The kind of person who owns grapefruit spoons

One day, my wife and I made the decision in a Crate & Barrel to buy grapefruit spoons. We even went and bought several grapefruits and ate them with those grapefruit spoons.

But it never became a habit.

We moved several times after that, and the grapefruit spoons always came with us, but they mostly stayed in the drawer.

It’s a minor thing. A pair of small, serrated spoons that take up an almost unnoticeable amount of space.

But that’s just it — almost.

I know the spoons are there. I know they’re not being used. I know we intended to use them, and now we hang on to them long after the seriousness of the intention has passed.

Buying the spoon wasn’t just about the utility of the thing, but the identity it created.

I’m the person who makes a healthy choice and eats a grapefruit in the morning regularly enough to require specialized flatware.

The purchase came ahead of the identity. The desired identity came ahead of the work of becoming that person.

And it leaves me with three options:

  1. Do nothing constructive. Keep the spoons and feel annoyed every time you notice them. Regret the purchase and the desire to have that identity.
  2. Abandon the spoons. Chuck them out, and decide that either the identity wasn’t that important or grapefruits (as an object) aren’t that important.
  3. Do the work to own that identity. Buy some grapefruit. Eat the grapefruit.

Lately I feel aware of the other things in my life that feel like grapefruit spoons, and that it’s time to make some choices.

Option one doesn’t feel healthy or wise. Option two has its merits, since reducing attachments and commitments allows for more focus on what’s left behind. But option three has its merits, as well.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for everything, but sometimes you need to confront where choices have to be made.

Because it feels better to see yourself as the sum total of what you choose to do, rather than to just feel the accumulated weight of the things you held onto and left unused.

Professionalism and Style

While listening to the latest episode of The West Wing Weekly, there was a great comment from presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg that

“Your job is to decide how much you’re willing to conform to [what’s expected of you]. It’s often ocurred to me that all the ways in which you — in any profession, not just politics — but all the ways in which you conform to what’s expected of you, the sum total of that becomes your professionalism. And then all the ways in which you decide not to conform, the sum total of that becomes your style.”

(You can listen to the full interview here.)

This comment encapsulates a lot of the things I try to get across when talking to writing students.

You learn the rules, tactics, and techniques of writing not so that you can follow them religiously, but so that you know what’s expected of you.

What do people who consume a lot of material see frequently, and what conforms to their expectations? What has worked for other writers in the past? What can you draw from the past that applies to your work in the present?

But you also have to find ways to make something your own. To differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace of ideas.

A thousand other people could be writing a story just like yours right now, so what is it that you’re going to do that subverts the expectations of the audience? What bends (or breaks) the tropes and rules and traditions of the kind of story you’re trying to tell?

And this quote makes a case for thinking on a continuum, where every choice moves your position just a little bit between one end where you’re all professionalism (but no individuality) and one end where you’re all style (but with no sense of accountability or being responsive to expectations and norms).

It suggests a mentality where skill comes from learning to serve expectations where it makes sense, and carve your own path when necessary. And that seems like a pretty healthy mindset to aim for.

Talking to My Daughter About Death

I didn’t realize how far the thoughts had gotten in my daughter’s mind until we were playing a game of hide-and-seek at home. My daughter (I call her Sprout online), reminded me about a game we had played the other week where she got upset when she couldn’t find me. At the time, it seemed like she was just frustrated at not being able to locate me, and we wound up having a laugh after I used our Google Home Minis to help her figure out where I was hiding.

But now, a week later, she reminded me not to hide the way I did that time.

“You were pretty upset when you couldn’t find me, huh?”

She nodded. “I thought you were in Heaven.”

OKAY, let’s back up a bit

Since before she saw Coco, Sprout has had a lot of questions about death. Normally they were general, matter-of-fact questions with no follow ups.

Asking about things like how her great-grandma is dead, and that’s why we don’t see her anymore, or if this or that person who came up in conversation is dead (ex: David Bowie).

Once she came close to realizing the weight of death when talking about pets. We had tried to foster a kitten, but he didn’t get along with our much older cat, Luna. As we set up a new home for the kitten, we had to explain to Sprout that Luna needs to be the only cat in the house.

After that sank in, Sprout looks at me one day and says “I hope Luna dies so we can get a kitten.”

I explained to her how if Luna died, we’d be sad, and we’d never get to see her again, and Sprout realized she didn’t want that. “But I want Luna to be my cat forever!”

She was overwhelmed by the feeling that she had said something horribly mean about her pet, found Luna, hugged her, and formally apologized.

But at the time, she was focused on how it was mean to wish that the cat would die. She hadn’t fully grasped everything. Yet.

A four-year-old’s first existential crisis

I was sitting on the couch as Sprout did one of her regular pace-the-floor-and-talk-with-her-hands sessions, where her ideas are just kind of tumbling out of her brain, and she pauses and turns to me.

“A lot of people have already died. And a lot of other people are still going to be born. How can this be?”

It’s the kind of moment where her question is almost something you can wrap your brain around answering, but I didn’t have time to parse what was underneath it before I saw her brow furrow and the pieces click together.

The tears started, and she let out a wail: “Dying is scary!

Dena hurried into the room, and the two of us quickly hugged her into a Sprout Sandwich on the couch. There were more tears, but we made sure Sprout knew how the people who love her are going to love her for her entire life, even after they’re gone.

Then she told us another part of what she was worried about: That after people die, she’ll forget what they look and sound like.

That’s when Dena pulled out her phone. Because not only do we have pictures and videos of Sprout’s great-grandma, but Dena kept a voicemail that she left on Dena’s birthday years ago. It’s short, sweet, funny, and includes a request that Dena give some hugs to Sprout from her great-grandma.

In the moment, we had some answers for Sprout, and we were able to use the recorded memories stored on our phones as a physical way to show her that the dead aren’t completely gone.

But if you know children, you know that this had no chance of being the end of this conversation.

Death is coming, and that’s okay

We recently had a scare where one of Dena’s aunts looked like she was about to lose her battle with cancer.

She’s rebounded, and though we know she’s not going to go into remission, we’re thankful have more time with her. But at first, when things looked like the worst was coming, we decided we needed to prepare Sprout as best we could.

Dena sat Sprout down while I finished making dinner to lay out the specifics and see if she had any questions, and she also brought home a bag full of picture books from the library about death.

We spent the weekend with family, making sure we were present. Making sure everybody got their hugs and got to spend time with one another.

And we read her the books about death and grieving. Many times. She was particularly focused on having me read a pair of books about a family grieving the loss of their dad, which was uncomfortable enough until she wanted to act out the book with me.


In all seriousness, this book is really well written and I recommend it (and its sequel) if you need to talk about grief and loss with a young child.

But, as she had me pretend to be her brother, and we went through the story about what the family did after the death of their father, I realized she was just processing her feelings in a safe way. She’s trying on emotions, and connecting with the hurt of these other people so she can think about how she feels, and how she might feel.

It’s one of the things fiction and narrative are fantastic at. You can experience an emotion from a slight remove, helping you understand it better.

I was feeling good about the lessons we were modeling for her, and the books Dena brought home were a big help in finding ways to talk about the big picture. And then came the injection of outside ideas.

If you leave a vacuum, something else will fill it

At one point I took Sprout out to lunch, and to pick up some carry-out for Dena. That’s when she started to talk about Heaven.

“Heaven’s where you get wings! And Jesus and God have wings! Everybody gets wings!”

I asked some questions to figure out where she was getting her ideas about a Red Bull Heaven, and it turned out there was a kid in her day care class who was talking about it.

As I’ve learned recently, she is very willing to believe (without question) that when her fellow four-and-five-year-olds tell her something, it must be true.

And because she’s getting a dose of theology from kids who are playing a game of telephone from what they’ve been told, we get scenes like this:

Driving home, we turn onto our street and Sprout declares (out of nowhere) “God is dead.”

Before I could figure out who had slipped her the Nietzsche pop-up book, she elaborated. “Because God is in Heaven, and everybody in Heaven is dead.”

So… this is where I talk about how I’m somewhat horribly equipped for this part of the conversation.

I didn’t go to church as a kid. There are probably many reasons.

One that I can remember clearly is at a funeral for someone on my dad’s side of the family. They hired a minister to give the eulogy who wasn’t familiar with the family, or with the deceased, and I can sum up his pitch about death as this:

Humans are a mistake. They are flawed, sinful creations. Death is God’s way of correcting His mistake.

I was maybe seven when I heard this. For almost 30 years, it has rattled around in my brain. It made that much of an impact.

My mom did her best, as we walked through the parking lot, to get me to push out the worry that I was a mistake, and that God was eager to kill us all. But you know the moment in Inception where they talk about how it’s useless to tell somebody not to think about something?


And that lack of grounding created some odd moments for me. When I was a teenager, I was hit by a car while crossing the street. I lost consciousness, got a concussion, and broke my arm. I was lucky, but I was also pretty disoriented.

While I was recuperating, I watched a lot of Viva Variety and started writing a script that I wanted to shoot with my friends. The premise was about someone who has an accident, wakes up in the afterlife, and doesn’t realize it. Whatever entities I had decided were part of the afterlife took the form of this person’s friends and family, and their job was to nudge the recently deceased toward the understanding that they were dead in a way that didn’t overwhelm them.

Because… There was a part of me that wasn’t so sure what I was experiencing. And a weird part of me that thought by writing this down and sharing it with other people, I could convince myself that it couldn’t be true for myself.

That I’d be okay if I could share it with my friends and not have any of them look at me and say, “Oh. Looks like you figured it out on your own.” I was trying to write my way out of a problem, because it was the way I knew how to ground myself at the time.

This is all to say that:

  • I don’t have a lot of formal religious experience
  • Despite having lost family members and people close to me, I’ve never formed a definitive answer to what is death aside from the scientific end of life
  • I am well aware of how botching this conversation can stick with someone for their lifetime, and potentially lead them to some confusing moments later in life.

So no pressure when it comes to helping my four-year-old through all this.

What I wish I could tell her (because sometimes it’s hard to speak to a four-year-old)

I don’t know what happens. We don’t know. No one is certain, but a lot of people are confident about what happens when we die. They have their reasons, they have their faith in their beliefs, but they don’t actually know for sure.

But what happens to a person after they die isn’t the only thing that matters.

We need to think about the people who are still here. The people who love them. The people they love.

We should live like this is enough. Like we will get enough time with the people we love. Like every moment is an opportunity to choose to love each other with all our hearts.

Because no matter what, it will never feel like enough. We will always want one more hug. One more meal. One more story. One more ‘I love you.’ Always. Always. Always.

Because a memory of love can be the same thing as the moment itself. Our memories can be just as strong and sustaining, and as long as our memories last, so does that love.

We will go on without them, but we will not go on without their love.

Battling Impostor Syndrome

A student came up to me after class and asked about impostor syndrome. I had mentioned in class that one of the main causes of things like plagiarism or bloated writing is insecurity: People are afraid that their writing will be found lacking, and that they will seem lesser because of it.

And this student wanted to know what they should do to fight back.

Impostor Syndrome comes from the idea that people will see you as a fraud. That you are less than what you claim to be. But it’s also the feeling that we don’t measure up to our own projection of who we are, or who we should be.

You don’t need an audience to feel like a fraud.

But somebody was looking to me for an answer, so I warned them that this feeling never really goes away. The insecurity and uncertainty just become more manageable over time, given the right effort.

This is not a life hack. This will not cure you. This isn’t even a tactic that works 100% of the time. But you can try it, and it might help.

Focus on the work, not what you think the work means.

If you’re writing something, focus on the story beat. If you’re revising something, focus on the sentence in front of you. Then the next one. If you’re offering advice to another writer, don’t worry about what they’re going to think about you based on your advice. Just do your best to tell them what you see in their work, and help them realize their goals.

And if you feel yourself thinking about what you’re going to say in your awards acceptance speeches, or how you’re going to spend all that money you’re destined to be making, or how you’re going to get to start name-dropping all your fancy new friends… If you find yourself dreaming about the rewards for work you haven’t done yet, that’s the other side of the Impostor Syndrome coin.

It’s ego, flowing in more than one direction. It can build you up or pull you down, but when you let that untamed sense of self take the wheel, you’re not doing the work.

And if you can only focus on one thing at a time, it’s better to train yourself to focus on the work, and not worry about shame, praise, or imagined distant futures. Like Andy Warhol said:

”Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide whether it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they’re deciding, make even more art.”

The same can be said about yourself. Focus on whether or not you enjoy the work that you’re doing, and whether you can joyfully give your attention to the work. Spend your effort on making the work the best it can be.

You’re a person who has value outside of your work. To the people who care about you, you can never be an impostor. Try your best not to confuse your assessment of your work with a measurement of your worth.

Fixing the Dryer

A few weeks back I went to put a load of laundry in the dryer, and the machine refused to cooperate. The motor started up, but as soon as I released the start button, it cut off.

I did what I do most of the time there’s an appliance failure in the house: I went to YouTube.

One video suggested I try turning the dryer on with the door open to see if the drum moved. If it didn’t spin, it likely meant that the only problem was a broken belt (aka, something the video said anyone could fix). After confirming the broken belt, I felt pretty comfortable with the next steps. I don’t consider myself handy, but it seemed like an easy enough thing to fix.

Keep both of those things in mind:

  1. I don’t consider myself handy.
  2. This seemed like an easy problem to fix.

I ordered the replacement belt from a local appliance store and picked it up the next day. The video demonstrating how to replace the belt was ten minutes long, so I estimated that I could accomplish the same task in 30 minutes (adding time based on what was trimmed out in editing the video, and adding some padding due to my lack of experience with dryer repair).

An hour later I was covered in lint, sweat, and desperation.

There’s one part of the whole operation that’s a particular challenge.

To get the belt in place, you need to thread it around a spindle on the motor, and then around a pulley that keeps the belt tight against the drum. The pulley is connected to a switch. If the belt snaps, the pulley pops out of alignment and turns off the motor.

In order to get the belt in position, you have to reach your arm inside the bottom of the dryer, underneath the drum, and stick it behind the motor in a part of the dryer that you can’t see. So you’re lying down on the floor, your whole arm where you can’t see clearly, lining up a thin rubber belt over a pulley that you have to pull into place at the same time. One-handed.

Somehow, I’d managed to do this. Probably. I called Dena down to check on the results. I plugged the dryer back in and pressed power.

The Good News – The dryer started and stayed on! The drum turned!

The Bad News – The dryer was making a truly awful metallic scraping sound and smelled like maybe something was burning.

I decided it was time to scream into the void and start over again, but we agreed that I’d be better off just cutting my losses for now, taking a shower, and calling my dad over to help me take a look the next day. It’s a universally agreed upon notion that my dad is handy.

And this is where it got more complicated.

The next day, he and I struggled with the dryer for another hour, assembling and disassembling it over and over. We watched dueling YouTube instructional videos to figure out what we were doing wrong. We drew diagrams. We tried alternate methods of threading the belt.

At one point we yanked the pulley clean out of the dryer and tried to get it back in place.

And all of this was done with the time limit of tickets to go see Ralph Wrecks The Internet that afternoon. Another day, another attempt at fixing the dryer failed.

We agreed to come back to it the next day when there weren’t any appointments interfering with the work.

And something happened overnight. Maybe I just looked at the diagram of how the belt was supposed to thread just the right way. Maybe the moral of Ralph Wrecks the Internet and how insecurity is the mind killer had time to sink in. Whatever it was, I had to revisit those two key premises from earlier:

  1. I don’t consider myself handy.

Alright, I’m not somebody who’s ever going to advertise their services as an independent contractor, but I can follow instructions. I can think through a problem. I’ve fixed other appliances and I have solved problems in the past.

So why don’t I consider myself handy?

Is it just that I don’t have a variety of experiences that would allow me to talk shop with hardware store employees? That I sometimes need to ask for help or instructions? Is it because one time a shop teacher yelled at me for showing another student the wrong way to use a band saw and it convinced me to take more drama electives?

None of those seem like very good reasons. Which leads us to…

  1. This seemed like an easy problem to fix.

Why did I think that?

Is it because the person with more experience who narrated the video said it was easy for them? Is it because there were so few steps to the process?

Was thinking that this was supposed to be easy causing me to make mistakes, or get overly frustrated?

And in that moment of the third attempt to install this belt, I had a moment of clarity. It’s not the dryer that’s the problem: I’m the problem.

By not believing I could solve the problem, I was holding myself back from finding a way to solve the problem.

I looked at each individual component of the dryer and how they were supposed to line up. And that’s when I noticed something I had missed before: The metal ring connecting the exhaust hose to the back of the dryer. It was loose.

That was the scraping sound I had heard after the first time, and probably the source of the burning smell. Making sure the exhaust pipe was secure wasn’t part of the process of replacing the belt, so I hadn’t checked it.

Everything came together quickly after that, especially since I’d taken it apart and put it back together several times already. I’ve been enjoying machine-dried clothes ever since.

More importantly, the experience kicked my ass and reminded me that unless you believe you might be able to solve a problem, you have no hope of making it happen.

Complete or Delete

It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.

You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.

So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.

If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:

Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?

If the answer is no, it gets deleted.

If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.

But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).

If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.

Your vote matters. You matter.

Election Day 2016, my wife and I took our daughter to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, which is easily in Sprout’s top five all-time favorite places on Earth. On our way back, while our daughter napped in her car seat, we hopped off the freeway to re-caffeinate at a McDonald’s.

As I pulled up to the window to pay, the woman behind the counter noticed our “I Voted” stickers and said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t do that today.”

We asked if she was registered and when she got off her shift, to make sure she still had time. But then she said,

“But really, it’s just a choice between death and… death.”

She didn’t see any substantive difference between the presidential candidates, and gave us a nihilistic, too-cool-for-civics soundbite to justify shrugging off voting.

And that interaction has haunted me ever since.

I know not voting by choice isn’t the whole picture. I know there are numerous laws designed to reduce the turnout for eligible voters, or actions taken to close polling places to depress turnout. I know that registering people to vote is seen in some quarters as a partisan act instead of a civic duty.

But I want to speak to one small portion of the conversation: The idea that there are people out there who are registered to vote, who are able to vote, but who haven’t definitely committed to vote.

I’ve been teaching a class that’s new to me focusing on media, journalism, and civic engagement. Being that it’s a step outside of my previous wheelhouse, I’ve been looking for how to judge whether my teaching is making an impact.

I haven’t had to look that hard because of the number of times students have done one or more of the following:

  • Told me directly that they made sure they registered to vote because of class
  • Used an exercise in class as a reason to talk to other people about current political issues and how it’s relating to their vote
  • Asked me for help finding non-partisan resources to help educate themselves on who and what is on their ballot

The thing I tell them is that so long as they’re registered, they definitely have the time to figure out how they want to vote.

Because voting isn’t like dating, where you need to find someone that matches with you personally and excites you in ways you don’t think you’ll tire of. It’s not like ordering off a menu, where you expect that what you pick will immediately satisfy you.

Voting is charting a course into the unknown. It’s thinking about where you want to go and who you think will help navigate us in that general direction.

You’re not voting for any one person. You’re voting for a destination. You’re traveling into the future, headed to the country that you want this place to become.

And if we lose sight of the destination, we can choose another navigator. But without a strong sense of where we want to go; without a clear mandate backed up by a large turnout of potential voters, the entire journey will be undermined.

When fewer people vote, more power ends up in the hands of pollsters, pundits, and bloviating partisans. Instead of a true picture of who we are, we get inference and divination. The more people who vote, the less room there is for speculation about “the actual opinion” of the nation.

But if you still want to say that your vote doesn’t matter, let me ask you this:

What do you mean by “matter?”

Do you need to be the tie-breaking vote for your vote to mean something to you?

Do you need to have everything you vote for succeed for your vote to mean something to you?

Is it enough to know that your vote matters because you’re keeping the system of elected officials accountable to one more person?

Is it enough to know that your vote signals that there’s one more person out there who cares about where we’re headed? One more person paying attention?

If that’s not enough, don’t stop at voting.

If you feel like your vote doesn’t matter then find something to do with the other days in the year to support what you voted for. Politics and civic debate doesn’t just happen one day every two years.

If you want your voice to matter, voting is just the start of the journey. So make sure you take that first step.