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Post image for Most Accomplishments Are Invisible

A few weeks ago a viral tweet went around asking, “There’s only one month left in the decade… What have you accomplished?”

If that question strikes you as uncomfortable, you’re not alone.

Both the tweet and its tweeter have since disappeared from the platform, but you can still read the replies, and they say a lot about our notion of “achievement,” and how it’s changing.

The thread began with impressive lists of conventional successes: medals won, degrees earned, books published, startups sold. But as the replies accumulated, the tone shifted. More people began listing not what they had won or created but what they had survived—job losses, bad relationships, addiction, depression, chronic pain, debt, and anxiety.

Many described their great achievement of the 2010s as moving from an unbearably tough place to a bearably tough place, or even just surviving where they were. Virtual hugs and high fives were exchanged.

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Post image for Mr. Rogers Wasn’t a Saint, He Was One of Us

Last week, a friend and I went to see Last Christmas. It was sold out, which turned out to be a stroke of holiday good luck.

We saw the Mister Rogers biopic instead, and I think it made us kinder.

The filmmakers had recreated the show’s details perfectly. The busy piano theme that accompanies the trolley. The way Mr. Rogers changed shoes while he sang. The unexplained traffic light in his living room.

The nostalgic effect was intense. Apparently I hadn’t seen much of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was its intended audience—a sensitive five-year-old, sitting cross-legged on our brown living room rug, bewildered by feelings.

At the time, I believed Mr. Rogers was an extremely kind man who talked directly to me and wanted me to be okay. Today, I think that’s exactly what he was trying to be, and what he was. By all accounts of those who knew Fred Rogers, he was really that kind.

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Post image for Do What You’re Doing

Years ago my mother introduced me to an extraordinary, out-of-print book on house cleaning, which has stuck in my mind ever since.

It was a thin, battered paperback from the early 1990s called Speed Cleaning, and it tells you how to clean a whole house in 42 minutes. Both of us were so impressed with its clarity and confidence that we resolved to learn its methods before it had to go back to the library.

Speed cleaning takes persistence to master, and I didn’t persist for long. But I did enough of it to experience its great revelation: cleaning, or any other challenging task, when done with a certain vigor and wholeheartedness, becomes strangely easier, even as you do more work in less time.

Another copy recently entered our lives, and I think I understand better what creates this effect.

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Post image for Two Ways to Keep the Fountain Flowing

I’ve been working on an interesting math problem I first pondered as a kid.

One day in the early nineties, my dad heard on the radio that there was a new technology coming called “INTER-NET,” and he struggled to describe it to me.

One thing he said was, “You could type in ‘Michael Jackson jokes’ and see all the Michael Jackson jokes in the world.”

It didn’t occur to me that this INTER-NET wasn’t a physical thing, or that you would have it in your home. I pictured a towering, all-connected computer at the university that people would line up to use.

“And it’s free!” He added.

That part seemed unlikely. I knew that even the lowliest candies cost at least one cent, and this computer with infinite jokes was clearly far more valuable. Even my pre-teen brain recognized there was something unusual about the economics of that.

I wouldn’t have guessed that decades later I’d be fully enmeshed in this futuristic value-distribution system, living on it and for it, supplying it not just with jokes but articles, rants, and some genuine insights, alongside millions of other creators.

Somewhat surprisingly, the internet did turn out to be the fountain of freely available art, entertainment, and information my Dad promised.

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Post image for Five Old School Things To Consider Doing Again

I have a not-so-secret hope that we’re reaching a sort of technology nausea point, when it becomes utterly clear that pre-digital (or at least pre-smartphone) approaches to certain things were better in many ways, and we begin to re-adopt them for that simple reason.

Even in 2010, we were still excited when, while doing something in the old, dependable, manual way, somebody said, “Hey there’s an app for that!” Today, the excitement comes when you realize you can do that thing much easier without trying to bumble through it on your phone.

As we approach the 2020s, I think we’re becoming more aware of what we’ve left behind. But a lot of it is still there if we want it.

Here are some places where I’ve enjoyed returning to the ways of years past.

1. Cooking From a Cookbook

There have always been a few recipes in my rotation that I had to open a cookbook for, and I couldn’t help but notice a hint of relief at that.

What a joy it is, when you’ve got flour everywhere and olive oil on your fingers, to simply glance over to an open book, rather than knuckle-scroll through clunkily-loading ads and long-winded anecdotes about the author’s husband just to check a measurement. You also don’t need to keep touching the recipe every so often to prevent it from disappearing.

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Post image for How to Make Life More Pleasurable

Throughout my grade school years I noticed a pattern: whenever classes started again, sleep became much more enjoyable.

It felt like such a gift to discover, by peeking at my alarm clock, that I had another eighteen sweet minutes of blanket-time before the alarm went. Each one was a treat.

Obviously, sleep became more pleasurable because it became more precious. I was busier and couldn’t overindulge in it as I apparently had during summer holidays.

I also noticed that whenever the English teacher assigned a novel about people living during scarce times, like wars or droughts, my own food tasted better and I found real satisfaction in simple things like potatoes or rice.

History class gave me a similar appreciation for tea and spices, after hearing about how precious and coveted they were in the West. When you have a little more reverence for the experience itself, a pinch of tea or a few ground peppercorns can make you feel rich and fortunate (even if they came from a bin at Bulk Barn). And why shouldn’t they? They still deliver the same pleasure to human taste buds.

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Post image for A Million Nameless Joys Await

I just returned from a 90-minute walk in driving snow. My friend had to pick up something from work near where my PO Box is, and we both like walks in inclement weather, so we made the trek together on foot.

Now that I’m back in the warm, dry interior of my house, I’m enjoying a very cozy, very nostalgic, and very specific combination of sense experiences. Having shed my wet outerwear, and with the heater vents blowing, I’m now warm, dry, and extremely comfortable, but parts of my socks, pant cuffs, and hair are still damp because they’re the only things I’m still wearing that were exposed to the snow.

That particular experience—abundant warmth and dryness with dampness at the fringes, and a well-earned touch of fatigue—is exactly the same feeling I had as a kid every time I came in from playing in the snow. It still summons images of snowball fights, toboggan rides, and the ribbon of exposed grass you make when you roll up a snowman-ball.

If this particular state had a name, it might be Warming Up Having Just Come In From Outside on a Mild Snowy Day. It’s a very specific and familiar joy to those who know it.

It’s making me think of several other familiar yet nameless wintertime experiences, which any Canadian prairie-raised kid would probably know.

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Post image for Cross the Gap Before It Grows

A friend of my Dad’s, a fellow high school teacher, was born just early enough that a particular life goal of his seemed feasible: get to retirement without having to use a computer.

At that time, the early 1990s, I remember people being either computer-literate or computer-averse. You either used these machines freely, or you actively avoided them.

By the information-superhighway years of the late ‘90s, a lot of people were determined to cross that aversion-to-aptitude gap, and finally learn to use the World Wide Web and electronic mail. Being one of that era’s many teenaged “computer people,” I ended up helping dozens of computer-averse adults learn simple operations like word processing, email and web search.

Their body language, at first, was typically very fight-or-flight: back against the chair, hands tucked close, eyes wide. I’m sure some of them really believed the machine could explode if you pressed the wrong button.

But after an antsy first day in the computer chair, a person starts to see what they can do, and also what they can’t do (blow the thing up, delete everything in a keystroke). It was never long before they were emailing, web-surfing, LiveJournaling, and printing recipes, all on their own.

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Post image for No Moment Can Be Saved For Later

Last week I went for my midday walk first thing in the morning, because by noon it was supposed to be hot and muggy.

The feel of that particular morning was so sublime and strange I have nothing but clichés to describe it with. It was the day before school started, and the neighborhood was both supernaturally quiet and uncannily beautiful. The sky was orange and still, and the air was so thick it seemed to filter out traffic noise, leaving a soundtrack of only birds. September-stage trees and gardens glistened in July-like morning heat. Boulevard flowerbeds billowed over the sidewalks.

Aside from the apocalyptic implications of such warmth coming so late in the year, the walk was a unique and remarkable experience, and I know I have absolutely no way of conveying that specialness to you or anyone else.

I did try though. I took a half dozen photos, and a few videos panning over the trees and gardens, hoping to somehow capture I’m not sure what—the sweetness of the air, the alien combination of summer humidity and dry leaves, or whatever unique quality made me want to document it.

Of course, I ended up with nothing but flat photos and videos of trees and sidewalks and flowerbeds that will excite nobody, and which contain not even a speck of the experience I was trying to capture.

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Post image for Feel The Air Fully

The Shingon monks of Japan have a very pragmatic way of encouraging the development of inner calm. They expose themselves to extreme cold, such as by squatting under an icy waterfall, while attempting to remain as present and composed as they might be in a warm, dry meditation hall.

Shinzen Young, my favorite Western meditation teacher, endured a version of this when he trained with the Shingon in the 1970s. Starting on the winter solstice, he spent 100 days in isolation, emerging three times daily to break the ice on a frozen-over cistern and dump several bucketfuls of its water over his head.

Being a California native, he found this task excruciating, but quickly learned the secret to getting through it without abject suffering. Before going to the cistern, he would meditate intently enough that he could be completely present for the experience. If any part of him was unwilling to embrace the full extent of the cold, it went from unpleasant to horrific.

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