Author Archives: byfaroe

Feeling the hard feelings

I’ve been taking another whack at breaking down my phone/media addiction lately. I’m rarely without a book or a podcast or a show on in the background or a video game to play or several all at once.

I think I’ve managed to cut it down to one at a time, at least, and I’m rebuilding my old ability to endure silence and practice stillness. I’ve gone on long walks in silence—no headphones, no reading while I walk—and from time to time managed patches of time without a phone or screen in reach, just reading or journaling or sitting and thinking.

And I’m starting to see why I avoid it. There’s a looming sadness that I hadn’t let myself notice. I think I’m happy on the surface and happy at my core, but there are thick strata of loneliness and failure and existential dread in the middle, and I’m glad I’ve stopped ignoring them.

It’s not easy, but it feels healthy to sit quietly and just think and feel whatever I think and feel. I have an intuition that all the bad feelings will be in there until I feel them, and it may take a while to get through it all, but at least now I’m making progress instead of continuing to hide it.

Part of it is the huge changes in the world and closer to home over the last few years—politics and pandemic and the resulting loss of close community and regular feasts with friends. I’m coming to recognize that I miss life as it was, and while my life is good and will likely get better, it won’t go back to how it was.

Part of it is the inevitable reckoning as I approach 40 and see how far I have yet to go to realize my dreams and mission. I realize for all my thinking and talking about books, it’s been forever since I published one of my own. Years in, my program of writing courses has reached thousands and helped many but not broken even. I fear my publishing company may be holding my authors back as much as it helps them. My kids are growing up, and as much time as I spend with them, I’m not sure it’s enough.

And finally, part of it is a growing awareness that I don’t know how to get where I’m going. Our efforts to buy a homestead for rich hospitality seem stymied by the market. I can’t crack the nut of how to get my businesses properly profitable for me and my authors. I’ve got at least eight books burning and burning inside me, and yet I face powerful avoidance every time I sit down to write.

I’m finding I deeply crave a less individualistic culture, where I’m surrounded by traditions and supports, where there are apprenticeships and communal Sabbaths and norms of hospitality and known prayers to pray. It seems I’m tired of making all this up as I go.

I’m not going to try to wrap this all up with too tidy a bow—it’s real sadness and I’m really feeling it, and I’m still in the middle of it—but three things help.

One is that, while there are difficult realities there, I know my read on them and the resulting emotions fluctuate, and I’m pretty sure I’m just in a downswing right now. I’ve been here before, and it does get better.

Second, I’m finding this is undercutting my confidence in planning and effort. I’ve had it up to about here with planning and effort, and I’m increasingly ready to slow down, listen, find the heart of God, and do the one right next thing that is needed instead of all the scattershot things I can think of in hopes that one of them works. That seems like a healthy direction.

Third, and strongest, is that I don’t ultimately depend on any of this going right. I desperately want it to, but if it all falls apart, I’m still with God, already and forever.

Debt Snowball for writing goals

Working on a long-term plan to balance my writing projects. I’ve got 8 writing projects on my mind, of which 4 hold burning urgency.

I’m terrible at this, incidentally.

I’m trying like crazy to cultivate a delivery-focused mindset these days—work on one thing at a time and finish, then move on. I’m really bad at it. I can’t stand the idea of letting go of the other things to focus on one.

But I’m (intellectually) convinced it’s the better path. Say you’ve got five 10-hour jobs, and 20 hours this week. My usual approach would be to split up my 20 hours, get 4 hours into each job, figure I made some good progress, and repeat.

But say I manage to ruthlessly focus on one job at a time. 20 hours in I’m done with two jobs (and can hand them in or hand them off or stop thinking about them), and next week I can do the next two.

Part of my brain still screams, “But you didn’t even start the others!” And that’s true. But IRL, nobody cares how much you’ve started. And it’s actually freeing to get some of the jobs totally off your plate.

In trying to get myself to actually let go of some of my writing projects long enough to actually finish any of them, I realized thinking about it like a “debt snowball” is a great idea. (That’s a personal finance thing where you maintain minimum payments on all your debts but one, and hit that one really hard, then when it’s done up your payments on the next, etc. Good way to gain momentum on early payoff if you can swing it.)

Talked with my genius wife K about this—I had an intuition that the “highest interest first” or “highest balance first” had a parallel here, but needed her help pinning it down. We agreed “balance” means remaining total workload (word count or hours). That approach would mean start by focusing on the one I can finish quickest, then move on to the next quickest, and so on.

But “interest” is where it got interesting. I figured it’s something like impact or earnings potential. But K blew my mind with the idea that interest equals the emotional toll not finishing has on me.

In other words, start with the book that hurts most to have not written.

I did a quick ranking (again, brutally difficult, because I want to do all of them all the time), and also a quick estimate of how many hours each one is likely to take. I don’t fully trust the latter, but it was eye-opening.

My big amazing favorite (but long, complicated) novel Frobisher clocked in just under 100 hours estimated for this (hopefully final) major editing pass. A lot of the others came in around 40-80 hours. A quick, stylish non-fiction book in the form of brief aphorisms, principles, and anecdotes was 110. Frobisher is definitely up there, but I would have expected it to be 5-10x the smaller quicker books. Double feels surprisingly do-able.

Frobisher and one other quick, exciting project topped my “high-interest” list, and it’s surprisingly motivating to realize within an estimated 120 hours of focused work I could have two of the projects I care most about ready for next steps if I just focus on those.

Not that 120 hours is trivial amid life, day job, client work, and four kids. But that’s a goal I can get my hands around, and it gives me lots of reasons to sneak in extra hours writing instead of goofing off.

Certainly more motivational than knowing that with 120 hours of work I could be partway through eight or even a dozen projects.

A Notebook to Help Break Phone Addiction

I’m on another kick lately of trying to cut down on my device usage and spend time thinking, reading, walking, and processing without a lot of distraction and evasion.

I’m not great at it yet, but when I manage it it’s refreshing, and I’m starting to reach more clarity and depth on some ideas I’ve been processing for a long time.

One trick this time around is that I’m carrying around a notebook—just an old half-filled composition book, nothing fancy—and writing anything I want in it whenever I want, no plan or template or pre-defined direction.

It’s like nicotine gum. Instead of trying to cold-turkey quit all the brain stimulation of shows and podcasts and scrolling on my phone, I’m replacing it with something. But this something takes me deeper and helps me draw out and process what I’m feeling and thinking, not just avoid it.

If space isn’t empty

I’m reading Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky and hit a great connection with Perelandra.

Both of them build a great sense that space isn’t empty.

It flips my defaults in a way I love.

Reading Perelandra left me with a profound sense of the rich fullness of the cosmos, the space between the worlds swamped in life-giving energy, Earth tucked away in a quiet little pocket cut off (or shielded?) from the blinding overflow.

Shards of Earth takes the idea of the void that stares back and pretty brilliantly literalizes it. When you travel through un-space (which allows interstellar travel), you find yourself completely, utterly, chillingly alone.

And then, even worse, you find you’re not alone.

It’s cthonic and eerie, shades of Cthulhu, gigantic unknowable presence(s?) in the deep.

As I’ve soaked in the two effects together, it all feels very Genesis 1.

The chaotic deep, far older than time and space.

The ancient Spirit of God hovering.

The “and there was light.”

Reading: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

I recently re-read the Space Trilogy (aka Cosmic Trilogy) by C. S. Lewis, consisting of Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

My rather vague memories of my last reading some years back consisted mainly of the following.

  • Out of the Silent Planet is notable for its coherent sci-fi account of a world in which there are multiple intelligent alien species, all ruled by the Christian God, and yet Jesus still incarnated as a human on Earth, not any of the other intelligent species on other planets.
  • Perelandra is a deep exploration of the temptation of Eve (though in the book it’s a parallel situation Lewis specifically distinguishes from Eve’s temptation on Earth). What I found most notable was how much groundwork the tempter has to lay before the idea of disobedience is even a concept she can conceive enough to discuss and consider it.
  • That Hideous Strength — Beyond the rather brilliant concept of ‘macrobes’ (a humanist/scientific term for newly-theorized organisms that are, in the end, just demons), I mainly remember this as containing some of the downright creepiest scenes I’ve ever read. I hate horror and some of the final scenes were honestly too much for me back when I read them. It’s extremely skillful—Lewis’s insight into the nature of evil is on masterful display as those who have given themselves over to pride, anti-truth, lust for power, etc. experience their endgame—but this is a subject where the mastery makes it even harder to take. I was determined (and curious) to revisit those half-remembered scenes on this re-read, but I was definitely reading the book like a kid watching a scary movie between his fingers.

Some highlights on this read-through:

  • Out of the Silent Planet I was impressed with how thoroughly Lewis “humanized” (person-ized?) the aliens, to the extent that the human antagonists start feeling alien—certainly monstrous—when they come back on the scene. Also sets up a solid start to what you might call the hyper-objectivity the eldila and oyeresu (analogous to or maybe synonymous with ruling angelic powers) carry with them. Every time they appear, there’s a strong sense of a deeper reality that casts an unflinching light on the humans’ perceptions and narratives, and fundamentally and inescapably reframes the situation.
  • Perelandra — One thing that stood out this time was the way Lewis highlights the strange reality that individual callings matter. I was deeply struck by the scene(s) where Ransom wrestles with the absurdity of the fact that he, just a regular guy, has been chosen to battle the tempter in this new Eden. On the one hand it feels inevitable to him that he must win by some kind of divine intervention, because how could something this big actually depend on his puny efforts? On the other hand, he has to face with mounting dread the reality that maybe he is the divine intervention, and if he doesn’t step up and win the struggle, it won’t be won. It’s a stark reality to sit with, and reminded me sharply of an article I love called Shut Up and Do The Impossible.
  • That Hideous Strength — The scary scenes at the end are still highly disturbing, but didn’t hit me quite as hard this time around. What surprised me, though, was how much creepier I found the whole book. The insidious (and ultimately demonic) organization NICE is so freaking unsettling. Maybe at this point in my life I’m more attuned to the subtler threats of toxic bureaucracy and organizational maneuvering. It’s amazing how incisive Lewis is in this portrayal. Every single person in NICE, each in their own distinct way, continuously offloads responsibility while fighting for status and undercutting everyone around them, including their allies. Logres, the small band of  people resisting NICE, is exactly the opposite. The members are just as distinct, but they’re each willing in their own ways to question their own motives, trust one another’s, and take on sacrificial risks. It was particularly striking how NICE members are perpetually keeping things vague and subtextual, while their make things more specific. It’s a masterful study of authority handled rightly and wrongly. Authority is a subject near to my heart, but I’ll have to write about that one another time.

Basically 40

I turned 39 yesterday, but for maybe a few months now I’ve been practicing thinking of myself as “basically 40.”

I find that every age has its own benefits, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed every stage of life so far, but I can’t deny that 40 is still a milestone that looms large. I know it’s arbitrary, but it feels like a point at which I should definitely have something to show for myself, or know what I’m doing, or something.

So a part of that practice is definitely preemptive and self-protective. Getting used to the shock so it’s not as much of a shock when it actually comes.

But a big part of it is also getting a head start. If it’s arbitrary, why not figure out what I’m doing now? Why not just go ahead and work toward whatever level of accomplishment or responsibility or stability I think I’m supposed to achieve by 40?

I’ve decided to take being basically 40 as a golden opportunity. Instead of letting it sneak up on me with whatever big heavy societal expectations it’s going to hit me with, I’m going to pounce on it instead.

I call the shots around here.

After all, I’m basically 40.

Big Unified Index Card Productivity System #1: Nouns vs. Verbs

So I’m working on my latest Big Unified System and I ran into a theoretical question. In trying to ask some friends the question, I ended up talking myself through it instead and, in the process, finding the next interesting question.

Broadly, I’m working on organizing my life on index cards with each card representing a (big or small) goal state, broken down into a list of (big or small) steps to get there. As appropriate, each step can then get its own card and get broken down further, until the steps it’s broken down into are concrete things I can just go do.

I was initially going to put values as the top level cards, broken down into more specific target states/quality of life statements (CONNECTION > Healthy marriage / I play with my kids regularly / etc.)

But a target state like that can definitely help fulfill multiple values. (And, similarly, a single project could move me toward multiple target states.)

I was hoping to design a system where all the cards have the same fundamental design, essentially working recursively all the way up or down, but now I’m wondering if I need to distinguish between two kinds of cards, roughly target states and projects/tasks (or, you could say, nouns and verbs). 

Except I typically state my projects as a verifiable end state as well (monthly reporting completed, kitchen clean, firstborn displays willingness to come to me with problems, etc.). So I’m realizing nouns and verbs are not different kinds of cards. It’s more that the title of each card is a noun and then the items listed below that are either the verbs that would move me toward it or additional (intermediate) nouns that should then (recursively) get their own cards. 

Which means the real problem is not fundamentally different types of cards, but the many-to-many relationships that can exist between cards (and which screw up my default hierarchical/tree way of organizing this).

That’s mainly a problem because I was hoping to only ever have one pointer back up to a parent project at a time, but the more I think about it the more I’m not sure that’s accomplishing what I intended (which gets into the fiddly technicalities of implementing the system).

Anyway, turns out the real question is how to cleanly represent (and track progress in) many-to-many relationships. 

Which should be an interesting one, because a big paradigm shift earlier was when I realized that instead of picking my “top priority“ value or quality of life statement and then picking the “top priority“ project within that, it’s wiser to look at all of my goal states (at a similar level) together and creatively brainstorm to find a project that can move me closer to the collective goal state. So there’s probably some more juicy insight to be discovered in that vein.

Pizza Discovery

I just discovered (because I am highly innovative and also a garbage person) my new favorite snack. Take a slice of leftover pizza. Slice equatorially, as if you’re going to make a triangular sandwich out of it. Add gravy. Heat as usual.

Garbage person? Maybe. Loving life? No question.

Sleep vs. Productivity

Yesterday I got up around 4:30 in the morning because of…we’ll just say a combination of parenting and entrepreneurial passion (expressed, respectively, in a baby squawk around 3 a.m. and an ensuing mental swirl of irrepressible goals and ideas).

Oddly, I found myself rather enjoying it. I listened to a great talk or two I’d been meaning to get to, showered, made myself a pot of tea, and then spent an hour or two working on Frobisher. I made the last couple connections that solved my months-long stuckness on the ending—picture me dancing with glee in my fuzzy slippers in my basement at 5 a.m. I got a jump on the day.

A few days ago, after a similarly sleepless night, I still ended up staying up until 1 a.m. plugging away at Clickworks tasks. It was one of the highest-impact productive time I’ve spent lately. In short order I hammered out two medium-sized projects that have been nagging at me for months. In addition to the quiet and solitude, I think the sleepiness took the edge off my perfectionism and helped me just plow ahead.

For all that, the sleepless nights have also pummeled my mental acuity. I drifted rather a lot. I poked around at Facebook for way too long even though I had no real interest in it. That night after a group meeting I wandered the darkening streets for 45 minutes, trying to remember where I’d parked, and berating myself for not thinking to wear more than a t-shirt. The following morning I searched the house unsuccessfully before realizing I had worn my hoodie, but forgotten it at the meeting. Irony. Then my wife found my hoodie in the stroller.

So now I’ve got a debate going in my head. Up too early (or, as the case may be, too late) yields solitude, extra time, and generally a good flow state. Lack of sleep apparently breaks my brain, which is about what you’d expect. Worth it? What say you?

Take that, brunch!

I have a constant urge to go out for fancy brunches, especially at the place next door to our church that has a bottomless (and, more to the point, highly customizable) mimosa and Bloody Mary bar. 

I rarely manage it, though, between kids and frugality (well, bits of frugality, here and there) and not really needing bottomless booze at 10 a.m. 

And turns out we do pretty well for ourselves at home, when we want to. 

Coffee and a magnificent sticky bun.

A Bloody Mary. (That’s right. With half a dill pickle in it. That’s how I roll.) 

And get this: Chili. Cheese. Omelet. Chili-cheese omelet! 

Figure $2.50/adult. No car seats required. No noise. Delectable leisure. 

I think we can pretty confidently call this one a win.