Sidewalk Seashore

Today tides welled on the sidewalk. 
Today I sat on the shore, the curb,
Today I watched the tides roll in. 

Paint floated the waves, 
White and yellow breakers;
The ants on their journey,
Fast drifting towards purpose. 

At sunset, shadows marked
The tideline; dark and light, definition,
Contrast and the slow shift,
A dune and roots that bind.

The wind, waves, light and night
These things move against the moving;
Roll into dunes that roll 
As waves wash off the daylight
And night rolls in with the moon –

As bright shells appear through waves of sky.

Today Came Rain

Today came rain, through a clear blue sky. 
Today, the mists 
Rose from rock and wave,
Rose from crash and spray;
Pine and birch told secrets 
On a mountain’s face. 

Today came birds; their wings are pages,
Their wings color ink
Their song is the rustle
Of turning pages. 

Their rush of wings brings rain, 
Mist and sea, the trees of winter
The trees of spring; 
Secrets told, secrets read
From a mountain’s face. 

My Past Self Says…

This morning I had a conversation with my past self. She said she was disappointed in my life, and I said, “That’s fine,” and sipped my tea.

There’s not that much you can say to your past self. The things you need to tell them are mostly things you can’t tell them. “Time traveler’s paradox” aside, most people don’t really understand things until they’re ready. One of the benefits of talking to your past self is you can save yourself the effort; you know, better than any other possible mentor, what your past self isn’t ready (or willing) to understand. 

I am perfectly aware I’m a disappointment to my past self. It’s a long list. I don’t work for the UN, the World Bank, or any other household-name governmental or non-governmental body; I don’t hold a teaching or research position at a university. I haven’t started any companies or non-profits. I haven’t solved any intractable problems or written any works considered “indispensable” or “essential.” I have an impressively short list of committees chaired, working groups led, or panels moderated. Or participated in, for that matter. 

It’s gotten to a point where I can look at my past self’s to-do list and feel like I spent the last seven years dodging bullets, Matrix-style. Thank God she didn’t know how to get what she thought she wanted. Plus, I got this cool trench coat and shades out of it, so…’nuff said. *Adjusts shades.*

Back to my past self. She has1 a lot of great ideas, goals, and ambitions. She has so many that they prevent her from getting anything done because she has no idea where to start. And she has no idea where to start because everything seems so immensely important – her future is on the line, remember! – that she’s terrified of failure. No, actually, she’s crippled by the idea of failure. So she spends a lot of time imagining “success,” because she’s heard it’s important to know what you want out of life. 

There’s a problem with imagining “success.” It’s a really amorphous concept. It’s a constantly shifting benchmark2. Worse, it’s subject to a great deal of external pressure. Everyone else has a simple formula for success, and it boils down to “be like me.” You don’t notice it’s horrible advice until you know more than one other person.

In short, you can spend a lot of time trying to imagine success and still come up with both nothing and everything – neither of which are good places to start. So my past self is a bit…stuck. But she’s determined. Good Lord, that child has determination. I think I’ll have some more tea and wait this one out. 

I am fine waiting because, recently, I had a bit of a part-the-clouds moment. Without going into the gory details, it boils down to this: instead of defining success, define failure. 

I know, I’m an optimist. Imagine some sparkles and sunshine. (And please understand this may not work for everyone; I simply offer it as a potential path for those struggling with the specific issue of “fear of failure.”)

Here is an oversimplification: when possibilities for “success” are infinite (see, I told you I was an optimist), there’s no point in wasting energy trying to work out the infinite. 

Instead, start where you are. You’ll find that “failure” – in contrast to “success” – is often a very stable concept. There are many ways to achieve degrees of success, but usually failure consists of a few large, simple actions or omissions3. Identify the few, large, simple paths to failure. 

Your goal is now very simple. Instead of working toward success, work to avoid failure. Any time you avoid failure, congratulate yourself: job well done. 

You think this invites mediocrity? 

No. It forces you to push through mediocrity. “Avoiding failure” sounds simple, but sometimes it’s very hard indeed. In my case, the things that consistently cause failure are behaviors that are very ingrained. So it can feel downright Sisyphean to keep at it. But I would argue that subverting ingrained tendencies is the very definition of not-mediocrity. In fact, there’s another way of looking at this: if you don’t want to accept mediocrity, you must become comfortable directly addressing failure. There is no other way to move past your internal status quo. 

My past self was not comfortable addressing failure. She wasn’t comfortable thinking about failure. And she didn’t want to learn how to avoid failure when she was convinced she knew how to pursue success.

The irony is, I can’t even say I’m sorry she didn’t get what she thought she wanted. A lot of the stuff composing her idea of success now sounds like my idea of hell. She had her ego pinned on being an expert, and “expert” is a very fragile title. It’s a very stagnant job description. 

I’m deeply grateful to her for diving in and finding out what didn’t work. I’m grateful for her perseverance when she didn’t know what she was doing, although – from today’s perspective – her behaviorisms also look suspiciously close to the definition of insanity. Sometimes I wish she had learned more quickly, but the time traveler’s paradox cuts both ways – so I have to respect her choices. 

And when she says she’s frustrated, disappointed, impatient, and overwhelmed – usually all at the same time – I just have to reassure her and tell her to hang in there, understanding comes a day at a time.. 

After all, I talked with my future self yesterday. That’s what she told me to say. 

1 Had? I mean, I’m currently talking to her…we’ll stick with present tense and call it the least of our worries. 

2 Don’t believe me? Have yourself a few successes. You’ll notice they don’t really stick around. The minute you achieve “success,” your metric has changed. Furthermore, even if you can define success (and good for you if that’s the case) – spend some time deciding if you want to. Once you’ve decided what it is, you close yourself off to the possibility of other “equally good” outcomes.

3 Excluding what the insurance companies label as “acts of God.” If it’s good enough to expunge the responsibilities of insurance companies, it’s good enough for me.

A Year Since Last Summer

This morning I sit on the balcony with coffee and lose track of time. If I’m not careful, I lose a whole year. 

I blame it on the trees. They are the same color as last August, that rich green of deep summer. Spring left central Texas months ago. We’re in summer for the long haul, now – the stretch of the year that lasts from late April to November – so it’s easy to lose track of the difference between June 2020 and August 2019. Time (and everything else, if we’re honest) turns a bit liquid once the daily temperature exceeds 90’F. 

I don’t really mind. It’s a novel exercise – “What would my life look like without 2020?” More than 2020, of course – what has changed between this summer and last? What would I lose if I was really sitting here in August 2019? Was there anything I should have held onto – that I didn’t?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this year has changed my world. It’s been an internal change; nothing flashy. Some days I don’t even notice it myself. But in June of last year, I was happily embarking on a busy summer. I was grateful to have a busy summer. 

For about two years prior, I’d grown very comfortable in my role of “busy.” It’s an easy role – American society even attaches a measure of prestige to it. It’s like a consolation prize. “Ooh, look – you haven’t accomplished anything of note, but you’re busy! Tell me more.” 

In August of last year, I decided to do something I’ve never voluntarily done. For the first time in my life, I voluntarily decided to drop a responsibility that had told me who I was. I decided to give up being busy.

For a busy person, few things are quite as terrifying as not being busy. Busy is more than an identity, more than a way of life; it is an existential retort to the idea of a cosmic “so what?” 

Busy is the opposite of facing up to those “so what?” moments. You think I’m joking? How many busy philosophers do you know? There’s a reason that philosophers, as a profession, are known for sitting around. It started with the Greeks and there’s been no reason to change a winning formula.

At any rate, I’m not going to list out everything I was juggling at the time. That defeats the point of giving it up. So, having stepped away from the gory details, here is what we are left with: although it didn’t all happen at once, I went from working a measurable 60 hours a week to, currently, 24 hours a week. 

The thing about working 60 hours a week is you always have something to do. Furthermore, and more importantly, you always have a beautiful excuse for things that remain undone: “I’m busy.” It’s not even a falsehood. What more could you want?

The obvious answer is – more time. But this isn’t quite the case. When you work 24 hours a week for other people, you are left with the prospect of at least – at least! – 16 hours of a working week to work on your own projects. In terms of actual time, you have four whole days to yourself. What this translates to is a revelation. It turns out some things still don’t get done. The reason they don’t get done is no longer because “I’m busy.” They don’t get done because, simply, I don’t want to do them. 

It turns out there are some things I just don’t value enough to do. 

Let’s revise the above statement: it’s not that I don’t value these miscellaneous things enough to do them. It’s that I value my own time too much to spend it on them. When your time is your own, you become aware of its value in a way that is antithetical to most discussions of an hourly or salary pay rate. 

This may, of course, not be true for everyone. I ask the economists in the audience to kindly look away. 

Allow me to digress for a moment, while the economists are elsewhere recovering. Among the various job outcomes represented by my college friends, I see a remarkable lack of diversity in qualitative outcome. 

Quantitatively, many of them have jobs, some of them are in grad school, a few of them are in between jobs. Some of them are earning “good” money (plot twist: to the Federal Reserve, it’s all the same unless it’s laundered); some of them are barely earning more than minimum wage in their respective states.  A few are receiving unemployment. 

Qualitatively, all of them seem to have about the same level of work-related happiness and meaning. This level is best described as “meh.”  

So – goes my logic – that means that neither happiness nor meaning are directly correlated to the job outcomes of college-educated individuals?

The point that I wish to highlight here is that, in my limited observations, the individuals who are earning a lot or in more prestigious positions don’t seem to be a great deal happier than the ones who aren’t. They certainly have fewer stressors; they don’t worry about medical crises or rising rent. But the absence of toxic stress isn’t the same as a perceived increase in happiness or life meaning. 

The thing about a paycheck is it doesn’t measure what you think it measures. Most people think a paycheck is a measure of the value of their time and skills. But it’s not a measure of your value of your time; it’s a measure of what the market is currently prepared to pay for the time of a person with a particular skill set. 

You may note a bit of slippage between the two concepts. 

Before I am required to include a chart, graph, or spreadsheet, I will derail the labor economics portion of this discussion. The important point I wish to highlight is that, once basic needs are met, no one other than you can accurately define the value of your time to you. As in other areas of life, knowledge is crucial. So spend some time thinking – how do you value your time?

You may feel your time is best valued in time spent with family; in gardening, reading, cleaning, skateboarding, painting, praying, or any other of an infinite variety of activities that help humans feel alive. You may have several competitors for “most valuable use,” or you may wish to discard the idea of value and simply embrace the moment. 

Currently, I find my time is best valued in writing. That is, there is no other activity which I feel is as good a use of my time. It’s not a comfortable place to be – there are lots of other activities which are almost as good, and sometimes I am aware of the opportunity cost. But I would far rather have the option to choose, with the knowledge of what I am measuring against.

The price is that, between last summer and this, I’ve discarded a lot of goals that have been with me for a while. In some cases I’ve let go of a decade’s worth of ambition. Give up busyness, gain an understanding of value: for me, right now, it’s been a fair trade. 

Of course, after all this I remain a workaholic. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side; some things are not passed on by chromosomes, but what Terry Pratchett refers to when he observes that “some genetics are passed on via the soul.” Just because I’m not busy doesn’t mean I’m comfortable not doing anything. 

But at least the things I now stress (bad habit, don’t recommend it) about are things on my own behalf. Here is the slightly morbid truth: I’m finally working on something that, if I died part way through, would still have enough of me in it to be worth leaving behind – something that no one else could have made. 

To make something that no one else could have made: that’s the closest I’ve come to understanding how I value my life, and the lives of those around me. 

I guess it has been a year since last summer, after all.

Caffeine Routine (Morning Notes To Self)

The coffee is kept in the pickle jar; that’s all you must recall. 

(Where are the pickles kept? In the fridge, of course. Why would you be worried about pickles at this hour of morning?)

As I was saying – your job is to move the coffee from the pickle jar to the French press without further catastrophe. I’m saying “further” because there has likely been at least one catastrophe already today. Not necessarily yours – it could have been an “other people” catastrophe – but why tempt fate? Never let catastrophe know you haven’t recently seen its face. 

Now, assuming catastrophe has been successfully let out (be sure to let the cat in first – not at the same time) – pour boiling water over the coffee. You should have already set on the water to boil in order to arrive at this stage – of course I mentioned it. You just forgot. Well, put the kettle on, we’ll wait. 

No, you can’t have ramen for breakfast. Not even with an egg in it. 

No, you don’t want oatmeal for breakfast. Too wholesome – what kind of day can you expect once you’ve started it off with oatmeal? 

Cheese grits – that’s the best breakfast. With an egg on it. And jalapenos, and hot sauce, and lots of coffee. Infinite refills, diner-style, and the coffee must be in a diner mug, unbreakable and infinite as the coffee. 

No, you don’t have time to make cheese grits. What do you think this is, a diner? 

Catch the kettle before it wakes the roommates. Pour the coffee into a mug. Be sure to place the mug on the counter first. Do check the inside of your selected mug prior to filling it with coffee; in this way we avoid a repeat of the “Cricket Incident.” 

Coffee and thoughts of breakfast – that should keep you going until lunch. 

The roommates are asking where the cat came from, they haven’t seen this one around before. How should I know? Ask the cat, that’s its business. What do you mean we don’t have a cat? We do now.

Here There Be Dragons

Here, there be dragons. 

If I sit in the common room – my preferred workspace – I can hear activities from all of my roommates’ rooms. (It’s better than Netflix, what can I say.) Lately, the apartment has reverberated to the sound of growling, roaring, blasts of flame and other special attacks. One roommate is deeply engaged in World of Warcraft; another, Old School RuneScape. The third roommate has a cat. The cat has, so far, produced slightly more growling and roaring, but slightly fewer blasts of flame, than the two games.

This flurry of constant activity dates to the start of shelter-in-place. Since mid-March, the roommates have been locked in battle with beasts great and small. (The cat appears to battle dust motes, but it has a win streak that surpasses the humans’.)

Every once in a while, they stumble forth from their rooms. 

Mumbling into their headset microphones, they ravage the kitchen for keyboard-safe munchies. I hear the fridge, the microwave, the recyclable bin (in that order), and then a mad dash back to their lairs. (The cat is the exception; once it has made it to the common room it has no interest in returning to confinement.)

Every once in a while the roommates’ paths intersect. There is a moment of flurried panic as they realize they are trapped in the kitchen with another creature. This is followed by a few seconds of calculation. They gauge who is closest to the fridge and how much time remains on the microwave cycle. They eyeball the front door, and wonder if they have time to take out the recyclables or pick up the mail rather than stand in a rectangular box with another human. They evaluate their chances of remaining camouflaged against the cupboards if they hold – very – still – oh, darn it, he’s already seen me. 

It’s not that they dislike each other. During other epochs, they have happily interracted. 

It’s that they currently can’t afford distraction. They have their missions, their quests, their agendas. They have found purpose. They have found what gives their life meaning. Compared to the eternal urge of the hero’s quest, small talk barely signifies. 

When one has faced dragons, there are no more small things to talk about.