Excelsior!


Later 2018!

It’s been a hell of year. Professionally. Personally. Externally. Internally.

I’ve wanted to write a few times over the last two months, but my head was too cloudy, and the pieces of what I wanted to share were too jumbled to put down. I’m in a place where my thoughts have settled a bit, and I wanted to definitively stop my rumination.

To say I’ve taken on a lot of challenges this year would be a massive understatement, and a true disservice to the amount of growth I’ve had in a multitude of areas. I’ve started to be a better friend, I’m a father, I’ve become a decent photographer, I’m on the precipice of beginning a new job, and I’ve continued to improve my self-awareness and objectivity.

It’s fairly easy to pick out flaws and to pontificate on things you’d like to change about yourself. I’m no different in that regard. My problem has been that I’ve had a lifelong struggle with my own high expectations. I’ve started to recognize when I’ve done well enough. I’m moving on from things that I typically nitpicked myself about.

I’ve had a lot of help with that at work. I’m part of a team with exceptionally high standards for themselves, and it took a toll on me. It felt as if I was in a feedback loop of constant evaluation and rehashing of past events. It’s generally coming from a good place of trying to find the best solution to issues that arose, so we can improve the outcome of similar situations that happen. Unfortunately, I started to feel as if nothing was ever handled acceptably, and that I’d never reach a place where I’d feel good about my decision making skills, problem solving, or my accomplishments. In the past, that lethargy would have led to an extended period of depression, but this time around, I used it as a motivational tool to seek a change in my environment.

When I started working for adults with disabilities three years ago, I had no experience in the field. Within eight months my work ethic and dedication led to advancement, and I have been very happy as an assistant manager.

I’ve had an impact in the lives of those I serve, and when that bout of apathy started, I reflected on the difference I’ve seen in their lives over the last three years. It’s a vastly different culture in the house as far as how their independence is respected, and I cannot be happier about that. I played a major role in that change, but I definitely didn’t do it alone.

Yup, we’re the best looking staff group.

The staff that I work alongside of have grown a lot over the time I’ve been in management as well. Their budding leadership reaffirms that I’ve learned how to adapt my style to suit the people I’m trying to teach. I’ve always been good at modelling positive behavior, but I have struggled with conveying what I want. It’s taken trial and error, but I’m happy with how I’ve grown as a leader. Their feedback — direct and indirect — has helped me strive, and I cannot be more proud of our collective successes. I’m about to take over a different program as the manager, and I’m so happy that the effort I invested was returned. I cannot wait to bring my vision to the new team and cultivate a culture shift that will improve lives.

The return of investment at work is only shadowed by the improvements in my photography. I’ve always had a decent eye for framing shots, but the hardware I used to capture what I saw was pretty lacking. I got my first DSLR in 2018, and I have taken pictures at least three times a week since March.

See my favorite shots from 2018 at my photography site, KJF Photos.

When I first started taking pictures, I’d have 100-150 shots of what I was trying to get. Out of those I’d wind up with maybe 4-5 shots worth keeping. Now I have really hit a groove with my shooting. I’m not ashamed to review what I’m taking right on the camera and trash rejects as soon as I see them. If I’ve got time to try again, I’ll make another attempt. If I miss a shot, then oh well. (See? I told you I was working on accepting something when it’s good enough and not stewing! Thank work and fatherhood for that.) 

Henry is a stud. (2 mos)

During Dorena’s pregnancy I was able to logically contemplate the changes and challenges a child would bring to our lives. I’m a planner, and that’s what planners do. We look ahead and play out different scenarios to have some idea of what to expect. What I could never imagine was how rapidly my personal growth would transpire after he popped out.

I guess he didn’t pop out. He was an emergency-ish Caesarean Section so he was more or less lifted out. Being lifted out only took about fifteen minutes when it was all said done, after a stressful sixteen hours of waiting. That was nothing compared to what happened when we got home.

First time holding hands (5 mins)

Within the first 48 hours of having Henry at the house all he did was cry. We couldn’t get him to sleep for more than a half hour, and he was absolutely miserable. In the hospital, we had pre-measured bottles. At home, we had jars of powdered formula that we had to mix ourselves. In our sleep-deprived minds, we misread the label and were only giving him half of the powder he required in each bottle. Of course he was miserable… We were fucking starving the baby!

I stewed over the mistake for three days. I couldn’t sleep more than two hours at a time because I was so hard on myself for making the mistake. There were obviously no lasting ill-effects from my misstep, but I couldn’t let it go. It consumed me. That level of torment has happened to me a few times, because I was so stuck on what I could have done differently.

I’m working on accepting that I can’t change what I’ve already done. The energy wasted on cogitation is better applied to going with the flow. Knowing that I can’t possibly have answers to everything (or that I’ll handle everything perfectly) has been a game changer. I feel more relaxed when I can handle my stress that way.

Sure, I still got sucked into that pattern of self-loathing in November and December. Instead of beating myself up, though, I’m reflecting positively on what I’ve been able to accomplish when the new way has worked. Small confidence builders lead to massive change. This attitude has also carried over into the way I curate friendships.

Henry’s first visit to work (1 mo)

I have started investing more energy into the relationships that fulfill me, and I am loving what’s coming out of that. It’s the first time in over six years that I can truly say I’ve made new friends. The next step is rekindling some friendships that have faded away due to our paths diverging.

I’m not saying everyone that I was close to at one point or another will be getting texts from me every day. What I am committing to is making a goddamned concerted effort at returning positive energy to the people that send some my way.

Here’s to 2019 being a year full of personal growth, professional success, continued friendship building, and making my son laugh at fart jokes.

The Persistent Push

Last week I was getting snippy with the individuals I support, and I was also taking it out on my team. I was terse and more sarcastic than usual, to the point of nitpicking things just to start confrontations. Being mindful of my emotions, I recognized that I was in a shitty mood, and I saw that I was being cynical about my surroundings.

Yoda on Dagobah
Negativity leads to frustration. Frustration leads to hopelessness. Hopelessness leads to depression.

Since I expect so much of myself, when I become aware of my inability to influence the environment, I grow increasingly negative. Regardless of how grandiose my visions are, I fester on my failure to actualize those aspirations, and those bad vibes spiral out of control. It’s this feedback loop of negativity, where I’m frustrated that I can’t do what I want, and I beat myself up to the point of expecting nothing to improve because it hasn’t yet.

Venting to my closest friends about those feelings helped a bit. I was convinced that my awareness of that negativity would help me through it. Unfortunately, I was stuck on how each of the previous days were slogs, and I woke up every morning expecting the worst.

When I was receiving therapy for Persistent Depressive Disorder my therapist introduced me to mindfulness. I have become a proponent of its efficacy and I’m constantly reminded of how powerful that sense of awareness really is. Over the last three days as I realized I was slipping into a negative space, I used my favorite mindfulness technique (essentially the mini-mindfulness exercise at that link) to raise my cognition of myself in the present.

Spaceballs fucking nailed the feeling of now.

The present is awesome. It’s now. It’s not what just was. It’s not what is about to be. It’s now. This awareness allows the opportunity to react to what is actually happening, rather than what I expect to transpire. There’s incredible power in that ability.

It completely diffuses that negative feedback loop. I’ve found that removing my preconceptions brings me into a more positive headspace overall. That positivity defeats my feelings of burnout and depression. When I’m living in the now, I don’t waste my time and energy dwelling on what if’s, could’ve beens, and what-will-be’s.

Each day, each hour, each moment, and each second begins anew. Use that to your advantage and push forward. Persist.

I've been fairly open about my journey with depression. Catch up on the series if you want:
 The Final Push
 The Renewed Push
 I've pushed enough. Let's wrap this shit up.

Settling In

Keith's Toy Collection
Some of my favorite items on display in my collection. Boba Fett, Transformers, He-Man, and some sentimental items with family ties.

I’ve been in the final stages of setting up and cleaning my new home office the last two days. There’s only about half an hour of cleaning to do at this point, so I’m sitting down to write. It’s my preferred option for task-avoidance.

Will, my best friend and podcast partner, made a salient point last week that’s been bouncing around my head since we stopped recording. He mentioned that he doesn’t set a New Year’s resolution because he’s constantly striving to better himself. It felt arbitrary to set a goal and work on it when he’s doing his best to improve every day. Comments like that are why we’re #bffls.

The conversations we’ve had over the years were more significant that those I had with other people in my life. He’s challenged my positions and views like few others, and he helped me become a more open-minded person. My second workiversary is coming up this week, and it seems like a fine marker to use in judging myself.

Since my last anniversary at work, I’ve done a lot and I’m not sure I can even begin to write it all out. Let’s do a CliffsNotes version of the last year!

  1. I moved out and lived in my own apartment. It felt like the only way to express how seriously I needed things to change and improve between me and Dorena. I also wanted to take some time to just focus on myself and have independence and solitude.
  2. Dorena and I did a lot of work on our relationship. We have been together for half of our lives, and we never truly grew up and adapted as we aged. We were stagnant and didn’t know what we needed to move forward. We had to first find out what we wanted, and then we had to learn how to communicate that with each other. It took months of trial and error to find our voices and the best ways to speak with each other.
  3. I moved back in with Dorena. It felt right to do so, and it’s us again, working toward common goals while supporting each other.
  4. Personally I’ve made strides tackling my flaws. I regained my confidence, and my ability to be direct and pointed with my communication. I’ve learned how to convey my feelings more clearly than ever before in my life. I’m taking steps toward improving the important relationships that I value. I’m learning to let go of some of my OCD habits, and to wrangle my untoward expectations. I’m finally starting to accept when I’ve done well instead of pushing for “perfection.” (He says as he incessantly rewrites these paragraphs to make them sound better.)
  5. Professionally I’ve become a stronger leader. I’ve always been a “take charge” person, but this year it’s really clicked how to express my vision and to get people on board with me. I’ve become an effective leader of a team with vested interest,  rather than just being a charismatic guy that people latched onto.
  6. I’m being creative again. Along with starting a podcast with Will, I’ve been drawing again, and I love it. My cartoons are starting to feel decent again. Something I haven’t been able to say about my drawings since high school. It feels great!
A couple quick cartoon sketches
Look! I have some cartooning talent back!

The most important thing to note is that I haven’t felt a tinge of depression at all over the last year. Even through some tough times I felt resolved and determined instead of hopeless and defeated.

Before my conversation with Will about resolutions, my only goal for this year was to focus on more than just mindless internet browsing for my personal entertainment. I wanted to get more out of my one to two hours a day of relaxation, and I’m off to a good start. Don’t get me wrong, I do see the value in the mindless refreshing of social media. I’m not trying to judge and discourage others from using that to veg out, but being a web designer I spent so much time online that I’m a little burnt out on the whole social media thing.

I’ll be varying my experiences in my free time to get a little more fulfillment out of my activities. I’m hoping they’ll be more memorable when it’s said and done than hitting F5 on my Reddit dashboard was. We’ll see. I’ll check in again after I finish establishing my new approach.

A Time and Place to Relax

My mother and father regaled me with stories of my youth, as I expect everyone’s parents to have done. One of my favorites involves my first month alive on Earth. I had colic, and as such I cried a lot.

I originally set to tell the story myself, but looking for photos of me camping with them, I came across the story in my mother’s own words in my baby book.

Pop-Up Camper at Scenic View Campground in Bolton Landing July 1983
Pop-Up Camper at Scenic View Campground in Bolton Landing July 1983

June 29, 1983
Daddy and I decided to go camping on July 4th through the 6th. You’re coming too — it’s just too bad you won’t be able to remember it. We’re hoping that the fresh air will help you sleep better. You’re having a terrible time sleeping because of your being so colicy. You keep us up for hours (7-10) because you’re in so much pain.

Pop-Up Camper at Scenic View Campground in Bolton Landing July 1983
Another shot of our Pop-Up Camper at Scenic View in 1983

July 13, 1983
We took you to Bolton Landing July 4th to July 6th. We couldn’t believe it was you who went with us. You didn’t show any signs of colic while we were there. You slept through everything including four long walks through Lake George Village two nights. You’ve been just as good since we’ve been home. At least now you and I can enjoy each other more and it’s less strain on our relationship. Daddy likes the new you too!

The story has always sounded like one of those perfect weekends. The weather was fantastic, the Yankees threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox on Independence Day, and I never cried again. Dad’s not sure if it was the camping, the Yanks, or the pine scent. I think it’s the lake itself.

Lake George from the Southern Tip
Lake George from the Southern Tip – September 4th, 2017; 6:30 PM

I’ve fallen out of my love for camping as I’ve gotten older, but walking through the village and being on the lake still has that same effect on me. The breeze off the water, the sound of the water rippling as the Minne-Ha-Ha’s pipe organ plays in the distance…

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Serenity.

 

I’ve been going through a pretty emotionally draining time over the last few weeks. There’s been a lot of deep contemplation about what I want to do about my marriage. I’ve been trying to come to a decision if I am up to the task of investing more energy and patience into it in order to see if it can metamorphose and satisfy me for the rest of my life.

For a few hours this evening, I got to stop overthinking and just chill out by the lake. I’m no closer to a final decision, but my mind is refreshed!

Back to the perpetual loop of uncertainty in the morning…

The Layover

It was nearing the second hour of my scheduled forty-five-minute layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, en route to Albany, NY. I waited in line for twenty minutes to speak with the attendant to see if any other accommodations could be made. When my turn came up, I could tell the airline sent a veteran to handle our increasingly turbulent group of passengers. She was in her mid-50’s, and her gray-streaked hair was pulled into a tight bun. Her uniformed blazer and skirt were immaculately tailored without a hint of lint. She wore a solid gold American Airlines nametag on her left breast pocket, with a red and white striped kerchief peeking out behind it.

She glanced upward from the computer screen, barely moving her eyes enough to make eye-contact with me. Her eyes were hardly visible over the scalloped frame of the dark red reading glasses residing at the tip of her nose. “Sir, there are no other flights leaving Charlotte, heading towards Albany.” It felt like she was feigning empathy, but it was hard to pick up through her strong Hispanic accent.

Albany. Not Al Bunny, Esmeralda,” I snipped back. My filter was long lost to impatience. She rolled her eyes and sighed at my remark. I took a deep breath, and spoke again. “I’m sorry, I know that you’re not from around there, but I really want to get home.”

“I understand Sir. Everyone in this terminal is trying to get somewhere. Please understand that there is nothing we can do, and your safety comes first. Any issue, however minor, needs to be addressed before the plane is ready for departure.”

“Are there any flights on other airlines that I can switch to?”

“Sir,” she said, with clear frustration in her tone, “I do not have access to other airlines. You are more than welcome to inquire about availability at their counters. When we have updates, we will announce them across the terminal. Thank you for your continued patience.” She looked down at the computer and started typing.

I walked through the terminal to seek refuge at another airline. As I approached Delta’s desk, I heard a mother yelling at her preteen daughter about taking something from the souvenir store. It snapped me back to my fourteen-year-old self. The words that kid heard were going to be stuck in her head for the rest of her life, just like the time I got caught stealing in middle school.

 

“You cannot imagine how disappointed I am in you!” Ma’s face had reddened and she had grown furious. “I thought I raised you better than this! How could you steal something?”

“Ma,” I began sheepishly. “I am so sorry. I just wanted a new Walkman, and I knew you couldn’t get it for me.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me, Harold Joseph Winston!” She huffed and puffed like I was a plump pig in a stick house. “You should know that all you have to do is ask, and your father and I will do our best to accommodate you!”

“I know, Ma, but with you getting divorced I didn’t think you had money for that.”

“How do you know about that?”

“There was a letter left on the table when I came home from school the other day.”

Ma’s face had turned sullen, and the flush crimson color in her cheeks faded to a pale blue, like a foot of pristine snow under a full moon. “Harry, I’m sorry.” Her eyes had welled up with tears. “You weren’t supposed to know yet. I was waiting to tell you until I had living arrangements for the two of us.”

“The two of us?”

“Yeah, Harry. Me and you. We need to get away from your father.”

“Dad said you’d try to turn me against him!” Ma was the disciplinarian, and I sensed my way out of culpability. I continued my offense. “If you want to leave me and dad, go ahead!”

“Harry, if you really want to stay, I won’t fight your decision.” She had begun to weep openly. “Someday, I hope you will understand, but I cannot stay here with you and your father.”

 

After I struck out with Delta, I went on to also fail with Southwest, JetBlue, and United. Defeated, I went to the airport’s lounge to get a drink.

“What’ll ya have?” the bartender asked, in a way that sounded like he was trying to make a new friend.

“Whiskey,” I said sternly. “Neat.”

He took a rocks glass and set it down on the bar gently. His collared, blue shirt was buttoned to his neck, and his black vest appeared brand-new. There was a matching black bowtie symmetrically tied precisely at the center of his neck. He poured the spirit so softly that not even a drop landed outside of the glass.

“Ya doin’ alright, pal?” he inquired, while carefully sliding the glass toward me with one hand, simultaneously reaching for payment with the other.

“Yeah,” I answered, with no intention of divulging. I handed him my card. “Keep it open, buddy.” I took a swig, and it hit the back of my throat hard. I lowered the glass slowly, and stared at the auburn liquor in the glass as I swirled it around, thinking about the first time my mother and Florida were joined in my memory.

 

“Harry, you know how your aunt and grandmother are moving to Florida?”

I nodded passively, because I still had not come to terms with their decision. After Mom and Dad split up, they became my primary caregivers through high school, and my aunt was the co-signor on my college loan. My mother and I had an on-again, off-again relationship through my teen years.

“Well, I am going too.”

“Why? We’re just starting to patch things up!”

“I know it’s been rough since I left your father. But we are doing better.” She had placed her hands on my upper arms, and gave them a couple quick squeezes, like she was checking a cantaloupe for freshness. “You’ll be so busy with college in a few months that we wouldn’t see each other much anyway.”

I was disappointed, but I was determined to make our arduous relationship building pay off. “Alright, I’ll visit on breaks from school.”

“See? That’s the ticket!” The left side of her mouth had curled into a wry smile. “You’re already using me as an excuse for vacations!”

“Yeah, right. Besides, we’ll call each other all the time. It’s not like we’re going to stop talking after getting this close again.”

“That’s right! It won’t even be that bad when I’m gone.”

 

I looked around the bar as I finished my glass of whiskey. I saw some familiar faces sitting around me, though I didn’t know any of their names.

I summoned the bartender for a refill, and the second glass went down far easier than the first. While mulling over the third glass, I was staring at the local news on the TV. The closed-captioning was on, but I didn’t want to focus on a story about a book drive at the elementary school. I lost myself in the swelling hum of the crowd. My thoughts drifted, and brought back a conversation I forgot about.

 

“I don’t know how to say this, Harry, but I’ve been feeling weak lately, and my legs are always swollen.”

“Swollen? What do you mean? Swollen?

“You know, swollen. Puffy. Squishy.”

“Well what’s going on?”

“I’ve been to three different doctors, and none of them know what caused it. I’m suffering from late-stage kidney failure. They aren’t filtering how they should, and my legs retain fluid.” She paused, seemingly trying to find the words that would comfort both of us. “There’s things that I can try to mitigate the swelling.”

“Ma, come back to New York so you can see a real doctor.” I mustered a giggle, trying to change the tone. “Don’t let those bumpkins try to take care of you.”

“There’s real doctors here,” she said seriously. “We’ll figure it out. It should only take a few months.”

 

Ma’s few months turned into two years, and her kidneys worsened exponentially. She received hemodialysis three times a week to flush the toxins out of her blood that her kidneys refused to. The treatments were rough on her, and she was in a state of recovery every other day.

The bar’s hum had turned into a legitimate calamity. I’m barely able to get the bartender’s attention.

“Whaddya want?”

Dude, it’s my sixth one!

“Whiskey. Neat.” I look at my watch to figure out how long I’ve been sitting here. It’s been an hour-and-a-half since I first saw this guy, and his appearance has certainly declined.

His forehead is glistening with sweat, and there is no sign of his bowtie. His vest is open, and as he moves I can see the wrinkled shirt it once ensconced. His plush arm hair billows around his rolled-up sleeves, and his chest hair protrudes proudly from his unbuttoned collar. As he withdraws the whiskey bottle, I hand him my glass. Our hands graze, and for the first time, I notice how rough his hands are. He must be a carpenter or something.

The neck of the whiskey bottle seems like it’s going to snap under the pressure of his calloused fingers as he sloppily pours my drink. Maybe he’s a landscaper.

“The bar’s not drinking it, man, I am.” Ah, oil under the fingernails. He’s a mechanic.

“Yeah, whatever, pal. Ain’t ya had enough, yet?” He looks pissed as he shoves the glass across the countertop toward me. The liquid sloshes about, spilling over the edge. I lose my train of thought as I scan the room for napkins.

Two-and-a-half-weeks before this disastrous glass of whiskey, my aunt called to ask for help with Ma. Her blood pressure plummeted at dialysis, and she was rushed to the hospital for monitoring. While there, she suffered a stroke, and they weren’t sure that she was going to make it. For the last seventeen days, my aunt and I sat by her side in the ICU as she recovered.

Unfortunately, I’m out of vacation days for the year, and I must go back to work. My aunt said she’ll be able to handle Ma when she gets released, and that keeping my job is more important. We’ll figure out what to do after she gets settled at home.

I can’t hear my phone ring, but the vibration in my pocket drives me up a wall. I pull it out and look at the screen. My heart sinks, because even though the caller ID reads “Auntie,” it says something different to my soul. I don’t need to talk to her for the few moments I do, because I already know what our conversation is going to entail. I close out my bar tab and head back to the terminal.

Esmeralda is not happy to see me again as my spot in line comes up. I leave lasting impressions, huh? Her hair is let down, and frizzy. Her blazer is strewn across the heater behind her desk, with her heels peeking out from beneath it. I can see large sweat stains under her arm pits as she gesticulates.

“Sir, I know it’s been six hours,” she hesitates, as she stands up nice and straight. “However, we have no updates at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience, but we are doing everything we can to get you to Albany.”

“It’s okay. I need to go back to Jacksonville.”