Monthly Archives: February 2020

Nobody Knows How to Do the Thing Until They Do It


Once in a while, a man of a certain age gets it into his head that he’s capable of certain things; certain things that he never thought about before. And depending on how much of an idiot he is, he may actually try his hand at these things with varying levels of disastrousness.

Which is my cheeky way of saying I re-did the floors in my basement this weekend.

I should preface by saying I don’t feel I’m particularly handy, which I will then undercut by saying that over 10+ (help!) years of homeownership I’ve done drywall repair, replaced toilets, fixed a ceiling (never do this by yourself) twice (definitely don’t do it twice), replaced faucets, rewired lighting fixtures and garbage disposals, and any number of tiny fix-it tasks around the house.

So maybe I’m slightly handy.

The usual pattern — almost without deviation — is as follows.

  1. Notice the thing that needs doing
  2. Ignore it for a few months
  3. Get annoyed by the thing in a heated moment
  4. Get good and angry and watch a few how-to videos
  5. Go to Home Depot and buy about 2/3 of the required supplies (possibly also buying the wrong items)
  6. Attempt the repair, in the process removing the original thing or damaging it beyond repair, thus moving past the point of no return
  7. Screw up and start over
  8. Slink back to YouTube covered in grime to watch more how-to videos
  9. Attempt the repair again, going slower and super cautious not to make mistakes and screw it up even worse
  10. Realize I’m short on supplies or have the wrong equipment, go to Home Depot again
  11. Finish the job in roughly twice the time the how-to videos suggested it should take
  12. Feel immensely satisfied
  13. Spend the next several weeks to a month cleaning up the mess from the job
  14. Get annoyed over new thing, repeat process

I’ve done this over a dozen times, now. So I dunno what I was thinking, thinking I could handle a large basement room (plus an angled hallway) in a single day, but there I found myself, standing by a stack of floor planks, ready to rip up the carpet.

Needless to say, the pattern held. I was a box short of enough planks to finish the job, necessitating a return trip to the HD. I didn’t know what the fargo I was doing installing the stuff, resulting in a totally crap job after four hours of work covering about 15% of the room that had to be disassembled and started over. I tore up the walls taking the baseboards off, a subsequent repair I have yet to properly tackle. And instead of finishing the job on Saturday evening, it took me until late Sunday afternoon before I was satisfied enough to call the job “done” (barring the unfinished baseboards and the aforementioned holes in the wall).

And as with everything, or at least, as should be the case with everything, there were some lessons to be learned in the doing. Here they are, in no particular order.

The hard part is starting.

Before. Bonus points: All those plaques and awards belong to my wife. My awards are on the same wall. There just aren’t nearly as many of them.

This isn’t news to me: every time I run, I have to convince myself to step out the door. And the first mile is nothing if not mild self-torture. Every time I sit down to work on my novel, I hesitate: do I really want to put myself through the pain of working on that project? Can I really face the task of pulling words out of the nothing in between my ears? The starting is the hardest part.

As I stood there, pliers and pry-bar perched in my hands, staring at the carpet before me (which I hated), I hesitated. Once I start, there’s no going back. And the doubts were the same. I’m not up to this task. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I shouldn’t be doing this at all; I should hire a professional.

But up the carpet came, and from there, it never made sense to stop. Just like the run — as soon as I’m out the door, it feels foolish to even think about going back. Just like the novel — as soon as I’ve written the first word (or deleted it, as the case is lately), stopping or going back seems idiotic. Take the first step, and the rest of the steps follow after quickly, almost automatically.

You’re going to screw it up

Finally making progress … eight hours later.

Fix-iteering is about trial and error, it’s about testing yourself, it’s about learning. And unfortunately, nobody starts life knowing how to lay down laminate planks. (Or, for that matter, knowing how to write a novel, or how to run long distance.) You figure these things out by taking that first step, screwing it up (perhaps even catastrophically), learning your lesson, and coming back to the task like Rocky getting up after Creed has brought the thunder to his skull for the forty-seventh time.

Once the carpet was up, I started the job the way I thought it was to be started — and it didn’t work. So I scrapped it and started over, and it still didn’t work. So I started over again and I thought it was going better, until the wife came down to check on me and the look on her face told me I still didn’t have it right. This was four hours into the work, by the way. I was ready to stop, return all the flooring to HD and pay triple to have the carpet replaced.

But I didn’t. Partially because that’s not how you grow, partially because I’m penny-squeezing cheap, and partially because …

You can’t do it alone

Laying the floor turned into a family affair. First the wife came down — bless her — and helped me puzzle over the process, pick a new starting point, and convinced me to apply a little more force — a little more EFFORT — to the task than I had been comfortable doing before. I had been afraid to damage the flooring, but it turns out, to make this stuff click together, it takes a bit of percussive maintenance (i.e., a few — or a few dozen — whacks with a mallet). Then my father — bless him — came over to help out when he learned that I was not nearly finished with the project by 7pm as I had naively boasted that morning, but rather just starting over. We listened to the Beatles, who usually I can’t stand, but somehow under the circumstances quite enjoyed, and laughed as we figured out the tricks and the techniques to get the job done.

Come to think of it, my brother helped me move the furniture out of the room before I actually started the job — and would come over again several days later to help me bring it back in. My mom would offer to help re-paint the trouble spots afterward. Even my seven-year-old son would help me out with the cleanup afterward, doing what would have been the backbreaking work of pulling spacers off the walls, had I been the one doing it.

We all have a lot of sweat equity in the finished product, which makes it feel a little sweeter, a little more satisfying, a little more ours.

And, you know, the running and the writing are like that, too. Sure, these are activities completed mostly on one’s own — but comes a time you need other people to check on your work, because they’ll see it in a way you don’t. Comes a time you’ll want a running partner, because it’s too hard to get out the door on your own if you don’t have the extra obligation of somebody counting on you (even if the somebody goes on four legs).

Point is, no man is an island, even when he’s laminated himself into a corner.

Starting day two.

Finishing feels incredible, no matter how long it takes

Long story short (too late!) we have brand new floors in the basement. And they look bloody awesome.

Not bad for a Drama major. Now about that drywall…

And yeah, it took about nine hours more than I expected. And yeah, working my butt off for two days wasn’t what I wanted to wrap up our vacation days. And yeah, I was sorer than I’ve been in recent memory. But the floors are done, and I love them; not just because they look great, but because they’re also a symbol.

They’re a symbol for all that hippie-dippy stuff I was talking about up there; a symbol of teamwork and of willpower and of tenacity. And above all, they’re a testament to the fact that if you put your mind to it, as George McFly once said, you can accomplish anything. If you decide to do the thing, and undertake the task, you can get it done — as long as you’re willing to suffer a bit, learn from your mistakes, and keep hammering away, you can do the thing. Be it running your first mile, writing your first chapter, or laying down the floors in your basement. Do the thing.

Even if you have no idea what you’re doing.


Unexpected Fauna in Suburbia


The first one I noticed was a cat.

Actually, I’m not sure what the first one was; but the first one I knew for what it was was a cat.

See, any animal in the wild will startle and then stare at you. They suss out the danger, watch you for movement, decide whether to run or fight. But not these things. Not this cat. They stare through you, like you wandered into a place you’re not meant to be, seen things not meant to be seen. They stare at you like they’re waiting on the word from some master you can’t see for permission to tear you apart.

You might think that suburbia is a totally tame place to go running for exercise, but any place can seem alien at four AM, especially a place where civilization and vast stretches of untamed land butt up against each other. (I run at four AM because I have to — it’s the only time of day that really belongs to me. The kids and wife are asleep, work is still a long way away. It’s quiet, peaceful, calm. Perfect for running. And despite living in the suburbs, the regular route snakes right out of the neighborhood and onto a road that carves through a forest, dipping and winding through trees and growth that feel old, the way only an old forest can feel old. Like if you stepped off the road and wandered fifty yards into the trees, you might find yourself lost for days.

It’s not quite like that, but at four AM it definitely feels like that.

Wildlife is common at this hour. There’s the neighbors’ cats that stare, golden eyed and still from front porches and from under bushes. Sleepy dogs out in their pens that come to and give chase along the edge of their fences. The occasional stray that pursues for a while, but gives up rather than follow too far. Then, across that imaginary border between civilization and the woods, things get a little more exotic. Squirrels and rabbits everywhere, poking their heads up for an instant then bolting for cover. Coyotes aren’t unheard of; I never see them up close but have glimpsed them at a distance. Unlike dogs, who will head right for a person, a coyote will see you from afar and melt into the trees before you can even tell what it is.

Then there are the deer. There’s something magical about deer at four in the morning, gliding like shadows across fields or through the trees, sometimes alone, more often in herds whose size is only grasped when they all suddenly explode into movement together. But these, too, just startle and run.

But like I said, the first one I saw — the first one I knew — was a cat. It came into view at the top of a hill as a flurry of movement, hard to identify but clearly animal. Then it froze. But not the freeze of the spooked animal; this was that other freeze. It halted mid-stride and didn’t move again, didn’t take eyes off me, until I rounded the next bend and it disappeared behind me. I kept my eye on it the way you keep an eye on the potentially dangerous person talking out loud to nobody in particular on the city street — you don’t think it’s out to harm you, but you can’t be too careful.

Then, there were the rabbits. A whole crew of them, about six or seven, in a clearing in the trees, just staring. A lone rabbit will freeze, hoping to avoid notice, but a group of them will always break and run: when one goes, they all go. Not this group. Being watched by them felt like being watched by people: people who didn’t want you in their area, people who wanted you to leave.

Then I started noticing the deer. Normally you glimpse them at a distance and they ghost away, but they started appearing in more and more obtrusive places. Closer than usual, too. They started showing up in the middle of the road sometimes, or right at the edge of the trees, just off the road. And they didn’t spook, either, not until I’d get almost close enough to reach out and touch them. Their heads just swiveled as I’d plod past. Watching.

Until finally, this morning, the latest. This was in that really dark stretch, trees creeping close at both sides of the road, thin hazy fog blocking out the starlight. Troublingly dark. One of those real man-goes-missing-on-his-early-morning-run-in-the-woods kind of moments. And there it was — a shadow coming out of the fog. Not aggressively or curiously, but steadily and inevitably. At first, it seemed to be a dog, but as it grew closer, it was obviously too big. A deer? Maybe, but it was too heavy set, too plodding.

A few more steps, and it was undeniable. A human. Or at least a human shape. In the dark, it was more like a human-sized hole in the night.

I froze, my heart pounding. There was no discernible face, no discernible features. I couldn’t tell you how tall it was, but I could tell it was staring at me as it came nearer, as it passed just on the other side of the road. I tried to call out, weakly, some sort of greeting, but the voice died in my throat. You don’t really feel fear like that as an adult in this world, but I felt it then, and I found myself the frozen animal, spooked and startled, ready to bolt. It glided past, and it was gone; not gone like it retreated into the mist and out of sight, but gone like the mist had swallowed it up or spirited it away. Either way, it was gone, and I ran home in uneasy silence.

I don’t know who that person was, but I hope I don’t see them out there again.

It’s actually funny; as I’m writing all this out, there are deer gathering in the yard, just staring at the house.

I wonder what that’s about.


The Perfect Way to Do the Thing


That thing you’re thinking of doing. You know the one.

Maybe it’s the big project you’ve been putting off starting. Or maybe it’s the habit you’re trying to set. Or maybe it’s just some daily drudgery you have to get through. Maybe it’s even a thing you really, really want to do, but you just haven’t been totally sure how to get the ball rolling.

Whatever it is, you have this thing you want / need to do, but you don’t want to screw it up. Screw-ups are the last thing you need. What you want is perfection. A no-mistakes, no-time-wasted guaranteed method for Doing the Thing without the costly and stressful cock-ups along the way.

Have I got news for you!

What follows are the 100% perfect, tried-and-true tips, tricks, and toodlepips to make your time as productive as possible.

Ignore these tips at your peril.

  1. You need a space. This space should be dedicated to your Thing and shouldn’t share form, function, or storage with any other Thing.
    1. The space should be in a location within your home or your regular area and should always fit the optimal conditions for your work. It should be quiet, insulated from distractions like family, internet, and sadness.
    2. The space should incorporate natural light, face the rising sun at an oblique angle and the setting sun at an acute one.
    3. The space should have a ready supply of oxygen in tanks for emergencies.
  2. Do not embark on your Thing without the perfect soundtrack. The perfect soundtrack depends on you and your Thing, but here are some guidelines:
    1. The beats-per-minute, should you choose music, must match up with your effort and output precisely.
    2. The thematic content of your soundtrack must align perfectly with your Thing. A thematic mismatch leads to disharmony, disharmony leads to frustration, frustration leads to failure.
  3. Do your thing before sunrise. It is well known that the only time for the doing of Things is before the sun is up, for the very simple reason that inspiration and motivation can find you more easily while everybody else is sleeping.
    1. Set at least sixteen alarms in three-minute intervals to ensure that you don’t do something stupid like sleep while the sun is down.
    2. If you do sleep through your sixteen alarms, forget about engaging in your Thing even a few minutes after the optimal time. The train doesn’t come back to the station until the next day.
  4. Gear and equipment are everything. You can’t do your Thing without the proper kit; don’t waste your time trying.
    1. Lay out your gear the night before. In fact, lay out your entire gear for the entire week’s worth of Thinging a full ten days in advance; this creates a subconscious contract with your future selves that, should they break it, entitles you to legal redress.
    2. The best gear is the most expensive; cheap gear will poison your entire process. If you take your Thing seriously, expect to sink serious coin into the pursuit.
    3. If you can’t get the right gear, put your Thing on hold. The shelf life on any Thing worth Thinging is like, super-long.
  5. Under no circumstance should you attempt to do your Thing while you’re not “feeling it”. Best case, your Thinging will be crap. Worst case, you risk serious injury or death.
    1. When you are feeling it, you should do your Thing at a brutal rate. Some might say an insane rate. When the moment strikes, abandon all else: family, friends, day job, personal health, to do your Thing, as you never know when the moment will strike again.
    2. When you are not feeling it, all bets are off. Do nothing. At all. You never know what might recharge your batteries, and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to “feel it” because you were distracted doing something less important than your Thing.

Ok, so, this post is crap. The fact is, when you’re thinking about doing a Thing, you can find any number of reasons why you can’t do the Thing, most of them crap-scented tripe aimed at convincing you that there’s only one way to do your particular Thing properly.

But that’s crap.

You do your Thing where you can. My “dedicated workspaces” are anything but: at home I share an office with a couple of high-traffic catboxes and my wife’s side-hustle, and at work my writing space is also my main “work” workspace. In both places, cross-contamination is unavoidable, in every sense of the word. (Ew.)

I like podcasts while I’m running and instrumental music while I’m writing, but sometimes I run with music and sometimes I write in silence and sometimes the music or the podcasts are dumb and make me angry and the point is, I run or write anyway.

I run — and write — before sunrise because if I don’t, it ain’t gonna happen. I work full-time and parent sometimes and once the day begins, there are too many demands on my time to steal an hour for a run. And I steal ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there to work on the novel during the day. You find the time to do your Thing like a puddle filling a pothole.

Gear doesn’t mean a dadgum thing, but it’s an easy thing to hide behind. All you need to write is a pencil, some paper, and the drive. All you need to run is some sneakers (and depending on how much of a hippie you are, maybe not even those). Gear is an excuse. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

“Not feeling it” is the easiest way to hide from doing your Thing. It’s also the most insidious, because it’s a term absolutely without meaning. If you really know why you’re doing the thing, there’s no such thing as “not feeling it.” The motivation finds you when you care about the Thing. But even when you’d rather do something else, you know that you should be doing your Thing, so you do your Thing anyway. And you end up glad you did it.

Point is, if you want to find a reason not to do your Thing, the excuses are plentiful. But when you get serious about doing your Thing, you realize how stupid all the excuses are.

The time and place to do the Thing is here and now.

The way to do the Thing is whatever way you can get it done.

Don’t get hung up on the particulars.

There is no perfect way.

The only wrong way is Not to Do It.


Math Night


I’m gonna generalize in this post because I have to. I’m also sort of uniquely positioned to generalize because I see this issue from both sides — being both a teacher and a parent. So I know this is a not-all-parents situation, but man oh man, it feels like too many parents.

Anyway.

Last night was Math Night at the sprouts’ school, and because we are dutiful parents, my wife and I were in attendance.

And, I mean, maybe I’m dumb for thinking Math Night is going to be some sort of *event* — you know, a math-themed sort of celebration with games and events and all. (This is at an elementary school, after all.) But no. Math Night is essentially an expanded parent-teacher conference; a way for the teachers of each grade level to meet with parents en masse and disseminate information about upcoming tests and what standards they’re covering and all of that good stuff. Actually very useful information, but really, just a conference.

Of course, if they call it an “informational meeting on math and standards”, attendance would be even lower than it was. So “Math Night” it is. And they serve pizza. Because nothing brings people in like free cheap pizza.

Ahem.

We go to Math Night.

And I immediately find out what I already knew, which is that I don’t really need to be here. Both of our kids are doing pretty well in math in their classes (which I already knew) and the teachers’ purpose tonight is to sort of explain how the curriculum works and what strategies they’re teaching the kids (which the kids have explained to me). The presentations only take about twenty minutes. Blissfully short, in my opinion. Then there’s a question-and-answer period.

Which is where it goes off the rails.

Look, a question-and-answer period is pretty straightforward. A speaker gives out a bunch of information on a topic. When they’ve finished, they allot extra time for anybody in attendance who didn’t quite get it or who missed something to ask clarifying questions about the topic. You know, information that might directly benefit everybody else in the room, said information being pertinent to the topic at hand. And as I always tell my students, if there’s a question you have after listening to somebody talk, odds are somebody else in the room has the same question, they’re just too afraid to ask it.

But I know what’s coming, because this is not our first Math Night. We’ve done it before. And there is always a parent (or two!) who want to ask questions totally unrelated to the topic or the occasion. They’re sitting here with their kids’ teachers, after all, so why not ask the teachers specific questions about their student specifically?

(This is not the way to do it.)

So the rest of the parents in the room get treated to a lengthy discussion about how this student struggles with her work habits (not the topic) and is struggling with reading (also not the topic) and gets upset when they correct her work (still not the topic). The teachers are uncomfortable as roaches under a sun lamp discussing this stuff in front of the group — you know, because teachers aren’t meant to divulge personal information like that (and also because, y’know, NOT THE TOPIC) — but the mom keeps going on and on. And I’m not really listening and it’s just kind of droning on and man could the clock please go a little faster so this session can end and we can leave and somehow it breaks through the fog:

“I mean, of course, we took her phone away, but I don’t know what to do besides that.”

What? Er — what??

We’re in a 2nd grade class. Kids seven and eight years old. “We took *her* phone away.” Which means it’s the kid’s phone, not mom’s or dad’s phone that the kid uses.

So — let me get this straight. You gave your kid — your (let’s be charitable) eight-year-old kid — a magical internet box of her very own, and you’re confused as to why she gets upset about doing homework? Heck, most adults you come across can’t successfully integrate their lives with these things — we get consumed with social media likes and Youtube rabbit holes and push notifications to the point that they destroy our lives. And your kid has one of their very own.

Gee, I wonder why your kid is having math issues! I flippin’ wonder!

On the one hand, I get it. I really do. Screens are prolific and it’s next to impossible to keep kids off of ’em. Our kids use the tablets to watch garbage before they go to sleep at night, which, okay, yeah, I know, it’s terrible. But the tablets are not theirs, they don’t have ready, instant access to the things just anytime and for lack of anything better to do, and we monitor their time. And yeah, I also get that the “new math” of the Common Core is hard. I’m decent with numbers and even I go a little bit glassy eyed trying to understand some of the techniques they use. (The way they teach regrouping now is … just do yourself a favor and avoid it if you can. They showed us an image of the method and it looked like the hash-mark riddled wall of a twenty-year death row inmate. Hell, they’re teaching the kids “base 10” notation in the 2nd grade now. I don’t think I even heard of base 10 until I was at least 17 and even then struggled with it; and I’d wager that half the adults my age couldn’t explain what base 10 even is.) But you know what that means? That means you have to shake off the dust and learn the stuff so you can help your kid do it.

That’s what being a parent is. You suffer some inconveniences — and often some outright pains-in-the-tuchus — for the benefit of your progeny. That’s the deal you make when you bring a kid into the world.

But the problem isn’t even that this woman’s seven-year-old has a phone of her very own. I mean, that’s a problem, but it’s a relatively minor problem.

The problem is that this woman is the type of parent who’s involved enough to go to the Math Night event in the first place.

As a teacher, I can tell you (and here’s where I generalize) that the parents who come to events for parents are the types of parents who don’t actually need to come to events for parents. What I mean by that is, the parents who come to these things are the parents who are going the extra mile anyway — you’re talking about the top 10-15% of parents when it comes to more-or-less healthy involvement in their kids’ lives. The parents who need to come to these things — the parents of those kids “on the bubble” as it were, who need an extra push to help school make sense and come together — those parents are nowhere to be seen on parent nights. They’re off doing whatever else they have to do that’s more important than their kids’ education.

You see the calculus ticking toward a result, here.

This woman who was here for parent night — and therefore in the top 10-15% of parents — thought that giving her seven-year-old a phone was a good decision. Didn’t know how to help her kid focus.

This is what we’re up against. This is what these kids are up against.

Point is: Math Night is annoying.

And every parent needs to be there.


%d bloggers like this: