At a Crossroads ⤲

At a Crossroads ⤲

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

My friend Tony asked, when we had just purchased property on Orcas, “What’s next? You’ll build a house and move in… then what?” Sometimes Tony’s questions seem like challenges, but I think he’s mostly looking for ideas. He was asking about something years into the future and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I’m in the “then what?” phase now.

There is a common perception that completing a project like a house leads to a period of doldrums. The excitement of the project wanes and leaves a hole in the day-to-day that feels like something is missing. I expected to feel it by now, but it hasn’t arrived. If anything, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. The excitement of the house project came with a healthy dose of stress and anxiety for us both. The space it left in our lives is one we’re not eager to fill. Plus, there are years of house projects ahead of us, mostly in landscaping. 

Projects on the professional side of life seem equally complete. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Big Enough being published and it no longer demands a lot of attention. Common Craft, the Explainer Academy, and The Art of Explanation book are all stable.

This all begs the answer to Tony’s question: what’s next? 

A few months ago, we had a call with our friend, Dave, who now lives in rural New Hampshire. He’s a regular RFR reader who is planning a significant home remodel. He said something that had been in the back of my mind for a while, but I hadn’t fully considered it. In preparing for his house project, he looked for books and resources for people like him. He wanted to understand the construction process, what to expect, how to overcome the challenges, make decisions, etc. In his experience, there was a dearth of materials along these lines. 

Dave encouraged me to take what we had learned in building Flattop and transform it into a book or something similar for people like him. That chat with Dave lit a fire under me. I’ve always been passionate about home design and the construction process. I have years of real-world experience across multiple projects. I have connections with builders, architects, and multiple homeowners who are in-process now. 

So, I started writing. Through 2021, I’ve written about 70,000 words, all focused on explaining the process of building a custom home, phase by phase. Sachi has been my editor and brainstormer. Through it all, I was never sure where it would lead. 

My initial thought was to make it a book and it’s currently written in that form. But that didn’t feel like the right medium. It’s not a story as much as a reference work or guide. It’s the resource you turn to when a new phase of construction is on the horizon. 

I asked a couple of friends who are currently building homes about the potential they see. Our friend, James, was enthusiastic about the idea and had a suggestion. He said, “This feels more digital than a book. You’d want downloadable documents, videos, and visuals.” Yes. Yes. Yes.

Once again, a friend suggested a direction that helped us see the opportunity more clearly. All the writing could be turned into multimedia content that lives on a website instead of in a book. It could be easily updated and priced like an online course.  People could access it on any device at any time.

For the last couple of months, this has been the dominant idea in my day-to-day life. When the workday is done and I’m ready to relax, this is where my mind wanders. I have to resist not working on it and I take that as a good sign. Passion, is a necessary ingredient, along with time. Best of all, in true Big Enough fashion, we can make this idea happen ourselves.

So, dear reader, this is the next thing. Many of you have been with me through the entire house project and your ideas and input have been invaluable. For this next project, I hope we can continue what we’ve started. More soon!

Because It’s Cool ?

Because It’s Cool ?

I like to think of myself as someone who forms his own opinions. You know, the kind of guy who knows what he likes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. 

The older I am, the more I realize that being that person is not natural for me. While I certainly have opinions, I am prone to leaning on the opinions of others or allowing their opinions to become my own. This is especially true if the opinion comes from someone I respect or admire.

I’m not alone. Popular culture is a constant churn of opinions being adopted and discarded, often based on the perspectives of influential people. I’ve always had a keen eye for the churn; what’s in or out; what’s cool right now, or not. It seems like a kind of innate sensitivity I noticed when I was young and choosing to dress a particular way or listen to a specific band. I noticed. I cared, and honestly, I wanted people to know that I cared. 

Lee as a child

For most of my life, I never understood this about myself, or how it impacted me. That all changed when I met Sachi, who does not have the same sensitivity. The churn of pop culture has always been an enigma to her. She tells stories of growing up with friends who made collages from the pages of teen magazines, with boys and bands. They would slide carefully selected photos and stickers into their folders. She had no idea where to start. It wasn’t in her to care and without the sensitivity, she could go through the motions, but not feel it. Unlike me, this perspective meant she was able to form opinions that were authentically her own.

This difference between us eventually bubbled to the surface and has become a subject of ongoing conversation. The discussions we’ve had, could not have happened without bringing something real, yet mostly unspoken, to the surface. Once it came out into the open, it changed how I looked at myself. 

It started with a simple question, asked by Sachi, when I was about to make a commitment, like a purchase: “Why do you like that?” In this context, she’s not questioning my tastes as much as my reasoning. She’s implicitly asking, “Do you truly like this, or do you want to be the kind of person who likes it?” 

This question exposed a reality that I wasn’t prepared to admit to myself. I am sometimes driven not by a sense of objective quality or beauty, but because I think it’s cool and I want to be cool. The real answer to Sachi’s question, more than I want to admit, is “I like it because it’s cool right now.” 

Cool as a Force

Once I realized this about myself, I couldn’t help but see it everywhere I looked. The word is constantly on everyone’s lips. Think about how often you hear “that’s so cool!” My bet is you, too, have considered coolness in making a decision. 

Across cultures and classes, the desire to be cool is everywhere. Yet, it’s mostly unspoken at a personal level. Perhaps it’s difficult to admit that coolness is the goal because trying too hard to be cool is… uncool. I’m obviously painting with a wide brush and I recognize this isn’t everyone’s perspective. But I also believe coolness is a great unspoken force that’s behind more of our decisions than we want to admit.  

Let’s get back to my relationship with Sachi. Once I was able to admit that I was driven by coolness, we both started to pay more attention. The weight of trying to be cool without admitting it was finally lifted and I was liberated. I could talk with her about why I think something is cool, or not. We could explore the idea together and ask: what’s at the heart of this fundamental difference between us? 

What’s interesting about Sachi is that she’s not trying to be cooler than cool. She never decided to ignore pop culture or intentionally go against the trends. I describe it like this: Sachi has zero punk rock. Coolness is just something she can’t see, like a kind of cool color blindness. She has said before that she can’t help me pick new shoes because they “all look alike”. I find that fascinating. 

A few years ago we were about to go out and Sachi asked what shoes she should wear. I said the Chuck Taylors would look good. Sachi then looked at a shelf of shoes which held two different colors of Chuck Taylor shoes and asked me, “Which ones are the Chuck Taylors?” I was astounded and asked her “How in the fuck do you not know which ones are the Chuck Taylors?” She shrugged and chuckled and asked, earnestly “Does everyone know Chuck Taylors?”, “YES” I said emphatically, everyone our age knows Chuck Taylors, but you. Everyone.” Since then, we’ve asked all our friends. Yes, they all know Chuck Taylors. 

Another example is music, which is a continual source of discussion about coolness. Popular music, like pop culture, constantly churns and one of my favorite pastimes is exploring and discovering a new sound. Part of the process is knowing what influential people think is cool. For Sachi, it just doesn’t compute. She has zero interest in adopting new music because other people think it’s cool (except perhaps me, and that’s a struggle). So, she sticks to oldies and I play albums over and over to condition her into liking them. 

While she can’t see shoes or music in the context of coolness, she has an amazing eye for home design and finishes. She can thoughtfully critique music, poetry, and economic trends. Yet, when it comes to making a personal choice related to current fashion, or what others might think is cool, she feels flummoxed and always has. She’s spent her life feeling frustrated by these decisions and for many years, I thought I could help develop her sense of style, but came up empty. It’s bigger than that. I now feel it’s like trying to teach a blind person to see. 

This SNL skit is the closest thing I’ve seen to capturing Sachi’s experience with clothes.   

What’s the Point Here?

I don’t have a big thesis. I am just fascinated by human nature and believe that we’re all more different than we realize. We all have blindnesses and sensitivities that make us who we are. And often, these are not things we can control or even recognize about ourselves.

What Sachi and I found is a way to bring the differences to the surface so they can be inspected and analyzed. It was a revelation to admit to Sachi (and myself) that I’m driven by what’s cool, even if the admission itself is uncool. Discussing Sachi’s blindness to coolness helped explain a lifetime of insecurities about clothes and fashion. We are very different people and by understanding the differences, we can find the best ways to work together. 

We’re not unique. Blindnesses and sensitivities help us all interpret reality, even if we don’t realize it. If we look just below the surface, we might find parts of ourselves that we never noticed before. They may seem embarrassing to admit, or unreasonable, and that’s fine. The key is understanding that they’re a part of us that may not change. Instead of fighting against them, consider how to use them to your advantage.

Phase Change ➡️

Phase Change ➡️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Phase Change

This morning, I woke up, served the dogs breakfast, set the coffee to brew and did something that I’ve done every day for the past three months: I poured my thoughts into a daily journal that I write via an app on my computer or phone. I write about anything that’s on my mind, which includes events happening around me and importantly, inside my head. It sometimes feels like thoughts and anxieties get trapped in there. Keeping the journal, for me, lets them out and gives me a chance to inspect them and evaluate what I can, or should, ignore. I ask myself, “What am I feeling right now?”

This journal is a new practice for me and one that I took on with intention. With so much change happening in leaving Seattle and moving to Orcas Island, I started to feel a bit unmoored and the journal helped, and is helping, me see it from a clearer perspective. It may sound a little woo-woo, but the science is pretty clear that journaling is helpful for most people.

My journal is one part of a bigger picture. Over many months, we anticipated the events involved in the move, but not how the move might change us. It shook up our lives and now I can see that moving has caused me to rethink a number of things. I call this a phase change because it feels like I’m in between phases in my life. In this gray area, change seems easier because almost everything is disrupted anyway. Why not try something new?

I take some motivation from one of my best friends, Tony. Last summer, his wife, Alex, died suddenly and it changed nearly everything in his life. These events can have consequences, both positive and negative, and Tony made up his mind to become a better, healthier person because of it. From what I’ve seen, he’s been successful in being healthier, more engaged and as happy as could be expected.  

Watching Tony go through this phase change inspired me and showed me that change, like so many other things, really comes down to making up one’s mind.

So, I started to notice parts of my life that could be reconsidered, improved or removed. One of the most obvious was my addiction to political news. Before I started journaling, I would wake up and immediately dive into news sites and especially Twitter, which I had used virtually every day since 2006. This set the table for my day, for better or for worse.

In the stream of Twitter political commentary, where people are emotional and provocative, it can start to feel like the news is happening to you; that you are somehow a part of it and feeling its effects. On the day that the Mueller Report was released by William Barr, I thought, “Enough is enough.”

Starting then, I stopped reading Twitter and have never looked back. As a result, I‘ve found that political news feels more distant. It’s important and momentous, but not happening to me, personally. It’s been a relief. Today, I no longer seek out political news. Instead, I notice that the newsworthy information tends to find me. This has been a positive change.

I’m realizing, as I write this, there is a connection between starting my day by journaling versus reading political news. When news was my focus each morning, I started each day absorbing information. I was filling my mind with news. Today, by journaling each morning, I’m releasing information instead. I’m getting my mind set by reminding myself of where I stand. You can probably guess what works better for me.

The phase change also extends to where I find satisfaction in daily life. A few years ago, we planned a long term road trip to Charleston, SC, where we would live and work for three months. 18 days before we left, our dog, Bosco, was diagnosed with lymphoma (a terminal cancer) and we left Seattle without knowing if he would make it to Charleston. He made it, but did not return to Seattle. It was a terribly stressful phase of our lives and I wrote each day. I wrote about Bosco and Charleston and what we were experiencing. It was during that time that I learned that I’m happiest when I’m writing consistently and especially if someone might read it.

My promise to write one newsletter issue per week in 2019 came from that experience in Charleston. It was the first time I saw the potential for writing to become a renewable source of satisfaction. I wish it was my full time job, because I want to work on it every day. Now that we’re 23 issues into this newsletter, I can’t imagine not doing it in the future.

Other phase changes have been more like adjustments. We no longer live in a neighborhood with friends we’ve known for years, and we miss them. We’ve made a choice to be relatively isolated and I expect that distance to become more obvious over time. For the people who truly matter, proximity is not an issue. We’re not gone, just further away. And with fewer events close by, my fear of missing out is kept at a minimum.

In meeting new people and making new friends, it’s been interesting to see myself reflected in their perceptions. They have very little backstory or preconceived notions. I am just a person from Seattle who moved to the island. If I chose, I could reinvent myself or try on a new persona. I think that’s part of why people move to new places.

For me, at 45 years old, that seems like a lot of work. Despite this phase change, I am who I am. But that doesn’t mean I am immune to adapting to island culture. Sachi and I both have become keen observers of the differences between the city and island perspective. We want to be a part of this community and that sometimes means being open to change or new ideas.

For example, we’ve always been responsible recyclers, but the island’s culture of reuse takes it to a new level. People consistently do more with less. In smaller ways, we’re getting used to everything being so casual in appearance and expectation. No one really cares how you dress or even if you showered recently. And a neighbor might just show up unannounced to say hello or to share a bottle of wine. While Orcas is an island, it’s also a small town.

We’re taking it all in stride. Change, to varying degrees, has been a near constant part of our relationship. As soon as we complete a project, we take a breath and say, “OK, we’re done, let’s just chill.”

But it doesn’t last. It’s part of how we’ve worked up until now. Perhaps the biggest phase change of all is for us to work toward a life with less change. That is the long term goal.

But that’s not going to happen for a while. In fact, as you’ll soon see, the change in our lives is going to accelerate. Soon, I’ll share our long term plans for Orcas Island and what we see as our next project. If it goes as planned, the next phase change for us will take time, but set up a long term transition to a slower, simpler, more consistent lifestyle. Maybe that change will stick.

The Guy on the Ferry with South Carolina Plates ⛴ ?

The Guy on the Ferry with South Carolina Plates ⛴ ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The Guy with South Carolina Plates

Would the owner of a white Toyota Tacoma, with South Carolina plates, please go to your vehicle?

This was not something I expected or wanted to hear coming from a loudspeaker of a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound, but there it was. My truck had gone and gotten into trouble.

As I made my way down to the car deck, I imagined my fellow passengers waiting and watching for the person who now confirmed every stereotype they had about the South. They had opinions, and I’m quite sure the phrase “South Carolina plates” caused the ferry to list, just a bit, from eye-rolls alone.

Having arrived in Seattle only weeks before I was already self-conscious about fitting in and adapting in this new environment. I desperately wanted to feel like a local who had it all under control. And now the public announcement had outed me as the guy from South Carolina who didn’t know how to park properly on a ferry. And I only lived in South Carolina for two years!

My heart raced as I walked closer to the truck; a walk of shame. What could have possibly happened? Two ferry representatives were standing near the tailgate with knowing smiles. One of them radioed that I was now on the scene and no further announcements were necessary. They led me around to the front of the truck where I saw the source of the problem. The front bumper of my truck was now resting on the back bumper of a small sedan. They explained, based on plenty of experience I’m sure, that I had left my manual transmission in neutral and forgotten to use the parking brake. When the ferry left the dock, the motion caused my truck to drift onto the bumper of the car in front of it. Typical South Carolina mistake, right?

Soon enough, they called for the owner of the sedan, without mention of this person’s license plates, to come to their car. To me, it sounded like the victim was summoned to the scene of an interstate crime. He arrived and we discussed how to decouple the vehicles with the least damage possible. I climbed into the truck, put it in reverse and slowly moved backward as the sound of scratching metal echoed off the metal walls of the hulking boat. We all cringed and I felt a bit of relief.

His bumper sported a nice new set of scratch marks but was not damaged otherwise. My truck was fine. I apologized, we exchanged insurance information and it was done. For the rest of the ferry ride, I tried to blend back into the general population. My secret seemed safe.

A few weeks later, I received a call from the sedan owner. He let me know that he was not going to fix the bumper and would not file a claim with the insurance company. I breathed a sigh of relief. Just before hanging up the phone, he said in a friendly tone, “So, you’re off the hook. Welcome to Seattle!”

I’ll never forget those words. There was no better welcome to the city for a young man with South Carolina plates.

Today, I’m on Washington State ferries a few times a month and often hear an announcement for someone to tend to their vehicle. Just a week ago, Sachi and I both smiled when we heard these words:

“Would the owner of a gunmetal Jeep with a dog inside, or that used to have a dog inside, please go to your vehicle. That is all.”

We looked around. Somewhere on the boat, a poor soul, not unlike me, was on their own walk of shame, this time to collect a dog. Through the giggles and eye-rolls, I empathized. As a Seattleite, it was my time to give them a break.