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.

Off the grid

10 years ago tomorrow morning I boarded a cargo freighter bound for New Zealand in the port of Long Beach and left behind America and its gridded comforts for an open-ended journey into my own future. 15 days later I disembarked in Tauranga, a small town on the northeast coast of the north island of New Zealand and the first stop of the trip that I now call The Big One; the time in between, to this day, is the longest I’ve ever gone without access to the internet and a phone since I started using the World Wide Web when I was around 13. When I realized a few months ago that this anniversary period was coming up, I immediately started thinking about the best way to commemorate it. I went through renting a cabin, driving across the country, doing a good international overland route for old time’s sake, and a few other options. When I sat down and thought about it, though, I realized that in my final days as a 23-year-old I was essentially placeless, with wheels instead of roots, and that because I’ve grown and changed a lot in the past 10 years I should do something to honor who I am now, not just who I was then. When I thought back to crossing the Pacific all these years later it was the forced disconnection that really resonated, so I decided that I would combine that aspect of the trip with my newfound placefulness, giving me an opportunity to explore Seattle through a new lens and deepen my relationship to it while I transition both into my 34th year of life (my birthday is February 4th) and into whatever comes next for me after the Mayor’s Office.

As soon as I finish sharing this blog post with the outside world I’m going to unplug my wifi router, turn off my phone, and disconnect completely from the world of electronic communication for 15 days, from 12:01 am on Friday, January 24th to 11:59 pm on Friday, February 7th. During that period I won’t be using SMS, phones of any kind (including friends’ phones and pay phones), or any Internet-connected technologies, my own or others’. I’ll be going, in other words, off the grid, three very appealing little words that have meant different things to me at different points in my life but that now represent an appropriate way of honoring my past while preparing for my future. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be seeing people—just that any plans I haven’t already made will be much more logistically challenging to put together after midnight tonight.

The idea started as just not checking Facebook, Twitter, email, etc for 15 days, but then it grew to include the Internet altogether; I waffled on giving up the phone for at least a month or two, but on the flight to New York this past weekend I realized that the only reason I could find for keeping my phone was that part of me was afraid of what it would feel like to be totally cut off from modern technology in the heart of the city…and coincident with that realization was my acceptance that this meant I had to give it up, because this exercise won’t be worthwhile unless it’s hard for me.

And it will be hard—my immediate impulse, and one that may not go away until the morning of February 8th, will be to check my stats and see how many of you read this post, like it on Facebook, email me about it, etc. When I actually sit down and contemplate how many individual sub-processes of my brain are devoted solely to waiting for little electronic notifications at any given time (Did I get that email I’ve been waiting for? Did she text me back? Is my digital presence, generally speaking, a thing that people engage with or ignore?), it’s downright shocking. 2012 was about refining and optimizing my system of information consumption; 2013 was about spending less time consuming and more time creating and playing; and now I’m cuing up 2014 to be about really sitting down and thinking more deeply about the role that both play in constructing my identity and my view of the world and influencing my happiness and the general quality of my life—being more mindful of my inputs and outputs, in other words, and starting to meditate again has been an important part of that (I’ve found this to be a great secular guide thus far).

There are a lot of things that I’m looking forward to about the next 15 days—the new experience of navigating the contours of my daily life without the aid of a prosthetic on which I’ve come to rely pretty heavily, like losing one of my senses almost; the challenge of being surrounded by the grid without being able to connect to it; the delicious reward of successfully delayed gratification waiting for me on the other side; rediscovering the pre-Internet mindset that I had when I was younger and seeing how it fits these days; spending a lot more time reading books, writing, and going on walks than I do now; finishing the rough draft of my first play and putting together my “All I Really Need to Know I Learned as a Car Salesman” talk for Ignite Seattle 23–but more than anything else I’m looking forward to seeing what I miss from this world of always-on communication vs. what doesn’t, as it turns out, actually provide any value to my life, and adjusting accordingly.

Enjoy the next 15 days…and if you need to reach me before February 8th, send me a postcard :)

3 nights and 2 days in New York

NYC boat

New York City was one of my go-to travel destinations in college—a lot of the spare money from my various on-campus jobs either went towards road trips across America or weekends and breaks in The City (and occasionally both simultaneously). My first visit, in the winter of 2002, occurred on a Campus Crusade for Christ trip while I was still wrestling with my religion in college. We stayed at a big compound together out in Queens and talked to students at one of the CUNY schools about Jesus during the days (including a great conversation with some Jewish kids about my age that made me start to re-think some of my fundamental assumptions about my own faith), I decided pretty decisively that evangelism wasn’t for me (I’d signed up for the trip largely because it was a chance to see New York with people that I liked, but I was never sold on the cheesy little pamphlets or the numeric goal of “number of people who accepted Jesus into their hearts today” by which the group leaders measured our efforts), a group of us got onto the opening segment of The Today Show by painting the name of our school on our chests using blue finger paint, one letter apiece, and standing outside in the freezing cold at 6 am…and I fell madly in love with Manhattan the first time we took the subway in from the boroughs.

The subway itself was the lens through which I first understood the world above the street. The sight of everyone crowded together on trains that were dingy and worn but also well-used and functional and egalitarian—homeless guys trying to get some sleep sitting right next to older women in fur coats carrying bags from upscale department stores—was like a revelation, and when you combined it with the secret underground world of subway lines, train schedules, and locals vs. tourists, with its own endemic rules of etiquette and style, the metro came to represent New York in microcosm for me, grown from the same DNA as everything going on up above but more contained, so that when we emerged into the night somewhere on the lower east side I already felt a certain kinship to the streetscape and pedestrians and sidewalk vendors and huge buildings…but it was still overwhelming, and I kept going back again and again, until it started to feel like one version of home, primarily because there was always more to see, more to experience, and more to process.

I’ve probably spent a couple of months of my life in New York if you add it all up, almost all before I graduated from college. After that first experience I started looking for excuses to get away, watching for the best ticket price or flying out last-minute using AirTran’s short-lived standby fares; I went even when I couldn’t really afford it, wandering the city eating from street vendors and staying at hostels (or, once, sleeping at Penn Station and staying up all night on the subway when I ran out of money mid-trip); I stayed with my college girlfriend for a week or two one summer while she was working at a music licensing company in midtown; I was sandwiched in the middle of Times Square with a bunch of friends for Y2K; when 9/11 happened I was on a study abroad trip in Asia, and a few of us from the program did a road trip up the coast when we got back as a way of processing it from an American perspective; I flew up to see the Tribute in Light the month before I graduated…and then, after I walked across the stage and decided to move out west to pay off my loans and save up for travel and create a life that was more fully my own, my focus shifted and I stopped visiting and started to forget the subway lines and the route the M60 takes into the city from LaGuardia and a lot of the other day-to-day details, but the city itself was still burned into my muscle memory, waiting patiently for me to return.

And I did plan to return—to stay for a year, in fact, so that I could absorb the feeling of living day-to-day in a world of constant overstimulation and enjoy everything that the greatest city in America has to offer and then plunge directly into the ice bath of Anchorage in the winter, a nondescript town in the middle of the last American frontier for another year of my life…but aside from a few quick in & out trips in 2005, 2006, and 2011 I hadn’t really been back to New York until this past weekend, just a week after I finally made it out to Alaska for the first time.

The reason for my trip was simple—a good friend from high school who lives there now invited me up for a last-minute trip after he saw my posts about Alaska on Facebook, and I wanted to go and couldn’t think of any logical argument against it, so I bought a ticket. I’m really glad I did; it was a fantastic visit, and while there’s a lot that I could focus on, yesterday was really the coup de grace. We christened it “America Day,” largely tongue-in-cheek, and put together an agenda to back it up: great New York bagels in the morning from Murray’s, a trip out to visit the Statue of Liberty (which neither of us had ever been to), a walk up to the Freedom Tower construction site with a quick stop by Zuccotti Park followed by reubens at Katz’s Deli, watching the Seahawks vs. 49ers NFC championship game at a Seahawks bar (The Central Bar, in case you’re curious) with a friend from Seattle who made the move recently, and, following a craving for some good old-fashioned eastern European comfort food, late-night kielbasa and goulash at Veselka.

There were a lot of high points in the weekend, and it was really wonderful to be back in New York, but the game is probably what lends itself best to a blog post, especially in light of the social media/blogosphere eruption about Richard Sherman’s 15-second post-game interview (see here for the clip, and here and here for my favorite pieces on it so far—the second one’s by Sherman himself). Let me preface this by saying that I’m about as fair-weather a fan as they come—I was really into my high school football team growing up, but I’ve lived in Seattle for a combined total of over 6 years and never had even an inkling of a desire to go to or watch a Seahawks game until this one.

NYC flag

I went out of my way to watch this one, though—at a bar in the East Village packed with fellow Seattleites—because it was an important moment in our shared history as a city, an event with just two possible outcomes that would either leave a scar if we lost or still be talked about 50 years from now if we won, but one way or another would be something with a character and an immediacy and an interior life and a temporary sense of shared community that I wouldn’t be able to approach through Twitter or watching highlights afterwards…and I have to say, it didn’t disappoint, as a football game or a life experience. They were showing it on a ten-foot screen on the packed second floor of the bar, and for the 3 ½ hours or so that the game lasted, everyone in that bar was joined at a basic emotional level, hanging on every play right down to the last one, the legitimately historic end-zone interception that spawned the clickbait Sherman-vs-Crabtree rivalry on which probably 90% of the post-game coverage has focused. During the commercial breaks after Seattle started turning things around in the third quarter the DJ would kill the sound and blast Macklemore and Nirvana and other hometown artists to get us even more fired up than we already were, and as soon as Sherman’s fingers touched the ball and it became clear that the Seahawks were going to the Superbowl, the entire place went crazy and didn’t go back. Outside of election nights I’ve never been on the giving or receiving end of so many bear hugs with strangers; a few of the really hardcore fans jumped up on the bar and started pouring free shots directly into people’s mouths a la one version of what my life could have been like 15 years ago, and before you knew it the whole floor transitioned seamlessly into a massive dance party. It was the kind of flashbulb moment in history that should be shared, and I was glad I’d managed to thread the needle and share it with one of my closest friends, Seattleites in the room and around the world, and New York City itself all at the same time.

Once the crowd started thinning out we headed downstairs. I hadn’t eaten since Katz’s—6 or 7 hours ago, at that point—and I got it into my head that I wanted to eat at a Hungarian diner for my last good late-night meal in New York for awhile, so I pulled out Yelp, searched for “Hungarian diner,” and was pleasantly surprised to find a great 24-hour Ukranian spot (close enough, for my unrefined eastern European palette) called Veselka a block away from the bar. As we walked over, still a little drunk both in the traditional sense and from the energy of the game, it occurred to me that our day really had encompassed everything good about New York—and America itself, even if calling it “America Day” had been intended to be ironic: we’d started out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first representative of the philosophical core of the American experiment and the second of the Americans who helped it succeed and continue to the modern day; that was followed by Katz’s Deli, home of the greatest reuben on earth (and some pretty great latkes, too); we participated in a temporary piece of performance art in the medium of community at the sports bar, a group of very different people coming together to focus on what they have in common instead of what separates them; and then we reached out into the grid and conjured up out of thin air a culinary experience that doesn’t exist in most parts of the world, the original form of just-in-time delivery.

It’s great to see that you’ve still got it, New York :) Until we meet again…

36 Hours in Fairbanks: An Aurora Borealis travelogue

The Mount Aurora Lodge at sunrise on the last day

The Mount Aurora Lodge at sunrise on the last day

Part I: Coronal Mass Ejection

Coronal Mass Ejection

Thursday, January 9th, 2014, 9:52 pm; Alaska Airlines flight 129, somewhere over Canada

I saw the Northern Lights once, for 5 or 10 minutes, in May of 2005 on the road into Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. That fleeting experience came at the end of 800km of a road made mostly of loose rocks that passed through some of the most beautiful and otherworldly surroundings I’ve ever experienced: pristine lakes and huge old-growth forests on every side; mining communities in the middle of the tundra; a huge forest fire that turned the sky orange for two days; an ore-red lake just outside Labrador City; and a modern-day company town called Churchill Falls where the employees lived in row houses with their families but everything else, school and stores and library and gym and restaurants and hotel and all, were contained within a single dystopian-looking concrete box in the center of town, like a sci-fi experiment gone awry or the final bastion from which the last straggling remnants of the human race might someday be called upon to make their stand against the unrelenting hordes of the zombie apocalypse, hoping against hope to survive the winter.

And at the end of all this was a little town, the furthest point to which you can drive on a road in North America and the first place I ever ate poutine; and it was briefly joined in the upper atmosphere my first night, while I was driving around looking for a place to pitch my bivy, by a shimmering green curtain of light dancing above the treetops, otherworldly in the truest sense, the visible projection of a secret unseen world of solar wind and radiation and space weather, the very appellation calling to mind comic-book images of lonely astronauts sailing the vast reaches between the planets on favorable tides, and I spent 2 more nights in the area—car camping off remote logging roads in the wilderness in the hills around the town and worrying about bears, watching from my bivy sack as the sun dipped slightly below the horizon sometime after midnight before beginning its ascent a few hours later, and enjoying the skyful of stars that came out when the weather and the lack of sun collaborated—without glimpsing any more cracks in the curtain between this world and the other.

The experience has stayed with me, though, and it holds a special place in my heart, combining as it does the African-game-park-style thrill of the hunt—in which victory is the capture of a rare experience, a thing that most people will never see and you will only if you have enough luck, which is what happens when opportunity meets preparation, and preparation in this case means a lack of guarantees, a throwing yourself into the unknown and accepting that you can’t get back what you put in, a form of one-way existential gambling—with the deep sense of inner peace and connectedness that a clear night sky has always inspired in me, going back to my childhood in rural Texas and the nights I used to spend lying on my back on my parents’ driveway staring up at the stars with the family cat curled up asleep on my chest and purring contently.

I trot it out in conversation from time to time, as I do with so many of the experiential trophies of my youth, and last week when I brought it out in a conversation with a friend she told me that this year marks the peak of an 11-year cycle for the aurora borealis. That fact was like a spark dropped onto the dry kindling of my post-election [f]unemployment—the spark became a flame, the flame began to spread, and since this isn’t 2005 anymore I checked the space weather forecasts and looked at average temperatures and number of clear days out of the year and ticket prices and frequent flier availability and hotel prices, and I signed up for text message alerts and a mailing list as the idea of a trip became a constant background process, and at first I thought that I would time it around whatever worked best for my schedule…but nature had other plans for me, and besides, that was before I learned the term Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).

Two days ago, on Tuesday, January 7th, the sun shot out an X1-class solar flare (which sounds impressive, even if I have no idea what “X1-class” signifies) while it was facing Earth head-on, something that apparently happens only very rarely. That night was also a great night for the aurora—coincidentally, as it turns out, but being a Google-educated aurora-watcher with only a couple of hours’ worth of education I conflated the two based on circumstantial evidence—and after reading all the forecasts and looking at all of the data that I could make sense of, I concluded that I’d missed what was likely to be my best bet at seeing the aurora through the end of the month. Then a delightful little email popped into my inbox telling me that the good stuff from the solar flare Tuesday night wouldn’t reach the Earth until tonight (what had actually happened on the 7th was that an earlier Coronal Mass Ejection, which had been forecast in advance, had hit the earth’s ionosphere that morning), and that the effects would probably last for 2-3 nights. The aurora forecast for the area just south of the Arctic circle tonight and tomorrow flipped from “quiet” to “extreme”, which was more than enough provocation for me—in spite of weather reports that showed cloudy to partly cloudy conditions in Fairbanks, I booked a ticket leaving two hours ago and returning via Anchorage on Saturday, two days from now.

Today at 12:43 pm I got a text message from the Alaskan aurora-watcher SMS service I signed up for yesterday with the frankly pretty awesome pronouncement “A CME has just hit Earth’s magnetic field.  Check spaceweather.com for details,” which erased any doubts I might have had about the trip and put me on an adrenaline high that I’m still riding.

I have no idea what I’ll find waiting for me at the Mount Aurora Lodge later tonight and tomorrow, or whether we’ll end up flying through the lights on our way in like the couple from Fairbanks a few rows ahead of me did on their flight into Seattle and like I would give almost anything to experience myself…but I’m really looking forward to finding out :) Stay tuned for further updates…

 

Part II: Aurora Hunters

Aurora Hunters

January 10th, 2014, 6:03 pm; Mount Aurora Lodge, in the hills above Fairbanks

My immediate post-college life plans were nice and crisp and well-defined—things like “start over from scratch somewhere I don’t know anyone,” “travel around the world without flying,” and “live in New York City for a year, then live in Anchorage for a year,” the last of which I never got around to because, when push came to shove, in Seattle I found one of the best possible combinations of urban (New York) and rural (everything around Anchorage) of any city I’ve ever been to. While I’ve spent plenty of time in New York over the course of my life, though, I had never been to Alaska until the plane touched down on a runway covered in packed snow last night at Fairbanks International. I’d always told myself that I’d never go until I could take the time off to drive here myself, but the lure of the aurora was stronger than my resolve in the end.

I’m not the only one—the Alaska Geophysical Institute’s aurora forecast website has been down or reduced to limited functionality since yesterday afternoon due to the high volume of traffic from people eager to take advantage of a great viewing window, and a lot of the lodges around town are full of out-of-towners like me hoping to catch a glimpse of the lights. I was lucky to find a room at the Mount Aurora Lodge, a truly wonderful little spot 20 miles outside of Fairbanks that’s part upscale hostel and part bed & breakfast and that I would heartily recommend to any of you who are considering making a trip to the area; the owners are wonderful, the food’s fantastic, the views from the property are amazing, and the fire is nice and warm. When I arrived last night around 11 pm I couldn’t get ahold of the long-distance cab company that services the airport; when I called Laurie at the lodge to get her recommendation on another cab company she said that her husband Jeff would just come pick me up, and I ended up having a great 30-minute conversation with him on the drive up here.

First, though, Alaska. I’m glad I’m getting to see it in the wintertime, because it’s been a great opportunity for me to de-exoticize the far polar north: it was -2 Fahrenheit when we arrived yesterday and colder than that today (it’s supposed to get down to -17 tonight); the runway and all of the non-arterial roads in town were covered in a layer of packed snow; the sun barely came up around 10:30 this morning and started heading back down around 2 pm…I’ve hit a lot of the meteorological phenomena that have always fascinated me about this part of the world, and that’s before a totally clear night tonight in the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced with a strong possibility of seeing what I came here to see, in addition to a sky full of stars. I now know what winter in the far north feels like— the feeling of a full breath of subzero air in my lungs; losing sensation in my fingers from taking my gloves off to snap pictures outside, and my phone dying after being exposed to the air for about 30 seconds; free-falling backwards into a snowdrift wearing full snowboarding gear and coming to rest naturally, like sitting in a recliner made of snow; hiking up through waist-high drifts to the top of a ridge and marveling at the frozen landscape in all directions; and tracking the aurora with a group of like-minded allies, joined together by the kind of fleeting but rock-solid bond that’s forged in the furnaces of lodges like this.

My fellow guests all men (names changed to protect the innocent)—Jacob, from Portland, and John, from Melbourne, two friends who met up in Fairbanks on Monday to see the lights and brought the menfolk from each of their families with them, both of their dads plus John’s brother Mike. We’re all heading back to Fairbanks tomorrow, so there’s a shared sense of urgency around what happens in space tonight; we talked a bit last night when I arrived (the CME missed the North American night—although it was apparently amazing in Norway—so I didn’t see anything from the plane, and it was totally overcast last night until 3 am, so most of the guys went to bed by 1 or 2), bonded over breakfast this morning, and then took off and spent a good portion of the day playing in the snow, throwing a frisbee around in the frozen parking lot and then hiking up to the top of a nearby ridge for a good view of the area. We’ve been warming up back at the lodge since then; the plan is for dinner around 9:00, followed by snowmobiling back to the top of the ridge and setting up camp until 2 am or so to see what we can see (or possibly hanging out here at the lodge if the colder-than-any-of-us-have-ever-experienced weather turns out to be too much).

They’re an interesting bunch of guys—John went to college with Julian Assange and is now working on a PhD in Germany; James helps his dad, who’s a physicist by trade, run a walnut and truffle farm in southern Australia; Jacob’s dad is a community organizer and an epidemiologist who makes the combination seem as natural as can be—they’re both about ensuring the long-term health and viability of communities, after all—and it’s clear that he’s raised Jacob with a similar set of values, in addition to being prone to making great statements like “sulfur once saved me from dying of malnutrition in the Bolivian rainforest.” It’s been a lot of fun spending the day with them, and I’m looking forward to heading back up to the ridge before too much longer—the sky is clear, the space weather forecast looks promising…even without seeing the northern lights, I think it’s going to be a great night.

 

Part III: The Lights from the Ridge

The Lights from the Ridge 2 small

January 11th, 2014, 4:35 pm; Anchorage International Airport, en route to Seattle

We saw the aurora last night. It was just before 2 am, we were in the common area of the lodge reading and getting up occasionally to go up to the second floor and look out the north-facing window, and most of the guys had already given up on seeing anything. Jacob’s dad Steve [all names changed except the proprietors] suggested one last walk up to the top of Blueberry Hill, as Jeff and Laurie had christened it, a little ridge with a 360 degree view of the area about half a mile from the lodge that we’d trekked out to earlier in the evening for an amazing view of the stars (I took a snowmobile ride up with Laurie, spent 30 minutes or so alone with the stars, the wind, and the snow, and then snowshoed back with everyone else after they walked up). It was around -15 Fahrenheit outside, and with a pretty stiff wind on top of that, but I’d been contemplating one last ridge walk myself to cap off the trip, so I suited up and joined Steve while everyone else decided to stay put. He headed out while I was still bundling up—there was a bright half moon out in a totally clear sky, so the reflection of the moonlight off the snow meant that visibility was great and he was easy to follow—and when I caught up to him at the beginning of the little path that led to the top of the hill he was standing still, looking back in the direction of the lodge. He said he thought he could see the beginnings of a display; I wasn’t sure, but I knew the view would be better from the top regardless, so I suggested that we keep going…and by the time we got to the top of the ridgeline it was clear what we were looking at.

The northern lights are a phenomenon that you experience differently with your eyes vs. with a camera. With the right setup and the right photographer the images a good camera can capture win every time in terms of sheer visual beauty, according to everyone I’ve ever talked to who has experience with both, but travel experiences have never been fundamentally about pictures for me; I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the aurora, but I was in it for the experience of watching them dance across the sky again with my own two eyes. My iPhone wouldn’t have been able to capture anything except a dark landscape anyway, so instead of attempting any kind of a picture I braved the freezing winds with my bare fingers for perhaps 25 seconds to do two things, both of which seemed important to me at the time: tweet to the local Aurora notification service that they were visible in the sky, in case any fellow watchers were glued to their computer screens searching for clues like the younger guys back at the lodge had been most of the night; and post the simplest and most subtly contrarian message I could think of to Facebook, simultaneously a tiny permanent blog post, a real-time connection both to all of you and my future selves, a record of me on the mountain looking at a faint green light dancing slowly and ethereally out in the cold night air, and a commentary on my tendency, which I assume others share, to focus on the superficial goal but often miss the deeper themes and experiences that underlie it: “Mission accomplished.”

It was important to mark the occasion because it was a moment in time that I’ll think back on for the rest of my life; but it was also worth reflecting on more deeply because the lights, as nice as they were and as happy as it made me to see them—especially because of the dramatic way that it happened, only at the very end, just past the point of having given up—were only one part of the equation, and frankly not even the most important part. The phrase “the journey is the destination” is so overused these days that it’s become a cliché, but like most clichés there’s truth to it, and one of the lessons my experience last night drove home to me was that just as the open road was the best part of the unconstrained traveling days of my youth and some research has suggested that planning a vacation often gives you more happiness than actually taking one, my joy these past two days has been firmly located in the thrill of the hunt, not in the trophy I have to show for it at the end of the day—even if I wouldn’t have been there at all without the promise of the trophy hanging over the whole thing. I came to Alaska to sit with nature outdoors, on colder nights at the end of shorter days than anything I’d ever experienced, to expand the limits of my experience and try with no guarantee or reasonable expectation of success to catch a brief glimpse of a vast hidden system without which I wouldn’t exist, to see the joy and gratitude of organic life translated into something my visual cortex could understand implicitly…and  it was the anticipation—riding the wave of my attachment to suffering, to co-opt a Buddhist concept—that gave the whole thing its delicious flavor, caused me to open myself viscerally to the worlds outside of what I can see and taste and touch and smell and hear on a daily basis and made my heart rate tick up, first as I stared out the window of an airplane before it dropped below the clouds into Fairbanks airspace and again as I gazed across a vast frozen unobstructed landscape on a clear starry night standing next to a community organizer and epidemiologist my dad’s age who I didn’t know existed 26 hours earlier as we shared a moment that both of us will still be talking about until our grandkids get sick of hearing the story.

But of course the experiential trophy itself is also worthwhile, and I paid attention so that I could write about it, paint you a picture with words to attempt to capture some of what it feels like to have started idly considering something on the first Friday of the year, which is also your third day of unemployment after working at one place for four years, longer than you’ve ever done anything with the exception of going to college, and even then you had breaks over the summers; to have started looking into it on Saturday, given up on it for the near-term Tuesday morning, and seen a window Tuesday night, a possible path, and changed your mind and booked a ticket on a whim, more or less, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, 72 hours ago from where you’re standing shivering in the early morning cold, because you wanted to see the lights, true, but also because you wanted to experience everything that came along with wanting to see the lights, the discomfort and uncertainty and pushing of personal boundaries derived from that primal longing for victory and new experiences and seeing as much of the world, broadly defined, as one lifetime will hold.

So all of that is what’s led you to this ridge, borrowed rubber snow boots buried up to the ankles in the deep drifts that you and Jacob and John were jumping into around sunset 12 hours ago, post-frisbee, from the rock ledge that’s blocking the wind for you now just like it blocked the wind for you 7 hours ago at 7 pm in the pitch black when you came back and stood and watched the starry night sky, alone for 20 minutes or so and then with everyone else, when it was still just a night sky because it was too early in the evening to see the aurora, an enjoyable break during which the present was all that was important, no fixation on a possible future event, and it was the cold creeping slowly into your body through the tips of your toes that finally made you head back for the lodge for reading and chatting and dinner, the best copper river salmon you’ve ever had with fresh homemade cheese-and-chocolate danishes for dessert, so warm that the cheese practically melted in your mouth, and then settling in and waiting, checking the various space weather forecasts from time to time with the guys and reading Underworld and checking to see how many people liked your last post on Facebook, and because your toes were what betrayed you last time you swapped out your trusty Eccos for these white boots that belong to the lodge for the final ascent, because John recommended them highly, and they work; your feet are nice and warm, and so is the rest of you, wearing as many layers as you could fit into your trusty old Timbuk2, and it made you happy to hear Jeff marvel at how lightly you packed.

The ridge you’re standing on is maybe a few hundred feet higher than the lodge but that makes it the highest point in the immediate area, and you get there by walking down the long driveway past the coal-fired generators that power the lodge and across the “road” that looks more like a groomed cat track, made entirely of snow that’s alternately packed and not so packed, and then up the snowmobile track that you used this time, no snowshoes necessary since you stuck to the trail, maybe half a mile all told from the warmth of the lodge and the bed that’s waiting for you at some indeterminate point in the future, and the ridge itself, the highest point on the hill, is maybe 400 feet long, completely exposed to the wind with the exception of the sheltered little area next to the rock outcropping on the east side where you’re currently standing, facing north and sheltered from the winds whipping in from the southeast. The entire landscape is spread out at your feet and covered in evergreen trees, sloping down from the high ground you and Steve are temporarily occupying on behalf of mankind: to the south is Fairbanks, even colder than where you are thanks to its inversion layer, throwing up its lights onto a small patch of the only clouds visible in the sky; to the east is the moon, illuminating the entire landscape enough that you don’t need the headlamp you have strapped to your head but casting in particularly stark relief a frozen river winding its way through a frozen river valley; to the west is the road that leads back to town; above you is a sky full of stars, somewhat inhibited by the brightness of the moon; and to the north, directly in front of you, is the hill on which the lodge sits, with the lodge and a few houses nestled on top of it…and above them in the sky is a faint green curtain of light, shifting in intensity as it sways slowly in the solar wind.

It starts out subtly, somewhere near the boundary between objectively observable reality and your mind’s ability to influence it, but after a minute or so it becomes clear that this is what you came for, a vertical slash of pale green light that a good photographer with a dSLR could coax and draw out and talk to, but all you have is your eyes, so you do what you can and meditate on the experience, the meaning of the light, both as an indicator of you getting what you wanted and as one of the invisible forces that protects us and shapes our lives regardless of whether we believe in it, and it shifts as you’re watching it, subtly, one vertical tendril becomes two, faint enough in the beginning that it could almost be a small patch of cloud that got lost somewhere in the night sky, but then it gets brighter, and a horizontal flourish fades slowly into existence, like God underlining the sky, if you believe in God, and it shifts almost imperceptibly slowly, changing intensity and shape and position for 10 or 15 minutes, the sun slow dancing with the earth, and then it fades and disappears and is gone from your world once more, your sacrifice accepted and your journey at an end.

And you and Steve wait for it for another 15 or 20 minutes, and then when his feet start getting cold you head back down the hill, go to sleep, and wake up this morning and start heading Seattle-wards, hoping to arrive in time to catch the 10:30 14/48 and wholeheartedly in love with the world.

An Ode to the Mayor’s Office

An Ode to the Mayor's Office

 

It was the last-minute In-N-Out Burger detour that pushed it over the edge, transformed the whole thing from a series of transactions progressing incrementally towards a final goal into a self-contained, pre-existing work of performance art that I arrived at by chipping away the temporal rock to uncover the experience waiting patiently at its core, letting myself be guided by some primal unseen current in the universe that might only have existed for the space of time that it took to hitchhike from Goleta to LAX or might have been waiting patiently for me to arrive since the day I was born; it’s impossible to tell.

The plan was perfect—5 days snowboarding with the family from a little cabin in Colorado, with two full days of train travel on either side, leaving Seattle the morning of the 20th  and getting back the night of the 30th, just in time to get a good night of sleep in my own bed and then come down to City Hall for one last ceremonial farewell to the Mayor’s Office. I knew I was taking a chance, that trains break down and kids put things on railroad tracks and mud occasionally slides across roads, but I liked the forced down time, the sense of separation and seeing familiar surroundings from a new perspective and having nothing to do but read and write and contemplate the interstitial space in which I’ve been floating for the last two months.

It was just past Ventura, heading up the coast, when we finally sidled up to the Pacific. This was what I’d been waiting for the entire trip, the space where the train runs by the Ocean for a few hours before it heads back inland, and it was like being reunited with an old friend, the sea from the coastal highway but without the need to keep my eyes on the road or test myself against its curves or skip the scenic viewpoints to prevent the RV from North Dakota from passing me up and erasing my hard-fought victory over it in a mountain turnout 10 miles back.

It didn’t last, of course; just past Goleta the train slowed to a stop, the power went out, and it eventually came to light that there had been some sort of serious explosion in the engine because of something on the track and that we were going to be towed back to the Goleta station to throw ourselves upon the vicissitudes of an outlying Amtrak depot on a Sunday.

At this point the trip up the coast lost its placid tone and became something else, the travel equivalent of improvised jazz, but I needed something more, a hard deadline against which to measure myself, something with the very real possibility of failure, so I checked my frequent flier mile balances, booked a flight out of LAX leaving in 4 ½ hours, grabbed the Timbuk2 bag that contained all my worldly possessions 9 years and 10 months ago when I put my thumb out for the first time in rural New Zealand, put on the successor to the original hat that protected my not-yet-bald head from the heat of the outback sun as I rode my downturned index finger all the way across Australia and then perished overboard my first night at sea on Ragtime in the middle of my first 12-4…and I started walking, connected viscerally to a part of myself that’s been long dormant and flexing unused muscles for the first time in a long time, making eye contact and smiling and projecting a sense that they were all going to stop while repeating my old familiar mantra, “all it takes is one.”

I picked up some early travel companions, four friends from the train who were renting a car from the Santa Barbara Airport and heading up the coast to San Jose that night, and I thumbed us a ride from a young Mexican guy in an old 4Runner who took us to SBA, where I tried without success to hitch from the intersection that led from the airport back to the main road while the travelers picked up the car and took a ride out to 101 with them instead as they pulled out to head for the coast.

There are all sorts of ways that I could describe what it felt like to hitchhike in this instance, but it’s probably easiest to break it down into its component elements: the feeling of being situated firmly outside the mainstream and approaching the system through its cracks, like being powerless and all-powerful simultaneously, a very specific feeling that I hadn’t had in a good long while; the time pressure a constant presence in your brain, keeping your heart rate elevated and your mind alert, and forcing yourself to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and absorb every beautiful moment of the experience as you’re having it, smiling and waving at every passing car and really meaning it as you watch the faces of the drivers going by, the momentary glimpses of people making a split-second connection with you as they drive by and smile, wave, or look straight ahead and roll up their passenger-side window at 50 mph; giving yourself until 5:00, it should take 2-3 hours depending on traffic and 7:30’s your target arrival time, that gives you an hour’s buffer to play with; and after Jason the massage therapist drops you off in downtown Santa Barbara in his old but very well-maintained Chrysler at 4:30 and the seventh Mercedes SUV drives by the highway onramp without looking you start calling the shuttle companies, one step away from admitting defeat, wondering if perhaps you should have just paid the shuttle at the airport the $108 out the door and taken an air-conditioned ride all the way in with three hours to spare,  it’s a holy number after all, but it’s a moot point because the shuttles are all leaving from the airport or they’re leaving too late to get you to the airport on time, and now it’s a choice between standing here on the side of the highway as the sun starts to carry your chances of getting a ride with it as it sinks below the horizon or calling a cab, surrendering completely and paying the $250 that every one has quoted to you, and as you’re having this conversation with yourself you see the beat-up old minivan taxi notice you and pull over, a husband and wife team rolling around looking for fares on a Sunday afternoon or maybe on their way to catch a movie downtown, and you walk up not expecting much and ask “How much to LAX?”, and Luis, as it turns out, says “$150”, and you say “Do you take credit cards?” and he smiles and nods, and you climb in, just past 4:30, and spend the next 2 ½ hours watching your life unfold like something in a smoky club down below the street, disconnected from who you are but with a rhythm and a logic all its own, and it’s beautiful. You joke and laugh with Luis and his wife, listening to them break Los Angeles drivers down by ethnicity and driving habits and talking about their kids, 20 and 22, the daughter a CNA like you were once after she couldn’t find work when she finished beautician school and Luis telling you about his recent diabetes diagnosis and his efforts to fight it by riding a couple of horses that they keep on a friend’s ranch an hour away and giving up tortillas, symbolic of everything that anyone ever enjoyed eating in the history of mankind, and when you stop an hour north of L.A. for gas his wife asks you about your family and tells you that she and Luis have both lost their mothers, too, and traffic’s light and you make good time and the city from the back of a minivan taxi, this minivan taxi, is almost overwhelming in its size but comforting somehow, you’re wrapped in familiar systems again, and it’s then that you think “In-N-Out Burger” and the oracle tells you that there’s one a mile from the terminal and you think “style points” and “can I take it with me through security” and you ask if you can stop but it’s not even a question, and the drive-through line’s around the block so they park and you jump out and wait the longest 10 minutes of your life for a double double with fries and a strawberry shake and part of you wonders if they’ll still be there when you go out but it’s a small part, and they are, and you make it through half the burger by the time you pull into Terminal 6 and Luis writes his phone number on the receipt, 805-722-7581, and you promise to call him if you ever need a taxi in Santa Barbara again at any point in the rest of your life and breeze into the airport just past 7:00 like you own the whole thing, with a grin on your face so big it almost doesn’t fit, and you finish the burger as the machine spits out your boarding pass and wolf down the fries and shed yourself of everything but your bag and the shake, which you finish and toss just as you come up to the TSA agent who’s guarding the gates like Charon guards the afterlife, and then he accepts your token and you’re through, it’s around 7:15 or so, and you’ve won, the performance has reached its climax, and you sit at the gate listening to happy music and watching the strangers dance to it as they file past and thinking about how everything’s connected, not at some mystical religious level but because we’re all made from the same basic collection of needs and wants and experiences, just arranged in different ways, and the culmination of the entire thing, the single spoonful of sumac-flavored ice slush that you have to show for it at the very end and that you’ll be able to think about and smile for the rest of your life, is a little kid, maybe 3 years old, running around with the complete joyous abandon that you outgrow somewhere around 5 or 6 probably, the kind of primal joy that exists somewhere before language and existential angst and worrying about love and money and all the rest, with his dad halfheartedly running after him, and you spend 5 minutes or so watching him and experiencing the exact same joy, direct from him to you, and then you take off your headphones and they’re calling for you to board, you’re in first class because that’s all they had, ironic somehow, and you bypass the line and sit down and it’s over, and you’re thinking in the mind’s own language still, pre-linguistic, but if you could translate it the thought might be something like “I’m one with the omnipresent joy and beauty that pervade every aspect of the visible universe,” the phrasing of which occurs to you when you wonder what you might tell a good friend who asked you how you were feeling, in this precise moment, but of course no one does, and you nod off to sleep, and then when you open your eyes you’re in friendly airspace, home.

*     *     *     *     *

Today’s my last day in the Mayor’s Office. Endings are important to me—the last job that ended on New Year’s Eve was my first job after college, precisely 10 years ago today, selling cars to finance something that started out as a daydream and slowly grew until it became a single-minded focus and then a real visceral thing roaming free upon the earth and feeling the sun on its back and the blood in its veins and then a story in which I located some essential version of myself and then eventually just 6 words, traveling around the world without flying.

When I pulled out of the parking lot of Millennium Ford on December 31st, 2003 and pointed my Civic south down the coast I slipped out of the city alone, without a going-away party, under a blanket of the only snow I’d seen in the city in my 17 months here; when I get up from my desk for the last time momentarily, put on the Timbuk2 that I’ve had for nearly 11 years now, and walk out of the office I’ll be walking into a city where my travel money—Cape Town to Jerusalem and across the Middle East and Central Asia and up through India into China and across the Trans-Siberian into St. Petersburg and Europe and then across the Atlantic on a tramp freighter or a yacht from Portugal to Brazil and down the east coast of South American and perhaps a 3-month jaunt on a Chilean naval vessel from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica and then back up the west coast, across the Panama Canal and the Darien Gap and up through Central America and back into my ancestral homeland until the end came, as I always imagined it, a phrase I don’t use much but that still holds a lot of power, “back into Texas on a Greyhound from Mexico”—my travel money became a down payment on my apartment four years ago, inaccessible to my wandering self, my way of doubling down but without the fries and shake, and I’ll grab some drinks with co-workers most likely and then go home and put something together for the potluck at 7 followed by dancing all night with close friends, friends who from a base of one of the most painful and traumatic things that’s ever happened to me in February of this year have helped me shape and form and create quite possibly the best year of my life, and that includes 24, the culmination of my travel impulse, which was basically me free upon the earth, rootless, with no debts to my name and an almost unimaginably, at the time, huge chunk of travel cash and nothing to do with the rest of my life but spend it however I wanted…and there are many things that I’ll miss about my time in the Mayor’s Office but this is the biggest one, difficult to translate like most feelings but it’s what’s at the heart of the way that I’ve grown inseparably close to Seattle over the course of my time here and the people I met and the community that I’m now a part of and the roots I’ve let myself put down.

I’m glad I made it back in time to say a proper good-bye. The ending, after all, is the most important part…so I’ll leave you with this video of a cute little puppy.

Have fun out there :)

Southern California

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En route to the coast, with Derek (not his real name) on his way to Tacoma next to me, young guy with Vibram 5-toes, and Sam (or hers) and Mary (or hers either) having a great conversation behind us, Sam a college student at SPU with big hippie dreadlocks, an aspiring psychopharmacologist with a deep and abiding love of Portland and all its various sister cities and Mary, older, a former hippie perhaps who now lives in Vancouver, bipolar, two women from opposite sides of the generational gap carrying on as natural as can be.

Southern California reminds me of DeLillo, Mary even talking about the bomb and the test sites in Nevada and which way the wind was blowing, linking it to autism rates in Orange County, and breakfast this morning was a brisket scramble at Nick’s Cafe in the shadow of Dodger Stadium, reading Underworld of course, with the pillow stacked on top of my Timbuk2 clearly marking me as a transient and 3 cops, regulars judging by their banter with the waitress, having breakfast at the end of the counter to my right:

  • An overweight trainspotter standing at the end of the Amtrak platform recording us on a small point & shoot as we pull out of Union Station.
  • The drainage (irrigation?) canals that run through the city, one with permanent water and trees growing in it and then suddenly the next one’s a road, filled with cars instead of water or lack thereof.
  • A huge, sprawling parking lot full of cars in various stages of injury and destruction.
  • Acres and acres of greens and trees and hoop-tented shade structures stretched out like barracks in neat little rows, the fruit and vegetable basket of America.
  • Passing north of the Hollywood hills and all of their amazing driving roads, permanently haunted by certain past and future versions of myself.
  • A big Community billboard in downtown L.A. and the attendant realization that this is the part of the world where movie stars live, like local gods of the land, drawn by the sunshine and the water and the legacy of past generations who were also drawn here by the sun and the sea, feeling hot already in your long-sleeved plaid shirt from REI that you put on in Albuquerque yesterday afternoon and looking forward to the Pacific, wanting to see it from the window of a train.
  • Roughly 30 minutes now, pulling into Oxnard, and a polite young man walks through the lounge car with a neon sign that says “Free Hugs,” smiling just awkwardly enough to be endearing.
  • The cute girls with the bicycles from the platform sitting across a table from each other chatting, late 20s or early 30s, like a scene from a Tarantino movie, and the one facing you glances up, smiles at you as you walk by, unpretentious with long black hair.
  • Following 1 up 101 now, the little inland juke between Malibu and Santa Barbara, a stretch of road that’s part of your world, familiar on some level.
  • And now you’re here, staring the Pacific Ocean straight in the face, or at least as much of it as fits between here and the horizon, with Catalina Island and a handful of cargo ships silhouetted against the boundary between the sea and the sky, or perhaps they’re oil rigs, it’s hard to tell, and it’s all yours until San Luis Obispo.
  • Strangers on a train

    Note: all names have been changed to protect the innocent :) 

    When I booked an Amtrak trip out to Colorado earlier this month I did it for two reasons: at that point a 15-day rail pass was cheaper than a flight, and I liked the idea of having two full travel days on either side of the family snowboarding trip to read, write, and relax. What I forgot, or perhaps just didn’t think about, was the fact that “the train,” as it’s referred to by its residents, is as much a temporary neighborhood as it is a mode of transportation, a loose and fleeting affiliation somewhat akin to the universal bond of the smoke break but on a larger scale, and with cramped necks and backs as side effects instead of bad breath and lung cancer. This is my attempt to capture a few of my more memorable companions for the Seattle to Sacramento leg of the trip.

    My seatmate, Tom, was the first to remind me of the social nature of trains, a big, swarthy Aussie who retired a few years ago as a police officer from the little town in the suburbs of Sydney that I got dropped off at by my first hitch in Australia in 2004 (a middle-aged guy who spent the 800km or so between Surfers Paradise and Newcastle telling me all about his detailed and very creative interpretation of Christianity). He was in the last three weeks of a 3-month cross-country tour, obsessed with America and exploring the country in little months-long bursts every couple of years or so, and his current destination was a week in a little cabin in the mountains around Salt Lake City with 6 friends. We swapped travel stories and talked about America (he thought it was a great travel deal and kept going on about how cheap everything was), retirement (his pension was enough for him to get by, but he still supplemented his income with odd jobs whenever he could; America was his only real travel destination, even within Australia, and he scrimped and saved to be able to afford his trips here), gun control (he couldn’t imagine being a cop in America and having to constantly worry about everyone you interact with having a gun; in Australia they’re so tightly regulated that the police actually go into peoples’ houses and inspect each one, assault rifles and handguns are illegal…and they have around 30 gun deaths per year, vs. our 35,000), mandatory voting (the fine’s around $90-100, so it’s easier just to vote than it is to pay it; he said some people cast a “donkey ballot” by signing in at the polls and then just tearing up their ballot, but most people take it seriously), Australian sovereignty (there was a referendum that narrowly failed last year or the year before that would have formally divorced Australia from the British monarchy and changed their parliamentary system of government to a more American one; he said the next time it goes to the ballot it’ll pass, just because the royalists are dying off and not being replaced), and my memories of Newcastle, which were mostly limited to the little movie theater where I saw The Barbarian Invasions and proving to myself that the pair of Eccos that preceded the one I have now, which were less than a week old at the time and would go on to last me until the end of the 2008 campaign, really were waterproof.

    Due to limited space you’re always seated with strangers in the dining car. Lunch on that leg was with Jose, a newly liberated (he preferred that to “retired”) jack of all trades who was now free to focus on his music and his art full-time and a proud grandfather with a wide girth and an easy laugh who fondly recalled seeing Willie Mays play at Candlestick Park once. With the help of his free flight credits during a stint working the ticket counter for United Airlines he’d fallen in love first with Canada and later with one of its female citizens, who coaxed him north from San Francisco 20 years ago after his first wife died, and he was en route from Vancouver to the bay area to visit his daughter and her family when we talked. He was diabetic, so he skipped dessert, and he gave me some bachelor food tips about making food in batches and snacking on fruits and vegetables whenever possible that came either from his present or his distant past, I wasn’t sure which. We talked about food (Christmas Eve dinner in his family is a huge feast of tamales that his daughter is probably working on right now; he also had some Native American ancestry, and he got excited when I told him about Off the Rez in Seattle), baseball (the 49ers’ last game at Candlestick Park is coming up tomorrow; his daughter wouldn’t get tickets, so they’re going to gather around and watch it on TV instead), his art (a newlywed couple on a train asked him for a poem once to prove that he was really a poet, so he made one up on the spot; the way he describes his life in Vancouver sounds a lot like a little slice of the West Village in the 60’s), and the importance of doing what you’re passionate about. Our conversation began with the two of us sitting across from each other in the dining car looking at our lunch menus and ended with his getting up to take a smoke break when we stopped somewhere around Olympia; the waitress who brought us the bill recognized him as one of the route’s seasonal regulars.

    Dinner was with Kate, 37 years old (it’s interesting how many people give their ages unprompted over the course of casual conversation with someone they’re probably never going to see again), two weeks out from having quit a job working for the Olympia transit authority and giving some serious thought to what she wanted to do next with her life en route to spending the holidays with her family in southern California. She had sprung for a sleeping compartment, and she told me that this was the only time she’d ever been unemployed in her adult life but that she felt it was worth the risk. She might want to go back and get a degree from The Evergreen State College next fall, but in the meantime she’s looking forward to concentrating on studying yoga and auditing a few classes. She carried herself like someone blinking into the light for the first time in a long time, finally unburdened and not quite sure what to do with herself yet but excited to figure it out.

    Maybe 10 minutes after I sat down with Kate at her table we were joined by an anonymous 31-year-old woman, warm and maternal, who’d moved to South Korea to marry a Korean man against her family’s wishes. She was en route to Klamath Falls with her incredibly cute 6-month-old son and her grandmother, a character of an old lady wearing an amazing crushed red velvet jacket and complaining loudly about how she couldn’t figure out how to turn the volume down on the new hearing aid she’d just gotten two days earlier. They were very different, the younger woman calm and quiet and the older woman direct and kind of self-consciously inappropriate, but they worked well together, and several times over the course of dinner the grandmother made an exaggerated comedic show of checking to make sure the baby (her 25th great grandchild, his mother informed us proudly) was still breathing. The grandmother lived in a small town outside of Olympia and the granddaughter lived in Ballard before she moved to Seoul and had spent the last four days back there visiting; we talked about all the new apartments in the neighborhood and discussed the challenges inherent in accommodating urban growth.

    When I went to the lounge car (big full-length windows lined with chairs facing out, plus a few tables for those who need to do work) to do some reading after dinner I inadvertently sat down in an area that had been turned into a makeshift bar by a couple of temporary train drinking buddies who reclaimed their seats shortly after I got there. One of them left after one drink, but I had a long conversation with the other one, John, a 67-year-old Vietnam vet and recently retired plumber with a huge nose, a buzz cut, and an ARMY t-shirt with whom I’d exchanged a few words back at King Street Station about the three different lines we had to wait in before we got on the train. Vietnam was the one thing he didn’t want to talk about; he only mentioned it to point out that all the men in his family for five generations, including his son, had fought in foreign wars, and when I said “Thank you, for what it’s worth” he laughed and said “Not much.” He was headed to Oceanside, CA to pick up his massively customized Ram 3500—$30,000 worth of modifications had taken it to 650 hp and 1140 lb ft of torque—and then further south, back to the little spot nestled in the mountains on the peninsula across the bay from Ensenada where his 26’ mid-60’s Airstream was currently parked; he told me that he’s usually intentionally very antisocial but that he makes an exception when it comes to talking to strangers on trains. A lot of our conversation was spent with him giving me accumulated wisdom from his life (don’t burn bridges you might need later; raising kids is the greatest thing you’ll do with your life; it’s hard to find intelligent people to talk to, so appreciate them when you do; don’t spend your life pursuing status for its own sake; and something very abstract about string theory and the nature of reality that I forget the details of), and when I told him that I’d majored in religious studies he asked me for some “pearls of wisdom” to match the ones he’d given me; I told him to always do what you feel is right and not worry too much about what other people think you should be doing, and he thought that was good. The huge lottery jackpot from a few days ago came up at one point, and when I asked him what he’d do with all that money, his answer came right away: a bigger trailer and a more powerful truck.

    Our rest stop at Klamath Falls was the period at the end of our conversation, and when I went outside for some fresh air I ended up getting into a snowball fight with Jenny (curly brown hair and a twinkle in her eyes) and Mary (more scholarly and reserved, with short hair and hipster glasses), two girls who were sitting behind John and me but who I hadn’t talked to until then. We were standing around by the train tracks next to a huge bank of freshly fallen snow together; I remarked that it would be a perfect time for a snowball fight, Jenny flashed a mischievous smile and said “Let’s do it!”, and for the next 10 minutes or so we ran around throwing snowballs at each other without gloves like a trio of ill-prepared kids whose parents are inside watching the game before the whistle sounded and we somewhat reluctantly got back on the train, where we added Jenny’s seatmate Celeste to our little group (each of us traveling alone) and talked ourselves to the brink of sleep, like old friends having a few after-dinner drinks except without the drinks, and me sitting sideways on my seat and peering back at them over my headrest. It was a great conversation that was all over the map but included Celeste’s inadvertently having had a long conversation with Francis Ford Coppola at a party in Napa before she realized who he was; the impact on artistic passions of needing to make money from them, and whether or not it’s worth it (general consensus: no); the process of losing loved ones to cancer (Jenny and I had had similar experiences, hers 10 years ago and mine just over 6); Christianity and its discontents; Jenny’s desire to make a living by crewing on yachts (I gave her a few tips from my experience); and her secret conviction that she was in fact on her way to Omaha to visit her brother’s girlfriend’s family for Christmas so that she’d be there when he proposed to her.

    It was a great way to close out my first full day riding the rails in a long, long time; I’m glad I picked the snowball fight :)

    Hunger vs. Routine

    Hunger vs. Routine

    I decided a few hours ago, at the decision point standing between me and lunch, that in honor of Thanksgiving tomorrow I would fast for the rest of the day today. It’s been years since the last time I fasted, but it’s something I used to do reasonably often in my mid-20’s; I’ve always been amazed by how much mental energy and focus I’m left with when I’m not structuring my day around eating, with all of the planning, preparation, and anticipation that it entails. Food is a perfect metaphor for the dichotomy of impulses that drives each of us forward over the course of our days and our lifetimes—hunger is at the root of why we eat, because when we don’t our bodies cry out and demand to be fed, but over time and with access to the resources we need to ensure that our needs are met, hunger is abstracted, translated from a burning necessity to a stylized routine that masks the biological impulse hidden underneath.

    Swap out food for love, or acceptance, or power, or any of the other impulses that define who we are as humans and how we interact with each other and with the world around us, and the same pattern emerges—what grows out of hunger eventually ends in routine, given enough resources. Both have their place, and in many ways the ability to rise above our basic biological urges is the most fundamental aspect of our shared humanity. We love pets because they have no sense of routine; everything is new and fresh and exciting to them, and we live vicariously through their hunger for the world as it is and for us as we are, unencumbered by a sense of what could be instead. It’s the same reason that children hold some inherent appeal to all of us, too, I think; being a child is all about satisfying hunger, living with it and reveling in it and suffering from it, being wholly subject to its whimsical ups and downs, and only slowly, over time, learning to master our desires and translate them into routines that allow us to exist in the world, exoskeletons through which we harvest our needs from the vast, overwhelming world that our commingling impulses have created.

    But we all have our hungers driving us on, hidden perhaps but undiminished, needing only a sharp break in routine, a chink in the exoskeleton, to be exposed to the light of day—not eating for 24 hours, a breakup, a layoff, a death in the family, a note of rejection from a publisher or a college or a romantic interest. I often find myself longing for renewal through hunger, wanting to feel more fully the animal fire that comes from being wholly present in and committed to a given moment, naked and exposed and stripped of all my accumulated defenses, whether that means being onstage pitching an idea at SocEnt Weekend, cradling a beloved partner in my arms, or standing by the side of the road in Australia with all my worldly belongings waiting for a stranger to stop and give me a ride.

    It’s a theme that I encountered very strongly on a hike this past summer and that’s been rolling around in my head ever since, especially as I stand now looking out at the end of one of my current routines and contemplating what’s going to replace it—what my needs are and how best to fulfill them, which impulses I want to feed and which ones I have to learn to let go of. I’ve been meditating again recently, for the first time in 11 years, and it’s been immensely helpful in getting me to communicate more directly with my self, sneaking past the heuristics that have come to define my life and the way I interact with the world and questioning the assumptions on which they’re based.

    One thing I’ve realized, viscerally, only very recently is that my deeper, slower moving, more fulfilling needs have a tendency to be superseded by quicker, more immediate impulses. I’m in the midst of intentionally reprogramming my daily routines to help me slow down and focus on the things that really matter to me, not just the ones that are clamoring most loudly for my attention; it’s been a fascinating journey so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me over the course of the coming months.

    I’m also looking forward to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of my trip across the Pacific on the Direct Tui in late January of next year and considering how I want to commemorate it, how best to use it as an inflection point to feed the impulses that I want to see grow and prune back the ones that are primarily distractions. When I left Seattle behind 10 years ago I left my routine behind completely, gave myself over entirely to hunger and ate my fill out on the open road. Those days are behind me—my wanderlust is just one voice among many now, but there’s some truth left in it, and if I concentrate I can still smell the clean, salty air from a ship out beyond the horizon; still taste a freshly picked New Zealand Royal Gala in my hand on a lunch break with Absalom, Absalom! from the night before rumbling through my head, sitting on the ground next to my picking bucket and my ladder; still see the faint outline of the Durban skyline through the early-morning fog as a pod of dolphins guides us to into the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent from the open sea; still hear the sound of the keas fighting over feijoas fresh off the tree on Great Barrier Island in the morning while the world is still waking up; still feel the full force and fury of the Indian Ocean trying in vain to dash Ragtime to bits and take the four of us to our watery graves just south of Madagascar.

    There’s something primal in each of those memories, something that still calls to a part of me that doesn’t get let out to play nearly as much as he used to, and it’s that interplay that’s on my mind right now—hunger vs. routine, play vs. work, freedom vs. stability, and how to incorporate both sides, balance yin with yang to create the life I want to live and have the impact I want to have on the world and the people around me.

    With that said, I’m thankful that going without food is something I’m able to do voluntarily, that it’s a meditation for me instead of a built-in part of my daily routine. If you’re like me and you’re planning on spending tomorrow feasting with friends and family, consider making a contribution tonight to Northwest Harvest or the Union Gospel Mission.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    On letting go

    A strong theme for the past two weeks has been letting go of things that it doesn’t do me any good to hold onto anymore. Holding on too long is a bad habit that I inherited from my mom, who would only get rid of a lot of things under duress—to give you an idea of the persistence of this habit, even though I could probably count on one hand the number of arts & crafts projects I’ve done since I graduated from college, to this day I have a phantom urge from my childhood to save all sorts of packaging and other recyclables on the off chance that I might use them in an arts & crafts project someday. It’s the same urge that drives me to obsessively label and archive far more emails than I actually need to save, on the off chance that the information might someday be useful (“But what if I’m running a campaign someday and I actually WANT to go back through and read all of the 2012 national campaign emails that I automatically archived when I got them the first time?”, the voice in my head asks).

    The realization that it’s something I need to work on isn’t new; it’s a recurring theme in my journals that I’m always reminded of every time I go back and re-read them, and I even have a convenient mental image that I use to remind myself that the best moments of my life have been times when I let go and allow myself to be fully present in the moment: the first time, as a beginning snowboarder, that I stopped clinging to my comfort zone by zigzagging down the bunny slope on my heel side, turned toeside, and trusted my instincts. I fell down a lot more, but I also fell in love with the sport. Improv has been an exercise in getting out of my head and being more present in the moment, too, although it’s very much a road I’m still walking down.

    There have been two big things that I’ve been holding onto this year: the significant portion of my self-identity for the past four years that’s been derived from my job in the Mayor’s Office, and the ring from my broken engagement earlier this year. Getting rid of the ring, interestingly enough, was a gateway to realizing what I needed to do to mentally make space for whatever chapter is going to come next in my life after last Tuesday’s election results.

    In order to understand my attachment to this ring, you have to understand that aside from my journals it was the most precious object that I’ve ever owned or created. The stone was a rough yellow American diamond from Crater of Diamonds State Park, which I’d visited with my family as a kid in Texas, that I spent 4 months hunting for; and I spent 6 months or so painstakingly designing the ring with a local jeweler (Cindi from Goldmine Designs down by Pike Place—I can’t recommend her highly enough if you’re looking for any kind of custom jewelry), did the casting myself, and hand-engraved an inscription around the inside of the band. When I held the finished product in my hand it was the first time in my life that I understood the plot device from Lord of the Rings whereby Sauron endows each ring with part of his power and essence. This object was the physical manifestation of our relationship in a very real way for me, and the moment that I had it back in my possession was the moment when the breakup truly became real to me.

    In the beginning I kept it around so I’d have it on hand whenever I needed to sneak past my emotional defenses and just break down and cry, but as the months wore on I looked at it less and less and came up with excuses for not getting rid of it: maybe I can use it to propose to someone else someday (I was quickly disavowed of this notion by every woman I consulted on the subject), maybe I’ll put it up for consignment (no market for such a unique ring, according to Cindi; melting the gold down for scrap and keeping the stone would have been my best bet, but I didn’t like the idea of converting such a precious object into money anyway)…but I think underlying everything was the fact that there was still a lot that I’d liked about the relationship of which it was a symbol, and the reason the memories it brought back were so painful was that looking at it reminded me of a specific, happy period of my life that’s now gone forever.

    I probably would have kept it around indefinitely simply as a talisman, a reminder of a bygone time, if not for a friend’s Facebook post last week. Someone had broken into my friend’s friend’s car in California and stolen a lot of very personal items from her backpack, including a laptop, several of her journals…and the engagement ring that she had been planning on surprising her partner with. My brain made the decision to offer her my ring before my heart fully caught up with it, but in the instant that the idea occurred to me I knew it was the right thing to do, for her and me both. I wrestled silently with the decision for almost a week before I finally dropped it off at FedEx yesterday morning on the way to work, and over the course of the last week I reclaimed whatever energy I had invested the ring with to make room for it to bond with its new owner. The last time I saw it it was just another object, nothing more, and the feeling of having successfully let it go was so powerful it was almost addictive.

    The ring in its final state is pretty much how I’ve seen every job I’ve ever had before this one—just a job, nothing more. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it or how much I learned from it, no other job has ever informed my identity the way that working in the Mayor’s Office has—Seattle is a completely different city for me now than it was when I set foot in City Hall for the first time in January of 2010, and my relationship to it has in large part been defined by the work that we’ve done over the course of the past four years. Realizing that I’m going to have to redefine that relationship in some fundamental ways was the biggest emotional impact of Election Night; I knew there was a real possibility that we’d lose, but I’d only prepared emotionally for winning the election, so the past two weeks have been largely about processing not only what I’ll be doing after December 31st (I have a couple of irons in the fire, but I could always use more; please pass along any leads you think I’d be interested in) but also what my relationship to the city of Seattle will be, both in the general sense and in the local government sense.

    I’ve realized in the process something that was crystallized through a great conversation with a friend last night—that once I can let go of my desire for the safety and security and order and all the rest that working for the City entails, there are astonishingly few restrictions on what I can choose to do with myself now. Anytime in my life that I’ve spent a long period of time in one specific context (college, job, city, etc) I’ve found it useful to get outside that particular worldview for a bit and give myself some time to decompress and achieve equilibrium before I start into my next venture; in my younger days that would involve long road trips and extended overland travels, whereas now it might just mean a few weekend trips and carving out more free time to reflect and think things through with good friends. I know that I’m definitely staying in Seattle, but otherwise the sky’s the limit.

    Or, in my internal language, I need to learn to turn toeside and trust my instincts again, to give up some safety in exchange for my next spark…even if it means getting burned along the way.