Avoiding Helmet Head

Samantha called me up this past weekend to tell me she was bored.  I call her Samantha because I don’t like using real names in blogs.  I’m afraid one of my forty-something followers is going to track her down and poach her.  I can’t afford that.  She’s British.  And she may be just as white and English-speaking as the rest of my good friends, but she’s the closest thing I have to a diversity buddy.

It had been a long winter of meeting friends at bowling alleys, bars, restaurants, bars, fast food joints, and bars.  I was surprised when, on this particular day, she suggested that we go for a hike in one of our many nearby state parks.  I normally use the term “hike” to describe climbing the staircase in my apartment after work or getting out of a hotel bed to turn off my cell phone alarm clock on the other side of the room.  Apparently in the United Kingdom a hike is when you walk long distances, usually up and down large hills in wooded areas, for extended periods of time.

“And what happens when we get to the end of this hike?”  I asked over the phone.

“You turn around and walk back the way you came from.”  She explained.

“And how many dogs are hunting us?”

“None.”

“And where is the ancient gold supposed to be buried?”

“There’s no treasure, Eric.”  She stated.  “Now are we going or not, you daft yank?”

I ended up accepting the invitation, despite how strange it was.  I had spent most of the weekend watching YouTube videos and sitting on my couch, enjoying every little dopamine release that came from each Nazi I killed in the new Wolfenstein video game.  I could afford to spend a little time doing something European…like walking.

It was Memorial Day weekend, so on the drive to the hiking trail Sam was extra observant when pointing out cultural differences between the U.S. and home.  On this particular drive, she was fascinated with the number of people we saw riding motorcycles without helmets on.  

“You wouldn’t see that in the U.K.”  She explained.

Since arriving in the states last September, she’s used this expression several hundred times to describe everything from flatbed trucks to biscuit sandwiches.  But this time she made an observation that I never noticed before, having never been man enough to ride a bike myself.  It seemed as though nobody in this area of Ohio was wearing any sort of protective gear.  No headgear on the biker pulling out of the gas station on route 43, no headgear on the older couple sharing a ride through downtown Kent, and not a single protective item being worn on the fifteen-person gang pulling into the local bar.

“Maybe it’s fashion.”  I suggested.

But I knew this wasn’t the case.  Taking the helmet off of a 400 pound, bearded, redneck couple on a bike for style purposes would be the equivalent of putting a pair of Uggs on a pile of cow shit. 

“Nah.”  Sam said.  “They’re idiots for not wearing them, but those helmets are heavy as shite.”

That was probably the reason.  Why wear a helmet on a beautiful summer day?  You can’t feel the cool breeze in your hair or hear the unmuffled sound of your motor as you roar down the highway.  Your vision is somewhat blocked, your head gets sweaty and you can’t get a mouthful of delicious bugs.  A helmet might as well be a ball and chain.

“Oh well.”  Sam went on.  “It’s all Darwinian.  These stupid people will kill themselves and natural selection will work its magic.”

What Sam probably didn’t realize is that people who sacrifice safety for comfort most likely don’t use little rubber devices called condoms, thus they reproduce faster than they die off.

The whole discussion brought me back to a book I once read about changing habits.  Tasks like losing weight or learning a new language are hard to keep up because people love instant gratification.  If you run on the treadmill for an hour and don’t notice any weight loss, it’s not motivating.  If you ride a bike with a helmet on and you don’t have a life-threatening accident, what was the point of the helmet?  There’s no instant reward for being safe.  There’s a no such thing as a Trojan fairy who appears from under the pillow and gives you a candy bar for avoiding Chlamydia.  

When we got to the trail, we started walking.  When we got to a certain point on the trail we walked some more.  Then we continued to walk.  This was followed by more walking, a brief pause to look at a map, and then even more walking.  My legs began to hurt from becoming stronger.  I began to sweat with the intake of Vitamin D.  My heart was beating annoyingly fast as my body burned calories.  It was miserable.

Then when we decided to turn around and go back the way we came from.  Sam suggested we get ice cream when we got to town.  That was when my spirits rose, my eyes opened wide, my mouth began to water, and I developed superhuman strength.  I began sprinting with reckless disregard…

A Chance of Love in a Sea of Butts

This Starbucks is extra crowded this morning.  I shouldn’t have picked the seat closest to the register.  Every minute there’s a new butt in my face.  Big butts, small butts, tight butts, saggy butts.  Just a variety pack of various styles and sizes of butts.  In a bar this might be known as a flight of butts, but this is a coffee shop so they should be labeled individually as tall, grande, or venti butts.   And none of them are appealing to me.  

The only butt I’ve been interested in hasn’t moved since I came into the building.  Up until a few minutes ago, she had been sitting alone on the other side of the room.  That never happens with attractive people.  Usually attractive people have somebody with them, whether it be a boyfriend, a group of friends or a group of boyfriends.  Their magnetic field is just stronger than that of an average person.  Even if they don’t arrive with somebody, they will probably leave with several strangers following behind like lost puppies.

This particular girl sat by herself for a full fifteen minutes after I ordered my drink.  She never once looked at her phone to pass the time.  She never once sent a text or snapped a selfie.  She just sipped her tea and stared around the coffee shop, enjoying this overcast Saturday morning.  Twenty years ago, this would have been more common.  It’s probably why more couples met accidentally in public places back then.  

I glanced at her a few times, but never long enough to make her think I was staring.  I was hoping for a moment of eye contact, like you sometimes see in the movies.  We would share a connection and exchange smiles.  Then I would gather my things and walk over to her table.

“Is this seat taken?”  I would ask.

“It is now.”  She would say.  

And we would spend the rest of the rainy day cuddled together, talking about fine art and cultural things.

Playing that scenario over and over in my mind didn’t prepare me for anything.  When she did actually look over and smile at me it was terrifying.  I hid behind my laptop so fast you would have thought she pulled out a throwing knife and chucked it at my face.  My eyes froze on my computer screen and I didn’t move.  I just read the same tweet seventy-three times and cried inside.  As much as I complain about how bad I am at meeting girls online, I do it because I’m far worse in person.

Now there’s a man sitting with her.  He came in about twenty minutes ago.  I figured it was her unappreciative boyfriend, running late because he doesn’t actually care about her feelings and only uses her for sex.  This character was also part of my made-up scenario.  But this man is older.  He carried a briefcase with him when he first arrived and they shook hands before sitting down.  Either they’re conducting an elaborate, kinky business partner roleplaying scenario, or I’m witnessing a job interview.

A job interview can be a lot like a first date.  Everyone involved is nervous, it’s kind of awkward, you dress up and, if all goes well, something long-term comes out of it.  One big difference is that, in a job interview, you can ask somebody where they see themselves in ten years and nobody runs away.  On a first date you can give a goodnight hug and nobody gets served harassment papers.  Regardless, it all looks kind of the same in a Starbucks.

Once this mystery man came into the picture, she stopped looking my way.  The window had closed.  My chance of meeting somebody had passed.  I was safe to start writing this blog post about missed opportunities…or job interviews…or Starbucks.  To be honest, I’m not sure what the moral of this story is.  Maybe there are a few…

1.  When an attractive girl in a Starbucks smiles at you, always smile back because…

2.  Attractive people sitting at a Starbucks are never actually alone for long and…

3.  Never sit by the register.

What’s it Like Above the Clouds?

When I’m the first person to sit down in my row on an airplane, I typically spend the rest of the boarding process judging passengers as the come down the aisle.  If it’s a cute girl, I pray to the airline gods that, unlike my crushes on the bus ride to high school, she has no choice but to sit next to me.  Usually I’m not so lucky.  On a five hour flight back from Los Angeles, I was stuck next to a man so large I couldn’t get the arm rest down.  It wouldn’t have bothered me if that part of my seat didn’t have my headphone jack on it.  To this day I think about the time my enjoyment of Gravity was hampered by one person’s poor eating habits.

On a recent flight from Cleveland to Newark, I wasn’t really paying attention to who sat down where.  After the constant travel I had the month before, I was just ready to get to wherever I had to go.  My neighbor turned out to be a young man in a casual t-shirt and jeans.  He was really just a boy, no older than twenty.  I wouldn’t have noticed him if he wasn’t constantly wiping his face with his hands and muttering to himself while rocking back and forth like a crazy person.  If I didn’t know any better, I would think he was getting ready to hijack the plane before we even left the gate.  But the truth was far worse.

“It’s my first time flying.”  He said to me.

This was followed by a polite, nervous smile as if to say, “You may comfort me now.”

I didn’t bite.

“I fly all the time.”  I said without looking at him.  “I’ve never had problems.”

“That’s good.”  He said.  “I’m just really freaking out.  I’ve never been so scared in my life, man.  This is my first time traveling more than two hours from Cleveland.”

I didn’t mean to ignore him after that, but I couldn’t help it.  I was too busy imagining what it would be like to have never seen anything outside of northern Ohio.  To have never cheered a football team to victory or waded in a river that couldn’t be set on fire.

The boy began to sweat harder as he fiddled with his tray table, staring in disbelief that an eating surface could magically be pulled from the back of a seat.  I put on my headphones and started looking for a playlist that was loud enough to block out teenagers.  He cranked up the air above him.  I didn’t say a word.  He began to rattle his leg up and down.  I rested my head back against the seat and prepared to sleep.  Finally, he rummaged through the seat pocket in front of him and pulled out a barf bag.

“You know, flying is really not that big of a deal.”  I explained, slowly pulling out my earbuds and placing them on my lap.  “I do it all the time.”

“Why do you fly a lot?”  He asked.

“It’s part of the job.”  I explained.  “You get used to it after awhile.”

“Does it feel like a roller coaster?”  He asked.

“Not really.”  I responded.  “You go fast, but you barely feel the lift-off.”

“Should I read the safety card before we take off?”  He asked.

“They read it for you, actually.”  I explained.  “All you have to do is ignore them.”

Every question I answered brought more and more wonder to his eyes.  It was like teaching my future son about the birds and the bees of frequent flyer programs.  Like a bank robber lowering his weapon during negotiations, the boy slowly placed the barf bag back into the seat pocket.  His fear turned into fascination as I passed along advice from one seasoned traveler to a newcomer.

“When you sit in the back of a short flight like this, you have to drink your beverage as fast as you can.”  I warned.  “Otherwise you miss the trash pick-up and get stuck holding a cup during landing.”

“Then what happens?”

“Nothing.  It just sucks.”

As we began to taxi towards the runway, you could tell he was far more at ease than he was during boarding, but that was to be expected.  He was sitting next to a man who has built up four years of business travel experience.  Me.  The communications professional who has flown to Europe on business four times.  The employee from corporate who once ran the length of the Atlanta International Airport in close to ten minutes to make a connection.  The big shot who was only a few hundred points away from United Silver Status last year, but didn’t get it because of an unfortunate trip where Delta was the only option.  I can navigate any major US hub blindfolded.  I could live in the air if I wanted to.

“And it’s very important that you never have a connection in Philly.”  I explained as we approached the runway.  “Unless you really enjoy never seeing home again.”

“Tell me again about the reasonably priced crab restaurant in Terminal D!”  The boy pleaded.

But before I could continue, the captain came over the loud speaker and announced that we were ready for take off.  This was the moment of truth.  I looked at the boy to see if he would reach for the barf bag again.  He didn’t.  Instead he looked at me and asked me a question that I later made sure I wrote down for the sake of this blog post.

“What’s it like above the clouds?”

It was the first question that I had to think about before answering, but before I could give an appropriate response, we were there.  In minutes we were flying high above the rainy world below.

There was no talking at first.  He mostly stared out the window with his mouth wide open.  Occasionally he would nudge me when he saw a neighborhood or a football field from 30,000 ft.  A few times he burst out in laughter for no apparent reason, covered his mouth, and looked around the plane to see if the passengers were loving the journey nearly half as much as he was.  And who could really blame him?  He was just a kid on his first plane ride.

I would have never guessed he was on his way to Parris Island for basic training.

When he told me he was a U.S. Marine fresh out of school, the tables in our relationship suddenly turned.  My life experience started to lose weight.  Horror stories of flight delays and overpriced liquor seemed trivial.  I instantly felt like I was sitting next to somebody completely new.  Somebody who should be giving me advice.

But nothing changed.

“I can’t believe how those neighborhoods down there are shaped.”  The soldier exclaimed, with his wide eyes still locked to the window.  “You would never notice that while you’re on the ground!  It’s amazing!”

As we approached the airport, I leaned back so he could get a good look at New York City.  I was really more interested in his reaction.  He just gazed off at the miles and miles of buildings, rising up out of the Hudson like a thousand Clevelands.  He gazed off at the Freedom Tower which stands in the place of two former structures he never saw because he was only six when they disappeared.  He gazed at the ground below and I gazed at him, wondering if he’ll remember this moment when he’s jumping out of a helicopter over a war-torn country or living on a base on the other side of the world.  But by then this trip would seem like it was a thousand plane rides ago.

Snapping and Chatting

Signing up for Snapchat did nothing but send me into a cyclone of thought about human connectivity.

It started whenever Snapchat became a “thing” and I told everyone that I didn’t like it.  I said the same thing about Foursquare when it first came out.  A few years later, once Foursquare had started losing its popularity, I finally jumped on the bandwagon.  While the cool kids were distracted by the next big app, I was finally able to become mayor of that Burger King I always wanted to own.  But it wasn’t long before I got bored and gave up on my dream to own the whole franchise.

A few days ago I was on the phone with a friend who just signed up for Snapchat.  She wasn’t shy about telling me that I had called her while she was in the middle of getting dressed.

“Join Snapchat and I’ll send you a picture.”  She said.

A Snapchat picture is the perfect medium for sexing because, like actual sex for many, it only last a few seconds.

“I’m obviously joking.”  She followed up.

“Obviously!”  I chuckled back.

But by that point I had already submitted my username and password, so there was no going back.

I spent the afternoon spamming my contact list with pictures of me on the couch, playing video games, and eating chicken wings.  A couple friends of mine had just went away on vacation, so I received a handful of pictures of them in an airport and checking into their hotel.  I responded with pictures of me making a jealous face (which for me is a pout with a hint of constipation).  After my second day of taking non-stop selfies and food pictures, I was exhausted.

This may have also been because my air conditioning was out in my apartment and most of my energy was in a puddle of sweat on the carpet.  If I’m not in a comfortable 64-67 degree environment, I tend to resemble Mr. Freeze in the tropics without his protective suit.  My apartment was only 74 degrees and my head was in the refrigerator inhaling leftover pizza.  That was when Sarah called.

“You aren’t allowed to complain.”   She stated.

Sarah and I were roommates my senior year of college.  When we graduated, she moved back to Texas where she’s originally from.  Whenever I visit her, I fly home with a hangover and a sunburn.

“When you walk outside here, it actually feels like you’re on fire.”  She explained.  “You wouldn’t survive.”

“I dunno.”  I shot back.  “I know a thing or two about clothes catching fire.”

This was in reference to a pair of white wash jeans I used to wear in college.  At least until I moved in with two women and they literally took them out into the back yard and set them on fire.

These are the stories we tend to repeat when we touch base every month or so.  But the conversations also consist of new stories like her joining the Austin roller derby scene and me traveling for work.  We talk about the people we interact with on a daily basis.  We feel like we know some of each others’ friends even if we’ve never met them before.

If we were both on Snapchat, we’d be able to share these stories instantly.  All of my friends from high school, college, and beyond could live in perfect harmony within my phone.  And that may work for some people, but not me.  It’s far too much work.

I like to try to be fully focused on the stories I’m living now, stopping now and then to touch base with those I’ve shared moments with before.  Sometimes I probably go too long without checking in, but I’m working on that.

Sarah is still one of my best friends.  And when we see each other in person it’s like nothing has changed.  But she’s in Texas, I’m in Ohio, and as much as an app could bring us together virtually, there are still people that she can actually see and be physically close to every day.  Same with me.

Sarah and I discussed this a bit while I was melting last Friday.  We dawned on the fact that we are getting old and starting to shake our heads at new technology.  In the middle of that conversation, the repair guy showed up and I couldn’t talk anymore.  I let her go with the knowledge that I’ll call her again in a few weeks and catch up.

Once my AC was fixed I picked up my phone, made my “It’s going to take a little while for the apartment to cool down, but I’m excited I’m going to be able to sleep without sweating” face, and sent it to her…just in case she was wondering.

A Moment of Thought Leadership

April was a hectic month.  I spent a total of three weeks on the road shooting videos and managing several projects from a remote location, which is never an easy task.  It was grueling.  It was stressful.  It was self-gratifying.

The busier we are, the more important we feel.  Sometimes I think people secretly compete to see who can be the last one in the office just because they believe that the time they spend at work is directly proportional to their productivity.  You may just be watching YouTube videos or chatting on instant messenger until seven o’clock.  You may have arrived at work late or taken a three hour lunch.  You may just type slow and take twice as much time to do a typical workload.  Regardless of the reason, you still feel like you’re the king or queen of the world when you step out into that empty parking lot at the end of the day.  The lot that’s filled with the spaces of your slacker peers.

I used to use our office gym after work and it amazed me how satisfied I felt when I emerged at the end of the day to empty cubicles and dark conference rooms.  I wasn’t even putting in extra work time.  I was literally dragging my sweaty ass across a treadmill for forty minutes.  Yet I still felt, because I was the last to leave, that I was a better employee than everyone else.

The same thing goes for emails.  I still get a feeling of self-satisfaction when I send an email off at 10pm.  I might have just picked up my phone and responded with a simple “ok” to something and then went to bed.  That’s not the point.  The point is that somebody now thinks I was hard at work when I should have been doing personal things like playing video games, doing laundry, or organizing my record collection by the color of the album art.

And then there’s travel.  After returning from a long business trip, I usually set aside one day to gloat about it.  I did it on Friday after I got back from New England

“How was your trip?”  My colleagues asked.

“Just brutal!”  I said.  Then I went on to describe my busy itinerary using words and phrases like “whirlwind,” “jam-packed” and “but it’s part of the job, so…”

“Oh yeah?”  They responded, uninterested.

“Yeah.”  I said.  “I need a drink and then I need to take a few days to recover because of all the busy things I did.  It was so busy!  You don’t even know.  The amount of business that was done was simply staggering.  It was a whirlwind.”

I gave the same response to anyone who asked that day.   This would have applied to a child with Leukemia and a soldier who just returned from Iraq.

It’s misguided.  I’m first to admit that.  I believe an employee should be judged by the work they accomplish and not the amount they appear to work.  Is working late nights or weekends sometimes necessary?  Sure.  Can travel be a pain?  Absolutely.  But if nothing comes out of it, there’s no point.  And not having a life is nothing to be proud of because your hobbies, friends, family and outside experience is going to make you so much more than a mindless drone who brings nothing new to the table.  You might not be “productive” 24/7, but one groundbreaking idea can be worth so much more than a thousand PowerPoints and Excel sheets that are seen once and then tossed.

Do amazing work.  In the end it’s a lot more gratifying than timing all your emails to be sent out several hours after you fall asleep at night.  If you don’t do amazing work, that email trick is certainly worth a try.