Prepare to Start Again

This is the final chapter in my The Obstacle is the Way project! It’s a little hard for me to believe I made it.


This chapter is two pages long. To be pedantic about it, it’s less than two pages long, as neither page is completely covered with text. It’s a short chapter.

And, nonetheless, I have a few gripes. Not with the overall message: after one obstacle comes the next. In fact, I like this two-line paragraph:

Elysium is a myth. One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles.

Who can argue with that? And who isn’t guilty of secretly thinking “if I just get these things here lined up…. I’ll never have to worry again” even though any degree of human observation tells us that’s not the case? I know I’m guilty.

It’s a solid ending to a book about overcoming obstacles: we learn to overcome obstacles, not because we want to live free of obstacles, but to become good at overcoming them.

A tangent and a rant

But then, there’s a phrase on the chapter’s second page that makes me crazy:

Passing one obstacle simply says you’re worthy of more. The world seems to keep throwing them at you once it knows you can take it.

I am available for a conversation about ‘the world’ as a sentient being that can somehow care for us in a quasi-spiritual way. However, I think it’s ridiculous to think of the world knowing anything about me, or first checking whether I can ‘take’ an obstacle before throwing it at me.

The idea makes me think of two beneficial gut bacteria, fading quickly under the onslaught of an antibiotic regimen.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” The one says to the other.

“Come now!” The other answers. “I’ve heard the human say he values his microbiome. He wouldn’t do this if he didn’t know we can handle it. Be strong!”

Returning from my brief venture into the ridiculous, I feel like this is something of a dangerous mindset. Not because it pretends to know the unknowable (the mind of ‘the world’), but instead because it handicaps our empathy.

I want to get better at overcoming obstacles. And, the book was a great inspiration and provided tools. But, for every example of people beating obstacles, a good google search for celebrity suicides would give a counter-example of people being beaten by obstacles.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of all the tools we may be able to develop, anyone can need a hand up in a desperate moment. The idea that “the world wouldn’t give you this challenge if you couldn’t handle it” has the unspoken corollary that “the world chose this experience for you for a reason and I would be robbing you of it if I helped.” And that’s never true.

Winding up

This project has dominated the blog for more than a year. It’s probably the thing I write about the most. And now it’s over.

But that probably just means it’s time for me to find a new mountain to climb.

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The Diagnosis

The background

A few weeks ago — maybe two months — our oldest had a tick. My wife is fond of telling me that there’s a higher risk of Lyme disease in Germany than in the States, so she was watching for the signs. (Even though we found the tick and removed it.)

This blog post is named ‘the diagnosis.’ You can guess what happened next: he had Lyme disease. All the classic symptoms and a blood test. No worries: German medical care is excellent. We felt bad for him, but a three-week course of antibiotics was prescribed. I’m a big fan of the microbiome, but I’m familiar with what Lyme disease turns into, so, I don’t think we had a choice.

After a week on antibiotics — and the return to school — he began to get really, really tired. But, antibiotics and school were explanation enough, right?

It gets worse

We tried to spoil him as much as we could and counted down the days until the antibiotics were finished. The doctors had said that they could give him a note to get out of school if he got too tired, so the wife took him in for the note.

Only by chance — the note could have been a matter of course — they talked about the symptoms and the doctor asked him to pee into a cup. The way the wife tells the story, the doctor went off and, when she returned, obviously had bad news.

“What?” My wife asked?

“Diabetes.” The doctor said. “Sugar.”

My wife just sent me a photo of the referral to the hospital with the diagnosis written on it with a comment and I read it between lessons.

A lot to process

Let me be clear: I don’t feel bad for him. I don’t even feel sorry for myself (even though I tend in that direction, anyway). But, the poor guy has a lot to learn, and new habits to form. And, I’ve got quite a bit to learn along with him, as well as a set of ‘soft skills’ to help him learn his new habits, as well as the application of willpower, without adding to his current level of stress (which is high enough as it is).

I’ve benefitted from blogging about stuff here, but I’ve refrained from writing a lot about my family (I imagine teenage kids stumbling across what I write — or, worse, classmates). But, I’ve decided that I would benefit from writing about it. And, though I don’t strike up much communication via this blog, if I contact other parents of kids with diabetes… that would be okay, too.

A Short Update

Life throws us curveballs. But, you now know that I strive to be ‘mentally tight’ and ‘revert to myself.’ That’s why I wanted to take a minute to reflect — more for myself than for you, my mysterious reader — on my plans for getting back to being me.

Two websites? Why not four?

I’d been blogging here, and working on my django-powered EFL worksheet generator. That seemed like plenty of activity, right? However, as the worksheet generator gets closer to counting as ‘finished,’ I wanted people to use it. And, ideally, to pay for it.

I could pay for ads. (And I might, yet.) But, my first plan is to try something cheaper: make more websites that are free, and sort of ‘sponsor’ them with the worksheet generator.

A blog for EFL/EAL teachers

I’ve started a blog about teaching — both a how-to out of my ten years of experience and reflections on my attempts to improve — which seems like a good place to find people who are still forming their own teaching habits. (My basic target group: why try to sell yourself to people who already have routines? Let their colleagues convince them my product is great.)

As it takes shape, I’ll mention more here. (I seem to benefit from writing about the things I’m doing.)

My free EFL resource website

For a time, I had a page on this blog that hosted PDF files of reading/business activities I’d made. However, as long as it was all ‘one site’ I felt like I had to have my ‘teacher face’ on, and not just my rambly-self face. And I wanted this to be a place where I sort of reflected and rambled about all the projects, not just the classroom ones.

So, I moved the New Spork City worksheets to another site. The idea is that I can promote it a bit (the plan now is just to upload worksheets to resource trading sites — maybe post answers on Quora) and it can showcase both my great stories (I’m proud of them independently from any kind of self-promotion) and the worksheets that I make.

More work… Only maybe

The thing is, I’m not sure I’m working harder now. I mean, I’m spending more time typing at a computer. That’s for sure. And I’m a bit tighter stretched for time (family drama contributes to that — but the O’Malley family can benefit from my own family drama — you’ll eventually read it there.)

But, reflecting in writing is good for me. Maybe I’d be just as well off with a Google Doc or a journal. But, this is what I’m doing and I hope it all takes a direction.

Finishing

I’m pushing hard on the Obstacle is the Way. And, I want to ‘finish up’ Dynamic EFL. (I have a list of things to do to consider it ‘finished,’ as well as a list of things that I want to learn — and then include — for version 2.0)

I even have a cigar already bought, which I’m going to smoke when both things are done. (You’ll know, because I’m looking forward to celebrating becoming a ‘finisher‘ here.) I hope that there will be an extra burst of energy that comes with completing a task and turning to face the next task. (In coding, that probably means the fantasy pilgrimage. In teaching, that probably means everything but vocab review.)

Balance

The things I write about here are all secondary to my goal of being a great dad and at least an average husband. (The wife doesn’t read this, it’s okay.) And, while these things give me a focus and a direction — and help me in my professional life — they aren’t everything.

I’ve been trying to be more active about adding balance to my life, including working out every day, reading more, putting my phone down, and even drawing when I had time in the summer. (I’d like to do more — I’m convinced that it’s as close to meditation as I’ve come, yet.)

Ideally, I’ll write a little about those things, too.

Writing is, after all, good for me.

Channel Your Energy

This is the second-to-last chapter in my The Obstacle is The Way project, bringing me that much closer to claiming the title of ‘finisher.’ I wasn’t super impressed with this chapter.


This chapter kicks off with a killer quote from Marcus Aurelius:

When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance revert at once to yourself and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of harmony, if you keep going back to it.

Partly, I wish that ‘revert to yourself’ was the kind of thing I could use in conversation: “Son, you have diabetes, but let me first help you revert to yourself.” It sounds cold, but it’s such great advice because it’s the first thing I want people to do: get back to yourself, because that’s the person who’s going to have to deal with this problem.

But then, Ryan Holiday lists examples.

And I have a problem with his examples. Partly, it’s that there’s a lot of sports in there and… who cares?

My larger problem, though, is that I’m wary of using black athletes as examples of overcoming adversity, because I’m not always sure they do. Ryan mentions Arthur Ashe and Joe Lewis. I’ve only ever heard Joe Lewis’s name in passing, and Arthur Ashe’s name not at all, but the premise in both examples is this: denied ‘permission’ to be emotional players because they were black, they both channeled all that energy back into their performance and excelled.

And I certainly think that channeling your energy into constructive channels is better than not. Without knowing anything about either of the athletes, though, when I put myself in the shoes of an elderly Joe Lewis or Arthur Ashe, I wonder if they’d look back and feel successful.

Everything I’ve heard suggests that the world of the 1% is just as degrading for minorities as the rest of reality, though maybe not quite as dangerous. Maybe they can see themselves as one link in a long chain of change, and be content. I don’t know.

Either way, Ryan Holiday is right in using them as examples of people standing up to adversity, and the examples he draws — here in my favorite paragraph — from daily life seem pitiful in comparison:

And yet we feel like going to pieces when the PowerPoint projector won’t work (instead of throwing it aside and delivering an exciting talk without notes). We stir up gossip with our coworkers (instead of pounding something productive out on our keyboards). We act out, instead of act.

Physically loose, mentally tight

My greatest takeaway from this chapter will be to lines: the ‘revert to yourself’ quote from Marcus Aurelius that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, and an epithet that Arthur Ashe created for himself: “physically loose, mentally tight.”

Of course, he was talking about sports. (Ick.) But, I like the idea of feeling limbered up, energized and ready for spontaneous, but controlled action coupled with mental focus. It’s the kind of line I can adopt and apply to coding as much as to tennis.

And, it fits in with this paragraph from Ryan Holiday:

To be physically and mentally loose takes not talent. That’s just recklessness. (We want right action, not action period.) To be physically and mentally tight? That’s called anxiety. It doesn’t work, either. Eventually we snap. But phyiscal looseness combined with mental restraint? That’s powerful.

I hope I can learn to be physically loose and mentally tight… and to revert to myself when I start to stray away from who I want to be.

Including an extra button in a crispy form

I’m a big fan of using crispy forms with Django. In fact, since doing the Django girls tutorial, I don’t think I’ve made a form manually.

And, until now, I haven’t been super critical of aesthetics. Now, however, I’m updating the look of the worksheet generator and moved the login to a modal. Doing that, I thought… “Hmm, wouldn’t it be nice if the ‘reset password’ button was in a button group with the login button?

It turned out to be a bit of a challenge for me, and I couldn’t find anything on it specifically, so here’s what I did:

loginModal
The goal — Doesn’t that look nice?
oldLogin
What I had before. Too much screen real estate.

Functionally, it’s not a big deal, except that I’m using button groups more and more in the site in general, and why not use one here?

However, the old way I was rendering the form wouldn’t work. The crispy FormHelper object rendered the form so completely that I couldn’t get at the login button, much less wrap it together in in a button group.

Of course it was possible, but the solution turned out being telling crispy forms to let me create my own form tag:

# forms.py

class LoginForm(forms.Form):
    username = forms.CharField(label='Username:', max_length=100)
    password = forms.CharField(label='Password:', widget=forms.PasswordInput(), max_length=100)

    def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
        super(LoginForm, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)
        self.helper = FormHelper()
        self.helper.form_tag = False

The self.helper.form_tag = False bit turns off the form field.

Then, in the template rendering the form, I had to make some changes. To be honest, I should say that I took the easy way by having crispy forms render the form tag, and then copied that.

template
WordPress didn’t want to display this, so this seemed the easiest thing to do.

Initially, I did this without adding type=”button” to the second button in the group and, for reasons I don’t understand, both buttons functioned at a submit button. Obviously, that wasn’t ideal, and adding the extra type=”button” made it work.

It’s worth pointing out that I never (or, not yet) removed the old …/login.html page that rendered the form before. Nothing links to it, so I doubt anyone will ever hit it. But, if they did, the form would be broken because I didn’t update that template to include a form tag.

The Art of Acquiescence

This is another chapter reflection in my The Obstacle is the Way project.


Be guided by the fates

This chapter starts with a quote from someone named Cleanthes, who I know nothing about. But, I’m a sucker for mythology so I liked it:

The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.

-Cleanthes

The rest of the chapter was about the value of being guided by the fates. It began with the story of Thomas Jefferson and the speech impediment he was born with. In an era when oratory was the accepted route to politics, it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, but Jefferson wasn’t deterred. Instead of going the Teddy Roosevelt route and deciding to overcome his challenges, he decided to ‘go with the flow’ and instead focus on his writing.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Then, the chapter offers a really interesting definition of genius:

“True genius,” as the infamous Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “is a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some paticular direction.”

I like the idea that the ‘particular direction’ we take is at least in part accidental. (It matches my experience of life.)

And then Ryan Holiday gives a great example:

If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane.

Yet this is weyactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.

The chapter continues for a few more pages, but that’s the meat of it right there: learning to accept the fates can mean accepting that your path in life is sometimes more accidental than you hoped for, and that events that you can’t change are to be accepted.

I like the comparison with traffic signals, because it’s easy to relate to. We’ve all driven detours and still arrived at our destination. And, we’ve also seen the traffic signals and decided “you know what, I can go there another time.” (That’s how I interact with major road closings downtown.)

When should you bend?

The fun of reading the book out of order now is that I get to directly contrast this chapter with the chapter on the Inner Citadel. To go from holding up Teddy Roosevelt as an example of will triumphing over circumstances to Thomas Jefferson as an example of will bending with the circumstances, it’s logical to ask yourself: when should I bend? When should I invest my will in defying circumstances?

It’s easy to complain that Holiday doesn’t go into specifics. (He almost never does.) But I think that the two examples and the traffic metaphor are enough to extrapolate some thinking.

First, it should be pointed out that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t randomly decide to overcome his asthma. He had the advantage of his father’s wisdom which said to him: I think you can do it. I know it will be hard, but it seems doable. Further, it seems like the only route to where you’re destined to go.

Second, Jefferson didn’t have that level of wisdom at his disposal (in the anecdotes. I don’t know anything about his actual family.) Today, perhaps they’d have organized a speech therapist for him and he’d be the prequel to “The King’s Speech.” The fact of the matter is: nobody could tell Jefferson if there was a route open to him that involved investing a lot of willpower in overcoming his speech impediment. (And, in the other example of Edison’s difficulty hearing, we know there’s not a solution).

My point is this: it takes a certain degree of wisdom to know what’s available.

Third, the car metaphor is apt, because it lends itself well to the idea of ‘goals as destinations.’ We’re trained to think that a car is the fastest way to get somewhere. The longer you live somewhere — the more wisdom you gain about a place — the more you realize that often walking, a bicycle, or public transportation are faster than a car. There are times when it makes more sense to get out of the car and to put in the ‘hard work’ of walking, because that’s the smartest thing to do.

Returning to the earlier examples: Roosevelt and Jefferson both saw a mountain between themselves and their destination. But Roosevelt had the advantage of his father’s wisdom who said “Teddy, the only way over this mountain is to climb it. It’s going to be difficult, but I think you have what it takes. Further, you’ll be happier on the other side and glad for it.”

Jefferson, on the other hand, had to reach a conclusion on his own and it seems to have been something more along the lines of “I don’t know if I can get over this mountain. Nobody ever has. But, I think I see a pass further along in that direction. Better to invest my energy into getting into and through the pass than in an attempt that might never work.”

They both would up where they wanted to go, and they both (probably) took the route that was right for them.

Conclusion

When I started writing this, I didn’t expect there to be so much of my own thought in it. (It’s part of why I write, I guess.)

The thing is: it’s easy to analyze the two stories and their well-known outcomes and say “Teddy was right to draw on the strength of his Inner Citadel, and Jefferson was right to be guided by the fates.” But, when we see our own mountain in front of us, how can we know whether we should get out of the car and climb, or start moving laterally in search of a pass?

The answer seems to lie in Roosevelt’s father: we need wisdom. We need both to learn what we can — what have other’s accomplished? what is possible? — and to have our own council of the wise that can I say to us “I think that can be done” or “that’s the fates at work, there’s no sense in railing against them.”

And, of course, there’s the additional challenge of developing the wisdom needed to recognize that wisdom. But, I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

The mythos of the ‘finisher’

I’ve said before that I like the title of ‘maker.’ More than teacher, I think that’s the title I’d like to go by. Teaching is a skill I have, one I can reliably trade for money, but it’s not who I am. Making is a skill I want to have, something I’d like to trade for money, someone I want to be.

My derivative creativity

And, in fact, I think I’m blessed with an ability to see past “what is there” to “what could be.” A lot of what I think of is derivative (in the sense that “the Tinder of apartments” would be a derivative app) but nonetheless creative. (Fun fact, I wrote that first and then googled it. Of course, the tinder of apartments is a thing.)

I don’t think derivative is bad. After all, schools began as “a house, but for learning.” If you realize that there’s something missing in the world, there’s nothing wrong with using the vocabulary of what is to describe it.

Finishing vs making

A friend of mine and I once started work on an awesome collaborative novel. Eventually, he bailed on the project, telling me “we’re better at starting projects than at doing them.” That comment has haunted me, because it was true.

I start a lot of things (see the Papa’s Work app idea — which remains a good idea) but there are so many things.

When I finally got my worksheet generator off the gound and running, I felt a rush of exhilation. My understanding of who I am changed. I made something. I was a maker.

That friend was wrong. (I doubt he remembers the comment, or could know how much it bugged me.)

But the goalposts had moved.

Yeah, I made a webapp and used it to prepare my lessons. But nobody used it, except me. You might think that should be enough, but if people tried it and said “Toby, it’s not for me” I’d get it: I had an idea that only I liked.

That wasn’t the situation. I’d made software that only I could use. (I learned that by sharing the link with colleagues and realizing they had no idea what they were supposed to do.)

Software that only I could use would be fine… Except that wasn’t how it was conceived. It wasn’t finished. I’d become a maker — I could have an idea and work on it long enough to actually produce something — but I wasn’t yet a finisher.

I aspire to be a finisher

So, I’ve decided to become a finisher. The worksheet generator will be finished. When it does, expect the celebration to be great.

Before that, the The Obstacle is the Way project will probably reach its conclusion. (That’s part of why you see so many posts on it here.) It’s a ridiculously simple project, but it’s a goal I’ve set for myself — and something that’s brought me benefit — and the new, finishing me is going to see it through to the end.

Don’t worry, when I think I’ve earned the title of ‘finisher,’ I’ll claim it here. You’ll know.