A decade of the law

It will be ten years this sum­mer that I set out on the jour­ney of becom­ing a “priest of the law” — tak­ing the first steps toward my degree, and my career, as a canon­ist.

It is with con­sid­er­able ambiva­lence that I reflect on that deci­sion, and all that fol­lowed. My life, and the life of my entire fam­i­ly, has been for­ev­er changed by the dis­rup­tion, the adven­tures, the tra­vails and the new expe­ri­ences which crowd­ed upon us, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, from the moment we left behind all we knew in search of all I thought we want­ed.

Every­thing has changed in these ten years. I have climbed to some mar­velous vis­tas, to be sure, but far more time has been spent wan­der­ing in the val­ley of the shad­ow of death. I can­not change any­thing that has tran­spired. Maybe I can learn from it: that seems a bit too cute for my taste, though. Prin­ci­pal­ly, I am grate­ful to have sur­vived it all, amazed to be still stand­ing, still breath­ing: that I still have a chance to try again.

When I first set out to study canon law, I wrapped myself in pride and ambi­tion: I want­ed to make a name for myself in this new dis­ci­pline, this new call­ing, which I was pre­pared to throw myself head­long into. I thought I had final­ly found a sphere in which I was real­ly going to be a some­body. But I lacked the for­ti­tude to actu­al­ly do the work that this would entail: I set­tled for coast­ing through as I had done my entire adult life, added idle self-indul­gence and near­ly con­stant ine­bri­a­tion, and the fact that all of us have sur­vived the exis­ten­tial train­wreck that ensued is a dai­ly cause for won­der­ment.

But sur­viv­ing is just what we are doing. I am learn­ing — for what seems like the first time — to push myself, to fol­low through on my com­mit­ments, to be the per­son that seem­ing­ly every­one except me has always believed I could be. That’s hard work. But I tell myself every morn­ing that it is hard work worth doing, and that I am going to do it.

I’ve Been Watching Justified

The ear­ly months of 2010 found me unex­pect­ed­ly liv­ing alone in Cana­da, work­ing hard to dis­tract myself from the fact that my wife was hos­pi­tal­ized in the Unit­ed States, and I had cho­sen the self­ish route of con­tin­u­ing with my dioce­san-spon­sored stud­ies instead of remain­ing by her side and tak­ing charge of our two young sons, who instead I had entrust­ed to my in-laws to man­age until Uxor was bet­ter. My pri­ma­ry mode of dis­trac­tion was the afore­men­tioned stud­ies, and most days I would spend at the library from late after­noon when class­es end­ed until the wee hours of the morn­ing, with only brief breaks for food and the quick night­ly Skype call home. My class­mates, few of whom knew much about me aside from the pleas­ant ban­ter we exchanged, often mar­veled at the “fortress of knowl­edge” I would con­struct around myself at my table in the library, often haul­ing thir­ty or forty vol­umes at a time from the shelves and por­ing through them for source mate­r­i­al for my var­i­ous papers.

But I can’t study all the time, and so I also watched a lot of video enter­tain­ment. I made fre­quent walks to the pub­lic library to check out films from the past decade that I had nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see. I also embraced the Apple iTunes Store and the week­ly offer of a hand­ful of episodes of new shows as free down­loads. Many of these were utter tripe, and the fact that I down­loaded and watched the pilot episodes of shows like Bas­ket­ball Wives and Bub­ba’s World should ade­quate­ly illus­trate how avid­ly I was seek­ing to absent myself from a dire head­space. (That even with all of the above, I still end­ed up drink­ing myself to sleep most nights with sev­er­al ounces of increas­ing­ly-cheap Scotch is prob­a­bly also on indi­ca­tor of some­thing.)

On 23 March 2010, one of the free episodes was the pilot of a new FX series called Jus­ti­fied. Unlike most of the shows, which I down­loaded and played blind­ly (and usu­al­ly delet­ed with a shud­der after the ini­tial view­ing), I had heard rumor of this series in the pre­ced­ing weeks, and I had liked what I had heard. Spoil­er-proof as I am, watch­ing “Fire in the Hole” for the first time was a tremen­dous­ly enjoy­able expe­ri­ence, even though I had read descrip­tions of most of the key scenes already in The New York Times review online. The open­ing reveal of the back of Ray­lan Given­s’s hat, and the pool­side show­down with Tom­my Bucks that fol­lows: I bet I watched that 100 times that week. I watched the episode as a whole at least a dozen times through, enough that, the fol­low­ing Tues­day, I made a high­ly unusu­al choice: I decid­ed to splurge the $2.09 Amer­i­can to down­load the sec­ond episode to see if it car­ried through on the promise of the first.

It did, and so did the third, and by the time I had pur­chased five or six episodes, I stopped look­ing back. The char­ac­ters became part of what I clung to through the remain­der of that lone­ly semes­ter: the life-and-death dra­ma of Har­lan Coun­ty became an inte­gral part of my own strug­gle to sur­vive long enough to rejoin my con­va­les­cent wife and begin to rebuild our life togeth­er. And when the show sur­vived it’s ini­tial sea­son to tell more of the sto­ry in a breath­tak­ing sec­ond sea­son, and jaw-drop­ping, gut-churn­ing third, it was defin­i­tive­ly estab­lished as part of the fab­ric of my life expe­ri­ence.

Not only has this series held me mes­mer­ized from one cliffhang­er to the next, but most impor­tant­ly to me, it has held up to repeat­ed view­ings. Most notably, as the third sea­son unfold­ed in all its sor­did won­der, I re-watched all the episodes to date each week while I wait­ed for the next one top drop the fol­low­ing Wednes­day morn­ing. Many were the nights I paced up and down our tiny rent­ed house in sub­ur­ban Ottawa, sooth­ing our new­born third child while watch­ing the machi­na­tions of Robert Quar­les and Elstin Lime­house on the tiny iPod screen I held behind her.

Tonight, the final episode of this sixth and final sea­son of Jus­ti­fied will air, and some­time tomor­row morn­ing that finale will be avail­able to down­load via iTunes, and – unable to wait until evening – I will spend my lunch break hud­dled over my desk at work and gorge myself on every deli­cious minute of the last hour of this mar­velous show. It has been a glo­ri­ous ride, a show I have allowed myself to invest in like very few oth­ers. Some­day, I hope to put into thought­ful words the great esteem I have for this grand exer­cise in sto­ry­telling. I am not ready to do so yet. If you are one of the many who have watched and loved this show over the past six years, you under­stand. If you are not, and you love good sto­ry­telling (of the vio­lent vari­ety), do your­self the great favor of giv­ing Jus­ti­fied a chance to amaze you, too. It pays off in spades.



*The title of this post is a hat tip to a love­ly lit­tle Tum­blr project of reflec­tions on each episode that sad­ly only made it halfway through the sec­ond sea­son. But once you watch that far, I high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing Meghan’s posts, they are gems.

So very tired

I am expe­ri­enc­ing an acute onset of social net­work fatigue these days. No dis­cernible sin­gle cause, no dis­tinct bad expe­ri­ence that stands out as spoil­ing things for me. No, I am just tired of so many places to put things, and so many places to check for things put by oth­ers. I am tired of too many options for pret­ty much the same sorts of con­tent, tired of gaug­ing my arbi­trary pref­er­ence for one place over anoth­er with no more pro­found or defin­i­tive basis than the “feel” of the user inter­face or some such. I am tired of lik­ing and shar­ing and com­ment­ing. I am, in a word, tired.

Now, before this turns into one long whinge, let’s put on the rhetor­i­cal brakes a bit. I love social media; I always have. I am a nat­ur­al at it. I almost nev­er have a thought I don’t feel like shar­ing. What I am going on about is noth­ing against social net­works as they are, but rather a recog­ni­tion that some­thing in me has changed so that I am left won­der­ing if I need a change.

There is no doubt that one con­tribut­ing fac­tor in this is my rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion of a prox­i­mate wifi device to my every­day car­ry. Not that I was short of oppor­tu­ni­ties before to flip open my lap­top or tog­gle over to my ever-open brows­er win­dow on the fam­i­ly iMac. But now my access to each and every one of my var­i­ous streams of input and shar­ing are pal­pa­bly omnipresent wher­ev­er the req­ui­site sig­nal reach­es.

Some­times I can keep my check-ins in check. But more and more often I find myself “loop­ing” in a man­ner not far off from the sketch in the pilot episode of Port­landia, and that is not a good feel­ing. I am lost in a fog all too often, not ful­ly present to my fam­i­ly, and unable to ade­quate­ly con­cen­trate on projects and tasks. So what should I do? Cut myself off from the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty? I don’t want to. But I do need to find a delim­i­ta­tion to my engage­ment with said com­mu­ni­ty, and I think the time may be a hand to focus my scope of engage­ment a bit. I am a com­pletist by nature, so just as I strove to col­lect and read every Alfred Hitch­cock and the Three Inves­ti­ga­tors mys­tery, so too I have felt near­ly com­pelled to keep a wrig­gling toe in every major social net­work. But I am reach­ing a point where I am ready to say:

Yeah I tried Pin­ter­est, but I just don’t need that in my life.”

Goodreads is a good idea, but I just can’t fit it into my soul any­more.”

Foursquare isn’t a social net­work; it’s a game, and one which yields me no real reward.”

I am not try­ing to paint a scene of win­ners and losers here, but rather, I am try­ing to define a rea­son­able amount of engage­ment with social net­works that still leaves me time and ener­gy to be engaged with, well, my real life. It’s an ongo­ing process, but the soon­er I can pare down the num­ber of but­tons on my mobile touch­screen, the soon­er I can define what streams of input and out­put are most enrich­ing and mean­ing­ful to me, then the soon­er I can delib­er­ate­ly make myself avail­able to the peo­ple and expe­ri­ences most impor­tant to me.

Goody goody gumdrops!

It was Dr. Michael Miko­la­jczak, the pro­fes­sor with whom I took three of my eleven cours­es in my under­grad­u­ate major (Eng­lish, if you are just join­ing us), who first inspired me to don a bow tie, for which I will always thank him, as I am sure does the gen­er­al pub­lic. A col­or­ful and dynam­ic instruc­tor, he is also mem­o­rable for his pecu­liar views on final exam­i­na­tions.

Lit­er­a­ture cours­es in a lib­er­al arts insti­tu­tion are not, in my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, gen­er­al­ly seen as con­ducive to eval­u­a­tion in writ­ten exam form. These are the sort of things we write essays for, texts spread out on our crowd­ed dorm desks while we fid­dle with the mar­gin and line-spac­ing set­tings and try to avoid spilling either cof­fee or beer on any of he library books. But Dr. M. had his own approach to ped­a­gogy, and he was very fond of the final exam.

On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, “Goody, goody, gum­drops!”

I want you to think of the final exam as an occa­sion of joy,” he would explain to the class, and in each of the three semes­ters I heard this speech, the stu­dents seemed pret­ty uni­form­ly skep­ti­cal on this point. “The final exam gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it all that you have learned this semes­ter. On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, ‘Goody, goody, gum­drops!’ ” The class would pret­ty much just be star­ing at him at this point, won­der­ing what he was on.

I won’t pre­tend I was any fan of those final exams at the time, but I have nev­er for­got­ten Dr. Miko­la­jcza­k’s words. And now, in the ulti­mate days of my grad­u­ate stud­ies, I think I can say I final­ly say that I share and embrace his enthu­si­asm. It is only in these long hours of pan­icked review that I am tru­ly see­ing the extent of what I have (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) learned these past three years of work toward my Licen­ti­ate in Canon Law. It is almost not too strong to say that it is only in this review that I am learn­ing what before I had only heard, which is not meant as a judg­ment on my pro­fes­sors’ ped­a­gogy but rather as a telling com­ment on my own lack­adaisi­cal learn­ing style.

Let’s dis­pel any illu­sions you may be har­bor­ing about me. I don’t take notes. I don’t make flash cards. I don’t ask ques­tions. I don’t raise my hand dur­ing lec­tures. I don’t get around to read­ing a lot of the ‘rec­om­mend­ed’ texts, or even many of the ‘required’ ones. What do I do, then, to have made it this far in aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits? Two things: I lis­ten in class, as active­ly as I can man­age, and I care. Most days, that is enough. Which is for­tu­itous, since that is all I can man­age.

Now, three days before I must stand before a pan­el of my pro­fes­sors and answer on the spot what­ev­er ques­tions they choose to throw at me, I am doing some of those stu­den­ty things I just said I don’t do. I am por­ing over canons and com­men­taries, labo­ri­ous­ly cre­at­ing a heap of index cards dur­ing the day which my lov­ing wife will use to quiz me in the evenings. I am, in a word, actu­al­ly work­ing at this, which feels for­eign to me (because it is), and also feels down­right thrilling.

Should I have felt this sort of agency regard­ing my own learn­ing before now? Absolute­ly. I am embar­rassed and ashamed that I have large­ly slouched through my aca­d­e­m­ic degrees, because I could, rather than muster the ener­gy and courage to real­ly try. Who knows what I might have become? At the least, prob­a­bly a bet­ter man. But it is too late to change what is past; what I can do is change the game, even at this late hour, and I am unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly con­fi­dent that I might be able, not only to make this work in this crit­i­cal moment, but to make a last­ing change of it that will open new pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­duc­tive learn­ing and knowl­edge reten­tion for me in the future.

Changing the Rules

I have been busy in my head of late assem­bling a (hope­ful­ly small) col­lec­tion of new rules for myself vis-à-vis blog­ging (in par­tic­u­lar) and mak­ing stuff for the inter­net (in gen­er­al). This has been fun, excit­ing, a lit­tle mad­cap, but most­ly sober­ing. I am real­ly crap at per­sist­ing in mak­ing any­thing, online or off, almost entire­ly due to an absence of dis­ci­pline in my inter­nal life, with an over­whelm­ing amount of mun­dane life com­mit­ments piled on top.

My life is not going to mag­ick­ally become less crammed full of demands and com­mit­ments. Far from it. In two months I will be done with grad school and back home work­ing full-time once again, in a demand­ing posi­tion as head of two depart­ments. So it will do no good to wait and wish for things to calm down. Instead, I need to calm myself down, to tame my mon­key mind and re-devel­op, from square one, the “mind like water” that David Allen speaks of. And after way, way too long spent most­ly just feel­ing sor­ry for myself and/or pan­ick­ing, I am at last climb­ing out of my rot­ten rut and mak­ing a real effort to dust myself off and get charg­ing for­ward.

So here are, in no par­tic­u­lar order or rela­tion to each oth­er, sev­er­al new rules or para­me­ters I intend to imple­ment and enforce for myself. I don’t expect any mir­a­cles to hap­pen as a result, but if I put in the effort, I do expect them to be the first steps down the path to a more bal­anced, pro­duc­tive, and cre­ative expe­ri­ence of liv­ing.

  1. Make stuff. I have to lead off with this, because it is the eas­i­est thing to com­plete­ly lose sight of. How many times do we (and I include myself as the poster child for this) get lost in a for­est of incred­i­ble-sound­ing tips and tricks and tools and meth­ods and oth­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty porn, and nev­er end up mak­ing a damn thing? That’s right, too many. I fan­cy myself a cre­ative per­son — a writer, if you will — and I have let too much moss grow on my tired back. Even while my world is in flames around me, I am tak­ing up my writer’s torch again and start­ing once more to write myself to safe­ty, or at least to sense. While I have quite a range of writ­ten projects in the off­ing, per­son­al blog­ging is the most imme­di­ate, and offers the most direct path from effort to com­ple­tion and grat­i­fi­ca­tion. So here we go, and no stop­ping. Even if it is crap (and when isn’t it, real­ly?), it still needs to ship. The lights are com­ing back on.
  2. No more com­ments. This one has been a long time com­ing. The only hon­est rea­son to allow com­ments on a blog post, even mod­er­at­ed ones, is sim­ple: the blog­ger needs to prove to him­self or her­self that peo­ple are read­ing their stuff. I will with­out hes­i­ta­tion admit that is what I have looked to them for as long as I have been blog­ging. I’m not say­ing I am beyond that now — I crave atten­tion and affir­ma­tion as much as ever — but blog com­ments are hard­ly the way to get that in any mean­ing­ful degree. I have a lot more to say on this point, but we will have to save that for future post. For now, it is enough to announce that I’m switch­ing them off.
  3. Build up a reserve before launch­ing any­thing. Too many times over the past, well, whole life, I’ve had an excit­ing idea, done some ini­tial burst of work on it, then imme­di­ate­ly dashed about to friends, fam­i­ly, and the cute barista to get them all to take a look at it forth­with. Even when the response was enthu­si­as­tic and reward­ing, my cre­ative sta­mi­na was so low that, in every case, my out­put rapid­ly fell behind my self-imposed expec­ta­tions, and I just gave up and quit. This time, before I light up a neon sign point­ing to my lat­est endeav­or (yes, there is some­thing new in the works), I want to make sure I have the shelves stocked, so to speak. Tak­ing the extra time and effort to stack up a few weeks worth of con­tent means I can open the dig­i­tal doors with plen­ty for folks to look at (and judge if they want to keep com­ing back), and might help me cement the habits I need to keep mak­ing stuff at the same pace once the thing is live.
  4. Work in nine­ty-minute blocks of time. This is entire­ly behind-the-scenes to my read­er­ship, obvi­ous­ly (unless I opt to set up a live web­cam of my “writ­ing process” but that thought is incred­i­bly nau­se­at­ing to me), but I still feel it is worth men­tion­ing. I have only just begun to try it, but I agree with my guru Mer­lin Mann so far: nine­ty min­utes is a good, sol­id chunk of time, and I think it is fea­si­ble to shut down the nat­ter­ing dis­trac­tions of Face­book, Twit­ter, and real life for that long and real­ly knuck­le down on one thing, make real progress, and then break before I start rab­bit-hol­ing or fall asleep. I’m going to start set­ting a timer, and we will see if such a self-imposed con­straint can help me push out of the lethar­gic bub­ble I have been drown­ing in.
  5. Embrace the tools I need to suc­ceed. Yes, this trans­late to new stuff — tools — and this is still dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy, even to myself. Most of me thinks I should just hun­ker down on the back steps with a Mole­sk­ine and a Mont Blanc and write a whole new world. And some days I will still do that, I hope. But so much of the writ­ten work I intend to do is bound for elec­tron­ic for­mats, it makes more and more sense to work at a key­board, and while record­ing words in elec­tron­ic form is among the most basic of tech­no­log­i­cal tasks, there are also such things as tools that real­ly, real­ly work; that give me every­thing I need, noth­ing I don’t, and then get the hell out of my way and let me just make stuff. I have a good start on this (Scriven­er is still my cor­ner­stone, roof, and foun­da­tion), but I intend to exam­ine what tools will real­ly and tru­ly assist me in my work­flows, (pos­si­bly) go ahead and get those tools, and then for­get about every­thing else that is out there for a god long time. Obvi­ous­ly much more detail on this point will appear in future, as well.

Of course I know it is all fine and dandy to spout some half-digest­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tid­bits I’ve picked up from some pod­cast. I still have to prove — first to me, and then to you — that I can step up and put some or any of these wor­thy rules into last­ing action. For now, it’s just more talk from a chron­ic under­achiev­er who is rapid­ly run­ning out of chances to get it right.