The right priority

I played my guitar for the first time in years last week in honor of John Prine. I haven’t played it since and although I want to play more, I probably won’t.

It had been five years since I last played. I was rusty, for sure, but I thought I hadn’t lost much skill. I could get back to where I was five years ago without much effort. The trouble is that I wouldn’t likely get much better than that, either. The reason I stopped playing was that I reached a plateau. I couldn’t increase my skill any farther without devoting more time to practice than I could spare.

Broadcaster Ira Glass talked the fact that as beginners, creative people often have less skill than taste. The gap between what they want to create and what they can create is disappointing. That disappointment is why many quit. That is where I was: unsatisfied with my skill, but unable to improve. If I’d had the time, I don’t doubt that I could have been a very good guitarist. But writing called to me more than playing did, and so I decided to focus on fiction.

I’m almost halfway through revising my latest novel, with the working title Faithless. It is the best thing I’ve ever written, and when I finish this revision, it will be better still. For the first time, I look forward to trying to find an agent because the story is good. I believe there’s at least one agent out there who will see its potential and find it a home. And my next novel (already percolating in my mind) will be better still.

I miss playing guitar sometimes, but I made the right choice to set it aside.

Think. Create. Teach.

For years, the tag line for my web site was, “Coach, Writer, Speaker.” I felt that those nouns best described who I am and what I wanted to be. I coached product development teams and organizations for a living. I write crime fiction as a hobby and aspire to publish novels. I had dabbled in public speaking and thought I would like to do it professionally.

Today, I’ve changed the tag line to “Think. Create. Teach.” Those three verbs better describe the activities that feed my soul.

They come from a conversation with a colleague not long ago when I said I could write my ideal job description in three words. I was being flippant, but as soon as I said, I realized it was true.

I love to think. I love to do research, to read, to learn, and then synthesize and evaluate what I’ve learned.

I love to write, but writing is only one way I create. I draw. I play music. I invent games. I build things.

For a while, I pursed speaking engagements at agile conferences. I enjoyed engagements I had. But when circumstances forced me to set that activity aside, I didn’t miss it all that much. The part of speaking that appealed to me most was the teaching aspect.

I’m fortunate that I can make a living doing the things that feed my soul. As a Professional Scrum Trainer, I can engage my desire to think, create, and teach on a regular basis. That’s why I’ve changed the tag line on this blog. I plan to focus more of my writing here on those areas.

Cheating

I had insomnia last night. It wasn’t the kind of insomnia where I’m alert, so I might as well do something. I don’t mind insomnia on those nights. It’s a little extra time to read or write. Often, I don’t even drag the day after those kinds of insomniac nights.

No, last night was the kind of insomnia where I can’t sleep but every cell in my body is weary. Forget getting up to read or write; I couldn’t focus enough to enjoy watching a TV show—not even one I’d seen before. I dragged all day. Coworkers on videoconferences noticed my energy was low. I had to assure them that I wasn’t depressed, but weary.

This is a long way of saying that I don’t have to brainpower to engage with a journal prompt tonight. Two of the three cards I drew from my deck of prompts don’t apply to me. Both are in the genre of wishing you were someone else. The third, though, is juicy. I want to dig into it, but I can’t focus. Tonight, I’m cheating. I’ll save that card for another evening.

Jobs

Today’s journal prompt: If all jobs paid the same, what would you choose to do?

Setting aside the question of what the economics of that would look like (that’s difficult because my wife and I have been watching the Paul Krugman Masterclass and so economics is very much on my mind), how I answer that question is what we mean by “job.”

What springs to mind when I see that word is “work for hire.” To “have a job” means to work for someone at a wage or salary. And if that’s the meaning behind this question, then I suppose I’d do more or less what I do now. I enjoy being a trainer and I enjoy coaching product development teams. It’s rewarding apart from the salary.

Another sense of the word “job” is a piece of work, a task. A brake job, for example. If all pieces of work paid the same, what would I do? I’d write fiction, almost exclusively. (Granted that, as a dude, I like to explain things, so I’d probably write advice, how-to, or opinion articles as well.) I like to tell stories even more than I enjoy my day job.

Letters

I miss letters.

During my first year at college, going to the mailbox was often the best part of my day. Mail arrive twice each weekday at ten and three. People swarmed the campus post office like addicted gamblers fighting to place last-minute bets at the track. I knew it was foolish to join them. Why not wait fifteen minutes until the crowd evaporated? I plunged in anyway. I had to see what awaited.

In my first quarter, the girlfriend I’d left behind wrote to me almost daily. Even after we broke up, though, I could count on something being there more often than not. A letter from my parents (if I was lucky, with a check). A packet from my sister containing a week’s worth of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips cut from the Orlando Sentinel. (The local paper didn’t carry it.) Postcards and letters from friends at other schools.

Letters were treasure.

After I transferred schools, I kept up steady correspondences with the friends I’d made in my freshman year. It kept me connected to a world I missed with all the longing of an unwilling expatriate. I wrote letters in big batches every Sunday night. I looked forward to the responses throughout the week.

It didn’t last, of course. Someone would forget to write back. Or I would. The flow of letters slowed to a trickle. By the time I got my first email account, I was only getting regular letters from one person. Then she got an email account, too, and we shifted our correspondence online. It didn’t last much longer after that. Email lacked the warmth, personality, and permanence of letters. I still have many of her letters. I don’t have any of the emails.

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)