My Daily Journal
It's amazing how small things can make a huge difference in your life. You can hear the same platitude 1,000 times, but if the right person says it to you at the right moment, it can make all the difference in the world.
I had always wanted to, but I had never successfully and consistently journaled in my life. I have trouble making new habits and keeping up routines. I had written down important moments in my life and various personal stories over the years, but never in enough detail or frequently enough.
The sad thing was, when I found something that I had written down, invariably there would be details that I had forgotten. Sometimes even whole stories had taken place that I otherwise would have had no memory of, had I not written them down.
About two years ago, a strange confluence of two pieces of advice I received solved this problem for me. My favorite podcast (by far) is The Tobolowsky Files—true stories from the life of character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. The podcast (80 episodes and counting) consists of him telling a series of interconnected stories about his life, as an actor in Hollywood, as a Jewish kid growing up in Dallas, and as a human being in general.
In one of the episodes, he talks about the first thing he does in every acting class he teaches. On the first day he hands out a composition notebook, and tells his students: "From now on in life, I want you to write down every interesting thing that happens to you." The point he is making is that actors must be observers of human nature, and that the only way to truly observe and process what you've seen is to record it in some way. That clicked with me in a strange way.
Writing a diary always seemed like an indulgent and pointless thing to do. Who cares about what my inner thoughts and feelings at any given moment are? Why would I write a journal that even I wouldn't read be interested enough to read? But if I made the mandate to write down "interesting things," then the scope of it would always necessarily be interesting—at least to me.
The composition notebook, however, wasn't an option for me. I couldn't be relied on to have it with me wherever I went. I didn't want to end up with a large stack of them over time. I wanted something that would be searchable, so I wouldn't have to go digging through to pull a detail I wanted to look up.
I still was intrigued by the idea though, and a few days later, I'd get another piece of advice that would solve the problem of where to write. It was actually more of a recommendation than advice—my friend who works for Apple and is savvy with all things tech recommended a simple app called "Day One."
All it does is allow you to write simple text entries. Every day I could create a new little note that would be date and time stamped, and if I was so moved I could attach a photo to it. The app is set up to send me a reminder to write at 10:20p every night. (I'm usually done with my day at this point, but not usually already asleep.)
The simple advice of writing "interesting" things, and the simple interface of an app that I would have with me wherever I went, changed my life.
For 2.5 years now, I haven't missed a day of my Daily Journal, recording the interesting things that happened. A lot of my feelings about things and life are recorded in there too, incidentally. I've now started to pour back over my entries and I'm still amazed about how much of my life I don't actually remember, how much my opinion of things can change (even over such a short period of time).
Zigging instead of zagging
It is hard to catalog, let alone count, the pieces of advice I have received from my father.
But let us define "advice": As delivered by Daddy, this is information imparted as directive, absolute, often accompanied by historical examples to support his point (either his life or true history). His advice was on matters large and small.
When I was trying to finish a book I did not particularly like (with a white-knuckle grasp, as a friend called it), my father said, "Why feel compelled to do that just because you thought it was a good idea when you started it? If you don't like it, don't finish it. Nixon swore he would visit every state in the union. It was a ridiculous waste of time to make a show of something that didn't really matter." (I didn't finish it.)
When he gave me a Camp David coffee cup he had acquired at said place: "But don't use it because the logo and writing might wear off." (Compromise: I use it but wash it by hand.)
When I bought a car whose price I worried about: "Honey, it's an investment." (He was right: It ran great and I kept it for 20 years.)
It might be clear by now that I often seek his advice, which is true, but it is also true that often by merely mentioning any topic to him he would assume I wanted advice. That's why I stopped mentioning anything to him unless I cared to hear his dictate.
But the biggest advice that I remember getting from him was when I was going to quit a great job at the Washington Post for no job in San Diego. I had quit college and started to work at the Post while figuring out life, and ended up staying there six years. I figured it would only get harder leaving as I got older. It was in the town I grew up in and I wanted to try something different.
I've forgotten the specifics of my father's decree but in general it was: If you move I will disown you not that you would know because you will probably shrivel up somewhere in the desert on the way there and not make it anyway.
The advice was as ridiculous as Nixon's apparent waste of time trying to live up to a promise he shouldn't have made, but it did give me pause -- not that I wasn't going to move, but here was the loving but domineering figure in my life and he is swearing by all that is good and not good that moving would be stupid.
So I wrote a long letter to him, sitting there in the features section of the Washington Post, explaining why I was going to move whether he thought it was a good idea or not. He lived about seven miles from downtown D.C., so I sent it by messenger (this was back in the days when "messenger" was a verb because there was no internet).
Just as details of his objections have faded from my mind, so have details of my note to him. I remember only that he advised strenuously that I do not quit this job, let alone move; and I just as strenuously said, I'm doing it.
I do remember that of all cities I have lived in, San Diego was where he and Mama ended up visiting most often,
even buying a small place there so they could stay for weeks at a time. And my mother even drove there with me when I made the move; I found a van that needed to be driven cross-country, packed my bicycle along with a table and four chairs that my grandfather had made and were bequeathed to me, and she and I took a week to make the cross-country trip.
He apparently made peace with my decision. Either the letter was good or he realized it was a lost cause. Later, when we were speaking again, he said the phrase I would hear from him quite often on life decisions -- mine -- quoting boxer Jack Dempsey: "I was afraid you'd zig when you should have zagged."
Look where you want to go
When I was a child, I rode horses. From about the time I could sit up on my own, I was in the saddle. My mother grew up riding horses, and she shared her love of these amazing animals with me.
I never rode for competition. The whole idea of it left me feeling uneasy; using a horse as a tool seemed wrong to me, somehow. I realize man has been using horses for transportation and manual labor for eons, but to use a horse as a means to a blue ribbon negated the wonderful relationship I developed with my horse. Too often, I heard other girls at the barn tell their parents they needed to get a 'better' horse, that the one they had 'was no good anymore'. It broke my heart. My horse was a member of our family. She didn't fit in the living room, but my love for her could not have been stronger.
Even though I did not want to compete in shows, I did want to get better as a rider. My mother was one to compete and had become quite accomplished as a rider from a young age, and it was very hard for her to watch me ride and NOT comment on how my heels needed to be down or to stop moving my hands so much. So I worked with a trainer because having my mother as my coach would be a quick way to ruin our relationship.
While my horse was 'nothing fancy' according to the show girls at my barn, she was a Thoroughbred. This meant she was lean, muscular, and just a little bit out of her mind. She was terrified of snow. I grew up in Connecticut. You might be able to see why this was problematic. But Belle could do pretty much everything I asked of her, including jumping. Her gait was smooth, and her ears perked up whenever we were training in the ring. But once I started moving past cavaletti poles and onto actual jumps, I did something I had never done before.
I fell off.
I did not like falling off. I was sure it was because Belle wasn't a good jumper, and I was about to give the whole thing up before I broke a leg or cracked my skull. But my trainer said it wasn't her fault. The fault was entirely mine.
"Look where you want to go - if you look at the ground, you will end up there!"
And she was right. I have always been afraid of heights (do not ask how I was comfortable on a horse - I know - they are kind of off the ground) and realized I was looking down at the ground when Belle would start her jump. And BOOM.. off I would go.
I tried it her way. I tried using my head more as Belle and I would approach the corner of the arena, and I found that the more I used my eyes and my head, the less I needed to use my hands. The less apt I was to fall on my keister, too, when I used the same tactics over a fence. By golly, she was right. When I set my eyes on where I wanted to go, the rest of my body and the horse would go there too.
It is a good lesson for life. I have found many such lessons in the barn, but none quite so clear, possibly cliche, but universally applicable as that one. Look where you want to go. Know where your eyes are heading, and your body will follow along. Keep your head high if you don't want to land on your ass!
If My Advice Was Any Good, I'd Take It.
I've sometimes thought about (playfully) complaining on Facebook that I must be the world's least competent person based on all the unsolicited advice that shows up on my timeline. Everyone, it seems, has advice to offer me, I guess to make me a better, happier, more fulfilled person.
I’m not exactly sure when I made the resolution not to give any more unsolicited advice (or well I’ve been about keeping it), but in part that’s the reason I tell myself. I don’t enjoy getting it, and to spare others, I probably shouldn’t give it, either.
The more I thought about it, I came up with a couple ground rules, maybe to simplify it if I needed help maintaining my resolve. There are what seem to me obvious topics on which I’m totally unqualified to offer any advice, no matter how well meant or how noble my intentions.
Unless I’m asked, of course. I’d love it if anyone asked me, but I can’t honestly remember the last time anyone specifically asked me for advice on anything. Maybe, I tell myself, they’re all too shy and I need more secure friends.
First, anyone who even glances at my life and standing would be able to see that I am in no position to offer anyone financial advice. Really, you’d be better off writing a numbered list and rolling dice than take anything I have to say about financial planning seriously.
Another thing I try my best to avoid offering advice on is relationships, especially romantic ones. Again, a glance at my history and current standing is all anyone needs to look at to see that the best thing to do with any advice I can come up with on how to get along, handle, increase, or seek out about any human relationship is to do the opposite. Suffice it to say that my history with dealing with humans is a checkered one, especially if all the squares are black.
I just don’t do some things well, no matter how hard I try or how earnest my efforts are.
The good news is, while it was difficult at first for me not to interrupt everyone and tell them what I thought about things, it’s gotten easier with time. I used to love editing things I wrote after that initial, horrid, first draft, and the more I practiced it, the easier it got for me to do something similar when I was talking or, especially, posting things online. I found that over half the things I impulsively want to say are either efforts for me to make the conversation about me, to make me sound better, or that I’d already done or been or covered that topic. I was there first, just in case you didn’t know.
Just not bringing up my thoughts until I’m asked for them means I’ve gotten some sort of reputation lately as a quiet, thoughtful fellow. At least in groups, I’m rarely the one talking, and I find I don’t mind it at all any more.
After all, the best thing to do with advice is to give it to someone else.
Can I call you Jeff? Mr. Bezos? I'm writing because I understand from the unrelenting crush of media coverage given to your company that you are looking for a second headquarters for Amazon. the New York Times even did their own analysis of cities and came up with Denver as their solution.
Let me give you some advice: Don't listen to the New York Times. (I'm guessing you know that, since you bought the Washington Post.) But do look at their map. There are a handful of states that have *three or more* cities on their first cut list: California, New York, Texas, Florida... and Ohio.
You don't want to be in California. I mean, you'd love it here. The weather is great. The earth shakes only occasionally. But you've got the giant warehouses already and the west coast ethos covered with your Seattle HQ. I'd say reject Texas just on the face of it, but you did buy Whole Foods, which has its headquarters in Austin, and it might be reasonable to double down on that college town. Still. Texas.
Florida is a hurricane magnet, which is not at all what you want in a business that relies on logistics and always-available technology. Cut.
New York. Well, if you're looking for affordability, New York City is right out. And I'd say Rochester and Buffalo might be OK if you really like the cold and deep deep snow. But I don't see either being destination cities for tech workers.
Mr. Bezos, you should look at Ohio. There are 202 colleges and universities in Ohio, starting with the big one of the Big Ten/12... The Ohio State University. I doubt you've been to Columbus recently. I hadn't until last year. I visited a friend there for the day and honestly, it could be Portland. The brew pubs, the restaurants, the film series. It was astounding to me... and I live in L.A. I grew up in central Ohio and it was unrecognizable to me.
So Columbus is the obvious choice. Cleveland is my sentimental choice because it's too often overlooked these days as a sentimental choice when Detroit is in the offing. But it's hard for me to diss Buffalo and recommend Cleveland, so I won't.
No, Jeff, the choice is Cincinnati.
Partly, my argument is geographic. As John Kasich will surely tell you when you meet with him, Ohio is within 600 miles of 60% of the U.S. population. You can reach anywhere from Denver to New York in a two-hour flight. Cincinnati is, further, at the hub of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky -- which really means that you could spread your wealth and influence and office parks around and get tax incentives from all three if you play your cards right. And I'm guessing you can. Cincinnati is also home to CPG giant Proctor and Gamble, and has a depth of business talent and training -- and the supporting business services -- that you wouldn't expect.
And boy howdy is it affordable. I don't know what those folks at the New York Times were thinking qualifies as affordable in choosing Denver. The median price of a house there is $385,000. In Cincinnati? It's $125,000. Cincinnati and Columbus both made U.S. News' list of best affordable places to live.
Finally, Jeff, Amazon could make a huge difference to Ohio. You read "Hillbilly Elegy." You know that this state voted for Trump, and that without that win, he wouldn't be in office. You know that the median household income in Cincinnati is about two-thirds of the American average. You could draw talent to Cincinnati like Uber is drawing it to Pittsburgh, and people would come not only from Ohio's 202 colleges and universities, but from Indiana U. and the U. of Chicago and Carnegie and Pitt and Penn.
When I was growing up there, the state slogan on was that Ohio was "the heart of it all." Indeed, if you are out in Seattle, people will tell you it is "back east." If you are in the East Coast, they'll say that Ohio is some where "in the middle. " In Florida, Ohio is "up North." Ohioians will say they are in the Midwest, but look at Cincinnati's nearness to Kentucky. It's also practically the South. It is everywhere, all places to all people. And if you take my advice, it should be Amazon's next headquarters.
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
One of the evergreen rules of writing I always hear is "write what you know." That seems to make sense, which is why I am having such a hard time following this prompt. I am sure I have given advice and have received advice, many many times over, but I am having a hard time recalling an instance when either made enough of an impact on my life so as to be memorable.
For the past few years, I have been trying, in fits and starts, to process through a rather authoritarian upbringing. And in such an environment, you can bet that there was a lot of advice giving--or as it actually should have been called, orders and rules encoded as advice. For my milieu, there were never out-and-out threats or promises of condemnation and hell for breaking a rule; just lots and lots of suggestions and warnings based on "the way things were." I mean, you could feel very free to do as you pleased, but why would you want to when we had God's Rulebook for right living and the inside scoop on the care and training of human nature?
-Spare the rod, spoil the child: I mean, you could take a risk and *not* spank them, but do you really want your kid to grow up to walk all over you and not recognize your stature as The One Who Knows Best?
-No sex before marriage: I mean, you could take a risk and sleep with your boyfriend/ girlfriend (oh and straights only, that's just biology), but why would you want to? Sex releases extra-special bonding hormones, and why would you want to be bonded to a person who you might not be with tomorrow? Or bonded to someone in a porno? Or bonded to the person God hasn't Chosen For You?
-Go over there and evangelize to that person on the beach: I mean, you could take the risk that that person could Go To Hell because you're the only person who will care enough in their entire life to Share The Good News, but why would you do that? Don't you care enough? And about your introversion and natural inclination to let people be: that'll just be your witness that God helped you overcome shyness so you could be used as a Tool For His Glory.
I could go on forever, but the issue is that in order to deal with all of this advice for living that so deeply could not give a shit about who I actually was, and the events that it caused, is that I learned very quickly to just sit in the church service while the pastor spoke--sit at the dinner table while my parents argued--sit at my desk and silently copy out bible passages about how "The tongue is also a small part of the body, but it can speak big things. See how a very small fire can set many trees on fire. The tongue is a fire. It is full of wrong. It poisons the whole body," as punishment for calling my sister stupid. All I had to to was endure for a time, and then they would leave me alone.
But you see, all that disassociation wreaks havoc on the memory.
I remember wanting to be good for the adults in my life--it was so important to them and made them happy and calm, and I so wanted them calm so I could be calm too--but all these edicts flying around became much too much, and I could feel who I was and what I thought slipping away from me sometimes as it happened, so I would shout my opinions and feelings in my head while the barest part possible listened and responded and nodded to the person in front of me. This also let the edicts and advice slip in and slip out without very much notice at all, leaving only maybe an echo or a faded footprint.
But of course, footprints over time build up and wear a path in the carpet. So, I don't remember these parts of my formative years, except that I do. And I spent so much time in passive rebellion, angry and resisting advice that didn't even attempt an interplay, a "what does and doesn't work for me?" of it all, that it's hard to take in new ideas as an adult. I either take in everything--completely pervious
or take in nothing--completely impervious.
The people of my past focused on Discerning the Voice of God. But what about the Voice of Me?