The Lessons of 2020 and Beyond

2020 is behind us, but the mood carries on, so we find ourselves in limbo, able to reflect on our recent past while still experiencing it.

On December 31, it seemed as if most people were optimistic that 2021 was going to be instantly better than 2020. But as the coronavirus has persisted and after the Capitol riots, a co-worker and I agreed that 2021 is just 2020 overtime. I’m glad I prepared myself for the possibility that 2021 may suck harder than 2020.

Last week, Texas was hit with an epic storm. Millions lost power. Some lost water or had to boil before use. Compared to some, my family was lucky. We were without power for most of Monday and Tuesday, but we did have little blocks of time in which we were electrified, allowing us to recharge our devices and prep meals in advance.

Though this recent polar vortex, arctic blast, deep freeze–whatever you want to call it–was a new challenge, in so many ways it echoed my biggest takeaway of 2020:

Even well-functioning systems are fragile.

America was on a roll before the pandemic. The stock market looked as if it could go only up. And it was a given that America would be business-as-usual on any given day.

When was the last time the whole nation slowed down? The 1970s oil crisis? World War II, when everyone had to sacrifice in some way to support the war effort? We can argue about the specific answer to the question, but the larger point stays the same: In so many ways, we’ve had it so good for so long.

What could possibly derail this gravy train? Apparently, all it took was a virus that mutated in a wet market in some little corner of China. There’s no point in recapping what has happened since then: We’ve all experienced it and we’re all aware, and if this doesn’t apply to you, how? Who are you? I wanna know.

Texas is a state proud of its size. At one time while driving around Dallas-Fort Worth, you could find billboard signs advertising that Texas is bigger than France and that DFW Airport than the island of Manhattan. If you go to a restaurant and find yourself wondering what “Texas size” means, rest assured it ain’t the diet portion.

So when Texas gets a taste of a winter storm, it gets a BIG taste. As I said before, I lost power for significant portions of last week, but some people were without power and water for days. Some people’s homes were destroyed due to water damage from burst pipes. The damage was big and the insurance claims will be big and the FEMA relief will likely be big.

This experience prompted me to ask, When was the last time I had to go without power for multiple days? I imagine I last experienced this in the ‘90s as a kid when north Louisiana got hit with a freak ice storm. (And my wife wonders why I hate the cold.)

We take for granted that we’ll have electricity, running water, and natural gas at our beck and call. We expect restaurants and businesses to be open. We expect grocery stores to keep their shelves stocked with everything we could want or need.

And yet it takes only one chill to derail it all. To bring West Texas oil production to a halt. To negate the streak of comfort we grew accustomed to.

Of course, maybe the fallout wouldn’t have been so drastic if Texas’s power infrastructure were properly winterized, but don’t tell Governor Abbott that as he seeks to blame anything else for the disaster.

Onward to Lesson #2:

No matter how impressive an individual or organization, remember that he or it can still falter.

It’s early 2021. The world has at least three vaccines. America, whose citizens found a way to all but guarantee two-day shipping to nearly every corner of the lower 48, can’t roll out doses in a timely manner. Yes, there are some unusual circumstances, such as at least one of the vaccines needing to be stored at extreme cold temperatures, but there have been problems getting doses to people who want them even when the vaccine has reached vaccination locations.

If you had to say that America had only one thing figured out, logistics would be a good candidate. And yet we’re pooping on ourselves in a crucial moment.

To be clear, I don’t mean to come across as pointing the finger. In light of my ignorance, I know that this vaccine rollout is far more complex than I will ever understand. But one of the keys to daily contentedness lies in managing one’s expectations. And we need to start expecting things to go wrong more often, and if they don’t go wrong–well, hopefully we’ll be that much more appreciative.

That brings me to lesson #3, which is more of a general bonus lesson rather than one tied to 2020 and beyond:

Don’t compare a situation to an ideal of Utopia. Instead compare it to its past iterations.

When I hear people criticize a system they’ve become disenchanted with, they usually jump to the question of why isn’t the system better AKA perfect.

To give an example that (hopefully) won’t anger anyone, you’ve likely seen people online asking why we didn’t get hoverboards back in 2015 like the Back to the Future franchise promised back in the ‘80s. I know, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve been cheated. But keep in mind that just over 100 years ago, we had to travel by horse and buggy. A trip that now takes an hour in your car might have been a multiple-day trip, depending on the terrain and conditions. And then you’d get halfway there, and your horse would step in some soft ground and break his leg and you’d have to take him out like Old Yeller and ask yourself whether you want to head back home or continue on to your destination on foot. When I look at it that way, I’m fine missing out on hoverboards.

For the record, this doesn’t mean that we should only be content with what we have and not strive for progress or something better. But we should hold close an appreciation of where we’ve come from. Also, acknowledging progress made gives a bit of hope, because if we’ve done better in the past, there’s no reason we can’t do better in the future. But looking ahead to a Utopia that will never exist actually does the opposite: It gives the impression that we will never achieve greatness.

And of course, you may say that 100 years is so long ago, we should expect to have it much better. But keep in mind that 100 years is now little more than a lifetime (at least in America).

The world changes in the blink of an eye. If you’re not convinced of that, at least acknowledge that your world can chance in such a span.

And 2020 and beyond have shown me the importance of being mentally prepared for the possibilities.

Remember That You Must Die

For Christmas, I asked my wife for a pendant, an unusual request for a couple reasons. For one, I don’t wear much in the way of jewelry or accessories, aside from my wedding band and my eyeglasses. And then there’s the matter of the pendant’s inscription: Memento Mori, a staple of Stoic philosophy.

Or: Remember that you must die. Not exactly the most feel-good phrase on the surface. But I requested the pendant because I do find the words inspiring.

I’ve been on an interesting journey navigating through grief since losing both of my parents back in 2011. Much of that journey involved coming to terms with mortality. Sure, before 2011, I knew that no one lived forever. I had seen other people such as grandparents slide into that great unknown. But my parents’ being so young–in their early fifties–forced me to accept the inevitability and unpredictability of death.

Remember that you must die.

How is accepting that you must die different from knowing that you must die? Accepting means you no longer try to deny it or fight it. You simply allow it to be. To accept may sound like a passive act, but believe me, to do so can require action. And lots of tears.

I’ve spent the last decade navigating different flavors of grief. In one, I miss someone who was my rock more than I had to that point realized, and without whom I had to learn to fortify myself–

Remember that you must die.

–and in another, much was left unsaid, so much pain and confusion circling around two words: What if?

Remember that you must die.

And now, as I often find myself wondering how many days I have left–

Remember that you must die.

–and I hope I don’t look back on my life with regret–

Remember that you must die.

–and when I reflect on the fact that I am now a parent and wonder how much today’s actions may influence the grief they will experience after my passing–

Remember that you must die.

–and when I think about what I want to accomplish, while accepting that I don’t have the time or the capability for it all–

Remember that you must die.

–those five words echo in my mind. That’s why I now wear Memento Mori near my heart: for the hope that I will never forget.

Imitation of Life

This evening I’ve been listening to R.E.M. for no obvious reason, maybe other than the fact my birthday is on Friday. Which means my mother’s birthday is on Saturday. And later this year I’ll recognize ten years since she’s passed. Time flies when you’re coping, rebuilding, moving on.

R.E.M. was my mother’s favorite band late in her life. I don’t know if she could articulate what exactly about the band drew her in. And I’m not sure she ever identified a favorite tune.

But tonight “Imitation of Life” is resonating with me. Maybe it’s the literalism of the title, which sums up a portion of my life since.

Imitation of life.

The time in which I was going through the motions, trying my best to push forward as I was falling apart inside. The time in which I still had to work through my grief. The time in which I learned so much so fast: about myself, about relationships, about life.

Not that any of that is over and done. The work is still taking place, but the low-lying fruit has been taken care of, and so now is the time for fine-tuning.

And when I look back at the journey–where I started, where I am, and where I hope to one day be–I don’t feel bad if I smile, because I know that the experience wasn’t wasted.

I’m better for it. Because I allowed myself to be. Because I put in the work.

And to quote Kurt Vonnegut:

If this isn’t nice, what is?

2021 Goals

I no longer see goals as pending accomplishments but as immediate motivators. Little happens without movement, and movement is easier with a rough outline. Instead of plotting your trip down to the last tenth of a mile, maybe just head north for a while and don’t feel bad if you take an alternate path when you find a boulder in your way.

But if you possess enough dynamite to remove the obstacle, by all means let ‘er blow and carry on your merry way. Just remember: Cool guys don’t look at explosions. They blow things up and then walk away.

Writerly goals

Read 30 books

I’m not sure how many books I read in any given year because I’ve never kept a list, even though I’ve said I was going to numerous times. I want to set a reading goal, but the fashionable “50 books in a year” seems a bit much for me. For one, I’m a slow reader. And life happens and more important things get in the way. 30 seems like a reasonable goal for nearly anyone, so I’m going to give it a shot in 2021.

Take 3 writing classes

Writing is my hobby, one I want to invest more into. Last year I took a technical writing class. This year I want to take three writing classes. I don’t care whether the classes pertain to professional writing or creative writing, and I can get them on the cheap with Coursera.

Entertainment

Finish watching Kids in the Hall

I bought the series DVD collection for Kids in the Hall two years ago. I’m pretty sure one of my unofficial goals for 2020 was to finish watching the series. I can’t believe I didn’t do it, since I, like most other people, spent more time at home in 2020.

As it stands, I’m about halfway through Season 2. That leaves about 75 episodes. Gotta get busy planting myself in front of the idiot box.

And while we’re at it I might as well finish rewatching Chappelle’s Show.

Fashion

No more blue jeans

Look, blue jeans suck. They’re heavy and uncomfortable. Ugh. There are better options: khakis, chinos, going nude.

Everyone knows that these days, real activism needs a hashtag, so join me in making #nodenimin2021 a reality.

Onward to 2021

I thought I could come up with more goals, but seeing how the universe threw a curveball and wrecked all my plans for 2020, maybe it’s best to keep things simple this year.

Happy New Year, y’all

Place That Once Were

A random abandoned RV and car near Terlingua, TX

Landmen have an interesting relationship with history. Some will harken back to the good old days of driving out to a rancher’s property and discussing business among prospect maps spread over the hood of a pickup truck and closing deals with handshakes. If you stick around long enough in this field–I’m nearing my thirteenth year–you likely develop at least a passing interest in the history of the land and the minerals underneath. And the history of the owners, sometimes leading to revelations of betrayal and the accompanying family feuds. When researching title, you may become more familiar with other people’s family trees than you are of your own. And don’t let anyone tell you that wills, probate proceedings, and affidavits can’t be exciting–sometimes you find some four-letter words and some spicy accusations in those documents.

A desire to advance my career led to a five-year stint in Midland, Texas, a place not known as a hotspot for things to do. Desperate times call for desperate pleasures, as Bill Ryder-Jones said, so in the land of oil, even your escapes may be related to petroleum in some way. At some point, I spent a day driving across Reagan County, starting with a town called Stiles, once the county seat until it was bypassed by the railroad and oil was discovered in Big Lake. These days little remains in Stiles, other than the remains of the former courthouse.

The old Reagan County courthouse in Stiles, TX

A former neighbor told me that the chainlink fence surrounding the old courthouse was erected after someone tried to burn it down a few times. I do not condone trespassing, but the fence had been cut when I visited, so I couldn’t resist the temptation to step inside.

Inside the courthouse

Next my adventures saw me going to the settlement once called Best. I was surprised Best had a sign announcing its border, since I saw nothing else to suggest anyone ever lived within its limits. I doubt much worth remembering ever happened there since it was said that Best had the worst residents.

The last leg of my Reagan County world tour took me to Texon, the home of the Santa Rita No. 1, the well which gave birth to decades of drilling in the Permian Basin. Aside from a monument to the well named after the patron saint of foolish endeavors–an appropriate name since crews sought oil for two years before finding reliable production–I saw an old scout shack with some used tires and a decaying goat.

The old scout shack in Texon, TX

Each of these towns, which would be considered dead by modern measures, had its day and its history. These towns were once functioning communities with schools, banks, markets, churches, and post offices. These were places where people built lives. Places where people dreamed of a bright future. But these places in Reagan County are hardly alone, as the same goes for Thurber, Texas (way over in Erath County), a former company coal mining town, which was at one time the largest settlement between Fort Worth and El Paso, and which now boasts a population of five, along with two restaurants and an old smokestack as an homage to its past. Who would have thought that the first electrified city in Texas would someday be reduced to a footnote in the history books.

The lone smokestack remaining in Thurber, TX

And the same goes for the Baker Hotel, located in Mineral Wells and formerly a resort for the elites who thought the town’s spring waters had therapeutic qualities. According to Wikipedia, “the star-studded guest list included Glenn Miller, Lawrence Welk, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and even The Three Stooges. It is even rumored by local historians that legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow may have spent a night or two at the Baker.” An investment company had purchased the Baker and had broken ground on renovations before the pandemic, so maybe there’s a chance that the old hotel will be once again be somewhere new memories are made.

The Baker Hotel circa 2015

At one time, people would have imagined these locations would last forever, and now these places are little more than distant memories. If such places have come and gone, why should we expect any of our comforts to be immune to such possibility? Why would we expect our jobs to be invulnerable? Our industries? Whole swaths of an economy? The pandemic has shown the flaws in many of our collective assumptions, and history echoes some of those callouts.

More often than not, we should live through the lens of probability: If x then y; what do the statistics say? Yet there is utility in entertaining possibility, if only to be slightly more prepared for it. History can be a great tool for learning possibility, because while history may not repeat itself, it does often rhyme. And sometimes it features rhymes accompanied by 808s and heartbreak.

Americans are horrible at accepting impermanence. Look no further than how hard some will fight for that extra year of life, often an extra year of pain and suffering. Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone…

Yet my life has improved as I’ve learned to accept that all I hold dear will be forgotten after the earth makes a few more passes around the sun. That is more than possibility or probability. It is inevitability.

When I visit ghost towns and abandoned places–places that once were–I can’t help daydreaming about the stories forgotten in time. These days, I think about the stories that have been lost through those dear to me who have passed. How many stories will be lost because of my reluctance to share? These thoughts and questions, which once seemed silly, became more important once I had kids.

I have a habit of living anywhere other than the present. I replay the past in my head and beat myself up for things I cannot change. I look ahead to catastrophes that may never materialize and work myself up over nothing. But with the help of meditation and Stoicism, I’ve become better at living in the moment, though like an addict, I relapse. Reminding myself of impermanence also helps. If precious moments are destined to be forgotten, then they should be enjoyed in their time.

Perhaps you’ve heard certain mantras that help to keep this in perspective for you:

Nothing lasts forever.

This too shall pass. (This mantra applies to the good times too).

Things come, things go.

But for me, seeing is believing.

Thankful for the Moments

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I can think of nothing more American than a whole day dedicated to stuffing your face while surrounded by your favorite people. I always appreciated that there was no expectation of gifts, though capitalism has found a way to creep in during the 21st century, as Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year and which was once reserved exclusively for the day after Thanksgiving, has now slid into Thanksgiving itself. In 2020, some retailers started offering Black Friday deals as early as October. In the old days, Thanksgiving was that last reprieve before we threw ourselves into the most consumerist part of the year.

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was an intimate affair, usually involving four to six people. The one time I remember involving more people, my aunt, with a flyswatter, chased my younger cousin across the front yard while they both screamed profanities at each other. That holiday was the only time I could remember a certain great uncle and a certain other cousin visiting. Good times.

My grandmother would always prepare too much food, but no one complained because we knew we would spend the rest of the day munching away on leftovers. My grandmother owned the day with a turkey and a ham and dressing and broccoli and green beans and mashed potatoes and rolls and who knows what else. But my mom owned dessert time with her cherry cream cheese pies. No one made dessert like my mom, which we discovered when my grandmother attempted to move into my mom’s lane and make the same pies, which somehow weren’t the same. Then, as my mom and grandmother exchanged recipes, we realized that my mom had neglected to use vanilla extract on her own pies. A slight oversight had turned into a staple.

After lunch AKA “the first round”, we might put a football game on the TV for some background noise. Or maybe my aunt would insist we watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade even though no one else have a damn. At least she wasn’t yet again campaigning that we watch The Last of the Mohicans, of which she had a VHS cassette in her purse, and which I years later watched and could not understand the hype, despite the greatness of Daniel Day-Lewis.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become bittersweet, as in 2011, the holiday was the last that I would spend with my mom because she passed away the following Monday morning after battling cancer for the last few months. So, of course, I can’t help thinking about her during this time of year.

Perhaps this time of year invokes in you similar thoughts of loved ones you’ve lost. Perhaps you feel down, which is understandable. But I hope that this year, you will instead join me in being thankful for what once was and for the time that you had with someone you now miss so dearly. We are lucky to have had special people in our lives even for the briefest moments, and we need to remind ourselves that no one is guaranteed such a gift in life.

We miss these people because they’re worth missing, and they’re worth missing because of the impact they had while they were in our lives on this earth.

And if we can’t be thankful for that, what can we be thankful for?

Types of Luck

Luck is a funny thing, if for no other reason than its many forms.

Sometimes good fortune falls into your lap for reasons you can’t explain. These happenings are luck in its purest form: luck for luck’s sake. Or dumb luck.

And sometimes good fortune appears as luck because of our perception, because we choose to see the good fortune as a gift rather than an entitlement.

And then there’s the luck that we can take credit for–the luck that appears due to our actions. This is often referred to as “creating your own luck.”

Regardless of the specific branch, once you accept that nothing in life is guaranteed and that anything good is some form of luck, you can start appreciating all the luck that you already have.

Perhaps identifying the type of luck isn’t nearly as important as simply recognizing luck when it graces us.

P.S. I was having these thoughts before I discovered Naval Ravikant’s podcast episode titled “Make Luck Your Destiny.” Rather than be discouraged by further proof of my lack of originality, I choose to take comfort in the fact I’m not alone in my observations.

Remembering the Dead

Every year I say I’m going to participate in the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2. And every year I forget to prepare. 2020 was no different.

My understanding is that the Day of the Dead is a day of celebration rather than mourning. Anyone can see why people would grieve after a death: Someone they love is gone, and the loss cuts deep. But that pain is usually rooted in the joy that loved ones gave while they were living. Why would we miss someone who brought no joy to our lives? Hopefully we’re spending our energy missing somethings worth missing.

I’ve talked plenty about death and loss in various blog posts, as dealing with death has become part of my life over the last few years. I spent the first few years after significant losses attempting to deny the pain I was feeling. The strategy did not work, and my life improved only after I processed my grief and accepted the true weight of my losses. I had to look into the abyss and accept my own mortality and the mortality of everyone else I knew and loved and would ever come to know and love.

It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it. —Seneca

Death is inevitable. It’s the last act of life. And along with taxes, death is the only guarantee in life. When I think about death in such a way, I find it silly to waste time fearing it. My time is better spent focusing on maximizing the time I have with those I love because while death is guaranteed, living the good life is not.

And perhaps that’s what we really fear.

It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live. —Marcus Aurelius

I’ve often said that I would not wish my experience with death on anyone else and of course, I would not wish it again upon myself. But now when I look at who I have become and the deeper understanding and appreciation I now hold for the beauties of life, I can’t imagine how I would be without those experiences. And when I accept that death is inevitable, I have to admit that I would only be kicking the can further down the road. I was destined to experience the pain at some point (unless I died before everyone else). Because I have found a way to process the grief and to learn from the experience, I am almost grateful for the hell I had to live through because having done so has led to the contentment I feel today.

And so, a day late, after having yet again missed the Day of the Dead, I celebrate and honor my dead with a reflection on what I have gained from my losses.

I love how Scott Galloway closes his blog posts, and so I’m going to steal it and use it for this post:

Life is so rich.

What We Teach Our Kids

Daniel Tiger was my daughter’s first love. Something about that cardigan-wearing feline caught her eye and stole her heart early. My wife approved since Daniel Tiger is an associate of Mr. Rogers and echoes many of the same values.

When children fall in love with a TV show, they are fine watching the same few episodes over and over. After a while, you learn all the songs and you sing them when the opportunities present themselves. These days when my son gets frustrated because he can’t accomplish a task, I’ll quote Daniel Tiger and sing:

Keep trying You’ll get better!

For a while, when my wife or I would do something worthy of recognition, the other would sing:

Thank you For everything you do!

Then we started singing each other’s praises in more subtle ways. I noticed I was thanking her for every meal she prepared. She was thanking me for making coffee, a task I would have done solely for my own selfishness as I am an addict to the bean. We were praising each other for the everyday things that we did. I enjoyed being praised, but I also enjoyed giving praise because being near people worthy of praise feels good. You’re reminded that you’ve surrounded yourself with good people you want to keep in your life.

This slight change in behavior may sound minor to non-parents, but what you show your kids is far more important than what you tell your kids. Monkey see, monkey do. Sorry, Mom, but it turns out your old adage Do as I say, not as I do isn’t great long-term strategy. I’ll have to remind myself of the importance of action when I’m later combating all my worst traits I’ve passed on to my kids.

Having more time at home as my daughter develops during the pandemic has made me realize that when we’re concerned about teaching our kids how to act in the world, we also have the opportunity to re-teach ourselves. Working on our children’s fundamentals is a good time to brush up on our own fundamentals. As long as we are alive, we have the opportunity to better ourselves, and when we do so, those nearest us reap the benefits.

And so the next time we’re telling our kids how to behave in certain situations, we parents would be better off pointing the finger back at ourselves and asking if we’re practicing what we’re preaching. Because that’s the best way for our kids to learn the behaviors we want them to repeat.

The Inner Critic

For over a week now, I’ve told myself that I need to write a new blog post. And for over a week now, I’ve failed to deliver. Few drafts get past the idea phase before they’re abandoned. Interesting ideas, upon further inspection, quickly find their way into the recycle bin.

The situation is little better for my fiction writing. Perhaps the difference is that being part of a writing group with regular submission deadlines obligates me to push through and deliver something. Still, it hasn’t been easy.

My inner critic has been harder than usual to please lately. I’m not sure of the source of the critic’s distaste. Perhaps his emotions are cyclical and it’s simply time for him to make himself heard.

Surely the pandemic deserves some of the blame. Though I feel better adjusted than in weeks past, the pandemic continues to affect us all. At the least, it has hindered social interactions, which are often a good source for writing ideas and inspiration. I hope more ideas will surface in day-to-day interactions as life gradually pushes toward a new normal.

I suppose a change in technique brings its own woes. When I first got back into writing, I wrote my first drafts using pen and paper.

Doing so made me feel better connected to the act of writing. I felt more in-tune with the process and I felt as if pen and paper gave me a better feel for the pacing and flow of my writings. That was fine when I was writing short blog posts and flash fiction pieces, but as I increase my ambitions and look to write longer pieces–at least in fiction–writing via computer or tablet and keyboard will be necessary for efficiency’s sake.

I know the best strategy is to keep showing up and to keep fighting and to wait the inner critic out, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do.

This isn’t the blog post I wanted to write, but at the moment it’s all I have. I’m going to hit Publish before the critic convinces me to delete it.

Accepting the Pandemic

Two weeks into Texas’s stay-at-home order, during a company-wide video chat, I told my co-workers that living in the time of coronovarius felt like the grieving process. At that point I was cycling through three of the five states of grief: denial, anger, and bargaining. Despite my best efforts, depression eventually came into the mix and I have no doubt my old friend will visit again, and probably much sooner than I would like. The journey hasn’t been the smoothest, but after six weeks or so, I finally touched the acceptance stage of grief. It may sound long overdue, but I took three years to accept what I was feeling after losing my parents, so this timeframe is much better in comparison.

When my office first shut its doors, I hoped the disruption would last only a couple of weeks. Now, at least in regard to this pandemic, I’ve dropped out of the prediction business. Even the experts have seen their best guesses miss too many marks. All models are wrong, but some are useful, as they say. It’s clear that no one has the answers.

When will this end?

The short-term answer–when will most businesses reopen and allow people to return to work–depends on where you call home, as governments are taking varied approaches. The long-term answer–when will the world at large return to normal–is complicated and layered. A better question is, what will our new normal look like? And how much of the old normal will carry over? The Economist expects 90% of the old economy to stay in tact, but that 10% change will have dramatic consequences. Something like this pandemic–something that touches and disrupts the lives of so many so fast–will not quickly be forgotten just because government officials give their blessings for the world to reopen all its doors again. Some people are already facing significant economic and professional challenges, as the unemployment figures show, and may continue to do so even after things open up again. Families may be reshaped as reports of domestic and child abuse are rising and divorces may rise just as they did in China. Some entire industries will be reshaped, their reward for survival.

Those of us able to work from home have the luxury of other considerations. What trivialities from our old lives do we miss more than we ever could have expected? I, for one, never realized that my daily commute brought some benefits (such as time to reflect or decompress between work and home) despite its annoyances. What old necessities do we now realize were wastes? Though I know the importance of networking, I now have very little desire to waste time at industry events with people I don’t enjoy spending time with. I have had a few exercises in re-aligning priorities and I doubt I’m alone in that regard. I’m lucky in that I have had some moments of clarity during my time at home.

I don’t know what’s ahead, but at least I will admit it, unlike so many armchair experts on TV or online. I can’t do much of anything to affect the outcome. But I have accepted where we are in this moment, and I will work to accept what awaits us–whatever the hell that is.

The Happening in Aurora, Texas

When you hear about Texas, a few things may come to mind:

  • Cowboys
  • The Alamo
  • Salsa and cheese dip
  • Big AF state

You likely don’t think of the state as possibly being home to America’s first UFO crash, which took place 50 years before the better-known Roswell incident. From my experience, most people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are unaware of the Aurora, Texas, UFO incident, even though it happened practically in their back yard.

Long story short, way back in 1897–before the Wright brothers blasted their fly rides into the sky and made it cry–a cigar-shaped spaceship wrecked into a windmill on the judge’s property. The pilot, some tiny human-like creature, was buried in the local cemetery.

Of course, any good alien story has to have some additional layers to it.

Supposedly, some metal from the wreckage was thrown into the property’s water well and a future owner would claim that the well water gave him gout and so he closed the well in.

When the locals buried the little alien man, they left a grave marker, which was supposedly later retrieved by the army. Truth ears have replaced the marker numerous times with some sort of rock or object over the decades. The cemetery will not allow anyone to exhume the alien, but according to the History Channel’s UFO Hunters, there is a collapsed and deteriorated grave at the alien’s plot.

Perhaps this story isn’t better known because it has been nearly unanimously accepted as legend and was most likely a PR stunt by a local journalist to stir up interest in the dying town. But it’s one I like to tell when I get the chance.

I do not believe in aliens insofar as little green men flying around in bubbly spaceships with strange lights and looking for people to abduct for the sake of a little probing action, but I do love the story behind the Aurora, Texas, UFO incident, so from time to time I go to visit the alien grave. And that’s what the LaCaze family did this past weekend, while following proper social distancing etiquette, of course.

I’ve visited the grave a handful of times over the years, and I never know what to expect before arriving. Before my first visit, someone had stolen the marker for the grave, so I had to rely on blogs and other resources to locate the grave on my own. I would not be surprised if I wrongly identified the spot during my first visit.

For my last few visits, rocks have served as a marker. People often leave little trinkets for the alien, and this past visit featured the most absurd collection I’ve yet to see.

During my latest visit to the alien grave, I regretted not visiting Roswell during the five years I lived in West Texas. The drive would not have been terribly long, and I had plenty of free weekends to cross state lines and gawk at some hokey alien stuff and listen to “The Happening” by Pixies on repeat. I was also reminded of why I enjoy investigating local abandoned places and local ghost stories and such–the stories, man. The stories, which can often entertain while also revealing something deeper about us: our anxieties, our hopes, our pains, our desperation.

My son was weirded out by the idea of an alien being buried in the Aurora cemetery. Even after I asked him how he could doubt it after seeing the grave, he held on to his skepticism. I was proud that he was not so easily swayed even by parental pressure, but I hope he was still able to enjoy the lore–the story– of it all.

Sunshine

I’ve lived my whole life in the Sun Belt, so Earth’s favorite star is no stranger to me. But only recently did I grow to appreciate the sun.

That appreciation likely grew out of the first week of Dallas County’s stay-at-home order, when those first few days brought grey skies and the daily probability of rain, the constantly dreary forecast complementing the mood of catastrophe. I grew up an indoor kid and into an indoor adult, but due to the extended stay-at-home order, I’ve never spent so much time inside my home as I have during these last five weeks.

Until recently, I never particularly enjoyed the heat of the sun. But now I find myself looking for excuses to soak up some rays. I’ve learned to enjoy pulling weeds in the front yard if only for the opportunity to get some natural vitamin D. And sometimes I pull up a chair in the back yard and sit with a book or my Kindle and catch up on some reading in the sunlight.

I’m sure my opinion of the sun will change once summer rolls in, and if history is any indicator, this Texas spring will be short-lived and short-enjoyed. But I’ll worry about that when the time comes. For now, I want to enjoy this gift of realization from social distancing.

The Privilege of Routine

If you’ve just woken from a coma and now find yourself unable to make sense of what’s going on–or not going on–around you, let me give you a TL;DR explanation: The world’s gone to shit in a relatively short amount of time. We all hope our current reality will be temporary, but there’s no denying where we are in this moment.

Take a deep breath. Cry if you need to. One more deep breath.

Most of us now have plenty of time to contemplate our pre-quarantine lives. The weekday morning Starbucks runs. Picking up Papa John’s simply because we don’t feel like cooking on a Tuesday night. Going to a mall on a Sunday afternoon just to get out of the house.

Our first reaction is likely to miss such events. But as time goes on, we may ask how much we needed those comforts, especially the longer we go without them.

Some are making predictions for a post-quarantine world: fewer Starbucks runs, cooking at home more, and perhaps staying at home more in general. Such changes may help to lessen the shock if or when another pandemic strikes.

I’m interested to see how things will shake out once the world starts spinning again. What businesses will survive, and which will close their doors for good? So many on Twitter are calling for others to support local businesses as much as possible. Will this consciousness maintain once we’ve restored and resumed our busy lives? What will the political implications be? What government restrictions will be enacted or lifted? How will this pandemic shape the conversations around universal healthcare or Universal Basic Income? Will this be the event that reunites us and brings us all back to a sensible center? Will it make us appreciate those we had come to loathe, like our libtard neighbors or our Repubtard bosses?

So many questions. How long will we have to wait for answers? The only thing we can known for certain is that we will see consequences well beyond quarantine.

I spent the first few days of quarantine mourning the death of my routine. I’m still mourning.

2019 was basically my year of building routine. A whole year examining my habits and identifying my priorities and rearranging my day and eliminating wasted activities to make time for what truly matters. I spent the first quarter of 2020 improving what I’d built in 2019.

And then in March all of that came to a halt as a pandemic forced us to adjust to a new normal.

I don’t miss my morning and afternoon commutes to and from the office, but I do miss the accompanying certainty of twice a day having at least 30 minutes to listen to music or podcasts or–as I had been practicing for a couple weeks before the call for social distancing–simply driving in silence and practicing mindfulness behind the wheel.

I miss the camaraderie with my co-workers. I miss our jokes and our banter.

I miss going somewhere else only to quickly tire of the place and return to the comforts of home. Though an introvert and a homebody, I was always comforted in knowing that the world was there, waiting for me to join whenever I was ready.

Before the order for social distancing, I saw routine as a necessity. But now I see that in some ways routine is a privilege. After all, to establish a routine is to assume that catastrophe will not come along and disrupt said routine. It is to assume at least a semblance of stability, something we now see none of us can take for granted.

Somethings Worth Missing

Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the whole “human experience” thing right. The concern usually arises when I’m expected to reminisce and recall specific memories. Ones that some people take for granted.

The catalyst is often an innocent question.

“What’s your earliest memory?”

I never know how to answer such a question. I have only the vaguest recollections from kindergarten, let alone anything before. Is there any utility to pushing myself closer to the beginning of my own timeline? I don’t see the point, but am I alone?

These days life moves at the speed of light. And I’m on a particular ray, weaving in and out of traffic and doing all I can to keep from crashing and burning–aren’t we all? One day my road will come to a dead end and I don’t know how many miles I have left. But I can’t see the hazards in front of me if I’m looking back at the obstacles and triumphs and failures of my past.

Why am I reluctant to dig deeper? Is my avoidance a coping mechanism? Like my dark and self-deprecating sense of humor? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Has my past experience of grief and accompanying depression eaten away my memory or somehow erected a barrier somewhere in my mind just tall enough to discourage scaling it? At times either of these explanations feels possible.

Do I shy away because I don’t like the old me? And who wants to go out of his way to visit someone whose company he does not enjoy?

Is it because I know that people as a whole misremember far more than they are aware? Sadly, this acknowledgment of weakness in human behavior does not make me immune. How accurate are the stories I’ve told myself over the past 35 years?

Sometimes, when writing about formative and intimate events such as the loss of my parents, I ask myself, Is that really how it happened? If I question life-changing events that have haunted me for nearly a decade, it makes sense to question memories older and rarely recalled.

But the memories are still there, waiting to surface when the time is right. When a movie or a book or a song hits the right note. When someone else shares a certain type of anecdote. When certain birthdays or holidays or anniversaries come up. In these moments, I can feel the memories even if I can’t articulate them. They’re there. Somewhere.

Maybe I don’t want to look back because certain memories are too painful. Or maybe certain memories are so joyous that remembering and acknowledging the impossibility of ever reliving them is in fact a source of pain. That’s the thing about grief: Whether you’re grieving someone deceased or a failed relationship or loss of job or status–whatever the case–the feelings of loss and the resulting pain are a product of past success or happiness.

Grief is a reminder of the good thing we once had. Some people don’t grieve because they haven’t lost anything worth grieving yet. But is it possible that some people do not grieve because they have never had anything worth missing?

During my time in West Texas, I made some great friends. We were an awesome foursome, all working in the same industry and simply fond of each other’s company. We would often attend networking events together and hang out with each other the whole time, which defeated the purpose of going out of our ways to attempt to network with other people.

I was the first to move away. A few months later, another moved to Austin. A pair is still there. They meet for lunch or drinks every once in a while. We all catch up with each other from time to time. But it’s not the same. And it never will be. And when I talk about that friend group, I usually close by declaring I’ll never have friends like that again. But I don’t say it to be a downer. I say it with appreciation for the moments that were. I got lucky once by making such friends as I approached my thirties, a time when your friendships are pretty much written in stone. I do not expect to get so lucky again.

Similar feelings arise when I think about the deceased I’ve grieved and will continue to grieve. All that I miss–the funny moments and inside jokes, the support, the lessons, the familiarity on so many levels–are gone and can’t come back. My deceased and the relationships we had cannot be replaced. That hurts to admit.

But at least I’ve experienced somethings worth missing. And for that I’m grateful.

Bye Bye, Miss American Frys

“Daddy, can we buy a ninja?”

My son had asked the question so many times whenever we had gone to Frys, but I didn’t know as we got out of the car on a Saturday afternoon and headed toward the store that this trip may be the last time he would ask. I told him I didn’t have any quarters, which was a truth I would later regret.

Like most kids, my son has a habit of asking for a toy when one catches his eye at a store. A few years ago, I discovered I could satisfy his itch by putting a couple of quarters into one of those gumball-style vending machines near the exit of Frys. His machine of choice dispensed tiny toy ninjas in a variety of colors holding any of a number of weapons.

Insert your coins, turn the knob, and out pops a cheap plastic container. Open the container and find your ninja. White ninjas, black ninjas, yellow ninjas, red ninjas, blue ninjas—with swords, daggers, nunchucks…

The possibilities are endless. Gotta catch ‘em all.

When we walked inside, the open part of the store which was normally filled with some sort of seasonal display was empty. Is the store closing? I joked to myself. Then I turned to my right toward the area where the PC builds and components could usually be found but became concerned when I saw nothing PC-related. Instead I saw paper goods and stationery. No big deal, they’re just rearranging, I thought. That also explains why some of the shelves are empty, right?

But the explanation could not explain so many empty shelves, and it definitely could not explain why the back corner of the store, usually populated with rows of monitors and laptops, now had only a few measly offerings.

My son standing in the monitor section at FrysLikeness has been altered to protect the innocent

This place is closing.

My fears were all but confirmed when I noticed that the Xbox games aisle was a ghost town.

No one planning to stay in business lets the Xbox game supply get that low. Your local Sears keeps a healthier stock of video games, and we all know it’s only a matter of time before Sears is taken out back like Old Yeller. I pulled out my phone and conducted a quick Google search only to discover that Frys corporate is denying any closures despite customers having similar experiences at stores around the country.

I often read about stores closing and retailers folding but I rarely bat an eye. This is the first instance I recall ever affecting me since I’ve wasted so much money at Frys over the years. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t mourn the chain’s potential demise. I’d have a lot more money lying around if the store had gone under earlier. (Who am I kidding—I would have spent the money elsewhere.)

My wallet aches when I think about all of the needless stuff I bought there: monitor arms, computer risers, PC cases, a NAS. How many cables? How many adapters? How many ninjas?

Yes, there’s that element—the emotional element. When I think of Frys, I think of weekend mornings and afternoons spent with my son browsing the store. I think of his getting bored and begging to go and my bribing him with the promise of a 50-cent toy from a gumball vending machine if he will be good and give me time to look around and daydream and maybe waste some more money.

I had told myself we should return to the store the following day so that I could buy him one last ninja. But that didn’t happen because life happened and I guess I kind of got over it.

It’s eerie exploring massive stores that will soon be empty. Seeing bare shelves and display spaces adds an element of horror to the shopping experience. Like ghost towns, such stores are reminders that the good times don’t automatically last forever. Technology and economics are progressing and shifting every second and what works today is not guaranteed to work tomorrow. So stores are closed and jobs are lost and square foot upon square foot of retail space becomes a concrete wasteland to be abandoned potentially for years or even decades. All that space sits unused and becomes an eyesore to anyone who ventures by.

And any time a retail location closes, we all look to the retail Baba Yaga, Amazon. I understand the arguments against Amazon and I’ve made the case at different points. But damn, they make it so easy and I don’t have the strong convictions that I know I should have. At least I can be honest about it rather than projecting that everyone else is the problem. I own my place in the proper camp.

Maybe my local Frys won’t experience such a dire fate. A few months ago, my local Tom Thumb closed down only to be re-branded into an El Rancho. I remember that same eeriness when I browsed the empty shelves at Tom Thumb and I remember many of the same thoughts about commerce and change and the employees who become casualties. But ultimately the grocery store’s fate wasn’t so grim—it merely adapted to better serve different demographics.

Maybe the explanation from the Frys corporate office is valid. Maybe their shelves are empty because they’re in the process of changing their business and supply model and maybe the transition is taking a bit longer than anyone would like.

It’s silly to lament the possible closing of an electronics store. But it’s another reminder of something I’ve learned during my grief journey: We are unaware of the comforts in our lives we take for granted. We are ignorant to the assumptions we make and the expectations we have about our daily lives. All it takes is one or two fundamental changes to disrupt our lives and our identities. And we’re living in an era of rapid change in nearly every facet of existence.

This is not to say that change is bad. But it is disruptive and it takes time to adapt. There is a cost for change, but even the very best change brings its own share of unintended consequences that negatively impact someone.

We call them “growing pains” for a reason.

Out of Mind

I spend so much time trying to get out of my head yet I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to get back in. The holiday season beginning with Thanksgiving disrupted the routine I had spent most of 2019 creating. One of my proudest accomplishments of the year was negated by a few days off work. 2019 was the year I realized the importance of consistency. And 2020 will by the year I focus on regaining and maintaining consistency while preparing for the disruption that will come with the 2020 holiday season.

I’m always looking for my ideal balance–yes, even when I walk because I can be clumsy at times–and part of that quest includes establishing how much time to spend in my own head. Spending too much time in your own mental juggle has negatives. For instance, when you’re feeling stress or self-doubt during tense competition, it’s probably best to break out of the gauntlet of your mind.

In the long run, listening to your internal negative voices may reveal problems you need to address, but if time is valuable and a deadline is looming, those voices will likely weigh you down and so they should be ignored until a later date. Everything in its right place.

I’ve grown up living in my own head. Doing so has always felt natural. Perhaps the comfort stems from growing up an only child. As an only child, I have no problem entertaining myself since I’m used to having no one else around to entertain me. In fact, these days when free time is ever more precious, I often prefer to be left to my own devices. I enjoy doing what I want to do and pursuing my interests. I’m self-sufficient that way.

Like any other introvert, I explore the world while in my head. Sometimes I start with a random thought which leads to an hours-long daydream. The origins of my blog posts and fiction exist in the real world outside my head, but the heart of my writing is discovered in my thoughts. If I don’t have time alone to consider all that’s happening around me, I will never be able to write. And worse, I will feel as I am just bouncing around in life with no direction.

I need to be inside my own head in order to process the world around me and believe me, I have quite a bit to process. Also, I’m not remarkably intelligent, so I need time to repeatedly attack my challenges. But emotions in particular take much effort to sort through and make sense of.

In numerous previous posts I’ve shared my struggles with processing grief. And as I’ve said on previous posts, grief can be complicated and tricky. But the same can be said about anger. The root of anger is not always obvious and can take some time to discover. Perhaps that’s because anger is a reaction more than an emotion. Regardless, anger is an energy, one that should be managed.

When you spend time in your head, it’s too easy to see your own perspective. I’m wise enough to know that I am wrong plenty. On the flip side, I have had a habit of ignoring my feelings in order to keep peace with others, a practice which caused me to become angry and unhappy with myself. Ignoring your own emotions is not a great way to keep peace within yourself. Now when I am angry, not only do I search for the origin of my anger, but I then have to judge whether said anger is justified or I have to ask to what extent it is justified. Anger has a way of clouding anyone’s vision, so these situations can take a while as I work to determine what I should apologize for and what I should stand firm on.

Few people see the world as I do, and only I see it exactly as I do. That’s why I treasure those few people I can connect with about my passions. Those people allow me to share what’s in my head–my true self–and in those moments I feel comfortable stepping outside of myself.

The struggle with how much to live inside your head plays into the balance of conformity vs. individuality. To function in society, we all have to conform to some extent. We have to create a sense of familiarity with others to earn the benefits and protections of belonging to a larger group. But we do have to stay true to ourselves about what we value and hold dear. You can run all you want, but you can’t hide from yourself–at least not without the assistance of mind-altering drugs. Wherever you go, there you are.

As I now find comfort in settling back into my own head, I know it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be fighting to get out again as part of my endless labor to find and maintain balance while I ping-pong between the poles. Such is life.

Writing and Other Writerly Activities

Perform a quick Google search for the criteria for calling yourself a writer, and you’re likely to find any number of requirements. Do you have to be published before you can call yourself a writer? Are you a writer if you pump out genre fiction, or are you a writer only if your works are shelved in literary fiction? Are you a writer only if you obsess over your craft to the point that you neglect everything else in your life–your relationships, employment, and health and hygiene? Are you a writer only if you get paid for your work?

So many possibilities.

Let’s keep it simple since you know that’s how we roll at Flirting With Nihilism. For the sake of this post, a writer is someone who writes. It’s as simple as that.

The next natural question would be, What counts as writing? Obviously, writing requires the act of writing itself. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writers write, after all.

The act of writing is undoubtedly the most important part of writing, but there are a number of other writerly activities that contribute to the craft.

Editing

Some people will roll their eyes at this one and let out a big Duh. But editing is one of the most hated writerly activities. Everyone wants to believe his first draft will be a masterpiece, but deep down we all know that every work needs at least one run of revisions. If nothing else, we need to take the opportunity to sniff out any sneaky typos.

I know I need more practice in editing. Perhaps I should turn that into a goal/resolution for 2020.

Reading

This one is pretty obvious. If Rule #1 of Writer Club is that you must write, then Rule #2 is that you must read. Why you would read works similar to your own writing is straight forward: doing so gives proper influence to your writing. But it’s also good to read outside your genre, for diversity’s sake.

You can also read books about writing or style. Nerd alert! While I have my own opinions about writing, I almost always take something away when I read a style guide. If nothing else, I may discover that I don’t agree with certain writing “rules” in style guides, which makes me feel like a bit of a rebel.

Journaling

I find journaling to be meditative and reflective. The practice helps me to clear my mind, which clears the path for writing. I’ve recently concluded that in the past I was unable to write because my head was a mess. I had too much stuff–mostly anxiety–bouncing around up there with no healthy outlet. These days I try to get all that bother out on paper.

Journaling helps to give me structure. I tend to lean on my journal for keeping track of events and appointments while my digital calendar is more of a backup. Also, a journal is a great place for retaining working material. A journal is easy to flip through, which simplifies the process of rediscovering old ideas. Digital solutions are fantastic for archiving complete works, but I do not find them ideal for browsing and rediscovering ideas. Digital solutions can be too organized for some uses.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard many claims that writing by hand helps with memory and also with uncovering deep thoughts and feelings. While I understand and appreciate the value of working with technology, I often find myself going back to the old ways.

Observing

Where do your ideas come from? I’m not a very original person, so I get my ideas from what I observe in my day-to-day life. My mind is almost always taking events in and processing them. I’m always looking for little tidbits wherever I can find them.

I especially enjoy observing people and their reactions to events and situations. People are usually my favorite part of my favorite stories. I’m convinced that if a story has great characters and style, I’m in for almost any adventure or misadventure. I’m further convinced that, at least for my writing, these characters are not created but found, observed in the wild and brought to life for others via words on the page.

Writer’s groups and events

Over the last few months I have been to a few writer’s groups and happy hours. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve yet to share any work as my ego isn’t ready for the hit, but I’ve always left these events inspired after hanging out with others with the same interest, whether they pursue that interest as a hobby or as a profession. Writing is usually a solitary act, so it’s nice to be among others facing similar struggles. And sometimes it’s nice to simply be among other people, as even the most hardcore introverts need social interaction from time to time, no matter how much they may try to avoid leaving the house unnecessarily.

Going to a writer’s group or event would fall under the category of “inspiration”, something which writers could always use.

Most days I don’t write as much as I know I should. Sometimes it’s because of poor planning on my part, and sometimes it’s because life simply gets in the way. In order to compensate, I try to refine my other writerly skills so that I’m getting better in some way every day.

26 Years

These days Thanksgiving, once my undisputed favorite holiday, is a bittersweet experience. But this holiday will likely have extra bitterness as the day marks the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death.

Before November 28, 2011, Thanksgiving was simple, and simplicity was what I loved about it. Thanksgiving was a day spent with family as we stuffed our faces with food all day. Maybe we turned on the football game or maybe my aunt insisted that we watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We would give in on my aunt’s demand because refusal meant she was going to suggest for the umpteen thousandth time that we watch The Last Of The Mohicans, a request which became the subject of jokes at our family gatherings.

My family’s Thanksgiving affairs were small, usually ranging somewhere between four and eight attendees, depending on where family feuds stood and which cousins could attend on any given year.

My grandmother prepared the bulk of our Thanksgiving meals. She was a cook on a tugboat, so she was what you might call a professional. She took her craft seriously, which I realized when one day she snapped at me for teasing that her mashed potatoes were a little too lumpy. I was too young and ignorant to understand how deeply I had cut her as I questioned her competence in her life’s work.

Our meals were traditional Southern Thanksgiving cuisine: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, steamed broccoli, creamed corn, dinner rolls–all of it amazing but undoubtedly unhealthy due to my grandmother’s liberal use of butter and lard whenever possible.

Lunch was just the beginning. My grandmother would make an abundance of desserts, usually an assortment of pies. Pumpkin pie. Apple pie. Pecan pie. But the winner was always my mother’s cherry cream cheese pies. No one else could make these pies like my mother could. I know because one year my grandmother tried, only to take a hit to her ego as my cousins and I ate her pies without our usual enthuasism for my mother’s offerings. We didn’t want to hurt our grandmother’s feelings, but we could not deny that my mother made the superior pie.

We couldn’t put our fingers on why, but my grandmother’s attempt tasted different. A subtle difference elevated my mother’s pies to a higher plain. After a brief discusission between the two culinary wizards, we solved the mystery. For years my mother had forgotten to include vanilla extract in her pies’ ingredients. The recipe would argue that she had been making these pies wrong all this time, but the rest of the family would argue that she had been making them just right.

We would spend the rest of the day picking on leftovers, having second lunch around 3PM and then having dinner at 6. And when we left, we would argue with my grandmother over how much food we were going to take home. My grandmother always wanted to send us off with way too much, but I can’t blame her because she was the only one at her home around to eat anything left behind. Her best chance for getting rid of her leftovers was to invite us over for lunch over the next few days and we would sit around and reminisce about Thanksgiving and tell my grandmother once again how good the whole meal was.

Except for the cherry cream cheese pies. We maneuvered around the topic, as if the event never happened. In every category outside of desserts, my grandmother had won Thanksgiving, but her sole defeat overshadowed her numerous victories.

Thanksgiving 2011 was the last holiday I spent with my mother. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as joyful a time as Thanksgivings past. At that point, my mother was confined to a hospice bed in the living room. I don’t remember much from the holiday other than her condition. I have no idea what we ate. Did we even have a Thanksgiving meal?

An aunt–my dad’s sister who lived an hour or so away–was having an after-Thanksgiving get together at her house the following Saturday. It seeemed appropriate to go since my dad had passed away six weeks before.

When I left for my aunt’s house, I didn’t know that I would never see my mother conscious again. But I can’t help wondering if she knew because in hindsight, I can’t help thinking that she didn’t want me to go.

My mother didn’t seem enthuasistic about my leaving, but she might have been exhausted as her seven-month battle with lung cancer was coming to a close. The cancer had widdled her down to a figure of little more than flesh and bone, unable to walk to the front door without making multiple stops to catch her breath. Chemotherapy no longer an option, a steady IV drip of morphine had become her only relief. Maybe she was just tired. It can’t all be about me, after all.

My aunt’s get together was fine until I received a call from my stepfather saying that my mother’s condition appeared to be going downhill fast and that I should come home. Once I had returned, my mother had lost consciousness, and we spent the rest of the day watching her, hanging on every labored breath, silently wondering if each one would be her last.

The next day I left to go back to Texas. Part of me said that this was the end and that I should stay, but so many times I had left convinced I had seen her for the last time. Just four months before, my mother had had an incident in which she was pronounced dead in the hosptial before somehow coming back to life without resucitation. After my mother’s resurrection, everyone was convinced that she wouldn’t survive the weekend. Yet after a couple of months she started looking better, almost as if the cancer was reversing. But these bouncebacks happen with cancer, and the optimism was short-lived.

Back in Texas, sometime in the early morning of November 28, 2011, I received the phone call from my stepdad telling me that my mother had passed away.

And so now, regardless of the specific date of Thanksgiving, I will always associate the holiday with her death. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As I said earlier, the holiday is now bittersweet for me, and now I would like to move on from the bitter and focus on the sweet.

A common practice among bloggers on Thanksgiving is to write a post about what one is thankful or grateful for. I want to put my spin on it and talk about what I’m thankful for as related to the loss of my mother.

So let’s get to the point. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for:

26 years with my mother

I was 26 years old when my mother died. Not only was my mother taken far too early for her sake–she was only 51 years old–but she was taken far too early for my sake. I wasn’t prepared to lose my mother. Is anyone really ever prepared for such an event? While I can mope and pity myself endlessly, I have to acknowledge that some people lose their parents much earlier. As tough as it was to become motherless at 26 years old, I shudder when I imagine what might have happened if I had lost her any sooner.

My mother’s support of my independence

If I could give my mother credit for only one thing that contributed to my success, I would give her credit for pushing me forward and never holding me back. I can think of a couple of conversations to illustrate my point.

The first conversation went something like this:

Mother: You don’t like it here, do you? Me: No. Mother: You want out, don’t you? Me: Yes. Mother: Then you need to go to college. Me: Okay.

Such conversations pushed me out into the world and ensured that I would embrace the uncertainty of new opportunities.

The second conversation took place over the phone shortly after I had gotten laid off from my first real job during the Great Recession. At some point, my mom said, “You know you can’t come home, right?” 10-4, Mother. No safety net from you. Gotcha. But her line was deeper than that. She and I agreed there was no opportunity in my hometown, so coming home would have been the dumbest thing I could have done.

Or maybe Mom was enjoying having an empty nest. Who knows. Either way, she always insisted that I move forward and she never guilted me into staying put. I’m so much more thankful for the encouragement now that she’s gone. What if I had stayed behind for her, only to have her leave me so soon?

We often hear that dying people will share their biggest regrets with others. One day my mother shared with me her regret she hadn’t left my hometown when she had had chances. But she had gotten comfortable in her discontent. I’m thankful my mother did not allow me to fall into the same trap.

My mother never told me what to think

I can’t remember a time when my mother ever shut me down whenever I shared an opinion. If my mother disagreed or was unfamiliar with my stance, she asked questions and allowed me to elaborate my points. Maybe that’s why I now speak as if anyone would ever give a damn about my thoughts. Or maybe it’s why I’ve started blogging again–maybe I’m seeking to replace the lost maternal audience.

I try to pay forward my mother’s courtesy while also being true to myself by being honest about my disagreements. If the masses would adopt this habit from my mother, the world would be a much better place.

For the lessons from the grief

When something traumatic happens to you, you have to find a way to see the positives. Is doing so desperate? Are you deluding yourself into feeling better about the situation? One could make these arguments, but I would argue that finding the positives is crucial to allowing trauma to become a catalyst of growth rather than a consistent harbinger of pain and despair.

I am a better person because of my experiences with loss, grief, and depression. I am better able to assist others because I have navigated my way through my own personal hell. Does that mean I’m glad my mother and others have passed away? Of course not. But finding a positive spin has allowed me to find fulfillment after the chaos, and so my grief doesn’t own me anymore. I own my grief. I can’t control it, but I have learned to flow with it, how to enjoy the ride. And I am still learning how to make my experiences a tool that can help others.

For showing me I can be critical while continuing to accept someone I love

To this point, I’ve painted only the rosiest picture of my mother, but as is usually the case with those we love, she wasn’t perfect. Below are a couple of shortcomings:

Reclusiveness

If my mother wasn’t at work, she was likely at home. The only person she visited on a regular basis was her own mother. My mother’s reclusiveness was partially justified by the fact that before my stepfather came along, she was a single working mother. She was often tired, so staying home was the easy thing to do. But in reality, my mother also did not want to be a burden to others, so she robbed others of the chance of ever becoming closer to her. And I missed out on some important social skills, but don’t worry, Ma–I’m improving every day.

Stubbornness

At times my mother could dig her heels in to make someone else’s life hell. My mother is the only person I know to be written up at work for refusing to take vacation. At one time, my mother’s employer compensated employees for any unused vacation time. My mother looked forward to these unofficial bonus checks at the end of the year when she would effectively cash in her vacation time. As a cost-cutting measure, the company required employees to take their vacation and no longer allowed employees to be paid for the unused time. My mother decided to keep it real and show them that she was going to get her money for her unused vacation time. The company kept it realer and slapped her with an offense.

I could find plenty of other things to criticize my mother about, but that’s not the point. Instead, the point is that criticism is not always rejection. And I’m not sure if you can ever truly love someone if you can’t acknowledge the person’s flaws. But my mother’s good certainly outweighed her bad, and for that I am also thankful.

My mother won’t be present this Thanksgiving, just as she hasn’t been present for the last seven holidays and as she won’t be present for any number of holidays that follow. Her absence haunts me daily and I’ll never get over the loss. But the good news is that other peope will be present on November 28, 2019. Maybe too many people. Last I heard, the headcount is expected to be 25 people. My anxiety is kicking in already.

I’m expecting a day full of love and good food. I’m lucky to have this opportunity, and for that I am thankful. I hope everyone reading this is able to spend Thanksgiving (and every day for that manner) with those they love. I hope you’re able to make great memories that will stay with you after your loved ones are gone. Not just gone in the sense of death. Maybe a sibling goes off to college. Or a child moves away and starts a new life in some exciting new city in a different time zone and neglects to check in as often as you would like.

Whatever the specifics, the point remains: These comforts won’t last forever, which is why we should enjoy them as much as we can whenever we can.

And if you have stuck around and have read this far, I’m thankful to you and for you.

Happy Thanksgiving

What the Internet Used to Be

I usually feel like an old man when I remind myself that it’s been over 20 years since my mom bought the first family desktop computer in 1998. I don’t remember much about the specifications other than the computer was a Compaq with a 3GB hard drive, which the salesman assured my mother was plenty of space, an amount that we would never fill. The computer set my mom back about $1,200. Fast forward to 2019 and my $250 Android phone has 4GB of RAM and an uncompressed 2-hour Blu-Ray movie is over 30GB. The computer salesman obviously didn’t foresee the changes in technology when he made his pitch.

The computer came with a 56k dial-up modem, so it made sense to get internet service. The boonies of North Louisiana are not early adopters of the latest technology, so we could subscribe to only 28.8k service. However, in reality, we were excited if we got a 19200 bps connection. At those speeds, we weren’t exactly surfing the World Wide Web, but we were able to crawl along it. How spoiled I am now with my 200 Mbps option.

Looking back, it’s pretty obvious that I was addicted to the computer and the internet. Actually, I knew it even at the time, but I didn’t care. I spent every free moment basking in the glow of the CRT monitor. I did so to escape the village I called home. (Yes, with a population of few than 500 people, my hometown was actually a village.) Napster alone was a godsend, as the local radio stations played the same five bands on repeat every single day. That’s why to this day I’m burned out on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, and Bon Jovi. The computer screen (and eventually the phone screen and the tablet screen) became a means to escape into a far more interesting world.

Ample time away has made me realize that my hometown wasn’t that bad; such thinking is too binary. But it was not a place I wanted to stay any longer than necessary. I wanted more than my hometown could offer. I wanted a diversity of personalities and diversity in things that really mattered to me: music, movies, books, and ideas. And all of that was available with a computer and the World Wide Web.

Internet 1.0

At the approach of the new millennium, the internet was a new digital frontier in the infant stages of realizing its potential. Before we were always connected via our cell phones and IoT devices, we had to throw ourselves into a mess of really bad personal webpages with autoplaying MIDI files courtesy of GeoCities and Angelfire. In the absence of social media, we met new people in various chat rooms and programs. If we made a new friend, we shared our AIM usernames or ICQ numbers. You weren’t really sure who was on the others side of the computer screen, but often that wasn’t what really mattered. It was more about the personality lost with you in cyberspace.

A new internet

That seemed to change with the mass adoption of Facebook. The early days of Facebook were cool if you were a college kid. The model of exclusivity that made Facebook interesting ultimately was not very profitable, so Facebook understandably shifted to a strategy focused on inclusion. Eventually everyone jumped on board. Your parents. Your grandparents. Your co-workers. That weird kid who moved after second grade you’d have forgotten about if not for that rumor that he ate boogers and drank puddle water. You were now connected online to people you were already connected with offline. Instead of finding interesting strangers, we’re following brands and celebrities that we have little chance of truly connecting with.

The funny thing about the tools of Internet 2.0 that are meant to connect us is that they often leave us feeling isolated. It’s the digital equivalent of feeling alone in a room full of people.

The sense of community of Internet 1.0 is gone. The mainstream social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are so full of noise that it’s difficult to extract anything of value. The fun of Internet 1.0 was stumbling onto something cool and worth sharing. Even though the world is at our fingertips or in a rectangle in our pockets, it’s hard to identify harmony in all the noise.

A new hope

This is one reason I fled to Mastodon and more specifically to writing.exchange, an instance that allows for only 1,000 users. I enjoy that feeling of being in with the out crowd. I want to be on platforms that people want to be part of, not networks that people feel an obligation to join in order to satisfy their FOMO.

I also enjoy the sense of community that write.as has created with read.write.as, a feed of the latest public blog posts published on its platform. And even though reddit is hardly obscure to the mainstream, I do appreciate that each subreddit is its own community.

To be clear, it’s not as if I want anyone to be excluded from a platform. I want everyone to have the opportunity to join. I just have little desire to be where everyone is. At some point, the increase in users stops adding value and at another point, an increase in users actually starts subtracting value. And the platform becomes more of a distraction than anything else.

From time to time, I will hear old hipsters say that modern day New York is too commercial, too corporate. I have to take their word for it as I’ve never been to the Big Apple, but their complaints about New York sound incredibly similar to my complaints about the modern internet: hip localities ruined by globalization, old hotbeds of creativity and artistry now look like anywhere else, and places once intensified by uncertainty and the chance for adventure now feel sterile in comparison. I am not an anti-capitalist, so I don’t fault anyone for maximizing his own profits. I just don’t want my options to be only color-by-number copies of each other.

I am not advocating that we should return to an Internet 1.0 or pre-internet world. I do not wish that the internet’s capabilities had stalled. I benefit from the advances and do not seek to limit anyone’s options. I just want to recapture the sense of community that I fell in love with 20+ years ago. I’m not concerned about sharing the digital space with the masses because I don’t need another reminder that we don’t naturally mesh. We often do not share similar interests, so I prefer to find personalities with which I have some things in common.

I want an internet that inspires me again. But maybe the problem isn’t the internet. Maybe I am in fact an old man, destined to one day receive the Millennial equivalent of the “OK boomer” treatment.

Falling in Love with the Process

While I am in some ways intrigued by Gary Vaynerchuk, I am wary of his advice. In particular, I do not like Vaynerchuk’s message of working every second of every day in order to achieve success. While I do believe that hard work and sacrifice are important, I do worry about the effects a relentless grind has on one’s physical and mental health. Fortunately, it appears that I’m not alone.

However, I do believe in giving credit where it’s due. And though I disagree with his overall message, that hardly means Vaynerchuk has no good insights. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Despite my concerns about Vaynerchuk, I have been hearing echoes of one piece of his advice in my own life over the last few weeks:

“Love the process and the grind more than the payoff.”

Allow me to share a couple of anecdotes to elaborate.

I recently attended a writer’s happy hour. At a hip coffee shop in Dallas’s Bishop Arts district, I spent a significant portion of the night talking to the one non-writer who decided to accompany her husband to the event. At one point, my single-serving friend asked what I was looking to accomplish with my writing.

I felt as if she was expecting a grandiose answer. Was I hoping to write a novel that would be published by one of the big dogs? Was I hoping to write the next hot series that everyone wouldn’t be able to get enough of?

While either of those scenarios would be awesome, I’d be lying if I said they were my primary aim at the moment, so I gave what was likely the most uncoolest answer I could have given. I told her that I was simply focused on establishing the habit of writing.

Sure, I have dreams of achieving some form of writing success. I would love it if I were able to build a following on this blog. Maybe one day I will actually write a bestselling novel or memoir. Or who knows, maybe I will be invited onto some morning TV show to discuss the triviality of the semicolon. (For the record, I see such usage as a personal choice; do what feels right.)

But these goals and dreams mean nothing if I don’t actually write and subscribe to the process. None of my writing goals will ever be realized without the proper set of actions.

In a previous post, I revealed how starting the habit of exercising nearly killed me. But in that post I didn’t mention that I’ve lost 15 pounds in the last four months. Recently, too few of my co-workers opted to participate in a workout session, so it had to be cancelled.

I was genuinely upset. My process had been disrupted, and now I was going to have to make up for the missed workout later on in the week.

So many of us want to lose weight, and we all know what we need to do. No fad diets, no gimmicks. Just good old fashioned diet and exercise. Burn more calories than you consume. It’s simple math.

Often it’s not a lack of knowledge that keeps us from reaching our goals, especially in the age of the internet, where the answers to our curiosities are only a Google search away. It’s our unwillingness to embrace the process that holds us back.

I didn’t start losing weight because I made it a goal. I started losing weight because I built a process. In addition to the weekly workouts at the office, I also go for walks and jogs at least three times a week. I am more mindful of what I eat and try not to go overboard with the sweets and carbs. The thing about processes is that they can almost always be improved in some way. In this case, the diet portion of my process could certainly use some work.

Goals are good and often necessary, but they are not the most crucial ingredient for success. Good processes and commitment to those processes are far more important. If you want to get somewhere, you have to get moving. And once you get moving, you may find that you change paths and goals at some point. Maybe where you were originally headed has too many roadblocks, or maybe you found a more interesting destination. But you are unlikely to get anywhere standing still.

It’s so easy to fall in love with the stories of people who were discovered without even trying. Edward Furlong was discovered by casting director Mali Finn at the Pasadena Boys And Girls Club. This chance meeting led to Furlong’s being cast as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Furlong didn’t have to grind through audition after audition and didn’t have to find the strength to persist despite rejection after rejection.

Such experiences make great stories, but they’re not blueprints for success. As Seth Godin has said, “No one’s coming. Stop waiting to get picked”.

I’m not sure what I ultimately hope to accomplish with my writing. On multiple occasions, I’ve asked myself why I’m writing. I don’t know where it will lead me, but it won’t take me anywhere if I don’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

After all, writing itself is a process. My writing often starts in my bullet journal. Sometimes that means starting with a wall of text and sometimes it means starting with only bullet points and notes. Then comes the typing of the rough draft, often originating in Joplin. Lately I’ve been kicking it old school with my revisions by printing them out and marking them up with red ink. I was recently pleased to discover that I’m not alone in this analog approach to editing in 2019.

I don’t have the greatest track record with meeting goals. It’s not as if I never reach goals, but sometimes my dreams and accomplishments do not lead to the happiness and fulfillment I had originally envisioned. It sometimes turns out that my goals were created purely out of my own ignorance. It can be difficult to make appropriate goals when you’re unaware what options exist for you. But a funny thing about options is that they’re more likely to reveal themselves once you’ve subscribed to a process and therefore have gained some sort of momentum.

Maybe the real problem is that we’re not actually in love with our goals. Maybe we’re only in love with the dream. It’s not hard to see why that would be the case. Dreams are fun because they’re perfect in our minds. In our dreams, we don’t imagine the struggles and the setbacks. We don’t focus on the process that will get us where we want to be. We dream only about having reached the finish line.

But you know how the old cliche goes:

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

All That I’ve Forgotten

I’ve fallen in love with bullet journaling. Hard. I sought bullet journaling when I started trying to unplug from screens in order to get my attention back.

Before finally jumping on the hype train, I had looked into bullet journaling a few times over the last couple years. I had been intimidated and discouraged by the beautiful spreads I found during my research. And all I need is a little discourage.

I recently went to my local public library and picked up The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, the creator of the bullet journal. I was delighted to see that Carroll keeps his journal minimalist and focuses on functionality rather than aesthetics. After reading Carroll’s book, the concept made sense to me. I now steal a few ideas from reddit here and there and change them to fit my needs.

So now I’m a bullet journaling fiend. I’ve branded myself an evangelist and started spreading the word, like that annoying cousin who suddenly wants to talk to about “the unique opportunity to get in at the ground level and invest in something revolutionary”.

Initially, I was interested in bullet journaling because I wanted to stay organized and productive. Calendars and to-do apps weren’t cutting it for me. I imagine one explanation could be that spending too much time in front of screens was zapping my cognition. Another could be the argument that we better retain whatever we write by hand. The bullet journal, like meditating, requires us to slow down and be more intentional, and so in that way, I do consider bullet journaling a practice in mindfulness.

I later realized that the bullet journal is a great way to document things. You know, like what a journal is supposed to do. And so I wonder if I’ll ever go back and look at my old journals and entries and reminisce and maybe even marvel at all that I’ve forgotten.

And so I’m now faced with a new existential regret–I wish I’d been journaling all this time.

I’m not a very sentimental person, and these days I try to look forward rather than backward in time. People’s memories are unreliable at best, and specific memories slip away more if we never reflect on them.

I can think of a few specific times in my life I wish I’d been journaling.

Summer camp days

During college, I worked three summers as a counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. My first summer was the summer before my freshman year of college. Each week brought the opportunity to meet kids with a variety of daily challenges, including:

  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Spina bifida
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Sickle cell anemia

Looking back, I can easily recall some important life lessons I learned during my time at camp.

We all want so many of the same things.

I realized that regardless of their challenges, the campers wanted many of the same things that the counselors wanted, most notably to feel acceptance and as if they belong. And then I realized that you can extend that to nearly everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. We’re usually better able to accept others when we’re able to understand them, so having learned about this shared struggle has gone a long way in developing empathy.

The importance of a good team

So many managers say that their company’s greatest asset is its people. When I hear this, I usually roll my eyes because the phrase has become such a cliche. But the saying is in fact true. My last summer at the camp, I was made head counselor, and things ran pretty damn smoothly. I wish I could take all the credit, but the truth is that the directors got incredibly lucky with their hiring that summer. They somehow put together a phenomenal team with unbelievable chemistry.

The teams my previous two summers were good, but the team from that third summer took the prize. Those other counselors made my job ridiculously easy, and that was when I learned that I want to work with the best people whenever I have the opportunity.

The value of shared experience

Soldiers who have fought side by side in the same wars have a bond that needs no explanation. Even if we can’t imagine what the two have seen together, we can understand that it’s unlike what most of us will ever experience. That’s how I feel when I look back at my time at that summer camp. Those counselors and I have a unique shared experience. We have perspectives that don’t need to be explained between us. And if another counselor gave a good effort for just one summer, that says a lot about his character.

I wish I’d kept a journal of this time in my life because I know I’ve forgotten some great stories and funny moments. And I’m sure I could find a few more valuable life lessons if I could flip through the pages again. I also think I could have gotten some great material for a memoir.

College

Ah, college, the greatest four (or seven) years that no one remembers. It’s not as if I’m unable to remember my college experience due to a lack of sobriety–I can’t remember because it seems so long ago now and my memory has gone down the crapper over the last few years.

College was my first experience away from home…until my stepdad moved to my college town before my sophomore year because he lost his job back home. It was a time in which I was struggling for independence while still holding onto a bit of a safety net. It was an era of increased responsibility, trying to find my future, and getting my heart broken a few times.

I wish I had kept a journal of this time so that I could go back and laugh at myself and what I thought constituted “problems” at the time.

My grief and recovery

My experiences with grief have been documented here and have become the foundation of this blog, so I won’t go into too much detail. But I wish I had journaled during this period of my life for a couple reasons.

For one, it could have made things easier for me. Of course, that means that I would have had to find a way to open up, even if only to myself, and be honest with what I was feeling in order to let it flow out. Allowing myself to feel what I was going through was the basis of my struggle, but maybe the process would have been easier if I had already developed a journaling habit. There’s no point in wondering too much about “what could have been”, but it is interesting to consider.

I also wonder what other bits of wisdom I let slip into the ether. What else could I learn about my grief if I had some raw text to reflect on? I suppose now I’ll never know. I have to stick with the memories I have and see if I can dig up anything new going forward.

My memory sucks now and it’s probably not going to get any better. But worst case scenario, at least I now have something else to reference.

Questions of Online Identity

The concept of identity is a significant struggle for nearly everyone. For most, the struggle has begun by adolescence, when we find ourselves juggling hormones and free thought and free will. This struggle evolves and continues or resurfaces throughout various points of a lifetime: the first time we leave the family nest, the mid-life crisis, and then our turn as empty nesters, just to name a few.

In order to satisfy the search for our own identities, we have to answer numerous questions about ourselves. Questions of ideology, ethics, morality, sexuality and perhaps even gender. We have to consider how we present ourselves, whom we associate with, and how we respond to offenses both direct and indirect. Every bit of nuance goes into defining an identity. Or perhaps I should say identities, as most of us do conduct ourselves differently depending on our audience or company. Most of us do not act the same at work vs. at home or among friends vs. among family. We acknowledge and accept that different scenarios call for different behavior norms. Some would call this being two-faced as if it is merely a character flaw, but I’m sure there is some evolutionary benefit to such behavior. Likability does have its perks, after all.

I try to keep my multiple selves as consistent as possible, but there’s no denying that I’m different people in different contexts. My opinions are quite different if a microphone is in my face as opposed to what I will say among trusted friends or under the guise of anonymity or a pseudonym.

Exactly what or how much is crucial to an individual’s identity? What is included and packaged into the whole deal? Our awards and accomplishments? Our voting records? Our charitable causes? The lines are not always so clear.

Even corporations struggle with these questions. Should a corporation just operate within the lens of its industry, or is it required to stand for something outside of its core business? Let’s be honest and state the obvious–corporations are purely profit-driven. I do not fault them for that. But since the pursuit of profit is the primary identity of a corporation, I’m usually suspicious whenever a corporation champions a cause. However, the courts have ruled that American corporations are people too, so maybe corporations are capable of more empathy than I give credit. What the hell do I know?

Humans had struggled plenty with questions of identity in the analog age. But now they struggle in a new digital frontier that we call the Internet. The Internet started gaining traction with the general public only 30 years or so ago, and we’re still adapting to the access that it allows. On one hand, we’re still figuring out how much access to give others. On the other hand, we’re also figuring out how to handle the access to others that the internet gives us.

Context is sometimes difficult to detect online. And context is an important part of determining which identity to call upon at any moment. It seems that in the online world, you are destined to be all of your selves at once. After all, anyone can learn far too much about you with a couple minutes of Google-fu.

You can’t say, “Hey, I said what I said as some idiot on Twitter,” because someone will now pull up your LinkedIn page and argue, “No, you said it as CEO of XYZ Widgets, Inc.! XYZ Widgets is horrible! Burn XYZ Widgets to the ground!”

There is no separation of identities online. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps over time it will require the masses to be more accepting of details in others’ characters. Yeah, Phyllis in accounting writes Bob The Builder erotica fanfiction in her spare time, but she is great at crunching numbers. And if the masses become more accepting, maybe we’ll be more willing to analyze certain details of our own character and be more willing to listen to other opinions and perhaps make healthy changes. One can dream.

I’ve made a few attempts to write under pseudonyms over the years, in the hopes that I could be more honest about certain things. In part I felt that I had the opportunity to reveal and develop a part of my identity that had before been withheld. But I was neglecting another part of my identity as I was not expressing myself as…well, myself. Vulnerability under another name just doesn’t seem genuinely vulnerable to me.

For some reason, it is important to me that my work have my own name on it. I don’t know whether this compulsion is due to ego or insecurity. I know only that it exists. Besides, I’m not clever enough to protect my online identity. I know I could easily be found, so if I’m not prepared to face the consequences in my own name, perhaps I just shouldn’t say it. But what about art? I feel as if people should strive to separate the art from the artist and not necessarily judge an individual by his output (and vice versa), but it’s pretty obvious in 2019 that not everyone agrees with me.

As a kid, I was afraid of the concept of a “permanent record”. Now, with the internet, the permanent record has arrived. Put it out there, and it’s there for all to see. Screenshot or archived. Forever. This makes me think about how I express myself online. Should I chance pushing a few buttons in the hope of making a point or should I play it safe? Should my online self be bolder like the me among friends, or should the me among friends be more like my online self, more carefully considering and weighing my word choices? Which identity needs to better mirror the other, and how much should either identity give in? Which one assimilates into the other? These are tough questions that lead to considerations of authenticity.

After all, if you cater to the crowd too much, people will pick up on it and be turned off. At the same time, it’s amazing how offended people can get when you reveal you didn’t enjoy their favorite movie. There’s a price to pay for honesty, and so there’s a price to pay for honest identities.

No Longer Making Time

We have all at some point said those words: I don’t have time. We usually say them after we’ve revealed a desire to do something different, such as exercise, learn a new language, or try our hand at standup comedy. I often said the phrase after I talked about wanting to write again.

When you say I don’t have time for something in your personal life, most people will never challenge you. They’ll nod their heads and give the sympathy you seek and then you both continue eating your third helping of chocolate chip cookie sundae and complain that you can’t lose weight. But it’s not your fault because you don’t eat unhealthy–your mother had thyroid issues, so you should get yours checked. But you never do it. You don’t have time, after all.

Are you seeing a pattern?

I finally got to the point where not only was I tired of not writing, but I was tired of listening to myself complain about not accomplishing a personal goal. I challenged myself to find the time, requiring me to assume that I did in fact have such time.

I analyzed my typical day and my routine and habits and realized that I was sleeping through my writing time, so I started waking up earlier. Until just a few months ago, I’d stay in bed until the last possible moment before getting ready for work, so I worked to change a 34-year-old habit.

I also realized I couldn’t write because I spent too much time distracted. For me, my laptop is great for producing writing but not great for creating writing. It’s too easy to get distracted by a computer. Open one browser window for “research” and next thing you know you’re five hours into a random YouTube video marathon. Modern cell phones are equally distracting as you have all of the digital world at your fingertips, and I hate writing on a cell phone anyway, so it hardly helps my cause. We’re hearing more and more that we should stop using screens just before bed, so writing on a laptop or cell phone while winding down for the night seems like a bad idea. That’s where the ol’ trusty pen and notebook come in handy.

Fun fact: Pen and paper also help with reducing screentime in general. They really are wonderful contraptions.

Most recently I had the ephiphany that I could write during my lunch breaks. I also realized that I had more time to write if I cut out playing video games. It’s amazing how much time you can find when you want to find it. Maybe you are one of those rare cases who truly does not have the time. Only you can determine that. On the other hand, maybe you need to work on your communication and negotiation skills in order to give yourself the opportunity. Identify your priority and ask what it would take to get it.

Even when you do find extra time, there comes a limit. For instance, I know I can’t write for eight hours a day unless I quit my day job, and considering my day job pays better than the $0 my writing nets me, that ain’t happening any time soon. Yet I wonder where else we can find extra time when we challenge ourselves to find it rather than accept that it doesn’t exist.

New at Getting Old

When we sit around and think about our own versions of lives well-lived, we most likely envision ourselves elderly and passing away peacefully in our sleep. There’s something about leaving this world as an octogenerian that adds a layer of accomplishment to our struggle. I’m guilty of this romanticization on a couple fronts. When I hear that someone over the age of 80 has taken his last breath, I usually respond with something along the lines of That’s a good run. Also, when I think of my own end, I hope I will have made the eight-decade club, though the odds may not be ever in my favor based on my family history.


I’m not sure how many of us think about what all goes into aging. The last few years of my own life have been a beginner’s courses in getting old. Turning 30 hurt way more than I could ever have imagined. Aches started popping up for no reason. My energy level hit rock bottom. My memory went down the crapper hard. Though part of the pain of that time can be attributed to specific events and situations in my personal life, I’m sure there’s a physical culprit to blame as well, as one’s metabolism drops when he’s exiting his 20’s. What else naturally begins to slip so early in life?

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work out with my employer’s personal trainer. A few weeks after my employment began, I finally took advantage of the perk and joined some of my colleagues to sweat it out on a Wednesday afternoon. It was obvious early into the workout that I had been aging passively. I’m not sure exactly how long I participated in the workout–maybe 15 minutes, maybe 20–before the trainer made me stop and collect myself. As I lay on my back with my ankles resting on an exercise ball, I found myself thinking, So this is it. This is how the Batman dies.

The trainer, I suppose having learned that humiliated clients are bad for business, checked on me every so often and offered words of encouragement. “This isn’t your last time,” he said. “This is your wakeup call. Now you know where you’re starting from” 10-4, Captain. I hear you loud and clear. Message received.

“We do this for our kids. We want to be around for them.” Those words hit close to home. I don’t want to just be around. I want to have utility. I want to be an active participant in their lives and their futures. And my own future, especially once the kids have begun to chase their own dreams and have left me behind.

After a co-worker drove me back to the office and I emptied the contents of my stomach in the parking garage–not my proudest moment, but fortunately, not my worst moment either–I realized that aging with any form of grace takes a lot of work. For most of us, aging well will have to be an intentional practice.

I’ve had to miss a couple workouts since that embarrassing first flight in which I crashed and burned, but I try to go back every Wednesday. In addition, I’ve finally taken my doctor’s advice and started going for 30-minute walks most evenings. After only a couple of months, I can feel a difference and even see the difference when I step on the scale most mornings. Now that I’ve built some momentum, I have to be sure to keep it going, because as I’ve recently been reminded, simply moving in the right direction–both figuratively and literally–can be the greatest challenge.

Though I’ve accepted that I will die someday, that doesn’t mean I don’t fear the inevitability. But in some ways I’m equally afraid of getting old and living old. Regardless of my exercise habits, my physical abilities are doomed to lessen. Cognition will suffer a similar fate. My dopamine system will whither away. Alzheimer’s and dementia are possibilities equally as frightening as cancer. Even if I have a long run in life, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be a good run.

I recently read an article arguing that 75 is the optimal lifespan, and though I’m sure I’ll attempt to preserve myself long past my age of usefulness, I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. Though it’s natural to want to stay on this ride we call Life for as long as possible, seating is limited, and so we all have to hop onto the red line to Mortality Village at some point in order to make room for the new participants.

As I get older, I try to hang onto my youthful curiosity and the punk-rock essence of teenage angst. I’m someone who has always been fueled by the flames of discontent, so I constantly fear that compliance is a sign of submission brought on by Father Time.

I fear the prospect of living in a world that has passed me by and left me behind. A world in which technology now appears closer to magic. One in which customs and norms make me feel like a foreigner in a new land. I also acknowledge that lack of acceptance makes certain situations harder than they need to be, and I have a feeling that this is an applicable situation.

But when you get down to it, it is what it is. The Cycle of Life started long before I came to the party, and it will carry on long after I’ve called it a night and gone somewhere quieter and more peaceful. It seems that lately the Universe is doing all it can to make it clear that it doesn’t care what I think or hope. The Universe is a power that can’t stop, won’t stop.

This may sound like nihilism poking its head around. But I make a point not to fully embrace nihilism–I only flirt with it. These feelings are simply an attempt at acceptance, the domino that must fall before one can adapt strategies that work out better for everyone involved and affected.

Author’s Note: The title of this post was taken from the song Some Days by Ira Wolf.