Positioning of hard things

In April 2012 I biked 110 miles in 29 hours. It was the hardest, longest ride I’ve ever done. As someone who was (and still is) a wimp on hills, the steep hills of southern Indiana were ever more challenging. But this ride has had a benefit I did not expect: every other short ride I’ve ever taken is a piece of cake in comparison.

Like cereals on the grocery store shelves, this ride positioned my mind into realizing every other shorter ride wasn’t that hard. The next time I biked in a little rain or a little wind or snow or a hail storm I never thought, “Ugh, this is awful.” No, the 78 miles I did in 6 hours was awful.

I learned the other day this country once had a “scourge” of “sports mania”. Not the kind of sports-watching team-rooting mania we have today, but of people actually doing exercise.

Advancements in bicycle technology in 1890 put America into a frenzy:

From Harper’s:

It is true that women heretofore, here and there, have been trying the machines in an apologetic, shamefaced sort of way, but in this year they have boldly come to the front as riders, challenging male competition, and making a fashion of that which before was an eccentricity. …Women may ride in tights, but it is certain that men will never adopt the skirt. It is too dangerous. Man has not courage to risk the complications of an overthrow in a skirt. 

And the L.A. Times:

… In most of the States of the Union and in all the great cities, the bicycle vote has become a thing to be reckoned with. In New York it has bowled out the granite ring completely. Time was when a residence block couldn’t be paved with asphalt, even if the property-owners were agreed on footing the bill.

… Everybody knows what the bicycle is doing for the good-roads problem…. The most radical of recent legislation is the new Connecticut law (statutes of 1895), which pledges the State to pay one-third the cost of one mile of road in each town each year, if the county and the town will each pay one-third… A better device could hardly be imagined for encouraging road improvement in the poorer regions.

And this mania led Americans to more fitness, more college sports, and a healthier lifestyle. This, in turn, led to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” speech:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

I try to remember this when I do hard, challenging things. It’s also helpful to remember when I find myself shirking strenuous things — mental and physical — that I know will be good for me. It’s also why I’ve developed less patience and respect for people who continue to wilt at the notion of doing something difficult.

Thoughts on hospitals and funerals

My grandmother died last Monday. We laid her to rest on Thursday between her two children, one of which was my mother. But for the last month or two, I’ve been making repeated trips to Louisville and Salem to visit with her, prepare for the funeral, and ultimately handle her estate. Going through the process as an adult instead of an adolescent like I was with mom, I have a few thoughts.

First, stop treating old people like children. Nurses and doctors would come into my grandmother’s room and call her “Miss Wilma” and always with the same tone as a kindergarten teacher. You do not need to speak to the elderly as if they have a child’s brain. My grandmother remembered every second of everything that was happening to her. Her mind never dulled, she maintained the ability to make her own decisions, and she was never childish. She helped a country fight literal Nazis and you’re talking to her like you would your dog.

Hospitals have to stop pretending they can fix every problem. Of the half-dozen doctors parading in and out of her room for months, only one said what we all knew: her age was working against her, this would likely not end well. All the others were on some Grey’s Anatomy-induced medical mission to fix every problem.

We pay nearly no attention to diet or exercise in this country. Our medical facilities are equally inept. You can’t feed an 84-year-old woman liquid pudding for a month and stand around wondering why she’s losing weight. Likewise, you can’t tether someone to a bed and scratch your head in confusion why they’re not getting up to move around.

Funerals cost a suspiciously round amount of money. Things seem to jump in increments of $1,000 at every turn.

People who show up to funerals had better be dressed for it. I felt like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino as random people paraded through my grandmother’s funeral wearing flip-flops, jeans, t-shirts, and hats. Even the preacher didn’t bother to put on a tie. Have some class — because my grandmother did despite having next to no money nearly all of her life.

Embalming is a weird thing. I don’t know why we do that. Equally odd to me is how we’ve become comfortable sticking people’s bodies into a box in the ground. It’s literally the most terrifying thing I can think of.

Wilma Jean Blankenbaker

Just under 18 years ago I buried my mom, one of the two strongest women in my family. Today I will bury the other, my grandmother.

Ms. Wilma Jean Blankenbaker of Salem died the early morning of September 24, 2018 at the age of 84 in Louisville, Ky. Distinguished for her energetic lifestyle, sharp mind, and unwavering love of her children, she will be missed by her friends and family.

Ms. Blankenbaker was born July 31, 1934 in Washington County, Indiana. The daughter of Ruby and Frances Malloy, she lived through fourteen presidents, two dozen wars, a moon landing, a great depression, the birth and death of her children, and numerous adventures with her sisters, brothers, and friends. She remembered every minute of it. She was a member of Canton Christian Church.

With class and humility she leaves behind a grandson, Justin Harter of Indianapolis. Her sisters, Marilyn Bowling, Mary Hellen Glispy and Judy Lyles, and her brother, Richard Malloy, all of Salem, also survive. She was preceded in death by her two children, Raymond Blankenbaker and Donna Harter of Salem, and a sister Dolores Williams of Campbellsburg.

A visitation at Weather’s Funeral Home is pending for Thursday, September 27, 2018 at 2 p.m. with visitation immediately preceding. A burial and graveside service will follow at Mt. Washington Cemetery where she will rest between her children.

Flowers and donations may be made in her name to Weather’s Funeral Home: 106 S. Shelby St., Salem, IN 47167.

Ms. Blankenbaker was gifted with a rare intensity and wholesome pursuit of every moment as it passed. Both her life and death are surely part of the same great adventure. Just as she remembered every one of her family’s births, deaths, and events before her, we will never forget her.

Winston Churchill

Hitting the Mark

Before he was Sir Winston Churchill, a young Winston was a writer for the The Daily Graphic. Working as a war correspondent for much of his reporting career, he became one of Britain’s most admired and sought-after writers. His reporting would lead the Boers to capture him in Africa in 1893. The daring late-night escape he undertook by himself from a Boer POW camp would catapult Churchill as a hero of the Empire.

That experience gave Churchill a lot to write about, too. It also shaped his views on war, duty, and what it was like to be a prisoner. That would come in handy later in life when he would be a prison warden adamant that prisoners deserved fresh air and books.

But it was his writing that made the man. Without it he never would have found himself in the situations that made him who he was. That was true in 1893, during WWI, and later in WWII.

46 years after the Boer war, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stared down Nazis. In desperate need of help, he reached for his pen. Late one evening by candlelight, Churchill wrote a letter to the new President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Churchill wrote what he thought was a great letter. He congratulated the new president on his campaign victory. He told him Britons stood alongside him and the Americans. And more to the point asked for Roosevelt to send Britain as many decommissioned, old, and otherwise serviceable but unused planes, tanks, and other equipment America had lying around. He knew America had 50 destroyers we weren’t using and Churchill needed them.

Churchill sealed his letter and sent it to Washington. Then he waited.

Weeks passed with no reply from Roosevelt. Not even a telegram.

Publicly Churchill demurred that Roosevelt “must be busy” and that his letter “got lost amongst all the new mail and shuffling around in the White House”. FDR, after all, was battling a depression domestically and more mail was coming into the White House at a rate never seen. The White House hired the first significant and modern mail staff to just handle all the letters.

But quietly, aides said the lack of response hurt Churchill. Not because he needed to know he had a new friend, but because as Churchill mused, “A writer always wants to know his writing hit the mark. And this did not.”

Churchill penned what he thought was a perfect piece. And it never accomplished its goal. It never hit the mark.

Later when Churchill and FDR would meet and form one of the best bromances in western civilization, Churchill learned FDR had read that inaugural letter but did nothing with it. Politically, involvement in the “European war” was still too touchy. FDR had too many other things to do. So, his response was to not respond at all.

I think about this a lot when I write emails. I think about it more when I write blog posts because while I see posts do well in Google search results, few get more than several dozen readers when first published.

I write and design and build things for clients and know thousands and hundreds of thousands of people will see it. Meanwhile, I can only hope it hits the mark.

And frequently I do not. In fact, 99% of the time I do not. I do not entice people to buy, or share, or read, or watch, or take a survey, or even click a link.

I’m working on a book, which is nearly finished and will release later this year. I can only hope it hits the mark, too, but realize it probably will not.

This is the creator’s ultimate demon. For people who don’t fancy themselves “creators”, but do sometimes produce a presentation or document, or stand by while someone like me does so for them, they aren’t accustomed to the sting of not hitting the mark. And it hurts.

The best we can do is trudge on, try to get better, and remember that even lions like Churchill missed the mark.

Inside the workspace and routine of Jobs, Twain, Vonnegut, and me

I love seeing people’s workspace. I think it reveals a lot about them and has enamored me ever since I saw this photo of Steve Jobs in his home (photo by Diana Walker. I think it originally appeared in Time).

I just love that he had a bunch of computers sitting on the floor, stacks of paper sitting around, and lots of books. It doesn’t seem at all unlike my office today.

Justin's Office

What’s interesting to me is while I outwardly love and prefer a clean workspace, I don’t have one. Neither did Jobs. Things just land on my desk too quickly and need to stay top-of-mind or else I know I’m going to forget about them.

So when I ran across this gem from Getty of Kurt Vonnegut writing at his typewriter, I had to share it here and plunk it in my gallery of workspaces.

Embed from Getty Images_

Yes, I have a folder. It includes others like this of an animator inside Pixar:

This is also where I save random nuggets I find about writers and other professionals. Like this from a 1955 letter Vonnegut wrote to his wife (it appeared in the Vonnegut book, Letters):

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.

I do push ups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

Also included are Henry Miller’s “11 commandments” from a 1932 interview:

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

See if you notice a trend on this piece about Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer of War and Peace:

“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” … Then he, too came up to have his breakfast, for which he usually ate two boiled eggs in a glass. He did not eat anything after that until five in the afternoon. Later, at the end of 1880, he began to take luncheon at two or three. He was not talkative at breakfast and soon retired to his study with a glass of tea. We hardly saw him after that until dinner.”

Tolstoy reportedly worked in isolation. No one was allowed to enter his study, the doors were always locked, and he removed interruptions.

On Mark Twain:

His routine was simple: he would go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5:00. Since he skipped lunch, and since his family would not venture near the study – they would blow a horn if they needed him – he could usually work uninterruptedly for several hours.

“On hot days” he wrote to a friend, “I spread the study wide open, anchor my papers down with brickbats, and write in the midst of the hurricane, clothed in the same linen we make shirts of.”

Charles Dickens:

Dickens’s working hours were invariable. His eldest son recalled that “no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”

He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.

On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.

Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.” Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.” Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.

All of these people had something in common: they did things even when they didn’t want to, they isolated themselves, they focused on one thing, and everyone knew not to disturb them or their process. They built their lives to set them up for success in their creative endeavors.

In other words, you can’t do anything useful for anyone if all you do is clack away at emails and text messages all day.

My routine has a similar cadence: I wake up at 5 or 5:30, usually without much or any help from the alarm. I cook a breakfast of one sausage patty, two strips of bacon, two eggs over-medium until they’re just not runny anymore, and 5-6 strawberries with a glass of iced tea. While eating I review some of my more urgent-looking emails and news.

I’m out the door on my bike by 6, at the office by 6:30, and drinking a cup of coffee by 7. I start by writing posts for clients or doing design work. I prefer to work uninterupted until 10:30 by leaving my phone and emails off.

I walk for lunch at 11, come back and tackle administrative tasks and typically schedule phone calls for after lunch.

I’m out the door by 3:45 for a workout at 4, bike back home at 5:15, and then it’s time for a shower, dinner, and more personal writing for the evening.

If only I could see the same success as Vonnegut or Jobs.