Wednesday, October 26, 2016


I have written values. They are as follows:
  • Kids first
  • Self-mastery
  • Intelligence
  • Harmony
  • Integrity
  • Ikigai
Values are a prism through which one can view life, set goals, and make decisions. Values can help you get and keep your life on track. In short, having set, written values will allow you to more easily navigate through life. I can’t say that I exemplify everything on my list… in reality, some of them (especially under the “self-mastery” category) are there because I am trying very hard to integrate them more fully into my life.
Kids first: I’ll not dive too deeply into this one, as it is self-explanatory. Simply, I make my kids my unquestioned first priority and motivation for most everything I do. Really, nothing more needs to be said.
Self mastery is a constellation of several things… self-discipline, grit, kaizen, positivity, growth mindset, and stoicism.
Self-discipline: My personal discipline is an ongoing struggle, especially when it comes to being consistent over an extended period of time (I suppose that’s true for all of us, though) (so maybe I shouldn’t be so damn hard on myself when I stumble, huh?) (anyway…)
Discipline applies to so many things; not just getting to the gym, eating right, or showing up to work on time. Ultimately, it boils down to doing what you should do, when you should do it… whether you feel like it or not.
  • It’s about standards.
  • It’s about execution.
  • It’s about being consistent.
  • It’s about self-control.
  • It’s about goals, little and big.
  • It’s the difference between mediocrity and excellence, between success and failure.
Grit is the ability to keep going over time, even when things get rough, even as one’s initial motivation wears off and the shine dampens on that goal.
Growth mindset is the difference between “I can do better” and “I am the way I am”. A person with a growth mindset sees their self as capable of evolution. Someone with a fixed mindset feels that if they meet a challenge that they can’t overcome initially, that’s it. Game over. The growth mindset person comes face-to-face with failure and considers how they might change to meet and overcome that challenge. This is something that I am working on quite a bit of late. Having read Carol Dweck’s book about this subject, I can see where having a growth mindset would be the foundation for a lot of personal development.
Kaizen is closely allied with the growth mindset. It is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “constant and never-ending improvement”. To me, it means ‘better every day”. My goal is to do something each and every day that will improve me and/ or my life in some fashion. That can mean many different things.
  • One more rep or a little more distance in a workout (or maybe trying out a new yoga pose!).
  • Polishing a scene from my new novel.
  • Work on getting better organized.
I could go on and on (and on and on and on) with this. I will spare you the details. Ultimately, the phrase “better every day” is what matters here.
By positivity, I don’t mean a pollyanish/ rose-colored glasses outlook 24/ 7/ 365. To me, it’s more about making sure that I don’t default to the negative, admittedly a hard task at times.
Stoicism is something I have only recently begun studying. Ultimately, it’s less about being like Mr. Spock and more about choosing one’s reaction to the ebb and flow of life. In short: “Men are disturbed not by things, but the views which they take of them” (Epictetus, Enchiridion).
I have long been a practitioner of cognitive behavioral therapy. The main thrust of CBT is identifying and challenging negative, unproductive thoughts… thoughts that can lead one down the path to anxiety and depression. Stoicism exemplifies that.
NOTE: I plan to cover CBT in more depth in another post.
Intelligence: I value intelligence in myself and others. It’s important to devote time and energy to learning and enhancing one’s cognitive skills… everyday (see Kaizen, above). Granted, there are those that seem to have a greater degree of natural intelligence than others. Good for them, but I am more concerned with, as above, valuing intelligence along with prioritizing intellectual growth and development. So do a little something on a daily basis to expand your mind:
  • Learn a new word (and use it).
  • Make it a point to learn something new everyday.
  • Watch a documentary.
  • Take an online course about something of interest to you.
  • Conquer a challenging brain teaser or some other puzzle.
  • Listen to some music that you might not normally listen to.
  • Read non-fiction when you usually read fiction.
  • Read poetry when you usually read prose.
  • Just read. A lot.
Being “dumb” is not funny. It’s not cool. We were all born with a certain amount of native intelligence, and I believe that we all have a certain amount of responsibility to ourselves and those around us to work diligently at developing it.
Integrity is two-fold. One, it’s all about treating others as I would want to be treated (to act in any other way is, in my view, a bit hypocritical). Two, it’s simply about being honest and doing right by yourself and others. Fortunately, the two typically go together.
I don’t like it when people are rude to me or those I care about, so I won’t treat others that way. I don’t like it when people try to take what’s mine, thus I won’t do that to anyone else.
Ultimately, it’s very simple: fair is fair.
Harmony: I’m not one to argue just for the sake of arguing. I believe that life is much easier when people at least try to get along. Yes, I will stand up myself and my beliefs when necessary, but I carefully pick my battles. Striving for harmony has become more important as our nation (and world) becomes more divided. So many people are consumed with labels and being right all the time. They insult others merely because someone dares disagree with them.
We need more people who at least attempt to get along with others. Ultimately, we are stronger when we band together.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that translates to “reason for being”. Having an ikigai to consider can have a powerful, galvanizing effect on your life. My children certainly give me a reason for being, but I also strive to encourage and inspire those who struggle in life, as I have.

As I stated above, your values can act as framework for decision-making as well as a guide to how you conduct yourself. Take for example, the current state of political discourse. I see people become unhinged and hurl insults at one another, all as a result of differing opinions. Some post memes and links with no attempt to verify any “facts” therein... information that defies credulity. There are those who try to appear authoritative, yet exhibit sub third grade English skills. Being mindful of some of the value above could help in any of these instances:
  • Before calling that person on the other side of the ideological aisle an “idiot”, or throwing out the insult du jour, why don’t you stop and think? Does insulting this person advance your cause or boost your argument? Name calling helps no one while deepening the divides between people.
  • Prior to posting that meme about the other side’s candidate, take just a moment to do a little research. A quick Google search will generally give you a sense of whether your post is factual or not. A minimal investment of time and effort will help prevent the spread of untruths.
  • I have seen comments on political posts that are so poorly written as to be incoherent. Take a second to capitalize, punctuate, and put that spell check to use.
Take a moment. Take a deep breath. Think. Acting completely on the emotion of the moment helps no one and serves nothing. Exert just a bit of self discipline and rise above the this mire. Use your intelligence to make certain that your comment is, at least, legible. Consider whether jumping into that argument is worth disturbing your harmony. I could go on, but I don’t wish to belabor the point.

There are times that one’s values can conflict with one another.
Navigate using your values as a road map, and your life will certainly be richer and more peaceful.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Greenspace: A Neighborhood Story

Dichotomy: noun  di·chot·o·my \dī-ˈkä-tə-mē also də-\ : a difference between two opposite things : a division into two opposite groups. (source:

My neighborhood is unusual.
I don’t mean that I live on probably the only street in my city that has two published authors as next door neighbors (sorry, just had to throw that in there!). No, my neighborhood is an unusual one in that it has a very interesting, dichotomous nature.
My own street is a quiet one. Generally older people reside here. Even the young people who rent houses are temperate, well-mannered, and hard-working college students. Tires hum along in a pleasant rhythm along the brick pavement. The narrow sidewalks are cracked in places, yet are still walkable. The houses here are a bit worn, but generally still solid. Even the one unoccupied home on the block, two doors down from mine, has been nicely kept up.
I can walk just a block or two to the west and see houses that are falling into more aggressive states of disrepair. A number of houses even have the telltale condemned sign on the door. There are even a number of empty plots where homes once stood, victims of decades of neglectful owners and tenants or, in at least one case, fire. People often while the time away by sitting on their porches, drinking cans of beer, smoking, or merely watching whoever or whatever passes on by.

One street, about four blocks west of my home, stands out. There is a house, perched on a small hill at one end of the block, that looks as if it might topple over in a harsh crosswind. The pillars supporting the porch roof lean slightly to one side. The exterior badly needs a paint job, the roof is missing more than a few shingles, and an upstairs window has been replaced by a vintage 7-Up sign.
Then there is a home at the other end of the block, a large and well-maintained Victorian, newly and artfully painted. The owners have a sizable, nicely landscaped lot that includes an elegant gazebo tucked neatly into a corner; all within the confines of a wrought-iron fence.
Typically though, when my son and I go for one of our frequent walks, we head east. We cross the street, pass by a hospice/ acute care facility and take a shortcut that involves a well-worn path and a gap in an aging chain link fence. A couple more blocks east and we find ourselves on the campus of Augustana College.
Augustana is a private, liberal arts college that boasts an enrollment of around 2,500 students. The campus is known for its beauty. It is 115 partially wooded acres, with a long path that runs through said woods and along a natural slough. The quadrangle at the heart of the campus is a crisscross of sidewalks that issue from the main academic buildings, themselves a mix of old architecture and modern construction.
I enjoy walking around campus, and not just for its aesthetic appeal. There is much to be said for soaking up a bit of the energy of ambitious, goal-oriented young people, all of whom have hope that they are at the cusp of amazing things (and many of them, I suspect, eventually will do amazing things).

My own street had a somewhat different tenor just a couple years ago.
There was a house, about five doors down from mine, that from the outside straddled the very fine line between worn/ weathered and about to be condemned/ potentially dangerous. Two middle-aged brothers lived there along with their elderly mother. I never got the impression that any of them held a job… in fact, I later learned that one of the brothers had been to prison on drug-related charges. They had both been busted for dumping mysteriously acquired car tires into a nearby rural river. I think they actually subsisted on some sort of black market tire trade, thus accounting for the stacks of them outside of their garage.
Mom and the brothers were abruptly and forcibly evicted from their home for non-payment of their mortgage. The house sat abandoned for a month or two. Myself and another neighbor cleaned up the broken glass and other garbage. Someone else arranged for the stack of tires to be carted away and recycled.
Not long after, I learned that Ray and Carol, the owners of the house next door, were preparing to buy the property. I assumed that the couple (a retired police officer and wife, a semi-retired hairdresser) would restore the house and rent it out to college students. That was similar to their own plan, but unfortunately the condition of the house was so poor that it was beyond repair. They chose instead to demolish the house and create a greenspace for their grandchildren.
Ray invited both myself and my fellow-author-next-door-neighbor for a quick tour the night prior to the bulldozer’s arrival. The first thing I noticed upon stepping inside was the smell, a cocktail of mildew, tobacco, over-used cooking grease, and a few other scents that were harder to identify and I preferred to not think about. It was just about dusk, so the only light was a burnt-orange cast courtesy of the beginning of that evening’s sunset. There was no carpet and no furniture, so our voices echoed ever so slightly.
There were holes in walls, in the floor, in ceilings. The wallpaper (what there was of it) was ripped and/ or stained. Windows were cracked and screens were torn.
“Man, you really tore this place up,” I said to Ray.
“Nah,” he said, shaking his head. “I took a couple doorknobs, that’s it.”
The kitchen sink was covered in an alarmingly thick layer of grime and the stovetop was splattered with food, likely the result of a spaghetti dinner gone bad.
“These people lived like this…” I trailed off, unsure whether I was making a statement or asking a question. The condition of the house was well past the benign neglect I had observed throughout other parts of the neighborhood. This home had been abused, a victim of anger and family fights and self-loathing and the sloth of those who didn’t feel they deserved any better.
Ray responded with a shrug and a long sigh. I continued my tour. It was clear that this was once a fine home. There were three rather spacious bedrooms. Large bay windows were throughout (albeit, the glass was opaque with dirt). There was a sizable yard, though at this point it was more of a twisted jungle of tall grass and weeds than any sort of lawn.
One interesting feature was the garage. The house was poised on a fairly steep hill, accessible from the street by some cement stairs. The garage was street level and the two brothers spent a lot of time hanging out in front of it, usually leaving quite a bit of trash there, along with the aforementioned tire collection.
I yanked open a wooden door (not easily, it was stuck) and ventured down the narrow stairwell from the house to the empty garage. The garage itself was empty, save for an old milk crate containing motor oil and brake fluid containers. A large mouse (okay, I think it was a rat) skittered across the dirty, dusty floor.

The house came down over the course of the next week or so.
I visited the site at one point with my kids. We were greeted with mounds of dirt and debris. Ray told me that his contractor had already started hauling everything away and he expected to begin landscaping soon.
The steep hill no longer has any evidence of the former rat trap garage. Instead you will find retaining walls and planters, with annuals and perennials planted throughout. The lot at the crest of the hill is now lush, green grass. There are no more used tires, broken glass, or empty beer cans littering my path when I want to take a walk.

Where there was once ugliness, a little bit of beauty has taken hold.

So my neighborhood is steeped in dichotomy and I am at the tipping point.
Beauty and ugliness.
Ambition and sloth.
Renewal and decay.
I can walk out my door on any given day and go whichever way I choose. I can step east or step west. I can help effect some change, fix what is broken, and repair what is worn out. I can walk with the ambitious or lounge with the slothful.
It’s up to me.