Finally: Welcome!

03/24/2010

Okay, I’m playing the cute-card.

But wouldn’t you start with this, too?

morning devotion

Pattern Seeker

03/24/2010

PLEASE NOTE: THE IMAGE ORIGINALLY IN THIS POST HAS BEEN REMOVED DUE TO COPYRIGHT ISSUES.

Recently, I quoted David Byrne’s line “How did I get here?”

This morning during the drive to school, Sam and I heard the Talking Heads song (Once in a Lifetime) from which that lyric comes. It felt better than coincidence; it felt like cosmic validation. Thanks, SiriusXM radio station “1st Wave.”

Recently, Sam and I have been talking a lot about a Bob Dylan song, All Along the Watchtower, because, well, it’s a kick-ass song that Sam is referencing in one of his own songs, and also because of its importance to a very climactic moment in our favorite show, Battlestar Galactica.

There must be someway out of here…

I can’t get no relief.

If you haven’t watched BSG yet, lucky you! You have the greatest viewing experience of your life ahead of you. Go! right now, and put your name on the hold list at your local library for the season 1 DVDs. Start with the mini-series. You can thank me later.

But we have plenty of time before you are lost to that worthy pursuit. The waiting list will be months long. In the meantime, a few thoughts on driving, themes and portents.

As I have said before, I am a pattern seeker. The books of JRR Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander; the many incarnations of Star Trek and the original Star Wars movies. The Journey of the Hero, as explained and popularized by Joseph Campbell—all our favorites fit the pattern. Ever since Donna brought them into my life, these have formed the bedrock of my worldview.  At the time, I just thought we loved a ripping yarn. It’s clear to me now that what we responded to were classic hero stories.

Okay, so what’s my point?

My family is at a crossroad. Sam will be leaving for school so soon; Paul and I want more meaning in our lives and less stuff getting in the way. More meaning and less baggage.

And then last night I had a vivid dream.

I was buckled into the backseat behind the driver’s seat of our Jeep Cherokee. But I was the driver.  (And it’s a stick shift! Try that from the backseat.)  I was distraught, trying to figure out how to get control of the car. I looked down at my right wrist, and the veins beneath my skin were writhing and pulsating. I knew I was having a heart attack. I managed (?) to get to my former Virginia neighbor, Sandy, who was wonderful as ever and who calmed me down.  Then I woke up.

Okay, it’s no hero’s journey. But I do see the pattern. Almost always, the hero has to make a sacrifice before s/he reaches the goal. And there is also, almost always, a circle of true of friends.

Personal relevance:

  • Sacrifice? Check.
  • Circle of true friends? Oh boy, check.

Which brings me to All Along the Watchtower, the Dylan song. I know I am searching for a way out of our current difficulties. Unemployment cloaked in our gray Chicago winter has been pretty grim. I am selling off stuff, paring down, preparing us for the next phase: leaner, lighter, refocused. That’s all very deliberate and necessary, but here’s what I’m wondering.

If some of the sacrifice (of the excess stuff if not the job) is welcome and the friends of blood and time are in place, what’s the big deal? Honestly, Paul and I are moving toward what we want. It’s just happening a little sooner than we expected.

So let us not talk falsely now,

The hour is getting late.


The most appropriate music cue here comes courtesy of Sydney: This Too Shall Pass by OK Go http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJKythlXAIY The winter of our discontent shall be tempered with a bit of whimsy. Thanks, Syd.

Same as it ever was.

Geek Heroes

03/22/2010

I was thinking that my last couple of postings have been awfully somber. So today, something a bit lighter in tone and spirit. Lighter and springier, even.


I am a sucker for a hero walk.


walking the walk

You know, what film-makers call it when several of the main characters in an action movie walk abreast (actually swagger abreast) in slow motion to a pounding anthem-rock song. Think Armageddon or Pirates of the Caribbean or Big Band Theory.Yes, BBT (see season 3 episode “The Pirate Solution”). 

Geek swagger absolutely slays me.

I love geeks. Some of my favorite people are full-on geeks (you know who you are). What makes someone a geek? And is this one of those “Senator, I know it when I see it” kind of questions? Maybe one person’s geek is another person’s nerd. Maybe defining the idea of “geek” reaffirms the essential dodgeballness of geeks—for their own safety, they’re required to be moving targets.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Piercing intelligence tinged with progressive cynicism
  • Genre allegiance
  • Technological adeptness
  • Glasses

Screens are a crucial accessory. We are raising a generation of kids who love screen-time with pure monogamous devotion. Even reading science fiction novels can be accomplished via a screen now. No need for geeks even to venture outside to a library.

Sam’s college search has us racking up some pretty significant screen time, looking at a lot of websites. If you’ve never poked around on the Princeton Review’s website (http://www.princetonreview.com), you’ve missed some pretty hilarious reading. They have lots of helpful search lists and rankings of colleges and universities vamped up with some amusing headings:

  • Dorms like palaces v. Dorms like dungeons
  • Reefer madness v. Don’t inhale
  • Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking vegetarians v. Future Rotarians and Daughters of the American Revolution

[You can bet that last category is our favorite and actually incredibly helpful in directing you toward schools with a liberal leaning—a non-negotiable point for Sam.]

I would say that our Self Contained Unit has some definite geek qualities. He’s got the first three on my above checklist nailed. Myopia may unfortunately come later, certainly likely will come with enough screen time.

But one way he differs from geekdom in general is his passion for being outdoors. He was the kid building forts near the creek, tromping through the neighbors’ yards on “quests” and always lobbying for the nature-oriented family vacations featuring plenty of creeks and rocks and quests.

It reminds me of a piece I heard on NPR one time (sorry Syd). The contributor, waxing nostalgic of course, listed his three requirements for a healthy childhood: a bike, a library card and piano lessons. And the bike, not the mom-taxi, was the transportation to the other two activities. I think we’re pretty far away from this idyllic past. Quel domage. What a shame.

How will Sam do in college with the full-on geeks and precious little time for outdoor quests? My guess is that my iconoclast will manage his own version of going geek at college quite nimbly.

Cue the hero walk music. Which he will write.


Pull the Thread

03/17/2010

One of the things I am sorting through with writing this blog is why I have accumulated so much stuff.

I am working very hard to make this firmly a past-tense confession: why I have accumulated so much stuff. This is the very definition of process not product. In some ways, I feel like I am developing a new 12 step program, maybe “Acquirer’s Anonymous.”

  • Step 1: Cut up American Express cards
  • Step 12: Rent a room; furnish with mattress

A couple of steps are missing there, aren’t they? Based on this progression, I’m at about Step #2.

But there are days when that Step 12 extreme lifestyle is incredibly appealing.

Twenty-five years ago, Paul and I came to our joint-checking-account status with 2 English-majors’ weight in books and at least 4 metal filing cabinets, one of which was an olive-green, WWII vintage, government-surplus monster. That’s the one that, in our move to Eugene, Oregon, both sliced open Paul’s ring finger and made our sorely used friend Milt remark,

“You guys have really heavy stuff to move.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

So what are Steps 2-11 in my “Acquirer’s Anonymous” Program? Roughly speaking, I think Steps 2-6 are things like, “Sell your stuff” and “Donate your stuff” and “Recycle your stuff.” (Okay, we’re not inventing the wheel here.) But I think it gets much more interesting around Step 7.

What do I imagine happens then? I think at that point, you have to pull the thread, as in The Thread, the one that connects your whole tapestry. Or to quote David Byrne, you have to ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

And, course, you have to ask, “Now what do I do?”

There’s a fascinating blog called Guy Named Dave (www.guynameddave.com) He gained some notoriety back in 2008 when his project was mentioned in an article in Time magazine (June 16, 2008). He wants to reduce his entire inventory of worldly possessions to 100 things. He calls it “The 100 Thing Challenge.”

Keep in mind, Dave’s not a radical, fringe, extremist guy. No really! He’s a married dad of three daughters. Some of Dave’s downsizing motivations were similar to mine. Exhaustion with the oppressive excess of it all; recognition that we’ve been trying to purchase our way to a vision of who we’d like to be but aren’t; desire to find true not packaged happiness.

Dave also incorporates his Christian sensibilities into his experiment. While Dave and I would probably quibble on the specifics, I whole-heartedly agree that all this stuff is weighing down our spirits as much as our shelves.

So what will it be:

Selves or Shelves

Which do you want to preserve?

Because I’m really starting to think it can’t be both.

[Full Disclosure: the next few paragraphs definitely relate to my downsizing efforts but were written in mid-February. I stand by their relevance, unfortunately, as you will see.]

Yesterday was mostly a really great day. I spent five hours in the basement organizing! That’s the great part. The not-so-great part is that it was February 10th and I was only then stowing my holiday decorations.

Several things leap to mind:

  • Life has been hectic, so slack must be cut.
  • A lot of energy has been devoted recently to the gluten-free effort.
  • We have too much crap.

I am embarrassed even to posit that first excuse.

I am busy, life is hectic, blah blah blah. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was/is to embrace and personify the adage, “Energy Begets Energy!” This can be a tough concept for me in the depths of a wretched Chicago winter when a good book and a sweet white kitty warming my lap make me about as happy as I can be.

prrrrr

But Productivity in all its Vigorous Protestant Work Ethic manifestations puts the zip in my spirit as well. So, I decided to tackle my tedious winter inertia by committing to drinking more water and wearing more cashmere. Hydrated and hyperthermic [my spell check says, “really?”], I would conquer life’s to-do list with zealous industry and peerless efficiency.

Disclaimer: I have read 16 library books and 2 Christmas gift books so far this year, and my two black cashmere sweaters are covered in Sweet White Kitty’s fur.

I do find it tolerable that 2 of those completed books have to do with my second excuse. Now, I’m not saying this truly counts as productivity. I haven’t started a gluten-free revolution by my example which isn’t the point anyway, but I have reassured friends and family that I can still be included in social gatherings without requiring irksome accommodations and just maybe some of my GF treats are even pretty darn tasty. So there’s a win-win.

Now for that last bugaboo…

I definitely admit that I can be quite a judgmental pest about people possessing too much crap. Some see tchotchkes; I see waste, profligacy, spiritual turpitude. And don’t even get me started on the scourge of mini-storage facilities! A more insidious blight on our physical and moral landscape does not exist.

Enter my Achilles heel: Holiday decorations.

a tidy excess of holiday shame

Personal inventory (physical):

  • 8 large plastic tubs
  • 3 extra-large plastic tubs
  • 1 large flat bin for wrapping supplies
  • 7 large shopping bags
  • 1 large wicker basket of wrapping paper
  • 2 book-packing boxes
  • 1 three foot Christmas tree, permanently decorated
  • 3 seasonal wreaths
  • assorted holiday themed crockery and crystal

Personal inventory (spiritual):

  • 8 tubs, 2 packing boxes and 3 holiday wreaths’ worth of hypocrisy

Well, that was an illuminating exercise. Past time to drink the water and put on the sweater…

Stay tuned for the reckoning.

And I need a gluten-free cookie.

Before I suggest #21, I would love to acknowledge #22.

No sly catch-phrase like last year, just more crazy love. Well, how about, “22 years and our marriage can finally grow a proper beard.”

Alrighty, then. On with the show!

Way back in the old millennium, Donna and Jim gave me the book SimplifyYour Life by Elaine St. James. For those who enjoy lists and organizing—yep, me—this book’s subtitle promise of “100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things that Really Matter” has irresistible appeal.  As in, “resistance is futile.” I was hooked.

And there it is. Suggestion #21: Sell the Damn Boat.

Someone else following #21

Now, Ms. St. James means to encourage her readers to divest themselves of needlessly expensive possessions, a fine admonition. In my family, however, this phrase has come to be used as a metaphor for jettisoning any thing that’s weighing you down.

Have you ever identified something you just need to get out of your life? Not just out of sight; out of the very air that you breathe in. What was it?  A couch so old its weight has doubled from the entombed dust mite pellets?  A bin of tatty, questionable dorm-room posters? An obscenity’s worth of Beanie Babies?

Sell the damn Beanie Babies. That’s what eBay is for.

But, what if the “boat” isn’t a boat? What if it’s something like a belief? Or a habit? What if it’s a habit you’ve lived with for so long you don’t even realize you have a choice anymore.

Last fall, I broke a big habit. More precisely, I am in the process of participating in a lifetime’s commitment to maintaining the breaking of a big habit. (Phew, the contortions of linguistic precision can be as exhausting as a downward facing dog!) So, what in my life have I changed?

Gluten. I have given up gluten.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Gluten hides in a shitload of places, but it can be eliminated.
  • You gotta really want to change.
  • Change can be empowering because, personally…
  • I feel so much better.

And I absolutely will not proselytize (further) about going gluten-free– but, if you ask me, I will be delighted to share.

The point is eating regular wheat bread, pizza and muffins, cooking with all-purpose flour and baking traditional cakes and omg CUPCAKES!, sharing Vicky’s perfect <sigh> bread and gleefully consuming dozens of  Mom’s Toll House Cookies, seemed like things I could not possibly stop doing. Until I did. I made a connection between feeling better and giving up something big.

I sold the damn boat. It feels great.

[I’m also selling some actual “boats.” See boxheadboys13 on eBay for my on-going efforts. Got a “boat” you really want to sell? I’d love to hear about it!]

"It's not fun until it's laminated"

A funny thing happened on the way to this blog. We got downsized. Or more precisely, “laid off.”

Hang on while I back up a bit.

Last fall, I started writing posts for a blog I was calling Comfortable Urgency. (Don’t try to Goggle it; it never got out of my Microsoft Word files.) It was supposed to be about two broad, dovetailing themes in our family life:

  • Downsizing efforts planned to coordinate with
  • Sam’s departure for college in the fall of 2011.

Using one of those online calendar tools (www.timeanddate.com) , I calculated the number of days until the Self Contained Unit departs for some as yet unknown ivory tower or urban tenement. Six hundred eighty-five days: 6-8-5. That’s what we were working with at the time of the first blog. And here’s what I had planned to chronicle in that time frame:

  • Getting square with the world.
  • Keeping Sam’s college application process sane.
  • Organizing Everything/
  • Downsizing the wretched excess.
  • Having fun.

Yep. A tidy little laminated plan.

On November 2nd, The Man screwed Paul. And my tidy plan.

Oh, the hubris, a.k.a.: Don’t you just hate it when life bites you in the ass?

But what the hell, you can’t cry. You can’t moan and wail or even wring your hands…for too long. And you certainly can’t tell your child who has done Everything Right to forget that whole middle-class-birthright-four-year-college-of-your-choice thing.

What you can do is rename your blog. Hence:

process not product

Comfortable? Yeah, that’s gone. And ur-gen-cy remains in everything we do; it’s just not baked into the title.

We are committed to a less-is-more ethos, not merely because of our evolving circumstances, but because living more consciously is less wasteful, more efficient and more egalitarian. It should be what’s normal not what’s  fashionable.

So really, there’s absolutely nothing in my plan that needs to change. Downsizing, organizing, staying sane: check, check and big hopeful check.

And having fun? That plan started well, long ago. Marry best friend, employ village to raise a great kid (thanks village!), ride bike, use library: check to all that.

I guess it really all goes to expectations. Life, planning; being here, getting there.  I’d like a plan. I am the kind of person who needs a plan. I just won’t always need to laminate the plan.

(Today’s calculation until The Downsizing? 524 days, which feels pretty darn urgent.)

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