Friday, December 2, 2016

I am my own man

I've hatched a plan to read every book that I own. I call this adventure Bookshelf Zero. This is a multi-year project. With 177 unread books on my shelves, it will be a little while until I've finished everything. The number of books is intimidating enough. Throw in the level of difficulty with some of these and the challenge gains a whole new level. I just read 13 pages of Swann's Way. That's the first book in his massive In Search of Lost Time. Books 2-7 are part of that 177. The Russian's, dense pieces of philosophy, a huge book on the history of the Whig party in the United States. These are all books that I will read if I'm to reach Bookshelf Zero.

I've already resolved to buy zero books in 2017. I managed to go a whole year without buying a book a few years ago. I went on a bit of a book buying binge right before that year started. I'm doing the same thing now. Part of it was buying skinny books to help me reach 52 for the year (a goal that gets more and more difficult to realize with every passing day), but part of it is getting my fill of book buying before the year is out. I'm still trying to decide if I really like to read or if I just read so I can justify buying more books.

What the hell was I thinking is a question I have asked myself more than a few times as I've looked over my list of unread books. Why do I have this need to pull every "hard" book that has ever been written into my life? What am I trying to prove? Then I look at my desire to pick up Capital in the Twentieth Century or a Brief History of Time (I can probably pick them up cheap at one of the two recently opened used book stores...) and realize I'm just doing more of the same. Buying these super hard books gives me some kind of boost. Reading them doesn't really seem to be the point.

Bookshelf Zero is about actually reading books that I have bought, but a big part of it is actually reading these complex, dense, and less than riveting tomes that I bought way back when to feel better about myself. I really like reading Proust, but I can't help but feel that part of my motivation to read this kind of challenging literature is rooted in my desire to prove my worth. Just who I'm trying to impress is a trickier question.

Reading is the one thread that runs through every stage of my life. I have always read. Always. I read fewer books when I was a graduate student, but I was reading papers relevant to my research almost every day. I always manage to find time to read. I aspire to read some of the hardest books around. Why bother? What does this drive to read Proust or Tolstoy say about me? I can't help but think that getting to the root of my drive to read, and what I want to read, will help me figure out just who I am and what I'm about.

I have this urge to write about my reading exploits. I like to think that this compulsion is related to this need to figure out just who I am. It's seems silly to be talking about self-discovery when I'm 40 years old. But if it's a choice between self-discovery and becoming my father, I'll take delayed self-discovery every time.

The effort to establish some kind of relationship with my father via email is over. I tried. There's nothing more I can do. My dad was here on Saturday. It's the first time he's been to my house in 9 years. I will be surprised if he ever comes back. My father has no interest in building a relationship with me. He's an emotional void. He said almost nothing to me when he was here. He didn't make an effort to talk to either of my kids. He's a waste. He's a liar. He's not worth my time and effort. He's not the kind of person that I want in my life.

I have a very strong fear of becoming my father. I was well on my way, at least in certain respects. My dad seeks to impress others by his acquired knowledge. I have often thought that my book thing may be my version of his WWII obsession. My desire to delve into this reading experience is partially to get to the bottom of my reading motivations. I want to prove to myself that I'm not doing it to impress people. I want to prove to myself that I'm not my father.

I'm not cheating on my wife so that's a good way to not be my father. I'm not a compulsive liar. My Dad's entire life is a lie. It's all a big effort to convince himself that he's not a big loser. He's trying to tell himself that he's a man, that he's important, that he matters. I wanted to build a relationship with him because I wanted to know why he feels that way. He's never going to tell me. He doesn't know himself. He's just a weakling who does all he can to tell himself that he's strong. I intimidate the hell out of him. He's afraid of me. He's afraid of everything.

My dad is afraid that people will see his weakness. He slinks around thinking that people won't notice that's he's constantly afraid of being found out as a terrified little man. He uses women to tell himself that he's a big bad man. He's so pathetic. I kind of think that I want him to acknowledge my superiority. I want to hear him say that I have what he wants. I just want to be better than him. I know that I am. He knows that I am. I want to hear him say it. I want to hear him say that he's happy about it, that he's proud of me. But he had nothing to do with who I am. I am who I am in spite of his presence in my life. I defeated his efforts to hold me back. I'm a constant reminder of his failure. I'm proof of his weakness. He wants to run away and start his life over in Alabama.

He doesn't deserve my love. He deserves my scorn.

And I'm going to read all my books because reading is and always has been central to my life and identity. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody. I just want to read the books that have endured and defy the passage of time. Books have always been my connection to the world that exists outside of me. I've slowly been able to open myself to that world in other ways. Books will always be part of that connection.

Sunday, November 6, 2016


I made the rash decision to start communicating with my Dad via email. I thought I was over my anger, but dealing with him in even this far from intimate fashion stirs my long repressed hostility. Then I get angry at myself for getting angry at this ineffectual and worthless human. It's a bad cycle. I have been holding back in my email messages, but I'm finding it harder and harder to refrain from unleashing my frustration. I'm going to vent a little of it here (and my wife will be hearing about it as soon as she finishes running), but I know it's not going to help all that much. I need to tell him what I'm feeling. That's the only way these feelings ever begin to go away.

My dad keeps mentioning how he's gotten over his anger. I never had an issue with his anger. I found it so unreasonable and purposeless that it never really got to me. I was never physically intimidated by him, I'm several inches taller and a good fifty pounds heavier than he is so I was not physically threatened. He definitely has a short temper, or had if you believe his claims of reformation, but I could have lived with that. What I can't live with is the constant neglect and indifference. I'm tired of everything being about him. I want to matter, to be a priority, to be important to him. That's not happening anytime soon.

The emails I've been exchanging have been all about him. How he's changed and wants a relationship. How he has done all this work on himself and is now this calm and centered person. Give me a break. You're still a selfish asshole. That's the problem. Your needs trump all others. Even this stupid shamanism thing is just another plunge down the rabbit hole of his favorite subject, himself. He wants to tell me all about what he's done. He can't bother to ask me what I've been up to, what I'm doing, what I'm interested in. Nope, it's all about him.

Where does my anger come from? I'm sure it goes much deeper than this, but it really became obvious to me after my parents divorced. We were moving my mom out of the place they lived together and into an apartment. Did he come help? Of course not. He came, sorted through some boxes of albums, took a few, and left. I had to to lug all of his shit up to the curb. Asshole. He hooked up with this obnoxious women that everybody in my family strongly disliked. I asked my dad not to bring her to my college graduation. He brought her anyway. I asked him to come talk to me without her. She came with him anyway. My feelings were totally disregarded. I was ignored and dismissed. His new woman's son claimed to have been molested at my wedding. He wanted to turn my wedding into an inquisition of this guy. That was the last straw. I stopped talking to him for awhile after that. I haven't had regular contact with him since then. These things seem kind of petty laid out here, but they're just strong examples of a behavior that has been livelong. It's hard to see without the context of growing up with a narcisstic father.

Friday, October 28, 2016


I reread some of my posts from last year while I was at work earlier this week. I wanted to reread some of the posts where I railed against some stuff that was going on in my career. I haven't felt that passionate about my job in years. I was going to use the gradual erosion of my career ambition to make a link between my career and the expertise work of K. Anders Ericsson. At about the same time I was writing posts blasting my manager and the short-sightedness of the organization, I was reading Ericsson's papers about how to develop expertise. I often asked myself how I could apply deliberate practice to my career. It's taken six years, but I finally found a link. I was all set to write about that, but I lost interest in that topic as I started to reread some of my old posts while working back to the original angsty career stuff.

A year ago I was writing about how I strive to be heroic and the centrality of fear in my life. I had forgotten about these posts. They still feel very real and relevant to me, but they're not quite telling the whole story. Those posts are the trail I've left as I've wandered around my own psyche trying to figure out how I can get beyond the self-image issues that have plagued me since I was a kid. Fear is certainly a big part of the picture, but what am I afraid of? The overseer has his role, but what is he really keeping me from? What is so special about the heroic?

I fear being insufficiently masculine. I'm not an aggressive, take charge, macho kind of guy. Part of me feels like that's a big problem. Not the conscious part of me, but some buried deep down  That wasn't good enough for my Dad. I cry at movies. I did it as a kid and I still do it as an adult. I can remember trying very hard not to cry when some character in a movie was dying. That wasn't what real boys did at movies. This is just one way that I had to repress my true nature, to hide who I really am, in order to avoid being made to feel inferior, lacking, not enough. This set up a who dynamic where I sought ways to hide my lack of sufficient masculinity.

This sounded like a trying to hard kind of theory until I started thinking about why I played football. Football provided me with a sense of superiority. I didn't have a strong enough ego to feel like I was adequate just as I am. I used football, a game full of masculine bravado and display, to compensate for my sense that I was insufficiently manly. I felt insufficient in other ways. My acne made me feel like I wasn't physically appealing. I never felt like anybody would want to be with somebody who looked like me.

So I felt like I had to present myself as a big, tough man while feeling like I was physically unappealing. I constantly feared that people would figure out that I was inferior and would ridicule me for all that I failed to be in life. As I thought through this whole dynamic, I had to ask myself, if I didn't feel sufficiently masculine, what model was I using to determine my relative masculinity? My dad was my vision of the ideal male, or at least he has transferred his idea of masculinity to me. My Dad's idol is George Patton. That guy is the ultimate man's man. He was take charge, he was tough, people listened to him. He did what he wanted, sleeping around, acting tough. That's my Dad's idea of what a man should be. That's not what I am. I know if drove my Dad crazy that I wasn't getting all the chicks in high school. He pursued women as a way to compensate for his own sense of inadequacy. I try to fill my own sense of inadequacy by applying to graduate school and different jobs. The decisions that have done the most damage in my marriage are rooted in my need to use something external to feel better about myself. I was constantly fighting a fear that I would be found lacking if I didn't keep demonstrating my superiority. I was afraid of the sense of inferiority that has been with me since I was very young.

I rejected my Dad and his ideals long ago, but my perception that he felt like I didn't measure up to what he wanted me to be lingers deep down in my identity. I've never been satisfied with myself. There is no reason for this. All the striving I write about on this blog is just me trying to find something that will finally make me feel like I'm worth something. If I can just do these few things, I'll be enough. I can fill the absences in my ego with accomplishments. I can find an ego, a sense of who I am and what I'm about, in books, education, or a better title at work.

There is no reason for me to feel inferior. I am enough just as I am. I don't need to keep proving myself to the rest of the world. I just need to accept myself as I am. I don't need to fit a mold or meet some kind of external standard. I am sufficient just as I am.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's all just a game

It's all just a big game. Merit, ability, the best person for the job, opportunities to grow as a professional, promotions and other organizational rewards aren't based on any of those things. I've clung to the idea that there is some kind of meaning and significance to be extracted for earning recognition and rewards. I have lived my life with my identity and self-worth tied up in whether or not I can rise above my peers and earn whatever was coveted. Good grades, a spot on the varsity team, the job, the promotion, the raise, the top spot. I have been operating under the delusion that the achievement of these things in some way equates to my value and ability, my worth as a human being. I strive to be chosen, selected, singled out as acknowledgement of my inherent value. Recognition is not acknowledgement of my value. It's not worthless or unimportant, but it's also not the route to happiness and meaning.

My desire to transform my work culture is nothing more than me trying to create a space where the rules of the game match what I find to be the right and true way to determine worth. I see directors scrambling to hang on to some shriveled vestige of clout and power and judge them for not understanding what really needs to be done. I see their efforts to maneuver and criticize them for not getting what's really important. They're playing the game. I'm blundering around, blinded by my own self-righteousness, bloviating about the injustice of my value and worth not being rewarded by important jobs right now.

It's not the job that I crave. It's the acknowledgement of my worth. I've linked meaning to accomplishment and pursued accomplishment as a way to craft my identity. I'm not getting what I want to say right. It's more subtle than this, less strident and sure. I had a realization today. What I held true one moment suddenly felt hollow and empty the next. It wasn't a crushing blow to my sense of worth, but a relief. I felt like I could finally unclench and just be for a moment. I will work on just what it was. This is a good start, it captures the moment in a way that I can come back to later.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What I want?

Every year I spend a couple of days noodling different New Year's Resolutions. They are always very task based, read this, do this many workouts, don't buy so many books. There isn't really a general theme or purpose. There is an effort to change behavior to prevent something (getting fat) or to enable something else (reading books to justify buying more of them), but there isn't a conscious decision to actually change something about myself. The origins of my actions are never addressed by these resolutions. There is never an effort to change my internal dialogue or to pay attention to how I talk to myself.

I've always kept score (resolutions are one way that I keep doing that now that I'm out of school and work in a field that is difficult to measure in a way that spurns competition or data based comparisons). There are few things that I engage in simply for the sake of the experience. Physically pleasing things come to mind (eating, beer, sex) as exceptions to this rule. Spending time with my family. But when it comes to the way I spend time that is my own, there is always some kind of challenge pushing me forward. I read to finish whatever I am reading. My runs are about getting faster personal records. Work is all about doing things to get ahead. Doing something just because you enjoy it is an odd professional behavior. The expectation is that you do things you don't like or enjoy for the future opportunities they offer (including the future offer of a regular paycheck). Sticking with something you like for the simple fact that you like is much more an exception than a rule. At least that's been my experience. 

I certainly fell into the do unpleasant things now for future benefits trap. Unpleasant things, like working hard in school, would unlock fancy schools (the more competitive the school, the better) and other difficult to access resources. I played basketball and ran track, two sports that I wasn't particularly into, to earn a spot on the varsity football team (and than I moved, what a waste). I pursued the exclusive so I could wrap myself in that shiny wrapper and have the world see those things. I wouldn't have to show anything about myself. I wouldn't have to know anything about myself. The things I was part of would impress people and save me the trouble of engaging with the world in an open and vulnerable manner. 

My resolutions are just a continuation of that trend. I set up these challenges to distract myself from life while feeding a need to stand out, raise myself up (at least my own judgement) to a place that separates me from everybody else. My resolutions have just been efforts to keep me busy doing something that isn't a total waste or time rather than working on the parts of my life that really need attention. So the next obvious question, what areas of my life need attention?

I need to stop keeping score. This is all about separating what I do because I enjoy it from doing something because it gets me one step closer to achieving some arbitrary goal. Goals are great, but a goal should be attached to some larger vision. A good goal gets me closer to what I want in my life (or further away from what I don't want). So that's the challenge; setting goals that get me closer to what I want in life. Now the real challenge, what do I want? Not what other people want. Not what people expect me to want. What do I want. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Will opportunity be knocking?

I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business

A little experiment in an affirmation. (I heard Scott Adams of Dilbert fame talking about them on the Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.) Big changes are being implemented in my professional environment and I want to be a big player in some new spaces. There is no clear picture of what the leadership wants to establish, but the outline that they have shared is enough to tell me that there will be plenty of opportunities for those willing to claim them.

This is the time to put my MBA out there. Not that it will be key in any success that I may have in some new role, but it's the credential that could make the decision makers willing to take a chance on me.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Running away by pursuing that next big thing

Striving. It's my constant companion. It's always there, a constant hum amid the flux and oscillations of my life. I can't imagine life without a desire to attain some kind of achievement. Acquisition of some achievement is my central value. I don't know how to just be. I don't know what my life would look like if I just was. 

Let's take a look at my current pursuits. 

40 books read this year. It's so utterly arbitrary and meaningless in the grand scheme of life. That doesn't matter. It's a goal to pursue. (Just in case you were wondering, I'm still on track to make that goal, although my current reading may put me a little behind.)

Professional status. I'm always looking for ways to move up, have an impact, and get more clout.

Lower times on my runs. Why run easy when you can run hard. 

I keep track of how often my wife and I are intimate. The number has gotten bigger every year that I've been keeping track. Should that really be a factor in our love life?

Then there is the never ending quest for more, better, improvement, a restless chasing of some ill-defined thing. Pursuing covers up the feelings of insufficiency and inadequacy. If I constantly go after that ideal off in the distance, I won't have to stop and acknowledge my current state. 

The crazy part is that there is nothing wrong with my current state. At least there is nothing objectively wrong with my current state. Not that I've ever stopped running after that other thing out there to actually recognize what I'm feeling. That's really the point after all. Avoiding my feelings. The more they're buried, ignored, subsumed under some quest for a glimmer of improvement, the less I have to actually experience those feelings.