Annual Birthday Reflection, Part XLVI

By the time I posted this, I had clicked over the commemoration of yet one more successful orbit ’round this pale blue marble. And in the six months since my last posting, much has happened and much has been learned. Thus I offer my usual annual birthday reflection, all ~4000 words of it this year. (Buckle up and grab a cup of coffee; you’ll be here a hot second.)

My big take-away: Time is short. Be bold. And also, be grateful for a fruitful year of peace and prosperity.

I’ve grown to appreciate the specific timing of my birthday because it inaugurates a recurring period of generalized joy and contentment. From my birthday to Epiphany, we see a bunch of things unfold:

  • 9/15 to 10/31 — the magic of late summer and its gradual yield to the first hints of winter as exemplified by Halloween and All Saints Day
  • 11/1 to Thanksgiving — autumn gives way to winter and the joys of the harvest; for writers, it’s National Novel Writing Month
  • Thanksgiving to Christmas — the magical holiday time, largely consumed by Advent
  • Christmas to New Year’s Day — a floating time between holidays; the flowering of the liturgical Christmas season
  • New Year’s Day to Epiphany — the slow secular wind-down of holidays during the height of the liturgical Christmas season, which then yields to the dark heart of winter and the long slog until Memorial Day

This four-month cycle rinses and repeats each year. It’s my happy time. But there’s a kicker. Each repetition adds a year to the calendar. And it subtracts a year from the unknown pool of years we have ahead of us.

I’ve been guilty of being a bit cavalier with aging. Even when I knew better, I still behaved as if I were invulnerable to the slings and arrows of Father Time. I see this complacency in myself, in the maybe-I’ll-get-to-it-tomorrow approach to the work to remain healthy and vibrantand I see it in my family’s shifting hairlines. My grandmother is 89. She will turn 90 in May. I remember when she turned 50. For that matter, I remember when my mother turned 30. It seems like yesterday, but also a lifetime ago, when summer peaked at the joint celebration of my mother and my grandfather’s birthday in mid-August. But he died in 2005, and with him, a lot of the traditions that grounded my childhood departed with him.

I was too slow to replace those traditions with ones that felt natural, like an evolution rather than a sad foray into nostalgia. But I’m working on it.

Earlier this year I spontaneously quit picking my fingernails despite having done so all my life. Why did I stop? I have no idea; I was surprised one day to discover that I needed to trim my nails to remove my contacts. Similarly, although I had vague aspirations to start daily journaling for many years, this year I just started. And I’ve kept at it. And I realize that one benefit of logging the little things in my journal is that one day, hopefully far in the future, I won’t have to rely on memory to recall the happy times of my past. Instead, I can read my own reports.

My grandmother never seemed old to me, until just this year. And my mother is approaching 70. Which — wow. It’s not that it’s old, as much is that these numbers seemed to sneak out of nowhere. I don’t feel old, but I’m aware that I’m approaching the point where even if I live to be as old as Queen Elizabeth II, of happy memory, then I’m still sitting at the half-way point between birth and death. 

Have I made the best of it? That’s the question that keeps me up at night.

Updates, in no particular order:

The Daily Grind

The sign outside the office.

Work is — well, work. My primary client remains a direct-sales jewelry company, although I’m expanding my portfolio there to include corporate compliance in addition to strategic revenue analytics. I’ll be very soon hiring subcontractors for this stuff, but the journey to approval with them has taken a while. In addition, I’m back to doing some curriculum work for a university in the Mountain West, mostly QA on courses developed for virtual programs in healthcare quality and analytics.

I have been consistently pulling in five figures of revenue per month. That’s nice. But what’s nicer is that I’m being challenged, as an independent consultant, to expand my skillset in new and exciting ways. For example, I developed the financial modeling for a major field sales incentive that had a greater-than-8x multiplier on revenue relative to total program costs. Then I created the measurement framework for the program and audited post-program compliance.

I’ve functioned like an informal CIO for this jewelry company: In addition to my analytics SOW, I’ve performed a mix of in-person tech support and strategic IT and data-governance consulting. Plus, as of last month, I own the corporate email systems. So it’s a lot, but it’s a good client with good people, and I’m learning a lot about an interesting industry.

On a different front — today marks the one-year anniversary of Allison and I signing the commercial lease for our office building. When we took it over, it needed work. Investment. We put in the dollars and the sweat equity, and now our 3,000 square feet of floor space houses a dojo, a business consultancy, a small press, and a general events center. It’s a space that welcomes many people each week. I’m proud of what we’ve built, and I’m grateful to have a kick-ass partner in this endeavor.

Lakeshore Literary Shenanigans

Lakeshore Literary is evolving rapidly. We are in the reading window for Issue 3 of The Lakeshore Review and we’re in final production for the print versions of issues 1 and 2. I just wrapped up production of Surface Reflections, the inaugural volume of our house fiction anthology. I’m publishing What I Can Do, the memoir of Mary K., the founder of Kid’s Food Basket.

The bookstore is getting finalized. I had a great intern for much of the first half of the year, in the form of Faith from Ferris State University. I have started the process of standing up a non-profit entity, the Lakeshore Literary Foundation; the state paperwork is done and now I have to process the federal filing.

I’m hosting a launch party for the first two issues of the journal, plus the anthology, in late October. Should be a good time. We’re also sponsoring a writers’ Halloween party on the 31st of October, to coincide with the start of National Novel Writing Month. I’m one of the two municipal liaisons for NaNoWriMo for our region (Kent, Ottawa, and Ionia counties) this year, with my friend Mel, so November will certainly be busy.

The Long March to Cupertino

In news sure to delight the shriveled cockles of my friend Roux’s heart, I have been progressing more and more into an Apple-first tech ecosystem. I use an iPhone and an Apple Watch. I have an iPad Air and an M1 Macbook Air. At home, I have an M1 Mac Mini and in the office, a new iMac. I’ve given careful, covetous glances toward the Mac Studio.

What enabled this transition, oddly enough, was a mix of Windows-Mac software parity; the deep integration of iOS, macOS, and watchOS; and (most significantly) my move away from Microsoft services in the form of OneDrive and OneNote. I now rely on a Synology NAS for my file syncing (it has Mac and Windows desktop apps) and a Gitlab repository of Markdown files to replace OneNote.

The sticking point? I still enjoy a few games that are Windows-only. And the deeper integration between Windows and Android, approaching the level of iOS/macOS integration, is a new development that’s pausing a full transition. So I’m in the odd position of running Windows at home (on a brand-new Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio docked into a 4K monitor), running macOS at work, using an Android phone for work, and an iPhone for personal stuff. So there’s still some sorting to be done.

Yet for a guy who a few years ago thought Apple = Satan, it’s been quite a journey.

(And have you seen the new Apple Watch Ultra? Be still, this scuba diver’s heart.)


I pity da foo’.

In mid-August I was awarded the rank of shodan (first-degree black belt) in Uechi-ryu karate, at Fourth Form Martial Arts Center in Wyoming, Mich. Four of us were promoted that day; I was the only shodan and we had one promotion each to 3rd, 4th, and 5th degree.

My board, led by Sensei Chris, was comprised of three 6th degree black belts, a 4th degree, a 2nd degree, and a 1st degree. The pre-test was witnessed by Sensei Don, who is expected to earn his 9th degree later this year, in Okinawa.

I started karate at East West Karate in early 2007. I studied there through mid 2008, until I had a significant disagreement with the owner’s wife. In 2021, I started again, encouraged by my friend (and now business partner) Allison. So throughout 2021, under Sensei Chris’s leadership during a time of pandemic-related closures, we had weekly classes at a little gym in Dorr, Michigan. When we opened The L&G Center a year ago, Fourth Form launched. 

Allison inherited some of the equipment and many of the students from East West. Indeed, when I came back in early 2021, I recognized every single face in the karate class. The folks in our dojo have known each other for a long time and support each other. I felt that very strongly, with not only Sensei Chris, but also with Muhamet, Michelle, Allison, Tom, and MIke, who teach the regular classes.

I’m enjoying the opportunity that shodan provides. I can test for nidan — second degree — in one year. All I need to know is my new kata, seiryu, and the “new 10 point” kumite. The rest is pure refinement, which is freeing in its way.

I’d eventually like to teach, and I think Sensei Chris is preparing me with a theoretical framework for the why-and-how that I can communicate to the more conceptually minded students who come through after me. It’s a challenge that I eagerly accept.

Feline Overlords: Or, The Continuing Adventures of the Twin Teenaged Tangerine Terrors

Murphy and Fiona d’Cat, resident overlords.

It occurred to me a few months ago that Murphy d’Cat and Fiona d’Cat, the resident overlords here, are senior citizens. They were born in early 2009, which makes them nearly 14 years old. And you’d be hard-pressed to tell; they still scamper about as if they were three-year-olds, although lately I’ve taken to calling Murphy “Old Man Crabbypants” given his penchant for shepherding me to and from bed each morning and evening to the accompaniment of the songs of his people.

All things considered, these littermates have been a delight. No real adverse behavioral problems and excellent heath. Although, this summer I took them in for their triannual vet visit (for vaccinations; isn’t it odd how anti-vaxxers never give their pets “medical freedom?”) and a week later, poor lil Murph got really sick. Sick enough that I had to take him to the Animal Emergency Hospital. Of which, they’re a great institution that I highly recommend but you better have a fat wallet if the worst should happen — emergency veterinary care isn’t a low-budget endeavor.

Long story short, Murphy had an ingrown dew claw that got infected and his vet missed it on a routine physical inspection just one week prior.  AEH trimmed the claw, gave him some antibiotics, and sent him home at 2 a.m. He recovered just fine, but then a week later started limping. I decided to transfer his care from the “old” vet to the Feline Wellness Center, and Dr. Jen diagnosed him by emailed photos and didn’t even charge me for it. (Grains of litter had attached to the scab from where the claw had grown into his skin, so simply removing what looked like a giant wart provided instant relief).

Of course, the FWC transfer was not an accident, for I recently started volunteering at a no-kill cat rescue and placement center, for which Dr. Jen is the founder and medical director.

Feline Overlords II: Forty of the Little Buggers

Isa (sweet blind ginger) and Mayhem (naughty Siamese), at Big Sids.

In July I enjoyed my first orientation shift at Crash’s Landing and Big Sid’s Sanctuary, after years of prodding by my friend Brittany to take the plunge. These sister shelters manage two different cat populations. Crash’s Landing acts like a traditional cat adoption agency. The shelter only accepts strays and ferals — no owner surrenders — and after they’re medically cleared and judged to be eligible for placement, they go to Crash’s. The facility itself is a free-range affair; the only cages (or “catios”) are for new cats who are too scared to integrate with the other cats at first, and even then the doors usually remain open. 

The other side of the building is Big Sid’s Sanctuary. A majority of the cats are “Sid’s Kids,” and they’re there because they’re either permanent residents (unadoptable to normal families for some reason) or because they’re positive for FIV or FeLV or both.

Most of my cleaning shifts are on the Sid’s side, which is fine because all my favorite cats are there. I sponsor (i.e., pay a monthly donation in the name of a resident cat) two of the beasts, Isa and One-Eyed Jack. Isa is a tiny ginger senior kitty. She is super affectionate and downright fearless; she was found holding her own in the wild and adapted perfectly to life at the shelter. She is also totally blind, and seeing her resilience sometimes puts me to shame. So I trade with her — her inspiration for my cuddles. Judging by the ridiculously loud purring, she seems amenable to this arrangement. One-Eyed Jack, however, is a new resident. He has one eye (duh) and is still quite timid. He is at the opposite end of the fear spectrum from Isa. He let me touch him once, but the one time I was asked to brush him, I ended up bleeding.

I enjoy volunteering here so much that I’ve picked up more substitute shifts than I’ve had assigned shifts, and I’ve joined the adoptions team, helping visitors at semimonthly meet-and-greets to see whether one of the cats might be a good fit for their households.

Given the horror stories of some of these cats — tales of abuse and neglect that would make the very stones weep — I feel some small need to help atone for my fellow humans, some of whom are quite obviously fucking assholes. Plus, cuddles. Except when DMC bites you in the neck while you pet him, and then he has to go into bite quarantine, but that’s a story for a different day.

A Hell of a Drug

The biggest health news of the year is that a whole lot of stuff I’ve written about over the last several years came into crystal-clear focus with a single test my primary-care physician declined to order.

Readers of this blog with a good memory will surely recall me making comments about kinda-sorta struggles with something Covid related, plus yo-yo weight, plus a sense of malaise that dates back to probably late 2016 or early 2017.

When I established a new PCP relationship in mid 2020, I raised the normal conversations about my health history, goals, and family curses. And for the most part, I’m in great health, apart from the family history of hypertension and hypothyroid disorder (the latter of which does not affect me). Yet I had asked my new doctor for a specific test but she refused to order it because she was concerned about the implications for my blood pressure. 

I therefore let it go. I wish I hadn’t.

Not long after 2022 started, I lost a ton of energy. Much of it was mental: Concentration became excruciatingly hard and I lost a lot of physical stamina. It got to the point where I’d feel a brain cloud descend and I knew I had like 30 to 60 seconds before my ability to really think and concentrate would be gone for the rest of the day. So I’d routinely bow out of karate classes, often enough that there was real question about whether I was going to be ready for the August test.

Then in early June, frustrated with how little oomph I had, I ordered a testosterone spit test from Everlywell, through Amazon. And it came back with a troubling result: My free T levels were closer to zero than the lower end of the reference range!

I ended up working with a men’s endocrinology clinic in Florida. My assigned doctor there ordered a physical and lab work, then we had a 30-minute virtual visit. He prescribed testosterone, which I inject twice weekly, and a daily gonadorelin acetate nasal spray to preserve fertility and testicular function/volume. 

The TL;DR? Holy fucking shit, T is no joke. 

I felt a “power surge” 30 minutes after my very first injection — there’s no better way to say it. I waited 10 minutes after that injection to watch for potential anaphylaxis, and then I made breakfast. And while scrambling my eggs (hahahaha) I experienced a brief whole-body sensation like touching a live but weak electrical current.

Six weeks later, all the little things that had bedeviled me for years had mostly vanished. No more brain fog. No more lack of energy. Better sleep. Vastly better stamina. And, obviously, Mr. Happy down there was suddenly happy again, as if he remembered what being 15 felt like.

A big chunk of men over 40 experience depressed testosterone levels. This is an eminently treatable condition, but most guys don’t talk about it. And I get it. But I’m talking about it because the improvements to my life after beginning testosterone replacement therapy are so significant. There’s no shame in having low T levels; there’s plenty of shame in lacking the balls — so to speak — to fix the problem and live a manifestly better life.

Coolant, Coolant, Everywhere

In 2016 I purchased a 2013 Chevy Cruze. And in fairness, although I’m not a huge fan of sedans, the Cruze has been good to me. But the ol’ girl’s getting older and so twice in the last two weeks, I’ve needed to drop the beast off at a repair facility to address coolant leaks. 

The first leak has persisted a while; a hose connecting the coolant reservoir to the lower engine bloc has been weepy for like a year. The second leak, just this week, was “fun” in the most unexpected sense of the term. Suddenly a gusher of white smoke erupted from under the hood. A hose assembly had cracked and spayed coolant all over the manifold. Chaos! Disaster!

Everything got cleaned up and fixed, but at $2,100 invested so far, I’m hoping there’s not a third leak in my immediate future.

A Grave Undertaking

What better way to celebrate being half-way to 92 than by purchasing your final resting place? One day in July my mother texted me asking if I was busy. She doesn’t often do that, so I called her. Turned out, she heard there was a “special” running on graves at Catholic Cemeteries and wanted to know if I was interested.

It hadn’t been much on my mind, but I figured, why not? So we toured Holy Cross Cemetery in Grand Rapids. There’s an area near the back, adjacent to a new and mostly unused portion of the cemetery, that had plenty of availability. And, oddly enough, we looked around and saw dozens and dozens of people and families we recognized. It was as if the old Polish Catholics from the Upper West Side all chose to cluster in this one area of Holy Cross. 

We bought adjoining plots. The cemetery borders West Catholic High School — the same institution whence I matriculated in 1994. And standing literally atop my plot (you pick them out before you buy them), I stared at the high school and said, “You know, 30 years ago, I was inside of those windows, looking out.” It would never have occurred to me, as a high-school student, to even consider that I might die, and if I did, where my corpse would repose. 

It turns out, not far outside the windows of the south wing of the school.

It also turns out that standing atop your own grave is both deeply calming and deeply creepy.

Familial Perambulations

Starting last month, inspired by my brother’s long period off work recovering from shoulder surgery, he and my mother and I started walking on Wednesday evenings along the Kent Trails near Millennium Park. We’re starting at Secchia Meadows and doing two-to-three-mile circuits. It’s been a fun time to enough the fresh air, chat a bit, and chalk up some walkin’ miles.

My brother ended up hoofing up to 10 miles per day on his medical leave; he lost more than 50 pounds in just a few months. He re-caught the hiking bug; we’ve been talking about a weekend excursion, and also about starting a hike of the entire North Country National Scenic Trail in the state of Michigan — more than 1,100 miles from Ohio to Wisconsin. He planned the entire Michigan hike in a detailed spreadsheet, which is impressive work.

Domicile Disruptions

I moved into “The Fortress” in early December, 2010. I didn’t plan on staying long. But the landlord at the time, Rod, was a charming fellow whom I still account as a friend, and the rents were astonishingly reasonable.

A dozen years later, the guy to whom Rod sold the house in late 2018 is now listing it again. I’ll refrain from commenting on all of this, but it does prompt me to think about alternative homefronts. I have time to make a decision, but the thought of buying a plot of land and then slowly improving it sounds really appealing.

A Man of Letters

Wahl-Eversharp combo, ca. 1917-1919.

I’ve become something of a pen snob. And by “pen snob” I mean that I have become an aficionado of fine fountain pens and premium inks. My friend Dawn and I exchange handwritten letters showcasing our favorite pens and inks; the fact that Dawn lives in Melbourne, Vic., makes the passage of paper all the more fun. I recently won an eBay auction for a Wahl-Eversharp pen-and-pencil combo; the design dates the instruments from the period 1917 to 1919, and the pen had been lovingly restored. It writes beautifully (if a bit wet) with my Iroshizuku Asa-Gao (purplish blue) ink. And the pencil still, uh, pencils.

Did I mention I bought a ticket to the Detroit Pen Show in late October?

Smith-Corona Sterling, ca. 1946.

In the last few months I’ve also acquired a lovely, excellent-condition Smith-Corona Sterling manual typewriter, with the original travel case and a fresh ribbon and even the original instruction manual. I used it to type a letter to my aunt Mary. She and I used to trade letters when I was a kid and she lived in Oregon. The typewriter dates to 1946, according to the serial number (it’s the 4A series). 

I think I’m going to make a habit of using the postal service to communicate. The process of writing longhand or by typewriter forces oneself to be clear, concise, and thoughtful in a way that text messaging or emails don’t demand. It stretches one’s thinking in salutary ways, plus it communicates a sense that “you are important enough to justify this extra effort.”

So if you’d like to become a USPS pen pal, send me your address.

And with that — ciao!

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