Category: On…

January 14th, 2014

Up until last April, I had never touched the ocean.

1.

I had been close to the ocean. I had travelled under the ocean. But I had never actually ventured out to it – never tried to take in its size, or let the salty remnants of millions of years of biological change wash over my feet. The ocean was a thing outside my realm. The ocean was as foreign as India or Japan.

Last April, I finally did it. I touched the ocean. The Pacific Ocean, scene of a million surf wipeouts and Instagrammed sunsets.

And now, here I was. Ready to do the same on the opposite coast. I got out of my car and walked toward the water.

2.

I used to dream of airports. Each was something new – a way to experience the thrills I had only encountered in a Choose Your Own Adventure. There was freedom in knowing that, given the right situation and the right funds, I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. Any damned where I pleased, with just a few hundred dollars and the proper identification.

I still do dream of airports, but in a different way. Now, they’re weird nightmares, where I miss my flight or I show up too late to conduct a meeting.

At some point last year, travel became an occupational hazard; each ticket was a debt to my life, and though I enjoyed myself when I was supposed to enjoy myself, I had unwillingly traded my dreams for anxieties. I measured each new city by the number of days I had remaining – the number of days until I could return home. And I began to fear the consequences of enjoying travel too much, of getting too comfortable being on the road.

There’s no way to be peaceful with a new city if you’re rushing to do business and counting the days. There’s no more discovery: there’s only debt.

3.

When I was in grade school, I almost drowned at Wall Lake. I was floating on a neighbor’s inflatable pool lounger when, as I reached for a toy in the water, I fell off. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but the wake and action of thirty other swimmers forced the inflatable pool lounger away from shore.

As I chased it, the water became deeper. Each grasp pushed the lounger further away. Each step I took increased the panic, until, flailing around, my host for the day – our neighbor, who moonlighted as a lifeguard – saw me struggling. She dove in and saved me.

I had graduated from swimming lessons a few years before. I knew how to swim. I knew that I was in danger. But I still kept trying to make things right, to prevent loss, to be safe instead of smart, pushing myself just a little further into the water. In doing so I nearly lost everything.

I was still a kid. I never knew how much this would haunt me.

4.

I neglect to tell Sierra and Isaac about my work travel until the last possible moment. Sierra is riddled with the same anxieties I am: an irrational fear of natural disasters, a belief that when her loved ones leave they may never come back, a super-sensitivity to being embarrassed. Isaac carries those same concerns out of love for his sister; he’s concerned when she is, over-exaggerating each issue in the way a four-year-old does.

My kids become irrational when I’m ready to leave – clinging to me as if I was joining the foreign legion – and they become pills when I’m gone, pushing buttons on every issue. Each trip is a change to routine. Each trip is an added level of stress for Kerrie. Each trip forces the questions I never thought I’d ask.

Do I want to do this?

Do I want to travel?

Am I doing all I can to be a good father?

Of course I am. I never doubt my efforts for long. But that doesn’t mean the same thoughts don’t creep in every time I stand in a security line, one hand throwing my belt and shoes into a bucket, the other chancing upon a bracelet Sierra made, or a few coins I found hidden under Isaac’s rug. I collect these things as I toddle around the house, picking up after myself, but I always assume there’s a bigger reason they end up in that security bowl.

Then I shake it off and shove them back in my pocket as I walk to my gate.

5.

I parked a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, near a beach that shared my name. I stumbled through the sand, wondering how I would remember this moment. I felt proud. I was charged. I was going to surprise my kids by saying LOOK AT WHERE DAD ENDED UP! because I had already decided that the ocean was too much for this bummer of a weekend. I felt empowered by my sudden change of heart. I felt like the lead role in a Springsteen song.

Until I instinctively checked Foursquare.

If I hadn’t tried to check in, I’d have never known that I wasn’t at the ocean. I’d still think that Corey Beach is on the Atlantic and that I’d scored a completed pair. I’d never know that, despite that sudden change of heart, this wasn’t one of the fun Springsteen songs.

I did check. And the ocean was over there, in the distance, on the other side of the outer barrier across Patchouge Bay.

I got back in my car and stared at the beach.

6.

I was afraid of water until, one day, Kerrie forced me to buck up and jump in.

I was afraid to travel to a conference and speak until, one day, my boss told me to just go do it already.

I was afraid to leave home until, one day, I came home and my kids were cool with it all and excited to get presents.

But I still remember the time I pushed it too far. I’m still afraid of going too far past the buoy. I still stay up at night wondering when one step will be one too far, when my charge has slipped past my reach, when my energy has run out and all I can muster is a hand raised in the air as I slowly sink.

7.

When I was a kid, I took one trip a year. My family would pack up the car and we would head to Jackson. It would be stomach-turningly early when the lights came on to leave – a feeling I still encounter on the eve of a trip, where the excitement of discovery is mixed with the fear of the unknown, a queasy churning that’s only solved through a few cups of coffee and an hour of driving into the sunrise.

I knew what travel was, but my scope was limited. It included a car. It included going west. My destination was filled with loving family. It was safe, and it was comforting, and it was always beautiful.

My destination moved wherever my grandparents did, whether it was Wyoming or Kentucky or Minnesota. It was college before I knew what real travel was. I found myself in Paris, struggling with a new language. I found myself in London, seeing things I’d only seen in movies. I was in Seattle, taking mini-pilgrimages to the sites of my favorite bands. I was in Washington DC. I was in New Orleans. I was everywhere.

I wasn’t comfortable, but I was willing to learn. I was an anomaly, I think: my desire to keep moving overcame my fear of the unknown, so I just jumped on a plane and did it.

I want my kids to have a enjoy that kind of movement. I don’t want them to fear the unknown.

I want them to fall in love with countries I’ve never visited. I want them to go on trips that expose them to great friendships. I want them to wonder. I want them to understand that the Midwest is beautiful and perfect in nearly every way, but that they’ll never understand just how perfect it is until they’ve stepped outside its border.

I don’t want travel to be a fearful thing, despite the fact that I now dread traveling without them.

Because instead of enjoying the time I spend in a new city, I now fear the nights they crawl into bed and I’m not there. I fear the dinners when they ask when we’ll be a real family again. And I fear the point when I hate traveling by myself and, as an extension, hate what leads me to travel in the first place.

More than that, I fear that they will see that fear, and they will understand it as a part of traveling. I fear that I will affect their sense of adventure. I fear I will kill discovery before it starts.

8.

My heart sank.

This wasn’t the ocean. I drove here for nothing.

I saw that my short car ride had been for naught, that I had fooled myself in thinking that I was close, and I saw that my only real recourse was to head back to the hotel and watch Netflix and drink a beer and feel shitty and disappointed. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was working, and I thought I didn’t really care but suddenly I did.

But everywhere I looked I saw small people spending the holiday on the beach, making castles and diving into the waves and doing other cliche small people things as their parents looked on, exhausted from the wind but happy that they could sit back and look on. Those small people on the beach reminded me of my small people back home, which reminded me of everything back home, which reminded me that I would be doing my entire family a disservice to ditch this mission – to shake my head and give up, to admit failure. To let the pool lounger go.

So, for once, I refused to give up.

“Fuck it.”

“I’m going to the ocean.”

And I got in my car and drove south.

January 1st, 2014

The ball has dropped and nothing has changed.

I still love how my children challenge my every word. I’m still amazed in the friends I’ve made through my industry. I still wonder why Kerrie puts up with my crap and cherish her for it. I still want to be better, still want to fight for the future, still want to protect my kids from everything, still struggle against that protection so my kids can make up their own mind.

The ball has dropped. It’s a new year. I just learned to add “2013″ to my files, but then again I just learned – for what feels like the millionth time – that the year means nothing. That we’re all tied to our own timelines, and that if we don’t move accordingly we forget that resolutions are worthless.

The ball has dropped? I guess I should write something. Or, I should just keep being aware.

Category: On...

November 5th, 2013

Yesterday, Sierra picked up a book on the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the book was in English, the captions were still in French. She read them anyway.

“Less troys rosettes noter dayme dee paris est lun dess grands chefs dee lah churn-ten.”

Sierra is six, yet here she is, fearlessly hacking through incomplete French sentences as if they were just another set of words she hadn’t yet learned in first grade. To her, she’s simply learning to read, and these are new words. She doesn’t know it’s a new language because every word is part of a new language.

In each new incarnation of my professional career, I’ve been dropped into a new language, and I’ve pushed forward with fervor. When I first tasted call center middle management, I was eager and ready to work. When I became a copywriter, I devoured every resource. Now, in the impossible to contain web industry, I still find myself going off on tangents, assuming I’ll need to know everything about everything.

These early days allow us to work without history. They allow us to do what we think is right, without censorship, because we haven’t yet been proven wrong.

This happens with films and books and music. We launch ourselves into genres without regard to what’s considered “legitimate.” We fall in love with bands like Coldplay and Pearl Jam before we hear the negative reviews and backlash. We take it all in, because it’s all new to us.

Each failure tempers our exploration. We cut back on tasks and narrow our vision. We stop taking chances, because we know what we’re supposed to do.

But maybe we should just keep reading on, regardless of the content, regardless of whether or not it’s within our bounds. Of course we should learn from our mistakes, but maybe we should spend less time trying to prevent them in the first place.

Maybe we should pretend we’re French, even if only for a caption or two.

Category: Career, On..., Words, Writing

August 1st, 2013

At 8:45 PM, my bike becomes a land speeder, racing against time, dodging blinking lightning bugs and fighting against the wind. My goal is to get home before dark. My wheels creak and my tires give – both too old and neglected to handle many more rides. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, yet every time feels like I’ve just learned how to stay up on two wheels.

My ass hurts. My legs are sore. Just a few more miles.

My arm tingles: I’ve been on the trail long enough that it’s starting to fall sleep. My bike doesn’t fit my body very well – in fact, it probably never did. It’s an issue I don’t bother with because next week (and it’s always next week) I’m going to buy a new one. I deserve it. After fifteen years, I’d say I’ve earned it. After two colleges, three cities, thousands of rides and hundreds of curse words directed at its unreliable gears and scraping brakes, this simple machine is ready to be put down for good.

My rides are getting longer, these days, though I still don’t play the part. I’m still missing the lycra shirts and the bike shorts, missing the toe clips and the slick helmets. I don’t race, and I don’t mosey. I don’t use my bike as transportation, or for exercise. I just use it as a thing I can ride. My skull looks like a shiny black mushroom, and my years-old Pacers shirt is becoming ragged. I bike in sandals and cargo shorts. I look like someone’s father. Which, I guess, is exactly what I am.

I ride through a pocket of cold river air, goosebumps forming. I wipe a gnat out from the corner of my eye and breathe in the smell of water and fish and mud. I dip away from the river and into a park, my tires like a machine gun over the wood slatted bridge as I exit the bike trail and head away from its endless loop. My ass still hurts.

And as the sun rests, my breath labored from the final hill, I look at my phone. It’s 9:05 PM, now, and I’m home. And all I can think about doing is getting back out for another ride.

August 20th, 2012

Of the things I tend to think about too much, the concept of personal taste has lingered on my mind for longer than it should have. By “personal taste,” I mean specifically how the differences in perception that we all depend on for unique thought and recollection cause us also to experience our own likes and dislikes – music, food, movies, people – in a way that’s vastly different from those around us.

I’ve recently taken a gig as a beer columnist for our local newspaper, and these internal arguments about personal taste have ramped up accordingly. I’ve found there’s nothing more difficult than writing about literal taste – about what makes a beer good, and what floral notes are found within, and why someone should drink and enjoy a certain kind of beer – because my own tastes seem to vary wildly from what’s typically found on a beer rating site like BeerAdvocate.

In this way, I’ve been forced to write in a way that sidesteps critical taste altogether. I’m wary of the BeerAdvocate model, which dictates ratings based on specific criteria. I’m wary of any rating system that doesn’t take into account experience, context and, above all, personal taste.

Though many of us are tempted to confirm our taste by finding out what others think, our taste isn’t necessarily built through consensus. The things we like are determined by the experiences we encounter. The beer I like, the music I like, the people I like, the books I like – all of these are influenced by context, even more than they’re influenced by content.

Personal taste crates outliers. We all have a Hall and Oates hidden away somewhere – something so out of tune with the rest of our collected taste that there’s no explanation but that it has made the rare combination of emotion, history and pure unbridled enjoyment.

I listen to things differently than you do. You taste things differently than I do. My palate is dull and unrefined. Your ear for music might be tempered toward jazz, while mine gravitates toward guitars. Taste is always relative, and judging otherwise is foolish.

It’s also the hardest thing we can overcome. Our taste is the most visible part of our personality – from the clothes we wear to the music we listen to.

Criticizing personal taste, trying to put words to something that’s often wordless, comparing dissimilar concepts in a vain attempt at exposition. We struggle to explain why we like the things we like, and why those things are justifiable. And the worst part is: there’s no way around it.

We like what we like. We’re evolutionally determined to discredit the things we don’t. Personal taste is what we fight against, and it’s what makes us individuals.

Category: On..., Writing

April 10th, 2012

I popped up from the ground and ran. I was bleeding. A lot. My face was a mess, mashed into god knows what. But I couldn’t think about that. I was only half a block from my house, so I ran. I just ran.

Behind me lay my bike, left behind in an awkward angle, its front wheel released from the frame and its front fork jammed into the grass. The reflector lay strewn across the parking lot. My friend, who shifted from laughing to not laughing to genuine concern, ran behind me, trying to catch up.

I would later recount the scene to my father, my mother, an admitting nurse and a reconstructive surgeon: I was a half block from my house when my wheel had come off my bike. I was riding down a hill. The fork of my bike came down first, and I went up and over. My face went into the concrete. Where I slid. Where I spent just fractions of a second, jarred, confused. Then: alive.

I was alive. But I wasn’t hurting. I wasn’t in pain.

I was scared shitless.

Not Knowing Enough To Know What You Don’t Know

The web moves quickly, and we struggle to run along with it. I was reminded of this at the recent IA Summit in New Orleans, where I found myself hanging out with a group of the weekend’s speakers. As we laughed and ate and drank and talked about anything but information architecture, I realized that these people knew each other from way back. I was lagging in both familiarity and experience.

And, as the weekend rolled on, I realized just how much I was lagging in knowledge. The people I had spend the weekend getting to know were all accomplished speakers who could engage in hour-long discussions on IA, while all I could do is sit back and soak it in. I walked into the conference expecting to learn more about information architecture. I never expected to leave learning just how much I didn’t know about the field.

Turns out, this isn’t rare. This shit happens all the time.

Here’s some dude walking into a meeting with his first big client. Here’s a new author who’s signed an agreement for her first book. Here’s a small-time strategist who’s been asked to speak intelligently with much smarter people about things that may or may not be over his head.

These situations are common. They are called “New Situations”,” as in “This is something you’ve never done before.” They are situations in which we are required to be on point, knowledgable and charming, lying through our teeth about our experience. At all times, we’re scared to be found out, which means we’re scared of being discovered as an amateur.

As if we didn’t all start as amateurs. As if we weren’t all scared when we started something new. The difference is whether we took that fear and used it to our advantage.

My Little Black Book

I collect fears like some collect phone numbers, storing them away for future correspondance. Each one is categorized by relationship, given its own avatar and recalled as the mood fits.

Here’s a section I like to call “Professional Disembowelment.” It’s filled with doubts. I met them all when I started writing, and they still threaten to tear me apart. There’s the Fear of Being Found Out. There’s the Fear of Hackitude. There’s the Fear of Speaking and Not Knowing What I’m Talking About. The gang’s all here, folks, and they’re ready to party.

Sometimes, I steal fears: “Will My Child Be Okay?” and “Am I As Big Of An Asshole As I Sometimes Seem?” are things I’ve seen manifest in close friends. “Will I Be Overweight Forever” was borrowed from the Mass Media Television Complex. “Am I A Good Husband/Father/Friend” was lifted from everyone, everywhere, ever.

We all have these little black books, where fears and anxieties collect and pool and begin choking on our ability to work and create and live. They stop circulation. As the pools become muddy and still, they continue to coalesce until we do something about them.

We can ignore them and watch as they silently take over. We can accept them and stay stagnant. We can confront them and learn from them.

I never delete a fear. I never know when I’ll need it again.

Here’s a Moral, I Guess

Without fear, I am nothing.

Without the fear of being left behind, not accepted by my peers, forced to live in the nerd I’ve imagined myself to be, I’d have never met any of my best friends. What’s more, I’d have never met Kerrie. I’d have never captured her heart. I’d have never learned to feed off of her strength.

Without being thrown into a new industry, forced to write by the seat of my patched-together pants, scared to death that a client was going to come back and ask why they had hired such a damned hack, I’d have never pushed myself to become better.

Without the fear that I’d be left out of something wonderful, I’d have never moved toward the web.

Without the fear that I’d be discovered as a fraud – scared shitless that I’d open a drawer and find a litter’s worth of rabbit feet, proving that everything from the past five years was an extended exercise in luck management – I wouldn’t keep fighting to learn more.

Where there’s fear, there’s consciousness. We don’t fear things we don’t care about. I am who I am because I’ve stopped fighting the uncomfortable. I’ve accepted fear as a necessary part of progress, separating it from anxiety, using it for good instead of for ulcers. I haven’t done anything special – nothing that we all can’t do. I just bucked up and accepted life. Accepted fear. Accepted progress.

Without the fear, I stand still. We all do. Fear is the next killer productivity app.

We Move On

It only took a few minutes to get to the emergency room. My mother arrived shortly after. I was bandaged, gauzed and cosmetically altered, my chin sewn together and swaddled in gauze.

I usually forget about the accident, but I’m often reminded of the scars. I can still feel the lump where my tooth punctured my lip. I can still see the white line on my chin that refuses to beard over.

I can still feel the impact. Every time I get on a bike. Every time I ride down a hill. Every time I wobble, my tire sticking in a curb or against a railroad track.

What’s more, I feel it every time Sierra gets on a bike in the backyard and starts riding in circles. I feel it every time Isaac, unaware of his own mortality, speeds down the sidewalk head first, feet dragging, full speed. It was my accident – my blood, and my shock – but I’ve saddled them with the repercussions. I hover over them, I coddle them, and I sometimes block the warm rays of carefree childhood.

When I was a kid, I was scared of people. I’ve never gotten over that; struggling against the undertow of introversion has become one of my pastimes. I hope that my kids will learn from my mistakes – that being scared is okay, that you SHOULD be scared, that you can’t progress without the fear of failure and the fear of mistakes and the fear of being discovered.

But they probably won’t. They can’t. They have to make their own mistakes. They will develop their own fears.

They will learn from them. They will become stronger. On their own. In time. With or without my help. Which means all I can do is hug them and comfort them and hope they learn their lesson long before I did.

February 7th, 2012

There’s the new deli place, and there’s the place that’s delicious but no one remembers to go there, and there’s that Indian restaurant that you’re still scared won’t make it, and there’s a few places you’ve never even seen. Those new places sell pot pies and german baked goods, both of which sound delicious. There’s the pizza place with the floppy pizza and horrible service.

How can so many restaurants exist in such a small space? You want them all to succeed. It’s an impossible paradox – you go the places you love, but by doing so you never give the new places a chance; or, you go to the new places and neglect your old stand-bys.

If you’re lucky, the choices are made for you. The pot pies aren’t as great as advertised. The owner of the pizza place beat his wife. The Indian restaurant is too far away.

You do two things. You eat out every day. Or you promote the hell out of the restaurants you love and hope others will eat out every day.

You can like lots of things, but you can’t like them all at the same time. You have to let something go. You can’t save them all.

Category: Food, On...