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.


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.


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.


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.

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.