The Long Game

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As a writer I can appreciate the importance of patience and perseverance. I can think of no other field where these traits are needed more than in writing. I joke that you don’t become a writer to boost your confidence unless you’re a masochist because writing is the field where confidence comes to die. Let’s face it, the arts are subjective no matter how you slice it. One person’s masterpiece is another’s worthless junk. That’s just the way it is. The only thing that separates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one is the ability to stay in the game long enough to get read by an audience larger than your beta readers.

While I’m still working toward that goal myself, I’m no stranger to the long game. Over eight years ago, I set a goal to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turned 50 years old. On my 48th birthday on Saturday, I finished my 36th state when I crossed the finish line at the Rehoboth Beach Seashore Marathon in Delaware. It’s been a long and challenging journey to this point, but I can almost see the big finish line now that I’m within 14 states of completing my goal.

This journey has not been without its challenges. Training for and running a marathon is no small feat when you’re just an average Joe runner with a family and a day job who also happens to be an aspiring writer. Luckily, writing and running are somewhat symbiotic since I find myself with hours of time to think about something other than the fact that my feet are pounding the trail. I’ve worked through many a plot twist while running, and creative lightning has struck more than a few times in mid-run. Thankfully.

Nevertheless, this journey across the 50 states has required copious amounts of patience and perseverance just like my writing journey has. I’ve improved, regressed, and improved again. I’ve had good times in races (hello, Georgia Marathon) and bad ones (yikes, Route 66 Marathon) just like I’ve had good and bad times in my writing. There have been times when I thought I’d have to quit these journeys. In 2014, I suffered an Achilles injury that luckily did not require surgery but has hampered me since. I didn’t know if I would make it back to the marathon level, but I did. I kept going, and now, I’m at 36 states. Here at the end of 2018, I’m no further along in my writing journey than I was in 2012 when this all began, but I’m going to keep moving forward. I feel compelled to do so because just like that elusive 2:55 marathon time, I think I can be a writer.

The good thing about my running goals is that I have concrete race finish times to track my progress. Finishing is the goal. I have a medal board with a map of the U.S. (pictured above) that lets me see my progress at any point. I like having this physical reminder of where I’m at and where I want to be. I wish there were something similar for my writing goals, but often, there’s nothing more than silence. I won’t let this deter me. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I certainly won’t stop now.

Awakening

The ambient light filtered through my bedroom windows in the dark of the early morning. A street light and a lone outdoor light fought the darkness not far from the corner of my house. To my gaping irises, the light seemed impossibly bright, enough to give shape to the furniture in the bedroom.

I raised my wrist toward my face and my watch brightened displaying the time: 3:10 A.M. Normally, I’d be in deep sleep at this time, but my brain had things to say and it wanted an audience. I tried to shush it, but it kept insisting that these words could not wait. I turned one way and then another as if the position of my body would lull my brain to some semblance of sleep, but it remained adamant that I listen. A few more tosses and turns made me wonder if I should get up and start my day, but my body pleaded with me to stay put.

I rolled over on my back and stared up at the subtle glow on my ceiling. Shadows played across its screen rippling like the tiny waves from a pebble thrown into a calm lake. My brain had my attention. The words flowed. I don’t know if my slumber made them more than what they were, but as I listened, they sounded elegant and enthralling. The first stanza in a song or the first chapter in a book. I held the words in my hands. They felt soft and warm, comforting. My brain continued to chatter until the first pages became very clear.

I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed debating whether to go downstairs to my office and type the words I saw in my head. Instead, I trudged to the bathroom. Maybe I did drink too much coffee before bed, or maybe this was my body’s way of interrupting my brain. No doubt the rest of me is passive-aggressive.

I dragged my feet across the carpet toward my bed and returned to the warmth of its heavy covers. My brain still screamed for an audience. I promised that I’d do something in the proper morning, not at this ungodly hour. We argued. I won, and eventually I fell back asleep.

When I awoke again, the words still pressed against my skull begging to be released. My brain stood, hands on hips, eyes rolling at me as if to say “I told you so.” First, I started the coffee. Then, I put the words on the page. They flowed like water from a faucet, smooth and even. The page filled up, and my brain exhaled relief. The words needed to be freed from the confines of my head. Now, they have a life of their own unencumbered my sleep preferences.

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

The Scene of the Story

Inspiration isn’t sequential, predictable, or convenient. Oftentimes, when I’m writing a novel, an idea for a scene will strike, and I’ll get very excited about writing it. I’ll spend hours crafting it and honing it to capture the emotion of the moment, and then, I’ll realize that it doesn’t belong at that point in the novel, that it’s likely a scene for much later after I’ve written other scenes. This happens repeatedly until I end up with a jumble of scenes that all belong in other parts of the novel. It makes for a discombobulated mess.

As much as I would like to think writing a novel is a linear process, it’s not. It quickly goes off the rails if I try to organize it in such a fashion. I’ve attended writing classes and seminars where the instructors try to put the writing process into little boxes that you fill up and move along an assembly line. I have this spreadsheet template I was given at one very good writing program, but when I use it, I feel like my creativity is being stamped out like a campfire that is no longer needed.

I’m at my best when my ducks are swimming fancifully all over the lake. When they’re in a row, I feel stilted and uninspired, yet how can I put a bow on the resulting mess? Too much backstory, convoluted plot points, unlikable characters, and other problems nest in the nooks and crannies of a novel in utero. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on perspective, this is the result of an organic approach to writing. I like to let the characters evolve themselves and point me in the next direction. It feels more believable with this approach, but like real-life people, characters are full of contradictions, which either make a story intriguing or doom it to the proverbial draft desk drawer.

In my mind, the straight-laced, anal retentive side battles constantly with the laid-back, come-what-may side as I write a novel. I’m constantly re-reading what I’ve written where the straight-laced side corrects and tidies up as I read along. The laid-back side sighs “Whatever”, but when it comes time to create the next chapter, the laid-back side powers my fingers across the keyboard like a virtuoso piano player banging out a complicated Beethoven concerto.

The result is that I write by feel, which means I write what I’m inspired to write on any given morning. When I feel in the groove, I can knock out two thousand or more words in an hour or so in the morning. If I let myself get too hung up on the structure, I’ll stifle myself and spend more time reading and staring at a blank screen than writing. This approach has yet to prove effective. I have six completed novels, but none of them are at a point of publication. All of them sit in the virtual draft drawer, but I keep writing, scene by scene, and one of these days, it will all come together. Somehow.

The Things We Cannot Keep – Chapter 2

The cabin was originally built in 1908 by my paternal great-grandfather. It had been improved and expanded several times over the years, and at one point it had been the only cabin on Baker Lake. My great-grandfather had owned all of the land surrounding the lake, but he sold some of the land to fund other business ventures including the bank at which my grandfather and father had worked. My grandfather finished selling all of the remaining acreage save for the vast plot around the cabin on the west end of the enormous lake. The size of the family plot ensured that we’d never see another inhabitant around us, but most of the forest land that bordered our land had been donated to the National Forest Service decades ago by the estate of a wealthy landowner who had passed before he had had the chance to do much development. Some smaller landowners built a couple of cabins on the other side of the lake next to the winding, tar-and-gravel road that circumscribed the lake, but that was it. Our cabin was the perfect place to escape the world. Anything and nothing could happen and no one would ever know.

Electrical lines had been extended to the cabin in the early 1970s before I was born and before our father started bringing us here for our annual summer trips. Dad had probably done more to expand and improve the cabin than his father or grandfather had ever done. He added the second floor loft and another bedroom on the main floor. He had expanded the kitchen and made the living room much bigger with a grand fire place to match. He had also torn down the old porch and made it into a wrap-around structure that extended all the way out and over the lake for several feet. He had kept the rustic feel of the cabin while giving it a touch of the modern luxuries of the time.

As a kid, I loved the sound of the gravel popping beneath our tires when we turned off the road and snaked our way up the driveway toward the cabin. To this day, that sound reminds me of long summer days jumping off the dock into the cool lake water, as cliche a childhood memory as one could have. The cabin smelled old like a musty coat stored in an attic for years. The smell assaulted my nose on the first day at the cabin every year, but then, it faded as if the lake water we tracked from the dock to the kitchen and living room washed it away.

The sturdy cabin had survived decades in the withering environs of the Pacific Northwest. Snow piled up in the winter beating down its cedar shake roof. A constant light rain seeped into every crack and crevice of its walls during most of the year except for the glorious few months of the year when the sun warmed and dried its wooden walls. Even an occasional earthquake had rattled its foundation, but it withstood all of this, and every summer, when Dad yanked the wheel of the old Ford Bronco into that last bend of the driveway, I gleefully looked up at the expressive face of the cabin with the anticipation usually reserved for Christmas morning. The large windows above the porch gleamed at me, and the uneven porch roof line almost seemed like a smile. I used to think the cabin looked like a walrus smiling down at me from the last crook in the driveway. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the summer. I think Hank felt the same way because we’d both dart out of the car and rush to the cabin despite our parents’ pleas to help unload the car.

When we stayed here, we truly felt like a family even if that wasn’t the reality of our lives outside of Baker Lake. Mom and Dad acted like the ideal couple they portrayed back home in Portland, a mirage that belied the tension and mistrust that I never realized was there until much later. Hank, being older, had a much better sense of it, and given his impetuous nature, he often played them against one another.

Once, when I was eight or nine years old before Hank went totally off the rails, I remember being in the bedroom I shared with Hank, unable to sleep. I could hear Hank snoring, but all else was quiet. The windows were open because the unusually hot summer had overstayed its welcome, but a cool breeze rolled in off the lake buffeting the curtain sheers like some sort of Halloween ghost. The breeze felt good, especially since my bed stood right in its path, but my attention focused on the end of the dock where my parents sat next to each other in two of the Adirondack chairs. I could see their dark forms and hear the slight murmurs of their idle chat. I couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying, only one or two words traversed the space between us, but their voices were calm and steady. I watched as my dad leaned in and kissed my mom as the curtain shear batted the window. They held that kiss for the longest time. When he pulled away, my mom scooted closer to him and put her head on his shoulder. As much as I remember, they didn’t say another word in the swoon of the ambient light reflecting off the lake. I fell asleep with that comforting image of them in my head.

After Dad died, Mom did her best to keep the cabin up. She had mostly just updated the furnishings and appliances and decorated in a way that was clearly her style as far as I could tell. I hadn’t been to the cabin since Dad was alive, but Robbie had continued coming up here with Mom for many years afterward even while he was going to college on the East Coast. I couldn’t bear to come here without Dad, so I stayed away.

Eventually, Robbie stopped coming to the cabin too, and Mom made the trek on her own. She spent a lot of time up here before her health turned on her and she could no longer handle the drive. As far as I know, it had been four or five years since anyone had stepped foot in the cabin. The dust that covered everything told the same story.

Neither Hank nor Robbie had wanted the upstairs bedroom, so Hank took the one we had stayed in as kids and Robbie took his old bedroom. I was stuck in the bedroom that Mom and Dad had always taken when we stayed here. It felt weird being in that bedroom. I’d been in it plenty of times as a kid, but now as an adult, it felt like I was trespassing somehow.

Downstairs had grown quiet once Hank shut the door to his bedroom. He’d been loud and obnoxious after several beers, slurring his words and stumbling about as we had walked inside from the dock. I had said goodnight, but Hank just mumbled something incomprehensible and slammed the door. Robbie cut his eyes at me before he waved a wordless goodnight and clicked the door shut behind him after he flipped off the living room light. The tiny lamp in the loft failed to shine much light into the velvety darkness below. I stood there for a moment leaning on the loft railing looking at the blackened space my brothers had occupied. The ghosts of Hank and me trampled through the living room with muddy feet much to our mom’s protest. Robbie was so much younger than us that I hardly remembered him being here when we were kids.

After listening to Hank prattle on for much of the evening, I welcomed the silence. The long day and the tension had worn on me, and I felt tired, but when I turned out the lamp and lay back on the bed, my mind raced circles around me. The full moon brightened the room and gave the shadows a soft edge. I turned away from the windows, the sheers no match for the moon. I considered closing the curtains, but I wanted to wake up to the sunrise like I had on so many summer mornings as a kid. I turned over a few times before I sat up and stared into yawning space of the loft. I could hear the refrigerator humming below, but no other sound greeted my ears.

Finally, I got out of bed and walked over toward one of the big windows. I parted the sheer and glared out onto the dock below. The three Adirondack chairs sat near the water’s edge, dark shadows in the bright moonlight. They were empty of course, but for a moment, I thought I saw Mom and Dad sitting down there, fingers intertwined leaning into each other as they watched the ripples of the lake bat the moonlight. I blinked a few times and they were gone, but something heavy weighed on my chest.

I wondered what they would make of the three of us here at the cabin again. The last time we were all here at the same time, Robbie was still a little boy. Hank had only begun to cause trouble, and I still idolized my older brother in spite of the cracks that had formed in our relationship.

The memories rushed back to me again. Mom and Dad were young again. Robbie was an ambling toddler whom we had to keep away from the edge of the dock. Hank stood tall and lanky with the awkwardness of a teenager, and I was the fawning younger brother who wanted to do everything his older brother did. That time seemed simpler and happier despite the complications that were brewing, but maybe I just felt that way because that’s the way everyone views their youth. Things always seem simpler and easier when you’re young because adulthood is ugly and messy and burdened with the weight of experience.

A young Hank chased me to the edge of the dock below. I jumped in the air and hugged my legs to my chest before I cannonballed into the water. He slid to a stop at the edge of the dock laughing along with me as he teased me from up high. I swam further away from the dock taunting him between my huge gulps of air. Mom sensed we were getting out of hand and gave us a warning. Hank ignored her. He always did. He jumped into the water after me, and I swam frantically to the other side of the dock. I heaved myself up onto the dock and ran away just as Hank tried to grab my ankle from the water below. My laughter almost toppled me, but I made it to Dad’s side under the porch awning before Hank could pounce. Hank stopped a few feet from us and glared at me.

“Henry, will you tell them to stop horsing around before one of them gets hurt?” my Mom pleaded from the chair next to Dad’s.

Dad lifted his head up and looked at us from behind his mirrored sunglasses. I couldn’t tell, but he had been napping in the shade of the porch. “Ellen, boys will be boys. Let ‘em have fun.” His voice was groggy but firm. My mom sighed her displeasure and shot Hank and me a stern look. I made a beeline for the edge of the dock again and dove into the water. This time Hank came in right after me, but the game of pursuit abruptly ended when we saw a duck on the edge of the lake and decided to pursue it. Those summers were like that, joyous and meandering and seemingly never-ending.

Rules for the Road

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of my life. When I was younger, I had all of these idealistic visions of how my life would turn out. I had more goals than I would ever have the time or energy to achieve. To be honest, my approach was scattershot, a random spraying of colors across a blank canvas.

Over the years I’ve tried to rein in my restless enthusiasm. I’ve whittled down my goals to things that were truly important. I cast aside those that were obviously outside the realm of realistic possibility. That has helped some, but long-held habits die hard, and just when I think I’ve herded all of the cats into the pen, a few stragglers break away from the crowd and dart into another room.

A few years ago, I boiled down my life-long goals to four. These four things are the most important things to me. I even have these four goals typed onto a small strip of paper and taped to the bottom of my computer monitor in my home office. That way I am reminded of them every day, and I’m forced to reckon with them when I lose my focus. Despite my best efforts, it’s still not enough. I do things that don’t serve the purpose of those goals. I waste time. I get distracted. I lose momentum.

I think about this when I’m on my runs and when I have any other time to think uninterrupted.  I look for ways to mitigate my tendency toward entropy when it comes to my goals. I chastise myself for being unruly and undisciplined. I’m disappointed that I fail to stay focused.

Not all is lost. I just need some guardrails to keep me on the path toward my goals like those bumpers little kids use at the bowling alley to keep the ball in play so that they don’t get discouraged with the difficulty of bowling. Sometimes, adults needs bumpers, or in my case, I need rules of the road to keep me focused.

I will not waste time doing things I don’t want or need to do. This will be the hardest rule to follow. Life itself invites so many of these things into my daily routine. Some things I will have to do regardless because they are just a fact of life like laundry, commuting, or chasing a pointless rabbit at work, but everything else will meet critical scrutiny and be put into one of two buckets: (1) I want/need to do it or (2) Bullshit.

I will either be brutally honest or silent. I spend too much time thinking about how others will respond to me and catering my message to that end. I play out scenarios in my head that distract me for hours on end. The truth is I matter to very few people. I need to focus only on those people and let the others go about their merry lives. Rather than wasting time on crafting messages, I will instead be brutally honest or silent. Silence doesn’t mean acquiescence; it just means I don’t want to spend time defending my position. I tell my kids to pick their battles and only fight the ones that matter. I need to take my own advice.

I will turn myself off more often. This one sounds counter-intuitive, but constantly being on and focused on the task at hand wears me down. It dulls my senses, hampers my creativity. My work often bleeds into my weekends. Our household schedule frequently whips up a storm of activity like a cavalry stomping out of town in hot pursuit of the bad guy. My workweeks pulsate like a tender bruise after a fight. It all culminates in a boiling pot that threatens to spill over into the hiss of the fire. I need to step back more frequently, and when I’m on, I’ll be better for it.

I think I will type up these rules on a small strip of paper and put them on my computer monitor because I guarantee that I will need a reminder at least once a day that some things are worth it and some things are not. I need that clarity.

Millisecond

The lady in the pink shirt tried to kill me. Well, not really, but she was the last thing I saw when it happened, when my world upended to the screech of tires on worn pavement and the smell of burnt rubber. There, in the suspension of impossibly-slowed time, her pink shirt blotched my field of view like paint splattered onto a clean window. I don’t remember much beyond the abysmal and suffocating pink hue.

Earlier, pink was the furthest color from my mind. Blue, in fact, held my interest, as in a deep blue sky. Fall had arrived and, with it, the deepest, clearest blue sky I had seen in a while. The haze of an exasperated summer had lost its tenuous grip on the city and slowly waltzed out of town like a spurned lover. In its wake, a comforting breeze rifled through the still-green leaves of equidistant trees planted along the wide sidewalk. The starkly blue sky cut an outline around the tall trees and the block buildings that rose even higher. The city sighed in relief and basked in the relative chill of the changing season.

Red blasted my senses. A coppery taste filled my mouth, warm and unsavory. I coughed, but instead of a forceful exhale of unneeded air, I wheezed like a balloon with a tiny leak. A dark red covered my hands and my arms. The red lights flashed on the street beside me. A red bag rested next to me. A woman wailed in a red anguish.

White crept into my vision, blotting out the red like a rising tide slowly engulfing the sand on the beach. It receded and brightened, and I could hear the ocean even though I was nowhere near it. Then, as if someone had entered the dim room and flipped on a bright light, the white was all I could see like a flashlight aimed at my face. It felt warm and inviting, not unlike the blue sky I had seen earlier. My inner eye fluttered, shutting and closing like a squeaky swinging door until in came to a final rest. I wondered why the lady in the pink shirt had wanted to kill me as my thoughts fluttered into the slight breeze and the silence slowly engulfed me.