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Staycation, all I ever wanted

It’s my daughters’ last week off before school starts next week. And I’m taking the week off to be with them for one last bit of relaxation before the school-year grind begins.

I’ve done this the last couple of years. My wife has to work, so we don’t head to the beach. The kids and I just stay home and play.

The lack of structure is already wearing on me a bit. It should be a dream to have no schedule, no obligations. But I’m on day two and feeling restless. And occasionally feeling inept as a parent.

The three of us went to the pool yesterday afternoon. Usually that’s a sure-fire couple of hours of frivolous fun. This trip, however, was not a delight.

Walking in, the 8-year-old got mad at the 10-year-old about something and stuck chewing gum in her sister’s hair to make her point. (She later said she was aiming for her shoulder and her hair was just sort of in the way. Right…)

Gum in hair is a major kid crisis. And a parent nightmare.

Both girls ran into the bathroom and hid in separate stalls—the older sister to cry, the younger sister to hide. And I’m just dad, sitting outside the women’s locker room, waiting, wondering how to salvage the staycation afternoon.

They eventually emerged, a tangle of gum still in big sister’s hair and tears in her eyes and little sister still defiant, proclaiming her justification if not her innocence.

Injustice and plain meanness are the combination most likely to trigger any ill temper from me. But their delay in the locker room gave me time to pause and consider a response rather than a reaction.

I talked it out in the pool with each of them. It was lose-lose for me for a while. The 10-year-old didn’t think I was mad enough at the 8-year-old. The 8-year-old thought I was too mad at her. I was on the right track.

From a distance it’s easy to say how someone should react. But in the parenthood arena, face-to-face with your own kids and your own shortcomings, wisdom is a lot more elusive.

I do know that I would have regretted reacting out of anger. Pausing, even if you have to physically remove yourself from the emotion of the moment, will give you the best chance of choosing an effective response rather than simply reacting.

I know some people think a leader needs to show emotion, to let the team see some fire, even anger at the right time.

Not me. Seeing a leader rage at others or a parent going off on their child is a discouraging sight. I aspire to be the kind of leader and parent who chooses a response rather than vents a reaction. My ideal is a cool, calm, rational approach, even in the midst of the most stressful moments.

I don’t always, or even often, pull this off, and those are the cringe-worthy moments that stick with me in my regrets.

The girls ended the pool trip and the day with good spirits and sisterly affection. And with gum still attached to hair.

Fortunately, their mom came home that night and expertly removed the gum from the hair. She’s a superhero.

Thinking back on the gum incident, I’m reminded I should welcome the annoying little frictions of family life as well as all the toe-stubbing annoyances and button-pushing outrages we all face regularly with friends and strangers. They are opportunities to test our ability to respond, to master our emotions, to see even the most negative circumstance as a chance to learn and grow.

David Cain’s advice to teenagers: “Waste no energy earning respect in high school”

David Cain writes great stuff and is well worth adding to your must-reads.

This is from his post, “An Open Letter to My 15-Year-Old Self Just Before the Start of High School”:

“None of the respect you earn in high school will buy you anything after you leave high school. It’s like working at Canadian Tire for a summer and getting paid only in Canadian Tire money. Waste no energy earning respect in high school. Spend it instead wandering every sidestreet of geekdom and subculture you pass by. Instead of finding scraps of approval from uncool people, you will end up finding something real and lasting in Brian Eno or Nietzsche or Margaret Atwood or Public Radio. Find those grooves of meaning that you can follow into adulthood. When people give you a hard time for liking what you like, that’s a sign you’re on the right track. You are uncovering veins of precious metals; they are scrounging for nearly-expired coupons.”

True.

And this, too:

“Get over any desire to be normal. The desire to be normal is its own perversion. Some people do achieve the appearance of normalness, which means they have successfully hidden or beaten down everything about them that is interesting or memorable in the hopes that they become impervious to criticism. Go the other way. The great joke here is that nobody has ever been normal.”

The whole post is solid. There is probably a teenager in your life who ought to read it. But most of us are still challenged by some of the same tensions we faced in high school. 

Merlyn’s lesson: Keep learning

Merlyn’s lesson to young Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once And Future King:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

“The tree of knowledge and the fountain of youth are one and the same.” –Lewis Lapham

Happiness is a hack

Happiness is a hack, not a default state. You have to overcome your programming to find the joy potentially present in the mundane, in each moment. 

Two arrows: Pain and suffering

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Tim Ferriss has an interview with Jane McGonigal* on his podcast that’s worth listening to. She’s an expert in the value of playing games, and hearing her made me go load Tetris on my phone.

(*Also see her TED Talks: Gaming can make a better world and The game that can give you 10 extra years of life.)

In their conversation, though, this quote was discussed:

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

It’s not from the Buddha, and I couldn’t find a definitive source to credit. But it is very Buddhist. And Stoic.

From the Buddhist teaching in the Sallata Sutha:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.”

From Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (4.49):

“So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.” 

Between stimulus and response there is a gap. In that gap you get to choose your response. The stimulus may cause pain, but you can choose to respond in a way that doesn’t add suffering on top of the pain.

We cannot control what happens. We can control our response to what happens.

Easier said than done, I know. But this is worth remembering whenever you’re confronted with pain of any sort.

Every poet in your pocket: Our obsession with glowing glass rectangles

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It’s easy to castigate the obsession most people have with their phones. 

It’s rare to see anyone alone in a waiting mode—standing in line or waiting on an appointment, for example—who isn’t staring at a phone. If they were reading a book or newspaper, it would seem just fine, even a worthwhile use of their time.

John Adams advised his son, John Quincy, to carry a book with him wherever he went so he would always have a “poet in his pocket” to make good use of any down time.

All of the information the world has collected is right there, in your pocket. Every poet in your pocket! Holy smoke, why not avail yourself of this modern marvel?

And social connections are no less real because the messages from friends and family are digital.

But what about when you’re with others? When is it okay to take your attention away from those physically present and instead focus on your phone?

If it’s clear that you’re prioritizing whoever or whatever is on your device over someone who is right in front of you, you’re probably coming across as rude, and you’re missing a chance for connection in the here and now.

You need to know your own boundaries and draw a line where your devices are distracting versus adding value. If it’s keeping you from being present, from seeing what’s right in front of you, from making connections in real time, put it in your pocket.

My kids won’t know a world without the internet. Their generation won’t have to struggle with making sense of this like mine is.

Imagine what will be the challenge for them, though. What’s after glowing glass rectangles?

The tools we now have to improve our lives certainly can have detrimental consequences along with their incredible opportunities. But the tools are ours. We get to decide how our devices will be used.

As awesome as it is to have so much information and communication power at our fingertips, it’s also awesome to fully inhabit the here and now, to master the present moment and the people who share it with us. 

Huxley: Act decidedly

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There is a bit of magic in just taking action. 

It’s better to do something than to do nothing. 

If you end up going in a wrong direction, you can course correct as necessary. 

Don’t hesitate. Make up your mind and go. 

Sunday morning Stoic: The shortest route

Meditations 4.51:

“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.”

Direct, clear, healthy. 

Speak the truth. Do what’s right. 

If you say “It’s complicated”, consider that might just be code for pain and stress and possibly calculation and pretension. 

Overthinking and delay prolong the pain. 

Do what you know to be right. 

Take the shortest route. 

Whole milk makes a comeback

I don’t drink milk very often. I don’t eat cereal. Occasionally I’ll have a glass with a warm cookie fresh out of the oven–a nostalgic pleasure from childhood.

But my daughters drink milk, and we’ve always given them whole milk. It just seems right. The less processed, the better, right? And we spring not just for organic milk, we buy a brand produced by pastured cows, cows that eat grass, not grains.

I don’t recall seeing whole milk in other people’s refrigerators when we visit family or friends. It’s almost as if whole milk is considered dangerous.

So, I was heartened recently to see this article: The case for drinking whole milk.

From the article:

In 2013, the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care published findings from a study that tracked the impact of dairy fat intake on 1,782 men. Twelve years after researchers took the initial measurements, they found that consumption of butter, high-fat milk, and cream several times a week were related to lower levels of central obesity, while “a low intake of dairy fat… was associated with a higher risk of developing central obesity.” (Central obesity means a waist-to-hip ratio equal to or greater than one—i.e. big in the middle.)

Still skeptical? Shortly after that study came out, the European Journal of Nutrition published a meta-analysis of 16 studies on the relationship between dairy fat, obesity, and cardiometabolic disease. (A meta-analysis combines findings from multiple, independent studies, and when done correctly, provides better coverage of a question than any single study usually can.) Its findings will be revelatory for anyone who drinks skim for weight control:

The observational evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardiometabolic risk, and suggests that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk.

This continues the recent surge of research showing that we’ve been wrong all along about fat, especially saturated fat. Our culture saw a sharp rise in obesity rates after fat was demonized and after we were told to fill the base of our food pyramid with grains.

The low fat push ended up making us fat.

I’m not saying “milk does a body good”. (Humans consuming the milk of cows sparks a whole other set of questions.) But fat, even saturated fat, may not be the culprit we’ve been led to believe.

Sugar, however, is poison. Tasty, tasty poison…

James Rhodes: “Serious” music

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This lovely Zen Pencils post introduced me to the pianist James Rhodes, who has an incredible personal story to go along with his immense musical talent.

He came through an abusive childhood and was given new life by music. 

I listened to his Live in Brighton album while I worked today. Between pieces he discusses the stories of the musicians and the compositions he’s playing. His language is frank, funny, and a bit off-color, and it’s the most refreshing experience I’ve had with classical music since I first discovered composer Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk

He talks about how lacking the term “classical” is for the genre and wonders if it’s “serious” music. 

How many classical albums have earned an “Explicit” label in iTunes?

Intrigued? Check it out. 

Daily express

I just returned from a quick beach getaway with my wife’s family.

I took a few days off from posting on this site while I was gone, and I came home to an email from a friend wondering if everything was okay. He was used to me posting something daily. How nice that he was concerned when I went missing from the internet for a few days.

I do try to find something to share here every day, and I had a nice streak going before this recent break. 

Some days I post just a quote or a link to something I’ve found online or a book I’m reading. Occasionally it will be something more substantial.

But I’ve discovered that this daily discipline adds some juice to my days. I wake up knowing I need to find something worthwhile to share. And my antennae are up. I’m on the search for interesting. I learn things I otherwise wouldn’t because I’m actively seeking something new to share.

I’m sure photographers actually see things most of us don’t because they’re in the business of finding and creating things worth seeing.

It’s a double pleasure if something I share is meaningful to someone else, because my initial audience is just me. If no one reads what I write, at least I have benefitted from the experience of trying to find something worthwhile and understand it well enough to communicate it. 

Making a regular habit of expressing yourself, in whatever medium works for you, will have you seeing and feeling and finding in ways you never would otherwise.

“The best way to understand something is to try to express it.” –Brenda Ueland

Kind of Blue – All kinds of great

If you don’t know know where to start with jazz music but have a feeling you ought to explore the genre, start with Kind of Blue

It’s Miles Davis, yes, but he’s accompanied by Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans and Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. A dream team at their artistic peak. 

The iTunes description of the album closes with “Modern jazz starts here.”

The approaching inevitability of our electric car future

This article makes a compelling case for why electric cars will dominate sooner than you might think.

Tesla will do for electric cars what’s Apple did for smartphones:

Gas stations are not massively profitable businesses [4]. When 10% of the vehicles on the road are electric many of them will go out of business. This will immediately make driving a gasoline powered car more inconvenient. When that happens even more gasoline car owners will be convinced to switch and so on. Rapidly a tipping point will be reached, at which point finding a convenient gas station will be nearly impossible [5] and owning a gasoline powered car will positively suck. Then, there will be a rush to electric cars not seen since, well, the rush to buy smartphones.

Big picture, big history

  
I’m on a big picture, big history kick right now. 

I’ve been reading a great history of Homo sapiens, and I’ve started listening to the audio version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bryson’s book is a delightful survey of the biggest ideas and discoveries that explain what we know about the universe. 

What stands out is just how much we got wrong and how certain we were in our errors. 

The steps forward were usually dependent on those who were willing to embrace uncertainty and not-knowing, who could follow their curiosity rather than their egos. 

Pluto: To boldly go

We can actually see Pluto for the first time ever. Incredible!

We (meaning the brilliant humans of NASA and the New Horizons team) launched this piano sized spacecraft nine years ago and sent it hurtling toward the edge of the solar system.

It is now more than 3 billion (!) miles from home and sending back stunningly detailed information about what was the most mysterious world in our planetary neighborhood.

That we can do something like this, that we can truly “boldly go where no one has gone before”, burnishes my optimism for our species.

The lucky ones 

Richard Dawkins from his book, Unweaving The Rainbow:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

The limits of the possible

“Do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.”–Pindar

My aspiration should be to fulfill my potential, to be the most excellent version of myself possible. 

Posterity, my reputation when I’m gone, is beyond my control. And what does it matter anyway? 

Life here and now is enough for me. I’ve not come close to exhausting my limits. 

But every day offers a new chance and a fresh start. 

What’s possible tomorrow?  How can I be even slightly better than I was today? 

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