Getting Closer

No one else can truly know what it’s like to be you. To think the things you think. To feel the emotions you feel (the way that you feel them). The things that get under your skin. The worries that play on repeat. Your hopes, dreams, and convictions about how the world works.

Our distant human predecessors had emotions and thoughts before they had language to describe them. The structure of our brains reflects that developmental history. There’s a whole complex of feelings and thoughts we have inside ourselves before we can put words to it. It can be extremely difficult to formulate them into something sayable or writeable.

But it can also be extremely fulfilling. Words give tangibility and translatability to our internal lives. In conversation or typed on a page, there’s a shared point of reference.

Other media do this, too—songs, sculptures, architecture, and more. They each in their own way provide something that other people can reflect on and respond to. This is how we build connections and relationships with other people. And how we make sense of the world together. One person says things, write things, plays things, and makes things. Others listen, feel, examine, or respond.

We’re all on this peculiar blue rock in the universe—trying to process what’s going on and what our part is in all of it. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s exciting and terrifying and full of potential.

I love what prolific film composer Hans Zimmer said in a recent interview about “getting closer.”

I’m writing one long score. It’s called my life. How many deaths have I written? How many kisses have I written? Each one, I try to do it differently. I try to get closer to the reality. I try to get better at it. “Better” is the wrong word. I’m trying to find out what’s hidden from me and what’s hidden from the audience. I’m trying to peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Whether it’s words, or music, or something else, we’re all trying to get a little closer to reality through the course of our lives. What we know about ourselves, and what we know about the world.

I look back on some of the things I’ve written or said, and they make me cringe. I butchered sentences. I lacked perspective. Because people change. The way we articulate ourselves changes. Our sense of what’s right and good and beautiful changes. That’s part of being human, too.

Those changes and the drive to get closer are crucial to living well together. We’re dependent on others to fully see and understand. We need other people to show us our blind spots, where we haven’t taken things far enough, and where we’re way off track.

The path of getting closer is an imperfect, in-progress one, because we’re imperfect, in-progress creatures. Our vantage points are limited—conditioned by what makes each of us us. No one person is going to get things exactly right. Our efforts to communicate what we know about ourselves and the world don’t always come out the way we wanted. That’s what makes getting closer that much more rewarding. Over time, you can get closer. You end up in a different place than where you started. And there is always room to go deeper and wider.

It’s much more interesting to live life trying to discover what’s hidden from you. To get to the essence of what all this is. Throughout each day, in everything you say and make, and with every opportunity you have to hear perspectives outside your own purview. Each of us has things to share that will bring us closer to the world as it is—and closer to one another.

Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Cooking

When I did How to Adult: Eating, I promised one later about cooking. The future is now.

These two sides of food–eating and cooking–come with significantly different skill sets. With eating, we found that you can eat enjoyably and healthfully by following three basic principles: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. When it comes to cooking, five minutes watching an expert chef can send you retreating into thinking I’ll just go ahead and buy every meal for the rest of my life. How am I supposed to do that?

There’s an intimidation factor to overcome with cooking. I’ve been (attempting to) cook all kinds of stuff at home for years now, and I still worry I’m going to screw it up half the time. It’s going to happen. And that’s the point. The most important thing when it comes to cooking is that you try to cook.

Start with boxed macaroni and cheese and feel like a boss because you boiled and drained noodles, then added butter, milk, and powdered cheese to get a zesty (radioactive?) sauce. No shame. That’s about the only thing I knew how to cook when I first started making my own meals.

Or dive into a complex cookbook recipe with 31 ingredients that takes 6 hours to prepare.

Try, try, try.

You will definitely blow it once in awhile. Cooking is one of the last great opportunities for trial and error in a thoroughly routinized world. Sometimes you’ll add too much salt. Maybe the first time you give salmon a try you overcook it a bit. Seafood is especially daunting. But you learn when you mess up. Oh, this is how I should do it next time.

The sooner you start cooking at home, the better. It’s such a valuable pursuit. You know every ingredient that’s going into what you’re eating. You feel a sense of accomplishment for doing it yourself. It saves money because it’s cheaper than eating out. So many good things happen when you cook your own meals.

So how do you do it?

A little bit of equipment is required–the basic utensils, pots, pans, and the like. This list is a decent place to start, though I certainly don’t have everything that’s there. It takes time to acquire the kitchen gear you want or need, so start with inexpensive equipment that’s the most essential, and then add and replace as you go.

It’s hard to make anything if you don’t have steps to prepare it. That’s where recipes come in. The goal with recipes is to understand basic techniques and principles for putting ingredients together. How to Cook Everything, by former New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, is really good for this. For hundreds of the most common dishes, he gives you the standard recipe to get the basic concept down, and then variations so that you learn how to improvise. In time, you’ll be able to look at what you have hanging around in your kitchen and turn it into meals.

My wife and I have also enjoyed using The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook, because you end up with portions that are–surprise, surprise–just right for two people (or a meal for now and leftovers for later if you’re cooking for one). There are countless cookbooks, with dozens more published every week. If you want to expand the things you can make to dishes from a particular region of the United States, or strictly vegetarian, or specifically desserts, you can find any number of choices.

There are also tons of food blogs to mix in new recipes if you want to break from the books you’re using. Smitten Kitchen is a delight. Food 52 is endless. 101 Cookbooks is easy and healthful. Search and you will find.

When it comes time to plan and prepare meals, it helps me immensely to pick some of the things we’re going to cook during the week ahead of time, and get those groceries in one trip. Because of busyness, laziness, intimidation, and everything else, it’s probably not an achievable goal to cook each and every meal you eat in the next 7 days–at least when you’re starting out. Aspire to make something like 3 or 5 legit, cooked meals. The rest can be easy-to-put-together things like sandwiches, salads, and low-cost fast-casual stuff if you’re short on time. Making simple lunches with my wife to take to work is one of my zen moments during the week.

As you cook, you’ll find recipes you love and recipes you hate. There will be dishes that get a little better each time you prepare them, because you figured out you like to add more garlic than the recipe calls for, that your oven takes five minutes less than what the page says, or that there’s an ingredient that’s not in the recipe but makes it taste so much better.

You’ll get a repertoire of things that become a breeze to prepare because you’ve made them and modified them so many times. You can move up to making 8 or 10 (or more) meals at home each week, and try new, and even harder-to-cook, dishes. Way to go, Alton Brown.

There’s also a variety of techniques to learn–especially knife skills. There are more good videos online for cooking technique than you could ever watch.

Cooking, like so many things, is a lifelong process of developing understanding and ability. Don’t let the mastery of the celebrated chefs of the world intimidate you out of cooking yourself. If you want to get to their level, I’m certain you can. We need more people who care that much about real food. I’m in awe of what they do.

Or, just get really good at making simple and delicious pasta every Tuesday night.

Either way, it’s just a matter of trying. You got this, chef.

 

How to Adult: Growing Up

As someone who has worked with and managed twenty- and thirty-somethings for the last several years, I have experienced on a daily basis what the spectrum of this emerging, majority of society is like. In some ways, it’s probably not all that different from what characterized budding adults in the 60s or more recent decades.

Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson have given way to Justin Bieber and Kendrick Lamar, of course. But still, some people jump into a serious full-time job at 18; others go to college, and school after that schooling. Some are looking to get in long-term relationships–perhaps even marriage–right away, and focus on starting a family; others are eager to venture out on their own and explore.

Some find it easy to live independently and self-sufficiently; others trip and fall flat on their face trying to figure out the ins and outs of everyday life. How do you do laundry, again?

There are a number of things that will probably remain learning experiences and rites of passage as long as there are people on earth. At bottom, we’re not that different from each other.

But as the world rapidly changes around them, so-called Millennials are experiencing profound new transitions and even the erosion of some longstanding stepping stones toward growing up. A college degree now is essentially equivalent to a high school diploma for Baby Boomers, so if an 18-year-old decides not to go to college, that can potentially close a lot of doors. Even so, college degrees are now so ubiquitous that much of the job market consists of opportunities that pay less or are less dignified than what Millennials are bringing to the table. Overqualification is not good for the psyche or the bank account.

As a result, instead of clear-cut independence from 18 or so through the rest of their lives, huge chunks of society are leaning on family for support–especially parents–well into or throughout adulthood. A Pew study in 2014 found that over a third of women and more than 40% percent of men 18-34 were living with their parents. Sharing a home with parents and being an adult are no longer as mutually exclusive as they had long been.

So, many Millennials are dependents, to some degree, for much longer. And, arguably, they’ve been limited–by society or their own choice–to learn what it means to become independent and more fully grown up.

If Dad’s really good at cooking dinner, and the ‘rents are paying for groceries, why think about what it takes to make a meal plan for the week or worry about paying for the ingredients?

If you’re still covered by your parents health insurance, why worry about finding your own doctors when you can just ask Mom to make an appointment for you with the same person you’ve been seeing since you were born? And when their insurance stops covering you, you can just stop making medical visits altogether. You’re young and invincible, right? Some over-the-counter stuff should handle it if anything bad happens.

As a 30-year-old, I have watched time and again–people a little younger than me or a little older than me–make boneheaded decisions about how they take care of themselves or how they operate in the world. I’m sure others have watched me and thought the same. My wife handles most of the finances because my laissez-faire approach wasn’t working too well when I was in charge. Still figuring out how money works.

For young adults who are astonishingly savvy when it comes to other things like culture, it seems like the only explanation is that we’ve got too many people that are not growing into flourishing adults because the training wheels keep getting put back on. Society is letting Millennials down, so we allow the security blanket of childhood to be wrapped around them again–all the while deflating their motivation and expectation for full development.

Before anyone who’s older than a Millennial gets judgmental or thinks this doesn’t apply to them, ask yourself if there’s anything in your life you’ve still got the training wheels on for?

Are there difficult conversations you need to have with your spouse, your child, a co-worker, or someone else, but you avoid it? Do you skip regular medical visits because you might find out something with your body or your lifestyle that’s cause for concern? Do you have indulgent coping mechanisms–alcohol, binge-watching TV, secret obsessions–that probably aren’t good for you but sedate you from your daily stress? Do you have anything you’ve always wanted to do that would bring more fulfillment to your life, but you’re too afraid to try?

Growing up is ongoing at any age. Not just bodily–physical aging is inevitable–but of deepening who you are as a person. Growing up is a continuous process of trying to become a better version of yourself.

We can choose not to do it if we want to.

There are plenty of middle-aged guys who put sports jerseys on and go to the bar in nearly the same routine they were going through in their early twenties. There are plenty of Millennials who pack up and head back to their parents’ house as soon as things get a bit hard. Maybe it just feels too comfortable to think about doing anything else. Maybe it’s a sort of Peter Pan defiance.

And we’ve probably all experienced moments when we wanted to become a better version of ourselves, but the people and things around us wouldn’t allow for it.

A family member treats you the same way they did 10 years ago, even though you’ve become infinitely more mature, intelligent, and experienced than you were then.

You have over $100,000 in student debt with an entry level job, so you have no choice but to ask for the grace to stay with family or friends for now.

You get stereotyped, harassed, ignored, or rejected, based on your resume or your gender or your ethnicity or your hobbies or a million other things…

Those are deeply rooted obstacles in society and human nature that need a lot of attention and improvement, and probably will for a long time. They’re ingrained and institutionalized.

But things like laundry, cooking, being able to carry a meaningful conversation with anyone, and balancing a budget, and waking up on time, and making smart decisions for your health, and being kind, and learning how to appreciate and respect difference, and putting other people’s needs before your own, and much more, are all within your control. There are a lot of things that you can and should decide to take on, wrestle with, and gain wisdom about. They will make you into a better version of yourself.

We all need to keep growing up–whether you’re a 22-year-old Millennial or a golden 90-year-old.