Author Archives: Erik

About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages."

if i can do it today

if i can do it today - The Best Advice So Far - Barrel of Monkeys monkeys forming a chain across a blue sky

I was a skinny kid with a big butt.

Just calling it like it is.

By skinny, I mean that I’ve been five-foot-nine since eight grade—haven’t grown an inch—and yet, when I graduated high school, I had a 26-inch waist and weighed 105 lbs.

Alas, a disproportionate amount of that sleight weight was carried in the caboose.

For a too-long stretch growing up, I ripped the tags off all my pants, picking the threads apart stitch by stitch with my teeth if need be, just to get rid of the blasted thing. Why, you ask? Well, regular clothes never fit me. And we didn’t have money for alterations. So my mother wound up getting me a “special” brand of “slacks” that, to my recollection, seemed to only make wide-wale corduroys in burnt orange or puce green. But the tag and slogan were the real kick in the pants:

 

HIMALAYAS

For Full-Seated Boys

 

Feel free to cringe aloud as a show of solidarity at the awkwardness and indignity of it all.

(And doesn’t it just figure that burnt orange wide-wale cords are now considered fashionable, all these years later?)

In the 80’s, I discovered the magical properties of mouse and a hair dryer. So at least my hair was big enough to balance out top and bottom.

Still, the voluminous do did nothing to stem the comments and “nicknames” people attributed to me on account of my backside. Basketball Buns. Rhino Rear. Or the more straightforward Big Butt.

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about it was “Don’t worry about your big butt. Everyone likes them in New York.”

Alas, the closest I would come to New York for many years was driving through on my way to college—where the coach for my freshman gym class wouldn’t allow me to do the one-mile timed run, because my body fat percentage was less than 3% and he feared a law suit.

Bobby was one of my early college roommates. Bobby had a feathered mullet like Don Johnson. He was also the first person I’d ever met who was a serious “weight lifter.” I remember lying on my bunk one day when Bobby came back from the gym. He peeled off his string tank top and started “making muscles” in the mirror.

Turn. Flex. Make tough face. Shrug. Turn. Flex.

I liked Bobby, but this peacocking irked me. (In retrospect, I wonder if it was mostly due to the fact that I was the skinny big-butted kid and he was the movie star.) Rather than scoff, I simply asked him about it. “Hey, Bobby, I’ve seen guys flex at themselves mirrors before but never known any of them well enough to ask why. So… why?”

I’ll never forget Bobby’s response. He didn’t stop his flexing. He didn’t seem the least bit irritated, just took it in stride. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “you write music and compose it on your keyboard, right?”

“Right…”

“And I’ve seen you work and work on a song that sounds fine to me. But you keep tweaking it. Listening to it again. Changing this one note or volume or sound or drum hit. Because it’s your song and so you know it best. You know what you want it to sound like in every detail. Well, my body and muscles are my song. I might look fine to you. But I know what I’m looking for, whether everything is even or not, proportioned, weird looking or whatever. So I’m ‘listening’ to my body in the mirror and then I know what needs fixing when I ‘compose’ my workouts.”

It was one of the first times I remember being aware that I’d judged someone unfairly. Bobby was no “dumb jock.” He knew what he was doing and expressed it eloquently.

In fact, the way he answered that question caused me to follow up with, “Would you mind if I… went to the gym with you sometime and tried it out?”

And so, at the age of 18, I swallowed my pride and shuffled my skinny-big-butt self behind Bobby into a gym full of clanging metal and grunting and sweaty socks smell and people I wanted to be. And I picked up a dumbbell and put it down again.

Bobby was unbelievably patient with me. A good teacher. Protective even. He introduced me to people I never would have thought were like me at all. And I made many friends who all seemed to make it their personal project to get the big-butt beginner buff.

I went irregularly at first, but I stuck with it. And by the time I graduated two-and-some years later, I thought I’d really arrived when I tipped the scale at…

… 112 lbs soaking wet.

But it was a different 112 lbs somehow. My butt didn’t look quite so much like the Himalayas in context of the rest of me.

I was sold. And ever since, I’ve continued to hit the gym, pick stuff up and put it down. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. And while I still haven’t grown an inch in height, I’m now generally in a weight range considered “borderline obese” on the BMI chart, even though my body fat is still quite low.

Yay, me.

Before I lose anyone who isn’t a gym-goer, this post isn’t about working out. I use that only as an example.

There are things each of us enjoys doing, things we’ve worked hard at, invested time in, grown to love and depend on.

For me, in addition to working out, I’ve studied languages for a lifetime.

I’ve played the piano, sung, composed music and recorded original songs.

I’ve mentored hundreds of teens and young people.

I write (obviously).

Your “thing” might be gardening. Or painting. Or dance.

Playing chess. Jogging. Surfing.

I’m talking about pursuits that take time. Skill. Endurance. Dedication. Brain space.

Things we get good at. Take pride in. Things we become known for.

Maybe even things that have become integral to our identity, a core part of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Are you with me now?

Keep your “thing” in mind as you continue…

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what if

“How are you?”

“How’s it going?”

“What’s new?”

While I’ve often had full-blown, soul-bearing conversations result from my posing these simple prompts, the typical range of expected replies remains fairly limited:

“Good, and you?”

“Eh, you know…”

“Not much. You?”

I suppose these exchanges serve some purpose in social settings, though I tend to be aware of the ironic distance evident in these greetings. That is, I find it odd that we ask how someone is if we don’t actually want to know. Most often, unfortunately, my observation is that these exchanges are an obligatory nicety we feel compelled to offer as a prelude before getting someone to do what we want them to do (e.g., ring out my order, buy this car, stop talking to me, etc.).

But that’s all a discussion for another time (and, in fact, one I’ve talked about often in previous posts as well as in The Best Advice So Far).

That said, of all such programmed responses to “How are you?” my least favorite is the seemingly ubiquitous reply of “SSDD.” It’s not that it offends me. It’s that it makes me sad. Sad to think that people choose to keep living unfulfilling, uninteresting, monotonous—unhappy—lives, day after day, ad infinitum.

Yet recently, someone asked how I was, and I found myself thinking and responding in just about this way—not in exact choice of words, but certainly in sentiment. It surprised me. And yet it felt like the most honest expression of where I was in that moment.

Back in 2011, my first year of blogging, I wrote a post following a period of “sleep walking” which had lasted about a month. It was weird. I didn’t feel like myself. But I at least felt like I was a semblance of that self. Then I woke up.

Halfway through 2015, life upended again with a systemic mystery ailment that came with a wildly spreading rash, incessant itching night and day, extreme fatigue, loss of sleep, digestive issues and more. It lasted over a year-and-a-half before I finally self-diagnosed the issue and returned to normal living.

Six months later, by June of 2017, the rash was gone but I still couldn’t shake the fatigue. Willing to try almost anything, I took a black pill that touted promises of natural energy from rare and exotic sounding herbs—but which instead quite literally nearly ended my life.

Still, I pulled through. Got life back on track, feeling positive and focused.

In September of last year, however, I got whacked again. I alluded to this in my last post. But at that time, I couldn’t bring myself to write about the issue, since I was still very much in its thrall. I’m ready now.

In 2018, I began writing my next book in earnest; and by the end of my August vacation to Florida, I was about 70% finished. I returned refreshed, ready not only to finish the book within another 30 days, but to expand into some new ventures that had me feeling excited for the fall.

However, the very next day, all of that momentum ended.

I woke up with red, itchy, stinging eyes. At first, I thought it might have been from all the travel the day before. Or from my last dip in the hot tub or pool in Florida. Or maybe the beginning of seasonal allergies.

By the next day, I awoke to find both eyes sealed shut with goop. The itching and stinging had turned to burning and pain. My vision was blurred. This was more than allergies.

Still, I figured it was probably just conjunctivitis, maybe something I’d picked up on the plane ride home. No fun, but not the end of the world. In fact, I still had some Ofloxacin in the medicine cabinet from a short bout I’d had the year before. I started the drops, sure I’d be fine in a few days.

Three days later, however, my eyes were a painful mess. I could no longer see normally.

I went to the local pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, hoping for something stronger. Maybe I’d developed a tolerance to the Ofloxacin. I was started on a new eye drop.

Things got worse.

Within a few more days, the whole shape of my eyes had changed from the swelling.

I saw my primary doctor. He immediately referred me to an ophthalmologist. New meds, both oral and drop, were prescribed.

Within a week, the pain was so bad that I was balling up wash cloths, pressing them to both eyes and tying them in place with a belt. I have a very high pain tolerance, but it brought even me to pitiful tears and whimpering. Sometime in the night, I fell asleep. I woke with the right side of my face completely sealed to the pillow case, as if I’d lain in glue. I couldn’t open the other eye, even with help from my fingers. I felt my way to the bathroom blind, still clutching the pillow to my face, where I had to use warm water, little by little, to peel myself from the pillow and my eyelids apart. Even with that, my vision was reduced to a blur through narrow slits. And twenty four hours a day, as best I can describe, it now felt like someone had taken a handful of fiberglass filaments and blown them directly into my eyes.

I used ice packs. I lay on the bathroom floor, dousing my eyes with eye wash like you’d do for a chemical splash in a lab. Nothing made it better.

Four medications later, the ophthalmologist noticed ulcers in my eyes.

He transferred me to a corneal specialist who poked and dug and scraped. Another month, and four or five new medications later, and nothing had gotten better.

I did my best to put my own “best advice” into action:

“You always have a choice.”

“Being miserable is a choice.”

“Practice positivity.”

But even little choices were becoming increasingly more difficult to make. I could no longer read—computer or books. I couldn’t see to write. I couldn’t do graphic design projects. Driving was difficult at best and largely reserved for getting to and from the doctors. Still, from within these limitations and through the pain, I kept re-centering, looking for the ways I could still choose happiness over misery or complaining.

But then two months passed with no solution in sight.

Three months.

Four…

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up

the best advice so far: up

I’m not a film critic—at least that’s not the point of this blog, though I do seem to have snuck a few reviews in from time to time (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Cinderella, and a few others) where they illustrate a best-advice-so-far kind of observation.

Well, as it turns out, it’s another movie—Mary Poppins Returns—that has me posting again for the first time in six months.

Why the absence? Well, I’m actually going to save that for perhaps another post. My mood is too cheery at the moment to relive the trials of the last half year through words. So allow me to “trip a little light fantastic” for now and simply tell you where my thoughts have been since Mary popped back into town.

And for those yet to see this gem of a movie, I’ll be careful not to drop any major spoilers.

Again, life’s been rather topsy-turvy (or, as Meryl Streep’s wonderfully quirky character puts it, “turning turtle”) since late August. On New Year’s Eve, I came down with a stomach bug on top of things—one more thing beyond my control. Yet I did have choices to make nonetheless (because, of course, “You always have a choice.”)

As it happened, I decided to go out with friends. After all, I could sit in a comfortable recliner at a move theater with a stomachache just as well as I could with it at home. And so it was that we headed off to see Mary Poppins Returns.

Now, I’ll admit—I was a little skeptical. The 1964 film starred the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. I understand that it ran in theaters not merely for months, but for years. And the profits on this one film alone were enough to have allowed Walt Disney to purchase and develop the Florida property that today is Disney World.

How could a sequel released 54 years later ever measure up?

Well, color me surprised.

Not five minutes in, my spirits were already lifted, with “nowhere to go but up.”

Yes, the characters were on point. Every song remarkably managed to capture the spirit of the original. There are show-stopping dance numbers. There are plenty enough Easter eggs and references to the first film for trivia buffs. There are even a number of cameo appearances that are sure to delight Disney fans.

But none of these are what I want to write about here.

The truth is that the movie connected with me on a deeper level. It got me thinking. It restored a sense of purpose amidst hardship. And it inspired action—including breaking the blogging dearth.

Let me share just a few of those personal takeaways. Whether you see the movie or not, I’m hoping these reflections will encourage some of you who may be feeling stuck at present.

Perspective is Everything

The scene opens in the wee morning hours on a foggy, wet London street. Ominous clouds hang overhead as far as the eye can see. Everything is grimy and dark and cramped. Oily smoke rises from concrete factories. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

Have you ever been in a bad place so long—whether with health or finances, career or responsibilities, relationships or loss or fear—that you’ve forgotten what life was ever like before? …

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twenty-minute vacation

The Best Advice So Far: The 20-Minute Vacation - sunglasses reflecting palm trees over tropical waters

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even though

The Best Advice So Far - even though - black ink spreading out through clear liquid

I was talking with a friend recently. I’ll call him Ralph here. Ralph’s relationship with his brother has been on the outs of late, and he was trying to understand what had happened and what he might be able to do at this point to improve the relationship.

I asked a series of questions. This revealed that the rift had started when Ralph had voiced his stand (e.g., opinions, religious views, moral position and, dare I say, judgment) on some of his brother’s recent personal decisions.

I asked Ralph, “How do you think you’d handle it if you were in the mix with a flamboyant gay guy?”

At first, Ralph looked bewildered, like he thought I hadn’t heard him clearly or that I was having a flashback to my famed Amnesia Episode of 1999. But trusting that I usually have a point to my rabbit trails, he answered. “Well, a few years ago, I actually was in the mix with a flamboyant gay man that I needed to interact with at an annual event. And we got along great.” It was clear from the phrasing that this was one of very few such people Ralph had ever known, if not the sole example.

I continued, “So, would you say it would feel comfortable for you to use the words ‘even though’ in describing your relationship with that person? For instance, could you easily complete this sentence, ‘I liked the guy even though…’?”

Ralph straightened up, answering quickly and confidently. “Yes, absolutely. I feel comfortable saying that I liked him even though he was gay, flamboyant and married to a man.”

The slump to his shoulders told me that he wasn’t expecting what I said next.

“I thought that might be the case, Ralph. And that’s a problem…

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unplug (kindly)

The Best Advice So Far - unplug (wall socket extension with too many wires plugged in)

Let me say up front that this post may not be for you. Who is it for then? Well, it’s for people like me:

  • who love people and whose natural tendency is to talk with and listen to others
  • who tend to have high interpersonal output most of the time
  • who sometimes find themselves running on fumes
  • who need ways to unplug without resorting to becoming a recluse

If this sounds like you, read on.

There’s a funny thing about me. (Well, there’s a list, but I’ll tell you about one of them.) It’s actually the cause of much astonishment and incredulous shaking of heads in my circles.

People talk to me.

I mean they really talk to me.

I don’t know why exactly, but I could be the ninth person in the checkout line at a convenience store and every interaction in front of me will be some form of predictable script:

A: “How are you?”

B: “Good ‘n’ you?”

A: “Fine thanks. Is there anything else I can get for you today?”

B: “No that’s all, thanks.”

Not so when I reach the counter. I feel like I technically say the same things: “How are you today?” and the like. But the responses are anything but predictable. Let me give you an example in context.

Just last week, I didn’t go into two different convenience stores I otherwise frequent, for the sheer fact that I was unusually busy and pressed for time. Oh, sure, I had time to run in and grab a protein shake and run out. But that just isn’t the way things go, and I know it. A “quick” stop into such a place might have me leaving an hour or more later.

As it happened, however, I noticed that a couple of tires were running low on air. And the only place I knew where I could fill them at that moment…was one of the aforementioned convenience stores I was purposefully avoiding. Still, I needed the air.

I figured it was OK, since I didn’t actually need to go into the store in order to use the air pump. So off I headed on smushy tires for what I couldn’t image being more than a five-minute ordeal.

Well, the air pump requires four quarters. And while I have a large bag full of change sitting right in the armrest of my car, do you think I could find a measly four quarters?

:: rummage rummage rummage ::

Nope.

Alas, only three to be found. I’d have to go in.

Well, no sooner had the sliding apertures parted to bathe me in harsh fluorescent light than the twenty-something store clerk spotted me. And despite the small line waiting to check out, he dashed around the counter toward me, arms spread, joyfully shouting my name: E-r-i-i-i-i-i-k!

This culminated in a bear hug, accompanied by some variety of what I can only call “snuggle noises.”

After releasing me, he jogged back to continue ringing out the waiting line of customers. Soon, the queue had dwindled and I was ready to ask for my quarters for the air pump. (You do remember the air pump, right?)

“So anyway…” the clerk started in, as if we’d only momentarily been distracted from an in-depth conversation to which he was now returning. “I’m going to visit my family out of state soon. I haven’t seen them in a while. But I really need to, because I’ve been depressed. You remember my transgender ex-roommate, right? Well, I don’t know if you know this, but she literally tried to kill me. I still think I’m dealing with all of that drama…”

Thing is, this type of interaction isn’t especially unusual for me. In fact, it’s the norm. Again, why that is, I can’t say exactly. It just is. And so typically, I’d listen and ask questions—and leave an hour later with my quarters.

This particular night, however, two out-of-the-ordinary responses were at work inside of me:

1. While the information the clerk was divulging to me wasn’t the least bit funny, I had the most overpowering urge to burst out laughing at the relative absurdity of the situation from anyone else’s perspective.

2. I realized that I was not only too busy to get into a long conversation at the moment, I was also low on mental energy. So I felt a tinge of impeding panic at the thought of having my limited reserves tapped by either a deep and lengthy conversation or by the energy required to tactfully extricating myself from one.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here by telling you just yet how I managed to leave two minutes later with my quarters. But some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you?

Please don’t get me wrong. I have a lot to say in my book The Best Advice So Far on the topic of “ducking” (i.e., changing your course in life to avoid awkward interactions with people from the past). What I’m talking about here is not “ducking.” I really like the people I interact with at “my places.” I enjoy the sense of community that I’ve invested in building. Ironically, that’s part of the problem.

One of the main topics of this blog and the accompanying book is ways to engage with the other people around you. To go a little deeper. To see people as people and not merely as background noise to our own busy lives.

However, the reality is that there are also times when we need to step back. Sometimes, you just have to take the gracious out for the sake of self-preservation.

As Dib and Holly so often reprise in the words of their mom, Carlotta

“Save yourself.”

In The Best Advice So Far, I go into a fair amount of detail exploring techniques for expanding upon a conversation. It stands to reason, then, that doing the opposite will work to keep things short when necessary. Today, I’d like to offer four strategies for disengaging, while still treating others with kindness.

*****

Unplug Strategy #1: Keep things “closed.”

Open-ended questions have…

 

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peepers

The Best Advice So Far - peepers - woodland wetlands in moonlight

Snow fell well into spring this year. So whenever a day’s temperate now peaks 50°, there’s a palpable buzz in the air that feels more like summer. As far as the eye can see, sidewalks teem with bikers and joggers, dog walkers and pullers of little red wagons.

By the time essential work wound down this past Friday, I found myself facing a laundry list of domestic tasks that “needed” my attention, not the least of which was, in fact, laundry. But heeding my own advice to prioritize time for stillness, and with the extended hours of daylight beckoning, I made the choice to head out to the park for an evening stroll.

It was the right choice.

As sunset gave way to twilight, I heard them.

The peepers.

At first, they were timid, tentative, sporadic. But the first bold few lent their courage to more, until the entire perimeter of marshy woodlands was alive with their cadence.

I wondered how many others in the park around me even noticed. Or, I should say, took notice. There’s a difference—a choice that draws us beyond vague awareness to intentional appreciation and further exploration.

Well, speaking of “further exploration,” I mentioned back in January that my theme for 2018 would be to further explore ideas I’d already covered in my book The Best Advice So Far from a different angle. Here’s one of the shortest pieces of advice in the book:

Do something new every day.

My friend Chad was the very first person I blogged about back in 2011. He now owns his own (fun and uniquely people-centered) company, called We!. And he’s got his own spin on that advice. Whether he’s speaking at a camp, college or corporate conference, Chad’s famous for putting it this way:

Follow your natural curiosity.

It’s even shorter than mine—just four words—but it’s so packed with potential life change that I dare say it’s the cornerstone concept every single time Chad speaks or facilitates.

Join me back at the park, surrounded by those peepers.

I stopped. I noticed. I took notice.

As a child exploring the acres of dense woods and wetlands behind my grandparents’ house, I’d seen the peepers up close and personal many times. Hundreds upon hundreds of them lining the marshy edges of some little swamp—popping up like corn kernels in hot oil.

But I realized that night in the park that, while I’ve heard peepers each year and cherished their songs until the very last of them quiets in the fall, I’d not ventured out to where they were in three-and-a-half decades or more.

And so, follow my natural curiosity I did.

I veered from the packed-dirt path and off into the trees, down a hill, crunching through a mat of dead leaves and twigs only recently released from the last of winter’s snow. Bits of green poked through—a wayward crocus here, a fiddlehead fern there—just visible in the last waning light of dusk.

A mere two yards in and—all at once…

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