Defeating the Dragon

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“I got my finger on the trigger, so niggaz wonder why, but livin’ in the city is do or die”  -Dr. Dre

It has been a little under a decade since I was smoking two packs of Marlboro Menthol Lights  a day. Never thought it was possible? It is, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but it can be done. I wanted out. I had tried every program in the book with the exception of a hypnotherapist, but for those “exes” out there, you know quitting very rarely sticks on the first few tries. One day, after having “quit” what I estimate to be about seven different times, I finally succeeded.

I did it with the help of a book. The only part of the program I remember was a chapter entitled “Identifying your Triggers”. The chapter was dedicated to guiding you through the process of recording each and every moment you felt the urge to smoke. Then, at the end of one month, you could examine your urges on graph paper and compare and contrast the peaks. Driving a car? Check. After a meal? Check. After..er…kissing? Check. Mentally, once I was able to pit myself against these moments and sit with the process, I was finally able to stop smoking. It has been eight years, and I’ve never felt better. It should be said though that those urges don’t go away, their triggers are never stymied, only muted, if ever so slightly.

Our experiment in simplicity thus far has brought many things to the surface, but as I’ve sat with the process I’m reminded of “the book that shall remain unnamed” on how to quit smoking. Not buying anything is a challenge. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you try it for a month and check back.

Are you back? Good, let’s continue…As the urge to buy comes and goes, instinctively I’m watching the ebb and flow of my desires and noting the triggers. Boredom, the most prominent trigger, just happens to be a little more frequent with the absence of digital entertainment. Often, the trigger is as a solution to a problem. If I just had “it”, then this or that would work better. Those from the depression era very rarely found the answer in a new purchase, but rather through ingenuity.  Other common triggers have been the obvious ads I receive through email, but also billboards, pop ups etc. Loneliness, as a trigger, almost immediately has me reaching for my laptop to see what things I may procure to fill the emptiness. Interestingly, cooking from home more often has been a trigger. As I spend more time in that space I realize everything that it is lacking, some can be fixed by rearrangement but those who know me know it doesn’t stop there. I’ve mentally mapped out a kitchen renovation project that will revolutionize the way our kitchen flows and as a result I’ll probably end up with my own cooking show: Dining with Dave. Or maybe I’ll just find a way to make do with what I have.

Identifying the triggers is the game changer. Now its me versus them. Knowing who they are is almost enough to destroy them. They are nothing but a psychological trick, and I do not like to be tricked. It makes me feel stupid.

This month will be easier, we have committed to not buying anything. Black and white, right? Next month, and the month after will prove more challenging. We’ve both acknowledged that there are many pieces of living this way that we love and hope to preserve with perhaps only a few tweaks. In terms of defeating our dragon, and beating the urges, our newest in-house system includes a 30-day list. When the urge to buy comes along, no matter what the trigger, that item is added to our 30 day list. It sits on the fridge, awaiting its tenure. After 30 days, if the desire is still there then perhaps we will buy it, or maybe relegate it to another 30 days of listdom (Parole DENIED!), just to see. Either way, I’m seeing the benefit of the process and enjoying the ride the whole way there.

Party Hardy

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Tonight Sarah and I are hosting a BBQ, complete with a quarter barrel of beer. I’m not sure if it qualifies as simple but it is very deliberate. We are celebrating our third year of living in what was once a foreclosed home that we were able to completely renovate with the technical advice, sweat, and tears of several good friends and some fearless family.

Thank you to those of you who inspired us to try and held our hands through the process, we are grateful for this home and your help in more ways than one.

(Check out the picasa web album of the updates, the current ‘afters’ are better than pictured but give a great idea of where it has come from)

Cinderella Story

Clean Transportation

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This morning was the first day we broke our car(dinal) rule, which was to only be using one of the two cars at any given time. While Sarah was already gone for work,  in a rainy, snowy slush I decided rather than haul Isabelle four miles in her bike trailer or on the back of my Surly Big Dummy, I’d zip her over in the car. I won’t call it defeat, but perhaps a brief transgression. I’ll be picking her up via bicycle, I promise.

What this really got me thinking about, on my drive home, was the condition of our cars. In a previously life, we were unable to afford  new cars (now that we can, we don’t) and got in the habit of buying the highest quality, lowest mileage, very used car on the lot. I was driving home in our jalopy, a 1999 Chevy Prizm,which is rockin’ just about 160,000 miles. She’s a real beauty. Of course, I’m referring to inner beauty. She saved us quite a bit of money while moving us from point A to B, just like I ask, so let’s say she’s got a great personality.Yet, there is something about old cars that can make you feel poor and even inadequate. The car companies work very hard  to craft advertising that ensures this is exactly how I feel. But today I didn’t.

Last weekend, with all that extra time I had from not watching movies or TV or Facebook or Craigslist , I took our Jalopy into the garage, vacuumed every morsel of child and adult food that had been driven into the seat cushions, washed out sticky soda and milk spills from the interior, cleaned dog-nose prints off the windows, and removed all the receipts, cups, bags, and trash that littered it. I disproved the old adage and managed to “polish a turd”.

Today, driving home from daycare, despite the age of my car, the chipped paint, and rusted undercarriage, I was moving along next to the BMWs, new SUVs, and sporty Subarus feeling pretty good about my beater. From my perspective, she was clean and beautiful, just like all the others. Who would have guessed the value of clean transportation?

Clarity, Not Austerity.

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I have a confession to make: I am not new to the idea of simple living. In fact, if simple living were a food in my life,  it would be ketchup. Often dabbed on the side, sometimes nestled between the pickle and the cheese, or in most cases loaded in a enormous pile next to a plate of fries. It has always been present, if not central. This month I hope to super-size simple living from a to-go sized packaged condiment to a big bowl of ketchup soup. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

As Sarah and I have revamped our simple living efforts and I’ve begun to write about it, we’ve heard “naynaynay” from the naysayers. “So what?” some people say, “I’ve got a friend who was homeless, living out of a dumpster and eating nothing but the soles of shoes for two years” or “when I was traveling in Africa they had entire tribes that lived for six months on less than what you consume before lunchtime”. Meanwhile, others doubt my use of a blog, email, or the internet because of its obvious technological ties. Shouldn’t I be off in the woods, like a Gary Paulsen novel, left alone to subside with only my thoughts and an axe (“Axe?, that isn’t simple!”)?

It is true that making the choice to live simply is a middle class decision. I do not wish to live without my basic needs met nor do I enjoy being too uncomfortable. I wouldn’t dare attempt to live as bare as those living in the Congo, on the streets and under the bridges throughout  the U.S., or embedded in the ghettos of Rio de Janeiro. However, that shouldn’t negate our desires to live on less but experience more.

Henry David Thoreau, the man who lived simply on Walden Pond and is inevitably quoted in blogs about simplicity wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Clearing his life of its distraction and debris to focus on only the most important aspects of life, H-Dogg (he’s my homeboy, so I can call him that) chose to move to the woods. A pretty interesting endeavor, don’t you think? The only problem I see with it is that too many people get focused on the woods. (You could say they get stuck in the weeds.) Before you know it, would-be simple livers  give up the idea after dwelling too long on the thought of mosquitoes, killing your own food, or being stalked by a bear.

When working with at-risk youth, a common intervention is to bring them to the woods where they can talk about their problems, explore their family system, learn confidence, build self-esteem, and become strong young men and women through interaction with the wild. The problem with this approach, is that eventually these same kids will  be returned to their original, somewhat-to-awfully dysfunctional home environments. In urban settings, a teenager that returns to his gang infested neighborhood or drug addicted, abusive parents having learned to portage a canoe might suddenly wonder how the hell that skill will do any good in the real world. I feel similarly about simple living. Learning to scale back while being an active participant in society requires a more thoughtful approach that integrates some of the realities of the world you live in. Using smoke signals to make dinner plans just doesn’t bode well.

What is profound about what Thoreau said isn’t that he moved to the woods, but that he wished to live deliberately and to front the essential facts of life. Moving to the woods was just his vehicle of choice in getting there. As Sarah and I scale back, not only to be less wasteful and perhaps wealthier, we hope that we will remove those things that inhibit us from living deliberately, and fronting the essential facts of life. We are not looking to deprive ourselves of things that we believe will aid us in our journey, or even those things that obviously bring us great joy, but hope that by removing the excess we will make room for that which is truly important. We are in search of  clarity, not austerity.

Please pass the ketchup.

Proliferation

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Does anything represent the proliferation of an idea into mainstream society more than the existence of a “Complete Idiot’s Guide”?

Are You Down With ADD?

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Yeah, you know me!

Hi, I’m Dave, and I believe I am an adult living with ADD. (Attention Deficit Disorder for those of you who haven’t heard the buzzzz of this word) I’m fairly certain, though not doctor diagnosed, that I’ve been living with ADD since I was just sparkle in my dad’s eye. Now, this isn’t the kind of ADD you might hear one friend joke to the other about, it isn’t just a difficulty paying attention. Largely, ADD has the potential to significantly affect each and every aspect of your daily life, rather than one particular afternoon that you are a little bored at work.

Interestingly, when I was a kid, they had yet to put a name to a face, so ADD, which is normally characterized by an inability to pay attention, difficulty learning in the (traditional) classroom, and perhaps emotional outbursts (which may have been a result of never feeling like you could do what adults asked of you) was called just that: an inability to pay attention, difficulty learning in the classroom (they didn’t have many non-traditional classrooms then), and perhaps emotional outbursts . I think I had all of those, but as I’m told, I also waxed enough charm that most teachers were tolerant if not ignorant of my other “shortcomings”. If you could call them that.

An interesting thing happened though, as I grew into adulthood, without the aid of therapist, psychologist, social worker, or small brigade of very funny clowns, I started to figure out how to cope. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of techniques that help me resemble, if only slightly, all the other kids in the class and work/learn at a normal level, if not  an exceptional one. The mental and physical exercise I do regularly, to stay present and attentive in the moment, are another conversation, for another day.

Now, what does that have to do with simple living you might ask? When the doctors are whipping out their prescription pads at an inkling of indication of ADD, they don’t seem to mention what could be construed as a benefit. While, yes, distractability is one concern of the disorder, the other side of the coin is the ability to focus, with laser like acuity, on the right task for intense periods of time. This, I believe, has given me the focus to master chess, computers (and their software), bicycles and their repair, home projects, and any other thing that I can trick my mind into believing is the “right” task. This same “disorder” has been the inception for creative genius in those it inhabits around the globe.

The only problem, as I see it, is that  it is easy to lose control of the spigot. What was once a moderate flow of “fill in the blank” has turned into an obsessive, ravenous, thirst for “fill in the blank”. This has also been described as an addictive personality, which has led to both winning an Iron Man, smoking a crack pipe or perhaps living simply.

Since I began writing this blog, a lot of people have asked me about balance. Do you have to cancel cable? Why not just not watch it? Why so extreme? Sure, balance works for some people, and I commend them for that. But I’ve got a broken spigot, and sometimes lose control of my laser (to mix my metaphors), so it is crucial that I keep all of the unhealthy, undesired activities out of arm’s reach so that I don’t accidentally focus on the wrong thing and find myself trembling with desire for my next fix in the dark room of an abandoned crack house.

I’ve been given a gift, like a puppy for Christmas. It just needs constant attention to fulfill its potential.

You’ve Got Mail!

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I still can’t hear “You’ve Got Mail!” without picturing Tom Hanks sitting on his bed giddily IMing away with the lovely Meg Ryan (it’s not my fault she’s lovely!). That was 13 years ago. Since then, America Online (the now obsolete service they used to chat) has gone the way of the Pet Rock, fax machines, yellow pages, roller blades, and dinosaurs. For those who once had AOL accounts, you’ll remember the excitement and emotion elicited by the digitized voice proclaiming: “You’ve got mail!”. While I will not miss the exorbitant prices tied to wickedly slow AOL dial-up access or their clunky system-halting interface, I will give them credit for being at the cutting edge of what I’ll call “notification sedation”.

As notifications become the norm,  budding research suggests that receiving a text, voice mail, email, or Facebook notification releases chemicals in your brain that leave you feeling euphoric [i]. I’m almost certain software companies know this, and it’s probably why you do (or don’t) own a Smartphone complete with data package.  It isn’t surprising and I have to say, I love me some euphoric notifications! Since I entered the Smart Phone market by inheriting my brother’s used iPhone, and then upgraded (and upgraded…) I can be found staring into my phone like I’m waiting for an answer from the Magic Eight Ball (and I might be!).  A common scene in public places  (present company included) is hoards of people, surrounded by hoards of other people, that are all looking to see what’s happening with the hoards of people in their digital worlds (recently, I watched a mom, toting her child, and staring into her phone as she led them into the street oblivious to the traffic).

My calendar keeps me on schedule (including when to use the bathroom),  email and texts keep me connected to my peeps, my Craigslist and Ebay notifiers alert me when that which I crave is posted at rock bottom prices and my Facebook keeps me up to date on all the stuff I never knew I needed to know (and probably still don’t). Yet, Smartphones aren’t the only culprit. My laptop chirps away with many of the same announcements plus the added benefit of chat windows, work-interrupting work email and calendar notifications popping off in chorus with my phone. I’m connected. Donald Trump connected.

Day 2 of our experiment I decided I needed to do away with the notifications. My phone, that three months ago I was still doting on, had grabbed my life by the testicles. There I was, anticipating my next notification, my next fix of euphoria which kept me only semi-focused  on the conversation or the task at hand. “Could you hold on a sec? I think I’ve got a message….

okay, I’m back. Now what was I saying?”

In retrospect, I notice there had been fewer moments of complete silence.  I just didn’t leave enough space in my day for other thoughts. I got a lot of notifications. I was always doing something, and when I wasn’t I’d occupy those moments with a quick dip in my digital world. Two days ago, in the spirit of simpler living, I chose to take “drastic” measures. Calendar notifications? Off. Email? Off. Facebook? Well, you get the idea.

It has been a quiet couple of days, almost too quiet. (don’t people use phones for their original intent anymore?) I’m adapting while trying to remember what silence is like and how to interact with it. My wife is delighted to have me slightly more present in our day to day, my daughter is happy as a clam (she probably is thinking it’s a huge improvement but just hasn’t quite found the words to express herself), and my thought percolator is rockin’ full blast.


[i] If I had time to look it up you would find lots of interesting studies about euphoric notification syndrome here. Google it, I promise its out there.

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