You know those yearly “newsletters” people send out with their Christmas cards?
They usually tell you about how amazing little Jimmy is doing with the trombone and how he just got a scholarship to the Trombone Playing School. And big Jim, well he just made an amazing career shift and now he’s devoting himself to curing hunger and will receive his Curing Hunger Award from the president next month. And the whole family had such an amazing time at Disney last spring!
Maybe it’s more mundane. Maybe little Jimmy just took his first amazing trombone lesson and is enthusiastically entertaining everyone at dinnertime. And big Jim, well he just got an amazing promotion so now instead of counting widgets, he’s putting them in boxes, which is amazing because they’ll be able to save enough money for a Disney trip this spring!
Everything is always amazing and the family represented by said newsletter is always tremendously blessed, and inevitably a trip to Disney is involved.
It’s not that I don’t wish people well. It’s not that I don’t feel happy for people who are happy. It’s not that I want to hear the bitchy counterpart about how miserable the year really was.
It’s just that those newsletters are entirely lacking in humanity. There’s no humor, nothing feels real, I don’t care about any of the cast of characters, and just repeating the word amazing does not make it so.
That’s why I don’t do newsletters. Instead, I contain my narcissism to this blog and hope that if I ever tell you how blessed I am, you’ll ring my doorbell and wait until I answer so that you can slap me in the ear with a boiled hot dog.
In the meantime, I like to reflect on the past, smile at the good things, scowl at the bad and look for ways that it can inform my present. Today I’m reflecting on the year that we called 2016, which was neither amazing nor blessed, but pretty damn interesting, in that Ancient Chinese Curse kind of way.
Here’s how it went.
I lost a bunch of weight
This is nothing new. I’ve lost hundreds of pounds in my lifetime, mostly because they keep getting found again. The year started exceptionally well. No binge eating over the holidays and three miles on the treadmill without fail, every day.
I moved the treadmill from the gym into my bedroom so it would sit beside my bed and remind me every day and every night that it existed. It worked. Guilt is a useful tool, especially when it’s staring at you all night long, even when you’re pretending to sleep and just peek quickly through one eyelid.
I fit into my Normal Person’s Clothes. I threw out my Fat Clothes. I ate raw spinach salads and liked it. I didn’t eat bread and didn’t miss it.
2016 was about feeling strong and determined.
I fell out of the attic
I learned a valuable lesson in 2016: do not turn around at the top of the attic ladder and attempt to descend it like a flight of stairs. You will fall. More significantly, you will thump all the way down on your less-fat ass until you slam to the bottom with your ankle twisted under you and your arms bruised and bloody from trying to grab onto the tension springs as you fell.
I spent two weeks on crutches and three after that limping and zero of that time on the treadmill. Once the treadmill was out of the picture, the bread snuck in. The bread said, “Why do you need the treadmill? It makes a bad ham sandwich anyway.”
I listened to the bread.
And the bread was right, it made a much better ham sandwich. But I was also mad at it, because it had taken advantage of me at a vulnerable moment.
2016 got a little tighter.
My cat died
After his sister left us shortly after Christmas three years ago, he became incredibly present. Before, when there were two cats, he spent the vast majority of his days in the closet or under a blanket somewhere. Most people never believed we had two cats. He came out only when I made chicken for dinner, and in the evening to sit on my lap while we watched TV. He slept on my legs at night, but once he was king of the house, he was everywhere, all the time.
I got used to having him everywhere. While I worked. While I cooked. When I walked on the treadmill, which I usually had to fight him for because he thought the perfect moment to get on the treadmill was the exact moment I pushed the “start” button.
He was sick for a long time. Our vet had been gently reminding us for a while how cats suffer in silence. How he was doing poorly, kept losing weight, and… well, just think about it.
I thought about it like this: fuck you. My cat.
Toward the end of his life we did a lot to make him happy and comfortable.
I cooked chicken every night, sometimes just for him. When he stopped drinking out of his bowl I gave him water from my glass, which pleased him. When he couldn’t jump on the bed anymore I made steps out of ottomans and tables so he could get as high up as he wanted. When he stopped eating chicken I fed him my eight-dollar-per-can wild caught Alaskan tuna.
And then when he retreated to a corner of the closet and stopped eating and drinking entirely, I called the vet.
Watching her insert the needle into his thin body, my boy who I had once had to put on a diet because he weighed 22 pounds, was one of the worst moments of my life. I had watched my other cat die horribly but something about being responsible felt different.
2016 became a hateful year. I especially hated my cat’s utter lack of presence.
We went to Nashville
When our cat was sick, and especially in the last year or so of his life, we left the house very little, for no more than 24 hours at a time.
But there was suddenly no reason to stay home, and so we didn’t. It was a business trip, but for us it was a revelation. I drove 15 hours straight to downtown Nashville and marveled at the rolling hills of Virginia, the fields of cows, the vast blueness of the sky.
I don’t use the word “marveled” hyperbolically. It had been so long since we saw anything outside of the four square blocks around our house that it was actually a bit surprising to see this world.
I marveled at every Waffle House. At the little wrapped soaps in the hotel. At the ridiculous spectacle that is Nashville on a Friday night in May. Did you know they have these stupid tractor hitches with a bar down the center (an actual bar, like a drinking bar) and benches with pedals on either side where a bunch of girls on spring break sit with their beers and go WHOOOOOO!!! And pedal this thing around the block? What a cosmic disaster.
2016 had turned sorrow into joy. It was a bittersweet reminder that sometimes things suck and sometimes they are wonderful. And that if the suck part hadn’t happened, neither would have the wonderful.
We sold our house
The week we returned from Nashville, we decided we liked being out of our house so much that we never wanted to go back. We called our real estate agent in June, had a cash offer by July, and a “get the hell out” date of August.
I’ve been stressed out in my life but the summer of 2016 may go down in memory as the most anxious, frazzled, frenetic, manic in history. When you’re sandwiched between “I just sold my house” and “these people want to move in next month”, there’s very little wiggle room.
When you’re sandwiched there and running two businesses while participating in a third, there’s really, exactly, zero wiggle room.
I felt like a lunatic. I probably behaved like one. I ate bread and cookies and takeout in massive quantities.
I can’t say I was happy about our imminent move. Nor was I sad. It was just this monstrous non-negotiable.
2016 proved that you don’t really know what you’re capable of, until you do.
We worked. A lot.
We’ve been running our own business since 1999. If you’ve ever run your own business then you know that means there’s no such thing as nine-to-five, there’s no “leave it at work”, there’s nobody to tell you when to start, when to stop, what to do next or why.
There’s no real distinction between “work” and “not work”.
Working for ourselves is wonderful and I wouldn’t trade it for all the Strawberry Cupcake tea in the world, even though that’s some damn good stuff, and if you haven’t tried it, you totally should.
But it’s also very very very very very…. hard.
It means you don’t get holidays. It means you don’t get two weeks’ vacation in the spring to go to Disney. It means you sometimes have to decide between paying the mortgage and paying the credit card, which is not very amazing, at all.
It also means Tuesday’s off to go to a matinee, working from the couch in your pajamas, working from the park in your flipflops, working from your kitchen table with a cup of Strawberry Cupcake tea. It means if you’re having a particularly good holiday, you can take an extra week off to keep having it. It means choosing your “whys” and “what’s nexts” and knowing that you’ve created something… amazing.
So it’s a compromise, a back and forth.
2016 was more back than forth.
We ran our marketing company, the one we’ve been running since 1999. But we also started a new company, to build software tools for podcasters. And Ralph started yet another company with a colleague to build software tools for IT people. The latter launched in Nashville. The former languished.
It was exciting to launch a product, to see it light up live at 3AM on a Thursday morning while we all sat around in a hotel room, totally giddy from pride and lack of sleep and excessive consumption of chocolate chip cookies. It was vexing to keep pushing off the launch date of our other product, another month, and another.
2016 felt constantly on the verge but never there. It was do or die year, our life’s Hail Mary Pass. And die was never an option.
I thought I was dying
We had just wrapped up a successful business meeting. The sun was shining. We were going home to make dinner for my parents and have a nice togetherly evening with wine.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My chest hurt. I felt dizzy and couldn’t stand up. I started shaking uncontrollably. Normally I’d rather sit in an ice bath while leeches suck the poison from my blood than see a doctor, but I told Ralph to take me to the emergency room.
Every road was closed, every traffic light red. I was fairly certain I’d have a heart attack and die before we got there. I didn’t, and spent the next four hours being stuck with needles and x-rayed and wired up and tested.
Things wrong with me: none.
The doctor asked if I was stressed. I cackled. Oh hell yes, I’d been stressed, but this happened after, when I was feeling relaxed and happy and the least stressed I’d felt in years.
The doctor said stress works like that. Sometimes, when you’re not stressed anymore, is when your body freaks out and goes OMG WHERE DID ALL THE HORMONES GO and then you have a whole thing about it.
I am, in fact, absurdly healthy. And not dying. Which is a good thing, because 2016 can suck it.
We did stuff
After Nashville, we went to Chicago for a podcasting event. We had a table with big popup banners and brochures and a nice PowerPoint demo to show off our not-yet-launched-but-totally-soon software. Everyone loved it. Everyone wanted it. We wanted to give it to them. We told them it was coming soon. I wanted to strangle 2016 for being so damn hectic, for giving us the motivation but not the time to do all the things.
We missed out on Chicago pizza but had a delightful walk in the park along the lake. We saw the Bean.
We went back to Tennessee, to Franklin, which is a less-ridiculous suburb of Nashville. We had the best filet and lobster tail dinner that’s ever been served, and the worst mojito you could possibly drink without keeling over and needing an ambulance. I accidentally borrowed a very cool copper mug and forgot to return it.
We went to Boston. We went to Washington, D.C. We went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
After 20 years of living at the Jersey Shore we spent some time at the actual Jersey Shore. I rediscovered my inner five-year-old and collected seashells like they were going extinct.
We saw friends and family we hadn’t seen in years. We drank cocktails we’d never heard of before. We met people we’d only previously ever known online and liked them all.
We had guacamole at a tropical themed bar in a casino with a giant waterfall that smelled like chlorine.
We watched a Christmas parade from the street and drank hot chocolate.
We ran out onto the front porch when Santa came by on the fire truck and took photos and waved like crazy people.
We bought an elliptical to keep the treadmill company since it has been neglected for six months. They’re both in the garage now, and sometimes we play a little light music for them just so they know we still care.
I bought a pair of stretchy pants to make up for the stupid, stupid bread.
We did not go to Disney.
2016 was a year of contradictions, reminiscent of the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities.
It was challenging and demanding, and yet each of its challenges and demands came with hope.
I was terribly sad, wildly anxious, outrageously overworked, completely uncertain, occasionally terrified and happier than I’ve been in maybe ever.
Some people like to think of their three or two words or maybe just one word that will set their intentions for the new year. I prefer to reflect on what I learned so I can carry that forward.
For me, 2016 can be summed up like this: choose. And be.
Every day there are sixteen billion trillion quadrilexahillion choices to make. I counted.
Some people call them “decisions.” The psychology books say we make a crap ton of them every day. I like the word choices. Deciding feels clinical, detached. Deciding tends to come with shoulds and shouldn’ts. Choosing implies participation. It aligns nicely with can and will.
You can choose whether to get out of bed or hit the snooze button. Whether to eat the bread or the spinach salad. Whether to be kind to someone or not. You can choose who you speak to and how. How you spend your time and with whom. What’s important in life and what you’re going to do with that knowledge.
Choosing means owning.
As for being, the thing is, we are so programmed to avoid feeling shitty at all costs. When we’re feeling down we read articles that give us Six Ways To Be More Optimistic. When we’re grumpy we get told to Cheer Up or Count Our Blessings. When we make stupid choices we fall over ourselves to fix it, which sometimes means making more stupid choices because we never really give ourselves five minutes to just be.
But one of the things I was forced to confront in 2016 was the idea of feeling shitty and just… feeling shitty. Dead cats don’t get fixed. Arguments where you say mean things don’t get unhad. Sometimes you have to own that, too. Sometimes you just have to sit with it, and let it be what it is.
I’m not talking about wallowing. Or accepting “the way it is” with a dull sigh. I’m suggesting that maybe, probably, definitely, it’s ok to feel stuff without thinking you need to be fixed.
This goes for the good things, too. Because if you’re not owning them, if you’re not being right there with them whenever they are, they’ll pass you by and you’ll be wondering where your life just went.
In the end, 2016 was exactly what we made of it.
Do we all live happily ever after?
Who knows. Maybe it’s enough to live happily ever now. And maybe when the happily part goes to shit, we just live.
All I know is that it’s 2017, all shiny and new, waiting to be made something of. We’ve got a product to launch, more world to see, a very lonely treadmill and lots of ideas.
It’s going to be amazing, I just know it.
Oh, and guess what else we’re doing..? wait for it…
We’re going to Disney.