Ring, Part One

Millie Farquar watched the lone truck buzz along the dusty road, its engine roaring and tires kicking up dirt as it sped to the intersection near her house. She could already taste the dust, gritty and scratchy as it settled in her throat. She wanted to jump off her front porch and run toward the intersection to give the driver a piece of her mind, but she knew it’d do no good. No one ever slowed down on Pit Road.

The truck spun its tires as it grabbed the asphalt on the paved road that cut in front of her house. The black ribbon of road cut through the bland plain like a tear in a dull photo. Dust still trailed behind the truck as it passed by her house. Its windows were tinted, so Millie couldn’t see the driver, but she assumed he worked at the mine. Everyone out here did, and everyone was a he except for her.

Musk was barely a dot on the map. Back at Princeton, she had pulled it up on Google Maps when she received the generous job offer from Boulder Mining, and somehow, it seemed exotic in her mind, a faraway place where adventure awaited. Now, the stark reality slapped her in the face after a few months on the job, but the paycheck and her seemingly insurmountable student loans kept her here in an old, isolated house with drafty windows and leaky faucets.

She folded her book shut and stood up from the porch swing, her boots thumping on the old boards as she went back inside. She had to leave for work soon. Another day and another dollar closer to paying off her student loans. When she had been working her way toward her Ph.D. in geology, she had imagined her life being much different when she graduated. Being one of the few women in the program had taught her how to deal with being alone, but working at the mine among a throng of grubby men took isolation and loneliness to a whole new level.

She gathered her bag for work and walked through the house to the back door to check that it was locked. She twisted the old door knob, and it refused to turn giving her assurance that it was secure. She had a routine that she followed every morning before she left for work. It made her feel safe and in control.

As she walked by the window peering out onto her back porch, she glanced at the camera she had installed as an extra security measure. Her landlord, an elderly man with a gravelly voice and a stooping posture, had chuckled when she asked if she could install a security system. He claimed he never even locked his doors when he lived in the house. Millie didn’t feel that safe, and she doubt she ever would.

The Ring doorbell camera stared back at her as she locked her front door and bounded down the steps to her truck that was parked in the bare spot of dirt next to the house. As the engine roared to life and she twisted the wheel around to leave, she glanced at the old house one last time. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually kind of cozy with its old, but sturdy bones. She felt a growing attachment to it like a reliable, old dog that never leaves her side.

Before she turned left onto the dusty road leading to the mine, she pulled her phone from her bag and checked it one last time. She had two bars of service, which was normal for her phone, but she knew that once she traveled a few miles down the road, she’d have no service again until she returned home. No notifications appeared on her home screen. She wondered why her mom hadn’t texted her back yet, but it’d have to wait until after work.

The roar of the tires on the dirt road filled the cabin of her truck. The morning sun gleamed through the dusty windshield almost blinding her as she peered just beneath her sun visor. The company truck kicked up so much dust it felt like she was driving into some apocalyptic future. She heard a shrill ping that pierced the otherworldly roar that engulfed her. She reached into her bag and grabbed her phone, poking its glass surface with her thumb to view the home screen. She saw the familiar blue logo of the Ring app in the corner of the notification, but before she could open up the app, she lost her last bar of service.

A truck honked at her. She looked up into the face of an oncoming hauling truck and swerved to the right to avoid it. Her tires rumbled at the edges of the dirt road, but she didn’t lose purchase and kept moving forward. She’d be at the office soon, but the Ring notification concerned her. Who would be at her front door this morning? She wasn’t expecting any deliveries, and even if she was, the deliveries always happened in the late afternoon in this area.

She pulled up to the office trailer and nudged the truck into the spot reserved for the geologist. She stared at her phone, but she knew it was hopeless to think she’d somehow regain service. The mine was more than a gaping hole in the earth; it was also a black hole of sorts for cell service. She tossed her phone into her bag and let out an exasperated sigh.

She could feel the heat of the morning sun building as she sat there considering whether or not she should drive back toward her house until she had cell service just so she could check who or what had triggered her camera. In the months since she had installed the camera, she’d only received notifications for delivery drivers and the occasional Mormon missionary. It bothered her that it happened so soon after she left the house, as if someone were waiting for her to leave so that they could invade her privacy.

She looked around the dirt parking lot. The mine manager’s spot sat empty, which Millie thought was odd. Carl reliably arrived early every morning. She couldn’t remember ever arriving before he did. She brushed away these thoughts and decided it wasn’t worth the time to drive back toward her house, but she’d check it as soon as she got within service range before she went home after work. The days were still long enough that it’d be daylight when she left for home, and if there was a problem, she could clearly see it before she pulled into her driveway.

She opened the door into the cacophony of the mine, and the chaos of another typical day swallowed her the moment she sat down at her desk in the ratty trailer that served as the mine’s main office. In the sea of work and requests that demanded her attention, the bothersome notification drifted further and further from her mind.

Be Better

I’ve used this analogy before, but some days, I feel like the hapless steel ball in a pinball machine – shot from the chute only to bounce around from bumper to flap for a while until I plop down the drain. I eschew the idea of predetermination or any other preconceived plan because I believe we control our own destiny, yet when all of the moving parts of our lives come together, it can feel rather chaotic like the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo.

But like Shibuya, the beauty of life lies in its chaos, the interconnectedness that draws us apart and together at the same time. If you focus too much on the messiness of the crowd and not on the feat of engineering that moves the trains in and out of the station in an orchestrated manner, you’ll freeze up and never get where you’re going. Likewise, if you focus on being hurtled from bumper to flap and back again, you’ll get nowhere. Staying focused on the things that matter despite the inherent noise is the only way to move forward.

In my almost five decades on this planet, I’ve tried multiple approaches to rein myself in and stay focused on those most important things. I’ve succeeded some, and I’ve failed a lot. I’m convinced that if your failures don’t outnumber your successes, you aren’t trying hard enough. You’re too risk adverse. Failures are painful, like burning your hand on a hot pan, but I’ll be damned if you don’t learn so much from them. Some lessons are obvious (e.g., this pan gets hot!), while others are far more subtle. Early in my life, I’d get so twisted around the axle of my failures that I’d literally shut down. Now, I’m much more sanguine about them. They still hurt, but I focus on what I’ve learned and move on.

In all of this chaos, it’s hard to boil things down to a simple mantra, but we need simple. It’s like a pinprick of light in a inky black room that preoccupies our attention. Mine is trite, pedestrian – “Be better”. Be a better husband, father, brother, son, coworker, runner, writer, human being, etc. This is not a competition with you or anyone else. It’s a competition with myself if you want to frame it in those terms. I aim to be better than I was yesterday and the day before that.

Of course, there will be setbacks. Of course, I will fail sometimes, but I will come back stronger, and I will, in fact, be better. Eventually. It keeps me moving forward.

The Year Ahead

It’s important to have things to look forward to. Otherwise, the mundane routine of life will drag you down. It’s also important to have goals lest you be reduced to some really random walk through the year. Our time on this spinning blue marble is short, and I don’t want to waste a minute of it. I like to use the end of the year to refresh, revisit, and reinvigorate myself. The downtime helps reset my mind and body and gets me focused on my key priorities for the year ahead.

Early on in my adult life, I treated the year-end introspection like a kid in a candy store, setting a whole list of goals that became more improbable as the list grew in length. Luckily, I grew wiser in spite of myself and realized that focus is the key to actually achieving those goals, and for the past couple of decades I’ve limited myself to just a few key goals that I focus on each year. Some are similar each year (incremental improvement!). Others hail from left field (I want to do an Ironman!).

Some folks poo-pah the annual resolution setting, primarily because most resolutions fall by the wayside come February, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I have a framework I use to manage and limit my goals. I also have a plan for achieving them, and most importantly, I measure my progress throughout the year. At the end of the year, I determine if I achieved them or not, and if not, I understand why. As a result, many of my resolutions actually stick. Case in point: At the beginning of 1992, I set a goal to become a runner (as in running on a regular basis), and I’m still running 28 years later.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about my goals for 2020. Really, my goals are rarely that elevated. I try to focus on things I can control within a relativity short time frame because success is more about incremental improvements than it is about once-in-a-lifetime achievements or pie-in-the-sky dreams. My primary goal this year is to improve my writing. To do that I plan to write a lot (practice makes perfect), and I plan to take a couple of college courses on creative writing. See what I did there? Not only do I have a goal, but I have a plan to achieve it. I’ve already picked out the courses I will take in the spring and fall this year, and I’ll be signing up for the spring courses soon to keep myself on track.

Another big goal for me this year is to finish the 50 states marathon challenge I started nine years ago. The challenge started with the goal I set at the end of 2010 and will have been ten years in the making when I wrap it up in New Hampshire in November of this year. This assumes all goes as planned. There’s always the risk that health and myriad other factors conspire to throw me off my game, but for now, I’m on track to cross that finish line in Manchester, New Hampshire some time before Noon on November 8th. Wish me luck.

As for the rest of my goals, luck has little to do with it. Focus and hard work will get me there. A good challenge gets me energized and gives me a good reason to look forward to the year ahead. Now, spin little blue marble. Spin!