A Brief Epitaph For A Friend

A friend of mine passed away this weekend.  He was young, smart, accomplished, and a genuinely good person.  I will miss him, as I have missed all those who have gone before him.  I feel selfish writing this, but he always told me how much he enjoyed my writing, so it feels like a fitting tribute.  I have been out of practice with longform writing, but I will do my best to string together a few words for someone who I will miss dearly.

Death is a part of life  We are all born, and we all die, it is what we do in the middle that makes the difference.  Some of us leave behind towering monuments, or massive changes to the world, but a vast majority change the worlds of people in our immediate circle.  In my opinion it is the magnitude of the small impacts that truly define who we are.  World leaders can fall, celebrities can overdose, business titans can die, and while we may feel sympathy we don’t hurt as much as having a loved one pass away.  When someone dies before their time it feels like an even more significant tragedy, especially when that person is so full of promise.

I hate the idea of death inflation.  When an acquaintance dies he becomes your friend, when your friend dies he becomes your best friend, when someone who you used to know well dies he becomes like a brother to you.  I will strive to be realistic.  He was a friend of mine.  We were never in school at the same time, we didn’t hang out often, I didn’t share many hardships with him or call him up when I was facing despair.  But we texted occasionally, happy birthdays and look forward to seeing you soons.  We tracked each other’s lives through Facebook and stole off when we were in a group to have deep conversations about philosophy and life.  He was hands down one of the smartest people that I knew, and had that wonderful weirdness that the brilliant often have.  He was a delightful person.

Years ago I set a goal to run a 5k and one of my friends was going to run it with me but had to back out.  I put up a post and within seconds he responded.  Even though he was an accomplished runner he wanted to join me on a measly 5k at my turtle’s pace.  We didn’t really know each other at the time, I knew him as an awkward gangly kid who always stood on the outside of every group.  He came to Vermont the night before and we spend several hours just talking and telling stories.  I found that he was incredibly smart, well spoken, and wise well beyond his years.  It was a really fun time, and I am glad that I got the chance to share it with him.  As I started doing comedy he followed along religiously, always asking for new jokes and giving encouragement.  He made me feel like I was doing something special, and that I was making a difference.

This Saturday a large group of us got together.  Young, old, from all different backgrounds, from across the country, people who have no right being friends, but who are bound together by the fact that when we were 18 or 19 we all decided to join the same fraternity.  We rented a bar and got drunk together.  We sang songs and told stories and ate chicken wings.  It was a good time.

As I was walking through the crowd one of the guys who I have known for almost a decade grabbed my arm and said “I love what you put on facebook” and I said thanks, because it is something that I get often and kind of makes me feel uncomfortable.  He would not let me brush it off, he grabbed both my arms and looked me in the eyes and told me that one day when he was thinking about committing suicide one of my posts made him reconsider.  It shook me.  I have been friends with this guy for years, and the thought that one of the inconsequential things that I posted out of boredom kept him alive was powerful.  We looked at each other with tears in our eyes and hugged.  He was not the person who died.

Later that night the reality and the alcohol hit me.  I sat on the front steps of my college and thought deeply.  I confronted my own feelings of insignificance and accepted that I made a huge difference in the life of someone who I care about.  And true to form I put it out on Facebook.  Little did I know that as I was smugly basking in my own relevance someone else who I cared about was leaving this life.

Ever since I found out about the loss on Sunday morning I have been beating myself up.  I should know better, I should have done something, I should have asked why he wasn’t there with all of us.  But in reality there is nothing that I could have done.  I spend a lot of time thinking about death, rationalizing, reading philosophy, trying to understand what it means or if it means nothing at all.  I have spent months carrying around a coin emblazoned with Memento Mori to remember that death will happen and to make the best out of life without getting too big headed.  But when death hits my circle I fly off the handle just like everyone else.

But now I promise to do better.  I promise to make the best of the time that I have and to help others to make the best of their lives.  I hope to make a difference so that others don’t have to feel the way I feel now.  I used to think that death was easy, a way out, but after burying too many of my friends I know that it is the worst option not only for myself but for everyone around me.  Now that I have another grave to stand by I can’t bear the thought of making others feel that way.  So even though he is gone, I will do my best to live up to his expectations and to make a difference.  In the meantime all I have are happy memories to look back on.

I can’t remember where we were, but I know we were dressed up and in good spirits, it was probably a wedding.  I saw a group of the younger guys and headed over to say my hellos.  There were the normal hugs and back pats, exchanges of pleasantries and good natured ribbing.  He was standing on the edge of the group, as was his way, and when he made his way to me I pretended that I didn’t know him.  I pulled the old “I think I remember you but what is your name again” joke and he fell for it hook line and sinker.  There was terror in his eyes, like me not remembering him was the worst thing in the world, but he reacted by earnestly trying to introduce himself to me again.  I must have tipped my hand in some way and he realized that I was pulling his chain and a great big smile spread across his face as he came in to give me a big hug with all his might.

He should have known better than to fall for it, I could never forget him.

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Book Report: Please Kill Me

I read a lot of books, I might as well try to pass along a few things.

pkm

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
20th Anniversary Edition, originally published 1996

I have always been a fan of punk music, but for me it was about experiencing the music rather than the history.  I think that we all have encountered that music snob who is always looking down their nose at others for not knowing the most obscure bands or the detailed evolution of music, and I never wanted to be that guy.  I suppose that in my own snobbish way I looked down on a lot of early punk bands because they lacked the defined style that came once the genre was established.  The Clash have always been one of my favorite bands, but I really never spent time exploring any of the other bands of their era.  As I get further removed from my own punk rock days I find myself less interested in new bands and more interested in the bands that came before my era. This book was one of my first forays into the history of punk, and I doubt that it will be my last.

I came to this book through an interview with the authors on WTF with Marc Maron, and it was such a good interview that I needed to immediately purchase the book and then store it on my shelf for several months.  Once I finally got around to reading it I had trouble making it through the first few chapters.  The authors assume a base level of knowledge that I did not posses, but eventually through using the glossary cast list and Wikipedia I was able to wrap my mind around the insanely large cast of characters.  We like to think of the start of a musical period as a clean origin, the Beatles coming to America, or the launch of MTV, but the punk scene grew out of an avant garde art scene and it took a meandering path picking up momentum as it went.  It didn’t even have a name, it was just a change in they type of music being played until assuming the mantle from Punk! Magazine in the late 70s.

Part of the reason why the book was so hard to get into was it’s writing style.  It is an oral history and the words come directly from interviews with the subjects of the book.  It would spend a paragraph quoting an interviewee, then another paragraph quoting another’s feelings on the same subject providing a rounded narration through the eyes of the scene rather than a single viewpoint.  This fabulous cast of characters included musicians, artists, groupies, drag queens, music producers, label executives, managers, roadies, and bar owners who each had their own history and stories that made the book seem almost as disjointed and disparate as early punk music was.  The stories ranged from sweet to gross, detailing relationships, drug use, sexual experimentation, jail terms, commercial failures, deaths, and the general disorder and disarray that punk came to symbolize.  The benefit of the disjointed oral history was that if something was too much for me or too boring I would just need to wait a few pages and it would change to a different topic and a whole new viewpoint.

I had always viewed the old school punk scene as an exciting but gross period in time.  Starting to listen to music in the sanitized world of Good Charlotte pop punk and Hot Topic fashion I always looked down at the gutter punk world.  Even as I evolved and got into darker and more underground punk I was always attracted to the music and the attitude rather than the lifestyle.  Maybe it is because I am a clear and admitted poseur, but I find nothing appealing about squatter housing and shared needles.  It is shocking to read through the list of characters in the revised 20th anniversary edition and see how many of them are dead.  Overdoses, murders, hepatitis, suicide, AIDs, and various ailments of hard living decimated this group.  A majority would have been in their late 50s or 60’s, but many of them never made it that far.  It is sad to look at their fate, an entire generation of musical icons dead and gone with nothing but their legacy remaining.

This book did nothing but reinforce the fact that the early punk scene is something fun to look at but wouldn’t have been my cup of tea.  Once I got used to the choppy flow I was able to get into the story, piece together the events, and discover a whole new world that existed beyond the scope of the few main characters that I knew.  I have recently found myself listening to a lot of music from that period and feeling a whole new connection to a lot of bands that I wouldn’t have know beforehand.  It challenged my view of the narrative that we have been fed that certain types of music spring fully formed into the world and showed me that no matter how revolutionary an idea may be there is a slow creep of ideas and sounds that allow a revolution to start.  It also reinforced my view that heroin is bad.

You should read it if: You are curious about the roots of punk rock, or are interested in the idea of New York in the 70’s.

You shouldn’t bother if: You don’t have enough imagination to piece together a story of unseen and unknown characters with little information.

Biggest regret about this book: That I never went to CGBG’s or saw any of these bands perform live.

This book inspired me to: Listen to more early punk, think about other narratives of this era (i.e. thinking about reading We Got The Neutron Bomb and the photo biography of the Clash that has been my coffee table book for years), and rewatch HBO’s Vinyl which fictionalized this period in the NYC music video.

My Final Take: It was a worthwhile read, but probably not something that I will revisit.  It opened my eyes to a different world, and my ears to a more raw sound.  Hard to get into, but then hard to put down.  3.5 stars.

A Moment of Clarity: The Sobruary Effect

For the past few years I have participated in a tradition that I called Sobruary.  During those 28 (potentially 29) days I would take a break from alcohol and try to find some balance in my life.  I sold it to myself as a way to kill my tolerance, test my resolve, work my way through some issues, kickstart my spring fitness goals, and reassess what really matters to me.  It was a successful event for the past 3 years, but I have gotten to the point where I have outgrown it.  Even though I am not participating in Sobruary this year I still feel the need to write about it as I have done in the past.

Sobruary grew out of need, and was one of the trials that I feel put me on the right path.  During the winter of 2013/14 I was dealing with a lot of personal problems and tragedy and was feeling depressed.  I wasn’t happy with how things were going in my personal life, or at my new job, and how the world was unfolding around me, plus dealing with the loss of some people who I felt close to.  I was also really getting into the world of craft beer and would celebrate that by coming home from work and drinking 5 Heady Toppers by myself in my living room on a work night just because I could.  After going on a vacation where I spent far too much time bouncing between being too drunk to function and too hung over to function I felt the need for a change.  And Sobruary was born.

It was a huge challenge, but it put me on the right path, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence that over the next year I started working out, performing comedy, and writing more consistently.  Sobruary gave me that moment of clarity that many addicts talk about, where they realize what they are doing to themselves and how they can change it.  To be clear I am not an alcoholic, I have no physical or mental dependency, but I do have a bit of a social dependency where I feel much more comfortable with a drink in my hand.  This is in probably due to how I was raised, the people that I surround myself with, and my own personal preferences and social anxieties.  I rarely “need” a drink, but I often “want” a drink, and using a period of abstinence like Sobruary makes it clear that it is a choice, and if allowed me to identify the other choices that I make.

The next two years were actually harder than the first Sobruary.  I had less conviction in the mission.  I knew that it worked and was beneficial, but because I wasn’t in such a dark place personally I didn’t feel that sense of urgency that I had felt the first time.  I was also performing during those years so I was around much more temptation.  I have the utmost respect for the comics I work with who are in recovery, spending night after night in bars surrounded by temptation is a huge challenge when things are going well, but if you are having a bad day or have just bombed it feels impossible.  By this point I was also getting a lot of pushback from some of my friends who didn’t see the point in my social experiment.  If alcohol is a focal point for many of your relationships, it is hard to overcome that when you aren’t drinking.  This really put things in perspective for me about how I reacted and interacted with friends who have entered recovery or tried moving toward a sober lifestyle.  These conflicts gave me some great insights and have helped shape the decision that I made a few weeks ago that I would not be participating in Sobruary.

Right now I my relationship with alcohol is probably the healthiest it has ever been.  I drink, and I drink often, but I very rarely drink to excess.  I have cut down on the obsession about finding the rarest or hardest to find beer and stepped away from the need to “Catch ’em all.”  Drinking is part of the experience, and that experience no longer feels mandatory.  If I feel like having a beer or visiting a brewery I do it, if I don’t then I don’t feel bad about it.  I stopped shipping or “muleing” beer for all but my closest friends, and even then it is not trades, but sharing with people I care about.  I still am on a first name basis with a dozen or so Burlington bartenders, and a few places they know exactly what I am going to order, and it sure is fun to watch them squirm and make the mental switch when I order an herbal tea.

The biggest realization that I had was that I can only remember having one hang over in the past year.  Think about that, 365 days, 5 or 6 alcohol centric vacations, and the one hangover that I can remember is from a day when I went out right after work and hadn’t eaten all day before putting a dozen beers in my face.  The vacations were the biggest test, because they show that I finally found out my limits and figured out when to call it quits instead of pushing on and continue to drink past the point that needed to.  When I was in Gatlinburg last month I was the 2nd person awake both days because I felt tired and knew my limits before going to bed.  There is something to be said about waking up without an alarm refreshed and well rested without a hangover while everybody else was busy riding the struggle bus.  I also finished that trip by taking home only a few beers, not trying to get rare things, but applying an abundance mindset that no beer is the end all and be all. Recently I have even been thinking about quitting Untappd because I don’t feel like it adds much value.  I don’t enjoy pulling myself away from real life to enter things into my phone, or feeling guilty it I forget to do it, or feeling jealousy when my friends are enjoying something that I can’t have.  It isn’t healthy for me and I will probably be taking a break for a bit and deciding if it is something that I want to keep pursuing.

I am far from perfect, and I realize that while I am pretty healthy with my alcohol consumption now things will probably change.  Sobruary was a great way to explore my relationship with alcohol, and exploration of self is one of my favorite things, it even spread to a few other friends and created a bit of a community.  Some time in the future I will most likely get back on that wagon and try Sobruary again, but at this time it isn’t something that I really need.  The important thing is that I have done a fearless and searching moral inventory and found out just what works for me.

I Live Here Now: The Search For A Mantra

I often read books or listen to podcasts where highly successful people have locked into their inner dialog and have been able to identify a word or phrase that centers them and allows them to find whatever they are searching for.  Maybe it is inner peace, motivation, a sense of direction, or simply the ability to find their center of balance.  I wanted that and for a while I have been experimenting trying to find a mantra.

I experimented with some of my favorite literary passages, phrases that alluded to my favorite punk songs, lines from TV shows or movies, Sanskrit phrases from meditation texts, and even fun sounding giberish, but it always seemed forced.  I promised myself that I would be original but I got frustrated and started stealing mantras that others have used, but to no avail.  I went as far to focus on my automatic words in stressful situations so that I could identify what phrases I leaned on as a crutch.  Nothing worked and I found myself getting even more frustrated at my inability to accomplish what seemed like a simple goal, and I was almost ready to give it all up.  Then one day a few months ago I walked to my car without a hat on and rather than be upset about how cold it was the perfect mantra jumped into my brain and stopped me in my tracks.  “I live here now.”

It may sound like nothing to you, but for me it was a lightning bolt that resonated electricity through every cell.  It symbolized all my goals and my desires, the sources of my anxieties and my hubris, it gave me ownership of my path and rooted me in the present, four short words spoke volumes.  They made everything fall into place, and I have repeated them several times a day every since, because I live here now.

The words might not sound like much to you, and they don’t have to, but they definitely symbolize a lot in my life.  Beyond the physical aspect of living in Vermont in November and being cold, it summed up a lot of the decisions that I have made along the way.  I am cold because I am in Vermont, I chose to live in Vermont, so I am cold because I chose it.  Every decision I have made in the past 31 years have lead me to the point that I am at today in this moment, they have made me who I am right now so I either need to accept it or make a decision to change.  No matter what situation I am in, I am in it because of choices I have made, and I need to address the results of these choices because I live here now.

I have long struggled with being present.  I deal with a lot of anxiety and am prone to panic attacks and sleepless nights, but I also have a very good memory and spend a lot of time ruminating on the past.  Through meditation I have gotten better at finding space for the present, but it has been a huge struggle.  This mantra grounds me because it makes me take a moment to pause and center myself.  It is a reminder that I am not living in the past or in the future, there is no time to worry about either of those, there is just time to worry about the present, because I live here now.

I am not much of a feelings person, which has caused a lot of problems in my life.  Many of my default feelings are negative and I have spent years trying to bottle them up so that they don’t get out.  This leads to it’s own challenges and only recently through self improvement practices have I been able to acknowledge certain feelings and try to detach and move on.  Having this mantra allows me to realize that I am feeling certain ways, acknowledge their presence and try to move on.  It is a small pause that allows me to accept the way I feel and determine the best way to react to the situation.  Sometimes by simply taking that break and labeling the emotions they resolve themselves.  I can’t be ruled by my negative emotions, because I live here now.

Using a mantra to resolve those emotions helps me to take ownership of how I handle situations.  I am feeling nervous because someone is running late, I live here now, and there is no need to stress about the actions of others.  My boss just walked in, I live here now, and I am confident in how well I am doing my job.  I’m about to get on stage, I live here now, and the work that I have put in to build my abilities will show itself.  I get blown off by a woman I was interested in, I live here now, and its ok if she doesn’t want to be a part of my future, plus I get to learn from the experience.  My grandmother dies, I live here now, she had a good life and it was her time.  I am pissed off at my friends for playing music too loud, I live here now, and I can either make them turn it down or I can leave.  A bigot gets sworn in as president, I live here now, I can do my best to support and protect those who are at risk.  I really want a doughnut, I live here now, I can either cave in and ruin my diet or I can wait until cheat day.

Life is filled with uncomfortable situations, challenges big and small, and if it were easy then I probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway.  Having a few simple words bouncing through my head and reminding me that everything will be ok makes it so much more worthwhile.  Using that reminder and taking those little pauses will help me to become one of those successful people.  And even if it doesn’t work out, and this whole essay was for nothing, that is ok.

I live here now.

Coffee & Where To Find It

Coffee is one of my favorite things in the world.  While I am not physically addicted to caffeine and can go days or weeks without it I am psychologically addicted to the stuff.  Coffee stirs something inside of me that makes me creative, that allows me to express myself, and fuels the work too hard and sleep too little lifestyle that I have always embraced.  Here is a breakdown of my favorite coffee shops not including any bakeries, juicebars, and breweries pouring cold brew nitro that I frequent for my coffee fix.

Onyx Tonics
Onyx is hands down my favorite coffee shop, and one of the best places to visit in Burlington.  They routinely offer 2-3 options for coffee and espresso from various micro roasters and put craft into each cup.  The space is beautiful and relies on minimalist decor, pop art decoration, and a surprisingly wonderful teal color scheme.  The staff is awesome, always funny and chipper when engaging their regulars and newcomers alike.  If you sit there for long you can also hear them talk a little bit of shit about people who have just left, which as someone who works with the public gives them authenticity, even if it means that they probably talk shit about me once I leave.  There is a lot of traffic going through there, so it isn’t the best place to read, but I do get a lot of work done there.  You will pay a higher premium for coffee at Onyx, but it is worth it.  Between the hand selected beans and brewing each cup through the siphon system you will get great coffee from good people in a fun environment.  They also do ice cream, I hear its great but I haven’t tried it.

  • Favorite: Any coffee hand made on the siphon

Williston Coffee Shop
This is my favorite coffee shop to write in.  It is brightly lit and relatively quiet, there are even outside tables for the summer weather.  The staff is super friendly and always give me a great deal if I bring my travel mug.  The coffee isn’t out of this world, it is normally a selection from Brio kept in warming carafes, but it is always hot and plentiful.  The best part about the shop is the bakery which cranks out flaky croissants and delicious cookies served at a number of other coffee shops.  Their sandwiches look very good, but I generally stick with either pastry or salad (also very good) whenever I am there.   If I have any serious stream of consciousness writing to do this is my go to spot, something about unlimited coffee refills and a nice croissant allow me to bash out 1,500 words without breaking a sweat

  • Favorite: Croissant

Scout (3 Locations)
Scout has 3 different cafes with 3 different personalities.  The Winooski (aka Victory Circle) location is the original, a nice place with a very Portlandia feel.  You can get handmade ice cream to go with your chemex for 2 (which they get disturbed when you order just for yourself).  They enjoy adding a dramatic flair for some of their drinks, like if you order the smoked maple latte a barista (probably wearing a beanie and sporting artsy tattoos) will top it with a marshmallow and broulee it before handing it over to you at one of the hand me down diner tables.  I really enjoy sitting in the window nook looking out over the Winooski Speedway, or sitting in the back and smelling the coffee being roasted by Vivid Coffee with shares the space.  The Old North End (aka ONE) location also serves ice cream, but has a lot more room.  There are a number of simple communal tables and a ton of natural light.  This is a working man’s coffee shop and you won’t have to put up with the annoying banter that most of Burlington’s coffee shops have to offer.  In fact I can’t recall hearing anybody speak more than to order, this is a get shit done place.  The Scout Innovation Center (aka Inno) is located in a multipurpose office building and serves as more of a lunch room and coffee kiosk than a real coffee shop.  I rarely see other people reading or writing there, it is more office workers passing through on their breaks.  The benefit is that this place has a full menu and you don’t have to pay for parking.

  • Favorites: Victory Circle- Chemex for 2, ONE- Latte, Inno- Salad with beets and goat cheese

Shelburne Coffee and Wine Shop
This place used to be special to me, since it was one of the landmarks that I picked out as a kid.  Whenever we were coming to Burlington we would pass by this shop and the fire hydrant art piece across the street and I would get excited knowing that we were almost there.  That being said they make good coffee too.  I don’t stop in that frequently, and when I do it is mostly just to get an espresso and read the paper before catching a ferry.  I have never bought wine here, but I should someday now that I am a grownup.

  • Favorite: Double shot espresso

Speeder and Earl’s (2 Locations)
Speeder and Earl’s was my first introduction to Burlington coffee.  When I first moved here there was an extremely cute and bubbly barista at the Church Street location who I had a crush on.  Unfortunately she never fell madly in love with me, and I never even learned her name.  Young love dies hard.  The Church street location doesn’t have much indoor seating space so I rarely go there in the winter, but during the summer the outdoor seating is prime for people watching.  I could sit there all day sipping on cold brew and watching the cross section of humanity that is Burlington in the summer.  The Pine street location is a wonderful place to read, it is warm and cozy with plenty of people getting work done and chatting.  Every time I am in there I seem to run into friends and get pulled into a fun conversation, it is a treat.

  • Favorites: Church Street- Cold brew iced coffee, Pine Street- Clockwork Orange Latte

Maglianero
It’s and art gallery, and a coffee shop, and a building lobby, and it makes much better coffee than it deserves to.  They are the only place in Burlington that I have found serves Counter Culture coffee, which is always very good.  The coffee bar is rarely used and seems to take up more space than it needs to, but it makes an impressive sight.  I do feel like the staff doesn’t appreciate that pour over is offered since every time there is a sigh when I want something that doesn’t mean a quick shot of espresso or a cup out of the pot, but I understand that.  My one gripe is about the seating arrangement since things are scattered around an art gallery.  I have a fear of sitting on a cube that I think is supposed to be a chair that actually turns out to be a piece of modern art.

  • Favorite: Pour over

Muddy Waters
I really don’t know how I feel about Muddy’s.  It is a nice enough place with a decent coffee/tea/beer/juice/kombucha selection and a mix of students/tourists/hippies, but I have never felt at home there.  I have attended several writing groups and gone on a few dates there, but something just doesn’t seem right.  Maybe because it doesn’t have wifi and is more of a gathering place than a work/read space, I really can’t get comfortable there.  It is also always crowded with the eclectic mix of people described above, I feel too old, too young, to corporate, and not enough of a sellout at the same time.

  • Favorite: Fiddlehead IPA or Mexican Hot Chocolate

Uncommon Grounds
I am not a fan of this place, not based on the coffee, but based on the crowds.   It is always crowded and there is a tremendous wait for coffee and tables.  They do have a great tea selection which is nice, but it is a hassle to enjoy it.  Places like this were the best thing that coffee had to offer for 15 or 20 years, but have since been out shined by newcomers, which is kind of a shame.  It is a venerable standby in a crowded market, but based on the crowds and the wait they are doing ok, so I don’t feel bad about taking my business elsewhere most of the time.

  • Favorite: Irish Breakfast Tea (Does not actually contain whiskey, which based on the name it should)

Radio Bean:
I hate Radio Bean as a coffee shop.  Sure it is a nice bar, and a great performance space, and the restaurant next door is awesome, but if doesn’t do anything special for coffee and too counterculture (the movement, not the coffee brand) for its own good.  Unless you are lounging around reading books of obscure poetry you will be treated poorly by staff and patrons alike.  After several bad experiences I won’t go back during daylight.

  • Favorite: Chicken and Waffles from the restaurant that shares the space.

Starbucks (3 stores and a Barnes and Noble)
Is it snobbish of me to look down my nose at Starbucks people while they look down their noses at Dunkin people?  I used to drink a lot of espresso and got used to burnt beans, but now I have seen the light and there is no going back, snobbish or not.

  • Favorite: I still love the damn Gingerbread Latte

Nomad Coffee (Currently Essex, but anywhere they damn please)
Its a food truck, but with coffee.  I normally judge a cafe by the quality of the coffee (roaster, options, specialty drinks), the quality of the experience (staff, fellow customers), and the space (seating, light, noise).  In that case, the coffee is good but the truck limits the options, the staff is nice but I have never seen any other customers, and the space has no seating options and gets cold in the winter and warm in the summer, there is plenty of natural light.  I like the idea of the place as a coffee enthusiast, but as someone who enjoys working in coffee shops it leaves a lot to be desired.

  • Favorite: Large Coffee (preferably Brio)

 

Outside Chittenden County

  • Vermont Coffee Company, Middlebury: Factory store with great take home coffee deals, decent food, and communal tables, my go to place when visiting Midd.
  • Espresso Bueno, Barre: Good espresso drinks, decent tea selection, fabulous staff, turns into a bar at night, and hosts multiple comedy shows each month, what isn’t to like?
  • PK Coffee, Stowe: Right next to the Alchemist brewery, CounterCulture coffee on pour over, and a very nice maple latte, its a great place to fuel up for a beer adventure.
  • The Coffee Exchange, Rutland: I have never had coffee here since whenever I can get Stewarts coffee I do so, but they have a very good tea selection and support local music and comedy so they make the list.

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of places that I have yet to try or have not been to often enough to pass judgement.  Vermont has become a hotbed of coffee activity, with multiple roasters and fancy coffee shops popping up all over, even in tiny out of the way towns.  Hopefully this culture will continue to grow and I will continue to be very awake all the time.

2017 Goals

I am a checklist person, an overachiever, a doer, and setting my goals and intentions for the year is a much better option than making resolutions.  Yes I know that it is just an arbitrary period of time randomly assigned during the rotation of a big rock, but having a set time frame helps to monitor growth.  Here we go.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

  • Ask for help: I am terrible at asking for help, and am too stubborn to admit that I need it.  A few weeks ago I got drunk and asked someone I barely know to explain a kind of embarrassing situation I found myself in and was ashamed.  Not because I had aired my dirty laundry, or that I basically sought free therapy, or that I let my guard down, but because I asked.  The other things don’t embarrass me, asking for help does.  I am probably going to have to move to a new apartment in a few months and I am already nervous about asking two of my closest friends, who I have known for over a decade to help me move.  That is no way to live life.  This year I will ask for help more often, and in more targeted ways rather than just crowdsourcing.
  • Get nervous: My favorite feeling in the world occurs during the moments before a fight.  Those few seconds where you know what you have done to train and you trust yourself, but the outcome is still uncertain.  I get this weird paradoxical sense of peace in those moments, and while I don’t fight anymore I used to get that feeling before going on stage before a big show.  Last year I only felt that way a few times and I miss it.  This year I will put myself in more situations that push my limits and test my meddle, because if you aren’t scared you aren’t doing it right.
  • Go from zero to one: I can learn to do anything.  It sounds arrogant, but I firmly believe that once I set my mind to something I can accomplish it.  I will never be world class at anything, but I can be at least average across the population, the key is getting started.  This year I will try more new things, see where I can take them and where they will take me.
  • Live uncomfortable: Last summer I suffered through a severe bout of insomnia, but the best night I sleep I got was on a camping trip where I crashed for 9 hours on an air mattress.  This wasn’t a quiet relaxing camping trip to the woods, it was at a beer festival on uneven brewery ground and my friends kept setting off an air raid siren 20 feet from my tent.  This inspired me to spend more time in uncomfortable situations.  I have been dabbling with cold showers, trying to sleep on the floor, and finding ways to make myself more resilient by adjusting my routines.  This year I will spend more time being physically uncomfortable and becoming more resilient in order to become tougher and better.

Love The Sound Of Silence

  • Less podcasts: I love podcasts because they are great for pumping my brain full of information during my downtime, but I think I went too far.  I have listened to thousands of episodes of dozens of podcasts and it is stressing me out.  When I don’t update my app for a few days and then there are 15 new episodes I get anxious because there is so much to listen to.  When I get all caught up I get anxious because there is nothing left to listen to.  It is a vicious cycle, so I am going to drop a few podcasts that I don’t really enjoy, and try not to pick up any new ones unless there is something that really sparks my interest.  This year I will listen to less podcasts and give my mind some room to process the information that is already in there.
  • More music: This sounds counterintuitive under a silence header, but I miss music.  I used to love it, but now I probably listen to less than one album a week.  I want to change that.  This year I will listen to more music, explore new bands, and broaden my horizons, I will also attend more concerts and support more local musicians.
  • More meditation: I have a pretty good meditation practice, but I want to get better.  I also want to spend more time in the isolation tanks and get some formal instruction on meditation rather than just teaching myself.  This year I will meditate more often and for longer periods using different techniques. 
  • Better books: I love books, but even great books aren’t great for everybody all the time.  I have a habit of forcing my way through a book even though it doesn’t interest me and isn’t enjoyable.  This year I will get better at walking away from books that just aren’t doing it for me, just because someone recommended it to me or it has been on my shelf for years doesn’t mean that I need to punish myself.

Make Good Art

  • Create daily: I heard someone say that they may not write every day, and they may not take photos every day, but they certainly take time to create every day.  This year I will take at least a few moments to knowingly create something every day.
  • Write good jokes: My material is boring.  All my jokes are about beer, and my terrible dating skills, and coffee, and Vermont, and these things are my life but it doesn’t make them interesting.  This year I will write more poignant material that makes more of an impact.
  • Paint better: Painting is a fun new obsession of mine, but I am terrible at it.  Aptitude doesn’t determine how much you enjoy things, but we all like to bask in the glory of the things we do well.  This year I will paint more, take classes on painting, and watch Bob Ross on Netflix.
  • Write more:  Inspiration is patchy, routines make writers block go away.  The only way that you can get better at writing is by writing, and I need to do more of that.  It doesn’t need to be good or even be published, but it needs to be words on a page.  This year I will write more, write better, and finally learn what an Oxford comma is.
  • Have independent thought: I love quotations, and I litter them in a lot of my writing.  Even if I am not directly quoting I put in a lot of “Easter Eggs” of song lyrics or album titles.  Much of my writing is littered with paragraphs that quote both dead philosophers and punk songs and it is stupid.  A few people might get either of the references but nobody gets both and it sounds forced and weird.  I also hate spitting out an amalgamation of other people’s thoughts instead of having my own ideas or phrasing.  This year I will quote less and be quoted more.
  • Either learn to use Twitter or get off it: I hate Twitter, but it does seem like a useful tool.  Who am I kidding, this year I will delete Twitter.

If It Isn’t A Hell Yes Then Its A No

  • Make less money: This sounds counter intuitive for a New Years Goal, but I make extra money for working overtime, which generally isn’t fun.  Hopefully cutting down will help me reform my workaholic lifestyle.  This year I will say no to as many overtime shifts as possible and I won’t feel guilty about it. 
  • Buy less: I want to fight against my own consumerism.  I own a lot of things and have upgraded a lot of my basic stuff, I don’t need more.  Needing the newest gadget or impulse buying something that may be worthwhile without doing research has always been a weakness for me.  This year I will put sincere thought into the things that I purchase and will only place Amazon orders once every 2 weeks in order to cut down on impulse buying.
  • Make friendships great again: I have been neglecting a lot of my friends and I miss them.  I have also been putting up walls and not letting new friends in.  I need to be a better communicator and reach out to more of my friends, but it cannot be unilateral, I also need to be there and respond when others reach out to me.  For new people I often hide behind the veil of time.  Just because these people haven’t been with me for a decade doesn’t mean that they have less to offer.  This year I will reach out to one of my longtime friends each week, I will also try to have a meaningful conversation with a newer friend each week.  I will be open and responsive when people reach out to me.
  • Burn some bridges: Not all friendships are worthwhile and sometimes you need to cut negative and toxic people out of your life.  I have always been good at burning bridges and over time have figured out which ones I need to burn in order to light the way.  This year I will not waste as much time on people who are a negative influence on me, and will be straightforward enough to address the issue head on rather than passively shying away from it.  I probably won’t be able to do this without seeming like an asshole, but if someone is toxic to me then why should I care what they think.

Quantified Self

  • Get smaller: This year I will weigh myself every weekday and track my progress.  Tracked with MyFitnessPal.
  • Walk more: This year I will continue to walk 5 miles a day for as many days as possible, “I don’t feel like doing it” is not an acceptable excuse.  Tracked with Fitbit.
  • Eat better: This year I will eat better and track my calories more frequently and will try to get better at portion control.  Tracked with MyFitnessPal.
  • Drink more: This year I will try to expand my palate by trying new beer styles and branching out from old standards.  Tracked with Untappd.
  • Get on stage: This year I will get on stage 100 times, and make more money than I did last year.  Tracked on my wall calendar.
  • Formalize the best routine: This year I will experiment with little habits and see what works the best for me.  By getting a checklist of 5-10 things that help me win the day I will be able to weed out bad days and make myself more productive.  Tracked with Habits.

Some of these goals are specific, others are general.  Most of them are long term habit changes that won’t happen over night, but I mark any progress as a success.  I know that it isn’t realistic to achieve them all, but as long as I try to make myself a little better every day then this year will be a success.  Happy 2017.

2016 A Year In Review

This is my favorite essay to write every year.  It is an opportunity to put things down on paper and process 365 days worth of information and put a nice bow on it for the year.  I use this review to see where I spent my time and money, and the priorities that those expenditures imply.  My general habit is out of sight out of mind in order to focus on the present, so shining some light on the past year allows me to process things better.  This is sometimes a double edged sword since writing 2015’s review walked me right into a series of anxiety attacks that spiraled into a rough start to 2016, but lets see how this goes.

As a committed workaholic the most important thing in my life was my job.  This was the first year since high school where I will only get a single W2.  My long and storied history of working multiple jobs and pursuing other income streams is at least on pause.  I left my side job at the hospital, couldn’t host AirBnB at my apartment, and didn’t actually follow through with my drunken inspiration to become an Uber driver.  Yet somehow this year I brought in more money than I have since my crazy overtime Walgreens days.  I worked a good amount of overtime, but through focusing on making my store run better I got a big bonus and a very solid raise.  This time last year I was depressed about work and unhappy about where I was going, I have come to terms that this may not be what I want to do for the rest of my life, but it is what I am doing now so I may as well squeeze the most out of it.  As with a lot of things in my life having a feeling of acceptance allows me to get the most out of it.  There are some big changes to my company coming in 2017, and the ones that have already been rolled out have have been very challenging, but I will just keep on doing my best and trying to hit my goals.

Financially this year was a big win.  I finally hit positive net worth (more in assets than in debts) this July and have felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders.  I don’t carry any credit card debt, my car is paid off, and I hit my target amount that I wanted to save for a house down payment.  The main thing hanging over my head is my student loans, but I was able to refinance to a lower interest rate and will keep chipping away until they are gone.  Luckily I have put in the type of advance work to build the type of systems into my life that allow me to live the way I want to without having to worry too much about money.  I have noticed an uptick in consumerism since hitting positive net worth, which I am trying to curb for the future.  The day that I hit positive net worth I vowed that I would no longer worry about the small things, overtime would not be a priority, and I wouldn’t waste time driving around to find free parking.  Non of those have fully come to fruition, but I have made some improvement on them.

I am a very obsession person and the things that I focus on go a long way toward defining my life.  This year I learned a lot about coffee, I went to specialty roasters and did cuppings, perfected brewing ratios with various equipment, and became a known regular at 5 or so coffee shops.  Being this awake allowed me to get a lot of other things done.  I dabbled in lots of things but the most rewarding one is starting to paint.  I always wanted to paint, but I have absolutely no natural talent.  Humans in general, and myself in particular, tend to move towards the things that we are good at and neglect our weaknesses because it feels good to bask in the glory of being good at something.  I never expect to become good at painting, but it is a pleasure to sit down at the end of the day, crack a beer and move some paint around.  Whatever I paint tends to wind up as a mountainous landscape, I guess you paint what you know.  The most fun aspect of painting is actually buying supplies.  The ladies who work at Michaels aren’t used to guys like me shopping there and have adopted me like the giant special needs child that they never had.  They all make sure that I get the right stuff at the best prices, maximize my rewards points, and baby me in a way that I sometimes need.  It is much cheaper than therapy.

I also really got into meditation this year.  I have dabbled for years, and made a push last December, but through the power of technology and the Calm app I was able to make a lot of progress.  I was patchy at first and then made it a few months of meditating every day before I fell off during vacation.  I kept trying throughout the summer and starting in August I kicked off over 100 days of meditating using Calm every day.  As someone who is a huge fan of quantification this provided me a lot of feedback and motivation to keep the streak going, but recently I have fell off.  Not with the meditation but with tracking it, I get the reward from sitting for a few minutes each day, not from the streak displayed on the phone.  I felt like I was keeping that streak alive to brag to others, which is the opposite of mindfulness and now my practice is more about benefits to me.  Calm is a great tool for exploring different types of meditation, I started with the normal vipassana style of following my breath, and progressed into simple body scans and basic walking meditation.  I now have a practice of taking a deep breath every time I stop at a stop light, it doesn’t have the same effect as 20 minutes of sitting on a cushion, but it does help ground me a bit.  I have been dabbling in other non strict meditation practices like Wim Hoff breathing and isolation tanks, but as of yet I haven’t done either frequently enough to experience huge benefits, but they are showing promise.  Shockingly the most rewarding type of meditation that I have tried is Metta (Loving kindness).  You follow the practice of sending positive feelings toward someone or a group of people who you really care about, then someone you feel neutral towards, then someone you have negative feelings toward, then the whole world.  It sounds way too gooey and woo woo for me, but a few minutes of this practice provides a reset for me like nothing else, and I often do it during my lunch break when I have had a challenging morning.  If you life gets better around 1:45 on a weekday then it is probably because because I am sending positive energy your way from the Rite Aid break room.

I didn’t travel much during the second half of the year, but the trips I took during the spring were extremely rewarding.  Greg and I drove to Gatlinburg via Asheville, we surprised Lou in Philly for his bachelor party, I took a quick trip to Hotlanta to spend time with the Greene family and hang out at Beth and Lazer’s camp, and was part of the most epic Team Zissou group costume at the Bill Murray themed BCTC, I drank way too much at all of these events.  I was honored to be in weddings on back to back weekends and celebrate the day with two couples who’s first dates I happened to be at.  The Lysogorski wedding was my first time performing a wedding, and it was a wonderful day in a beautiful vineyard.  The Sisto wedding the following week was also a blast, I cried a lot of joy tears and caught a duck while walking around Saratoga in a tuxedo.  I finally took the solo vacation to the Pacific Northwest that I have been talking about for years in June.  Bouncing between Seattle and Portland was a lot of fun, I had no concrete plans and chased beer, coffee, burritos, and adventure while spending a little quality time with one of my favorite people in each city.  It was the most relaxing and low impact trip that I have been on in years and is the only vacation that I have ever returned home from relaxed.  I am planning a lot more unstructured solo travel in the future, and this was a perfect gateway drug.

One of the huge benefits of travel is that I can bring things that I find out about myself home.  While in NYC this October I rationalized that I could walk 20,000 fitbit steps no problem when on vacation, but rarely topped 8,000 while at home.  Since that day I have made a concerted effort to walk more every day.  I set the goal of doing 10,000 steps a day every day for a month and then extended it to 2 months.  I then realized that I wanted to hit 5 miles (around 11,500 steps) a day and made that my goal.  For the past 3 months I have gone out of my way to get those steps every day by walking outside and exploring or doing laps in my living room.  It seems like a small thing, but it definitely makes me feel better and has lead to the discovery of a lot of cool new places.  This summer I started cutting a lot of carbs out of my diet except for a weekly cheat day and have seen some benefits.  I am not strictly low carb, I have convinced myself that dark chocolate doesn’t count, and I know that I can get better results if I cut down on my alcohol consumption, but I am pretty glad of my progress.  I haven’t been losing a ton of weight, just 15 or so pounds, but there seems to be a pretty steady decline from eating better and moving more and I certainly feel better most of the time, which it the measure that really means the most.  I still occasionally slip up, like last week when I “accidentally” ate an entire pizza on a Tuesday, but I haven’t let slip up and failures derail my whole system like I have in the past.

One of my biggest regrets of 2016 was that I kind of neglected my friends.  I know that it is natural to fade out of people’s lives after college but I was able to keep a firm grasp on that for many years.  I still spent a good amount of time with folks, but I kind of isolated myself more than past years.  I am a terrible communicator and have spent too long relying on the fact that when I am together with my close friends it is like no time has passed.  Now that people are getting more settled we have less opportunities to see each other and since I am out of touch we feel farther away.  I miss a lot of my far flung friends, and I will keep pledging to reach out more, but am realistic that it probably isn’t going to happen.  After spending years not making any Vermont friends I finally feel comfortable in the community up here, and while I am not super close with many comics I am at least able to make connections and escape from physical and mental isolation.  I also have a pretty close group of friends from college hat has grown since Dave and Jess have moved here, it is great to have a tight knit group that can go on adventures together, and it isn’t even that awkward that I am the 7th wheel with married or engaged couples.

Looking at this summary it feels like I am glossing over the bad parts, so here is some negativity.  I haven’t been doing well at comedy, I was slumping and not having fun, it is getting better but I can’t look back at this year and site more than a handful of bright spots.  I continue to wonder why I spend so much time and energy on something that beats me up.  This summer I went through a bout of crippling insomnia.  I was sleeping 3-4 hours a night for several months and trying out dozens of different remedies from essential oils to accupressure mats and white noise machines before I finally snapped out of it and am back up to my full 6 hours a night.  Donald Trump won the election and all of a sudden I woke up in a world where I am the enemy to a lot of people in my social media bubble.  It is bullshit for me to complain about being an upper middle class straight white man, and as a feminist, LGBTQ ally, and friend to religious and racial minorities I understand the frustrations and fears of these groups and that they are not directing their outrage at me, but it does still sometimes get under my skin.  I think that this contributed to the overwhelming sense of loneliness that resonated through the fall.  It wasn’t the standard “The leaves are dying and I want to see the world burn the color of the trees” fall that I am used to, but more of a disconnect from the people that I care about.  I spent a lot of time embracing the need to completely block people out, I got over it, mostly.  As usual dating was a challenge for most of the year, I got sick of seeing the same people on all the same sites and slowly started to withdraw from them.  I was frustrated, lonely, and kind of giving up, it sucks.  I did meet someone very nice a few weeks ago and we have been out on a few dates, I really like her but I don’t know if it has the possibility of going anywhere, and I realize that writing about it will probably get me in trouble so I am going to stop.

One of this biggest struggles in my life is falling into comparisons with my friends, and this year was tough on that.  Now that we are in our 30s a lot of my friends have responsibilities that I don’t.  They have houses, and partners, and kids, and dogs, and I got karaoke drunk on Thursday night.  I realize that there is no such thing as “normal” and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but I am starting to question taking a much more unconventional path than my peers.  I have built a life that runs on a different trajectory, one without a defined end game.  It is scary looking at the future and having no idea where I am going and what I am doing.  I love playing uncle to my friends’ kids and getting texted pictures of smiling babies but I feel conflicted as to weather I am going to pursue a future that has children in it.  I love the idea of owning a house and having a place to call home, but just 6 months ago I was contemplating moving south if my landlord sells my apartment, and having the ability to drop everything and move is extremely appealing.  I have always felt conflicted about growing up and settling down, and it will probably get harder and harder each year moving forward so there is no end in sight.  I did make a step and get a new peace lily, I named him Ficus II in remembrance of my last peace lily, he sometimes gets a little bit too rowdy and occasionally makes a mess on the carpet but he has mastered the commands sit and stay.

This year I feel like I have made a lot of changes that have leveled me out.  I am used to wild swings in my life and riding those highs and lows like a roller coaster, but this year things were just kind of status quo.  Maybe it is meditation, or listening to a lot of entrepreneurial podcasts that detail major successes and losses, or my habit of reading stoic philosophy, but things seem more neutral, which I suppose is a good thing.  I feel a bit more distanced from what is going on, like I am an observer rather than a participant, which is strange.  I haven’t been having as extreme emotional responses, which is good because I am a violently angry person, but also bad because I like enjoying things.  Maybe this is part of that whole growing up and settling down thing that everyone keeps talking about.

When people ask me how things are going my stock responses are “You know, working too much, sleeping too little” or “Just putting one foot in front of another” but this year I have been occasionally using a new one.  “Busy, but in a fulfilled way” is a better representation of my life.  I have multiple options of things to do every single night.  There is always something that I want to do or a place that I want to go, comedy shows, improv jams, storytelling events, friend’s band playing, burlesque show that I keep saying I will check out, gallery opening, hockey game, and a plethora of other events that are a lot of fun.  I have gotten better at not feeling obligated to doing everything and not feeling bad about missing something if I am not feeling up to it.  This is a fulfilling life, where I can get up on my day off, drink some coffee, read a book, and then go to a fun event.  At the same time I can also plan on going to something after work and then bail if I am not feeling up to anything more than collapsing into my recliner.  Busyness is often seen as productivity, if you are rushing around you are important, and finding that balance is key.  Having things going on in my life is important to me but I am not willing to let it stress me out and I think that I am finally at a time in my life where I can accomplish the things that give me the best rewards.

For a lot of people 2016 was a dumpster fire.  It wasn’t that bad for me, maybe a tire fire at worst.  But it happened, good and bad it is part of my story, and it is part of what makes these yearly reviews worthwhile.  I made a lot of moves and did some things that I am proud of, but there were always things that I didn’t get done.  If you have made it this far then you probably care about me enough to read 3,000 words worth of my bullshit, and I thank you for that.  I hope that your year went well, and that next year will be even better.  I promise to write more, create more, and be better next year, but for now I will just stay here locked inside my head, surrounded by my faults, and content with that.

Happy new year.

Stuff Versus Things

I love having stuff.  Not in a sentimental way where I tie memories to the stuff that I own, because I am not a very sentimental person.  I kind of wish that I had the memory tie in, where I couldn’t get rid of stuff because I was so attached to them, instead it isn’t about the stuff that I own, but it is about ownership.  This is somehow both shallow and visceral and dealing with that duality is kind of tearing me apart.  And like anything that eats at me I find the best way to cut through it and put it behind me is to try and put it into words.

When I was a teenager and went down the rabbit hole of rock music I fell in love with the idea of controlled chaos.  I was never an especially tidy person, but during those years I went off the wall.  I took the chaotic nature of the music that I listened to and created a corresponding physical chaos in whatever I owned.  I started covering my walls with music flyers, and my notebooks and water bottles with stickers.  Everything was arrayed in an erratic pattern that seemed to have no structure, it was like a complex code that only I could crack, because no matter how strewed things were I knew exactly where everything was.  During my freshman year the head of residence life used my dorm room as an example of the type of mess that the RAs should not allow on their floor.  To prove him wrong I challenged him to name anything that I own and I would direct him to is in seconds, he found my biology book under the stack of CDs behind my guitar in the closet.  It might not be arrayed in any way that make sense, but it was mine, and I knew exactly where it was.

Once I moved out of the dorms things got crazier.  Now I had an entire house that I needed to furnish, which I did by raiding dumpsters, trash piles, and goodwill.  We literally knew the garbage pickup days for the city of Albany and would drive around looking for cool stuff or pieces that would serve as an upgrade over the crap that we had picked up during previous weeks.  It was a bad habit, but to be fair we did wind up with some pretty cool stuff, like they say some people’s trash becomes frat house legends.  One time we actually found a toilet, tossed it in the back of my truck and brought it to the room with the dirt floor in our basement where guys used piss during parties, it was supposed to be the ultimate joke.  Until the first party where someone took a dump in it, the joke was on us.

After I moved out of the frat houses, and spent a year on the road with only the possessions that would fit in the back of my van I found myself needing to start again.  I furnished my first few apartments with hand me down furniture and things that I bought at discount shops.  I kind of shudder thinking about it now, for 2 years I lived in this beautiful $1500 a month townhouse with a fancy fireplace and recessed lighting, and it was packed full of beat up furniture and miscellaneous crap.  There were a few times that I had to literally stop myself from picking stuff up from the side of the road by saying “You are a god damn doctor, you should not dig through the trash.”   It was around the time that I made the mental switch from wanting to own stuff to wanting to own things.

Stuff and things may sound like an insignificant linguistic distinction, but in my mind it means the world.  Stuff is easily acquired, it is easily replaced, it is nothing important.  Things have meaning, durability, and a larger cost associated with them.  Things are what grownups have, things move with you when you leave a place, stuff gets put out on the curb to be picked over by college students, and the occasional doctor of pharmacy.  It was a glacial change, because things can get expensive, but after a few years I think that I have finally hit the point that I have very little stuff, and most of what I own is things.

A while ago I looked at my life and actually saw more things than I really need.  I enjoy buying things, especially things that convey meaning.  Buying books or artwork is a very fulfilling experience, it helps to satisfy the primal need to obtain while getting something that provides a return.  I have boxes of artwork in my closets, and books with Borders price tags on my shelf, every kitchen tool known to man, and more brewery glassware than I could ever drink out of.  Even after going through several rounds of purging because of moves and reading several books about minimalism, I am finding that I still have too much.  I realize that for someone like me minimalism in an unobtainable ideal, but I need to at least curb my need for maximalism.

Over the past year my goal was to upgrade the things that I used the most.  It sounds silly but buying a new kitchen scale to replace the crap one that I bought at Kmart was one of the biggest wins of 2016 because now the one I have is functional, beautiful, and works properly.  I took it a step farther and started to upgrade and standardize my wardrobe to reduce decision fatigue in the mornings and allow me to save my brain power for the things that really matter.  I may have gone a bit overboard spending a good amount of time and money shopping online, trying to find things that would fulfill my needs.  I ran the numbers and during 2016 I had 76 Amazon orders, not 76 separate things, 76 separate orders, often with multiple things in them.  And that doesn’t count the things that I bought from any of the other websites that I use for clothes or gear.  This level of consumerism is ridiculous, and I kind of hate myself for being disappointed whenever I get home from work and there is no package at the door.  But disappointment and shame are often the key to making changes, and that is the plan for 2017.

I don’t like doing resolutions, but I am a huge fan of goals.  Resolutions are extraneous and are hard to quantify, but goals fit better into systems and plans, and I am a systems and plans type of guy.  The first step will be to curb my Amazon addiction.  Having Prime set up with one click makes things too easy, especially when I have been drinking.  I am going to try and limit purchases to once every 2 weeks, so that on that set day I make a purchase of everything that I have thought about that has made it out of the impulse window.  I will also be avoiding the Lifehacker deals site, which is a gateway into a world of deals of stuff that I really don’t need (see also Sous Vide immersion circulator).  By buying less I will hopefully save some money and won’t have to focus on so much reduction, which will simplify my life.

I don’t ever think that I will move to full minimalism, but I also don’t plan on spending any more time dumpster diving.  My life is crazy and chaotic enough that I no longer need a physical manifestation of clutter.  Hopefully I can continue making the switch from stuff to things, and continue upgrading my life, but at a more comfortable and planned pace.  Maybe after years of trying I can finally silence the teenaged anarchist in my brain telling me that everything I own will look better with a sticker on it.

The Open Door Policy

When feature comics pass through the Vermont Comedy club they need a place to stay, often times that place is my futon. When comics come up from Boston to perform at my Meadery show they also stay on my futon.  When long lost distant cousins are interviewing for medical residencies they can save money by staying on my futon.  When my friends come to Burlington for weddings or to go on epic beer quests they often pass out on the floor, but the futon is available.  Buying that futon off a friend who was moving for $20 was a good investment.

Growing up we didn’t have a ton of money and were constantly traveling.  While we occasionally stayed in hotels, both nice ones and roadside dumps, we mostly found ways to stay with people that we knew.  Road trips to visit family, co-opted vacations with people to visit their families, visiting my parent’s friends from college, and fun adventures to unglamorous places defined most of my childhood.  Part of relying on the generosity of others was the need for reciprocation, and my parents always had an open door and a makeshift guest room available for any friends and family who may be passing through.  Having this open door policy and knowing that we would always make room for people left a huge mark on me, and is a tradition that I try to carry on today.

If you have ever lived in a frat house you understand that it is loosely controlled chaos.  While this wasn’t Animal House it was fluid enough that it always seemed like there was someone on our couch.  The freshman who had too much to drink, the friend who was having a rough time with her boyfriend, the alum visiting from out of town, the grand president who was doing a chapter visit, the friend from home who was working a summer job, or the guy who lived with his parents but didn’t want to go home where always present themes the places that I lived during college.  It wasn’t an imposition, we had 3 houses on the same block and it wasn’t uncommon for me to show up at the other houses and crash on their couch if it was too loud or busy at my house.  Having this commune feel lead me to an understanding of the transient lifestyle and embrace the good feeling that comes with providing shelter.  For the 5 years that I lived in those type of houses I always enjoyed having people stay, and often looked forward to having others visit.

When I was in my final year of college I did internships all over the country and I relied heavily on the kindness of others.  Part of the time was spent staying for a few weeks at a time with my parent’s friends, the ones who used to stay in our guest room.  I also spent some time living in a government trailer on the Navajo reservation where one day I went from being by myself to coming home to find a med student had moved in unannounced and took it all in stride.  Driving home from Arizona I was able to spend time visiting friends and family in far off places like Utah, California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.  Taking advantage of offers to visit friends and have them point me in the direction of the important places that only locals know was one of the highlights of my trip.  After returning to Albany I resumed living a low impact life of sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor of my friends’ pantry before spending a few months of the summer at my family’s camp.  That year was one of the most trying, eventful, and memorable times of my life, and I couldn’t have made it through if people weren’t generous enough to open their homes to me.

After graduation I strove to pay forward some of that hospitality.  I was always looking for 2 bedroom apartments in order to provide a place for others to stay.  For the first few years there wasn’t much opportunity.  My friends were scattered into the wind and were busy setting up their own lives so with the exception of a friend who stayed with me during an internship it was mostly me alone in my bigger than necessary and excessively empty apartment.  Then something changed and all of a sudden visiting Vermont became a priority for my friend group, a change that closely corresponds with the boom in the beer scene.  All of a sudden there were a ton of people clamoring to stay at my place, and my willingness to let anybody stay, even if they were only friends of friends who I have never met made my place a destination.  It was good to connect with people, both new acquaintances and old friends, and it made my apartment a much more welcoming place to be.

One night I got drunk and signed up for this newfangled website called AirBnB.  The minimum that you could list for was $60 and I though that there is no way someone would spend $60 bucks to stay on my futon in Middlebury.  I was wrong, and over the next 4 months I earned more than 2 grand by utilizing my empty guestroom.  This experience taught me the how to be a better host, and motivated me to keep my apartment clean, which was something that I have struggled with in the past.  I was also able to meet some interesting people, and some fucking assholes, and get a better understanding of how to be a good guest when I visit people.  It was a very eye opening experience and was worth way more than it’s monetary value.  Once I moved back to Burlington my new apartment complex forbids AirBnB, so I lost the income stream but still found ways to play host.

When comics come to town they are always impressed that I let them stay for free and are always grateful.  I suppose I see where they are coming from, friends and family are one thing, but people who I haven’t yet met is completely different.  But these aren’t strangers, they are people who I share mutual friends with, who are up here on a business trip.  For the most part it has been great, and with one exception I would let them all stay again.  I have had the chance to meet new and interesting people, network a good amount, and help my friends who own the club get talented performers on the stage.  It isn’t anything fancy, just a futon in a room that I rarely use, but for some visiting comics it makes a world of difference.

When people say anything about how generous it is to open up my guest room, I just brush it off with “I have the space” but in reality it is more of a benefit to me than it is a drawback.  I like having people stay because it keeps me from getting too comfortable in my own space.  It keeps me on my toes and allows me to reconnect with a long forgotten past when my life was much more random.  I have been able to meet dozens of new and interesting people, have great conversations, explore new opportunities, and make a few new friends.  All it takes is having an open door policy and a $20 futon.

Brave New World

During the fall of 2009 I was living like a nomad and working my way through a series of 5 week internships.  I was accustomed to scrounging whatever sleeping arrangements that find for a few weeks before packing everything I owned into a few duffel bags in the back of my van and moving along.  That October I was ready to head out on my grand adventure, a two month, 11,000 mile road trip out to the Navajo reservation and wandering my way throughout the country on the way home.  This week one of my favorite people is setting out on a similar adventure, this is for her.  Here are the things that I wish I would have known and the celebration of the things that I did find.

Beware the Altitude:  The reservation is one of the highest places in the country, Chinle where I stayed was over 7,000 feet, combined with desert dryness.  For the first week I suffered terribly from dehydration and the thin air.  Headaches, being out of breath, nosebleeds, it wasn’t fun.  The key is to drink a lot of water and wait to adjust.  Water, not purple gatorade, it may have electrolytes but it isn’t as good as just plain water (plus as we all know only blue gatorade works).  Buy a humidifier and put some vasaline inside your nostrils and keep hydrated, this too will pass.  Also be aware that your visions of “It’s a dry heat” don’t apply in the high desert, it will be cold, during the 5 weeks I was out there we got more snow in Arizona than my parents got in New York.  Dress warm.

Red Rocks:  When you transition from the plains to Texas into the desert the most striking thing is the change in colors.  Gone are the verdant pastures, instead everything is red, even the trees have a red tinge.  After years of reading Tony Hillerman books I thought that I knew what it is going to be, but it is so much more.  It can take your breath away, especially watching how the light hits and changes the colors.  It is amazing to think about the time that it takes to grind for air or water to grind the stone and carve these amazing landscapes.  As a side effect red dust is everywhere.  It is in the tap water, it is in your eyes, it was still caked into the nooks and crannies of my car when I sold it 4 years after I left the reservation.  No beauty comes without its own cost.

Beware the tourist trap: Maybe I was more susceptible because I drove out alone along route 66, but tourist traps are everywhere.  Every rest area you stop at or place you want to hike there will be people trying to sell you garbage.  This is a common thing on the reservation because it is an easy way to generate cash from tourists, so don’t give in.  I do love doing touristy stuff, but it gets old really fast so space it out and talk to people so that they can point you to the legit events and the authentic places that you have to check out.  The stuff that people are selling off blankets isn’t all garbage, I got some amazing rock carvings and a bear stone necklace that I wore for years.  The key is to have an abundance mentality, because there will always be more chances, and if you find something haggle over it.  Sometime if you are feeling like having a weird adventure it is cool to pick a place off a billboard and explore, if you have no expectations then you can’t be disappointed.  If I didn’t do that then I couldn’t brag about going to a wolf sanctuary where George RR Martin later adopted a pack of wolves.

Hit the National Parks: Teddy Roosevelt did amazing things for this country by preserving so many of our national parks.  Growing up in the East we underestimate the size and scope of the country, but out West the world is so vast and the National Parks have some of the best vantages to see the world from.  It costs a few bucks to enter, but it is worth every cent.  I have amazing memories of hiking in Arches, and the Petrified forest, climbing the rocks of El Morro, and eating a burrito on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  There are dozens of other parks that I wanted to visit, but that just means that I need to go back.

Listen:  Navajo is one of the most amazing languages in the world.  It is a lovely sing song cadence that sounds amazing.  I spent a lot of time working through interpreters and was able to bask in the sound of my words crossing cultural barriers.  It is important to not get caught up in the cultural differences.  The Indian Health Services system is established on the 1870s ideals of the white man helping the poor despondent native.  Add this to the normal medical professional to patient distance it is hard to connect with these people.  It is important to remember that they are just people.  Also don’t use one person as a representative for all Navajo, especially if that person is an old lady hits you with her cane for not wanting to buy a rug.

Life of Poverty: One of the most striking things about living on the reservation is the poverty.  There is very little industry and a lot of federal handouts that are seemingly misspent.  I was often reminded of driving through the desolate small towns of upstate NY and seeing brand new trucks parked in front of run down trailers.  There was a big culture of panhandling and selling things in parking lots that took me by surprise.  Everywhere you look there are pawn shops because many Navajo traditionally use jewelry to store wealth rather than keeping it in banks, but when I first got out there I couldn’t shake the feeling of seediness.  Contrasting the economic depression of the towns are the federal facilities like the hospitals which are literally gleaming beacons in the desert which serve as a perfect exaple of federal waste.  It is enough to give you whiplash.

Addiction and Lack of Self Care:  As a medical processional, and as a human being, it is hard to watch people destroy themselves.  But you can’t live their lives for them.  The reservation is a dry territory, but booze still makes its way in.  The roads to and from the towns like Gallup, Moab, and Durango which are just outside the reservation borders are littered with beer cans.  Hitchhikers make their way into these towns every weekend to indulge their vices.  A lot of people just don’t take care of themselves despite free medical care.  Basically everybody had diabetes and heart disease from eating frybread with every meal, and the labs that I saw shocked my idealistic self.  It hurts, but you can’t live their lives for them.  We all have our own lives to live and our own bodies to take care of, and I am certainly not one to lecture on that.

Embrace the Silence:  I have never felt so alone when I was on the reservation.  I was not in a good place at that time, and the silence made it worse.  I was alone in a government trailer after driving out by myself.  I made no effort to connect with the people at work, one guy tried because of our fraternity connection, but I kind of pushed him off.  I traveled by myself every weekend, hiked by myself, and eventually became fine with it.  I embraced that silence and made peace with myself, which is the greatest gift that I have ever received.  To this day I am fine alone, I can fill my own head and heart, and have developed a self reliance that has served me well.  Once you leave the glow of the town streetlights you will be plunged into a complete darkness and silence.  Your mind will struggle to fathom it and invent stories that live in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to fathom how an ancient people were able to create such amazing stories and gods to fill that landscape.  It may be scary, but by knowing that darkness and that silence you will be able to know yourself and will come out the other side a better person.

I sat down to write a little list, but instead I have spewed 1500 words of stream of consciousness.  There are dozens more things that I can say.  Don’t drive fast at night or you might hit a horse.  Go to Antelope canyon and Bryce Canyon National Park, I always wanted to go there.  Flagstaff is the Burlington of Arizona, Durango is the Burlington of southern Colorado, I should stop comparing places to Burlington.  Know that big area on the Verizon map where there is no service, you will probably be right in the middle of that area.  Don’t do meth.  Watch out for snakes when hiking.  And a million more tips.

Go new places, do new things, meet new people, bring fresh eyes to ancient places.  Have an adventure.