Mid-Year Updates, 2020 Edition

I haven’t posted any personal updates since March. The days blend together when we’re “social distancing.” So, behold, some highlights from the Life of Jason.

In no particular order:

Cats. The feline overlords who dwell indoors, Murphy and Fiona, are doing well. My outdoor domestic friend, Ziggy, is hit or miss; his weight goes up and down and up and down, and he’s scrawny to begin with. He’s been somewhat less people-friendly for the last few months. Whether it’s a function of him perhaps being ill (or old) or recognizing he’s in territory where he’s lost fights, I cannot say. I am convinced, however, that he’s recently gone fully or mostly deaf, based on changes of his behavior and the way that I interact with him. “My” two new outdoor cats — Kali and Orange, ferals who know each other in some way — went from full-on social distancing to acting like lifelong domestics. In fact, Kali basically lives on my back porch now and every time I go out there, she gets excited and purrs and demands petting. Even Orange (an intact male) occasionally seeks some attention, including occasional belly rubs, and he goes nuts over catnip.

Reading Books. I’m still (usually) doing a Reading Sabbath day on Sundays. I’ve recently completed The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Joel Kotkin), The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (George Weigel), Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despite One Another (Matt Tiabbi), Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class (Charles Murray), Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West (R. R. Reno) and Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Writing Books. Long-time readers of this beautiful, well-honed, sublimely reasoned blog know I’ve been writing several books. One of those projects — From Pencil to Print — has undergone a significant transition. When it slithered up to the 200,000-word mark with several chapters still outstanding, I took a page from my friend Ken’s playbook and opted to split the project into several smaller volumes. Three of them are in a mostly done state … and as of yesterday, one of them is finished. Yes, The Diction Dude Essential Guide to Getting Started as a Professional Writer is complete and available as an advance review copy, should any of you wish to review it. I’ll be out for purchase in print and ebook form in mid-to-late August. This volume is the first in a series of 10 planned volumes in The Diction Dude Essential Guide series. The second volume (Mechanics of Fiction) is probably 70 percent done; the book about short-form technical non-fiction (Service Journalism) is probably 40 percent done. Two of the volumes are at zero percent because they’re new ideas that didn’t fit into the original plan, but the remaining five are somewhere between 20 percent and 60 percent done, thanks solely to me slicing up the Pencil to Print manuscript. Likewise, I’m progressing through Delivering MIRACLES (my healthcare book) and should be done with the first draft by the end of the summer. So excited to see these multi-year projects finally come to fruition. It’s been slow going, running several projects in parallel instead of in series, but I’ve learned that I’ve got a cap for how long in a week I can work on any one project before my eyes roll into the back of my head and I just want to smash some battleships in World of Warships.

Health care. As I mentioned in March, I likely had Covid-19 disease. At the time, I hadn’t been to my doctor’s office in, oh, maybe a decade. (I’m a healthcare quality consultant. Just as auto mechanics tend to drive junkers, we HQCs tend to use spit and duct tape to keep our bodies going.) The nurse on the phone was absolutely horrid to me, so I elected to switch primary-care physicians. My new doc is young and aggressive. My family “enjoys” a long and intimate relationship with hypertension — and I, myself, had blood pressure high enough to compare favorably to jetliner hydraulics — so she ordered a bunch of tests: enough blood work to impress Dracula, a transthoracic echocardiogram, a renal vascular ultrasound. (Pro tip: The ultrasound tech is not amused when you ask, during a renal ultrasound, if you’re having twins.) Anyway, it turns out that I’m not dying. She prescribed some long-overdue meds for blood pressure; that’s my one major genetic inheritance from which there’s no escape. I also was very, very, very low on Vitamin D again, which probably explains the slow recovery and frequent deep exhaustion even after I recovered from probably-Covid. So I’m back to daily supplementing, and spending more time in the Great Outdoors.

The funny thing about blood pressure — I know on paper the factors that adversely affect pressure, but I didn’t know how those things affect me, personally, in the real world. So I ran an informal experiment on myself, testing what happens when I do and don’t enjoy things like fast food, cigars, alcohol and coffee. For the most part, coffee kicks my butt very hard, reading-wise, for a few hours, then the effect dissipates. I can’t see an obvious short-term contribution from cigars. Alcohol matters if I go above two or three standard drinks in a “session” with effects that last at least 36 hours. And fast food? All that sodium makes a huge difference … and that difference lasts for 48 hours to 72 hours.

Moral of the story, kids? No one’s immortal. I’m in good shape under-the-hood for my age and genetics, but as we get older, we must do what we must to avoid falling off the Cliff of Good Health without a parachute. And for most people, the Cliff is kinda obvious, but easy to stumble over by accident. I’m avoiding my cliff, and I hope and pray that you do, too.

Hiking. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the woods I go. In the last few weeks, I’ve:

  • Completed a 5-mile loop at Millennium Park (the yellow trail plus the to/from stretch to the trailhead).
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Grand Ravines Park (the path around the park) with Brittany and Mel.
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Seidman Park (the outer-ring path), which includes segments of the North Country Trail.
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Aman Park (the outer-ring path) with my brother and his friend.

Plus, in two weeks, my brother and his friend and I will undertake an 8-mile section hike of the NCT, northbound from Nichols Lake South to 14 Mile in Newaygo County. He’s also suggested that he really, really, really wants to do Isle Royale, so we’ve tentatively planned it for Memorial Day 2021. 

I took pictures at three of those bulleted hikes; check out the photo galleries to view them.

Politics. I was roped into running, for a second time, for the 17th district commission seat for the Kent County Board of Commissioners. My district is something like D+50, so we joke about me being a “sacrificial goat,” but it’s still a good exercise in civic engagement. Similarly, if you haven’t checked out the #Unity2020 ticket information and you’re not a fan of either Trump or Biden — well, check it out.

Church. In June, Sacred Heart re-opened at 25 percent capacity, as authorized by the bishop. Kudos to the parish team for a smooth transition. The parish added two additional Masses on the weekends — both of which are billed for vulnerable populations and thus masks are obligatory — and did a ton of great stuff, including Zoom-based all-parish meetings, to keep everyone connected and engaged. As of July, we no longer need to sign up for services. 

Because Sacred Heart is in tune with the full history of the Church Universal, with a pastor with an admirable degree of erudition and foresight, we actually re-introduced a practice that was common during the Black Death years, centuries ago: Liturgical forceps. Yes. Holy tweezers. When you attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form (i.e., the pre-Vatican II Mass), you kneel at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue. In the Middle Ages, with plague sweeping across the land yet lacking knowledge of the germ theory of disease transmission, the Church in sua sapientia authorized (and still authorizes) special liturgical tweezers so that the priest does not risk touching your mouth with fingers that might have touched other mouths. So Sacred Heart busted out the forceps at the EF Masses. (With the forceps, he drops the Host on the tongue, he doesn’t just lay it on, so the forceps themselves never touch you, either.) And with the priest wearing a non-liturgical neck gaiter during the distribution, we actually complied with social-distancing rules even during a moment as intimate as that.

Social events. With the Coronapocalypse still with us, social activities have been somewhat spare. Tony and I went on June 1 to the grand re-opening of the Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Michigan. I enjoyed a lovely Sunday dinner with my friend Patrick a while back, and I got to check out his scrumptious library. Plus I enjoyed a lovely walk around the Grand Ravines county park with my friends Mel and Brittany (and Brittany’s dog, Mischief). The writers’ groups have been meeting virtually since March. We did, however, have a pair of cookouts at my brother’s house — one a few weeks ago, with grilled burgers, and then on Independence Day, with slow-cooked ribs. Both events were faaaaantastic.

All for now.

“Jason, Jason, Are You Okay?” A Tale of March Illness

My last post prompted some back-channel questions about how I’m doing. Which is touching. So please permit a brief* follow-up post answering that question publicly.

* 1,600 words is “brief,” right?

A Wasted March

The first week in February, I thought I was coming down with a cold. However, by the time I took my buoyancy class on February 6, it cleared — and two days later, I jetted off for a week in sunny, spectacular Bonaire. And I didn’t feel at all sick on the island. However, one day on a dive, I think I might have given myself a mild over-expansion injury. I had a fast ascent (almost 60 feet in two minutes, which is the top end of the recommendation) while maintaining buoyancy solely through breathing and not by playing with my inflator or dumps. Later that evening, I experienced a bit of trouble breathing and some chest tightness, but by the next morning all was well. So I shrugged that experience off as a nod to the age-old diver warning to never hold your breath.

Our return trip routed through Miami International Airport on Saturday, February 15. At MIA, we packed cheek-by-jowl in a petri dish of humanity for two hours, in addition to back-to-back, full, three-hour flights in (alas) coach. 

About 10 days later, I got a cold, but it was an odd one. First, it was remarkably mild. And second, it stayed purely in the upper respiratory tract. No sore throat, no cough. That pattern was unusual; usually my colds always migrate to my lower respiratory tract with a sore throat and a cough. Instead, I just experienced two weeks of occasional sneezing and nose-blowing and mid-grade exhaustion. Not enough to be debilitating, but certainly enough to induce me to do just the minimum.

By the middle of the first week of March, the cold persisted, but the exhaustion got a bit worse. Again, not debilitating, but after I finished work, I was done for the day. No writing, just … existing, watching YouTube videos or staring blankly at my computer screen realizing I intended to write but couldn’t be bothered to move my fingers. And, oddly, I became significantly cold-sensitive. No fever, but just consistently chilled, which is odd because Michigan winter is my jam and my office this time of year typically clocks in somewhere between 52 and 56 degrees Fahrenheit. I actually turned up the furnace and kept a blanket on me and kept my feet on a hot pad.

Two weeks later, on March 18, things turned worse. For the next week, I alternated between feeling okay-ish and not. The pattern was consistent. Between 8p and 10p, a slight fever, somewhere between 99F and 99.6F oral (my baseline oral temp is around 97.5F) with intense chills set in. I’d go to bed and poor Murphy d’Cat couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stop shivering violently despite four blankets. But by morning, I’d be sweaty yet the fever broke. Until the evening. I yo-yo’d like this for roughly a week. I also developed a very slight cough, never productive.

One night — Friday the 20th — I woke up at 3a unable to breathe. Tight chest, labored breathing. I was thiiiiis close to thinking about going to the ER until I remembered I had a pulse-ox monitor. So I took a few measures, saw my sats were 96 or 97 or 98 percent, and figured I was talking myself into a worst-case diagnosis, so I went back to bed. Didn’t sleep much, granted, but I went back to bed nonetheless.

On the 23rd, I called the doctor’s office. Turns out, I needed a new doctor; mine doesn’t accept my new insurance, although the nurse triage line was kind enough to tell me that I should self-quarantine and there was no need or capacity for COVID-19 testing. Later that day, I found a new primary care doc, but because of the COVID crisis, I couldn’t be formally enrolled with a new-patient visit for 90 days. So, I’ve got an appointment … in mid-May.

By the 29th, the cold-like symptoms and the fevers mostly stopped, but it wasn’t until April 1 that I actually felt decent.  

Tips for Staying Virus-Free

My assumption through the long, tired slog through March was that I had the cold and then the flu. However, neither the cold not the flu behaved like normal — the obvious assumption is that I had COVID-19, but even then, my symptom progression didn’t really match a typical COVID-19 case: I never experienced significant shortness of breath, my fevers were mild (and, strictly speaking, didn’t seem to cross the 100.4F mark), and I didn’t develop a persistent cough.

I’m a fan of the Dark Horse Podcast, hosted by Bret Weinstein. He and his wife, Heather Heying, have been “sheltering in place” in Oregon so they’ve been live-streaming on YouTube twice each week. They’re both evolutionary biologists, famous for the kerfuffle a few years ago at Evergreen State College. They’ve shared some fascinating information about COVID-19, including Heather’s likely experience with it much earlier than the general pandemic in the United States. They offered some great information about the disease and its origins in their first and second livestreams. Their third livestream kept up the theme (it covered bats, bio-weapon theories and the social implications of the pandemic). I had asked them a question and, in the separate Q&A livestream they conducted, Bret actually answered my question about masks (by name!), which left me kind of geeked.

After reviewing some CDC materials and seeing how Weinstein and Heying addressed the subject, I think the odds are well above average that I acquired COVID-19 but my case was mild enough that I avoided hospitalization. It’s improbable, giving timing, that I was infected in Miami, but it’s also possible that a sequence of unfortunate events — potential lung over-expansion plus a mild cold — left me a bit more open to a lower respiratory infection than I might otherwise have been. However, without a test, this hypothesis cannot be verified. And in Michigan right now, there’s no capacity for screening for people who aren’t seriously ill.

One interesting educational tidbit that I learned from Weinstein and Heying relates to more advanced infection prevention. Everyone, of course, should follow basic guidelines for minimizing infection risk:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with un-washed hands.
  • For the coronavirus, wear an appropriate mask when you’re in a public space, and practice social distancing of at least 2 meters from everyone else at all times.

Weinstein recommended a few other precautions, to which I’ve added a few of my own:

  • If you don’t own a supply of N95 masks, make due with a doubled-up bandanna. Wear it over your nose and mouth in public, as if you were some sort of Antifa thug. A bandanna (or, as I’ve been wearing, a cotton shemagh) is likely highly effective, if not as good as an N95 mask, given the vector of coronavirus infection. Wash it daily. Clinical evidence from a 2010 study published in Applied Biosafety suggests bandannas are 11 percent effective at blocking 1 micron particles. The coronavirus is 100 to 120 microns and travels in droplets, suggesting that a well-fitted bandanna face covering could be something above 90 percent effective or better in blocking the virus. As they say — good enough for government work. (Weinstein recommends the bandanna in the absence of N95 masks, and my question to him in the livestream addressed this journal article.)
  • When you get home from a trip, strip and shower immediately and do not re-wear clothes. Virus particles could land, e.g., on your hair and then transfer to your pillow or to your eyes/nose/mouth through inadvertent touching. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is believed to live just a few hours on fabric, but that’s all it takes. If you decontaminate yourself after you get home, you substantially cut this risk.
  • Men with epic beards — yeah. You do know that they’re massive infection vectors in any case, right?
  • If you can sanitize your cart handles or basket handles at the store, do so. Sanitize them before you actually use them.
  • Decontaminate your hands with soap or alcohol sanitizer before you enter the store and before you get into your car. It’s not necessary to wear gloves in the store given that coronavirus doesn’t lead to COVID-19 through direct skin contact.
  • After you put your groceries away at home, wash your hands. The coronavirus can live up to a week on hard non-porous surfaces, so assume all the packaging of your groceries are contaminated. As such, wash your hands after touching all this stuff, especially before/during/after meal prep.
  • Safety glasses or sunglasses with side protection limit viral exposure to the eyes.

Lots of people have suffered from COVID-19, but emerging anecdotal evidence suggests it might have passed through parts of the country, especially California, earlier than people assume. Given that those early mild-to-moderate cases were likely misdiagnosed, odds are good that many more people have contracted the virus and either proved asymptomatic or experienced non-acute symptoms that have kept them out of the denominator of public-health stats. Until serology tests hit the market, however, we have no way of knowing who might have encountered the virus but avoided COVID-19 infection, or who encountered it and experienced mild symptoms.

Did I have COVID-19? Hell if I know, but it’s more likely than not. Some of my symptoms are consistent, some aren’t. Then again, my “cold” and “flu” weren’t typical, either. All I know for sure is that I basically lost the entire month of March to a mild, yet real, malaise — one that didn’t break until April 1.

A Pandemic of Opinions About the COVID-19 World Order

What a difference a month makes. Just 30 days ago, the Wuhan Coronavirus seemed like a distraction from the seriousness of the Democratic beauty pageant. Partisans sniped about whether COVID-19 represented an existential threat to the species or a hoax to get Trump. The Dow was looking to crest 30,000 points. Life offered predictability.

In fact, just six weeks ago, I remember sitting on the porch of our rented apartment in Bonaire, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, enjoying rum and a cigar and talking to Dave (who frequently travels to China) about whether he had been to a place called Wuhan, because the news stories out of China were looking scary. He told funny stories about his travel adventures in China and India.

Now? No one’s laughing. No one with working synapses thinks it’s a hoax.

Where to begin?

The Epidemiology

Let’s start with the science. 

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan likely originated with a wet market. That’s a market serving slaughtered animals, many of them exotic. The Chinese government made motions to shut them down after the SARS epidemic but let them persist. 

Some terms: The virus, called SARS-CoV-2, sometimes leads to a disease called COVID-19. People can be infected by the virus and, because they’re asymptomatic, not actually manifest the disease. The math about the dangers of COVID-19 are based on reported cases of people whose infections have morphed into the disease. However, some unknown proportion of the country has acquired and defeated the virus without developing the disease. Keep that distinction top-of-mind when you think about population-prevalence statistics. A good deal of reporting has mixed, willy-nilly, cases of infection and cases of disease.

It’s difficult to get a good sense on how wide the disease has spread, in part because people with very mild cases are likely under-counted in the denominator and in part because some of the worst outbreaks occur in countries with regimes that shade the truth (China, Iran, possibly Russia and Venezuela). For people with mild-to-moderate infections, the disease symptoms are so similar to influenza that only a specific test yields a concrete diagnosis. In general, though, the danger signs of COVID-19 include dry (often extreme) coughing, shortness of breath, and fever.

The CDC offers an online symptom self-checker that helps put your mind at ease about what your best course of action may be. In general, if you experience trouble breathing, become confused or lethargic, show a bluish tint to your face or lips, or feel persistent pain/pressure in your chest, seek immediate medical attention. Those are signs of hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—and is caused by, among other things, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious complication from COVID-19.  Basically, your lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen absorption in your tissues, which is why the number of ventilators is important. (If you’re a worry-wort and you merely think you’re having difficulty breathing and then hyperventilate and then generate the same symptoms of respiratory insufficiency … get yourself a pulse oximeter and learn how to use it.)

However, those big-three symptoms everyone talks about aren’t the only ones that manifest with COVID-19:

 

When you consider how COVID-19 differs from the cold or the flu, two statistics matter:

  1. The R0. The R-naught of a pathogen marks its replication multiplier. A pathogen with R0 = 1 generally results in one infected person infecting a single other person, in the long-run average. Diseases with an R0 of less than 1 generally self-contain; not enough people get them to cause a pandemic. Diseases with R0 above 2 spread like wildfire. It’s easy to see why: One person infects two. Those two infect four. Those four infect 8, who infect 16, who infect 32. Imperial College London estimates the R0 of COVID-19 to be 2.4. That’s code for “a lot of people will get exposed to this thing in the normal course of business.”
  2. The case fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is the proportion of people infected by a pathogen who will die from the pathogen or complications related to it. A study published 24 February in JAMA suggests a case-fatality rate, as represented by official Chinese statistics, of 2.3 percent. That rate, however, is highly dependent on the age and chronic comorbidities of the afflicted. Relatively few young-and-healthy people die of COVID-19, for example, although they can and do. In Italy, the official case-fatality rate is somewhere above 8 percent, but Italy’s population skews older and they’re classifying any cause of death that looks like COVID-19 to be COVID-19, so that number is almost surely overstated. In the United States, it appears to hover around 1.45 percent with statistics current as of 26 March.

People sometimes ask: Is all this drama worth it? After all, more than 80 percent of infected people experience no or very mild symptoms. In fact, absent clinical testing, doctors can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So why worry?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the interplay between the case-fatality rate and R0. The flu’s case-mortality rate is around 0.05 to 0.1 percent with an R0 of 1.3. Compared to the flu, it appears COVID-19 kills 15 to 75 times more people and infects twice as many people. Although it’s true that for a broad swathe of people, COVID-19 infection proves utterly anticlimactic, the public-health concern isn’t with the 80 percent. It’s with the 20 percent who require hospitalization. Of those, 5 percent will die, and a proportion will only survive acute respiratory distress syndrome through the use of a ventilator—and many those extreme survivors will never regain full pulmonary function.

If we leave the disease unmanaged, the prospect that 1 million or more Americans could die from COVID-19 isn’t scaremongering—it’s science. Given that there’s presently no vaccination or treatment, the only tool in our toolkit becomes an artificial reduction in R0 through tactics like enforced social isolation. Because even though the virus might have an average “natural” case-fatality rate of 1 percent in optimal-care settings, if a large chunk of that 20 percent who require hospitalization can’t get a ventilator, the case-fatality rate increases. Sometimes dramatically. In an overstretched healthcare system with inadequate ventilator supplies and fewer healthcare providers (because they, themselves, are sick!), that death rate climbs. And climbs. And climbs.

Are these broad shutdowns scary? Sure. Unprecedented? Yup. Necessary? Absolutely!

In a perfect world, by mid-summer, we’ll all look at these shutdowns and wonder if it was all a let-down. Much ado about nothing. If that’s the case, then congratulations to us all—these measures worked. And if mid-summer comes and the world feels like Thunderdome—well, then, they didn’t. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Shining Points of Light

Resist the urge to see only the bad and the scary, though. Use this moment as a ready-made excuse to connect with old friends (remotely, of course) and to practice random acts of kindness. Stories abound of people doing good things—like people who organized a drive-by celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday. Or the teenager who delivered dinner and offered an impromptu trumpet performance for an isolated elderly couple. Or the students who use their 3D printer to help create face masks for healthcare workers. You can be the hero of such a story, too.

I’ve been eating my own dog food. The last few days, I’ve been sending occasional text messages and emails to folks I haven’t seen in a while, or who I know might be struggling, or who happen to live in a hot zone like NYC. We each enjoy our web of networks. Now’s as good of a time as any to make sure the strands connecting each node remain active and strong.

Some institutions are doing their best and thereby demonstrating their resilience. My home parish, for example, has followed the orders of the bishop and the governor to suspend public services, but the church stays open for private prayer and individual confession remains available. Plus, the parish has called every registered parishioner to check in, and the pastor has been releasing daily YouTube videos with Lenten reflections on the readings of the day plus a blessing. (And the bishop live-streams Sunday Mass from the Cathedral.)

Arts institutions have offered creative online performances. Even Sir Patrick Stewart has been tweeting a sonnet a day. Because Shakespeare. And corporations are helping, too—Xfinity/Comcast is, for the next few months, waiving all Internet usage caps to accommodate work-from-home activities.

When you’re part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem. You can be a shining point of light. And when enough points of light glow in the darkness, the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Problem of Information

Speaking of darkness, let’s turn to the media.

The most significant gut-churning lesson from the last 90 days isn’t about the virus or the economic aftereffects of it. Rather, for me, the big story has been the utter failure of the press to be serious about, well, anything. Consider:

  • Reporters have repeatedly asked President Trump if it’s racist to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus” despite that it’s common practice to name new diseases after the location they first appeared. Think about that. You’re a reporter. It’s a pandemic. You have access to the President of the United States. And your primary goal is to try to dunk on him about terminology? Seriously?
  • The conservative media went on, and on, and on, about how COVID-19 is just the flu and complaining about it is like impeachment all over again. Then they decided it was serious and Trump’s response has been perfect.
  • The progressive media attacked Trump for not locking the country down, days after attacking him for locking down the borders, despite that the president has no authority to lock down parts of the interior—let alone the entire country—except in specific instances of armed insurrection. No matter what Trump does, it’s too little, too late, too corrupt. Even Governor Cuomo has found nice things to say about Washington’s response, for cryin’ out loud.
  • The centrist pundits tried to prognosticate their way into relevance, only to be proven wrong (in the aggregate) at every step of the way.

For a long time, China lied about the respiratory illness arising from this virus. Chinese authorities at all levels suppressed information. None of this information is in dispute. As recently as this week, China maintained that a U.S. Army athlete brought the virus to China last November. To mention the duplicity of the Chinese Community Party in allowing the disease to spread isn’t racist. It’s truth.

A Gallup poll taken March 13 to March 22 shows that of nine polled entities, the U.S. news media was the only institution underwater in its approval rates. Overall approval for the media stood at just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. Contrast that to the media’s foil, President Trump, whose approval rate for the coronavirus crisis stands at 60 percent. Even Congress is at 59 percent approval

For an excellent case study in the utter lack of self-awareness “infecting” the media, consider Damon Linker’s March 27 column in The Week in which he wrote:

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president’s lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn’t.
 
Maybe it’s time to recognize that it won’t.
 
Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn’t mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.
 
But maybe that isn’t true.

It’s isn’t true at all, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of the modern commentariat to loathe Trump and the Republicans so much that bumper-sticker slogans substitute for truth and moral catastrophizing reins supreme. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the Intellectual Yet Idiot as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think and 5) who to vote for.” Sounds a lot like the press corps, from top to bottom, and their fellow travelers in Twitter’s Blue Check Mark Brigades.

I think there’s a lot of truth to Taleb’s framework. And—forget the coronavirus a moment—the prevalence of the IYI crowd in the media and in the commanding heights of academic administration and cultural institutions hints at the weakness of the elite worldview that’s part of the current repatrimonalization of Western institutions. Individual people cannot make prudent decisions about life-or-death choices, let alone inform their economic and political beliefs, when the primary gatekeeper of information is across-the-board corrupt. How much of the populist resurgence roots in some way to a reaction against IYI narratives?

Yet that’s where we’re at. I’ve dreaded this conclusion for a while now, but the systemic failure of the press seems inescapable

Preparing for Tomorrow

Pundits churn out prediction stories like the genre’s en fuego. Every single one of these predictions is utter horseshit. No one knows what lies ahead. No one knows how long it’ll take to get Wuhan Coronavirus under control; no one knows the final death toll; no one knows the secondary toll taken from loss of livelihood in the shutdown; no one knows how long the economy will take to return to pre-crisis levels; no one even knows if the economy will ever fully recover given the presently unquantifiable risk of radical social disruption that renders the Washington Consensus moot.

So I’m not going to offer predictions.

Instead, I do two things:

  1. Hope for the future. Humans tend to rally in the face of adversity. I’m generally bullish on the short-term prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in organized religion and in the strengthening of the “little platoons” in hyperlocal contexts. I believe we’ve got it in us to come out ahead. I remain hopeful that human ingenuity will find a way to defeat this virus and that by mid-summer or autumn, we’ll have something like a solution that allows for a significant degree of a return to normalcy. I’m betting that by Thanksgiving, we’ll be giving thanks for the CoronaCrisis receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. Plan for the apocalypse. I also remain aware that things can always get worse. How much worse? No one knows. But just as the best-case scenario isn’t likely to materialize, neither is the worst-case scenario. That said, if you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re prepared for everything. So I’ve been slowly working on stocking some non-perishable food items and jugs of water. I’ve made sure all my first-aid kits have been re-stocked and that stuff that’s expired got rotated out. I’ve added recurring tasks to my to-do list to swap and recharge the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I’ve re-inventoried my hiking-and-camping gear. I’ve been making checklists in case I need to get out of Grand Rapids in a hurry—Where will I go? What will I bring? How shall I provision for, and transport, the cats? If I’m traveling by car, what else might I toss in my bags if I’m not sure how long, or ever, it might be before I return home? 

Think about these things. Being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best means that you’ll take whatever happens in stride.

All that said: Stay safe and healthy. 

Some Leap Day Reflections

Something fun happens once every four years—and I’m not talking about the interminable agony of the presidential election cycle. Today marks leap day, the quadrennial recurrence of the 29th of February. To my fellow children of the Ford Administration, I say: Happy 10th birthday. Just think: In 2060 or 2064, you’ll finally be old enough to legally raise a toast in your own honor. Perhaps by then, some of you will even have adulted.

A handful of miscellaneous reflections follow, in alpha order by subject heading.

Cats

Over the last few months I’ve accumulated a second pair of cats. These felines, whom I’ve cleverly nicknamed “Kali” (the calico) and “Grey” (the grey), have grown accustomed to receiving their daily sacrifices of kibble. Both seem semi-feral; they don’t skedaddle at the first sign of their human butler—a red tabby sometimes stops by and it darts for its life even if it sees me in the window—but I can’t get too close. Kali, in particular, shows up on the back porch every morning around 9 a.m. and greets me with alternating meows and hisses, darting to-and-fro but never getting within arm’s reach. That little bugger won’t even go near the food until it sees me on the other side of the kitchen window.

Relatedly, Ziggy d’Cat still stops by intermittently. He remains scrawny, but not as deathly emaciated as he was a few months ago. However, he still expects shredded chicken and will bypass kibble if he thinks I’ll see him and therefore bestow upon him a portion of the holy bird. As such, I keep some of the shredded rotisserie chicken I buy for my lunchtime salads reserved for him.

Meanwhile, indoors, Murphy d’Cat has largely forgotten his trauma of my Bonaire trip, while Fiona d’Cat has discovered that if she’s persistent enough in ignoring my attempts to redirect her, that she eventually will find a perch on my left arm whilst I recline at my work desk. Both occasionally play with the toys Brittany brought for them, and both love the new cardboard scratching posts that she gifted to Their Feline Majesties.

Church & Lent

I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythm-and-flow of Mass in the Extraordinary Form at Sacred Heart, which I’ve attended since October. I think I much prefer the EF to the Ordinary Form that most Catholics experience. Probably the biggest reason relates to being left alone. In the OF, you’re forced to be a “community.” So one must endure congregational singing with insipid 1970s-era Simon & Garfunkel show tunes. You get ad populum priests, who must then put on a “Mass face” as if he were a performer. You suffer the hand-holding and cringe-worthy “prayers of the faithful” and a mismash of ill-trained altar servers. The nice thing about the OF is that you’re there for a purpose, but it’s up to you whether you follow along in your hand missal, or pray inwardly, or line up for Confession, or whatever. And there’s no army of “extraordinary ministers” or hippies with guitars to be found. That said, I still prefer the current Liturgy of the Hours versus the old Divine Office. The Office isn’t as rich in Matins as the LotH Office of Readings, quality of the psalter notwithstanding.

As I occasionally YouTube-surf deep-think videos, I occasionally find some with a religious theme. I’m struck by the intellectual poverty of much of contemporary Christian apologetics. Several examples showcase my frustration. First, I’ve watched a few hours of YouTube videos featuring Dr. Taylor Marshall, a well-known “trad bro” commentator—one of those younger, gleeful traditionalist Catholics who’s into smells-and-bells, lots of babies, the “traditional Latin Mass,” Communion on the tongue, and theories about the alleged assassination of John Paul I by nefarious cardinals affiliated with the Freemasons. Lots of decrying the “Novus Ordo” (more properly, the Ordinary Form) and boasting of their fecundity. Second, I watched a series of lectures from the BeThinking National Apologetics Day Conference from 2011, which was a response to the New Atheism. Distinguished speakers included William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Peter J Williams and Gary Habermas. These videos constitute the cutting edge of Evangelical apologetics, but they’re fighting last generation’s battles. (So are the New Atheists, for that matter; none of them take seriously the problem of quantum probability as a significant blow to the classic formations of the Cosmological Argument.) Third, I’ve watched a series of lectures by Robert Barron, the priest who founded Word On Fire and who, a few years ago, became one of the bishops in the archdiocese of Los Angeles. He seems like a nice guy, and certainly learned, but he can’t stop preaching to the converted.

My biggest problem with apologetics, writ large? It’s only persuasive if you’re already on the inside. No one’s speaking, really, to people who may be sympathetic but not yet within the tent. Arguments tend to rely on Scripture or too-precious argumentative scrupulosity presented as if the conclusions were stronger than they really are. Not a lot of grappling with fundamentals. For that matter, the “apologetics” offered by modern atheists prove similarly defective. I think there’s ripe ground, somewhere, to make an inductive preponderance-of-the-evidence argument for questioning agnostics who enjoy better-than-average knowledge of modern science and who prove capable of thinking themselves out of a wet paper bag. But if such a resource exists, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Granted, it’s necessary and valuable to use Scripture and various parts of the Magisterium to succor the congregation. The problem arises when pastors consistently pick the low-hanging fruit. A person who’s not in the congregation, or perhaps in the pews but doubting, isn’t ever going to be persuaded by an argument that relies on some anodyne phrase in 5 Galassionians 87:331, and isn’t going to care that William Lane Craig believes that the multiverse challenge to the Cosmological Argument is insufficiently parsimonious to be true. 

Anyway, it’s Lent. Last week, Sacred Heart offered a 40 Hours devotion. It launched at the end of the 12:30 Mass last Sunday (a Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form), with a Eucharistic procession in the nave and the full, chanted Litany of the Saints. I volunteered for the midnight-to-2-a.m. shift on both Monday and Tuesday morning. Then, Ash Wednesday. So this week I landed 10-ish hours in the nave. I observed the fast-and-abstinence rule on Ash Wednesday and the first Friday of Lent (yesterday). I intend to keep that practice “religiously” this year. 

Diving

I’ve managed to flesh out the remaining courses I’m planning to take through the dive shop. With those courses and their mandatory dives, and a few additional dives over the summer, I’ve set a goal of achieving the SSI Master Diver milestone by the end of this year’s season. I’ve already completed the Nitrox and buoyancy specialties. So the five I’ve asked to get scheduled this year include Navigation, Diver Stress and Rescue, Science of Diving, Search and Recovery, and either Night or Deep diving. Upon logging 50 dives and completing five specialties (of which, Stress and Rescue is mandatory), the Master Diver recognition automatically applies.

Diving is an expensive hobby, but all of these courses were bought and paid for last April, as part of a package for my new computer and new BC. So my 2020 out-of-pocket for all of this is effectively $0, which is nice. (And the same held for Bonaire; the resort package and the airline tickets were bought in mid-2019.)

Reading

My Sunday Reading Sabbath activity continues apace. In the last few weeks, I finished:

  • Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
  • Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall and Afterlife of Socialism by Joshua Muravchik

I’ve been working through Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. In addition, during the 40 Hours last week, I read—in one sitting each—the Book of Job and the Gospel of St. John

Next on the list, I pivot to St. Augustine, with The Confessions, The City of God and On Christian Doctrine. These books, as I own them, constitute Volume 16 of the Great Books of the Western World series—the second (1990) edition, edited by Mortimer J. Adler. I picked up a mint-condition package of all 60 hardcover volumes a long time ago, on eBay, but until I read some Nietzsche a few months ago, I hadn’t really cracked any of them open except to marvel at the thin paper and minuscule type.

After Augustine, I think I’m going to lighten up a bit. I “liberated” some of the old Write616 library, including some Jim Harrison books that heretofore I haven’t encountered. I’ll probably use Harrison as a breather, then pivot to Aquinas later in the year. 

One thing I’ve learned from Osborne’s book is that you can’t fully understand the last 1,500 years of European history unless you grasp the Augustine-Aquinas frameworks and how the worldviews promoted by these two saints radically shaped the intellectual life of Western Civilization. You don’t get medieval Christendom without Augustine; you don’t get the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation without Aquinas and the Scholastics. And you can’t rally grok the fundamentals of the modern debate between liberalism and populism/integralism without listening for the echoes of the Augustine/Aquinas tension.

Social Calendar

My social calendar hasn’t been super active lately, which is good. I continue to attend my two writers’ groups, and in February I hosted one. A few weeks ago, I hoofed it to the East Side for cigars and dinner with Tony, Jen, Dr. Jon and the Doctor’s Wife. Had lunch last week with Brittany. I’m going to visit my mother tomorrow. I had a cigar and the “Champagne of Beers” with my former landlord and his wife last week. I enjoyed lunch a few weeks ago with the old crew from Priority Health. I keep missing drinks with Scott because of our opposite travel schedules, and lunch with Patrick keeps getting bumped, however. 

Videos

I generally don’t watch much television, but I have been watching Doctor Who on BBC America. I’m conflicted. On one hand, I’m satisfied with Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of The Doctor, although following Peter Capaldi, who was my favorite, is a tough row to hoe. On the other hand, I really, really dislike how on-the-nose woke the Chibnall era has been. I can’t improve upon the review recently authored by Simon Danes although I’m not as bearish about Whittaker as he.

Conversely, I’m really enjoying Star Trek: Picard on CBS All Access. I love the pacing, and the plot, and the acting. There’s enough genuinely new material that it’s an eye-popping new perspective on the Trek universe, but the callbacks to TNG are appropriately subtle and well-done. I even enjoy Wesley Crusher’s The Ready Room recap videos.

Weight

Weight loss continues. According to records in MyFitnessPal, I haven’t been this light and airy since 2013.

A while back, I augmented MyFitnessPal with notes I made in various places (including this blog) before the app even existed, so I input data points going back to 2004. It looks like a slow-motion roller-coaster. I started 2005 around 275 pounds, although I believe that even by then, I had lost a fair amount. My guess is that in the summer of 2004, I hovered just below 300, but at the time, I didn’t own a scale. By May 27, 2005, I recorded a weight of 210; that was the holiday weekend where I changed my hairstyle and wardrobe and replaced by glasses with contacts. On May 1, 2006, I logged 160 pounds, although I had achieved that milestone several months earlier. That 157-to-163 weight fluctuated consistently until late 2009. On August 8, 2010, I logged 210 lbs again. And from there, a slow ascent—230 pounds in December 2012, 250 pounds in May 2016, 270 pounds by July 2017.

Lots of those data points directly correlate to various stresses. Over 2009 and 2010, I relocated three times and was involved in a major car crash. In late 2012, I had a ton of work stress with reorgs at the hospital. In mid-2016, I was doing HEDIS. By mid-2017, more work stress with a new boss at Priority Health.

Now that I’m self-employed, work stress goes down. So does my weight.

Funny how that “works.”

Work

Speaking of work—yikes.

I made the executive decision a year ago to prioritize my books above all other tasks. I think that decision proved sound. Of those tomes, one is mostly done, and the other is coming along nicely. Writing books isn’t an easy process; it takes time and research. And if you’re not in the mood, forcing yourself to write usually just subsequently forces you to un-write what you’d committed.

I have been contracting with just one client—a media company—performing content renovation full-time for a year, and part-time for several years before that. The role pays enough, and because it’s through a payroll company, it’s W2 work (with benefits) rather than 1099 work. However, the client shut down with no notice in early December, rebooting again in January. I went an entire month without income. That wasn’t fun. I made it through, but it cut close to the bone. Last week and this week, the same client temporarily restricted everyone to 85 percent of hours. Not helpful.

As a freelancer/contractor, it’s never a good idea to rely on just one client. I’ve always known that, because I’ve freelanced in some capacity for a decade. But I got burned by sacrificing portfolio diversity in favor of focused book-writing time. So over the last week, I’ve been on a mad-dash of client acquisition. This “reach out and contract with someone” process moves faster than I hoped, because I really wanted these books to be done first, but it is what it is. I also thought seriously about going back to a 9-to-5 office job, but the problem there is one of over-specialization. Jobs I could land tomorrow won’t pay more than my current contracting gig. Jobs that do pay more prove more challenging to obtain because they’re (a) more rare in this local market and (b) in different industries than health care. So I’m at something of a competitive disadvantage for Quality or Analytics roles in West Michigan because I don’t have an IT degree and I hail from the health care industry.

So over this week and last week, I’ve been doing a few things to shore up my personal finances:

  1. Set a goal of $10k in revenue per month. It’ll take some time to materialize, but I’ve never actually goal-set in this manner before. 
  2. Acquire new writing-and-editing clients to augment short-term cash flow.
  3. Add two new business lines to Gillikin & Associates to support local businesses with self-funded insurance coverage to better manage employee health.
  4. Launch Diction Dude (likely on Monday), which I’ve been working on off the side of my desk. I didn’t want to launch it until my book was done, but … yeah.
  5. Launch Lakeshore Literary (also likely on Monday). This is the one-man successor to Caffeinated Press, which we closed in December.

Writing

And on the writing front—

  • I penned two short stories for my writing groups. So they’re going to be workshopped next month.
  • Progress is solid on From Pencil to Print.

—30—

2019: A Year of Investment and Divestment

As themes go, 2019 presented a big one: Purposeful investment in new things and thoughtful divestment of old things. We’ll explore that idea in more detail after a quick wrap-up of the year gone by.

2019 in Review

January started on the right foot — literally and metaphorically — with a brisk hike with the FBET team at Yankee Springs on the morning of New Year’s Day, followed a few days later by a cigar contest at Grand River Cigar. I taught a “get fit to print” course at the office, I attended an arctic-medicine course at Metro Health, and — highlight of the month — I took my nephew Kyler by Amtrak for a day at the Adler Planetarium and the Chicago Field Museum (on the coldest day of Chicago’s winter, as it happened).

February brought the Chicagoland Casino Trip, wherein a dozen or so people gathered to visit Horseshoe Hammond, Harrah’s Joliet, Hollywood Joliet, Ameristar, Majestic Star, etc. A good weekend trip with my “casino/podcast” friends from around the country. That month also brought An Evening of Literary Luminescence to completion — a major fundraiser for Write616, with special guest Linda Nemec Foster.

In March, I offered my final round of intensive on-site interviews for our Caffeinated Press interns that year before handing over the keys to the internship program to Brittany. Then, off to the New Orleans Bourbon Festival. A dozen folks from across the country met for bourbon, cigars, food and frivolity in the Crescent City. My trip was (slightly) hamstrung by taking the Amtrak to Chicago and flying out of O’Hare; our train engineer had a “cardiac incident,” delaying us three hours and forcing me to rebook my flight. (He was fine, according to a conductor at the end of the trip.) But otherwise, it was a fabulous experience with wonderful people.

In April, I spent like a drunken fish: I paid off my car and my credit cards, booked some travel, knocked some items off my “to acquire” list, and re-geared myself for scuba. I also began flight lessons through Tulip City Air Service and enjoyed a 30-minute interview on WYCE radio about Write616 and the local literary community.

In May, we booked our package for this coming February’s diving trip to Bonaire. I attended the NAHQ Summit in Chicago — a good experience with good speakers. I taught an Author Platform course, too. At the end of the month, Tony and I flew first class to Las Vegas for 360 Vegas Vacation VII, which was a ton of fun … and profitable, in that I hit a royal flush at 50-cent video poker, good for a $2,000 hand pay.

In June, I hoofed it to Washington, D.C. to speak at the District of Columbia Hospital Association annual meeting. Plus, I completed a day-long river rescue course through FBET, followed by a desert-medicine course. I also began the first-wave expansion of the Grand River Writing Tribe, which entailed a new server and a new forum system. Toward the end of the month, I led a panel discussion (that I sponsored, through Gillikin & Associates) at the annual meeting of the Small Business Association of Michigan, which was keynoted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The month ended on a high note with the wedding of Brice and AmyJo.

July started with an Independence Day Weekend trip to Louisville, with Tony. We spent a few days at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana (and one night at the Seelbach) and explored many different distilleries. Mid-month, I hosted a table at the Books Alive! event in Ludington. The peak of summer coincided with a long weekend in Denton, Texas, where I had the chance to meet with many of my North Texas friends and attend a meeting of the D.I.C.K.S.; as usual, Roux proved a gracious host.

August proved a bit more quiet, at least at the beginning. I attended the MiFiWriters annual writing retreat in Dowling, Michigan, for three nights. Always the highlight of my writing year. I also did a bit of diving, on one occasion supporting a dive instructor in the water at Lake Versluis as he conducted an open-water certification course for a student. On the 31st, I hopped aboard a jet plane with Tony to attend 360 Vegas Vacation VIII. I ended up getting a suite at the Linq from which I hosted the ticketed 360 Whiskey Lounge event.

In September, I began my updated diet-and-exercise routine, and at the end of the month my friend Scott and I kayaked the Grand River from Grandville to Eastmanville Bayou. The month was otherwise sedate. I had canceled a few things (my planned attendance at the NAHQ conference in Phoenix, my planned trip to Rome) because I really, really needed to begin that updated diet-and-exercise routine.

In October, I helped lead an NCTA day hike in northern Kent County. This month also started (a) regular Mass attendance at Sacred Heart, and (b) my “reading Sabbath” on Sundays, where I do nothing except go to church and otherwise spend the day reading.

November started with a speaking gig at the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality conference, conveniently held in Grand Rapids this year. As in keeping with prior-year commitments, I cut down on extracurricular activities to focus on National Novel Writing Month. I didn’t work on a novel; instead, I added nearly 40,000 words to my writing textbook-in-progress, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors. I continued my tradition of hosting a Saturday-morning write-in at Spectrum Health. Plus, Thanksgiving featured the Indiana Relatives as well as my mom, grandmother and brother with his fam.

December offered a lovely wrap-up to the year. My dining-room ceiling (of which, 15 square feet of plaster fell from the ceiling in late September) finally got patched. Our WriteOn! annual Christmas potluck at AmyJo’s was a ton of fun, as was the GRWT potluck I hosted. I helped lead another NCTA hike, this time on the NCT through Seidman Park. The annual family Christmas parties (at my grandmother’s, and my mother’s) were both a ton of fun. I hosted a “Snacky Day” of games and booze and finger foods, attended by my mom, my brother and his wife, and my nephew. Tony came to town for a weekend so we could launch his Michigan Constitution podcast. And I finished the month — just this morning — with a first phone interview for a potentially fascinating local analytics-leadership job.

Divestment

On the whole, 2019 was a good year. But early on, I experienced a serious cash crunch — exacerbated by some at-the-time spottiness with my major contract client — that hit home the value of re-thinking everything on my plate. So beginning in late winter, I began thinking of ways to extricate myself from things that offered a low return on my investments of time and treasure:

  • Write616 — Although I loved the mission of this non-profit organization, Write616 featured too few hands trying to do too much work. In particular, our major fundraiser in February was hosted and executed by just Lisa and I. The experience itself was lovely; Linda Nemec Foster and W. Todd Kaneko delivered excellent readings, Robin Connell Trio offered beautiful live music and the food from Grand Valley State University was a delight. But it was a lot, for a relatively little reward. Ultimately, I had to conclude that the mission of the group was not aligned to the community’s willingness to engage. So after donating several thousand dollars and hundreds of hours of uncompensated time as board treasurer, I called it quits in September. So did Lisa, who resigned as executive director. The organization no longer exists.
  • Caffeinated Press — Five of us founded CP in 2014, and later that year we released Brewed Awakenings, an anthology of stories written and edited by the WriteOn! group. We grew. We published a lot, relatively speaking, and enjoyed great success with The 3288 Review, which John spearheaded. We supported nearly a dozen interns for academic credit over the years. Yet our unwieldy management structure and our not-for-profit activities in a for-profit business shell meant that the price of each victory came at a dear cost opaque to our authors and the larger community. In 2019 alone, I contributed nearly $15,000. That level of investment isn’t sustainable, and the price I paid in my physical and emotional health (it’s not easy being the guy everyone yells at when things outside of his control aren’t being done, on top of getting yelled at for things that are) didn’t mesh with my need to radically alter my health trajectory. So in early autumn, we agreed to shut the company down. Effective today, actually.
  • BMI — This year I hit a high point of weight I hadn’t experienced since 2004, just before I reset myself in 2005 and lost 110 pounds that year. I end 2019 down 25 or so pounds, which puts me on a 2014-level footing. And the trajectory moves in the right direction. A massive, painful heartburn attack in Denton (the first I ever had) proved to be an early indicator, but the real kick in the butt came in August, with that lake-dive excursion. I learned the hard way that my cardiopulmonary function was so weak that I needed to breathe “more” than what the regulator delivers, and that was for an easy certification dive where all I did was hold the buoy. I then weighed myself and took my blood pressure and checked my resting O2 sats, and recognized that derailment was imminent. On top of it, my old nemesis of dysphagia came back for a visit, the result of esophageal strictures arising from GERD, leading to me being extra careful about what I could eat, and how quickly, lest things get messy. (It only takes one nosebleed from regurgitating raw carrots to remind you of the value of not having this trouble to begin with.) So I went on a 30-day-no-alchohol regimen and ramped up diet compliance. All those red warning lights from mid-year are starting to flicker off, or change to yellow. My 2020 goal is to get them all fully green again.

In addition, in December, Grand River Cigar closed unexpectedly, arising from disputes among the business owners. I wasn’t there all the time, but I was there enough (and smoking enough cigars and drinking enough beer) that although I’ll miss the place, it’s probably a good idea for my health status that it’s not such a convenient and welcoming establishment any longer.

Investment

Wrapping up my roles with Caffeinated Press and Write616 opens a wide door for 2020, when those cost-and-time gains will be most clearly realized. A lot of my November and December have been focused on wind-down activities, but it’s time with a purpose, so that’s good.

And some things are changing, like Vice Lounge, which sees Tony depart, but me keeping a modified form of the show going into the new year.

The question, though, is — what comes next?

A handful of things, actually.

  1. Writing. I’ve always fit my own writing into bits and spurts where I could, but I must prioritize this effort. My professional work (the healthcare quality consulting and the publishing work) both depend on the prompt completion of my two major projects — From Pencil to Print and Delivering MIRACLES: Staffing a High-Performing Healthcare Quality Team. So more formal, protected, planned writing time already is interweaving into my weekly routine. And, of course, upping the game for the Grand River Writing Tribe helps on that front.
  2. Reading. It turns out, taking one day each week to read lets you … get books read. Who’d have thunk it? So the “Sunday Reading Sabbath” will continue beyond the October-December experiment, now baked into my weekly routine.
  3. Outside. I got some hiking/diving/kayaking/flying time in this year, but I fit it in where I could, and when “other things” got in the way, my time for those activities was the first to be slashed. With fewer “other things,” I hope to get my 100 NCT miles in 2020 as well as some more time doing FBET courses, overnight loop hikes and diving. When revenue permits, I intend to finish my pilot’s license, as well.
  4. Inside. The return to church goes hand-in-hand with a greater willingness engage in deliberate self-care, both of my emotional health and of my physical health. The trajectory since September has been awesome; it must continue, and with significantly fewer stressors in the post-CafPress era, that goal becomes easier.
  5. Consulting. I’m setting a revenue target of $10k per month. Not unreasonable, but it means I have to get crackin’ on finishing this $%&#@ book. The book itself won’t make me money, but the fact of its existence is a professional legitimizer in an industry where either books or MD licenses are the key to respectability.
  6. Publishing. CafPress is going away, but with 20 years’ experience in the editing-publishing space, I’m not calling it quits. I’m launching (probably in late winter, when I think From Pencil to Print will be ready) two new initiatives: Diction Dude, an author-consulting group focused on education (in-person paid trainings, a paid newsletter, a podcast), and Lakeshore Literary, a publishing-and-distribution company that will continue the distro aspect it already has, but it’ll also add three publishing imprints. One focuses on traditional micro-press releases, one on hybrid releases and one on issuing a branded series of public-domain classics with brief intro essays. Significantly, these initiatives will not feature business partners, and they’ll be more revenue-first instead of mission-first. I cannot continue to invest in non-revenue-generating goodwill projects anymore.
  7. Connecting. I did a decent job over 2019 of maintaining personal and professional relationships through lunches, cigar nights and various group activities. For example, I enjoyed lunch with Patrick and cigars with Scott usually once a month or so, and lunches with my old Priority Health colleagues quarterly-ish. But I can do more — in particular, with my family.

I suspect 2020 will not look much like 2019. I spent a lot of money in the year now closing, but much of it was an investment in my future success. Now, I need to get these books done and better protect my self-care time. I’ve always planned big and delivered medium, because a lot of my time was spent on high-resource, low-return activities that often got in the way of other parts of my life plan. With the biggest of these now off the table, I have fewer excuses to not deliver as big as I plan.

My stretch goal? To relocate my domicile. I’ve been in the same place for nine years. I’ve long resisted buying a house, but at this point I’m paying a very large amount of money for an increasingly dilapidated living space. Moving will be disruptive, but it’ll also likely prove necessary to bring my costs down and my sanity up.

An exciting time. Happy new year!

An Exercise in Plate Clearing

In this year’s annual birthday reflection, I mentioned that I was engaged in a Great Purge. I didn’t, however, go into too much detail about what I meant. That reticence sourced from the practical need to ensure that every major stop-do activity had been fully considered, and relevant people notified before I dropped any bombs. But now, with all the important disclosures having been disclosed, I’m free to be more forthcoming.

I’ll share what’s winding down, followed by what’s continuing or starting in 2020. I will then wrap up with a handful of routine updates.

The Wind-Down/Stop-Do List

Caffeinated Press. Founded in 2014, Caffeinated Press published a dozen books, a dozen issues of The 3288 Review—a journal of arts and letters—and two volumes of the Brewed Awakenings anthology. However, publishing is expensive and time-consuming, and the original business model we developed was more aspirational than practical. The last few years, in particular, have been difficult, with various people coming and going and me, personally, bearing more than 90 percent of all operational costs over the last eight calendar quarters. We did some things very, very well. We also did some things very, very poorly. Caffeinated Press proved to be a tremendous learning experience, but one whose very structure proved an object lesson in how not to run a company. We’ve therefore announced that we’re ceasing business operations effective Dec. 31, 2019.

Write616. I had resigned in October from my board position, at the same time as my colleague Lisa. My understanding is that the organization itself has opted to dissolve.

The Wind-Up/Must-Do List

Delivering MIRACLES. Although Gillikin & Associates—the healthcare consulting company I established in early 2018—appears dormant, it’s not. In fact, it’s how I earn my daily bread! I’ve been working full-time with a New York-based client conducting documentation review. It’s fairly straightforward, work-from-home, set-my-own-schedule kind of stuff. However, my long-term strategy to evolve the consultancy requires a strong “thought leader” approach to programs and services, so as a professional legitimizer, I’ve been working on a book. Titled Delivering MIRACLES: Structuring, Staffing & Supporting a High-Performing Healthcare Quality Team Using the MIRACLES Model, this book addresses what its subtitle asserts. It identifies the industry imperative, then it introduces my own definition about the proper role of a Quality team in healthcare, then it offers a practical framework for both current-state assessment and pathways to arriving at a more ideal future state. I’ve got a ton of plans for growing G&A that have been sitting in reserve for the better part of a year while I complete this book. When it’s released, it’ll set my stake in the ground. But until it’s released, I see no value in chasing the rainbow when I’ve already got a long-term stable client that’s paying the bills.

From Pencil to Print. As of Nov. 30, I’ve written 114k words of this practical guide aimed at helping emerging authors and poets—the very people Caffeinated Press most often worked with—to better level-set their expectations about becoming a commercially viable literary professional. As with Delivering MIRACLES, this book also serves as a legitimizer. It’ll pave the way for ….

Diction Dude. After From Pencil to Print is ready to go, I’m launching a replacement media/publishing company. Something akin to Caffeinated Press, but without the complexity of business partners and the not-very-profit-oriented community service model that CafPress had adopted. It’ll consist of a distribution arm, publishing arm, and author-services arm with a podcast and a paid newsletter. I don’t expect to launch it completely until Spring 2020, when my book is finished. I’ve put some infrastructure in place, but until this last piece of the puzzle is ready, I’m not inclined to launch this endeavor, given that a huge part of it is externally focused. One thing I learned from Caffeinated Press is the value of getting your ducks in a row before you start paddling upstream.

Church. This past summer, I joined Sacred Heart parish and have been attending the 12:30 Missa Cantata of the Extraordinary Form (that’s Catholic-speak for “a sung High Mass, in Latin, from before Vatican II”). I like it. I may start volunteering at the parish; I’ve already been contacted about becoming an usher. With that, I’ve also been re-exploring the structured prayer of the Church. I spent October and November in the 1961 Breviarium Romanum, and now that Advent has arrived, I’ve been back into the current Liturgy of the Hours. From a purely liturgical perspective, I think I like the EF better than the OF for Mass, but LotH better than the BR for daily prayer; regardless, I have printed 2020 Ordos for each. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Sabbath of Books. Beginning in October, I restructured my week to make Sunday a genuine day of rest. My routine is pretty simple. I get up, make coffee, recite morning prayers, read a while, bathe and put on a suit, go to church, stop somewhere for a late lunch, come home, read some more, eat dinner, light a fire in the fireplace, read some more, recite evening prayers, go to bed. I do no work whatsoever—not even light household chores or complex meal preparation—and I don’t touch my computer, tablets, phone or TV. It’s a day of total disconnection. I’m taking a page out of the stricter Jewish tradition. Since the first one of these Sundays, on October 6, I’ve managed to read all three unabridged volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Face of God by Roger Scruton, and Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Plus, I finished a few other books that just needed a nudge to get over the finish line. It’s amazing how much I can plow through when I have six or seven hours in a day, just one day per week, to rest the body, renew the spirit, and challenge the mind.

Weight Loss. I’m down roughly 25 pounds since my birthday and am doing the things I need to do to not become a tragic medical statistic. Much of the last few months have been quiet and heads-down because in late summer it became obvious I wasn’t on the right track. Now, however, I’m trending in a more favorable direction. With continuing weight loss, exercise, and “forced” occasional hikes and kayak excursions, all of this is a good thing. I’m actually riiiiiight on the cusp of being at my lowest weight since mid-2016, which itself is a stone’s throw from my weight in late 2012. It’s truly amazing what happens when one substitutes distilled water for an 1,100-calorie fishbowl of a martini each evening.

Magic Eight Ball Says ‘Signs Point to Yes’

Vice Lounge Online. The podcast that Tony and I started in mid-2010—”where casino gaming, premium cigars and fine adult beverages genuinely equal bliss”—sees Tony hanging up his Golden VLO Microphone at the end of December. Whether VLO continues into 2020 will depend on whether listeners want to participate as on-air talent. If I don’t receive enough offers, the show will wind down the first weekend in January. But given early responses, my guess is that the show will soldier on. A half-dozen people and counting have volunteered to guest host or do special segments, so that’s good.

Grand River Writing Tribe. My writing groups? Still there. Those aren’t going anywhere.

A Summation

So what am I doing right now? I suppose I could call it, with a touch a mirth, a winter of hibernation. Apart from various wind-down activities for Caffeinated Press, my week is fairly routine. I put in 40 hours of document review, Monday through Friday. Evenings, I sit at my writing desk, working on one or the other of my books, distilled water at the ready and a cat close at hand. Saturdays are for errands and whatnot. Sundays are my Book Sabbath. Every now and then, I get invited to dinner or lunch, so that interrupts the week, but I’ll progress in stretches of three or four days at a time where I never leave the house. Just me and the feline overlords. And now that it’s Advent, I’ve also been doing the full daily LotH.

Meanwhile, the pounds roll off my frame, the words roll onto my books, my stress levels plummet, and my tranquility skyrockets.

Come this spring, when the books are ready—well, I’m excited to pivot my dual-career lifestyle to the next level of intensity.

Miscellaneous Updates

A few other things.

Looks like I’ll be soon giving up my social-media fast. It was fun while it lasted, but if VLO is to continue without Tony—who had been handling the Twitter and Facebook stuff—then I guess I gotta saddle up again.

Thanksgiving was fun. My Indiana relatives and my grandmother, St. Dorothy the Matriarch, all showed up at my mother’s house. As if by a miracle, no one spilled food or wine. A dozen people around the table, and the all-too-familiar scene of the Lions heroically snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, made the day complete.

I had been a bit sad that my long-time outdoor companion, Ziggy d’Cat, had been absent for most of November. I saw him a few days after Halloween, then not again until last week. When he showed up, he was skin and bones. Then he came yesterday, again. Still skinny. But then today, too. I’ve been giving him some shredded rotisserie chicken breast, which he wolfs down, as I sit beside him and give him some gentle scratches. I don’t know if he got sick, or maybe lost one too many territory fights, but the future isn’t looking good for him, so chicken and affection he gets, for as long as he continues to paw at my windows.

Speaking of tragedy: In late September, roughly 15 square feet of my dining-room ceiling collapsed. No major structural damage, but when 40 pounds of plaster comes down at 4 a.m., it’s a rude awakening. Believe it or not, the contractor my landlord hired is still working on it—he decided to simply drywall over the entire dining-room ceiling instead of re-plastering the hole. So for the last six weeks, all the stuff from the dining room has been in my living room, rendering it unlivable, and my dining room is a dusty mess with rock-hard joint compound littering the floor, the cabinetry and my rugs. Amused, I am not. At the rate this work is progressing, I’m skeptical it’ll be done before Christmas. But given all the dust, I’ve learned that when I’m not watching, the cats tread in mysterious places.

Last week, I enjoyed cigars and cocktails with my college friend Matt, who’s now a state representative. It was delightful to get some insight into how the wheels of gummint have been turning in Lansing lately.

Finally: In November I hosted my usual Saturday-morning write-in for National Novel Writing Month. Our stats were pretty good given that I had to cancel two of the five Saturdays on account of region-wide events. We were just a few thousand words short of clocking in at a half-million words earned at this write-in since it started in 2012. I’m guessing I’ll hold it at least one more year—to cross that threshold—and we’ll see what happens in 2021 and beyond.

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An End-of-October Update

A few things of interest—

  1. Weight. My weight continues to drop at a steady clip. From my birthday in mid-September until this morning, I’m officially down 18 lbs. and unofficially down an even 20—I started recording on 9/15 but at the beginning of September, I had weighed myself at 2 lbs. higher than that starting baseline. I’m not doing anything dramatic. Two things, mostly: the Mediterranean diet and almost no alcohol. I enjoy what I’m making (steel-cut oats with blueberries for breakfast, chicken caesar salads with tons of spinach and kale for lunch, pan-seared fish and steamed veggies for dinner, the occasional cup of yogurt or packaged of mixed nuts or an apple as a snack) and never feel hungry. I continue to be surprised that my current rate-of-loss meets or exceeds what I experienced in 2005 despite that at present, I’m doing no cardio, compared to 60-minutes of recumbent cycling, seven days a week, back then. I think the real difference is diet. In 2005, the only thing I looked at was calorie counts. So, yes, I ate 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, then as now. But then, I paid no attention to macronutrient ratios or the contribution of sugar and salt to that endless litany of Lean Cuisines I chowed down. Now that I’m cooking for myself and looking more holistically at the composition of my food, it’s a different story. And that’s despite the passage of almost 15 years! I’m now at the weight I was at, on 11/1/2014. I have tracked my weight in MyFitnessPal since late 2012, so I can see the graph. At this clip, I’ll be well below my 12/1/2012 starting weight (and low point) by the end of the year, which will put me at a level I haven’t enjoyed since 2011.
  2. Autumn Cold. Contributing to the weight loss, I think, was that last week, I was sick, so my appetite suppressed a bit. I caught a cold, which, in fairness, is still in its wrapping-up recovery phase. It started Monday afternoon with a vengeance. Then it calmed down by mid-day Tuesday. I said to myself, “Self, that’s weird.” Then Wednesday, the River of Snot™ returned. Then Thursday through today, it was there, but as mild as a cold can get. I’ve never had one like this before. And all that, without taking any OTC meds for it.
  3. Saturdays! Last Saturday, Tony came to town to record a four-show marathon for VLO. That was fun. And this past Saturday, I spent half the day at Grand River Cigar engaged in substantive business planning, working through my 2020 goals between conversations with Cigar Bob and Dr. John and the occasional stogie and beer, and lamenting the atrocious first-half performance of MSU vs. Penn State. This planning session was necessary to wrap up a bunch of other things. And next Saturday, with the start of National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be again hosting my Saturday Morning Write-In. On the plus side, I’ve been able to stagger my work so that I’ve got it all wrapped by Friday evening, rather than letting work bleed into weekends. Which means weekends are … weekends again, a phenomenon I haven’t really enjoyed in several years.
  4. Sundays! Yesterday was my fourth consecutive “Sabbath Sunday.” This practice, I think, is now going to be part of my permanent schedule. Here’s what I do: Wake up whenever nature or Murphy d’Cat decides the night is done. Make coffee. Recite Lauds then read. At 11a, I bathe and put on a suit, then hoof it to Sacred Heart for Mass under the Extraordinary Form. Stop somewhere for lunch afterward. Come home, and read until dinnertime. Read some more. Recite Compline, go to bed. In the interim, I do not touch my computer or my phone. No checking email or responding to text messages. When I started a month ago, I also began Vol. 1 of The Gulag Archipelago. (The unabridged version of Solzhenitsyn’s classic; the one with a foreword by Anne Applebaum.) As of last night, I’m at the 60-percent-done mark of Vol. 3, having just read of the Kengir rebellion. I also, in that time, wrapped up The Conservative Sensibility by George F. Will and The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray, both of which I had started in September.

So that’s mostly it. I’m spending my weekdays working (I’ve got a contract document-review job) and planning the delicate pax de deux of closing down a bunch of stuff that’s currently on my plate while starting up other new things for 2020.

Life is pretty good right now.

Sabbath

Yesterday was intertesting.

After many months of thinking about it, and now that my “de-cluttering of the calendar” has opened the door to it, I took my first official, honest-to-goodness, no-compromises Sabbath day yesterday in the first time in — well, more than a decade.

Here’s what I did:

  • Woke up around 8 a.m., made coffee, attended to the cats.
  • Recited Lauds I from the Breviarium Romanum, editio typica MCMLXI — the last fully Latin, traditional version of the Divine Office before the Vatican II liturgical reforms. I’ve got a lovely three-volume set of the 1963 printing, re-set by Barionius Press. I blame Patrick for this situation. 🙂
  • Read the second chapter from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (I’m on the first volume of a three-volume unabridged set).
  • Showered, put on a suit, and went to Sacred Heart for the 12:30 Mass — Fr. Sirico celebrated a High Mass for the 2nd cl. feast of Blessed Virgin Mary of the Rosary. (Sacred Heart, every Sunday at 12:30, offers Mass according to the Extraordinary Form, the version using the 1963 edition of the Missale Romanum, which again pre-dates the Vatican II liturgical reforms. Of significance, both the old-style Mass and the old-style Divine Office are still permitted; they’re just not the ordinary forms of those liturgies.)
  • Came home, changed into walking garb.
  • Grabbed quick bite to eat.
  • Went to the north trailhead for Kent Trails, near the old Coca-Cola bottling plant. Went on a 5.23-mile walk with a 16:32 pace (good for 1 hour, 29 minutes on the asphalt trail) and a good heart-rate distribution throughout. So, speed-walk but not a jog.
  • Came home, showered again.
  • Read chapters three through six of Gulag. Enjoyed a pear and a little bag of mixed nuts, and a ton of icy distilled water, as well as some lap time with Fiona d’Cat.
  • Recited Compline.
  • In bed by 10 p.m.

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • Touch my computer.
  • Use my iPhone or Apple Watch for more than a grand total of five minutes of screen time, cumulatively, for the day. I checked the weather and set UA Record to track my walk and Spotify to play a symphony sampler. That’s it.
  • Worry even a little about what my task list looked like.
  • Chores or errands.

The great thing about yesterday was that it felt like a day. It didn’t fly by. It didn’t drag. It felt deliberate. And refreshing. And peaceful.

I recently watched the four 2018 debates between Jordan B. Peterson and Sam Harris about the utility of religion. I’ll have much more about that, later. For now, one thing that strikes me that Harris and the New Atheists overlook is that religious practices, honed over millennia, remain responsive to the rhythm-and-flow of human needs on a minute level.

Catholics have it on good authority that man wasn’t made for the sabbath, but sabbath for the man. Regardless of your own religious beliefs, there’s an essential kernel of truth there that the atheists and the not-very-observant lose at their peril. So this practice, I think, must now become my norm. Not that I’m complaining!

Oh, and as of this morning, I’m down nine pounds since my birthday. I’ve been tracking my weight since 2013 in MyFitnessPal. I’m now tied with the low point of 2017 — i.e., I’ve not been this “light” in two years, and I felt it in both the suit I wore yesterday as well as my jeans that I wore Saturday. Both cases, I needed to move in a notch on my belt. So, yay.

A Descent into Silence

Today marks the first day of October. Superficially, nothing’s significant about today. Climatologically, October ranks sixth in terms of overall warmth in West Michigan, barely edging its closest rival, April. The decline of high temperatures, which peak mid-July, accelerates. Already, signs of the color turn dot the trees. A few days ago, a cool spell—daily highs dipped into the mid-to-upper 50s—reminded us that we’re gearing up for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year.

October in the Grand Rapids area starts nice, in typically in the upper 60s, and ends cool, typically in the 50s. Lows can reach into the 30s (and are projected to this week, in fact, according to the National Weather Service).

I love this time of year.

The hustle of the summer calms. The motif of harvest and the transition from life-to-death reminds us of the circle of life. Shorts and flip-flops give way to jeans and boots. Sweaters come out, windows close a bit, and days begin to shorten noticeably as we slide into the homestetch before the solstice. The urge to grab a book (I just bought the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago) grows larger while my recliner and a warm fire and a purring cat conspire to abduct me on the first genuinely cold night of the season. Things get quieter. Silence, a peaceful quietude, descends almost like a lamb.

All this downshifting coincides nicely, I think, with an Advent-like spirit of renewal. Of all the liturgical seasons, Advent’s my favorite, in part becuase I’m always the most inspired to re-think and renew in that narrow window between my birthday and the final denuding of the trees.

In the last two weeks, I’m down seven pounds. Most of my inboxes are cleared out and my task-list recurated on a strategic scale. A new, slower rhythm already governs my weekly schedule. My stress levels—normally imperceptible to me—feel lower. Between an increase in hiking and hitting my exercise bike, and a day spent kayaking, and evenings focused on writing, I’m unwinding a bit, and planning for a calmer but more meaningful 2020 by thinking about foundational stuff and dialing back the aggressiveness of my goals list.

It’s a good day. A quiet day.

Mister Personality

Applied metrology, when directed at human behavior, offers an endless fount of insight. I recently took the Understanding Myself personality test — a well-validated, methodologically rigorous instrument that offers 10 clusters of 10 questions and then generates a report about how one ranks on the Big Five Aspects of personality.

I reviewed my report. Then I said to myself, “Self, this is interesting.” Not surprising but interesting. So I thought a public reflection is in order.

The Big Five Aspects

Well-established literature among psychologists suggests that all people exhibit deeply ingrained personality characteristics along five dimensions: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness.

The Understanding Myself assessment presents your high-to-low score for each trait in terms of a percentile rank, which is how I’ll relate it below. Quotes in this section all source from the personalized report I received as part of the scoring tool.

Agreeableness. I’m more agreeable than 43 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered typical. “People with typical levels of agreeableness are seen by others as somewhat cooperative, warm and considerate. They look for the best in others … and are reasonably interpersonally tolerant. [They] are somewhat forgiving, accepting, flexible, gentle and patient.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — compassion (72nd percentile, moderately high), “interested in the problems of other people,” and politeness (16th percentile, low), “not deferential to authority” and “respectful but only to people who clearly deserve and demand it.” The mean score for men is 38.5.

Conscientiousness. I’m more conscientious than 45 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered typical. The mean for men is 49. “People of average conscientious levels generally do their duty, although they are not sloggers … [they] waste some of their time and have some proclivity to procrastinate. They are reasonably decisive, neat, organized, future-oriented and reliable. They can maintain focus, but have some trouble fighting off distraction.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — industriousness (22nd percentile, low), “focus less on work than others” and orderliness (71st percentile, moderately high) “more disgust-sensitive than average, somewhat judgmental, and have a tendency toward more authoritarian political attitudes … [but] can be good at ensuring that complex, sensitive processes are managed properly and carefully.”

Extraversion. I’m more extroverted than 69 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered moderately high. “People with moderately high levels of extraversion are quite enthusiastic, talkative, assertive in social situations, and gregarious.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — enthusiasm (36th percentile, moderately low), “rarely excitable, not particularly easy to get to know,” and assertiveness (88th percentile, high), “put their own opinions forward strongly and tend to … be influential and captivating.”

Neuroticism. I’m more neurotic than 20 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered low. “People with low levels of neuroticism rarely focus on the negative elements, anxieties and uncertainties of the past, present and future. It’s rare for them to face periods of time where they are unhappy, anxious and irritable, unless facing a serious, sustained problem. Even under the latter conditions, they cope well, don’t worry too much, and recover quickly when stressed. They’re good at keeping their head in a storm, and they seldom make mounts out of molehills.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — withdrawal (15th percentile, low), “rarely suffer from or are impeded by anticipatory anxiety,” and volatility (29th percentile, moderately low), “tend to not to vary much in their mood … express their frustration, disappointment and irritability quite reasonably and not very often.”

Openness to Experience. I’m more open to experience than 97 of 100 randomly selected people, a result that’s considered exceptionally high. “People with exceptionally high levels of openness to experience are almost always characterized by others as extremely smart, creative, exploratory, intelligent and visionary. They are extremely interested in learning, and are constantly acquiring new abilities and skills. … They are exceptionally interested in abstract thinking, philosophy, and the meaning of belief systems and ideologies. They live for cultural events…. They are very likely to enjoy writing (or even to be driven to write). They enjoy complex, abstract ideas and deeply love to confront and solve complex, abstract and multi-dimensional problems.” This trait breaks into two sub-traits — intellect (97th percentile, exceptionally high), “obsessed by engaging with ideas and abstract concepts, require constant exposure to novel information” and openness (90th percentile, very high), “very open, creative people love beauty … they require an outlet for their creative ability or they cannot thrive.”

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator & Keirsey Temperament Sorter

Over the years, I’ve taken the MBTI a half-dozen times or so. The results have been surprisingly consistent insofar as I flip between INTJ and INFJ. The KTS breaks personalities into 16 categories based on a binary branch over four traits — concrete/abstract, cooperative/pragmatic, informative/directive, and expressive/attentive.

Bucketize the 16 basic personality types and you arrive at four cohorts: Analysts, Diplomats, Sentinels and Explorers.

An INTJ is an analyst. This role type is an architect or a mastermind — people who are “imaginative and strategic thinkers with a plan for everything.” INTJs “are introspective, logical, rational, pragmatic, clear-headed, directive, and attentive. As strategists, they are better than any other type at brainstorming approaches to situations. Masterminds are capable but not eager leaders, stepping forward only when it becomes obvious to them that they are the best for the job. Strong-willed and very self-assured, they may make this decision quickly, as they tend to make all decisions. But though they are decisive, they are open to new evidence and new ideas, flexible in their planning to accommodate changing situations. They tend to excel at judging the usefulness of ideas and will apply whatever seems most efficient to them in accomplishing their clearly envisioned goals. To Masterminds, what matters is getting it done — but also learning the principles of how to get it done efficiently and well; that is, at a professional level of quality. However, they may not give much thought to the social cost of getting there, ‘focusing so tightly on their own pursuits [that] they can ignore the points of view and wishes of others.'” (Wikipedia)

An INFJ is a diplomat. This role type is an advocate or counselor — people who are “quiet and mystical, yet very inspiring and tireless idealists.” An INTJ is “introspective, cooperative, directive, and attentive. They have a strong desire to contribute to the welfare of others. Counselors are gratified by helping others to develop and reach their potential. Counselors often communicate in a personalized manner. They tend to be positive and kind when dealing with others. Counselors are good listeners and can sometimes detect a person’s emotions or intentions even before the individual is aware of them. This ability to take in the emotional experiences of others, however, can lead Counselors to be hurt easily. Counselors usually have intricate personalities and rich inner lives. They tend to understand complex issues and individuals. They are generally private people who keep their innermost thoughts and emotional reactions to themselves. This quality can make them difficult to get to know. Counselors value harmony, which they work to maintain at home and at work. They may lose confidence, become unhappy, and even become physically ill if subjected to a hostile environment. Counselors may be crushed by too much criticism, though they may not express their feelings to others. Counselors desire harmony in their homes and find constant conflict to be extremely destructive to their psyches. Their circle of friends is likely to be small but deep and long lasting.” (Wikipedia)

I tend to flip on the T/F dimension (cooperative vs. pragmatic, idealistic diplomat vs. strategic rationalist) while the three other attributes have proven remarkably immutable over nearly 20 years of periodic assessment.

IQ Test

An IQ test doesn’t measure how “smart” you are. Rather, it measures short-term recall and computational ability. High IQ correlates to processing speed, verbal ability, working memory and a capacity for solving multi-step or abstract problems. It’s not a stand-in for having a large store of facts. Very high-IQ people can suck at trivia games, for example.

Years ago, I completed a proctored IQ test as part of a complex admissions process. Later, I took a university-administered IQ test online. Those two tests came in at 133 and 131, respectively. Split the difference and call it 132. The mean IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is 15, so I’m a bit better than two standard deviations above the mean. If I were in a room with 100 randomly selected people, I’d have a higher IQ than 98 of them and a lower IQ than one of them.

360 Review

In late 2016 I took a 360 Review assessment as administered by the Human Resources team at Spectrum Health. In it, I, my upline leaders, my direct reports, and a small selection of peers rated me on several business categories, then compared me against the 6,285 data points from other 360 Review assessments conducted by the organization over the years.

The results:

  • Roughly in line with the population average for business acumen, decision making, and inclusion & diversity
  • Significantly better than the population average for developmental leadership
  • Significantly worse than the population average for flexibility & results focus

I’m particularly pleased with this result because the peer group included five people selected by my vice president (whose scores also factored into my mean). At the time, she was looking for reasons to get rid of me and my boss. I survived that round; Bob didn’t. So the fact that I didn’t suck in every category was well-nigh amazing. A 360-degree review is a powerful weapon of workplace terror if it’s deployed with ruthless efficiency by a senior leader who knows how to influence the results.

Tying It All Together

I think that these assessments, provided that they’re validated instruments and not Buzzfeed-style quizzes, serve as an effective mirror for thinking about yourself in a holistic way. I don’t think that these assessments should “reveal” any new information. A person who’s surprised by his or her results on any of these tests should reflect carefully about their degree of self-understanding.

Yet each instrument, in its own manner, says certain useful things from a specific frame of reference. Considered at a 50,000-foot level, they can and should color your strategic thinking — how your actions should shape your goals and preferences.

When I tie everything together, I get a sense of myself as a mix of strengths and weaknesses. And each strength and each weakness, in turn, offers its own mitigation strategy.

For example, put me in a situation where I have to deal with complex de novo problems without regard for institutional hierarchy, and I’ll move the world. Put me in an environment where public measures of success subordinate to private webs of interpersonal networks, and I’ll consistently struggle to thrive. I know this. So were I ever to seek a “normal” 9-to-5 job again, my questions for a prospective employer must relate to culture and leadership styles.

Another example: Ye olde bucket list. What do you want to do, and why? Do your bucket-list items, and the reason they’re on the list in the first place, commensurate with your personality type? If you score low in openness, for example, is writing The Great American Novel really a helpful goal? Or will it just be an opportunity to feel bad later about your perceived inability to achieve your dreams?

A bit of self-knowledge goes a long way. But remember — tendencies in populations aren’t prison sentences for individuals. You are more than your results.

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