2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for my blog. I was really active while I was on the road on my bicycle. I’ve been pretty sporadic since. I intend to write more frequently in 2015. Perhaps I can fill the Phoenix a few more times.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Livia & Steve Russell upper stage at the Phoenix Theatre holds 135 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a play at the Phoenix, it would take over 81 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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You Can Only Find it if You Look

Susie and I went to see Wild today. It’s the new movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Carol Slayed in the true story of her solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail. The story resonated with me because I kept relating her experiences with similar experiences I had while cycling cross country. I loved the movie but realize I’m biased by my recent adventure. Susie liked it too, so I guess it is a good movie.

An experience like this definitely changes a person. I believe each one of us has some experience that we can benefit from having. For me it was the bike ride. For others it’s a long hike, or a meditation retreat, or an Ironman. I don’t know how many experiences qualify. It has to force you to be alone with yourself for an extended period of time. You’ll be forced to use some of that time to get to know yourself, and then you’ll be forced to wrestle with things about yourself that you try to ignore most of the time. And finally, if it’s the right experience, you’ll have to forgive yourself (and others). From that moment on, you’ll be a noticeably different person.

I have a great neice, Vivian. She’s about two years old. She has never liked me. If I’m in the same room, she runs to hide behind someone else. If I talk to her she starts to frown. If I touch her, she screams inconsolably. On Christmas, I was sitting at the table when Vivian and her mother arrived at my sister’s. I called out to her from across the room so she would be sure to notice I was there and could maintain enough distance for her own comfort. Vivian ran acros the room with her arms wide open and jumped into my lap. She gave me a kiss and began to babble at me in her two year old language. The room went completely silent, which is a neat trick with my family. Vivian and I get along swimmingly now.

The next day, I went with Susie to feed Nike, the Helmuth’s rather anti-social cat. In the entire time they’ve had Nike, he’s never stayed in the same room with me. In fact, he wouldn’t even stay on the same floor of the house. This time, he ignored Susie and came over to rub against my leg. He let me reach down to pet him for a moment.

These two events reminded me of something my Big Mama used to tell me: Babies and animals are excellent judges of character. I don’t know if I ever believed that statement, but the response I got from Vivian and Nike made me feel like whatever changed in me when I was on the road has become permanent to some degree. A big enough degree that the babies and animals can tell.

I enjoy the world so much more now. It was during the movie that I realized what it is. I have been telling people that I discovered during my ride that I liked me. Actually it was during my ride that I found the strength to forgive myself, and that allowed me to forgive others. Now instead of collecting and cataloging grievances, I spend more time noticing good and beauty all around me. You can only find it if you look.

My Search for a Path

PathGrowing up I was always one of those people who had a plan. I never realized it until recently. My plans were the kind that consultants call “100,000 Foot Plans.” In the Air Force they described these as “Commander’s Intent.” I think most of you would define them as dreams rather than plans. They didn’t have specific steps as much as they had general outcomes. But nonetheless I had them, and over the years many of them came to pass without me ever getting to the specific steps. I like to think that I handed them off to my subconscious and it went to work while I did other things.

In the past 16 months since I quit working, I haven’t really had any semblance of a plan. I have greeted each day with wonder about what might happen. I’ve given a speech in Maui. I’ve ridden across the country. I’ve done some coaching. I’ve read and written a lot. I’ve shared my experiences with a lot of people.

Recently I’ve been reading heavier books. A year of fiction novels gave me a desire for something meatier. The last couple of books I read have been rather philosophical. In the most recent, Waking Up by Sam Harris, a phrase caught my attention:

We need not come to the end of the path to experience the benefits of walking it.

That captured what’s been going on with me lately. I’m just experiencing the benefits of walking my path. I don’t know where it’s leading me, but I’m enjoying the stroll, and the people with whom I’m strolling.

Define Yourself

Fourteen months have passed since I last worked full time. Everybody around me told me that I wouldn’t last six months before I was going crazy and had to jump back into something. Most were sure I’d start another business. A few thought I’d rest in corporate America for a while. None thought I’d be content to remain gainfully unemployed.

At the six month point, I was in the middle of training for my cross country bike ride. The thought of finding work never entered my mind. People told me the bike ride was a distraction, but I’d still be jonesing for a job once I got back. Not so much.

One of the things I discovered during my 45 day ride is that society puts a huge effort into defining us. Marketers tell us how much happier we’ll be when we own a new whatever, or how sated the new burger will make us, or how we’ll never find our soulmate unless we wear their clothing. Our family and friends also have definitions for us. These are usually less manipulative, but forceful nonetheless. They want us to be the person they need us to be. Oftentimes we are that person, which is why we are a part of their lives. Often we force ourselves to be that person just like we buy the whatever or eat the burger or wear the clothes.

The corollary to the societal defining forces is you. You should be the person who defines you. I have had several conversations with myself in which I challenged my happiness without a job. If everyone tells me that I should be miserable without work, then what is wrong with me that I’m not?

Zig Ziglar called that Stinkin’ Thinkin’. I decided to write my own definition of me. That definition includes my being able to be happy without working for money. I’m not just sitting around wasting my time, or hiding my candle under a bushel. I just fast-forwarded to my end game. I’ve become the Mexican fisherman. And you can too.

I’m not suggesting that you quit working and start doing the things I do. I’m suggesting, imploring, that you define yourself instead of letting others do it for you. You might find that leads to more fulfillment without changing anything about your life but your attitude. You might find yourself riding a bicycle across the country.

The Mexican Fisherman

Mexican FishermanAn American tourist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.

The tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

“Not very long,” answered the fisherman.

“But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the tourist.

The fisherman explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

The tourist asked, “But what do you do with all your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs…I have a full life.”

The tourist interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers.

“Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant.

“You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City! From there you can direct your huge enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the fisherman.

“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the tourist.

“And after that?”

“Afterwards? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the tourist, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can sell your stock and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that — and this is the best part — you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, catch a few fish, take a siesta, and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends!”

It’s Whatever You Think It Is

Windshield bugThere’s an old joke that goes, “What’s the last thing that goes thru a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield?” His ass!

I thought of that joke (I’m not totally sure why) as the clock chimed 2:00. You see, about a week ago, I threw my back out. It’s something that happens once or twice a year, usually caused by an insignificant movement on my part. It’s been happening for several years now so I’ve come to understand that it will leave me in intense pain for 7 days. Since I did it last Friday while painting the basement of my house that was supposed to have already been sold AS-IS, I knew that it was around 2:00 when it happened. A couple of days ago I told Susie that I’d be completely recovered at 2:00 today.

When the clock struck 2:00, I thought of the joke about the bug. You see, his ass may have been the last thing to go thru his mind, but he had full control of his last thought (if you’ll allow me to anthropomorphize the little fella). And thoughts are powerful things that we often forget to take seriously until it’s too late.

Henry Ford is most often credited for saying, “Whether you think you are creative or not, you’re right.” A lot of things about us fit into that sentiment. Maybe most things do. I’m not talking about that whole Rhonda Byrne Secret thing. You aren’t going to make anything significant happen without putting in the hard work. But if you don’t start with the right thinking, the hard work won’t be enough.

My niece started blogging this week. Her first post was titled Lost on the Road to Should. In it, she hints at this same concept. We can spend our lives thinking about what we should do. All of us have had those times in our lives where we stopped thinking about what we should be doing and focused instead on what we want to be doing, or even better, on what we are doing. These are the times when we feel most alive. Can you feel me?

Zig Ziglar used to talk about getting rid of that stinkin’ thinkin’! He said we needed a checkup from the neck up. The man was incredibly corny, but his words contained powerful wisdom. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one can help you get where you want to go. And believing in yourself starts with the thoughts you have about yourself and your situation.

I believe that’s the primary difference between people who grow up in hard times who make their way out of them and those that don’t. It’s easier to blame your surroundings for your situation. But it’s not right to do so. You have to own your piece of it and do something about it. When we circle up at the beginning and end of our Back on My Feet runs, we say the Serenity Prayer. Now those of you who know me know that praying isn’t a common activity for me. But the Serenity Prayer holds the key to moving forward. It is my checkup from the neck up.

So that poor little bug, when he realized that he was unavoidably going to meet his doom, could have had his last thought be one of woe for his predicament, or, since the end would be the same, he could have gone out thinking what a wonderful time he’d had while he was here.

And me. I’ve spent all week sitting on my couch reading good books and watching bad movies. I’ve done rounds on the heating pad until I started to believe I was some of Arby’s brisket, approaching my 13 hours in the roaster. I’ve been to my acupuncturist, and my wife has massaged Deep Blue into me each night before bed. I’ve done the work. It’s past 2:00, and I’m recovered. The declaration I made a few days ago didn’t make my back better, but it set the expectation in my mind for when it would be. I don’t plan to go for a run or a long bike ride tomorrow, but I won’t spend the day sitting on the couch watching bad movies and reading good books. I’ll go back to my normal routine.

What about you?

Why I Run

Damon on the runI was reading Chrissy Vasquez’s latest blog post today. I was moved by her honesty and I really wanted to hug her by the time I finished. Toward the end of her post, she talked about experiencing the runner’s high for the first time. I can’t tell you that I remember my first time, but I can assure you that had I never experienced the runner’s high I would have abandoned running a long time ago. There are less difficult ways to get exercise. Look at that face in the photo! Does that look like I’m having fun?

The fun of running, besides being able to eat anything I want, is what happens in my head when I’m out on the streets. If you’ve never experienced it, there is no way for me to describe it that will be meaningful to you. Suffice it to say that I’m willing to wear that face over there in public several times a week in order to have that experience for a few moments during the run. 

I experienced this mental state for the first time outside of running during my bike ride across the country. As I pedaled along on a back country road one day, I suddenly realized that I had covered nearly 30 miles without noticing anything. Then that feeling poured over me as I realized that I had been in the zone for a very long time, longer than I could possibly stay there when running. I now find that I can get there on my bicycle, but not reliably. I haven’t figured out the conditions that create the atmosphere for me to get there on the bike. But when I run…

As long as I’m running alone and not racing or having to pay attention to my route, I can slip into the zone sometime during the second half mile of a run. I can stay there for 15 or 20 minutes. I don’t know what brings me out. I haven’t been able to return during the same run, which is why I hate when external things like cars or dogs snap me out. 

I have done most of my running this year with Back on My Feet. As a result, I’ve missed those moments in my special state of mind. I ran solo on Sunday morning, and it wasn’t until I read Chrissy’s post that I realized what was so great about that morning run. 

I chase that state of mind in lots of ways. I think I have brief periods during meditation. If I could practice Tai Chi enough, I think there’s a chance to have a group version of the experience. I’ll find the conditions required to get there on my bike now that I know it is possible. Wherever I find it, I’ll savor it. But for now, that’s why I run.

How Often Do You Notice What’s Missing?

Lake MichiganI meditate for 20 minutes most mornings right after I get out of bed. I sit in my ugly brown La-Z-Boy recliner and practice mindful meditation using Insight Timer. This morning I got up and went for a run first thing. It was the first solo run I’ve had this year. When I got back, I was too hot and sweaty to sit in my La-Z-Boy, so I sat in a lawn chair on the deck to meditate. That’s when it hit me that something was missing — silence!

I love living downtown. It’s walkable. It’s vibrant. The neighborhoods are more like the one I grew up in. But downtown is never quiet. Over time, we all become accustomed to the noise and don’t notice the trains, and traffic, and sirens, and animals and insects that create the background noise to our lives. Sometimes though, I get a sudden feeling that something is missing. When I have the time to consider the thought I can often come up with what it is. That feeling led me to realize that I’ve been missing silence. Then all of the silent moments I had during my 45 days riding across the country went flashing thru my mind. I really missed the silence then.

All of this is a long way to say that there are often things missing in our lives that have  been missing for so long that we can’t identify what they are. We just recognize a feeling of loss that seems generic. There are no generic losses. If you’re missing something, it is something specific. Examine that feeling. Sit with it in a quiet place — as quiet as you can find anyway. When the loss becomes more specific, follow it. Find out when and where you lost it. Then go back there, even if it’s only in your mind. Revisit what you’ve lost. Just like I went out and found some silence.