Category Archives: On a Personal Note

A tech guy adopts e-ink thinking and decimates his home electronics … here’s what manifested.

I’ll preface this post by stating my day job is working in technology in cultural sites and has been for 20 years. I started Voices of the Past in 2008 as a manifestation of my personal mission to equip folks with digital tool and practices that help them build their legacies–both personal and community. I do love to see those connections made. But balance is key, and I’ve been the proverbial boiled frog these last several years with technology encroaching on every facet of my existence.

That realization came a several months ago when I read Greg McKeown’s advice about making “one decision that makes 1,000” and decided to apply that to every facet of my life. One of those decisions I labeled “e-ink thinking.” To me, this means identifying what is the bare minimum tech you need to enhance your life, ridding yourself of as many things possible that would be considered distraction. A black-and-white kind of existence as opposed to the constant swirl of color and noise from our streaming video world.

From childhood, even in the 1970s, too much TV, bright lights, large crowds, loud noise, etc. would unnerve me. I talk about this a bit in another post “You don’t have to be a king to find your voice.” I needed to find a way to mitigate that and take back control of my brainspace.

Before: Tech Overrun

For those of you who use apps to turn on your lights, I was already a Luddite, and God bless if it truly enhances your life. For me, every device (defined as being powered by electricity or battery) generated another layer of distraction and brain fog. Here’s what I started out with at home:

  • 55″ Roku TV
  • iPad Air
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 6s and iPhone 5 (used mainly as digital photo albums)
  • Amazon Echo
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
  • Apple AirPods (and various other Bluetooth earbuds)
  • Brother Electric Typewriter
  • MacBook Air with ALL the bluetooth peripherals
  • Mac Mini G3 (for all my OS9 games!)
  • Desktop PC
  • A combo record/CD/radio player.
  • DVD player
  • Freewrite Traveler Word Processor

After: The Read/Write Life

What’s left are devices that are generally either E-Ink or audio-based. Here are the last pieces of tech still inhabiting my residence:

  • First generation Amazon Echo
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
  • Brother Electric Typewriter
  • Light Phone II
  • Freewrite Traveler Word Processor
  • A combo record/CD/DVD/radio player.
  • and I’m counting my “gaming” device: Dataman, the handheld I had when I was about 8 years old.

I’ve been working with this setup about four months. It was maddening those first two weeks. But, slowly I realized the dream: No passwords to constantly have to remember or two-factor authentication hassles. No updates or freezes. No constant notifications.

Among my goals related to this decision was “To be at home in my own mind.” A critical component of that was to get rid of the constant external noise in my ears. This meant being more intentional about podcast and music listening. While my Light Phone does do podcasts and mp3s, you sync them manually through a desktop computer. When I made this decision, it was with the knowledge that I’d be spending a lot of time in waiting rooms and commutes without these crutches to entertain me. It meant making peace with what’s in my head, which often felt so raw and just not a place I wanted to be. But getting past that withdrawal stage, I find that has changed. I enjoy opportunities to think and contemplate and generally be grateful that at least in my personal life, all is quiet.

Concessions and Adaptations

Making this decision hasn’t changed the fact that there are some things I still have to get done requiring tech and media, but there are things you can do in those cases that are intentional and not simply distractions. And there are very satisfying ways to spend discretionary hours that have nothing to do with a phone or computer.

  • I have an old iPhone 6 in my truck glove compartment in case I REALLY need a device for a special app-only use–primarily travel related.
  • I went to cash-only spending for discretionary items so no payment apps or credit card necessary. I’m much, much more mindful of money now.
  • I can use library computers.
  • I am consuming the surviving library of 40 or so favorite CDs and as many DVDs that I was never able to let go of.
  • In addition to that, I read physical, paper-bound books everyday. I hadn’t finished a book in years prior to this. In the last month, I finished three.
  • My echo will play my Amazon Music items, including podcasts and Kindle books if I just have to have that fix.
  • I go to the gym six days a week, and never miss.

Manifestations

My life has changed in the last few months, and that’s no exaggeration. Here are some of the ways:

  • I’ve lost 25 pounds and counting, packed on a lot of muscle and ran my first 5k down in Key West in January.
  • I naturally developed systems for planning and evaluation rather than trusting a device to tell me when to do things. My brain alone always know where I’m supposed to be over the course of a week, and when. And I pretty much always know what time it is instinctually.
  • My productivity has soared measurably.
  • I’m more mindful, optimistic and contented.
  • A full night’s satisfying rest, every night.
  • Rather that identifying as a writer and never doing it, now it’s part of my daily morning routine. Also, I treat myself to a “free day” meal at Panera once a week where I spend about four hours straight writing creatively on my Freewrite.
  • After 10 years of battling. Resistance in updating this blog, I’m now posting to it on a weekly basis and for the first time have an editorial calendar with about 40 ideas in queue.

I know there is much more to come. Dreams that I thought would never come true because of unmindful living now seem very tangible. It will take a while to build momentum, but you know what?

Dark times and leaps of faith

Sometimes the process of building and losing can be more than you’re able to bear. Your soul compels you toward leaps of faith.

My life is wonderful these days. For the past six years, I’ve worked at a historic site I love and admire with people I respect. But there have been cycles of those dark “learning” times, that were necessary to get me here.  One of those leaps has been on my mind lately and it happens to be the one that got me here. 

In spring 2014, I took a solo vacation to Florida and then road tripped to Louisiana. I needed to reconnect to what shaped me to figure out my next evolution. It had been a few years before (about ten years ago as I write this ) that I moved from my hometown in Louisiana for a job in Philadelphia. A lot of fine accomplishments came out of that experience, including several lifelong friendships. It was a necessary step for growth in my life and personal mission and I’m grateful for it. At the time of that trip though, I was disillusioned and depressed. 

Scheduling this trip was a Hail Mary for my wellbeing. It was instinct and all I knew is there was no choice. Had to do it. And it had to be here. 

So I flew down to South Florida in the midst of a massive tornado outbreak, with flights variously diverted and bumpy. When I finally arrived and picked up my rental car I hoped the road trip portion of the trip to my hometown in Louisiana would be the restful experience I needed to clear my head and get some perspective. I was within three hours of my destination when I got  onto the 18-mile Atchafalaya Basin bridge where a tanker truck had fallen over and set the bridge on fire, trapping me for more than two hours. Here’s what I tweeted from there:

Pretty pathetic, eh? Sometimes I take the Universe personally if everything has been directed against me. I’ve worked at it, and trust me, have come a long way in that regard.

As soon as I hit the city limits my hometown I felt I was back where I belong. So little changes in a small town even over the course of three years it was like I never left. For the next three days I found myself the embrace of my Mom and extended family; a feeling that I had not experienced since I left. She cooked all of my favorite things: fried porkchops, gumbo, chicken and dumplings, banana pudding … for a moment, all was right.

Road tripping back to South Florida, I felt like I met my destiny. The vibrancy of the culture and the warmth of the climate felt like slipping into my skin and I felt a new me emerging in the process. A few months later, that recognition suddenly manifested a job opportunity, in Miami. While that workplace situation was ultimately a stepping stone, it moved me along to where I needed to be, and that’s where I remain. Other areas of my life crumbled and rebuilt in the same fashion even going into the COVID era. It’s been a process of “painful but more perfect.”

Now in my 50th year, I’ve experienced these cycles a handful of times and no doubt they will come back around at some point. But I’ve learned to trust my instincts, and the machinations of the universe, in each rotation. As long as I can remember to run into that next leap I’ll be okay.

You don’t have to be a King to find your voice

This is a post I’ve literally waited over a year to write. It concerns something only a handful of people have known about me to this point.

king george vi
king george vi

In late 2009, I found myself in a Wikipedia-induced causality loop. You’ve been there. One search leads to another one and then a morning has suddenly passed. I don’t know where this particular one began but it ended with the story of King George VI and the commencement of production on “The King’s Speech.” I immediately put the film on a Google Alert.

Reading the ever-increasing number of stories and blog posts about the stellar film was excruciating since I apparently live in the last place on earth the movie would ultimately run. I’m proud to see the film is as beautiful and brilliant as I’d hoped.

Why the weird obsession? Because it’s my story too — and the story of many others who conditions that affect their hearing and speech. While most of us will never influence the course of history, the struggle is much the same.

The Beat of a Different Drum

From the time I was a child, I knew I heard things differently than other people. I could discern sounds no one else seemed aware of in some situations, but there were others in which I couldn’t make out the words of someone standing talking directly into my ear (particularly when there was background noise). Severe ear infections throughout my pre-teen years led surgery to put tubes in my ears and have my adenoids removed. The pain went away, but the problems with sound and articulation continued. My family moved a lot in those years, and with each new school, I’d eventually end up in a speech counselor’s office.

Several years ago, I got fed up. I’d been to audiologists, speech pathologists, and had my hearing checked countless times. My hearing was perfect–hypersensitive even–so how could I have so much trouble understanding and articulating speech? None of the local doctors could tell me.

Finally, I turned to the ultimate “expert,” Google. I listed every hearing and speech-related symptom that was driving me crazy.

Here were the top two search results I saw:

I was dumbfounded (no pun intended) reading those entries. Literally numb. Having a name for my “defect” didn’t change its reality, but it changed everything about how I viewed it. In that moment, I remembered the nine-year-old boy hiding in the corner at public events because the noise was driving him mad and didn’t feel contempt for his weakness. Instead, I felt respect for someone who never gave up hope that some day he would find a way to make a contribution.

Life with an auditory processing disorder is a Skype conversation with a long time lag, or hearing someone speak a language you don’t know and waiting for the translator. Sound comes in, but has to settle before the can brain process it and forms a response. The kicker is that the response, no matter how perfectly formed in the mind, doesn’t automatically articulate itself the same way vocally. Additionally, the ability to filter sounds is limited, so I can hear conversations going on throughout a wide area.

Me at one week
They say I took the heavyweight crown in the week-old division.

APD is thought to be caused my two things–recurrent ear infections as I mentioned earlier and oxygen deprivation during birth, which also fit my story. In 1970’s small-town Louisiana, your general practitioner was your only doctor and you didn’t question his word even if it killed you. My 4’11” mother had a difficult, prolonged labor with me before her doctor realized her pelvis was too small and performed an emergency c-section. Besides a temporary conehead and scratched-up face (from my fingernails), those hours in the birth canal resulted in flattened cartilage and an unknown period of time without oxygen.

Again, I contacted doctors, audiologists and pathologists throughout Louisiana, certain they could do something with this new information. I got one acknowledgment, which was “this condition can only be treated in children. There’s no point in a diagnosis, because the wiring in your brain is set.” Probably true, but I wasn’t willing to stop there.

My odyssey led to Judy Paton (the second link in my Google Search) in San Mateo, Calif., who specializes in working with adults. She performed the testing, confirmed the diagnosis and provided advice to keep challenging the speech and hearing center of my brain. One of the things she suggested was to work with a vocal coach. The musical element would improve diction, timing, rhythm and tone.

Just Breathe

Another Google search led me two buildings from where I work in rural Louisiana to Terrie Sanders, one of the few McClosky-certified vocal trainers in the country.

As in the film, we did some of the funny exercises (lying on the floor, skipping, swinging arms, stretching the tongue). The emphatic cursing trick depicted in the movie I discovered purely on my own, and it is frighteningly effective. But the biggest revelation was awareness of my breath.

I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no-one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.  ~Lionel Logue, The King's Speech

“Inhale from the diaphragm and let the words flow out with the breath,” my teacher would say. “Just breathe.” It seems like the most natural thing, doesn’t it? Biologists say it’s an involuntary function of the body. For sustaining existence, that’s true. But I would discover that deep, life-giving breaths are a matter of intention. If two words can sum up a personal philosophy, “Just Breathe” became fuel for my thoughts, a moment to decide, a prayer — and perhaps most surprisingly, the foundation of a decent tenor singing voice.

So why am I in the communications field? Seems like the ultimate masochism, doesn’t it? Sometimes, absolutely! But we all have “something” to overcome in the quest for a legacy. And meaningful connections can be forged in so many ways that have nothing to do with skills of articulation.

Still, public speaking is no longer just the realm of world leaders and Dale Carnegie types. We all have to do it to be effective in our work. That was one of the reasons I threw my hat in to present at O’Reilly Media’s Gov 2.0 Expo last spring. The presentation was selected to be included in the last round of “lightening” keynotes, which meant the presenters had about five minutes each. My presentation wasn’t going to be one of the philosophical types that frame the future of governments and the world and wow the audience with its profundity. The audience wasn’t going to be blown away by its delivery either, as I’d have to read it to maintain my timing. But it was MY story: a simple and direct explanation of who I am and what I do. This presentation would be my declaration that cultural heritage defines our humanity as much as climate change, national defense or the value of currencies. It was also a powerful testament to the power of the online community, as friends like Lorelle VanFossen and Lisa Louise Cooke, both natural speakers, spent their valuable time helping me to refine it. And other online friends who I’ve never interacted with, like Todd Henry, Chris Guillebeau, and Liz Strauss, whose blogs and podcasts have, over time, empowered me with transformative habits to make a difference by focusing on the “now.”

Ultimately, the experience was a continuing reminder of the power of family. Watching the experiences of the historical Queen Elizabeth portrayed in The King’s Speech, I chuckled to think of how familiar they might seem to my own wife, ElizaBeth, in bolstering a recalcitrant husband to discover his message and believe himself worthy to deliver it.

When my name was announced on May 27, 2010, deep gratitude for so many supportive people had replaced any lingering fear. Emerging into glaring spotlights and a podium in front of several hundred people (including a livestreamed worldwide audience), I didn’t think about the first words I would say or how I would look on the 30-ft HD screens on either side of the stage. I thought only two words again and again:

“Just. Breathe.”