some reason. The trick, as always, is to discover that “reason.”

I’m still working on fully discovering my motivation, but so far it appears that it falls into the “I want to be heard” and “I want to be challenged to think more deeply.” I don’t fall into the group that uses the “I must write or die” mantra, but I don’t knock anyone who thinks that’s their calling. Motivation is as vain and unreliable as a wandering lover’s eye. The only motivation one can get from learning what motivates others is the exposure to the opportunity to open subconscious doors and self discovery that comes with hearing thoughts outside the box where one’s thinking wants to stay cozy and protected from the world. We are, after all, creatures who tend to repeat and let in only the comfortable, the familiar, and shrink from anything new or challenging, unless “motivated” to do otherwise.

Monday Miscellany

> “Your idea of bliss is to wake up on a Monday morning knowing you haven’t a single engagement for the entire week. You are cradled in a white paper cocoon tied up with typewriter ribbon.’ – Edna Ferber

Ah, the start of the work week…a fresh start, a new beginning. Most Mondays it’s not too bad breaking the habits of the weekend and getting back to early rising and shaving every day. But since I had an extended break over the holiday, i’ve been too long (or too short, depending on one’s perspective) away from the routine of a work week.

This time of year is quite unproductive. From the Thanksgiving break through the New Year’s Day break, there seems to be more days off than on! Not that I’m complaining, mind you, just noticing. When I was a managing partner of a firm, this time of the year was a bit scary, since productivity drops at a time when clients slack off projects as well. Made for some interesting cash crunches. But now that I’m gainfully employed by others, these concerns are but a distant memory, and the extra days off are well appreciated.

> “How did it get so late so soon?
Its night before its afternoon.
December is here before its June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?” – Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel

And today’s blathering would be incomplete if I failed to mention that it’s now the first of December. DECEMBER! How did this happen? Living in Texas it’s really hard to judge the months due to the absence of seasonal indicators. We have two seasons here, blah and hot…with a rare brief spell of nice weather at the change. I miss the autumn and winters of my youth spent in colder climates (not fun to commute in, but snow’s a blast when it closes school…THAT I remember well).

As I grow wiser (nee older), I find that December takes on a different purpose, a time to take stock of what’s happened over the last year and prepare myself for January and the habitual, yet false, fresh start. Not that I believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I do enjoy the mind trick that this “fresh start” plays on us. Like the wish for eternal youth, who among us doesn’t enjoy that cleansing feeling that comes with this mental game of forgive, forget, and freedom? As always, I’ll privately (and quietly) make some resolutions for the new year, and reflect back on those made the last time the cherubic New Year’s baby waddled onto the stage.

Bah Humbug Blues

It’s enough to give a curmudgeon heartburn. Every year I lament that fact that certain members of our human race (I call them “idiots” in private, but I shouldn’t say that in public), conspire to start decorating for Christmas earlier and earlier. This year is no exception.

scrooge.gifI should warn those of the elf-hugging, ornament-dangling, Christmas-fruitcake-sharing persuasion that this article is…well, basically a rant. A well-deserved, well-intended rant, but a rant none the less. So cover your children’s ears and hide your puppies.

In years past, I’ve always complained about those early rushers who attempt to squeeze a few extra days (weeks really) into the blessed Christmas season. You’d hear me exclaim, “Dang, we just finished Thanksgiving and they’re decorating already!” Okay, so that’s a G-rated version. Most likely I would have said darn instead, but I digress. Over the last few years I’ve had to revise my statement to something like “Drat, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and they’re starting to decorate.” Well, this year takes the cake (and if it’s fruitcake, yes, please take it…as far away as possible). A few weeks ago Starbuck’s started decorating and doing other terrible things, such as playing Christmas music. Granted, Miles Davis’ rendition of Jingle Bells was noteworthy, but ask me again after hearing it forty times and I’ll use a different adjective. Yes, it really happened, and this was around the 10th of November! Oh, but that’s not the worst of it. Last month a few brave retailers started decorating BEFORE Halloween. If that trend continues, we’ll have to change that famous refrain to “Ho ho ho, trick or treat.” And to top that, last week, I spied a group of three Dickensian-attired carolers outside a favorite bookstore. It’s 80 degrees outside, and the middle of flippin’ November…hardly the time to get all Christmasy. Better yet, let’s all lobby to get the red, white, and blue approach to Independence Day changed to red, white, and green so we can start decorating in JULY!…not.

So what’s so wrong with decorating and celebrating Christmas WITHIN the month of December? Seems like this would be a more intense, enjoyable way to celebrate, and some of us would then be less likely to punch out carolers before it’s properly cold enough to carol. We should blame retailers of course, since they’re the ones pushing the envelope (and the ones mostly benefiting from rushing the season). I understand why they start the insanity, since the Christmas shopping gorge fest is what keeps them alive. For most stores over half of their annual sales occur during the blessed holiday. Unfortunately in this headlong commercialization of the holiday, the true meaning of Christmas has probably been lost, save for a few brave parents who attempt to instill the Christmas story and reasons for sharing on their children, who listen intently and politely then promptly hand in their extensive toy lists.

Before anyone think me a full-blown curmudgeon who totally disdains Christmas, I do enjoy celebrating the event, but typically this insanity comes on me like a fever about December 23rd, or in my bad years, December 20th. Thankfully the madness leaves around December 26th. I am blessed that while growing up, my family celebrated the season in good ways, and so I have Christmas memories beyond the presents received over time. I remember events and moments from the past that are nice reflections of true Christmas.

So go ahead elf-huggers, decorate early. Play your Christmas songs until we’re sick of them and Christmas still weeks and weeks away. If it makes you jolly, dangle that mistletoe and decorate that soon-to-be-dried-out tree before the Thanksgiving turkey carcass is picked clean. Whatever makes you happy. But I won’t be the one standing in the post-Christmas line, fighting to exchange Grandma’s gift sweater with arms of different length. Me and my lump of coal will be just fine sitting in front of the fire, worrying about important things, such as when retailers will realize that Santa is just a laborer and outsource him or race to start taping plastic holly up on September 6th. It’s enough to make a grown curmudgeon cry.