Shoes, Success, and other Ugly Things

“That’s how you know you’ve failed at life – when you’re twenty-four and working at a place like this.”

By the time he’d finished his sentence, I had already rounded the next corner and wasn’t able to pinpoint which teenager had muttered the comment. It might have been the tall blond one with the chiseled jaw, wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts and Sperry thongs. Or, it could have been the one standing to his left sporting an expensive new haircut, a pale-yellow American Eagle long-sleeved t-shirt and canvas Polo shoes.

But I like to think it was the one sitting on the padded stool, with his over-sized graphic tee and denim shorts. Why? Because he happened to be trying on a pair of solid black, extra-wide New Balance WX608V4 walking shoes – the kind nobody in their right mind would touch unless they were past running age and suffering from collapsed arches…either that or reluctantly complying with some strange high-school PE dress-code.

Since this one seemed closer to high-school age than wise old age, I assumed the latter to be the case.

But it didn’t really matter who said it. And it didn’t really matter that they even threw out a few theories as to why anyone would possibly choose to work at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. I didn’t catch the first theory; I barely caught “extra spending-money” as I walked by; and I missed any that may have followed.

Perhaps if I’d stuck around a little longer I’d have heard something closer to the truth. Something in the “desperate times call for desperate measures” category.

But I doubt it.

Did I really care what three random teenagers thought about me? Apparently I did, because their comments made me reflect on my situation a little more than I usually do.

When your company cuts your hours down to anywhere from 0 to 8 hours per week, it’s best to find a second job before the rent’s due. And if, say, you could only afford a single day off per week (exam days), then you might find you don’t have much time (or energy) for deep reflection.

But as I watched the trio saunter off towards the register (he really is going to buy those ugly shoes, geez), I couldn’t help but reflect just a little.

What did I imagine my future would look like when I was a pimple-faced, Axe-body-spray-wearing ball of smart-alecky potential?

At twenty-four?

Why, I’d be working on my first post-grad most likely. But I’d be almost finished. I’d be married to the love of my life of course, and maybe even have rugrats by then. Maybe I’d have authored a book or two. Maybe not. But I’d definitely have some published work in a respected journal, and maybe even a few patents in my name. I’d have mastered the violin by then (maybe not “Hilary Hahn mastered”, but I’d at least be orchestra-ready),and I’d have learned a third language perhaps. Other than that, I’d have digested a small library’s worth of books, and I’d certainly have traveled the world a bit more too. That last part goes without saying.

The details weren’t too important, but that much at least I would have to show for my life at twenty-four.

But none of those things happened. Turns out those little details make all the difference in the world.

I’ll spare you my life’s story. It’s not important. It’s a long and tragic story, just like everyone else’s. But, there is a short narrative I discovered that, though a bit cold, accurately describes my journey thus far. To be precise, it’s a poem – this one: “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson:

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

For what it’s worth, it’s worth reading a second time.

A good friend of mine introduced me to this poem about a year ago. He has a framed portrait of it on his desk at his business. I have it framed in my bathroom. It’s in front of the toilet, right at eye level, so any time someone goes number two, they come face-to-face with profundity.

Seriously though, there is a lot wrapped up in this short poem. The main idea is this:

You may not be entirely responsible for your situation. But once you realize that the only person who can change it is you, you no longer get to call yourself a victim. At that moment, you alone become responsible for either staying where you are, or for getting yourself out.

It’s about accepting the responsibility for your own life.

It’s a proposition that’s both daunting, and empowering. That’s why I like to be reminded of it often. It’s a good lens to view life through, since life is a continuous cycle of falling into holes and climbing back out. Of failing and succeeding.

Time and time again.

And like the sidewalk metaphor, life is full of sudden, unexpected drops and potential falls. You never really know what’s coming, and the scary part is trying to figure out whether you’re making your way out of an old hole, or burrowing into a new one.

Hell, it’s not just scary – on the worst days it can turn into a competitive bluffing game between confidence and doubt! It’s not a very fun game, especially when your future is hanging in the balance. On days like that, even something as simple as the wrong words at just the right time can upset the balance.

How? By giving doubt a voice. It isn’t hard to do. Even a denim-shorts wearing teenager can do it. And when doubt has a voice, it uses it to whisper things like:

“You’re failing – you just don’t know it yet.”

But here’s the thing: I really don’t think I am failing. I say this because I’ve failed before. I know what failure feels like. And if you’ve ever failed then you know what failure feels like too.

Failure feels different for everyone. Everyone’s failure is different after all. And it’s not always about jobs or money either. I was making good money when I was failing.

This is what my hole in the sidewalk was like: It felt like wasted potential, and it always felt like it was someone else’s fault. It tasted like vodka and regret…it smelled like pot and apathy. It usually sounded like grunge-metal or silence, but sometimes it sounded like the muffled sobs of a neglected wife. It was an Xbox controller and a leaky faucet. It was pride in action…it was despair in denial.   

But what about success? What does it feel like to succeed?

Is it a photo-op for a newspaper article with you shaking hands with important people while accepting an award?

No, that’s just a mile-marker for a certain kind of success. I’m talking about what success is made of. I’m talking about the countless tiny steps that lead to success. Can they be measured? Or generalized? Or codified?

I like to believe that they can.

Yes, this is the toilet-seat view of my bathroom.

I think success looks something like this:

overcoming barriers to success.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that’s the conclusion I came to after…stewing for a while. Obviously, you overcome barriers to success in order to achieve success. That’s like saying you have to climb out of a hole in the sidewalk to get out of a hole in the sidewalk.

But this is where I had my aha-moment.

We like to talk about barriers to success as if they were universal. As if everyone faced the same barriers when trying to achieve the same success.

But that just isn’t the case. Just like there are a thousand different ways to fail, there are also a thousand different ways to succeed. Each person’s success looks different, because the obstacles that stand in the way of that success are different for each individual person.

People don’t like to see it this way, but success isn’t really a competition between you and other people: it’s a competition between the version of you that succeeds and the version of you that fails.

I’m using my own life as an example here, but no matter who you are or what your goals are, you will face challenging obstacles that will test your resolve to make those goals happen. Whether or not you are up to those challenges, will determine whether or not you succeed.

So what does success look like up close? It looks like overcoming one’s barriers to success. One unique obstacle at a time.

____________________

 

That’s the realization that I took away from my brief exposure to unsolicited teenage opinion the other day.

Success doesn’t come easily. It comes with barriers to be overcome. Some of these barriers are explicit, like engineering degrees, but most are more subtle and varied. Obstacles like pride for example. What might pride look like?

Pride is an obstacle that can take the form of anything, really. But mostly, it takes the form of that one thing that we’re too good for. That one thing we say we’ll never do.

For me, it was accepting a minimum wage job at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. Before that, it took the form of living with relatives in a new city. Before that it was working a third-shift factory job to save money for a big move. Before that…

You get the idea.

That teenager (I really should just give him a name. Cliff? Clifford? Yeah, let’s go with that)…Clifford got me thinking about how I got here. In the end, he helped me realize that in spite of how things look on the outside, I’m not failing. I’m pushing through one of the many obstacles that stands between me and success.

And that is what success is all about. It’s what success looks like in real time. It’s what success looks like up close.

I’ll admit I was a little peeved at Clifford at first…and I’ve probably been a little too hard on him. No doubt he hates those ugly 608’s as much as I do.

But those shoes will get him one step closer to his own goal, whether that goal is a passing PE grade, or a more comfortable walk to the park to feed the ducks.

His shoes, much like success, just aren’t very pretty up close. I imagine that watching a bruised and bloodied person scrape and scratch their way out of a huge hole in the sidewalk isn’t a very pretty sight either.

I suppose I should be grateful to Clifford though. His words prompted me to delve into something that deserved delving. And maybe something that was worth sharing, too.

And you know what else?

He thought I looked twenty-four!

Now that’s the kind of honest compliment I’ll take from anybody, anytime.

…even from a New Balance-wearing teenager named Clifford.

What to do with Dirty Wine Glasses

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted June 14, 2019.

I washed my wine glasses today. That may not sound very exciting, but it is for me because these two wine glasses had been sitting dirty next to my kitchen faucet for over four months. Don’t get me wrong, I do 3-4 loads of dishes a week and keep my kitchen clean, so this was an exception.

The thing a lot of people don’t realize about dishes, is that for single items (like one plate, one fork, one glass, etc) it’s faster and easier to just wash them by hand in between each use without putting them away. Use a glass, set it in the sink, wash said glass the next day right before use, repeat. Simple, efficient.

This I think was the subconscious motivation for my leaving those wine glasses out. It was the first time I’d used them; they are rather nice, you see. They are Waterford crystal and normally cost a small fortune, but I happened to get mine, brand new, for a steal from a good friend. They are tall, clear, and when you clink them together, they ring like bells.

They were designed for special occasions and romantic dinners, and their first use in my care fell into both categories: the first real romantic dinner I’d had in years – the first of many, it turned out, over the next few blissful months.

So, I just didn’t see any point in washing them and putting them away just yet. They would be used again soon, after all. But for some reason they weren’t. Load after load of dishes made their way into and out of the sink, into and out of the dishwasher, into and out of the cupboards. And my fragile, crystal wine glasses just sat and collected concentric white rings of soap residue.

It got to where we hardly noticed them as they sat there. Sat, and waited it seemed. Waited through home-cooked meals and favorite movies. Through slow forest hikes and lazy Saturday outings. Through long walks, longer talks, and our dreamy Florida beach vacation.

I guess my other, less grand wine glasses needed to get used too.

It’s been a little over a month now since the sudden “I just think we’re better as friends” conversation. It’s the reason many don’t bother with nice wine glasses in the first place. Sometimes I think I bother too much.

But I like my silly wine glasses – it’s about putting out your best. Even though your best is fragile…and breaks. I think maybe I left them sitting out because they were unusable, but too valuable to just throw away. I didn’t know what to do with them. So I did nothing with them.

I suppose that over the weeks I began to feel sorry for my poor, dirty wine glasses… sitting there all alone… making church bell chimes whenever I accidentally bumped them. Maybe I felt guilty for withholding the washing they so desperately needed.

Or maybe, after all these weeks, it finally sunk in that they won’t be needed anymore. That they were just getting in the way and needed to go back to their cupboard. Back where they came from. Out of sight, and most importantly, out of mind.

But anything worth having is worth using, and anything worth using is worth taking care of. Honestly, those wine glasses deserve better. They truly are beautiful, and it wasn’t fair to leave them sitting out this long.

Once they are dry, I’ll put them back in the cupboard. Out of sight, on the top shelf, but not out of mind. I want those glasses kept in pristine condition. Not because there won’t be any more romantic dinners…

…but because there will be.

When Things Don’t Get Better

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted November 19, 2018.

So I showed up to my math class a few minutes early today (don’t tell my boss – I want him to think I have a tardiness problem), and started chatting with the girl seated behind me. As an aside, I’ve discovered something truly wonderful: people have unique stories and are supremely interesting to talk to! Who knew?? Absolutely fascinating.

Anyway, she spoke fluent Spanish, so our conversation shifted towards language and literature. She began telling me about a poem she had selected to write about for one of her English classes. It was a poem outlining reasons not to commit suicide.

Oof.

We started talking about losing hope and giving up on life and this girl seemed very sharp and engaged in the subject and lamented the teen suicide epidemic, but didn’t offer much in the way of a solution. Ever eager to share my sagely wisdom with a young budding mind, I put on my warmest “oh-you-sweet-summer-child” smile and said:

“Young people just haven’t lived long enough to realize that life is change, that nothing ever stays the same, and that in time, things will get better.”

That’s right. Put that on a glossy motivational poster, slap a kitten on it, and hang it in your locker, because this wise old owl just delivered some solid life’s advice.

“But not always. Things don’t always get better.”

she said.

Those of you who were raised properly will remember getting popped in the mouth for back-talking like that.

“No, you’re wrong” – is what I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her about the people I knew who had been to very dark places but had come back from the brink (and even from over the brink) and who were living happy lives now. I wanted to tell her that feelings of despair and hopelessness are normal parts of life, but that they don’t overshadow the happy moments life gives us.

I wanted to tell her these things, but I couldn’t… because…well, she was right. I remembered the people I’d known for whom life didn’t improve.

The people whose hearts got lost in despair and eventually found comfort in darkness. The people who accepted their predicament as their destiny. The people who lived as shells, drowning in drugs and alcohol, and wallowing in bitterness and regret. People like I used to be.

I realized that the answer to this problem wouldn’t fit into an internet meme. Or even a single conversation. Or even a book. But I did have something to tell her. Not some kind of universal truth or anything, just something I’d learned (the hard way) from my own life, and something I was only able to recognize in hindsight:

Sometimes we need saving and it’s okay to clasp an outstretched hand. Even if we can’t expect life to get better, we can get stronger. There may not be many straws left to grasp at, but the idea that we are capable of more, is a straw the carries hope with it. And hope is the only antidote to despair that I know of.

I wanted to tell her that if young people could just believe, not that their situation will magically improve, but that they themselves were capable of changing, becoming better…or even stronger – that they weren’t powerless!……..well, I didn’t really know how to finish that thought.

This all came to me rather suddenly, and since it was getting harder and harder to talk over the professor, I made a few jots in my notebook instead. I had every intention of sharing this sad little piece of unpolished, unfinished, and profoundly inapplicable knowledge with her after class.

However, since our teacher decided to try and scramble my brain by tossing logarithms in with integrals, obligating me to stay after class to inform said professor (for the nth time) that I hate the way the textbook is teaching the material, I forgot.

I saw my young classmate leave the classroom out of the corner of my eye. She had ear-buds in and looked like she had somewhere to be.

This story doesn’t really have a conclusion. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I wish I’d had the chance to tell her that I’d spoken flippantly and arrogantly. It may not deserve a kitten illustration, but it made me think, so I decided to jot, and to share.

Pink Hair and Blue Swords

Note: This is an older blog entry, originally posted August 22, 2018.

This past weekend I went to Concerts on the Dock to read (I know it’s weird but I’m trying to blend in with the local community so, you know). Anyway, I’m perched atop a stool, sipping ginger ale and enjoying my book, when this kid (probably 8 or 9) waltzes up and unhesitatingly plants herself on the stool next to mine…and starts spinning. It bears mentioning that although my stool is also capable of spinning, I am not spinning.

Now, as a frequent “public reader”, I am used to being interrupted, so it’s really no big deal. Being the warm gentleman that I am, I take a moment to glance up from my book…and deliver a deliberate 1-second cold stare across the top edge of the page before dropping my eyes and finding my place again. This communications burst catches her mid-spin and I’m worried she’s missed it and won’t understand that even though I’m ignoring her, I really wish she would just leave.

“What book are you reading?”

Dammit. As I insert my bookmark (slowly, for emphasis), I begin to describe the thesis in as few and simple terms as possible.

What follows is a conversation about Harry Potter, someone named Percy Jackson, mythological heroes wielding magic swords, video games, toy swords, real swords and at this point I’m wondering if maybe I should try my stare again. My new friend (her words – not mine) explains that much like many others at Lowe Mill, she too is an aspiring artist. She runs off, but before I even have a chance to sneak a longing look towards my book, she returns with her art supplies. It’s a large kit containing oil pastels, watercolors, colored pencils, felt markers… in short: the works.

Apparently, it’s a hand-me-down from her older brother, and upon close inspection, it’s obvious this kit has seen better days. Several of the colored pencils are worn down to short nubs. The eraser is missing. And what’s left of the watercolors is cracked and crumbling. My new artist friend informs me that she is currently putting together her portfolio and hopes to share studio space with an established artist once she has enough work to put on display. She has apparently already sold drawings to her friends at 25¢ a piece.

You might say I have a soft spot for struggling artists, so when she asks if I’d like to buy art from her, I smile, and say:

“I don’t have any cash, sorry.”

Turns out this one’s pro bono, and I get to choose what she draws me. What a kid. I suggest she draw me something from that dumb fantasy novel she wouldn’t shut up about earlier (I didn’t use those words exactly), and she gets right to work. While she labors over a new creation, I step aside to acquire some cash.

As a new art investor, and her first sponsor, I figure I can do better than 25¢ – after all, it’s important to support local artists, and she really needs new supplies (it’s for her portfolio you understand).

After overcoming some minor obstacles along the way (that missing eraser turned out to be a real problem), I am presented with a stunning still-life pencil drawing of a sword with blue sharpie flames. As she removes her newly minted masterpiece from its college-ruled spiral-bound canvas, I surprise her with not one, but three crisp $1 bills.

“This is for new art supplies”,

I tell her with a smile, but just sternly enough to let her know I’m counting on her to work hard, apply herself, and make her dream of becoming an artist a reality (of course it went without saying that I had purchased her work at twelve times the going rate and expected some return on investment). Well… someday.

“Someday this will be worth lots of money”,

I tell her. We grin at each other. She’s happy. I steal an anticipatory glance towards my book. I’m happy too. We shake hands as up-and-coming professionals and their altruistic supporters often do, and bid one another farewell.

__________________

Fast-forward ten minutes.

I’m roused from my book by the swirling of pink hair above a spinning stool. It’s none other than my young artist friend.

“Hey, you’re back”,

I say, but before I can ask her how her portfolio is coming along, she holds up a small zip-lock bag for me to inspect.

“This one’s amethyst, and this one’s rose quartz”,

she says excitedly, and I do my best to match her enthusiasm. A true polymath, this one. She tells me the story of how she just got them from a vendor down the hall. How they sell all different kinds. How they only cost $3.

The word “crestfallen” gets thrown around a lot these days.

I hide my disappointment by nodding silently to everything she’s telling me, but I don’t really hear what she’s saying anymore. I’m a fool. This is what I get for thinking with my heart. For doing something kind. This is why you don’t give kids money. Because they don’t understand the value of saving and just end up blowing it on the first shiny piece of junk that catches–

“Want to buy more of my art?”

I look at her expectant face. We both laugh. It’s a strange mix: the mirthless chuckling of a man who’s just been hoodwinked by childhood innocence, and the cautious giggling of a four-and-a-half foot mineralogist who isn’t sure why we’re laughing.

I’m suddenly aware of the odd sight this kid and I are no doubt presenting to bystanders. I tell her that it was nice meeting her and that someone is probably looking for her, and send her on her merry way.

The future is still open to this kid, with all the occupations she would no doubt excel at, from artist… to con-artist. All I know for sure, is that my cold stare needs work. And if anyone is interested in original, local art, I can point you in the right direction.

Riptide – mixed media on paper; original work signed by artist: $3 OBO

Welcome to Nihil Admirari

My name is Henry, but that’s not important.

I am someone who observes from outside. Someone who listens intently, and thinks deeply.

I am usually silent. I don’t like to hear myself speak. But writing is different, so I decided to use this medium to share intermittent thoughts on my reality. They are of little worth, of course, but I found that I needed a place to put them.

This is that place.

It is a place of thoughts and impressions. It is also a deposit for musings and ideas. It is a kind of window. But mostly, and like all things bounded within human knowledge, it is a story. It is a cold story, and a warm story. It is a barbed story, and a broken story. It is fundamentally incomplete.  

Nihil Admirari is my journal. 

Welcome to the mind of an observer.

Welcome to Nihil Admirari.