30 After 30

Occasionally I’ll rummage through old folders and files on my computer when I’m trying to decide where to save something new. This week I ran across a document called 30 after 30 that I created a couple months after my thirtieth birthday–about seven years ago. I imagine it was supposed to contain thirty things I hoped to do, but there were only fifteen things listed. Of these, I’ve managed to check off about half:

1. Go to Germany with my Mom. DONE!
2. Visit remaining US states I have not yet been to: Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Maine, Delaware. Still need to visit all of these.
3. Visit Spain. DONE!
4. Visit the Grand Canyon and stay for a week. Would love to do this. Haven’t yet.

5. Tell a story in a different city than Atlanta. Possibly done–I feel like this happened at the improv festival I attended in Vancouver where I performed in an Armando style show that mixed storytelling and improv.
6. Participate in NaNoWriMo. DONE-3 times!
7. Perform music at an Open Mic night. Can’t believe I wanted to do this and don’t see it happening anytime soon. 

8. Make a full menu from the NY Times Menu Cookbook including Beef Wellington! Haven’t done this. Sounds delicious!
9. Eat at The French Laundry. Haven’t done it. Still interested but less compelled to make it happen than when we lived in California.

10. Plant and maintain a vegetable garden. Attempted this.
11. Learn to embroider. Still would like to do this someday.

12. Have a non-academic writing piece published online. Every week on this blog, right?!?!
13. Find a job that I love! DONE–twice! I loved teaching improv, and although I would have never expected embarking down this career path, I love being a trainer. 

14. Participate in a triathalon. Not sure I’ll ever do a triathlon because of the time commitment for training and the expense (bike equipment plus a pool membership). But I have done a marathon, two half marathons, and I want to run more races. 

15. Become a tour guide. Like my Open Mic goal, I can’t believe I listed this. But in this case I can’t believe I knew so long ago I wanted to do what has become a very fulfilling part of my life this past year–volunteering as a tour guide at Oakland Cemetery. 

If you asked me today to list thirty things I’d like to do after 37, I’d probably list items other than those I have yet to check off my 2012 list. In that sense, the past list acts like an archive–a reflection of my preferences and priorities at a particular point in time. Still, there were some items that seemed to foreshadow the more distant future like being a volunteer tour guide and the trip to Germany with my Mom. Here we are in Heidelberg in 2018–close to six years after I made my 30 after 30 list. DSC02201

My Inner Sister

I realize she’s inside me, my enemy within, but I see her as separate from me somehow. I picture her as an older sister, which I don’t have but which I am, and she has my worst qualities as an elder sibling: a demanding know-it-all with a need for control.

I don’t see any of the redeeming qualities I might have as a sister in my inner sister. I’m not sure what these might be, but I imagine I do have them because my outside sister, who does not live in the same body as me, seems to like me. She invites me on vacation and comes to visit me sometimes.

My notion of being a sister is heavily influenced by my experiences growing up when my sister and I lived in the same household. We shared a room and my sister would borrow my stuff, both of which I resented. I guess I’ve never viewed myself as a particularly good sister because of these feelings of resentment.

My inner sister and I are at odds right now over some things. I think she’s a perfectionist who blows things out of proportion and her behavior has led to our current state, while she blames me for not being careful enough and making mistakes.

I realized this week thinking about her that we both want the same things–less clutter in our lives and a willingness to let go of the past. She wants to go about it in a way that’s just right. I, on the other hand, just want to get it done but am afraid of her wrath if we don’t do it her way (she can be a meanie). I’m hoping we can find a way to compromise.

When I was upset about sharing a room as a kid, my mom, who hadn’t always been able to live with her sisters growing up, would say one day I’d look back on the experience fondly. I’m not quite there yet, but I will say that I’m thankful that sharing a room with my outside sister offered me practice in sharing a body with my inner sister. And I’m going to give some more thought to how I’ve been a good older sister because I think my inner sister could be one too.

There comes a point

There comes a point when you have to face up to where you came from–the choices you made–the life that’s piled up around you.

There comes a point when you have to ask yourself: do you want to dig deep and dig out of the hole?

There comes a point when you hit a wall and that wall threatens to fall down on top of you. And you have to brace to hold up that damn wall.

There comes a point when the obstacles appear giant and you, a mere Gulliver, will try to run away swiftly. But they’ll surround you, and you’ll be trapped like a boot in Monopoly jail wondering if you should try to buy your way out.

There comes a point when you’ll say the pressure is too HIGH and long to release a little BUT you don’t know how valves work so you’re left boiling, steaming MAD at your situation.

There comes a point when you’ll question: was there ever any point?

There was nothing in my childhood to suggest I might someday be an endurance athlete except this: I loved biking, and my favorite place to ride was a mixed use path at Miami Whitewater Forest outside of Cincinnati. It was a long path, about 8 miles I think, and I would ride it with my mom and my sister and some of our family friends who went camping with us.

There was one day–it was the best day–when we went out early (a rare feat) and pretty much had the path to ourselves. We rounded a bend and came into this clearing. I remember it with long grasses and wildflowers and a wooden fence. (Incidentally, I pictured this spot while reading Twilight during the forest scenes when Bella gazes upon a dazzling, diamond infused Edward in the sunlight.)

In the clearing stood two deer who froze upon seeing us. It was a beautiful sight, and I remember thinking then as a child–THIS is the point. THIS is what life’s about.

I found out this week that my esthetician is moving away, and I’m sad about it because she’s the best esthetician I’ve ever had (in a twenty plus year history of brow waxing). Not only does she make my brows look good, but we also just get along really well. I’ve enjoyed talking to her and sharing our stories during our monthly twenty minute sessions over the past couple years. I’m really going to miss her and the connection we’ve had.

Which is I think another point of it all. Life’s not just about the sights (the deer in the clearing) but also the people you meet along the way (my (b)esthetician–best esthetician).

Now on to handle life.

Life’s Pleasure or Distraction

Maybe it’s all the Ken Burn’s Civil War I’ve been watching or maybe it’s the post holiday blues, but I’ve been feeling a little down lately. It could be this too–life is bleaker without coffee.

I know a lot of people go for a dry January. I’m currently on a nutrition challenge where I’m cutting out booze, but I thought I’d up the ante by eliminating a substance I rely on much more than alcohol these days: caffeine.

You could say this was motivated by past experiments with limiting alcohol consumption–the results of which encouraged me to become an occasional drinker rather than an everyday drinker and to forgo binge drinking. I used to view alcohol as a necessity in my life, and I’m glad to have changed this relationship.

But should I do the same with coffee? The thing is I love coffee (like I used to love alcohol). I keep productivity journals with daily gratitude sections, and going back through them, nearly every day I list coffee. From this account, it’s the #1 thing I’m grateful for (sorry family–I swear I’m grateful for you too!).

There were lots of benefits to reducing my alcohol consumption, but a major one has been more stability in my mood. Yes, alcohol made me happy while I was drinking it but less so the next day. I relied on coffee to get me through the hungover morning doldrums. It was a cycle–relax with drinking, energize with coffee, relax with drinking–and try not to feel.

Right now I’m in the process of training my mind to stay with and recognize hard feelings rather than fleeing them with distractions (like alcohol, shopping, and social media). Over two weeks into my caffeine fast, I’m still not sure what role coffee plays in this mental challenge.

Is coffee a way to distract myself or is it a pleasure that brings life joy? These two aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s a line between coffee being productive or destructive to my overall well-being that I can’t suss out.

The one definite upside of giving up caffeine so far has been that I’m not short changing myself on sleep and using coffee as a substitute. I’m aiming for 7+ hours a night, and if I don’t hit it, I nap like I’ve never napped before (without guilt).

It’s hard to determine cause and effect in a life tangled with potential biases. Like I mentioned, I’m feeling down, but I’m also spending a lot of time immersed in the history of slavery and the Civil War. My (lower) mood is more stable throughout the day, but I’ve also eliminated added sugars as part of my nutrition challenge so a lack of sugar spikes could be a regulating factor as well as a lack of caffeine dips.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do at the end of this challenge in terms of coffee consumption–go back to 2-3 cups a day or avoid coffee entirely and substitute tea. I don’t know. My nutrition challenge has a definite endpoint–the first week of February, but my mental challenge to stay with hard feelings and avoid distraction will still be ongoing. The latter might always be ongoing, but my hope is that eventually by being able to sit with the hard stuff I’ll be able to experience life’s joys (like coffee) for their own sake and not as a way to escape.

Ken Burns Life Goals

When I left my academic research job, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I’d moved to Atlanta hoping the postdoc position I took would propel me into a job of a similar nature in industry or government. I imagined myself working for the CDC or a state public health agency or a consulting firm. But by the end of my academic career, I wanted to make a much more radical change.

I told people I was going to write a novel, which I did although I never published it.

I also had a more obscure goal: watch Ken Burns’ Baseball in its entirety. It was a strange thing for me to want to do at the time because I’m not a particularly big fan of baseball. But something about its history called to me. As did the freedom to spend my time exploring something that fascinated me with no expectation of it furthering my career.

In that sense, my plan to watch Ken Burns’ Baseball was indicative of what was to follow. I’ve never resumed working full time since leaving academia, but I’ve found much joy in pursuing my curiosities: comedy, history, writing, and art.

It was curiosity that brought me back to Ken Burns recently. I’ve spent the past couple years steeped in Atlanta’s history, which has made me want to know more about the Civil War. Enter Ken Burns’ nine episode documentary on the topic.

With Baseball, I managed to finish most of the series, but then I took a road trip that disrupted my progress and I failed to make my way back to it. In contrast, with The Civil War, not only have I managed to finish the series, I’ve already started watching it a second time so I can retain more of the content.

I’m also looking forward to an upcoming documentary from the Ken Burns’ team about East Lake Meadows, a public housing project in Atlanta that was torn down in the mid-1990s and replaced with a mixed income development that’s become a national model for revitalization.

There’s so much to know in this world in terms of what’s happened and how that impacts what’s going on now. I’m grateful that there are people like Ken Burns and his team who are dedicated to sharing this information. Watching Baseball set off a passion for history that I’m still now stoking–a fire for knowledge that even a strained relationship with academia couldn’t squelch.

Rough Towels

The best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I’ve ever had I ate around ten years ago somewhere between Boston, Mass and Burlington, Vermont. David and I were driving to a Labor Day weekend wedding, and we stopped in a small town for a treat. The ice cream was luscious and thick, encasing chunks of cookie dough as big as cookies. The chocolate chips were thinly shaved melting in our mouths, and the sugar crystals in the dough ground between our teeth with a satisfying crunch.

I’m grateful for having tasted this ice cream but at the same time forlorn that the experience set the bar so high for any future chocolate chip cookie doughs I might encounter.

The towels on hand at our Airbnb in Brussels, Belgium many summers later set a similar lofty bar. They were bleach white, thin, and harsh against the skin, scraping off water and providing an invigorating exfoliation at the same time. We were only in Brussels for a weekend out of a trip of several weeks, but the memory of these towels followed me home to where my own towels, worn and soft from several years use, waited for me.

This year, as some of those same towels had started unraveling into threads at their edges, we decided to ask for replacements for Christmas. Thoughts of the standard setting Belgian towels occupied my mind as I composed my holiday wish list. I did a tentative Google search for “rough towels” in a regular browser (even though the term was titillating enough that I thought perhaps I should go incognito).

The results were unsatisfying. Turns out most every towel is advertised as soft.

I eventually settled on a thin waffle weave towel in pewter. Luckily, even though they were described as soft, the textured fabric provided enough roughness that I went ahead and ordered similar hand towels and wash clothes. Now for the first time in my life I have a full set of matching towels.

And all this talk of waffles has me wondering about one key detail of my ice cream experience that I can’t recall: did I choose a cup or a cone?

An Addendum

Two years ago I wrote a post about the challenges of improvement and how I found winning a Most Improved award somewhat embarrassing. In the time since that original post was published, I have continued to make improvements slowly but surely and mostly without embarrassment.

Enter 2020–the doorway to a new decade and when I hope to make another improvement to my life–an undertaking I’m referring to as the Onerous Self-help Challenge (OSHC) or the Onerous Self-help Task (OSHT). Calling it a challenge inspires me more than calling it a task, but I like how the latter acronym could be read as “oh sh*t.” Like “oh sh*t, I better take this on for the sake of my future self.”

The issue at the center of the “oh sh*t” is one I’ve been aware of for awhile but have had trouble making progress on because the work to address is it hard. Hence the O for Onerous.

In some ways, it’s like trying to accomplish a strict pull-up, another challenge I’ve struggled with over the past few years. I want to do a strict pull-up, and I’ve been close to doing it. But I’ve fallen off on my training multiple times because the work hurts (e.g., just gripping the bar can be painful).

In my original post, I talked about several obstacles to improving including not wanting to acknowledge the need for improvement. What I didn’t talk about then was the situation I’m facing now: being quite aware of the need for improvement but finding it formidable to undertake.

For me, it’s physically uncomfortable to grip a bar with my bare hands and hang for an extended period of time. But I have to be willing to bear that discomfort if I’m going to meet my pull-up goal. Similarly, it’s both physically and emotionally tough for me to confront my “oh sh*t” issue. I know that being able to sit with that discomfort is the challenge that lies ahead. It’s the skill I need to develop to tackle the “oh sh*t” and hopefully transform it into an “oh, okay” or maybe even into an “oh, yeah!”

Here’s hoping. Happy New Year.

Foggy Cannon Christmas


Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

I recite Longfellow’s poem on my drive to the grocery store, saying it to myself a few times through to commit it to memory. The stanza about the cannon falls midway through the poem, and each time I arrive at it, I cry thinking about the Civil War and what soldiers and families endured during the conflict. (Longfellow himself had a son severely injured in battle shortly before the poem was written.)

It occurs to me as I weep in the grocery store parking lot that learning this poem is not the best strategy for keeping away the holiday blues I seem to suffer every year.


Christmas Eve morning, a dense fog covers the cemetery I’m touring. In the Civil War section, holiday wreaths decorate soldier’s graves arranged in circles around an upright cannon. No longer thundering, the cannon still appears ominous in the fog–a silent reminder of the divisions we once faced as a country.


We continue to encounter issues as a country that divide us. As we head into the 2020 election year, I find myself falling into despair like the narrator of Longfellow’s poem:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

But unlike the narrator’s turn in the final stanza of the poem, I find it hard to have hope that what is right will prevail and peace on earth will be realized:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
-Excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells”

Because people on both sides of the issues that divide us believe they are right (as was the case during the Civil War), and truth and fact are crafted in our spin culture and constantly up for debate.


I felt the true joy of the holiday season this year the night before Christmas Eve. At the grocery store, my mom and I helped a fellow customer locate banana pudding mix that had been pushed to the back of a shelf, and she and her family in turn found the jars of maraschino cherries we needed perched on a high shelf. We stood together afterward at the end of the aisle chuckling at our good fortune and the holiday dinners saved by our mutual aid.

There’s a lot that scares me about the world, and I don’t think the Christmas season is capable of restoring (or maybe establishing for the first time ever) peace on earth. But I’m grateful to be able share the holidays with family and the occasional stranger in need of assistance.


In 2020, if we can’t have peace on earth, can we at least try for “good-will to men?” Or more appropriately in this era, “good-will to people.” Can we aim for that?

If so, there’ll be less crying for me in the parking lot. Merry Christmas.

Full text of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” and additional historical information is available on the Wikipedia page for I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Did I lose the year?

Empty daily boxes. Months of vast blank space. On a giant poster size 2019 wall calendar meant to track my progress in adhering to daily habits. These would seem to suggest that I did not “WIN THE YEAR” as the heading of the calendar implied I should.

Although I started strong. With the January and February rows filled in with A’s and C’s–c’s for cleaning and a’s for my work on an art/social media project.

Long straight lines drawn with a blue fine tip dry erase marker after the fact signal the passage of time March through July. What if anything happened during this five month stretch with regard to my daily habits is left a mystery to the viewer.

I rallied for about a month and a half after my return from Europe at the end of the summer. That was when I tracked COW’s–(c)leaning, (o)nerous self help tasks, and (w)riting. The cute acronym kept me compliant until mid-September. Moo.

The COW’s could walk freely through the autumn months where next to nothing is recorded and stop to munch on the peach in the “I’m a Georgia voter” sticker that marks Election Day. I voted with only one issue on the ballot, which is a victory for democracy if nothing else.

The day that is most painful to me on the calendar is March 1st. There early in the year I’d written “LAUNCH” to motivate myself to make public my art/social media project. The one that was my New Year’s resolution.

But the launch date came and went without takeoff. Instead on March 6th, I gave up social media entirely for the duration of Lent, a victory for my soul perhaps, and progress toward another 2019 New Year’s resolution: use social media as a way to connect rather than compare. My fast helped me control the compare part, and the challenge of the connect part I’ll take with me into 2020.

I’ve written down New Year’s resolutions every year since 2015 and cut the paper into a 4×6 sheet I store in a photo frame that sits on my dresser. Sometimes I arrive at the end of the year to find a goal I’d hoped to achieved staring me down with its blatant undoneness like my art/social media project. But at the end of the year, I also take stock of what’s been done that wasn’t necessarily a resolution like running a marathon, visiting all the collections in the Louvre, and landing a job in 2019.

I’ve found making resolutions isn’t necessarily about meeting resolutions. It’s about taking the vague theoretical “maybe’s” or “one day’s” or “I know I should’s” and attempting to put them into practice. Some of my biggest growth breakthroughs have been trying to accomplish my “I think I should’s” and realizing they’re instead “I definitely should not’s.”

Setting intentions and making goals has helped me tackle a lot of low hanging fruit in building a better life. I’m increasingly finding that the work that lies ahead is higher hanging fruit, more painful to achieve. The kind that requires ladders and tenuous branches and temper tantrums where I assert just how much I don’t want to do (o)nerous self help tasks.

I’ll set my sights to victory in 2020 but I’m not sure yet whether I’ll record my progress on a giant gaping calendar I have to face from my bed every morning.

Sitcom Expectations

I write a lot about loneliness. Maybe a surprising amount given I’m married, I have a supportive family who I enjoy visiting, and I spend part of each day with other people whether that’s teaching classes or taking classes or leading tours or running with a running group or grabbing coffee with a friend.

I am not without people I care about and people who care about me. Yet, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that something is not right in my friendship world. And I think 90s and 00s sitcom television is to blame.

Because it’s the most obvious example, let’s consider Friends and the model of friendship it presents. Six people, three men and three women, form a tight circle. They know everything about each other, they’re there for each other no matter what, and they spend an inordinate amount of time gathered at a coffee shop.

The friendships that I have don’t fit this model. The people I feel closest too don’t necessarily know each other, and there’s no central place where I gather with them. My interactions are more one off or tied to a specific activity like a class or a show. They’re friendships of convenience to a certain extent, but does that necessarily make them less deep or worthwhile than the type of friendships portrayed on sitcoms?

I’ve spent time in my adult life deconstructing potentially harmful expectations around romance that I internalized as a child watching fairy tale movies about Prince Charming and dreaming of happily ever after. But until now, I haven’t given much thought as to how the models of friendship I was presented might have been unrealistic.

When the friends on Friends have parties, the other people who show up are for the most part completely unfamiliar to the audience–background extras who chit chat. Given the nature of most of my relationships, these are the characters that I identify most with. Up until now, I’ve considered this a shortcoming, an indication that I don’t really have friends. But I do have friendships, they just don’t look the way I expected them to when I was young.