Sunday, August 5, 2018

I don't get taoism

I have been reading the Tao of Pooh lately. Well, trying to. It's very enjoyable, but it might hit too close to home and I find myself reading it in short bursts. Perhaps the problem is that "home" is the general problem with my life, that thing I seek but have never been able to truly identify, a place I have but don't find comfortable. Pooh, so the book goes, is the perfect representation of Taoism; he is carefree without necessarily meaning to be. Because of his ability to live in the moment, he is at peace. Anyone who has watched Pooh for even a few minutes understands, and maybe envies, him for his general happiness. Nothing seems to disturb him, at least not for long.

Taoism's primary definition is that it cannot be defined. You aren't supposed to figure it out. Meaning will come as part of the process; filling an empty vessel and things like that. There's a Christian teaching that is along these lines: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Take the trouble of the day as it comes" (Matthew 6:34).

There are some fundamental problems with seeking the kind of peace found in Taoism. For starters, the practical things in life are practical for a reason. It would be great to live the carefree life, to float like a leaf on water, knowing we have no control over the currents of the stream or the wind in the air.

A leaf has no mortgage. Or a family to help support. No obligations.

There is no college tuition to pay. Clothes don't just show up at my house.

But the basic truth is this: stop worrying. That's nearly impossible for me; I have ambition, and even though at 48 (almost) it is pretty clear I won't achieve that ambition (at least professionally), I cannot simply shed that particular mantle. It gnaws at me. I'm not a conspiracy theorist or big believer in karma; but sometimes it makes a person wonder if things aren't stacked against me for some reason. Why rip a person's dreams away from them with no explanation or discussion? Perhaps the world has simply become evil, and it infects people I once considered friends.

I am Piglet combined with Eeyore. All this time I defined myself in that way. An anxious worrier whose depression is an obstacle no employer can get around. There are no Poohs around me, though, no Christopher Robins to accept me, warts and all. Only after reading the book did I understand that I should try to be Pooh, and I recognized that, to others, maybe that's what I can be.

This is what I will meditate on as I ride my bike down long, winding Middle Tennessee roads. I will strive to not need to strive. I will plan on not having to plan. I will let life wash over me as water over a rock.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Water Heater

My water heater was put out of its misery on 4/28/2018. It had a good life. For fifteen years it served my family well, through bitter cold days when we maybe stayed in our showers a bit longer than needed. It wasn't a famous brand name; that journeyman water heater did its job with distinction.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed water on the garage floor. I thought it was from my son's car, condensation from the AC. Last weekend I removed the things stored in front of the water heater and realized it was fatally broken, leaking from somewhere inside. There's little you can do about that.

All week I kicked around my options. I wanted to go with a tankless type water heater, but my gas line and vent were both undersized for that and I didn't have the time to properly plan a way to do it. Besides, it wouldn't save me that much money to go tankless, considering the added cost.

Saturday I went to the U-Haul dealer and rented an appliance dolly for $10, then went home to prepare. I cleaned out the area in front of the water heater and looked over the current space. It's been a very long time since I did any plumbing work, but the nature of the work has changed in that time. These days there is no need to solder copper pipes together; there are all sorts of compression fittings available to make the job easier. The problem with those products, I soon learned, is that they are not quite as flexible as their steel-braided design makes them appear.

My son was coming home to help with the install, so just after noon I went to Lowes and bought the water heater. I let the old water heater drain for a half hour, which somehow wasn't long enough. We moved it anyway. An old water heater will collect sediment, making it quite a bit heavier than a new one. Our new water heater was 150 pounds; the old was around 175 at least. They are cumbersome things, with no handles or any place to grab onto. The space for our water heater is a bit tight. I wiggled in on one side, my son took the front, and slowly, carefully, we slid it off it's stand to the floor.

He helped me position the new one, which wasn't much easier. In the end I grabbed it underneath and just muscled it up onto the stand, proof that sometimes you can over-engineer solutions to things that are best resolved with a direct approach.

Two hours later, after three trips to Lowes and one to Home Depot because I was embarrassed to go back to Lowes again, the water heater was connected and hot water flowed again to the house. (I would have to go to both Lowes and Home Depot a final time to return some things.)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons.

First, while I knew how to install a water heater, I didn't know how to plan to install a water heater. Those are vastly different things, and it's important for project leaders to understand this distinction. There are experts in a field who know what they're doing; they also cost a lot of money. For example, I would have had to pay someone at least $500 to install my water heater; all of the parts I needed cost less than $100. You pay for experience and the efficiency that brings. When you ask someone without that experience to figure things out, that will take more time and that has to be built into the project plan.

Second, not every mistake is critical. With the water heater I knew the general parameters of what I was doing, and worked well within those. Sure, I made some mistakes, including some that I never thought about (like the gas line connection needing some re-routing). But those mistakes were bumps on the road, not show stoppers.

Far too often we fear those little mistakes so much that we see them as larger than they are. That's where the expression "make a mountain out of a mole hill" comes from.

So go about your day with perspective. Mistakes are normal. They help us grow and improve. And be willing to let your staff make them, and let them try things they don't know how to do.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Roots

My son is heading off to college soon. It has made me reflect back on the choices I've made, both for me and for him. They seem to have worked out, for the most part. He has scholarship offers from two excellent schools. He still likes to hang out with me; asks to hang out with me, in fact.

Maybe it's those mountain roots.

When I was young, living in the shadow of the Appalachians, we pretended to be farmers. Really, we were just bumpkins who had some land, and every so often we had cows or horses or something that looked like a garden. And I mean that in the most positive way. Readers of my blog know that I am quite proud of my redneck heritage. Everyone should be, because we all share that past. Just about everyone was, a generation or two back, people of the land. Country folk. Rednecks. Not the pretenders who live on half acre lots and drive pristine trucks with knobby tires that have never seen a speck of mud, with a spray-in bed liner that has never known dirt or mulch or any hardship, much like the men who drive those trucks; and it's mostly men who pretend to be that which they aren't: rednecks. I don't begrudge them their fantasy; maybe I'm one of them, though my truck is beat up and is held together only by the quality manufacturing processes of Toyota. I seek out hardship, it seems. I use a push mower, hand cut wood, come up with projects that guarantee physical pain just so I can figure out a problem and walk away from it with blisters and cuts and body aches in places that really shouldn't ache.

That's how I was raised. Work meant using your hands and I never really fully grasped how to work any other way than by doing.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed at my first job, as a ditch digger at the water company. Would I be on my first back surgery? My second knee surgery? Would I have continued riding bikes? Would I have ridden more? Would books mean as much to me as they do today?

Would I be happy at work? Or does that follow the person and not the job? One thing about the blue collar world: the hierarchy is more structured and more respected. You become a foreman for a reason, and I've never heard of that title being taken away form someone without it including a termination letter. Responsibility is earned and taken seriously. I was lucky in my life to have good managers, for the most part. But the best were in those days when I labored for a living.

I have tasted that responsibility in my career and had it yanked away in the most cruel way, for reasons either fabricated or exaggerated. It's not something I understand, and maybe never will. Humans confuse me sometimes.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movies and life lessons

Last night, as I drifted in and out of sleep on the sofa, cursing insomnia and a sore back, I happened to catch the movie Hero with Jet Li.

The synopsis of the movie, per IMDB: "A defense officer, Nameless, was summoned by the King of Qin regarding his success of terminating three warriors."

It's a little more complex than that. Based loosely on an assassination attempt by Jing Ke, the story is an elaborate weaving of how a Qin warrior, known only as Nameless, successfully killed three known assassins and, as a result, was allowed to proceed within ten paces of the emperor. Nameless has perfected a technique where he can attack with lethal speed from ten paces in the blink of an eye.

The movie, by legendary director Zhang Yimou, weaves this basic tell from three perspectives. And that's what had me thinking most of the night.

First is the perspective of the story as told by Nameless.

Second is the story as interpreted by the Emperor.

Third is the story as it really was.

There are strong parallels to life in this movie.

How often does the interpretation of reality so radically differ from the truth? We form our memories of events to fit with who we are. Maybe we don't want to do that; probably most of us don't know what's what is happening. But the source of much of the world's woes is that two people can see the same exact event and remember it two different ways. You only have to look at politics to see this in action; or a sport team. We form reality to fit our opinion, rather than the other way around.

There is no way around this, if history is a predictor of future behavior. Yet maybe things are changing, slowly. So I challenge everyone to go out today and try to be the person others aspire to be. Mold your life around the concept of kindness. We can be the change in the world; but we have to understand that change might not be something we agree with. So accept that, and move on.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Too serious

"Why do you look so serious?"

So asked a friend at the gym this week. He smiled and shook my hand.

"I'm always serious," I said, meaning it to be lighthearted, an off-the-cuff comment between friends.

"Don't be," he replied.

We exchanged some more banter; he was leaving, I was going in, and we went our separate ways.

Is it so simple? That thought (predictably) occupied my mind as I worked out. I have been told a lot in my life that I am too serious. A friend said that in college I was the oldest freshman she knew. Not that I am the focused, intense sort of serious; not a lot, anyway. Put me in a crisis, yes; if you see me playing a sport or riding my bike you can witness the intensity with which I approach things.

But to not be serious. Just like that. What would it take?

I've been working on my philosophy of the binary life. It's not a new notion at all. The idea is that every decision can be distilled down to a choice between two things. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes not. Look for more on this in the coming weeks.

I am committing, again (as it were), to not take things so seriously, to make that decision to be happy, to be less stressed, to de-focus for just a bit and enjoy the world as it happens.

We'll see.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Anniversaries. Again.

At my mother's funeral, just under four years ago from the time I am writing this, I spoke about a binary choice that we're faced with every day: to be happy or not.

It's not an easy choice, and there are great arguments as to why it isn't as cut and dried as that. But we humans crave complexity, it seems. It quests after us as much as we it, a symbiotic relationship that keeps chaos alive and well in the world. Stress and anxiety are perhaps more familiar than happiness. Our lives are lived in a constant push-pull between obtaining the things we need to survive, on one side, and the work/life balance that for a generation has been a mantra of self help gurus.

Have you ever tried to distill things down to a binary choice?

It is very difficult.

A good example of this difficulty is going out to eat. That is also a good example of the way we naturally go for the binary process. First there's finding a place to go; Greek or Italian? Neither? Sandwich shop? Chinese or Mexican? Ethnic or American? Then there's the decision we make inside the restaurant. A menu, even a simple one, will have many things to choose from.

In the end, though, it's a binary decision.

Four years ago I recommitted myself to the quest for happiness. Every single day I commit myself to choosing happiness - Joy (which was - is - my mother's name). It doesn't work most of the time, to be honest, because of the chaos that thrives in our world.

But I try. And that effort means a lot to me.

So you, too, should attempt to find that happiness in your life. Make that decision to seek a happy path, even if faced with every reason in the world to be sad.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Graduation Trip, Part 2

Every motion by the people upstairs from us was audible to us. Their floor (our ceiling) creaked like an old sailing ship. It was worrisome at times; so loud were the creaks and groans that I wondered if the building would be standing after their children finished stomping around. And to be fair, they could have been tiptoeing for all I know; creak-creak-creak-groan was all we heard.

"We" isn't accurate. My son is eighteen and I don't think he heard anything at all. Whereas I, with the worries of the world on my shoulders, woke up with a start and couldn't go back to sleep, the teenager lightly snored his way through the whole aria folks upstairs preparing to leave, and then leaving.

Making the noise worse as the snowplow outside. Overnight six inches of nice, powdery snow had fallen and the hotel's maintenance folks were busy scraping the walkways and parking lot.

These are some of the reasons I wanted to be downtown. Knowing I wake up early, I wanted to have a coffee shop to walk to so my son could sleep late. Our ski lesson starts at 10:30; we need to be there by 9:30. I was up at 6:00 and it was a lot of time to just sit and listen to the building groan its displeasure at being up so early.

Eventually my son woke up and we drove to Dunkin Doughnuts for a quick breakfast, then on to Wildcat Mountain.

Turns out there was another scheduling snafu and our ski school appointment wasn't made for Wildcat, where I requested, but for Attitash Mountain which was only a mile from our motel. I suppose we could have gone there; I had no real preference, honestly, but picked Wildcat because my friend said it was the better option. The email didn't say which mountain the reservation was at, so I assumed they'd made it for the place I requested.

It worked out; they squeezed us in and we were outside for our ski school lesson early: 10:15.

Except the ski school lesson at Wildcat starts at 10:00.

No problem. The instructors were easily the nicest people I've met in a long time, and they worked us in. I wasn't sure if I needed the lesson; the last time I was on skis was seventeen years prior. Our lesson filled in a lot of gaps for me, raised my awareness back to where it needed to be, and my son proved to me that he was, after all, a Worth; every fall was followed immediately by getting back up and trying again.

After almost three hours, the lesson ended. We went inside to eat a quick bite, rested, and spent the next two hours on the slopes. Ski, fall down, stand up, ski, take the lift back up, repeat. After two or three runs, during which I enforced the idea that my son shouldn't try to go straight down the hill (the only thing the instructor didn't really cover). He got the hang of it and I went to the slightly more advanced runs. The resort slowly emptied as the end of the day approached; he and I wanted to keep at it, to ski more, but eventually the lift closed and we had to finish.

That night we went to Tuckerman's, a classic local establishment. The wait was an hour, except for the bar, and wouldn't you know it, there were two seats open at the bar, so we sat down. They changed the channel to the Olympics. I ordered a nice Stout and some wings; both were excellent. The wings, in particular, were some of the best I've had, though the bartender said another place in town (the name of which I've forgotten) was better. That is hard to fathom, since the Tuckerman's wings were easily in the top five of any I've ever had. I ordered the meatloaf, which was also excellent. My son got the pulled pork, which was mediocre; there's a lesson there: be ware of pulled pork in areas not famous for their barbecue.

It was still a great end to the day. We talked, old friends, buddies. He's growing into a man, and I have to transition to being that for him, a person he can come to for advice rather than the person who tells him what to do.

The next day, our return day, wasn't interesting. We started at a coffee shop in North Conway; it wasn't very good, decent at best, before making the drive to the outlet mall at Kittery Maine, where we shopped a little, and then had breakfast for lunch at Country View Restaurant. Sometimes you find places that just resonate with you, and that's what Country View was for both of us. We ordered the full breakfast, and then out came these pancakes at least a foot in diameter. I tried to eat my fill, but I couldn't. There was simply too much food. It was little embarrassing, but we had to give up and the plates were taken away with pancake left, though we did finish the rest, which included excellent bacon, sausage, and hashbrowns.

At the airport in Manchester, as we turned in the car, my son thanked me for a great vacation.

I almost cried.

Not almost. I did. Just a little. I might not have done a lot right in this world; I have asshole tendencies and can be hard to get along with. And there's still plenty of time to screw things up. But that moment, just for that short whisper of time, I felt like maybe I'd done the parenting thing okay so far.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Graduation Trip Part 1

For my son's pending graduation, we took a trip to New Hampshire. Just the guys, like we used to do years ago when we would go to Spring Training in Florida. Then, we planned to someday go to Spring Training in Arizona, but that never materialized.

New Hampshire was a bit of a random choice, based solely on where he could go ice climbing within a couple of hours of an airport that Southwest Airlines flies to. Denver would have been our first choice, but last year when we planned to go there for ice climbing the weather didn't cooperate. So we went north where the winter has been cold enough to ensure good ice formation.

Friday was one of those long travel days that makes you appreciate a good night's rest. Only we didn't really get that rest on Friday night. Our flight landed in Manchester at 11:20, and after picking up the rental we weren't to our hotel until about 12:30. It was a calculated plan based on this question: stay up one extra hour on Friday night or wake up an hour earlier on Saturday morning? We chose the slightly later start, figuring we would already be up on Friday anyway.

It was a good choice, and we were able to get breakfast in our Hampton Inn before hitting the road to Intervale, NH.

The climbing guide of choice was Charlie at Synott Mountain Guides. The office for the guide service is behind a local outdoor goods brand: Ragged Mountain Equipment. Between the store and the guide office is a small factory, a sign that local industry is not quite dead, because it doesn't get much more local than that. Charlie is a great guy and I felt no qualms handing my (adult) son off to him.

While my son climbed I went cross country skiing for the first time.

I wanted very badly to like cross country skiing. It has been a bucket list item for many years. In the Olympics, the Nordic events are my favorite, followed by the other skiing sports.

Cross country skiing might be one of the most difficult sports I've ever attempted. And I've done a lot, particularly of the outside variety. I pride myself on possessing the instincts needed to grasp the fundamentals of sports. Paragliding? No problem. Kayaking? Fine. Mountain biking? Bring it on.

But damned if I could figure out cross country skiing.

I opted to take a class, in part because it was only marginally more expensive than not taking one, but mostly just to get the fundamentals of how to move. Here's the struggle I had: a ski is made to slide, so how do you turn that into forward momentum, uphill?

The answer: with difficulty.

Now, I understand that there are people who will say that's not true. They'll argue that it's easy once you get the hang of it. But that's the trick with everything. Flying a helicopter is easy once you get the hang of it. And while cross country skiing isn't on par with flying a helicopter, it has to be close.

The lesson taught me what I needed to know, and after a quick pee break, I headed out onto the trails, something the instructor suggested once we had a chance to practice a bit.

Pfffft. Practice. I am an experiential learner. Practice is the same as doing. Put something on the line to motivate me.

Let me say this about Jackson, NH: the trails around the golf course (that's where the XC center is) are great, and there is access to many miles of additional trails to explore. That's where I headed: those other trails. I made sure to stick to the easy paths, but I gave myself a goal: do the Ellis River Trail as far as the loop just beyond the hot cocoa hut. I figured it to be around five miles or so total; I wouldn't do the entire trail, since it included some difficult sections, and the easy stuff was hard enough for me.

I'm not going to go into how many times I fell, how often I sidestepped up hills because it was easier than skiing up. I will tell you that despite the bruise I earned on my hip, it was wonderful. I was in the wilderness, and it is always better to be bruised and banged up as a result of being in the great outdoors than to be safe and sound on a sofa.

And the hot cocoa was awesome.

The rest of the day was, sadly, spent working through issues with lodging. My hotel screwed up the reservation. Expedia said they sent the hotel a correct reservation for two beds; the hotel said that wasn't the case. As a result I didn't have a place within walking distance of the North Conway downtown; that was my goal from the start. Instead I was seven miles away at a place within walking distance of nothing.

In the grand scheme of things, though, such hardship makes a vacation interesting, and after picking up my son we took it in stride. I was more interested in his ice climbing trip than the lodging issues. Charlie, it seems, lived up to the promise and it was an incredible trip for the boy. I had wanted to go with him; truly I did. And I said my shoulder hurt, my elbows hurt, and I wanted to try cross country skiing anyway. Truth is, though, that I wanted my son to do it on his own, to not have Dad around telling him how to do things that Dad didn't really know, or have my son look to me for those answers. Sometimes the hardest part of parenting - and leadership, in general - is sitting back and letting things unfold.

Part 2 will deal with the day spent skiing.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The empty spaces

It looks to be a bit of a slow day. Rain is coming in, a perfect marriage for temps that will be just warm enough to not turn that precipitation into snow, but just cold enough to be miserable. Or on the edge of miserable. I remind myself that in South Dakota the temperature once went from -4 to +45 with in the space of two minutes; and in two hours it had completed a round trip from -4 up to + 54, then back to -4. So miserable weather is relative.

I was awake at 4:00 a.m. for reasons known only to Karma; and that was miserable. Last night I drank one beer too many, ate one meal too few, which is just a fancy way to say I got a little drunk on an empty stomach. For the rest of the month I will abstain from beer, with one or two exceptions. I will abstain from sweets; no processed sugar. Cycling season is coming, and I have given myself a goal to improve my average speed by three miles per hour. Planning how to achieve that has been a fun process. Most of my life I have had a hard time distinguishing dreams from goals. Chasing dreams is more fun than working towards a goal, to be honest, even if it means I wake up early with those visions churning away in my little head.

Sometime around 6:00 I was in Starbucks, only to discover that their heat isn't working at full capacity. It's a tough way to start the day, writing in the cold while waiting for the time when I need to start my workout.

Life is about those empty spaces, the times when there isn't anything to do. Some people hate the blank gaps in life. They fight against them and always seek some way to fill the time, usually with work. We need to embrace those times. It's good to be a little bored, to learn how to occupy ourselves in healthy, if non-productive, ways. Perspective isn't easy to gain when we have no counterpoint. Loneliness, boredom - they are good experiences that humans have forgotten about. At least in the more developed parts of the world.

On a rainy day, the gaps are going to be obvious. I will do taxes, I suppose. Maybe I'll play some video games or organize the game room; my hundred or so Atari games need organizing. There are too many cables snaking around the floor, no good way to switch from one game system to another. Or maybe I'll just read a book until pottery starts up.

Go out and live in your empty spaces today. Let them surround you and you'll be a better person for it.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Parables

Once there was a Sherpa.

Now, this Sherpa loved his job. He loved the mountains, loved meeting new people. Some of his peers liked to make fun of the strangers that were slowly destroying the beautiful mountains. Not this Sherpa, though. The world would turn as it turned, he said. Let me get the most out of it.

There was a particular mountain guide that he liked and worked with a lot. That guide would always ask the most of the Sherpa, and though not young, the Sherpa loved the constant challenge. "Someday I'll get you a trip to the United States," the guide promised.

Year after year, season after season, they worked together. Finally, as one season started, the Sherpa, older and wiser, asked his mountain guide friend if he could go to America that year.

"Sure," the guide said, but he said it in a way that made the Sherpa suspicious. Working on the mountain was difficult work, and the Sherpa's body was breaking down. The guide continued to ask more of him, even though the Sherpa said he was unable to continue; his health was suffering, and so was the quality of his work.

"Can you show me a ticket by the middle of the season?" the Sherpa asked.

"Yes, of course, as long as you continue to do good work." That was  new statement; the requirement to do good work was understood, but somehow saying it aloud sounded strange. Of course I'll do good work, the Sherpa thought.

But he didn't.

His back and shoulders hurt, and the loads he was asked to carry were more than any other Sherpa. And the more he told the guide that he needed another Sherpa, the more work the guide gave him.

Finally, one day, the Sherpa went up the mountain to the base camp carrying the heaviest load he'd ever carried. It was near the end of the season, but the guide had yet to produce a ticket to America. In fact, he had openly criticized the Sherpa's work to others; not to the Sherpa himself, though. Always to others.

The Sherpa, exhausted, continued to try and impress his guide, worked to keep the customers happy, but he no longer enjoyed looking at the mountains he'd loved so much. Then, in a particularly harsh storm as he ferried things up to Camp 1, the Sherpa fell over. Other Sherpas came to his aid, too late to help. Three men carried the impossible load down the mountain, two the Sherpa. And the guide was sad, though if his sadness was for the Sherpa or the money he would have to spend to replace him, nobody knew.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

On Old Friends' Passing

An old friend died on January 19, 2018. It seems that, increasingly, that's what I write about. The passage of time guarantees that will become more persistent, and I hate to think that I've reached an age when I could just... die.

Mortality sucks like that.

Her name was - is - Andrea. Yes: is. We shouldn't think of such things in the past tense. She still is a presence. To her friends, mostly to her family. Present tense, then: she is Andrea. We met in college, and she married one of my best friends; as a result, he and I drifted apart, which often happens. I probably was an ass, because I have strong asshole tendencies. She was a great wife, a supportive partner and mother to their children.

Had it not been for Facebook, I wouldn't have known her as we grew older. Honestly, for all the reasons in the world to hate that site, for all the evil it can help spread, it keeps old friends close, helps us maintain those threads, even until the end of one particular thread.

So rest in peace, old friend. I'm glad I knew you, and while I hate that I have to live only with the memories of you now, I'm glad to have those memories to live with.