Monday, January 31, 2011

The Virtue of Duty

"If our age is the age of the anti-hero and the loss of heroism, perhaps it has something to do with the eclipse of the virtue of duty." - R.C. Sproul

What is duty? Merriam-Webster gives two definitions which apply to Dr. Sproul's quote above: one is an obligatory task, conduct, service or function that arise from one's position, the other a moral or legal obligation or the force of such an obligation.

Virtue, for those that wonder, is defined per the discussion above as "a conformity to a standard of right, a particular moral excellence, a commendable quality or trait".

So here is a seeming contradiction needing to be melded together on the forge of life: an obligation to be kept and performed which is a moral excellence and commendable trait? On the face it appears to be a form of oxymoron: I must do something, but by the compulsory nature of doing it I am morally commendable? I have to, but because I do that's a good thing?

(I had to re-read the above paragraph three times. I've confused even myself).

But this seems to be Sproul's argument, that the eclipse of this commendable quality of keeping obligations is related to failure of heroism in our age. I like heroes; I worship (if that word is appropriate) heroic qualities and the heroic epics of old. You would think this would be a simple acquiesce for me. But it's not.

Why? I have always torn at the bit under any sense of authoritarian control. It's always my argument against making decisions: once you make them, you get held to them. Therefore, any sense that keeping obligations (decided on or just pushed on) is an excellent moral quality raises the hackles on the back of my neck.

Why? Because virtue is usually portrayed as something of value and emulation. Obligations do not bring emulation to the mind.

But perhaps I am not making a distinction that Sproul does: The focus of that duty.

There is duty that we choose. These are the things we enter into willingly, even if we cannot see all roads to the end. These, I believe Sproul would support, are those in which there is moral excellence in keeping.

But what about the duties we don't choose, the things that are charged us that we did not select? Here there is an interesting breakdown: as a Christian, I think I am called to carry these out as well.

Why? Because God is a god who keeps promises, who does His duty at no matter what cost to Him (it cost Him His son). As children of such a Father, we want (or should want) to emulate such a parent.

But then my soul rises up in me. "Duty" it says "sounds so dull, so dry, so...militant. 'Doing your duty' can be another phrase for 'doing what I have to do, even when I don't want to and don't feel like it.'"

It's true. And it does. Much better to say "Do your wants" or "Do your passions". Those sound virtuous. Duty, not so much.

But even I am forced admit that in all the heroic epics of the past (the real ones, not the pastel ones of the last 100 years) the hero maintains his obligations and does his duty, even at the cost to himself: Leonidas at Thermopylae, Lancelot and Arthur, Roland of Ronceveaux, Torii Mototada at Fushimi, Jan Hus, the Swiss Guard at the Tuileries.

So the equation is this: Be a hero, do my duty - at any cost to me. If I value heroism this is the only option.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another Visit with Depression

Depression was down on the couch this morning with cup of freshly brewed coffee in his hand. As I came in he said nothing, merely handing the cup to me.

This was not particularly indicative of a good thing.

We sat there is the second-eating silence filled only by the kitchen clock as I sipped and he looked on. He finally broke the silence.

"Kind of a rough week this week" he said in a half joking manner. I continued to sip my coffee in silence.

"Yesterday really wasn't that good either." He looked at me to see if I would respond. I met his eyes, sighed, then focused back on drinking my coffee.

He sighed. "You're not making this easy, you know. When Depression is trying to lift your spirits, something is just not right."

I smiled weakly through the coffee. "It's not that I don't appreciate it, you understand. It's just that, well, yesterday really wasn't a very good day - and I have to make it through one more day, dealing both with the fallout as well as everything new on my plate. It's a bit much."

Depression got up and disappeared into the stove-light gloom of the kitchen, returning with his own cup of coffee. "So what bothered you about it the worst?" he asked as he sat down.

I sighed mid-sip, then lowered the cup. "The futility" I replied. "No matter what I do, I know I'm not going to achieve what I am expected to achieve. I fully expect to be blamed for almost everything that has occurred this week, correctly or no. It's bad enough when you know you haven't done what you were supposed to - it's worse when you have the weight of the expectation of others to fix the problem hanging over your head."

Depression merely nodded silently, then took a sip. "So what do you do?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "What can I do?" I replied. "It's not as if a magic solution has suddenly presented itself, or will present itself. Soldier on as best I can, I guess. Figure out where I can lift time from my things to make other things happen. It's my job in life, right? Serve others, make sure others are provided for. There was no guarantee of personal happiness or satisfaction."

We both sat in silence, sipping coffee. Finally, Depression reached into his shirt pocket. "I made something for you" he said.

I took it from his hand and looked at it. It was a homemade coupon that said

"Get of Depression Free Card

This card entitles the bearer to one (1) depression free day of his choosing.
Present this card at time of requested depression free day.
Includes the provision of pizza and an alcoholic beverage of the bearer's choosing"

"You understand" Depression hastened to add as I read "that I normally don't do this. This is between us, right? It's just well..you know...you're even depressing me now."

I snorted in laughter as I put the coupon in my pocket. "Thanks" I said. "I appreciate it. Really.

"Well" he said, suddenly rising to his feet in a hurry, as if he was concerned he'd gone to far, "I'll be seeing you. Soon, I'm thinking. I'll be just around the corner of your mind."

I nodded. "I know" I replied. "At least I can be confident that I'll not be blamed by you for things you don't do." His quiet laughter followed him out of the room as the coffee laden air swirled with him, bearing the unlikely hope of morning where, for once, Depression might be on my side.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Valued

In speaking with Silverline on a work issue that she was facing, I was taking the opportunity (some might say taking over the conversation, but that's just some people) with my suggestions about what needed to be done to rectify the situation. There have been accusations (unmerited, I might add) that I tend to get a little "fiery" and "preachy" when I'm dealing with a problem and solutions: I tend not to temporize and theorize but give direct advice.

"You should do this" I suggested.

"We thought of that" she replied. "It won't work for these reasons."

"Okay" I said. "Do this instead. And this. And don't let them tell you this - it's not supportable."

About this point in the conversation - in all conversations like this - I suddenly catch myself acting like this. "I'm sorry" I said (actually, I always say every time). "I just get a little fiery."

"No need to be sorry" she replied. "Actually, I can always tell when you feel like you're in control. You start proposing solutions, you speak confidently, you are firm in your opinions."

I had never thought of this before.

Why is this? Why is it that in certain situations there is an ability to act confidently and suggest from a position of strength, while in others (to me, it seems like most) I simply collapse or wait passively until the course of action is laid out?

I would say knowledge base but that's not it - I can think of plenty times I was the most knowledgeable guy in the room on a subject and didn't act confidently. It's not the people I'm with - I can be with people who don't matter at all and don't control me but still sit there, passively.

And then it hit me: control.

That's something that hasn't been coming up lately.

It's control - control of the situation in the sense that I subconsciously know that my opinion will be respected and valued, even if it will be disagreed with.

There is nothing more defeating, more disheartening, than to be asked for your input or opinion and know even as you suggest it that it will disregarded; likewise, there is nothing equally as de-energizing than to have decisions which could (or should) be made by others foisted off on you. In both cases it creates a sense of futility, a sense of no matter what I think or do it doesn't really matter: I will either be ignored or I will end up having to do it someone else's way anyway, so what's the point.

But here's where the control comes in: I put myself in those situations.

Be it work or personal relationships or even getting my oil changed, I have put myself in the position and with people that can't (or won't) deal with me. You know of what I speak: how is it with some people you are endlessly creative, resourceful, always finding a way out or other options, and with others you simply become inert, almost anxiously waiting for the conversation to be over so you can get back to doing something (since your suggestion won't work).

So here's the puzzle/challenge: How do I recognize those situations? How do I put myself in more of them? How do I minimize those that create these feelings now?

I'll be utterly honest: I like the way I feel when I am in control. It's like stance in Iaido: powerful, strong, confident, ready for action. It makes me feel able, feel competent.

How do I become this man I continue to see hints of?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Chance Encounter

Every person in a company has a purpose, a sort of role they play much like a role we all play in an ecosystem. Mine is that of a vulture.

I have the unerring ability to find and discover leftover or available food and ensure that it does not go to waste - so much so, in fact, that my coworkers have taken to openly commenting on my ability to locate and engage in such feasts.

It was at one of such events - the tragic death of a leftover lunch we were remembering by eating it- that I was breaking off pieces of a cookie to prevent it from escaping off the plate when I suddenly saw Fear Beag marching by, obviously intent on going somewhere. This is not the building we are stationed in, so I peeled off and grabbed his attention.

"What's up?" I asked around the cookie crumbs.

He then poured out a tale of short deadlines and unreasonable management and the fact that, once again, we were being treated like gophers. "I'm on my way to give the individual a piece of my mind" he said.

Knowing that none of us really has enough mind to afford to lose pieces of, I started with "Let's think about it for a minute." We talked through the situation as we turned around and slowly walked back across the parking lot. We came up with another solution - a solution which would (hopefully) fix larger problems. By the time we got back to the office, things were normal and I was already trying to figure if it was worth the effort to go back and see if there was another cookie left.

I don't write this story in praise of my ability to talk someone off the ledge - Fear Beag and Fear Mor have done the same thing for me more times than I can count when I've gone off armed with a verbal sword in my hand, ready to hack someone's spirit. I write it because it seems to me to be a reminder of two things:

1) As individuals, how aware are we of what is going around us? Are we sensitive enough to those who are near us to see when they are angry or tired or hurting? Even when we are in a crowd, do we monitor them as well - or are we only concerned about ourselves and how we are doing?

Do we have the level of comfort with our friends - with ourselves - to pull them aside and listen and say "Let's think about this a minute?" Do we make the effort to find another way? Or is it not our problem, so it doesn't matter?

2) As individuals, can we listen to those who speak? When someone - not just anyone, but someone that we know and trust - counsels us, do we listen? Or are we so intent on our own vindication and satisfaction that such advice is ignored? (I write this as someone who is blessed by the number of friends I have who give me such advice. Would that I took it more.)

Sometimes the difference between failure and success is catching someone out of the corner of our eye as we eat a cookie and deciding that they outweigh the cookie.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shortcuts

"Everyone is looking for shortcuts. But there are no shortcuts. Greatness is never easy." - Sally Hogshead

Greatness, if you should care to look it up here, has a total of 17 definitions listed. That's a great many for a word which is thrown around fairly carelessly.

Shortcut, in case you were wondering, is much simpler. Only two.

But a powerful two:

1) A route more direct than the one ordinarily taken.
2) A method or means of doing something more directly and quickly than and often not so thoroughly as by ordinary procedure.

That first one doesn't sound all that bad. Doing something more directly than by the one everyone else uses. Instead of trekking over mountains and valleys, go straight to your destination via the expressway.

The internet has certainly created more opportunities for this. There are many more ways now - YouTube, Blogs (like this one), direct publishing of books and music online - than there has ever been for more and more people to become involved in a shorter distance to what they define as "greatness" (in that sense, popularity or success). For some (Justin Bieber) it works out; for others (myself), less so.

But I still wonder if the provision of more opportunities and a decrease in the distance has really accomplished anything.

Part of the process of learning anything or going anywhere is simply the process of becoming something different during the process. As a writer, daily writing forces you to become disciplined to do it. It forces you to do research regularly (like Otis) or it forces you to learn to be able to see deeper and deeper into your thoughts to find more to write about. It makes you learn about grammar and language, and makes you learn to string your ideas together in intelligible ways.

But all of this happens in the quiet of a dark house in the morning, day after day.

Let's say I had suddenly been "discovered" two years ago. Would I be the writer that I am today? I assure you that I would not. The past 3 years have been a period of slow but steady growth in my abilities; the past 3 months have seen them shoot up dramatically. Without the first 3 years of not many posts, I don't have the last 3 years of many posts; without the last 3 years of many posts, I don't have the 3 months of dramatic growth.

I don't like it, you understand. There is some sense in which input equals output, and the amount of time I spend will equate into improvement. On the other hand, there is simply the fact that we all move at our own speed (some of us a great deal slower than others!), and that the process, like mead or cheese or wine or sauerkraut, cannot be rushed.

So are there shortcuts? Yes. Will they yield the outward trappings people confuse for success? Probably. Will it yield the actual results that people - especially those grasping at that success so greedily - really need? Probably not.

To drink my mead before it is done fermenting is foolishness and desperation. To drink my mead after it is finished and aged, perfection.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Control

I lack control.

No, not the control of others through power and no, not the control over self (although self control may be part of it). It's at the same time more basic and more involved: the ability to control. Myself.

In Iaido there are different levels of cuts: head, body, wrist, shin, etc. One of the items which becomes important is not only ability to make a cut, but the ability to stop a cut. So for example, if I am to cut at min (head) I need to stop at head; I should not continue straight down into the body (do). This may sound like a simple task, especially for a 1 or 2 lb. bokudo; I assure that, when one picks of speed or simply is concentrating on something else, it's all too easy to move the sword all the way through without even thinking.

Or take weight lifting: it is very easy to quickly go through the motions; in fact, you can lift heavier weights and be done much quicker. However, to control the weight, to move it in a slow fashion and stop it rather than let it continue to plunge, is what (with the actual weight itself) will build the strength.

So perhaps maybe saying "control" is a bit misleading. Perhaps "control of" is more accurate.

But "control of" what? Simple things in most cases: What I think. What I say. What I feel. How I react. How I consciously choose the direction of my life.

For these kinds of things, I can see that my own emotions - fear (or terror) and pride -become major roadblocks of the process. In virtually all the cases that I listed above, fear and pride become the speed to get through things (discomfort of dealing with them) or the avoidance of situation (a sincere dislike of conflict; contrariwise, a sincere desire that everyone likes me and gets along).

However, the reality is this: only those that have "control of" themselves are the ones who are able to make good decisions, provide good leadership, lead lives of quasar-like brillance. Without control of, we always end up overshooting or undershooting the mark: drowning the orchid in a bucket of water when only tablespoon was needed, or not completing the conversation we were meaning to have because it's boring or uncomfortable.

If I do not have "control of", I have no control - of others, of myself, of the set of the sail in my life.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Desperation

Desperation: A loss of hope and surrender to despair. Alternately, a state of hopelessness leading to rashness.

How are we desperate in our lives?

Desperation is an odd emotion - one of the oddest. Few emotions or conditions can lead to two completely different outcomes: one, a surrendering to despair (inaction); the other, leading to rashness (action).

One of my favorite quotes, the one I put in my daytimer year after year reads "Lord Naoshige said 'The way of the samurai is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate.'" Obviously the collector of the quote, Yamamoto Tsunetomo (himself a samurai), did not record this quote to think about collapsing into a state of despair.

In Iaido, our soke has told us "Practice with desperation". He means, of course, as if we were really contending against an opponent rather than just practicing a form, that such a thing will give an edge to every practice we perform.

Why do I focus on this on this cold Friday morning?

Because desperation will give a man energy when nothing else will.

Desperation will give a man something to do rather than nothing when he is confronted by an intolerable situation. Desperation will cause him to do something - sometimes anything - rather than continue to either accept the status quo or fall into a condition of inner pity and turmoil.

Do not construe I am arguing for rashness here. In that I go against the definition. Certainly desperation can lead to rashness; rashness seldom (if ever) works out well. Instead, I am arguing for the energy and focus that comes from desperation. It needs to be focused and sustained; indeed, there is an argument by which desperation is the tinder for the fire of the soul but not the fuel, which needs to come from goals and objectives, something that we want so badly we will take action to accomplish it.

But without that tinder - without that explosive need for action in the face of despair or hopelessness - we collapse into inaction, into wallowing, into a state where we become useless and ineffective.

Am I desperate in my life? Desperate for the things that matter? Desperate for my dreams and hopes, my goals? Desperate to become all I can be, indeed am supposed to be ("With great power and ability comes great responsibility.") Or, when confronted by situations that hinder me, stop me cold, deny me the easy path, do I simply fall back into the sense of hopelessness only those who perceive themselves powerless can really know?

One is a path to ineffectiveness, to uselessness, to the grey twilight life. The other, though far more difficult, is the road to the glorious purple-orange of the dawn of possibilities.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

To Stand

I realized last week that I stand differently.

In Iaido, there is a form in which one stands, whether at rest or in motion. The form is itself what you would probably expect from any martial art: erect, shoulders up and out, chest forward, body erect, relaxed yet alert. Steps (when taken) are measured. Always, in everything, one is alert.

As I stood there last week, having completed my kata and waiting for others to complete theirs, I realized how different I looked from the way I normally stand. It's not just the physical manifestations - shoulders not as high and open, head and body not quite as erect, chest not out - although those are noticeable: it's the mental manifestation that goes along with it.

To stand in form, to move in form, is for me to move in a confident and assured manner. It is to confront the world in way that perhaps does not militate success, but does not expect things to go badly all the time. It is to be ready for what occurs: ready to respond, not just ready to accept. It is it, if this can be understood, to stand as a man in the world, a man of action, ready to move. It reminds me of how Ayn Rand describes her heroes in Atlas Shrugged: loose limbed, erect, confident, ready to face the world on their own terms rather than accept it on the world's terms.

I would love to stand this way all the time - the energy, the confidence, the lack of fear, the sense of being competent to face whatever comes and the confidence that I can do so.

Why, then do I not?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Recrimination of Self, The Words of Others

Our greatest opponents are never quite ourselves.

I'm not sure that I have really understood this before now.

There is a very real sense that we our own worst opponents. Beyond anyone else, we are the ones who will remember every failure, every inability, every time that we tried - and failed miserably. We are the holders of the sum total of everything that we have done wrong or failed to do.

But often times those sensations and feelings can sit there - will sit there, forced down by an act of the will - quiescent for weeks or months or years, quietly hiding beneath the soil of our souls as the fertile volcanic soil hides the volcano that built it. In this sense, we are not our own greatest opponents.

It is the combination of ourselves - and others.

Words are terrible things, bright shining swords which we wield oft times unconsciously in huge arcs around our persons. Our words share a quality with Yagyu Munenori's concept (and book title) of The Life Giving Sword: our words have the ability to give life or take it.

They can give life when we use them to encourage, to build up, to speak kindly, to blow life onto the one spark of soul that we see in others when no-one (not even they themselves) grasp that it is there, to keep the dreams of others alive when they themselves cannot. Our words can take life when they cut, they maim, they destroy the hopes and dreams of others, leaving functional corpses which continue to have the illusion of life even as their soul is drained away.

But these words cannot of themselves do anything to us. They are words - a combination of sounds, breath, vowels, consonants, denotation and connotation. It is only when those words combine with the slumbering failures of our souls that our greatest opponent - neither quite us nor quite the speaker - erupts into life.

Like the aftermath of a volcano, the damage is ugly - but often hidden from the outside world: the pyroclastic flows of bitterness and self recrimination pour like a torrent over the green farmland of what was a productive countryside followed by the slower but just as devastating lava flows of failure, leaving skeletons of burned homes and trees and dreams and hope in its wake.

Do things heal? Of course they do - over time, the vegetation will return, followed by animals and then the dreams and thoughts and hopes of our inner selves to inhabit the area again, building the communities of dreams and re-establishing their direction - after all, volcanic soil is some of the most productive and fertile in the world (and can, for example, produce great wines).

But even then, we inhabit where we are with two eyes sideways: one facing inner to the crust over ourselves, the other on the smouldering mountain of the words of others. An eruption of one or the other can be managed. An eruption of both at once - and once again we are fleeing, trying to outrun the devastation before we are overwhelmed.

Pre-Dawn Gregorian

Full Moon's chanting light:
Morning stars' chorus drowned out
by luminous song.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Run

The Road called to me this morning.

I have been meaning to begin running again this year - both for health benefits as well as the discipline of doing it. I've no illusions I will ever run a marathon, but I sit enough on a daily basis as it is. I like running as I like all the physical activities I do: they can be done individually or in a group. I am hardly a "team" sport guy, so running is perfect: minimum equipment, can be done whenever, wherever, alone.

The difficulty, though, is the fact that the time I have to run is early in the morning - I am therefore fighting the double curse of probably not wanting to and conveniently "finding" that I am still in bed.

But I was up this morning -up and had nothing to do. And the Road called.

As I started to get dressed, Syrah the Mighty looked at me. She had slept terribly all last night, and so was with me (and I was up because of her - convenient) as I got dressed. You could see the logic chain in her head as I changed and got my shoes on. The Tail of Doom started wagging in wider and wider circles (the tail of which has been said it could lay low 16 stout warriors) as she waited for me to make the move - the move to the leash.

Fine. Here's the leash; let's go.

The morning is brisk as we step out, in the mid-fifties - hard to believe it 20 F just a week ago. The morning sky belies the warm sunny weather we had yesterday, giving a cast of that fake cloud weather, fog, creating a dome of light-tinted clouds from the city beneath. To those who have never had high fog it appears as clouds; only those who have dwelt beneath it before can know what a false impression of weather it can give.

We're off: I always have to pace myself with Syrah the Mighty and be more aware than ever - not only of where I am stepping but what she is doing. She's been known to jerk sidewise; likewise, she'll stop in the middle of a step (and right in front of you) to smell something -and because she's black, you'll not know it until you go over her.

No traffic this morning: Good. This is one of the reasons I prefer running in the early morning rather than the evening. Cars and headlights break the meditative sense of running in the early morning dark.

First Turn: The surrounding world is quiet, lacking the sounds of the traffic that will come in only a few hours. The damp gutters hide piles of leaves that Syrah trots through as we make the first corner, the water holding them together so they don't crackle

The Lady with the Beautiful Garden has left her outdoor traffic light on all night. I don't know who else sees it but I do: Red, Yellow Green off the grass and the blacktop as I round the corner.

Still seem to be doing pretty well. My left knee is hurting me - a bit. A reminder of age, I suppose. I didn't use to have this problem.

Next corner: back onto the main drag. Downhill, which is always benefit. Do I only do .7 of a mile (I haven't run in weeks, you understand) or do I go for the full mile? Feeling pretty good - right turn at the longer route, the street Syrah and I walk every night. I actually have to do very little: she knows the way.

As we curve around and down, I notice how many other interior lights are on. I wonder (as I always do) briefly about the lives of the others that have these lights on: why are the up, what are they doing, are they happy. All these people, everyone of them having a lifetime of experiences just as I do. To think about it too long is to become existentially lost. Perhaps I'll just run instead.

The air is cool on my warm skin, the downhill wind feels good. This is perfect running weather: it feels like I could run like this, in the cool early morning dark, forever.

Almost stumble: Syrah is pulling on her leash, ears erect, trotting as if to run. I strain to look: there, across the street and in the court beyond, the small form of a cat scoots across the cove. Syrah continues to pace eagerly; she'd tear off if I'd let her. I pull back a bit; she gives up until another day, and around the corner we go.

Final leg: uphill, my least favorite type of run. Not as many lights here. Hop over one or two morning papers as we do. I try to read the headlines under the plastic wrap but the wrap reflects and the print is too small anyway. I shrug: I'm sure if it is really important, I will hear about it soon enough.

Home stretch: I'm amazed at how many people have their porch lights on. It's not as if we live in a neighborhood where there's a high level of fear. Why, I wonder, do people leave their lights on: Fear? Laziness? Hopes that someone is coming?

Last turn up the cove: This is where I usually break into a sprint. Usually. But it's early, it's my first run, and I need to make sure everyone inside stays asleep for another 1.5 hours. I'll take it slow.

Fumbling for the keys (maybe that's why they leave their lights on?), I get inside. The coffee I cleverly left brewing is waiting for me as I enter, its enticing aroma welcoming me back. There is, I decide nothing better that warm coffee after an early morning run. Syrah gets a drink then promptly plops down; she'll be sleeping for another hour as well until the sounds of life signal that breakfast is on it's way.

Final distance: let's call it a mile. Final time: Who knows? Maybe 10 minutes, maybe 15. I never time myself Final feeling: Good. Surprisingly good. The kind of good that makes me want to do it again tomorrow.

So good, in fact, I should do something else. Like write a post...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Good Work

We are a people in search of good work.

Originally, long ago, a person's work had to be good because (generally) the user was going to people that they knew: friends, family, local people with whom they traded. The concept of seeing your neighbor something that was less than a good work was most likely balanced out by the fact that your neighbor would at best catch you at it (and at worst, pound your face). A vested interest existed in providing good work on a communal level.

But as societies developed and distances shrank, the concept of good work seems to have begun to diminish. Why? Two reasons perhaps: One is the simple fact that good work often requires time and skill, and time and skill mean more money, and money does not comport with the dictum that the lowest price much always be provided (and this is a public good, so we are told).

The second reason is that the beneficiary of the good work is no longer someone near to the person who made it: more likely than not, it's someone far away, someone who doesn't even think of the individual who manufactured it (and doesn't really care, truth be told), and someone who (if the work is less than good) cannot directly affect or impact the one who made it. To the company offering it at the lowest price, it is often less expensive to simply replace the item than try to repair it. The purchase doesn't really care if it's good or mediocre, as long as it functions; the company doesn't care, as long as it is inexpensive and works (most of the time).

A third reason (perhaps the most important) is that we as individuals have lost the concept of good work. To do good work is to take pride in what you do; it is also to recognize that what you do has an impact not only on yourself, but on others. To do good work, you have to want to do good work. In a society that so often tells us that we have God-given right to find the perfect job that fits us, many people treat anything other than that "perfect fit" as a time filler, something to be done while waiting for the perfect opportunity. The fact that even those unsatisfactory positions should be done with the same level of attention often never occurs to them - it's only "work", not their life's calling.

Which is a shame - because for most of us, we never end up in that life's calling position. However, the need for good work still remains - from our transport to our energy to our foods to our medicines, we count on individuals doing their job to the best of their ability, giving their all to insure that the product we have is safe and functional and effective - a product of "good work".

If we all had to use the products or services which we or our employers work on, do we have the confidence that the work is good?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Powerlessness

There is no feeling in the world which is worse than powerlessness.

You know of what I speak - that sense of becoming indignant, or angry, or simply frightened because of a task or a person, of seeing the injustice or sheer foolishness of a course of action - and to know that you have no power to change it. Every attempt you make was thwarted, every suggestion ignored. You, you are told, are to execute those decisions. Your opinion has been noted - and ignored.

You go back to your desk, or your home, or your thinking closet, and collapse. You're simply drained of energy, of the will to do anything more. The purposelessness of the activities you have been charged with - perhaps doing for years now - is revealed in all of its ugliness and futility.

You pick at things a bit, like a child at the plate of food they're not interested in but know they have to consume, trying to make something out of the rest of your day. You try a slew of arguments in your mind, visualizing the scenario differently, "What I should has said was....This is what should have happened..."

But shoulds are not dids.

Finally, after attempting to prop your inner self up, you try to make the best of a bad situation by putting on a happy face or you collapse into the work of minor items that matter not at all, filling the time with something and hopefully dulling the memory of the incident.

But it is there: every day you approach the situation, every day you see that person or hear their voice, your mind thinks the same thing: for all that I do, what difference will it make?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Good Shave

We, as men, have lost the ability to enjoy a good shave.

The art of the shave is something that I am only coming to appreciate now. Like much of what else we do in life, it is something that (for most of us men) must be done, and must be done every day; it's how we do it that makes the difference.

For years (20+) I have used a shaving brush and soap. I initially did it to be contrary; I now do it because I enjoy it. There's a process, of course: unlike cream that comes from a can reliably and in the same viscosity and mass every morning, shaving soap and later can be affected by a number of qualities: heat of the water, time spent making the lather, effort spent making the lather.

Shaving (for me) is always after showering, to capture the residual softening effect the water will have on my beard. I run the water hot (and thank goodness it comes hot on cold mornings!) and run the boar bristle brush under the water (this is one of those things that, in my opinion does make a difference: synthetic bristles are not the same) until it is saturated.

Then to lather. My soap is in a wooden dish purchased back in the mists of time from Crabtree and Eveleyn (whom, as it turns out, I have gotten most of my soap from). Taking the brush, I whisk the soap (always in a clockwise manner -don't ask me why) until a thick layer of lather has appeared. This is crucial: thin lather on the soap gives you thin lather on your face, which means a bad shave.

I then take the lathered brush and apply it to my face. It feels relatively warm still, which is a good thing. Again, coverage is a good thing: if I am rushing, I only tend to put only pass of lather on and regret it. Two is always better.

Then to the razor. Currently I use a standard two trac razor but am thinking of going to a straight razor for the experience (and the shave, which I hear is wonderful). The important thing with a trac razor is to heat it under the water: a cold razor gives a lousy shave.

As to the shave itself, it has to be slow. I don't always start in any one place, and I don't follow any one pattern (although looking things up last night on the Internet, who knew there was so many different names for which direction you go). The key is slow and sure - and rinsing off the old soap and hairs frequently. Rushing only leads to a less than optimal shave and cuts (yes, even with a safety razor it happens).

My shaving routine takes a little more time now that I have facial hair. The goatee is not so bad: the neck is always shaved anyway, and by this time the edges of goatee are well established so as long as I don't get too creative, it's not an issue.

The moustache is harder, not that it itself is hard to miss (it's above my lip, for goodness sake) but that there are a number of hairs just on the side and underside that need to be shaved if one wants a respectable handlebar. This (not surprisingly) is also something you can't rush: a false move and 2 months work is undone.

The process is then undone: the razor washed and wiped down, the brush rinsed and shaken out, the lid placed back over the soap.

The fact that I am growing a moustache has added another step to my shaving process: applying moustache wax.

The wax, from Firehouse Moustache Wax, is the finest I've every used (it was an extravagant splurge): dark brown, sticky, smelling of beeswax - the way a wax should smell. The trick is too remove a little, rub it between your thumb and forefinger, and then apply it. Not warm, it will clump in your moustache and leave uneven bumps.

I tend to work from my nostrils out to the end, both because the moustache is fuller at the nose (and therefore needs the fullest amount) and that too much wax at the ends gives one a funny curl that you can't eliminate during the day. Using my thumb and forefinger, I roll the wax and hair upward to work the wax in and get the hair off my lip. Sometimes, if it is a great deal of wax, I comb it; other times I go directly to the last step, which is the careful smoothing of the hair and the curling of the ends.

I have come to love this last step. I love the smell of the beeswax in the product (I love bees!), I love the way the hair looks fuller because of the wax. I love process of the vanity, I suppose, of a well groomed moustache.

The can lid is resealed, one last look at myself, and I'm off to the next task.

The process I've just described is one which, you'll notice, requires one thing: time.

We rush. Simple matters of personal care have become simply one more thing we have to do in order to go do something else "more important". Society has attempted to intervened, of course, giving us 3 trac razors, foamless shaving cream, and electric razors (Buzz Buzz Buzz and off I go).

But the reality is, shaving can't really be rushed. You can tell if someone had a bad shave: the hair on the face is uneven, there are missing spots.

It's also rushed in the sense that it is a pleasure we deny ourselves. To shave well is to stop the world and its press of affairs and demands and focus on one thing: having a good shave. It's ironic because we say in society that we want to "focus" on what we're doing, yet we regularly deny this focus in the seemingly smallest of matters to save two minutes.

For men, how we shave says how we feel about and treat ourselves and our time.

How was your shave this morning?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tools

As part of that wonderful process known in corporate-land as "The Annual Review" (also known as "The Long Month of Avoiding Writing Your Review"), one is expected to identify goals and objectives for the upcoming year. This can include things you want to accomplish, skills you want to add, and certifications/class you want to take or achieve.

As part of this process I had considered listed out organizations and certifications which would both meet my current needs as well as allow me to continue to grow in my career. They seemed reasonable, rational and would have seemed (to me) to add value to my current place of employment.

As we talked through the draft of the review, the organizations were reviewed. One organization, one certification was reviewed and discussed -no problems. A second organization, not the one I was thinking of, was also covered - not what I had planned, but seemed sensible. For the third organization, the one that would represent my growth into a new part of the industry? No need, I was told. If I had any questions in that area, I could consult our current resources.

We then moved to objectives. As these were discussed, what became apparent is that these objectives, while probably useful but not what I had identified, were created in such a way that they sought to move responsibility from the plate of others to mine (without, I might add, any reduction in my own workload). It was not, it seemed, so much my own growth as the reallocation of work from others that seemed to be the end result of this.

At that moment I realized I was a tool - and I was being used for a purpose other than what I had intended. I had sought to increase my value and skill set; I was being defined as what served the purposes of the employer and their resourcing.

The reality is that, at least in the business world, every employee is a tool. We are an object, an item with particular properties which can be used in similar ways. There are a variety of tools across multiple industries (and multiple cultures) which are all designed to do a certain series of tasks.

However, tools tend to be designed to do one thing: a hammer is not a screwdriver, a set of pliers can't really hammer things in, and a wire cutter can hardly press things together. People are not precisely tools of course: we have multiple abilities that can be used across a variety of work situations.

But our perception and that of our employers may differ. We are hired by them to perform a particular set of tasks using the skills that we have acquired. Dependent on them for improvement, we will only ever do that particular set of tasks .

Why? Because when one has a good tool, one scarcely wants it to disappear. By improving it, by changing it, it may not do what it was originally purchased to do; contrariwise, it may do things which cannot be done in your shop (but in the shops of others).

But the definition lies within us.

We are the definers of our utility. Left to those outside of us, we will be defined by what they need us to do. It is up to us to define what we want to do and what we want our utility to be.

The saying is true: there is no master training and succession plan in Human Resources. Whatever you want to be or become, you will have to do yourself.

Employers hire value. Become the value you wish to have, not the value defined for you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shinigurai

"Lord Naoshige said 'The Way of the Samurai is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate.'" - Yamamoto no Tsunetomo, Hagakure

The word "desperateness" in the passage is the Japanese word shinigurai, which is literally translated "Being crazy to die". The idea is that of hurling one's self into the mouth of a tiger without a thought as to whether or not one will survive.

I write of it this morning as I ponder a conversation that I and Songbird had yesterday as I evinced my evident displeasure about my ability to make people care. I have for years now followed the teaching of The Elder, whose ability to convey bad news and contrary opinions in a manner which was carefully couched in language designed to be heard rather than immediately rejected. This is a useful application in many instances; however, it can be taken by some to mean that you are not forcefully telling them "Do this" or "No".

Songbird: "You know you like to have people like you."

Me: "Yes. I know. In the world of animals, I'm a Golden Retriever."

Songbird: "You need to worry less about them liking you and more about giving them your opinion, telling them what's right".

I crave the approval of others. I really do. I don't really know why I do, just that I do.

At the same time (and thanks to Songbird for making me think of this) I need to differentiate between approval and love.

I think that I often confuse these two items. Approval is not necessarily love, nor does love always equate approval. I want to be loved -but love is a hard thing to quantify from others at times, a hard thing to catch. And so, perhaps approval becomes the surrogate for love: it's easier to quantify and less difficult to cultivate (if it helps, you can substitute "like" for approval here. It's the same discussion).

The difficulty of course is that approval is far more fickle than love. Love is something (if it's real) that is not impacted by circumstances, by "what you can do for me"; approval often is. In fact, I will go as far as to say that approval is more often based on how you and your plans fit into mine: if they do, I will approve; if they don't, if they cause me strain or discomfort or even real work, I will not.

The other fact is that I need to become more selective of whose approval I seek. Not every single person is (frankly) worthy of me needing their approval - and that is not just a function of position or power, it's a function of what role they fill in my life. There are those close to me whose love and approval is important, as it should be; there are those outside (The famous "In-group/Out-group of Japanese sociology) whose at least approval, if not nice to have, certainly should not impact what I do.

So today, as I go about my job and my life, I need to be conscious of each interaction and what I am seeking from it.

To those whose love and approval is matter, who are critical to my life, who truly are involved with and care about me, I need to continue to pay careful attention that I am acting is a way that, while it may not always agree with them, is always concerned with my opinion of them - and theirs of me.

To all other, shinigurai.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Energy

What is energy?

Energy, for the dictionarily impaired, (and for the purposes of this post) is defined by Merriam-Webster as: "A fundamental entity of nature that is transferred between parts of a system in the production of physical change within the system and usually regarded as the capacity for doing work."

Wow. That definition alone makes me tired. I can't understand why people don't feel more energetic after reading it.

Okay, let's try this: "usable power (as heat or electricity); also, the resources for producing such power."

That's somewhat better.

Why do I write on it on a Monday morning, which (too often) is my least energetic day of the week because my body insists on waking me up early every Monday as a sort of pre-stress exercise for the work week?

Because I need more. Because energy, along with time, is the currency of life.

Think about it. What in life is not accomplished without energy - at the bottom line, with the energy of individuals? Any great project is the sum total of thousands of people contributing their small store of energy through their work to the large whole. Likewise, any personal project is also (ultimately) dependent on the energy of the individual to accomplish it.

Energy takes two forms: both physical and mental. Much can be done with one or the other (else only the hale and hearty could accomplish things, which is not at all true); true progress lies in both. But without both, life becomes a struggle to get started and get through each and every morning.

Where does this energy come from? Multiple sources, if I think about it: our bodies need rest and food and exercise. Our brain needs the rest as well (ever tried working for long periods of time on sleep deprivation?) and food, but it also needs a third thing: it needs passion.

It needs passion. Measure the difference between a personal project you have interest in and how eager you are to spend as much time as you can doing it versus the same level of interest you have on a task (for me, often work related) in which no passion is present. The difference in energy, in enthusiasm not only to start but to continue, is stunning.

But back to my basic point/concern: energy (along with time) is the currency of life. How do I get more?

Sleep? Yes, I know what my needs are for sleep even as I begrudge them (at least 7 hours a night). Food? My diet's okay, could always be better. Exercise? I try; part of my challenge is finding modes of exercise that I stay interested in. Passion? Hmmm, there the rub: that which I do most of all I am the least passionate for, that which I do the least I am most passionate for. If that is the case (and I believe it is), then it is no wonder that upon my arrival home I am not feeling excited about all I can do but exhausted - passion is often not the car key ignition of desire and cannot just be "flipped on" because I happen to be where I can practice it.

But that is not going to change overnight either. So the question remains: How do I get more energy, more of the currency of life?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

An Unexpected Gem

Today I went to New Home Homebrew Store.

Homebrew stores (for the uninitiated, those stores that specialize in the supplies for the brewing of beer, wine, mead, sake, soda, and oftentimes anything else involving fermentation) are a unique brand of hobby/interest store. Many of the aspects of any interest or hobby store one would recognize: racks filled with small packages, unusual parts that have no meaning to anyone not in the know, tempting bits and pieces that make one think "I should have made a list - I think if I buy that and that I can make the new (fill in the blank alcohol) I've been thinking about" or "I should try that." The uniqueness: it is one of the few stores populated solely by adults.

The service personnel and clientele participate in that sort of bon homme reverie that is familiar to anyone involved in a hobby (which, sadly enough, seems to be absent from too many of our other interactions: everyone is cheery, friendly and joking; there are no foolish questions or beginner's trial period, only a sense of "Great! You want to do this - let's get started. What are you trying to do." I truly believe that part of the reason that people frequent stores like this so much is simply that they are so fun to be in.

I had secured my supplies - an airlock and rubber plug for my small neck carboy, a hygrometer (for measuring specific gravity/sugar content, therefore alcoholic content), ginger root (for ginger mead!), tartaric acid (for hard lemon candy - which I can never seem to harden enough; I need to work on my technique) and 5 packages of yeast to see me through the next few months.

My turn came. The store guy, a bluff older gentleman with a square face, work-hardened palms, and a body type that suggested he not only worked at a homebrew store, but he enjoyed the fruits that it put out as well, called my name off the list. He seemed a bit surprised - happily so - that I had already secured my supplies and was ready. I started pouring them into his hand. He responded with a "Bless you, my son" and we were off to the register.

At the register, he asked me "Is that all?"

"Sure" I replied. "If I get it all the first time, I won't have an excuse to come back.

He chuckled at that. "I know that" he said. "That's how they got to know me at the Big Box Home Improvement store, when I came in for the second time in the same day."

He stopped for a minute, and then out of the blue said "I can't understand why people who don't enjoy their jobs stay at them.

I stood there, suddenly taken breathless in the Zen-like simplicity of the moment. Here was a guy, working retail at a job that probably doesn't pay a great deal in money, shooting out a one-liner about everything I have been pondering in my soul for 15 years.

Why do we do this - in fact, why do we stay at anything for long periods of time when we don't enjoy it? Is it fear? Is it lack of initiative? Is it that we don't believe we can really do anything else? Or is it that we simply believe that there simply are no others options, that the fate we have made - the life we have made - we are too heavily invested in to change?

I got my change back in almost in a trance, thanked him, and went back out into the brilliant sunlight of a New Home blue sky. I sat and watched from the curb as cars pulled in and out - all different kinds, from older Toyotas to a Lexus. All in search of supplies for their hobby but really more than that - all in search of something to continue to allow them to do something that they enjoy, their passion.

I heard no sadness in the store that day, no weeping, no complaining - just conversations of excitement and joy about what they were doing, anticipation of the fruits of their labor, backed up by music that added pep and life to the experience. In other words, an environment which facilitated making it a place people want to work, want to be, want to drink in.

Why can't all of our life be like this? Is it impossible - or have simply convinced ourselves that it is?

Friday, January 07, 2011

That of Greatest Importance

Reminder: Life is too short to be wasted on things of less than the greatest importance.

I was reminded of this (yet) again yesterday, through the comparison of days and issues between myself and others. No need to discuss or worry about the details - what was self evident was the fact that while some are dealing with matters of import, others of us (that'd include me) are dealing with matters which are not.

Importance is not something that is constant from person to person, of course: they can be different (significantly so) between two people, involving two different things in which each individual might say "How is the that important?" - the difference, let us say, between a doctor and a farmer, both of whose work is vitally important (food and health matter!) but both who exercise this important work in different ways and realms.

But that, of course, is not what I am talking about.

It's the matters which are not important but are given the illusion of importance that are the problem.

Illusions of importance? These are typically generate by two things: 1) By others, who are trying to pour their sense of importance (because it is their task) onto us; or 2) Our fooling ourselves into believing that the things we are working on are important, when in fact they are not.

In writing and thinking, I originally thought that #1 was the greater problem; I spend a great deal of my day (and life) dealing with the "important" issues of others which so often don't matter into next week, let alone into next year. In fact, in the industry I work in this is a terrible problem: I can count on the number of bones in my body the "emergency" situations I've been called on to resolve "right now" which didn't have any impact in a year, let alone the long run. Certainly it is more difficult to argue importance with dogs baying at your heels about their needs and their wants (actually, in using that phrase I insult dogs. Dogs are usually pretty direct about their needs - and pretty happy when they are filled).

But in thinking about it, I think maybe #2 - us fooling ourselves - that is the greater and more insidious issue.

We have (as many wiser heads than I have noted) the capacity to infinitely delude ourselves; we can convince ourselves that we are the smartest person in the room (but only in an empty room), that we are incredibly attractive and should be able to wear Spandex (no comment), that we are doing the right thing (when in fact it is the convenient thing). We, if we are not careful, are the least reliable judges of ourselves and our motives. Likewise, we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is of greatest importance when this is not the case.

Why? Because we do not examine our own thoughts and motives as critically as those which are brought to us by others. Too often we believe that which interests us or is best for us is the most important thing that we should be doing. Rare and precious is the individual who can look at their own live and objectives and say "Is this really the most important thing I can be doing now?" - and act on that information.

Because oft times the most important thing we can do with our life is not the thing we are working on right now - or contrariwise, it is the thing that we are working on right now, except we don't "feel" that it comports with what we want.

Brian Tracy asks the question in several of his books "What is the most important thing you could and should be doing - right now?" Stephen Covey asks the question "What one thing, if done excellently, would have the greatest impact on your life right now?"

What is that thing - for me, for you? What is preventing us from doing that? Is it a true impediment - or is it merely ourselves?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Visit with Courage

I rolled out of bed late -quite late, by my standards. I galumphed quietly down the stairs, mentally making a list of everything that usually did in the morning - and those things I wouldn't be doing to make my timing to get out the door. Getting to the bottom, I clubhauled around the bottom banister (nearly losing my feet in my socks) and scooted into the family room.

There, sitting on the couch with the light on, was Courage. He'd even gone so far as to make coffee and have a cup ready for me.

I love this man.

He slapped the couch next to him. "Sit down lad, sit down. It's been a while since we've talked." He handed me the cup of coffee, which I gratefully took and sipped. Wow - it was even fresh.

I took another gulp and then lowered the cup. "I haven't seen you in a while" I said, starring down into the steam rising from my cup.

"I've had a bit of a vacation - longer than intended, really" he replied, re-settling the folds of his kilt. "Sort of my fault you know - one gets involved and volunteers, and the next thing you know you're serving far afield. But partially your fault as well." He sipped his cup again.

I started, half choking on my coffee. "My fault?" I questioned. "Why, I've needed nothing but you for months now. I have needed to be able to stand up -for myself, to others, for the things I want to do in life. I needed you! How is this somehow my fault?"

He raised his eyebrows back at me. "Partially your fault dear boy, partially your fault. No need to get upset over it. Calm yourself." He took another sip of coffee, then stared down into the cup. "But you know that courage is something you have to do, to look for, to find - not something that you just sit around for, waiting for it to appear next to you drinking coffee one morning."

He sipped again. "I can be here, I can be ready to go - but unless you choose to lead, I will not follow. Nothing personal old man. It's the way things work. Not really different than those rascals Fear and Failure, or that vixen Passion - you don't really have anything to do with them either until you make the decision to lead them, usually into your life. For example, if you treated Fear the way you've treated me lately - you know, kept him at arm's length, didn't send an invite, no afternoon High Teas, that sort of thing -how likely do you think it is that you would be afraid so much?"

My sigh and the hang of my head told him everything he needed to know.

He patted shoulder firmly. "Buck up my lad. That's all in the past now. We don't have to live in our mistakes, we just have to learn from them. I'm back now. That's what's important."

He got up off the couch, readjust his folds and his belt once again. "Tell you what my boy: You're running a bit late. Why don't you go ahead and get ready and I'll just stay here for a few minutes, then we can get in the car and commute together. I've got a bit of Facebook to catch up on."

I almost choked for the second time that morning. "Facebook? You're on Facebook?"

"Of course dear fellow. Got to keep up with times. Besides, I have a date with Passion tonight. Need to finalize arrangements. You don't know of a good pub, do you?"

"You? Passion? You just said she was a vixen?"

He gave me wry smile. "She is my lad, she is. But just because she is doesn't mean I shouldn't date her." He laughed to himself, turned around, and sat down to the computer.

As I started back out the kitchen door, refilled coffee in hand, all I could hear was the clickety-clack of the keyboard and Courage humming "Men of Harlech" as he idly twisted his mustache, waiting for the computer to load. As I got out of earshot the last thing I heard was "A new profile picture for you? Splendid Passion, splendid."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Quenching

Quenching, for those who may not know, is the part of the forging process wherein the hot metal is plunged into a cool liquid. Water is what is usually associated with quenching, although historically there are references to vinegar and oil as well.

When we think of quenching, we tend to think of it in reference to a flame, when by quenching the flame (typically by snuffing the flame with an air restrictor or simply blowing on it) we it out.

But in metallurgy, quenching is not that at all.

What quenching does is that it rapidly cools a metal to a lower temperature. It creates certain properties in the metal which can only be achieved by this particular process. For example, steel is quenched to produced a hardness the metallurgy process would not in and of itself create.

But quenching comes with a price: it makes the metal more brittle, more prone to shattering. To compensate for this, the smith must also temper the metal -holding it at a certain temperature for a prolonged period of time until elements in the metal are transformed into more stable matrices. The metal is then reheated and then re-quenched, and the process repeated until the metal has reached the required combination of hardness and flexibility (For a description, go here).

Why do I write of such things on a Wednesday morning?

Because in our lives, but especially in the New Year, our dreams and goals and objectives are often subject to the vagaries of life. It can feel like they run into a wall, that they suddenly will go no further - that they have snuffed out, quenched, the fire removed from them.

We need to change our perspective on this.

A goal or dream quenched does not mean a goal or dream extinguished. What it means - if we will accept it - is that it is going through a process of hardening, of becoming more sturdy, more usable.

But it becomes more brittle, more likely to fall apart, the answer comes.

That can be true as well - which is why we need to take the second step, which is to get them back into the fire of our imagination, of our enthusiasms, to reheat them - perhaps not at the blazing furnace temperatures of inception when they were first created, but at the lower temperatures of purpose, where the brittle parts will be converted into stronger parts, the stronger parts purged of their impurities - so that when the next quenching process occurs, a harder, stronger, more flexible thing will remain.

Throughout this year, the goals and dreams and objectives we set for ourselves will be tested. They will face the quenching process of reality. The question is not if it will happen, but will we use that process to strengthen them - or allow them to be snuffed out.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Day One

Day One of the new work year.

This is always the milestone, the first new foot of the new work year. All of the problems and issues that were put on the back burner during Christmas and New Year's will rush to fore as soon as I flip on the computer this morning.

I have successfully ignored this rush during my vacation, and only succumbed briefly to it on the one day that I was back (it took only two hours that day for the blush of vacation to wear off). But it looms over my head like the sword of Damocles, ready to plunge tip first into my skull as soon as I give it time and space.

So here's the trick: I'm not going to let it do so.

I need to reorganize my relationship with work - all work.

Yesterday, even though it was my day off, I spent about 2.5 hours working on annual reviews. It was the kind of work day that one dreams of: focused, concentrated, free from distractions. I walked away feeling like I had really accomplished something. There were no negative feelings, no anger, no sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances and the situation.

In other words, I ran my job - my job did not run me.

It is this attitude that I need take in with me to work this morning - and every morning of the year.

The reality is that my job - every job I have ever had - will take as much of me as I am willing to give it. Should I do a good, diligent job? Of course. But should I reach the point that my job is destroying my sense of inner peace, eating up my sleep, causing me to work late in hopes that I will get more done when in reality I am merely wasting time because I am not focused, creating an happy me to the point that mo theaglach notices that Dad is always "in a bad mood"? Of course not.

I am a servant of my job. I am not a slave. There is a subtle distinction. A servant is one that is hired to perform a task. A slave is property that is used to perform a task -"Dumb tools", as Cato the Censor referred to them. No rights, no opinions - just tasks to perform.

It will be hard. I have no illusions about this. My coworkers will begin to question my lack of time for them. My management will undoubtedly question that I although I arrive far earlier than they do, I am also leaving earlier. The fact that I am no longer covering for underlying faults in the structure -that I am not giving "110%" to solve every issue, to be everything to every one - will undoubtedly result in some heated discussions.

That's as it may be. In the end I have to live with myself and my sanity - not my job.

Monday, January 03, 2011

All I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From The Seven Samurai

- Use what you have to get what you need. If all you have is rice, get hungry samurai.

- If you hire a samurai for their experience and expertise, respect their opinion when they give it.

- Inner character is more important than skill. Inner character will sustain you when the battle is going badly.

- If you have an inner conflict, you need to talk to someone about it. It eventually will kill someone, just maybe not you.

- Even the odds whenever possible. If you have swords and they have muskets, get the muskets.

- If you only act like a farmer, you'll become a farmer in your mind, unable to think of defending yourself. With the right attitude, a farmer can become a samurai.

- Sometimes you have to surrender some houses to defend the village.

- Always remember where your food comes from. A samurai without rice will not be a samurai for long.

- Remember there are two sides to every story. If villagers hunt down samurai, it may be because the samurai mistreat them.

- Generally speaking, it is better to be honest about things. If you try and hide your daughter as a son, she will find a way to date a samurai anyway, and you'll only look foolish for trying.

- Evil always needs to be confronted, in whatever form. If you don't confront it, it will steal your rice and barley and leave you starving.

- There are things worth fighting for. Words may solve a lot of interpersonal conflicts, but bandits were never driven away with words.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Investing

As I stare out my sun-filled window at the deceptively mild looking day (which is really cold), my eye catches on the Oaks in our backyard.

At our last house in Old Home, we had no trees: being a new home development, we had the "Stick masquerading as a tree" in our front yard. Sure, no leaves to rake - but neither any relief from the sun in the hot summer.

Here we are surrounded by oaks - not the giant oaks of my youth, but spindly far reaching oaks, oaks that have survived the uncertain weather, harsh summers, and cold winters of New Home. Do they shed leaves? Absolutely -great mounds of little leaves that stick in the grass and blow with the wind. Do they provide shade in the heat of summer? Absolutely - one can go outside and not be sunned down directly by the heat.

But they provide unlooked for benefits: They provide a lovely frame to look out the windows. They provide a spot for the plethora of local birds - blue jays, sparrows, doves, cardinals, even occasionally a hawk - to hide and rest and sing. Were we to need them, they shed a plethora (up to half a ton per tree!) of acorns, which could presumably be used as meal (haven't tried it yet; maybe I will someday). Their fallen branches become fodder for the next outdoor campfire.

But in order for all of this to happen, something had to take place: someone had to save these trees.

At the time our current domicile was built (mid 80's?) the builder had to look down the corridor of time and realize that saving the trees that were present (perhaps planting more?) was a good idea, worth more than razing the land and building a bigger house. In other words, they had to make an investment - an investment in the future, an investment in the trees. They had to have a vision.

The same is true of our own lives - especially now, at the beginning of the year in the throws of resolutions and goals and objectives.

There are two levels of investments that we make in our lives: temporal and eternal.

Simply put, what are investing our lives into temporally? Every day, simply by the fact that we choose to spend our lives on some things and not on others, we are creating an investment of time in certain activities. How often do we take the time to ask why we are spending that much time - and often money - on certain activities and not others? More importantly, do we look down the road 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, our lifetime - and see where these investments of time and money will lead? Will theybe like the oaks in my backyard that continue to provide beauty and usefulness to those around them, even after the originators are long gone? Or will it provide the stick in the front yard, dying when we lose interest in it or when we die, a strange plant in a foreign soil that could never grow?

What is true of the temporal is true of the eternal. Someday, sooner or later, we will all return to God. We have the story of talents (Matthew 25: 14-29) and the warning of Paul in 1st Corinthians 3: 10-15 that our works will be judged (and rewarded) to remind us that our lives are not lived and invested in a vacuum; and if one will read and accept it in this light, the entire book of Ecclesiastes (a highly underrated book in my opinion) is an discussion on the wisdom of spending and investing one's life wisely based on the certainty of death.

C.S. Lewis wrote:

"People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says 'If you keep a lots of rules I'll reward you, if and you don't I'll do the other thing.' I do not think that this is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven; that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other." (Christian Behavior)

In the midst of a New Year full of possibilities and new opportunities, what are you investing your life in - for time and for eternity? What are you in the process of becoming as a result of your investments?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Relationships

As I lie slug-a-bed this morning on the first day of the New Year (an eventful and good year, I'm feeling) I'm examining the question of relationships in my life - and what I expect of them.

The reality is that we have different levels of relationships and expectations of those relationships, even with the ones we love.

I haven't always believed this was true. I had a fairly black and white view of relationships: either I can share or I can't. Either I can talk or I can't.

What I realized, as I sat and thought about it, is that this is not true in my life. There are, of course relationships where it is simply a nodding acquaintance, a 'Hi, How are you?" sort of interaction. There are those interactions - I have been blessed with many - of coworkers, those who we spend much of our working days with. In some cases, these are the nodding acquaintances; in others, these pass over into the realm of an honest friend, someone that can be shared with. The distinction - and I don't think I consciously thought of it until now - is that here there limits: there are things that are not discussed, or perhaps discussed only under the right set of circumstances.

And this extends to all friends - and loved ones - as well.

Relationships are different. There are some friends and loved ones with which you can truly open yourself up on any subject (admittedly, these are precious few in any lifetime). There are those which you may discuss many things, but perhaps not certain subjects. And there are those in which what you discuss may be a very limited scope indeed.

Why the difference? What I have come to see is that relationships perform different functions in our lives. We come to learn - or instinctually grasp - that for many of them, there are limits to what they can and will bear - and if we put more on them than we can bear, they will collapse in ways that are hard to foresee but almost always bad.

Can they be changed, be improved to take on other functions? I believe the answer is yes - but like all building projects, it needs planning and time and materials to set the foundation for an expansion.

And (another discovery for me) not all relationships are meant to be all things. Seldom does a relationship fulfill all the requirements of human interaction. Again, this is not a bad thing - the fact that we need each other pushes us to into meeting people we would have never dreamed of -and (I really believe that C.S. Lewis would nod his head in satisfaction at this) some of the most unlikely people end up becoming some of our dearest friends.

So in this New Year, as we roll back into our workplaces and lives, take a minute - not only to be thankful for relationships in my life, but to look at what they are, what purpose they fulfill, are you treating them in a way that honors and does not stress them - and how (if possible) can they be improved.