Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Four days of Self-Discipline: Big Deal?

Four days in a row for me.
Not really a record to boast about, but at least starting to look like a serious start.
As I mentioned yesterday, self-discipline on activities like this -- as well as other things such as working out, sticking to a healthy diet, keeping up with correspondence -- has never been my hallmark.
I'm pretty good at holding down a job -- despite the occasional day when I am on duty in body only -- but in that case it's the fear of homelessness and starvation rather than any positive quality of self-discipline that is my motivation.
I really love to write, but still have trouble sticking to a diary such as this on a consistent basis.
When the activity is voluntary, it's too easy to push it off because other things have "higher priority." But I think that a lot of times it's my priorities that are screwed up.
A family emergency, or even a request to help my daughter with her homework, might be valid reasons for skipping a day of writing, or workout, or healthy eating. The need to watch the 7:30 rerun of "Malcolm In The Middle" is not.
But television is such an attractive nuisance, isn't it?
Don't you feel, after a hard day of work, that you "deserve" to vegetate in front of the screen?
I often do. It's the way I justify laziness.
Now don't get me wrong. I strongly believe that the mind needs "fallow time" to refresh. But is TV-watching the kind of fallow time that's needed? Is reading junk magazines, or surfing the Internet, or jacking off to a favorite fantasy any better?
I know the answers to these questions, as I'm sure you do.
Self-discipline is required to overcome the temptation of the easy fix.
Self-justification is required to reconcile the fact of having given in to the easy fix.
And the former takes a lot more effort than the latter, even for those of us raised to feel guilt for not using our "gifts" to the best possible advantage, for ourselves and the world.
Last night, I was in the office until 9 pm, after having gotten up at 4 am to drive 5 hours to corporate headquarters from my home. That's a long day, but I also spent at least 4 hours on personal business (i.e., talking on the phone and otherwise diverted from work)
My effort on this blog -- as miniscule as my 15-minute requirement may be -- is to improve my self-discipline in some small way. Maybe it is a temporary way to make up for my recent slacking off on workouts and healthy eating.
But maybe a little self-discipline in one area can be contagious. Maybe next week I can start working out again. I'm already trying to be more diet-conscious (you see, I'm diabetic and need to watch my carbs carefully).
This is a pretty pathetic contribution today, but at least I have spent my 15 minutes doing it. The effort has to be worth something, isn't it?

Monday, November 29, 2004


Today I want to discuss the related issues of passion and dabbling. Not erotic passion -- I think others on the web have addressed topic that ad nauseum. No, what I'm talking about is passionate pursuit of excellence in a field of endeavor: An art form, scientific research, intellectual discourse, business, or any other area of human activity.
I am a dabbler. I suppose that I say that somewhat apologetically, somewhat defensively, but, I think, accurately.
Over the course of my 48 years, I have been somewhat successful at many things: Journalism, science, architecture, marketing, painting, piano-playing, even Ukrainian egg decorating. But as I look back I can't say that I have ever achieved real, lasting, consistent excellence in any of these areas. There have been occasional, sometimes even frequent, moments where I've exhibited skill, talent, maybe even a flash or two of genius.
What I have lacked is any sort of abiding passion that has driven me to excel in these areas.
I'm a great student. I love to learn new skills, love to absorb information, love to understand new ideas. What I have not found in any of these pursuits is an activity that defines "who I am."
Maybe writing comes closest. Whatever professional direction I have taken, I have always been drawn toward the written word. But even with that, I have lacked the drive and willpower toward improvement that I think must be part of a true writer's personality.
What I find is that -- regardless of how much I enjoy an activity -- I will quite easily put it aside to pursue the next pursuit that strikes me as interesting.
Is there anything wrong with that? Or is it the mark of a curioof us mind? I like to think that the latter is true, but nevertheless as I look back, I think this lack of passion has kept me from reaching the upper echelons of any field.
I decided some time ago that that was okay, that I have had a diverse, interesting and rewarding life. But I can't say I don't wonder what I might have achieved if I had worked a little harder at any one of my many pursuits. When I finished college, I assumed that writing would be my life. I sought and won jobs with newspapers that allowed me to write everyday, and I suppose I improved my "reporting" capabilities over those 10 years, but at the end of it, I found that while I had made only a modest name for myself, I wanted to try something new -- it was time to start another learning curve.
Is there still time for excellence? Can passion be discovered late in life? Is there a chance that I may synthesize all of my experiences into something lasting, something that I might be remembered by? Is that even important?
Is it passion that's required, or is it discipline? Am I just too lazy to be a high achiever?
In some ways that seems absurd. I have always worked hard, prided myself on my output and worried that I am not doing "enough". Most of the time I finish individual projects that I start (a dollhouse for my daughter is a notable exception -- it sits unfinished in my garage 7 years later), but I get bored doing the same thing day after day.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Undervalued: Self-control and Restraint

As the title of this entry indicates, two other qualities I value are self-control and restraint.
I did not always value these. When I was a young man, I considered them almost irresponsible. I felt it a duty of an intelligent, thinking adult to take strong positions on social movement.
Today I could still argue that it is a responsibility of the intellectual to espouse extreme positions, because they inevitably will be watered down by society.
Taking that view, it becomes a badge of honor to offend.
Looking around, I can see evidence that many share that intellectual position: Firearms advocates, some rappers, talk-radio hosts, gay-marriage proponents, those on both sides of the abortion issue, etc.
And yet, more and more I see the value of finding common ground, of looking for positions that I share with people I consider my philosophical "foes". And it's hard to find common ground when you are haunting the extremes.
Let's look at a few of the issues I mentioned just above.
I'll start with firearms, because that's an issue where the extreme positions offend me. I no more consider it a basic right to carry a gun than I consider it appropriate for a 5-year-old to drive a car or engage in sexual activity.
And yet, while I would guess that better than 90% of my fellow citizens would agree with me on the rights of small children, I know that, even among my close associates, views of gun control are widely varied.
To many, the second amendment of the US Constitution symbolizes a right to personal freedom that is threatened by any attempt to legislate controls.
Does that position make sense?
I think it's important to look at the firearms issue from many angles.
I would guess, for example, that a majority of us support the rights of hunters to shoot for sport. I would guess most of us believe equally strongly that use of firearms in commission of crime is a deadly wrong.
So given this strong common ground, why is it so difficult to craft firearms legislation that satisfies both the imperatives embodied in both of these statements?
Looking at a less emotionally-charged issue, I would guess that most American adults believe driving a car to be a basic right. And yet we accept without discussion limits on that freedom: We support licensing of drivers, the minimum age requirement, and the stripping of licenses from drunken drivers.
Why is the situation so different for firearms?
We seem to have been driven to the extremes despite the fact that I suspect a majority of us would support a middle-ground solution: Licensing of firearm owners, a minimum age and proficiency requirement, background checks to ensure that a prospective licensee does not have a record of using a firearm in commission of a crime.
Is the right to gun ownership so much more basic than the right to drive that we should support licensing for the one but no restrictions on the other?
I can understand the worries of those who believe that any restrictions on gun ownership are the start of a "slippery slope" that leads to a total ban -- I tend to feel the same way about restrictions on abortion rights, an issue that similarly polarizes people.
Proponents of gun control need to open a dialogue that truly reassures gun-rights advocates that they understand and support the use of firearms by licensed adults for sporting activities, for home and personal protection, and other reasonable purposes that take the sting out of licensing requirements.
How do we do that?
I'm going to have to spend some time working through that issue.
But I believe here -- and I'll include both gun ownership and abortion in this statement -- that the intellectually satisfactory solution is one that argues for reasonable restrictions.
Self-control and restraint are both qualities we strive to teach our children (Remember that I believe my most important designation is as a parent). The best way to teach is by example. We can begin to set the example for teaching self-control and restraint by looking at our position on the controversial issues of firearms, abortion, and other emotionally ripe issues.
I'll have much more to say on this.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Day 1 - Addendum

I don't know whether I've contributed my 15 minutes.
Let me add a few more thoughts.
Of all the ways I identify myself, the one I consider most significant is "parent."
My daughter is 14 and is one of the billions I speak of who will inherit the results of our actions today.
This is what I want for her:
  • A healthy world whose occupants find it easier than not to remain physically and mentally healthy
  • A safe and stable society in which one can pursue one's desires without fear of harm
  • A culture that will be tolerant and accepting of her -- a bi-racial, currently atheist (she was raised in church, but currently contends that she does not believe, and that should be fine), female who speaks her mind and follows her own muse
  • The opportunity to have a successful and happy life

Again, each of these goals leads me back to my values as a liberal Democrat.

With that, I am going to call today a day.

Day 1

Fifteen minutes a day.
That's what I'll commit to this.
Fifteen minutes of thought, reflection, analysis of what I see and hear.
I don't know anything about blogging, but I'll give it a try.

Today's topic: Faith and Values.
We have heard so much from so many quarters about this topic recently.
Did this issue really sway the election?
Let's put things in an alternate perspective. Seventy-eight percent of voters did not cite "values" as a primary reason for their vote.
Shouldn't that mean something?
I'm not sure it means anything good.
We should all be voting our values.
My own values have to do with:
  • Stewardship of the Earth, God's greatest gift to humanity
  • Tolerance of the beliefs and practices of others
  • An understanding of our obligations to future generations -- economic, ecological, social and all of the other ways that our actions today will affect the lives of our children
  • Fair play and a fair playing field for all
  • The right to a safe and sane existence no matter what your economic, religious, racial or cultural characteristics

These are the values that have led me to be a liberal Democrat. I have proudly labeled myself a liberal for as long as I can remember, and the recent presidential election has made me realize to an even greater degree how important it is to proclaim and promote liberal values.

For too long, liberals have been almost apologetic about their beliefs and accomplishments. What is there to be apologetic about? The civil rights movement? Social Security? The minimum wage? Medicare? Gender equality? All of these are critical components of our current society, and all are being threatened by politicians who call themselves conservative, but who are in fact destructive of our culture.