I suppose the change was inevitable. It had to happen, as all things really are, as all things do. What we want, what I want, had little to do with it. It was time that I made a change, because it was time that a change happened. Looking back, I can see all the signs, and I am as powerless to deal with those signs as I am to change them in retrospect. Each event in the string is as insignificant as those that came before. Yet, taken as a chain they all just seem to make sense. They only gain weight when seen wholesale.
So, I quietly made my move.
Tonight I printed up a three sheets of a calendar. I circled a date in December with a blue Sharpie, I counted backwards until today. A date had been determined, and each day between then and now, they would be a series of measures.
In the Army, they’re called “Short Timer’s Calendars.” The handwritten countdowns. I don’t quite know who came up with the first one in my basic training platoon. Hell, I don’t know exactly when we even learned their names. Just, one day they were just sort of there. At some moment of quiet, someone had scribbled out a grid of numbers, counting down to the day without a number – the final day, the one we all called “and a wake up.”
That day was December 17, 1999.
The day itself was rather unremarkable. There was a parade. It was considerably warmer than the day prior, I remember that despite it being nearly 17 years ago. But it wasn’t the day that was important, it was the date. That was the end. And knowing when the end was coming somehow made each day, each decreasing number on the calendar that much more important.
Our Drill Sergeants found our calendars pretty quickly. It’s hard to hide something from people paid to watch you. And beneath their brown rounds, our drill sergeants laughed at us. They wanted to know that what we were going through wasn’t that difficult (and in hindsight, they were certainly right). One of them looked at a calendar and haughtily exclaimed something like, “Six weeks? Privates, I can stand on my head for six weeks.”
I don’t know if he realized it, but that’s an idiom that has stuck with me ever sense. Eight hours? I can stand on my head for eight hours. Eight weeks? I can stand on my head for eight weeks.
If you tell me when I can give up, if you put a date on something, I can dig down and get there. And we proved him right. We all sucked it up, we all dug down, and we made it through those final six weeks.
But I can’t stand on my head forever. Nothing last forever. Change is inevitable. Change is the natural order of things. Eventually, I will fall. The concept of forever, of forced permanence, is a trick we play on ourselves. The constant forever is a lie.
The gift of the short timer’s calendar is perspective. Of realizing that not only is the end coming, but that it has a fixed date. That each step towards the end is one less step you have to take. When you get close, even if things get more difficult, you can always look back at the string of days already past, and tell yourself that you’ve already made it this far, what are a few more?
Forgive me for getting a little bit morbid, and a great deal pretentious with this, but the phrase that best encompasses that thing we were doing in the basic training, with our daily fixation on the end, has a much older history. According to a popular tale, after a parade celebrating the return from battle, a slave would remind the victorious general, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” Assuming you know as much Latin as I do, that loosely translates to, “Look behind you. Remember that you’re only a man.”
Or, to use the more popular phrasing – momento mori – remember that you have to die.
I’ve long preferred this phrase to the much more popular “Carpe Diem” as it shifts the focus. While both encourage meaningful action, it’s the inevitability of death that puts the force behind momento mori. It’s easy to say that we’ll seize the day tomorrow, but today will be spent with Netflix. However, when we wake up and understand that we’re going to die, that no matter what we do, that there is no escaping death (nor even predicting when it will come) it becomes that much easier to seize today. To seize right now.
For as morbid and dour as the Stoics were, they knew how to motivate action without dressing it up.
I have finally reached a point where I felt sufficiently motivated to change. I made my change quietly, slipping away from society where I could. I’ve logged off social media. Deleted a half dozen or so apps from my phone and stopped logging in via the web. The social grind was wearing me down, putting me on a treadmill without an end in sight. There was no end in forever, and I knew I couldn’t stand on my head for that long.
I didn’t, don’t, want to make a big deal of it. I’m only posting about it here because, well, I know that nobody reads my website. And even if someone somehow finds this and chooses to say something – they’ll do so in an area where I can’t see it. They’ll say something in private or on social, and I’ll never see it. Thus, erasing all meaning to me.
I did so with good reason. September wore me out. I think I spent a good twenty nights out during the month. Between friends, startup nights, and political events, I was worn. I felt like I was buffeting from one event to the next, without a pause to catch my breath or regain my balance. I certainly didn’t feel like I had a determined direction.
And you know I don’t do well as a casual passenger.
So, I stepped off that path and on to a more deliberate one, a focused existence. Cutting social out of the equation has already changed how I communicate. I now have to choose my audience – for I can still be reached via direct channels like text, email, or Slack. It’s been a switch, broad for deep. The hope, the goal, is to grant a return to focus.
I used to be able to dive into things for hours. Getting lost in my own mind, creating things. I miss discovering. I miss the depth of exploration. There was a sense of purpose there. I want that back. I want focus again.
I want a lot of things back, but I’m starting with the depth of purpose. To quote one of my favorite Chris Farren lyrics, “I feel just like a teenager without the fire in my heart.” Well, I’m trying to put that fire back in.
To do that, I’ve taken to pinning things to my cork board. First and foremost, I am once again living beneath a Short Timer’s calendar. I’m giving myself 61 days and a wake up to get my side project complete and shareable.
I’m giving myself 61 days to make a go of it.
There’s a lot to learn in that time. I have to take a language I’m barely proficient at and get good. There are entire skill sets that I’ve never touched before that need to work. I’ve created a quick Kanban of index cards and hasty backlog. And I’ve got 61 days to get through everything.
The combination of a Short Timer’s calendar and a looming deadline have already started to excite me. For fear and the unknown are a sure fire means to tap into the fire of action. Each day – or more accurately, each night – becomes a trade off. Do I go to the bar? Do I see friends? Or do I learn more about how to use Object Role Modeling within Node.js? I have concerts between now and then. Holidays. Family visits. A birthday. Social obligations. And work. Television shows I want to watch. Books I want to read. Each one becomes an intersection. A chance to move towards a deliberate path.
But above all that, I’ve got a calendar that won’t stop, won’t wait for me. I’ve got days ticking down. Tomorrow is 60 and a wake up. It seems like plenty of time, but then that’s the trap we’re supposed to rage against, aren’t we? That we can delay the happiness we want just another day? That we can wait until we’re ready to move on.
The cold reality is that if we wait, we’ll likely never be ready. So, the time to leap is always right now.
For the next two months, I’m largely cutting myself off. I’m doing the math on spending time with my friends and family, and working on the thing that right now seems like the thing that’ll make me happy. Each day will force me to stare at my Short Timer’s Calendar, and my backlog of index cards, and be honest with myself.
Each day I’ll have to answer whether today was the best step I could have taken. If it was, I’ll sleep well. If not? Well, then tomorrow I’ll have to work harder.
So, for the next two months, I’ll avoid society as much as possible. I’ll stay off that path. My little duplex on the park might be Walden, but I suppose I can make do. After all, I can stand on my head for sixty one days.