Imagine

In the 7th chapter of the New Testament book of Matthew, there is a story about prayer where Jesus tries to tell people how much God wants good things for them. So, he asks the crowd some rhetorical questions. 

“Imagine your kid asks for some bread. Would you give them a stone? If they asked for fish, would you hand them a snake?”

Then Jesus says that if even normal folks know how to give good things to their kids, then surely God is better than that. Surely, God wants to treat us better than we treat our kids.

Belief in a deity aside, I don’t think anyone of us would disagree that giving your hungry kid a rock instead of bread isn’t something you do for someone you love. 

We all know how to treat someone we love.  We strive for people we love. We make sacrifices for the people we love. We try hard to please the people we love and give them gifts we believe will excite them. We go to great lengths to show them how we feel, we try hard to show others how much we love the people we do. 

We know how to love people. And we know how to show people we love them.

Right? 

Now, imagine what would happen if you treated yourself the way you would treat someone you love. 

Writing for people

I have watched the conversations around AI and writing unfold over the last few weeks. The writing community seems to be freaking out.

Well, that’s not wholly true. Hacks are freaking out. People who phone it in are freaking out. People who don’t know, or care to learn, how to write in a way that connects with and centers people are freaking out. As they should be.

People who have staked their livelihoods and given their creative energies to writing listicles that exist only for the reason of generating page views, writing press releases for events and products that exist only to separate money from the gullible, and who write for search engines and other machines should not be surprised when a machine can replace them.

A bot can duplicate syntax and vocabulary, but it cannot think of a person they love and write with them in mind. A bot cannot write from its own experience of love and loss.  A bot cannot feel anger and want to share it; a bot cannot want anything, really.

It may be that an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters, will eventually produce a text that is an exact copy of Hamlet. But none of those monkeys will understand revenge or love or betrayal. And critically, none of those monkeys will understand what they wrote, will be moved by the writing, or will look forward to sharing it with their reader.

Fewer, Better Things

I took a month off of writing. I don’t know that I’m really ready to start back, but taking time off always scares me somewhat – I am always afraid that if I don’t start back, the words will quit coming.

And that would be unbearable.

Which is why, on this muggy but clear January morning, I’m writing on my laptop, in a nice room in a nice hotel on St. Charles Street in New Orleans. I had to come down yesterday afternoon for a meeting, and later this morning I will go to another meeting before I drive the three hours home. And this morning, I walked along the Carnival route on St. Charles, read the old plaques, sipped my cafe au lait, and spent some time in my head.

A thing I’ve been thinking about while not writing has been, ironically, about my writing. Or, more properly, my Writing. That’s how I think of my public-facing words, the part of my brain I share publicly with you all – it’s Writing, as if making it a proper noun imbues it with importance and stature and makes them somehow more than the rantings of a 50-year-old man with an aching back and stiff joints.

So, the Writing. As I have alluded to elsewhere, I need to scale back. A persistent problem I have is that I get bored, so I start new projects. But new things require upkeep, and one day you wake up with a blog and two newsletters and a membership program and a birdcam and a full-time job and a part-time job, and all the while, you are trying to be a good citizen and a good spouse, and it all gets to be too much.

So, periodically, you have to clean up the mess you’ve made.

That’s what I’m in the midst of doing now – cleaning up the mess. And cleaning up messes take time. I didn’t make it all in one day, and it won’t get cleaned up in one day.

For now, it makes the most sense to restrict my public-facing writing to just two outlets – my newsletter and my blog. I have written the newsletter reliably and consistently for nearly eight years now -I’m not worried about my ability to keep that up. It will shift and change somewhat, as it has for the last eight years, but it will still come out Monday mornings and will still seek to point to the beauty that is always there, no matter how well hidden.

And I love having a blog, a corner of the internet that is just mine that isn’t subject to the whims of algorithms and corporate priorities. But the blog will change: It will become less formal, less complete, and more frequent. A lot of the current format – such as long posts with leading photos and well-defined categories, are the result of business decisions and not artistic decisions. The corporate owners of the various social media outlets have taught us – trained us, really – to write for machines and not people. They have shaped us to be content creators, not humans who dream, cry, hope, and fail.

I do not like that at all.

So now I will blog for people. Expect more frequent but shorter posts. Expect some syndication changes as well – the amount of work it takes to do it the way I currently do is unsustainable.

Sustainability has become more important to me these days. It turns out I want to neither burn out nor fade away – I want to keep going, keep writing, keep sharing, keep growing, and keep learning. But I no longer want to be a product, a “content creator”, a machine writing for machines. I want to do fewer things better.

A Room Of One’s Own

When we moved into this house, I was excited to have a room of my own, a place for books, and a writing desk. When we lived in North Carolina, I had an office at work but did my serious writing at home, in the mornings, and often at the kitchen table because we lived in a tiny house but not a Tiny House (TM), and there was no room for me to have a separate office. I would drink coffee and work on my laptop in the quiet house in those still hours when no one was stirring.

But here! Here I would take over what was designed to be the formal living room, fill it with books and a desk, and make it a study of sorts – a place I could be out of the way and write when other people who live with me want to watch TV or cook something or have the audacity to actually live in the house they, you know, live in.

Because I had always had an office elsewhere, my “work from home” space didn’t need to be complicated – it just needed to be out of the traffic pattern. It did not matter that it was by the front door, didn’t have closing doors, and was visible to everyone that visited.

But then COVID happened, and I wasn’t just working from home occasionally, and I wasn’t just writing – now I was doing everything at home – from video production to writing to zoom calls – so many zoom calls! I got a larger monitor, additional hard drives, a docking station, and… I took over my study, and it became an office. But nobody was visiting, so while it was a bother, it wasn’t critical.

This is all just temporary, we told ourselves.

But now, people ARE visiting, and I am now permanently and completely working from home. Our eclectic study at the front of the house has become the office of a caffeine-riddled ADHD-diagnosed madman with object impermanence, who needs everything to be in front of him, or else it does not exist.

Our living room/study is filled with evidence of my creative process. It’s a damn mess, is what it is. I need an office. A room of my own, with doors and walls, lots of electrical outlets, shelves and corkboards. Then I can have the mess I need to be creative, and we can have the eclectic book-lined study at the front of the house back, and harmony (and hopefully productivity) will reign in our house once again.

After an audit of the available spaces in our house, I concluded I would have to build an outbuilding in the backyard for my small office. I don’t need much space – 8×8 would serve fine – but the combination of the time it would take and the cost has had me in a holding pattern for several months.

But the other day, I went to the store room in the back of our carport to get something and realized it was actually larger than the 8×8 shed I had planned to build. And it had a concrete slab foundation, stud-framed walls, and a functional roof over it, so it was as if someone had handed me an 85-square-foot shed on a concrete slab that just needed to be finished inside.

Even better, it has six feet of windows which face east, so there is lots of natural light. The door to it is through our carport, so on rainy days, I won’t have to walk in the weather.

It presents some problems – one of which is where to store the things currently inside of it. But we were already planning on enclosing the carport, and much of it is junk that needs tossing anyway, so that problem would solve itself. Our HVAC unit is slightly oversized, so it can easily handle having an additional 100sf added to it. The room would need more outlets, but it already has power, so adding more outlets is just time and (not much) money. And, of course, it will need insulation and sheetrock, but so would any shed I build in the yard.

In short, what would have been a $5,000 project has now become something like a $1000 project. And instead of a few weeks of work spread out over winter, now it’s only a couple of weekends.

It’s more square footage than an 8×8 shed would be, but not much. The room is about five and a half feet wide and 17 feet long, making it roughly double the size of your average hall bathroom here in the US. I envision half of the space being a built-in desk and shelves, and the other half being storage.

I ordered the materials Sunday – they arrived this morning. As I was placing the order, it occurred to me that it would be fun to document this process here. So, stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted.

I Don’t Know How To Rest

When I was a little kid, my parents had these friends they hung out with. We would go to their house, and the adults would sit around the fire and play guitars and drink beer, and we kids would play in the yard, and there were sing-alongs and sometimes marshmallows. It was such fun for 6-year-old me. But then Dad quit drinking, and the people with the guitars did not, and we did not go to the singalongs anymore.

As I sit here, searching my memories, those singalongs are the closest I can come to remembering an example of what I would now call relaxation in my childhood. We were poor – things like off-time were not for leisure but for fixing broken things, making extra money, or collapsing from sheer exhaustion. We did not have hobbies – we had responsibilities.

We did not watch sports. Dad built things, but things we could use. Mom cooked, but not for fun, but because we needed calories. A weekend did not go by that we were not working on one of our cars, but that was not a love of mechanics but a desire to have a working vehicle.

The end result of this sort of rearing is that while I know how to survive, I do not know how to rest.

* * *

A lot of my life right now is one on one meetings. The other day, I was trying to set up a meeting with someone, and we were comparing calendars.

“What about Tuesday,” I asked.

“No, I can’t do Tuesday. It’s my birthday.”

“Oh, Happy Birthday. Are you going on a trip somewhere?”

“Oh no,” she said. “I just don’t work on my birthday.”

I had never heard of such a thing. Not that I’m against it, per se. It was just a new concept for me.

I’ve never been one to take off work. In fact, I have a hard time sometimes not working.

The last time I was in Asheville, NC, I went with some friends to an improv show. The cast was pretty good, and I enjoyed it a lot. One of my friends said they thought I would enjoy taking improv lessons. My gut reaction was no, but I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Because I probably would be good at it, and I probably would enjoy it.

Eventually, I came to terms with that in the end, the issue is that I can’t justify it – the time or the expense. I have a problem doing things that are not useful.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with improv. It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.

In the lovely book Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old preacher in 1956 Kansas, leaves his 7-year-old son a diary as his inheritance. And on its final pages, he tells his son:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.

I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

That’s all I ever wanted, really. To be brave and to be useful. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not doing something.

“But Hugh! You have hobbies! I have seen the gardens! And the wildflowers! And the woodworking!”

Yes, I manage to do useful things in my nonworking time, because I can then convince myself I am not being lazy, playing with my flowers, but rather am building a wildlife habitat, or creating a pollinator garden for endangered insects, or growing food we can eat, or furniture we can sit on.

That thing where you do a thing for sheer joy that will never be productive or remunerative or useful to anyone? Stamp collecting? Role-playing games? A friend told me he spent the whole weekend playing video games. I cannot imagine such a thing.

And if I have a surplus of spare time, I catch myself adding projects until I feel busy again. Some days I sit at my desk the whole day, from 6 AM until I go to bed at ten that night, baring meals, because I’m working on my blog or my newsletters or my regular job or planning a new flower bed or sketching out the garage project.

In my defense, I happen to like the useful things I do in my unpaid time. They are not chores. But neither are they relaxing.

At this stage of my life, I’m trying to fix that. I’m trying to learn how to relax more. To build walls between work and not-work. To create a structure that encourages relaxation and rest. I’ll probably be talking about this a lot over the next few months as I try to develop patterns and routines that take this desire into account.

I don’t know that this means we will have a singalong in my backyard one day soon. But I’m not ruling it out.