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A Year in Review: 2014

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The temptation when it comes to sharing socially is to distribute only the best moments, to bring out the brightest spots. A study a few years ago showed a correlation between the number of hours spent on Facebook and the level of personal dissatisfaction. Central to the findings was that most everyone only shares the good moments, leaving us with a sense that so many around us have amazing lives while the rest are, more or less, stuck at home struggling with the things we struggle, feeling alienated despite the continual and overwhelming connectivity with which we have grown accustomed.

There are certainly those who are able to pursue exciting and enjoyable experiences. I, for one, live in a wonderful city with seemingly limitless opportunities. I’ve gotten to see many of my favorite people and explore new places and hobbies. But this isn’t life, its just one part. The good and the bad, sweet and savory are just as important as are the things we take away from them.

So with this long post (don’t get scared), I want to pursue a year from a few angles. Rather than highlights, here’s what each month meant as I thought back to the time period.

But before we jump into the meaning, here’s a quick overview in numbers to set the context.

A Year in Numbers

Of the 8,760 hours I had available 2,500 were spent sleeping, 2,200 working, and a shocking 425 spent online outside of work. I read 56 books and 76 magazine issues, watched 47 movies and 14 series (view complete list here with each movie, book, and show listed). I walked or ran 3,175,000 steps – roughly 1,642 miles (estimated based on daily averages, thanks to FitBit), climbed 1,800 ft of rock gym wall, and spent 38 hours in the water surfing or another activities.

But those are just numbers, building blocks in the same way a painting is more than simply a list of colors used.

A Year in Meaning

The Aboriginals of Australia use paths and songs to move from one part of a desolate landscape to the next, guiding people across thousands of miles. This practice of singing Songlines, as they are called, is, according to their tradition, more than the means of knowing where they are and actually the means by which the universe is continually created. It is required that the Songlines be uttered as they walk from place to place, as their very reverberations summon the world into order: they didn’t just walk, their very walk was the act of creation, and it is up to them to, each year, create the world in which they exist.

In January I became unemployed. The reasons are unimportant. Just know that one week I was employed and the next I was sitting in a coffee shop freelancing while determining what would come next. I felt optimistic, enthusiastic. I had something new in mind and I went after it.

In February my grandmother died and it was remarkable. For some time her memory had failed her and she had grown very old. She was not sure who anyone was, and the last time I saw her she mistook me for her husband who passed away some 27 years earlier. My parents, sister, and I along with two uncles and a cousin sat close to her through the night and early morning as she passed. Earlier the previous day she remembered so much, suddenly. She looked at images of her high school and recognized friends. She got a smile on her face when we each walked in, knowing who we were. She passed from this world the way I hope to one day, surrounded by those who love her, at the end of a long life, warm and at peace having spent the last few days with a lifetime of memories.

I knew her, this woman lying there. And part of me wanted to believe the way I was raised and brought up regarding what came next for her.

Part of me looks at the end as lights out.

Another sees the end as a stillness on the water after a rain. Or to say another way, we are energy moving from one place to the next, like cosmic waves cresting and shifting into whatever we touch.

In traditional Japanese culture a baby is born from the condensing of water in one spot, like energy, that brings life.

In March I began working again, this time at what I hoped to find when we moved to San Francisco 5 years ago: an exciting job in tech at a company I could stand behind. Nearly every day is a good day.

Work is an interesting thing. Do you find meaning in work or find a job that’s meaningful? What of the people picking coal for 40 years? What will I think of where I am today in say 20, 30, 40 years? In one sense work is an action. In another it is personal meaning.

In April I again started attending a Zen meditation group after too many months away and also turned 34. Thirty-freaking-four. For me it is the age I could not imagine not too terribly long ago. I remember being 17. It was half a life ago. It was only a few years, I could swear. It was only a few heartbreaks, a dozen moves, a career, some successes and failures, and a decade of marriage ago.

In one state we have a story. In another meaning behind the story. And lastly there is meaning in the reader retelling their own story quietly as they read that of another. I share my age and you perhaps feel the weight of your years or the lightness of youth. Perhaps you immediately thought back to 34 and the freedom of that year. My thirties has been when things started getting good, personally. I started having these moments of awakening, where I see “myself as I am, not as I’d like to be,” as Fellini’s central character in 8 1/2 also discovers.

Being a human is complicated. We certainly bring good and bad to a situation. And that is, perhaps, part of our charm. I’m told that Natives of the southwest US would intentionally leave a blemish in their woven rugs, believing that it was only in the imperfections that the spirit could enter.  Without the blemish, where is the soul?

I don’t remember too much about May after a lovely trip to visit family in North Carolina. But that’s ok. This year was about creating space. Interestingly, space isn’t empty in time or even a vacuum. Space isn’t emptiness, its just open. Ironically, even the very atoms that make up our physical bodies are mostly comprised of space.

I find that I like being alone. Not all the time, but an interesting discovery this year is that I am, in fact, either an introvert or right on the line. I need as much alone time as I do in interaction. And when I don’t purposefully take it, I inadvertently take it anyway.

June… A tough month, in retrospect. At the request of another I will not say why, but this was a challenging, difficult, frustrating month.

A trauma will cause the mind to want to dig in or run. Fight or flight. I dig in closer to Michal and meditation. Anxiety, that feeling of unknown, is like a third person in the room, always present.

The Bhagavad Gita says the mind is an enemy to those who do not control it. To control is not to force but to learn a different way.

Think of the mind as a network of train stations. A three year old has over 1 quadrillion synaptic connections. For every new behavior or pattern, how many stations must redirect?

Distraction. All the time. How many times have I wandered to email during the writing of this post? In July I thought more about the inevitability of my own demise. Don’t think I’m depressed, dear reader. Far from it, in fact. But it is a fact that is not easy to grasp with. We see it happen to others but can not imagine what we have not experienced. So we live in a state of limbo, researchers say. There is a field of science dedicated to these findings. They study terror management theory and suggests that society, culture, art, literature… nearly all human endeavors are a way of distracting ourselves from the reality of our own limited lifespan.

The Greeks were ahead on this. “I gave them hope, and so turned away their eyes from death” the myth of Prometheus tells us.

Which, in a strange way, leads back to the subject of legacy. What will be remembered? I have digested a number of biographies by this point in the year. A biography worth reading is not the story of someone deciding to play it safe and sit tight. Generally they are written about those who have stepped out from status quo, due to necessity or personality - or both. But a common theme was the conquering of a tragic flaw. This is present in every biography I have read. To succeed is to overcome a significant limitation.

Rough Rider and energetic president Theodore Roosevelt had severe asthma. I don’t think the soldiers he led into war would have guessed.

Manhattan Project lead and overall brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had a number of flaws. He once tried to poison a professor.

Abraham Lincoln was severely depressed and even suicidal as a youth.

In August Michal and I celebrated 10 years. A decade. We spent a few days in Sedona, AZ. I look back and can not remember each day. They came and went and here we are. The emphasis is on we. What a strange concept. Sometimes we look at each other and are amazed to be separate people and see that other person in the familiar we see each day.

At one moment we opened the top on our rental car parked in the middle of nowhere, turned off the lights, and stared at the Milky Way.

Lets just handle September-October together. I learned to surf, spending time in the water as much as I could. There is a rhythm to the water. It rises, it falls. On slower days I’ll just bob up and down, floating in the water with my feet dangling in the ocean. This is water that has made its way across the world and back countless times. Each molecule has been a part of plant and animal many times over. It is as though the earth is one organism, and each of us a part of the whole.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” - John Muir

November finds us building up to the end. One morning I found my self drinking tea at at a Vietnamese restaurant, flipping through a book of poetry by the Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska. And then I begin to walk. I walk for 13 miles around San Francisco, unexpectedly. My feet begin to move and I see thoughts come and go with the rhythm of feet moving forward, landing with predictable regularity. Walking is a joy. And when alone my walk is fully mine. Each step is a speed and feeling fully unique to me and that moment. Walking is remarkable. In the feet alone are over 100 muscles, 26 bones, and 33 joints pulling together to make each step. There is nothing less than miraculous about the act of self propelled motion.

December can be very lonely. We did not travel, we stayed in San Francisco. Even though we are on the same continent, friends and family can seem very far away. When flying across the country I lose sight of the number of feet that separate us. How many steps would it take to move from where I am to where you are?

I thought for many commutes about this year and what it has meant. This is a rather amazing ability we possess as humans: we get to create a story out of events. I get to look at this year and create meaning from the rather disparate pieces that happen in real time. I get to interpret moments as a series of events rather than independent situations. I know what happened, what might still happen. And like a shaman I might peer down into the stack of sticks and pull some piece of truth from the arrangements.

But instead I will say, with great confidence, that this year I was able to be alive. I felt and worked and supported and traveled and ate and drank and walked and talked and drove and read and listened and spoke and built and tore down. And next year I get to do it again. This is my simple Songline.

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2014 in Lists and Numbers

All favorites in bold. Keep scrolling for magazines, movies, TV, and more.

Books Read

  1. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  3. Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely
  4. American Prometheus, Martin Sherwin
  5. 1914, Pul Ham
  6. Team of Rivals, Doris Goodwin
  7. Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan
  8. Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
  9. The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
  10. Dune, Frank Herbert
  11. Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham
  12. Charisma Myth, Olivia Cabane
  13. Fear, Thich Hanh
  14. Die Empty, Todd Henry
  15. Epic Content Marketing, Joe Pullizzi
  16. The Martian, Andy Weir
  17. Tribes, Seth Godin
  18. The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin
  19. Station Eleven, Emily Saint
  20. The Man Who Saved the Union, H. Brands
  21. Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
  22. The Bhagavad-Gita, Unknown
  23. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
  24. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda
  25. Content Marketing, Rick Ramos
  26. Elements of Content Marketing,
  27. Marketing in the Round, Gini Dietrich
  28. The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon
  29. Junky, William S. Burroughs
  30. Roughing It, Mark Twain
  31. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, Richard P. Feynman
  32. Everything belongs, Richard Rohr
  33. The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll
  34. Creativity, Inc; Ed Catmull
  35. The Business of Beliefs, Tom Asacker
  36. Manufacturing Demand, David Lewis
  37. Wool, Hugh Howey
  38. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind; Shunryu Suzuki
  39. The Way Through Doors, Jesse Ball
  40. First Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi
  41. Managing Enterprise Content, Robert Rose
  42. Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits; Rahel Anne Bailie
  43. The finite and the infinite game; James P. Carse
  44. The Atlantis Gene, A.G. Riddle
  45. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker
  46. The Children of God, Mary Doria Russell
  47. The Second Ship, Richard Phillips
  48. The remaining, D.J. Molles
  49. Buy Side, Turney Duff
  50. Free Will, Sam Harris
  51. Drops like Stars, Rob Bell
  52. Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, Cory O’Brien
  53. Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway
  54. Black Hole War, Leondard Susskind
  55. The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
  56. Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert L. O’Connell

Magazines

  • Economist
  • Fast Company
  • Scientific American
  • Chief Content Officer

Museum exhibits

  • Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George; de Young
  • Yoga: The art of Transformation; Asian Art Museum
  • China’s Teracotta Warriers: The First Emperor’s Legacy; Asian Art Museum
  • Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Asian Art Museum
  • General exhibit; San Francisco Exploratorium

Movies

  1.  Chef
  2. About Alex
  3. Obvious Child
  4. X-Men Days of Future Past
  5. Jesus & Buddha
  6. Noah
  7. Seeking a Friend
  8. Tim’s Vermeer
  9. Jodorowsky’s Dune
  10. Snowpiercer
  11. Transcendence
  12. The Other Woman
  13. Bad Words
  14. The Change-Up
  15. That Awkward Moment
  16. Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  17. Ender’s Game
  18. Saving Mr. Banks
  19. About Time
  20. Man of Steel
  21. Enough Said
  22. We’re the Millers
  23. The World’s End
  24. The Stories We Tell
  25. It’s a Disaster
  26. Stuck in Love
  27. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  28. The Avengers
  29. Safety Not Guaranteed
  30. World War Z
  31. TiMER
  32. Jack Reacher
  33. Drinking Buddies
  34. Olympus Has Fallen
  35. Europa Report
  36. Interstellar
  37. Gone Girl
  38. Birdman
  39. Edge of Tomorrow
  40. Boyhood
  41. A Million Ways to Die in the West
  42. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  43. 20,000 Days on Earth
  44. The Double
  45. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
  46. I Am
  47. The Imitation Game 

TV Series

  1. Wilfred
  2. Walking Dead
  3. Big Bang Theory
  4. The Last Ship
  5. Call the Midwife
  6. Cosmos
  7. Americans
  8. Anthony Bourdain: parts Unknown
  9. The New Girl
  10. Workaholics
  11. Quick Draw
  12. Mozart in the Jungle
  13. Marco Polo
  14. House of Cards

Division of Time

  • 8760 total hours
  • 2555 sleeping
  • 2400 hours working
  • 500 hours commuting
  • 425 hours online (outside of work or consuming media) – OUCH
  • 224 hours reading books
  • 120 hours exercising
  • 140 hours watching TV
  • 120 hours watching movies
  • 60 hours meditating
  • 52 hours reading magazines
  • 2200-ish hours remaining for all other activities 

Activity

  • 3,175,500 steps (based on daily averages, thanks to FitBit)
  • 1642.5 miles walked or run
  • 1800 feet of rock gym wall climbed
  • 38 hours spent in water: swimming, surfing, floating.

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I practice, here (or, the importance of the present moment)

Shifting on a low wooden bench, knees tight from the unusual position, my mind wrestles with focus. This is not uncommon, but rather the feel of something ordinary, regular but unnoticed, like the cadence of a subway turnstile in a busy manhattan station.

One thought passes through, a memory from earlier that day. I picture the scene and sift through the critical few moments. The scene is altered, I react differently this time, my mind practicing for the next occurrence.

The flicker of a candle reminds me of where I am and the practice at hand. From somewhere aware I remind myself to let the thought subside, to dwindle out. I first force it away and then calm my attitude, letting it settle out like a candle at the end of it’s wick. It isn’t the result that matters but the action. The goal isn’t an empty mind, but one disciplined to not fixate and focus on the internal world.

Zen is not a practice performed in a group setting, in a room with Asian motifs on every wall. It is, from what I can best ascertain after just two years of experience, a practice of intentional living, the mind trained to be present in each moment. But this does not mean you shouldn’t think of the past or forget what has happened; it means you don’t dwell there.

And this dwelling is the central point and the reason for this writing. When I sit I practice so later I can be more aware of the moment and my place within. Why am I reacting to strongly to the person next to me? Why do I object so strongly to an idea proposed by my wife or a peer? Where am I unintentionally (or even intentionally) deceiving my self or others? Did I even see the new building being built next door?

It will be obvious to most the impact our devices have had on our ability to be present. But this is nothing new. Humanity has seemingly always had books and events and games, among other experiences, distracting us from the moment. Roman leaders would provide food and entertainment to citizens at key moments to distract from the turmoil or gain key political advantage, leading to the expression “bread and circuses”. As long as we are fixated on something more enjoyable we are free from seeing the subtle and nuance, good or bad.

But the now is filled with nuance that is often overlooked. As I write I am looking at a crumpled paper towel. It’s folds and creases unique and original, shadows cast on the side away from the window. Patterns formed in manufacturing create a textured look that could be simply tactile in function or provide for better absorption. In touching the surface in a quiet room a sound is produced, barely audible unless close to my ear. I am reminded of the unmistakable sound of a burning cigarette as an actor in a film takes a long, purposeful draw, its glowing amber reflected in the sound it makes, the volume increased drastically for noticeable effect. I hear the sound of leather shoes on marble flooring (truly one of my very favorite sounds), taking on the rhythmic vocabulary of horse and rider but with the clear and distinct audible aroma of wealth and power.

This moment would have never happened had I been fixated on yesterday, or a recent issue with someone close, my mind plagued and overrun with the memory.

I do not use the word plague lightly. A thought can be truly overwhelming, overtaking all other thoughts and plunging the body into a physiological reaction. As someone with diagnosed OCD, I know this feeling well. Perfectly comfortable in bed at night, lights off, drifting off to sleep, I often get up and check the door again to ensure it is still locked from the last time I checked minutes ago. The thought of insecurity and “what if” permeates and courses through my mind like red dye in a glass of clear water, my body raising my heart rate and releasing cortisol. Until I react I can not go to sleep, I believe. It seems or feels out of my control.

It is difficult to know how we will feel or react to a situation. Sometimes the mind is treated as a separate entity in the way we might refer to our bodies as separate but connected. The mind seems to, well, have a mind of its own. The lion will never be tamed, but it can be trained. This may seem like a limitation, but it is not. In training we might have a full experience, not limited to what ever mental conditioning we have been subjected to that has gone on unchecked for so long it feels natural and normal.

With practice I create space and room to breathe. My emotions and thoughts are expressions, or tenants, rather than owners. I let them come and go. I see the value and benefit to feeling them but I do not let them invade and take over.

The more we see these moments for what they are, our emotions and reactions too, the closer we come to seeing ourselves for who we really are. Who am I?

These are things I notice and am learning as I practice, here.

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The Art and Experience of Music

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The Lone Bellow at the Fillmore Theater

In the deserts of what is now Morocco secret events were once held to showcase musical and dancing abilities. For most occasions the abilities of the artists were profound at best, their abilities on par with the best musicians of their day, their choreographed pieces played with precision and skill.

But occasionally there was a moment where the experience was so profound, so completely consuming for viewers and artists alike, the audience would rock back and forth, hands in the air, proclaiming the name of god. It was said that in these moments it was the finger of god that touched the participants and became the energy, the life force that controlled their every moment. These moments were inspired, a gift.

Last Friday I had the privilege of viewing The Lone Bellow perform at the Fillmore Theater. I went to school with two of its members, in what seems like a different life ago. The Fillmore Theater hosted some of the most important bands of the last 50 years: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Frank Zappa, the Allman Brothers… It is one of the great musical spots in the US and the very wood resinates with the years of sound like a well aged violin.

I have forgotten what it is like to see raw emotion poured out on a stage. In this moment it was there, able to be cut with a knife as though the inspiration for each song was still present, somewhere in the room on view like a curio cabinet or documentary film. Each song sung with intensity, voices throttled to a fever pitch, the audience responding and feeling with the coming and going of each movement.

When I pay for a show I don’t pay to be just entertained. I can entertain my self for hours with a never-ending stream of songs and movies on any number of devices I have on hand every day. I want to be transformed, consumed in the way that only music can do so, caught up in a moment that is not manufactured for shock and awe but wholly real and fully present in that very second by second alone. I want my very being to be picked up and merged with that of another, or that of the room. It is in those strange, ecstatic moments, our experiences entangled with those around us, that we are able to look at our own lives in the way that the artist might: with intensity, honesty, emotion. We borrow these emotions from the artists and take them home for a few days after. We connect the pieces of our own narrative through the music. We see in the stories how our outcomes might play out, with hope or despair. But we get to be present with it, if we are lucky enough to be present with the artist who is also present and not just performing an act.

At least this is how, at times, music effects me. I might begin to differentiate between music, the collection of notes, and Music, the consuming experience of connection brought on by the illicit display of emotion shared with those able and willing to be consumed in kind.

The musician giving all is left with a part of his or her heart unconscious and in recovery. It is no wonder so many musicians and actors wrestle with depression and drug problems. If done right everything is consumed, night after night.

Towards the end of the concert the band moved to the center of the audience. Like the unified rumblings of a religious service, the audience moved as one, controlled by a common string, swaying back and forth, hands in the air, as if in ancient Morocco ready to name the name of god. Perhaps some did, or perhaps some felt the celebration of their own emotional journeys in a culture that prefers the conservative assessment of being as always in control, always professional, never standing out except in acceptable and preordained moments. We may not let our selves go completely, or even know what that is like, but it is the artist we pay to be fully involved on behalf of ourselves. 
 
What does it mean to let ourselves go? We pay for ecstasy whether by drugs, alcohol, religion, movies, events, sex, hot yoga, or many of the hundreds of ways we have to move beyond the now into the other; whatever or wherever that place is. And what is that place? Humans have an innate desire for a shift in consciousness. There is not a culture on the planet that does not have an intoxicant as part of their religious or social experience. This is as normal and common as food, water, family. 
 
I propose that the place we go is the now. With the music drowning out internal checklists and story lines, we become the thing we already are: feeling, sensing, experiencing, human. We get, for a few minutes, to be fully present with a sound in a group of people, like the dancing tribal celebrations in a National Geographic video. 
 
So I applaud The Lone Bellow for the gift of that experience, in that moment in time. In their pouring out and consuming emotion through Music they were able to point the way for others to move aside their day at work, upcoming weekend of errands, and never ending list of do’s and don’ts. We got to be human. We got to be present. 

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Ten (/tɛn/): equivalent to the product of five and two; one more than nine; 10

When we are young a week is a lifetime. Minutes can tease and a simple school day might take an act of force to simply move through.

Then a month goes by, slightly faster.

And a year.

And a decade.

At 34 I feel the speed building steadily and continually. The last 120 months feel more like a restless redeye flight, where I look down in a half-awakened state as miles of moments slip by on Zeno’s arrow.

Ten years ago I stood, my feet nestled in warm sand on a wonderfully moderate August afternoon, and said, with shaky knees, words entirely new to me.

I could not eat that day from nerves. Three bites of a burger and the rest thrown away. My suit fit strangely, hair needed cutting. Family, friends, so many wonderful faces.

I looked over at her, a person I barely knew. A complex woman with a wonderful mind and beautiful smile. Someone who would surprise me continually, nearly every day. A person patient, with a seemingly endless capacity for kindness and love.

Sometimes now we’ll lock eyes in wonder that we are not the same. How is it that we are truly other people? Who is this person here in front of me?

I wonder how we are so closely connected while hindered by repelling atoms. A touch must be more. A feeling. A response to proximity. I feel it. I know we are here together.

There are things we can not know but rather feel about each other. An intuition might come one moment, a compulsion to be touched and calmed. Every minute that follows is one in which one will slowly clutch the other, a quiet tension in the hands for only seconds.

For ten years my life has been connected to that of another. This person I chose, she chose. We continue to choose.

And I chose on our first date. We played with sugar packets and talked. And talked. And talked.

And still we talk. Some nights we must force ourselves to sleep. Our language takes over and we blend our thoughts into some kind of asynchronous entanglement.

The world is full of words on love, so I will talk of being; I am here and she is too. For ten years it has not been the language of marriage, I do, or love that have kept our worlds in orbit. These simple words are nearly lost to me from overuse.

It is the intuition, the gentle beating I feel when I think of her.
It is in the quiet I listen but it can not be heard.
In the open I feel for it but it is not in time or space.

I know of her and she of me.

Like a gentle heartbeat…

softly…

always present.

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