Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the category “Life”

memorials are for the living

Life After Death

A few years ago, we thought my Dad was going to die. He had an unexplained malady, they were going to try and operate, but frankly it didn’t look good. However, he had time to get his affairs in order, to talk to all of us kids about various items he was leaving behind. He did a very good job of both preparing us for what seemed likely to happen, and also setting an example of a man brave enough to face “what dreams may come…”

I, on the other hand, did something fairly selfish. You see, while I don’t exactly make it a secret about being polyamorous, I also hadn’t been quite forthcoming about the true nature of relationships I had at the time. I got it into my head that he needed to know about them.

The truth was, I was the one who needed him to know. It was important to me, and so I told him, and I suspect that he would have preferred not knowing. Or, at least, not having it pointed out so thoroughly.

As it is, the surgery revealed that things were not nearly as serious as we feared, and so my father is still alive and well today. And there have been no real repercussions from my deathbed confession. I have, however, learned that part of being a responsible and loving person is knowing when to simply keep your mouth shut. At some point I will have to face death again – his, or someone else who I love. I hope that I will do better.

The Unbearable Inadequacy

Recently a very dear friend of mine lost his father in a tragic and unexpected accident. I can’t even pretend to know how he feels. Empathy, as I know it, involves telling someone you have some common understanding of what they are experiencing.

But I don’t. I tried to find some way to communicate something to comfort him, because I love him, and I know that this must be terrible. For all my writing, all my research into happiness and empathy and compassion and love and life and practice, I did not know what to say. My family has a tendency to mask our pain with humor, but I didn’t want to fall into that habit of avoiding the issue.

Really, what right do I have to intrude on his grief? It is a solitary and intimate place, and no one can feel what he is feeling. The best I was able to do was to witness it, as much as possible from hundreds of miles away. I never knew his father, but I have known this comrade through some of our worst times and some of our best.

I wrote what I knew: that his father had raised a son who I could love as a brother, as a friend, and who has been such a positive force in my life that I can’t imagine what it would look like without him.

It was hopelessly inadequate. It always will be; that is the nature of death, I believe, that we who still live simply have to do the best we can until time makes it somehow easier to bear.

Requiescat In Pace

“Rest in peace.” I have to tell you that this doesn’t mean what you think it does. There’s this idea that it’s somehow wishing those who have passed away a pleasant journey, or hoping that they have finally laid down the burden of life.

But it’s not that at all. If life were actually a burden, most of us wouldn’t cling to it so tightly, even when we’re miserable in it. I’m not saying it’s impossible for death to look more attractive to some – we all know that happens.

As far as we’re concerned, though, once someone is gone there is nothing but peace for them. We are the unquiet ones, trying desperately to reconcile the world that was with the world that is. We are the ones who want things to be different, and the rest we so desperately seek is the acceptance that somehow they are not all gone.

That’s why we have memorials. And they can come in many forms. About a month ago, my friend Bob in Hawaii went into the hospital for what we thought was a routine procedure. It turned out to be anything but, and he never came out.

I have been honored to receive some of the tools he took joy in, along with a few of his remaining cigars, and a shirt with a funny saying on it. I treasure these, and I honor his memory by thinking of his gruff laugh and his ready smile and his wicked humor. I try to be the person that he saw me as, worthy of a great deal of his valuable time and energy and friendship.

But it’s not for him. He’s gone. It’s for me, make no mistake. It’s still a selfish act, whether it was saying what wasn’t needed to my father or saying what doesn’t help to my friend or saying goodbye to Bob in my head as I smoke a cigar.

Memorials are for the living.

Troubled Times

too much or just right connection

The Augmented Self at Rest

Credit where credit is due: I first considered the idea of the “Augmented Self” during a conversation with my good friend J.P., a stage manager extraordinaire from Toronto (among other things). He and I were discussing how often we are carrying on simultaneous connections through various media – the instant gratification of a face-to-face conversation with various other kinds of gratification extending outwards via chat, text, or email (in order of delay). At the time (and forgive me, JP, if I misquote) he said something along the lines of:

It’s not that I need to be connected all the time. It’s just that sometimes, when I’m connected in the right way, I can feel more myself than when I’m not.

I’ve always loved that phrase: “I can feel more myself…” That’s what personal development is all about, right? The tools we use to connect over distance – from the pen and paper through Google Hangouts – aren’t evil in and of themselves, they are simply tools, and can be used (at least, in JP’s case) to enrich his life by keeping him connected with others.

Like me. Many’s the time he and I just suddenly pop into each other’s lives, like a virtual Kramer/Seinfeld, just to share some thought or question. He’s at the airport, I’m I my desk. I’m at the airport, he’s backstage. Quick connection, say what we want to say (or just hang out) and then disconnect.

But What About Being Present, Gray?

I hear you! Doesn’t this idea of having a virtual connection take away from the Good Buddhist practice of being present fully in the moment? Isn’t that what we strive for?

Yes, but – I am hazarding a guess that you don’t necessarily always need to be fully present with whatever’s right in front of you. For example, I don’t need to sit there and watch the task bar change color bit by bit as a video is rendering. My mind can be more usefully engaged – and before you say “use the time for some personal reflection” (which is something I would probably say, too) let me put forth the idea that if you shift to “personal reflection” that is no less a distraction than “outside connection.”

Further, let me make another suggestion: if you have significant connections with people, places, or events that are far away, and you have the tools to still be present in some manner with them – aren’t you actually being more present as your authentic self if you maintain that connection?

Let Me Give an Example (or two)

I was a horrible person a long time ago when I was engaged to a lovely young woman. I had actually proposed to her after dating for a year, and wisely, she had said no. She then proposed to me a year later, and wisely I said no. But after three years of dating, I wanted to make sure that my next proposal was going to work.

So I played a very dirty trick. At Thanksgiving Dinner – with my father, stepmother, sisters, and daughters all there – I planned to pull out the ring. Not only that, I put my biological mother on speakerphone in order to have her “present” when I popped the question.

Now, here’s the question: was the moment made better or worse by that virtual presence? Ignore the emotional manipulation involved in putting my poor fiancée on the spot; as I said, I was horrible. But with all the facetime, video conferencing, etc that goes on – are we really worse off?

In another instance, I was part of a performing troupe here in Madison and we got a great gig. Then we got another great gig in Chicago the same night. We realized that we could do both gigs if we split the troupe up – but it was the first time we’d done that, and one of the gigs was a bit of a step up for the whole group, and we were nervous.

I remember that night exchanging many text messages with my fellow performers both here in Madison and in Chicago as both gigs were triumphantly done with outstanding skill. I remember the sense of exhilaration and pride I felt as not only the people I was with but my friends hundreds of miles away all made our art. I felt more connected thanks to the immediacy of things than I would have if I’d heard about it later.

How Much is Enough?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t unplug – by no means. In fact, tune in next week for an essay on just how much I think we need to unplug at times. What I’m saying is that there is a power to choosing what to focus on – whether that’s choosing to watch TV, text your friends, skype your daughter, and surf YouTube all evening, or spend an evening in a sensory deprivation tank with everything but your ears turned off, listening to Peter Gabriel’s Passion.

It’s all a matter of degree, and the only person who can truly decide whether you are augmenting or distracting from what’s important is you.

So pay attention. As much as you can afford to, anyway.

what is your battle cry?

Come on, you sons of b****es! You wanna live forever?”
- Daniel Daly, Motivational Speaker

I'm in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I’m in the upper left, making my War Face, circa 1989.

I have a guilty pleasure, which I can cheerfully lay at my Dad’s feet. I enjoy some pretty violent movies. I was raised on spaghetti westerns, weaned on Dirty Harry and cut my eyeteeth on Arnold and Sylvester. I’m not the only one; there’s a reason my older younger sister used to practice in a ballet studio with a large portrait of John Wayne on the wall.

And I’ve done my share of passing it along – as I armed my middle daughter years ago to go and participate in the live-action-role-playing Ring Game (a re-enactment of Lord of the Rings done every year here in Madison) she asked me if I had any advice. “Come back with your shield,” I told her, “or on it.”

Huh?” she said, quite legitimately, and I explained that was the way Spartan mothers had said goodbye to their sons before they went off to battle. She was inspired enough to actually be named one of the most “hard-core” players that year (that windy, cold, rainy year…). In fact, they gave her whatever role she chose the following year, which is why I can claim to be the father of Arwen. Which either makes me the lead singer of Aerosmith or the star of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Fill Your Hands, You Sonuva -”
- Rooster Cogburn, Equestrian

But enough pandering to the film geeks amongst my readers. The point is that I went to a very bad movie, one that was embarrassingly filled with glorified action sequences of violence and brutality painted over with a thin veneer of honor and duty and then dusted with a fine gloss of historically inaccurate heroism and sadly inadequate feminism. I won’t even honor the movie with a name; it would be like describing the last time I ate a twinkie. There’s really nothing redeeming about it.

Except. There was this one part, a climactic scene, in which the leader of one of the armies watches her troops engage their foes. She sees some fall; she sees some triumph; and finally, she’s had enough, and she draws both her swords and screams:

“I am not here to be a WITNESS!”

…and charges into the fray.

That, frankly, made the entire movie worthwhile. Because I leaned over to my partner and whispered “That is a good battle cry.” Not that I have anything against witnesses, mind you. But just imagine saying that every day, before you walk out the door. Before you go to your job, before you enter that classroom, before you open up your computer. Imagine, as the bard says, taking arms against a sea of troubles and oppose and end them.

There are lots of great battle cries – Stan Lee’s “Excelsior!” comes to mind. Some are not so good – “Remember the Alamo!” pretty much relies on the fact that you actually won’t. “Confusion to the enemy!” and “Dum vivimus, vivamus!” are two of my favorites from the realm of science fiction. Ok, yeah, and also “By the Power of Grayskull!”, but I’m kinda biased.

What’s the battle cry for your life? What gets you to charge into the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Trust me, you need one. Because, as both Sergeant-Major Daly and Marshal Cogburn will tell you, fortune is a…

Well, you get the idea.

 

appreciate your present by writing to your past

A Letter From Me-Now to Him-Then

Graydancer6036

 A while back I started this exercise of writing an imaginary letter from myself at half the age I am now. You can read it here. It was a pretty harrowing thing to try, and I actually put off writing the second half simply because I didn’t know how to talk to Me-Then. The blog went on hiatus, then, and it was one devoted reader who told me that this was the one bit of unfinished business that made her feel a bit cheated. 

Well, we can’t have that, can we? So here we have the letter from me to the man I was back in 1992.

Dear Me,

I’m really glad you wrote me, even with a letter so filled with sad things. I forget sometimes just how hard that time was for all of you – M, the girls, and others you don’t know about. Watching the girls grow up and go through their own trials has given me an appreciation of how hard it must have been for Dad and others to see you where you’re at.

But hey, that’s some good news for you right there: I forget. It probably doesn’t help much where you are now, but it gets better. It gets amazingly better, in fact, in ways you can’t even imagine. But since I also hate hearing that kind of thing (if I can’t imagine it, why bother telling me?) I’m not going to dwell on it.

Instead, I want to tell you take that apology and stuff it.

You have nothing to apologize for. You are doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt. The fact is, that hand is pretty strong. Right now it may feel that the Corps destroyed you, but it actually put the finishing touches on a resilience and resourcefulness that you’re going to need in the next couple of decades. You’re right, you and M aren’t meant to be, but that distance will eventually turn into a friendship and shared pride as you watch your daughters and (spoiler alert!) grandsons grow up.

The thing that you don’t realize, buddy, is that you are fighting hard for two things: one, your children, and two, yourself. You are facing the beginning of one of the worst economic times in U.S. history with no job skills valid outside Croatia, and you are focused on keeping that home secure for your daughters. It’s going to be hard.

But you still play guitar. You are starting to get interested in that medieval re-enactment group that will let you dance, sing, act, teach your children to shoot and throw sharp pointy things at bad people and play dress up. You’ll make wonderful friends, and that combination of creativity and fatherhood will give you an authentic voice to share astonishing beauty.

It won’t be easy. It will, in fact, truly suck for a long time and in ways that you can’t ima- wait, I said I wouldn’t say that again. Trust me, though, until you’ve actually smelled mouse droppings inside your oven when you’re trying to bake cookies…spoiler alert again, there. But basically, I’m not saying the worst is over. Not by a long shot. That would be silly to even suggest, even if I did want to cheer you up, which I really don’t.

No, it’s going to be hard, and painful. You’re going to screw up, a lot. The one good thing I can tell you is this: from where I’m sitting, it was worth it.

And that’s why, bucko, I’m not going to give you one shred of advice. Oh, believe me, it’s tempting. Don’t go out with her! That job looks good but it’s a Bad Idea! Ashlei isn’t really over at her friends, she went to that party! I made up that last bit (no I didn’t) but you get the idea. There are experiences ahead of you that I wouldn’t go through again for any amount of money.

But anything I tried to change – any experience I tried to spare you, any lesson I tried to teach you before you taught it to yourself through some mistake – runs the risk of changing where I am right now, sitting here writing you. Are you kidding me? I have work I believe in, I have people I love surrounding me while still giving me space, I have created and learned and still work on challenges that keep life interesting while not being desperate. If I tried to change your path, we might not end up here, and it’s not worth that risk.

Seriously, my dear self, would you want to miss seeing the incredible adults your daughters turn into? Do you have any idea just how awesome being a Grandpa can be? You are going to meet and love amazing, remarkable people, some of whom will drift in and out of your life at the most unexpected times. You know that trapped feeling you have now? You’ll end up traveling around the world, young man, so much that you’ll have to cut back just to give yourself a chance to feel home. You’ll have work that is fun, work that is meaningful, work that is rewarding, and occasionally you’ll have work that is all three. And let me tell you, that’s when you’ll really get tired.

It’s far ahead of you. Frankly, the path from where you are to where I am is so twisted and unlikely I couldn’t guide you on it if I tried. But you don’t owe me an apology; rather, I owe you a debt of gratitude for taking on this challenge and meeting it head on in the decades ahead of you.

OK, fine, I suppose the least I can do is try and say some things that you could use right now. Er, then. Here’s a short list:

  1. Knowledge is power. Keep learning everything you can, because the most unlikely skill may end up being what puts food on the table.
  2. Don’t stress about your career. The job that puts food on your table now doesn’t exist then. See #1.
  3. I don’t wish I’d worked more, or harder. I wish I’d spent more time with family and friends.
  4. The time you spent with your family and friends is enough.
  5. When you make that horrible mistake that ruins everything – it didn’t. Put your head down and keep going.
  6. It’s ok to give up. To quit. To decide you can’t keep going. Just stop. And then put your head down and keep going anyway.
  7. Yoga sucks. Do it anyway.
  8. Stop reading so much about zen. Start doing it more.
  9. You will never know when you’re saying something – in words or example – that your daughters will remember for the rest of their lives. So stop worrying about telling them how they should act and just show them by being yourself.

By the way, don’t worry about saving that list, because even the stuff I knew when I was you (like #3) I didn’t pay attention to. That’s ok; like most truth, it’s true regardless whether either of us believes in it.

Thank you for what you are doing, and for what you’re going to do. You seriously rock, buddy, and I can’t wait until you get here with me and I can show you just how incredible this life is.

You,

Me.

So. Like the last entry, I ask you all: what would you tell your former self? Angsty teen or struggling young adult or 30-something, what kind of a conversation would you have?

Your Style is Yours. No One Else’s.

Crazy ’bout a Sharp-Dressed Man

LED Power Cufflinks on a nicely cut suitTomorrow morning I fly to Boston for a conference. For the first time I’ll be flying in my suit, my tailored suit that fits me so well. I’ll have a silk tie, a shirt that’s also tailored, with awesome power-key cufflinks. I’ll be wearing suspenders (saves time at TSA!) and some vintage shoes that I picked up at a thrift store a few years back.

Why the clothes horse? Partially due to Antonio Centeno, a fellow former jarhead, father, Wisconsinite, and blogger. His blog Real Men, Real Style has been a guilty pleasure of mine for a while, and it was through his urging that I got my tailored suit which, believe it or not, does actually feel better to wear than anything else I own. I move better in that suit, I feel more confident.

Why wear it on the plane? Well, I could say it’s for practical purposes – easier than trying to pack it, or so I’m ready to make a good impression on the people I’m meeting, or even because it increases my chances for an upgrade…but really it’s none of those things. Really it’s just because it’s fun to play dress up. Like my lawyer friend told me when I wore it to the symphony, when you don’t wear it that often, it can be a nice change.

He wore jeans and a hoodie.

Meanwhile, Back to Antonio…

Recently Antonio did an interview on a podcast called “The Art of Charm.” That podcast is a re-imagined version of a pickup-artist podcast, which may make you roll your eyes a bit. That’s fine, I do too, and that’s even knowing that the pickup community has taken a basically good idea (becoming better versions of yourself) and turned it into a numbers game. People like Neil Strauss (author of “The Game”) and Arden Leigh (author of “The New Rules of Attraction”) are fighting a holding action to try and keep it from getting too bad, but the reputation is there – and it’s not as cute as Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother. That’s why Antonio was almost apologetic when he announced the interview – worried that talking about sex on a style blog would “cheapen” his message.

Personally, I feel that talking about sex only cheapens things if you think sex is a cheap, tawdry, shameful subject – which I don’t. But that’s a topic for another blog. Rather, I was disturbed by something else I heard him say in the podcast.

Antonio was talking about the importance of looking professional, and used the hypothetical situation of an emergency room as an example.  He speculated what it would be like to take his daughter to the ER and having a doctor who, as he put it, looked like a “skater” – sweatshirt, jeans, etc. I may be misquoting exactly, but the idea was that the hypothetical doctor didn’t fit in with his idea of what a doctor should look like. He said “How could I trust him?”

That question troubled me. That “discomfort” he imagined from the doctor who looks different is the same discomfort that came when previous generations met their first minority doctor, their first female doctor, or their first [insert whatever is not your demographic] doctor. The trust doesn’t come from how the doctor looks – the trust comes in the institution of the hospital. It comes in the “M.D.” that is on the nametag. It has nothing to do with whether the doctor is wearing sweats or slacks or shorts. If there is a problem of trust based on assumptions about how the doctor should look, the responsibility for fixing it lies within the viewer, not the viewed.

Or, as a Buddhist saying goes (sorry, can’t remember the attribution): The measure of your suffering lies precisely in the difference between the way the world is and the way you think the world should be.

Care for All, Not Just For You

There is also the question of patient comfort. The skater-punk doc may make Antonio feel uncomfortable…but the skater-punk brought in with the broken arm will feel more comfortable. Who is the Doctor actually responsible to? Who has more right to feel comfortable? The same outfit – such as a uniform – can inspire very different reactions in different people based on their experiences. At one point in the podcast he said something along the lines of “when we see a policeman with a gun, we feel safe”.

I thought “Unless you’re in a neighborhood where the police are known for harassing or even shooting the people who look like you.” It’s terribly unfortunate that such neighborhoods exist. But it’s a fact that they do.

Antonio also was asked by the hosts what he thought the most important thing a guy needed to know about style, and I loved his answer: “Ask yourself why you do it.” Whatever your reason for wearing that outfit, whatever it is, what is the actual inner motivation? That’s what’s important. I dress in my suit tomorrow because that fits the person that I am better than any other outfit.

But I need to also extend that knowledge to others – to recognize that they, also, are dressed in what they feel most themselves in, and respect their right to be that person. My style is not designed to project onto others, nor are they any less because they have a different style than I do. Instead, the differences become a catalyst for greater understanding, for furthering my knowledge of the cosmopolitan lifestyle. My style helps me keep my center, which allows me to more gracefully and openly meet others with authenticity and integrity.

Plus, I look damn good.

How does your style make you feel?

Love. Life. Practice. Rinse, repeat as needed

Writing is.

Budapest /III/

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
– André Gide

It started many months ago, in a laundromat in Amsterdam of all places. My friend Erik said to me “Gray, you are traveling all over, talking with so many different people, learning so many different things…why don’t you share them?”

That’s not an exact quote. Actually, I think we were discussing methods of monetizing blogs, etc, and his point was more along the lines of “You’ve got all this great material, good lord, why aren’t you writing books and such and making money at it?”” Which is a good point, when you think about it. It’s been a common self-criticism of mine: If yer so smart, why ain’t you rich?

But after a year and a bit of almost perfect attendance, writing everything from strange allegorical parables to whiny-middle-aged-white-guy rants, I began to feel that I had nothing original to say. That other people were saying the same things I was, but saying it better, and to wider audiences, so why bother? Worse, I was beginning to feel that a lot of what I was saying might not actually be right in the first place…in a world where productivity is swiftly becoming the vice-of-choice for the privileged, did I really want to encourage more of it?

Yeah. I do. I’ve been on a hiatus, but only from the writing. I still voraciously read the blogs and listen to podcasts like You Are Not So Smart and think Fascinating. I wonder if others have connected this idea with that idea,. Or I’ll hear someone talking about some great and fascinating idea…except I happen to know of some other research that is showing that that particular idea isn’t quite what we thought it was.

Most of all, though, I think it’s the correspondence habit that changed my mind. One of the more successful changes I’ve made to my daily routine is that most days I set aside a half-hour to write a letter. Sometimes it’s to people I talk to almost every day, but there have been letters to past mentors, to relatives I barely know, to friends who I’ve lost touch with. Occasionally I get an email thanking me for them; even more rarely (thanks, Ali & Kristen!) I get letters back.

But here’s the thing: it’s not for them. It doesn’t matter if the letters get lost. What I’ve learned is that I’m not writing these for them, to make them feel better or for any other reason but that it makes me feel good.

On so many levels! I have an old cigar box (from P.J. Hajenius in Amsterdam, as it happens) which holds some heavy stationery (gray, naturally) and a few classy black envelopes along with the silver gel pen to address them. There’s a nifty “G” stamp and a silver ink pad. Or I have some heavy parchment paper that I can fold into its own envelope and decorate with strange stickers or cigar bands or just use Sketchnote techniques to create something new.

I have a nice heavy fountain pen. I often have a cup of coffee as I’m writing. But most of all, there is a satisfaction in the crafting of thought to ink to paper and sending it out into the world. It’s especially easy if you don’t have any expectation of return from the person you’re sending to. This is for me, and if you, the recipient, happen to like it too…well, that’s a happy bonus, I guess.

And that’s what’s happening with this blog. I’m not writing it for you, dear reader (neither one of you!). I’m coming back to it for me, and if you like it, find it useful, feel like commenting, I’m more than happy to hear from you. Heck, you can even buy me a cuppa coffee via my @luvlifepractice twitter account.

But what I suggest more than anything else? Go buy some forever stamps. Get out some paper and a pen (no need to be fancy; if you want talismans, you’ll find them). Write somebody. Don’t stress about who; when I wrote those two words, somebody occurred to you, and that’s who you should write. Just do it. Don’t think about it. Write something, anything, fold it up , stick in the mail.

If you don’t feel good about it, I will gleefully refund you double the cost of reading this post. Satisfaction guaranteed.

Ideals Get You What You Want

Go Big or Go Home

I believe I mentioned this once before: my favorite part of any book, movie, or story is the “all or nothing” moment. Take Point Break, for example (I’ll wait while you roll your eyes)(also, SPOILER ALERT). There’s a part when the FBI agent is chasing the bad guy, and the bad guy jumps out of the plane with the last parachute.

The FBI agent takes a moment to let that frustration sink in…and then screams it out, and jumps out of the plane after the bad guy. No parachute, but he’s got gravity on his side, and how hard could it be to just fall faster?

I won’t tell you how it ends, because that doesn’t matter. It’s just that balls-out I’m going for it moment that has such appeal to me, and I’m not even sure why. In fact, what I do know is that it’s dangerous in the way it lures me towards things. As a kid, when we lived near the Palisades Cliffs, I always had this draw towards the edge…wondering what it would be like to just run and jump off. Not suicidally, you understand – I knew it would be a bad idea. But there was this draw…

It’s why I started my own business back in 1999 (I still remember my lawyer’s response: “You did WHAT?“). It’s why I excelled in the Marines in some cases, and was a cautionary tale for the others in my squad in others. It’s why I have traveled more in the last seven years than in the previous thirty-seven, and why I won’t do CrossFit. There’s a danger to that tendency to want to go big or go home.

Ideals are the Only Way to Get What You Want

Grandson Harvey in SuperHero Costume

PowerGrandson says: “I’m sorry, I don’t have time for reality today.”

In my last post about how “do what you love and the money will follow (but only if you do it passionately)”, a friend & reader posted the comment Sounds incredibly idealistic to me. Then again, there really is no one true way, is there? I have to say that my response, upon some thought, is Yes, there is one true way, and it is exactly that: idealistic.

The thing is, I think that we tend to mistake “idealistic” for “unrealistic”. Which I suppose it could be considered, but I think it could also be better considered to be “the best way.” For example, my friend who made the comment has her own business (along with a “normal” job) and also is a devoted mother and grandmother. Along with that she has an amazing social life which includes a great deal of influence in the science fiction fan world. In case you think that means a bunch of nerds in a basement reading comic books, well, yeah, you’re right, but it also means things like the annual DragonCon, which draws 3,000 exhibitors and 52,000 attendees, roughly.

How does she do that? Frankly, I have no clue, but I suspect that she simply does it because that is the life she has chosen for herself – her “ideal” life. I’m not saying she has everything she wants, but she strikes me as being someone who is pretty clearly on a path to get what she wants. She works hard – I know, because trying to find time to chat with her, much less see her, is just about impossible – and another way to express that is that she works passionately to get to that ideal that she has for herself – and part of the reward for that is money.

At this point I’m probably projecting a bit too much – I actually don’t know enough about her motivations to speak with authority. But I can tell you that this is part of why I admire my children so much. All of them have their ideals, and tend to go to extremes to get them. For my eldest, for example, it was throwing some gear in a backpack and taking off to California. I don’t think things went exactly as she planned, but she sure does have some great stories to tell about what happened when she just went for it. And she came back with a pretty awesome grandson, too, so it worked out pretty well for the rest of us as well.

Middle daughter is doing the same thing, tackling the challenge of medical school in the face of some pretty stiff obstacles. My youngest daughters also chose the road less taken, opting for some life experiences both here in Madison and in far-off Atlanta before they choose their (first) careers. As a parent, of course I see some of their choices as being unrealistic – but I also see that they are coming from idealistic goals. Even if I don’t share their beliefs – and believe me, in some cases I really, really don’t – I absolutely cheer on their ability to believe.

Because what’s the alternative? To just go along with something less than ideal? To just surrender to what seems inevitable? Here’s the thing: if it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen anyway. So you might as well fight against it, on the off chance that it’s not inevitable. If we only reach the moon while grasping at the stars, isn’t that better than not grasping at all?

Yeah, it is unbelievably idealistic. But why would you be anything else?

“…why diminish your soul being run-of-the-mill at something? Mediocrity: now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”
― Tom RobbinsHalf Asleep in Frog Pajamas

 

On Coming Back and Coming Out

Hi! It’s been a while. My Middle Daughter, sitting across from me here at the coffee shop, tells me it’s Wednesday, so we’ll put away the “Building Practice vs. Skills” post (sounds like a Monday kind of thing, to me) and instead talk about first, why I’m writing this at all, and then, something about Coming Out day.

I’ve been feeling spread very thin lately. Some of it is my own fault, due to travel to teach at far off places which I agreed to months ago when it seemed like a good idea. Some of it is circumstantial, like a sick grandson. But one thing was for sure: I had too much on my plate. And since I gained a client who would pay me to write on other topics (fulfilling a goal I’ve had for a while, of paying my rent with my writing), I decided that I needed to let go of something.

Well, several things, one of which was this blog. So I abandoned the thrice-weekly posting, reveling in the anticipated relief of having three fewer things per week to worry about. I thought about the hours of free time I would be creating for myself! Think of the things I could get done – writing my book(s), reading that stack of books in my kindle and on my desk, maybe even picking up my guitar more!

Ah, the folly of the overactive mind. Instead I caught up on Sons of Anarchy. I read the “Injustice” comic book arc. I developed an amazing tolerance for that good old “gravy hose”, smoothly paging between Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr with the ease of a true Minority Report devotee.

In short, by stopping this practice of writing, I did not free up any time that was used for anything useful.

But the brain still worked. The thoughts still flowed. I still heard people like Kurt Sutter (who created SOA) and Steven Pressfield saying the same thing Stephen King and Harlan Ellison and even Robert Heinlein always said about writing:

Writer’s write. Not because they want to; because they have to.

So here we go again – once more into the typewriter, dear friends…

Coming Out Day

Did you celebrate it? Or did you have it celebrated upon you? That’s the thing about coming out; like suicide, it’s something that affects you, but more than that, it affects those around you. Sometimes that’s no big deal. Sometimes, though, it can have extreme consequences. Individuals have been disowned, unhomed, beaten and even killed when they’ve come out as…something. Typically people think of it as applying only to homosexual behavior, but that’s a very narrow view. You could come out as being Catholic. You could come out as being Vegan. Or Republican. Basically, “coming out” simply means that you were perceived by someone as something you weren’t. In short, your life was hidden (colloquially “in the closet”). When you “come out” – whether that’s to a person or to several – it means you are aggressively changing their perception of you.

Which means you have to make a choice: are the consequences of you coming out worth it? Is it more important that you be seen for who you are than the perceptive status quo? It’s a hard question, but make no mistake: it’s about you. If people have gotten along ok before this not knowing that particular thing about you, it’s a good bet they could continue that way. “Coming out” is something that’s done because you can no longer stand the status quo, and you need something to change.

I went through a “coming out” a few years back when a close relative looked like they were going to die. At the time I was very happily polyamorous, both my wife and I having other significant relationships with people in other cities that had been going on for years. At the time, it was the intention of all of us that those relationships – the marriage and the long-distance ones – would last throughout our lives.

I found myself uncomfortable with the idea of this person who meant so much to me passing on without knowing that I had this other Very Significant Person in my life. I decided I needed to “come out” as polyamorous – even though most of my immediate family (such as my kids) and my friends and even my employer had known for years. It was important, I thought, that this person know.

It may have been important, but it was also selfish. Because the news was not greeted with any level of acceptance – in fact, I was told directly that this particular life-choice was not supported, and was also incredibly uncomfortable to hear. That wasn’t quite as bad as when I told another relative (on the principle of “If X knows, Y should know as well”) and was told that my marriage was obviously not real, that I was stupid and adulterous and worse. “But what about my wife’s boyfriend?” I remember asking. “Your wife is stupid too!”

Not the happiest coming out tale, but it did teach me a lesson or two. One is that not everybody needs to know everything – there are many things about my life that I keep to myself, not out of any shame, but because being “out” about them would make some people in my life uncomfortable. It’s a simple measure of respect to acknowledge the ways that some people are comfortable with viewing the world. It’s why I won’t have whiskey and cigars after a dinner at my Mormon parents’ house, for example.

At the same time, it also taught me the lesson of being comfortable with my own life. Of being self-confident enough in my own identity, skills, and accomplishments whether or not anyone else either knows about them or approves of them. What I realized, basically, was that as long as I’m out to myself, and accepting and supportive of the things that are important to me, the rest of the world can just carry on its merry way.

However, that really only applies to me because I don’t have any “closeted” identities that are threatened. If the gay community had not begun “coming out” and normalizing for our culture the identity that was already totally prevalent in nature, we would be much worse off as a nation than we are today. Of course, there are still holdouts – the Middle East and Russia come to mind. Thankfully, we don’t model our culture after them – instead, we start from “everybody is created equal” and work from there, and if we stumble, in the end we usually end up in a better place than we started.

So while I can’t come out as gay (sorry, but I love zee womenz too mush!) I can at least be a staunch ally, and when someone does come out, I can acknowledge: This is important to you. I can be a witness and an advocate for everyone to come out to whoever they feel most needs to know their true self – and I can also help the newly-aware person deal with the sudden change of perspective. Believe me, that can be hard

Coming Out Day has come and gone – you’ll have to wait until the next October 11 to celebrate it. But I hope you do (it’s far better than celebrating Columbus Day – lord, what an awful heritage that commemorates!). And I hope that the first person you “come out” to is yourself. Because if there’s one person who needs and deserves to be aware of your true self – it’s that person in the mirror.

Good to be back! Next post from Atlanta, GA. See you Friday!

reflecting on the past with a letter

A Letter From Half A Life

I’m not sure where I read it, but I remember the second I did I thought “This needs to happen on my blog.” The idea is simple: imagine yourself exactly half your age. Now, write a letter to yourself now. What would reflecting on the past in that way be like? It’s a bit of a twist on a common idea. Here’s part one: a letter from me, to me, 22 years ago.

Dear Gray,

1991FamilySorry if this letter comes out a little grumpy; I just got done with my shift at Denny’s, and they slammed us with a 7-table run just before I got off the line. I smell like grease, my hands are sticky with I-don’t-know-what, and the brakes on the Colt started making noise on the way home.

It’s still a little strange, even being out of the Corps for over a year, to be a civilian. If anything, I’m working harder than I did in the Marines – both in terms of hours and in terms of it just being hard. I mean, being a grunt isn’t any fun, but at least you’re a Marine; I’m having trouble finding a lot of pride in “short-order cook” or “data entry”, especially with all the “you have great potential!” I’ve gotten my whole life.

I feel like the deck is stacked against me. M and I both work, but it’s still not enough to make ends meet – she is finally doing some work after that horrible high-risk pregnancy, and thankfully the twins are doing ok, but even with my insurance the bills are staggering. We’re on welfare, and WIC, and food stamps, and that’s with both of us working full time. In my Psych 101 class they talked about “stresses that affect marriages.” They listed things like: military service, multiple kids, interracial, marrying young…you name it, we were on the list. I mean, I’m 22, she’s only 20, and we have four kids and barely two high school diplomas between us. What kind of future can that really bring?

I’m still hanging on to the same things that got me through the Corps – Charlotte Joko Beck’s Zen: Love & Work, and Dan Millman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior, and Richard Bach, of course. I do T’ai Chi in the bathroom at work when I can get away with it, and play piano still – sometimes even with the girls, which is fun. Ash and Bri are pretty funny little girls, and we’ve gotten Danica and Danielle to smile once in a while when they’re not squawking for their bottles.

I don’t know if M is going to handle it, though – I know she feels the stress too, and we fight a lot. It’s weird…it’s like I can’t even look myself in the eye any more when I shave in the morning, because I look and I just see this guy who ruined a perfectly good life and dragged along M and the girls with him. There’s nothing to look forward to but eighteen years of mind-numbing jobs and bills and this slowly growing distance between me and M.

Seriously, buddy, I don’t know what you’re looking at from where you are, twenty-two years down the line, but I really feel sorry for this mess I’ve gotten us both into. Somewhere that bright and shiny life I thought I was making for you, back when I was starting college…it all just went some wonky, weird direction. I’m not even sure where it went so wrong. Then again, maybe it’s just like realizing you forgot to put on the turn signal as your car is hurtling down a cliff after you should have turned the other way. Too little, too late…

Well, the one good thing you got is your daughters. Them, I can promise to love and take care of. Everything else, well…wish me luck.

Seems kind of depressing? Well, age 22 was not a good one for me. In fact, part of how I know that is that I didn’t actually keep good records of what was going on that year. I may even have the dates and details wrong in that letter, but I can tell you this: the sense of despair, of my life being over, of me having wasted any opportunity of making anything of my own life…that was all real.

As well as the growing realization that, if I couldn’t do anything for myself, I could do things for my kids – and in fact, that was what I needed to do. Was what followed a wondrous tale of selfless parental sacrifice? Not hardly. I didn’t spend nearly as much time with my kids as I now think I should have, and I also made some very selfish and very stupid decisions along the way.

Then again, don’t we all? And when I write back to myself next Wednesday, it’s going to be interesting to try and describe just what’s happened in the 22 years since then…

I’m not sure I recommend this exercise. It’s been more difficult for me than I expected. But I have found a few gems along the way, and so I’ll give it a cautious coaxing: try to think about what someone half your age might have written to you, now.

And what would you write back?

only compare yourself to you

editor’s note: the first draft of this post erroneously named “Niall Ferguson” as the author of Disrupting the Rabblement, when it is, of course, Niall DOHERTY. I apologize for the mistake; then again, I also wrote “Lannister” instead of “Bannister” in the first draft, which I completely blame on George R.R. Martin.

The Danger of the Metric System

A couple of days ago Niall Doherty gave me a gift. I like Niall a lot; in some ways he’s living a life I might have wished for, traveling the world and experimenting with entrepreneurship and making up the rules as he goes along. I’ve done all those things too, I just haven’t done it with anywhere near the exuberance and panache that Niall has.

In his blog provocatively entitled You’re Doing Great, Huh? Compared to What?he talks about the motivation for personal development. He explains how he is no longer comparing himself to “Joey Dayjob” or even “Maggie Freelance”. “I moved the goalposts and started comparing myself to those on the next level,” he proclaimed, and urged his readers to do the same:

Do yourself justice. Compare yourself to people who inspire you, who drag you up, not pull you down or keep you coasting. There’s little point comparing yourself to your peers. Raise the bar. Get to the next level.

And that was a gift for a blogger like me who has to write a post about life, because that is one concept that I completely disagree with. The only metric that I think is useful to compare yourself to is you. To use any other standard of measurement is simply asking for failure.

there should be zombies behind them, don't you think?

there should be zombies behind them, don’t you think?

Two Months of Less Than Four Minutes

May 6, 1954. Roger Bannister, an English runner, becomes the first man to do the impossible: he ran a mile in .6 seconds less than four minutes. People had said it would never be done, for as long as there had been minutes, and he had done it!

Two months later he did it again…but so did another runner,Australian John Landy, who lost the race but became the second man to break the four-minute barrier. In the over fifty years since then, the idea of the four-minute mile has become kind of quaint, with seventeen more seconds shaved off that time.

I don’t mean to diminish the achievements of Bannister, or Landy, or anyone else. My point is that the moment you reach a milestone, there are two things that happen: one, there is someone else right then trying to push it further, and two, you yourself are moving away from it – either forward to a new one, or succumbing to the weariness that age brings us all. Depressing, eh? Somewhere there exists a photo of me the day I graduated bootcamp. In that picture, I have washboard abs. I am cut, I tell you. But as a desk-bound middle aged white guy, the goal of trying to have those abs again – or really to have anything resembling that 19-year old body – would be at best a thorough distraction and at worst a vast disappointment.

And that’s ok, because I’ve learned to set my goals more simply. I don’t want to be richer than I need to be to feel secure – whatever that might mean. I’m not going to set an arbitrary number, nor am I going to try to make more money than other people my age. The rush of beating someone else – and it is a rush, I’ll give you that – is far more fleeting than the simple joy of contentment.

That’s not to say I’ve found contentment, of course. But occasionally I catch a glimpse of it, and I’m pretty sure it’s awesome.

The Danger of Hyper-bully

To be fair to Niall, he did moderate his stance somewhat. “…yes, I realize that there will always be someone doing better than me, always someone I won’t compare favorably to…I’m not really looking for a finish line. I’m enjoying the process.” That’s a great way to look at it, and I think it’s some common ground that he and I share (he said as much in the comments, in fact). We both are trying to become versions of our better selves, whatever that might look like.

I still don’t like the idea of comparing yourself to any external metric. I am haunted by a friend of mine, a fellow performer at a camp who was trying to fill his rehearsal time at one of the camps. I saw him filling out his schedule over dinner, and he seemed troubled. “I need to find someone to work with from 4 to 6,” he said.

Wait,” I said. “You mean, 4 to 6 A-M?”

Yep,” he said, and something in my face must have conveyed my bewilderment. “Dude, that’s the only way I’ll be the best.”

The best WHAT?” I asked, feeling more troubled for my friend than I think he’ll ever know.

“The best there ever was…” he replied, and walked off to find his practice partner.

I hope that he meant the best version of himself…but no, I don’t think so. I think he wanted to be the best at what he does. And I fully believe he may make that goal. But I worry about what he’ll do after that, when a younger, stronger, fitter dancer comes along, one who has his eyes set on new goalposts. Goalposts that my friend didn’t have, because he’s the one who created them.

Me, I’ll avoid the bullying of words like “best” and “most” and “top” and “first”. I’m ok with “happier” and “joyful” and “beauty” and “grace.” Kaizen: better and better, bit by bit.

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