Under Attack

The first time it hit, I thought I was dreaming. My head wasn’t quite right after the previous day, and my eye still hurt like hell from whatever happened last week (I can’t remember). But oddly enough, it was the eye that most dragged my consciousness forward. I don’t usually have black eyes in dreams.


There it was again, even louder this time. In an instant, panic poured into me, and I leapt frantically out of bed. I could be wrong, but I’d swear I felt the entire house shake slightly after that last one. My good eye looked helplessly to the bedroom ceiling, where one of the many signs of previous repair work still remained. That time we’d been lucky, if you’d want to call it that. Only because I’d gotten the kids out in time.

My legs, never long to begin with, felt so incredibly short now. The journey to the kids’ room was an interminable gauntlet of fear and time. Halfway down the hall, I stepped over a picture frame that had fallen off of the wall, which confirmed my fears and pushed the last strands of hope away. The house had indeed shaken. They were coming for us again.

Sometimes, when disaster strikes, the mind occasionally slows things down to a standstill. I don’t know how this happens, but it’s both amazing and terrifying. In this case, as I stepped over the broken picture frame, I happened to see it was a picture of my son and I, holding aloft a prize. We were happy in that picture, the two of us, but what jumped out to me in this particular moment was how arrogant we looked. How cocky. Maybe on some perverse level we had this coming.

At the end of the hallway, I burst through the door of my kids’ room, abruptly met by their haunted faces. And unprotected heads.

“Steven, take your sister and get out the back door,” I said, much calmer than I felt. “And what are you doing without your helmets on? Get them now. Now.” I felt another moment of sadness as I saw them yank each helmet from the closet—mostly because both helmets were utterly devoid of cracks and decoration. We had to replace them so often.

“Okay! Now just like we’ve practiced—”


This time the house most definitely shook, plaster raining down on all three of us. The windowed side of the room creaked and actually leaned slightly. Through the window I glimpsed two dead birds lying on the lawn. Jesus.

“GO!” I said, the calm now fleeing me as quickly as it had come. In unison the three of us dashed into the hallway as fast as our legs would carry us, then away from my bedroom and toward the back door.


The house creaked and groaned in protest, something crashing on the far side. Three of them this time. Sometimes we got lucky and they either ran out or simply turned back from all of the death. Sometimes we weren’t so fortunate. This time, we reached the back door and practically crashed through it, not out into the night air but down into a tunnel I’d built specifically for this purpose. Even amidst the devastation the mud felt comforting, as it always did. I felt the kids relax a little until we heard another loud crash behind us, and then several crashes so monstrous that they all blurred together into a single cascade of destruction. The house was lost.

Hours later, utter resignation etched into our faces, the three of us crawled out of our tunnel. The air had never been so silent. Boards and splinters lay everywhere, and amidst them, of course, the feathers. Nora, with a stillness that was hard to watch, pulled out a long red feather and stared at it.

“Why do they hate us, Daddy?” I shook my head, but I couldn’t stop thinking of that photo in the hallway. The one of Steven and I holding up the egg. So of course I knew.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. They’re just angry. They’re so damned angry.”

Are Our Stories Good Enough?

Browsing through Facebook, I’m always a bit stunned to find how often we share things from strangers (i.e. the internet) instead of ourselves. It’s so easy to view others’ extraordinary achievements (“Man leaps over fire to propose to fiancée!”) as much superior to our own (“Man nervously takes wife to a park only to give away proposal intent.”). We can’t compete, right?

But we can and should. Why? Because the internet is full of such extraordinary things, but our lives are not. Personally, I don’t care about random larger-than-life stories from the internet, but I do care about your everyday ones. The experiences of friends and family are far more valuable than strangers’, because it’s friends and family that we build our lives around. We should care much more about what happens to each other—whether serious, silly, or somewhere in between.

So in 2015 I implore you to share your thoughts and stories, and we’ll all enjoy them more. Even if they don’t involve catching a shark with your bare hands, or painting an incredibly realistic seascape on your sidewalk. And better yet, don’t be afraid to create new stories—because even though others have already done so, it’s your stories that matter most to those around you.

Every Day is Groundhog Day

It’s fascinating to think that this very moment is the culmination of everything you’ve ever learned to date—skills, habits, mannerisms, education, and even which things are truly important to you. On its own, each bit of learning seems so insignificant. But compiled over time, they represent an enormously important part of who we are.

Amusingly, I think I first started to realize this after watching the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie, Phil (played by Bill Murray) finds himself in a situation where he wakes up every morning to find that he’s living the exact same day as yesterday. It’s always Groundhog Day. The key, though, is that he retains his memory from day to day—and after some initial despair (and humor, of course), he realizes that he can use this to his advantage. He learns more about the girl he loves. He learns when to save people from ill-fated accidents. He learns to play the piano.

It is this last that really got me thinking: aren’t our lives, without the repetition of days, still essentially the same story? We float from one day to the next, often reacting to the events around us, without stopping to think about the true sum of these events over time. We turn away from piano when we consider how difficult a song seems to play, without taking a moment to think about easy it would be to learn ten notes.

And then ten more notes.

Going one step further, we can look at this in the context of our most important dreams—dreams that often seem so unattainable. But if we can break down the steps to those dreams, to the smallest of steps, we can create our own Groundhog Day experience.

Some people ask me why I’m so driven to move myself forward—mostly because it often seems to my detriment. Is it really helpful to study web design in the depths of the night, when sleep tries to force my hand? Is it mentally damaging to try to hold on to so many goals at once? I am not sure I know the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing: I don’t want to look back on my Groundhog Day and say that I’m no better off than when I started.  I don’t want to be the version of Phil that stares blankly at a piano on Day 74.

I hope that you don’t, either.

Corporate Key to Success #4: Cubicle Decoration

After arriving at your desk, still feeling the exhilaration of your first meeting, you suddenly realize that you have no idea how you’re supposed to decorate your cubicle.

Don’t worry—this happens to everyone.

Not surprisingly, your first moment of panic comes you realize that everyone will judge you by your new corporate home, just as they would when pulling up to your residential home. Are your faded fabric-lined walls nicely trimmed? Are your orientation papers strewn across your desk? Is your monitor already caked with scattered dust from your fellow co-workers’ cubicles? Well, don’t despair—you simply need a few simple rules to guide you.

  1. Before anything else, you have to resign yourself to one thing: this desk, or one very much like it, will be your home all the way up until your retirement 34 years from now. That is a very long time. As a result, you must treat your home as something you’ll have three times as long as your most beloved pet.
  2. If you happen to obtain any kind of achievement certificate, put it on your wall—and make no mistake, these are not nearly as difficult to come by as you might think.  There might be one for completing a required purchase order system training session.  Another might celebrate your ability to exhibit a “moment of excellence,” in which case you can display the certificate long after the fleeting program’s demise (and for all anyone will know, you were truly astonishing in that moment).  If you’re really lucky, though, you can get a framed certificate that commemorates your survival within the company in five-year increments.  That will come later—but goal-setting is very important at this stage.
  3. Don’t make the rookie mistake of putting away your various project papers.  This is because the more papers you have, the busier you will appear. So when you go to any meeting, grab any handouts that you possibly can (even swipe the extras!), then take them back and stack them in your cube.  Do you think they’re going to fire the employee with the ultra-clean desk, or the one that has so many important papers that there aren’t enough drawers for them?Exactly.
  4. Always, always place a mirror in the back of your cube.  I know, you’re thinking this sounds strange—but that’s only because this is your first day in a cubicle.  If you consider your new space for just a moment, you’ll realize that your chair faces away from the entrance of your cube.  Why?  Well, because: 1) everyone loves a good surprise, and 2) office environments are designed to keep you from seeing other human beings. Distractions are not good.  So the bottom line is: get a mirror, and you’ll feel just a little more human.
  5. Keep in mind that you exist in a corporate office, so there are many rules about what you can’t do.  For example, don’t ever place items on top of or on the outside of your cubicle.  This goes back to the previous point, in which you are not supposed to be encouraging human interaction.  Second, don’t even think about plants.  Plants are only allowed in executive offices.  You may be thinking that God gave everyone the right to plants, but you’d be wrong, because God was a big believer in a little thing called trickle-down horticulture.  And finally, do not pursue lamps or other lighting.  You won’t need it.  When working in any cubicle, you will have the blessing of being bathed in overwhelmingly bright fluorescent lighting—which has the pleasant effect of always keeping you awake!  Burned retinas and shockingly white skin are a small price to pay for corporate alertness.

If this seems like a lot to remember, don’t worry.  You’ll have plenty of time to focus and create a cubicle action plan—especially with the lack of distractions.  Somewhere around 34 years, in fact.

In Search of the Little Things

This afternoon, an avalanche of e-mail spilled steadily into my inbox, and for a moment I wondered if somewhere a great dam had finally crumbled beneath its own weight.  Support requests of many different types tumbled down the hill, and as I often try to do, I ran at them with the gusto of a child running up the wrong escalator.  Because that’s the only way that getting to the top of an escalator is any fun.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m quite achievement-oriented.  I detest doing purposeless tasks – and love the image of a meaningful checkmark filling an open box.  Now more than ever, I’ve realized that every job in the world can ultimately be boiled down to a sequence of those checkboxes.  One after another they come, hour by hour, day after day, endlessly filling the gaps behind them with the next thing on the list.

If we look at our jobs this way, then the goal of every employee is quite clear:  get those boxes checked in the way that is asked of you.  Sometimes those tasks are open to various solutions (a design), while other tasks have completely pre-constructed solutions (a contract).  Regardless of the type, however, what’s interesting is how each employee goes about checking the box.

It’s easy to think no one is noticing.  But whether they realize it or not, employees are professionally and personally evaluated at every turn.  Most of these evaluations happen within the subconscious.  I often wonder by what measures others conduct these evaluations, but for me, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  I place immense value in how well you find and do the little things.

As my wife and I drove back home this past weekend, we stopped at an Arby’s.  We did so because, well, pregnant women have to make stops frequently.  As a husband, it’s my job to make sure my wife uses the restroom at the finest establishments possible – and thus Arby’s called to me amidst the sea of gas stations and less finer establishments.  We’d eaten a couple of hours before, so neither of us was hungry, and at 3:00 the place was mostly empty.  It was a uneventful stop.

Until the manager welcomed us to the restaurant.

He stood behind the counter, likely in his late thirties and severely overweight.  No employee sits for long within a fast food restaurant, so his feet were probably killing him.  As my wife headed to the restroom, I randomly took a moment to wonder what path might have led him here.  Does anyone say, “I want to manage an Arby’s twenty years after I graduate high school?”  Probably not.  But somehow I knew that his welcome was completely genuine, and I instantly sensed that whatever his path might have been, this was a man who had decided to take pride in his work.  He wasn’t going to phone it in, at least not today.

In that moment following his welcome, I didn’t quite have the heart to say, “I’m sorry, we’re just here to use the restroom.”  I certainly could have, and he wouldn’t have minded in the least.  But as I decided what I might order, I realized that I greatly treasure employees that do more than what they have to.  And by that I mean the little things – the things that take almost no effort at all.  Because these are the things that no one bothers to do.

As I made my selection, the manager kindly answered the lone question I had with no hesitation, which meant that he knew his menu well.  He waited patiently while his crew prepared my wrap in the back, and when it slid into the metal rack, he called out a thank you to them.  There was little doubt that he meant it.

Was this an earth-shattering sequence of events?  No, of course not.  But the world is full of people that do precisely what they’re asked to do, and sometimes they expend a great amount of effort doing it.  There are probably thousands of Arby’s managers that suffer through eight hours of fast food nightmares for a meager paycheck.  They meet their documented goals.  I’d wager, however, that there aren’t many who look past those goals and set their own, more important goals – completely driven by a inner desire to be something better.

In my eleven years of professional work, I have come across this type of person from time to time, and it’s little coincidence that I call many of them my closest professional friends.  They represent the person who looks past the black and white of a project to see where support may be needed.  They often do the work behind the scenes that goes uncredited.  They are the people that aren’t interested in the ordinary, everyday tasks but instead focus on how to make a room – and ultimately their company – a better place than they found it.

On my best day, I approach being that kind of person, but on other days I fall short.  I might unconsciously lower my standards to feel good about getting more boxes checked.  Or I may stare proudly at the bird in my hands and completely overlook the two in the bush.  But it doesn’t take long for that one person to come along and inspire me all over again – and in almost every case, that person has no idea that he or she did so.  Certainly the manager of that Arby’s did not.

When all is said and done, we spend a great portion of our lives in an office, working under flourescent lights in monotonous spaces.  Everything is ordinary about our jobs, because it’s all been invented years before we get there, by people with titles a lot higher than ours.  But what isn’t so ordinary are the tasks that lie beyond the norm.  If you take a moment to think back to several truly memorable experiences of your life, it’s interesting to consider what made them stand out the most.

Was it the big things, or was it the little things that you never expected?