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Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Upside of To-Do Lists

I arrive each morning at Starbucks with a small memo book in hand. Then, while drinking my grande half-caf, I read three daily newspapers and jot down the titles of books to read and stuff to write about. If a workshop is looming, my reading may inspire new writing exercises, which also go in the memo book.

Those two or three or four pages of notes then lead to what I plan to do that day, including people to contact, ball games to watch or listen to, and what to pick up at my favorite Mexican market. That all goes in the book, too.

And so begins the day’s to-do list.

I’m not sure how many decades ago I started each day with a to-do list, though it became an indispensible practice once I started teaching college writing in the mid-‘80s. There was no way I was going to enter a classroom without an agenda or to-do list, my set of goals for the next 50 minutes.

Whatever you call them, agendas or to-do lists anchor me. They give me safe crossing through the day, providing the illusion that I am in control of what’s going to happen. So if getting mugged or run over by an SUV or spilling coffee all over myself isn’t on that list, it won’t happen. Right?

This all came to mind while reading “Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List,” by Patricia Hampl.* It was published in the New York Times on April 15, and, of course, duly noted in my indispensible memo book.

In the piece, Hampl contrasts striving—as epitomized by to-do lists—with serenity, though for me it’s the list that leads to serenity: I make the day’s goals, I achieve them, I am serene. And should I not reach one of those goals? Easy, it goes on the next day’s to-do list.

Then nearing the end of her essay, Hampl quotes one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman, as an example of how we can do the opposite of striving:

Waste the day. That’s what that great American lounger Whitman did. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he wrote. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”

But here’s what I think: Whitman wrote that after hours, maybe days, spent reading, walking, keenly observing the world around him, probably taking notes, and then writing.

And re-writing. 

Whitman simply offered the illusion that the loafing and the idle observing spilled out effortlessly onto the page. The opposite is true, of course. Though he entered the creative chaos of writing not knowing where it would lead him, once there he was in precise control of words and sentences that have lasted over one hundred years.

Control, illusion, and creative chaos: They all begin with my to-do list.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Beginning Again, Again.

Back in 1985, 42 was considered on the old side, especially as a recently admitted graduate student. Not only didn’t I know much about my major—English Lit—but most of my fellow students were half my age. Plus, there was over 15 years separating my B.A. in psychology from this latest academic adventure.

Of course, I’ve written about the whole experience of earning a master’s degree at 45 years old, even read my piece, “Happy Accident,” at a live lit event in 2015. In truth, those three years of reading and writing were among the happiest of my life; they also set me on a path that I still travel today: writer and teacher.

All of which I thought about when reading Anne Rudig’s opinion piece in the March 12 issue of the New York Times: “Back in School, at 64.”

I’ve selected out portions of her essay that especially resonated with me, including how I quit my job to return to school; how much I respected my professors, a good number of them younger than I; what I learned from sharing a classroom with all those twenty-somethings; and, finally, how my studies, as Rudig so aptly put it, “enriched [me] beyond measure.

Here are the excerpts, with the link to the whole article following. I hope that both her story and mine encourage you to take a similar journey. No time like the present to begin, eh?

I was 64 when I entered graduate school. I had just left the work force — not retired, just tired. Tired of hitting the glass ceiling and of policies that failed to protect employees from abuse. As disenchantment with my job grew, writing became a healthy distraction.

I sat in workshops and seminars during my first semester at Columbia, ashamed of my age and surrounded by brilliant young people.

Some of my instructors were close in age to me, winners of Pulitzers with decades of writing and publishing experience. Some were just a little older than my children. I wondered, was it too late for me to do this?

Despite the age difference, [the students and I have] fed one another in many ways — emotionally, intellectually and literally (I’ve brought tomatoes from my garden, while another student brought freshly baked bread).

I’ve been warned by my professors that a degree in writing is unlikely to bring riches. That’s okay. I’ve been enriched beyond measure.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

To Do Good Do More With Less

It may have been sometime in the early ‘90s that I heard Molly Ivins speak at a local indie bookstore. She was on tour to promote her book, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? I recall that the place was packed.

Ivins was a journalist and author from Texas and just a year younger than I. In both her writing and speaking, she was witty, politically astute, and unafraid to speak truth to power. 

After her talk, most of the Q&A likely focused on her book, and maybe a bit on Texas politics. But at some point, I remember her offering up her advice for what it takes to lead a satisfying life.

And though my memories from that long-ago book event might be a bit fuzzy, I’ve never forgotten that advice: Do good, have fun, learn something. Nice and concise, though broad. I have a feeling she practiced what she preached up until her death—too, too young—at 62 in 2007.

I think of those three approaches to life more and more these days, especially as those days are dwindling: Am I doing good? Having fun? Learning something? This day or the next? And, how, exactly am I doing each?

Lately, I find myself fixated on the “having fun” part, especially on planning to have fun. Sure, it’s pretty easy for me to have spontaneous fun—while writing, teaching my workshops, riding the train, petting the neighborhood dogs or schmoozing with the baristas at Starbucks.

But I also want to schedule in fun, writing down in my calendar then holding myself accountable to particular fun events. I also need to more precisely define what I think a fun event might be.

Last week, it was going to see Wes Anderson’s ”Isle of Dogs,” a pretty fun movie. Before that, it was watching the Loyola Ramblers in the NCAA tournament at my local bar, which also serves as a venue for spontaneous fun.

Then there’s choir practice and singing at mass. I always have fun doing that, partly because making music always puts a bounce in my step, and mostly because my fellow singers are themselves awfully fun.

OK, so I’m hardly experiencing a fun deficit, but there’s always room for more. Which means given the ticking clock that I’ll have to learn to do more with less. Sounds like a warm, sunny day at a baseball game with a couple of beers, Knuckle Balls, and an Affy Tapple Caramel Apple might just do the trick.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Late To The Game

If it’s true that we become more like our parents as we age, then I’ve grown to share my father’s love of baseball, particularly the Chicago Cubs. The only team he preferred over them was the Philly’s, as he and my mother were originally from Philadelphia.

He listened to games on the radio and loved the broadcasters as much as the team, especially Ron Santo. In fact, for his 90th birthday, one of his grandchildren arranged for Santo to call my father and wish him happy birthday. At first, Dad thought it was a great prank, but, no, it really was Ron Santo. That was probably one of the best gifts he ever received.

Not long after, and following another of his falls, my father ended up in the nursing home next to the retirement community where he and my stepmother lived. When I first visited him there, I saw that he didn’t have a radio on the table next to his bed. And it was baseball season. I immediately got up, went to their apartment in the next building, and got it for him.

Though not exactly in the “best gift” category, that radio likely soothed the old man, reminding him who he was in that bleak place of uniformity, bad food, and bad smells.

Though a life-long basketball fan, I wasn’t especially drawn to baseball, but that changed with the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016. And so starting last spring, I began more actively following the team, watching the games on the giant TVs at my local bar. That’s when I learned more about the players—including two of my faves, Rizzo and Bryant—and manager Joe Maddon.

I’ve come to be an avid Cubs fan just in the nick of time: after the Loyola Ramblers win the NCAA tournament on Monday night, I’ll be in need of another team to regularly cheer. And to read about every morning in the Chicago Sun-Times whilst enjoying my grande half-caf at Starbucks.

In fact it was there on Monday that I read an article about Maddon, and whether he’d be signing a new contract after his current one expires. That didn’t interest me half as much as his comments about being an old guy:

It might be hard to believe, but the manager known for onesies, zoo animals and an ability to draw high performance from young players became the oldest manager in baseball when the Nationals fired 68-year-old Dusty Baker last fall.

‘‘It’s about remaining contemporary,’’ said Maddon, 64, who averages about 10 miles a day on his bike. ‘‘You could be 45 and be like the oldest dude on the block.’’

So how lucky am I? Turns out, I’ll be rooting for the team where the manager is a Boomer, a fellow cyclist, and uses the word “dude.”

What else can I say? May Joe and the Cubs abide.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again, Even Aging.

I don’t recall taking any philosophy courses in my undergrad days. And even if I did, I couldn’t tell you who or what I read, especially of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Or even which was which.

Fortunately there is google, which will drive us willingly around every corner of the interweb in search of whatever. It was during one of those crazy rides that I discovered the Roman philosopher, Cicero, who in 44 BC wrote a treatise, aka, an essay, on aging, handily enough titled “On Old Age.”

Now I’ve yet to read the work, though it’s definitely on The List. But I have been reading about it, including online links that kindly summarize, in modern English, some of what Cicero had to say about aging.

One such link I was lucky to discover about an hour ago: the Introduction to How To Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Published by Princeton University Press (2016), the book is a translation of “On Old Age” by scholar Philip Freeman, who also wrote the introduction. In it, Freeman nicely summarizes Cicero’s main points about aging, three that I found especially interesting:

3. There are proper seasons to life.
Nature has fashioned human life so that we enjoy certain things when we are young and others when we are older. Attempting to cling to youth after the appropriate time is useless. If you fight nature, you will lose. 

6. The mind is a muscle that must be exercised.
Cicero has the main character of his book learn Greek literature in his later years and carefully recall the events of the day before going to sleep each night. Whatever technique works, it is vital to use our minds as much as possible as we grow older.

7. Older people must stand up for themselves.
Or as Cicero says, “Old age is respected only if it defends itself, maintains its rights, submits to no one, and rules over its domain until its last breath.” The later years of life are no time for passivity.

As for #6, I’ve decided to exercise my own mind muscle by actually reading Freeman’s translation of Cicero. I’m hoping that he will gently lead me through the thoughts of a man who not only lived over two thousand years ago, but also recorded those thoughts in Latin.


And speaking of exercising that muscle, I've started a second blog that chronicles my return to the faith of my youth after a 45 year absence. It will feature posts I expect to be fun, informative, hopefully illuminating, and perhaps a bit cranky.