Personal

54

Every New Year’s Day I announce a theme, usually a single word, that represents the way I want to grow. As I turn 54 today, I want to reflect on this year’s theme, which is congruence — that is, to live a life true to my values and needs, to be honest with my yes and my no.

I’ve leaned into this year’s theme harder than any year’s theme before. I’ve really worked on advocating for myself.

The timing could not have been better. Shortly into the new year I took a new job as Director of Engineering in a software company. Unexpectedly, I’ve found myself needing to set strong boundaries with a particular VP. His function and mine are interrelated; we work fairly closely together. Sometimes he oversteps.

At first, I wasn’t sure of the fellow’s intentions. Did he think I was incapable of my job? Was he trying to take over territory? In time, I came to see that he is acting in good faith. He just has a command-and-control kind of personality, and tends to direct anything that doesn’t seem in order. Fortunately, every time I’ve set a boundary with him, he’s honored it. I’ve even given him critical feedback a time or two, and he’s received it well and tried to act on it. I believe that in time he will trust me and my team and I won’t have to draw lines with him anymore.

Also unexpectedly, in June I had to have a very blunt conversation with my boss. When he hired me he agreed to let me hire a layer of managers to directly lead the engineers — all 21 of them. That’s a lot of direct reports, far too many for me to do a good job of managing them and also do the other duties of my job. But then the money to make those hires kept not coming and kept not coming. And then my company took a very large outside investment, which created a lot of activity, and my already full schedule became double and triple booked. I had barely been keeping up with everything, but not anymore. I went on the fast track to burnout.

My mistake was waiting. I should have held my boss to his promise from day one. I kick myself now. I try to give myself a pass because I could not have seen coming the large investment and the performance pressure it has placed on us. But even without that, I wasn’t doing every aspect of my job well enough because there was simply more than I could do.

At home, I’ve started several conversations with my wife about what we want out of our marriage and our home. The crazy family challenges we’ve lived through have tended to put us in constant go mode. There’s been emergency after emergency. It’s left little time for us to talk about and work out what we want our home and our life together to be. Except where I personally take care of things at home, this home life isn’t what I want it to be. But as we’ve talked about what we want, we’ve both tried hard to honor it, and be honest about when we can’t.

This has been hard. I have not enjoyed it. At my core, I want harmony to simply exist, so I can live placidly within it. I’ve always known that’s not realistic, that you have to work at building and maintaining alignment, but I’ve generally put off doing anything about it unless I was backed against a wall. I hope that as I keep practicing this, it will become a normal part of my behavior.

I don’t expect to be perfect. It’s just that where I’ve had unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life — and I’ve had considerable helpings of both — at the root, I didn’t live true to my values and needs.

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Personal

53

As I turn 53 today I’ve been thinking about the life lessons I still haven’t learned.

Row of Herbies

Chief among them is that I will always have shortcomings. During my 40s I put a lot of effort and energy into working through shortcomings. I believed, deep down, that I was unacceptable because of the ways in which I failed or fell short. I felt real shame over a few of those shortcomings. I wanted to identify and eliminate them all.

I’d like to get over that in my 54th year. That’s not to say I won’t keep working to be a better man. I just want to to accept that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that I may never be able to change certain things about me that I wish were different or better.

I want to be a better man because I want to have a better life, one less characterized by stress, disappointment, and sadness; one more characterized by peace and joy. I want to not be a jerk or an ass in the world, even unintentionally, even when I feel justified. I want to be more effective in the things I do and in my interactions with others. I want to build people and institutions up, not damage them.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m largely driven by anger. I see things that are wrong and it pisses me off. I want to correct or control them. I want to fix what’s broken and shape what’s wrong for right. I want justice. It’s my basic nature.

My photography and my writing counterbalance the anger. Photography is a wonderful distraction where I can lose myself in pleasure. Writing helps me discover what I think so I can make peace.

I still haven’t learned what to do when I feel angry. I’ve spent my life trying to not yell and punish in anger like Dad often did. He always played it down by saying he only raised his voice, but his raised voice always frightened me so. I don’t want to pollute my world like that.

That’s led me to internalize angry feelings. Sometimes I can process them and let them go. Once in a while they leak out in passive-aggressive ways. Mostly I get stuck in them. They keep me awake at night. They lead to pervasive feelings of disappointment. Unchecked, that disappointment leads to depression.

This year I’d like to work on dealing with anger more in the moment. First, I’d like to analyze quickly whether I can act on the thing that has activated my anger. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For the things I can’t do anything about, I want to work on acceptance — radical acceptance, if need be — and set boundaries that let me protect and care for myself.

For the things I can do something about, I’m still afraid of losing my cool like my dad used to. That will remain unacceptable to me. But if I can just stay steady in that moment, and speak swiftly, I think I can speak my mind and discharge the anger without leaving others feeling burned. Take a quick breath, find as even a tone of voice as I can, and say what’s bothering me. Stay steady, speak swiftly. Maybe that will sometimes change things. But if it doesn’t, at least the anger should reduce and be less likely to linger.

I think this starts with me accepting my basic angry nature. After 53 years it’s still here, which is strong evidence that it’s not likely to go away. This is who I am. I don’t have to like it, but the path to peace and sanity is to accept it.

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Personal

52

Jct 52

Every year on my birthday I write about growing older. But 52 isn’t that old.

It’s twice as old as 26, which is about the median age of the software engineers who work for me. I feel twice their age as I notice their youthful good looks and see them struggle through things I mastered long ago. I miss my youthful good looks but would not unlearn these valuable life skills to get them back.

As the rest of my 50s unfold I look forward foremost to our children all building independent lives. I’m eager to see what they choose and whether it brings them joy and satisfaction. I am eager for Margaret and I to turn our attention toward the life we want to build for ourselves, and to enjoy our children and grandchildren.

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Personal

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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Personal

48

IMG_3835 proc sm

I turn 48 today.

I’ve known many people who wring their hands over the birthdays that end in zero. They’re milestones of getting old, after all. But none of them have bothered me so far — certainly not 20, but also not 30, not 40.

Some odd birthdays have troubled me unexpectedly. 33 was tough. I felt I couldn’t avoid anymore that I was firmly in my adult years. I wasn’t sure I always liked it.

Last year’s birthday, 47, hit me hard too. To my surprise, because my middle years have been the best of my life. But where 46 was “middle aged,” 47 felt like “pushing 50,” and something about 50 feels more old than middle aged. I’m sure that if you’re significantly older than 50, you’re chuckling over that statement. But it got me down for a bit.

I’m good with it now. And if 47 is “pushing 50,” 48 is on the downhill slide, hurtling headlong, picking up speed. Look out, I’m throwing in the clutch.

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Photography

Octogenarian bloggers leave a void when they close their blogs

In the past few months, two of my favorite film-photography bloggers have ceased posting.

Morning at Piedras Marcadas
Morning at Piedras Marcadas, © Mike Connealy

I found Mike Connealy’s blog shortly after I restarted my camera collection in 2006. He was doing what I aspired to do: using old film cameras and writing about the experience. Despite his obvious and considerable photographic skill, he wrote of his journey of discovery, sharing his ups and downs with his cameras and his technique. I found it to be compelling, and it has led me to be transparent as I write about my own photography. Mike has mastered many aspects of black-and-white photography, especially the use of light and shadow. His work has heavily influenced mine. Mike’s Flickr space shows his best work; go take a look.

Paul Giambarba is an artist and graphic designer best known for his iconic branding of Polaroid during the company’s best years. I learned of him in 2008 while researching to write this post about my first Polaroid camera. It remains a great thrill that Paul himself left the first comment on that post. I’ve followed his blog about analog photography since. It has introduced me to many talented film photographers, past and present.

What Mike and Paul share in common is what one might call advanced age. Per Wikipedia, Paul is in his late 80s. Mike doesn’t reveal his age, but a couple self-portraits in Mike’s Flickr space suggest that he’s roughly of Paul’s generation.

In their farewell posts, Mike writes that he’s said everything useful he can think of; Paul writes that it is time to let his work stand and to be content with it.

I want to exclaim, “No! Your work is interesting! I’m still learning from you! Keep doing, keep sharing! ” But what do I know of 80? Does one wish to crown a lifetime’s work and bask in its satisfaction? Does one find futility in continued exploration? Does one scale back activity to match flagging energy and drive? Does one simply find newly fulfilling things to do?

Yet how else other than through the Internet would I have had the opportunity to peek into the mind of anyone of this generation? To come to know a fragment of them as whole people?

I’m grateful. But sad nonetheless.

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