4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Every weekday, I drive my kids to their pre-school/daycare. And almost every day, I see cars and parents rushing their kids to the door of the school, checking their Apple Watches because they have a meeting at 8:30, and trying to rush their kids to wash their hands, stand on the mat and sanitize their shoes, wait for their temperature to be taken, etc. And every time I see someone like that, I always think to myself—like I’m having a conversation with them— “What’s the rush? We’re all going to the same place.”

In the introduction to this book by Oliver Burkeman writes that “productivity is a trap,” In many ways, this is an anti-productivity book. It’s not filled with tips and tricks to squeeze more time out of your day to do the things that matter. First it starts with the simple fact that you should do the things that matter most to you first and then come with the understanding that you’ll never finish all of the items. That getting things done is actually impossible.

“ Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do list have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life…let’s start by admitting to defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”

While you might think that this is the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard, there are many lessons to learn here. I think that’s what we’re seeing with this great resignation, not Sarah Jaffe’s cringingly prominent book Work Won’t Love You Back. Of course, it doesn’t, work couldn’t care less about you, or me. And I think the Great Resignation is that a lot of Americans are realizing this and saying, fuck this. My time is worth more than being “productive.” There, I summarized that book and this whole moment in time to three sentences. Now go do whatever you want.

What captured this perfectly for me was when Burkeman often talks about his four-year-old son. That the kid is pure presence. On page 131, I had a series of Yes notations.

They are linked to watching his son’s fist close around his finger, his head turn in response to a noise, without obsessing over whether this “showed he was meeting his ‘developmental milestones’ or not, or what I ought to be doing to ensure that he did.”

Worse, Burkeman realizes that his obsession with using time well meant using his child as a tool for calming his anxiety by treating him like an employee with some future sense of security and peace of mind. To treat the child as if all childhood is nothing but a training ground for adulthood. He also points out that the baby trainers are wrong that the baby should not fall asleep on your chest, but it’s a beautiful experience in the present moment and that has to be weighed appropriately. The future cannot always take precedence…. Russian Philosopher Alexander Herzen writes that, “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up, but a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is its flow. Later is too late.” Like a pool, river, or lake. Like Dory said, just keep swimming.

Basically, the entire book is an extensive exercise in Stoicism’s memento mori idea, specifically Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. But probably the most meaningful exercise from this book is actually doing the calculation of how many days you have in life. With four thousand weeks to your 80th birthday I figured out exactly how many days I have left until my 80th birthday, should I be lucky enough to live that long. I have 1,988 weeks until my 80th birthday or 13,917 days. Whatever happens in those days is something I have some control over, but mostly I don’t. Time doesn’t care, the universe doesn’t care, and neither does my work. This culminates in Chapter 13 on Cosmic Insignificance Theory:

“When things all seem too much, what better solace than the reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: /The Universe doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You/. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”

So, like last week, when my two-year-old daughter had a sinus infection, I was on my way to drive her to school and drop her off because she could go to school. She says to me in the back seat, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.” Then, as if the universe heard her, I had a meeting canceled and I thought: yeah, why not? I canceled the rest of my commitments. Pushed a few items on my to-do list forward a day or a week (this post was one of them) and said, “Okay.” Then we went to a playground. We played in the leaves in the backyard, I gave her medication. We got a steamer at a local coffee shop and a donut. We took a nap and we watched some Bluey together on the couch. This might not have happened if this pandemic had not happened, and I didn’t read this book.

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: Community

A walk with Squibbish on a day he had off from school.

When one thinks about community you think about the world outside of your home, and that’s extremely hard to do right now. It seems like everyone is in an either / or situation when it comes to going out in the community. People are either all in, or they’re not at all.

A few people are doing a bit of both. I’m doing a bit of both and that’s why I don’t necessarily think that I have to be doing more for the community. I’m keeping it tight. I have people I see for my job (6 people four days a week), my immediately family, and I have fifteen or so friends that I regularly text message. That’s it.

When I think about community the first thing is to be there for my family, and to be there for my family to help my kids become members of a community. One of the best ways I can do that is sending them to daycare where they learn there is more than family—there are friends and they come in all kids of ages, shapes, sizes, and identities.

But really the most important thing I’m engaged with these days is supporting my family and their communities.

For example, my wife’s first book came out this summer and I couldn’t be more proud of her. This book was instrumental in helping me gain traction and move up in my organization since moving to Indiana three years ago. Her book, and Cal Newport’s career advice books have been the gateway to helping me climb the ladder here and it’s been quite rewarding, so if you’re a librarian looking to get a job after the pandemic is over, I couldn’t recommend this book more.

Current Status for Spring 2020.

This is the face of a writer who is working from home and playing with his family.

The major reason I became a writer is so that I could work from home. Really anywhere.

Now my day-job has nothing to do with writing, but considering circumstances these days in Indiana, mostly everyone is working from home—or have been laid off. The latter is not the case for me, thankfully. But there are a lot of people who are not so lucky.

The Press Gang is healthy.

But for right now, I’m extremely grateful to be able to work from home, play with my kids, and hang with my wife. It’s been very challenging this past week, but it’s been filled with a lot of ups and downs. Who knows what it will be like tomorrow, next week, next month — but today — and this week has been hard but with a lot of great things!

That’s life.

In the meantime I full intend to grow my beard to Alan Moore levels.

The home office setup.

I love fictional podcasts

This season I’ve been on a narrative podcast kick. Mostly because my son loves them and rather than sticking an iPad in his face for long car rides—or even long car rides to daycare—we listen to a podcast.

So what we’ve been listening to is Story Pirates, which is a great show about a group of musical theatre types who adapt kids’ stories into sketch comedy and songs. It’s hilarious, with great guests, and totally random stories that make you shake your head and say, “What is happening?”

The show has also introduced us to other great fictional shows like The Two Princes, written by Mimi O’Donnell. It starts out as a standard medieval quest story about two princes who are supposed to meet in the center of the forest and do battle to free their separate kingdoms from the curse their fathers set upon their lands. Here’s the synopsis:

Galvin stars as Prince Rupert, who embarks on a quest to defeat a mysterious evil that has plagued his kingdom for 18 years. Along the way, he encounters another prince—the handsome Amir (Stachel)—who’s on a similar mission himself. As they team up, feelings that arise only add to the uncertainty that surrounds them.

In the meantime, personally, I’ve been listening to two main fictional podcasts. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by Julian Simpson and the Wolverine series of podcasts written by Benjamin Percy.

The biggest lessons from a writing standpoint since listening to these podcasts is focusing on sound, and how voice and dialogue are critical in conveying emotion and story. Letting characters tell their story and be their quirky selves, and how sound is a great device to convey suspense.

How to Talk So Little Kids Listen By Joanna Faber and Julia King

The first symptoms of my conditions are dysthymia and extreme egotism, which—I think—if you read this website you can see that I have that. 

The first thing that damages one’s relationship with others as someone with ADD and Aspergers is how self-centered they are, unfocused, and inflexible. They are used to managing themselves through their schedule and not interracting with others. Obviously this is a problem when you have children, are married, and you work with people rather than alone. I think this is one of the reasons why writing for a living was and still is very attractive—I’m alone with my thoughts. I make money from my thoughts, my words, and my imaginary friends. I’m good with words, thoughts, setting intentions, and being creative, but I’m not good at action. (See also: Why I never submitted my fiction until recently.) So when I picked up this book as a part of trying to re-frame how I talk and listen to my son (Squibbish), I was going through my evaluation and one of the things that I struggle with is talking and listening to others. That’s symptomatic of someone with High Functioning Autism (Aspergers, HFA, etc.) They are so rigid in their schedules, routines, and struggle with empathy. For me it manifests as self-centered. We don’t come wired well for empathy. I think that’s why I was so well-suited to memoir and nonfiction and fiction that is strongly autobiographical. But in my evaluation I came to realize that my empathy quotient is higher than most people with Aspergers and that’s why I’m tricky to diagnose. I’m good at playing alone, being imaginative, and creative. I think it’s because I love to read, write, and teach. To be good at any of those things you have to be somewhat good with people. And I am. Another reason why I’m tricky but still not “neurotypical.” 

My first fiction short story that was published was something I actually did as a kid. What happened in the story, the people involved in the story were not people I knew, or how things concluded, but they are extensions of my life—fictional takes on my autobio. 

So I lean into my symptoms when I do that and I write it off as “Well all fiction writers do that to a certain extent. They take elements of their lives and mine it in their fiction.” That’s true, but I probably do it more than others. Writers also stick to a strict schedule or pattern and when things don’t go to plan, they struggle. That is, once again, symptomatic of Aspergers. A lack of attention, of focus, of being able to process feedback as information rather than an attack is symptomatic of ADD. A lack of social and communication skills is symptomatic of both. All of the above make for a pretty rough cocktail when you’re a dad who wants to be a fiction writer. 

What do you do when you have this problem? I read. I ask questions, I try to learn, but when you have a hard time processing information as information and processing words into actions, well, you have a cocktail that makes you stagger around psychologically drunk every other day. How do you combat that? You go to therapy. You go to a group. You read deeply, slowly, and you make notes. You talk about what you learned.

So that’s what I did and How to Talk So Little Kids Listen continues to help me. Sure some days are better than others, but that’s life as a parent. You have to learn to go with the flow of your kids. That’s what I learned from this book. Some highlights: 

  1. “You can’t behave right when you don’t feel right.” That’s kind of my mantra with regard to Squibbish.
  2. Acknowledge feelings with words and avoid using the word “you” when expressing annoyance, irritation, or anger.” 
  3. Take action with limits: “I don’t want to be late for work. I’m buckling you in, I know how much you hate that!” 
  4. Be playful and make it a game. 
  5. Describe the effect on others: “The baby loves it when you make those funny sounds. I see a big smile on her face.” 

But the chapter that really did it for me was Chapter 5: Tools for kids who are differently wired. 

“Our world feels wrong to him—too loud or too quiet, too much touching or not enough, too much to look at, and too exhausting to make sense of it all.” (167)

This nailed the book for me because it helps me approach a situation, hypothetically, when and if Squibbish or any of his future siblings manifest my symptoms. This book, and all of this research I’ve done on my diagnosis will help my wife and I work with that possible future, and hopefully be able to help them way earlier than I got the help I needed. Twenty-four years after my first diagnosis is a tragedy but not one I, or anyone else, had any control over.

More on that tomorrow.

Status for Spring 2019.

“Oh Shit”

For one week only, this blog is now opened and feature new posts daily. Thanks for being here.

Hello, I’m David Press, and this is my website. I write fiction, comics, and personal essays. Over the winter I finished the fourth rewrite of my novel, The Human Library, and started a new job as an academic advisor at Indiana University-Bloomington.

I’ve been reading Brian Gresko’s book When I First Held You, which is a collection of essays by novelists about being writers and fathers. Folks like Dennis Lehane, Benjamin Percy, and Rick Moody contributed to it. In one interview at Literary Hub, Gresko interviews Polly Rosenwaike on juggling the duel identity of being a creative writer and a parent.

And in part I think many men, even self-aware enlightened men who read, still struggle to publicly embrace the role of fatherhood, or see it as something worthy of writing about, because society has taught them that’s not what men do or how they behave; it’s too sentimental. When I put together my anthology, I imagined that there were other men out there like me who would jump to read thoughtful, sensitive essays on the subject, but for the most part I hear from women (when I hear from anyone), and when the book launched it was mostly women supporting it, for which I was grateful though also surprised. 

Gresko makes an interesting point that far too many literary authors don’t talk about being fathers, so I thought that for a week I would talk a little bit more about my literary autobiography, being a father, and how I manage to stay productive with so much going on in my life.

So, here goes. Thanks for being here. For a week, I’ll be here, and on Twitter and Instagram, so feel free to say hey over there if you want, or subscribe to my newsletter, that will continue weekly once I go back into my Writing Den for the rest of spring.