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!

A Look Back

I can’t believe that 2019 is nearing its end, nor can I believe we’ve almost finished the 2010s, a decade I’ll remember as much for my kids coming of age as I will for the multitude of changes I’ve experienced. We moved back to the U.S. at the beginning of this decade after living in China for three years, our kids started school, I changed jobs five times (two of them with the same company), I got serious about writing, I lost my dad halfway through the decade, and we moved to the other side of the country. Despite all that happened before this year, 2019 was a capstone for the decade.

I unwillingly inched closer to the half century mark. Aging gracefully is probably not going to be my thing. It’s not going to be pretty, so you may want to look away. When the years ahead of you are appreciably fewer than those behind you, it shifts your mindset. For me, there’s a sense of urgency, a need to get things done before it’s too late. And I’ll never know when it’s too late. In that vein, my wife and I solidified plans this year to make major life changes when our youngest goes away to college. We’ll cast off the shackles of routine and trade in our dress shoes for the decidedly more casual look of an intrepid explorer. I have a list of places I want to see that is longer than the number of years I have left.

Other than travel, I want to read and write more. I only read 16 books this year, but my “to read” list grows longer every day. I’ll definitely be reading much more in the years to come. My favorite book remains Where the Crawdads Sing, which I ready in 2018. I did get to see the author, Delia Owens, in person this year when she was on tour, and she was delightful. I admire her ability to create such a beautiful story. As for 2019, my favorite fiction book was Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, which weaves a fictional tale of a young Italian man who secretly helped Jews escape Nazi terror. Apparently, there’s some controversy around this novel as I unwittingly found out on Twitter, but it’s fiction, and I’m okay with literary liberties. The other big title I read this year was Sapiens. It’s not often I get passionate about nonfiction, but this book changed the way I think about things on a fundamental level. I highly recommend it.

It’s been almost eight years since I really got serious about writing and started writing novels. I don’t have much to show for it. I’m no closer to being published today than I was in 2012 when I started this journey. Quite frankly, querying has taken the fun out of writing, so I’m putting that on hold indefinitely, maybe permanently. I enjoy writing for the sake of creating the story. It’s enough for me to just put it on the screen and breathe life into it. The reality is that people read less given all of the media consumption choices out there, and people read much less literary fiction, so my odds of getting published are infinitesimal. The fact that the Fifty Shades books were the top-selling titles of the last decade proves to me that my preferred genre is nearing extinction, and that’s too bad because I love the slow burn of a good literary novel. I guess that’s yet another thing that proves I’m out of touch with reality. That happens when you get old.

While this year comes to an end, I still be here rambling and writing, mostly rambling. Come on back when you have the time and hopefully you’ll find something interesting. I’m still working on my latest novel, Them, which I hope to finish in 2020, but I may occasionally post excerpts or short stories as I find time. Until then, happy New Year. See you in 2020.

 

A Life Unlived

It’s nearing that time of the year where I think about what I accomplished in the past 12 months and what I want to accomplish in the new year. We’ll begin a new decade in just a little over a month, which has me thinking about the big picture. One thing I’ve realized is that, despite being on this planet for almost half a century, I haven’t really lived because I’ve missed out on some things that are the hallmark of a well-lived life.

For instance, I’ve never engaged in a fight over a chicken sandwich. Popeye’s has been in the news lately just as much for its customers getting physical as it has for the taste of its revamped chicken sandwich. I’ve never even stepped foot in a Popeye’s much less popped a fellow fast-food customer because they landed the last of the sandwiches available. I feel like I’m missing something, and I’m not talking about the indigestion likely to be had from a greasy fast-food sandwich. Maybe I’ll swing by Popeye’s today and look for an opportunity to join in the fisticuffs. That will surely make me feel like I’ve truly lived.

I’ve never spent the better part of my day arguing online with someone or something (in the case of the many bots that populate the online world). I’ve always taken the perspective that I have better things to do, but do I really? Have I truly lived if I haven’t tasted the victory of overcoming a half-baked argument from an ill-informed or ill-advised person/bot? I can’t say that I have. How much of a man am I if I haven’t verbally bludgeoned a 12-year-old boy who spouted off a few trigger words on Twitter? I have my doubts.

I’ve never breathlessly followed every move of reality TV stars. The problem is that I wouldn’t recognize most of them if they walked through my front door right now. Recognition aside, think of all of the drama I’ve missed from not knowing that so-and-so is on her fourth boyfriend after she caught the last one cheating with her best friend’s mother’s dog’s veterinarian? I’d get dizzy just trying to figure that out. I’m not sure what reality these people represent but I’m in full FOMO mode here. I’m headed over to Instagram right now to add these people (who are they again?) to my feed.

It’s disappointing to look back on my life and realize I’ve missed out on the things that make a life worthwhile. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I fell asleep in school when the teachers talked about the need to resort to physical violence when you don’t get what you want. It’s not too late. I can make up for lost time. See you at Popeye’s.

The Curious Case of the Headless Snowman

Years ago, when my daughter was still a little girl, I took her into a Starbucks so that I could grab a coffee. As kids are wont to do, she lingered by the bakery case eyeing the sweets that lined the lower shelf. The countdown to Thanksgiving and Christmas had already begun, so Starbucks had reintroduced their snowman sugar cookies, and she wanted one. I caved and bought her one, which made her positively giddy. The sugar high will do that to a kid.

A few weeks later, I was in the drive-through at Starbucks (I’m sensing a pattern here) ordering a coffee (go figure) when my daughter chimed in from the back seat that she wanted another snowman cookie. Apparently, she’d found her favorite thing at Starbucks. I obliged and pulled around to the pickup window. After the cashier handed me my coffee and the cookie, I looked back at my daughter who eagerly extended her arms toward me indicating she wanted her cookie. I looked at her and smiled, and then, I bit the head off of the cookie.

I meant it as a joke, but my daughter gave me that mixed look of aggravation and disgust that I may or may not have received from her mother once before (okay, maybe a few times). She was mostly stunned. I had taken a presumptuous bite of her glorious treat, and she wasn’t happy. She didn’t cry, but when I handed her the headless snowman, she looked like I had put a lump of coal in her stocking. She stared into the paper wrapper, and then, she took the maimed cookie out and looked at it like she couldn’t eat it now that it had been disfigured. I laughed and made a comment about the “Daddy tax,” that overwrought go-to dad example meant to teach our kids about paying taxes.┬áMy daughter wasn’t too upset to eat the rest of the cookie. In fact, she recovered enough to laugh it off. She dismissed me as her silly daddy.

A few weeks later when she asked for another snowman cookie, she eagerly anticipated my response. I bit the head off again and she laughed heartily as if I had told a hilarious joke. My son even got into it because I did the same thing to him. He followed her lead and giggled about it as well. It became our thing during the holiday season. They’d ask for snowman cookies, and I’d bite the heads off before I gave them to them.

The snowman cookies returned to Starbucks recently, so I swung by and picked up a couple of them after work one night for my now teenage kids. I handed each of them the familiar Starbucks paper wrapper when I got home. They were smiling even before they looked inside the wrapper because they knew what I had done. My daughter plucked the headless snowman from the package and laughed. She knows she can always depend on me for a bad dad joke and a headless snowman cookie. I don’t get many smiles from my teenagers nowadays, but sometimes, an old bit does the trick.

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Two Frames

Years ago, my wife bought me two 5″x7″ picture frames so that I could put pictures of the kids on my desk at work. I’ve carried these frames everywhere I’ve been over the years from Seattle to Beijing, back to Seattle, and now to Atlanta. They’ve been the two constants in my decidedly minimalist offices through the years.

Since the kids started school, I’ve used these frames to hold their annual school pictures, so each fall when the kids bring their official photos home, I cut my copy from the stiff photo sheet and take it to work to replace last year’s photo in the frame. Since I can’t bear to part with pictures of the kids, I usually flip over the last photo and put the new photo on top squishing all of the past photos into the frame. While everyone else sees just the most recent photo, I know there are several years’ worth of photos lurking behind the glass.

The majority of the pictures I have of the kids are in digital form. I have tens of thousands of digital photos saved and backed up in multiple places so that nothing short of the apocalypse could destroy my treasure trove of pictures. These kids have just about every angle of their childhoods covered in photographic evidence. As they have become teenagers, the accumulation of pictures of them has slowed dramatically. If I can get my son to appear in a photo, it’s unlikely he will smile for it. He’s perfected the resting bitch face that’s indicative of being photographed by his dorky dad.

If I’m feeling sentimental, which happens quite frequently as I’ve gotten older, I’ll click on one of my photo folders and flip back in time. Some pictures make me wonder where all of the time has gone. Surely it hasn’t been that long ago since my now teenage daughter used to run from any corner of the house when she heard the theme to Dora the Explorer play on the TV. Maybe it has been a while. Somewhere in my aging mind time has been compressed or truncated so that two points separated by a vast number of days appear seemingly close together. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

Last week, my son finally remembered to bring his school pictures home so that I could have a physical copy of the true marker of time. For this picture he managed something that resembled a smile or a smirk. I’m not sure which it was, but at this point I don’t care as long as I have my picture. I dutifully cut it from the photo sheet and took it to work for the ceremonial flip of the photo in the frame on my desk.

When I cracked open the back of the picture frame, the photos from prior years spilled out onto my desk. One of them from several years ago landed right side up on my desk, and I was struck by the little boy staring back at me. Unlike his current photos, he had a big, jovial smile in this one. His face still had the round fleshiness of childhood. I shuffled through all of the photos and laid them out in chronological order. I could see the transformation from little boy to young man. For some reason, I felt like I had lost something. I had lost track of time. I had blinked and something happened that I didn’t want to happen.

I stared at the pictures for a moment before I gathered them up and put them back in the frame with only the mirthless teenager staring back at me through the shiny glass. Somewhere back in the annals of time is a baby who took ten hours to arrive, a toddler who used to do a funky little dance while he sang “Elephants Have Wrinkles,” a little boy who once jumped into my arms with joy when I returned from a long business trip, and a little boy who’d get so upset when he got water in his eyes during a bath or swim lessons that he spawned a phrase that his mother and I still use to this day. Those memories make me happy. I’m still undecided about the smirking teenager.

Closing Out the Year

On Saturday, I ran my eighth marathon of 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. With that race I’ve run a marathon in 44 of the 50 U.S. states leaving only six states to finish my 50 States Challenge. If all goes well, I will cross the finish line of the Manchester City Marathon on November 8, 2020 in New Hampshire next year to wrap up the 50 states. After two years of running eight marathons per year, I look forward to a year with only six marathons.

Back in 2010 when I decided to tackle this challenge, I laid out a plan to accomplish it in ten years before my 50th birthday. That plan had me running only five marathons per year, which, when spaced out properly, isn’t that difficult, but a disastrous year in 2014 where I only ran one marathon because of injury derailed that plan. It took a while to get back up to marathon shape, and I knew that if I was going to finish before my 50th birthday I’d have to increase the number of races I ran in the remaining years.

Running so many marathons in a year is not impossible. Many marathoners run much more, especially enthusiastic 50-staters, but inevitably, you sacrifice time when running so many marathons because your body cannot fully recover. I’ve seen this first hand the past two years as I’ve logged eight per year. My times have steadily declined, but it was a trade-off I was willing to accept when I decided to attempt to complete the 50 states in ten years like I had originally planned. Had I not ramped up the number of races, I would not have a chance of finishing in ten years. Now, that prospect seems likely assuming I don’t suffer an injury like I did in 2014.

Now that I’ve finished the 2019 race schedule, I’m going to take some time off. Well, not exactly. I’m going to take it easy or easier. I’ll still be out there running in the pre-dawn cold of late fall and early winter, but my runs will be short. I’m closing out the year in a steady but relaxed pace. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when the year began. Now, it’s time to get psyched for the year to come, but before I do, I’m going to relax.