Birthday Reflection, Part XLIII

A week ago today, I inaugurated my 43rd spin ’round the sun as a tiny fleshy dot upon this big blue marble. Using a process I call “math,” I discovered that such a number is smack-dab between the ages of 18 and 68. Which means I’m at the midpoint between the transition into adulthood from childhood, and the transition from adulthood into that second childhood known as retirement.

Well, then.

Casual readers of this award-winning, fan-favorite blog have no doubt noticed a general decline in posting frequency over 2019. Such relative quiescence isn’t accidental. In fact, it’s coupled with something else I did — banishing Facebook.

(Okay, banish is too strong a word. I deleted the app off my phone and today marked the first time in roughly six weeks that I logged in through a browser. I’m not deleting the app — I administer some business accounts — but for all practical purposes, I’m off FB. This situation will likely endure. So if you’ve got great news to share, please email me.)

Anyway, I’m overdue for an update, given that the last one was five months ago. I’m writing in the late evening, with the windows open an an early autumn rain pounding the driveway and the feline overlords unusually sedate. A perfect environment for writing, so to quote Sophia Petrillo: “Buckle up, slut puppy.” Here we go.

A Birthday Reflection

I don’t welcome my 43rd year with any bold new insight or special resolution. Instead, I merely observe that the horizon upon which I think and act seems to have lengthened, which has affected how I assess the relative value of any specific course of action. Once upon a time, I thought in terms of days and weeks. Later, I thought in terms of months. Now, I tend to think in years and decades.

What I mean is this: When I was in my 20s, I tended to consider what I was going to do “this week.” Maybe if money was tight, I’d have to think about how I’d pay the rent “next month.” It never occurred to me to think about “next year.” In my mid-to-late 30s, however, I pondered more about the goals I had for “next year” whereas “next week” was largely off-radar. That change of frame proved useful. I had advanced my career to the point where I didn’t need to think about how I was going to pay the rent or my car loan. I could therefore strategize, in the autumn, about a Vegas trip the following spring, for example.

In my early 40s, I find my life-strategy time focused more and more on how I’m going to tee myself up for retirement. Being single with no dependents, I have a lot of flexibility. But I also lose a bit of security because I can’t count on a spouse and maybe a few crumb-crunchers to circle around me when I’m wrinkled and grey. Planning for a transition from prime adulthood into old age means laying plans now. And although I don’t envision ever retiring per se, I do foresee a transition in stages from the burning-the-candle-at-both-ends life I’m now living, to a gradual stepdown in frenzy over many careful years of preparation. I aim to be the 85-year-old man brandishing a cane and a rapier wit, speaking at yet another book-launch party. Not the guy sitting on a rocking chair outside a by-the-month motel, sucking on an oxygen tank and worried about whether I’ll get a new power scooter to help with The Diabeetus.

I’ve been watching several of the YouTube lectures of Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and faculty at the University of Toronto. He’s recently famous for some of his political controversies as well as his two major books, Maps of Meaning and The 12 Rules for Life. I read the latter book when it came out, and I’ve been reflecting on Peterson’s specific advice. Some of his ideas resonate, like the notion that life’s basically a bunch of suffering — don’t expect to be happy, but at least try to be less avoidably miserable. And that a life worth living takes a lifetime to build, “so get on with it, man.”

One does not become a wise, respected, less-miserable elder by default. So “get on with it,” indeed. More about that subject after we conduct a whirlwhind tour of the last few months.

My Summer in a Nutshell

Life since the tail-end of April has been, as they say, a box of chocolates:

Travel. I’ve gone to Las Vegas twice (May and August) with a bunch of friends from the Vegas-focused podcasting community. Tony and I trekked to Louisville for a long weekend over the Independence Day holiday, for distillery tours and gambling. I spoke at a conference in D.C. in June. I flew to Denton, Texas in late July to reconnect with my DDB/DICKS friends. I made a day trip to Chicago to meet with friends in May. I’ve been out of Michigan for at least part of each month, May through September.

Outdoors. Progress! I started flying lessons, although I’m pausing that initiative temporarily given how often I’ve been bounced among flight instructors (they need to get their $@%^ together). I’ve done a few day hikes, including along the North Country Trail. I’ll be kayaking this coming Saturday on the Grand River with my friend Scott. Went scuba diving a few times in inland Michigan, and gave my updated gear a nice shakedown. Completed some great courses through Fortune Bay Expedition Team, including a hot-weather medicine class and a day-long river-rescue course on the Rogue River.

Reading. My reading slowed a bit over the summer because I’ve been preoccupied with writing — an acceptable tradeoff. But I’ve managed to devour George F. Will’s The Conservative Sensibility and Kevin D. Williamson’s The Smallest Minority. That said, I’ve also purchased a ton of books that sit on my to-be-read shelf. Twenty-four titles await review, ranging from books about moral theory and literary editing standards, to Jim Harrison’s Off to the Side. I look forward to colder weather and its invitation to build roaring wood fires in my office fireplace while enjoying soft Bach, a fuzzy blanket, a good book and a purring lap cat.

Writing. I’ve been writing so much that my fingertips hurt. I’m closing in on the 100k-word mark for From Pencil to Print, my reference book for emerging writers. I recently closed the first draft of the infamous (to me) Chapter 4, which focuses on the most common structural and mechanical problems I’ve encountered over five years of vetting cold queries. That chapter, believe it or not, clocks in at 25,000 words. But they’re good words. (Please, Lord, make them be good words.) I’ve also plunged headfirst into Delivering MIRACLES, a book about the proper staffing and structuring of healthcare quality teams. I’ve really struggled with the organization of this latter book, but during prep for a presentation I’m delivering in October, inspiration struck and now I’m really excited for this book because I think I “cracked the code.” And on a personal front, I recently released one of my erotica novellas on Amazon — under pseudonym, of course. And I really enjoyed the three-night writers’ retreat I did in August as well as my semimonthly meetings of the Grand River Writing Tribe.

Working. Nearly a year and a half after I left Priority Health, I’ve long since found solid contract work that’s replaced my former W-2 income. My major client right now — a New York media corporation — brought me aboard to perform technical document review full-time, and as such, I get to be a temporary W-2 employee of a tiny Florida-based payroll firm instead of a pure 1099 contractor managing invoices. The upshot is that in addition to an easier long-run tax position, I now enjoy decent medical, dental and vision benefits at very nice rates through this payroll firm. It’s still contract work that I negotiate, but through an agency instead of through direct invoicing. In addition, I’ve joined groups like the Small Business Association of Michigan, the Grand Rapids Chamber and the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. In fact, I sponsored a session at SBAM’s annual conference this year and moderated a panel on work-life balance. Professionally, even though I’ve been quiet, I’ve been busy on these books and on earned business.

My Autumnal Re-Centering

So, a good summer. But the autumn? Horse of a different color.

Whilst recreating in the Lone Star State, I had a bit of a health scare in the form of a significant attack of heartburn. So far, so anodyne, right? Happens to everyone at some point — but not to me. Long story short, I’m at a pivot point where an immediate health detour is necessary while a delayed or avoided detour will prove not-okay. Much of what’s going now on re-creates the end of 2004, so it’s familiar territory. Back then, I needed an EGD because I had significant esophageal erosions and scarring arising from mostly asymptomatic GERD. Plus, obesity. Plus, exhaustion. Plus, pre-diabetes. Plus, plus, plus. So in January 2005, I was in a do-or-(eventually)-die moment. So I did — I left grad school, left the newspaper, lost 110 pounds in 2005 (and another 30 pounds in 2006), got a gym membership and used it five or six times per week, started karate, took up long-distance running, etc. And I maintained those gains until mid-2009, when the quadruple-whammy of a major auto accident, several rapid changes of domicile, a new high-drama boss at the hospital, and a significant Vitamin D deficiency brought back something like 60 pounds in six months. Since then, I’ve been on a fairly regular cycle of plateau, stress response, re-plateau.

So, yes. It’s 2004 all over again, but even more so. I now need to repeat 2005, or else.

The funny thing is that I really don’t consciously perceive overt stress. I don’t suffer from depression and anxiety. My stress is more biological than psychological — I do too much and am spread too thin, but I’ve always been loathe to say no to things and to stop doing things that ought to be stopped, so I end up burning the candle at both ends and then dropping a match in the middle. And because there’s so much to do in parallel, everything progresses glacially, frustrating some and creating a negative feedback loop for me, emotionally, that eventually manifests physically.

It takes a significant shock to upset that cycle. And now, for the first time since 2004, the shock has been delivered.

The practical upshot is that I’m clearing the plate of almost everything. Call it the Great Purge of 2019. On an immediate front, I canceled my travel to Phoenix and Rome (the former for practical reasons related to health management). And I’m unwinding practically everything else. I resigned last week from my role on the Write616 board of directors. I discontinued participation in a peer-networking group online. I’m not yet ready, in the context of this blog, to fully disclose everything that’s changing, given that some readers here will be affected by some things that haven’t yet been announced in their proper context. Let it suffice that a lot of stuff is moving from my must-do column to my stop-do column between now and New Years Eve, but details will emerge in the official channels where those details more properly belong, in the days and weeks to come.

In 2005, I hit the reset button and stopped everything but my day job. What filled the gap proved largely unplanned. Not bad, but not planned. In 2019, I’m hitting the reset button again — but at least this time, I’ve got a strategery.

The Road Ahead

So what’s next?

Well, mid-September through the end of January will be a period of hibernation. No out-of-state travel. A lot of big rocks in my jar will move to different gardens by the end of the calendar year. I’ll be spending my days working and my nights reading and writing. A lot of the stuff that’s clogged my calendar and my to-do list now glides toward the dustbin, with some things — being more significant — requiring several months of transition. My mornings will begin with reflection and exercise; my nights will end with journaling.

My diet’s changing. In fact, it’s already changed, and apart from a beer after an NCT hike last Saturday, I haven’t had alcohol or a cigar since I podcasted with Tony two weeks ago, a fact made glaringly obvious when I stepped on the scale this morning and saw a 5-lb. reduction in just one week. I’m getting back into aerobic exercise with a determination borne of necessity. I intend to take two days each week for myself, a pure sabbath on Sunday and a maintenance Monday for clean-up, errands and personal time.

You are unlikely to see me on social media, but you may come across me at church — I recently joined Sacred Heart. You may find me at a writers’ group or a one-off local cultural activity. You might find me on the trail. Otherwise, you’ll find me at home.

But yes. Autumn began yesterday. I’m taking the season to hunker down. To be quiet. To do and to be and to fix.

Because I’m really excited for what 2020 holds, and I aim to be maximally ready for it.

Six Fruitful Weeks

Where to begin?

Over the third week in March, I traveled to the Crescent City for the 2019 New Orleans Bourbon Festival. Had a great time — stayed with Tony at the Harrah’s N.O. hotel/casino then welcomed the opportunity to meet with a dozen friends from as far away as California and Manitoba. A wonderful time, with wonderful people, and wonderful brown spirits, and wonderful culinary delights.

But here’s the thing: In an attempt to be clever, I opted to save a few hundred bucks by flying out of Chicago O’Hare instead of Grand Rapids. So to maximize my time working, I figured I’d take the Amtrak from Grand Rapids to downtown Chicago, then the L straight into O’Hare. In theory, it was a plan of unparalleled brilliance, foiled only by the fact that the train engineer suffered a heart attack, prompting a three-hour pause in St. Joseph, Michigan, and a sad Jason rebooking his flights to (a) arrive later than planned, and (b) to cost more than just flying outta G.R.

On the way back, given that I had plenty of time both on the train and at the (lovely) Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station, I waxed internally philosophic about the Big Meaning of Life questions.

Some conclusions:

  • I’d rather experience now than plan to experience later.
  • Bootstrapping big things isn’t a wise idea. To paraphrase my late, beloved grandfather: Anything worth doing is worth appropriately resourcing before you start. Seat-of-your-pants business development is a recipe for mediocrity.
  • My arch-nemesis, the Jonah Complex, thrives in those little minutes when it’s easier to surrender to acedia than to hone one’s game. Yet — just as with training a cat to avoid the near occasion of sin — it’s better to create an environment where the defaults are configured to channel good behaviors rather than indulging in self-flagellation at the point of failure.

In light of those reflections, I’ve spent a large amount of the month of April taking new stock of my portfolio of assets and liabilities — financial, emotional, experiential — with an eye toward (as they say) defecating or abdicating from the throne.

So here’s what’s happened this month:

  • I’ve paid off my car, heavily invested in my business enterprises and wiped away all my credit-card debt. (In fact, I’m writing this post from the Starbucks on Alpine Ave., while said car undergoes a much-needed interior and exterior detailing.)
  • I booked a week-long vacation to Italy for late summer. Never been to Europe, and don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to go. Itinerary includes Rome (my home-base hotel is a stone’s throw from the Vatican), Naples, Assisi and Capri. May take a brief side trip to either Florence or Venice, if time permits. Been doing some Duolinguo lessons to prepare.
  • I wrapped up my notes and paperwork for a paid speaking gig I’m doing in June in D.C.
  • I started flying lessons, out of West Michgian Regional in Holland. Went on my first flight last week and have two more flights scheduled this week, plus I attended a “how to pass your checkride” seminar with an FAA examiner. Cool stuff. On track to earn my private pilot license by the end of the summer, and I’m grateful to the support from my friends Patrick and Jason (both pilots) for their encouragement and advice. I’ve got a great, engaged instructor, which really makes a difference.
  • I replaced the BCD (the air vest) for my scuba gear and registered for enough specialty courses this summer to potentially earn Master Diver certification by the end of the season. I’m already booked for Feburary 2020 to visit Bonaire, a little Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela, for a dive trip with two diving friends.
  • I fleshed out and resourced Lakeshore Literary Logistics, a company that compliments Caffeinated Press. L3’s purpose is book-and-lit-journal distribution, not publishing. Although I still am active with Caffeinated Press, I’ve gotten almost completely out of editorial project management and am instead focused on L3 and distribution planning. On the CafPress front, John is focusing on the lit journal and Brittany is now handling editorial project management in addition to her work as CFO.
  • I’ve developed one of the books I’m working on, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors, to roughly 50 percent complete. The manuscript presently stands at about 65,000 words, and I’ve already enlisted the support of one of my interns as well as a few writing colleagues to examine sample chapters. I might even have a guest author for a special-topics chapter lined up. A complete first draft will likely be ready to go by the end of the summer. Still haven’t decided whether I want to shop a proposal or self-publish, but I have time to figure it out.
  • The other book I’m developing, Introduction to Health Data Analytics, is now fully fleshed and I’ve got a kitchen cabinet of healthcare industry colleagues on board to review sample chapters. I’m expecting to be first-draft ready sometime over the upcoming winter.
  • My work with Gillikin & Associates is going well, albeit quietly. I’ve got a part-time client in New York that’s prompting me to be a bit less aggressive with marketing right now. I recently joined the Grand Rapids Chamber, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Look forward to lots of professional networking over the next few months.
  • Although my travel schedule is fillling — right now, I’m booked for Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas, Las Vegas (twice), Rome, Phoenix and Louisville — I’m slotting in time this spring to do a kayak trip and, I think, an overnight backpacking loop.
  • A confluence of events conspires to draw me back into more regular church attendance. Part of it relates to just shifting priorities, and part of it relates to a dive into the minutiae of the Extraordinary Form (for both the Mass and the Divine Office) that migrated from curiosity to intrigue.
  • The podcast is going well. Vice Lounge released a 4-inch-by-six-inch flyer with basic strategy guides on one side and tasting trees on the other. A nice touch for long-time friends of the show.

So, yeah. I’ve been busy. And although I did pull a back muscle a few weeks ago that laid me up for a while, all is well. The feline overlords are content, and no immediate crises seem to be brewing.

It feels like things are coming together nicely, and that 2019 will be the year that several of my bucket-list items cross off the list.

A Bit About a Bite

While catching up with some news websites yesterday, I stumbled across an article that linked to a two-year-old study about sugar. The TL;DR is that added sugar seems to be bad for one’s health — obesity, diabetes, etc. In fact, there seems to be a growing consensus among researchers (and not the sky-is-falling conspiracy-theorist variety) that high levels of sugar are outright toxic and should be treated like cigarettes: “Sure, one cigarette isn’t going to kill you, but enough of them will, so don’t have the ‘one’ to begin with.”

Fair enough.

Second verse, same as the first, regarding too much alcohol.

References abound, too, to stories about a person’s microbiome, and how the macronutrient profile of what we eat directly affects the flora inside our intestinal tract, which directly affects our overall heath.

Oh, and don’t forget, adequate sleep matters, too. And getting enough exercise, especially cardio.

So the message that some health experts now share is relatively simple: Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, avoid unnecessary sugar intake, don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess, and get at least a little exercise each week.
Got it? Good. Now gather ’round kiddies, cuz grandpa’s got a story.

Picture it: Grand Rapids, 2018. Since last autumn, as I’ve spent more time at home, I’ve been cooking more. (By more I mean, “I’ve started cooking.”) I’ve also gotten a bit more exercise, smoked fewer cigars, enjoyed comparatively fewer cocktails, and have been paying more attention to my sleep. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Diet matters. In 2005-2006, I lost 110 lbs. through a combination of diet and exercise. But funny thing: My diet in those days focused almost exclusively on calorie restriction, not on macronutrient balance. So I’d eat salads, and lean cuisines, and sometimes a pudding cup or something. I kept it below 1200 calories daily for a long time — but I didn’t change, e.g., my sugar intake. And even though I did, on average, more than 90 minutes of vigorous cardio a day at the time, my weight dropped at a rate of 2.5 lbs./week. Which on one hand is great, but on the other hand, not what it could have been. “I must have a slow metabolism,” I thought. Oh, and at that time, I never drank and never enjoyed a cigar.
Now, however, my diet is much more controlled. I tend to eat the same things, consistently:

  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with a light dash of cinnamon and a handful of freshly washed blueberries, plus coffee.
  • Lunch: Spinach salad with a few pinches of an Italian shredded-cheese blend and some shredded, plain chicken breast (the Meijer shredded rotisserie breast boxes, available in the deli, are awesome). Add a tablespoon of light balsamic vinagrette and a glass of low-sodium spicy V8 juice. Plus a Vitamin D3 pill.
  • Dinner: Pan-fried fish (usually salmon, tuna, swordfish or mahi-mahi — stuff that tolerates a cast-iron skillet) and a steamed vegetable, usually broccoli, brussels sprouts or asparagus. Rarely, just once or twice a month, I’ll swap in something like a rare filet. Serve with a tall glass of frosty distilled water.
  • Snacks: Sometimes a 30-gram pack of mixed nuts, sometimes a few tablespoons of 1 percent cottage cheese.

I don’t follow this diet perfectly. And that’s the point: I might go four or five days eating like this, then (as with last Friday) go to a social event where we all eat pizza for dinner and wash it down with chocolate desserts. Increasingly, I feel awful for a day or two after these “splurge” days, because my gut bacteria are adjusting to a better diet.
Remember how I lost 10 pounds a month exercising like a rabid monkey and starving myself? I lost 10 pounds last December by doing almost no exercise and enjoying holiday food, but cutting sugar and alcohol (most of December was dry) and eating well when I ate in. Never felt deprived, not even a little.

Healthy eating isn’t just about one or two lines on the Nutrition Facts label. I am not a nutritionist, so don’t take my word for it, but all of the reading and research I’ve seen in the peer-reviewed literature suggests that a variation on the Mediterranean Diet seems to be optimal. You need a good mix of protein, fats and carbs to thrive; looking just a calories, or just at sodium, or just at carbs, isn’t the right approach. It’s generically recommended that your daily intake include 50 percent carbs, 30 percent fats and 20 percent proteins. Mine is a bit different; I’m at roughly 25 to 30 percent carbs, 35 percent fats and 35 to 40 percent proteins, at between 1,500 and 1,700 calories per day. The point is, I’m looking broadly at all three categories instead of just obsessing about the calorie count. After all, if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet, eating 2,000 calories of donuts every day probably isn’t the best solution. And while it’s true that the only way to lose weight is by burning more calories than you consume — calorie restriction really does matter! — your gut microbiome flourishes when it’s got a good, healthy balance. And with a flourishing microbiome, your risks of cancer, heart disease, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and a whole host of other problems seems to reduce significantly.

Cut the sugar. Last week, I brought snacks to our writers’ group meeting. Pączki happened to be on sale, so I bought a four-pack of blueberry ones. And I ate one in the office. And I felt awful. I guess I’m recalibrating to a more low-sugar lifestyle; six months ago, I could have put all four away and wished for a fifth. That I can see such an immediate causal relationship between my feeling of well-being based on something as silly as a Polish pastry says a lot, now that I’m less desensitized to it.

Exercise doesn’t matter how you think it does. I used to exercise to aid weight loss. Now, I exercise less than I should (but more than I used to), but I do it for cardiovascular health. You’re not going to lose weight exercising unless you’re doing insane cardio every day and are strictly cutting calories (which, by the way, isn’t a good combination, he says from experience). Hopping on the bike for a few minutes every other day or so isn’t going to shred a pound, but when I go on a hike, I won’t struggle to keep up with the group, either. In fact, I went on a New Years Day hike with the Fortune Bay Expedition Team this year. When the hike, which proceeded over horse trails near Yankee Springs State Recreational Area, concluded roughly six miles later, I was a the head of the class, not the back. And there were two dozen of us out there that day! So I might still look a bit doughy, but I’m in better shape than I look for my age and weight.

Don’t skimp on sleepFor several months now, I’ve been sleeping with my Apple Watch. I use an app that tracks my sleep. It calculates a “sleep deficit” on a rolling seven-day average. And you know what? When I can keep the deficit to 5 percent or less, I feel great. When it gets above 10 percent, I can absolutely tell. I feel awful, I get crabby, I can’t focus as well. When I only get five or six hours of sleep for three or four days in a row, my performance declines markedly. Now that I have data, I better understand the phenomenon.

Moderate your vices. I’ve smoked fewer cigars in the last few months than I have in many years. Not deliberately, per se; with the more intense cold, and me keeping the back porch wide-open for Ziggy d’Cat, it’s just been too unpleasant. So I’ve not enjoyed cocktails while puffing on a stogie. And I’ve been consuming fewer cocktails in general, as well. I like to sip on things when I write and read, but it turns out that ice water works just as well as a 700-calorie martini. I don’t mind having a couple of cigars per week; CDC estimates suggest a negligible overall risk from puffing (not inhaling) at that volume. But moderation.

I’m more aware than I used to be about the signals my body sends me. I guess I’d rather not get to the point where the only signals it sends are of the “Danger, Will Robinson!” variety.

From Inbox Zero to Inbox Infinity? Or, Why I Learned to Stop Stressing About My Unread Message Count

The last three days have been focused, to remarkable degree, on communicating. Mostly catch-up stuff. Monday and Tuesday were spent, 10 hours each day, just responding to accumulated messages. Whilst munching dinner yesterday, I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic by Taylor Lorenz titled “Don’t Reply to Your Emails: The Case for Inbox Infinity” that triggered some introspection about all of this effort.
Lorenz’s argument, in essence, is that one ought not waste the time trying to keep abreast on communication because it’s a never-ending fight that offers relatively little return on investment. In fact, responsiveness invites additional unnecessary correspondence that adds to the load, in a never-ending spiral of slavery to inboxes and social dashboards. The more responsive you are, the more people send to you, thus the more you have to deal with. Thus, choosing to not read and respond to messages is a healthy life choice and a savvy business strategy: Embrace Inbox Infinity.
I get it. But the Midwestern Nice guy in me thinks that a one-sided screw-you policy borders on the sociopathic.
So I crunched some numbers:

  • On any given day, I receive anywhere from 300 to 500 emails. Of those, about one-third are personalized-yet-unsolicited messages that don’t get caught by spam filters, one-third are notifications of some sort that I inspect and then (usually) delete, and one-third incur some sort of response — a reply, a forward, a follow-up task. So I must engage in some way with anywhere between 100 and 150 emails daily. And that’s across four actively trafficked email accounts and an additional five lightly trafficked ones. I’ve occasionally kept an Inbox Zero-like state for a week or two. Consistently, I need to spend 90 minutes per day in Outlook to make that happen, and just for email.
  • On average, I receive roughly 100 social notifications each day, across Facebook (personal), Facebook Messenger, six Facebook Pages I administer, two Facebook Groups I administer, eight Twitter accounts I singly or jointly own, my personal LinkedIn account, two LinkedIn company accounts I administer, my Instagram account, two Instagram company accounts, and one mostly dormant Tumblr account.
  • I receive between zero and 50 text messages per day.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616, and Vice Lounge Online, we’ve deployed a ticketing system, so those websites incur additional messages (between zero and a dozen, each day) that almost always require non-trivial follow-up. Some of the CafPress tickets are editorial queries, which on average take 15 minutes each to resolve for the easy ones and 30 minutes for the hard ones. In addition, both CafPress and Write616 provide community forums that include segments with more-or-less active communication. For the CafPress forums alone, over 2018, I lodged more than 300 new messages. And probably 12 of the last 20 hours I’ve spent cleaning up comms has occurred in the CafPress ticketing system, where I’ve personally touched or closed roughly 120 tickets over the last three solar cycles.
  • For Caffeinated Press, Write616 and Gillikin & Associates, all of which use the Zoho One platform, we use Zoho Projects, and most project-related correspondence happens in the context of per-project forums or discussion threads.
  • Some of the editorial consulting work I do relies on a private Slack channel — not high traffic, though, which is good.
  • Telephony? I can be reached (“reached,” he jokes) over 10 different possible phone numbers associated with three physical telephones and five voicemail boxes.

In other words, I get a ton of correspondence stretching over nine email accounts, five social platforms, five voicemail boxes, three ticketing systems, three project-management platforms, two community forums, a slack channel and iMessages. And a partridge in a pear tree.
I understand that I’m an unusual use case. I lead two small businesses, run a freelance editorial gig off the side of my desk, co-host a long-running podcast with a vibrant listener base, volunteer on a non-profit working board and have my own hobbies and personal writing endeavors. And believe me, I’m not complaining. I’ve made my choices and even though I’m scheduled (really) from 7a to 11:30p Sunday through Saturday, I’m doing what I want to do, and I own the trade-offs I’ve incurred to split my time in so many diverse ways. “Living your best life,” or whatever the kids these days hashtag.
So, even though I’m inundated with communication, it’s not like I’m a victim of it. Yet to keep abreast of everything and to be highly responsive in the short term, across all communications channels, I’d have to dedicate 2.5 to 3.5 hours, 7 days a week, to do nothing but communicate. Not to work. Just to communicate. Assuming that the prompt engagment wouldn’t generate additional engagement that opens that window even wider.
So in most cases, I elect to not spend that much time managing communications, and instead pursue work that can lead to better financial outcomes for me and for the initiatives I support. There’s always a balance, of course, and I don’t always get that balance perfect, but if given the chance to do something of value, or to talk about doing something of value, I’ll prefer the former to the latter.
And that’s the rub.
I think people who have invested their time differently — e.g., folks who work one day job and reserve evenings and weekends for friends, family and a hobby or two — mosey up to the communications table with a very different set of expectations. When they send emails, they expect responses within a day or two. When they leave a voicemail, they expect a call back. When they reach out on social media, they expect acknowledgement. For them, timely reciprocal engagement is a default framework for viewing interpersonal communications.
Which, you know, ain’t exactly unreasonable.
Yet it’s not terribly unusual for me to incur read-and-respond lags of 90 days or more. Some of my pending tickets are nine months old. None of this delay is a function of me hating the sender or deciding that my needs are more important or not caring a whit about others’ good-faith reach-outs. It’s a function of being swamped. Having decided that 2.5 to 3.5 hours every day managing inboxes and dashboards isn’t in the cards, then every day I fail to keep up accumulates a debt that swells and swells and swells, interest compounding relentlessly until eventually — and I do this two or three times per year — I take a day or two off, decamp to coffee shops, and do nothing but play communication catch-up, triaging what I can, deleting what I can’t, and moving forward as best as I can.
So what’s the solution? How does one bridge the gap deep cultural gap between timely reciprocal engagement and inbox infinity?
Some attentive blog readers may have picked up, over the last year or so, on this theme of me writing about the tyranny of the inbox. I went astray, I think, in originally trying to be omnicompetent. So I set expectations that, as they slipped, didn’t help. I recognize that others have legitimate needs to which I should respond, so I’ve been working hard over the last year to erect a bridge that crosses that gap while minimizing (never, alas, eliminating) the attendant friction for both sides. In some ways, it’s like learning a different language or navigating a foreign culture.
I think — I hope! — I’m making some progress, though:

  1. I’m focusing more and more on getting people out of my email inbox. The use of ticketing systems and project-management tools means that others can swoop in as needed. (I’m still working on getting the “others” to actually swoop in, which is a conversation for a different day.) It’s easier for me to schedule time to view a project’s notification history or a ticket queue than to pick apart disparate emails amidst a sea of email noise and then magically plot the projects in my head.
  2. I’ve been much more aggressive lately in telling new-to-me people that (a) I don’t do status reports, and (b) expect long delays in routine correspondence. Most people understand and offer the attendant grace. A few people don’t seem to believe me when I tell them as much, so I’m continuing to refine the message so that expectations are set up-front.
  3. I’m going to start being more aggressive in redirecting communication to the right channel. For example, I cannot conduct business conversations on my personal social-media channels. Not because I’m trying to be a dick about it, but because Facebook and Twitter aren’t part of a task-based, discoverable workflow.
  4. I’m committing in 2019 to hold more frequent and available open office hours. If something is so important that it requires immediate attention, the door is open to an in-person conversation. If it’s not important enough for a direct chat, then the priority clarifies itself.
  5. I’ll continue to ignore the bullies who hector, cajole, demean and dismiss in their escalating attempts to get attention. This phenomenon happens more often than it ought with authors, who (despite early level-setting) nevertheless have persuaded themselves that I’m at their beck-and-call then become angry when their beck isn’t called. I will never justify myself or give in to digital bullies. Ever.
  6. I accept that some things that might warrant a response, in the abstract, don’t rise to a return-on-investment level in the real world. Therefore, I won’t beat myself up if I can’t attend to everything.

I used to get stressed about falling behind on communications. (I don’t talk about my mental health on my blog, but if people understood what havoc Caffeinated Press hath wrought, emotionally —.) I don’t stress anymore. I suppose I’ve embraced the Serenity Prayer. Part of the “doing many things” lifestyle is that I accept that not everything that should be done, can be done. At least, not by one person. And scaling back — to only do those things where you can guarantee you can get 100 percent done on a highly predictable schedule — presents its own set of risks, mostly financial; the more tongs you pull out of the fire, the more dependent you are on just a few investments, and if any of those dwindling investments dry up, the result is catastrophic.
I’ll admit, though. For a while, I really did toy with saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Full Inbox Infinity ahead!” But I just couldn’t. I might not be perfect, but I do try to not be an asshole.
Yet as I continue to stumble on, doing the best I can, I’ll at least take some solace in not feeling as bad about myself as I used to.

An Auspicious Start

The new year is a mere 2 percent complete but so far, so good:

  • Kicked the new year off right with a 6-mile hike along parts of the North Country Trail and some horse trails, near Yankee Springs Recreational Area. Went well. My brother came, too, which was nice. The hike was sponsored by FBET; I’ve recently registered for a series of FBET trainings to occur over the next few months.
  • We held a board of directors meeting for Caffeinated Press. John is back from sabbatical. Woohoo!
  • Met the new landlord.
  • Already prepared federal taxes for Gillikin & Associates and VLO Media.
  • Lots of odds-and-ends wrapped up.
  • Welcomed two new members to the Grand River Writing Tribe.

January’s going to be a flurry — lots of stuff that I must wrap up before the end of the month, because starting in February, my daily life is going to take a major change for reasons I can’t share yet.
But as I said: So far, so good.

2018: A Most Extraordinary Year

As we prepare to kiss A.D. MMXVIII goodbye, I am astonished at where I am today versus the last time I wrote my annual end-of-year reflection. Without a doubt, three major life lessons loomed large.

  1. Resiliency illuminates the upside of any major change. Much of what transpired in 2018 could be perceived as being risky or harmful or scary — indeed, on more than one occasion, friends and family in-the-know about 2018’s myriad “opportunities” would ask me if I’m okay. Yet every time I experienced a significant disruptor, I sought the potential benefit. Not in a grief-management way, but rather by (newfound!) innate disposition. I’m in a much better place because of it; if the events of 2018 had unfolded in, say, 2012, I would not have adapted — I probably would have melted down in a cascade of self-defeating behaviors and thereby set myself back a decade. I touched on this truth in this year’s birthday retrospective. I think a big part of the puzzle rests simply in getting older. As Gillikinism No. 39 teaches, “Experience puts meat on the bones of theory.” Early in one’s life, every drama represents something new and potentially terrifying that must be learned and accommodated. Later, every drama rings familiar and therefore proves surmountable. And lest you think that the foregoing paragraph reeks of self-congratulation, let me reiterate: This resiliency triggered by default, not by dint of heroic will. When you arrive at a point in life where you’ve grown comfortable with risk, where every crisis feels familiar and therefore resolvable, you’re freed to act in a more upbeat and strategic way. I’ve naturally hit that point, I think. Not because I consciously worked at it, but because I’ve incurred enough rotations on the Big Blue Marble to reset my expectations and to augment my emotional toolkit.
  2. People thrive within their networks. I’ve been horribly, horribly slow at recognizing the power of networks. Part of my resistance follows from my mild introvert tendencies, and part of it hails from a solution-oriented approach to problem solving. An old boss of mine, Tracey, once told me that co-workers sometimes grew frustrated with me because I’d go to a meeting and in the first five minutes, announce a solution to whatever problem the meeting was intended to address. Even though my solutions were often “right,” they engendered a hostile reaction because I didn’t allow everyone else to arrive at the same position at their own speed and as part of a consensus decision. My last year or so at Priority Health emphasized the degree to which people make decisions not based on facts or logic but on emotional responses to colleagues. Especially as a full-time independent consultant, I’ve re-learned that people are your biggest advocates and your biggest barriers but the trick to success is to ceaselessly work the network. Grow it. Tend to it. My friend Tony used to encourage me along the lines of Mr. Kool-Aid Man, Ivan Meissner, founder of BNI. I wish I had paid more attention to Tony’s counsel in previous years. Let it suffice that in 2018, I finally learned the lesson that it’s better to build relationships with people and only then help them solve their problems, than to solve their problems then assume that you’ve therefore built a relationship.
  3. Infrastructure matters. You cannot do complicated things well without an infrastructure that supports appropriate planning and execution. This year, I learned the hard way that no matter how effective I was at managing tasks, without a clear hook into my calendar, I wasn’t as good at executing on those tasks. With Caffeinated Press, for example, I spent a huge chunk of the middle part of the year fixing and tweaking the electronic infrastructure that we had built with duct tape and twine — well north of 70 percent of my dedicated CafPress time, for several months — to do nothing but maintain status quo. What a waste! So we migrated to Zoho One, and now my maintenance consists in ensuring the bill gets paid. On a personal front, I migrated away from my beloved Todoist to Microsoft To-Do, because of its deep hooks into Outlook and OneNote. So now instead of just listing the things I need to get done, I schedule them on my calendar. And I ensure that my calendar is prudent: Time for work, some reserved time for enrichment, etc. Every Sunday night, I plan the week ahead, re-curating my task list and then harmonizing my calendar to make the tasks work. I’m still doing more than I should — I’ve incurred significantly more obligations than time available — but I’m making good progress on whittling down the task list. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when, instead of looking at your to-do list and saying, “Wow, I’ve got 168 items on it” (which is today’s count) “so what should I do next?” you block time to prioritize and schedule those items and then slot them into your schedule.

A Review of 2018

Looking at things thematically:
Career. In January, it became obvious that I had no real future in the Advanced Analytics department at Priority Health. I have lots of opinions about what happened, and why, but I’m obligated at present to keep those insights to myself. Let it suffice that by May, I had departed Priority Health. Instead of seeking employment elsewhere, I opted to launch Gillikin & Associates, a healthcare quality and analytics consulting agency. (And, yes, I’ve booked business in 2018, woohoo.) So far, so good. I’ve done some speaking gigs (I presented two sessions at the NAHQ conference in Minneapolis in November, for example) and have been intermittently bidding on state and federal contract opportunities. All of my infrastructure work is done; I opted to “freeze” active client acquisition until I could complete the bolus of publishing work that has been on my plate. Looks like the freeze will lift in January, and I’ll be ready to go at 110 percent. I’m actually rather excited by this development.
Domicile. I’ve lived at The Fortress on Prospect Avenue for a full eight years now. I rent. My landlord finally sold the house; it closed on Dec. 21. The new landlord — who so far cannot even be bothered to text me his name — seems to want to keep business as usual, although “business as usual” entails a substantial increase in the rent I’ve been paying if he declines to maintain certain concessions that the previous landlord had extended. So I’m not sure where I’ll end up, or when. This place isn’t worth the alleged full market price, a point the new landlord will eventually learn to his everlasting grief.
Writing. Early in the year, a few short pieces of mine saw print. I continue to write, although my focus in the second half of the year was trained on two long-form non-fiction projects: From Pencil to Print, a guide for emerging writers, and Introduction to Health Quality Analytics, a textbook for people new to healthcare, quality or analytics. The Grand River Writing Tribe remains strong; we lost Marie to an out-of-state move but have, by the end of 2018, tentatively welcomed two additional people, thus reaching our cap of eight participants. Oh, and I released a few more of my pseudonymous erotica novellas to market, and they’ve generated some reasonable sales. That’s cool.
Publishing. Woof, what a year. For all practical purposes, Caffeinated Press in 2018 was the Jason and Brittany show. The upside is that the two of us have done a tremendous amount to “unclog the drains” and to streamline infrastructure and plan strategically. The downside is that with just the two of us, editorial work was slow. We enjoyed a pair of delightful interns this summer, who helped us immensely, and I learned a lot about the daily life of other small presses through our membership in the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. As usual, the challenge is editorial production. It’s literally just me, and I literally am so time-constrained that progress grinds slowly. And every time I get help, the help vanishes after training and orientation. I persist, but ….
Podcasting. Tony and I are about to cross the 400-episode mark with Vice Lounge Online. In February, we’re going to spend an entire weekend together to plan a six-month series of content so that we can spend more time doing value-add things for our Patreon supporters. With thousands of downloads per episode, an active Facebook group with more than 200 people, and well north of 1,000 Twitter followers, the podcast is doing well.
NAHQ. This year proved interesting. In April, the board of directors adopted a new Code of Ethics for the profession of healthcare quality. I was privileged to co-chair that work, in partnership with my colleague Andrew and our staff partner Karen, and to serve as lead author for the new Code. However, given my transition from Priority Health to Gillikin & Associates, I resigned my position on the NAHQ board of directors in September. I look forward to working with NAHQ and my colleagues in the profession in new ways in the future.
Write616. Although we had a good year, and I was gratified at the response to the Get Pressed program that I facilitated, we’ve come to recognize that helping people one writer at a time is fundamentally unsustainable. As such, we’re pivoting in 2019 toward developing a major multi-day literary festival. Lots of time has been spent over the last two months preparing for it, including our board hiring its first executive director. We’re planning a major fundraiser in late January. It’s a critical time for this tiny non-profit, and a significant amount of my time lately has been spent on ensuring the success of this transition and this fundraiser.
Travel and Events. Eleven out-of-state trips in nine different months. December proved to be the only month without me going to an event somewhere.

  • January: NAHQ working trip to Chicago, IL
  • February: Casino trip with friends to Windsor, ON
  • March: Visit to Denton, TX to see the DDB crue
  • April: NAHQ board meeting in Chicago, IL
  • May: Training in Wakefield, QC; 360Vegas Vacation and Zorkfest in Las Vegas, NV
  • June: NAHQ commission week in Chicago, IL
  • July: Casino trip with friends to Windsor, ON (again)
  • August: MiFiWriters Retreat in Dowling, MI
  • September: 360Vegas Vacation in Las Vegas, NV; NAHQ board meeting Denver, CO
  • October: MAHQ conference in Traverse City, MI
  • November: NAHQ conference in Minneapolis, MN

Politics. I didn’t get too engaged this cycle, although I did in December win another two-year appointment to the Kent County Republican Executive Committee, this time as an elected member instead of a statutory one. Most of my political volunteering went to the campaign of Matt Hall, a friend of mine from college who successfully challenged incumbent Rep. Jim Maturen (Calhoun and parts of Kalamazoo counties). Matt won election by more than 11 points in November and takes office later this week. I’m excited for him.
Health. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — early in the year I hit a high point of weight and poor cardiopulmonary fitness. Both have gotten back under control. My diet is the best it’s been in a decade: My home-dining habit mostly consists of large salads for lunch and steamed veggies and fish for dinner. The biggest obstacle fell into the “adult beverages” category, but I’ve discovered that simply not buying them means I have nothing but distilled water to sip in the evening as I read and write. As if by magic, weight goes down. Who’d a thunk it?
Hobbies. I knocked a bucket-list item off my list by earning Wilderness First Responder certification. I joined the Fortune Bay Expedition Team guild and have taken several trainings with them, including a land-nav practicum a few months ago. I’ve gone on several hikes along the North Country Trail, mostly in the Manistee National Forest in Newaygo County. I’ve purchased the “ground school” self-study equivalent for a private pilot’s license and have plowed through the material, with another go-around planned soon. About the only thing I didn’t do was dive this year, but that’s okay — I need a new wetsuit anyway, and I really should get my gear torn down, cleaned and inspected.
Relationships. One thing about 2018: I’ve definitely made more of a goal of keeping relationships kindled. Lots of lunches, dinners and after-work beers.
Reading. I made a point to read more in 2018. I’m working on a blog post that outlines the year’s reading program, but it’s not yet ready for prime time.
Saw-Sharpening. After I saw the writing on the wall at Priority Health, I endeavored to treat 2018 as a year of growth and skills improvement. I’ve done quite a bit of reading, and studying, and online course completion — all with an eye toward making me a better person. These investments proved pricey, but valuable.

Goals for 2019

So what does the new year bring?
A commitment to diversification. I really don’t aspire to go back to a middle-tier job in a 9-to-5 organization. Yet I’m aware that consulting has its pitfalls and its periods of more-or-less consistent revenue streams — and I don’t have a Significant Other to lighten the load. So I’m really trying to settle into a few things. First, to advance Gillikin & Associates as a primary source of income. Second, to get Caffeinated Press to be wholly self-funding. Third, to keep Vice Lounge Online fully self-funding (it crossed the threshold this year, with Patreon). Fourth, to keep my contract editing work with DotDash viable as a funding backstop. Fifth, to establish and then promote a media company to harness my publishing expertise to bring in personal revenue. The two major book projects I’m working on are unlikely to be significant revenue generators, but they’re significant credibility enhancers, so the slow walk to having four to six sustainable sticks in the fire continues apace.
Next, a commitment to good health. I end the year with better cardiovascular fitness than I’ve had in many years and a slimming waistline. The journey continues. Cutting extraneous carbs (lookin’ at you, 800-calorie martinis) will help. So will more time on the trail.
Also, a commitment to long-term stability. My most pressing need is to figure out a long-term residency plan. I’m not sure whether I’ll remain at The Fortress for another month, another quarter, another year or another decade. I’ve got a few ideas, each with a relative mix of trade-offs. Similarly, I still need to develop a strategy for dealing with changes in priorities. Too much of my week is inherently unpredictable because new opportunities, problems and the like creep in. Unlike most people, I don’t enjoy the structural stability of a family and a 9-to-5 job and plenty of free time on nights and weekends. I’m literally scheduled from 7a to 11:30p, Sunday through Saturday. The unpredictability of my priority list has adversely affected folks like authors who demand status reports and whatnot, reports that I refuse to provide because I don’t have a freakin’ clue what the answer is. There are weeks that my schedule derails by Tuesday. So either I refuse to accept new opportunities — a ridiculous solution — or I start to trim stuff that really doesn’t evince a satisfactory ROI, like certain editorial projects. I don’t really want to do either.
Finally, a commitment to continuing growth. The more time I spend “adventuring,” the more I like it. The more time I spend traveling, the more I like it. The more I study new techniques and ideas, the more I like it. I’ve started carving off time in my week dedicated solely to sharpening the saw. This trend will continue.
So. That’s 2018, and my hopes for 2019. I wish you all the best for a happy new year.

Birthday Reflection, Version 42.0

I offer this annual birthday reflection, a day early, from a hotel room in Denver. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel rooms lately, and more time yet remains on the calendar over the next few months. Writing from “somewhere else” often sharpens insight.
I’ve experienced a fair amount of change over the last 12 months. Some good, some challenging. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away is that resilience protects against the pain and uncertainty of change, but the forum of that change (internal vs. external) is not without consequence.
Lots of leadership-advice books natter on about resilience. You know the drill: Cultivate this virtue to accept the things you cannot change. Resilient people follow leaders without complaint because they adapt to having their cheese moved. Grow a shell of resilience to avoid taking workplace slights personally. Et cetera.
I think the truth is different and a bit less opportunistic. I’ve written before about how I’m understanding more deeply the toxic effects of comfort. Yet being aware of the problem and actively addressing it — well, a large gulf of intent divides the two, and most people aren’t ready to bridge the gulf. Resilience is, in a sense, a person’s willingness to build that bridge.
The events of the last year forced my personal gulf to dry to Lake Mead-like levels. Not only did I have to face disruptions to my comfortable routine, but I had no choice but to address them. The stressors — changes in jobs, responsibilities, etc. — were external. Resistance and denial would prove futile. So address them, I did. And I’m largely satisfied with how things have played out so far.
Yet internal stressors beckon, as well. And that’s the real lesson of resilience. What happens when you see a gulf but aren’t forced by outside forces to bridge it?
I recently enjoyed a lovely conversation with a younger friend who’s struggling with her life and career trajectory. I offered advice, of course, but the chat reminded me of a time, back in my late 20s and early 30s, where I kinda-sorta built a life mostly by putting one foot in front of the other and seeing where I ended up. Sure, I might have had goals, but I didn’t meaningfully work on them. I just muddled through, hoping for something better yet preparing for nothing at all.
Eventually, I had to face a sad fact: The life I lived, and the life I aspired to live, stood in stark opposition. What to do?
Some people do nothing. They continue putting one foot in front of the other. They convince themselves, for the most part, that they’re happy. But they’re not really fully actualized in Maslow’s sense of the term. They followed the path of least resistance for them and make do with the consequences.
Others become bitter. You see it in failed careers, failed marriages and shattered families. In chronic disease. In addictions. In isolation and radicalization and a gradual separation from the finer points of reality.
I chose a different path: I elected to pivot. It’s not a fast thing, and it’s not flawless, but over the years — drop by drop — I’ve prioritized different things in different ways. I’ve tried to encourage new habits and to drop counterproductive old ones. I’ve tried to spend my time on what matters instead of what’s urgent.
I started that journey a decade ago. I’m still on it; playing the long game is essential. I’m closer to the finish line than the starting line, but a few laps remain. And I’m happy with that. This pivot required resilience, and that resilience helped me get through parts of 2018 that haven’t been exactly enjoyable.
So I journey into Year 42 with a cheerful spirit. Lots has been done, much remains to do, and I take joy in every turn of the shovel.

Six Months Later …

On January 21, I wrote the following:

A cluster of storms now thunder in the distance:

  • We’ve had significant board departures at Caffeinated Press
  • We’ve re-branded and re-launched GLCL as Write616
  • Tony and I re-skinned Vice Lounge Online
  • I managed to lose, despite the holidays, about 10 pounds
  • Murphy d’Cat has been puking quite a bit lately, meaning a vet visit is on the horizon
  • My landlord has suggested that he’s about to sell the house where I’ve dwelt for the last seven years
  • My department at Priority Health (I’ve been with the corporation for nearly 18 years) is being reorganized, and the role I occupy of departmental manager is being eliminated, although the “what’s next for Jason” question still hasn’t been answered

As you might imagine, it’s been a wee bit complicated lately. Nearly every major aspect of my life—job, hobbies, domicile, pet health—has been put under a degree of stress that they haven’t before, and to boot, it’s all been pretty much simultaneous.

From the vantage point of early July, it’s time to revisit the weather report. In order of appearance:
Caffeinated Press. Brittany and I spent the last six months doing a complete under-the-hood renewal of the company. We’re now pivoting back to editorial ops and to network-distribution efforts. I’m more satisfied than ever that we’re on a path to long-term sustainability, but the process of getting there has been tedious.
Write616. We’ve been programmin’ up a storm. Which is good. We lost two board members (Kelly’s term ended and KT decamped to the East Coast to begin her MFA program) but gained one, as well (the other Kelly). Summer is a quiet time for us. So far, so stable.
Vice Lounge. The new site skinning went well. We just began our usual summer hiatus, when we slow down by releasing one show every other week, instead of weekly. We purchased new equipment (a mixer, some pop filters) and deployed Patreon to encourage listener support. Tony and I both went to Las Vegas for the 360Vegas Vacation, and we’ll both returning later this summer for the next 360Vegas Vacation. Next week, we meet with a group of friends (met through the wide, wooly world of podcasting) for another overnight excursion to Caesar’s Windsor in Ontario. We had already met nearly a dozen folks in Windsor in March.
Health & Happiness. Weight has been stable, tweaking down slightly. I bought an exercise bike a few weeks ago and have discovered that I actually really enjoy making fish and steamed vegetables for dinner and rotisserie-chicken Caesar salads for lunch. More by accident than by design, I’m settling into a low-carb diet and getting much more cardio time in. The new Apple Watch, with its built-in exercise monitors, has been a useful weapon in the cause.
Feline Overlords. Murph is fine. They’re both fine, and have been providing appropriate oversight these last few months.
Domicile. I’m still here, but the landlord is slowly improving the house to list it. I’m aware of his plans. He’s setting high bars (interested buyers must be qualified with the real-estate agent, one viewing only under tight restrictions, etc.) for sale, given that the house was cosmetically refreshed in the early 1980s and last substantially rehabbed — we think — in the early 1950s. If he manages to sell it, and I’m not convinced his heart is in it, then I’ll probably relocate within 60 or 90 days. To where, I haven’t yet decided, but I have a few ideas percolating ‘twixt the earholes, so I’m budgeting/planning accordingly.
Priority Health. My last day there, after nearly 18 years of service, was May 2. I’ve since launched Gillikin & Associates, a healthcare quality consulting agency, and have been funding this effort through a mix of severance payments as well as supplemental income from my contract editing work.


With all of this transition, particularly around Priority Health, I took the advantage of the last few months to eke some wins that heretofore I hadn’t been able to accomplish, because of day-job time constraints:

  • Spending orgy. I burned through a ton of cash early in the year on things that I figured I’d need to have in place given the employment transition. Stuff ranging from a PC consolidation (I bought a Surface Pro 4 with all the bells and whistles and a color laser printer), to golf clubs, to fitness equipment, to a refresh of my hiking gear, to branded promo materials for my consulting efforts. I burned cash like Johnny Depp at a wine auction.
  • Wilderness First Responder training. I scheduled it in January and successfully completed it the first week in May. This certification has been on my bucket list since 2009.
  • Isle Royale AIR application. I filed an application to become an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park. Although I was not selected, it was a matter of pride to have filed the paperwork. The powers-that-be picked two artists out of more than 100 qualified applicants.
  • NAHQ Code of Ethics project. I spent a lot of time serving as project co-lead, and as lead author, for the new Code of Ethics for Healthcare Quality Professionals. The work is still unfolding as we put meat on the bones of the Code as approved in April by the board of directors. More than 100 hours over the last few months went into this work effort, including a day-long focus group in Chicago in February. More still to come.
  • CafPress stabilization planning. Brittany and I spent a ton of time behind-the-scenes cleaning up finances and contracts, re-evaluating projects, streamlining costs and infrastructure, assessing insurance policies, building a platform for distribution, etc. And we brought aboard two interns (one from GVSU, one from Aquinas) who have rocked out this summer’s efforts. One intern, in particular, requested to serve office hours, so I’m in the office roughly 15 hours per week, minimum, to both oversee intern progress as well as to dedicate time to my publishing duties. I’m aware that some folks view my time, and the publishing company’s, primarily in terms of editorial output. This mindset is both offensive and wrong-headed. Running a business takes time. Editorial ops are just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and it makes little sense to focus on editorial when we haven’t significantly cracked the retailer market. I’ve spent more time on CafPress stuff in the last six months than I have in any prior 12-month window. But it’s time on maturing the business so that future editorial projects are better positioned to succeed.
  • Measuring the Marigolds. We did manage to release one editorial project, though — Measuring the Marigolds, a poetry collection by WMU emerita professor Miriam Bat-Ami.
  • Denton. “Goin’ down to Denton, gonna have ourselves a time ….” I went to Denton, Texas in March. Had the chance to spend quality time with Roux, Ryan, Edwin, Sparkles, Duane and Regina in their own back yard (plus Winstar!), and make great new friends at The Don’s. Lookin’ forward to a return trip.
  • Get Published! conference. Did this, again, at Herrick District Library, under the bold and visionary leadership of the MiFiWriters. Great experience.
  • Publication credits. I was officially published in Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds and in Division by Zero: Double Take.
  • Launching G&A. Starting a company from scratch — one based on a national service platform, rather than local sales or service — is no small thing. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours since February poring over website copy, contracts, federal-contractor forms, marketing materials, etc. And I’m yet not completely done!
  • 360Vegas Vacation. Went over Memorial Day (great time, including ZorkFest) and will be returning over Labor Day.
  • Discovery flight. I went flying! And now I’m beginning the process of enrolling for flight lessons.
  • Joined FBET. I applied, and was accepted, as a guild member for the Fortune Bay Expedition Team. Took a class on waterborne medicine in early June and have been taking various online courses offered through their School of Expeditionary Sciences. It’s been a phenomenal process to see how they work, and how I’m already in some ways ahead of the curve (I have a radio license and WFR certification, for example) and in some ways, I’m behind (never occurred to me that a Chevy Cruze was a suboptimal vehicle choice for overland adventure travel). So I’m doing online courses and playing catch-up where I think I have gaps. For example, I just bought a new handheld radio, a Yaesu VX-6R. My “old” radio, a Baofeng BF-F8HP, is decent enough for things like supporting a contest or participating in a local repeater net, but the Yaesu is highly water-resistant and much more programmable. Little things. Like, I’ve had a kayak for years and even a chunky PFD (not that I’ve needed it on the Flat River). But my kayak is a “flatwater” type with open bulkheads, not ideal for more complex lake crossings or Type I-III rapids. So a touring kayak is now on the acquisition list, despite that the cheapest of them retail for more than $1,500. Why bother? Because FBET does stuff like take a two-week drive/camp trek through Newfoundland and Quebec, venturing to places most people never journey. That’s why. It’s increasingly important to me to see the wild world from the trail. Or from 60 feet below the surface. Or from 3,000 feet above it.
  • Auto repairs. On top of everything else, my car needed brakes and it had a minor GM recall, so I brought it in. Turned out — doesn’t it always “turn out” when you visit the dealership? — that there was much more amiss under the hood than I initially suspected. So $1,300 dollars later, I drove off with new front brakes, a new water pump, a reprogrammed Emission Control Module, new valve covers and a new intake manifold. But it’s done, and the Cruze purrs like a kitten now instead of squealing like a hamster running a marathon on a wheel without grease.
  • Photography. Got another photoshoot published, this one of downtown Marshall, Michigan. Was already there taking photos on behalf of my friend Matt Hall’s race for State Rep.
  • Reading. Been scheduling time to read for pleasure. Seven books down, so far this year. I keep buying them, though. Three themes surfacing. First, the whole “end-of-Western-Civ” ruin porn genre penned by mostly conservative authors. Second, the “Catholic-response-to-the-end-of-Western-Civ” genre, in the Benedict Option vein. Third, the “editing-for-fun-and-profit” genre, represented by the five books arriving from Amazon tomorrow: Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing, Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer, Don McNair’s Editor-Proof Your Writing, Peter Ginna’s What Editors Do, and finally an updated copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. Current version is 17; I’m on 15.
  • Writing. Lots of writing. I try to reserve an hour or so, before I go to bed, to write. Not always successful, but I do okay. Presently have five projects I’m tinkering with.

The New Discipline: Scheduling

One fast lesson over the last few months relates to the how part of the getting-things-done march I’ve been on.
The problem, in a nutshell: I’m super-freaky good at enrolling tasks in Todoist, the to-do platform I use. And I’m also quite adept at kicking tasks down the road each week. So in June I started blocking off two hours every Sunday to compare my to-do list with my calendar. And I’ve been scheduling my to-dos as calendar items (usually in a large, affinitized block, rather than a one-appointment-per-task approach). This strategy has proven immensely helpful at time management, as well as revealing my innate over-optimistic attitude about what tasks I can accomplish within specific time periods, absent deliberate calendaring of the time necessary to work on them.
Lots more on my private list of stuff to accomplish in 2018.
I will say this, though. In January, I thought a storm was brewing. And I was right. But the result has been more liberating than I had imagined.

Las Vegas Trip Report

The period between returning from Quebec and hoofin’ it to The Happiest Place on Earth™ stretched three long weeks—and by long, I mean “lots to do.” Holy moly. You’d think that not having a corporate 9-to-5 day job would free up copious amounts of time, but I learned that (a) accumulated catch-up takes a long time to process when the list is as long as an elephant’s trunk, and (b) that I need to very carefully manage my schedule. Having just one or two out-of-the-house activities in a day is enough to derail the entire day’s productivity. Even something simple as meeting someone for a 90-minute lunch takes on a different meaning when it’s 90 minutes for eating, 30 minutes each way for transportation, 15 minutes each way for prep and another 30 minutes to shower and get dressed.
Because of Quebec and Las Vegas, I set a mental trigger of June 1 as the day that “the new normal” starts. So today I finish some clean-up, reset my task lists and prepare to dive into this brave new world of independent quality consulting.
But before we effect that pivot, let’s talk about Sin City.
In my trip report that follows, I mostly don’t name-drop friends who met up with us, because I don’t want to offend anyone I missed. I connected with so many friends—probably around 20 folks—that I’ve met before, plus a dozen or so new friends, whose in-person camaraderie I truly value. This trip had fun experiences, yet I found the people part to be the best value of all.

Las Vegas: Day One

My flight left Grand Rapids at 6:30a on Friday the 25th. Much to my astonishment, the TSA line at GRR was ridiculous. Probably at least 100 passengers ahead of me. To be fair, the line moved fast, but I’m accustomed to arriving at the TSA checkpoint at Gerald R. Ford International Airport and finding two people ahead of me. Not fifty times as many!
My flight connected in Detroit—where I met Tony and we sat for a spell in the Delta lounge, enjoying a mimosa and breakfast food. The flight to Las Vegas was extra fun. The same flight crew from Grand Rapids also serviced the Las Vegas flight, and two of the flight attendants recognized me. Add Tony offering a tip to keep the alcohol flowing (we were seated in Comfort+), the two of us chatted and had four separate cocktails and played Forbidden Island on the iPad. Those cocktails were fun: Tony prepped a TSA-compliant bag of mixers plus a few Shaker and Spoon recipe cards. So we had bitters and mixers and airline spirits. And the best part was that it was all legal: The mixers were sized to pass the screening and they contained no alcohol, so we didn’t run afoul of FAA regulations about self-service.
From McCarran International Airport we Lyft’d it to Excalibur. Yes, Excalibur, the Circus Circus of the South Strip. The room was quite serviceable and, to be fair, we didn’t really stay there much. But it’s a property to check off my list. From Excal we Lyft’d it again, this time to Harrah’s, where Tony had a second booked room. (Both Excal and Harrah’s were comped.) Then we inducted Chris and Julie and Alastair and Mitchel to the joy of Bally’s Keno. Tony, Mitchel and I had taco lunch at Tequila Taqueria, then we connected with a few others before meandering around Center Strip for a while, eventually connecting with a crowd at a craps table. From there, it was off to Treasure Island for some miscellaneous gambling until the beginning of ZorkFest.
ZorkFest, by the way, is a conference intersecting awards travel and casino loyalty programs. The event is hosted by with several supporting sponsors. ZorkFest was first held in Atlantic City last year; this year’s shindig landed in Las Vegas. The message of the conference is how to travel cheaper and smarter by maximizing the value of loyalty programs, points systems and airline miles. Apparently, only suckers pay full price for travel. I went to ZorkFest because it was adjacent to the 360Vegas Vacation VI festivities, but I walked away from the conference with substantial new insight into the value of these programs and on point maximization. Kudos to the entire TravelZork team, especially Michael Trager and Eric Rosenthal, for their hospitality and insight.
The Friday-evening ZF activities consisted of a cocktail reception (sponsored by Gogo) followed by a VIP dinner, both held in the conference facilities at Treasure Island. After dinner, we enjoyed a “celebrity craps tournament,” with proceeds from ticket sales supporting Pangea Educational Development, a charity long championed by everyone’s favorite Millennial, Adam the Vegas Travel Fanboy. URComped offered the first-prize gift of a cruise for two. A great time, supporting a great cause.

Las Vegas: Day Two … ZorkFest!

We dedicated Saturday to ZorkFest. The event opened with comments from the Cousin Vito. I attended sessions by Adam Bauer of Travel Fanboy, Gilbert Ott of God Save the Points, gaming expert Eric Rosenthal, Anthony Curtis of Las Vegas Advisor, Craig Shacklett of URComped, Jean Scott of Frugal Vegas fame and Heather Ferris of Vegas Aces. Throughout the day I enjoyed the chance to engage in some one-on-one chats with several of the faculty, including Ferris and Curtis. In particular, Anthony Curtis—a godfather of gambling and Vegas advice for many, many years—proved delightfully warm and eminently approachable, especially over cocktails at the bar.
After the sessions, Tony, Mitchel, Ryan and I went to the Mandarin Bar at Mandarin Oriental for cocktails followed by a quick dinner on the way back to TI, at the Gordon Ramsey Pub & Grill at Caesar’s Palace. We were joined intermittently by folks including Andrew, Phil and Bobbi. From there we returned to TI for Podcasters After Dark, a two-hour session sponsored by The Bettor Life and featuring an introduction by the Vegas Confessions Podcast then live shows from Scott Roeben of Vital Vegas, Adam the Millennial of Travel Fanboy and Mark DeVol and Dr. Mike of You Can Bet On That. After the show, we enjoyed cocktails and snacks until midnight, then post-cocktails cocktails in the suite of Michael Trager, the fearless leader of Travel Zork.
ZorkFest offered a ton of benefit and insight, as well as great new networking connections. Highly recommended.

Las Vegas: Day Three … 360Vegas Vacation VI, Part I, Subsection A

Events for 360Vegas Vacation commenced at 3p for a meet-and-greet at the Centra Bar at Luxor. Before that, however, the day was mostly spent gambling and enjoying fine adult beverages. We met Mark and Keren of the 360Vegas Podcast, as well as a large contingent of friends, at the Franklin Bar at Delano. That large group then engaged in casual gambling and drinking around the area, until we settled at a blackjack table at Luxor. Rob kindly shared a cigar with me, which was nice, and we chatted a bit about formal religion while sipping highly priced but well-made cocktails.
Then … JEN ARRIVED. So funny thing. Tony and I had planned this excursion as a two-person Michigan delegation because Tony’s divine better half, Jen, wasn’t able to come to Las Vegas that weekend. However, we had plans afoot for months for her to show up and surprise him, on his birthday. Which was that day. So as we sat at the blackjack table, she came up behind him and asked if she found a 360Vegas meetup. Tony was utterly flummoxed. Took him about a minute to recover. The fact that she and so many of us kept the secret perfectly for so long was a delight.
Anyway, after the Centra meet-and-greet, we took a party limo from Luxor to downtown Las Vegas. Kudos to Joey for sponsoring the beer and shots on the bus. After the limo arrived, I checked into my hotel room—a Vintage Room at El Cortez—only to find that (a) I needed an armband to access the guest rooms, and (b) that apparently one must pay extra for the non-bidet bathrooms:

The first time was shocking. After that, I figured I was “upgraded” to a room with a built-in shin cleanser.
The evening was spent gambling around town. Most of us stayed at a two-deck pitch blackjack table at Main Street Station for most of the evening.
I’m pretty sure I ate stuff that day, but I cannot remember what or where.

Las Vegas: Day Four … 360Vegas Vacation VI, Part II, et seq.

Monday was fun.
I got up early, dined at Siegel’s 1941 at El Cortez, then wandered to Main Street Station to play slots and video poker for a while. From there, I perambulated around most of the downtown casinos, dropping a $20 here and there and sometimes getting $120 back. That was nice.
Festivities restarted with a meet-and-greet at Banger Brewing at noon, at the Fremont Street Experience. Tasty beer. Then we returned downtown. I made it to Treasure Island for the 2:30p whiskey tasting in Michael’s TI suite. Something like 14 or 16 of us, coordinated early on by Mitchel, either brought a bottle or contributed to Eric, who procured several premium bottles. So we ended up with a lovely collection to sample:

I took responsibility for pouring, to ensure equitable distribution as well as to streamline the logistics of serving so many glasses of so many spirits in such a constrained time period. A few folks, including Tony, Mitchel and Bogan, helped with contextual information. (And Bogan and I traded cigars to try.) It was a good time. Lots of whiskey, but because we kept some order to it, the activity wasn’t the train wreck that the Windsor tasting had been a few months prior.
From there, we Lyft’d it to Luxor for dinner at Tender…

… followed by a meet-and-greet at Skyfall Lounge at Mandalay Bay:
We enjoyed group craps at Luxor after that, where Alastair won pretty much everyone back more than their initial investment on a 45-minute roll. Miscellaneous gambling ruled the rest of the night. Props to Luxor for taking great care of us and to Julie for her expert photography that evening.

Las Vegas: Day Five

My last full day in Sin City was a pleasant one. I woke up, tried breakfast at The Buffet at Excalibur, walked down to Mandalay Bay to acquire some Davidoff cigars, wandered around South Strip for a while on my own, then connected with about a dozen folks at New York New York for beer. We then toured the Park MGM property (formerly, the Monte Carlo). Interesting design choices. I’m sure Mark at 360Vegas Podcast will have more to say in the future about the “abortion” (his term) of the Monte Carlo.
After Park MGM, I went with Alastair to meet with Chris for an extended brunch at Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan. Delightful food but even better conversation. From there, Alastair and I took a nap (separately) until it was time to meet at Centrifuge at MGM Grand for a final round of cocktails with the group.
After Centrifuge, given my flight schedule, I retired for the evening. I moseyed back to Excal, grabbed a few slices of pizza then packed and went to bed.

The Voyage Home

My flight home left McCarran at 6a on Wednesday, May 30. Took a Lyft from Excal to the airport. Arrived at 3:45a—which was 15 minutes too early. Apparently, Delta doesn’t open for business until 4a, so everyone waited and waited and waited for the baggage people to show up. Line of roughly 150 people waiting to drop a bag. By 4:05a, the Skycap was open, but despite the Delta supervisor encouraging people to use it, almost no one did. Except moi, whose wait shrunk from 45 minutes to 4.5 minutes. And the TSA line was blissfully short: Only a half-dozen people ahead of me to get into Terminal 1.
Flights were utterly sedate. The leg back to Grand Rapids was half empty. Pretty nice. Home by 4p, after a Meijer run. The feline overlords were pleased to see me. All was well.
Now, it’s time to get to work.

18 Years Later …

On July 7, 2000, I accepted employment as an administrative project coordinator with the nursing resource center at Spectrum Health. The organization—then just three tumultuous years into the merger between Butterworth Hospital and Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, and under a strict federal consent degree to boot—offered no benefits for my temporary/on-call role, but it did feature a generous hourly salary and flexible scheduling. I wasn’t especially drawn to healthcare; I just needed a job and the hospital paid better than retail. So I signed the employee agreement.
Eighteen years later, I now depart the organization.
It’s been a wild ride. In my first two years, as a resource admin, I performed a series of odd jobs: Medical records filing, documenting a perioperative process improvement project, staffing the donor-records processing area of the Blodgett-Butterworth Healthcare Foundation. Then I did some weekend-only intake work for the Care Management team. From there, I was hired full-time around 2002 as the administrative assistant (and later, the data analyst) for the director of Care Management. Over the next eight years, I stayed with her department as it morphed to include patient placement, registration, scheduling, denials, pre-bill management, etc. In 2010, I became the team leader for the hospital’s Revenue Cycle Informatics group. A while later, a series of executive realignments commenced and by 2012, my team was dissolved and I was transitioned into the corporate Information Services team. I did that job for about a year—mostly Epic reporting for the Spectrum Health Medical Group—until I decamped in 2013 for Priority Health, the organization’s managed-care arm. In 2014 I was promoted into management, leading the Quality Improvement Analytics department. In early 2018, my department restructured and the role of manager was eliminated. I’ve been doing special projects on work-for-home from the last three months. I declined to return to individual-contributor ranks and so have taken the severance pathway.
On April 27, 2018, I turned over my badge and laptops to my human-resources business partner. I’m technically “on the books” as an employee until May 2, but that extra few days is merely an administrative convenience to obtain one additional month of benefits.

I did not expect on that long-ago summer day that I’d begin a career. As a philosophy major at Western Michigan University, I thought I was bound for the seminary, or if not that, then the professoriate. Spectrum Health was a bridge job to launch me to greater things. But funny thing: I liked the organization, the people, the subject. I stayed a while. Then I was entrenched.
Over the years, I’ve been able to stretch myself in various ways that I think helped the organization:

  • I served for four years as the hospital’s administrator for the biomedical ethics committee, putting my degree to use on behalf of patient needs
  • I developed the first Revenue Cycle Scorecard, a 100-page monthly databook, and later the Revenue Cycle Scorecard, an executive reporting package
  • I helped reengineer the patient registration audit program and the process for obtaining access to health plan verification portals
  • I oversaw the implementation of a community EMR to support some outpatient case-management functions
  • I offered primary outcomes evaluation services for the high-risk maternal/infant health program
  • I provided direct operational support to the facility revenue-cycle leadership team for things like budget and labor planning
  • I built complex databases for community case-management resource lists and for daily hospital bed-availability reporting
  • I calculated the 30-day downstream total community cost from avoidable surgical-site infections
  • I assessed decadal trends in the use (and abuse!) of ADHD stimulant drugs
  • I developed part of the process for providing high-level assessments of new corporate initiatives
  • I coordinated the business-side process for HEDIS 2016—which included not only the normal annual process but also a complete codebase revision (PL/SQL to Informatica), a vendor transition and the complete outsourcing of medical-record review
  • I architected a “zero defects in care” member registry that accounted for individual-level insight into compliance with USPSTF guidelines for adult well care
  • I led the business-side implementation of an exploratory virtual server environment for advanced data management and statistics

All the while, I was supported professionally through memberships in the American Statistical Association, the American Society for Quality, the American Evaluation Association and the National Association for Healthcare Quality. In fact, after years of volunteering with NAHQ, I’m now privileged to be in year three of a four-year term on the national board of directors, and a recognized subject-matter expert in the field of health data analytics by my peers across the country.

Next week, I’ll be disconnecting entirely. No email, no texting, no social media. When I return online on May 8, I launch Gillikin & Associates, Inc., a healthcare quality consultancy focusing on analytics, population-health management and quality culture. I’m probably going to spend part of the summer writing a textbook to orient analysts to analytics in healthcare quality management.
In addition, I’ll have a bit more time to offer Caffeinated Press, Write616 and Vice Lounge Online, as well as a few social and political commitments I’ve taken aboard. That includes bolstering my long-running editorial-renovation consulting work for DotDash (which, at half-time status beginning in mid-May, will alone pay my bills). With the stress of Priority Health now off my plate—it’s only now that I appreciate just how emotionally taxing the last year or so has been—I have some mental bandwidth to commit to reading more, exercising often and eating prudently, in addition to the joyful pursuit of a successful consultancy.
That said, I’ll miss my co-workers. I’m proud of the Exploratory Analytics team I leave behind (Satish, Jen, Brad, Brittany) and many dozens of colleagues who’ve challenged, supported and enlightened me during my career.
Eighteen years is a long time. But you know what? It’s also a long time to get dangerously comfortable. Comfort is a toxin, I think. And I’m purging that toxin from my system. Independent consulting will be a challenge, but one I eagerly embrace. Fresh challenges yields new growth.
Leaving is bittersweet, but I trust I’ll be better for it in the long run.