Why I Run

I'm closing in on a nine-minute mile. It's only over 5k distance, so no big whoop. I'm going to have to push harder to comfortably maintain that pace for anything longer than a 10k, but still, I'm a few steps down the road toward a sub-four-hour marathon. Woo hoo.

Had a good one last Friday. Beat my 5k record of the previous week, which beat my record of two days before, which beat my record of a week prior to that. I'm on a good one right now. Feet: Gently Chewed.

Thing is, I don't often enjoy running. I hate it, sometimes. Sometimes it's everything I can do to drag myself out there, sometimes I get a mile or two out and think "screw it, there's popcorn at home" and turn back. So why do it?

Shortest and most obvious answer is vanity. I'll cop to that. There's also a smörgåsbord of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in my family, and I'll be damned if I'm going out like that. But I think there's something else in there too, something that may not be exactly venerable but at least on the up-and-up, morally speaking.

Terry Pratchett, may the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos smile upon him with one its six mouths, once wrote that "Too many people want to have written," and that's pretty much how I view going out for a jog. I don't want to run. I want to have run.

Specifically, I want to be on that cool-down walk that starts at Steve's white Chevy pickup and goes down the slope and around the curve and finishes at my driveway. That walk, even after a bad run, tells me I have given my due and earned my rest.

I've left at least some of my cares on the pavement. I've sweated, I've pushed myself, I've produced a frankly disturbing amount of mucus. I've made my down-belows smell like my left-behinds. My feet are mildly to moderately raw. There's a good round of stretching and a shower in my near future. Best of all, my muscles are slack, my shoulders are back, and my head's surrounded by cartoon bluebirds.

I loved hallucinating when I was young and stupid. A mental experience that's nearly impossible to describe? For a guy like me, that's its own advertising. I loved watching my brain unfurl. I remember lying in the middle of a country road with three good friends, looking up at the stars and talking about exactly the kind of shroomed-up pseudo-profundity you'd expect we were talking about. But it was Technicolor, and to us children it sure sounded profound. For a few hours, it took away so much grey.

I heard a thing once about a study conducted of those rare musicians who can start composing songs on the spot. No planning, no backup band, no nothing, just pick up their instrument and out comes a song nobody ever played before. They did neurological scans of these guys as they played (yeah, I know, the old Radiolab brainscan plot point, but still), and they found that the part of the brain associated with censoring ourselves wasn't firing for them. Their creation sprung at least partly from a complete lack of self-consciousness.

Indeed, I've found myself circling the boundaries of sleep with a hyperactive imagination, dreaming up images and landscapes and movement and shapes and colors that were captivating, wishing to Christ I could somehow record it all and play it back later. But then the sleep came, the moment went, and all I have left is the longing.

The drugs let you do that while you're fully awake. That's the hook. A heightened facility for letting go of yourself and chasing the weird shit out the basement of your brain. I was hooked on that. I wanted it all the time. That's why so many artists are addicts. Booze and drugs are lubricants. They make it easier. But it never lasts, and that's the cost.

Sometimes running does a bit of that to you. Sometimes pushing yourself to your physical limits makes your mind more fluid, more curious, more starved to imagine. Sometimes merely being worn out is enough to keep you from censoring yourself. Sometimes, as after last Friday's run, I hear grasshoppers from a block away and smell barbecue from last week and wrap myself in the conversation that is outside, and I dream while walking.

When you get to distance, sometimes you reach a state like auto-hypnosis. Mile...I dunno, ten? Twelve? Fifteen? You seem to both delve within yourself and yet lose your sense of self. The padding of your feet on asphalt. The rhythmic breathing on the brink of entropy. The twisting of your abdomen and spine. You are abstracted.

In the middle of you is an empty thing. It is dark. Not evil or foreboding or devoid of life, but like what I imagine outerspace to be: quiet, patient, spinning, waiting to be discovered.

Nietzsche looked into it and saw nothing. Kierkegaard saw what he believed was the gulf separating humankind from God. I don't know what I see, but I hear silence. I can lose myself in that silence. I can get out of my way, for at least a little while. When I emerge, things are a bit different. I don't know how. But I feel cleansed.

Soon after my son was born, my mother-in-law came over for a visit, and I excused myself to go do eight miles on our treadmill and get my head right. She shook her own head when I was done and marveled that I, the parent of a newborn, could have the energy to do that.

The answer, of course, was that spending an hour throwing myself onto the ground was my survival strategy. Find that center, lose myself in it, come back. Energy? I was a new father. I was a tangle of bedsprings. When his little sister was born and I was no longer doing distance? That was harder to endure.

And then there is that fix. Endorphins swabbing the decks of my brain. A quiver in my leg. The groaning of my iliotibial bands when I grab a knee and its associated ankle afterward and pull. The water. The water. The water.

I make it to Steve's truck, and I wipe my head with my shirt and start to walk. I dream of the apocalypse. I dream of my children and the world they will inherit, which is to say that I dream of the apocalypse. I dream of being president and harp blower and algorithmist and blacksmith and writer and volunteer, and my quadriceps shake and for a second I take my eyes off of the pointy things in the street and I look up at the moon. Sanya Richards-Ross congratulates me through my earbuds and I realize that this is the wake of an acid orgasm, only more painful.

Which makes it more interesting. And more real.

Pushing myself to that center makes me malleable, moldable. If the pain and tiredness aren't too much (and at this distance, they never are unless it's hot), I am ready to see things. I am ready to work.

I'm addicted again to a thing I don't often care for, but this one's going to give me more time with my family, and it won't lie to me or pick my pocket.

Could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I just quit drinking.

FINGERBLAST THE FUTURE

So I just finished a shitter of a week that ended with a merciful blumf. Two, count 'em, two projects fell out of the sky with the same deadline in the same week that I'm on deck to do some volunteer work for our church, and...well, I won't bore you with the details, but it sucked there for a while.

Friday morning I went for my quarterly psychiatrist visit so that my doctor could be sure that the TV isn't telling me to masturbate on the mayor's dog before she gave me more pills to make the shiny things be less distracting. We talked about my life. I mentioned I was angling for a promotion, and I've got the kids, and Jack's in kindergarten and Georgia's being potty trained, and my wife works too hard so I'm hoping that the promotion will take some pressure off of her, and I'm on campus all the time because I'm a student here working on a Master of Public Health degree, and...

She held up a hand and laughed. "Are you sure you want this promotion?"

Well...no. It's a sexy thing, but no, I'm not. But I know it's a big shot that I'd be good at, I'm unhappy where I am, and I'd rather risk climbing into a fire than stay in this annoyingly tepid sauna of busy work.

There are two items that will forever stay at the top of my to-do inbox. These are they:

Transient

The first is a reminder of where I need to go, the second of how I'm going to get there. Do something with your life that needs to be done, find a way to make things a little better and maybe just maybe leave a mark on the world, and oh yeah, work is the only thing that will get you there.

I cling to those two sentences like a life preserver sometimes, and sometimes it's enough just to let them nudge up against my brain. Keeping them in my inbox means I look at them at least twice a day. That way the distractions can't make me forget.

It's all so damn hard to navigate sometimes, and if it weren't for my system, I'd probably be traveling upriver to murder a colonel.

My system, if there be a damn that you give, is the stereotypical Mac nerd setup: Getting Things Done (well, most of it) and OmniFocus. It's a bit difficult to get used to, but once you get okay at it (I don't think anyone ever gets good at GTD), it's very useful.

Uses:

  • Not standing in the middle of Target thinking what was the other fucking thing that I needed here
  • Indeed, having a mobile application that knows I'm near Target and need to stop in there for stuff. Achievement unlocked: ROBOT BUTLER
  • Not annoying my bosses or my justifiably weary wife with yet another thing I forgot
  • Boiling all the things in my life down to what I can do right here, right now with the tap of a finger
  • Remembering books and movies and websites and games and wines and comics I want to remember, ideas I want to write about, and things to make my wife and kids happy

I'm careful not to put only work in there, for fear my system would become a thing I would avoid. I put happy stuff in there like a recurring lunch date with my wife and an insanely difficult puzzle I want us to do together rather than watch TV. I'm thinking of setting up geofenced reminders all around the city of fun things I can do with the kids when we're out and about. Project likely to be called "Planned Spontaneity".

It was after I got all that stuff in there that I looked at my screen and realized I was seeing damn near the sum total of my life, the chores and errands and work and distractions and things I value, my days and weeks and months to come. My system was showing me the hard data of who I am, and I found myself comparing that to who I want to be. The outcome was okay, but there was a vacuum in there waiting to be filled.

So now I use those lists to chase that first inbox item and never fall prey to the second. And it's a wonderful twist of fortune that the same system that mapped out my life for me also relieved my brain of the burden of remembering, thereby carving out enough space in said brain to think about those two sentences.

Every morning I process my stuff, check my calendar, write my day out on a sheet of paper, and update my trickle list. For the rest of the day, I am out of my system unless I'm running errands. Every evening I check off what I did and take time to think about whether I did anything that day to move forward. I usually spend that time trying not to beat myself up. But I also try to understand where I am and where I can go from here.

You can't think your way out of it. Should I go for the job? Shouldn't I? Should I be spending all this money on grad school? Should I ditch it all and learn the harmonica? Shut up shut up shut up.

Forward motion. Get up and do a thing. Fuck finding your passion. Work. Grab anything interesting when it comes by. Keep your eyes open, and keep your stuff out of your brain so you're ready when you see sexiness happening. Go run. No, fuck you, go run, and tomorrow pick up heavy things and put them down repeatedly. Did you write today? Fuck you. Go run, then go write.

It seems the only hobby I have is making myself suck less. I'm okay with that, as long as it's in service of something greater, lest I disappear up my own ass. As long as it's to make tomorrow come. To be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

Notifications that aren't mission-critical may die in a fire. Email, I don't want to hear from you more than hourly. Twitter, I've somehow found the ability to ignore you most of the day, and I believe it's called "Wellbutrin". My system made the space in my brain to think, and I'm cutting all of you off to make the time.

More days are failures than successes. I'm gradually becoming okay with that. I'm gradually getting better at understanding what it really is I want. Road's gotta lead somewhere. Thanks to the pills and the system and the many many people who have led me to this place, I can think about it, but of course I can't think my way out of it.

I keep a third sentence in my pocket at all times, and it reminds me of a related thing that's equally important. This one's from Leonard Cohen:

I hated everyone
but I acted generously
and no one found me out

Your hands will tell you what your brain cannot. Your brain may lie to you; your feet will not.

It's a curious thing not to trust your brain, indeed to think of it as something separate from you that must be managed. Wonderful servant and terrible master and all that. But it seems to be working. I try not to depend on it to remember. I try not to listen to it when it whispers to me about the possibilities. I try to grit my teeth and take a step forward, because it's the only way I'm going to find out.

Want evidence that I'm right? It took me five drafts of this post and probably at least 6,000 words before I got the right foundation laid. I didn't figure out what I was trying to say until I started writing while I was making dinner. Two-way chicken. I shit you not.

"Like" This, For the Love of God

So Facebook is pretty terrible.

I know a lot of you hang out there. I used to, briefly, but it got to be too much. I spent my time at Facebook like I do every church I've ever belonged to--with one foot out the door, the main reason for sticking around being the wonderful people I'd see there.

Sixty percent of my reason for leaving was Facebook's Josef-Mengele-with-a-chainsaw approach to my privacy and data security. They've been playing grab-ass with people's data for years, and it generally takes the threat of a federal investigation to remind them that scruples exist.

(Just as an aside, I wonder whether most people understand what can be at stake. Witness the Girls Around Me app shitstorm of awhile back, in which people's Facebook and Foursquare accounts were turned into a potential tool for sexual violence. That app's dead now, but the ability to get that data isn't.)

Anyway, there's still that remaining forty percent of the reason I left, and, paradoxically, it's identical to the reason I stayed: the people there.

I love Twitter, though it's slowly turning into Facebook. Someone once said that Facebook's the family you're born with and Twitter's the family you choose, and that's true, but don't take that to mean that I don't love the family I was born with. On the contrary, I adore them.

Family Is Hard

I love every person who I followed on Facebook, I do. And that's why it was excruciating to see the old high school friend parroting a facile stance on a complicated issue that they heard from some braying television jackass, the colleagues I hold in high esteem using idiotic phrases like "death boards", the people I would die for gleefully supporting policies that harm other people I would die for.

I die a little every time I see it, especially when I see someone swinging someone else's life around like a dead cat because they can, because to them it's not real, it's just an issue or a "stance". Sometimes I want to grab those people and shake them and ask them how they can dare be so wonderful and so necessary to me and yet be so glib about other people's lives.

There's the "hide" button, of course, and I've used it, but only for acquaintances. I can't bring myself to do it to people who have touched my life deeply, people who mostly post touching, funny, uplifting stuff. So I walked. Maybe that's a cop-out.

I'm just self-aware enough to be pretty sure that others among my friends and family likewise have shaken their heads in disbelief and sadness at things I've written online, and that's why I try like hell not to talk politics in public fora. I know some of them read my Twitter feed and this blog, and I'd rather not cause them that same pain. I frequently fail at this, though, when I get angry or feel like making a yuk-yuk or am otherwise irrational. It's hard, I get it. But I'm trying.

Boy howdy, am I glad I'm not on Facebook this month.

On August 1, the Best Babysitter in the World got the kids excited about going to Chick-Fil-A. This, midway through one shitter of a week--she wanted to take them there that day of all days. And that's not a conversation I wanted to be forced to have with a five-year-old boy who's excited about chicken and indoor playgrounds. How does one explain both human sexuality and otherwise good people supporting hate groups to a five-year-old boy in the same conversation? God bless my wife, who handled it with love and tact.

Parenting sucks sometimes. Okay, weekly. But mainly, all this just leaves me tired all over.

GRAR RAR (I'm a Scary Monster)

The Internet Rage Machine is powered by bile and lubricated with froth. It cannot wait to tell me every single day of my life who I should hate, who I should support, who is a hypocrite, and who is a saint. (Answer to that last one: Fred Rogers. Everyone else is suspect).

The net effect is that it strengthens my ambivalence and apathy more than my resolve. Don't get me wrong, the issue of equal rights for my LGBT friends and family is an important one to me, but I also shop at Target and still buy food that comes from ADM and Cargill and I'm sure that at least half of my income goes to moustache-twistingly evil places, because it's impossible to avoid them. They're running things, after all.

I can't do nothing, of course. I'm exhausted with discussions about which comedians supported Daniel Tosh and which didn't, but I'd like to see rape culture in this country be given herpes and set on fire, and I know that problems don't go away if we don't talk about them until everyone damn near starts rending their garments. Every now and then, someone actually learns something new. I know I do. Occasionally.

Still, it's all devolved into one big game of Issue Volleyball, and not the sexy kind of volleyball with the sexy athletes in the sexy panty outfits pulling the sexy wedgies out of their sexy bottom cracks.

And I'm tired. I'm tired of "winning" and "losing" and I'm tired of dragon fighting and I'm tired of outrage and I'm tired of a world in which I can't get a fucking chicken sandwich without punching a trans person in whatever genitals they have that are none of my business.

I'm also convinced, and I talked about it some in that last link, that at least some of this is a shiny thing dangled before us to distract us away from the more fundamental problems of money and power.

The one time I had a shred of respect for Karl Rove was an interview I read in which he admitted that he didn't want Roe v. Wade overturned. Why? Because he knew it would do to the GOP what the Civil Rights Act did to the Democratic party: it would destroy them for at least a generation.

I didn't put a link in that last paragraph, because I can't find one, so I'm beginning to doubt my memory there. But look to history: In the first six years of the Bush administration, with unprecedented control over all three branches of government, they did precisely zippo to re-criminalize abortion, which they claim to be one of the party's flagship issues. Nothing. What does that tell you about priorities?

I'm tired of that corruption, and I'm tired of those who profit from "us" vs. "them". Surely I'm not the only one. And just as I cringe at the growing political tribalism of modern-day Christianity and rolled my eyes clean out of my head at the presumption in the phrase "I'm a Christian" that the Best Babysitter in the World offered up in response to the Chick-Fil-A thing, I can't quite bring myself to carve up my loved ones into those two buckets and toss the one labeled "Them".

Nor do I think the accelerating trend of politics-as-blockbuster-movie is going to end well for any of us. Surely there must be some other way. Preferably one that no longer necessitates "Hide" buttons for anyone.

Hey, maybe this is a start.

Fear and Bandages

I’m about to yammer on for a bit. There will be no tl;dr summary. Buckle in:

Speaking my mind, particularly in mixed company, has never been my strong suit. In person, I mean. I can hide behind text and say withering things with the best of them when online, but out there in meatspace, eye-to-eye, my internal censor is one very active little dude. I’m sure that’s a common phenomenon.

I do this sometimes out of concern for others’ feelings, sometimes to avoid conflict, often out of shyness, and often because no matter how hard I try not to, I start advertising myself in the conversation. That last is a part of my personality I’d like to drag into an alleyway and take a hammer to. Call it my inner Shadoe Stevens[1].

Awhile back I wrote a post on the nature of intelligence and the admittedly first-world problem of not being as smart as I used to think I was. I (Neil deGrasse Tyson, actually) contrasted true smarts with mere fact collection and regurgitation, usually done to either impress people or shut them down.

Then I did another one on Tim Kreider’s open letter to the Tea Party, in which he frankly laid out both the similarities between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and the nature of their mutual antipathy.

Those things didn’t seem at all connected to me until I came across a MetaFilter post (yes, MeFi again, shaddup) about Charlie Kaufman’s recent lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (PDF link). A touch long, but the first six pages are where the real meat is, and I’ll chunk out some quotes below.

It’s ostensibly a speech about screenwriting, but it really isn’t that at all. It’s a speech about fear and emptiness and uncertainty and selling yourself and being honest and kind. It’s about what separates us and prevents us from opening up to one another. All of which is at the core of good writing, mind, because writing is either about life or else it’s lies and masturbation. Which is to say, advertising.

I’ll try to restrain myself with the quotes, but it won’t be easy:


Here’s a recent quote that I found: ‘We do not talk, we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.’ That was actually written in 1945 by Henry Miller and I think it’s timely…. People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that – at the very least – this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, ‘What can we do to get people to buy more of these?’

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this.

Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

That’s pretty much the nut of it, and that’s when I made the connection at an embarrassingly late age: Served up at the root of all of this—the self-advertising, the spittle-flecked political division, the moralizing, all of it—is an American-sized portion of fear and emptiness. It’s a costume to conceal weakness: I am brave and I have a sword and you are either a knight or a dragon and I just dare you to be a dragon.

I’m not sneering. I’m as susceptible as the next guy. I embraced political drama too and only abandoned it after cable news turned it into a living reductio ad absurdum (the Latin is to impress you). In my short time among them, I positively goddamn wallowed in the Tim LaHaye-esque demonic conspiracy dramas and revenge porn so adored by the evangelical community. I get it, because it’s my malady too. I must make you love me or else take you to school:


It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.

I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.

I’m going to find a way to paraphrase that and turn it into a goddamn tattoo.

I have for years heard an inner voice urging me to open my heart wider[2], and it’s mostly gone unheeded, because of fear and being completely uncertain about how to start. One doesn’t just start a conversation with “I’m absolutely fucking terrified”.

But one can start an essay that way, and so I’m here and I’ll just go ahead and kick it off. Things I’m afraid of, in no particular order:


  • That I am not the good man everyone believes me to be

  • That I will fail my family

  • That I will screw up my kids

  • That I won’t leave a legacy, that I will die with the memories of those who have known me

  • That I will never get good at making things with my hands, or even find an act of creation I can stick with

  • That I will never get out of my own head, or find quiet there

  • Of people, mostly that they will hurt me

  • Of embarrassing myself

  • That I will be found out

  • That I am not much of a man

  • That I will never find a way to set aside my pettiness and judgment

  • That I am weak and will always be thus

  • That I will never do anything worth a damn with myself

Why the list? Because I think I’m finally getting to the point where my exhaustion with painting over that wound is outweighing the fear. At the ripe old age of almost-thirty-seven, I might actually be growing up. And I’d rather we talked about stuff.

Also, five bucks says most of you share in at least one of those, and I’d like to explore that. I’d like you to be able to talk to me, or someone, about it. To wit:


What I’m trying to express – what I’d like to express – is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play.

We don’t have to be. We can say who we are, we can assert our right to existence, we can say to the bullies and conmen, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking – really thinking – about who we are, and we’ll express ourselves and other people won’t feel so alone.

That’s at least a big chunk of what I want this place to be. Also doo-doo jokes and pictures of Christina Hendricks.

I dunno. I don’t have any more answers than Charlie Kaufman. I have all of his uncertainty. Perhaps counterintuitively, I find that uncertainty encouraging. The road forward is usually rocky, in my experience. Solid, even ground means you’re walking in a circle.

Seriously, go read the first half-dozen pages of that speech, even if you’re not a writer. Then write down your own fears. Then set the paper on fire. Then laugh and make something.





  1. I kid. I love Shadoe Stevens and was delighted to hear his voice once again when Craig Ferguson took over The Late Late Show. Stevens is a hugely underrated comedic talent, and every time I hear his voice it’s suddenly 1987 and I’m home sick from school and watching game shows. Circle gets the square.  ↩

  2. Not the “shoot the president to impress Jodie Foster” kind of voice. This isn’t to be taken literally, kids.  ↩

1001 Proven Methods to Turbo-Hack Your Toddler

Killer iPhone tip for working parents I learned from Merlin awhile back:

  1. Set your lock screen wallpaper to be a picture of your family. Preferably not a portrait.
  2. When you get home at the end of a workday, before you open the door, turn off whatever app is running, lock your phone, then bring up the lock screen again.
  3. Look at it for a full 5–10 seconds and say these words: This is why I’m here.
  4. Make sure your phone is ignored or turned off for at least the next two hours.
  5. You may check it while taking a shit. A real shit.

If you are childless and able-bodied, most of the mundane tasks of the day come as easily as breathing. You don’t trip over six difficulties on your way to the car. You can go to work, bust ass all day, leave all of your energy behind, and check out when you get home. You’re allowed to be grumpy. You’re allowed to eat dinner in front of the Internet or the TV.

With kids, it could be that the hardest part of your day is just starting when you step through your doorway. Even if they’re being well-behaved angels, your kids will want you to play with them. They will want you to be on. And that takes energy, energy you’ll probably have to dig for, as does shepherding them through their nighttime rituals.

My son’s favorite game? Jumping off of things and having me catch him, often without informing me that we have begun a game. I mean, come on. But you don’t have a choice, you are required to show up and dig deep. You have to be positive and constructive and fun. You are emphatically not allowed to lose your shit.

So I’ve spent the day wading through the hundred skeeter bites of being allowed to be only half of a software developer, the endless frustrations of working on government contracts, the drama du jour on my team, whatever—and for my kids, now it must be as if it never happened.

So I kill my podcast. I lock my phone. I hit the lock button again.

My picture is nearly a year old now. It is the picture we used on our Christmas card in 2010. It is a series of eight grainy, black-and-white snapshots of my family, crammed into a photo booth. In them, you can see my daughter looking on with the wide-eyed fascination you expect from a one-year-old. You can see my son trying to hog the whole frame to make faces. You can see me restraining him and, in the last shot, pretending to eat his head. You can see my wife, more smirking and laughing than smiling, as captive to the chaos as I, and you would not know that she was probably thinking about her dying mother. None of us are looking at the camera.

People see this picture and say, “It looks like you have a lot of fun.”

I’ll admit that for about half a second after I hear this, I’m partly surprised. Yes, we have tons of fun, but I have a full-time job and two children under the age of five. A lot of the time, what I am is tired. For my wife? It’s even harder.

So I look at that picture, and I remember. I realize it’s a better summary of What My Family Is than I could ever write. There is mess, there is noise, there is struggling, and we are laughing the whole way. I see that, and most days I can lay my burden down.

This is why you’re here, I think, and it’s just a long enough walk to the back door for me to hope that maybe today I’ll be a better husband and father than I am.

Go and Do Likewise

I don’t use them very much anymore, but I used to say a prayer of thanks every time I went through a fast food drive-thru. A literal prayer of gratitude that I was lucky enough to have been born into a life that kept me on the outside of that window.

I don’t scrub toilets for a living. I don’t pick up discarded condoms out of the backs of limousines. I don’t have to resign myself to the possibility of spending the rest of my life smelling the same floor cleaner every day. I don’t have to worry about shelter or fresh water, for that matter. A bad day for me is when my DSL connection goes down.

I feel fortunate because of this. I also feel guilty, sometimes, though I know it’s irrational.

Yet no matter how good the job, my most constant companion during the workday thus far has been a perpetual round-peg-square-hole sensation, that no matter how cohesive the team or stimulating the work, where I am is not for me, not long-term.

It’s not exactly a dissatisfaction, more a sense that it’s not what I was built to do, if you’ll pardon the determinism.

I met a woman in an Auto Zone parking lot once who claimed to be a prophetess. Mary was (and, I assume, still is) a die-hard evangelical Christian. She believed strongly that the Holy Spirit had given her the gift of prophecy. She wasn’t trying to proselytize, wasn’t insane or pushing an agenda on strangers. It only came up then because she felt what she believed to be a sudden stirring of the Spirit and began to use what she believed to be her gift.

I remember her looking me dead in the eye and declaring that I would one day help children. She fanned herself and smiled and shook just a bit and declared that she was feeling it strong that day.

I was in my early 20s, most of a decade away from having my first child. But she was adamant. Wouldn’t necessarily be yours, she said. But children. She was certain. It was strong that day.

Now, I don’t believe in prophecy, not as a magical psychic power. I believe a prophet is no more or less than a person who understands his or her own time and place perfectly, who sees what can and must change. That’s what John the Baptist was. That’s what Martin Luther King was. Hell, I could point to a long line of capitalists that fits the description. Certainly it wasn’t Mary, as she only knew my first name.

But what she said occasionally comes bubbling up from the depths of half-remembrance and I wonder if it will come true. What really pokes my poodle is wondering if it will because she indeed did have a gift, that of planting suggestions in perfect strangers’ respective heads.

My life and the Internet have taught me about one thing over and over again: my own privilege. I am white. I am a man. Damnable cruelty of aging aside, I am not difficult to look at. I am straight, I am thin, my gender matches my genitals, my parents could afford my college education, and I learn things usually much faster than the average person. I even attend a mainstream Protestant church, though my theology and ethics swerve pretty far left of the average Arkansan. Life, in short, is a goddamn golden goose for me.

Life owes me nothing. I owe life a debt of gratitude. Yet I do so little.

And then there are those people I am condescending enough to be grateful not to be. There are Mary’s words. And though I don’t believe in fatalism, there is that lingering question in my head: Is the sense I get with each new job that this will not be where I put down roots caused by this guilt? Can I even claim not to be a fatalist when I catch myself looking around an office where I am happy to work and thinking this is not where I am meant to stay?

To be dissatisfied with so much would be an unforgivable sin, were it not that I know that my real dissatisfaction is with myself, with my laziness and cowardice. I suspect I’d be happier if I did more. For all my liberal pretensions, I simply do not do enough for others, when the God I claim to believe in says it should be my whole life.

Anesthetizing yourself is much easier, of course. You merely start by saying the right sorts of things and getting angry at the right sorts of people. But the attractiveness of that option has faded, and my patience with myself is wearing thin. The trick will be finding something to do that doesn’t detract from my time with my wife and children, as I have so little to give them as it is.

Currently I work for a non-profit, trying to help doctors to provide better care for their patients. I believe it is very important work, good work. I’m going to start graduate school so I can become more of an expert in this field. Perhaps this will be the path to change. I hope it will, as I have no clue what to do otherwise. But more than that, I suspect (and hope) that this is only the beginning.

As for the children I was prophesied to help? Who knows. I adore kids, the smaller the better. I even made two of ’em, and for all my failures as a father, so far they’re all right, beautiful and brilliant little critters. I’d like to claim some responsibility for this. If I can help others as well? Name me something nobler, and I’ll do it.