Beautifully Exhausted

SBC picI was in the sky somewhere over Mississippi when a full body jerk brought my eyes back to attention. I realized I was holding something in my hands.

I had fallen asleep while opening the complimentary bag of pretzels.

That level of exhaustion can be caused by a few things—consecutive nights’ discussions on the status of the relationship, reading the comments section of anything on the internet, being exposed to creative feedback from a non-creative.

For me, it was caused by Summer Brand Camp. And it was beautiful.

Four days in Dallas at the most powerful conference I’ve ever attended, surrounded by ideas, meaning, purpose and a good deal of alcohol tends to leave the head spinning on a ride that makes you want to get back in line so you can ride it again.

The alarm that woke me on Wednesday morning—the second day of Summer Brand Camp—did not originate from my phone. It came from the sudden realization that I didn’t have my backpack.

The contents of my backpack consisted of camera equipment, a new laptop, every charger I own, my favorite sunglasses, and two packs of gum (spearmint, if you’re interested). These items were not things I was looking forward to replacing.

But the prized possessions in my backpack would not have interested any thieves. The prized possessions in my backpack were the business cards that had been placed in my hands by the people I’d met the previous evening, a meaningful stack of paper that would continue to grow over the next two days.

That’s why the exhaustion was beautiful. It was caused by being surrounded by the amazing people who attend Summer Brand Camp.

From first-time meetings with people to whom I’ve been connected online for years to making sure first-timers were getting the most out of the experience, from reunions with my beloved team to the it’s-so-good-to-see-you-again embraces with other Summer Brand Camp alums, it’s the people who make this event what it is.

The speakers open your eyes to new ways of acting. The work labs bring you together with others whose jobs resemble your own. The community service project reminds you there’s more to life than the next meeting. The evening events give you the chance to fulfill the promises of, “Let’s talk later.”

And then, there’s Summer Brand Camp after hours.

It’s in those hours when you forget what time it is, when you forget what time you have to wake up in the morning, when you forget to bring your backpack back to your room. The captivating one-on-one conversations while surrounded by (somewhat) organized chaos remind you of what matters, and I’m a sucker for that.

Summer Brand Campers, if you think this post might be about you, that’s because it is.

I hope you were as beautifully exhausted as I was.

Culture That Rocks: A Book Review (of sorts)

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Full disclosure: I know Jim Knight, and he’s one of my favorite people on Earth. The fact that he’s written a book—Culture That Rocks—and I think it kicks ass has not been persuaded by our bro hugs whenever we find ourselves in the same room in the same city.

However, there is a “Typography/Fonts” sub-section in one of the chapters of Culture That Rocks. That’s the written equivalent of cooking me dinner and serving bourbon as the appetizer, so I will make that admission.

As another matter of disclosure, I have no idea how to write a book review. Do I dissect it chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph? Do I write it like a grade school book report? Do I offer my own, perhaps different, opinion of the author’s ideas?

I’m going with “no” on all three of those questions.

That’s because for me—and maybe for you—the truly great books are the ones that make me think beyond what the title suggests. That’s what Culture That Rocks did to me. Based on the cover alone, Jim’s book might have you believe it’s generally for leaders of organizations, and specifically for HR and Training departments. While this is all certainly true, this book strikes me as something else.

This is a book for anyone who is, has been, or will be an employee. This book is for anyone who is, has been, or will play a role in life.

It had me looking at jobs past and considering why or why not those places worked for me. It has me now considering what I can do better for my own team. And, most interesting to me, it has me considering my personal life.

There’s one paragraph in particular that made me pause in my reading, and shaped everything I read before and after:

“Earlier, I generalized the amazingly unique people I’ve met and worked with during my career as the crazy ones. I suggested that they were perhaps ‘broken’ in some way. I do not see this as negative; I just think we are all a little broken on the inside and are just looking for a place that accepts us for the way we are …”

It’s that kind of honesty and realization that had me involuntarily nodding my head in agreement, page after page, as I switched from applying it to both professional and personal experiences.

It’s that kind of active application that makes us better in everything we touch … or, in Jim Knight’s words, everything we rock.

Now, excuse me while I forward that “Typography/Fonts” section to a few people I know.

Sunday Morning

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You hear people complain about Mondays. You see commercials about Wednesdays. You take part in celebrations on Fridays.

Then, there’s Sunday morning.

There are few times during our week like any given Sunday morning. There’s an unspoken freedom to a Sunday morning, an understanding between you and the rest of the world that this time, this moment, is yours.

Yet, in those times of solitude, I can’t help but wonder what others are doing.

Do they have a Sunday morning routine? Is that when they clean the place, do the laundry, go grocery shopping for the week? Are they using that silence to get some actual work done, are they curled up on the couch watching CBS Sunday Morning? Are they getting dressed in their Sunday best? Are they going for a hike? Are they using this moment to write? Are they making sure their fantasy line-up is set for the week?

So many questions. And for the record, I do/have done all those things.

The thing is, I have yet to find an answer that doesn’t revolve around intimacy. And that’s what I love about Sunday morning. The intimacy of it all.

If you’re not finding the intimacy in it, I encourage you to look closer. If you’re not finding the intimacy in it, I encourage you to make time for it. If you’re not finding the intimacy in it, you’re not making the music that your heart tells you to make.

It’s heavy-handed stuff for a Sunday morning, especially when you’re talking about things like dirty jeans and crumbs on the stove. But, it’s a chance to get lost in becoming you, and it happens once every single week, and we don’t get those chances very often, so you won’t convince me that Sunday morning is just trivial.

Besides, as proper motivation for making Sunday morning Sunday morning, I once saw this quote:

“I pay in kisses, cuddles, nakedness and Sunday dinner.”

Do with that what you will … and should.

Compliments and Comparisons

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“You remind me of <famous person>” or “<famous person> reminds me of you.” You can fill in the blanks. I’m sure you’ve heard them before. My question is this: Do people really believe they’re paying you a compliment when they’re comparing you to someone else?

Three times in my life that I can remember—although, I’m sure it’s happened more—I’ve been compared to other people (in no particular order):

  • Doogie Howser, M.D. (Not Neil Patrick Harris, the actual person. Doogie Howser, the fictional character.)
  • Colin Firth (She couldn’t remember his name, but could name the movies he was in.)
  • Justin Timberlake (Solo career Justin, not *NSYNC Justin.)

Did I do a side-by-side comparison in any of these instances? No. Said persons aren’t necessarily in my iPhone’s favorites, and I’d feel a little weird asking even if they were.

The thing is, we can’t help but take a quick mental inventory whenever these comparisons occur. Is it the hair? The facial features? Did I inadvertently learn a new body language that only Sexy Back speaks?

No, no, and no.

I understand that the person handing out these “compliments” believes they’re being complimentary. But, they aren’t. They’re being lazy.

When we compliment someone else, we should be complimenting THEM … their features … their clothing … their writing … their ass … and not somebody else’s ass in a poor attempt at flattery. And whatever you do, don’t compare them to their sibling. I’d be running if I were you, and good luck with that.

What I’m saying is, don’t be lazy with your compliments. Take in what’s directly in front of you because the rest of what you think matters, doesn’t.

Take in what’s directly in front of you, and get to where you’re actually going.

Please Allow Me to Explain

If you’ve been playing along at home, you’ve noticed that I’ve been writing short chapters to a short story. On at least one occasion, it’s caused some confusion in regard to my actual name.

Among other things.

This past week, I was telling somebody about what I’d been doing and decided to go back and read it for myself. As it turns out, that was a good decision. It was a good decision because what I read—when I read it from beginning to end—was no good.

Are there decent passages, even a crafty sentence on occasion? I believe so. But it isn’t a decent story. Not yet, anyway.

I’d like to tell you that I had a solid end game in mind when I began the story, but I didn’t. And do you know why? It’s because I was approaching it from the past, writing it in the present, and not even beginning to imagine the future.

There are inherent problems with that formula, my friends, both with storytelling and otherwise.

Long story short, it’s time to have adventures again … not only on a physical level, but also allowing my mind the freedom to wander further than the next daily task.

This isn’t to say I’m going to stop writing the story, because I’m not. But I am going to stop writing purely from the past. And when I have the final story ready, you will be the first to know.

Until then, I’ll publicly return to my standard blog posts. And music. And bourbon.

Thanks for sticking with me. Let’s have some adventures.

A Short Story (Chapter Four)

The bartender sat the drink in front of me, and I tossed the straw.

“That one’s on me, and I’ll have the same.”

There are some voices from your past that are never forgotten, even after you think you’ve forgotten them. It’s kind of like hearing the first note of a once-favorite song that you haven’t heard in years. And that song usually takes you back to a dog-eared chapter in the book of your life, bringing back the memories stored by all of your senses.

I turned my head quickly enough to give myself a chiropractic adjustment, to see if my memory served correct. It did.

Sitting next to me on a random barstool at a random airport during a random chapter of my life was the person I least expected to see, a person not unlike the one I had just left. This one too had once been a love that mattered.

“Emily.”

There she was. An immediate personal history lesson.

Of all the possible entrances that could have been made into my life, she was just laying there. No pirouette, no practiced walk down a red carpet, no stumble on a sidewalk. She was just laying on a beach chair. And she was wearing a black bikini.

At the time, my 16-year old eyes had only seen, had only imagined, such things in 2D. Watching someone play a guitar is much different than the first time you fret and strum the strings yourself.

I grew up in a small farm town. During the summers, the group of people I considered to be close friends broke into a caste system. There were those of us who spent the summer doing manual labor, and the rest spent their time “working” at the city pool. I was in the group that actually worked. She was not.

It was custom for my group to occasionally push the buttons of the other. Sometimes, we would point our push-mowers so that the bi-product blew through the pool fence. At other times, covered in sweat and grass and various odors, we’d make impromptu visits to our pool friends. That’s when I saw her. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her, but it was the first time I’d seen her like that.

My entourage approached. Hers barely noticed. “Hardly working, I see,” said one of my friends.

“Better than what you all are doing,” said one of her friends.

“I don’t think so. Can’t beat the scenery.”

“You’re such a dick.”

Knowing that they were each correct in their analysis of the situation, the conversation turned to typical subject matter. Who’s doing what later, who’s done what to whom in the last 12 hours, who’s done or will be doing whom. I was paying little attention.

If you’ve watched much Discovery Channel, you’ve seen the documentaries where the hunters choose the prey that become separated from the pack. I wasn’t a hunter then, and I’m not now really, but I had enough instinct to know that some separation from both packs needed to take place.

I took a seat next to her.

“How’s it goin’?,” I asked, as the other conversations took place.

“Good,” she replied. “Wish you could jump in the pool?”

“Who says I won’t?”

“You wouldn’t do it.”

Change the subject, Jake. Now.

“What are you all doing tonight?”

“Probably going uptown. What about you all?”

“We’ll be uptown too. Might go to a party later on.”

“Party?”

Interest had officially been shown. It probably wasn’t interest in me—at least not like that—but it was interest in someplace I was going to be. The sweat was in no way helping to keep me cool. Thankfully, I had a saving grace. “Party” was one of those words that commanded everyone’s attention, just like the sound made by those lucky people who can produce a whistle by placing their thumb and middle-finger in their mouths and blowing.

Plans were made. My hopes for the remainder of the day were set. I didn’t even care what she might be wearing later that night. I just wanted to see her. But, in case that didn’t happen, I snuck another glance before we left the pool. That’s risky business when you’re not wearing sunglasses.

Irony plays a huge role in love. In the fourth grade, she had a crush on me. I was embarrassed of it. She definitely wasn’t ugly but not exactly pretty at the time, and she wasn’t my type (which means my friends made fun of the crush). In the fourth grade. Even then, I was an ass.

Irony lives on a turning table.

When I saw her later that night with her other half, irony was spinning out of control.

“Hey.”

“Hey, Jake. Did you see the letter from coach?,” asked her other half.

“I saw it. Ready to puke?”

For two weeks every summer, our football coach would hold twice a day practices mostly centered around kicking our asses by seeing how many times we could run the hill behind the school.

“Almost,” he said, followed by a long pull from a beer can. He handed me a fresh one. “You?”

“Working on it.”

He moved on, an upperclassman satisfied that he had properly been a bad influence, satisfied that he had left his girlfriend in non-threatening hands. What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t have known, was that he had just created separation from the pack.

“Having fun?,” I asked her.

“I guess. People are so obnoxious when they’re drinking.”

“True. Good thing I’m not ‘people.’”

She looked directly in my eyes, and smiled.

At that moment, I fell in love for the first time. What had manifested itself as infatuation and perhaps lust, became so because of a smile. A smile that, in the past, had been shunned by me.

Irony. And her name was Emily.

A Short Story (Chapter Three)

I decided on the cab and spent the next 30 minutes listening to a mixture of NPR and broken English. I arrived at the airport, checked the departure board, and headed to a ticket counter to book the next flight. Three hours. Plenty of time to have a drink. I drifted through security, surprising myself while putting my shoes back on that I didn’t remember removing them in the first place.

I found the bar that had my name all over it, which means it was the first one I came to. I sat down, having already decided that I needed something stronger than a beer.

“Knob Creek on the rocks, please.”

Mya and I had not been strangers before all this happened. We’d known each other for awhile. We were friends. We made each other laugh with our shared, brilliant senses of humor that only we found funny. We were the other half when one of us needed insight on our current other halves. We had the friendship thing down.

That is, until I didn’t.

Is there really anything slow about falling in love? One day, you’re fine. The next day, good God, the next day. The only thing slow about that 24-hour period of time is counting the seconds until you see her again.

You say things you normally wouldn’t say and you make clothing choices that are inexplicable (as in, you’re wearing an outfit). You make mix tapes and buy condoms condemned to expiration in your wallet. You write letters and craft bad poems, and you talk to that one friend who will listen to your never ending speculation.

Falling in love drives you fucking crazy. Especially when the one friend who will listen is the one with whom you’re in love.

There’s part of a guy, no matter how much he thinks he wants to hear it, that is a little terrified that the girl might say, “Yes.” Even if he found the courage to approach her from across a crowded room, even if they’re making out and his hands are not discouraged from freeing buttons, even if he’s down on one knee, the repercussions of a positive answer linger. Call it situational self-doubt, call it a fear of commitment or a sense of sacrifice of the unknown, it’s always there but frequently ignored. By both parties.

On the night Mya and I first kissed, there was plenty of ignoring taking place.

A Short Story (Chapter Two)

“You’re just agreeing so you can get in my pants.”

Summer leaves swayed in the sun-soaked background of this reunion, the leaves being more certain of their direction.

She giggled, and it contained more certainty than doubt that I was joking in my remark.

“Maybe,” she flirted. “You always knew how to make me laugh.”

“My mistake. I thought you were just looking for sex.”

Awkward. That’s become my modus operandi in situations such as these, and inflicting hurt through words has become my weapon. There’s no weapon more lethal than one with which you’re intimately familiar.

But what really hurts is the conflict. The real hurt comes when it’s your reactions, not your feelings, that are conflicted. It’s when all you want to say is, “I love you,” but something inside chokes on those three little words and forces you to wait out the symptoms that only have time, or distance, as a cure.

“Jake.” Seems my response had hit the mark. “Why?”

We both knew I had never answered that question, no matter the subject. We both knew that I had bolted when things were trending toward serious, that I had been unwilling to give an answer that wasn’t cloaked in emotional unavailability. And even now, in what could be a Hollywood ending, I still found myself fighting what shouldn’t be putting up a fight.

“Say something. You decided to meet me. Not the other way around.”

This was true. She was the one who had asked for this meeting, not me. And since I agreed, because I took time out of my busy schedule to do so, does that make me masochistic? Maybe.

“Say something?,” I asked.

“Yes. Please. Anything of substance will do.”

“I love you. Always.”

Few things inflict more hurt than the truth. What Mya saw then was that I had really been playing nice all along, careful to not have chosen her last for the team, considerate of her feelings (or, reactions) even though I was the one who had been left on the ground.

She walked away, crying.

It was the first time I’d ever seen her cry.

I hadn’t exactly planned this trip, I’d simply hopped on the first flight because I needed to see her. The pictures, you know, the ones I couldn’t get rid of, simply weren’t a substitution any longer. Not that they ever were. I needed to see her, and not having a hotel room for the night was a technicality.

Just three months earlier, my accommodations were a given. I knew where to find the light switches, the cabinet that hid the cereal bowls, and the drawer that housed the toothpaste needed to refresh a morning breath consisting of wine, food, sex, and sleep. I knew my side of the bed, and I knew hers. Not that there were any proper sides of the bed when we were together.

But now, standing alone on a sidewalk, my options were simple and unwelcome—either catch a cab to the airport or get a hotel room.

Do something. Just stop standing here, Jake, watching the love of your life walk away crying. 

For all the pictures I could have thrown away to be rid of her, that was one image which would never leave me.

A Short Story (Chapter One)

My name is Jake. I’ve taken full liberty of the fact that my parents christened me with a name that can be shortened in a manly manner.

I’m a decent looking guy. That’s what the mirror says anyway. I take care of myself, recommended physicals and dental exams be damned. Again, the mirror is the chief authority in such matters.

As it is in so many.

But, the favorable opinions of others certainly don’t hurt. Nor do the double-takes at the liquor store when the clerks check my driver’s license. Suffice it to say, I look a few years younger than I actually am. It’s either that, or bourbon is the cradle robber of the whiskey family.

To use the word “formally” again, I am formally educated. I have the framed piece of paper to prove as such. However, much of my education has been formed by the driving force of, “I’ll show you, fucker.” Many thanks to the name-forgotten grade school teacher who once explained to a not-so-bright-eyed audience of students why Thomas Jefferson was referred to as a Renaissance Man. For the record, I was the bright-eyed one with whom that particular lesson stuck for life.

I learned to type on a typewriter while, at the same time, discovering the wonders of Tecmo Bowl. If that gives you any indication of my age, then you’re safe in saying that I lie somewhere between feeling immortal and the discovery of grays.

I would break from the introduction now, but what’s an introduction without the subject of love? I’ve loved. I’ve been loved. And in rare instances, both of those have happened at the same time. I say “rare” because, often, the timing is inconvenient. Maybe you love someone when they don’t love you back and then, in a role reversal, the opposite becomes true.

You’re not good enough for them. They’re not good enough for you. You’re not good enough for each other.

It’s the inconvenience of love that shapes us. Love only becomes convenient after the play dough is permanently dried into the carpet. And then, it starts all over again.

I’m not jaded though. I have been in the past, but I’m not now. My secret? Self-awareness, consideration, and the first ten minutes of Swingers when Mike ends his phone rant by saying, “I’m not gonna be one of those assholes.”

Now, the mirror might not say that I’m an asshole, but it’s not speaking a foreign language when it says I’m an ass. Cupid tapped the collective asses of love and self-awareness a very long time ago.

So that’s where I’ll start. At the beginning. Of all this.

A Short Story (The Prelude)

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“It was never something I expected to keep, this love of yours.”

He spoke the words aloud in his apartment, but nobody was there to hear them. She was gone, and had been gone for quite some time. And that … well, that was his own doing.

There’s a specific volume control setting on speakers, the one that borders between too loud for the neighbors and too soft for your own ears, the one where the bass is two steps beyond beginning to resonate—present but not overwhelming, adding life to that song on your playlist.

And presently, it was overwhelming.

The hardest part of losing someone you love is one-fourth when you keep your love for them, one-fourth when they keep their love for you, and one-half when you keep your love for each other. It’s a recipe not easily forgotten.

The things he should’ve thrown away—or thought he did—were still there. The emails. The texts. The photos. Damn, the photos.

And then, there are the things he couldn’t even drink away. The movies, the songs, the memories of phone conversations so inextricably intertwined with places they would now only visit separately … or with someone else.

As he walked to the kitchen, the sound of sirens made their evening appearance. They were a regular occurrence but they were always in the distance, signaling to him that he must be living in the right spot. They were always far enough away to remind him that troubles existed. Just not at his doorstep.

He poured his usual and took his place on the couch. Bare feet propped on the coffee table and glass carefully resting against his jeans-covered leg, he opened his well-used notebook to a blank page. The writing that was to be done wasn’t necessarily meant to be seen. Ever. But, it was necessary that the words be written. He began writing.

It was never something I expected to keep, this love of yours.

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