Monday, December 21, 2015

On emails, living deliberately, and the art of the "year in review"

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

What did Thoreau mean when he said he wished to “live deliberately?” It’s an odd word to use to describe a way of living. Did he mean “deliberately” in the slow, steady sense of the word? Or did he mean that he wanted to spend his life deliberating—the way one might carefully deliberate over a decision to accept a job or buy a car? Regardless of what he meant, I prefer how I’ve always interpreted the line: I believe Thoreau wished to live thoughtfully and intentionally. In other words, to live deliberately would be to live life with forethought. It is to live with your values, ideas, goals, and principles in mind. To live deliberately is to live your life actively (in which you wield control of your life) rather than passively (in which you let life happen to you).

I can’t help but live my life deliberately. It’s really the only way I can live. To make a decision without reflection and analysis, and just by “going with my gut,” would be to go against years of habit and instinct—it would feel like suddenly trying to write with my left hand. (There is of course plenty to be said for "going with your gut," but only after a thoughtful analysis of your options has taken place.) All of my big decisions are thoroughly analyzed and thought out and debated (and now increasingly mathematized). Some of this I do by myself, but mostly I collaborate with friends, almost always in the form of email. I prefer email as a form of communication because I know the writing process will help me communicate what I think and feel with optimum clarity and precision.

I’m of course eager for a second opinion when I email, but I think I write emails mostly to learn my own thoughts. Emailing, then, is like writing a diary entry. But not quite, because emailing involves another human being who is intelligent, perceptive, and has good judgment. Knowing that my words will be read by him, I’m compelled to compose my thoughts with his objections in mind, to consider the weaknesses of my argument, to lay out my thoughts with good sense and logic that will stand the test of his scrutiny. My diary entries (if I ever write one) are inferior because they’re typically far more rambling and ungrounded.

My emails usually are quite simple. I write them about once a week to chart what’s going on in my life. Mostly, it’s mundane stuff, but often I try to solve an ongoing problem that may have been vexing me for months—perhaps I’m concerned about not making enough money, or maybe I’m charting the progress of getting over a wrist injury. Sometimes it’s more existential. Maybe I’m questioning what my career ought to be. These emails usually come with self-prescriptions and a list of goals or ideas about how I might best tackle the problem.

I’ve been sending emails to a close friend since the age of sixteen. I’ve been preserving those emails since 2004. Think about having such a thing—twelve years of honest and thoughtful weekly reports chronicling what was going on in your life: career thoughts, travel reflections, failures, success, goals, lessons learned.

What can one learn from so much introspective material? The weekly reports are always valuable as snapshots of the past, and, upon re-reading, they're sure to at least deliver a nice blast of nostalgia. But in the past few years I’ve wanted to look at my life from a more zoomed-out angle. So, at the end of each year, I started reading my emails of the past year and creating a “year in review.”

I’ve been writing these reviews for three years now, and each year I’ve refined the reviews to make them more comprehensive, more sophisticated, more intense. For instance, as the years go by, I find that I am becoming more of a “data collector.” One can learn a lot about yourself if you have introspective talents, but you can also learn a lot about yourself just by looking at the numbers. I’ve begun to create lists of books I read, radio shows I listen to, TV shows I watch. I keep detailed accounts of my money earned, spent, and saved. I keep a dream log. I write down every book I read or skim and write a paragraph detailing my impressions about each. (I think these data-collecting habits were developed during my vandwelling years at Duke, when I discovered the usefulness of recording all my purchases and vigilantly monitoring my bank account.)

Here are the different sections to my year in review:

A. Data collection and category summaries.
B. Review of last year's goals.
C. Major existential themes.
D. This year's goals.
E. Updated life goals.
F. Summary. 

A. Data collection and category summaries.

For "Data collection and category summaries," I have a set list of categories that I return to each year. I’m sure they will vary per person, but for me they are: Career accomplishments (what did I accomplish career-wise?), Entertainment (how much time did I spend reading, watching, playing?), Travels and living situations (where did I live and where did I go?), Major purchases (did I buy a car or a Kindle this year?), Finances (how much did I make, lose, or save?), Family/Friendships (which friendships have grown and which have deteriorated?), Health (what was my health like for 2015?), Adventure (did I get my adventure fill?), Romance (was I single or what’s the state of my relationship?). Excerpts:
Career accomplishments

-Wrote two blog entries, helped edit two books (David’s and ***), and wrote four essays (Nebraska cold house for NYT, Great Plains Trail for Backpacker, Keystone XL for Time, and NFL’s CTE problem for somebody undetermined).

-Finished editing Trespassing across America. Had many copy edits to perform. Had to create media plans. Had to work on photos. Etc., etc.

-Maintained good standing at Park Service after five-month season as backcountry ranger.



Saw a dramatic reduction in TV time from previous year. Had a lot to do with not binge-watching a whole series like Game of Thrones or The Wire. Easy way to lose 100 hours. Also, my being quarantined in Alaska prevented me from having access to TV. I watched more than a few movies to compensate, though.

Fargo Season One: 10 hours
Game of Thrones Season Five: 10 hours
The Comeback Season Two:  4 hours
The Jinx: 5 hours
Hello Ladies: 4 hours
Last Man on Earth Seasons One and Two: 13 hours
Catastrophe Season One: 3 hours
Broadchurch Season One: 6 hours
Borgen Seasons One and Two: 20 hours
Bits of Vikings, Master of None, Mr. Robot, Veep: 10 hours

2014: 164 hours
2015: 85 hours


I read 30 books, many in Alaska on patrol. This is a nice increase from the previous couple of years.

2006- 33 books read
2007- 45
2008- 47
2009- 35
2010- 41
2011- 41
2012- 31
2013- 20
2014- 24
2015- 30


Didn’t listen to all that much, seeing as how I’m caught up on Radio Lab. I probably listened to about 25 hours of radio on a few long drives.

2014 Radio, TV, and movie time: 379 hours
2015 Radio, TV, and movie time: 282 hours

Major purchases

It was not a year of money spending. My car didn’t cost anything apart from gas and oil changes. I bought a Kindle for about $125. I bought 3-4 pairs of shoes and boots (I have a weird shoe-hoarding fetish), amounting to about $300. I paid $400 or so bucks on medical bills in addition to monthly payments. Though I paid for all my own food for the year (and rent for a good portion of it), it was a pretty good year for saving money.
B. Review of last year's goals.

I look at the goals I set for myself last year and comment on my fulfillment of them.
My goals for 2015 were:

1. I must floss twice a day. I’ve utterly failed here, though I continue to brush and floss once a day. Probably should be a 2016 goal, but I best not commit to anything softly.

2. Reduce computer videogame playing time. Failed.

4. I want to finish Trespassing (easy, as it’s almost done) and successfully publish three sizable articles for magazines. I already have one job lined up with Backpacker, so this is not an unreachable goal. I did finish Trespassing, though I have to look it over once more. I did publish four pieces, but only one was sizable and it may not print until 2017. I’ll call this goal fulfilled.

5. Be at peace with my leisure time. Don’t fret if I’m not abundantly productive. Accomplished this for the most part. I love my leisure time and am not troubled with all those hours, save for the video games.

6. Commit to my next big writing/adventure project. I can’t say I’ve committed, but I’m awfully, awfully close. I’ve put plenty of thought into it, so I’ll count this goal as fulfilled.

7. Make decent money. Between book and Park Service, I made about $40K, which I consider successful.
C. Major existential themes.

For this section, I'll look at all of the above and pick out the leading stories of the year. Usually there's one that dominates—something I've been dealing with for maybe half a year. And then there's a few smaller themes—like this year I had a run of bad health. I also had a period when I questioned my decision to make money this summer rather than pursue my next grand book adventure. Excerpt: 
I also had ongoing thoughts about taking the Park Service job, where I didn’t feel challenged or fulfilled. It made me wonder if I should forget about the weekly paycheck to focus on grander, riskier book-project goals. This has not been resolved, as I’m both tempted by the easy paycheck and the grandiose goals.
D. This year's goals.

In this section, I list a number of accomplishable goals for 2016. Excerpt:
1. Make $30,000.

2. Pursue in earnest your third book. This is somewhat at odds with goal #1 of making money. So I may not be able pull off both.

3. Publish four articles. This should be somewhat easier than last year given that I have a book coming out and publications will be more likely to pick up my stories. I wish these could be big earners, but I know from experience to stop hoping for that. I’ll look upon these as a way to do my civic duty and expand my writing resume for hopefully more lucrative writing work.

4. Fix my fucking wrist! Take pains to prevent reoccurrence of melanoma. Maintain excellent health and diet.

5. Reduce videogames to 75 hours a year. Unbelievable that this has to be a goal.

6. Personal enhancements: Spruce up on Spanish. I plan on spending two-plus months in Costa Rica. I don’t plan on leaving fluent, but, if I could get back to the level of my college years, I’ll be content. Improve photography. I know I’m good, but I have so much to learn. I basically use one setting on my camera. I understand about 4 percent of my camera’s functions.
E. Updated life goals.

Next, I'll write out my "updated life goals." These are things I'm looking to accomplish beyond 2016. These are things I can slowly work toward, or simply aspire to. Excerpt:
2. Eventually surround myself with a garden and living things and animals. Today I walked past donkeys on my walk to the Post Office and had a nice moment with them. We’ve been house-sitting a cat all week. I miss working in David’s outdoors. I don’t expect these things next year, but I’d like to embrace them fully someday.

3. Write books! I have three great ideas that I return to on an almost daily basis. They all excite me. Almost nothing excites me anymore, so I know these are paths to fulfillment and adventure.
F. Summary

Finally, I'll summarize my year. Was it a good year or bad year? Was it because of luck, or was it of my own doing? Am I a fulfilled, contented person?


This may all sound like too much. It may sound like I'm living too deliberately. You might argue that it's better to leave room for impulsive decisions and spontaneity. But truthfully, I do live spontaneously. I've found that to live a passionate and spontaneous life is not to be “a feather in the wind,” but to deliberately plan a passionate and spontaneous life. In other words, you must give your life the structure and space it needs to be able to make spontaneous decisions (i.e., saving for and meticulously planning out a six-month journey on which every day there'll be some component of adventure and spontaneity.).

At most, these reviews will help you prioritize the important stuff. They'll help you feel balanced, focused, and organized. At minimum, you'll have chronicled and preserved your thoughts, which will be a joy to read in the future.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The best books I read in 2015

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine

A collection of personal essays that chart the life of a real-life American itinerant. Ballantine doesn’t take us to grand places on his journey. These are the places in between: the ones we always see but never go to: crummy factory jobs, motel rooms, bus rides across the Midwest. One closes the book taken with the weird authenticity of it—there’s honesty here, and Ballantine refuses to resort to the “lessons learned” and schmaltz typical to the memoir genre. Sometimes there’s no meaning or purpose behind his tales, but this only enhances the book’s rare rawness. The chief impression the book leaves us with is that this guy’s been around.

“I can't count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV--nothing everyone else hasn't suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can't seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.”

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 by Winston Graham

Graham manages to match the elegance of 19th Century British prose despite writing from the mid-20th. Consequently, his themes are a bit darker, a bit more sophisticated. Why he’s unknown is a mystery to me, as it’s clear his writing is as good as or better than the greats.

“And Ross again knew himself to be happy—in a new and less ephemeral way than before. He was filled with a queer sense of enlightenment. It seemed to him that all his life had moved to this pinpoint of time down the scattered threads of twenty years… Someone—a Latin poet—had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come. He thought: if we could only stop here. Not when we get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming at my side.”

High Fidelity & About a Boy by Nick Hornby

I write a few sentences about every book I read. For both of these I wrote, “Lovable characters” and “Believable growth.” I’m reluctant to read authors who pump out a lot of books, especially current authors. But Hornsby’s quality doesn’t go down with quantity. And he’s just a master of dialogue. He builds his characters from it. It’s often funny and it’s never cheesy. Plus, his focus (and illuminating touch) on thirty-something relationship quandaries gives the book, for me, special relevance.

“See, I’ve always been afraid of marriage because of, you know, ball and chain, I want my freedom, all that. But when I was thinking about that stupid girl I suddenly saw it was the opposite: that if you got married to someone you know you love, and you sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things. I know you don’t know how you feel about me, but I do know how I feel about you. I know I want to stay with you and I keep pretending otherwise, to myself and you, and we just limp on and on. It’s like we sign a new contract every few weeks or so, and I don’t want that anymore. And I know that if we got married I’d take it seriously, and I wouldn’t want to mess about.”

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Smart, superb, patient storytelling that respects the reader’s intelligence. It more than stands the test of time. I tried to read Asimov’s other works, but nothing’s grabbed me like this one.

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It's as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

As a memoir writer, I pay special attention to style. Eating Animals is a combination of wonkish research, personal history, philosophical reflection, and random longish testimony-essays from farmers and vegans and such who appear as characters. Amazingly it all flows together. I intend on mimicking his style in future works.

“Even among writers who deserve great praise for bringing factory farming into public view, there is often an insipid disavowal of the real horror we inflict. In his provocative and often brilliant review of [Michael Pollan's] The Omnivore’s Dilemma, B. R. Myers explains this accepted intellectual fashion: 'The technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties.’ There is one other rule to this game: never, absolutely never, emphasize that virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals. It isn’t hard to figure out why the beef industry won’t let even an enthusiastic carnivore near its slaughter facilities. Even in abattoirs where most cattle die quickly, it’s hard to imagine that any day passes in which several animals (tens, hundreds?) don’t meet an end of the most horrifying kind. A meat industry that follows the ethics most of us hold (providing a good life and an easy death for animals, little waste) is not a fantasy, but it cannot deliver the immense amount of cheap meat per capita we currently enjoy.”

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion by Matt Taibbi

Taibbi viscously takes down the 9/11 Truth Movement and pokes a lot of fun at Christians while going undercover as a devout Christian at an Evangelical retreat. Despite pulling no punches, he manages to come across as likable. This may be because he has moments of empathy for his subjects (as misguided as they are), and, at bottom, he’s on an intellectual quest to understand what’s making Americans so crazy and conspiratorial. His findings don’t disappoint.

“The message of all of this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous informational sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before. A factory worker in suburban Ohio now needed to understand the cultures of places like Bangalore and Beijing if he wanted to know why he’d lost his job. Which, incidentally, he probably had. Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the Internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him. What story is he going to tell?”

After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy

Purdy’s book lays out the reasons why we need a new “environmental imagination” for the Anthropocene—an era dominated by climate change and factory farms and an expanding human population, all of which loom over us all. New values and aesthetics and politics will be necessary for the future that cannot thrive with the environmentalisms of the past. Brilliant and provocative.

“Bennett suggests that adopting a new animism—not exactly as metaphysics, but as a moral attitude and mode of experience—might alert people to the dangers afoot in a disrupted world (climate change as a Pandora’s box of actants). It might also dignify the widespread sense that things matter: mountains move us; the atmosphere is healthy or unwell. We know that, if these perceptions are to move us in the Anthropocene, when everything has changed, we must admit that what moves or frightens us is partly what we have created: the timeless mountain and the unchanging atmosphere are myths that we have lost and temples that we have broken.”

A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more by Mark Bittman

A good  refresher on everything from factory farms, to organics, to GMOs, to why we’re all getting fat. Bittman isn’t afraid to suggest something radical or politically impossible (which are joys to read) because his ideas are always well-grounded in solid research and good sense.

“If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers… And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens ‘could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.’”

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum

The Unspeakable contains a level of nuance, and Daum, a command of the language, that’s superior to most any memoir writing out there. She has an almost superhuman power of introspection, all of which allows her to get closer to capturing the very essence of a thought or feeling. Something to aspire to.

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future. The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson

It’s a shame Johnson committed suicide. It’s clear from reading Big Dead Place that he could have had a long and fruitful career as a travel writer. Like the best travel writers, Johnson gets obsessed with his subject, and Big Dead Place is crammed with careful and extensive research about everything-Antarctica. He writes with a British dry wit (I thought he was British for much of my reading), ridiculing mindless bureaucracy better than anyone.

“I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica's tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.”

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

A Passion for Nature lacks the storytelling flair of a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography, but it’s a solid and comprehensive portrait of John Muir, which was precisely what I was looking for.

“[Muir] was certainly not able to draw up a clear blueprint for his life, in contrast to what he was achieving on the work floor, or to manage the conflicting advice he was getting from so many strong-minded women and men, or even to see what his end product ought to be. Inventing machines or organizing them into a coherent system of production was much easier than inventing a life or finding coherence in what one thought or believed.”

The best books I read in 2014.