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Sunday
Mar272016

What I Think When You Hit on Me at the Gym

Me, stretching on the floor preworkout, as Ramona tries to smother me. Though you can't see what I'm wearing, you can trust her judgement in trying to put me out of my misery. June 2015.

Anyone who tries to flirt with me—in any setting—who has any intention of an actual pick-up needs to make his approach almost comically obvious. Take (or not, as I didn’t) the guy who hit on me in the parking lot while I was leaving the gym this week:

Him: “Beautiful car.”

Me, navigating out of a tight spot, windows down: “Thanks.”

Him: “Not as lovely as the woman in it, though.”

Me, thinking how nice a random act of complimentary kindness feels on a Monday morning: “Aww. Thanks!”

Long pause, during which I wiggle my car back and forth. I still haven’t thought to get a good look at the dude.

Him: “Maybe I could take you to lunch sometime?”

And yes, dear reader, it still took a couple seconds after this exchange for me to realize he had intentions beyond simply making pleasantries and exhibiting patience while I got out of the way.

In the scene above, I wore ratty maroon gym shorts, a gray tank top, a forest-green towel-as-cape, fuchsia sneakers with holes, and sweaty hair standing up a la Bart Simpson.

No one could call me an attractive exerciser.

Even after long road races for which I feel pride of accomplishment, I don’t buy the overpriced promotional photos. Actually, I try to position my race bibs so that the photographers can’t capture the identifier by which they’d horrify me via e-mail with visual evidence of what I look like exercising.

I can’t possibly imagine on any given workout day how someone could find me alluring.

Should I feel flattered that someone likes me in a sweaty, mismatched, frumpy, disheveled state, seeing it as an opportunity to wow him in the future? Yet if he likes me at the gym, will he like me not at the gym? What about a nasty gym look appeals to this man? And what does liking a nasty gym look say about him? Should I question this guy’s mental health? His judgement?

However—

I met my last serious long-term relationship in an early-morning running group. (Yes, this means we met sweaty in the dark, which sounds a lot sexier than the reality.)

So maybe I should give fitness locales a little more credence.

Given how much time I spend in gyms and on running routes, meeting someone in one of these spots would probably make lifestyle-matching somewhat easier.

Yet wouldn’t this mean I need to put more care into my workout façade? And I don’t want to spend the time, effort, or money to look good during a workout. I just want to work out.

A conundrum.

Where did you meet your spouse, partner, significant other?

Saturday
Mar122016

That Time I Bought a Mattress

The first night with our new mattress, Ramona decided she preferred the old pillows. Even a dog doesn't fall for the hype, people. March 2016.

I don’t know about you people, who must buy mattresses weekly to keep the sheer volume of mattress stores in business, yet I’d only bought mattresses twice in my entire life.

My first personally purchased mattress came from IKEA in London, where I’d relocated without any furniture (or mattresses). I bought my second mattress when I moved from London to Houston (also without furniture or mattresses). Unbelievably, for reasons other than mattress purchases or use, I made this second mattress purchase nearly fifteen years ago.

I’d still not have recently purchased my third mattress if I hadn’t made the now-questionable decision to dump my old guest-room mattress, which came from a friend’s then-new wife. She no longer needed it once they married, so she’d had it in storage for a while when I moved to town. So who knows its age. I would ask her, if she and my friend hadn’t long since divorced.

When I made the decision to get rid of the old guest-room mattress, I thought buying a new mattress would cost a few hundred dollars. And I figured, without buying into the mattress-industry’s marketing-manufactured hype about purchasing a new bed set every eight years, a new mattress with all today’s vaunted mattress technology (memory foam! sleep numbers!) might feel nice in the master bedroom, with my current mattress relegated to the bedroom down the hall.

And then I went to a mattress store.

Unsurprisingly, the only other person in the store sat behind a desk in the back. Again, I call this unsurprising because I hold firm (no mattress pun intended, but I’ll just leave it there) in questioning the validity of most mattress stores. The world doesn’t need more mattress outlets than ATMs. Especially with most furniture shops and department stores also selling, you follow, mattresses. Can you say “racket?” Maybe “front?”

Byron put up with me nicely. I give him extra credit, in fact, for staying unflapped even after I barked over his greeting that I wouldn’t buy anything at all that night, not whatsoever, and that I wouldn’t even make a decision or hint at one. Get that, Byron? Back off, Byron.

Aside: I hate to have someone sell to me. Yet I sell to people. Let’s not muse on what a psychoanalyst would say.

I learned that unless I wanted what effectively would feel like a cot, I needed to spend four figures.

And lest I think a four-figure mattress top-of-the-line when it comes to mattresses, Byron walked me to a showpiece that cost a solid five figures. Actually, I think the thing topped out with all bells and whistles at about $17,000.

Seventeen. Thousand. Dollars.

In other words, buying a mattress may require the same investment as a buying a decent used car.

Now, everyone with whom I have shared my shock—including Byron—wants to tell me that I spend eight hours a day on a mattress, so what seems like an unreasonable expense actually makes sense.

Clever. The mattress store people got to you, didn’t they?

Let’s dissect this fallacy:

  • The vast majority of mattresses that ranked above the quality level of camping cots felt much the same after a brief prone period. The only difference came from the increasing awkwardness of lying there, work-clothes-clad, on half a dozen mattresses in succession while a Polo-shirted salesperson stood nearby. Paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more for one mattress over another above the cot level seems crazy, by this measure.
  • I will sleep for the majority of the eight hours I may spend on this mattress each day. While sleeping, I lose consciousness. Therefore, these eight hours don’t compose time spent fully aware of the amazing experience of lying on a ridiculously expensive, automobile-level investment. In a car, I can at least with full consciousness (one would hope) experience the joy of driving.
  • The majority of the human race across the globe sleeps on pallets on hard surfaces such as, yes, the ground. This includes the Japanese, who traditionally sleep on mats on the floor. Note that research often lauds the Japanese for having one of the healthiest cultures on the planet.
  • Lest you argue that, majority-of-humans and Japanese aside, sleeping on volumes of fabric, polymers, foam, springs, and what-have-you feels better, some studies indicate that sleeping on the ground reduces pain and discomfort. Further, no reliable science has found that mattresses improve health and wellness.
  • Further, experts say that humans sit too much, and have equated sitting and smoking. Sleeping in one of these new-fangled beds that crunches the body into a slightly more horizontal seated position for a lot of extra money seems ill-advised.

After much griping and incredulity spread far and wide to friends, coworkers, and even a couple strangers at a business event, I bought a mattress. My purchase-experience takeaways:

  • For a long stretch before and after the purchase, buying a mattress will cause emotional distress.
  • You will not feel excited by the major-capital-expense purchase of a new mattress, unlike how you might feel after acquiring a new-to-you car.
  • Shock, awe, and begging may get you a few concessions and a freebie or two from the salesperson, who wants to avoid post-traumatic-stress disorder from dealing with your mattress-purchasing psychological fallout.

I wish I had more heartening advice.

How transpired your last mattress-purchase?

Monday
Jan252016

The Best Books I Read in 2015

A hallway line-up of the books I read in 2015--good, bad, and boring. January 2016.

Time for my annual review of the best books I read in the year past, following the tradition of my posts in 2013 and 2014. (Have I really had this blog for so long?)

Aside: I read in The New York Times that Bill Gates has this same practice on his blog. What excellent company.

In 2014, I didn’t read as many books as I typically manage in a year, and this year my reading fared even worse. My 2015 total: A measly thirty-six.

Partly, I blame having taken off only one day in the entirety of 2015 (my birthday). As I read a lot while on vacation, a lack of time away from the grind meant a lack of reading time. And as the grind this year felt particularly intense, even day-to-day reading opportunities suffered.

I will say, though, that I enjoyed what I read in 2015 a great deal more than I enjoyed 2014’s selection. Last year, I scratched together a list of quality recommendations. This year, I struggled to pare them down. How did I get a better set of books in 2015? Perhaps I’ve improved at reading between the lines in reviews and not getting too enticed by attractive covers in book store displays. Though I can probably just credit luck.

As with every year, the books I rate as favorites in my end-of-year review caught in my consciousness, made me feel, made me think, and prompted me to start discussions. As I looked at the year’s stack, it surprised me to see how many books I’d recently read that I’d already mostly forgotten. If I can’t remember much about the book only months after I read it, I won’t rank it as a favorite.

Interestingly, despite such a heavy year, I can classify none of my favorite reads as “light.” I read plenty of so-definable books, yet none made the “best” list, even if I’d still recommend them. (So if you want pointers for a less intense read, let me know.)

Here goes the 2015 best-books list:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Didion may have hoped to discover a back way through grief in chronicling the twelve months after her husband died. Alas, this text affirms that no shortcut exists. Didion’s gem of a book—brief, with each page a gut-punch—testifies to grief’s harrowing journey and the scars it leaves. Even so, it assures readers that time assuages pain from even the worst traumas.
  • The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. At times, this book felt like a slog. A former slave narrates, and his tale provides a painstaking step-by-step accounting of adventures with legendary abolitionist John Brown. Yet the end, even with historical record making the facts predictable, surprised me. The power of this book’s message goes beyond the injustices of slavery into the value and importance of even the most seemingly outlandish quests.
  • The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. In near stream-of-consciousness fashion, Ferrante details a woman’s mental and physical unhinging when her beloved husband confesses his infidelity and wish to leave the marriage. In keeping with the main character’s frantic distress, Ferrante’s novel reads at a fever pace. This resonant story captures perfectly a woman in emotional crisis.
  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Each short story in this volume—all snapshots of a military perspective during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—shook me. At each tale's close, I wanted to stop everything and process what I’d read. Yet I couldn’t put the book down—the stories compelled me too much; I felt too hungry for more. I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Klay’s book, even months later.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs roomed with Peace during their time as undergraduates at Yale; after Peace’s murder in the illegal drug trade, Hobbs wrote this book in an attempt to understand how someone with a route out of a rough life ended up right back in the thick of it. This book explores the complex forces working against changing lives—and it still chews at my consciousness.

I won’t know if any of these texts made my all-time favorites list for years, when I can look back on them from a greater distance and with broader context. But from where I sit, months after closing their covers, I’d go beyond simply recommending to frankly encouraging you to read any—if not all—of them.

Which books did you love most in 2015?

Saturday
Jan022016

I Made It: Bring on 2016

Proof-of-life photo. Somehow, I managed to survive 2015. October 26, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Maybe every year is peculiar in its own way. A lot happens in twelve months.

Yet, unlike many other years I can remember, 2015 had soaring highs and lows. Amid a lot of intense, nearly overpowering craziness in my personal and professional life, I stood witness with all of you to mind-boggling insanity in the world near and far, from race relations traumas to the rise and entrenchment of terrorist groups.

Goodbye, 2015.

Each year, I set goals. In this process, I review the year past to look for successes and failures and to reset my thinking for the upcoming twelve months.

In review, working through my professional goals in 2015 took more bandwidth than I’d anticipated. Further, I had a few adverse-event surprises (maybe I’ll write about them someday, but not now, not in this post). Together, this double whammy knocked me off course in almost all life facets.

Including writing. I didn’t get back to it. At all. Not on this blog—obviously—or elsewhere. I can’t quite articulate why. I lost my writing mojo to intense stress and the concomitant mental exhaustion. Even today, it hasn’t quite come back.

Of course, we can only plan for so much. We can point our course in one direction and strive our best to head that way, despite buffeting from winds, weather, and sea monsters.

Although I didn’t reach my destination for 2015, I made good strides in some areas—progress I wouldn’t have made without a general direction in which to strive. I learned quite a bit in the process. I made some positive personal and professional changes based on my experiences. And though I got knocked down, I didn’t get knocked out.

And amid all the ridiculousness, the good and the bad and the crazy, some truly beautiful things emerged. As they will, when you pay attention.

Let’s focus on the good things.

  • The People. Circumstances in 2015 forced me to watch my friends and family step up in times of need—and I felt astounded and humbled by each person who provided physical and moral support. The people in your life influence your physical wellbeing, your happiness, your contentment, your fulfillment, and your personal and professional growth. Choose your associates wisely; all of us have limited time to invest in building relationships. And please: Tell and show the people in your life what you value and appreciate about them. We never have enough time to say and do the things we’d like to say and do.

  • The Work. I’ve nearly completed some large professional operational changes. I have a few finishing touches ahead, yet the heaviest lifting is complete. As with all changes, I wish I’d made these a long time ago. You know how it goes. Hindsight, 20-20, and so on. Having it mostly done, even later than I’d have liked, feels really, really good.

  • Service. At midyear, The Johns Hopkins University named me the chair of its Second Decade Society, one of the boards of its school of arts and sciences. I’ve had an incredibly rewarding experience that has deepened my appreciation for the institution. I’ve met some amazing current students, faculty, administrators, and staff; I’ve built connections with incredible fellow alumni; and I have learned more about my alma mater than I feel I’d known even as a student. As a result, I’ve gained far more than I’ve given, even though I’d intended the opposite upon accepting the role.

  • Ramona. The two of us? Still a dynamic duo. We beat the doctors’ timelines. Maybe she sensed that in this challenging year, I couldn’t face her departure; she rallied well after we sorted her medications. Yet I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that she will die, just like all of us. And I don’t think I ever will.

So what does 2016 hold?

Let’s hope for goodness and beauty. For us all.

This 2016, I’ll focus on loving more, experiencing more, deepening more. In the last few years, I’ve grown immensely professionally through some rough knocks. In 2016, I will stay the course to carry through the initiatives I put into play at work in 2015. Yet, now that the intense generative effort has gained the momentum needed to assume a life of its own, I’ll take time to nurture myself, experience a little more of the world, and appreciate ever more deeply the amazing people I’m lucky to know.

And maybe, in the process, I’ll find my way back to writing. Even a little.

Tell me: How does 2016 look for you?

P.S.—For all of you who read this and engage me in dialogue as a result, thank you. You enrich my world.

Friday
Jul032015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

The full stack of 38 books I read from start to finish in 2014. January 1, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Typically, I read voraciously. Though not the fastest reader, preferring to think through the writing, plot, and message as I go and for a bit upon closing the cover—I always have a book underway and usually manage to get through one or two a week. (Not having a television helps. Try it.)

In 2014, I didn’t read nearly as extensively as usual. Whether of the positive or negative kind, things kept getting in the way. I read a mere thirty-eight books.

Yet, though I didn’t keep my usual pace, I enjoyed the books I read in 2014 more than I enjoyed the texts I encountered in 2013. (And no, reading less did not mean that, therefore, I appreciated each read more.)

In addition to the books I mentioned in my post about my favorite reads from the first half of the year—all of which I’ll still stand by as worthwhile reads—I’ve listed below some of my other truly memorable books from 2014. These books all stuck with me in one way or another, well after I put them down, popping to mind while on a run, or grocery shopping, or in conversation with a friend—even long after I’d started and finished other texts:

  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: Maybe this coming-of-age and growing-up epic resonated with me because the ensemble cast shares my generation. Regardless, Wolitzer has done an amazing job of clearly defining each character, and the story arc feels beautiful and heartbreaking—just like life. 
  • The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman: A slim yet powerful volume about how cascades of actions and inactions take a couple down paths of no return. An exploration into the complexity of “right” and “wrong.”
  • Love All, by Callie Wright: This book meditates on marriage, family, and interpersonal intimacy and the truth that try as we might—and believe what we will—we each live in an individual box with sharp edges and opaque walls. We never stop growing up, and the attendant growing pains never cease.
  • Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson: I hated the movie “Groundhog Day.” (Yes, I know it has a cult following. I don’t do cults.) Only at the behest of a vehement neighbor did I read this book—which seems to endlessly restart, especially in the first third—about the many ways a life can play. The book contemplates the myriad small choices we make each day that influence our lives, the lives of others, and even the course of history.
  • The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan: The cover of this book prompted a friend’s incredulity about my reading “chick lit.” Yes, the book centers on the diamond industry—and the marketing of engagement rings in particular. Yet the setting (yep, pun intended) allows the author to muse on the culture of marriage through a suite of female characters, all of whom have made disparate choices that have equally disparate conclusions. The common thread? A single career ad woman named Frances Gerety who made the diamond “forever.”

As with the best of anything, each of these books has a flaw somewhere. (Oh hey. Another diamond pun.) Some of these novels had more than one problem—and some had issues bigger than others. Yet they all succeeded. We overrate perfection—which often sucks all the beauty and flavor from art and from life.

Did any make my all-time favorites list?

I won’t know until more time passes. For a book to rank as a favorite, I have to enjoy reading it while feeling mentally and psychologically challenged by its content. An all-time favorite has to give me a fun read while also provoking thought long after I’ve put it down—with bonus points for prompting me to close the back cover and hold it in my hands for a few moments, sad that I’ve finished the book.

What books did you love most in 2014?