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Category: My Thoughts

Functional, Mindful

The coffee smells wonderful. George Harrison is singing “My Sweet Lord” from the speaker over my right shoulder. Civilization, my coffee shop of choice today, is packed with people, some on devices, some not.

It’s cold out today, and the skies are deep grey with the snow it will gift us with later tonight. It reminds me of pictures of noon in areas near the North Pole, where the sun never rises fully or for long.

I am thinking about the new year, as is my way (and likely many other people) at this time.

I’m thinking about mindful versus functional.

That’s a little abstract. Let me unpack that.

My house is filled with a hodge-podge of functional furniture. None if it is particularly beautiful or expressive…I have end tables that keep lamps off the floor, and those lamps were purchased at this thrift store or that “antique” barn less for their aesthetic than for their ability to fit in my car at the time. There’s nothing wrong with functional per se, but as my wife and I look around, we both agree that we could do better. We could make the space more us, and also minimize stuff that doesn’t add a lot of value to our lives. Mindful selections that add value beyond function, as opposed to things I have because they are things I have.

I’ve begun to use that lens to explore other areas of my life as well. What relationships are functional, and which add value? What parts of my job merely pay the bills, and which make me feel like I am spending my time in a meaningful way? What informational inputs enrich my life, and which are simply noise I read/watch out of habit?

The word I usually see used to describe the sorting of valued pieces and those that can be less go is “Curation.” That’s feeling more important right now. As we make selections of new furniture for the house, we’re asking questions that I, personally, have never asked before about feeling and aesthetics in room composition. As I review my digital habits over the last year, I’m asking similar questions. What am I putting out into the world? What am I taking in from it? How does it affect me?

Anyone who has known me for a while knows of my difficulty dealing with social media noise. I get overwhelmed, and that leads me to take extreme actions (I’ve quit and returned to Twitter three times now, and the same with Facebook). The only way I’ve found to deal with the volume of input is to unfollow a great many of the people I am friends with and check in on them when I feel the desire to do so, instead of having their updates pushed at me every single day. It keeps me sane.

Curating that input has become very important to me. I get more value from my old RSS feeds than I do from the never ending stream of tweets, however, using lists on twitter allows me to mindfully check in on specific groups. As a result, I’m no longer drowning.

Curation. Mindful vs functional. It makes the prospect of reserving more private, isolated time look more attractive. Cal Newport wrote recently that “many of the best uses of the online world support better living offline.” That line hit home with me: I tend to use online things as pacifiers instead of filling my time with mindful work. Both are functional ways of filling time, but the latter is definitely more mindful. This coming year, I want to curate my time more thoroughly.

We have so many pressures upon us: which can we shed, which can we minimize, and which do we embrace because they make us better human beings? How do we make more time for empathy, compassion, connection, health, and personal growth? When I look around at all the bullshit that society/culture/other people/businesses/politicians want to embrace as the Most Important Things, I am blown away by how misaligned they are with what traditions/stories/maxims/philosophy have taught me over the years. It is at this point that I am reminded that, in the greater scheme for these others, I am a cog in the machine, a wallet to be fleeced, a resource to be used and discarded. The older values I treasure enrich me, these other things beggar me and make me feel less human and humane.

I don’t merely want to be functional. I want to be mindful. I can do, and deserve better, than what I have allowed myself over the years. I feel like that’s something worth working on in the new year.

“Love people, use things. Because the opposite never works.” – Joshua Fields Millburn

Chasing the Moon

I woke this morning and chased the full moon until it set. It went down in Wellington Ohio, a good sized town about 30 minutes from where I live.

I don’t know much about Wellington, so I did a little research this morning over coffee at the Bread-N-Brew cafe on S. Main Street. One piece of notable history is the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue that took place in 1858. A US Marshall was at the American House Hotel holding John Price, a runaway slave. That night, a group of men, both white and black, stormed the hotel and rescued Price before he could be returned to his master in Kentucky. Price was conveyed through the Underground Railroad into Canada. Thirty-seven men were accused, but only two were tried in Federal court.

Additionally, the artist Archibald Willard lived here and is buried in Greenwood cemetery. He’s the painter of the famous Spirit of ’76 painting that some will recognize. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sprit_of_%2776.2.jpeg)

You can feel the history in the old buildings. Like many midwestern towns, there are too many empty storefronts for comfort, but the businesses that were open, lime Dmitri’s Corner, a family restaurant, seemed to be doing a good business. The school spirit was high, as evidenced by the many signs cheering on the local high school football team for their homecoming game.

These Sunday mornings are lovely for sitting and sipping coffee, reading and watching the world go by. Taking time for them is the best thing I do for myself all week long.

I’m Almost Sorry For Writing This, But I Needed To Work This Out

You don’t want another post where I talk about Facebook. You don’t. I know you don’t.

And yet, here we are. Take a deep breath.  Here we go.

The complicated relationship I have with using Facebook continues to trouble me. I’ve considered just leaving (again), but the truth is that it’s not all bad. It has just enough good to keep me hooked, and enough awful to make me want to scream.

The Cons

Facebook is a walled garden/echo chamber.

Facebook’s algorithm that determines what you see is based on what you click on or Like. Over time, you’ll see less of what you don’t Like, and more of what you do. This sets up an echo chamber effect, most often called the Filter Bubble.

A filter bubble is a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. – Wikipedia entry for Filter Bubble

This is the biggest issue I have with the service: I’m not seeing what I want to see, but what Facebook thinks I want to see. The longer I use the service, the less likely it is that I will discover new things. Instead, I get the same subjects and arguments over and over again.

We Gather At The Extremes

Our world and our issues are nuanced. We’re a bunch of monkeys when we gather in groups, and instead of having reasonable discussions about the nuances, we shriek and throw poo at one another from either side of the cage. All discussions resolve to two sides, and there’s no real discussion to be had.

This has been a problem on the Internet for a long time, and recently it feels like we’ve hit a tipping point, where emotional appeals without facts and shouting the loudest is trumping a more thoughtful, reasoned approach. This terrifies me. We’re no longer watching the circus: we ARE the circus.

Most Updates Are Unimportant

I love my friends. I truly do. I don’t want to live in their heads all day long. It’s more rewarding for me to meet with them when I can and talk or catch up via email. The Wall on Facebook has always felt to me like the worst way to communicate with people. One person shouts out something, and the peanut gallery responds with whatever they think is witty and clever, and sadly, the response is usually neither.

I don’t see many  conversations on Facebook. I see people shouting at one another, trying to be funny. I’ve done it myself, and I dislike that side of me.

Checking Facebook Makes Me Feel Awful

It’s true. When i check Facebook multiple times a day, I feel more stressed and less happy with my own life. More, I get angry more often because of all the previous points. I feel like I’m stuck in a loop, a monkey pressing a button waiting for a reward.  I hate that feeling.

The Pros

There Are People Writing Great Things on Facebook

I follow a few people who write genuinely thought-provoking things, but only on Facebook. They’ve either given up on having a separate blog, or their website is for their professional work and they don’t make their personal observations available outside of their Friends grouping. If they put that out on a blog, I’d subscribe to it. They don’t, and I would miss their perspective if I had to do without it.

It’s Feels Good To Be Adding Value

I enjoy it when something I’ve written or photographed resonates with someone. It’s rewarding to hear that something I have created meant something. It makes me want to do more of that.

I Like My Friends

I like seeing what people add to the world. They make me feel good, and something what they have to say is exactly what I need to hear.

Where I’ve Landed

I’ve been binary in my thinking on this subject in the past, leaving and then coming back. It’s not an easy thing. There are benefits on Facebook that I want to enjoy, so I cannot disengage completely.

I’m going to be checking Facebook less often for my own sanity and well-being, but I’ll still use it as a syndication service. I’m happy that people like my words and pictures, and I want to get them out into the world. It’s unreasonable to expect that everyone who follows me on FB would come to this blog and subscribe to an RSS feed.

This way, I might find some balance for myself. Everyone uses these things differently, I know. I want to be mindful about my usage. I want to make sure that it makes my life better, not worse, over time.

 

 

Contentment

As the coffee brews, I consider my situation.

I don’t have anything to complain about. I’m getting married in October to an amazing woman. My kids are happy, healthy, and most importantly, not assholes. My job is going well, I like what I do and the people I do it with. I’m able to pay my bills. I don’t want for much.

It’s confusing as hell.

It’s funny; I’m not prepared for contentment. I don’t know a lot of stories about it to show the way. At first, contentment feels great. After a while, you start waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like you’re missing something. Like the next terrible thing is just around the corner.

So far, it hasn’t come.  Thank goodness.

Guilt is another byproduct. I have friends in some rough situations right now. Some days, I feel guilty because I’m not down in the shit with them.

Recently I’ve started to see happiness here, too. How strange, that happiness can make you feel like an imposter, like someone undeserving.

The voices outside me tell me I shouldn’t feel happy because the world is in terrible shape, because I’m the villain of the story (white straight male of a certain economic background), that my happiness is built upon the the sorrow of others. The voices are loud. They are persistent.

How does one feel deserving? Accepting contentment might be the biggest challenge I’ve faced in a very long time.

You Work With People

You work with people.

You work with people, and people have feelings. No matter how inconvenient it is for you, you have to acknowledge those emotions and address them. Rational decisions aren’t possible until the irrational feelings have passed.

You work with people, and people like to understand what is happening to them. It is in your best interest to discuss things with them honestly. And if you cannot tell the whole story due to certain restrictions, make sure to say that.

You work with people, and while it is not your job to make them happy, it is your job to make their happiness possible.

You work with people, and you have more impact on them on a daily basis than their closest loved ones. When they go home at night, they talk about you. Be aware that everything you do matters.

You work with people, not resources. You should not be burning up people to get the job done. You should not be wasting people to hit your goals. If you do this, they will leave.

You work with people, and if you want to understand them, you have to love them a little. They can frustrate you, they can challenge you, but they are not obstacles. They are not the enemy. They are the people you have chosen to work with every single day.

You work with people. Be compassionate, but hold them accountable.

You work with people. Not machines. Not programs. Not scripts. Not angels or demons.

You work with people.

 


Context: I manage people as part of my job, and I wanted to write down the most important things I have learned. These are them, to date.

Carry

We shift uncertainly as we stand, shouldering the things we carry. Sometimes a small bag, sometimes a backpack, sometimes the weight of the world, we schlep our past traumas and slights around like modern Atlases, bent under the weight and opining loudly about what very precious people we are and how no one has it as hard as we do.

And what of joy? Or freedom? Of having the space in which to move in the first place? How many rainbows do we miss because we are staring at the gutter?

Do we carry our joys? Or are we carried by them? Do we need to proclaim them loudly, or is it better to cup them in your hands, gaining warmth from the light in the silence of your sacred spaces? What does displaying the things we carry gain us, beyond fleeting seconds of digital applause and a brief shot of serotonin?

Can we curate the things we carry? Can we shift the contents to make the weight lighter? Or are we too frightened to release the trauma that so defines us? Who are we without out burdens?

How much of what we carry defines us, and how much to we define it?

Locally Roasted

Sitting here, drinking coffee I roasted two days ago. You really cannot beat it.

I decided to start roasting my own a few years ago, after watching a presentation about rural living in the 1800s in Ohio. I’ve played around with roasting in the oven, on the grill, on the stovetop, and even over embers in a fireplace. You can buy home roasting units for $150+, but I get my best results from a $15 air popper. The roast is even and because it works on only small quantities, it is easy to have fresh roasted coffee in 7-9 minutes.I get my beans from Sweet Maria’s, usually in one pound bags. I’ll order five different varieties at a time, and those usually last me several months. Since I roast in tiny batches, I can play with roasting time to see how to draw out various flavors. I really enjoy it. 

I just finished my recent batch of an organic Mexican Oaxaca, which had some amazing cocoa notes and a light acidity. My next batch is an Ethiopian Yirga Cheffe. Looking forward to what I can coax out of it. 

If you enjoy coffee, it’s never been easier to do this at home. I highly recommend trying it. It’s very rewarding.

Affogato

(originally published in Human Parts on Medium)

I collect coffee shops. I’ve been in love with the space and the community that coffee shops inspire since 1989 when I stepped through the doors of Arabica on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, OH. The smell of the beans, the people who gathered, the good conversations, and the general convivial tone were a stark contrast to the town I grew up in, where the best you could hope for was to meet friends behind the McDonald’s. Later, I worked in a few shops and loved every moment of it. I was hooked, and as I’ve traveled around the country, visiting the local independent coffee shop(s) is at on the top of my agenda.

In 2010 I was living in Los Angeles. It was a miserable time. Social networks were a welcome distraction from real life, and while skimming the tweets I found a project called The Baristas. It was about a group of off-the-wall characters working in a coffee shop in Pittsburgh. I got curious. Pittsburgh is the longtime rival/close cultural twin to Cleveland. Cleveland was the hub to the wheel of suburbs where I grew up. I was homesick, I hated my current situation, and I wanted something to laugh at. The first episode aired at the end of January in 2011, and when I watched it, something clicked. The setting, the characters…these were people I recognized in friends of my past. The banter took me back to my own days of running a cafe. It was a welcome ray of sunshine within my bleak existence at the time.

No…I didn’t quit my job and become a barista. I did come to the conclusion that I deserved a better job than the one I had, and that Los Angeles was not the right place for me or my family. Within a month, I took a job in Cleveland. Within two, we were home. The bleakness shifted and changed, but many of the pressures were still there; the stress of the moves and the job had taken a toll on the marriage, leading to new issues and hard times of a different sort.

This is when I started wandering on my own. I would get in the car and drive, allowing the road to wash away the stress and lose myself in other places, other sights. At first, I would drive east from our home in Shaker Heights, OH to the woods and hills of Geauga county, stopping off in Amish country, taking in the sights of the fields, the small towns, the different pace and culture. This is when I got it in my head that it would be amazing to be able to just wander the Earth, seeing places, meeting people, and writing about them. But where would I go?

Affogato. The coffee shop where The Baristas was filmed was called Affogato. I looked it up on Google maps. Two hours. It was only two hours away.

I decided, what the hell: I was going to drive two hours to get a cup of coffee. I took off early on a Sunday morning and arrived outside the brick building with the Big Red A on the front just in time to get breakfast from the pancake bar and a cup of good coffee.

The Big Red A marking Affogato

Affogato was located in a borough called Bellevue. It had the same sort of bohemian sensibility as Cleveland Heights did back in the 1990s. It mixed the not-so-well-off with the artists and creative folks in a way that makes the most fascinating neighborhoods so worthwhile. I loved it. I decided to make a trip back in August and interview the proprietor.

Affogato was owned by Victoria Dilliott. She bought the place when she was twenty-two and had worked hard to make it the center of the community. When I met her, she graciously allowed me to chat with her, letting me tag along on her supply run to Costco, telling me the long story of the cafe’s existence, about how she and Justin Kownacki (the writer/director of The Baristas) met, about the filming, and about how she was looking to sell the place and move on to something new.

Sell the place. Move on. As a romantic who had only visited three times and connected with the place because of a web sitcom, I couldn’t fathom why she would want to do such a thing. As a man with responsibilities, as one who knew a little about how business worked and who remembered how bad the economy got during the housing bust, I got it. Affogato really peaked in 2005–2007: business was good, there was an active community of independent artists working on everything from Podcamp Pittsburgh to shared office space for small business ventures. When the bottom fell out in 2008, it was hard to make ends meet. All business slowed. After a while, Victoria and her husband were talking more and more about starting a family. She put a deadline of September down. She put it up for sale.

It was close. Damn close. She did sell it in the end. Justin and the cast of The Baristas continued to film there while the renovations by the new owners took place. I visited one more time in February of 2012, but the magic had gone. It wasn’t the same place.

Affogato closed in May of 2012.

Around Memorial Day of that year, I drove past the place on my way to Baltimore. The big red A was gone; it was a hair salon or nail parlor or some such joint. It is the way of the world, few things last; even the Arabica on Coventry is long gone, replaced by a nightclub. Things change. Neighborhoods shift. People move on.

I still have my Affogato travel mug. It makes me smile. In the end, it was never really about the coffee.

A Well-Curated Life

With the turn of the year I’ve been considering the concept of the well-curated life. For most of my time on this earth, I have simply adapted to whatever was thrust upon me. Now that I have a little financial freedom and my life is more stable, I find the idea of a life that is built from things I value to be very attractive.

For me this starts with examining the physical environment and removing all the things that do not add joy or value to my everyday life. It’s a big task…truthfully…it never ends. The questioning, “What do I really need? What value will this thing add?” is constant, but the plus side is that I buy much less than I used to. I look for quality over a sale price, I look for things that will last over temporary fixes. And I do without.

I try to keep my needs small, but honest.

I look at what I value: reading, education, nature, my relationships with others, and try to increase time spent on those things by eliminating time-eaters. I curate my time.

It is very much a work in progress, but I find this mindful consideration to be helpful. I feel lighter when I let go of something I thought I had to have. I feel anchors dropping away. I save money. I enjoy my time more. I can focus on the things that really matter.

The idea that we can choose what we want in our lives and what we do not is a powerful one. It has limits (try to stop the rain, for example), but when it comes to man-made and some societal things, we have a lot of power to determine just what we want to allow to influence us, and what we do not.

Notes to Myself as a Young Manager

  1. Trust people. Be prepared for them to make mistakes, and be there to help them fix things.
  2. Allow new situations time to mature and clarify before taking action. Don’t make any decisions until you have to.
  3. The majority of your work will take place in meetings, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the meetings are valuable.
  4. Don’t bring surprises to the meeting.
  5. A shortcoming in someone could be a strength if applied properly.
  6. Do not start new fires simply because you are used to fighting fires.
  7. Be compassionate, but hold others accountable for their work.
  8. Humor doesn’t work as well as you think it does. It generally just causes confusion.