Walking Dude

There is this guy who walks around our neighborhood.  Constantly. That is pretty much all I know about him, but from this one facet I have constructed a world for him.

Here’s what I know. I guess him in his 60’s, but could be older. His standard outfit is a gray sweat suit, dark sunglasses, bright orange reflective vest, with matching orange hat and gloves (when necessary), and a walking stick. He walks hard, but not in that goofy heel-toe race-walker way. Drive by and he stops, raises his hand and gives you this great smile from under his full, gray beard. Drive too fast and he first gives a slow-down hand signal in a gentle way that reminds you that dudes are walking, folks are jogging, and kids are playing. Then he waves, smiles, turns on his heel and walks.

If you are outside when he is walking, he rarely slows down, but will always say hi, wish you a good day, and not break stride. If you want to chat, though, he will happily stop and tell you how great the lawn looks, how much he likes how the perennials are growing in, ask about the kids. It’s never about him, just all the things he is observing about the neighborhood he loves to move through, to look at, to know. He never stays even one word beyond the moment when idle banter becomes awkward.

He carries the stick because of some ill-behaved dogs in the neighborhood. Less so the German shepherd on the corner, or the two English bulldogs across the way that will suffer Hanna-Barbera contortions as they run through the electric fence lines. He really doesn’t even worry about the American bulldog pups that a new family is struggling to control on the circle around the way. More so the angry schnauzer at the steep part of the big hill, the old basset-retriever mix with a death wish that chases cars, bikes, and anything else that moves. If Jax is out in the yard, though, he will stop and kick his soccer ball for a while, patting his head each time my dog plays snout soccer to get it back to him.

I don’t know much of his story. I don’t even know his name, but he knows each of my kids’ names. He never pushes himself in conversation, but from what us neighbors have pieced together, he is a widower that had some serious health issues of some sort in the last few years. Walking is part of addressing them, and…this guy walks. On the way to work I pass him one way, on the way home I pass him the other. On the weekends, I see him coming down the hill, always hugging the curb to his left, taking the whole cul-de-sac at its widest, never cutting across. He walks for hours. I suspect he has some military in his background.

After six years of this Walking Dude, he is as much a part of my day as coffee or a shower. Something is…less-than…if I miss him somehow. I am usually late. I usually deserve the slow-down reminder. The fact that he actually stops and turns to wave as you pass…it makes it more than a courtesy, it’s a ritual.

The fact that I know so little about the whos and whys behind him has allowed me to fill in the mad-lib details of his life as I like. I view Walking Dude as the symbol of…content, happy. Savoring each day in a consistently dutiful, caring, observant – but above all – thankful way. I have penciled in his adjectives so that he has this honest nature, a gratefulness for each and every day, and a ceremonial way of expressing it.

Walking Dude is my metaphor for being thankful for each day, and for clearly comprehending why I should be thankful for each day. If his laps run counter to my drive times…I feel like I missed something that day.

I wonder what he would think of all this. I am sure his life has its complications, its pains and regrets and mornings where the knees can’t get him out on the streets. I’m sure there are times where behind his smile and wave he is really pissed that I was driving too fast, that he was really distracted by some thought from his past. But I need him at this distance. To know more would make him something other than the Walking Dude. I need his…metaphor.

I have a lot of folks that I have reduced to metaphors. People from my past that I misremember in convenient ways to support my smoothing and tucking of the random and the guesswork of days past so it realigns into a story, not just a collection of moments. I force whole people into single slices of what I knew, or what I choose to remember, good or bad, discarding the rest. The less I knew, the less I remember, the more likely all that you are is represented in my head as some one-liner.

I wonder how many people might remember me as a metaphor. I wonder how the intersection of our lives combines with what they need to remember to define my metaphor.

I wonder whether I should get to know Walking Dude, or keep him as this wonderful metaphor.


The last day of this trying year was defined by a several hour trek through an expectedly bad snow storm in an SUV that suddenly decided that it would not slip into four-wheel drive. I live in the country, at the end of a last-plowed cul-de-sac that however you approach it requires the scaling of some steep slippery hill. With only front wheel drive, I tried every way back home, finally finding myself actually sliding backwards down a hill into oncoming traffic. A rather shitty metaphor to close out this year.

I guided my over-priced sled into the curb, hit the hazards, pulled up the hood, and started hiking home to get some chains for the tires. A couple hundred yards into it, with about a mile still to go, a trooper pulls up and asks if that is my vehicle on the side of the road. Yup. Sure is. Make me an offer, any offer, and it's yours… He clears his front seat and offers me a ride. Nice guy. Great timing.

As I he pulls up to my house, I notice he is in jeans and I ask if he got called in because of the snow. No, he says. He is off duty today, but had his cruiser at home and it was the only way he could get through the snow to get milk and diapers for his family. He was on his way back from the store, when an old guy in a funny orange vest flagged him down and told him that a car was stuck on a hill and might need some help.

A rather wonderful metaphor to close out this year.


Oil & Water

I should have turned this corner years ago, but I am just now shifting focus from what should matter to what does matter.

I’ll spare you the steady diet of all the ways the world should be that I was fed by wonderful and well-meaning people. The problem came when the all of the plausible and well-meant ways things should be reached a point where they were…inconsistent. Each on their own made sense, but put together…not so much.

A single, clear solid explanation for how things are, should be, is gold. Two solid explanations for how things are, should be, begins to undermine your faith in what you think is a solid explanation. Add a third, and well, I’ll meet you at the bar.

I’m not sure why, but a month or so ago, I decided to stop thinking so hard about what my life should be like and focus more on what in my life I actually like.

I like to cook. But only on certain terms. I suck at recipes, and I live in a part of the country where exotic ingredients are not readily available, so I often have to substitute even some of the most basic staples. I’m much more jazz than classical in the kitchen. The other night, I was cleaning out some of the nether reaches of the house and ran across an unbreached dim sum cookbook that was a gift of some occasion or another, and in it was gold – the promise that I could, at home, make those exquisite pork dumplings I feasted on for lunch when working south of market in the dot com days. Their magic went beyond just the non-standard ingredients. There was an art to their cooking that gave you this wonderful crusty crispy fried side while the rest of the dumpling was light, moist, and just perfectly steamed. I had no idea how this freakish ju-ju was achieved.

But then, there it was. A simple technique used by Chinese street vendors for centuries. You crimp up the edges of the wrapper around the filling and then drop it, crimped side down into a little oil in your wok. And leave it there. You don’t turn it. You don’t touch it. Just…leave it there. And as it crisps, you pour about a third of a cup of water  into the…oil. Really. And just let it steam off. The loose ends of the dumpling seal and crisp and the rest of the dumpling steams…perfectly.

Oil and water…totally counter-intuitive, but perfectly obvious once done. A simple truth revealed. A new basic way of doing things learned. Gold.

I also like coffee shops. Now, I’m good with a Starbucks, though I prefer a Pete’s, long for the early days of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Westwood, and, in a pinch will, alas, suck down a Dunkin Donuts styrofoam mess just to get me to work. But what I love are hit-and-miss quirky hung-over-hippy-coffee-slinging joints that may or may not be open each morning you stop by. I love crappy art on the wall by the current girlfriend of the owner. I love people bring in their own CDs or plugging in their iPods when the music gets lame.

My goofy little New England town has this wonderful coffee shop owned by a couple that also owns a swanky restaurant around the corner, catering to locals and regulars in both joints. I stop by, sink into a comfy chair with a newspaper or a book and often have to wait 20 minutes for a cup of coffee as the owners and staff bullshit with the locals. All. Totally. Worth. It. They are constantly tweaking and moving and adjusting the furniture, adding some questionable artwork to the walls. Sometimes good, sometimes…not so much. But the coffee is exquisite and eggs and scones and homemade bagels are so very worth it all.

The best bars are the same way. The beer and the cocktails are always pretty much the same. The essence lies in the folks that they attract, the wondrous alchemy that comes from glimpses of might-change-your-life folks shaken, stirred, or whatever gets them going. But real knows real, and the best scenes arise where there is a personality, for better or worse, behind it all. (Rob, if you read this, you were Goff’s in all your anal quirky wackiness. I made you money, but you made the bar.)

The upshot? What does matter to me? The inspiration that comes from a simple truth, a simple fix, a simple method so clear to someone with a different perspective than mine. A new place or time or way that is driven by a well-meaning if stumbling soul.

The point? It is important to distinguish between the inevitable and the obvious. I am coming to inevitable conclusions, perspectives that, for folks wiser than me are, well, obvious. But inevitable speaks to causes and effects and forces outside of our heads. Obvious, well, that is something earned and achieved by grasping the realities of our world within our tangled heads. Making the inevitable into the obvious may simply be what is meant by…growing up.

My point?  I’ve tried most every other path to fulfillment and wonder and perhaps other stuff, but in the end…my three most wonderful kids bring glass-shattering new perspectives every time I see them, in ways that are simple, straight forward and real. Each moment, I watch their personalities…evolve, develop, reveal. Their achievements and strengths make them valued by others. Their imperfections and scars and fears make them…mine.

Inevitably, my kids are the end all of what does and should matter. I’ve always known that.

Now, it is obvious.

Skipping Stones (Original Cut)

Since my first post (all those, like, four days ago), I have been nagged by the memory of a poem that seemed to get at what I was trying to say much more succintly. Found it. Keats. Clearly, there is a missing line between the last two that would reveal that, in addition to thinking, he was chucking rocks.

52. When I have fears that I may cease to be
WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be
  Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
  Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,        5
  Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
  Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
  That I shall never look upon thee more,        10
Never have relish in the faery power
  Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.


Adult Swim (or, how I became a facebook whore...)

I could not have imagined that it would go down like this. No, not at all.

I first realized I had a problem when I tripped over the dog jumping off the couch to get to my hands-free to plug into the ringing land line so I could talk to my dad and still carry on the text exchange and work email banter on the Blackberry as well as the two gChats, a Yahoo IM, and several Facebook threads (and some Twitter)on my laptop…all at about 11:30 on a school night. Right then, I bottomed out. I wound down the conversation with dad, turned off the ‘berry, shut the laptop and turned to a more natural, understandable habit by pouring myself a drink.

It was a quick descent. A little over a year ago, my only real issue was a slightly annoying but manageable Blackberry thing, purely for work purposes. I leaned on it too much at times, sure, but I could always stop if I needed to, and I had yet to start dangerously mixing ‘berrying and driving.

But then it all escalated innocently enough. See, I am an eCommerce guy at a big fat financial corporation, and we were starting to max out opportunities to build our topline through your typical display and search marketing. My boss began to ask how social and other emerging media channels might help us out, and embarrassingly, I really had no clue. I had neither a MySpace or a Facebook account, I never texted via cell, and, I must confess…had no idea what Twitter did or why. I needed to do some…research.

I started with MySpace, but…not so much. It felt like David Lynch mashed up with some bad Japanese anime. I opened a Twitter account, but, well, had nothing to say to a group of total strangers in 140 characters or less. I found what the strangers were saying to be less than intriguing. Yeah, I already knew they had new blog posts and I didn’t really care for a play-by-play of the movie they were watching. I tried Facebook and it seemed easy enough to set up, I found a couple close friends and a few random local folks added me on pretty quick. What the hell? This seems like a bar I can hang out in…purely for work and research purposes, of course. This was a young kids’ scene. I was just here to observe and figure out how to sell them stuff. (Don’t mind the old guy over in the corner…he’s a little creepy, but he seems harmless enough.)

At first I was intrigued by how some of the big time web personalities like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, and Hugh Macleod managed multiple social media properties, moving between them seamlessly, shamelessly pimping their services and sites while candidly mixing in chats with close friends. One of the great appeals of the academic life I pursued in the 90’s was the idea that work and personal life could coexist, running in a healthy manner into one another. Running bars, my work and social lives literally became one. Imagine never knowing if two or three of your best friends might be waiting in your cube when you got to work…and that it would be ok if they were. I dug a little deeper, followed several folks’ profiles pretty closely, Facebook deviously turning into merely a gateway drug for the crack pipe that is Twitter. What followed were a couple dark months that I will not go into here. I haven’t posted a tweet in some time now. Day by day…day by day.

But along the way, the network of friends I got connected with on Facebook grew in delightfully unexpected ways, spurred by folks organizing and following up on 20 year high school reunions and all manner of other college get togethers. Names and faces swirled and witty banter ensued. Networks of friends and family from Ohio to Texas to California (norcal and socal) to Rhode Island to Connecticut started to blend together. Some folks I barely knew in person became fast friends in this new medium. Some great people I had lost touch with started up again like we hadn’t missed a beat. This wasn’t research any more, this was my wide-ranging and crazy life all on a web page. (oh, and by the way, there is no way for an insurance company to make money through Facebook. We are just going to spend more on search.)

Now, I am addicted to Facebook because I am addicted to the friends and family I am connected to through it, folks that various grown up duties in my life had pulled me away from. I am addicted to the way old friends remember stories a little differently from me after all these years. I am addicted to the vignettes and scenes that I have forgotten but others can’t. I smile when two great friends from very different parts of my world start conversing like they grew up together. I love how late night Facebook revelations are the more modern equivalent of drunken dialing. I am humbled by how much folks have encouraged and helped me through this last year. As I rebuild a new life in a world where the original owner’s manual no longer applies, I’m now crowdsourcing my strategy to wonderful results.

Given all that has been going on in my life, if Facebook and Twitter and various chats and texts and IM channels…if they all, in the end, merely added up to a harmless distraction from the realities of being a grown up, they would all very well be worth it. I mean, the presidential debates turned into an international drinking game. As I cooked the Thanksgiving Day turkey I noted that the Macy’s parade got rickrolled and what followed was…epic. And the banter. I know some clever, twisted people.

But it has been so much more than a mere distraction. With each reconnection, each new connection, answering the simple question, “how are you?” in a hundred different contexts forces reflection, demands an internal logic among the replies. How I am now – who I am now – becomes exposed in this massively multivariate explanation, triangulated transparently among all manner of friends, family, and total strangers from all periods and places and goofy ass experiences that have made up my life. I can bullshit with the best of them, but I can’t bullshit this many of the best of them.

It’s still the internet, so of course there is some bullshit. That’s part of the game. But with this many people involved, I get called out. Frequently. So, if I say I am good, I am challenged by folks to actually get there. This is so much cheaper than therapy.

But then there is this notion of…cheapening. Does the ubiquity and the lack of filters on what can be said through Facebook or MySpace, IM, chat, text or Twitter…do the 140 character limits or the quick non-grammatical status updates cheapen dialogue, dumb down conversation, create mere illusions of relationships? Are we merely adults playing teenagers, distracting ourselves from the real life we should be attending to if we look up from our laptops?

Well, yes. To some degree. But, on another level, we are all busy as hell. And short of someone being right there to take the poopy diaper to the trash, to stir the pasta, to go pick up the kids, to bang out this PowerPoint that is late…few of us are really there to do much to help out with each others’ lives behind our ever-thinning laptop screens. Fair enough.

That said, the narrow focus of our daily lives is the breaking wave of a much deeper set of experiences and friends and loves and hurts upon that make each of us who we are. Meaning only comes in context. Reminders of that context are, undeniably, good.

Kids play online with words and words and words because they are trying to build a context for their lives. Us old folks can play online with a few choice words that evoke and remind us of rich memories and friendships and experiences.

Now that we are trying to play adult, those reminders, really, take some pretty simple and familiar forms. An old friend affirming that they remember you, assuring you that they are doing well, letting you know they are thinking about you, reminding you of how awesome you really are.

And with a lifetime of context behind it, us adults can usually do that in 140 characters or less.

I remember you. I am good. I am thinking about you. Now go kick ass.

(done. with characters to spare.)


Skipping Stones

Blogs are largely self-serving activities. To be clear, this one is entirely so. Whether anyone actually reads this or not, my purpose is served merely by the possibility that someone might. I’ll try to explain…

I’ve spent the last few decades hard-driven forward-focused, trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, taking the corners up on two wheels when I think I finally have a sense of where it is I need to be going. I’ve been successful, but hardly linear. I’ve had an amazing array of experiences, but haven’t reflected long enough on many of them for most to make me any wiser. I have been fortunate to know some of the most amazing people in the world, but haven’t been smart enough to invest in many of them to truly call them my friends.

A rough couple of years leave me right here, right now realizing that something needs to change about how I go forward from this point. I have been blessed with a rich life, but I need to know it a little better. The change I am noodling on has something to do with defining myself less through where I am going and all the things I still have left to do, and more by what got me here, the people and places, the achievements and fuck ups, the constant values and goofy whims that got me right…here. It’s a balance thing, I guess.

Writing is key to figuring this all out. Not necessarily what or why, but the simple act of just…writing. I don’t write to simply reflect what I think and value as much as I do to actually give form to the mess that is in my head. Writing is less a passive expression of who I am, much more a creative way to actually build out who I am. And I could use some design and remodel work these days.

But I can get lazy, and I tend to lie to myself if left to myself. So the idea that some of the folks that know me much better than I realize might actually stumble across some of this stuff and call bullshit…well, just that mere possibility will keep me much more honest than I ever would be just typing away on some password protected file on my laptop. Plus, this will force me to try to keep the writing interesting, perhaps amusing. If successful, perhaps I will become more of both along the way. As conceded at the outset, this  blog is a totally selfish act, a random trip through some rather loosely connected wires.

Since junior high, every time I have taken the time to reflect on what I need to do to get my head straight for some reason or another, sitting down and writing in some form or fashion has always been the first thing I commit to doing. It is also always the first thing I stop doing when habits and distractions settle back in. I am better when I am writing something, writing anything. After a couple decades of this dance, I need to accept that this is just a part of me, a place I go, a thing I do, something I need to figure out how to weave into my life for real and for good. I need to find the places and times to just write, and occasionally I might find some of it is not all that bad. Hell, as I kick through random musings, I might even find that I have something…to say. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here.


Much of what I have to say, here and elsewhere, revolves around my three kids, Emma, Max and Cole. Emma is about to turn 6, and the boys (twins) are about to turn 4. One very cool thing I noticed this summer is how utterly content all three of them are to find a body of water, be it lake, stream, ocean (and, yeah…fountain, pool, bath tub, sink), and just stand on the edge and throw things into it. Once I showed them how to drop down side arm with a nice flat stone (a la the currently most famous Auker, Elden, a Babe Ruth-era submarine-ball pitcher) and actually skip the rocks…they can stay at the water’s edge for hours, just searching for the perfect rocks, rearing back and letting them fly.

Of all the structured activities and play dates and organized lessons and kid-friendly events I have taken them to, I really think, in the end, they would prefer the simple peaceful time chucking rocks into the water over almost anything else.  

Looking back, I think I spent a good bit of my youth doing just the same. I think I should spend a little more of my adulthood that way…an old, comfortable, reflective habit, just watching the ripples mingle with the waves. Even the best skipping stones can sploosh straight to the bottom, and if you try hard enough, you can pretty much make any rock skip at least once. But there is something elegant, something in-the-moment satisfying when you get a dozen skips on a clear glass lake, pulling off a smooth throw worthy of that perfect round flat rock.