An Ode to Skipper Dan.

I recently was reminded of this song by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Take a look.

This song was released in 2009 but I feel like it’s only taken on more meaning as I’ve moved into middle-age. There are definitely things I had hoped to accomplish before now, dreams I held onto in my 20’s and even 30’s that I haven’t really done the work to pursue because my goals changed or I just decided that my energy needed to be spent elsewhere.

But rather than reminisce and bemoan what might have been, I wanted to focus on a different aspect of the song: what Dan does and doesn’t do.

“Dusty, why don’t you just try acting?”

When I was in eighth grade, my class took an end-of-year trip to Universal Studios Florida. Back then (the early-mid 90’s), there were several themed rides that have long since been retired/replaced. The ones I remember most vividly were the Jaws boat ride and the King Kong cable-car/subway (?) ride.

When we got into the boat with our “captain” for the Jaws ride, she delivered her script with gusto, as if this were the first time she’d ever led a crew of people into the dangerous, shark-infested waters. When the great white surfaced, she yelled convincingly, “LOOK OUT, THERE HE IS!” and my little 13-year-old heart sank. At the climax of the ride, she pulled out a comically-large rocket-launcher style weapon and “fired” it at the deadly shark, who exploded in a splash of water and smoke and audio-visual flair. As we pulled safely back into harbor, our captain breathlessly congratulated us on surviving the ordeal, and everyone disembarked with smiles on their faces.

The King Kong ride could not have been a starker contrast. The “tour guide” for our New York adventure had all the gusto and excitement of a customer entering Hour 3 of waiting at the DMV. Her lines were so deadpanned that Aubrey Plaza would have seemed like Carrot Top by comparison. (How’s that for a wild mix of dated pop-culture references?) Even when the big ape seemed to be reaching out to grasp the car we were “riding” in, the tour guide could barely evoke vocal inflection. “Oh no. It looks like Kong is trying to grab us. Everyone hold on.”

Obviously, both rides held no real danger from the animatronic beasts and it was all in good fun, but when the Jaws captain really went for it, it made the suspension of belief that much easier.

Here’s my point: there is power in doing the mundane things well. However, in the song, Skipper Dan has realized that the theme-park job wasn’t the easy stepping stone to a dream career that he apparently expected it to be, and eventually he lets it grind him down so that he becomes resentful rather than trying to do something about it. He loses hope because he thinks that what matters most is what he’s doing rather than how and why he’s doing it.

Cal Newport, in his excellent book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, talks about how the path to career fulfillment isn’t in seeking the perfect job or the dream job. It’s in seeking out a job you can do well and becoming masterful at it, so that you can parlay that career capital into an adjacent line of work that’s closer to your “dream” or that provides you with quality-of-life benefits that you couldn’t achieve otherwise.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last few years, wrestling with it in my mind. In those times of career frustration and boredom, it’s often that I’ve lost sight of the power of daily excellence.

More than that, I’ve lost sight of my ultimate goal.

“Do it for her.”

There’s a famous moment in an early episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer (who, you will recall, works at a control panel in a nuclear plant) notices a poster on the office wall that says, “Don’t Forget, You’re Here Forever.” He strategically covers the wall (as well as certain parts of this poster) with a collage of pictures of his daughter Maggie, so that the visible letters now spell out “Do It For Her.”

I recently took the template from this moment in the show, and recreated it with pictures of my wife and daughters. Using Microsoft Paint and a little editing magic, my work computer wallpaper now says “Do It For Them.”

I’ll be honest, y’all: I’m not often super-jazzed about my job. I know that it matters, and I know the good that it accomplishes. There are just days or weeks (or even longer) where it feels like an endless field of thistles and thorns: the constant emptying of an inbox or work queue that gets refilled instantly, or non-stop email threads involving a parade of outside company reps who all inexplicably “just started recently” and don’t understand how my organization operates in regard to theirs. It adds up to a frequent feeling of pointlessness to the proceedings because I can’t see the fruit of my labor. (It’s not nearly as satisfying as mowing the yard, that’s for sure.)

I have to remember on those difficult days that I’m doing work that matters not only so that I can serve our clients, but so I can take care of my family. I have a wife and three little girls that count on me to get it done and provide.

And if that wasn’t motivation enough, there’s a greater reason that’s even easier to lose sight of: I’m working for the Lord.

It’s a reality that I can pay lip-service to but not really take to heart. When I work, I not only work in submission to and with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but I work on His behalf, representing Him (whether explicitly or implicitly) to the people I come in contact with, whether it’s the supervisor who knows if I hit or miss my daily deadlines, or the outside contractor rep who gets the sharp edge of my frustrated email exchanges. In all of these things, I work for the Lord. And in all these moments, I have the opportunity to use my work ethic and skill and compassion to honor and bless others, as a gift to them and an offering of thanksgiving to God for the privilege of being able to work (since it’s only by His grace that I have the strength to produce a harvest).

Which brings us back to Skipper Dan, and to you and me. Whether you’re a tour guide on a jungle cruise ride, or a customer service rep for an auto parts company, or a park ranger keeping fire watch, or a keyboard cowboy working from home–whatever you do to earn a paycheck, do it well. Do it with intention and excellence. Become masterful at it. Look for ways to make the experience better for your customers or clients.

Not because it will always pay off with a dream job or a big break, but because people count on you to do your best, and because the One whose opinion matters most is always watching.

Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance.

Photo by FOX on Pexels.com

Keeping the Stable Clean

An idea I keep coming back to in my thought process (and something I’m pretty sure I’ve discussed here to some degree) is the fact that for many people in the “knowledge work” fields (a.k.a. cubicle cowboys and work-from-home warriors like me), we spend our days trying to empty an inbox or work queue that keeps being refilled constantly.

This means that we a) never really reach a finish line so much as we just run until time runs out at the end of the day (and often beyond); and b) unless we intentionally build a system to do so, we never really see a finished product or evidence of our efforts, the way someone with a physical/mechanical/creative vocation may get to do so.

Our work is more along the lines of Proverbs 14:4 – “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” In other words, if you want to bring in a harvest, you’re gonna have to shovel an endless supply of “ox-pies.”

That’s how it feels sometimes when I look at my work queues and inbox: an endless supply of ox-pies.

And this is a good thing: I am abundantly aware that I have a great job, I make a good living to take care of my family and other obligations, and I don’t begrudge any of that. I’m thankful for how God has given me the strength and the skill to be able to support my family with my mind instead of my muscles.

But the downside of this is that I spend what seem like endless hours–as much as half of my waking life–staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard, responding, editing, filing, uploading. And at the end of the day, the screen seems just as full, or if it’s not, it will be by the time I sit down the next day.

I suspect my wife feels the same way, because even in the physical work of managing our home and caring for our daughters, she faces the same prospect endless “ox-pies”–sometimes in the form of actual dirty diapers (or puddles on the floor), as well as dirty dishes, cast-about toys and books, piles of laundry, and any number of other messes that get cleaned up in order to get dirty again almost instantly.

But while the endless loop of clean-up and reset is the same, there’s a subtle difference: when I wash a sink of dishes and wipe down the counters at the end of the day, I actually see progress, even if the progress is short-lived. I enjoy seeing that difference.

That’s why I both hate and love mowing my yard.

Welcome to the Jungle

We’re renting our current house–the second house I’ve rented as an adult after a decade of apartments as a single. At our previous house, I was only responsible for maintaining the backyard, which had the square-footage of a back bedroom. I could cut the grass with a weed-eater.

Our current yard has a huge (or, normal-sized for a suburban home) front yard and a much bigger back yard. My kids love it–plenty of room to run around and play and set up all kinds of toys and climbing structures. But now, halfway through our first summer at this location, I’m exhausted by how quickly the grass grows.

I really have two choices: mow it every 4-5 days (which is a bit tricky because where we are, we have gotten summer showers almost daily for the last month), or let it grow until a day when it’s convenient to me to mow it, which means our house looks like *that* house on the block and I can only mow a few feet at a time before having to clear the blades of the mulched grass. Also, it’s nearly 100 degrees. It takes a lot.

Yet with all that–the mowing, the edging, the heatstroke–the adage that is so often applied to writing fits here: I hate mowing. I love having mown.

When you push a lawnmower, it feels tedious; around and around and around the perimeter of the grass you go (unless you’re insane and use some sort of back-and-forth approach…weirdo). But even as it seems tedious, you’re making progress that can be seen. The rectangle of uncut grass gets smaller. The ground you just crossed shows an instant change. Once you go over the edges of the sidewalks with the edger, the soft lines of green become crisp around the concrete paths. Clippings are swept (at least back onto the yard where they somewhat blend in; I’m not THAT committed to perfection). The home looks more cared for. It feels a bit like the mandate that God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden: to keep it and cultivate it. Make it fruitful. Bring order to chaos.

I’m not a “lawn” guy; I don’t obsess on such things. If I didn’t absolutely have to do it, I wouldn’t usually give my lawn a single thought. But after cutting the grass, cleaning up the edges of the sidewalks, and sweeping the clippings away, I pass by the front windows a little more often for the first few days, just to admire my handiwork. It never looks perfect; I’m not going to win any Yard of the Month awards from the HOA. But it’s satisfying to be able to look at it and think, “I did that. That’s the difference I made.” If my wife doesn’t comment on the lawn enough (and really, why should she?), I’ll fish for compliments by saying, unprompted, “Yep, the lawn looks a lot better.” She’ll usually humor me and agree.

Maybe it comes down to this: I like being able to see that my strain and sweat and toil has produced something and made a difference in the world around me. And I like it when those closest to me can see it and appreciate it too. In my current job, it feels like I just go into my office, tap on a computer for 9 or 10 hours, and walk out (sometimes later), and nothing much seems to change, and then I get money deposited into my bank account twice a month. I’m a cog in a very important machine that helps sick people get well, but this cog only gets to see the gears on either side of him turn; he doesn’t get to see what happens down the line.

I dunno. Maybe I just need to stop overthinking things.

But I also need to mow my yard today, so I guess it’s just on my mind.

(No, I’m not using this post to procrastinate until it rains, shut up.)

“Could this have been an email?”

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

Here’s a quick plea to folks who work in a “knowledge-work” industry or even just in an office environment: Recognize and try to minimize the time-cost of Zoom chats, in-person meetings, and phone calls.

Obviously I’m not the first to talk about this; I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve read from productivity and systems analyst types who address this idea. But I was reminded last week of how gallingly frustrating it is to be on the short-end of this situation.

In my line of work, I edit documents to meet certain specs and then send them back to “clients” to get feedback before finalization. Usually it’s pretty straightforward. Tracked-changes, in-line comments, easy. I was trying to finalize a project that needed to be expedited, and I sent the document to the client team, expecting a quick turnaround. When I didn’t hear from them for a couple of hours, I followed up by email and was told, “Oh, didn’t such-and-such reach out yet? She said she was going to call you. She said that it would probably be quicker than an email.

Somehow, I doubted that.

Her colleague assured me she’d call me back directly, so I sat for a few minutes with the document open on my desktop, waiting for her to call. I knew that as soon as I started something else, I’d have to stop and change gears to deal with this. After 5 minutes, I sighed and opened a different document to pick up working on another task, only to hear my phone ring 30 seconds later.

Now that she had me on the line, my contact then proceeded to open up the document I had sent the day before and read over it, line by line, making occasional comments–including a five-minute excursis in which she realized she was confusing this document with another project and had to check her email to confirm she was thinking of the right one. As I sat on the line with her.

Just to be clear: there were maybe 10 questions in this document to answer, most of which required a YES/NO response.

It took us 15 minutes to work through the short document so I could get the information I needed from her. Information that she could have typed up in-line in the document and emailed to me, adding little to no additional time on her end but possibly saving me about 10 minutes on mine.

That doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that 5 or 6 such events burn an hour of work time.

I know I’ve done things like this in the past, so I’m trying to be mindful not to do this myself because I don’t want to be the guy whose name gets muttered through gritted teeth. No one wants to be that guy.

So here’s my plea, on behalf of the people you work with or interact with professionally: If that phone call or Zoom meeting or in-person meeting (if you are so blessed) is merely an information check-in that can be summarized by a 3-paragraph email or a notated document providing feedback, just send that to them and give those people back their time.

(Of course, then there’s the whole discussion about whether or not email itself is all that it’s cracked up to be, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)

Do you have any “quick phone call / meeting” horror stories? Leave them in the comments!

Friday Feed (12/11/2020)

Not my workspace (I wish!).
Photo by Andrea Davis on Pexels.com

Happy Friday, friends! Here’s a quick round-up of things I’ve been reading and enjoying lately, for your weekend clicks.

That’s all for this week. Have a great weekend!

WFH Day #5: Coworkers, man.

One week of working from home in the books, and honestly, it’s been really great. Yeah, there have been challenges, and sometimes the temptations toward distraction lure me away from getting my work done.

But the best thing about working from home so far? I get to see my family a lot more. I can walk downstairs at lunch and eat with my girls. Sometimes, my wife brings our baby into the office and sits her down in a chair facing me for a little while so that she (my wife, not the baby) can take care of our toddler or knock out some church admin work. So, naturally, my productivity slows as I make faces as my sweet little one. And when quitting time hits, I’m not faced with 30-45 minutes of commuting–just a quick walk down 15 stairs.

Of course, things get a little hairy when you have little ones and are working from home. As evidence, I present what might well be one of my top-3 all-time favorite Twitter threads (click the link to dig in, it’s all gold):

If you keep checking back (and I hope you do), you may well find me getting a little stir crazy if this keeps up for a few months. But for right now, I’m feeling pretty good. And no offense to my office-mates, but I’m really enjoying hanging out with my current coworkers.

20200311_194533

So my encouragement to you, dear reader, whether you are free to get outside and maybe go pick up food from your local restaurant (if so, please do and support your local businesses!) or you are sheltering in place (hang in there, California!), I hope you’ll take a moment and find five things to be thankful for, no matter what your circumstances are.

God has been generous to us, even if our current circumstances are challenging. Thank Him for His gifts, and enjoy them with gratitude.

See you next week!

WFH Day 2: The Neighbor’s Stereo

acoustic amplifier audio bass
Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

We have really noisy neighbors.

I know this is something most people face from time to time, but for some reason, our block attracts the noisiest of neighbors. When the family across the alley who held block parties moved out, the family that moved in picked up where they left off. Though people come and go, the one constant is they all generously share their playlist with everyone in the neighborhood. Several times a day.

The neighbors on the side nearest the street have a really impressive stereo system in their detached garage. Even with the garage completely enclosed, the bass from their sound system reverberates throughout the entirety of my house. No exaggeration; the “thump thump thump-thump-thump” of whatever hip-hop artist they are enjoying reaches the farthest opposite corner of our upstairs. No part of the house is safe from its pulsating presence.

Most of the time, I get the privilege to ignore it, because I’m at work. My wife just endures it since she’s here at home all day. It doesn’t wake up our little ones during naptime, so she just ignores it.

Now that I’m working from home for the time being, I’m having less success ignoring it.

I went over and asked them to turn it down yesterday, which they did immediately, no issue. But it’s back up today, full-blast, rumbling through the wall as I’m trying to edit. Apparently they thought it was a one-time request.

Why do I bring this up? Two reasons:

One: In this time of unusual challenge, we’re all going to be a lot more uncomfortable than we like. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna get worse, in all likelihood. And that means that we get to practice using forbearance. Do I like hearing the bassline of my neighbor’s stereo? Not particularly. Is it harming me or my family in any way? No. It’s a little thoughtless on their part, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. If it means not alienating a neighbor I don’t know that well and probably should get to know a bit better, then fine. I’ll just turn my podcast up louder. The way we bear with one another’s burdens, the way we show patience with other people’s thoughtlessness, will exhibit what’s really in our hearts and where our peace and hope is found.

Two: It reminds me to take a moment an consider what my “loud stereos” are. Because I’m sure there are habits of mine that annoy those around me. It would probably be a good idea to be mindful of that. Being home for an extended period of time is a blessing, but it also disrupts the rhythm of our household, and I know there are things I do (or forget to do) that get on my wife’s nerves. The more I’m mindful of that and try to address those issues, the better “neighbor” I can be to the woman under my own roof.

In conclusion, be neighborly. Turn down your stereo. Pick up your dirty clothes. And pray that God would show you how you can love the people around you well. Even when they are blasting you with bass.

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Hey y’all,

I think part of the reason I haven’t blogged consistently in the last few months is because I have been waiting to post something insightful and grand. I had this idea that I needed to transition into being this Serious Blogger and eventually Serious Author, so I needed to step up the quality of my writing. But I don’t need to do that right now. Right now, I think I just need to write.

This is probably just going to be a season of quick hits and short pieces. I still hope to make it worth reading for you, dear readers. I don’t plan on falling back into the “online diary” format I used in years past. But this next month or so may be a “priming the pump” period for the blog–short observations, anecdotes, recommendations for stuff I like. Hope you enjoy it.  

Have a good Tuesday.

–T4D