I know lots of awesome people. So do you. We all do.

At the start of her excellent writing manual, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland states her premise: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” That’s my premise too.

The more people I meet, the more I believe that each of us has something unique to share with the world.

I don’t mean unique in a liberal “everyone deserves a gold star” sense. I mean it in an “everybody is the hero of her own life” sense. People are awesome. Despite the occasional evil action from an evil person, most folks are doing the best they can to make life better, both for themselves and others.

Lately I’ve been thinking that it’d be fun to highlight some of the awesome people I know. Not only bloggers — though I certainly know some awesome bloggers — but also teachers and scientists and bakers and retirees. Kim and I already plan to interview people during our future travels, but I want to get a head start on that project. I want to practice.

Starting today I’m going to put my new-found extroversion to good use. I plan to record and share a series of video interviews with the awesome people in my world. Sometimes these will be recorded Skype interviews. Sometimes they’ll be filmed in peson.

And because I’m not a guy who likes to watch video, I’ll provide both audio and written versions of the conversations too.

Note: When I mention this project to folks, they often ask if I’ve seen Humans of New York. Yes, I have. It’s terrific.

Early episodes of Awesome People will be imperfect. I know this. Quality will improve as I gain experience as an interviewer and learn to use my equipment. If you have constructive feedback, by all means share it! Do the interviews need to be shorter? Longer? Better edited? What parts were boring? Most interesting? What topics should I have pursued?

I promise that these productions will improve in time if you agree to provide feedback so that we can make this series something of lasting value.

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua…that’s the only name I can think of for it…like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.

[…]

In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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In Search of Sleep

14 November 2014 · 13 comments

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the house in a couple of hours, so I don’t want to disturb her sleep.

J.D. in his C-PAP machinePoor sleep is nothing new for me. In 2005, when I was fifty pounds overweight, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. For the next several years, I strapped on a C-PAP machine every night. I was amazed at how better breathing led to better sleep.

When I lost weight and ditched the C-PAP machine, my sleep improved. It helped too that I learned my body’s natural rhythm. Most of the time, I sleep in ninety-minute cycles. A perfect night’s sleep is 7-1/2 hours, but six hours will do. (Tonight I only managed 4-1/2 hours.) Building my bedtime around my sleep cycle is key.

It’s also been key to realize that there’s a difference between getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some things, such as alcohol, might help me get to sleep. But these same things actually disrupt the quality of my rest. The trick is to find foods and develop habits that aid with both quality and quantity of sleep.

As bad as I have it, Kim has it worse. She’s had trouble sleeping since she was a teenager. In fact, it used to be a real burden. Much of her life was miserable because she was never well-rested. In time she too has developed tricks to improve the odds that she’ll sleep well. She is what her father calls a “cave sleeper”. That is, she needs complete darkness and no noise distractions in order to sleep well. Although she’s in the other room right now, I worry that the dim light from this laptop may wake her or that she’ll be able to hear the clickety-clickety of the keyboard above the white noise of the fan we run in the bedroom every night.

Oops! When I got up a moment ago to grab a glass of water, I saw that she’d closed the bedroom door. I’m a bad boyfriend.

Kim has sought solace through medication. When we started dating, she was taking Ambien, which was effective but made her moody. For the past couple of years, she’s been taking trazadone, which seems more effective and has fewer side effects. (Over the past year, she’s been working to reduce the dosage she takes every night. She now takes half of what she was originally prescribed and it seems to work.)

Although my doctor has given me some trazadone to tackle my own sleep problems, I almost never use it. (Just as I rarely use the Vyvanse to medicate my ADHD.) Instead, I take diphenhydramine (Benadryl) every night. Well, most nights anyhow.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to get good sleep. I’ve been increasing my intake of melatonin, for example. And just this week, I’ve begun trying 5-HTP to both address my winter blues and improve my sleep. At the same time, I’ve stopped taking Benadryl.

The results? Well, they’re mixed. I’m falling asleep easily and having very vivid dreams, which is cool. (I feel like vivid dreams are an indicator of deep sleep, at least for me.) But I can’t seem to stay asleep. Two nights ago, I woke at midnight and couldn’t fall back asleep until two. Even then my rest was fitful (maybe because I’d moved to the couch). And tonight, of course, I woke at three with my mind in full gear.

Facebook post about lack of sleep
Apparently Kathleen is struggling too tonight.

To me, the worst part about poor sleep is how I feel the next day. I feel ragged, like I have some sort of brain cloud. I’m half the man I usually am.

I’m scheduled to interview Leo from Zen Habits in a few hours. After that, Joe will interview me. At noon, I’m supposed to lift heavy weights with Cody. Later tonight, Kim and I will meet Brent and Kathleen for a comedy show. But right now I don’t want to do any of this. All I really want is to get some sleep.

Another thing I don’t like? On days like today when I have to get stuff done after a sleepless night, I take my ADHD meds. But not so that I can concentrate. I take them because I know they’re a stimulant and will help me stay awake. Now that is a bad cycle to fall into.

I guess maybe I should stick with the Benadryl. It’s not perfect — I still have insomnia once or twice a month when I use it — but it’s better than the alternatives.

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Last night, we had our neighbors over for drinks. For three hours, we sat around sipping wine while chatting about life with Jan and Sheila. (Jan is pronounced “yawn”.)

Jan and Sheila are both in their early seventies, about thirty years older than Kim and I are. But whereas some folks their age seem to have resigned themselves to silently fading away, our neighbors are still active and engaged with life.

The couple met about fifteen years ago, soon after Jan’s first wife died. Sheila was recently divorced and happy to find a man who, for once, was a kindred spirit. For a few years, they traveled the world, teaching English in China, exploring Costa Rica, and so on. They still travel regularly. Last summer, for instance, they spent several months in eastern Europe, including a lot of time in rural Poland.

A couple of years ago, Jan and Sheila towed a pop-up camper across the United States, from Oregon to Montana to New Mexico to Texas to Arkansas to North Carolina. They visited seventeen states in three months. In each state, they stopped at a nursing home to interview the residents.

“We asked people to tell us their stories,” Sheila said. “At first, our recordings weren’t very good. In time, we figured out what we were doing. We got better with the equipment and we learned what questions to ask.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Kim and I want to do something similar. In fact, we’re shopping for a used RV right now. We want to use it to make forays across the U.S. and Canada. We plan to interview the folks we meet along the way. But we’re not sure what we’ll talk about.”

“You should have a plan,” Sheila said. “Otherwise the conversations will just wander. We found that the StoryCorps method was a fantastic way to spark discussion. Their website has a list of great interview questions. You should check it out.”

Jan recommended that we try to keep an open mind when we travel, to not set a fixed agenda. “You should eavesdrop,” he said. “You learn a lot about a place when you eavesdrop. You learn what’s important to the people there. You learn about the things going on in the town.”

By eavesdropping in Taos, New Mexico, Jan and Sheila found out about a jam session at a local bar. Because they’re both musicians, they stopped in. They got to hear some amazing performers that they might have otherwise missed. “You haven’t heard of the best musicians in this country,” Jan explained. “Often the best musicians don’t have recording contracts. They’re not pretty enough for the stage. Or they never wanted to be famous. You find them in out-of-the-way places like Taos.”

“I’m happy that you two are traveling now while you’re young,” Sheila said. “Travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. For whatever reason, this last trip to Poland was especially hard. The language barrier was hard. Airport transfers were hard. It’s the first time I’ve really felt old while traveling.”

Note: Sheila’s advice echoes something I’ve heard time and again. Most people wait to travel. They wait until they’ve quit work, the kids have moved out, and they’ve saved everything they need for retirement. At 60 or 65 or 70, they begin exploring the world around them — but find it’s tougher than anticipated. Without exception, the older travelers I’ve met wish they had started in their thirties and forties.

We spent a long time talking about aging, about intergenerational connections. Kim noted that although she’s in her mid-forties, she loves learning from both people who are younger and people who are older than she is. “I feel like there’s something to learn from everyone if we’re willing to listen,” she said.

“That’s true,” Jan said. “I wish more people felt the same way. Mostly folks seem too busy to connect with anyone else. That’s one of the reasons we did our nursing-home trip.”

“Tomorrow night at our wisdom circle, we’re going to talk about stuff like this,” Sheila said. “We’re going to talk about the things you lose as you get older.”

“You mean like family and friends?” asked Kim.

“Like family and friends, but other things too,” Sheila said, motioning to Jan, who wears a hearing aid. “Like hearing. Like flexibility and mobility. Like health, in general.”

“What about connection to culture?” I asked. “It seems to me that as you get older, you might become more and more disconnected from popular culture. The movies and music you loved as a child get buried under a flood of changing taste and fashion.”

“It’s not as bad as you might think,” Jan said. “You don’t care as much anymore. Plus, the things you love are always there. You just have to know where to look for them.”

The conversation moved to money and happiness. Sheila asked me something she’s brought up before: “Why do you think so many people believe money will bring them happiness? Is it what the money represents? Is it something else?”

We talked about people we know and how they handle money. Jan mentioned a friend who’s afraid to spend anything at all. He has plenty of money but can’t bring himself to buy even things that might make him happier. “He could easily afford a new car, but he won’t let himself have it. I think that’s too bad. His money won’t do him any good once he’s gone.”

I noted that some people have the opposite problem: “In my line of work, I’ve heard plenty of stories about folks who have squandered windfalls. Inheritances, the lottery, that sort of thing. A person can be broke, win $100,000 in the lottery, and then be broke again a year later. I think people like this mistakenly believe that money will solve all their problems. But money can’t solve problems. You have to solve them. Happiness comes from inside.”

“That’s true,” Kim said, “but money certainly makes things easier. For me, I feel a whole lot better knowing that I have so much money in savings. If something goes wrong, I have a safety net. Money may not buy happiness but I think that not having money can make people pretty unhappy.”

I described how my pursuit of happiness has changed over time. When I was deep in debt, I thought money was the answer. After I’d repaid my debt, I thought I’d be happy if I had more money. Eventually I realized that money wouldn’t make me happy. I made other changes to my life. Some increased my happiness but most didn’t. In time, I came to understand that in order to be happy, I had to just be myself. I had to be comfortable with who I am, warts and all. And I had to surround myself with friends who were happy with who I am too.

Sheila nodded. “That’s smart,” she said. “A lot of people never realize that. You’re lucky to have figured it out while you’re young.”

I laughed. “I don’t have it all figured out,” I said. “Sometimes I forget everything I’ve learned. Sometimes I find myself doing things to please others or buying things because I think they’ll make me happy. It’s a process.”

“You know what?” Kim said as the night came to a close. “Before our trip, we need to practice our interview skills. Can we interview you two sometime? We’d love to hear your stories.”

“Sure,” said Sheila. “We’d be happy to help.”

“You’ll want to have a good microphone,” Jan said. “Sound is at least fifty percent of the puzzle.”

“Everyone keeps telling us that,” Kim said. “That’s why J.D. bought a fancy microphone.” I went back to my office to retrieve the gear I bought after asking for advice from my friend Tess Vigeland, a long-time reporter for NPR.

“That should do the trick,” Jan said. “You want to be able to record the person you’re talking too without getting the clatter of dishes or the din of the television in the background.”

And so, Kim and I have started the next phase of our adventure together. Last Friday, we spent several hours browsing the Portland RV show. Today we took our first steps toward conducting interviews. Next up? I need to use our new gear — the camera, the lenses, the lights, the microphone — to make some test recordings. Be warned: Over the next few weeks, you might see some more silly videos around here! (If you have requests, let me know.)

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I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I was always eager for my parents to read to me: Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The Giving Tree, Anything by Dr. Seuss. Like most children, I enjoyed the pictures in these books, but what I really loved was the stories.

In grade school, most kids couldn’t wait until recess. Me? I couldn’t wait until storytime. I was always eager for the teacher to read to us: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, TheLittle House on the Prairie series, The Mad Scientists’ Club, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Eventually, I began to write my own stories. The first story I can remember writing was “The Meanest Inchworm”. To call it a story is generous, I suppose. I was in the third grade, and my creative ambition far outstripped my narrative abilities. But by the fourth grade, I was regularly writing two-page tales.

Mr. Zagyva had a clever story-generating system. Each week, we had writing time. During writing time, we’d pull story elements from a hat: place, plot, protagonist, and so on. So, for instance, I might draw “the moon” from the places, “someone is lost” from the plots, and “a little boy” from the protagonists. I’d then have to construct a story from these random combinations.

In fifth and sixth grades we wrote stories too. As I wrote (and read) more, my skills improved. So did my ambition. I remember once in Miss Bell’s class we were supposed to write a two-page story about a trip to the zoo. My story was ten pages long and I turned the topic on its head. I wrote about being kidnapped by an alien named Gloops who wanted to make me a part of his interstellar menagerie. (Geeks in the crowd will recognize this as the plot to an episode of Star Trek. My homage was unintentional.)

As I got older, I wrote more. In junior high school, I wrote stories for the school paper. (My grandest effort was a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.) I also began dabbling in poetry. By the time I reached high school, I often wrote in my spare time — just for kicks.

It was in high school that I got serious about writing. The English department at Canby High School was phenomenal. Not only were the teachers supportive but they actively encouraged me (and other kids) to push beyond my expectations. Mr. Nichols pulled me out of sophomore English and had me write independently. I designed my own curriculum. Mr. Sanvitale recruited me to work on the school literary magazine, and eventually I became the editor. And Mr. Dage took on a handful of us writing nerds to help foster our development for an entire semester.

Compared to high school, my college English classes were a disappointment. Not only were they less rigorous, but the teachers seemed less practical — more, well, woo-woo. I’m sure that Willamette had some good English professors during the late 1980s, but (with the exception of Mr. Strelow) I didn’t end up in their classes. Still, I continued to write. I continued to work on (and edit) the school literary magazine. Gradually, however, my writing moved from fiction and poetry to personal essays.

After I graduated, I entered a period of hibernation. From 1991 until 1997, I wrote very little. Very little. It wasn’t until I started my web journal during the summer of 1997 that I began to write in earnest again. I re-discovered how much I loved telling stories.

To revitalize my skills, I took writing classes at the local community college. Most of the other students were kids and not serious about writing. (Many were looking for an easy class to pad their GPA.) But a handful of older folks were serious about writing and producing serious work. The instructors knew who we were and would ask us to stay after class to provide personal feedback. It was in these classes that I wrote some of my best short stories. (While cleaning house earlier this year, I found a bunch of these stories buried in the bottom of a box. I spent a couple of hours reading them and was impressed. They were better than I had remembered.)

A large part of my development as a writer has been my development as a reader. When I was younger, I mostly read fantasy and science fiction. I’m still fond of speculative fiction, but as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed. Now I like historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I like philosophy and pop psychology. And after working with professional editors over the past five years, I’ve come to appreciate carefully crafted magazine articles written for mass consumption. Writing simply is tougher than it looks!

Here’s another thing that’s helped my development as a reader over the past eighteen years: Our book group. In 1996, Kris and I formed the Elm Street Book Group with one of my former English teachers (Mr. Dage) and his wife. The group has met every month since November 1996. Along the way, we’ve read a crazy variety of books. Some of them (House Made of Dawn, Mutant Message Down Under) have sucked. Others (Mutiny on the Bounty, How Green Was My Valley) have been shockingly good. But each has helped me grow as a reader — and a writer.

This month, to celebrate our eighteenth anniversary, our book group has come full circle. We’re reading Trout Kill by Paul Dage, one of our founding members and my former high-school English teacher. It’s sort of a surreal experience, actually, to be a professional writer who is reading a novel from one of the men who taught you to write. (Not to mention that Paul has become a real-life friend over the past thirty years.) It’s even more surreal to be marking up the book with the same sorts of comments the author used to put on the papers I submitted in his class: “too many adjectives”, “too much repetition”, “this may be a crutch word”, “show, don’t tell”.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned during my almost forty years (!!!) as a writer: You never stop growing. Yes, you’re a better writer now than you’ve ever been. Yes, you can look back on your older work and wonder why you saw fit to publish it. Yes, your style has evolved over time. But the process isn’t finished. Good writers continue to grow. They read writing manuals. They take writing classes. They read good books (and bad) and try to figure out what works (and what doesn’t). Real writers don’t shy from criticism and feedback. In fact, they revel in it.

Kathleen and I have begun working on a joint writing project. “How do you feel about me editing your work?” I asked during one of our first meetings. “Some writers get uptight about it.”

Kathleen laughed. “J.D.,” she said. “Edit away. I’m not precious about my words. And I know you’re not either.” She’s right. I used to be precious about my words — I hated to be told that something didn’t work or that my sentences were sloppy — but now I welcome constructive criticism. My goal is to entertain and inform my readers, and to become a better writer. If I don’t listen to what my readers have to say, I’ll never improve as a writer. I’ll stagnate. I don’t want that.

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. I want other people to love words and books as much as I do. The best way for me to be an effective evangelist for the written language is to become more proficient with it each passing week. And so I’ll continue to take classes, to read books (both good and bad), to write stories, and to listen to my editors. There’s no such thing as a perfect writer — but I want to be the best writer I can be.

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2 November 2014

Never Too Late to Be Great

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about folks who get late starts in life. Some people, like my ex-wife, have a clear vision of their future from a young age. That’s great. I’m glad they’re able to steer a course (and stick to it) from the time they get out college […]

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30 October 2014

Why I Walk: Some Thoughts on a Car-Free Lifestyle

Since returning from Ecuador in early September, Kim and I have both been focused on fitness. She’s doing Jenny Craig and hitting the gym; I’m doing Atkins and walking all over creation. We’re both down about ten pounds in two months. Yay! It feels great to be walking again. When I decided to lose weight […]

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24 October 2014

The Law of Attraction and the Power of Action

I’m not a fan of the Law of Attraction, the idea that people bring into their lives the things they think about. In fact, I think it’s bullshit. In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne explains how this “law” is purported to work: Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are […]

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23 October 2014

Meet the New Blog (Same as the Old Blog)

On the surface, things have been quiet around here lately. Underneath, however, there’s been a flurry of activity. A few weeks ago, I was asked to rename this blog from “More Than Money”. But what to name it? You folks offered lots of suggestions — along with encouragement to write more often (and about whatever […]

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20 October 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Keep Pumpkins Indoors

This post is meant as a public service announcement for pumpkin carvers everywhere — but especially those who might consider keeping a carved pumpkin indoors for a day or two. Don’t do it. Eighteen months ago, I moved into a condo. Last year, Kim and I were too busy to carve pumpkins, so we didn’t […]

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1 October 2014

Thoughts on Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Solving Problems

Last night, I met with my friend Faith. Faith is eighteen, and she’s just getting started in life. Her parents are two of my best friends, but they’re still parents. You know what I mean. Faith wanted to meet with me one-on-one to talk about family stuff and to talk about boys. I’m not the […]

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