Boston to the Bay- Day 3

April 13, 2014- 6 AM

Woke up beside a rail yard in Toledo, Ohio.  This little city was spoke of in reverential tones by my Mom’s small-town relatives hailing from the tiny town of Van Wert, Ohio.

Driving through the thickets and cornfields brings back memories of making the pilgrimage from St. Louis to the sticks of Ohio as a kid.  Everything was, and is still, so different from the suburban world I grew up in.

The water smells like sulphur, people believe the hymns they sing, and a chicken indolently pecking the ground can sometimes be your only companion.  It’s not about pace of life or a radical perspective.  It’s about flat ground and mile upon mile of distance between neighbors.  It’s about the fantastic inventions the mind conjures when forced to.  It’s about the personification of animals and crops.  It’s about community.

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It’s a dying way of life.  Some adjusted and moved to withering brick towns like Toledo or Youngstown.  Others go quietly, solemnly watching chicks peck over fallow land.

The train is a foreign experience, and I hesitate to call it an experience in the traditional sense.  This hurtling steel capsule doesn’t allow you to feel the subtle changes in the air or the ground over which you travel.  Certainly, you are more aware of obscure places like Bryan, Ohio, but you don’t come to truly know these places.

Miles and miles of diverse lands and people are taken for granted.  You’re given a private viewing of backyards and crumbling artifacts of antiquated industries for the negligible cost of a train ticket.  I saw a boy chasing a ball down a hill and the gravestones of countless grandparents.  What gives me the right to peer into these intimate moments and places?

April 13, 2014- 6 PM

We completed our first leg, the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, and began a hunt for deep-dish pizza.  Luckily, there was a Giordano’s a few blocks away.  The pizza and beer did not disappoint, not surprising considering my train diet of peanut m&m’s and processed turkey sandwiches.

The three-hour layover was finished before it started.  The only tourist attraction we fell prey to were some photos of the Union Station staircase where Kevin Costner performs a few heroics in The Untouchables.

Luckily, we snagged upper-deck seats for the next leg.  Especially crucial because, you know, the towering cornstalks dotting Illinois and Iowa require a lofty perch to appreciate.

The train paused in Galesburg, Illinois, a surprisingly bustling rail stop.  A few trains were beached there and a beautiful mural adorned the station.

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Iowa came soon afterwards and, along with it, a subtle curvature of the land.  Good cheer must have overtaken the early settlers as they gazed over this pristine, virginal land stretching far as the eye could see.

It’s a wonder anyone voted to push past this fertile ground.  Thank God they did because, while the ample space and sun-soaked crops are beautiful, the soaring peaks of the Rockies and the sunny California coast are true jewels.  Man could not, would not, stop until he reached the ocean.  A human preoccupation with finishing what we have started.  I feel the same way now; satisfied with this peaceful land, but yearning for more.

Another delay.  The sky sits in pre-dawn silence, a weak light covers the land, and the fields are interspersed with brave islands of trees surrounded by a sea of fallow corn fields.  It rained earlier, but the sky and the ground have come to a tacit agreement.  The sky has ceased rumbling and the creeks have stopped jumping with rain.

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It’s April and spring still hasn’t sprung in this land.  I am embarrassed for complaining about Texas and the palm trees, green grass, and tropical temperatures of the Gulf Coast.  From Connecticut to Iowa, the landscape is dominated by grey skies and barren foliage.

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You Must Go Through Winter to Understand

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The mornings begin to dip below freezing.  Street traffic slows.  Doors open and close.  The wind is faint, unwilling to wake.

I’m compelled to sit.  Desperation takes hold.  Accompanied only by the dim light of a cheap lamp and scattered photographs of places, people I used to know.

The trees are dull, the sky is low.  I’m so damn numb.  My hands are cracked, my inspiration is sapped.  Damn this winter, damn this town.

Outside, the snow falls in a steady, icy spray.  A bird alights onto my window sill, peers inside and flutters away.

Squeezing, strangling.  Winter grips trees, captures squirrels, and shoos birds away one by one until all that’s left are solitary pigeons.

Hardly awake, the masses slog through a rite of passage.  This frozen, lifeless land speaks no joys, only sorrow fills the cold, lifeless air.

Why would anyone stay?

And then it hits me.

You must go through winter to understand.

White noise falling all around,

Soft flakes of time coming down,

Falling, sticking, staying, leaving,

Clouds moving, weaving,

Meaning only found in their coming and going,

The dirty, frozen pond,

Nothing flowing,

The dirty, frozen city,

No one coming, no one going,

You must go through winter to understand,

Whispers of snow out your window,

Snow flakes piling high,

The drudgery of bundling up,

The aimless trudge,

The slippery sludge,

The stench of an overused coat,

A damp front porch,

The flicker of a dying torch,

You must go through winter to understand,

Clenched jaws,

Frozen eyes burning, twitching,

The numbing sensation of gloves,

The heater’s caress,

The unwillingness to undress,

Memories of sunlight, friends, family,

Good times come and gone,

You must go through winter to understand,

The convergence of days,

Time slipping away,

Stripped, bare trees,

The fear that time itself will freeze,

The quiet,

The restless slumber,

You must go through winter to understand,

The still of dawn,

The winds of change long gone,

An old folk song,

The need for others,

Missing my brothers,

You must go through winter to understand,

The thirst for sun,

The urge to run,

The need for mountains,

The thirst for flowing fountains,

You must go through winter to understand,

The mirage of white sand,

Tunnel visions of spring,

Wondering what that might bring,

You must go through winter to understand,

The slow melt,

The loneliness I once felt,

You must go through winter to understand,

Life first-hand.

In Defense of “Do What You Love”

The Journey Begins

I remember walking along the edge of a suburban ditch surrounded by heat-scorched grass, my mother at my side.  We were discussing my discontent and scattered ambitions.

I threw out the cock-eyed possibility of someday moving to Boston and becoming a writer.  The idea seemed far-fetched, romantic even.  I imagined cobble-stoned streets, warm coffee shops, and perhaps falling in love with something, someone on a chilly night in Fenway Park.

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Sunset in Boston

None of those things happened, and the realities of East Coast living are radically different than I envisioned.  But I’m here.

I’m an hour and a half from that impossibly far-away place.  I’m writing and working, but mostly working.  I’m doing something enjoyable and am a happier person.

All my external circumstances have worsened.  I live in a shabby, overcrowded apartment.  The weather is miserably cold.  Middle school boys frustrate me to the point of exhortation daily.  Yet, I feel confident, buoyant even, about my path.

Alas, there are haters.

Recently, a scathing article received widespread recognition for its oppositional stance towards the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) movement.

Apart from the logical fallacies (hasty generalizations, straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks on Steve Jobs, and false dilemmas), the article’s portrayal of DWYLers as privileged and socially callous has motivated me to present a counter argument based on my own experiences.

Below are seven reasons that DWYL is at worst an innocuous, nebulous statement and at best a transformative message.

1.  Some people are miserable without meaning in their work

“We need to replace our youthful ideas of transcendence with the hard work of committing to the end of a way of life in which our work is not in line with our values.”  Michael Stone

A year ago, I returned from a perspective-altering trip to New Zealand.  Abuzz with energy and a more broad, daring view of the world, I was ready to make things happen.

Beautiful, right?

Beautiful, right?

Except things didn’t happen.  Not good things at least.

This drive to seek the best was born of pure intentions and great naivety.  I thought that moving towards greater financial security would positively transform me.

Instead, it granted me a first-hand account of the soul-sucking corporate world.

I interviewed for a shiny new job and expressed excitement to be part of the “dynamic” energy industry.  I only meant it in a theoretical, strictly tangible sense.  I had no deep-seated interest and passion, just a recognition of its societal stature.

In the office tower across the street, I see pacing lawyers and accountants.  Printer to desk.  Printer to desk.  That was me.  I sat in a windowless office, yearned for lunch.  I walked through a labyrinth of tunnels depriving thousands of professionals of sunlight or noises emanating from anything other than cash registers and computer mice. I ate lunch. I walked, dissatisfied, back to that same lonely spot each day.

I want more than a job.  I want a vocation.  I want to be proud of who I am and be one with my job, interests, and personality.

Success, judged by money, title, or power, is noise distracting from the deep, ignored truth that many are dying slow, painless deaths high up in towers across the US.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg  Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/images/h2/h2_53.183.jpg Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City

2.  Money for lower-wage workers becomes more obtainable when privileged people opt out of high-paying, stable jobs.

If DWYL is truly an upper-class phenomenon, then those spots would necessarily be filled by a lower wage worker.  Wouldn’t that create more opportunity?

3.  The “DWYL” path requires hard work, sacrifice, and vulnerability

“I hope you live a life you’re proud of.  If you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”  F Scott Fitzgerald

I had never seen Hartford, didn’t know a single person that had even visited the place, but I was confident something in that tiny city would change my life.

After 27 hours on the road, I arrived in Hartford.  Even though it was July, the sky was steel-grey and rainy.  A depression settled in upon realization that I had no one to help me move and knew no one in the entire state.

I carried my possessions inside amid the rain and wind.  I felt foreign and isolated.  Eventually, I got my things inside and settled into a bare and uninspiring apartment.  The furniture was sparse and nondescript, much like what I had seen so far of Hartford.

My first day in Hartford was wretched.  The optimism I felt days earlier vanished.  I entered my self-imposed purgatory.  My voluntary exile would force me to come to grips with who I was, who I wanted to be.

Soon thereafter, I experienced the rigor of teaching.  Put it this way:  If a boss demanded that you prepare several hours of presentations each day, warned you of his propensity to get up and make strange sounds and occasionally disrespect you in front of the entire meeting, and then asked you to measure and evaluate his performance each day, you would quit on the spot.  Teachers don’t.

Each day time assails me.  My afternoons dissipate, my hair ripples with a tornado current.  Time knocks me out until I awake staggering back to the teacher’s offices wondering what in God’s name happened.

Now I understand why young teachers are reticent to go out on Friday evenings, their brains cooked from overstimulation.  Loud, inarticulate noises.  The impossible stench of a prepubescent sans Old Spice.  The constant movement.  You have to be so damn vigilant.

I love it though.

I do miss home.  I do miss my family and friends.  Sometimes, I even miss the quiet office environment.

I don’t miss comfort.  I don’t miss being insulated from change.  I don’t miss wasting time at a job I could never grow to like.  I don’t miss the days and nights that drove me to getting in a car and driving thousands of miles to a job paying pennies on the dollar.

4.  For many, DWYL entails helping others and performing services that benefit the same people Miya Tokumitsu claims DWYL undermines

” Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

I do not desire money or prestige. I just want to say I did something worthwhile.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been inspired by the downtrodden.  I remember my Dad’s annual Company Christmas Party.  Each year they hosted the Harbor Light Choir, composed entirely of former inmates.  The soul and gratefulness they brought to each song brought a tear to my eye every time.  Seeing people in the lowest socioeconomic bracket impart optimism and hope to privileged businessmen left me awestruck.

For me, greatness is selfless dedication to the community.  I’ll be making nearly nothing this year, working investment banker hours.  Why?  Because I will be proud of my accomplishments.

5.  DWYL is not a binary system.  Almost no one has a job consisting entirely of things they love.  

DWYL is based on seeking an enjoyable vocation.

No, it won’t be perfect.  And, yes, there are popular bastardizations of the idea.  Yes, Tim Ferriss, I’m looking at you.

The DWYL movement is not prescribing a single love for all, just as the gay marriage movement does not denigrate heterosexuals marrying partners they deem unsuitable.  As varied as people’s life partners are, a person’s career ambitions can be similarly varied.  The beauty of the free-market is that there’s room for screw-ups, one-night stands (e.g. summer jobs) and even divorces.  And, just as everybody can’t marry a supermodel or genius or doctor, everyone will not find a perfect fit.  Still, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging others to search.

Tokumitsu’s argument leaves no room for nuanced wants and needs.  Some will love jobs that others hate.  Some will do a job they hate to have time for their passion.

Sure, I won’t be a full-time writer next year (or even a part-time one!), but I am confident I’m moving towards my vocation.

6.  Waiting until you’re older and more stable is risky

 “The most dangerous risk of all– The risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.” – Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle

People will say, “That’s good you’re doing that while you’re young.”  As if you must cease pursuing enjoyable employment upon reaching a certain age.  Thereafter, you must attend to the serious business of being miserable day in and day out.

What will freedom mean to you the day you reach your arbitrary financial goal?  Will your desire to be free be squashed by the familiarity and routine of oppression?  Will your wings be clipped and your heart disconnected from the legs and arms that move you?

Freedom stares you in the face.  Go be somebody.  Don’t wait for some fat guy in a pin-striped suit to cut you a check.  Screw it.  If you love clowns, work for the circus (besides, clown enthusiasts are creepy and have trouble finding gainful employment anyways), and if you love baseball, coach it.

Each minute you spend daydreaming about what you should or could be doing is a slap in the face of the old man (or woman, but I don’t believe in slapping old women) you’ll eventually become.

7.  America was founded on people searching for a better life.  Why should this stop upon reaching a certain socioeconomic status?

The greatest American triumph; the autonomy to determine your station in life.

Never settle for second-best.  Never settle for a life you don’t want to wake up to.

This is the premise our ancestors arrived with.  That is what emancipation was about.  That is what civil rights were about.  That is what the GI bill was about.

I pray the freedom to pursue a better life never vanishes.

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Life lessons from Bear Mountain, CT

“So you’re sort of going through a mid-life crisis too, huh?”  I paused for a second, peering out over the picturesque Connecticut Valley from my perch atop Bear Mountain, and casually responded, “Yep, ahead of schedule too.”  Sarah had gotten divorced four years earlier, spurring a “mid-life crisis” that took her to the summit of 5, count em 5, 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado and the entire Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (53 miles) in a day.  Quite literally, a monumental life-shift had taken her to heights she’d never seen before.

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A weighty chance encounter at the peak of Bear Mountain, CT

This epic chance encounter, happening so metaphorically on a rock overlooking the whole state, had me thinking the entire way down.  The term “mid-life crisis” had been thrown my way more than a few times.  Typically, I would dismiss it or lay out the painstaking logic that led me from accountant in Houston to teacher in Hartford.  Similar to a modern-day scarlet letter, admitting to such a thing would be tantamount to agreeing that my recent life decisions were a result of immaturity or,even worse, insecurity.  The sight of this fit, ambitious 30-something helped me realize that mid-life crisis is an overly broad term.  How could a balding, disgruntled businessman buying red sports cars he can’t afford be equivalent to this woman fiercely dedicated to a mission of personal growth and exploration?

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Not all highs are created equal

Mid-life crisis, used in the traditional sense, implies a rapid, unsustainable euphoric high followed by a slow and steady descent down to the lowlands from which you came.  But what do we call a successful reassessment of what matters in life?  A period of sustainable personal growth?  The present use of the term, through the use of the undeniably negative word “crisis”, implies a lack of control and a negative outcome.  “Mid-life opportunity” more positively and accurately frames the situation.  It assumes neither success nor failure while still acknowledging an important juncture in an adult’s life.  Shiny red sports cars and marital infidelity or an empowering burst of personal growth, the choice is ours.

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Back to the lowlands or to previously unseen heights?

Welcome to the weird- The Hartford Chronicles

I moved to Hartford a couple days ago.  I moved to Hartford a couple days ago.  Had to say that twice just to make sure it was reality.  Already this place has struck me as the weirdest place I’ve ever been.  Let me explain.

“Varsity”, a long lost friend from high school, labeled as such for his penchant to show up on nearly every sport’s roster, was in the area.  I was tasked with finding something for us to do.  We set out on foot and immediately noticed that something was amiss here.  Block after block of wide, inviting city side-walks almost completely devoid of people.  We were surrounded by ancient, beautiful brick buildings.  The best way to describe it was a museum or maybe one of those tiny replicas of cities encased in glass.  It was as if we were ants walking in a display case while the behemoth metropolises of Boston and NYC observed us with delight.  The only sounds heard were police sirens and eerie opera music emanating from an auto shop.

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Gorgeous red-brick building…with no one inside

After having had enough of strolling around in post-apocalyptic Boston, we decided to try our luck with the local bars.  The Russian Lady had endeared itself to Yelp so we decided to give it a go.  The place was empty.  I appropriately ordered a White Russian and Tabby, the bleach blonde bartender, placed it onto the “Hammer and Sickle Vodka” coaster along the bar.  “How’s this hammer and sickle vodka?”  I asked without really needing or wanting the answer.  “Terrible”, she replied.  The first glimmer of that Northeastern bluntness I had been so eagerly awaiting.  “So what the hell is there to do in Hartford?”, I asked in a more serious, seeking tone.  The conversation quickly devolved into a stern warning to never, under any circumstances, go into Bushnell Park after dark.  Bushnell Park is the main city park (and, per Wikipedia, the oldest publicly funded park in the US).  I had earlier gotten my tourist fix by snapping numerous daytime pictures of the beautiful park.  However, it’s apparently filled with crackheads at night and, as I learned, sometimes in the morning as well.  Tabby fondly recounted walking her dog at 7 am on a picturesque Sunday morning.  She was greeted with a homeless man attending to the finer things in life directly beneath the iconic arched entrance to the park.

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Not exactly what the esteemed architects of this beauty envisioned

After a couple of drinks there, it was time for dinner.  We headed over to the The City Steamer, a cool restaurant near my apartment that brews its own beers.  The doorman quickly told my friend, “no muscle shirts”.  We both burst out laughing.  Varsity is a tall, somewhat gangly figure who isn’t exactly packing the pythons.  We could, however, sit in the bar area if we wanted.  We found this funny as well, given our recent discussion on the haves and have-nots of Hartford.  Hartford is the insurance capital of the country so, naturally, the haves work in insurance and the have-nots don’t.  White haired insurance executives in the dining area and bearded men in cut-offs in the bar area.  A simple, albeit close-minded, social order.

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A “White Hair”

After an enjoyable meal, we elected to try our luck with the bars again.  This time we found a place much more alive.  Being from Texas, we instinctively gravitated towards The Rocking Horse Saloon.  Decent live country music and 40s of Old English in brown paper bags.  I didn’t even bat an eyelash.  Yep, this is Hartford.

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Yep, they’re up here too