Why “Zen”?

I’ve been putting off writing this post for awhile, though it’s been the big glaring omission from the beginning. Basically, it’s the response to the obvious question: “Why Zen and the Art of Parenting“?

So, the redux version of my history: I’m a recovering Catholic (I’m sure there will be more posts teasing all of THAT out) who discovered Buddhism just after graduating college when I was really struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life after years of having a clear path laid out before me. Moreover, it was also to help me deal with my default method of reaction: anger.

I’m a pretty Type A guy, and I like knowing the lay of the land or being in control of the situation. Not a great fit for a new college grad figuring out where to go from there. Now, in many ways being Type A can be helpful. It provides drive, determination, and a clear vision of what you want to see happen. The downside is, when that vision is not realized as you wanted, how do you react?

Discovering Buddhism, or really more generally mindfulness, helped me during that period, and I practiced regularly for a period of time. Then life happened, or rather, life began going generally the way I wanted it to go for awhile, minus the occasional hiccup, and my active practice began to wain.

I hit a point relatively recently, where I realized something had to change. In a nutshell, a little over a year ago we had gone out with some extended family to a wonderful lunch, and visited our family members’ hotel room they were staying at in Boston afterwards. As we made our way back to the parking garage our daughter began acting up – combination of too much sugar and too much stimulation. Michael made the (correct) decision to pull her aside out of the middle of the open marketplace area to have a conversation with her about her behavior.

At this point, a stranger all of a sudden started loudly calling out “He’s hurting that child! He’s abusing that child!” I. Lost. It. I unloaded on her both barrels and left very little for scrap. Like, unhinged my metaphorical jaw and devoured that overbearing termagant whole. Now, the general idea of defending my husband for doing his job as a father (which, for the record was in no way shape or form abusive) is a noble one, but the execution left something very much wanting. Frankly, I’m lucky I didn’t end up as a video clip some passerby caught that went viral on the interwebs, which is something that can happen all too easily these days.

That was the moment I realized something had to change. My default reaction toward anger was way out of balance with how I needed to be living my life, especially as an example for my daughter. I’ve alluded to this in a previous post, but this was the point at which I realized I had been reading books about mindfulness, listening to podcasts and dharma talks about mindfulness – but I hadn’t actually sat for meditation in a VERY long time. The first time I did that, I remembered what I had been missing. It’s the not the research, it’s not the reading, it’s the action that brings the benefits.

I wish I could say that reintegrating meditation into my life has completely quelled my anger issues. It hasn’t. I’m a human being like everyone else – just trying to get a little better day by day. I can report that it has helped, and it continues to help.

So “why Zen”? Because I want to be a better father. I want to be a better human being.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

As this quote from Viktor Frankl illustrates – there is a precious space between a stimulus and a response. I want to inhabit this space more fully and to use its grace to inform better decisions and take better actions. Don’t we all?

FBR – “Fast, Bad, Rong”

I was listening to an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show featuring Safi Bahcall when I heard something that really stuck out to me as I began this endeavor to build a writing (and posting) habit. Safi likes acronyms to remember things or help them stick, and the one he mentioned that stuck was “FBR.”

(F)ast
(B)ad
(R)ong

He basically acknowledged that after he had done what could arguably be a sufficient amount of research and done enough planning, he just needed to get going on the actual writing process, which was often the most difficult step. He’s not rong wrong.

It’s always easier to Google more information, to look up/buy/check out more books that could arguably be considered research or prep work for the final product. But the point comes when the rubber needs to meet the road.

As the author James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits:

I refer to this as the difference between being in motion and taking action. The two ideas sound similar, but they’re not the same. When you’re in motion, you’re planning and strategizing and learning. Those are all good things, but they don’t produce a result.

At the end, you need to just start…….writing. So that’s what I took to heart from Safi’s interview, and for better or worse, despite the fact that I’ve got eight draft posts kicking around in the pipeline, I’m gritting my teeth, stopping the endless research and resulting rabbit holes and trying to write (and complete) a post. No matter how right or wrong they feel when I post them.

It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times

So, we had a recent bout of tough times in our household. Our daughter, Maya, does not have after school on Fridays, and her teacher brings her out for pick up. Since school resumed in January, it had pretty much been a dismal weekly report from her teacher. Maya was not listening or following directions like usual, to the point where the principal was observing the class one day for her teacher’s mid-year evaluation and even took the opportunity to pull her aside to have a one-on-one conversation with her about behaving and it seemed to have no effect. Her teacher was as baffled as we were. Maya’s a generally good kid, and if she gets out of line at school, she usually falls back in line when she’s called out. But for some reason, nothing was penetrating.

Unsurprisingly, things were matching this pattern at home. Mornings had dissolved into battles about eating quickly without laying down on the bench and kicking her foot over her head and getting her clothes on so we could get to school on time. Evenings usually dissolved in tears (sometimes hers, sometimes mine) over similar issues: she just wouldn’t do what she needed to do – things she has been doing for months, in some case years!

Discipline Equals Freedom

I swear that my posts won’t always center on books I haven’t actually read yet, BUT this is the central tenet of Jocko Willink’s book by the same name. While I haven’t read the book yet, I listen to Jocko’s podcast as well as many others that he has been a guest on and who often reference this book and its principles. Basically, the argument is that having discipline in some parts of your day, for example in a daily routine, allows for the freedom of action in others.

Now, it’s not that we run our household like a Navy SEAL boot camp, but Maya is definitely a routine girl. We’ve always raised her that way, and she does really well with it. The problem occurs when you disrupt that routine, when you disrupt that discipline.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Now imagine a routine-centric child, who begins a vacation on Thanksgiving Day, goes to Disney World for 17 days, is back to school for a two and a half days, and then begins Christmas Break. After the break, layer in the fact that I was out on a business trip for almost a week. Considering I’m the primary caregiver for most of the school week mornings and evenings, a pretty big disruption for her. As soon as I arrived home, who follows close on my heels? My parents – Maya’s grandparents – arrived for the long weekend to celebrate Maya’s birthday.

Now those who have either benefited from having active grandparents or those witnessing them secondhand can attest that when they’re around all normal rules fly out the window. I grew up, fortunately, with both sets of grandparents alive for most of my childhood, and ended up seeing one or both what seemed like weekly, and so got the weekly(ish) dose of grandparental spoiling. The foods and treats we were never allowed at home were always featured menu items, and pretty much anything goes.

Now, I firmly believe in allowing grandparents this very special role since I experienced it myself; HOWEVER, the issue we have run into with my parents is that since they live across the country and only see her for a few days or a couple of weeks every few months or longer, they have a compression issue. They basically try to cram 52 weekends worth of grandparental spoiling into the five-day period they’re visiting. For a routine kid, and one who is being raised with very limited sugar intake (now that we know better than my parents did when they raised me), it’s a recipe for a crazy weekend.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

She has had a couple of really good weeks since then, thankfully. Getting her locked back into her routine and a few other activities we’ve done around the house that helped engage her more have helped. Unfortunately, for those based in the New England area, we are heading into the (still mysterious to me as a native Californian) February break this week, so stay tuned to know whether or not we have any fallout from that.

Better to Write for Yourself…

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly
New Statesman, February 25, 1933

Full disclosure: I did not discover this quote myself, but instead found it as part of Tim Ferriss’s weekly newsletter “Five Bullet Friday” from January 3, 2020.

So this is the first in my series of self-imposed daily writing blocks. Likely what I write at this moment will not, in fact, make it into the final post. But the point is to establish the habit, so here I am.

I feel that I have already found a bit of release in the process of writing, and also in the sharing of my thoughts. I find that verbalizing them and explaining them to some ethereal “audience” has helped to coalesce a lot of the ideas and thoughts I’ve had running around in my head.

It’s kind of like the moment I realized that I had been reading tons of books on meditation, I had been listening to podcasts with dharma talks from well respected meditation teachers on my commute to work, yet I hadn’t actually sat on the cushion for months if not over a year. The day I finally sat down I remembered what I had forgotten. Doing is the only way to gain the benefit. Similarly, I’m guessing that sitting down with a daily practice of writing for a half an hour each day will hold the key to some of the benefits I’m hoping to gain.

Persistence

I’ve managed to achieve several goals that required persistence. When I did P90X, it was certainly a level of commitment and stick-to-itiveness that saw me through to the end. I’m hoping to unlock a similar pattern and to see similar results. Obviously, sitting down and typing for 30 minutes each day won’t get me in “the best shape of my life,” but I do recall that many ancillary benefits of completing P90X were related to this persistence, and the satisfaction it provided when all was said and done and the goal was complete.

Consistency

The other twin weight is consistency. Now, this is where I failed when I began this journey back in December. If memory serves, my last post was actually entitled “Consistency Is the Key,” hilariously. I recognized it and still do, but ultimately, it comes down to taking action. Knowledge without implementation is useless. This is why I set my Birthday New Year’s Resolution as committing to writing for 30 minutes each day, and publishing a post twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays, no matter how terrible they may be. Only by establishing the habit of consistently writing can I ever possibly explore the potential benefits that may come from this habit.

Communication Skills

This may seem like I buried the lead talking about everything else before this, but ultimately, I’m hoping that the daily practice of writing will improve my…. well, writing. I used to write a lot when I was younger. Fiction, non-fiction, just let the words and thoughts carry me wherever the feeling took me. I long to recapture that feeling of joyful expression, regardless of what it was or what the product was like. I remember feeling completely at ease with letting words flow on to the page, and am looking to reignite that spark.

Beyond that spark, I am hoping to spray some literary WD-40 on my rusty and atrophied writing skills to improve my communication in general. Hopefully, by forcing myself to publish two stories a week, I will not only get back into the habit of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys?), but also improve my ability to condense and tighten a line of reasoning or argumentation. It remains to be seen.

Happy New Year!

First, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa……. I dropped the ball and I wish I could say there was some specific circumstance that caused my radio silence and delinquency in writing. Truth is, yes I was busy, but I frankly did not prioritize and carve out time in my schedule for writing, something I hope to remedy moving forward.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: the New Year! Now I know that many of you will be scratching your heads and wondering how I’m possibly wishing everyone Happy New Year over a month after January 1, but I’ll explain.

My shift in perspective happened years ago when the Chinese New Year happened to fall on my birthday in February. It all of a sudden dawned on me that for everyone – every person on Earth – their *true* New Year was, in fact, their birthday. That’s when your clock begins, so why do we prioritize January 1 over that very personal date?

For me, selfishly, this worked out pretty well. I found New Years resolutions very difficult. Frankly, I’d be lucky if I made it through the holidays unscathed, and I can guarantee, there was very little time in December contemplating just what I wanted to embark upon for the next year. The result was that I began January hazily, and never really firmed up any resolutions, or had the generic resolutions we all have without any thought to specifics and execution.

Enter the (Birthday-centric) New Year

The lucky coincidence of my birthday being at the beginning of February meant that if I used that as my starting point, I had all of January to recover from the holidays, get a little bit back to “normal” and really give some meaningful thought to my resolutions. I have to say that this has had some pretty good results over the years.

Oh sure, I could be even more prescriptive and perhaps even establish clearer benchmarks or leading and lagging indicators for meeting my goals (if I totally want to geek out), and in some cases I have done so by default even if not explicitly. But, it definitely has paid better dividends than the failed attempt to center my annual goals around January 1.

So What’s Up for This Year?

Welp. I wish I could say I was super and uber specific and prepared this year, but I’m going to be honest and say I’m not, entirely. I have a few general things that have become a perennial set of goals I’ll mention and then a couple of new ones, even if I could have done a better job outlining them before embarking upon them.

Health and Wellness

I wish I could *not* be that guy who defaults to the generic health resolutions every year, but, alas I am – with a twist. See, another reason I found my Birthday New Year to be helpful was the way it gave me some “wiggle room” around the holidays. Basically, if I was very disciplined nutrition and exercise-wise most of the year, I felt like I could loosen the reins a bit during the holidays. As a result, I generally begin my “relaxed” period on Thanksgiving Day and allow it to run through (my) New Year in February. Now, I generally try not to go absolutely CRAZY during this period; however, it really helped eliminate a lot of the guilt if I ate something “off plan” at a holiday party (not to mention both Thanksgiving and Christmas themselves!), or the feeling of either needing to avoid these situations to stay “on plan,” or the societal cost of coming off sanctimonious by attending but not indulging in anything offered. That said, this year, due to our Disney trip I was a bit more off the rails than in a typical year, so I’ll have some ground to recover moving forward.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, health or nutrition professional so I’m not qualified to give any advice on diet or exercise. I’m only reporting what has seemed to work well for me in recent years and what my “goals” are for this new year.

Diet

I’ve experimented with a variety of different nutrition plans (I prefer this term to “diet” per se, since I think it helps to think of it more as a lifestyle than a set of restrictions if possible) over the years. What has worked the best for me in recent years has been the ketogenic diet. I’ll be honest and say some of the biggest draws for me are the fact that I can eat keto and keep a few things in the mix:

  1. Cheese. I. Just. Love. Cheese. Full stop.
  2. Meat. I’m a carnivore at heart. I have eaten for periods of times with meat substitutes, and do actually quite enjoy many of them, but I’m a sucker for a good burger or a good steak.
  3. Booze. Keepin’ it real – I’m a parent of a young child, and I like to have a cocktail. Now, keto has adjusted what I can drink (pretty much only hard alcohol, like vodka, with zero calorie mixers like seltzer) from what I used to drink (I’m a sucker for a good bottle of wine), but at least it’s an option without feeling like it’s completely tanking my progress.

So, my body had just reacted pretty well to keto compared to some of the other nutrition plans I’ve tried, so I’ve actually kept it as my primary state for the last four years or so. One new thing I introduced in the last couple of years that has also seemed to work well for me is intermittent fasting.

I started my intermittent fasting on as wide a band as you could: a 16/8 split. This basically means that you don’t eat for 16 hours (this usually includes the sleeping hours to make it at least somewhat easier/doable), and can eat within an 8 hour window. I’d basically skip breakfast, have lunch around 12 and then make sure dinner was done by 8. Last year I started expanding the fasting window to the point where many days I was only eating (a very hearty) dinner, but was generally fine and not feeling deprived throughout the day.

My plan for this year is to continue this intermittent fasting with a keto-based diet. I will probably start with a closer to 16/8 split and ramp back up to a shorter window, possibly even one meal per day again.

The next piece is a new experimental resolution. I am going to try a 24 hour fast once a week. Considering I have, at times, gotten down to one meal a day, this may not be a super heavy lift, but having heard about some of the benefits of true fasting, I am going to experiment with this to see how my body reacts. I plan on approaching this like I did with intermittent fasting originally – started with one plan and try variations and checking in with how my body feels as I go before settling on an approach (or abandoning if it’s just not something my body reacts well to).

Wim Hof Breathing and Cold Showers

I’ve been a big fan of Wim Hof’s breathing exercises for awhile, and even experimented off and on with the cold showers piece of his training regimen. My plan is to follow the printout he provides on his website to ramp up over time beginning with a short cold shower, and eventually increasing the time. Not gonna lie, this is huge for me. I grew up in Southern California, and despite living in the Boston area now, I absolutely HATE the cold. This is one of those “get outside of your comfort zone” resolutions. Pray for me.

Meditation

It goes without saying on a blog entitled “Zen and the Art of Parenting” that some meditation is incorporated. Stay tuned for a future post on my history of meditation and my current regimen and tools that I find helpful.

Exercise

I successfully completed P90X during a previous “milestone” birthday year. Last year I completed Shawn T’s “Focus T-25,” which I found much more conducive to a parent’s schedule with its workouts all strictly capped at 25 minutes. I found it very effective, and plan on taking my favorite sessions and rotating them to get back into the swing of things. Real talk: I hit my goal weight and felt very good about myself by the time of my Thanksgiving Day “grace period,” in large part to this workout program. I have put back on about 10 lbs, so have my work cut out for me to get back into fighting shape. What I can say (thanks to my friendly Fitbit app) is that over the last five years or so since I’ve been tracking my vitals and stats, each time I bump back up, the bump up tends to be lower than the previous year’s bump, so overall the trend is good. Over the 10 months I work hard my lows get lower, the highs in the grace periods don’t go as high, and overall I feel great. I’m toying around with the idea of reprising P90X again at some point this year (because it’s another milestone birthday year), but haven’t decided if I want to commit to that yet or not. I’d love to do it, but I am also trying to be realistic given the fact I’m now a parent, which I was not the last time around. Stay tuned.

Reading Fiction

This was actually a Birthday New Year’s resolution a couple of years ago but I have maintained it and have found it has profoundly enriched my life. I used to LOVE reading fiction and read almost nothing but fiction as a kid, unsurprisingly. As I got older and started reading to acquire skills or improve my life, I realized a couple of years ago I couldn’t actually remember the last fiction book I’d read. I crowdsourced a list of fiction books to try out and have been making my way through it ever since. To be clear, I still read plenty of nonfiction books aimed to improve myself; however, I realized that reading for the sheer pleasure and joy of it was also something that was important to me.

Be A Better Father

No pressure. I have to say, I really don’t feel terrible about how I’m doing as a dad on a day-to-day basis. I am fortunate that I work mostly from home and that gives me a lot of opportunities to spend time with Maya that I wouldn’t have been able to have in some of my prior positions. Instead of being out the door before she’s even awake to beat the traffic into the city, I am able to cook her breakfast, get her ready for the day, and sometimes walk her to school. I have the flexibility to volunteer in her classrooms from time to time, and I also am the primary evening-time parent since Michael works in a service industry meaning evenings are a moneymaking time. That said, I know I can engage even better and even more. My new goal is to sit down with her while she’s eating dinner, even if I am not eating my dinner until later (one downside of the keto diet is that there’s very little overlap between your food and your child’s food) and engage with her on how her day went instead of running around doing things “for” her instead of “with” her. Sure, I read her books and talk with her before bed, but adding this extra time can only add value to both her growing up experience as well as our relationship.

Be A Better Husband

I had been doing a pretty good job of this back in the fall, but let it slip when we were getting into the holidays and prepping for the trip. My goal is to make sure we have some sort of a “date” once a week. Date, in this sense, is defined very loosely and flexibly. It costs a lot of money for a sitter, and to layer that on top of the cost of going out and eating dinner, or going to a show, or fill in the blank, it’s a lot of extra expense every week for connection that can be gotten just as easily in other ways. Working from home and having negotiated flexibility into my hours at work, we can go out for coffee (much cheaper!), go for a walk (when the weather finally warms up), or just hang out for a half hour at home and connect as a couple rather than as parents of a daughter, which is what we too often feel is our only role and identity.

Improve Our Finances

Everyone’s always looking toward some version of this, right? My goal is to reduce our monthly spending by $1,000. I’m pretty good about tracking our spending using YNAB, and quite frankly, there’s a lot of fat we can trim. One area I have already started with is reducing existing costs by shopping for better deals and sales and reducing the amount of markup we’ve been paying for convenience. We have been paying a premium by having Amazon Fresh deliver our groceries and all sorts of other items instead of making sure we’re getting the best deals. Part of that started out of a need for convenience. It just saved so much time once Maya came along to not have to go out shopping when you factored in getting her ready, dressed, buckled in, and then taking her out for every trip, the carrying or the slowness of the walking pace of a toddler…. It just seemed easier to buy as much as you could online, and then you also got to spend more time with her at home instead of out running errands. Now that she’s older, things are in a different place, and there a lot of things we buy on a regular basis that we can save a ton of money on by just putting in a little extra effort. I found an Excel spreadsheet to help calculate the price per unit of items we buy to decide which version is most cost-effective and help me get re-sensitized to what a good price per pound something is. I expect even this initial step to pay off some pretty good dividends in meeting my $1,000 goal, but I’ll mention if I find anything else worth sharing that might help others.

Write

We end as we began. I have already put in the calendar for next week the times I plan on writing each day for a half hour, and posting twice a week – once on Monday, and once on Thursday. Even writing that is scary to commit to, but even if it’s a sad, sorry, short post, I feel like the plan to post something on these two days will help keep me on track. More importantly, is the daily habit and scheduling said daily habit in my calendar to ensure it happens every day. Sadly, I have at least five blog post topics ready to go in the Draft folder as the ideas came to me, so it’s not like I’m wanting for topics to write on. It’s the act of doing. It’s the act of committing. And that’s my goal for this next Birthday New Year. Write half an hour every day, and post on Mondays and Thursdays.

What are your New Year’s resolutions for this year (even if yours begins on January 1 and not in February like mine)?

Consistency Is the Key

I swear this isn’t just a rip off of the title for @RyanHoliday‘s latest book (which I haven’t yet had a chance to read yet, but am so looking forward to); however, it is the truth for beginning to build a habit.

I probably picked one of the worst times possible to begin this new odyssey into blogging and writing (even if the main point is to begin by doing it for myself regardless of audience or lack thereof). I was heading off on a very long family vacation with very little downtime (even less than I originally thought possible) followed immediately by the holiday season, which can take on a life of its own.

I’ll be honest and say that writing this post is about the last thing I want to be doing after getting five hours of sleep last night (on top of four the night before and four the night before that…) combined with walking over 25 thousand steps today according to my Fitbit, and prepping for another day of doing pretty much the same if not more tomorrow.

BUT……if I’m really going to try to build this habit of writing consistently to try to improve the skills I’m trying to improve and seeing where it goes, tonight was probably the best shot this week, given the schedule we’ve got going forward.

That doesn’t mean this will be the magnum opus I’d love to present in blog form, filled with wit, humor, poignancy and prepped to go viral. In fact, this will end very shortly after this sentence.

The fact is, getting in the reps matters when you’re talking new habits, and this post is that rep. Not a great rep, but a rep nonetheless. And, sometimes that really reluctant, objectively terrible rep is what makes all the difference.