A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

There’s a lot to unpack here about this book, but it’s been an absolute best thing about 2021 so far is William Irvine’s work on Stoicism, from his meditation series on Sam Harris’s Waking Up application to this book. It’s allowed me to construct a frame—or a comic book panel on every page of the last two years since my diagnosis and everything that has happened from the pandemic to my house that features three other people who need me to be well. It’s safe to say that I don’t know where I would be physically or mentally if it weren’t for Irvine’s work.

There are far too many lessons from this book that I cannot enumerate here and make it a reasonably sized blog post, but here are a few:

Negative Visualization

It is where you imagine something you like about your present circumstances and imagine if that something is gone. Specifically, this means your job, your house, your children, or your partner.

  1.  At PSC, I realized that was my dream job, and I let it go without a second thought: Irvine defines this as a hedonic adaptation, where we work hard to get something in college, get on the proper career path, then spend years making slow but steady progress toward our goal. So when I landed the dream job (PSC as a full-time instructor), I felt in control even though I was not. Grumbling about pay, coworkers, the institution, and the failure to recognize talents. I threw all of that away because I was overconfident (66-67).
  2. On hedonic adaptation, where we find ourselves living the life of our dreams, we start taking that life for granted. Then I spend time enjoying my good fortune and forming new, grander visions for myself. .. (72)
  3. It is not a rich person’s philosophy. People who have a pretty good life (me) can benefit from this philosophy and the poor. Those who are poor will prevent them from doing many things. It will not preclude them from negative visualization, like his Dream Life meditation in the Stoic Path app. (72)
  4. By helping my parents pack up the LP house as the last time, I would step in that house (84)

One of the biggest things that I took away from this book is the Dichotomy of Control, which is something that initially attracted me to Stoicism in the first place. After reading this book, though, I figured out that I have a saying that I’ve heard throughout my life growing up in the Adirondacks: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and bad attitudes.” This phrase encapsulates all of Stoicism for me, but especially the Dichotomy of Control. Irvine asserts that it is a trichotomy of control:

  • Things over which we have no control at all: whether it will rain tomorrow or “No such thing as bad weather….” Epictetus’s Advice: we should not concern ourselves with these things
  • We have some but not complete control: whether we win the job, get the publishing deal, etc. Advice: we should concern ourselves with these things, but we should be careful to internalize the goals we form regarding these things or “bad gear,” there is just “gear” and how you use it. You can prepare by getting in the right headspace, blocking social media, reading deeply, and revising the piece you’re working on–that’s all you have some control over.
  • Things over which you have complete control: your attitude, always. We should concern ourselves with these things.   

This helped me form my primary writing goal:

My primary writing duty is to take time every day to write 3 pages of personal essays, journaling, comics, or prose fiction and get it good enough to be submitted. No matter how many times you have to revise the piece but at minimum five times.

The rest is out of my control and not worth overly concerning myself.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson.

Reading hikes will be a new thing in the spring.

I came to this book, and Robertson’s work through Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic and his many books on Stoic Philosophy. Both The Daily Stoic, this book, and the work of William B. Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life, Stoic Challenge) were essential in understanding my reasoned choice and what that looks like for my mind as an Aspergerian and ADDer, because Robertson is a cognitive behavioral therapist his book broke down the Stoic practices and how it links to the therapy I was receiving throughout the pandemic in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s what helped me make the reasoned choice that ultimately sacrificing my day job and my work for my family led to a deeper life of being at peace with my choices.

At the end of the chapters, I write down some of the key points to revisit later when I’m reviewing what I read for the week.

Look Me In The Eye by John Elder Robison

The brother of Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors), Robison’s book gives a detailed account of what it means to be “mild-mannered” in the sense that he blurts out non-sequitors, (I back track to comments in a conversation made five minutes ago when the conversation has moved on); avoid eye contact (all of my wedding photos show me not looking at the camera and up and off to the left or right); and a deep desire to go wonder off in the woods and read books alone or hold my breath underwater for more than a minute. My mother used to say to me when she picked me up from school that “They’re going to think you’re weird,” because I was talking to myself. I would respond with: “I’m rehearsing dialogue, and good.” I wanted to be left alone by the kids at Weston. To them, I was a nerd and a hick. Robison was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 40, I was 38, so in many ways my book fits in between The Journal of Best Practices and this book in terms of timeline and emotional development.

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the proposal for my memoir–about how comic books helped me through life with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, anxiety, and depression. I thought talking about some of the comparable titles that have already been published would be a good way to introduce the topic.

This popular book and the subsequent movie adaptation is the autobiography of Temple Grandin, an animal scientist whose original thesis is that Autistic people are visual thinkers. This was an incredibly important work to me, as I had seen the movie starring Claire Danes before reading the book, and even before I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I realized that visual thinkers—like the students I encountered at Paul Smith’s College—were not confident writers because they did not “think in words.” In the 2006 update, featured here, Grandin amends this, and my memoir is a natural extension of this book because it describes how I used comic books—a visual medium—to learn to write and help others do the same.

Here’s some marginalia:

How being Idle is also being a practicing Stoic.

I came to Tom Hodgkinson‘s work through Austin Kleon when he posted Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent Manifesto. I read it and said: this is exactly what all of us are doing right now with the pandemic and having to work and have our kids at home. Considering I’m an easy-going dad and–let’s be honest–exhausted, I asked, “How can we make this easier?”

So I picked up How to Be Idle and The Idle Parent.

I read the latter first and put it down due to some of the language in Chapter 3 that I had a problem with, and didn’t see the value in; but I saw the grand message Hodgkinson was going for: Parenting is hard, man. Try to go easy on yourself and your kids, so here are some strategies:

The chapters that most spoke to me were Stop The Whining, Computers or towards a Tao of Parenting, Let Us Sleep, Good Books and Bad Books, Say Yes, Learn How to Live From Your Kids. And of course the manifesto is excellent.

From Stop The Whining:
“I discussed with Arthur the idea of ‘evening games.’ Between dinner and bath we will play. Wrestling Time is something most children enjoy, rolling around on the floor, attacking each other and making theatrical grunting noises…We also enjoy Stair Ball, where the kids stand at the top of the stairs, I stand at the bottom, and each of us has to try to throw the ball past the other and hit a target.”

Chapter 2, The Idle Parent

We’ve adapted that to calling it “Couch Ball,” which is basically the same thing but sitting on a couch, which Hodgkinson advocates in Chapter 11 “End All Activities, Be Wild”:

“Sofa Games: Why get up. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with your kids without leaving the sofa. I’ve already mentioned Tickle or Trap. You can also fend off attackers. The kids can run around the room while you try to trip them up or grab them. They can throw balls at you. They can climb all over you.” (146)

Pg. 146, The Idle Parent.

What brought this home to me is that Hodgkinson is a reader and a Stoic. He quotes Epictetus when referring to “the non-consumer, the creator, knows that all things are equal. He is enlightened, he has the ‘non-discriminating mind’ and has nothing to complain about. He has a cheerful Stoic disposition and would tend to agree with Epicurus’s [SIC] epigram: ‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.'”

Hodgkinson meant Epictetus. He makes a great final point in “Say Yes!” that we are not obliged to have children.

“We choose to have them. There are many other paths through life. By not whining about it, we are surely setting a good example to our children, who will learn by example that if we are unsatisfied with a situation itself or our attitude to that situation…now instead of whining and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say, ‘Yes!’ to your kids.

pg. 198, The Idle Parent

I love Hodgkinson’s work, and I’m making it through the Freedom Manifesto and looking forward to reading Business for Bohemians.

I just love this photo of Hodgkinson and his wife reading as the kids play in the back yard. (Sigh.) One day.

My Deep Life Project: Craft

Craft, defined by Cal Newport, focuses on work and quality leisure.

My daily work is to write for at least a hour and a half five days a week on my top priority. Usually it’s quite a bit more if you include my day job which is heavy on progress notes for clients and their mental health diagnosis. All told, five days a week, I’m writing and stretching my ability to write at least two hours. I’m never connected to the internet, when I am writing as my browser is shutdown by Freedom during my main Writing Deep Work block. There’s just my laptop and a notebook. The other part of craft is to read for just as long. I usually try for at least one chapter of whatever nonfiction book I’m into, and one chapter of fiction. I usually do quite a bit better over the course of the day, but there are some days that I don’t read hardly at all. This is usually terrible.

The mantra I repeat again and again in my morning routine is that reading keeps resistance away. Reading is my quality leisure. I usually try to read at least one chapter of nonfiction, and one chapter of fiction every day, or a single issue of a comic book. If I read and contemplate something complicated like a Stoic thought first thing in the morning then I’m more likely to have a good craft day. So I make it my priority to read something first thing in the morning every morning. On the weekends, I don’t start the day with reading—usually I sleep in—but I make sure I read at every available moment I have—at the breakfast table during nap time and in the evening with Squibbish. I’m usually away from the computer screen during the weekend. I reduce my TV time to a half hour or one episode of a show and replace it with reading or reflecting into my journal. Over the summer I read six books–that’s two a month which is twice as much as I usually do these days. For me, it’s no longer about quantity–it’s about how deeply I read that brings a lot of joy.

If I don’t do this, I usually feel lethargic and slow. As I do today, because I didn’t get up before the kids. What are you guys currently reading?

My to-read pile.

Anyone by Charles Soule

Collaging and kinetic sanding with Squibbish. Man-spreading to the extreme.

As previously mentioned, I’ve taken to making collages and while working on this during an art day I started cutting up the Kindle Notes I had from Charles Soule’s second novel, ANYONE. I hit upon a solution to my reading notes problem. Which is a novel about a piece of technology that is discovered outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan that allows people to transfer their consciousness into other people’s bodies. It’s called the flash, and it’s managed by NeOnet Global. Or Anyone. Here’s what I learned:

In the past I had copied my marginalia and Kindle notes into a notebook dedicated to reading notes, but that grew into a pain in the neck and I never kept up with it. It felt like double the work. But I realized, while making a collage with Squibbish, that I could cut up my Kindle notes based on specific topics like—beautiful language in Anyone. See below:

Then I thought that since I’m Generation Oregon Trail, or Xennial , I do well when I combine the digital with the analogue. So I’m not doubling up. When I do handwritten marginalia in a physical copy of a book (my preferred reading method) I’ll do a scan through the physical book after I’ve read it and summarize the points I learned in a Bear Note specific to that book and tag it Reading Notes 2020 or Diary2020/reading notes. I’ll export it as a Word document and save it to the Reading Notes folder I have in my Dropbox.

But anyway, here’s what I learned from Soule’s great second novel. I’m thoroughly enjoying his novels, and he’s probably my favorite modern writer today, next to G. Willow Wilson and Benjamin Percy.

One. Like that the flash in the book is the literal black and white symbol of the superhero the Flash.

Two. The discussion of technology and how it manifests. I loved how it’s a discussion of technology and how it manifests “It reminded me of the way smartphones became ubiquitous in the 2010s.”

Three. Soule holdovers a comic book-writing style thing in the book where he underlines emphasized words rather than italics which seems to be the form in prose.

Four. I loved these philosophical asides in the middle of a plot point of set piece moment, like:

“Face value. What was the ‘value’ of a ‘face’?…A couple walks by you and the woman has a black eye. What does that mean? A child is overweight. What does that mean? A woman is wearing a very short skirt. What does that mean? A man has a prosthetic leg. What does that mean? A neuroscientist’s mind is transferred into the body of an overweight security guard. What does that mean? For one thing, it meant the nurse who could save the neuroscientist’s life had placed herself on a professional pedestal above the security guard (who was also the neuroscientist), but she couldn’t see that, and was exercising her gatekeeper prerogatives to reinforce that status.”

Soule, Loc 1816.

Five. Alternating chapters between perspectives of past and present means you always have to level up up the stakes of each chapter until both join together. It’s a master class in alternating perspectives from back story to current story. It’s directly in the face of Benjamin Percy’s “no back story” rule from Thrill Me. Unless, you’re good enough as Percy writes. And Soule is good enough. Am I? I don’t know. I’m going to try it though.

Winter Reading

Suicide Woods by Benjamin Percy. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Percy, so I dug this collection. I liked some more than others, for obvious reasons. I finished it while doing Cal Newport’s Analogue Challenge. My favorite stories are below:

The Balloon, considering where we are now, hits a little too close to home for right now. But that’s what makes him so good. He can turn the contemporary moment into a horror story. Too bad right now it seems like everyone is living inside The Balloon or The Dead Lands prequel.

Some more marginalia from The Dummy—which I would teach if I was still teaching creative writing. Some day.

My favorite story of the bunch was the novella The Uncharted which I poured over while writing my novella. This book is why I love Percy’s work.

If you like it, you should check out his Skillshare class which is just like Thrill Me, but live, and he will critique your work. If you want a sneak peek at my novella check out the class.

Delivered from Distraction by Dr. Ned Hallowell and John J. Ratey, MD: I think it’s impossible to say how much this book was valuable to me over this winter, much more so than its predecessor Driven from Distraction. It gave me the concept of SPIN and SLIDE and so many other tools to harness my diagnosis which has been one year this season. A year ago I was diagnosed with ADD, Aspergers, Anxiety and Depression and Hallowell’s work has given me so many insights to help me this year. The battle with the diagnosis continues as it’s 38 years of misunderstanding but I’m confident that some day soon it’ll be a characteristic, a quirk, rather than a detriment. But I still have a lot of work to do moving forward.

The good news? I think my way through is in the memoir I’m writing now. I think that book is how I break through the resistance my diagnosis throws up.

The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime by Jasper Fforde. I used to be intimidated by Fforde’s work because it just seems so much like The Human Library series I’ve been working on for the last five years. But I realized that after reading this book—it’s totally different. His work is more like Douglas Adams wrote a police procedural with literary characters. Mine is more like the Hughes Teen Films with literary characters (though not so suburban and white.) I read this on Kindle at night—and I really had to hold myself back from laughing out loud while Baby Girl was asleep in the Pack and Play right near my side of the bed. I read most of these books on Kindle because that is just how my reading life is right now.

You should check out his Instagrambecause it’s filled with beautiful black and white photographs of Wales. His website is a lot of fun. In fact , I definitely want this website to be somewhat like his in the future.

First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner. This book was recommended to me by Kelsey Wharton and I used it to write the first draft of my memoir. I found a lot of it to be overdoing it for my sensibility in terms of outlining a book. I’m more of a Neutral Plotter anyway. And this book is definitely for Lawful Plotters.

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams. Meggan recommended this book to me and I thought it was great. I listened to it on Audiobook. A hilarious romance novel about a Fight Clubish group of baseball players who read romance novels to woo back their wives. And since there isn’t any baseball right now—much to this family’s chagrin—I loved this book. Definitely something off the beaten path for me and that’s why I always endeavor to read my wife’s recommendations because she’s so great at that sort of thing.

I did the Daily Stoic Read to Lead Challenge over the winter and rather than starting a commonplace notecard system, I just dedicated a notebook to reading. I ordered this notebook from Out of Print and started filling it with my notes on reading by theme and by book. Like below are the plot points for Undiscovered Country #1 by Scott Snyder, Charles Soule, and Giuseppe Camuncoli and company!

After the Comics Notes page there’s a collection on the theme of Parenthood and Dad Life. I like this because it blends together fiction and nonfiction and different authors and it gives me space to come up with new ideas. I believe Joe Hill does something similar.

Kids Books! One of my favorite things about being a dad who is a reader and writer is reading to my kids. It’s something we as a family deeply value. I loved Hattie and Hudson, Be Kind, and we started Squibbish (3-year-old son) with Little Feminist Book Club. It’s a great selection of books sent to us every month. His favorite is the Proudest Blue but I really dug Reading Beauty.

Obviously this was a long one. But I hope you find something you like. I find that I try to read at least one book in each of my principles (fatherhood, mental and physical health; on writing fiction and nonfiction, and–of course–comics. I hope you find something you like here!

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. His first novel.

I’m reading a lot of first novels by writers I respect like Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact, Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, and short story collections like Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds. This book, from one of my favorite living writers, I finished over the spring and it is the sort of book that I hope mine for the next novel I’m going to write, which thematically is sort of like this. It’s about generations, the limits and educations of those generations, and they are in a no-win situation. Here’s some of my notes:

My marginalia is copied slightly from Sam Anderson’s style. I love writing all over books because it means that I’m really enjoying it, but it is work. So often, I’ll read a book once for enjoyment and just take notes as I go. Then I’ll read it again to study it: the turns of phrases, the plot points, and then I’ll synthesize and think about what I learned. On one of the end pages. Usually highlights will get uploaded to Bear. I try really hard not to make it like work, because then reading becomes a job rather than a joy. And I’d rather stick with joy.

One of the interesting things about the end of this book is a short essay from Percy about listening to music while writing fiction. He only listens when he’s revising. I know so many writers listen to music during the act of writing, and when it comes to revision–it’s silence. That’s me. I can’t revise what I’ve written with some music in the background because I need to read it aloud otherwise I don’t catch mistakes. So Percy supplies some of the tracks he listened to while revising this book.