I was scrolling through my blog archives a bit and noticing that you can really tell what's going on in my life by what I'm writing. I know that sounds common, but I rarely use this space to diarize. Instead, I've used the space to give myself motivation by attempting to give you motivation. Those times when I tell you to go out and create? I'm feeling creatively stifled and am really telling myself to go out and create.
So this week, I'm passing along some steps to help you get focused. To help me get focused.
I haven't even picked up a book in almost a month.
Things are finally settling down a touch. We're able to reconnect with the people who matter to us (we even wound up having an impromptu barbecue the other night, with no stressful preparation or cleanup). We're able to get back to activities that matter to us, and to really find a little more time to focus on things like laundry and holding hands, instead of things like painting ceilings and moving beds.
I was out on the golf course for the first time this season with a friend. We're not good golfers. We enjoy the sun and the fresh air and the sound and feel of hitting a good shot, which, you know, comes occasionally. And sometimes that occasional good shot comes after pulling up on the ball and taking four strokes to hit the ball 10 yards. You keep your head down and knees bent and the next swing sends the ball 115 yards to the green.
"This is a great game," I said after such a stretch on the 12th fairway. "There's an opportunity for redemption with every shot."
It got me thinking about things like mistakes, and grudges. That every time we make a mistake, we shouldn't beat ourselves up over it — instead, we should take a deep breath (or two, or eight), and figure out the steps for finding redemption, and then follow them.
And we should learn a lesson from our finding redemption: Offer it to others. If they make a mistake, forgive them, reach out to offer an opportunity for redemption.
One of the more interesting and worthwhile endeavors I've undertaken recently is becoming a Freemason. I'll be raised to Master Mason (3rd degree, for those not in the know) on April 15 – any brothers reading are certainly welcome to visit for the degree ceremony (meeting at 7 p.m., Lodge details here and the usual visiting rules apply, of course).
I have a family connection to the Fraternity: both of my grandfathers were Masons. While I didn't really know my paternal grandfather, Milton Shear (he died when I was 2), I was close with my maternal grandfather, Bernard Tuttle, who I knew growing was a Shriner, but I didn't recognize his connection to Masonry until he died. He was a 32nd degree Mason, and I was recently sent his degree certificate, which is an interesting artifact, as well as an heirloom, which I'll of course have framed.
I also have, through Freemasonry, a connection to some great people throughout history, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, a total of 52 signers of the Declaration of Independence and at least 16 U.S. presidents (including Gerald Ford, who was a 33rd degree Mason, the highest degree).
Groucho Marx is famously credited as having said that he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him for a member, and when I was at the other end of that spectrum – looking for a club to belong to that wasn't actively seeking me as a member – I went looking to the Freemasons.
I first wrote to my local Lodge in application over a year ago, in March of 2013. I didn't hear from them for a couple of months, when several Lodge members came to the house to interview me, and then I didn't hear from them again for almost six months, when I was told the initiation ceremony for the first degree (Entered Apprentice) would take place in December. After being initiated, it was again six weeks before I was contacted, and mentored through the degree work; I was passed to Fellowcraft in March of this year.
There seem to be few things, these days, that take preparation, time and work, and largely take place through the mail and in people's living rooms.
Since I've told some friends that I'm undertaking this endeavor, there are two questions I get a lot:
(1) Didn't you at one time actually have to be a mason to become a Freemason? and
(2) Aren't the Freemasons a secret society? Why are you telling me?
To answer the first, yes. Operative masons – people who built buildings – were the first Freemasons, and Speculative Masonry, which is what Freemasonry is today, can be traced back, at least on paper, to 1717, and still uses as spiritual tools common operative masonic tools, like the square and compasses, which are prominently displayed on Lodge buildings and pretty much everywhere throughout the Freemasonic world.
To answer the second, well, kinda sorta not really. Question mark? You can always tell a Lodge by the square and compasses on the side of the building. Masons are not asked to keep their membership a secret. Many of their works are public, from appearances in parades to Shriners hospitals and circuses to (in some states, like New York) the Child Identification Program (CHIP) to places like the Masonic Care Community in Utica.
And there's plenty of information on the Web, and of course in books, many of them written by Masons, so they'd know.
Some people look at the names of Freemasons – Washington, Franklin, Adolf Fredrick (18th century king of Sweden), Salvador Allende, both Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, James Naismith, Gene Autry, Count Basie, Simon Bolivar – and think with all that power and celebrity, there must be some conspiracy at hand. I looked at the list of Freemasons and said, hey, if all those great people wanted to be a part of this, I want to be a part of it, too.
Anyway, that's the long version. But it's one of the things I'm up to these days.
We're starting to be able to get outside here in Central New York. It occurs to me that, with today being April 2, it hasn't actually been a longer winter than others, it's just been a little more brutal — no thaws to speak of, and extra cold.
It also featured something (two things, depending on whom you ask) called a polar vortex. I still don't really understand what that means, but I didn't like it.
It's time to be running outside, waiting on the ground to dry a little so we can get some yard work done, and of course I'm back to watching parkour videos. These inspire me for a few reasons:
(1) While there must be a healthy dose of fear involved, freerunners by and large don't show it. I heard a freerunner say something about a 15-foot gap once, and I look around at my 12'x12' home office and think, "If I had a full running start, I could maybe come close." But to think about jumping between roofs 15 feet apart and 10 stories up is just— I don't have a word.
(2) Although a lot of parkour videos look improvised, the truth is a lot of rehearsal tends to go in, especially for people who cover ground. It's one thing to improvise some railing swings on a wheelchair ramp, but it's another entirely to know what's around the corner or over a wall. You can see some of that practice going on here:
I haven't done one of these in a while. In fact, my circumstances were different last time I did. Right now, my circumstances are such that the only place I really have to go is the grocery store. Since I work from home, I only leave the house if I want to go somewhere or see someone.
So these are the places I'm going.
Freedom of Espresso, Fayetteville. This is the closest locally owned coffee shop to me, and I consider myself lucky, because it's comfortable, usually not busy the times I'm there (1pm or so weekdays), and has some gorgeous ornamental windows. It's also next door to a walking path, so if it's nice out and I'm not sitting there writing (oh yeah! free wifi!) or reading, I can take my coffee for a stroll.
Tavern at the Ridge. This is the venue we'll be married at in July. Previously a nondescript clubhouse at the Skyridge golf course, my fiance Jenny's cousins bought it, placed it adjacent to a great non-profit for veterans, stripped the clubhouse and rebuilt it as a cozy cabin-style restaurant with amazing food, a nice beer selection, craft bourbons and a very pretty nine-hole golf course. They're open somewhat limited hours until it warms up (Wednesday through Saturday from 4pm until dinner's over), but you should definitely give it a try.
World of Beer. I know, this is surprising. It's a chain, and it's in a mall. But they have an extensive beer list of about 50 taps and 500 bottles — including some of our local microbreweries, both on tap and in bottles — and the staff are really knowledgeable about the products, which is amazing considering the amount of product (and the fact that they can only try so much at a time). Last time we were there, we even let a staffer in on a bottle she'd been hearing a lot about. The food is pretty good, but be prepared to order a lot of it, because portion sizes are, shall we say, a little inadequate if you're someone like me (that is, someone who eats a ton).
I don't have anything to lay out on the table here and say, "I did this!" But 2014 is going to be the date on the end of a lot of hard work. Mostly, I think, I've done a lot on my way toward being a better, more well-rounded human.
If I have some stuff to pass along, it's mostly in some reading and experimentation.
My favorite books for the year – and I read 38 of them in 2013 – are all ones I'd recommend reading, and with good reason.
• Choose Yourself! by James Altucher. This is a reminder that, while it's important for you to do well by others, if you don't live for yourself first, you're not doing as well by anybody else as you thought you did.
• Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman. Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was curious about everything. He drew, had a gallery show, played drums in Brazil during carnival and in general spent a lot of time thinking. He said no when he didn't want to do something, and he was curious about pretty much everything.
• Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A lesson in doing some things yourself and simplifying where you can. You have to get past some preachiness, but once you do, it's a wondrous tome.
• Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. This is the only book I read every year. It really does explain what we've done wrong and what we need to do to correct our path. It's not so much an operating manual for your soul as it is an operating manual for the physical world, and I fear we've lost touch with that.
I've been writing more of late. There's a reasonable chance we'll see some product in 2014. I'm getting married this year. I have some more tricks up my sleeve, some involving compasses and bibles and live oaks.
I'm brewing beer now. It puts me in a fairly small club, apparently, but there are a lot of beer drinkers out there, and now that I sort of understand how it works, I'm experimenting more. My fourth batch is underway; my best to date is a chocolate jalapeño porter. It's a little more peppery and yeasty than I wanted it – and has a lower alcohol content than I was looking for – but drinking a couple of cases of it is easy.
I hope your 2013 was half as amazing as mine. If it hasn't, let me know how I can help improve your 2014.
And, of course, my annual posting of Dougie McLean singing Robert Burns's "Auld Lang Syne."
And there's a hand my trusty fiere
And gi'e 's a hand o' thine
We'll tak a right guid-willy-waught
For auld lang syne
Honestly, this is one of a very few songs you might classify as a Christmas carol that doesn't make me want to gut an elf. It's really a song about Christmas, and I wouldn't switch the radio station if it were on in July.
If you're celebrating today, happy Christmas. I've always preferred happy to merry; I think it has to do with what I perceive as solemn traditions like a fire in the fireplace and gathering around the piano to sing.
I start working soon. Whenever someone has to work on Christmas (or even Christmas Eve), I always try to be the first to volunteer. It might as well be the Jew working, right? When I worked for a weekly newspaper, I used to go in for a few hours on Christmas. It gave me time to clean my desk, get some features together and really accomplish something without the phone ringing, without the fax ringing, and without other people in the office.
This year, I'm working for a company that will have multiple deadlines throughout the day; there will be two of us on during the day. I expect, actually, that we'll have a small flurry of stuff to do when we start, and then the basketball games will come on at noon, then there will start to be photo galleries and entertainment stories and the news part won't pick up until people start leaving their family gatherings.
Last year, I worked Christmas night instead of during the day, and we went until almost 5 a.m., it got so busy late.
Anyway, if you want to know what Christmas is like to someone who really is a Christmas outsider – and to be clear, I'm marrying into a family with a secular Christmas tradition – here it is.
I don't really remember Christmases as a child. Yes, I understand that I got gifts on Chanukah because all the Jewish kids were jealous of all the Christian kids generations ago. I remember helping a family friend decorate her tree in early December. I remember watching snow outside the window, playing in the back yard for a little bit, and waiting to see if we got some Chinese food or if a pizza place opened later in the day.
I do remember Christmas with my family as I entered my 20s. We'd make sure we had a good selection from Blockbuster (remember renting videos? me neither) and a couple of six packs of beer, and we'd at least wait until breakfast digested before we started on the beer. Most of the time. Sometimes we'd grab a movie later in the day. You know, because theaters get fired up about the time people get sick of hanging out with their families.
These days, though I've had a few years as an adult spending Christmas with the families of significant others – next year, I get to call them my in-laws, I guess – I still feel like an observer to someone else's traditions. I'm not entirely comfortable with the language of the holiday, I don't have tradition to fall back on and incorporate into this new scene, the way you would need instruction if you came to a Passover seder at my house, even after a few years. The food would be strange the first year, something maybe you remembered the second year, and then it would become a once-a-year novelty that maybe you don't fully understand and still need to be reminded how to eat and what it's made of and why it exists. That's how I feel on Christmas.
Also, this. It's a holiday filled with pagan rituals, during which is celebrated the birthday of an actual human who was born months later. Apart from the tree and the cross, the main symbols are a stranger who breaks into your house and leaves you packages that would get airports evacuated by TSA agents, along with the mutant arctic animals that fly his fat ass around. Call me a Scrooge (who, by the way, came around, if you read the rest of the book) if you wish, but that is some creepy shit.
Do I get offended if you wish me a merry Christmas? No. Expect I won't have one – it doesn't mean the same thing to me that it does to you. But expect I'll only wish you a happy Christmas if I know you celebrate, because this year, for instance, happy Wednesday means more to me, because Wednesday has a different connotation to me.
I write a little thing every week about press conferences given by Southeast Conference (SEC) football coaches. For those not into the college football scene, the SEC is the top conference in the sport. One of its teams has won the national championship the past seven years; they have a shot this season but are probably going to be underdogs in that game.
Aside: To play in a national championship game, you have to be picked by a computer and a bunch of humans based on who you beat and who beat you during the season, so out of more than 110 teams, you have to be that good.
You're probably familiar with programs like Alabama and Texas A&M and Florida (the Gators, for whom Gatorade is named), just from existing in the world. You may not know much about them, but you've likely overheard a conversation somewhere, even if you're in the northeast. Or northwest, for that matter.
But unless you're an alum or from Tennessee, you're probably not too familiar with Vanderbilt football. I wasn't, either, until I started writing this piece every week, midway through the season.
Statistically speaking, Vanderbilt is middle of the road. But they make that work for them.
James Franklin is in his third year coaching the Commodores. With the announcement that they'll play the Compass Bowl this year, that makes three straight postseason appearances. That means more money for the school and more exposure for the football team. That's a huge deal in college football.
The press conference above took place two days after Vanderbilt won its sixth game of the season (that's the mark you need to reach to become eligible for a bowl game – you still have to get a bowl that wants you to play). So keep that in mind as you watch some of it. He's not real interested in talking about the future or the past. He does a quick review of the win over Kentucky (which was expected, given their injury situation) and looks forward to the upcoming game against Tennessee, and he's only interested in the task at hand. He jokes a little bit with the press, but he's not giving them any chance to think about the future – not to a bowl game, and not to the possibility that he might get some job offers after his success at Vandy.
Vanderbilt wound up with eight wins in the regular season, including over a Georgia team that was ranked 15th in the country at the time. Their four losses during were to teams that spent at least some time in the Top 25 (some of them spent time in the Top 10) over the season.
That's some pretty solid success for what isn't a tip-of-your-tongue football program, and I think that's a credit to Franklin's style. Here are some things you can take from it:
• Take care of the task at hand. You hear him reference early on that he's excited about being "1-and-0" this week. In non-football terms, that means there was a complicated problem to solve that was just one in a four-month series of complicated problems, and they solved it successfully without worrying about their past successes or failures.
• Give credit where it's due. You hear Franklin express shock that one of his players hadn't won any conference-wide awards yet. And when he did, the coach said, "great job," but then went on to credit the guy who gets Jordan Matthews the ball, the guys who block for him, and the assistant coach who works with him.
• Have some fun. Why hadn't Matthews won any awards? "It's a conspiracy." Franklin manages to get at least a little humor in each press conference – even if he has to explain the joke, which he does sometimes.
And when you come out of it, you want employees, students, whatever, who will represent you, your company or school well. And it looks like Franklin has that. Keep in mind that this next video is a pep rally; the idea is to get people keyed up. Franklin comes out at about seven minutes in, and students come up about two minutes later.
Much of our entertainment is consumed passively, as a secondary resource.
The average American household watches eight hours of television a day. My household is bringing that average up a lot of days. But "watching" is not necessarily true. Really, a television is on for eight hours a day in the average American household.
Largely, though, the people are doing something else actively. Cooking or cleaning or (in my case) working. The TV is merely on in the background.
The same is often true of music as well. People will turn on music and do something like exercise or work in the garden or read.
I've been listening to a lot of Public Radio Remix lately. A lot. Sometimes it's eight or ten hours a day. And it's so interesting that often it's a primary activity. Sure, I'll do some cleaning or shave or write this blog post while listening to it, but if I'm going to sit outside with a book, I always wind up putting the book down if I have it on.
I've been listening on the WRVO app, which also gives you mobile access to the station proper, as well as a BBC Radio stream, along with recent episodes of some of the shows WRVO syndicates, like Prairie Home Companion, but you can listen on PRX or the Public Radio Remix website or probably a bunch of other places.
The word scientist was first uttered at a meeting of natural philosophers in 1833. This, of course, postdates Isaac Newton, Galileo and Francis Bacon.
"Scientist" was proposed modeled upon "artist," because, if philosophers ask what questions and answers mean, natural philosophers would be armchair thinkers, discussing the world around us. If an artist performs art, a scientist performs science. Seems like a logical move.
I've been fairly reclusive this winter. Another five-month stretch of gray weather coupled with a job I work from home means I have to manufacture reasons to leave the house, apart from going to the grocery store and letting the dog out.
Now, I collaborate with a team of people at work each night. We chat about who's doing what and we edit each other's work. Sometimes the conversation degrades into methods for cooking salmon. Well, maybe that's a rising of the conversation, not a degradation of it. I have a fiance and some friends I speak to regularly.
But as for a collaboration that leads to a mapping of the world's tides or creating a mechanical calculator, I don't have that group of breakfast mates. Except that I do. We don't have to all be around a table to have big ideas, though I guess it couldn't hurt.
Laura Snyder, who gives that talk at the top of the page, makes a quip that if we could lay off Twitter and Facebook, we'd get some real work accomplished. I don't think that's true. Social networks are powerful collaboration tools – if we use them as such.
Let's put forth some big ideas, then. Let's collaborate. If you're local and want to talk over coffee, let's do that; if you're not, we can tweet or email or whatever to exchange those big ideas. Let's change the world, even if it's an armchair discussion about what our questions and answers mean, because that's important, too.