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.

The Double-Aughts: A Personal Retrospective

The arrival of a new year provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the past year and to commit to a plan for the 12 months ahead. The arrival of a new decade acts similarly, but tenfold. Obviously. As I survey the carnage of the double-aughts, I see the smouldering ruins of epic failure and the tender green shoots of success. Let’s pray that the ’10s provide more fertilizer for the shoots and less fuel for the fires.


The decade began on January 1, 2001. I had just moved back home after spending the fall semester in residence at Christopher House, the minor seminary for the Diocese of Grand Rapids; the facility was located in the old convent attached to St. Stephen’s parish in East G.R. before the diocese closed the House altogether. At the time, I was fresh off of a week-long retreat with the Legion of Christ in Connecticut, and I had been employed by Spectrum Health, doing secretarial work part-time, for about six months. I was also a fresh-faced columnist for the Western Herald, full of piss and vinegar and supremely convinced of my own persuasiveness and rectitude. Simultaneously, I continued as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, where I remained active in the student government and was, at the dawn of the decade, serving my second term as chief justice of the Western Student Association.

My first major formative event of the decade occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. I had arrived at the Herald’s newsroom fairly early in the day. Because the paper was released every morning, staff usually worked second shift to produce the next day’s issue. The only other employee present at that hour was the general manager, who supervised the business side of the house. Not long after 9 a.m., he waddled into the newsroom, arms flailing, shouting, “Something’s happening! Turn on the TV!” Sure enough, a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, and the talking heads on CNN were speculating that the impact resulted from some sort of equipment malfunction. I saw — live — the second airliner enter the video, then, a moment later, a fireball erupt from the second tower. I still remember the exact thought that went through my mind: “Oh, shit.” I sprung into action by default — calling the other section editors, trying unsuccessfully to contact the editor in chief, coordinating early assignments for staff writers and photographers, writing the editorial. It was a nightmare. I was in the office from 8:30 a.m. until nearly 2 a.m. the following morning, with only a few brief breaks for food and mind-clearing. My experience in the newsroom, of being the first editor on duty during a major incident in history, made the vocation of journalism come alive for me in ways that other assignments over the years — analyzing Gov. Granholm’s budget travails, covering local visits by George W. Bush and Desmond Tutu, writing the obituary of a friend — never approached.

In the spring of 2003, as I graduated WMU with a double major and triple minor, I enrolled in grad school and left home. Truth be told, my mom sold the house, so my options on the domicile front were somewhat constrained. I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Kentwood, and proceeded to live a busy life of working two full-time jobs, attending grad school, commuting daily between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and spending my free time stretched out on a chair, eating pizza and ice cream and watching hour after countless hour of cable TV, when I wasn’t glued to the computer enjoying the various sights and sounds of high-speed Internet. PPWW … pizza, porn, warez, WoW: the quadrifecta of mid-20s dorkdom.

The next major kick in the ass came at the tail-end of 2004. A person can burn the candle from both ends for only so long before he runs out of wick. By this time, I was an analyst at the hospital and editor in chief of the Herald. During the 2004 Bush/Kerry race, my staff were evenly divided, so in order to deflect the partisan passions in the newsroom from “we hate everyone” to “we hate the boss,” I chose to single-handedly dictate the paper’s endorsements. Although this power was always held solely by the EIC, in practice the editorial was a consensus decision of some or all of the editors. Typically, given any pitch, if the chief agreed, and the news editor, the opinion editor, and the copy chief concurred, then that was the editorial. This time, I simply imposed it by fiat.  After the senior staff attended a media conference just a day after the election — I believe we spent half a week in Nashville, where I first met Emilie’s husband-to-be  — and as Thanksgiving approached, I experienced a series of increasingly vitriolic conversations with the chairman of my board of directors about that endorsement editoral. Truth be told, I think that the reflexive liberal in him was pissed that I endorsed Bush, the first time in the 75+ years of the paper’s existence that the paper endorsed a Republican for president. If I had forced the issue with the full board of directors, I would have easily prevailed. Instead, I simply tendered my resignation.

To be fair, other things were happening simultaneously. First, my grad program was going up in flames. My advisor had succumbed to breast cancer, and most of the ethicists in the department had left over the year. Of the five major ethicists who were on staff when I began, only Michael survived my first year, and he was required to focus on undergrad teaching. Sylvia died; Richard left for a tenure-track position at Madison; and Joe and Shirley retired for health reasons. A top-10 nationally ranked terminal M.A. program in moral philosophy bit the dust in one academic cycle, a shame that has yet to be corrected. Second, my brother and his wife were expecting a child. My younger brother. A baby. Kyler, who was born in early January 2005.

A.D. 2005 was a pivotal year for me. I started in early January by leaving the Herald and dropping out of grad school, the same week Kyler was born. I began a weight-loss program that resulted in the reduction of 110 lbs. from my frame by autumn. I got religion about aerobic fitness, spending 60 minutes a night on my exercise bike, six or seven nights per week. Over Memorial Day weekend, after having lost about 70 pounds, I traded my dorky glasses for contact lenses, turned my old-man-style side part into a tousled, highlighted look, and updated my wardrobe to include clothes trendier than Meijer-issue solid polo shirts and elastic-waistband chinos. Although, I must admit, I went overboard on clothes … I have photographic evidence of wearing skin-tight shirts that allowed innocent bystanders to count my ribs (yes, I was that skinny).

As the summer progressed, my grandfather, who had been diagnosed in 2003 with myelodysplastic syndrome, passed away; the MDS compromised his immune system until he was no longer able to fight off a bacterial pneumonia. He died on Sept 11 — that date, again. He was buried the day before my 29th birthday. I was the lector at his funeral. In December, I joined a gym and a dojo, aiming to build a new life based in part on the lessons of his death.

The next 18-to-24 months was a period of consolidation. From early 2006 until the early months of 2008, I spent significant amounts of time studying karate and running, either at MVP or on the mean streets of Kentwood. In fact, in the summer of 2006, I ran an eight-mile circuit several nights per week. After 11 p.m., and almost always well after sunset, I’d suit up and run from 52nd and Division, cruise along Division to 60th, then to Kalamazoo, then to 44th, to Division, then back to 52nd. I made no substantial progress in terms of, say, running a marathon, but I maintained the gains I made in 2005. In 2006, just days after my 30th birthday, I presented at a national conference in San Diego and enjoyed the many delights of that city. In late 2007, Tony and I took our first trip to The Happiest Place on Earth (aka, “Las Vegas, NV”) and not long thereafter I abandoned my Kentwood apartment to return home to pay off debt. In early 2008, I became certified as an open-water diver and became heavily involved in diocesan worship activities, serving in several roles for special Masses presided by the bishop. Before and after THPOE, I spent time planning what I wanted to do with my life, long-term. Project 810 was born.

My world turned upside down in the middle of 2008. I met Andrew online the week before Tony and I took our second trip to THPOE, just after Memorial Day weekend. Although I had dated women before — and retain fond memories of Holly and Rachael, although I still shudder about Dawhn — I had not explored the male half of my bisexual side until Andrew. In retrospect, I should have understood certain behaviors for what they were, but I was a stranger in a strange land and accordingly withheld judgment. The gay culture in Grand Rapids cannot shake its twin characteristic hallmarks of bitterness and repression, and few escape it unscathed. I don’t quite know what it was with Andrew and I; we were friends, I suppose, but he introduced me to a world that I had not explored before. Later, I met and briefly dated Dave. Then I met Edmund, a fatally wounded soul at the time, and Matt, a codependent Chicago stripper who wanted me for no other reason than because I was decent to him when others used him solely for sex.

“Jason’s Big Gay Summer” of 2008 took its toll, in myriad ways. I blew through money like it was water. I became immersed in a corrosive culture that took months to undo. I burned out on most things, including religion and physical fitness. When, just before my 32nd birthday, I couldn’t keep pace with my performance from a year prior at the gym, I knew things weren’t right. I hunkered down after the debacle with Matt and vowed to stay single and build a respectable life for myself.

Most of the planning came to naught; in early November, I met Ryan and Jess. The story of those two is intricate, and in any case, not worth retelling here. Too many people are too quick to pass judgment, and too many family members are willing to let me in peace while, bizarrely, holding my mother responsible. Let it suffice that I met a fascinating young man, his loyal friend, and a cast of characters who taught me much about family and integrity.

The last two years of the decade were, in a sense, a glorified holding pattern. Having set aside some things of value to me — including church and karate — I found myself waiting for something I couldn’t quite articulate. Some of it was related to Ryan, but the majority of it was not. In this period, I was the master of setting grand plans that never came to fruition.

On my brother’s birthday in 2009, I was in an at-fault auto accident that resulted in my Grand Cherokee being totaled and my niece bruising a rib from the airbag; I didn’t drive again until the summer of 2010. In mid-2009, I moved to an apartment complex in Standale. I left at the end of February 2010. I returned home, but was planning on leaving Michigan not long thereafter — a plan that, yet again, fell through. In late December, I moved into a new apartment, a lovely two-bedroom unit in the Heritage Hill district.

In the summer of 2009, I started to fall ill to a general malaise — and unlike Carter’s stagflation, mine had a definitive diagnosis, rendered in early 2010. The culprit? Severe Vitamin D deficiency. I had gained a substantial amount of weight over 2009. Although I held steady in 2010, I was unable to appreciably reduce my weight, mostly because I had limited access to the environment I needed to restrict my calorie intake.

At the close of the decade, things are looking up. My business is doing well (I’ve made nearly $10k in the last 16 months, just doing random contract assignments); I love my new abode; I have the infrastructure in place to cut the weight like I did in ’05; I have a set of clear and achievable goals for the coming year; I’m debt-free (except for remaining student loans).

Life looks pretty good. 2010s, here I come, bitch.

Lessons Learned

A few take-aways:

  • Know yourself. Too many people conflate the person they are with the person they aspire to be, then they lose the ability to tell the difference.
  • Don’t think, do. Introspection is good, but introspection without action is a unique form of self-flagellation. If all you do is plot in secret, you may as well find a different and more productive hobby.
  • Cultivate serenity. A calm outlook allows for patience, and for ample time to reflect on experiences. Plus, a general amiability helps preserve relationships with others.
  • Retain a healthy skepticism about the integrity of others, but don’t let their misdeeds jade you about human nature.
  • It’s OK to dream big, as long as you are willing to pay the price for seeing it through to completion. Most people aren’t.
  • It’s the toughest thing in the world to be yourself in an environment where people expect you to be someone else. Either conform, or don’t. Don’t conform in secret and live a double life. All you will do is give yourself an ulcer. Whether it’s a demanding family, or a particular boss, or a social circle — don’t let others force you to be someone you aren’t.
  • Stay slender. As you age, obesity is an ugliness multiplier.
  • Keep your word. Pay your bills, do what you will say you will do, and take the high road even when the low road looks so damn inviting.

And that wraps up a decade.