Latitudes, Attitudes

Please don’t sue me, Mr. Buffett. The series we just wrapped up was a little intense, so I’m going to dial back on the emotional investment and length for a little bit. If I didn’t, I’m afraid I’d burn out on blogging again, and I like the moderate consistency I’m maintaining here.

Reading through Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals made me think about my own rituals and habits. Because I’m usually only in a stable situation for about a year at a time before things shake up dramatically–moving, changing jobs, living situations, etc–I haven’t ever maintained a specific daily schedule for any length of time. However, there have been some general flows within given periods of my life.

Graduate School was my first insight into stability; before then I had worked a lot of swing shifts and irregular schedules that threw off everything else. My master’s degree, though, allowed enough consistency and flexibility that I started falling into patterns. I woke up between 6:30 and 8:00 AM most days, usually an hour before I taught at 7:30 or tutored at 8:30. I would end up teaching, tutoring, going to class, or holding office hours until noon or 1:30, at which point I would promptly go home. Usually, I would try to do as much of my reading and writing as I could in the mornings, while my attention was at its sharpest, and maybe some grading. Then came lunch, usually leftovers of some sort, and relaxing until dinner. Usually that involved watching television or movies, but it wasn’t uncommon to work on some kind of food project at the same time–tinkering with a bread recipe, prepping for dinner, or doing some bulk-cooking of ingredients I’d need later in the week. Then came dinner, usually a relatively large one, and talking with Emily while we watched TV and I graded papers. Five days a week for just about a year. On the weekends, Saturdays were usually relaxing, often with a drink in the evening. Church on Sunday morning, lunch, watching a movie or skyping with family, maybe playing a game of some sort.

While I was working on the first draft of my thesis, the mornings included an hour or two of writing instead of classes, and a 30 minute walk to clear my mind and talk with my parents. Since I didn’t teach until noon, the entire schedule was pushed back by about 90 minutes, but otherwise unchanged.

This summer, without teaching or tutoring and minimal writing, the activities have changed while the major blocks of time remain. Work in the morning, relaxing afternoons. At the start of the summer, work mostly meant thesis research, writing, and applying for work. Now that the thesis is wrapping up and there’s a job lined up, that’s stabilized into writing on here, reading any interesting articles I found the day before, and managing my buffer queue. Most days I’m accompanied on the laptop by a cup of sweet coffee, and finished with everything by about 10:30. Then it’s looking for secondary income–anyone need an English Adjunct?–and playing games until lunch. With lunch, there’s usually a quart of black, cold brewed coffee, and after we normally watch an hour or two of TV. Then it’s coming back to anything I didn’t finish in the morning, and more games or reading–currently Antifragile, just finished Desperation and The Regulators–until PawPaw gets home in the evening and we have dinner. After dinner, the dogs take us on a walk, and we come back for more TV or a movie before an early bedtime.

In college, the idea of a schedule was completely foreign to me. When I tried to establish one, I felt caged and quit rather quickly. Now that I’ve started developing them organically, I’m realizing how much time I really need to get things done. It’s a nice feeling, especially since we’re about to move, I’ll start at least one new job, and there’s a little one on the way. I’m excited to see how my habits change to fit around all this newness!

What about you guys? What kind of habits do you maintain?

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Relationships- IV

I wanted to spend a post talking about being a parent, but I realized I don’t know how to do that. We delivered our first six months ago to the day. People say things to us like “Well, you’ll understand when you’re a parent,” or “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you have kids.” Some days I only want to scream “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you’ve buried your children!” I had a lot of ideas of how I wanted to raise the kids, and what life would be like. Now I mostly just hope that I get the chance to raise them, or at least hear them cry once before they’re gone forever. So, like I said, I don’t know how to be a parent yet. But I know what happens when that parent-child relationship ends early, and I’m starting to get a handle on how to get on with life. There are still bad days–a lot of them–but the last half-year has shown improvements.

The first thing I had to learn was to stop asking “why,” both in the mechanical and metaphysical senses. The gross physical examination didn’t show anything specifically wrong, any biological cause for the death, and I’m probably not getting any answers from the Big Man about where Jamie Shannon’s death fits into The Plan. It was hard to stop asking, because that meant accepting the death and moving on. Some days I still catch myself mulling and puzzling, but the simple fact is that nothing went wrong.

I’m also learning how to deal with criticism again, especially from people who default to being critical. Criticism was hard for two reasons, which were really two sides of the same coin. The first is that when our child’s life could go so wrong for no reason, how much worse are things when people can point out that things are wrong? Second, we’d already been through one of the worst experiences possible, so minor issues paled in comparison. Slightly-less-formal-but-still-correct-comma-usage, words-that-only-encapsulate-90%-of-the-idea, lifestyles-that-are-slightly-harmful? Dead baby, don’t care, shut up. Of course neither of those interpretations are correct, they’re excuses at best, but it’s hard to cut people slack when you can’t find any footing in life.

The crutches will come back out in full force. The excuses in the last paragraph were the kind of crutch I mean, but I’m really talking about the big stuff here. I’ve struggled with sarcasm, procrastination, extreme introversion, skipping church, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol at some point in my life, and booze and smoking are the only ones that I really ever licked. Guess what came out to play? All of them. I shut myself in, doing nothing, lashing out, bringing out the pipe, drinking half the time, and dosing on coffee the other half. My circadian rhythm was interrupted, progress on my thesis stopped, I fell behind on grading, lesson plans were executed half-assed, coughs and headaches filled the day, and I snapped at everyone. The worst part is that you just have to break those habits again before anything can get better. I tried waiting it out, to see improvement. I would have been fired first, and fallen even deeper. I’m still overusing coffee, and I’ve made my peace with that for now, but the rest are mostly gone. Get back into your healthy routine as quickly as possible.

Everyone wants to help, pretty much nobody knows how, which means you need to figure out some stock responses. I defaulted to “nothing.” People were great about offering food, friendship, comfort, and other things that we genuinely needed, but I’ve never gotten the hang of asking for or accepting help. I felt bad about it, like I was denying people the ability to be useful. Some people just helped anyway (Kristen, Angela, Keith, Heidi, Family), while others waited for a signal from us (Joseph, Hillary, Crystal, Eric). I appreciate all of it, even when I didn’t accept. I was stuck on the big picture issues that there was no help for, things like work. So find the small things people can do, and ask for help. It’ll save a lot of time.

Don’t rush it. I’m still trying to heal, six months later and with another one on the way. Do what you can, but don’t worry about what you can’t do. As long as you’re trying, and happy for any progress, chances are that things will be okay. But that means not giving up. There were days that I imagined driving down the road and just…failing to turn. I would have sailed over the edge of a few hundred foot cliff, and I don’t think our Hyundai is rated for that kind of driving. I could have kept up the heavy alcohol or nicotine. I could have given all my students an A- for the semester. There were a hundred ways that I could have given up. I didn’t. Emily didn’t give up on hers, either, and she’d just lost grandma a couple of weeks before. I think that’s really how things improve in general: a lot of small improvements or stagnant days and a big change every once in a while.

That’s it for relationships. There’s a lot more that I could write about: mom, teachers, thesis committee, friends, extended family. They all have an effect, but I don’t know how I would write about them. Thanks to all of you I didn’t mention in great detail, too. Everyone I’ve ever met has made me a better person, even if it’s by showing me who I don’t want to be.

I hope this series has done some good for readers, either in helpful advice or at least comfort. Good luck out there.

Relationships- III

If we’ve covered parents and God, I think that brings us around to significant others on the “influential relationships” circuit. I’ve known a lot of guys who say things like “My wife saved me,” or “I was nothing before her.” I think that’s a wonderful sentiment; I can’t express it. I have definitely become a better person since I met Emily, and a lot of the improvements have been because we’re together. I don’t have any interest in going back to my life before her, but I still have self respect, and “She’s the only reason I matter” sounds like codependent BS. For those of you who say things like “I was nothing before her,” please check right now that you’ve not been dragging your spouse or girlfriend down since the beginning of your relationship. With all that out of the way, I’m not sure I would have survived the last six months without her. We have a good relationship. We watch our families and our friends, see what they do that works for us, and what they do that don’t. Then we try to stop doing the things that don’t work, or change them so that they do.

That brings me to the focus here, the things we do–and don’t do–that work for us. I’m writing this as someone who has been married for all of four years; I’m not an expert, I don’t know how things will change. I know what’s gotten us this far, and kept us generally happy with our lives.

Spend quality time. Not all the time, but a decent amount of it. That means talking about the implications fictional characters’ decisions would have in our life, coaching each other in video games, sharing what’s going on in our days and trying to empathize, and going on walks. Literally, just spend time together. That’s not enough to strengthen a relationship, but it’s a prerequisite.

Support each other.  That also means not judging or shaming the other person when we come to different conclusions in a conversation, for completing an objective differently, or criticizing decisions made throughout the day. It might be fun every once in a while, but it’s the world’s job to test the relationship’s strength, not ours. As Major Frank Burns said, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice,” and we both prefer being supported to being challenged.

Trust. If a relationship is going to work, you have to trust the other person. That’s why support is so important, so the other person knows they can trust you. But it’s more than not cutting each other down; let the other person into your life. If you can share a house, and a bedroom, you can share fears, dreams, and bank accounts too.

Make decisions together. If you’re in it together, be in it together. That means not hiding things because you’re ashamed, and taking advantage of a second perspective.

Accept help. Chances are pretty good that you’ll need some help, especially at the beginning of the relationship. Whether that’s living with family members, advice from friends or other couples, or support from government programs, you’ll need help. Don’t abuse the systems, but don’t be so proud that you reject help. Pay it forward down the road.

Men do not get pregnant. If there’s going to be a kid in the picture, you have to grow up fast. If there’s a pregnant woman in the picture, she’s growing a human being inside her. Her body’s changing drastically, her hormones are probably all over the place, and she might seem like a crazy person. She’s probably doing the best she can, which means the other person needs to pick up the slack. Non-pregnant person, you don’t get to be crazy or selfish anymore. EVER AGAIN. When the baby comes, then it gets to be crazy and selfish. If you’re adopting, you don’t get the slow lead-in time of early infancy to learn what you’re doing, so you both need to bring your A-Game. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, but it means you don’t get to slack off anymore.

Accept that you have your own things; your own pasts, your own interests, your own problems. You don’t have to have everything in common. I don’t think Emily will ever be as interested in food as I am. She still helps make cookies and accepts that I treat a clean kitchen as a challenge rather than a goal. I’ll never be as worried about a clean house as she is, but I still help with laundry, mopping and dishes when I think about it. Help each other work on the things that are problems, and don’t worry about the rest.

I don’t think anything on the list is really all that profound. As I wrote it, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “well duh” for almost every item, even when they contradict. But I see needless struggles because people are ashamed, afraid, selfish or proud.

Relationships II

Last time, the topic of discussion was my dad. Today I want to continue that train of thought, but move on to how my understanding of family has changed my faith over the years.

Let it be noted at the onset that I don’t consider myself an especially religious person. I grew up in Catholic schools. My parents didn’t actively practice anything, but they were vaguely christian and we were in the bible belt, so I was marinated in judeo-christian values. In school, we had a daily religion class, where we learned all about God and the bible and things outlined in the catechism. We saw the priest twice a week in mass and once a month during the religion class. The priest and teachers always referred to God the same way: God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit.

Because of that language, my understanding of God was tied to my relationship with my dad. When things were okay, then God must be okay. When life was stressful, or mom and dad were fighting a lot, I didn’t feel like God was very nice. Every time dad threatened to move out and started packing his clothes into bags, it felt like the world was going to be flooded or the city would be destroyed with fire. It wasn’t that I imagined my dad was God, of course. God had a beard and lived in the sky, everyone knows that. More that my dad was doing what God would do, because they were both my father.

As a teenager, I didn’t get along with my parents very well. Shocking. But as a result of that, and finding new friends in high school who also questioned the faith, I was starting to have some pretty serious doubts about God. Being the awkward, non-catholic nerd in a catholic elementary school full of future college athletes didn’t hurt matters, either. I still went to youth groups, especially if whichever girl I was chasing also went, and performed in both youth and liturgical choirs, but there wasn’t really any faith there. I was an atheist keeping up appearances for social reasons, and not really doing a very good job of it.

I went to college, continued associating with atheists, dated a number of people who were practitioners of various religious to varying degrees, and then met my wife. She’s what I’ve come to think of as a new-school Catholic, the people who are more into forgiveness and kindness than reminding people they’re sinners who are damned to hell if they smell bacon on a Friday. It’s quite a change from the atmosphere I knew in school, when God’s followers handed out demerits for tardiness, untucked shirts, forgotten belts, and long hair.

There are two major differences I’ve observed that I think correlate with whether or not people can be Christian. The first is the nature of their family. People who come from small or angry families seem to struggle more with Christian belief than people from larger or happier families. It might be a cause-and-effect relationship, or they both might be expressions of something else, but it seems like there is a correlation of some sort. The second difference is how happy they are with their lives. Again, I can’t speak to causation, but the people I know who identify as Christian seem to be generally happy with their lots. I mention both of those causes because there does seem to be a causal relationship between happy family and happy adulthood, which leads me to believe the nature of family is very strongly related with faith.

Agree with my observations, or disagree. None of those correlations are one-to-one, but I have observed them. For the record, my understanding of God is no longer affected by my relationship with my father, but it seems like my relationship with my father is affected by my faith. Given the stress and loss I’ve lived through in the last year, I don’t believe in Don Miller’s vending machine god anymore. I don’t see a bearded man in the sky who smells like cigarettes. I imagine a being filled with hope that all of his creatures will live in harmony, and learn how to enjoy the time they have on this earth. I imagine that hopefulness is there even in spite of the intense sadness that comes from our constant and continued failings, because there’s almost always a second chance. I don’t think God is interested in whether or not we wear belts or cover bra straps, and I can’t imagine there’s any anger when we have a burger on Fridays or a bagel before Mass.

Relationships I

I started thinking about this set because two events happened to intersect in my life. The first was that I didn’t have wi-fi set up on my kindle at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, so I couldn’t download my loans from the library for a little while. To pass the time until I found the network password, I read the first chapter of Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” In the opening of the book, he talks about his conception of God the Father, and how it related to his memories of his own absent father. The language and imagery sparked my imagination.

The second event is that we just ended a week long trip to watch the house and dog for the Aunt and Uncle, and then visit my family in the Ozarks. This will be the first time I’ve seen my parents in almost a year, but I started a project in March to record some of dad’s stories for posterity. With the visit being so close, I wanted to mimic Miller’s idea and write about my own family.

My dad was a phone man for the first eighteen years of my life, first for AT&T, then in business for himself. As a kid, I remember thinking that whatever he did must have been very hard work. He was deeply tanned from years of working on telephone poles, and I was convinced all that sun must have burned most of his hair off. He carried a massive tool belt, and it seemed like all the things he carried around his waist had been made from missing material elsewhere on his outfit: the elbows of his striped, button-up shirts were always threadbare, his jeans never had both knees for long, and the steel that reinforced his boots’ toes always gleamed through. It never seemed like his clothes were shabby or in need of repair, but like he preferred them that way. His day-to-day attitude made him who he was in more than just clothes. As a kid, Dad’s adopted father had chickens, and the swagger of those bantam roosters rubbed off. As a scout leader he was always assured, whether we were splicing rope or stuck behind a trailer that jackknifed on an icy road. Even when he was in rehab from his stroke, he would strut around in his bright stocking cap, crowing and checking up on all the hens in the ward.

They say smells are the strongest sensory trigger for memory, and I think there’s some truth to that. The combination of coffee, sweat, and cigarette smoke leaking into my room meant Dad was home for the day, and it was usually followed by the smell of light beer when I wandered into the living room. If I could stand the flavor, I would probably keep Natural Light in the fridge for the memories it inspires.

He started the business when I was young, and the weird hours of phone technicians combined with the long hours a new business needs meant I don’t remember him being around too terribly much. When he was around, he was exhausted a lot of the time from ten hour days. There wasn’t much time for horseplay, but he made it count when he could. I remember playing with a little cocktail sword for hours one night, and he played “dead” for what felt like half an hour after I “stabbed” him. Once I was in the Boy Scouts, he found ways to get away from the business more often. He was at meetings most weeks, camp outs every month, and at least one summer camp every year.

That was when I really got to know Dad, not as a man who had to work long hours and came home frustrated that the house wasn’t clean enough, but as a man who was under too much stress while still trying his best. In late night talks around the campfire or on anchor watch, he told me about how he thought the world worked, and how our family fit into it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have a best friends kind of relationship, but I don’t think we need that. We’re father and son, and that seems to work pretty well for us.

Next time: how family relationships affect conceptions of God.

Relationships: A Primer

I want to start a short series on here, given the overwhelmingly ambivalent feedback from twitter, that details the nature of relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but all of them: family, friends, spouses, children, strangers, even relationships with concepts. This might get a little weird, just roll with it. I don’t know that I’ll say anything especially novel, but Allie Brosh said here, you have to sift through some pebbles before you find gold.

I remember my early life as a series of opposing relationships. My religious schooling contrasted with a secular home life. Mom was always around, Dad was usually at work. I was either the happiest kid on earth, or absolutely miserable. I think most kids are like that to a certain extent, and I’m sure my vulnerability to depression didn’t stabilize anything. As time goes on, all of those have evened out, but my relationships still feel very polar.

As my mom-by-marriage recently said, the only options are hell yes or absolutely not. So, let’s spend a few posts talking about how that’s played out in my life. Even if we don’t learn anything, we can have fun on the journey.

 

The things I’ve learned about blogging by blogging

1: I hate the way the word “blogging” sounds in my head. It sounds like a medical condition.

2: It’s really easy to maintain the blog-work-life balance when you don’t have a job.

3: If you want views, write about tragedy. My most viewed post is about a miscarriage, and feeling like I don’t belong in academia is second. The two have 3x the views of all my other posts combined.

4: I have no focus whatsoever. I’ll occasionally try to get some kind of streak or theme going, and that it fails as soon as I notice the trend. I’m not that kind of blogger, and that’s…okay. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.

5: People constantly give unsolicited advice about how to write a “successful” blog. How is that even quantified? If it’s monetized? A certain number of hits per day? Consistency? Being search-engine optimized? It feels successful to me.

6: The more time you spend writing, the less you need to share. I think I’ve saved as many as I’ve published because I can’t figure out where they’re headed. I’ll eventually find the context.

7: Lists are great. They’re convenient, readable, and can be picked up pretty easily.

8: It’s a fun hobby. When you spend most of your writing time preparing for academic publication, it’s nice to have a place to write for yourself and your friends.

9: I never have the motivation to write on vacation, but look what I’m doing here, right now.

See y’all next week.