Growth, Stories Told

Knowing when to quit

I think you just know when it’s time to quit. Quit anything, really. Look back at your life, at the things you’ve quit. I’ll bet that you can pinpoint the moment when you knew. Even if you didn’t recognize it at the time.

It was 1992. I had graduated from engineering school almost four years before and had a job with a local software company. I’d even picked up part-time work in pro radio thanks to my experience at my alma mater’s station, WMHD. But I was still doing a weekly show there, too. I had been station manager while I was a student, and was well known and liked by staff and listeners. And so when I asked the next station manager if I could still do a show even after I graduated he was thrilled. “You’d do that? Really? Well, of course you can!”

Me at WMHD

Me outside the WMHD studio in 2012. Some buddies and I painted that wall in 1988.

It was exciting and weird to keep playing records on that little 160-watt pea shooter. Thursday right after work I’d drive over to the station and park in visitor parking, a clutch of records from home under my arm as I headed into the basement studio. Students who remembered me, themselves now about to graduate, would come by to say hello. The phone would ring with longtime listeners on the other end telling me they were glad to hear me and hey can you play a song for me?

For a couple years it was great fun and I felt like a local celebrity. And as the coaching I got in my pro gig made me a better disk jockey, my work on WMHD sounded better and better too. Here’s 45 minutes from a show on a late-January day a quarter century ago.

But it was about this time it started to feel different, like it was time to move on from it. I had the time to do it. It was still fun. And management told me that I could keep doing it for as long as I wanted. But I was just playing the same classic and progressive rock I’d always played, even as the youngest students were starting to introduce hip hop on the station. Students from my era would have had none of that nonsense! But I was about to turn 25. I couldn’t even pretend to feel like a college student anymore. My world had moved on, even if I hadn’t from here yet.

So I quit. I don’t remember when my last show was; probably in February at the end of that academic quarter. I wish I had recorded that show. But I remember telling listeners that this was it, and getting their very kind phone calls telling me they enjoyed hearing me and wished I’d stay. But then the time came, and I played my last song, and walked out of the studio for the last time. And while it felt odd to know it was over, it didn’t feel bad. I could tell: it was time, and this was right.

There have been other times I knew it was time to quit and I didn’t honor it.

I knew it was time to quit collecting coins, a hobby I’d had since childhood, when checking my change stopped being an exciting hunt and started feeling like an obligation. I hung on anyway for years, hoping it would become fun again. It never did.

I knew it was time to quit that first career job when one day the controller, who was kind of a friend, stopped by my desk to tell me that I should go straight to the bank and deposit the paycheck I had just received, as not everybody’s check would clear that day. I made a beeline for the bank. Yet I had been comfortable there, and I hoped in futility that it would become comfortable again. And so I hung on for two brutal years as the company circled the drain.

I knew it was time to quit being a technical writer when I grew weary of writing things like, “Open the File menu and choose Print,” over and over. Yet I did it for a couple years more as it took me that long to push through fears that I couldn’t successfully shift my career into something different.

I knew it was time to quit my first marriage one afternoon when my wife did something particularly ugly to me, something I don’t particularly feel like sharing. There are two sides to every story anyway. Yet I hung on for a couple more years for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, and it about put me into a rubber room. I quit only when she filed for divorce.

I knew it was time to quit riding my youngest son’s butt about doing his homework when I recognized that homework was all we ever talked about. It drove a wedge between us. Yet my fears that he would fail to launch kept me at it for months after I recognized that. I finally forced myself to quit, regardless of my fear. Our relationship rebounded quickly. And then he figured his focus challenges out on his own.

Sometimes even when you know it’s time to quit, you can’t. Not just yet. Maybe it’s a job, and you can’t live without that income. Maybe it’s a marriage, something not to be quit lightly, something to be quit only after all alternatives are exhausted.

Or maybe you simply forget that you have agency, that you get to choose your life, that you are not actually enslaved to the choices you made. Even if you feel enslaved, because you’re addicted to something, there is help out there for you.

Because you can lay plans. You can get help if you need it. You can keep trying to make the changes necessary so that you can quit. And move on into the phase of your life you’re meant to be fully living.

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Growth, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. And in its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

And then I found it necessary to sell almost everything I owned. It was not easy. But after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug escaped being sold was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This reflection from seven years ago absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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Growth

My theme for 2017

When I wrote last year’s list of themes for my new year, I felt sure it would be the last one, that my annual setting of direction had run its course.

Autumn IrisI think a lot about who I am versus who I want to be. Some might call it navel gazing, but self-analysis is core to who I am.

Yet I want to remain open to the road ahead so I can take the interesting turns as they come. And they always come! So I avoid new year’s resolutions and I don’t set hard goals. Instead, I set direction. And I follow it generally, always scanning the road ahead for opportunity or need to alter course.

My annual list of three watchwords or themes, a tradition for years in my life and as my first post each new year here at Down the Road, is the major way I’ve done that.

2016 was a remarkable year. I got married! If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I had a disastrous, destructive first marriage. It was best for all of us when it ended almost eleven years ago. In its wake, I focused on building a happy, healthy life as a single man and as a dad to my sons. I became content living essentially alone, and I could have continued it for the rest of my life. Yet I wondered if I could finally find love. I looked off and on for a few years and met some nice women, but finally decided that the search was more challenging than it was worth. So I quit looking. Just then, I met Margaret.

Frozen CustardShe’d been married before, too, and has four children. Between us, and including my stepson from my first marriage, we have seven! Remarriage generally means blending families. But the blessing of doing it at our age, about 50, is that our children are older. Our youngest just turned 16. Our oldest is 31.

Our empty nest is in sight! But for several good reasons involving our children, when we married it didn’t make sense for us to live under one roof right away.

It’s an unusual arrangement, and it has been hard. We knew it would be. Who wants to be married, yet not be able to connect in person every day? We’ve had to be very deliberate about creating face time with each other. Still, we’ve encountered challenges staying connected and coordinating our lives. Extra grace has been required.

But now a couple more of our children are near natural transition points and will not call our houses home for much longer. Them moving on will let us move toward living under one roof. We have decided that it will be her roof, at least until her youngest finishes high school in 2018. That means I’ll be listing my home for sale. There’s a fair amount of work to be done here first. With effort and luck, we’ll have it done by summer.

It’s going to be a big year. And it makes my 2017 theme clear: family. Just one theme, not my usual three. But this theme has three dimensions.

The first is care. My relationship with Margaret needs extra care while we continue to live apart, and when we eventually make the adjustments of sharing a home. And our children need parenting care to help them navigate their late teens and early 20s, and to move into their adult futures.

The second is work. It will take considerable work effort to ready my home for sale. We will spend a lot of our spare time at it through at least this summer. And all of the relationships in our family need us to be fully present and do the work to keep them healthy and happy.

The third is money. It will cost money to ready my home for sale, even though we will do the work ourselves. And two of our children are in college, and another starts this fall, and the youngest starts the fall after that. Neither of us has ever focused on maximizing our incomes, but we need to make career (and side-work) choices that let us pay for everything.

Margaret shares this theme with me. And as we play it out big changes will come to our lives — some of which we can see, and some we can’t.

 

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Faith, Growth, Life

The sacrifice of thanksgiving

As we head into our Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, here’s a rerun from 2013 that seems extra relevant now. There’s always something wrong in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it threatens to crush our spirits. Can we pause for a minute to reflect on what’s good and right, and be grateful for it?

I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.

I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.

So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.

The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.

sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.

So I asked, because this came up during Sunday school. And the teacher said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”

It left me more puzzled than satisfied.

But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.

This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. A dozen years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.

My living room in the morning

One small thing for which I am frequently surprisingly grateful: the morning sun streaming through my front windows. I love how the warm light plays against the wall.

Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.

It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.

And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.

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Growth, Stories Told

Embracing my inner geek

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

I have never been cool.

Jim_1985

High school

When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.

So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.

The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.

College

College

And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.

I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.

I had a ball being myself.

I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.

I did temporarily doubt myself, pretty heavily at times, as I pushed through my most difficult days. But I always rebounded.

Jim_2005

20th H.S. reunion

Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.

A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”

It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.

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Growth, Life

49

My hair is thinning on top. I wondered if this would ever happen. It started happening to my dad when he was in his late 30s, and he tells me his dad went bald in his 20s. Now it’s my turn. I’m glad I’m tall, or everybody’d be able to see through to my scalp. My eyebrows are thinning, too; my height doesn’t mask that. At least you have to look really hard to notice my gray hairs. They don’t show up at all in this photograph!

49

I can no longer deny that I need reading glasses, but I forget to carry them most of the time and so look at my phone at arm’s length.

My new normal weight, the one my body defaults to when I don’t overeat, is 10 pounds more than it was 10 years ago.

And I tire more easily now. My athletic friends have complained about loss of ability and stamina since their early 30s. An advantage of being mostly sedentary is that there’s a lot less to lose, and you lose it a lot later.

I’m lucky: I’ve aged physically a lot more slowly than most of my age peers. Yet each of these changes in my body has come with some feelings of resistance and loss, and has taken effort to accept.

I decided a long time ago not to fight physical aging. I’m not going to resort to Rogaine or hair dye, and certainly not cosmetic surgery (tempting as it may be as I really hate how my right eyelid has gone droopy). A little more exercise would do me good, though.

But no regrets, because I’m happy and content now. That wasn’t always true when I was twentysomething and thirtysomething. I say it every year at this time: you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.

Happy 49th birthday to me!

 

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