Category Archives: my life

Forty-six trips


Birthdays are like signposts, and as we hurtle down life’s interstate, we pass these silent markers once a year. They don’t ask us to stop or slow down or yield, but if we’re smart, we’ll pause to reflect when we meet them, thinking on all we’ve seen on the road in the last year.

Yesterday marked my 46th trip around the sun. Hard to believe I’ve already passed that many signposts. If I’m very lucky, I’ll pass that many yet again before riding into the sunset. What’s more likely is that I won’t. As I sit here today, then, I think about what I’ve achieved (or haven’t), and wonder what I can still do with the time I have left…But that’s the problem, isn’t it? One never knows how much time there is.

The great illusion of time

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

– T.S. Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

For many people, that’s the way life feels when you’re young…Time and the possibilities it contains are endless. We will live forever. No need to rush into things. Plenty of opportunity to explore, have fun, chart the best path, find our future. Eventually. No need to plough headlong into things like marriage or buying a house or having kids; all in good time. Better to think things through, do the right stuff, avoid making big mistakes. At least, that’s how I wound up approaching my life.

In most cases, fear held me back from doing things I should have been doing. I was afraid to get married because I worried that it might not work out, that maybe I was making a mistake, like the mistakes my parents made (repeatedly, unfortunately). I waited to have kids because I thought there was time, because I wanted my income to be more stable, because I wanted to be sure, because I worried that maybe I wouldn’t be a good parent. I waited to buy a house because I was afraid to commit myself to something that big for that long. I waited to leave jobs that were wrong for me because I was afraid I might be making a mistake, that maybe if I stuck it out just a little longer, everything would work out.

Fear and waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting…And through all this waiting, the clock never stopped ticking.

I’ve waited too long for too many things. I’ve squandered the precious gift of time through my fear and selfishness, and now time is taking its revenge. My body has started to show wear and tear, a menagerie or minor maladies swirl around me like gnats, and things that were once a given are now suddenly not so certain any more. Nothing ever was certain, actually…I just fooled myself into thinking it was. And the worst thing about all of this is that some people around me have suffered as a result.

At the same time, I look up and realize how many people find happiness despite the imperfections and messiness of life. They’ve been falling in and out of love, having kids, buying houses, making mistakes, struggling, and really living. I’ve been dodging mistakes and coasting and putting things off because I could, and because the people who love me were too kind to tell me to wake up and smell the coffee.

So now that I’m 46, with my life more than likely half over, my eyes have finally been opened and a realization sinks down to my bones: there is no time.

Luckily for me, it’s never too late to smell the coffee, and I got two big whiffs lately that helped me to wake up.

Get busy living

The first scent of coffee came when I learned my 17-year-old cousin-once-removed Jordan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He is now battling this disease every day, undergoing extensive and protracted chemotherapy, but the prognosis looks good so far (roughly 80% of kids can be cured). When I look at the courage with which he faces this life-and-death struggle, and see him fight and still manage to smile, it brings all of my problems into stark relief, and shows me how tiny they really are.

The second whiff came on my birthday. My wife gave me a thoughtful hand-made card, packed with three simple sentiments:

  1. You are appreciated
  2. You are blessed
  3. You are loved

The next obvious conclusion one can draw from those three things, the thing she was too nice to say, is that I am lucky, in a thousand tiny ways and a few big ones. It’s unbelievable that I could complain under circumstances like this, and that I would be afraid to go after things in my life.

And so in the coming year, big change is afoot. I expect challenges. I expect both failures and successes. But most of all, I expect to embrace the next signpost I see on this long and winding road, because I’ll be seeing it after having really lived another year.

Deckocalypse 2011

Decomposed granite and "party in your bare feet" are not two phrases that go together. Despite some nice plants, lots of mulch, and two amazing giant sequoia trees, the primary space of our backyard has been a broad expanse of the aforementioned, unusable crushed-up rock since we moved in. My visceral hatred of this stuff knows no bounds; it’s like the geological equivalent of cockroaches. It sticks in your shoes, scratches the floors when you track it in the house, collects leaves and can’t be swept, and is a perfect substrate for tiny grasses and weeds that have to be painstakingly pulled by hand. It’s also not really amenable to furniture, since you can’t slide chairs on it, and it’s not level. In other words, it sucks, and it was rendering a good chunk of our yard functionally useless.

After three years, we finally decided to change this sad state of affairs and build a deck. Or rather, have a deck built by someone who actually knows what they’re doing with power tools (i.e., not me). Not only will we be able to dine al fresco, but we’ll never track those little Satan-spawned rocks into the house again.

Over the coming days, I’ll be documenting the construction project with photos and exciting color commentary. Come back often to check out the story!

First things first: Before, After, the Plan to get there, and the Team that’ll make it happen.

Backyard: Before

In true information-design-geek fashion, I made a schematic of the yard to help with the design process (shown above, click to enlarge). The area containing the decomposed granite (DG) is a long “U” on the east side of our house. The center of the U holds a small landing with two stairs that lead down to the DG area. Ten square paving stones live in the DG right in front of the steps, and essentially can’t be removed because they are embedded in concrete. The area outside the DG is a mix of plants, shrubs and trees, with a carpet of fir bark mulch beneath. Redwood 2x4s are used as a barrier between the DG and the mulch around the yard.

Backyard: After (sans accoutrements)

Our deck is really for two things: to create an outdoor space where we can entertain and eat outside, and to offer an area where we can chill out in our bare feet in the sun (e.g., reading, playing with pooch). Given these goals, we had to figure out what we wanted to do…Cover all the DG with deck? Or maybe only part of it?

Our neighbors in the compound (who share similarly designed homes) built decks over some of their DG, then had the rest hauled away. Our yard is one of the largest, so covering all of the DG with deck would be pretty expensive. On top of that, we’d lose landscape space….Covering part of the DG was the right option, but the question was, which part?

After going back and forth a bit, we finally opted for a deck that would cover the bulk of the DG and all of the paving stones, then wrap around the landing (diagram above, click to enlarge). The landing will stay in the same spot (since we’re not moving our double doors), and we’ll raise the deck so that it’s flush with what’s currently the last step down to the DG. The wrap-around area on the south side of the deck will be flush with the house, and is just the right size for our BBQ. The small strip of mulch on the northwest side of the deck will be replaced with a planter bed where we can grow herbs and veggies. About 60 square feet of the DG won’t be covered by the deck, so we’ll haul that crap away or shovel it up and hide it under the deck.

Both of our neighbors with decks went with a gorgeous Brazilian hardwood called Ipe (pronounced ee-pay). It’s a nearly perfect decking material: very hard, weather resistant, highly resistant to rot and fungi, and with a fire rating that matches that of concrete and steel. We’ll use 3/4″ x 5 1/2″ boards of various lengths (roughly $4 a linear foot), and we’ll clad the stairs and exterior face of the deck to provide a nice finished look.

The last detail worth mentioning is a miter joint we decided to create. Rather than have all of the boards run the same way, we decided that the wrap-around would look better with boards running east-west, while the rest of the deck ran north-south. This meant we needed a miter joint to connect the boards on one side of the deck with the other. Easy to draw, harder to plan and optimize in terms of materials.

So there you have it…A pretty basic deck. But what will it take to build?

The Plan

Efficiency was one of our significant goals for the project. We wanted to minimize the amount of Ipe we used, both for cost and environmental reasons. Boards come in fixed lengths (from 8 to 20 ft in variable increments, depending on where you buy it). Rather than try to do the math, I decided to plan visually, so I measured the deck dimensions, and then laid things out in Omnigraffle as shown in the diagram below (click to enlarge):

Deck plan - Click to enlarge

The miter joint is the only thing that complicates things a little. If we had done boards the same direction for the entire deck, then it would have been easy. The miter joint meant we needed to have a mix of board lengths to minimize waste, along with an underlying diagonal support beam. The end result was a mix of board lengths from 8 to 20 ft, with placement dependent on geometry of the deck. The distribution of boards across the deck as a function of length is shown below (click to enlarge):

Deck plan - Click to enlarge

The structural plan (i.e., footings, joists, support structure) was put together by our carpenter, based on his previous experience building decks for our neighbors (and others). We’ll have 15 footings and a support structure made of pressure-treated lumber, with joists spaced 16″ on-center, and other reinforcements wherever they’re needed.

One last design detail: ventilation. All of my research indicated that one way to minimize cupping is to provide adequate cross ventilation under the deck, since cupping is caused by a moisture differential between the top and bottom of deck boards. Air flow is particularly important for decks that are low to the ground (like ours). After discussing things with the carpenter, we’ve decided we’ll do a few things:

  • Excavate 3-4″ trenches underneath all of the joists (i.e., so they don’t touch the ground)
  • Dig channels between the paving stones
  • Place small circular vents on the sides of the deck
  • Drill a number of 1/2″ holes in faces of the joists

The team

The deck is being built by Anderson Moraes Carpentry in El Cerrito. Anderson is not only a knowledgeable and experienced carpenter; he’s also a great and funny guy with a very gentle demeanor. He and his colleague Roberto will be running the show, and I’ll be pitching in wherever I can. Charlie the wonder dog will be honorary foreman, overseeing all aspects of the project with his keen and curious eyes. Finally, Elaine will bring her great design and construction sensibilities, adding her thoughts as the project unfolds.

Breaking ground

And so after all of the planning, it came time to break ground. The first big construction project at our house kicked off with a bang on June 22. Spades hit the soil, hands picked up hammers, and minds turned to measurements. If all goes well, in three weeks, we’ll have a new deck, a nifty planter box, and a blessed lack of DG in our yard.

Stay tuned for the next installment, coming soon!

In Memoriam: Kenneth Ray Wheeler (1921-2011)

Wheeler kids (1970)

My Uncle Ken (far left above) passed away on February 26 after a long and fruitful life (see complete obituary). Though it’s been 20 years since I’ve seen him, I can still remember the warm timbre of his voice, and the feeling of his kind presence in the room, as if it were yesterday. Ken was an amazing man, with a life full of accomplishments, and he will be missed greatly. He was a hero, in many senses of the word, and someone worth admiring and emulating.

First, he was a war hero. At the age of 20, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ken enlisted in the Army Air Corps and trained to be a B17 bomber pilot. Within a year and half, he was First Lieutenant, and then rose to Captain and Squadron Commander. He flew 29 missions over Europe, and was ultimately awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with clusters, and the European Campaign Ribbon with five major battle stars. All by the time he was 24. I didn’t even have my first real job by then, let alone the courage and determination it would take to fly into the fires of war to fight Nazi tyranny. And yet, he never spoke about it, as a point of pride or otherwise. He had done what he had to do, and that was the end of it. He stayed in touch with his Squadron throughout his life, and they honored him at his passing, 70 years after the events that brought them together.

Second, he was a hero of science. After receiving a BS in Metallurgy from UC Berkeley (my alma mater, where I also studied metallurgy), Ken worked as an engineer for Batelle, where he developed and patented a porous metallic alloy used in bone implants. He was included in Who’s Who in the West as a result in 1982-1983, and no doubt his discovery helped the lives of many.

Third, Ken was a hero to his family. Married to my Aunt Polly for 60 years, he has four children (my cousins Jody, Jennifer, Kirk and Darren) and a pack of 13 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. With all of them, he was loving, accepting and supportive, even when the kids did things that kids do. A clear symbol of their tight-knit family was the summer excursions he and Polly would organize to Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. Every year, they’d spend several weeks with the family enjoying walks on the beach, playing cards, and eating well (always something you could count on with the Wheeler clan).

In every aspect of his life, Ken gave the best of himself to the world and those around him, and we were enriched for it. He is the epitome of the everyday hero, and though he is gone, his gifts to the world live on in his family and in all the warm memories of him each of us carries.

In Memoriam: Alan Nathan Yost (1972-2010)

Darkness visible
An artist and dear friend lost
Shining in memory

Alan was the kind of guy who could simultaneously drink a cold Miller, discuss the merits of Helvetica as a typeface, and rant about dreams of rabid space monkeys overtaking Walnut Creek in an orgy of inter-species uprising. And have it all make some kind of crazy sense. As a result, you can see why trying to capture this complex, multi-faceted, brilliant, and creative spirit is ultimately a doomed venture.

With that as a given, I’m going to try anyway…

I met Alan more than 10 years ago while working at Sapient, along with about 600 other insanely talented and creative people in San Francisco. He shared an office with two other graphic designers with whom I had worked on projects. I’d drop into their office from time to time, check in on project work, shoot the proverbial shit, talk trash about our clients, look at their latest design inspirations, and then trek back upstairs to my den of technology. Alan and I would talk and joke (me the former, he the latter), and over the course of time, we built up a bit of a rapport.

At the very least, during those initial months, I developed a huge respect for Alan. I realized pretty quickly that in the glint of his eye, the tip of his little toe, the curl of a nasty hangnail, Alan had more creativity and skill as an artist than most people I had known. Certainly more than I would ever achieve. It was an ocean of creative energy, and anyone who spent time with Alan felt the crash of those waves and smelled the salty, yet quiet, spirit behind them.

In an odd way, Alan was a man of few words and yet a soul with many. I suspect that most people who didn’t know him would characterize him as quiet and gentle. He was both of those things, in spades. At the same time, Alan could hold forth at length about any variety of things, familiar to him and otherwise. He had a gift of gab that could make most feel comfortable, even if you weren’t exactly sure about the results of his Calculus. It made sense or it didn’t matter. It was simply a joy to be in Alan’s presence.

I will remember a lot of small, unusual things about Alan, which seems somehow fitting. He touched and transformed my life in many small, yet meaningful, ways. He was a collection of beautiful and inexplicable traits, the whole greater than the sum.

Most of you will never know him. The world is worse as a result….

You will live on in my memory Alan. I will always remember you, and always miss you, as will all of those who counted you as friend, lover, father, human. Rest in peace.

Drifting and being adrift


I had a powerful and terrifying dream three nights ago.

I was swimming at a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii (where we’re traveling for vacation soon). Elaine was there with me, and we were exploring, looking for good snorkeling, and just experiencing the ocean. In search of the perfect spot, I encouraged her to swim a little further out with me, confident that we’d find something fantastic. Instead, as we swam, the currents strengthened, the swells expanded, and soon I realized we were out of our depth. Panic set in, and as I drifted up and down with 10-foot swells, I realized we were lost. We were at the mercy of the currents, and would be swept out to sea, and there was nothing I could do to save either her or myself. I had failed, through my own stupidity and arrogance.

When I woke from the dream, I chalked it up to some free-floating anxiety about the upcoming trip. I always get nervous before trips, and in this case, I think my anxiety was slightly heightened because I know Elaine isn’t that comfortable with the ocean, and I want to take care of her. If I’m going to be totally honest, it’s probably also because I don’t deal with ambiguity and the unknown very well. Travel to new and foreign places pushes those buttons pretty squarely, and when I also take on the responsibility of planning and making a great experience for Elaine, my provider-of-stability buttons get mashed. So, to manage my anxiety, I do everything I can to prepare, to create a foundation where I can maximize control and manage the unknowns.

But the ocean is something for which you can only prepare so much.

If you don’t pay attention, and respect the power of the currents, waves and tides, you can find yourself in a bad situation pretty quickly. This is true for water in general, and in searching through my memories, I’ve uncovered some pretty healthy fears lurking in my psyche driven by childhood experiences with water and the ocean. I was terrified of my first swimming lessons, nearly drowned when I was 7, and had a number of ocean-swallowing, bone-crunching wipeouts when I was learning to bodysurf and Boogie board. My respect for the ocean is colored by these memories, and I rarely enter it in circumstances where I’m not sure of what I’m doing.

And so I tried to let go of the dream, but it resurfaced. After swimming around in my head for a few days, I realized something else might be at work: my recent job loss and current state of transition. My professional life and identity are in flux, and though I’m trying to take a Zen approach, not pushing too hard to resolve ambiguity or define my next path, I have some underlying fear and anxiety.

The ocean and its currents perfectly symbolize these fears. The ocean stands for the forces in our lives we can’t control, the market machinations or random twists of fate that can lead to financial ruin, personal meltdowns, or worse. My state of transition, where I’ve let go of perfect clarity, is akin to drifting with the tide of life. But that beautiful feeling of drifting with the tide can rapidly shift into the panic of being adrift, of being lost and out of control.

Now that I’ve recognized the duality of my feelings (desire to drift, fear of being adrift), I can try to accept my fear and live with it as I find my way. It won’t go away, and I shouldn’t ignore it, but by recognizing it, I turn it from an unseen monster into a troublesome imp. My inner strength, and the amazing people in my life, are what will keep my weightless, aimless drift an open-minded exploration of the opportunities life brings my way, filled with curiosity and wonder, rather than a panicked and desperate search for perfect answers.

Me 3.0

How many times in our lives do we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, either in our careers or otherwise? Or perhaps an even better question: How many of those opportunities do we take? Well, I’ve just been handed one in the form of a mostly-mutual pink slip, and I’m going to take it.

I’m not exactly sure what my next step will be, but as part of my transition, I completely retooled my professional presence online:

Once all those boxes had been checked, as luck would have it, my neighbor Chad over at offered m access to the Beta of their new online book creation product called Bookify, complete with a huge discount on my next book. I can’t say exactly what the book was (since it’s a top-secret gift), but it involved a major trip down memory lane. It reminded me how much I love to capture and reflect on my life, not just in pictures, but with words, too. It also reminded me how amazing my life has been to date. And that’s where we come to this poor, neglected blog.

I started blogging on May 21, 2001. Since that day, I’ve penned 368 posts and dropped out more than a few times, always returning sheepishly, full of excuses. So let’s try again and see how far we can go before I drop out again…Welcome to Version 3.0, retooled and streamlined onto WordPress 3.0.1. I enjoyed all those years publishing with Movable Type, but the time had come to break up. It wasn’t me, Movable Type, it was you.

Onwards and sideways. Thanks for taking the journey with me.

Image credit: Simply Gorgeous

on happiness

i recently read an article in The Atlantic Monthly called What Makes Us Happy. it’s a fascinating overview of the Harvard Grant Study, a 72-year-long analysis of 268 men, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal examinations of people and their long-term happiness ever performed. the study is very similar in spirit to Michael Apted’s brilliant Seven Up! series, which examined the lives of a group of British schoolchildren over the course of 40 years, and provides some amazing insights into the human condition.

so what’s the punch line? what makes us happy? is there a set of basic factors common to people who are deemed, or deem themselves, happy?

in short, it seems the simple answer is "No." there’s no one set of things that guarantees happiness.

happiness is a complex, slippery thing, a state of being experienced subjectively, without clear causation. over the course of the lives of the men in the study, many experienced both happiness and sadness; happiness is not static or stable or concrete. many who appeared incredibly stable and well-balanced as young men went through depression and turmoil. on the other hand, many from troubled upbringings found success and happiness despite a bad start. some that seemed depressed and unhappy by any objective standard actually characterized themselves as happy.

for me, there were a few particularly insightful things in the article, not necessarily on the subject of happiness, but on human psychology as a whole.

there is a school of psychological thought that all of our perceptions of reality are distortions (although not necessarily in a negative sense). we see the world through a set of adaptations (or defenses) that evolve over the course of our lives. they are our unconscious thoughts and behaviors that help us deal with pain, conflict and uncertainty. based on the work of Anna Freud, there are four types of adaptations:

  • Psychotic: These are the isolating adaptations (like paranoia, schizophrenia, or megalomania) that make reality tolerable to the person experiencing it, but that seem crazy from an external perspective
  • Immature: A level above the psychotic, these reactions (e.g., passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy) are better, but still impede intimacy
  • Neurotic: These are the reactions of "normal" people, and include things like intellectualization (reduction of painful things into objects of formal thought), dissocation (removing oneself from one’s feelings), and repression (blocking or ignoring input from one’s senses)
  • Mature: The healthiest adaptations of all include things like humor, altruism, anticipation (looking forward to plan for future discomfort), suppression (postponing response until the time is right), or sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like focus on work or sport).

our usage of these adaptations may change over time as we experience our lives. if i look at my own life honestly, i’d have to say most of my adaptions fall into the neurotic category, with occasionally mature responses. it’s difficult to really be objective about it, of course, and that’s one of the points of the article. it’s tough for people to see their own adaptations, the lenses through which they bend the light of the world and their experiences. rather than finding fault and illness with unhealthy adaptations, however, the champion of the study (George Vaillant) casts our use of them simply as an unwise deployment, and something we can change.

in other words, even someone whom a psychiatrist would characterize as depressed can grow, modify their adaptations, and thrive. this may be a slightly simplistic view when examined in the light of neuropsychology and the physiological basis for depression and other mental illnesses. i don’t think they are necessarily in conflict, but it seems to me the biological dimension of behavior shouldn’t be entirely discounted.

Factors for healthy aging
Vaillant did identify what he considered to be seven factors associated with healthy aging, based on the Grant Study. there is no clear and definitive causation (i.e., there are plenty of exceptions to the rules), but these things seemed important in many cases.

  1. Employing mature adaptations
  2. Education
  3. Stable marriage
  4. Not smoking
  5. Not abusing alcohol
  6. Some exercise
  7. Healthy weight

of the men in the study, 50 percent who were deemed "healthy happy" at age 80 possessed at least five of these factors. none of the men with three or fewer of these factors were happy at age 80. depression was a major factor as well; of the men who suffered from depression by age 50, 70 percent were dead or ill by age 63. although not stated, this is probably because depression erodes one’s ability to maintain a number of the factors above (e.g., approach to adaptations, stable marriage, smoking, alcohol abuse).

what are some factors that don’t really seem to matter???

  • Cholesterol levels at age 50
  • Social ease (which helps when you’re younger, but doesn’t matter as much as you age)
  • Childhood temperament (i.e., shy, anxious kids can still grow up to be healthy and happy)

it’s all in how you look at things (squeeze those lemons!)
there’s a great little snippet embedded in the article that encapsulates a lot of the theory:

A father, on Christmas Eve, puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, "Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break." The other boy runs to him and says, "Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!"

when i read this, it made me realize just how much of my life i have spent being negative, or at least, spent too much time looking at both sides of things, seeing both good and bad. to think that someone could find joy in a pile of manure, that there is a way to turn anything on its head if only you try — this is amazing to me, and makes me think just how much happier i would probably be if only i looked at things differently. the problem is we are continually cloaked in a veil that clouds our awareness, a veil of mindlessness and forgetfulness. we forget to take things in, we forget that there is a different way to look at the world and our experiences; instead we mindlessly follow the path of least resistance, past patterns, unwise adaptations.

one man in the study, a successful writer and gay rights activist, led a life that was paradoxical. he clearly suffered from depression, went through two marriages, then came out of the closet to his wife and children after many years. he drank heavily. at the same time, he was successful, achieving many things. he died at age 64 after falling down a flight of stairs, with high blood alcohol levels in his autopsy results. near the end of the study, Vaillant sent him a manuscript-in-progress about the study and asked for his input. he wrote:

The methodology you are using is highly sophisticated. But the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life. What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?

another perspective on happiness and perception. squeeze the lemon. live every moment. it may be bitter, it may suck, it may not in fact always make you happy, but you will have truly lived. how many of us can say we have truly lived, and how many have followed easy paths that may have been less fulfilling, because they weren’t willing to risk? is the latter such a bad thing, after all? who is to say which is true happiness, and which isn’t?

the road to happiness?
it seems to me what this whole study says is that each of us has the power to understand and shape our view of the world, craft our own version of happiness, whatever that is. think about how you respond to the stress and anxiety and pain in your life, and try to do it in a healthy way. don’t smoke or drink too much. eat healthy and exercise a little. if you think you’re getting depressed, get help for it.

at the end of the day, happiness is relative. there is no clear path to it, no "Seven easy steps to Nirvana." in some cases, the path to it may be through distinct unhappiness. one simply can’t know. should i squeeze the lemon or stick with rice porridge? or can i do both, depending on the day and how i feel?

for me, it is a profoundly sad image to think of lying on my death bed, struggling for my last breath, wondering if i had lived my life. there’s only one chance. no do-overs. do i want to die happy? yes. do i want to die feeling regret? no. and yet, would i rather die with the taste of sour lemon, having no regrets? would you?

A Day for Mom

Ryan and Mom

today is a day to celebrate our Mom’s, for all that they have done, all that they have given us, for the love they have brought to our worlds and spirits. for the greatest gift anyone could ever give another: life.

my Mom is an amazing woman who struggled and sacrificed to help me become the person that i am today. there was no instruction manual and she did it alone, striving to give me the things she never had growing up. she loves me with all her heart, and for many years during my rebellious and independent youth, i could not see that love. it was clouded as i tried to individuate, to become myself apart from parental guidance, to find my way in the world. it caused us to separate for awhile, to drift apart, sad at the disconnection that had come between us, but not knowing how to repair it. we each played our part in the way our relationship unfolded, doing our best, but still missing our connection somehow.

the gap that was created existed for many years, despite our desire to repair. there were still resonances of past arguments and disagreements and misunderstanding. it was hard to find the words to repair the past hurt, and so we drifted into that place that i suspect many parents and children do: comfortable friendship, conversations about the weather and what’s happening in the family, pleasantries that stay away from those past memories and wounds.

on our last visit, my mom and i found a way to open those past doors without fear or defensiveness. we reconnected in a way we haven’t for years, and started a journey down a path to rediscovery of ourselves and our connection. when we parted, it wasn’t with sadness, it was with joy, love, and respect for one another as people, as mom and son.

and so on this day devoted to Moms everywhere, i want to recognize my special Mom, and all that she has given to me. i love you Mom. you gave me life and helped me become who i am today, and i will never again take for granted your special spirit and gift to the world, and all that you have given me.

By appointment or chance

there is a small used bookstore around the corner from my house. i have never been inside, but recently i was out taking a walk in the warm Easter sunshine, and happened to stroll by. it was closed, but i stopped to look in the window.

ever since college, i’ve been a used bookstore junkie, always dropping in to see if there are any good remainders, or anything i need to round out my collection. i don’t need one more book, but it doesn’t stop me looking. it’s always fascinating to see the titles they choose to put out, too…literary window dressing is a brand statement that shows what you might expect to find in this particular store. i found the selection at this shop fascinating:

  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (an old printing by a non-mainstream press)
  • The Transgressors by Jim Thompson (an old pulp noir novel put out by Vintage)
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Book of Gold (an old book that looked to be the kind a 12-year-old would devour in a weekend, learning everything there is to know about the precious metal)
  • A book on Vietnamese history and philosophy (title and author escape me)

you couldn’t get a much more eclectic selection. well, i suppose you could if you threw in a B-grade romance novel by Danielle Steele, a collection of children’s nursery rhymes, and something about quantum field theory. but you get the point. just seeing what was in the window made me want to go in the store to see what else they have on their shelves, and also see who runs the shop. i’ll have to go back another day.

the other thing that caught my eye were the two hand-written signs in the window, each penned in blue ink by a slightly erratic hand. the first said, "We may, or may not, be open on Easter. — Mgmt (Thank you for your patronage)" at the bottom of the hours sign was another curious statement: that you could engage with the owner and store by appointment, or by chance. hours are for the world of the rational, this said to me…why not be open to chance as well? who knows what might happen?

by appointment or chance

imagine how it unfolds, how the happenstance walk could lead to a visit to the store, which is open by chance. a book lies on the counter, cast aside by a disinterested reader, but at that moment, in that state of mind, it is perfect somehow for what you need, the gem that inspires dreams or fills the soul or brings deep reflection and satisfaction. and maybe this book creates a thought, then an action, then a transformation. all by chance. just because the owner of the store decided to open their doors that sunny day, hoping to maybe fulfill a soul or fire a dream.

courage and the corner store

a new store opened up in my neighborhood recently. as it was being prepared, there was a sign that made it look like another corner restaurant was going in, which was cause for excitement…always good to have more local restaurants. once it opened, however, it turned out to be something different.

it’s called something like "Cafe Brasil," but it’s not really a cafe. it’s actually a Brazilian specialty shop, selling everything from pre-packaged Brazilian foods to cheap flip-flops to soccer jerseys. in other words, lots of random crap. as i first thought to write this entry, it was going to be a humorous jab at people who open stores that sell random crap. after all, how many more of those outlets does the world need? there’s more good crap to buy than anyone could ever possibly imagine or purchase, and the random crap just adds to the noise. one could also argue it leads to lowering the societal bar in terms of what we need (and very much don’t need) in our lives.

but taking potshots at people selling things we ostensibly don’t need is pretty easy, and actually kind of snarky. so i thought about that corner store a little more, and realized there is probably something to be admired there.

while i may not think that Brazilian specialty goods is the best thing to have in a corner store, someone did. someone had a vision for that store, and worked quite hard to realize it. the property was a disaster before they took it over, and had to be carefully remodeled over the course of several months. at least now, it’s clean and adds some much-needed character to the neighborhood. it also probably took a bit of effort to determine what speciality goods to bring in, where to source them from etc etc.

it took courage for someone to bring that tiny store to life, to try to realize their dreams (or at least, it seems so to me). that’s what they believed in and wanted to do, and they did it.

as i think about my own professional life, i ask myself, how much courage have i had? how willing have i been to take risks, to pursue my dreams, to follow a vision for myself that had heart? when i left my career as a scientist to pursue who-knows-what in the world of the Web, i took a great risk, and it paid off in terms of personal growth and happiness. but for the last 5 years at least, i’d say my professional life has been entirely reactive and risk-free: i followed a fairly clear path, without giving a huge amount of thought to where it was going. after all, i was making good money and didn’t feel entirely dissatisfied with what i was doing.

the time has come for that all to change, again. the time has come to find courage, to re-establish vision, and to pursue my dreams, wherever they may ultimately lead me. and whether or not they know it, those people in the corner store lead by example. even if they fail, they have followed a path with heart, followed their vision, and that is what i must do.