Ulysses: Telemachus

It is May, which means it is time for my annual reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Since I’m back to my blog this year and I’ve removed my personal restriction on Quixote Goes from being a travel blog, I thought I’d spend some time introducing my faithful readers to this amazing book.

Before jumping in to the first episode, I want to introduce you to the cult behind Ulysses. First, it took Joyce roughly 5 years to write this book. He first serialized the beginning chapters in The American Review in 1918 and it was eventually published by an American woman named Sylvia Beach in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. It was immediately banned in all English-speaking countries for what was at the time far too explicit content. The history of the book is well documented. In fact, there are plenty of books about the book Ulysses, my favorite of which is The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. The book is now celebrated around the world. There are round-the-clock public readings in New York City and a full location-to-location reenactment of the story in Dublin, all celebrated on Bloomsday, June 16.

Perhaps the other thing to note about Ulysses is that it is roughly structured on Homer’s The Odyssey and it switches literary techniques from episode to episode, which makes it a challenging read. Joyce intended Ulysses not to be a story for a million readers, but one a single reader could read a million times. This book is densely packed with multiple layers and plenty of plot connections throughout. Finally, a note about the plot. The book is set in Dublin, Ireland and takes place over one 24-hour period set on June 16, 1904. The Gilbert schema is a great reference to keep track of the times and themes of the book. 

Episode One – Telemachus

In Telemachus, who is the son of Odysseus in The Odyssey, we meet several characters – none of which are the main character. We start off with Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, the boisterous, blasphemous, fast-talking “friend” of Stephen Daedalus. We also meet Daedalus, who Joyce introduced us to in an earlier work titled, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As that book title suggests, Daedalus represents Joyce. He is incredibly well-educated, but pensive and brooding, and certainly not one for hygiene by modern standards, as we learn about his monthly bathing policy. We’re also introduced to Hanes, an Englishman who is “hanging out” in Dublin and has latched on to Mulligan and Daedalus for some exposure to Ireland and the Irish. The trio are staying in the Martello Tower on the Sandymount Beach looking out onto Dublin Bay.

This episode is based on real-life events in which Joyce, his compatriot, Oliver Gogarty (note the syllabic match to Malachi Mulligan), and an Englishman stayed in the tower. The book version doesn’t exactly match the facts available, which are well detailed in many other resources available, so I’ll stick to the plot of the book.

Over the course of the chapter, we learn that Stephen Daedalus has harbored an offense that he took when he overheard Mulligan tell his mother that Stephen’s mother was “beastly dead.” We also get introduced to the memory of Stephen’s dying mother and a sense that her death haunts Stephen. Stephen has raised societal eyebrows himself because he refused to pray over his mother when she asked him to do so as she lay dying. Like much of Ulysses, the action here isn’t very action-based. It is a book of dialogue – both outer and inner. We read the spoken words of the characters as well as the unspoken thoughts all without quotations and – as mentioned earlier – it can be a difficult thing for a new reader to sort out. 

The three young men – Daedalus, Mulligan, and Hanes – have breakfast, interact with the milk maid, and then go to the bay where Mulligan has a swim. The episode ends when Mulligan demands the key for the Martello Tower and money from Daedalus. Stephen gives up the key and some money and then decides he will not return to stay there. It ends with Daedalus thinking / muttering the word “Usurper.” Several themes come out for me in the opening chapter.

  1. Ireland / the Irish people – There are several references to Ireland throughout Telemachus. Hanes speaks the Irish language to the milk maid, but she – a poor Irishwoman – at first thinks he’s speaking French because she doesn’t speak or understand it. Daedalus mentions that the “cracked looking glass is the symbol of Irish art.” And in defense of his infrequent bathing habits, Daedalus remarks, “all Ireland is washed by the Gulf Stream.” Finally, and most demonstrative, Daedalus remarks to Hanes about having two masters, and a third “who wants me for odd jobs.” When Hanes inquires about the masters, Daedalus quips, “a crazy [English] queen, old and jealous” and “the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” There’s plenty of commentary here about Ireland at the time: the politics of language, English rule, and the influence of the Catholic church. 
  2. Mother – I mentioned earlier about Stephen’s mother and her untimely death; as well as Stephen’s refusal to pray over her as she lay dying. This will be brought to the fore in later chapters. Mulligan was speaking to his own mother when the “beastly dead” comment was made. There is also a passage about the sea being “our great sweet mother.”
  3. The Greeks – The chapter title is Telemachus. Stephen’s last name is Greek; in mythology, Daedalus was the father of Icharus, who famously flew too close to the sun. Mulligan mentions that Daedalus “must learn Greek, so he can read the classics in the native language.” For me, the reference to the word “usurper” harkens back to Homer’s The Odyssey, in which several suitors come to Odysseus’ house and effectively usurp his lands and livestock as they set up camp and try to marry his wife Penelope while Odysseus is away.

I’m sure there are more themes than what I’ve called out. I’m sure the academics will say that I’ve gotten the major themes wrong. But that’s what I love about this book. Ulysses is for everyone who is brave enough to have a go. It is written between the lines so everyone will take different things from it and learn a little more with each new read. I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on the first Episode. I’ll continue to share as I make my way through the book with this – my fourth annual reading. I’m hoping to be done on Bloomsday (June 16), but I’m off to a slow start. Now for the questions!

Have you read Ulysses? What are your thoughts about my review of Telemachus?

Is there another book that you can read over and over?

My Mother is My Hero

My lovely Mom and me

My mother is the nicest person I know. She has kind words for everyone and she would give away her last loaf of bread. But she isn’t a pushover either. She’ll probably blush if she ever reads this, but one of my fondest memories of my Mom is this: After some completely unreasonable lady was yelling at her for something completely silly in the parking lot of our local soccer fields, my Mom flipped the lady the middle finger and spun out in the gravel parking lot. As a frame of reference, this had to be 1980 or so and my Mom would have been in her late 20’s. As we pulled away, she paused and said to me, “That wasn’t very nice. I shouldn’t have done that.” Oh, but the memory was sealed. She’s a sweetheart, but no pushover.

My mother is wise. She is discerning and knows when something isn’t right. But she chooses her words carefully to deliver the right message at the right time. There are so many examples to list, but I’ll pull from a more recent conversation. After the dust had settled from my Dad’s death and some of the hurt had started to subside, my Mom and I went out to dinner in a lovely little town of Delaware, Ohio. We met up and went to a local pizza shop for an absolutely fantastic dinner. This was an adult conversation about the past and the state of things today. When the conversation turned to Dad, Mom and I were both kind but realistic. Simply put, Dad didn’t have the tools to deal with his demons. We both articulated our understanding of this fact in our own way with all due respect. We both know that all of us have our burdens to bear. Neither of us blamed Dad for reacting in the way he did – even if we didn’t agree with it at the time. With complete and unconditional love, we celebrated my Dad that evening while looking out at life without him. I had always known that my Mom was wise, but that evening she showed me the depth of her human wisdom.

My mother is quietly confident in her faith. My mom was the backbone of our family’s adherence to Christian virtues. She took us to church when we needed it most. More importantly, she took herself to church when she needed it most. She became a Sunday school teacher, she stood up in front of a large congregation and sang her heart out, she taught my sister and me right from wrong; but treated us with kid gloves when we didn’t get it quite right.

My mother is able-bodied. Now a widower, Mom has bought her own condo, moved herself in and continues to chip away at the unpacking. She recognizes that she’s got a long life to live and a lot to contribute. Instead of throwing in the towel and pursuing her own interests, she serves her family, her community, and her church.

My mother just wants to help. If something needs done, Mom will be there. It doesn’t matter what she has going on or how she feels, service comes first. She gets value and purpose out of helping. Although I ask her not to, she still wants to give money to people on the street. She helps my sister with her school-aged children. She helps me with my not-so-school-aged children. She’s happiest when she’s helping, so give her something to do.

My mother gets buyer’s remorse before she buys something for herself – and then puts it back. My dad was the one who pointed this out. She will go shopping and buy for others happily. On occasion, she’ll find something she likes. It might go into the shopping cart. While she wheels around the store, her wheels are turning. Before she goes to the checkout, she puts it back. Its a sight to see. Dad used to – on occasion – go back and get the item and make the purchase himself. Now that I’m somewhere like her in my own ability to shop. I don’t think its actually buyer’s remorse. I think Mom is happy and she recognizes that stuff is just stuff. She recognizes that getting new stuff is a short run satisfaction at best and that in the long run, what really matters cannot be found on a shelf at a department store.

My mother is a saint. During my dad’s darkest times, he was tough to live with. In my own words, his behavior bordered on self-torture from the inside out. That came with health ramifications. Even when my dad wasn’t in and out of the hospital, there was a lot to clean up after. My mom handled it. I honestly don’t know how she did it. I went through a period of darkness in my first marriage and I wasn’t able to see it through. But Mom is tougher than me and that’s why she’s a saint.

My mother isn’t perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I know Mom isn’t perfect. She had and has her foibles just like all the rest of us. But if anything, that’s another reason to put her on the pedestal on this Mother’s Day. She accepts herself for who she is, she contributes with everything that she can, and for that and everything else that I’ve listed, my mother is my hero.

I love you Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

My Wife is a Zen Master

We’ve been doing a lot of travel lately. Since March, we’ve been to Ireland, Montreal, New York City, we ran a 150 mile relay race in Southern Ohio, and last weekend, we went to New Orleans. At first, I expected to write some travel-related posts about these trips, but as you might imagine, home life has kept me pretty busy in between. I mean, we have to work during the week to foot the bill for this Instagram lifestyle. Honestly, we’re a bit tired. We wouldn’t have chosen to do all of that travel in such a short period of time, but several of the trips were not really our plan. In fact, almost all of these trips were to celebrate birthdays of other people. We’re all for celebrating other people. But with so much travel and none of it really specific to our plans, I can get knocked off my game.

During the trip to New Orleans, we met several other couples to help one of my wife’s college friends celebrate her 40th birthday. We casually knew most people involved, but this wasn’t exactly a close-knit group for us. How bad can it be? We’re flexible and congenial and can get along with most anyone. Well… at least my wife can. I on the other hand, seem to invite controversy. When I talk to people about my past and the amount of arguments, threats of physical harm, and actual fist fights I’ve been sucked into, people are astonished. In fact, I wrote a whole other post – nearly 2000 words – about this topic but I have opted to scrap it because it sounded like a bit of a sob story. I’m not one for that. But suffice it to say, if a street bum is going to pick out someone from a group of 10 people and start messing with them, it is going to be me. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.

OK, we get it, you seem to have a tractor beam for aggressive-types; so what’s this bit about your wife being a Zen Master? I’ll get there. So let’s say the trip to NOLA was not without its controversy. I actually handled it in stride during the trip. I took the grief I was given and offered myself up for a bit more. In the midst of the grief-handling, my daughter called me while crying because her car had broken down on a fairly busy community road. She and I worked together to sort it all out, and the bill was going to be in the $1200 range. I’ll come back to this in a minute. So, fast forward to Monday and people at work asked me how my trip went. I started giving one person some of the details about the grief I got and he was aghast. He said, “if that was me, I probably would have ditched the group and gone to the Jazz Fest on my own.” While I was rehashing the story, my Mom sent me a text. Over this same weekend, she took a break from the move into her new condominium, went to a casino for a couple of hours and won $1200 on the slots. I congratulated her good fortune but thought a bit more about it. I sent my wife the following text, “I spent the weekend as a social pariah and it cost me $1200 on our daughter’s car. My Mom played the slots for a few minutes this weekend and won $1200. She is definitely living righter than me.” I was mostly being funny, but many a true word is spoken in jest. My recap of the weekend to some of my co-workers had set the wheels of self-pity in motion.

At first, the Zen Master who is my wife played my comment down as funny. But then she said that I wasn’t a social pariah. What? You were there! I was incredulous. I began to recount to my wife the events of the weekend as if she hadn’t experienced them first hand. How could she say that I was not the outcast? She let me moan on for a bit all the while saying “OK” and “Sure.” If a man wants to dig a hole, there’s no point in standing in his way I guess. After I had more or less exhausted my digging, she hit me with this: “I don’t know why you’re upset now. You’re a nonconformist and you’re fine with the attention that it brings. I thought we had a nice weekend together.” She was right of course. We had a great breakfast at a lovely little French cafe. We had an incredible dinner at an Italian restaurant. We hung out together at a rooftop bar while the sun set. The weather was perfect. We held hands and walked around the French Quarter. I was down there for her, and here I was picking at the tiny dark spots on an otherwise amazing weekend. I let it go.

That evening, I was re-reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and about 10 minutes into my reading, the following passage hit me squarely between the eyes:

We try so hard to preserve the very thing that’s making us miserable. We cling hard to our pain because we mistakenly think that that pain is who we really are. We define ourselves by what we don’t like or we define ourselves by what we like. Either way we miss the truth. We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.

– Hardcore Zen, Kindle Edition; location 2089

So my wife is now doling out the same advice as an ordained Zen Master. That psychology degree is starting to pay off. All joking aside, this is one of the multitudinous reasons why I profess my undying love for this woman. She makes me a better person.

If you’re wondering, I was able to simply let go of the “pain” I was holding onto. While my wife triggered my letting go, it is my study of Zen Buddhism and practice of Zazen that has helped me to shorten the the cycle of letting go. I’ll focus an upcoming post on how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how it might help you be a little happier. But until then, let’s make with the questions from this post… 

How does your significant other make you a better person?

Are you holding on to some pain that feels like it defines you? What might letting go of that pain look like?

To be or… To BE? The Power of Labels

Studying foreign languages has been one of my more fruitful pursuits. Unlike many Americans my age, I was exposed to formal instruction in Spanish in the third grade through a pilot academic program. If I’m honest, I didn’t love it at the time. I kept thinking, “I’ll never use this.” Since that time I’ve formally and self-studied Spanish and French on and off for 30+ years. Studies have found that knowing more than one language offers a host of benefits, including improved decision-making and resistance to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a novice with both languages. But I dutifully practice a little each day. Recently, I found this fascinating and eloquent summary comparing the two “be” verbs in Spanish. Yep, two. It turns out you can be something and you can BE something.

Ser versus Estar

The following is an article excerpt from Duolingo. I truncated it to illustrate my point, but I would encourage anyone interested in practicing a foreign language to check out Duolingo. It’s a fantastic, free tool that has an excellent online community.

One of the hardest things to learn about Spanish is the distinction between the verbs “ser” and “estar,” since in English they both mean “to be.”

“Ser” refers to what something is, while estar refers more to what something does. For example, “estoy enfermo” would mean “I am being sick” or “I am currently sick.” On the other hand “soy enfermo” translates to something closer to “I am a sick person” or “I am sickly.” Below are more examples:

Estar
                                                                        Ser

Estoy feliz = I am currently happy                        Soy feliz = I am happy by nature

Estoy cansada = I am currently tired                   Soy cansada = I am a tired person

Él está callado = He is being quiet                        Él es callado = He is introverted

You can think of “ser” as being equivalent to “equals.” Alternatively, you can think of “estar” as refering to a temporary condition, while “ser” frequently refers to a permanent condition. 

I love that there is a differentiation between the current state and the permanent condition. Like most languages, English only has one be verb. “I am happy,” could mean “I’m a happy person” or “I’m happy at the moment.” Spanish is so much more efficient in the distinction. But the real reason I’m excited about this distinction is because it makes me think about the words we use to describe our feelings and ourselves.

The Impact of Labels

Recognition and naming a feeling or behavior is a great way to begin the problem-solving process to overcome it. The practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has been proven effective in psychological studies. However, as in the Spanish separation of estar and ser, there must be a key differentiation between giving something a current state name and allowing it to slip into a permanent label. For instance, saying that we are “anxious about public speaking” can go from an acknowledgement of an emotional reaction to a labeled pattern of, “I am always anxious about public speaking.” The labeled pattern can then become quite limiting. “Oh no, I don’t speak in public; I’m far too anxious.”

I routinely fell into this labeling trap in my early adulthood. I’ll avoid the labeling details here, but I had much more fixed political views at 21 than I do at 43. I used to think silly thoughts like, “I can’t eat that or drive that car or shop in that store because I’m a [insert label].” As I have aged, I am happy to say that I have repeatedly challenged my labels. I’ll take running as a fairly innocuous example. I used to carry the moniker, “I am not a runner.” I would joke that I only ran if being chased or if I was being punished in sports (Coach: Take a lap, Gregory.). I eventually challenged the label that I was “not a runner.” In my early 30’s, I got back into recreational soccer. I started running to become more competitive in my league. A funny thing happened. I began to recognize running as a meditative and restorative force in addition to a pretty good way to build some midfield running capacity. Slowly, I dropped the label “I am not a runner” and started to accept that just maybe I am.

Interestingly, I have found that I can take it too far. I will readily admit that I’m a self-improvement junkie. Is that a label, Gregory? Take a lap! As I take in new information and accept new interests into my life, these new labels can also become burdensome. Over time, I started to describe myself as a runner. Last year, “I am a runner” became “I’m a marathon runner.” That meant that I upped my weekly running totals to 6 days and as many as 60 miles. I began to transfer my current state into a label. It gave way to things like, “I can’t go out to dinner because I’d miss my training run; and I can’t do that because I’m a marathon runner!” Granted, some of this was driven by necessity. I had specific marathons that I had signed up for and I’m not the kind of athlete that I can just show up and knock out 26 miles. But I think the message comes through. Labels can be limiting on both fronts. Labels can inhibit our development and they can box us into requirements.

As I grow, I’m trying to embrace estar in lieu of ser. I want to think about who I am currently without falling prey to the permanence of a label. Clearly, there are things that are woven into the fabric of my being. I stand for justice, equality, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie. And FC Barcelona… but I digress. Take a lap! As I’m getting older, I have fewer free moments and I don’t have time to paint myself into corners. I need to evaluate my labels from time to time and discard what isn’t serving me.

As I close, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions.

What are your labels? 

Are they limiting your progress or promoting a happier, healthier life? 

Is it possible to transition those limiting labels into current state assessments that have room for change?

150 Miles, 10 Runners, 24 Hours

This past weekend, I captained a team of 10 runners that ran 150 miles in just over 24 hours. When I tell people that, they usually say, “I don’t know how you do it.” But when you break it down, its actually not very tough. Each runner covers on average 15 miles, which is really nothing compared to a marathon. The toughest thing is finding a way to rest as you cycle in and out of a van and in and out of a camp site or hotel room. However, taking 24 hours out of my life and focusing on one goal instead of balancing work deadlines and automotive repairs and upcoming graduation ceremonies, etc. offered me a chance to pick up a couple of life lessons.

Lesson 1: Let go

Coming into this run, my training wasn’t perfect. Far from it. I didn’t get to the speed work I intended to accomplish. I also didn’t do the hill work that I knew I would need to charge up and down the Appalachian foothills of Ross County Ohio. Part of the reason for my training misses were injury related. I busted my foot playing soccer three weeks before the race. My own fault. Another part was illness, I came down with some mystery bug for about 48 hours that had me all out of whack 2 weeks before the race. The other part was just life – too many irons in the fire.

My team also wasn’t much for being a team. Out of 10 runners, I had six replacements; 4 in the four weeks running up to the race. I offered up team training runs and the occasional team outing. No one replied. My Van 2 driver offered up a plan to travel together to the race location. Everyone drove separately without responding. Without any sense of team or camaraderie, I wondered how we would handle the stresses of working together for 24 hours.

Here’s the funny thing: None of it mattered. I wound up turning in great times for my segments, so my busted training plan had little effect. Where I could find flat ground, I was running 2 minutes per mile faster than I had in months and my hill work was respectable. My team also came together on race day like a well oiled machine. People knew where they were going and got there on time. We didn’t have a wasted moment during race leg hand-offs, no one forgot any critical pieces of equipment, and we cheered each other on like we were one happy family. As our last runner crossed the finish line and we all cheered him on, I paused for a moment. All my concerns were for nothing. Sometimes the best thing to do is let go and let the chips fall where they may.

Lesson 2: Leadership is a journey

I’ve been a manager in my professional life on and off for 20 years. I’ve taken training galore and read all the right books. Leadership is practically a formula, right? Nope.

I came into this race with the baggage that I wasn’t as fit as last year with the knowledge that I had signed up to take on the toughest run of the race. I wound up letting that baggage through in some of my communications. I mentioned to one new runner that I “laid the hammer down” and was putting in some quick miles on one of my early runs in spite of my lack of training. I watched him glaze over and think about something else – probably how I sounded like a self-important peacock. I wasn’t inspiring him. I was stroking my own ego to feel better about my performance; and he wasn’t impressed. I had this malarky story in my head that to be captain, I had to demonstrate that I was among the best on the team. I later realized that this was my insecurities talking, which shines through for others to see like a broken bone in an X-ray machine.

I have this iceberg belief that if a leader isn’t where he or she needs to be (preparation, experience, whatever), that leader cannot possibly ask for more out of others. I call it an iceberg because it isn’t something that I outwardly communicate, but its there lurking under the surface and it can certainly sink my ship. This comes from my blue collar, Appalachian, Protestant, ultra-egalitarian, roots. If you’re going to tell me what to do, you damn-well better be standing on higher ground than me. So I hold myself to that standard. The reality is this: Life gets in the way for everyone. At no time in life is anything ever perfect – including for the person selected, volunteered, or otherwise promoted to leadership. But that can’t stop someone in a leadership position from asking of their team what they need. The leader’s role is to lead; to get the most out of the team, regardless of other limitations. Although I didn’t feel comfortable about it, I delivered some less than perfect news to the team late into the event and asked them to deal with it. They did it without question and it worked out nicely.

So, I lived and I learned, and that’s the good news. To quote the Dalai Lama, “If you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

The satisfaction of accomplishment

At the end of the run, the whole team was there cheering on our last runner. The sense of accomplishment started to sink in for all of us. It was a bit rainy and the after party wasn’t as upbeat as the year before, but none of that mattered. As we stood around and shared stories and traded pictures that we took over the course of the run, our achievement took shape. We just ran 150 miles in 24 hours! All of us were operating on too little sleep. None of us trained as much as we wanted. Yet here we are. 150 miles later, injury free and smiling at our accomplishment. The fact that our team fees helped benefit drug prevention programs in the epicenter of the American opioid crisis certainly helped our feeling of purpose. In addition, I picked up a couple of lessons along the way. All in all, it was a good weekend.

If you’re interested in taking part in this run next year, please visit The Buck Fifty. Its a great cause and a great time. And like me, you might just learn something about yourself along the way.

In Search of a Tribe: Know When to Move On

Find your tribe. It was practically the mantra of 2015. Blog posts, lifestyle columns, magazines, podcasts, and books have been advising us to find our tribe for several years now. I think it is sage advice. Finding a group of like-minded individuals to connect with allows one to have a sense of belonging. The antithesis of which, frankly, sucks.

The Training that Wasn’t

I completed a two-day training class at work today. I could drone on and on about what went right and what went wrong, but the net effect is that it fell short of my expectations and – even worse – left me feeling disconnected. The training was blandly titled, so I learned on day one that it was covering a series of topics of which – as a result of taking classes at past employers and through my own self-study – I have a deep understanding. As I learned throughout the course, I have a deeper understanding than the instructors. It happens. I’m a nerd. However, my disconnected feeling came from the fact that I was surrounded by people who are my peers or elders and they simply weren’t connecting with the material. I realized after a couple of attempts that while I could have helped move the class forward by supplementing the materials with my practical examples at nearly every turn, the room wasn’t up for it. So I just sat there quietly and watched it all move slowly forward like a car driving on a flat tire. After work, I attempted to communicate this to my better half, who did what any loving wife who is pursuing her Master’s degree in Psychology would do: she challenged me on it.

I’m paraphrasing here, but my wife told me that as long as she’s known me, I’ve expressed these feelings about training classes. They’re a waste of my time and such. She added that, with love of course, I’m being arrogant about knowing the material better than others. I had considered it. I considered it carefully before offering up the feedback at the end of class that I would have appreciated the opportunity to test out. I also don’t think that my wife is entirely wrong. In the past, I have been downright haughty over the fact that I knew the materials better than an instructor who was attempting to move the class forward. I mean, I’d like to get something out of my time investment. But… and I’d like to believe this isn’t my ego talking here, I think there might be something different going on now. I think this is the latest in a very long string of events in which I get excited to find my tribe only to realize it is a village of people wearing the hand-me-down shirts of my tribe because they left town a couple of years ago.

The Consummate Outsider

I was born and mostly raised in the economically depressed, Appalachian foot hills of the Ohio River Valley. Now famous for being the epicenter of America’s opioid crisis, Portsmouth, Ohio and the neighboring tri-state areas have been featured in books (Dreamland by Sam Quinones) and TV series (Heroin(e) on Netflix) for all the wrong reasons. This is small town, middle America where the oblong football is king and the schools effectively shut down for the first week of deer hunting season in the fall. As one might imagine, a naturally curious, rather slight framed, near-sighted and bookish kid from this area had some trouble fitting in. But by middle school, I had found a “crew” and we were all groping our way through the haze into high school. But then… two weeks before high school started, my father took a job transfer and moved us 350 miles away to the then extremely prosperous Northwestern Ohio town of Bryan.

With my southern accent, bad haircut, and not exactly impressive frame, I was among the first kids cut from the freshman basketball team because, and I quote, “You’re not from around here, we don’t know your parents and you didn’t go to our basketball camp.” Now, I want to pause here and tell my dear readers that this is not a pity party. Far from it. That move to Bryan, Ohio immeasurably changed my trajectory for the better and I frequently thank my lucky stars that it happened. At the time, however… not so much. I had finagled my way onto the eighth grade basketball team in my home town and I thought I was on to something. Having been rejected by my new town, I eventually found a spot floating between and among the real jocks, the stoners, the rockers (most of whom eventually turned into stoners), the gear heads, the comedians, and an on-again, off-again girlfriend in a relationship that would have fit nicely into a daytime soap opera.

Look, I get it. We’re all outsiders in some way shape or form. But let’s fast forward to today, shall we? As I sit here and write this… I am 43 years old. I am once divorced and twice married – the second time to my better half in every way. I have a 22 year-old son, an 18 year-old daughter, a 12 year-old step son, a 9 year-old step son, 2 dogs and a house that somehow fits us all. I gobble up books, but my all time favorite is Ulysses (think, cult following), I play guitar – but mostly songs you’ve never heard; I eat a plant-based diet and I love to cook. I run marathons, I am fascinated by Zen Buddhism and have a fledgling mindfulness practice. I work in a gigantic multinational corporation, which has exactly zero to do with my degree in Plastics Engineering Technology. I have additional college degrees and professional certifications that take me deeper into nerd-dom. I am an amateur photographer, but I could probably make some money at it. I am a former soccer player and coach, and an FC Barcelona FANATIC (we’re called culés). I enjoy traveling and practicing my two underdeveloped secondary languages – Spanish and French. Clearly, I’m a blogger. Camping and kayaking – yep; Wine? I bet I could help you find one you like. I am also an art lover and occasionally pick up a pencil or paintbrush to make my own. I hope I am painting something here.

I have nearly boundless energy for pursuing hobbies and interests. Now for the real inquiry: how on earth did a hillbilly kid of very modest means from an area known for its homogeneous distaste for anything outside or different turn out to be so… well, weird? That – I honestly cannot answer. What I can say is that it is VERY difficult to find a tribe and that will leave one feeling a good bit like an outsider. I have friends aplenty, and I love them dearly. But – for instance – it took a trip to Dublin, Ireland for me to find a group of people willing to sit in a pub and read James Joyce aloud. And that gentle readers, gets to my final point.

Know When to Move On

Judging from various social media forums and circles, I am not the only one who is occasionally frustrated by not having a tribe. I see people routinely standing on their digital soapboxes taking issue with everything from a neighbor’s words spoken behind the back to international ethical topics. I know, I know, freedom of speech and all. I sometimes think of what life would have been like if I had never made it out of West Portsmouth, Ohio. With all my energy and a very short list of opportunities, I would at best be a raving lunatic on social media. I was lucky that I got a chance to physically move on from there and many times since. Even though I still haven’t quite caught up with my tribe, I think I have found a village that’s wearing the shirts from last fall. If you’re struggling to be happy in your surroundings and feel like others don’t get you, it might be time to try a new village – either real or virtual.

What Bad Habits Would You Like to Stop?

I’m blessed to have a great team at work who entertains my introverted need to connect on a more-than-small-talk level. I’ve explained in a previous post that my work team has “huddles” to bring each other up to speed on our work and that Friday’s are dedicated to a philosophical discussion prompt. This Friday’s prompt was: “What bad habits would you like to stop?”

Open the kimono

There’s a vulnerability with this prompt and I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. So I kicked us off with a bad habit that I would very much like to cut out. Since my last marathon in December, I decided to take a short break from running and working out. I was burnt out. After taking a three week break, I have struggled since January to get back into any groove. It has essentially become a bad habit for me to sabotage my own routine. I explained to my team that after a few days in a row of the behavior I want, I’d come home from work and procrastinate getting changed for my run because of “paying the bills” or some other thing that could be done later. This would effectively destroy my 3 or 5 day streak and then disrupt the whole process of getting back into a fitness routine. I have had some success with using the scorecard I wrote about in a recent post, but I don’t consider myself out of the woods just yet.

Having “opened my own kimono,” my team felt more at ease with sharing. As we progressed around the table one person even said, “I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles like this.” I’ve put the team members’ intentions in the following numbered list. Note that these are college educated professionals who range in age from 24 to 60+ and have their lives together. Here’s how it went around the table. Obviously, I’ve left out names.

  1. I want to crowd out (more on this later) things that I want to stop with reading more books.
  2. I need to stop procrastinating cleaning out my garage. I haven’t been able to park my car in there for years.
  3. I want to stop wasting time on my phone. I can lose up to an hour in the morning before work and up to an hour before bed. Some of the practices are good – like I’m working on foreign language skills, but some of it is just flat out, unproductive scrolling.
  4. I want to stop looking forward so much. While looking forward has helped me achieve a lot of goals, I find it hard to just live in the moment and appreciate what I have.
  5. I want to stop trying to form new habits “cold turkey.” Late last year, I tried to cut out caffeine and go vegan at the same time. I lasted four days. I think I was hallucinating.
  6. I want to stop wearing myself out at work so that I have no energy for family time. I sit on the couch and get lost in TV or something and then realize hours have gone by and I’ve missed out on time with my preschool daughter.
  7. I have made strides in this area over the years, but I find that I still get pulled in trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves.
  8. I want to do a better job of finishing off personal projects. I get excited about things and go full on for the first 90% and then I just can’t seem to get to the finish line with the last 10%.

Crowding out the bad with the good

Assuming you’re at least marginally interested in habits if you’ve read this far, there are a couple of concepts I’d like to highlight. First, the first Team Member shared the idea of crowding out undesirable behaviors with desirable behaviors. This is all the rage in wellness habits. Nutritionists are now routinely telling their clients to crowd out processed or deep fried foods and red meat with more fresh vegetables and fruits. It works because of positive psychology. We funny monkeys (thanks Nick Offerman) respond better to the affirmative “eat more of this” than we do the restrictive “cut out that.”

In this case, Team Member 1 wants to crowd out time lost going down internet rabbit holes with more time reading books – a noble endeavor indeed. This crowding out concept would also help Team Member 5 who has seen the abrupt “cold turkey” method fall flat, as well as Team Member 3 who wants to reduce wasted screen time. Speaking of screen time, I recently decided to delete a vacuous app that was sucking me into the never-ending scroll. I didn’t delete my account so I still get notified if someone connects directly with me, but the web browser version is much less satisfying than the app. So, I’ve crowded out senseless scrolling with book time.

Be in the present

The second concept is being present. I’m absolutely fascinated by Buddhism. The more I learn about it, the more I am blown away that these 2,500 year old concepts align so completely with modern psychology. For a deeper dig into this space, check out Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True. Team Member 4 mentioned a desire to enjoy the present in lieu of always looking to what’s next. This concept of being present is very much a part of Buddhist tradition. As His Holiness the Dalia Lama has been quoted, “There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” Team Member 4 is almost 15 years younger than me, so in my book, he’s well ahead of the wellness game by recognizing this habit.

As I started down the path of my mindfulness journey a couple of years ago, I became aware of how much time I was mentally spending not in the present. I describe it this like this: Most of my mental time was either ruminating over past losses or in anxious anticipation of future losses. I don’t think that Team Member 4 is in loss mode like I was. I think he’s more in planning mode to achieve his next goal. But it can be equally detrimental to look forward to “one day.” As one achieves goal after goal, he or she often finds that the destination wasn’t quite as sweet as anticipated. Then what? The trick I’ve learned is to start on a mindfulness path and try to achieve quiet satisfaction with right now. If you’re interested, I highly recommend subscribing to Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for a simple, free and unbelievably rich resource.

A nerd and his team

I’m a self-proclaimed wellness habit nerd so I had a blast with this conversation. I have somewhat expected these Friday philosophical discussions to become trite after a couple of months. But they haven’t. In my 40+ years, this is the first time I have found a group of people who keeps striving for self-development for any length of time. Every Friday, I count my lucky stars that I get to work with this amazing group of like-minded individuals.