My handwriting is terrible. I’m okay with that.

I have terrible handwriting. My penmanship has never been great, though I made good marks in that column on my grammar school report card. I abandoned cursive in high school for everything but my signature, which, let’s face it, has become a few letters with long trailing lines spilling out from them.

example of my handwritten note

This is a handwritten note. Can you read it? I can’t.

My wife and coworkers cannot keep themselves from pointing out how astonishingly, eye-achingly cramped, stunted and crippled my handwriting has become. For my coworkers there is a kind of mirthless joy in the show of trying to decipher my hieroglyphs. For my wife, there is the stone cold embarrassment of my abortive signature on documents and the inscrutable mystery that is my handwritten grocery list.

People generally assume that my handicap is a symptom of my strong digital bias. I don’t like making or receiving notes on paper. Other than printed books, which remain a precious joy, words on paper are generally a tedious obligation. I write something down and then I am obligated to figure out what to do with it. Worse, someone else writes something down and I am obligated to figure out how to do something with that. It frustrates me and makes me sad.

So I opt out. I generally don’t do paper. I take notes in several cloud-based apps or in the notepad on my phone. These notes file easily, are indexed automatically and can be searched on demand.

Still, it saddens me a little to realize that my poor handwriting isn’t simply a matter of inattention or disregard. It isn’t just personal preference. I can’t write as well as I used to. Writing by hand takes more effort than it should. I have to really pay attention and think about what I am doing. Contrary to what the research shows about effective information transfer, for me, writing by hand is generally more distracting and frustrating than useful.

As I said, people who know me are likely to assume my handwriting has suffered from disuse and inattention. The truth is very different. I ruined my handwriting through overuse. About 15 years ago, I wrote the better part of a novel in longhand on the back of scrap computer paper. I wrote so much so fast that my fingers learned unfortunate short cuts they now refuse to forget. During that time, I would write my pages and then share what I wrote with my wife. Increasingly, I realized that I couldn’t easily read or puzzle out entire sections of words I had written just minutes before. I stopped writing that way. Keyboard for me, please.

Now, when I try to jot out a simple to do list or make a note, my hand feels stupid. There is anxiety there that does not when my fingers are on the keyboard. I’m not particularly proud of my poor penmanship. I worry about the effect of the coming digital dark age when a mass black out or electromagnetic pulse renders my devices useless and I find myself reduced to remedial communication, like a chimp learning sign language. Still, it is useful, I suppose, to acknowledge one’s shortcomings, even if there is no active plan to make them better.

So, I am wondering, how is your handwriting these days? Do you still write things out by hand the way you used to do? Can people read your handwriting? Can you? I can’t be the only one. Can I?

Polite Dinner Conversation

Tonight at dinner, I overheard two couples talking about Important Social Issues. I’m a writer, so eavesdropping isn’t really considered rude. It is actually a kind of professional obligation. The couples were talking about gay marriage and transgender identity. What struck me wasn’t the content of the couples’ conversation. I was amazed, rather, by the tone — friendly, civil and challenging. The privileged white upper-class man was being rude and sarcastic. The privileged white upper-class woman answered his sarcastic jibes with earnest, polite, unapologetic replies. She answered every joke with a “Imagine how you would feel if…”

The conversation had a pleasant, enjoyable rhythm. They were rising and falling against one another’s reply. There was thoughtful, quiet spaces in-between each retort. There was civility. There was respect. There was friendship.

The conversation captured me not for its academic merits or it rhetorical riposte.  The conversation caught my attention because it felt so unusual. Somewhere along the way, disagreements have become forbidden. When friends disagree with one another, we keep it to ourselves. We learn to avoid the discomfort of discord. We pretend that silence is agreement, that tranquility is concert. And yet we once were a country built on public debate, a great laboratory for ideas, where a kind of intellectual survival of the fittest sussed out the best, most powerful ideas through argument and disagreement.

I don’t want to make too much of it. Maybe it is just me. But I find myself increasingly talking to people who agree with me, nodding my head to acknowledge things I myself might have said.

And then I see how other’s practice constructive disagreement in such a polite, friendly and constructive way. And I see how important this dinner time conversation might become.

In a few weeks, the United State Supreme Court will announce decisions on some majorly Important Social Issues. The decisions will help establish or reinforce legal and political precedent for how we want to live. The decisions will impact social norms and will help govern the ways we organize ourselves inside our communities. And yet, for all the importance of the Supreme Court decisions, I can’t help thinking that it won’t be enough. The future won’t be made by legal pronouncement or proclamation anymore than it will be made by news commentary or podcast. The future will be shaped over a thousand pleasant meals with friends gathered together disagreeing through polite dinner conversation.

About Last Night: A Few More Thoughts about a Meditation on Aging

Last night’s post was a bit melancholy. I appreciate the friends who stopped to notice and, sometimes, in their kind ways, challenge the perspective that our bodies belong most to us when they are broken or failing. It is a perspective I have adopted from time to time. I realized this morning that I have written about this before (Meeting Our Biological Selves).

Last night’s post became something very different than what I had expected to write. Sometimes we get surprised and instead of writing the thing we think we want, we write the thing we find we need.

I have been spending a lot of time in a nursing home. My wife’s grandmother landed there about a month ago, and she is slowly settling into a permanent stay. As I walk the halls, it is impossible for me to imagine the people there as their once healthy, vibrant and vital selves. They are withered, tired and defeated. Some are crippled, legless and locked into chairs. Others are planted deep in their beds. The televisions bleat. And from the rooms, you hear coughs and cries. Whimpering pleas for some non-specific deliverance.

It isn’t all gloom. There is the grandmother’s kind roommate who wants share her enormous bag of candy with everyone she meets. There is the man in the wheelchair who gives out ink pens with a missionary’s zeal. There is the toothless woman who flirts with the male nurse and enjoys trying to make him blush.

Even in this place, life goes on.

I have watched my wife’s grandmother confront the terms of own life. She wants to die. She is ready to die, but she is not yet dead. And so, for her, this home is a waiting place. The worst kind of waiting room. She has no idea how long she will be kept waiting. She is not a patient person. When the Reaper arrives, he will have much to answer for.

And this loss that we are watching is so different from the losses that have gone before. We have watched as this vital woman has been reduced, her scope of focus and influence narrowed by concentric degrees. Her life was bound up in her family. And then in her house. And in her living room and bedroom. And her bed and a chair. And now, a bed.

And her focus has narrowed. No longer watching the news or Judge Judy or the Family Feud. She thinks only of her body. She dreams of walking and wakes up falling out of bed. She measures time in bowel movements and the next scheduled pill. Her thoughts circle around discomforts and inconveniences.

And so it is that I have been thinking about the arc of a person’s life. And how, when we are born, we focus entirely on learning to master the rules of our body so we can navigate our place in the world. And as the art of incarnation becomes second nature, how we begin to forget ourselves and our bodies until interrupted by some desire, some pain or some need. And how it is, before we die, we return to ourselves and our bodies. How the attention we used to cast around us turns inward and we sweep every corner and every shadow inside.

I ponder this and try to be brave. It is melancholy, perhaps, but it is not morose or defeated. I am studying the art of loss and wondering if I will have half the courage of some of these people when my own time arrives.

I think, perhaps, that is the hopeful metaphor I was trying to reach last night. That we are all brave explorers locked into our suits of flesh, restlessly wandering and exploring until our expedition is at an end.

I do not dwell on the end itself. When it comes, it will come. I just want to be brave and watchful and bear witness as honestly and kindly as I can. And when my own body becomes my whole world, I hope I can count it a kind of triumph that I did not fail it before it failed me.

And so my thanks to those who feel kinship with this brief moment of observation. My apologies to those who feel disturbed by the things they have seen. It is only in discomfort that we are awakened. It is only in awakening that we are alive.

We Return | A Meditation on Aging

When we are born, we enter eagerly into our bodies. We put them on like space suits and make each step an excursion away from mother’s safety. We wear these suits for the rest of our lives, learning through painstaking trial and error how to operate the clumsy machinery of muscle and bone, how to make it carry us, stumbling across the treacherous limits of gravity. How we stumble and fall, tripping all over ourselves, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying.

And how, with time comes grace and eventually indifference as we play and chase and jump and crouch. We hide ourselves in places no one will even think to look. We make a game of it and we play and play and play.

And how, one day, our body betrays us for the first time, becoming tall and gangly or wide and unsteady. The riot of hormone and impetuous acts called adolescence.

And once adolescence  is mastered, we find ourselves forgetting our bodies again. No longer seeming a space suit. Our bodies become mere raiment. They are those things we put on to move easily through polite society. The fashions we adopt to hide our secret selves and glide bullet proof, invisible, through polite society. We forget our bodies for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Our animal selves are recalled only in fleeting moments of hunger and exercise. From time to time, there is the gift of sex. And some time after, for some, the hot, bright brand of child birth.

And there is the occasional gift of injury and illness. Something gets broken, a bone or a tooth perhaps, and we return for a moment to that clean, bright place of our own birth. But it is fleeting. It does not last.

And then, when we are old, it happens. Our bodies begin to fail and we are reminded that we are wandering on the surface of a great, indifferent space ship and our life support is thin. Everything depends on this weird, frustrating machine. This glitchy space suit that is built to fail. And we stare out into the expanse of the stars. Where in youth we saw a sky filled with a billion brilliant fires, we now see only the darkness yawning between faint, cold stars.

And this is the miracle of living. This is the final catechism of our days. You need not believe in reincarnation. This is not philosophy or religion. This is biology, brutal and sincere. Before we die, we are returned completely into our bodies and the world shrinks away from us as we drift too far and all the things that once seemed to matter so very much now diminished and then vanished and we are left with the only thing that matters. The rude and stupid meat that must be taught. Our minds, once bright, grow dim. And our animal selves emerge, reincarnate. Broken yet somehow complete. And we return.

Market Less. Partner More.

I’ve spent the last two days at a summer workshop for the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL). TEL is a collection of article databases, eBooks, and other online resources available free of charge to all Tennessee state residents. TEL helps people find jobs, research their family history, learn languages, practice for college prep and career certification tests and do all the kinds of research needed by students from kindergarten through college.

If you live in Tennessee, you should take a look. If you don’t live in Tennessee, I hope you live somewhere with a state government willing to put money into funding the intellectual infrastructure of your community.

TEL is terrific, but this post isn’t about TEL. It is about the ways we talk about our libraries. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Go TEL it on the Mountain”, a bit silly, yes, but focused right at the heart of something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Marketing.

My library is terrific. We have great stuff. We have comfortable spaces. We are friendly. We like to help people learn things, and we are pretty good at it. How do I make people understand how terrific their library is and make them want to use it more?

I’ve been stressing on this question for a while. Wondering if I had the right bookmarks, posters and other promotional knick-knacks. I’ve been thinking about our website design to see if it communicates fully what we are about. I do surveys. I follow up on requests and invite users to serve on a library experience panel. These are all good things, but, it turns out, aren’t the only things.

Like most librarians, I’m good at doing library. I’m bad at marketing.

The workshop keynote and other presenters crystalized a few key things I’ve been thinking about but kept trying to wrap in too many words. (Shout out to Amy Pajewski, Heather Lambert and Erin Loree.)

So here it is. The advice I needed someone else to say aloud so I could get it all to fit inside my head.

Librarians love library stuff, but nobody else cares. Stop talking about your stuff. Nobody cares about your stuff. They only care about what they can do with your stuff and how your stuff makes them feel. Talk about that instead.

Stop shooting random library stuff into the world through untargeted, unspecial emails, tweets, and signs. Nobody reads them. You are just making people feel tired. You are making yourself feel tired.

Think about your community. Think about your neighborhood. Think about your teams. What do they need? What are they about? What are they trying to accomplish? How can you help them do that? Talk about how you can help them. Find ways to help. Offer partnerships.

This is going to make you uncomfortable. It is going to get awkward. You are going to need to go where your people are.You are going to need to get outside the library. You are going to need to listen. You are going to find out what your people really want and need. Some of it will be easy to provide. Some of it will be inconvenient. Library service should meet people at the point of their need, not the point of our convenience.

And let’s be real, okay? I get all inspired talking to the all the super-smart people at the workshop. I get the big ideas. I bring them back to work with me and they collapse upon first contact with reality. Being successful requires a plan. Success requires organization and focus. You can’t tell everyone everything. You’ve got to be selective and consistent. You’ve got to spend some money and time. On day two, we learned some practical tips for planning a strategy and organizing the steps into specific, achievable goals. We learned to find an audience and tune our voice to that audience. It takes time. It takes practice. I am ready to get started.

Librarians are missionaries. We keep trying to save the world. We should start by saving our own neighborhoods first.

Where’s the F$&*#@^ Remote?

The television remote went missing last night. My daughter and her friend had been playing in the den all day and, somehow, no one knows exactly how, the remote vanished.

Let’s be honest. This blog is mostly about First World Problems. That’s what I write about because that’s where I live. Disappearing remotes are a significant annoyance. Disappearing remotes are maddening. They are piercingly aggravating. There is a small basket where these things are meant to go: the remote for the TV; the remote for the DVR; the remote for the DVD player and the remote for the VCR. Yes. We have four separate remotes. Please don’t judge. I know people who have more.

The point of this story is not remote control madness. This is not even a moral tale of laziness and being ruined by point-and-click convenience. The point, if there is one, is the blind fury of discovering the missing remote at 11:30pm and the obsessive worry that follows realizing the missing device might never be recovered. The mind races toward the scenario of having to purchase one of those awful universal remotes with too many itty bitty buttons and the work of reprograming all those settings by pressing all those itty bitty buttons and waiting and cursing and pressing and waiting and cursing some more.

And the point of this story is the crushing self-pity that comes at the end of a long, tiring day when all that is wanted is a few stolen moments of Netflix before bed and the disappointment that comes when you are deprived of that simple, restorative luxury.

And how the mind races around the room, seeking all the places that controller might be. Places dark and secret. Logical and profoundly illogical. And how, in the mind’s bright panic, the upsetting realization that the remote is not going to be found and that there is no other button so neatly labeled Netflix to resolve the situation and restore order to the collapsing shambles of the day. And how, gripped by fits of fear and frustration, the mind forgets how many other ways there are still to watch the thing that wants watching. How the DVR button still controls the TV. How the VCR and Wii can work together to funnel Netflix down from The Cloud. How laptops and iPads easily stream Netflix and, in a pinch, the very phone in my left front pocket can deliver everything I believe that I need.

But I cannot rest. I cannot relax. The remote is lost. How are people sleeping? How are their dreams not curdled with existential fear?

I search and search in the way I have of not really searching. I have stopped looking about twenty minutes ago and now it is just a parade of frustration and inventive imprecations toward the wayward slackers who don’t place remote controls back in the remote control basket. The proper place where such things belong.

Back to the Point

I started this blog more than 4 years ago with the idea of exploring ways information technologies shape how I live my daily life. Sometimes that influence is inescapable and pervasive. That’s the ubiquitous part. Sometimes the influence is small and subtle. That’s the quotidian. The reality, of course, has been a bit of both. Information technologies have become the scaffolding of my daily life.

This blog has covered a lot of other ground along the way. I’ve written about the loss of someone I loved very much. I’ve written about parenting. I’ve shared out some of my fictional fare from time to time.

I am still thinking about the technologies, trying to sort out whether they are on the whole, for me, more helpful or more harmful. I’ve felt quite a bit of both. There is, I’ve noticed, a kind of malaise settling in. I think of it as information sickness. I am using Facebook and Twitter a bit less that I used to. My Feedly account has 9 days worth of unread blog posts, a situation akin to a briar patch full of juicy berries laced through with prickly thorns. I am reading more on paper again, though I remain a big advocate of eBooks.

The thing I want to say for now is that I have come to feel like the tools I once eagerly adopted to make my life easier, better and more productive have coopted a bit of my life and taken something important. It is, of course, ridiculous to blame the tools. The tools are value neutral. I am working with finding a new relationship with my tools. Which is to say, I still believe the tools can make my life easier, better and more productive. But I need to decide: “easier and better how?” and “more productive for what?”

Time Change!

I’ve never understood how New Year’s Day became the high holy day for self-improvers. You go to bed too late and wake up with a brand new calendar. Your insurance deductibles reset. You have to stop and think before dating the documents you sign. Everything else stays pretty much the same.

Where I live it is usually a bit dreary on December 31 and dreary again on January 1. The weather doesn’t change. The angle of the sun doesn’t change.

Our ancestors used to mark time by the passage of the sun, the angle of the light and the resulting changes in the world around them. Winter is the dream time when the world is dormant and sleeping. When dream time ends, you know it because you can see the world waking up. Daylight has heft and lasts longer. Green things start to grow. The world is frisky and vibrant. Everyone and everything is awake and full of potential.

For me, this transformation becomes most apparent with the start of Daylight Savings Time. Say what you will about the antiquated practice, I love the one hour jump. Until my body adjusts, I feel like I am living an hour in the future. This excites and inspires me.

I don’t make resolutions on New Year’s Day. Those plans aren’t real. They don’t enshrine themselves into ongoing habit. However, with the start of daylight savings time, I naturally adopt a new mentally. My focus and attention sharpen. I run more. I eat healthier. I pay attention to the calories I put in my body, the calories I expend, and the amount of water I drink. My family spends more time together outdoors. We do things, fix things, organize things.

This happens every year without fail and without advance planning. This is, for me, the end of dream time and beginning of waking up.

How does the time change affect your life routines? Do better choices become easier or does it make any difference at all? Do you ever feel like you are living just a little bit in the future? I’d love to know if I am party of one or if this happens for you.

Show. Don’t Tell.

“Show. Don’t tell” is the most common advice given to writers practicing their craft. It is essential advice but often difficult to practice. Words are easy. Telling is a shortcut to getting the idea across. But writing is about more than just getting the idea across. We need our reader to feel something, to have an experience that makes for them a lasting change.

“Show. Don’t tell” happens also to be excellent advice for life. It is becoming my directive for authentic, meaningful relationships.

I share my life with an incredible woman who doesn’t realize how incredible she is. We have known each other 25 years. That’s more than half our lives. In that time, you come to understand essential things about each other. You also develop shortcuts and habits in the way you see and tell each other things.

In 25 years, you say “I love you” a hundred thousand times, sometimes without thinking, sometimes as reflex. Sometimes “I love you” makes complicated things easier. Other times, instead of saying the thing you need to say, saying “I love you” lets you off the hook.

I love this person more today than I ever have, but I am trying to say “I love you” a little less. I am trying to put myself back on the hook. I am trying to find ways inside our life to show rather than tell. And when I do say those words, “I love you”, I want to know she understands exactly what I mean. I want her to have an experience that she can feel, some small thing that makes a lasting change.


Terminala poem for Patricia

I am thinking of the night you called, two years ago, sobbing and hysterical with fear, suddenly overwhelmed by the fact of your terminal diagnosis. And as we spoke on the phone, I could feel you were stunned by the silence of your one-person home and how like a graveyard it must have felt. How your mind began flying like a moth trapped inside a tomb. And ever arrogant, I aspired to do one brave thing and tell you how things would go with some conjured sense of certainty. How much braver I would have been to admit right then that I sometimes have nights like this myself. Me, a person with no terminal diagnosis living in a house full of people, still able to pretend the years all belong to me and that I feel them stretch endlessly out ahead.


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