Lubbers

I’m going to apologize for this story right up front, but you should know that I don’t actually mean it. It’s your own fault if you read all the way to the end of it.

We have in Florida a species of grasshopper called a lubber. They emerge as nymphs in spring, dull black with red or yellow stripes. The adults are brightly colored and emit a foul smell and a toxic, foamy secretion when disturbed.

The nymph of a lubber grasshopper, black with yellow striping
Image by Colin Blenis (License)

Nothing preys on them. That’s unfortunate, because the lubber is an incredibly destructive pest. A swarm of lubbers will strip all the leaves off a plant in short order. My wife, who adores all of nature, orders them murdered on sight.

I noticed lubber nymphs by the pool equipment last month, so we spread a bait that controls their population somewhat. Impossible to get them all, though, so occasionally they still turn up.

Fortunately, they tend to be slow. The name “lubber” comes from the old English word “lobre,” meaning lazy or clumsy. Easy to catch and kill if you see them. That duty usually falls to me.

Couple of days ago, my wife noticed a pair of nymphs in the white sapote tree out front. She asked me to kill them, but because they had not achieved their bright, adult coloring, I couldn’t spot them.

“Where?” I asked. I looked on the ground, having seen motion that turned out to be a lizard.

“In the tree.”

I looked up, fixing my gaze on the first branch I came to, near the tip. Nothing.

The inability to spot things in a crowded background has been a problem for me since childhood. It drove my mother crazy. She would grab my head and turn it toward whatever she wanted me to see. Often, I still couldn’t see it.

My wife knows this about me, and so she began giving me specific directions. Find the second branch from the bottom nearest me. Now go in about a foot from the tree trunk. Then, up three branches.

And there they were, right in plain sight. I should have seen them. But as you must have realized by now…

I was looking for lubbers in all the wrong places.

Adult lubber grasshoppers mating
Image by http://www.birdphotos.com (license)

Pura Vida

Today’s journal prompt asks: Where in the world do you long to travel?

I used to dream of traveling to Europe. When I was first in college, in the late 80s, some of my friends would go every summer. They would scour ads for the cheapest flight they could find. The exact destination didn’t matter because they weren’t going to stay there. They would get a Eurail pass and bum around the continent. Seeing the sights, meeting people, taking pictures.

I longed to join them, but I had to work full-time to be able to afford college. Taking three months off wasn’t going to get me a degree.

Neither, it turned out, was working so hard. I burned out on a full time schedule plus a full load of classes. After a few semesters of abysmal grades, my GPA was so low that if you squared it, you’d get a lower number. I dropped out.

I kept working. Retail barely paid enough for me to make ends meet. Sure, I wasn’t paying tuition anymore, but I had taken out a lot of student loans that I now had to start paying. Travel wasn’t in the cards. When I went back to school, I was back in the same boat I’d been in before.

After I finished my graduate degree, I still wanted to travel abroad, but I still couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t until fourteen years later that I was fortunate to be sent to India for business. I made it to Europe the same way in 2016 when another company sent me to Estonia. My wife and I have also been to Costa Rica twice. We loved it both times (even though I got my pocket picked the last time). If I were to take a trip right now, it would likely be back there.

Blogging more

I wrote a blog post every day for the past seven days. This is a big deal for me. I go for long stretches during which I don’t post anything, but that’s not for lack of desire. It’s for lack of confidence that I have anything to say worth saying.

That feeling usually takes the form of being unable to settle on a subject. Even when I have one in mind, I can’t select a focus. The result is either a rambling mess or a series of false starts. When I don’t have a specific topic in mind, I’ll look through my notebook for ideas I’ve jotted down. Usually, I reject them all before becoming frustrated and giving up.

Last Friday night, I decided to experiment with blogging every night. I needed a way to select a topic quickly and focus on it. A gift from my wife supplied the method: the “Hemingway Deck,” which is a deck of cards with a writing prompt on each card. Some of the prompts aren’t relevant to me, so I didn’t want to commit to selecting one at random and hoping for the best. On the other hand, if I tried to select one, I knew that I would reject one after the other.

I chose to select three cards at random, and then select one. That way, I had some choice, but not so much that I never settled on a topic. This method took away one of my excuses not to write. I had a topic. I didn’t give myself a target length, so a few sentences was enough. As a result, I wrote several posts, including one that didn’t come from the cards but occurred to me before I sat down to write.

I intend to maintain the momentum this week. I would like to get to the point where I can write deeper posts than my typical response to a prompt. For now, though, I’ll settle for establishing the discipline of publishing something daily.

 

Too few to mention

Today’s journal prompt asks, “What decision should you have made yesterday?”

I should have decided to eat more vegetables.

Last year, I started working with a nutritionist to improve the quality of my diet. One of the rules she suggested was to eat a fist-sized serving of vegetables with lunch and dinner. I do that more often than not now, but yesterday, I didn’t eat any vegetables.

It’s a stressful time, and I felt the stress more yesterday than I had in days prior, so I ate a lot of cheese and bread. And crackers. I did have some fruit, but no vegetables.

That’s the literal answer for the journal prompt. I expect whoever crafted it intended a more introspective answer. A lot of the prompts in this deck of questions revolve around past regrets. Those are hard for me to answer. I’ve come to be comfortable with who I am. The mistakes and missteps I’ve made along the way all contributed to me becoming who I am. I don’t dwell on regrets.

Even the vegetables, to be honest. Sometimes, a man needs to eat cheese.

Mourning John Prine

anni-gupta-3ohPyV3zsjk-unsplashJohn Prine died yesterday of COVID-19. I’d heard about him being put on a ventilator and being in critical condition, so I was expecting it to happen. Nevertheless, news his death shook me up badly.

I discovered Prine’s music in grad school. I read about his song “Sam Stone” while researching a paper on anti-war songs. I found a copy of the lyrics. They moved me and I started looking for his music. Chain record stores had nothing. I scoured independent stores in Tampa and found a used copy of German Afternoons on CD.

If it had been vinyl, I would have worn it out in a week. At the time, I played guitar at coffee house open-mic nights. I started incorporating songs from the album into my sets–mainly “Paradise” and “If She Were You.” They never failed to please. Later, I found more of his music. The lyrics to “Sam Stone” were poignant. Hearing him perform it knocked me down. “Angel from Montgomery” would get stuck in my head for days every time I heard it. And I think that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” should be mandatory listening.

I haven’t played my guitar in so long that the callouses on my fingertips have faded to nothing. But I still have the guitar I used to play at those open mic nights. Tonight I’m going to get it out, and I’m going to play “Paradise” as best as I can, and I’m probably going to cry all the way through it.

John Prine was never as famous as the musicians he inspired and influenced, but his songs were honest, and the world was a better place with him as a part of it.

May he rest in peace.

(Photo by ANNI GUPTA on Unsplash)

Ten accomplishments I’m really proud of

  1. Earning my Professional Scrum Trainer license.
  2. Learning to be resilient in the face of emotional turmoil.
  3. Finishing the first draft of my current novel.
  4. Swapping out the engine on a ’68 VW Beetle for a new one.
  5. I haven’t carried a balance on my credit cards for over five years.
  6. I once needed 68 points to win a game of 501. On the first dart, I hit a double 17. On the second throw, aiming for another double 17, I stuck that dart in the flight of the first one, Robin Hood style.
  7. Earning a Masters Degree in English.
  8. Being a speaker at Agile 2018.
  9. Making my pool ready for this summer after it had gotten grotesquely green over the winter.
  10. The book I wrote for Steve Jackson Games.

Freak

I have suffered from depression for most of my life. After my ex-wife and I divorced, it was so profound that I began taking an anti-depressant medication. I stayed on it for about three years. I still have episodes, but they are rarer and I’ve learned how to handle them. Cognitive therapy techniques keep them short and moderate. Recently, I wondered when depression started for me.

I often say that “puberty did a number on me,” but I remember experiencing profound depression in grade school. On the other hand, I remember being very happy as a pre-schooler. When depression began to dominate me?

My earliest memory is of my mother telling me she and Dad had bought a house in a town called Hazlet. Our new neighbors’ last name was Kruger. I laughed and said, “That name cracks me up.” When I asked my father about it, he said we moved to that house soon after my sister was born, so I would have been three years old.

I remember a lot about the next five years. Friends, parties, trick-or-treating, my first day at kindergarten, digging snow tunnels. Almost every memory is happy. (The exception: I remember my sister breaking one of my toys on purpose when I was about six.)

We moved to Florida the month after I turned eight. I had good memories of that time, too, right up until I started second grade. The teacher gave us a test to determine our reading level.

I aced the sixth grade level. Later, another test revealed that I was actually reading at an eighth-grade level. The first test hadn’t had material that advanced. That was when my mood began to shift. I was in the most advanced reading group and I was still years ahead of the others. They were reading chapter books that bored me. I was reading history, science, and literature appropriate for junior high school kids. I felt out of place.

I was proud of my knowledge but also embarrassed at being so different from everyone else. It got worse the next year, because I had advanced even farther. I remember crying often, which didn’t make me very popular. By junior high school, I felt like a freak, and I was depressed most of the time.

Advice for me in ‘83

Today’s journal prompt asks, “What career advice would you give your 16-year-old self?”

I imagine that younger me has been selected for an experiment where he can talk to an older version of himself, but the topic is limited to career advice. Otherwise, sixteen-year-old me would want to know winning lottery numbers.

Sixteen-year-old me wanted to be a best-selling science fiction author, and he would be disappointed to know that I don’t have a single novel published yet. “Why not?” he would ask.

“Mostly, because I let self-doubt stop me,” I would say. “You might want to do something about that.”

Solvable

I have a deck of journal prompts my wife bought me. The card I drew today asked, “Think of a situation that’s currently got you stumped. How would one of your heroes resolve it?” And I thought, I’m not stumped by anything right now. It’s not that I know how to resolve every problem in my life; I don’t. But I believe that all my problems are solvable even if I can’t see the solution right now.

This outlook grows out of my career as a Scrum Master and an agile coach. The purpose of Scrum is to solve complex problems. The solution to a complex problem is unknowable in advance. You have to experiment your way to success, and success is not guaranteed, easy, or obvious. You fail a lot. You learn from the failures.

I’ve been using Scrum for my own life goals for over a year now. Every week is a Sprint, and every Sprint is an experiment. I experiment with writing techniques. I experiment with improving my health, both physical and mental. I experiment with different ways to improve my performance at work. I’ve come to believe that there are few personal problems that can’t be solved, if you refuse to stop looking for a solution.

When do you feel happiest?

Given my history of depression and anxiety, it would be understandable for the pandemic and the economic crash overwhelm me. But they haven’t. I’ve established a welcome sense of equilibrium in the face of catastrophe. I am understandably concerned for my health and the health of those I love, especially my parents and in-laws. But I’m doing what I can to be healthy. I recognize that thinking about what might happen is wasteful, pointless. Somehow, I can let those fears go when they arise. Likewise, I don’t linger on financial concerns beyond keeping an eye on what I can do to make sure I stay employed and spend my money wisely.

I told a colleague recently that I could write my ideal job description in three words: think, create, teach. I’m at my happiest when I have time to think and learn, headspace and time to write, and an outlet to teach others what I know. I am fortunate that my life does revolve around those three things. I spend a good portion of every day in a state of flow, where time doesn’t matter and I’m challenged to the edge of my abilities. I’m satisfied and happy as a result.

What about you? When do you feel happiest?