Career Milestone for Ann Margaret

A few years ago, Ann Margaret began taking pre-med classes at the university where she worked and at the local community college to work toward a new career in the medical field. Over the course of a few years, she dedicated herself to tireless study of prerequisites in biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and more.

Sixteen months ago, she left the safety of that job where she worked for a decade and jumped feet first into a more-than-full-time program working toward this certification. Over this time, she’s made countless sacrifices. She’s endured a hectic, stressful schedule; sleepless nights; evaporation of leisure time; crazy early mornings; and the kinds of drama that are inevitable when you thrust some thirty people into close proximity with no option for escape.

Today, she passed her board exam and is now a certified medical laboratory scientist. She is a great scientist, and will be an absolute asset to her field.

But more than that, she inspires me every single day. Her dedication and resiliency are something I aspire to, and I’m so proud of her for all she’s done and all that is ahead of her.

Congratulations, Babe.

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving holiday was another one for the books. I hope the holiday treated you and yours equally as well.

My parents, niece, and grandma came to our place. This morning, we went for a nice walk in the park. My mom and niece stopped at a playground and my grandma and I walked to the spillway of the river. We met a nice guy who offered to take our picture. On the way back, I stopped for a geocache and explained the basics of the game to my niece.

Continue reading “Thanksgiving”

The Swing

The kids next door have this swing. It’s a simple disc swing, made of wood, stained dark, with a sturdy synthetic rope through the middle and a washer on the bottom to help secure the knot. They hanged it in their front yard, and I can see them swinging on it from my desk. Now that the heat of our Texas summer has relented, the two oldest of the kids usually take a swing on it when they get home from school. They both drop their backpacks without a care in the world. The boy climbs on and his older sister gives him a good push. And I smile.

I smile because of where that swing came from.

Continue reading “The Swing”

Getting More Balanced

It’s easy for me to cut myself too much slack. “You worked hard at work today. It’s totally fine to just zone out on the couch and watch Ancient Aliens for a few hours.” Some days, I don’t really feel like doing the things that are ostensibly important to me. It’s also very easy for me to let an activity I’m highly engaged in take up an outsized portion of my available time. This can be a healthy ebb and flow as long as I remember to give those other things attention before they’re starved and sometimes let those things take more than their fair share for a while.

One way to deal with this would be to plop tasks into OmniFocus and set defer and/or due dates, but that has two problems for me. The first is that some of these important things I do are not regular. I don’t need to go for a walk exactly every three days. And in fact, this wouldn’t even work because the days I can go for a walk are not regularly spaced. And I don’t want a defer date to bring up something I can’t actually do. I also don’t need a task like “Work on indie app” in my OmniFocus because it’s not a useful action.

More importantly, though, I don’t need these things in OmniFocus because that’s not the kind of stuff this is. OmniFocus is where I put the stuff that I have to do in order to keep the wheels from coming off. These important things aren’t tasks. They’re more like values. Call them priorities if you want. This is the important stuff that is often drowned out by the urgent. What I need is a gentle nudge to apply my time and attention in a way that will move me toward the life I want one step at a time.

Balanced icon

Recently, I discovered an app called Balanced. On the surface, it’s a fairly simple app. I have a list of stuff. Each item in the list has settings for how often I intend to do it. Then, Balanced handles the messy business of bubbling up the thing I should be doing right now to the top of the list. It does a great job of giving me just the right amount of prompting to keep me on the right track with the things that are important.

To create a new item in Balanced, just swipe down, similar to the pull-to-refresh mechanism in many apps. When creating a new item, there are just a few options First, there are the title and then the frequency settings. Then, you can select an icon to show next to it. Just a few taps and Balanced starts helping you give this new item the attention it deserves.

Configuring a habit in balanced

During this setup is when I do the thinking about how much of my life I intend to devote to this thing and how I want to balance it with the other items in the list. Taking health and fitness as one example, I have three items in my list: “Play ultimate”, “Go for a bike ride”, and “Go for a walk”. These have different frequencies. “Play ultimate” and “Go for a walk” are set to twice a week each. I don’t ride my bike as often as I play ultimate or go for a walk, so it is set to three times per month. This is a good balance for me among the things that I like to do with my health and fitness free time.

In the list of items, the thing Balanced thinks you should be doing next is always at the top. Right now, Balanced is reminding me to take the dog for her walk to the mailbox to check the mail, practice my tuba, and go for a bicycle ride. These three things are all doable today! Taking the dog to the mailbox is pretty simple. I have a bike ride scheduled with some friends this afternoon. I just need to go sit in my office for an hour with my tuba and work on some of the tricky passages in the music we’re playing for this first concert of the season and then I’ll have a pretty accomplished day! As I complete things, I swipe left-to-right to check them off. They fall to the bottom of the list waiting to bubble up again.

If, for some reason, I’m not going to do something that’s at the top of the list, I can swipe from right to left to skip it. This way, I don’t end up with a bunch of things that are “Past Due” staring me in the face and making me feel bad about my life. So, if “Go for a bike ride” says “Do now” but I’m still recuperating from a rough game of ultimate, I can skip it. If I’m super busy with work stuff and can’t go for a walk, I can skip it.

Balanced habit history

When I want to check in on a particular item, I just tap it in the list. Balanced shows me my success on the item and how it relates to my success on the other items in my list. It shows the title of the item, a balance score based on the number of times it has been completed on time, completed late, or skipped, and a timeline that shows a series of colored dots—green for done on time, red for late, and blue for skipped.

In the upgraded version ($2.99 in-app purchase), Balanced’s Life Pulse feature gives me a sense of how I’m doing with all the things I’ve put in. It will list the things to focus on more and also where I’m doing well. The Life Pulse graph provides a “balance line” indicating a 75% done on time rate. Life Pulse alone is worth the upgrade price. The other bits are nice (I like the disco mode theme and I have a passcode set.) but Life Pulse is the real value of the upgrade. Having a high level sense of how well I’m valuing things in my life is very helpful.

So, what kinds of things are in Balanced for me? Playing ultimate, playing music (tuba, guitar), practicing magic, going for a walk, and calling loved ones that it’s easy for me to go too long without talking to. I also have an entry to write on this blog and also to eat somewhere new. (I’m a creature of habit and it’s easy for me to get stuck in a rut.) I also have current side projects listed as well. It’s easy to let those slide for longer than I really want them to as busy days blur together into busy weeks.

I’m circumspect about adding too many things to Balanced for worry of either becoming overwhelmed or adding phony-baloney things that shouldn’t really be in here. Maybe I’ll relax this in the future, but for now, things that go into Balanced are precious to me and significantly contribute to the person I want to be. The important thing, though, is that Balanced can support anything you want to put into it. Want to drink enough water throughout the day? Balanced can help. Want to cultivate a perspective of thankfulness or empathy? Balanced can help with that too. Anything you want to have a little bit of help giving the attention you deem it deserves, Balanced can help.

Overall, I’m finding Balanced is just the right mix of reminders and information. I feel great about checking things off the list, and after a few weeks of using it, I feel great about the cocktail of important things it’s helped me create. If in the future I find I’m skipping things or I start to get overwhelmed, it’s simple to review the list and make adjustments to either the content or the ratios frequencies to keep myself living the life I want to live.

Sean “Fosse” Phelps: September 1, 2002(?)–November 16, 2013

Black and white photo of Sean sleeping next to my foot

She scrawled 10 digits on a card. “Just give me a call before you’re going to bring him back.” That was the parting message after we adopted the dog that saved my marriage.

Photo of Sean with a squeaky ball toy

I was severely depressed following my granddad’s death in December. I had checked out of my whole life; I wasn’t doing any one part of it even half-assed. After six months of being alone in our apartment, Ann Margaret needed someone. I was a shell, using raw memory power to scrape by in my classes and the muscle memory of hundreds of lattes to keep my job. I had nothing left to give at home. I was blowing it. Out of her loneliness, she asked, “Can I get a dog?”

Ann Margaret knew he belonged with us from the first picture she saw. I wasn’t so sure. He only had three legs. (He had lost his right front leg during his initial rescue.) I worried about what it would be like to pet a dog who wasn’t “whole.” He had social issues. He had already been adopted and returned several times because he didn’t get along with kids or otherwise proved difficult to deal with. His profile on petfinder.com was littered with disclaimer icons about his various shortcomings. What if we couldn’t control him? What if he couldn’t coexist with our sugar gliders? What if…? What if…?

We drove to the shelter near Houston. Diane opened his kennel door and he charged out and tore ass around her yard. He looked more brown than white like he had looked in the picture. We went inside and spent some time getting to know him. Diane told us about him, but his personality was obvious. He was loud and demanding, opinionated and rowdy, fiercely independent and infuriatingly charming. We loaded him into the back seat of the Durango on the quilted mat the shelter provided. The only other thing he had to his name was a ratty collar and a toy named Mr. Squeak. He was a little scared as he rode away with yet another family to his hopefully-forever home. He peed through the mat on the leather seats.

We brought him home to our apartment. Ann Margaret was already in love with him, and I had it all figured out. He wasn’t going to sleep in our bed. He was going to sleep on the floor. He was a dog after all! The first night he scratched at our door and cried for a while. He tore up part of the carpet in the process. Eventually, he went to sleep in the dirty clothes that were under the counter in the bathroom. That was the only night he ever slept anywhere but in our bed. When our second dog came to live with us, Sean started sleeping on my side of the bed for some unknown reason. Over the last six years, he’s been my bedtime buddy.

We were worried how he would do since our apartment was on the second floor and also had an upstairs loft. The stairs were never any match for him. He owned that apartment. He chased his toys up and down the stairs like a rocket. Unlike his friend Binky, he was never afraid of the stairs up to our front door. They didn’t have any backing and it freaked Binky out. Sean bounced up and down the stairs. He equally owned every house we’ve lived in since then.

Sometimes Ann Margaret or I would walk him over to check the mailbox. He would bark at everything in between sniffs of whatever scent caught his attention. He would tire out before we made it back, so we would have to carry him. If he ever got tired on a walk, he would just sit down and demand to be carried. We gladly carried him whenever he demanded. When it was time to go outside, he would chase Ann Margaret and jump and bite her pants legs in his excitement. As soon as he could reach the leash before we could put it on, he would bite it and play an little game of impatient tug. Since we moved to our new house, walking to check the mail at the mailbox bank in front of the next door neighbors’ house was our daily ritual.

No matter where we lived, he would bitch at us when he wanted something; he would bitch at us when we didn’t move fast enough giving it to him. He barked and snapped at the vet and techs. At our old vet, the front desk worker once asked me why we didn’t put a muzzle on him since he was barking so loudly. I explained to her that that sound was with a muzzle. Our current vet chastized me about Sean’s behavior once. I told him, “Yes, I know. He has lots of behavior issues and we enable him. But this dog is special and he’s earned it in ways you won’t ever know. Don’t bring it up again.” He never did. If you save your parents’ marriage, you’re entitled to do whatever the happy fuck you want. Free pass for life. That’s the deal.

Most people reading this won’t have had the privilege of meeting Sean. This is the fierce, insane, charming boy that we had the privilege of loving for the last nine years.

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In 2012, just before we moved to our new house, Sean was diagnosed with Addison’s disease. It’s a terrible disease but manageable. He was on two different medications full time and required regular checks of his blood chemistry, and he caught every little disease that happened to come by. Over the last several months he started having some other problems, too. We dealt with them like everything else but we never found the cause of them or any real solution. He was in the vet clinic just about every month.

We knew his time was going to be shorter than it should be for a little dog with an excellent family, but you can know something and still be terribly unprepared for when it comes. He should have had around fifteen years; he got just about eleven if the vets’ estimations about his age were correct. Last Saturday morning we checked him into the emergency vet hospital. He had been being treated for pneumonia and he wasn’t responding. He was just lying around limp and wasn’t able to keep any food or medicine down. He certainly didn’t have his usual spunky spirit. They started giving him IV fluids and nutrition to get his strength up and balance out his blood chemistry. The plan was to check his blood again Sunday morning and see what needed to be done to get him back home.

In order to distract ourselves, we left him at the hospital and went to have coffee and then to eat some lunch. He was in the best possible hands. After lunch, we stopped at the hospital so I could visit him. I didn’t really want to go in, but I told myself I owed it to him for all he had given me. His blood work wasn’t getting any better and he looked as sick as when we left him. Later that evening, the blood work came back again even worse, and the doctor called us. We needed to decide what to do.

We talked for a while, and I was apparently not processing things very well. I was thinking of ways they could help him feel better enough to come home, have a victory lap of one more walk to the mailbox with me and chase his toy for a little bit before he had to go. Ann Margaret told me that wasn’t going to be an option. We were deciding whether to say goodbye tonight or first thing in the morning. That’s it. Then the phone rang.

The decision was being made for us. He was declining fast, and we needed to come and say goodbye. Ann Margaret sweetly offered to stay with him until the end if I couldn’t. I snapped at her in my grief. If a creature gives you its whole life plus yours back, you owe to stay there until the end no matter how bad it hurts. That’s the deal. Nut up.

Last year, we saw the beautiful bluebonnets and other wildflowers near our house. They were gone before we could schedule a photo shoot, so we decided we would be sure to set it up for the next year. Earlier this year, our friend Kerri did a photo shoot for us. We didn’t know for sure that it was our last chance, but in hindsight, we’re so glad that we had these photos done.

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The vet and the staff were very kind and helped Sean move peacefully on to the next stage of his journey. I don’t believe in the afterlife the same way I did when I was younger, but I do believe there’s something after this life. Maybe it’s a desideratum, but I believe that every being is whole on the other side, no matter how sick or broken things are on this side. I believe that having made my life whole when I was too helpless to do anything with it, his life is whole now as he waits for us with our other loved ones that have already passed.

Wherever you are now, Sean, thank you for everything.

Black and white photo of Sean sleeping next to my foot

P.S. Some folks have asked if there was anything they could do to express their condolences. If you’re so inclined, a donation to the Humane Society of Johnson County would be very kind. Even a small donation can help save a dog or cat that should be in a forever home. They like to send out a note to families whose pets are memorialized. Just give them my URL and I’ll make sure they know how to send those along.

Yesterday’s Back to Work covered obsessions, compulsions, and the accompanying anxiety of that feedback loop.

One of the best things I did recently was install this yellow ball in our garage. I was obsessive about and compulsively checked my parking after getting out of the car: did I clear the garage door; is there enough room on the passenger side; is it too close to the front of the garage or can I walk to the door?

Now, however, I pull into the garage and a little yellow ball drops from the ceiling. I drive forward (and slightly left) until the yellow ball touches the windshield right in front of my face. Then, I get out of the car and walk into my house. I literally never have to think about the position of the car relative to the rest of the garage ever again.

My wife expressed some doubts about whether it was needed or if I was installing it to subtly help her poor parking. No, this is about me and my own maladies of making sure I don’t dent the trunk lid or slice my leg open on the front license plate when I squeeze by or thwack the driver side in the process of taking a bicycle down off the wall or leave no room on the passenger side for my wife to get into the car without backing out of the garage first.

And my life is a mite saner thanks to that little foam ball.

Staying on Top of Calendar Events

I’ve been participating in a Glassboard board about productivity where Eugene asked about keeping on top of calendar events. Here’s the lengthy answer Glassboard wouldn’t let me post:

This sounds like the same thing I have been through. Even though I use THE HELL out of my calendar, I get caught up in things I’m working on and then space out on the fact that I’m supposed to leave to do $THING. A good example of this is lunch time. My wife and I have lunch together most every day. But for the longest time, I would space out while working and forget to find a stopping place and leave on time. Then I would be frazzled when she reminded me over IM or SMS and I had to scramble to get there on time. This meant I was not in the best mental state when I got to lunch to fully enjoy her company. Terrible…

The first thing is to get really good at knowing how long things take. Now, I have two alarms for lunch. The first goes off 25 minutes before lunch time. When it does, I know I have 10 minutes to find a stopping place. The second one goes off 10 minutes later and that’s when I actually pack up my stuff and head to the car. This takes about 5 minutes and then it takes about 10 minutes for me to drive to lunch.

Why am I beating that scenario to death? Because it took me MONTHS to figure it out!! I’m a complete disaster. But the only way I got better at this was by paying attention and being more honest and less optimistic about how fast I can do something. “Hey, idiot, it takes you more than 10 minutes to get from sitting in a chair with your laptop open to lunch with your wife. Stop lying to yourself!” “You have never fixed any bug past a typo in less than 30 minutes!”

What does that mean to you? First, be honest with yourself about how much time you need to make those appointments happen in a sane way. Travel time between appointments. (Not just driving time. How long from sitting here to sitting there. Does it take you four minutes to get from your car to your cube? Longer? Budget the time in.) Time to gather your thoughts before and after appointments. By all means, don’t schedule meetings with no cushion between them, back-to-back phone calls, etc.

But don’t stop there. The other side of this coin is that you have to know and be honest about how long tasks take. If you finish something and look up at your clock, don’t think to yourself, “Oh, I have ten minutes. I can totally [fix that bug, reply to that email from my boss, return that phone call, google that question I had, whatever]!” Someone smart recently said that, really, assume anything you need to do will take an hour from first movement to completion. “That’s ridiculous! I’m just going to the grocery store real quick.” Oh yah? Time yourself and argue with the clock. If you find project work and client calls or ad hoc meetings are usurping your time, the time to recognize that is when someone says, “Hey, do you have a minute?” Or when the phone rings. If you answer the phone in a small interstitial chunk between appointments, don’t be surprised that you get wrapped up in that conversation and flaunt the tyranny of the calendar. Let it go to voicemail or tell the person to come back later or ask the question over email so you can give it quality time and consideration. And as I’ve heard Merlin say more than once: Not in a dick way. Let clients know that you can’t provide the highest service on an interrupt-driven basis. And be honest with yourself that you can’t do your best project work when your brain is somewhere worrying about what appointment you’re about to space and you can’t do any meaningful project work in between those calendar appointments. If you think half an hour you squeeze out between appointments to work on a project that’s ostensibly important to you is a good strategy, you’re totally fooling yourself.

If it sounds like I’m mad, it’s because I’m mad more at me than anything. I am a total dipshit about this kind of stuff. These are the lessons I have had to learn through much trial and error, so hopefully I can shed some light on things if you’re in a boat even remotely similar to mine, and it sounds to me like you are.

IFTTT Recipe for Back to Work Live Stream Notifications

Update: 2012-06-27 This is deprecated and the recipe deleted. Go support 5by5 with a purchase of the live streaming app.

I got tired of missing Back to Work‘s live stream because of late notice scheduling changes, so I put the series of tubes known as The Internet to work for me. I created an IFTTT recipe that will send an SMS alert when Back to Work is going live as indicated by the 5by5 Twitter account. The SMS has a link as well to the http://5by5.fm stream in RadioBOX, which is my preferred app for live streaming.

Enjoy!