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Don’t burn your bagel

We have a finicky toaster oven. The done-ness indicators on the dial are basically meaningless. I have a suspicion it’s collecting data on our use and reactions for a psychological experiment.

So when I put a bagel in the other morning, I knew I had to keep an eye on it. It’s also the moment Sprout decided she needed a refill on her Rice Krispies. And more banana.

And we had the radio on, which I was semi-paying attention to, since they were doing a news update.

Then Button decided to drop his teething chew thingamajig. This displeased him.

With these competing demands and draws for my attention, it would be very easy to forget the need to watch my bagel. The more I paid attention to these other inputs, the more likely it was that I’d be spreading cream cheese on a charcoal-tinged disc.

I won’t belabor the metaphor: This is all about avoiding burnout.

The repeated mantra somebody sent me that I’m keeping close to heart right now is “You’re not working from home. You’re at home trying to work.”

My job teaching at a university is not one designed to be done from the corner of my house over a webcam. Even if it was, the added complications of schools being closed, needing to be socially distant from our primary child care providers (aka, Sprout & Button’s grandparents), and losing just about every pressure release valve getting out of the house can provide… It can be easy to take your eye off the bagel.

Honestly, it got to the point where I wasn’t even sure where the bagel was, or what the bagel was.

P.S. “The Trip” is one I’m rewatching as mental comfort food right now.

But in this case, the bagel is what sustains you. It keeps you going. It gives you energy and pleasure and a reason to get up in the morning.

And right now, that bagel is jammed in an unpredictable toaster oven of a world. There’s no telling from moment-to-moment what the day or the week will try to do to that bagel.

You’ll miss the signs that something is going wrong if you get distracted.

And right now, it is very easy to get distracted.

Maybe it can help to use a timer, like the one on the toaster oven. To tell yourself that for X amount of minutes, this next thing is your bagel, and it’s going to have your complete attention. It’s one step I’m trying.

For me, it feels like my focus is an important tool to sharpen right now. Maybe you feel it, too.

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Tomorrow could be better.

It’s not much, but that’s the idea that sustains me.

Developing coping mechanisms for depression (and actually seeking treatment) before the world went into a state of isolation and fear is something that’s helping me keep perspective.

No matter what today throws at me, or how disappointed and weary and angry I might feel at the end of the day, I made it to the end.

Tomorrow could be better. I don’t know yet. I have to get there to find out.

Because no matter how hard I think about the things I could’ve done differently in the past to make this a better day, that’s a fruitless exercise.

There’s a name for a mental habit connected to depression: rumination. It’s all about focusing on the past, mulling it over, trying to solve it like a problem.

There’s a passage in The Mindful Way through Depression about it:

When we ruminate, we become fruitlessly preoccupied with the fact that we are unhappy and with the causes, meanings, and consequences of our unhappiness. Research has repeatedly shown that if we have tended to react to our sad or depressed moods in these ways in the past, then we are likely to find the same strategy volunteering to “help” again and again when our mood starts to slide. And it will have the same effect: we’ll get stuck in the very mood from which we are trying to escape…

Rumination invariably backfires. It merely compounds our misery. It’s a heroic attempt to solve a problem that it is just not capable of solving.

Dissecting the day doesn’t make it any better. And analyzing how you would make different choices about today doesn’t necessarily apply to tomorrow, since every day might feel the same (especially now, when so many people are isolating themselves and their families away from the rest of their communities), but it won’t work. No two days are the exact same.

Today is already written. There’s no erasing it or tearing out that page. I can’t make tomorrow simply a more polished revision of today.

So I need to turn to the next blank sheet and start again. Start over.

Because tomorrow could be better.

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Heavy Clicky Touchy Feely

I ponied up the money for a mechanical keyboard.

I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.

But it’s genuinely pleasant.

The Matias Laptop Pro for Mac

Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.

But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!

The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.

But there’s also the nostalgia.

It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)

It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.

There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.

Because there’s still so much to learn.

But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.

Hamilton GIF 'Why do you write like you're running out of time?'
Because he got a clicky mechanical keyboard, of course.

It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.

Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.

My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.

Leslie Knope: 'Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?'

On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.

Mug.jpg

You are perfect.jpeg

This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.

There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.

You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).

Damn Good

If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.

It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.

Spared no expense.gif

It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.

What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?

When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?

I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.

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Making Small Talk

I held the door open for an older woman carrying two tote bags full of books out of the library.

She said, “The sun’s nice. If only it were 40 degrees warmer!”

“At this point, I’d take 20.”

“True! Don’t want to get greedy.”

And that was that. We went to our cars. I cranked up the heater.

A big part of being taught how to write is all about removing unnecessary conversation. Trimming “shoe leather” from scenes.

It’s common for people to say they don’t “do” small talk, or that they’re uncomfortable with it.

But some days, I really like small talk.

It’s almost always about something directly in front of the two people having the conversation. It’s a moment of shared presence.

We could have absolutely nothing else in common other than both being at the same place at the same time, but we’re taking a moment to acknowledge that.

We are here. We’re here together.

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What we write about when we write think pieces about doing what we love

I’ve been in a running dialogue with a friend and fellow writer about articles on the topic of doing what you love. Articles talking about how to stoke your passion, about questioning whether you’re actually doing what you love, and so on. There are a lot of people writing a lot of words about doing what you love and knowing what that is.

And it gets me thinking back to a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated.

“I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love.”

Love is not synonymous with joy.

Doing what you love does not mean living in a state of bliss. Neither does it mean constant suffering for your craft. Fetishizing some ideal or imagined state of being gets in the way of The Work and getting The Work done.

You make compromises for love. You prioritize for love. You sacrifice for love. Love is messy and imperfect.

So if you ever doubt if what you’re doing is something you love, look at what you’ve set aside for it. Look at the list of things that you said no to in order to say yes to this.

Love is the repetition of yes.