figuring it out

how strange, innocence

 

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers

I cannot think of a more powerful truth than one we experience personally. Perhaps this is obvious to everyone but me.

As the doctor spoke about what this, a second blood clot, meant to my physiology, I felt the outer boundaries of life scooch inward. I felt older, more breakable. I even felt, gulp, the urge to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”

figuring it out

losing the light

Occasionally, I am able to yank something worthwhile out of the river of thought that rushes though my brain. During a run the other day, this phrase occurred to me:

work on yourself

I’m sure I read this somewhere or heard the words spoken by someone. I never could have come up with this by myself. It’s one of the reasons I love to run. Some people meditate. Some do crossword puzzles.

figuring it out

i believe in your victory

Adversity toughens manhood, and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempt from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.” –Patrick Henry

Vin Diesel smirks from the cover of a recent Men’s Fitness magazine. He is all biceps and muscled shoulders. His white t-shirt is too tight. Under the title, “Diesel Strength: Vin’s Max-Your-Life Secrets”, he reveals what it means to be true in one’s “man-ness.”

Of all the more important things one could think about–including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions–I find myself pondering what it means to be a man nowadays.

It is a running joke between my wife and I how manly I am compared to the average guy. On one end are men like Vin Diesel or her perennial favorite, Matthew McConaughey, once her gold standard in masculinity. On the other end are gay men in film and entertainment like Anderson Cooper and fashion icons like Tom Ford with more style, class and something else essential in the rubric of manhood, authenticity.

My wife kids me that she wants me “just this side of gay” which is not meant to be a slur. Quite the opposite in fact. To she and some of her friends, gay men embody more style, have better grooming than the average “manly man”, are funnier and are generally more authentic with their feelings. Gay men are not caught up in appearing tough.

To be a real man, I must be as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever…

You might see the enormity of my challenge. To be a real man, I must dance along a line: as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever.

Between us, my wife and I have four daughters and one son. It is important for my daughters and for my son to see what authenticity looks like in a man just as it does in women. This includes kindness. I am trying to teach our kids the right way to treat people under all conditions. My wife and her friends sometimes chide me for being a softy. My demeanor is deliberate; Kindness and sensitivity are just right. They are as masculine as strength and grit. 

I want my children to grow up with a sense that chivalry and equality can exist in the same household.  In a world of rudeness and self-absorption I want them to see that kindness and style are cool. That women don’t have to always be feminine and masculine at the same time in order to compete with–and attract–the manly men they will work beside in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the tough guy heroes actors like Diesel play. In fact, one of my favorite movie roles is Diesel’s Riddick. Don’t even get me started on Fast and Furious. Car movies rock. 

There is, however, something in our DNA as a culture that speaks out of both sides of its metaphorical mouth: We say it is cool for men to freely express their feelings while in the same breath we make fun of it as weakness. It’s okay to have style that stands out but too much attention to dress and we’ll call you gay.  Not in a complimentary way. We want strong heroes but we say men who exhibit too much strength “need to get in touch with their feminine side.”

No wonder it’s so hard.

It is not beyond me to be sensitive. I can cry. Really. This made me cry: Drew Lynch: Comedian with a Stutter Wins over America’s Got Talent Judges  Ondine, a beautiful movie with Colin Farrell as a down-in-his-luck Irish fisherman who catches a mermaid in his net, made me ball. In fact, I have a reputation for being really sensitive.

Like some gay men might be.

Before you dismiss me as a whiny, confused baby boomer, you have to consider I also do guy things:  I mow the lawn. My puny biceps, built from years as a runner and cyclist, bulge as I wield the Craftsman weed whacker like a maestro.

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I go up on my roof to clear leaves. I know which end of the hammer to hold. I build with the focus and skill of an experienced contractor. (okay, I’ll admit this is an exaggeration. I’m more like those DIY’ers begging the guy at Stadium Hardware to help me out of a jam I’ve created in a home renovation project gone awry).  I am pretty competent around power tools, though those who know I had a little accident recently and there is now one less power tool in my quiver (see Everything Seems Like It Used To Be Something Else).

Just like Diesel, only me.

In recent years I have upped my fashion game. Deliberately. I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room. Even if I’m only slightly better dressed than other guys, that’s okay. I notice the nuances of how guys dress and where they go wrong.

I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room.

I check out men’s fashion on Pinterest and in magazines. When I dress for work I choose specific combinations of pants, shirts and ties, even socks and shoes so that I can convey a certain look. Is my deliberateness in choice of dress gay?

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To me, a sense of style, sensitivity and kindness are the badges of an evolved man. They have nothing to do with sexuality. Displaying kindness even in the face of the judgement is as masculine as muscle.

Kindness is opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).  I participate in folding the laundry and doing dishes, vacuuming and cleaning and thank her in front of them when she does all those chores. I am not saying other men don’t do these things and more. I am not better than anyone. And I know my daughters have other male role models in their lives; my ex’s husband appears to treat my daughters’ mother with kindness and respect.

I show my kids simple things like opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”. Can we appreciate an individual’s approach to style as well as their emotions without questioning their sexuality? Can we as a culture disconnect sexuality from a judgement about masculinity?

When I cut off my middle finger in a table saw a couple weeks ago, the pain was off the charts. I didn’t cry a tear. Is that manly enough?

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”.

I smile when my kids notice my efforts. My stepson regularly opens my wife’s door, his sisters’ doors and mine. One moment he rushes ahead to hold the door and won’t relent until we pass. The next we discuss his favorite tool brands (“Dewalt is my favorite, then Porter-Cable, then Kobalt,” he tells me.) This lesson has stuck.

To me there is nothing more powerful than a man living his truth. I only know Vin Diesel the actor not the real man inside. So he can punch harder, kill more aliens, and drive faster than I ever will. He is a man’s man. I will never have his biceps nor his six pack. I’m okay with that. As long as I earn the respect of my wife and my kids for the kind of man I am, I can live with not being a super man. A gentle man is just fine.

“This is the test of your manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?” –Orison Swett Marden

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figuring it out

however long it takes

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” — William James. 

I read once that the average meal at a fast food restaurant takes 11 minutes. That’s 11 minutes from walking in the door to ordering, eating and back out to the parking lot. There is a way of approaching life that can be similar to eating at a fast food restaurant.

Fast food restaurants are not about savoring.  Not the food. Not the experience of eating. Not even a peaceful moment to oneself to pause in the middle of a busy day. The process of gobbling down a double cheeseburger with special sauce, large fries and 24 ounces of soda is like swallowing experiences almost without chewing. With no reflection, the mark an experience might leave–and the opportunity for awareness–is minimal. With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

With no reflection, experiences are like the drive through where one orders to fill immediate hunger but fails to feed the soul.

I listened today to an interview with a Scottish crime novelist who is about to publish her sixth murder mystery set in the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago northeast of Great Britain. Ann Cleeves was a 24-year-old college dropout when she first came to the Shetland Islands. As she explained in the NPR story she worked as a cook in a bird observatory. She knew nothing about either cooking or birds.

Cleeves had already written twenty crime novels, one a year for 20 years, without any notoriety by the time she returned to The Shetlands with her husband and became inspired by a scene of black ravens standing on crystalline white snow. The scene became her first book set in The Shetlands, Raven Black. There is now a BBC Television series based on her books.

For me the important part of Cleeves’ story is the 20 years she spent writing unheralded novels. Now that she is on the cultural radar, Cleeves’ success might appear to be overnight, like JK Rowling’s with The Harry Potter Series, or Steven King’s supernatural novels like Carrie or Cujo.th

But to focus on just the most recent celebrity is to miss the bigger story, akin to going only to the drive through for meals. Rather than being instant, success for Cleeves and many others is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures. In The Rise, Sarah Lewis describes how many creatives believe their works are never finished, despite the labels of “genius”, “innovation”, “masterpiece” others place on their work. She tells a story of how Cezanne only signed about 10 percent of his paintings because he didn’t believe them worthy of being called finished. William Faulkner re-wrote sections of The Sound and the Fury after it was published.

Malcolm Gladwell famously dubbed the time creatives spend developing their abilities the “10,000-hour Rule.” His research shows it took any number of people viewed as successful today at least 10,000 hours of continual effort to master their crafts to create the opportunity to succeed. People like Steve Balmer and Bill Gates. Mozart and a host of artists, dancers, writers, and other creative types.

I have been writing for 34 years, ever since I started in journalism as a junior in college. Writing has not always been my sole focus, something I did everyday or nearly everyday, except for my time as a newspaper reporter. Yet I have always yearned to write, either as part of my work or as something I did on the side. But for a long time I felt if I wasn’t serious about writing–as in earning income from my work–then I should be focusing on more important things. It used to be for me earning a dollar from writing was the only gauge of its value.

Rather than being instant…success is the culmination of a process that has a beginning and repeated, continual efforts over a long time, interspersed with little failures.

When my daughter Paige was born I got more serious about journaling. In the 17 years since, I have kept a continuous journal as a reflection of what is going on in my life and in the lives of my kids and those around me. Though there are gaps in my writing history, periods where my self-reflection was limited or where problems I encountered didn’t need to be worked out in my head and on paper, writing has been an important part of who I am. It’s like an ongoing dialogue with myself to figure my way out of challenges. Other times, it has been simply to brain dump and feel better.

Inevitably, my writing has been a way to learn about life. I like to think in many ways it has made me a better person. To reflect upon my thinking, my choices, and the dilemmas I have faced offers me perspective on how I can do better.

This morning’s NPR interview reminded me that reward for any worthwhile endeavor is always out somewhere on the horizon. It is the doing that is most important much more so than reaching the end. Ann Cleeves couldn’t have known that her trip with her husband to the Shetlands would yield six books, a TV series and success as a writer. She toiled for 20 years writing middling crime novels only few bought and certainly no BBC TV executives. But it is precisely this patient practice through all those years that set Cleeves up for success. Just as all the hours upon hours of programming Balmer and Gates did as teens and early twenty somethings helped them create a software giant.

Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use. ~Earl Nightingale

My “toil”, if it is even fair to call it, is more private and less public. I have no novels, not even a published short story. The blue couch essays have been a shortcut to get the sense of being published and having someone read my words. It is not the” thing.” The “thing” would be the published book. It is the purpose upon which my life has been built.

All the other “work” I’ve done has been distraction, superfluous. Powerful though the distractions have been, they really amounted needless ambition to keep up with former colleagues in a meaningless chase for some sort of ego boost. I was bent on being liked and accepted into the club, like some tightly knit cross-country team from high school.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see.

Through the years I got inklings my ladder was on the wrong wall but I was either too ignorant or too intoxicated by what I was doing to see. Pulling into a Best Western or Holiday Inn and with my American Express Card with Nike Corporate on it made me feel important.

Writing is the more difficult path. It is the one with fewer obvious rewards. It is also the one harder for others to understand. Yet it has always felt more authentic. What scared me away was the practical equation that gets almost everyone:

work = money = security

The truth is that work never means security, just the illusion of security. Once one is fired a couple times the idea becomes clearer. Each time I have been fired, instead of pausing to decipher the real meaning, I jumped back onto the Habitrail of job seeking and interviewing until at last, I gave my security to a new employer.

And while I’ve tried to become less encumbered by material things as my awareness of their lethal nature to my freedom has grown, I have not run away from them altogether either. I have a mortgage and a car and child support and health insurance. Some things I can’t get rid of, like kids with desires and needs. I still buy clothes, although more deliberately and when anything comes in, something else goes away.

But I haven’t yet solved the work = (enough) money = security equation. I’m not very efficient at converting work into money if it doesn’t involve a salary.

Spending so much time pondering this equation drains energy that would otherwise be devoted to creative endeavors, like writing.

I don’t care about many things more. My wife and my kids above all. Then my close friends. I come last. In each day I have to take care of each of them first before I get to me. So I have gone to work deliberately for 20 plus years knowing that it was this obligation underlying   getting up and going on the road. I was attracted to the work at times, even intoxicated by it.

But I’ve learned also that when one takes a long view, one that spans over time, you begin to see patterns and values. The effort of doing the simple thing daily as part of an as yet unrealized and unbroken chain toward a vision of the future becomes less drudgery and more meaningful. It’s as if sitting down everyday at the typewriter, er, keyboard, and writing a few hundred words that might become something nearly worthy of publishing is more important than the destination itself.  Like skipping the drive through and preparing lunch yourself.

In achieving anything meaningful, it is repeating the mantra, “however long it takes,” quietly over and over again.

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