Seattle to Jackson the Long Way

Seattle to Jackson the Long Way 3

This time yesterday morning found me on a densely forested trail in southeastern Wyoming, locking eyes with a mother moose out foraging with her baby about 50 yards away from me and armed only with a good pair of running shoes and a healthy sense of wonder. It was the beginning of the last day of a 7-day road trip over the course of which a good friend from Seattle moved to Jackson for a new job via New Mexico with me and another good friend for company. This was to be our last run together for a long time, and it was off to a great start. We’d caught a glimpse of the two moose through the trees towards the beginning of our run, and over the course of 15 minutes or so we’d tracked them here, to the other side of a clearing, ready to cut and run for cover at a moment’s notice if things went south. But things didn’t go south. We sat there with them for what was probably only a minute or two (although it felt much longer), relatively small animals silently observing and being observed by a much larger one, and then they went their way and we went ours, out to Turtle Rock and the best scrambling I’ve ever done before completing the loop trail back to our campsite at Vedauwoo, packing up the car, and heading for the tiny Jackson Hole Airport so I could catch my flight back here to Seattle.

I’ve done a lot of road trips in my life—the solo west-coast-bound road trip was an art form that I perfected in college, and all told I’ve logged well over 300,000 miles on the Interstates and highways of the lower 48, including 15,000 miles steering an S2000 around all the best driving roads in America—but the one that just ended, Seattle to Jackson the Long Way as I’ve taken to calling it, is tied with 2005’s seminal The Outer Loop for the best road trip I’ve ever taken. First and foremost it served as the liminal space between my friend’s time in Seattle and his time in Jackson, built around a tour of some of the most important wild places of his youth; but the trip also represented a merging of the road trip tradition of my early adulthood with the backpacking and trail running traditions that have become increasingly important parts of the way that I experience the world more recently, thanks largely to the same friend who just moved to Jackson. It was an honor to be able to share that whole experience with my two traveling companions, and to get to spend so much quality time with both of them.

And it was a fantastic trip. We covered more than 2500 miles over the course of 7 days; we car camped every night except one; we ran high-altitude trails in the mornings and climbed the tallest peak in New Mexico; we had long, multi-state discussions about religion and politics and love and money and all of the other important things in life; in addition to moose we saw or heard elk and deer and owls and hawks and eagles and marmots and coyotes and perhaps even a mountain lion; and it all happened in the American West, rolling hills and huge forests and wide open plains and long, winding rivers and epic mountain ranges that were alternately our backdrops and our playgrounds. It felt like joining my experience of Seattle to my experience of the rest of the country, connecting them physically in a way that they hadn’t been connected before, and mixing in my friends’ experiences of the same places to create a richer, deeper understanding not only of the two of them but also of the physical geography of our shared country.

The experience of seeing different places through the eyes of these specific friends, both of whom are not only seekers in the true sense of the word and important people in my life but also at different life stages from me, was very powerful. The fact that I’m much more attuned to the natural world and my relationship to it now than I have been at any other point in my life also meant that this trip was much more about communion than escape, which if I’m being honest was probably the most common theme of the travels of my college years.

Communion means different things in different contexts, but I use it here to incorporate elements of community, personal growth, meaning, and adventure and exploration, the sum of which is the same kind of interface with the divine that a lot of people find in a formal place of worship. That definition was perfectly expressed in the entirety of the run yesterday, which was a microcosm of the trip as a whole. When I finally said good-bye at the tiny little Jackson Hole Airport at the end of the day, in the shadow of the Teton Range at the end of a particularly scenic day, it served not only as the official end to my summer of 2014 but also as a send-off to a friend I’m really going to miss. I can’t imagine any better way to have said good-bye.

What’s next for me

I’ve spent the last seven months doing a lot—traveling a ton, finishing the full catalog of improv classes at Unexpected Productions, writing my first play, hiking and backpacking, going on my first-ever bike tour, falling in love with running and completing my first half-marathon, doing SIFF right for the first time in four years, co-founding Organizing for Seattle, reading books again, having more fun dating than I ever have before in my life, giving my third Ignite talk, pitching an idea at Crosscut’s inaugural Community Idea Lab, telling a live story at The Moth’s Story Slam in Fremont, taking a 15-day break from modern technology, finding my voice as a private citizen in local politics, playing chess again for the first time in years, facilitating and helping put together the Hack to End Homelessness, learning to salsa, driving Ferrarris and Lamborghinis, watching a pair of baby hummingbirds gestate, hatch, and then grow up and eventually fly away right outside my kitchen window, helping friends buy cars, serving on the board of the co-op I live in, watching live theater and dance again in earnest, learning AdWords and the basics of SEM over the course of self-publishing my first book, spending a huge amount of quality time with friends…and, for the last couple of months, taking the online courses that are required to become a real estate agent in Washington State. I passed the state exam two days ago, and about an hour ago I became an officially licensed agent with Windermere Eastlake!

Windermere logo

I did a lot of soul-searching immediately after the Mayor’s Office, and I explored a lot of different options for my next career move. I looked into everything from advocacy work to getting a master’s degree to starting my own business, but none of them felt quite right. After sitting with it long enough, I realized that the one thing I’ve been missing in my life since the day I stopped selling cars at Millennium Ford over 10 years ago is the feeling of “eating what I kill,” as my used car manager put it. It’s a phrase that encompasses both being paid precisely what I’m worth and being forced to stay hungry and lean in order to succeed, not being allowed to get complacent and soft. In other words, I realized that I’ve really been missing working on commission.

When I thought about commission-based jobs that I would actually want to do right now, real estate was the first thing that came to mind—I had a great experience buying my apartment 4 ½ years ago, and the idea of helping other people have a similarly great experience navigating one of the biggest, most complex, and most stressful transactions of their lives really appealed to me. So did the prospects of essentially running my own business, having to master a wide variety of marketing techniques, being able to spend more time in strangers’ homes in a socially acceptable way (since I’m being honest—one of my favorite things about selling Cutco back in college was getting to sit down in peoples’ living rooms while I was selling them knives)…and, of course, being able to pay off my own mortgage much sooner than I would otherwise be able to. I do my best work when I’m strongly motivated, and aside from elections, becoming debt-free has historically been my best source of motivation where work is concerned. It’s why I was willing to put so many hours in as a car salesman immediately after college, and also why I was debt-free at 23 and able to travel for nearly a year and a half on the money I saved up 10 years ago.

The more I thought about becoming a real estate agent, the more I realized it was what I needed to do. All real estate agents in Washington are required to take a 90-hour course (I did mine online), pass the state exam, and operate under the umbrella of an established brokerage. While I was getting the coursework out of the way I did some research, set up several interviews, and ultimately decided to hang my license with Windermere’s Eastlake office. Windermere has by far the biggest share of the real estate market in Seattle at around 42% (John L Scott is next in line with around 16%), and they also have a strong culture around new agent training and support ; I’m really glad to have ended up with them.

As I’ve talked to people informally over the course of the last couple of months, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten has been what my focus or specialty will be. The answer is twofold: I’m most passionate about helping first-time homebuyers find homes, especially now in a red-hot seller’s market where there’s significant competition for every available property (I’ve always liked going to bat for the underdog); but in the early stages, realistically my real estate practice is going to depend on how many of you either choose me as your agent when it comes time for you to buy or sell your home or recommend me to your friends and acquaintances when they’re going through that process themselves.

So if you don’t already have someone in the “my real estate agent” slot in your mind, please consider me your agent on call and let your friends know that they can do the same. Whether you want to email me with questions, get coffee and discuss the market and your options, dip your toe in the water by going out and looking at homes, or go all in and either look for a new home in earnest or sell your current one, I’d love to talk to you.

Thanks for helping to make the last 7 months so much fun, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can be of service, in real estate or otherwise!

Re-wilding

Narvaez bivy

People have asked me my whole life if I’m a runner just based on the way I’m built, and I’ve always said no. It’s not that I don’t run; a morning 5k has been a semi-regular part of my exercise regime since college. It’s always been something that I’ve had to force myself to do, though, and as soon as I fall off the bandwagon it always takes me a long time to get back into the habit—there have been whole years that have passed without my ever putting on a pair of running shoes. That’s been changing recently, though.

It all began four months ago when I started linking up with a friend on his weekly morning run-commutes—he’d run down from Wallingford, I’d run up from Capitol Hill, and we’d run over into the Arboretum and up through Interlaken Park to Volunteer Park before we split off at Madison, he going downtown and I stopping at my place. I’d never run more than 4 miles at a time in my life before this, but we started out at 5 miles and kept building from there. I broke 10 miles for the first time on a trail run at Cougar Mountain a couple of months later, and shortly thereafter he invited me to join him and a bunch of friends on an 8-day bike tour from Vancouver BC to Seattle via the Gulf Islands in Canada, the San Juans, and the Olympic Peninsula.

I was thoroughly unprepared for such an aggressive trip—it ended up being 332 miles and 21,285 feet of elevation gain all told—but that’s never stopped me from saying yes in the past, and it didn’t in this case either. I did a 30-mile, 1900-foot practice ride around Seattle the day before we left, just to be sure that I wouldn’t be holding the rest of the group back, and the next morning I boarded a Bolt Bus bound for Vancouver. The experience that unfolded over the course of the next 8 days can really only be described as life-changing—the nine of us on the tour got along amazingly well and had a ton of fun, we slept under the stars and explored all sorts of amazing little out-of-the-way island spots, and, perhaps most importantly, I was forced to discover new capacities for physical exertion that I hadn’t realized I possessed.

A few weeks earlier I’d had a great dinner conversation about the difference between pain and suffering—the basic theme being that pain is the body’s response to a certain set of circumstances, but suffering is the mind’s response to the body’s input—and I thought about it a lot as I was grinding my way up hills and wanting nothing more than to be fast asleep at the end of the day. I have pretty good climbing gears on my bike, so it took awhile for me to really hit the wall, but somewhere on day 6 I hit it, and I hit it hard. Continuing on went from being difficult to being downright painful, but I had no choice; I had to keep going, and I did it by telling myself over and over that the pain was making me stronger (a mantra I borrowed from my one of my tourmates) until I really and truly started to look forward to the hills instead of secretly dreading each one. The input hadn’t changed at all, but by changing my response to it I had given myself the will to keep going and actually enjoy it instead of just counting the miles until the end of the day.

All of this was swirling around inside my head immediately after the tour ended, but without much form—I knew I’d just had an amazing experience, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the core of it had been. That night was my monthly book club meeting, and the book we chose for this month was Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization. Once I picked it up the next day I could barely put it down—the basic premise is that human beings evolved to live in a world that’s very different from the one we live in now, and because evolution is such a slow process we really haven’t had much time to catch up and adapt to our current circumstances. Go Wild is the authors’ manifesto on how to better align a modern lifestyle with our ancient genes, and it really resonated with me.

Some aspects of the book are more controversial than others—they argue for a diet that’s very Paleo-like (although not quite as strict), but they also spend a lot of time talking about the holistic physical and mental health benefits of varied forms of outdoor exercise and generally spending more time in nature. Over and over again I recognized things from the book that echoed my experiences on the tour and a lot of my experiences over the course of my life, and I resolved to make some changes accordingly.

My running friend recently quit his job to move to another state, and to commemorate his last day in the office we did an epic run-commute finale five days after the end of the bike tour that involved climbing at the outdoor climbing wall at the UW, swimming across the Montlake Cut, and running a total of just over 9 miles. I was beat-up and sore by the end of it, but I also felt like a million bucks, in stark contrast to the first 7-mile-plus run that I ever did a few months ago, after which I think I may have declared that I was never going to run again.

The authors talk a lot about trail running and ultrarunning, and they reference Born to Run several times (and it had also been recommended to me many times independently), so the next day when I finished Go Wild I bought a copy of Born to Run and similarly couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it—it’s a fantastic story even if you have no interest in running, but for a budding runner like myself it was like lighter fluid on charcoal. I finished the book on a Sunday night, and the next day on a whim I laced up my running shoes, plotted out a course online, and ran my first-ever half marathon, up to Green Lake, around the lake once, and then back to my apartment. I hit a point maybe halfway through where I was running solely for the sake of running, appreciating the feeling of the muscles in my legs being torn down so that they could come back stronger and reveling in the freedom of running somewhere that I would normally drive or maybe bike if I was feeling really adventurous, and very much not just looking forward to the run being over. I made it back in one piece without any issues, gave myself a couple of days to recover, and then started my morning runs in earnest again. The half-marathon marked the beginning of a new chapter for me; it gave me a glimpse of just how deep my own untapped physical potential is when I’m operating in harmony with my body.

“Re-wilding” is a concept from Go Wild that I really like that more or less describes that feeling of getting back into a state of harmony with one’s essential nature, and it reminds me of a thought that I had as I was drifting off to sleep in my bivy sack on Saturna Island, gazing out across the water at the San Juans in the distance with the faint lights of humanity twinkling underneath the stars and a huge cargo freighter chugging along a shipping lane between us as quietly as it could: there’s a balance between the demands of civilization and our true nature as wild humans (I’ve started using myself as a three-year-old for my model) that each of us is capable of achieving in our daily lives but that definitely doesn’t happen by default. I’m still working on achieving that balance, but now at least I feel like I’ve learned to notice when I chance across it, and I’m starting to understand how to get there more often.

One change I’ve made recently is fairly standard—as a general rule, I’ve stopped eating processed food and sugar, started eating fewer of the super-dense carbohydrates like pasta and corn tortillas that used to make up the bulk of my daily calories, and started eating a lot more fruit and vegetables of all kinds, beans, meat, fish, and healthy fats like nuts and avocados. This represents a huge shift from the way I’ve traditionally thought about nutrition; I’ve already noticed a positive difference in my energy level, but I’ve also been forced to spend a lot more time thinking about, choosing, and preparing the food that I eat, which has been great in and of itself. My standard for food used to be all about avoiding effort: how easily can I get as many calories as possible without eating outright junk food? Now my goal is just to eat good food, which feels like a better way to think about it.

The other life change is a small thing, but one that I’ve come to really enjoy. It’s based on the observation from one of the two books that our feet are incredibly sensitive and packed with neuroreceptors, but we keep them cooped up in shoes and sandals almost our entire lives once we reach adulthood. On a whim one day about a week and a half ago I woke up and decided that before I did anything else I was going to go walk around outside barefoot, just for the sheer sensory activation of it. I put on some clothes, grabbed my keys, and stepped outside with nothing on my feet for perhaps the first time in the 4 ½ years that I’ve lived in my apartment—and it was fantastic. I ended up walking about a block and a half to my little neighborhood pocket park, luxuriating in the feel of thick grass on bare feet, and then walking back to my apartment and resuming my normal morning routine…and it was such a great way to wake up that I’ve been doing it ever since. Coffee isn’t part of my daily ritual, but if it were I would experiment with giving up my morning coffee in exchange for a 5-minute barefoot walk; I think the walk would probably win.

So the long and the short of it is that I realize now that I am a runner, and that’s something that I’m continuing to grow into, but running is only the beginning; I’m also a singer, an artist, an explorer, and a bunch of other aspects of myself as a little kid that have gotten buried to varying degrees over the years. I’m very much looking forward to continuing to dig in the dirt and see what I find.

What #YesAllWomen means to me as a man

Like many men, I initially saw the shootings at UCSB last week as just another in a long string of incidents of gun violence perpetrated by another in a long string of lonely, mentally unstable men who were as far removed from me as it’s possible for two people to be. I braced myself for the usual cycle of mourning mixed with outrage, scattered calls for gun control legislation, inaction on the part of legislators and politicians in the face of one of the best-organized grassroots organizations in the country (the NRA), followed by a fading from the public consciousness after a set number of media cycles. What happened instead, though—the evolving conversation best encapsulated under the #YesAllWomen hashtag—blew a hole in the way that I, as a man, see the world and the other half of its inhabitants. It also made me realize that I have a lot more in common with this particular shooter than I would ever have been comfortable admitting at first glance.

Like most men probably do, I consider myself to be “one of the good guys,” so what’s been most eye-opening about this whole unfolding discussion is not only realizing that there’s a huge gap between the way that I see the world when I walk down the street and the way that a woman sees it, but also that it was possible for me to have and to have had so many close relationships with women over the course of my life and yet still be so ignorant of some of some of the most fundamental realities that half of the world’s population encounters on a daily basis. It felt like peeking through a doorway into a hidden world that was much more twisted and sinister than the one I’m used to seeing every day; I found that I couldn’t just ignore what I’d seen and go back to living my life without in some way reassessing my relationships to all of the women in my life, including the vast majority that I’ll only ever interact with tangentially.

If you’re a man reading this and you’re not already familiar with the hashtag, go spend a few minutes browsing around. The reason the thread is so powerful is that it reads like a support group for women to bare their souls about a small handful of the physical and psychological transgressions, large and small, that they suffer on a daily basis at the hands of men. Reading the stories and articles that started pouring out from every corner of the Internet made me begin to realize just how big a deal this is for all women—how essential harassment by men is to the basic experience of being a woman. It was a realization that, as a man, I’d been able to go 34 years of my life without ever being smacked in the face by. “I had no idea it was this bad” sounds like a weak excuse, but it’s the truth.

Like all of us do, I grew up in a world where women are highly sexualized in virtually all aspects of society, from advertising to movie plots to actual pornography. I became aware of the detrimental effect of all of that on myself and my relationships to women at some point early on, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I started really thinking about its impact on the women in my life. The biggest turning point for me was starting to work with the Youth Commission during my time in the Mayor’s Office.

The Youth Commission is a group of teenagers who advise the Mayor and the City Council on policy issues. I became their staff liaison/program manager in June of 2010, and over the course of the years that followed I got to know a lot of extraordinary young people who served as commissioners. One of my main goals with the Youth Commission was to get the students to realize their own ability to influence the political systems in which they live, and in order to do that I had to open my eyes to what the world looks like from the perspective of a teenager. As part of that process, for the first time in my life I started to think about what the world looks like to a teenage girl, what messages society has for her that are different than the ones they had for me when I was a teenage boy. I started paying more attention to reasons why girls decide not to run for political office thanks to organizations like the Washington Bus and the Women’s Funding Alliance, processing negative portrayals of women in the media thanks to organizations like Reel Grrls and Powerful Voices, and thinking about the world in which my friends’ infant daughters would be growing up whenever I would spend time with them. As my awareness grew I thought I was doing my part by fighting against the anonymized “other men” who were conspiring to keep women and girls down; I knew that I still objectified women more than I wanted to, but I saw that as something that really only affected me.

While I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I like to think that I’m a much better male ally to the women and girls in my life now than I was four years ago…but until last week I’d still always thought of misogyny and violence against women as problems for other men but not for me. I would previously never have thought of checking out an attractive woman walking down the street as existing on the same spectrum as Elliott Rogers opening fire on a college campus. What I’ve realized they have in common, though, is that they’re both fundamentally rooted in a system in which women are viewed first and foremost as sex objects, which is what makes possible all of the objectification, infantilization, and abuse that #YesAllWomen is a testament to and a reaction against. Do I fight against that system and try to treat all women in my life with respect? Yes. But do I also contribute to it myself? Absolutely. And that, I think, has been the biggest takeaway for me from all of this: it’s all too easy to say that I belong in one bucket or another—good or bad, ally or enemy—but the truth is that both sides are a part of me. I’m used to focusing on the good, but it’s useful to shine a spotlight on the bad from time to time, too; as Justice Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Even though I’m part of what I assume is the vast majority of men who’s never going to commit an act of abuse—sexual or otherwise—against a woman, that doesn’t mean that I’m not part of the problem. For the first time in my life I feel, viscerally, my own culpability in the perpetuation of a system in which not only are women made to feel uncomfortable and afraid solely because of who they are, but also one in which the emotion that’s been tapped by #YesAllWomen is such a universal but unspoken truth for women that learning about it, as a man, feels somewhat akin to a fish learning that water exists.

I’m not going to try to forecast what the long-term impact of this conversation is going to be in my life—I imagine it’ll be something I’ll look back on as a moment of awakening, but at the very least it’s highlighted the connection between my internal world and the world that women have to navigate on a daily basis, which is huge in and of itself. Going forward I’m going to have to hold myself to a higher standard of personal conduct in order to still be able to think of myself as one of the good guys.

Lessons from self-publishing my first book

Lessons from self-publishing my first book

As some of you may have noticed, I published a book last month—it’s called Thirty-Three: My Jesus Year in Blog Posts, and it’s available in both Kindle and print versions. As the name implies, it’s a collection of posts from this blog between February of 2013 and February of this year that, taken collectively, serve as a memoir of the personal journey that I embarked on over the course of that period of time. I didn’t publish it to make money off of it or to reach a wider audience or any of that, though; I did it for two reasons: 1) those posts are pretty long, and I think they lend themselves well to a longer format for any of you who are interested in reading them that way, and 2) I wanted to see for myself precisely what’s involved in self-publishing a book these days, including having an excuse to play around with some online marketing tools.

This post is going to be entirely about #2—and yes, I am enjoying the irony of writing a blog post about a book of blog posts from this very blog :) Note that I focused exclusively on Amazon, so I can’t speak to the other self-publishing platforms out there.

The basics

There are two roughly similar processes you’ll need to go through on two different platforms to publish your book, one for the Kindle version and the other for the print version. The Kindle platform is called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP (kdp.amazon.com), and the print platform is called CreateSpace (the website is createspace.com, but it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon now). I published the Kindle version of my book first and then did the CreateSpace version afterwards, but if you want to save time and you’re OK with the inferior CreateSpace cover creator program—or you create or pay someone to create your own high-quality cover image, which I’d recommend if your goal is actually to sell copies—you can skip KDP and just click a button during the CreateSpace process to cross-publish it as a Kindle e-book too.

The major pieces of content that you need in order to publish on either platform are a manuscript (any MS Word document will do), a cover file, and a handful of metadata (a synopsis, your author bio & headshot if desired, and your list of keywords for on-site search purposes). The entire publishing process took me about 5 or 6 hours, the vast majority of which went to creating the two cover files and proofing my manuscript once it was online.

The manuscript

CreateSpace has a very specific template you’ll need to use that conforms to whatever printed dimensions you choose for your book; for KDP the only piece of special formatting I did to my existing document was to add an automated table of contents using MS Word’s Heading 1 and Heading 2 tags so that readers can skip between chapters on the e-book (see here for full instructions). If you’re looking to save time, do the entire thing in CreateSpace and then just push it to KDP; I can’t speak from experience, but I would imagine that as long as you include an automated table of contents in your CreateSpace file it should transfer to KDP, too.

Both platforms have an online proofreading tool that you can use to go through your book page by page to make sure everything lines up properly after it’s been uploaded (the KDP version lets you simulate different reading devices, too, which is nice); you can also order a hardcopy proof from CreateSpace, or just approve it based on the digital version.

If you go through KDP you’ll encounter a blank for your ISBN—the short answer is that you don’t need one for an e-book, but they can be useful for certain purposes. I stopped researching it pretty quickly after I established that you don’t need one for an e-book :) Print books, as far as I know, do require an ISBN, but CreateSpace makes it easy to either buy one or get one for free as part of their process—I paid $10 for one to avoid listing CreateSpace as the publisher for one of their free ISBNs. 

The cover

KDP and CreateSpace both have their own automated cover creators that let you design your own cover if you want to. KDP’s gives you a lot more flexibility, but you’ll only be able to use what you design for the Kindle version of your book; CreateSpace’s automated tool frankly kind of sucks, but if you manage to make something you like with it you can download the file for future use and, as with the manuscript, automatically push the whole package to a Kindle e-book. I didn’t do this, so I can’t speak to it directly; I designed my Kindle cover using the KDP tool and my CreateSpace cover using their tool.

If your goal is to sell as many copies of your book as possible (mine wasn’t, in this case), I’d recommend paying a professional to design your cover for you—CreateSpace offers $400 and $600 cover design packages, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other places out there that’ll gladly make you a professional-looking cover in exchange for a little cash. If you have your own cover file, you can upload it directly to either platform.

Royalties, KDP Select, etc

On KDP, the basic decision you have to make when you decide how much to charge for your book is whether you want to charge $2.99 or more and get 70% of the proceeds of everything you sell (less a very small per-megabyte charge to cover distribution costs) or charge less than that and get a straight 35% royalty (with no additional per-megabyte charge). I started mine off at $2.99 thinking I would keep it there, but once I started playing around with AdWords in earnest I dropped the price to $0.99, just to eliminate the variable of cost from the equation. You also have the option to enroll your book in KDP Select, which entails agreeing to distribute the e-book version of your work exclusively through the Kindle store (i.e., not simultaneously in Nook, ePub, iTunes, etc versions) for the first 90 days after which it’s published in exchange for making your book part of the Kindle lending library, which lets Amazon Prime members borrow it for free and gives you a portion of a $6 million pot of money that Amazon’s set aside to compensate lending library authors based on—as far as I could tell—the percentage of overall lending library downloads of your book vs all other books in the program.

On CreateSpace it’s much simpler—they’re an on-demand printer, so there are no order minimums or anything like that, but as a result the per-unit price is much higher than it would be otherwise. The minimum list price for my book was $7.28, which would have yielded royalties of $1.45 per sale; I went with an even $9.99, which works out to $3.08 in royalties per Amazon order according to their calculator. As a point of comparison, the Kindle price point that gets you to $3.08 in royalties is $4.44 (at the 70% royalty level).

Online marketing

One of the biggest reasons I was excited about publishing the book was having an excuse to play around with Facebook ads and AdWords (Google’s paid ad platform—those little text ads you see to the right of your search results)—and it didn’t disappoint :) The short version, for me at least, was that Facebook ads were a complete waste of money, whereas AdWords worked well in the beginning and then fantastically well once I tweaked my ad copy a bit.

The copy that I used in my Facebook ad and my first AdWords ad were identical; they both linked directly to the Kindle product page, but the Facebook ad included a thumbnail image of the book cover, whereas the AdWords one was just text (headline underlined):

My “Jesus Year” in essays 33 was a tough year…but also one of my best. $0.99, or free with Prime.

Not the greatest copy, as I would learn, but the numbers were still very eye-opening: between April 22nd and April 27th I got 36,055 impressions and 18 clicks from my Facebook ad, for a click-through rate of 0.049%. My average cost per click was $0.62, so I paid a total of $11.16 for those 18 clicks.  Over the same period of time, my AdWords campaign generated 25,342 impressions and 124 clicks, for a click-through rate of 0.49%–which I’d never noticed until just now was exactly 10 times my Facebook click-through rate—and my average cost per click was only $0.04. So not only were the AdWords clicks 15.5x cheaper than Facebook’s, I was also getting them 10x faster. I canceled my Facebook campaign on the spot and left the AdWords one running at the rate of $1/day to get more data and then largely forgot about it.

When I checked back in on May 10th, the numbers were pretty similar—398 clicks from 92,005 impressions, for a click-through rate of 0.43% with an average cost per click of $0.03—and I decided to see what I could do increase my click-through rate, with 1% as my initial goal. I looked at the AdWords data to see what organic search terms had driven most of those 398 clicks, and I rewrote my ad to cater more explicitly to them, which resulted in the following (headline underlined):

A cheap Kindle ebook :) Self-published personal essays on loss, redemption, and joy. $0.99

The self-consciously super-SEO headline clearly worked—over the course of the past 10 days that the new ad has been running, it’s had 22,251 impressions and  3,503 clicks at $0.01 per click, for an almost unbelievable average click-through rate of 15.74%. That’s 32x higher than the click-through rate for my original AdWords ad, and 320x higher than for my original Facebook ad. I turned off the campaign earlier today, because a) I already had the data I wanted, and b) I’m really and truly not making any money off of this book—my purchase conversion rate from all those clicks was pretty much zero, so it didn’t make sense to keep paying for it. I knew that would most likely be the case going in, though; the market for Thirty-Three is people who know me and want to read a bunch of my unfocused, loosely structured personal essays, and that market is almost completely a subset of my friends, family, and followers on social media.

I approached this as an exercise in how to publish and drive clicks to a book online, and in that sense it was a smashing success. My next time around I’ll try to tackle the question of how you actually get people to buy what you’re selling—the next book I write will be written with a much larger audience in mind and with an explicit goal of selling copies, so sales conversion rates will be the main metric I’ll be looking to.

Conclusion

Looking back on this little experiment, I can honestly say that I got everything I wanted from it and more—I’m comfortable with online marketing now, and any mental roadblock I once had about the difficulty of self-publishing is gone, leaving me that much freer to focus on what really counts when it comes to online publishing: what I want to write next :)

If you’re considering going the self-publishing route yourself and you want the quick and easy takeaways from my experience without reading the whole post, here you go:

  1. If you’re going to publish both a print and an e-book version of your work, start with CreateSpace and use it to quickly and easily transfer your print content to an e-book. There’s virtually no additional cost to offering a print version (I paid $10 for an ISBN and another $15 or so including shipping to have a proof mailed to me, but you can skip the physical proof and even get a free ISBN if you’re willing to let CreateSpace list themselves as the publisher), and it increases your potential market beyond people with e-readers, so it’s worth considering.
  2. You’ll make a lot more money at a lower price point on e-books than printed ones (assuming you’re charging at least $2.99 for your work and going with Amazon’s 70% royalty option), so an e-book should definitely be part of your strategy.
  3. Use Microsoft Word’s automated table of contents feature (see instructions here) to create a table of contents that you can use for the print version of your book but that will also enable Kindle hyperlinks for your e-book readers.
  4. For online marketing, forget about Facebook and focus on AdWords—set a small daily budget, let it run for a while to get some good data on how people who click on your ad are coming to it based on their search terms, and then adjust your ad copy and tweak as necessary to increase your traffic.

That’s it! Let me know if you have any other questions about my experience, and good luck if you’re embarking on the self-publishing route yourself :)

 

Southern food & supercars

Southern food and supercars 3

The Ferrari & Maserati dealership on Capitol Hill has been an oblique part of my community the entire time that I’ve lived in Seattle: always there in the background but entirely out of reach, something I interact with only through longing glances and idle daydreams. I’d wanted to make the experience that they sell a concrete part of my world for a long time—“drive a Ferrari” seems like too pedestrian a term to really do the concept justice—but supercars, as $200,000-plus exotic sports cars are known, are generally inaccessible to anyone but the ultra-wealthy. I’ve owned an S2000, which is among the best real-world driving cars ever built, but Ferraris and Lamborghinis specifically had always been my Platonic conception of automotive perfection. They functioned, for me, as little more than blank canvasses on which to paint all of my hopes and desires about what an automobile could be. In my dreams I’ve tricked salesmen in that little showroom into letting me go on test drives and then proceeded to lead police on beautiful cross-country manhunts into Mexico and beyond, but in the real world I’d only stopped to stare as they passed me on the street or admired them through the glass windows of a showroom…until this past Saturday.

The trend of drawing comparisons between supercars and supermodels is wildly off-base for a number of reasons, but one thing it does speak to is the fetishization of an unrealistic version of perfection and happiness. “If only I had a supermodel girlfriend/wife and a couple of supercars, then I’d be really happy” is the hyperbolic form of a consistent message that’s delivered to little boys starting at a very young age—my favorite Hot Wheels car when I was in third grade was a little yellow Lamborghini with working gull-wing doors, and I don’t think I have to convince anyone of the unrealistic body standards that dominate depictions of women in global media. I set up my life in opposition to perfection and exoticism immediately after college, which for me has meant experiencing as much as possible of the world around me for myself and learning to see things for what they really are rather than for what I want them to be. My relationships to women have improved dramatically since my younger days, but I’d never really stopped carrying around that little yellow Lamborghini inside my head and waiting for the opportunity to experience the real thing for myself.

I’m not alone in my fanatic “brand identification,” as a marketer would put it, and there’s a whole cottage industry that’s sprung up around slaking the desire to experience the pinnacle of automotive perfection for oneself. My point of entry was a LivingSocial deal that popped up a few months back, offering three autocross laps in a Ferrari or a Lamborghini—your choice—for just $150. I jumped on it immediately, not because I wanted to take the exoticism off of the experience but because I hadn’t yet realized my own lack of self-awareness around the issue. Should I have known going in that the experience was bound to disappoint me? Should I have seen it for what it really was instead of for what I wanted it to be? Probably—but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Tacoma, in addition to being the location of the apartment I lived in for the first 7 months that I lived in the northwest, is home to Southern Kitchen, a little hole in the wall that serves the best southern food I’ve found in this part of the world. It’s one of my favorite restaurants, but it also functions as a kind of liminal space—between the cultural traditions of my old life in Texas and my new life in Seattle, between the two locuses of my personal history in the Pacific Northwest, and, since going there for breakfast has generally become a birthday tradition since I moved back to Seattle in 2009, between one year of my life and the next. I stopped there Saturday morning en route to the peninsula for catfish with fried okra, collard greens, sweet tea, and a corn cake to start my day off right—solely because of the food, if I’m being honest, but in hindsight I like to think of it as an ontological checkpoint on my way to debunking one of the Platonic forms that I’ve lived with since I was a kid.

That debunking happened in Shelton, Washington, at the southeastern part of the Olympic Peninsula in a huge parking lot on a small airfield that seemed to be used primarily as a base for several skydiving operations, one of which was practicing jumps while I was there. I showed up not really knowing what to expect but excited at the idea of F1-style paddle shifting, 500+ horsepower and ungodly amounts of torque, the most precise handling and most responsive brakes imaginable, seats that would conform perfectly to my body, cockpit ergonomics that would feel like an extension of my soul…a holistic experience, in other words, that would perfectly match the dazzling visuals, impressive powertrain stats, and astronomical price tags that were heretofore my only window into this world.

I wasn’t alone, either. The faithful had come from all over the region, including one family I met who had driven up from southern Oregon just for the occasion and another guy who owned a vintage Dodge Viper but still couldn’t resist the call—tales were swapped of the best on-track driving experiences in the country (the  Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando and the Poconos Raceway in Pennsylvania both got high marks), we were upsold extra laps and ride-alongs with professional drivers as we were waiting in line with our helmets on and our adrenaline starting to kick in, and permeating it all was the sound of 560 horsepower in second gear accelerating down straightaways and swerving around turns. Lamborghinis became “Lambos,” a steady procession of skydivers circling down into the field beyond the track served as an interesting backdrop to the main action, and the GoPro on the right side of my helmet pulled my head ever so slightly to the right as I stood under a canopy waiting my turn and not even trying to wipe the smile from my face.

The rules were simple: three laps around a makeshift track made out of plastic traffic cones in the car of your choice, with a professional driver in the passenger seat. When I checked in they offered me an extra three laps for half what my Living Social deal had cost me (which itself was 70% off the general rate), so being an easy mark I went for it, and got to drive the course first in a Ferrari, then in a Lamborghini…and then, when the video from the Ferrari didn’t come through, once more in another Ferrari :)

It was surprising to me how spartan the interiors of both cars were—much more S2000 than Model S, which I suppose makes sense given the focus on performance over creature comforts—but my heart was beating so fast when I sank into the driver’s seat that I really didn’t notice much aside from the steering wheel and the pedals. That first time around in the Ferrari was fantastic, mostly for the sheer amount of power that I suddenly had at my command; it’s really too bad that was the video that didn’t take (I’ve embedded the Lamborghini video below, but it was already old hat by then). The most interesting thing about the whole experience, though, and something that I never stopped to even consider as a possibility until I was right in the middle of it, was that it wouldn’t live up to my outrageously high expectations. When all was said and done I couldn’t help but think that for all practical intents and purposes there wasn’t all that much to separate my little S2000, which I bought for $14,000 when it was 7 years old, from one of these $200,000 lifestyle accessories.

Was it fun? Absolutely. But more importantly, driving 9 laps in a couple of Ferraris and a Lamborghini served to de-exoticize exotic cars for me, something that will be much more valuable in the long run. In the same way that I discovered a while ago that I’m more holistically attracted to a lot of different types of women than I am to supermodels and others who fit the general cultural norms of physical “perfection,” last Saturday I was forced to accept that in the great wide world of cars there’s no such thing as perfection, just different types of cars for different types of people…and I’m not really a supercar kind of guy.

After my last lap I returned my helmet, checked in my GoPro, and smiled as I got back in the driver’s seat of my little Fit, happy to be back home where I belonged. If I had to guess, I don’t think I’ll be dreaming about driving Ferraris to Mexico again anytime soon.

Funemployment

I’m been unemployed since January 1st…and I’m OK with that. Not because I’m lazy or entitled, but because I’ve spent the last 2 ½ months reveling in the feeling that my life is really and truly my own, traveling and experimenting and tidying up my daily routines and exploring seldom-visited parts of myself and generally re-thinking what it means for me to live my life in a way that’s true both to my own needs and to the relationship I want to have to the rest of the world. “Funemployment,” for me, has been about starting with a blank slate, only giving my time to people and pursuits that actively contribute to the life I want to be living right now, and not worrying about the life I might be living at some theoretical point in the future with some theoretical other person or people. Rediscovering my agency, in other words—shaping my world around me instead of trying to shape myself to be more like what I think the world wants me to be, and recognizing that the future is nothing more than a never-ending string of presents/presence.

The defining quote of this period, which I’ve encountered several times in the last couple of months, comes from David Foster Wallace: “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” This is something that I got intuitively when I was younger, but I’d somehow forgotten it over the course of the last four years as I started thinking more about getting married and potentially starting a family. In adjusting my future plans to accommodate those changes, I’d lost sight of the animating vision for my own life. When I rediscovered my spark last year and started giving it a little bit of kindling to get it going again, it felt absolutely fantastic.

There’s another great quote, by Viktor Frankl, that I’ve thought a lot about recently: “What is to give light must endure burning.” My challenge since the beginning of January has been to structure my life in such a way that I can simultaneously be consumed by my passions and replenished by those around me while offering my light and heat to others in a way that helps me see my world more clearly at the same time that they help make it a better place.

Concretely, that’s meant realizing that writing and performing are both things that are very important to me and that need to be core parts either of how I make a living, what I do in my free time, or both; recognizing the absolutely essential role that my “Seattle family” plays in my life; focusing in specifically on the parts of local government and political activism that really get me excited (primarily urbanist issues related to improving quality of life for all Seattleites, current and future, while also accommodating growth; and getting new people, especially members of underrepresented communities, involved in the democratic process at all levels); thinking very deeply about the way that I structure my time on a daily basis; and recognizing that I’ve always been at my best when I’m confronting things head-on that frighten me, and letting that lead me to the conclusion that if I don’t end up working at an organization I’m passionate about, the logical next step will be to strike out on my own and prove to myself that I can meet all of my needs without having to work for anyone else.

I’ve noticed the benefits almost immediately—somewhat ironically, my dating life now is better than it ever has been (I’d been worried about dating while unemployed, but like so many things in life, answering the question “what do you do?” is 90% storytelling…and I have a pretty good story to tell); I’ve started rediscovering, as I put it, what’s left of Christianity once you remove God from the equation, a process that received a big boost at a recent Cornel West talk that a good friend invited me to (sample quotes, about 50/50 secondary vs primary: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself”; “When I walked with Martin Luther King Jr, my legs were praying”; “Hitler didn’t rise to power through guns, he rose to power through words”; “Heschel wasn’t an optimist; he was a prisoner of hope”); after practicing for a year I’m finally starting to get truly comfortable doing improv onstage in front of an audience, and I’m finding that I’m hungry for other ways to break out of my comfort zone when it comes to trying to connect with an audience (stand-up, slam poetry, and sketch comedy are all on my radar); I’m working on compiling my blog posts from my Jesus Year into an e-book to learn the ins and outs of Kindle self-publishing; I’m in the midst of going after two different jobs I would love that fall firmly in my areas of interest and would also provide outlets for my creative/expressive side; I gave the best public talk of my life at Ignite Seattle 23, about the life lessons I learned as a car salesman after college; I got involved as a citizen activist at the City level for the first time, around the issue of new regulations for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft (check out my two-minute testimony to City Council at their committee meeting on February 27th here from a desktop browser, or fast forward to 201:56 from a mobile device); I’ve established a great daily rhythm that involves waking up early, exercising regularly, going on long walks, spending a lot of time with friends, and prioritizing reading novels and books the same way I used to prioritize reading the Internet…and that’s just in the last 5 weeks! Including the month of January I also wrote my first play, saw the Aurora Borealis in Alaska, visited a close friend in New York for the first time in entirely too long, and took a 15-day break from electronic communication as a way to honor one of the great trips of my past and start to re-think the role of information consumption in my daily life.

So if you happen to ask me what I do, or what I’ve been doing recently, and I say “I’m unemployed—and loving it!”, please know that it’s not a misdirection to hide the fact that I’m spending all of my time playing Xbox, watching Netflix, and panicking about how I’m going to pay my bills. I feel like I’m really firing on all cylinders right now, more than I have been in a long time—once I add some income to the equation I’ll be all set :)

All I Really Need to Know I Learned as a Car Salesman

As many of you know, I gave my third Ignite talk Wednesday night at Ignite Seattle 23 at Town Hall, in front of roughly 800 people. I’d been collecting ideas for it for the last few months, and it really was a group effort. I turned to Facebook to get the idea for the talk to begin with; you helped me narrow down my list of bullet points from well over 20 to just 4 and even pick which t-shirt to wear night-of (Lemur Che won by a wide margin); and two of you in particular—you know who you are—gave me some great on-point feedback on the presentation itself that really helped make it stronger. The overall effect was that the 5 minutes I spent onstage giving the talk two nights ago was some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time; the talk went better than I could have imagined, and it reminded me of how incredible it feels to connect with an audience in that way. Thank you for helping make the experience possible for me :)

The video hasn’t been posted yet (I’ll embed at the top of this post once it’s online [update: posted & embedded on 5/21/14]), but in the meantime I wanted to share the presentation with you. The format of Ignite is 20 slides over the course of 5 minutes, with the slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds; you can click on the picture above to see my HaikuDeck in its native format—without the auto-advancing, though—or I’ve posted the slides along with my script below so you can read it as a more traditional blog post if you prefer.

Slide01

Good evening, Seattle! My name is Sol—like the sun or the beer, depending on what you prefer—and tonight I’m going to share with you some timeless lessons I learned in my early 20’s and that I’ve used almost every day of my life since then.

Slide02

For tonight, all you need to know about me is that from August of 2002 to December of 2003, in addition to still having hair, I sold cars at a Ford dealership in Burien. I was pretty good, too—as I used to say, you can’t spell “Sold” without the “Sol” :)

Slide03

And have I got a deal for you :) Tonight only, the most important lessons I learned as a car salesman, which have been instrumental to my life for the last 11 years, can be yours for the low, low price of only 5 minutes of your precious time.

Slide04

Now I’m not going to try to convince you that most car salespeople are good people—even though they are—but I am going to try to convince you that what they do has some relevance to your life. And that’s because, as Forrest Gump here would say, life is a lot like a car deal.

Slide05

It’s all about getting what you want by helping other people get what they want. That’s what life is really all about, regardless of who you are or what you do for a living; selling cars just makes it explicit and puts it right on the surface…which is why it was such a great learning experience for me.

Slide06

So I think that’s enough by way of setup and introduction. Now…without further ado…I present to you…1.5 years of wisdom…in 4 easy lessons. Thanks to everyone on Facebook who helped me narrow these down.

Slide07

Lesson #1: Listen more than you talk. That doesn’t mean “take some time to think about what you’re going to say next while the other person is talking”; it means really and truly listening to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. I guarantee you the smoothest talkers you know are also the best listeners.

Slide08

Now most people aren’t as straightforward as this baby when it comes to telling other people what they want, but 9 times out of 10—99 times out of a hundred, probably—someone will tell you what they really want if you pay attention to what they’re saying and ask the right questions.

Slide09

In order for this to work, though, you have to be as excited about listening as she is. Active listening is really important—reflecting back what someone’s said to you so they know you’ve been paying attention. If you don’t know what someone wants, it’s impossible to help them get what they want. But you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it…

Slide10

In order for this to work, though, you have to be as excited about listening as she is. Active listening is really important—reflecting back what someone’s said to you so they know you’ve been paying attention. If you don’t know what someone wants, it’s impossible to help them get what they want. But you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it…

Slide11

And we love saying yes! Wasn’t that #HowSeattleRiots hashtag awesome? Doesn’t it feel great to be a Seattleite? I want you to stand up, right now, and give the person next to you a big hug!

Slide12

[lots of people actually do it!] I wasn’t sure if that was going to work! Like my dad always said, though, it never hurts to ask–the worst someone can do is say no. And if they do say, no, of course, that’s rejection.

Slide13

And rejection sucks, right? One of the great things about being a car salesman is that you can’t do the job without getting really comfortable with being rejected, which is great preparation for life. This is the most effective mantra that I’ve found for dealing with rejection.

Slide14

All it takes is one. Don’t think about the person who just rejected you; think about the one who’s going to say yes instead. Our natural tendency is to take each rejection personally, but everyone doesn’t have to say yes to you for you to get what you want.

Slide15

We have a certain degree of control over what happens to us, but we have near-absolute control over what we choose to focus on, and there are few things more powerful than the stories you tell yourself. When it comes to rejection, focus on the “yes” in your future, not the “no” in your past.

Slide16

This last one is one of my favorite quotes of all time, let alone sales quotes. It comes from a trainer named Grant Cardone, and if I had to condense the entire discipline of sales down into 14 words, these next 14 words are the ones that I would choose.

Slide17

#4. When you meet someone who has more conviction than you do, you get sold. You say “yes” to them instead of getting them to say “yes” to you. The reason that’s so important is that conviction is at the heart not only of sales, but of life.

Slide18

If you’re not convinced, to your core, of whatever it is that you’re trying to share with the world, you’re not going to convince anyone else, either. When someone says to “fake it ‘til you make it”, the “it” they’re talking about is conviction. So always have more conviction.

Slide19

To recap: Listen more than you talk. [and really mean it] Ask for the close. [you’re not going to get it otherwise] All it takes is one. [don’t worry about the rest] When you meet someone who has more conviction than you do, you get sold…so always be the one with more conviction.

Slide20

That’s it—as you can see, all I really need to know I learned as a car salesman :) My name is Sol; I’m on Twitter at @solv17. Thank you very much, come talk to me at the break…and enjoy the rest of the show in the meantime.

Reflections on my Jesus Year

Jesus Year

Jesus of Nazareth is a very controversial figure—different traditions and schools of thought have wildly different accounts of who he was and what he represented, but there are a few things that most people can agree on, among them that he and his followers fundamentally altered the course of world history…and that he died when he was 33 years old. The latter is the inspiration behind the term “Jesus year,” a generally humorous idea that serves as a kind of chalk mark on the wall that anyone can use to compare himself or herself to the most famous carpenter in the world: “Let’s see; me: 33, successful lawyer in private practice, married with 2 kids, and I’ve got a nice house to call my own.  Jesus: 33, same nature as God, crucified for the sins of all mankind, rose from the grave 3 days later, fundamentally altered Western civilization and reset our conception of time based on the year of his birth. [dejectecly] You win, Jesus.”

My own Jesus year drew to a close Tuesday evening (I wrote most of this post before it did, but I was in the midst of a 15-day electronic communication vacation, so I’m only posting it now); rather than a time to sit back and take stock of my life, though, it was as close to my own personal hero’s journey as anything I’ve ever experienced…and although it certainly didn’t start out that way, in the final reckoning it was one of the best years of my life. Here are 33 highlights, in kind-of-but-not-really chronological order—the format is an inspiration from a friend of mine who did something similar for her 27th birthday last year:

  1. The foundational event of the past year, undoubtedly, came when my fiancée got cold feet and called off our engagement—February 8th, 2013, four days after my 33rd birthday, although the issue had been bubbling for awhile before that. It was one of the most traumatic things I’d ever experienced; I felt literally futureless for a long time afterwards, and it took me awhile to regain my characteristic optimism, for the spring to return to my step. The reason I list the breakup as a highlight, though, is that without it the rest of this year wouldn’t have been possible; the amount of energy it released back into my life was enormous, once I started learning to process it. In hindsight I’ve honestly come to see it as one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, simply because of the positive effects it’s had on virtually every other aspect of my life.
  2. That’s been the case in large part because of a) my friends and family (more on that in a moment) and b) the way I handled the 3 ½ weeks immediately following the breakup: I opened myself up to it completely, in a way that was very much out of character for me at the time, and I gave myself plenty of time to process everything surrounding it before I went back to my life. When a close friend from college went through something similar a few years ago she sent out an email to everyone she’d invited to the wedding to tell them the news; the day after the breakup the last thing in the world that I wanted to do was have dozens of conversations explaining the situation to friends and family, so I followed my friend’s lead and wrote a simple, heartfelt email in which I told people about the breakup and asked for their help in the coming weeks. It was one of the most vulnerable things I’d ever written, but the response was overwhelming—the replies to that email were a large part of what kept me going that first week, and through them I also discovered a much stronger community here in Seattle than I’d previously realized I had. I shed myself of all responsibilities for three weeks—no work, very intermittent Internet access, etc—and spent the first week driving the best roads in California in a convertible and the second and third weeks back in Seattle intentionally connecting with friends in a much deeper way than I’d done before the breakup. I’ve been keeping a more or less daily journal since January of 2010, and something I did starting on the California road trip that really helped was to go back and re-read the entirety of the relationship from the very beginning, starting with the first time we met and going all the way up to what was then the current day, including all of the significant emails that we wrote each other along the way. It was painful to re-live it in that way, but it also helped me to see it for what it was, warts and all, and it ensured that I was dealing with a more realistic version of it than the simple caricatures that I had in my mind at the end. It also prevented me from overly distorting my mental image of who my ex-fiancée was, either positively or negatively, which helped me immensely in ultimately forgiving her, recognizing and accepting my own role in the end of the relationship, and moving on with my life. I also read a good breakup book, Getting Past Your Breakup, early on, and I had an epiphane while I was in California that writing for an audience was an important part of my life that had been missing or neglected for a long time.
  3. My friends and family really are the reason that the last year was as good as it was, and that I’m doing as well as I am right now—I opened the door, but the degree to which the people I’m close to walked through it and sat with me through some of the toughest times I’ve ever experienced made all the difference in the world. I especially came to feel like part of a genuine community here in Seattle for the first time since I’ve lived here, and that feeling manifested itself in a richer and more fulfilling social life than I’ve had since I graduated from college. I had looked to my relationship for a lot of my sense of belonging in the past, and losing that sense of belonging forced me to go looking for it elsewhere, which led to deeper friendships than I’d taken the time to really invest in before the breakup. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of my friends in making this year what it’s turned out to be; the time I’ve spent with them (you) has formed the core of the experience and driven a lot of the growth that’s come to characterize my Jesus Year for me.
  4. Posting regularly on this blog starting in mid-February was my way of getting out there and writing more in the beginning, and it marked the start of a much deeper engagement with the written word. The last 12 months have seen me explore Morning Pages, join a book club, read more novels than I probably have in the last 5 years combined, write my first short story and my first play both, write to friends in a way that I haven’t done in a long time, get back into some of the travel writing that I enjoyed so much in my younger days, play around with the dynamics of storytelling via Facebook and Twitter…and realize and accept that some essential part of myself has always been wrapped up in the intricacies of language and the ways in which it finds expression in the world, and reclaim that intentionally in a way that makes me deeply, deeply happy.
  5. I started seeing a therapist for the first time in March of last year, and it was an experience that I found hugely valuable. I ended up going back for about 8 months, weekly at first and once every other month in the end, and there were a lot of great things that I took away from the experience, among them a deeper exploration of vulnerability and what it means for me, a new perspective on my own relationship both to myself and to the world around me, an appreciation of the importance of some of my early life experiences that I’d never really processed before, and some good specific tools to use in my daily life that I’ve continued to get a lot of value out of (affirmations, for example, which I’d read about but been hesitant to try because I associated them with Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live).
  6. Learning to embrace vulnerability in a lot of different areas of my life was a really important part of this past year. I’ve enjoyed selling things for as long as I can remember, so I’ve always had pretty thick skin when it comes to rejection in a professional context, but one of the insights I arrived at through conversations with my therapist and my friends was that in my personal life I’d spent the past 20 years building up a nearly airtight suit of emotional armor to protect myself from the possibility of personal rejection, rejection of who I am as a human being—as opposed to rejection of whatever it is that I happen to be selling at the time, from which I actually draw energy and which I can deal with literally hundreds of times per day (telemarketing, voter registration, canvassing & phone banking, etc). Unpacking what that’s meant and slowly starting to remove that armor piece by piece has been one of the most important things that I’ve done in the last 12 months. Keeping myself safe is no longer the goal; I’ve accepted that opening myself up to being hurt is not only OK, it’s more or less responsible for all of the best parts of my life and everything that I’m proud of in my personal history. In the aftermath of the breakup I often found myself longing for the feeling of being alive in my own skin that I had immediately after college, and I eventually came to realize that what I really missed was the feeling of, as a friend once described my post-college travels, throwing myself out into the world with no guarantee or reasonable expectation of success—picking a big, ambitious goal and just going for it. “It’s in letting go that we truly live,” I wrote at some point during my car sales days, and it’s a truth that I still have to remind myself of today.
  7. Getting more deeply involved in the world of improv has also been great for me—a couple of friends were taking improv 100 from Unexpected Productions and asked me if I wanted to join them, and I said yes for two reasons: because it sounded like fun, but also because improv had been an important part of my ex-fiancée’s life in college and immediately afterwards (although not one that we had shared), and I saw taking a few classes as a way to reclaim that mental space in the wake of the breakup. I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love everything about it, though—the focus on getting out of your own head and being completely present in the moment, the joy of playing with a group of like-minded people, the thrill of performing on-stage, the satisfaction from putting in the time to get progressively better and more comfortable onstage…I realized the link between vulnerability and improv early on, and embracing improv has been one way in which I’ve learned to embrace vulnerability. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, and a wonderful community in and of itself.
  8. Playing more, in general, has been an important theme—that’s included turning the work/life dial as far towards “life” as I realistically could, making time for a lot more trips to the outdoors than I have in the past, and generally relaxing the overly rigid view of myself that weighted all of my decisions with their impact on the different branching possible versions of my future that I eventually realized was preventing me from fully enjoying all of the beautiful interlocking day-to-day moments of which life is constructed. Playfulness is a characteristic of mine that I think comes closer than perhaps anything else to defining my essence, and yet it was something that I had been neglecting in my attempt to create the perfect life for myself, with perfection defined largely in terms and constructs that I had adopted from others without ever sitting down and critically asking myself whether I believed in them at a fundamental level. When the relationship ended it brought my whole future and all of the plans that had gone into it crashing down around my feet, and one of the best things about picking up the pieces again afterwards was that it forced me to really sit down and ask myself what adds value to my life and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. Play, in all its many forms, adds an enormous amount of value to my life, and it’s felt great to recognize that and embrace it more fully as a result.
  9. Backpacking specifically was a major theme this year, especially this summer (there was a run in August-September where I spent four weekends in a row having wonderful outdoor adventures with friends)—it’s something I’ve always enjoyed but haven’t often made the time for, and intentionally making time for it after the August primary turned out to be a great move. There’s a certain specific kind of joy that comes from playing outdoors that had traditionally been something I got in little bits and spurts and day-hikes, and taking in long, deep drafts of it was incredibly nourishing to a part of my soul that doesn’t often get fed these days. Through backpacking I redefined my relationship to both nature and civilization, and rediscovered my inner wild animal in the process; explored the limits of what my body is capable of; rediscovered the visceral, simple joy brought about by pain and injury and the attendant juxtaposition of my own mortality with the uncaring vastness of the natural world, through which I’m reminded of what it really means to be alive; bonded on a deeper level with friends; and discovered new forms of relaxation while also arriving at new insights about the barriers to relaxation in my daily life.
  10. Snowboarding was another activity that re-emerged this year after a long absence. I went once in February here in the Seattle area, with friends for the day; and then for Christmas this year, instead of my flying back to Texas to see my family we all met up in Colorado (I took the train down and back) and spent four days skiing and snowboarding together. In Colorado I ended up snowboarding the first day, taking the second day off to relax in the cabin, skiing for the first time in nearly 20 years the third day, and taking the last day off as another relaxation day. It felt good to be back on the slopes, and it was surprising to me how quickly all of my skills came back to me; even though I hadn’t skied in a couple of decades, by the end of my first run I was every bit as good as I’d been at my peak, and by the end of the day I was doing runs that I never would have been able to do 20 years ago. It was a good object lesson in the fact that there are huge tracts of ourselves that we allow to lie dormant over the years but that are waiting patiently, perfectly intact, for us to rediscover them when we’re ready.
  11. The train trip back from Colorado took an unexpected turn when the train broke down 2 hours north of Los Angeles, and the chain of events that unfolded from there culminated in a moment of travel euphoria that was reminiscent of my glory days: I booked a flight from LAX to Seattle leaving in a matter of hours, hitchhiked (for the first time in America) down to Santa Barbara and then caught a cheap, down-to-the-wire ride to the airport with an off-duty minivan taxi driver and his wife, featuring a pit stop at In-N-Out to grab dinner and a feeling of complete and utter joy as I sat at the terminal with 10 minutes to spare and lost myself completely in the bliss of the moment. It was the same feeling I got coming back from Siem Reap crammed into the back of a compact truck with 17 other people the summer after I graduated from college, and standing by the side of the road in New Zealand with all my worldly possessions at my feet the first time I hitchhiked, and on a handful of other occasions that together mark the high points of the collective time that I’ve spent on the road over the course of my life. It was great to be reminded that those receptors in my brain still work.
  12. The last year of the McGinn administration was a journey in and of itself. Volunteering on the first campaign in 2009 and then working for the mayoral administration for four years in many ways formed the core of my Seattle identify—most of my relationships in Seattle came from the connections I made in that world, not to mention a huge amount of the knowledge that I have about the city and its residents and the lenses through which I see them and the monthly salary that had allowed me to buy my own apartment instead of continuing to rent—but after the breakup my heart was never in either the job or the campaign to the extent that it had been before. I came back to work, and volunteered on the campaign in my spare time (albeit not as much as I could have), because I saw it as the most important thing happening in Seattle at the time, but I decided in mid-February that if we won I wasn’t going to come back for a second term. It didn’t prevent me from putting my heart and soul on the line—and it didn’t make the loss any easier to take—but it did take away one of my crutches in thinking about my future to know that I was going to be looking at a blank slate one way or another on January 1st. We didn’t win, so my farewell to the Mayor’s Office ended up being part of a larger group farewell, an experience that was by turns bitter and sweet but much more manageable for being something that we all went through together. For 3 years and 10 months working in the Mayor’s Office was a non-stop firehose of information and projects and deadlines and timelines and things to react to; after the election the firehose slowed to a much more manageable stream, and we were able to focus, collectively, on wrapping up loose ends, making preparations for the transition to the new administration, and, just as important, both mourning the loss of our community and winding things down in a way that was meaningful for us and true to who we were. The last substantive thing that I did in the Mayor’s Office was to organize the office’s farewell dinner; all I did after that was clear out my inbox and finish packing up my things. Coming in to work on December 31st, my last day, was largely ceremonial—I spent most of the day writing a long farewell blog post, and then we had an informal gathering in the Mayor’s office from which we trickled out, one by one, from the 7th floor of City Hall for the last time.
  13. Letting go of the Mayor’s Office, interestingly enough, was something that I approached through the process of giving away the engagement ring just after the end of the campaign, to a friend of a friend who had lost the ring she was preparing to use to propose to her partner when her car was broken into in early November. I’d moved on from the relationship awhile ago at this point, but part of me was still holding onto that ring, more for the memories it represented than anything else. In the same way that giving away the physical object of the ring necessitated my taking back and reclaiming all of the emotional energy with which I had endowed it, accepting that the Mayor’s Office version of my future was really and truly gone allowed me to take back all of the energy that I’d put into that version of what my life could be, and it forced me to start thinking more deeply about what I wanted to do with it in this new, more open-ended version of my present.
  14. Startup Seattle, the City’s tech startup initiative that I consider to be the legacy of my time in the Mayor’s Office, was funded in this year’s budget last fall, just before Thanksgiving. It began as a simple roundtable with high-profile members of the tech startup community in May of 2012 (planning for which started in February); by the end of that year it had become a full-fledged initiative, and the first half of 2013 was spent refining and finalizing the components of that initiative with a community advisory committee, the culmination of which was securing funding for a new staff position in the City’s Office of Economic Development for a full-time liaison between City government and the tech startup community. The whole process of getting to know the local tech community better and putting together the initiative was one of the most enjoyable parts of my time in the Mayor’s Office for me; I’m excited to see it grow and change over the course of the coming months and years.
  15. I decided definitively against pursuing nursing as a career path. I wrote what I think is one of my better blog posts about that decision and its history, but the short version is that I realized through volunteering in the Harborview ER that a) nursing isn’t something I’m really passionate about, and it never has been, and b) life’s too short for me not to be doing something I’m passionate about for a living. It was a significant decision, because I’d always thought of nursing as a safety net—something I could do if I needed to, and a career that would always be there if I really needed it. Knowing that I was operating without a safety net, I think, connected me viscerally to my own financial mortality in the same way that gashing my hand open while navigating a narrow rock ledge on a backpacking trip in April, for example, connected me viscerally to my own corporeal mortality, the end result of both being to make me more sharply attuned to the present and less invested in some distant possible future version of myself or my life.
  16. Speaking of being more sharply attuned to the present, the need to be more present in the moment has been another strong theme, and practicing mindfulness meditation again for the first time in a long time has been an important way of addressing that need. I was very interested in monasticism as an expression of self-sufficiency immediately after college, but I gave up on the idea that self-sufficiency even exists about 8 years ago, and around the same time I largely stopped meditating. What led me back to it was a persistent finding, both from re-reading my journals over the years and from the newly learned lessons of this year, that the best moments in my life have all involved being completely and wholly present in a given moment but that it’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. The focus of my newfound meditation practice has been on more fully experiencing everything that the present has to offer—on unlocking more of the joy and beauty and potential that are waiting in every moment of my life. It’s been slow going, but I can already notice a difference.
  17. Along those same lines, being intentional about giving myself prolonged periods dedicated exclusively to rest, relaxation, and reflection has proved to be incredibly valuable. The most significant of those were the 3 ½-week period immediately following the breakup; the train trip that bracketed snowboarding in Colorado over the Christmas holiday; and the 15-day electronic communication vacation that I’m in the middle of at the moment. That last one is like existential meditation, in a way—disconnecting all of the traditional inputs that are constantly vying for my attention has allowed me to observe what I miss, what I don’t, and what natural urges emerge into the space created by the absence of my usual routines. It’s very similar to what I get from a good travel experience, except that travel tends to replace familiar routines with unfamiliar ones; the question of what kinds of routines and life paths arise naturally in my mind in the absence of anything else is a very interesting one…and for me, at least, it’s been a very productive way to think more deeply about what I want the post-Mayor’s Office phase of my life to look like.
  18. One major thing that’s emerged into that space, when I’ve given it a chance, has been a burning desire to create more in addition to just consuming, and to change what it is that I spend my time consuming in the first place. Writing has been an important part of that, as has performing through improv, hosting gatherings instead of just attending them, molding my apartment—with the help of a friend who’s an excellent amateur interior decorator—into my favorite space that I’ve ever inhabited, and strongly considering creating my own income stream for the first time in my life instead of simply taking a job with an existing organization. In a lot of ways it’s felt like my inner artist has been released into the world for the first time since I was a child, and it’s been fantastic—two friends host art nights at their house from time to time that tap into a crafts-based pleasure center I’d forgotten I even had as I sit on their floor or at their dining room table dripping wax onto patterned sheets of construction paper or making a floppy bonnet out of a shopping bag and a leftover canvassing walk sheet; I dressed up for a friend’s wedding, white linen suit capped off by a black latex Batman mask, the only one of the guests who took the “what to wear” suggestions from the website to heart, and it’s hard to remember a time when I’ve had more fun at a wedding…rediscovering, and expanding, my own capacity for creation and creativity has been both incredibly meaningful and deeply, soul-nourishingly enjoyable.
  19. I upgraded from the Fitbit I’d been using since the end of 2011 to a Basis B1, a more fully functional activity tracker that I prefer because it has more sensors than a Fitbit and a better gamification system, but primarily because of the form factor: it’s a watch, so not only does it have a bigger display and an easier access point, but it also tells time! There’s a lot of quantified self wearable tech out there to choose from, but I would wholeheartedly recommend a Basis if you’re thinking seriously about making a purchase in that area in the near future; I love mine.
  20. I sold my iPad last year in an effort to reduce the incidence of its primary use case, reading news on the Internet while lounging around on the couch at home; I balanced it out on the gadget scale, however, by buying an Xbox 360 package during one of Amazon’s lightning Black Friday sales, which represents the first time that I’ve owned a console gaming system since I sold my last Xbox 360 when I left Texas to volunteer on the Obama campaign in mid-2008. After binging myself on Halo the first few days I realized that I’d need to implement some rules to keep me from spending hours in front of the TV, so I came up with a system whereby I can play Xbox every day for as much time as I spend learning something new (capped at 30 minutes per day), provided that I’m at inbox zero on gmail for the day—doing lessons out of my HTML/CSS book counts, as does improv class, reading a meditation book…etc. For the last week or so I’ve relaxed the learning requirement and just given myself 30 minutes per day of Xbox time, but I should probably re-implement it; it’s a really great form of motivation. I like to think that I’m still deriving the neurological benefits of playing video games without spending too much time on them, though, which is a marked change from the role that they’ve often played at earlier points in my life.
  21. Another good habit that I’ve been intentionally trying to build (I use a little iOS app called Lift, but it’s really just an electronic version of a daily checklist) is to do one thing, every day, that I really don’t want to do. It can be as simple as getting up early and running when I really just feel like rolling over and going back to sleep, or it can be something more substantive like finally doing a project from my to-do list that’s been languishing there for months or having a conversation that I’ve been dreading; either way, though, I’ve started conditioning myself to derive pleasure from doing things specifically because I don’t want to do them, and it’s been fairly successful so far.
  22. After 4 ½ years of car-free living I bought a new car in June of last year, a Honda Fit…and it’s been really wonderful having a car again. I intended to use it for hiking and snowboarding and generally getting out of the city when I bought it—and I’ve done a fair bit of that—but by far what I use it for most often is just going to parts of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t visit very often. It’s amazing how much more often I leave the general Capitol Hill/downtown walkshed when going to Fremont or the U District or even Ballard or West Seattle takes a fraction of the time vs. what it would take on a bus. I’m a fan of being able to get around the city more easily without using a car, but there’s still a huge chunk of the city for which using the bus as a sole method of transportation really does take significantly longer. I will say that being car-free was much better post-Car2Go than it was pre-Car2Go…but there’s nothing quite like having a car of one’s own, especially to a native Texan like myself.
  23. Speaking of checking items off the list, my first trip in the Fit was to Mt. St. Helens the weekend after I bought it, something that had been on my list since the last time I lived in this area back in 2002-2003. It was a significant trip for me—the mountain erupted a few months after I was born, so I’ve always thought of it as my birth volcano—and it was also the experience after which, upon further reflection of it and the breakup both, I decisively let go of the last vestiges of my belief in any kind of a willful force in the universe that intervenes in the affairs of men.
  24. I played a very small role in helping a friend pull off what was easily the most epic marriage proposal that I’ve ever seen, involving the last City Council meeting of the year, all 9 City Councilmembers, and a speech about artificial intelligence that gradually morphed into a Power Point recap of their relationship and a split Council vote for which his girlfriend came up and cast the deciding vote. It was really and truly one of the greatest things that I’ve ever seen.
  25. After realizing that I don’t own much specifically happy music, I’ve made an intentional effort in the last few months to listen to pop music, probably for the first time since I was in high school, using a couple of top 40 radio stations but also making heavy use of Spotify, which conveniently keeps playlists of both the top 100 tracks in America at any given moment and the top 100 tracks in the world. Downside: I’ve had “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry stuck in my head for the last 5 days. Upside: I’m kind of OK with that.
  26. Redecorating has been another major theme over the course of the past year—one friend helped me completely redecorate my entire apartment, to the point where not only do I enjoy having company over more often, I also just enjoy the space more on a day-to-day basis; another went shopping with me and revamped my wardrobe, which was frankly in desperate need of it; and, all on my own, I got new glasses that for the first time I chose in order to actually highlight the fact that I wear glasses instead of trying to hide it somehow—the way I see it, wearing glasses is about as close as it’s socially acceptable for most of us to come to getting a face tattoo, so you might as well do something interesting with them. It’s amazing what a difference a few pieces of extra furniture, some new shoes and shirts, and a new pair of glasses can make, but I have to admit that they really and truly have improved my quality of life.
  27. I’ve also, for the first time in my life, intentionally added living things to my apartment (fruit flies from the compost bin don’t count), in the form of a small ficus, some spider plants, and a carnivorous terrarium. It’s been a good lesson for me in making sure they get enough water and sunlight to stay alive…and it’s also helped me to realize just how important direct sunlight is for urbanists who want to grow plants. Mine have all adapted to the conditions of my apartment, more or less, but I’ve had to accept that from a plant’s perspective it’s actually a very low-light environment. It’s another factor that I would never have thought about a year ago, and it’s opened my eyes to a whole world of indoor horticulture that I’d never even stopped to think about before that first fateful trip to City People. I’m considering investing in a good indoor sun lamp; let me know if you have any recommendations.
  28. Entertaining more has been another positive effect of having an apartment I want to show off to my friends—my apartment is fairly small, just over 600 square feet all told, but I’ve managed to cram as many as 20 people in here for movie nights, brunch on New Year’s Day, and my 34th birthday this past Tuesday night. There’s a really great feeling that comes from being able to share your home with a lot of people you care about, and it’s one that I look forward to experiencing a lot more going forward.
  29. I finally started reading novels again in earnest this past year, and over the course of the year I re-read two books that were very important to me in my immediate post-college years, Lord Jim and Underworld, each for the first time in nearly a decade. It was interesting to see echoes of my younger self in each of them, but also to see how what I noticed in each one had changed over the years. When I was 23, Underworld was a meditation on the grid and the process of working within the system to fundamentally remake oneself from the ground up; at 33, it was about the process of longing through which history is created and a desire for the freedom of youth in the later stages of life, the primacy of the heart over the head. Lord Jim, after college, was a romanticized hero fantasy that I identified with about adventure and love and the need to be tested by life and by the world; last year I recognized old familiar phrases that I’ve been carrying around with me since the first time I read it, but the protagonist just kind of annoyed me, and the early 20th-century racism was much more stark; the part of the story that spoke to me the most was the warning description of the motley crew of seafarers looking for easy jobs in the East Indies—“…and in all they said—in their actions, in their looks, in their persons—could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence.” At 23 I saw in that phrase precisely the forces to which I had constructed my life in opposition; in the early stages of 33 I recognized myself in those words to a degree that made me uncomfortable, and made me wonder what my post-college self would have thought about me and the way I was living my life, the degree to which I’d prioritized safety over adventure.
  30. After an absence that was entirely too long, I’ve started playing chess again. Last Wednesday night I went to the Seattle Chess Club—which turns out to be in the basement of the same Northgate office tower where the title company that handled my mortgage closing docs is located—and spent 2 ½ hours playing two great games against Mike, in his early 60’s and as such one of the younger members of the club. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship to chess over the years, but its peak was the period of a combined 2 or 3 weeks that I spent sharpening my skills against the best chess partner I’ve ever had, a super-friendly Hungarian guy named Karoly who ended up at the same two working hostels that I did in New Zealand in 2004, first picking apples down south and later picking mandarins and working in a packhouse up north. We were almost perfectly matched, and we played every night—he was slightly better than I was, but I managed to get a few wins in from time to time. The last game we ever played, though, was an epic, 3 ½-hour battle of attrition that ended with a nearly empty board…and his king in checkmate. I could probably count on one hand the number of games I’ve played since then; it’s something that I really miss, though, and finding (or creating) a community of players here in Seattle has been on my to-do list for awhile. The Seattle Chess Club might not be my permanent home, but I think it’ll be a great place to get started.
  31. I’ll be giving the third Ignite talk of my career on February 12th at Town Hall, about the life lessons I learned during my time as a car salesman after college; I learned my submission had been accepted a few days before the start of this electronic communication vacation. My first two Ignite talks were attempts to get people excited about local government—a losing proposition, as I discovered, but good practice and a lot of fun anyway—but this one will be all about telling a story and sharing concrete, tangible lessons that I’ve found to be really useful in my own life over the years, which I think will be a better fit for the format. It also comes at a perfect time for my budding writer/performer self; being able to create something and then perform it live in front of an audience of over 800 people is an incredible opportunity, and one that I don’t think I would have fully realized the value of even a few months ago.
  32. Speaking of writing and performing, after having just gone through the 2-week boot camp that is ACT’s Adult Playwrights Program, I have what the teacher calls a “zero draft” of my first play! Writing it was an amazing experience—I signed up for the class without any idea of what I would write about, and the structure basically involved writing 10 pages of dialogue for each of the 6 class sessions and then bringing your new material to class, where we took turns doing readings of each other’s work and getting feedback. Before the first class I went for a long walk to give an idea time to surface (using the tried-and-true Character/Relationship/Objective/Where framework from improv to construct the initial scene and then building from there), came back to my apartment, and just started writing. I’ve always had a mental block about writing dialogue, but once I forced myself to sit down and do it I was amazed by how quickly it started to flow. I can’t say the play is anywhere close to production-ready, and between now and my reconnection to the world Friday night at midnight I’m going to try to totally re-write half of it…but it works, even in its current form, and I’m really excited to keep tweaking it and tuning it and eventually, if all goes well, maybe even to see it performed on stage someday. When I think about what I want my professional contribution to the world to be, I honestly can’t think of anything better than creating compelling stories that speak to people and connect with them in something approaching the same way that Lord Jim and Underworld and Death of a Salesman and No Exit and All My Sons and countless others all have for me at various points in my life. The Man at the Bar (working title) feels, legitimately, like the first step of a long journey into that world, and it’s a journey I’m really, really looking forward to.
  33. And, last but not least, I’m grateful for every moment of my life since I became officially unemployed on January 1st. The past month and a week has seen me recapture the unformed, raw energy of my youth (albeit in an older, wiser, and more geographically centered form), take two different last-minute trips, each of which was amazing (Aurora Borealis watching in Alaska and visiting a friend in New York), write the aforementioned play, and  take 15 days off from all electronic forms of communication (phone, SMS, and the Internet in its entirety), which was intended to mirror the cargo freighter trip that kicked off my open-ended post-college travels both in the disconnection from the electronic world that it represented and in delivering me, at its conclusion, to the shores of a totally new world to explore, one without the boundaries or restrictions that I’d left behind at the beginning of my journey. Having now disembarked, I can safely say that I’ve reached a place my 24-year-old self would be proud of; I’m looking forward immensely to exploring the world beyond the Mayor’s Office, and to seeing what 34 holds for me.

Back online

Friday, February 7th, 2014, 3:14 pm

Today’s the last day of my 15-day electronic communication vacation, and before it comes to an end I wanted to take some time to reflect on this experience while it’s still going on. I’ve done enough traveling in my life to know that once the trip is over the perspective that goes along with it has a tendency to fade; my intention is to carry the lessons I’ve learned here forward in my daily life, but just in case…here goes.

For those of you who didn’t read my last post, the rules of the exercise prevented me from using the Internet in any form or fashion or my phone*—anything else was fair game. At midnight the night of Thursday, January 23rd I powered off and stored my iPhone, unplugged my wifi router, and switched off the wifi antennas on my laptop and my base-model Kindle…and I won’t have turned any of them back on until just after midnight tonight, immediately before I post this.

So what was it like going without modern connectivity tools for 15 days? The one-line answer to that question is that aside from text messages I barely missed any of it, and taking away all of the constant little distractions and mental background processes that email, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds generate meant both that I was much more focused and that everything I did was something I proactively wanted to do; it felt like a real vacation.

What I did do was spend a huge amount of time writing and reading in depth (books, but also the hundreds of long-form articles** I’ve accumulated on my Kindle over the years), two things that I don’t do nearly enough of in my daily life; spend time with friends and go to events and parties just like I always do (including hosting my 34th birthday party here on Tuesday, which was really wonderful); write—and then start to re-write—my first play, thanks to the excellent Adult Playwright Program at ACT; listen to the radio again at home for the first time in a long time; put together my talk for Ignite Seattle 23 on Wednesday, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned as a Car Salesman”; and generally relax in a way that I seldom do even when I actually am on vacation. It was a fantastic experience, and one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who’s interested in the idea of unplugging—if you can’t do 15 days, try it for a weekend or even just a day and see what you think.

The longer-than-one-line answer about my takeaways would be as follows:

  • Single-tasking is amazing. Going without my phone, especially, meant that I was more present in every area of my life—riding the bus, talking to friends, walking around the city without listening to music, waking up in the morning and thinking about my day and how I wanted to spend it instead of my usual habit of immediately rushing to see what I’d missed in the world while I was asleep…etc. I’d never realized how much mental energy all of the little phone-based mental subroutines took up for me (Did he/she text me back? How many new Facebook notifications do I have? Did anyone retweet or favorite that great thing I just tweeted? Has [x] emailed me back about [y] yet? Am I missing a new article from [a] or [b] that everyone else is going to have read the next time I talk to them? What’s happening on Twitter? What are all my friends up to?) until they were gone. It turns out that when every moment no longer carries with it the possibility for something really interesting/affirming/important/exciting /otherwise distracting to suddenly pop into your life, it’s much easier to focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Go figure :)
  • Insourcing my memory and attention has been wonderful. Just over the course of two weeks, not having the crutch of my phone to rely on on has been really useful in improving my ability to recall facts and figures on my own, and even simple things like not being able to use Siri to set a geofenced reminder to prompt me to do something when I get home or not being able to set a timer on my phone when I’m cooking have meant that I have to remember to check my watch (Basis, technically; it still functions wonderfully even when it’s completely offline) and just remember on my own what I need to do and when instead, both of which sound like small things but actually make a noticeable difference; I like that they keep me much more present and connect me more closely to what I’m doing instead of providing a layer of technological separation. The kitchen timer was the first thing that I noticed, but once I started paying attention to it I was amazed by how much control over my attention I willingly cede to the technology in my life.  
  • Taking away all of my reactive time was incredibly freeing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes wonders, at the end of the week, why more of the items on my personal to-do list haven’t actually gotten done and where all of my free time’s gone. In many ways the things I’ve been doing without are all of my distraction technologies—the quick little email checks and glances at Facebook and Twitter and all the rest of it that, because they’re spread out over the course of the day and because they carry with them the constant promise of something more interesting or more stimulating than whatever it is that I’m doing, are constantly either directly interrupting my day or tempting me to interrupt it. Email especially, but also social media feeds to a lesser extent, functions, as I once heard it described, as other people’s to-do list for you. Being able to focus solely on my own to-do list, which tends to be comprised of slower-paced, less instantly gratifying projects and pursuits, has been really fulfilling.
  • Out of everything I’ve given up for the last two weeks, being able to quickly and easily communicate with individual people I care about is by far what I’ve missed the most. I had a feeling going in that would be the case—deciding to turn my phone all the way off was the hardest part for me—and I wasn’t wrong. Postcards and waiting to see people in person are well and good, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of simple, instantaneous, and streamlined communication that text messages, especially, make possible. If I do something like this again—and I assume I will—I’ll most likely keep the phone but switch off cellular data and wifi. I have to say, though, that even though I didn’t really miss my feeds, taken as an aggregate they do represent by far the most highly evolved way to get information about the world around me that currently exists, so I’m not planning on giving them up, just tweaking my relationship to them to maximize their upsides and minimize their downsides.

So what, specifically will I be taking away from this experience when I turn my phone on and hop back online in the morning? Several things:

  • Right off the bat I’ll be taking a lesson from the success of my Xbox policy (I only let myself play for 30 minutes per day) and keeping my external inputs in check by intentionally drawing a box around them, and then adjusting the size and shape of that box as necessary. My current plan is to give myself a total allowance of 30 minutes per day for Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and email combined, spendable in either one 30-minute chunk or two 15-minute chunks, with special dispensation one day out of the week to catch up fully on email. I’m sure I’ll have to go through multiple iterations of that plan before I arrive at one that I’m happy with, but it’s an exercise that I’m looking forward to.
  • Something else I’ll be trying out is leaving my phone either at home or off of my immediate person by default instead of carrying it on me compulsively wherever I go, and possibly even leaving it turned off outside of set periods. My phone is primarily responsible for the fact that literally every moment of my waking day holds the potential for something new and exciting and interesting and distracting to enter my life from the great wide electronic world, or for me to share something with that world in return, so it’ll be a fun experiment to see how much I can realistically scale back its use until it starts to have a clear negative impact on my quality of life.
  • Out of necessity, I’ll be further streamlining my current system of information consumption to focus even more tightly on low-volume, high-value content creators and curators who consistently provide me with information that I actually want to read—in other words, I’ll be more heavily prioritizing signal-to-noise ratio, rather than accepting a relatively high amount of noise in exchange for occasionally getting a really good bit of signal, which is what I do now. In the same spirit, going forward I’ll try to fit my future social media habits into that same mold by posting less often and being more intentional about the content of my posts. My goal will be to be able to completely process my Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds (and save any articles I want to read to Instapaper, which then get pushed to my Kindle) in 15 minutes per day, with the other 15 minutes reserved for email triage.

I hope you’ve had fun following along from home, and that you’ve found something of value in my experience that resonates for you in your life. If you’re at all interested in trying a similar experiment, streamlining your own relationship to technology, or starting to create more and consume less online, drop me a line; I’d love to help you in any way that I can. I might not get back to you right away, though :)

 

*I did, however, buy an AT&T pre-paid SIM card for one of my old feature phones, which I used as both a theoretical emergency phone—I gave the number to precisely three people, but no emergencies arose—and a repository for an IFTTT trigger that was set up to text me if I received an email back from the one outstanding job application that I had out when I started the vacation but that wasn’t triggered.

**For those of you who enjoy a good trip into the weeds occasionally, my rule of thumb is that if I can read an article in less than 10 minutes I save it to Instapaper, and all of my unread Instapaper articles get sent to my base-model Kindle as a bundle at 5 am every day, similar in structure to the New York Times Kindle edition and other publications; I tend to read those within 48 hours. If it’s a longer article, though (a lot of mine come from Longreads, Longform, and other similar Twitter accounts and weekly emails), I use Instapaper’s “Send to Kindle” bookmarklet to skip my Instapaper queue and send it directly to my Kindle…where it then generally languishes in perpetuity. 15 days ago I had 230 such articles on my Kindle, some dating back to the end of 2011 and each of which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to read; from a combination of triaging and reading, I’m now down to 81.