Monday, January 11, 2010

Eyes on the Prize

So far on this set of lifehacking ideas, I've hit upon:

  • Begin with reasonable expectations. If that means finishing one task every day or making sure one part of the house is clean every day, so be it. You've made a start.

  • Focus on what you're doing, and make lists that you can actually complete. Use this as a way to clean up the "stuff" in your life.

  • Don't obsess. Take the moments where you want to play with an all-eclipsing thought and find a way to bring your focus back to what's important, what needs to be done in the here and now. Beyond that, find a way to take the negative and find the positive. And in all cases, remember the positive.

  • Grok things. Don't just hear them. Grok them.


Ultimately one of the things this really comes down to is keeping your eyes on the prize. It's a cliché, I know, but it's a useful one. The prize can be any number of things, whether it's a clean house, finished projects, happy kids, a healthy relationship, saving money, traveling, achieving a professional goal, starting a business, cooking a meal, making yourself and other people happy. It could even be all of those things.

It all comes down to follow-through, whether small or large. I can't emphasize that enough. It's something that I've tried to instill in the kid — every day before school, she feeds the pets and makes her bed. It's small stuff, but making a habit and routine out of it has proved remarkably useful in the larger picture. If you move to the larger picture, it comes down to something I haven't always been good about in the past — committing to a plan. Once you commit to something, you must follow through with it, and any misgivings must be worked out and put aside — much like the obsessions mentioned above.

At a personal level, here's what it comes down to... I've screwed up a lot in my life. There have been a lot of things I haven't owned up to and mistakes I've made. I've made lots of promises without really knowing how to make said-promises happen. I've hinted at things that I knew in the back of my mind wouldn't really happen. I've taken on obligations and then struggled with myself to follow through on the obligation. Certainly, I could get into psychological dig-downs of this stuff, but talk is cheap. It comes down to action.

I don't want my daughter or anyone else in my life to have to pick up the pieces or wonder why I didn't do what I said I was going to do. I don't want to leave unrequited or unresolved hopes because I said I would do something I couldn't. I don't want my daughter to skate over to me at the rink and ask why I look sad any more. (Another story for another time.) The life-hacking I'm doing? Well, it's for me, but it's also to make my world a better place for everyone and anyone in it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beer, the road, lessons, and North Carolina

John and I hit the road yesterday for our first beer-only trip. Past trips with his wife and L have been built around a mix of beer and wine, but this one was about getting out of town for a day, seeing some new territory and finding good beer. We batted around everything from a long (5 hrs) trip to Dogfish Head or the Philly/southern NJ area to our usual haunts in the western part of Virginia to North Carolina. The NC breweries won for lack of traffic and pure novelty. Good thing, too.

We hiked off with the MacBook Pro and the iPhone tethered to sort out the final destinations and decided upon initial stops in Chapel Hill. There, we had lunch and a tasting at Carolina Brewery. The food was quite tasty, and the beer was good. Not stellar, but good. The tasting included a kolsch, an amber, an ipa, a winter seasonal schwarzbier, a porter, and a brown. Each brew was solid, but fell off on the finish. Everything was good enough, but nothing really pulled us to buy a growler. The next stop was quite a contrast — Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery.

We climbed the stairs to this fourth-floor restaurant/bar, and the vibe was off from the beginning. The place felt like a combination of country-club bar ("The Social Crossroads of Chapel Hill") and dingy hotel restaurant, right down to the staff wearing black shirts with ties. We ordered a tasting, but the sixth was going to be a blend because they'd just run out of their seasonal One can hope that the seasonal was actually good, though, because the other beers certainly weren't. Flavors were off. Body was awful. From the experience, there was literally nothing to recommend the beer. Period.

Our next stop, though, was a brilliant surprise. We hiked over to Durham, to Triangle Brewing Company. We stumbled into a warehouse space on the wrong end of town, but it was full of people tasting the beer, playing ping pong, chatting, hanging out, you name it. On tasting the first beer, it was clear we'd come a lifetime's difference from Chapel Hill. Rick Lyons was producing some truly excellent beers, from an abbey ale to a classic dry stout. He's not bottling much yet and isn't selling much outside of NC, but he really is one to watch. To wit, we had a good long conversation with him, and it was interesting to hear all the tricks he's been putting behind building that business. I look forward to more conversations and tastings with him in the future.

Triangle was followed by Big Boss in Raleigh. These guys are doing some crazy and good beers. Unfortunately, we didn't get to meet the brewers. Fortunately, the tap room was a fun scene. The beers included a really solid brown, a nice belgian-style golden ale, a spicy harvest, a beautifully-done Belgian dark and a few others I've lost in the notes. All were well-done, and I really liked what they were doing with the taproom business model.

The final stop of the day was at the Boylan Bridge Brewpub in Raleigh. Their space is modern and clean, and the beer is good. I'll leave it at that, because nothing stood out enough to warrant a growler purchase. In fact, I would recommend a stop at the place because the food is excellent, but I wouldn't tell a beer geek to go there for the best (fill in the blank) s/he's had. Nonetheless, it was a good end to the trip, and the brisket special really was over-the-moon good.

In between all the major events, there was an intensive conversation, and I finally understand what it means to grok things. An excellent day, really.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

It all comes back to focus, and lists.

After thinking further about my last couple entries, I think I've struck on a good way of playing this all out. See, you have to understand that I come from a family of pack rats. My father is the messy sort with everything he's ever owned stashed somewhere in the house he shares with his wife and their adopted daughter. From broken ship models (casualties of a brief foray into cat ownership years ago) to the original patio furniture he had when married to my mother, it's all there. My mother is the neat sort of pack rat, the sort who keeps things for years but who can also get rid of things when she recognizes that it's time — though sometimes the "getting rid" involves sending the box of old childhood trinkets to me.

What this means is that I have lots of stuff and sometimes forget to get rid of or organize stuff. And when you have a kid you acquire more stuff on a regular basis, from new craft kits to school homework. Having so much stuff makes it very hard to focus sometimes. It's easier just to stick your head in the sand and look at something else than clean up that pile in the corner you meant to tackle months and months ago.

Tackling this stuff down the line is one reason I've decided to start small as I said in the last post. But there's a bigger picture here, and that bigger picture is actually about how to tackle the small picture. And it comes down to lists.

I'm not talking about that big honking To-Do list we all tend to make — the grocery list of everything we're supposed to get done. Too often things get dropped off such lists or pushed to other lists, because it's easy to do this. I was recently reminded of something I learned years ago during the emotional havoc of my divorce — make small manageable lists.

When you make a list, only put on the items you know you can accomplish in a give time frame, be it a few hours or two days. Then tick those items off in the order that makes the most sense. I tend to knock off the small ones first and move to the biggest ones last — kind of the snowball method of Getting Things Done. That way, by the time, I get to the biggest items on the list, I don't have small stuff to worry about. I've also usually spent some part of my other productive time thinking about what's coming up — a design project, a blog post, making dinner — so that taking the larger items seems like less of a chore.

If all goes well and I keep making these little lifehacks into real habits, my plan is that I will eventually tackle the big items that keep getting pushed off because I'll actually have made the time to do it.

How do you keep yourself organized and disciplined when it comes to the things that just pile up in life? And, mind you, I'm "speaking" tangibly and metaphorically here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reasonable Expectations

I think I will declare 2010 the Year of Reasonable Expectations. It begins with my notes in this post about cleaning the dishes when they are used and goes so much farther. See, for several years now, I've battled this feeling that I was not reaching the success or goals I wanted — even if I wasn't always clear what those goals were. In the end, I'd beat myself up over failing to live up to my own expectations.

It was easy enough to blame circumstances for why things weren't working out. Someone else had let me down or something just wasn't right. There were circumstances beyond my control — even if I could just chalk it up to my own failing, there was still a way to make it beyond my control. The thing is none of it was beyond my control. I was just letting myself fail.

Part of the answer for why I let this happen can be chalked up to my upbringing. Garrison Keillor is right when he makes fun of Lutherans for their low expectations — or rather for their (our) expectation that nothing will ever be as good as you want it to be. Growing up with a good core of midwestern Lutheran values on my father's side, expectations remained low. Just do as you will, don't expect too much and get through life was a common ethos. Add to this the expectation on my mother's side that one simply goes through grad school and finds life in academia, and there simply wasn't much training for me on how to take great ideas and make them happen. As a natural dreamer, my response was to cook up grandiose ideas — say, launching a magazine in NYC in 1994 with no money and no backing — and lose interest in them when I started to run into the real problem of making something happen. It was easy then to slip quietly back to what I'd been doing before. This is exactly what I did when the prospect of working on a book and life collided in 2004.

The problem with these goals and others I have in mind is not that they were unattainable. I just didn't know how to attain them. I didn't grok how to set reasonable expectations so that I could methodically get where I was going. It's akin to trying to beat back the clutter that has taken over our house. Looking at it globally and saying I am going to do this, I practically guarantee my failure. It's just too easy to put off the vague parts of the large goal until they become just one more lost opportunity. If, however, I set reasonable expectations — keeping the dishes clean, for instance — I can move on to the next reasonable task once I've consistently met that goal. Or, for instance, if I'm working on a project, it's fair to know what the big picture is, but I can't spend my time worrying about the big picture as I try meet each small part of the tasks at hand. My discipline is weak, and if I do get caught up in the big picture, the risk of stumbling or making excuses is much greater.

I explained to the kid the other day that it was important for us to finish something before we moved on to the next thing. She wanted to know why. I asked her how many unfinished projects/books/ideas we had around the house, and she looked at me sheepishly. The lesson seemed to stick, though, because a couple days later when I asked her to do something else, she said she needed to finish what she was working on first. Remember? she asked.

I will. And now I have to go tick one more item off the list.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

My New Years Present

Fathers Day. Birthday weekend. And now New Years Day. The Kid has managed to lose a tooth on all of these occasions.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The New Year is here, with a burble.


As it has a few times now, the New Year blasted in with a blaze of paella. A friend and I had a throwdown at a neighbors' house. She dove into a seafood rendition while I put together a traditional dish with chicken, chorizo, and a few shellfish for good measure. To boot, I cooked in my tux since we (minus one, sadly) were all headed to a neighbor's house for a black tie party after dinner.


It was a hell of a time, and both paellas came up beautifully. In the past couple years I've discovered a couple of my favorite secrets for a great dish — the right chorizo and smoked pimentin. The chorizo this year was a spicy, coarse-ground variety I located at Whole Foods. It had a delicious earthy character, and just enough spice not to overwhelm the other ingredients. This year, I finished the paella on the grill and finally managed a perfect soccarat. As a nod to some other great paellas I've had, I add asparagus and freshly-roasted peppers. The final trick for the New Years paella is a nod to Southern tradition — black-eyed peas. Buddha knows with the way December went and all the plans on tap for 2010 that I can use all the luck I can get.


Kudos to my neighbors for putting together such a great evening — both parties. In fact, at the dinner house, we concocted a little dinner party for The Kid and four others, complete with a babysitter to manage a slumber party while we trucked off to the party down the street.

That said, it is the new year, following a rather ignominious end to 2009. The hiccups of life and relationships got the best of me, and I spent a good bit of December melancholy and reflective. This past year was full of challenges and tests — and efforts to move into the next phases of my life. As it came to an end, I found myself looking at The Kid and realizing how remarkable she is — and how she will never be seven-and-a-half again. I found myself licking a few wounds and getting perspective on some old ones. John and I brewed a couple stellar batches of beer. All in all, the end of the year was much like the rest, full of contrasts between high points and low points and full of teaching moments.

For the new year, I'm not making many resolutions. In fact, I've really only come up with one so far — to do the dishes whenever I use them. I consider it a small portion of a larger effort to gain control of the chaos that too-often envelopes the house. Forget the pressure of bigger resolutions; I'm sure I will come across other goals to pursue along the way.