A Real Comfortable Chair

Giant Office Chair

When I grow up (to become a giant), this will be my office chair.

Joseph Epstein shares a story in the essay “Quotatious.” On a radio program with several other writers, the host asks Epstein what it takes to be a writer.

I got out of the blocks by saying that Hemingway thought the first requisite of the writer was “an unhappy childhood”; I gave him a little Henry James; I popped in a Tolstoy; at no extra charge, I added that Byron said, “Who would write, who had anything better to do?”

He continued along these lines for several more minutes, until he finally wound down and came to a stop. The next writer, Liz Carpenter, then gave her answer:

“Mr. Epstein is very learned and all,” she said, in a cheerful Southern drawl, “and I was fascinated by everything he had to say. But I just happened to have finished a book about working with my friend Lady Bird Johnson in the White House, and I’ll tell you what, you want to be a writer, honey, first thing you need is a real comfortable chair.”

Last week, my good office chair broke apart while I sitting in it. I had noticed the back was wobbling strangely a day or two earlier, and the entire back snapped off as I leaned back from my computer. Since then, I’ve been using a $20 plastic chair from IKEA that is not intended for all-day sitting, and my lower back has been suffering for it.

Someone — I think it was Brett Terpstra — once said that, if you’re going to be using anything for 8 hours a day, make sure you’re using the best you can afford. This applies to office chairs, beds, software programs, tools — really, just about anything.[1] The added productivity, speed, and/or comfort will more than make up for the cost.

With my chair, I’m discovering another cost to using a cheaper option. The back pain it causes makes it difficult for me to sit for any length of time, which means that it’s difficult to work for long stretches on my writing and coding projects — and thus difficult to develop rhythm or get into a zone. Further, there’s a Pavlovian response that develops. My body knows that sitting in the chair causes pain; writing requires sitting in the chair; and so the thought of writing itself becomes painful. Writing is already hard enough, and this just adds another, unnecessary barrier.

Before I bought my good chair, when I was using a just-okay chair that was slightly better than the really-cheap chair I have at the moment, I would often find myself exhausted, tense, and irritable at the end of a day of work. This confused me for a long time, because I was doing work that I enjoyed, and coming home to a family that I knew I loved, but the end of the work day left me in an incredibly foul mood.

One day, I began paying attention to the signals my body was giving me, and I realized that there was nothing wrong with my work or my family — it was my chair that causing the problem. Even though it seemed too expensive, I purchased a better chair, one designed for long hours of desk work, and my days immediately improved. The cost, spread out over the years I used the chair, turned out to be one of the best investments I have ever made.

  1. As a former pizza delivery driver, I’m not sure it applies to cars used to deliver pizzas. Your car needs to be reliable — you can’t deliver the pie if your car’s broken down — but the wear-and-tear of pizza delivery does incredible damage to a vehicle.  ↩

True Love, Candy, and Valentine’s Day

Vanilla Tootsie Roll Frooties are the best.

Vanilla Tootsie Roll Frooties are the best.

I’m not sure who is more excited about Valentine’s Day — sellers of chocolates, cards, and flowers, or my children. My kids have been preparing their Valentine’s cards for over a week. Our 7-year-old had her cards picked out a month ago, and our 9-year-old made adorable little airplanes out of Smarties, Life-Savers, and Big Red gum. Yesterday, my 4-year-old son brought home an entire grocery bag of candy from his preschool Valentine’s party. Valentine’s Day is a big deal among the grade school set.

This makes perfect sense. They haven’t yet experienced the bitter reality of romance: the girl you like likes another guy, but he likes this other girl, and the girl who likes you isn’t all that likeable. The person you thought was “the one” turns out to be a zero. Meanwhile, no one else will give you a number at all. Elementary school kids haven’t experienced this dark side of romance yet, so Valentine’s Day seems like just one more excuse for candy, a quick top-off of sugar before the Easter basket bonanza.

Seventeen years ago, I’d had enough of romance. After yet another failed attempt to attract the attention of a particular girl, I vowed not to pursue any female who was anything less than 100% as interested in me as I was in her. This would be my new rule: no more risking my heart in the name of love.

Shortly after making this vow, I met a really cute girl at a college Halloween dance. I was dressed as a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan (which I was), while she was dressed as a college freshman. We struck up a conversation over our mutual love for Tootsie Roll Frooties, but she had a boyfriend still in high school. Per my vow, I promised myself to think of her only as a friend, nothing more.

A couple of weeks later, I met her outside the post office. “Did you get any mail?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “From my ex-boyfriend.” I know this sounds corny, but our eyes met, and I felt time slow to a stop. That moment lasted forever.

Today, our kids will be bringing home dozens of uncynical, hopelessly sincere Valentine’s cards. I wish I could spare them the long journey from grade school optimism, through the heartbreak of false romance, to real love, but it’s a road they have to travel themselves. I know that, without the disappointment and frustration I experienced, I would not appreciate the love I now have.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Elizabeth.

Abandoning Books Without Guilt

City of God by Augustine

The scene of my greatest book abandonment. 525 pages read, only 566 to go.

There was a time when I tried really, really hard to finish reading any book that I began. I had two motivations:

  1. It felt like a failure if I couldn’t get through to the end.
  2. I also felt an obligation to the author. After all, if I had written a book, I’d want everyone to finish the whole thing, right?

I’m not sure when, but several years ago, this guilt went away. I read a great deal, but I probably drop almost as many books as I finish. There are a few reasons why I quit reading a book.

The book loses my interest. This is most common with novels. Last month, with great sorrow, I returned to the library a novel I really, really wanted to like. A new novel by one of my favorite writers, I had even tried to pitch a review of it to couple of publications. Now, I’m glad that neither of those pitches worked out. I gave the novel a good shot, but 100 pages in, I still didn’t care one bit for the characters or their problems.

Sometimes, a book loses my interest so thoroughly that I actually forget I was reading it, set it down somewhere, and simply never pick it up again. This happened with a novel I had taken to Urbana 12 with me. A few weeks after I returned home, I looked in the backpack I had taken with me and discovered the book. Strangely enough, I had found the book enjoyable enough while I was reading it, but if it had left so little impact on my brain, I didn’t see much point in picking it up again.

I realize the book isn’t worth my time. I mentioned this thought to my wife once, and she felt it was a terribly unfair thing to say. But it’s true! There are far more books worth reading than I will ever have time to read, so why should I waste my time on books that are poorly written, poorly conceived, or flat out wrong? Of course, I do waste my time on plenty of books exactly like that. Some of them just strike me as more of a waste than others.

The flip side of this is that I get so excited about another book that it overwhelms any desire to finish the book I’m currently reading. Since I’m generally reading several books at the same time, I usually don’t realize that I’m abandoning the book. It’s more like it gets bumped from the rotation. A week or two or three goes by, the book gets returned to the shelf, and it’s quietly dropped.

It’s not the book — it’s me. The book isn’t always at fault. Sometimes, I’m not ready for the book. It might be over my head, and I need to do some preliminary reading to work up to the book’s level. Occasionally, a book goes to an emotional place that I’m not willing to follow, as with my greatest abandonment to date, Augustine’s City of God. Over 500 pages in (which was still only about halfway through), I had to put the book aside. At the time, I was struggling with mild depression, and Augustine began a long, unvarnished meditation on death that I simply couldn’t handle. So I set the book aside, hoping to return to it one day.

What are your thoughts? Do you try to finish every book you start?

The Inhumanity of Unmanned Drones

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I have never been in the military, and I have never been in a “kill or be killed” situation. That, however, is a trait I share with our last three presidents[1], so maybe my lack of combat experience doesn’t totally disqualify me from offering an opinion on this matter.

The use of unmanned drones to kill our enemies in war greatly concerns me, because it places such an enormous distance between combatants. There have been technological advantages in warfare for thousands of years — chariots, stirrups, the English long bow, firearms, and so on — but it wasn’t until the 20th century that one side could be removed from the battlefield and still cause enormous damage. Unmanned drones take this separation to a new level, with several dramatic consequences.

  • They reduce the human cost of waging war to zero. An unmanned drone can be piloted hundreds or thousands of miles away from the combat zone. A drone pilot can engage the enemy at no risk to his own safety. Isn’t this a good thing, though? No — the decision to go to war and kill other human beings ought to be something with enough risk to make it an option of last resort.
  • Without personal risk, the decision to wage war becomes deceptively easy. The discovery of Richard III’s body reminds us that, once upon a time, heads of state personally led their troops into battle. The cost of a foolish decision or poor preparation was often the monarch’s own life. We’ve come a long way from those day. With unmanned drones, presidents and prime ministers can send “troops” into battle without even the worry of seeing their citizens killed or wounded.
  • The human costs of war are disproportionately borne by one side of the battle. We find the accounts of war against women and infants in the Bible hard to stomach — and rightfully so. I don’t think we’re supposed to take pleasure in these measures. Today, however, we have the capability to wage the same kind of total devastation, without our soldiers even being present for the carnage.

Early in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Ned Stark sentences a deserter to death and carries out the execution himself, beheading the man with his own sword. He even has his sons watch the execution, to drive home the brutal nature of his duty. In contrast, the king, Robert Baratheon, employs a full time executioner and usually does not even attend the executions he orders. We are meant to understand that one man understands the value of human life and the heavy cost of taking it, while the other treats his power over life and death casually and dishonorably. One of these men is a barbarian, and it’s not the one who wields the sword.

What do you think about unmanned drones in combat? If you disagree with me, let me know why.

  1. True, George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, but he never faced combat or even the risk of combat. Jimmy Carter was discharged from the Navy in 1953, which means it has now been 60 years since a future president was in active military service.  ↩

The Parent as Dungeon Master: Our RPG Parenting Experiment

RPG Character Sheet

Lydia the Dwarf Wizard, our 9-year-old daughter’s “real life RPG” character

Maybe I’m the only parent who has this problem, but our children hate doing chores. And they sometimes fight with each other. And each of them has several bad habits that we want them to stop. Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Last Christmas, my wife Elizabeth gave me this awesome book called Geek Dad by Ken Denmead. Based on his blog of the same name, the book offers (as the subtitle says) “awesomely geeky projects and activities for dads and kids to share.” A few examples:

  • LED fireflies
  • High-altitude video cameras
  • Eletronic origami

One of the chapters — “Parenting and Role Playing Games” — describes a Dungeons & Dragons-like system for getting kids to help out around the house and reward them for their successes. I mentioned it the other day to Elizabeth as something that might be fun to try, not really intending to put it place anytime soon. Our older daughter, however, overheard me and immediately fell in love with the idea. She could not stop talking about the idea of becoming a Dwarf Wizard, and she asked me several times a day when we start the game. So, on Friday during the kids’ snow day, we officially launched the Hickerson RPG. Continue reading