Category Archives: Personal

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.

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Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.

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That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.

In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.

I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.

“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.

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As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.

The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”

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The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.

When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”

Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”

The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”

It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.

Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.

I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.

The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.

“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.

There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.

The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.

“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”

As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.

Making More Friends in the USA

I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.

Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.

The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.

I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.

The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.

My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

How to Create a Schedule and Get Out of a Slump

A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.

I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.

The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?

During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.

But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.

And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.

To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.

Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.

Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.

During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.

“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.

Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.

Seizing the Day

It’s time for another spontaneous post. Last night I unearthed my old journals. I have four diaries, covering four periods of my life: spring/summer 2010, fall 2010, winter 2011, and winter 2015. They all make for depressing reading, and it’s interesting to look back on them and see me try and make sense of myself. It seems I spent a lot of time trying to understand just who I was; a lot of entries ask the question “What is wrong with me?”

The process of reading these journals was a little nauseating. I wrote about how each day blurred into the next, how time slipped me by, and how powerless I felt. I’d sit at my desk thinking of ways to be productive, before giving in and merely “passing the time”. I was desperate to do something with my life. I felt like I had nothing of any worth, no life at all. It makes me realize just how significant 2017 has been in regards to my personal growth.

But why blog about the discovery of these old diaries? Isn’t this all personal? Couldn’t this be worked out in a new journal? Yes, I suppose it could. But to analyze my growth as a person is not the point of this post. Why do I blog at all? Because I want my experience to touch others. I see my personal blog posts as contributing to a pool of human experience. At the end of the day I can only offer my own experiences and perceptions. I can’t tell you why you think the way you do, or what your experiences mean. But we can share our experiences to the benefit of all- we can find aggregate truths. If I was only concerned with my own therapy, I’d hit up the journal. I want to learn from others, and I want others to learn from me. We gain greater understanding by sharing with one another. My experiences are valid because I felt them, I went through them- and the same is true for you. No information we share is useless.

Every morning I go on a brisk walk where I think about the day’s targets. Today I told myself that every day I should leave a legacy of some kind. What am I going to do today that contributes to my dreams? I like the idea of adding a brick every day to an ongoing construction project. And as I said this to myself, I thought about the diary entries I read last night and the times I spent worrying that each day was wasted. Seizing the day seemed impossible back then. Now I have the urgency and sense of purpose I’ve always wanted. I’m not so much like a hesitant foal weighing up the decision to ford a river. I know it might sound corny, but I genuinely hope this blog can serve to inspire others to navigate the pitfalls of lethargy, self-loathing and depression.

This week I’m taking my inspiration from Jabari Parker- one of my favorite basketball players. My roommate Aaron linked me to a Sports Illustrated video where he talks to a bunch of school kids. Aside from being a dynamic power-forward, Jabari is also a wise and articulate speaker. In the video (the link of which I shall post below), he tells the children that the key to achieving their dreams is to transform those long-term ambitions into day-to-day targets. What can I do today to help me get to where I want to be? It’s a sheer coincidence that the day after I watched this video, I ended up unearthing my old journals and seeing how relevant his advice was to the troubles I had back then. Jabari talks about commitment, getting up early, and giving everything that 10% extra effort. I’ve realized myself that whatever you do, you need that urgency. I hope I’m getting through to you. I’ll publish another post later this week about some specific methods I use to stay on track. For now, have yourself a badass Wednesday!

Click here to see the full Jabari Parker video!

Turning 25

Last weekend I turned 25. I enjoyed a nice, steady birthday where my family and I went to see Blade Runner 2049 and eat at one of our favorite Siamese restaurants. The movie was a masterpiece and the Gaeng Phed Ped Yang always hits the spot. At various points during the day, my friends and family asked me “So how does it feel to be 25?”

How does it feel? British humor dictated that I reply “You know, it’s an awful lot like when I was 24,” and I obliged the waiting faces a chuckle- but I wasn’t done. I did feel something. I was suddenly morbid. The last 25 years seemed so vast, and I feared that the next 25 would go by in a flash. At some point I’d wake up, 50 years old, and remark “Where did the time go?”

I was at the biological peak of my life, I told myself. I was finally here. When we’re young our bodies bail us out of bad habits, quickly replenishing cells with fresher ones for optimum efficiency, priming us for our sole purpose- which is the same for all life- procreation. And once we get past these mating years- whether we make the beast with two backs or not- we start slowly dying. Everything deteriorates gradually, cells are replenished slower until they’re not replenished at all, and you start doing things like spending your mortgage savings on a Harley with aggressively steep ape-hangers, or trying to explain to your wife that the reason the laptop is overrun with malware totally isn’t because you were streaming Girls Gone Wild from a less-than-reputable source.

It might sound a bit hysterical, but it wouldn’t be a birthday without an existential crisis wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. I’ve never really been good at birthdays. Something about turning 25 makes me feel like I’ve completed something, like I can look back on everything behind me as a single volume in the story of my life. It might seem that I was plagued with visions of the future, but to be honest most of that was the tickle of my subconscious. I spent most of my first week of being 25 looking backwards, at the past.

I was definitely better at birthdays when I was a kid. Back then I’d invite all my friends from school to go tobogganing or to play laser tag and we’d top it off with chicken nuggets or something. It was something loud and colorful, and I didn’t feel self-conscious or weird about the fact that it was all about me. Birthdays weren’t bad after that, but once my teenage years came around they were never the same. I became bashful, almost guilty, that there was a day where social custom dictated that people celebrate me. And the idea that I was expected by everyone to be happy made me anxious. I’m not exactly the best at being happy. The wild-eyed, theatrical rogue that was my child-self was dead. He didn’t make it past the age of eleven, sadly. He was skipping along as in a 1940s cartoon when an anvil fell from the sky and flattened him. The Michael that emerged, once he popped back into 3D and resumed his journey, had an altogether different look to him.

Teenage years were a mire of hormones and bullying and the search for identity. I was extremely self-conscious. I remember extended family members remarking how quiet I’d gotten all of a sudden, trying to pin-point the moment the little devil they knew had become an awkward, gangly recluse forever blushing and apologizing. Birthdays came every year and each day they seemed to reflect in some small way the person I was becoming- the same way the birthdays of my childhood were indicative of the little adventure-seeking, bright-eyed brat that I was. They were still fun, but now I didn’t make too much of a fuss. I enjoyed a low-key meal with a few friends, before giving up the idea of inviting people to an event altogether.

I was going to make this post one of those “Letter to My Younger Self” things where I’d address the kind of person I was at 15 years old and how I’ve changed in the last 10 years. But to be honest I’m not sure what I would say to the Michael of my school years. I suppose the thing to do would be to warn myself not to overreact, stay positive, yada yada, but that would just read like a catalogue of my teenage angst. I’m not sure I want to send 15-year old Mike a telegram saying “WATCH THE FUCK OUT” for this upcoming pitfall or that. Not to try and sound philosophical, but you kinda need pitfalls in life. There’s a bunch of things I regret, that’s for damn sure. Like most people I have memories that make me shudder like someone emptied a jar of cold piss down my neck, ones that I wish I could erase. I hate hurting or disappointing people. It sucks, but assuming you have some level of self-awareness you do learn from it.

What I’ve always ultimately been interested in is how best to navigate the social sphere. Call it what you want- coexistence, perhaps? Being able to understand others and communicate effectively is what it’s all about. That’s how you succeed- whether you’re building business relationships or personal ones. In my teenage years I’d watch other people at school float on by with effortless skill. I focused on small things- the priceless knowledge they had- how to walk, what to do with your hands, how to joke around, how to speak, when to speak. It was like everyone else had the answer sheet to a project and I’d inexplicably missed out.

I watched other people, less skilled, trying out personalities that weren’t entirely their own. I was never so brave, but when an unexpected situation came my way I often found myself saying something that didn’t feel quite so natural to me, trying out different walks, thinking to myself how best to look relaxed when sitting in class. The big one was how the hell to talk to girls. You’d see other guys making them laugh and wonder how on Earth they did it. But at the time I was far too ignorant to realize that girls were people too, and that behind their laughing eyes and self-assured smiles there was a human being experiencing all flavors of confusion, doubt and fear. But it’s from that very ignorance that empathy is learned. I’m still searching for answers to all the questions of my youth, but I don’t feel quite so hopeless now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’ve realized all along that so many others, perhaps more than I ever thought possible, were asking the same questions.