On Being a Tugboat Captain

Or, Thoughts on the New Year, 2015 Edition

This is the fourth year in a row I’ve used Tumblr to write an essay for the new year. Read previous year’s musings here.

This is something I do. Every year I write the same essay, looking back on the past year, looking forward to the next, getting deep-and-thought-y, drinking too much coffee, listening to music, feeling big emotions. I still firmly believe that New Year’s is sort of a stupid holiday — in that we put too much stock in it, demanding big things when, at most, it’s just the worst of the drinking holidays. And New Year’s resolutions are gimmicky and too easy to forget about when January becomes February. Still, as I wrote at the end of 2011, there is value in marking the arrival of a new year.

Today’s feelings are muted. 2014 was fine — it was full of a number of personal victories, but still it feels like sort of a throwaway year. Perhaps that will change with time. I did, after all, start this past year feeling just about as low as a person can get. As I wrote last New Year’s, I was completely unsettled, floundering in my work and my life, feeling like everything was basically the worst. I didn’t like myself and had trouble showing those around me that I loved them. In 2014 I got back to equilibrium, which (in light of how I ended 2013) is itself a pretty big victory.

Instead of making resolutions, I make big declarations. 2010 was The Year of the Alex, 2011 was The Year of Good Decisions, 2012 was The Year of Good Work, 2013 was The Year of Getting Right (ha!), 2014 was The Year of Good Returns. I think that title for this past year was pretty accurate.

There was a point, in mid-April, when I was getting pretty down about my attempts to get out of restaurants and back into my career*. I wanted to move from online publishing to doing digital things in traditional book publishing. I was applying for jobs, never hearing anything back, and I felt awful. But an opportunity arose that, through much effort and difficulty, could lead to something good. When faced with the option of re-enrolling in community college to take an internship, which would require me to work seven days a week (commuting into the city for two of them), I found myself in the parking lot of Napa Valley College saying unto myself: “Just do the damn thing.” I did the damn thing, got the internship, got a job, kept working seven days a week across two jobs, moved to Walnut Creek, got myself down to just six days a week in two jobs, and am truly moving forward. Lots of work, but good returns.

Here, an inexhaustive (and non-chronological) list of my victories from the past year. I did these damn things:

  • Ran my first half-marathon in Oakland in March
  • Ran my second and third half-marathons in San Francisco and Walnut Creek
  • Ran my first full marathon in my hometown of Baltimore, coming in 73rd place overall
  • Saw my family in Baltimore twice this fall, both helping satisfy (but also feeding) my growing homesickness
  • Started a new job back on my career track, at a fun little office doing and learning interesting things
  • Started a new restaurant job at a restaurant that, for the first time in a very, very long time, I truly enjoy
  • Moved back into our own apartment after a year with the fiancee’s parents

This next year will be huge, too. I’m getting married in June, and that large event — and the smaller events associated with the big one — will define this coming year in a very real (and very great!) way. But somehow I have this feeling that by the end of this year, I won’t be in all that different of a place. I’ll be married, sure (yay!), but I plan on still being in both of my current jobs — hopefully being more successful in both, but still there — and in my current apartment. But that stability, that unrelenting forward momentum pushing ever slowly and consistently like a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, is its own victory. I’ve never had stability in my adult life. I crave it, and having it will contribute to further growth, further victories, and future adventures.

This, then, is the Year of Stability. It’s the year of moving forward with maturity and consistency and dedication. It’s the year of chugging along like a tugboat.

*Funny. I just re-read last year’s essay and my pessimism about getting out of restaurants is so apparent. I didn’t get out of restaurant work, but I got back into my career, and that’s a victory.

Race Report: San Francisco (Second) Half Marathon

Success is an easy thing to desire, a tricky thing to define, and a trickier thing to achieve. Being successful — or at least considering yourself such — largely depends upon how you’ve decided to define it, what it is that you’ve come to desire. Whatever your definition is, one thing is certain: None of us ever achieves anything without help — some help — from others. Whether it’s a coach, a friend, parents, a loving partner who supports you when you decide to take on a challenge — all of our hard work must be supported by those around us. We’re social creatures.

But of course this is just me being deep-and-thoughty. I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon this past weekend. It went well. I came short of my goals, but still: I consider it a success.

My goals were, admittedly, ambitious. I was shooting for a 6:30 mile, which doesn’t sound too crazy considering I did a 6:49 at the Oakland Half four months ago (my first race ever). With that much time to prep, my second race should be even better. I hurt my foot in May, missing enough training time to basically be training for my second race ever on about a month. But still, felt good.

In the end, I finished in 1:26:36, good for a 6:36 mile pace, 13 seconds per mile better than my Oakland time. See? A success. But I couldn’t help finishing and thinking, “Man. If only I’d pushed myself harder, I’d have done better. Six seconds per mile isn’t that much. I could’ve — should’ve — done 6:30, or even better.”

I wouldn’t have done even that well, though, if I hadn’t been effectively adopted by an ultra-marathoner from Marin County named John. At the start, I noticed a pace group for a 1:25 half-marathon, or a 6:25 pace, a little better than I was aiming for. But I decided to latch onto them as long as I could. One, two, three, four miles fly by, as the course loops around inside Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (The SF Marathon is cool in that it has two half marathons, one for the first half of the full, and another for the second half. I did the second half.) I stuck with them, two pacers are two or three other guys. I’d never intended to use pacers, intending instead to practice the strategy of racing, rather than racing. But this was a chance to push myself as hard as possible, and I couldn’t pass that up.

Somewhere in Haight-Ashbury I started to lose my strength and ultimately lost the pacers, and then the course — which has a couple “alternate” sections where runners are pushed onto different streets to ease congestion — pushed me into one of these alternates. Alone on a different stretch of the course, I decided to use the downhill sections of hilly SF (not to mention the promise of an energy station coming up) to catch them. Shortly after I regained the main course, I caught back up with one of the pacers, who had slowed down to push another one of the runners needing pacing.

“I thought I’d lost you guys,” I said as I pulled up behind them.

“I thought we’d lost you,” said the pacer. The other one was continuing the actual 1:25 pace with another runner maybe 50 yards ahead.

“You had.”

“Way to use the downhills for speed.”

Shortly after, the other guy running with the pacer dropped off, and it was just he and I. Then the other pacer, the one actually going 6:25/mile, lost the last runner going with him. He kept up the pace, and the other stayed back with me, shouting encouragement and generally coaching me through the last 5 miles or so.

At mile 10: “Okay, basically just a 5K left.” I haven’t run a 5K since middle school. I’m not sure what that distance should feel like, but it sure felt longer than it should have. Every time there was a slight uphill section and I slowed, or when I was starting to look fatigued, he’d tell me to push it. Not shout, just instruct. We’ve been running together for an hour, I have no idea who the guy is, but he’s teaching me how to run.

In the middle of a race through one of the most famous cities in the world.

The race itself was fun enough. It was well-organized if a bit crowded, and I don’t think I like the big-popular-city-race thing as much as the smaller race in Oakland.

But point is, I’ve got the bug. I’ve got it really bad. Not sure when the next race is, but there’s only one option: to keep running, to keep improving, and to recognize the people who help you every step of the way.

Another Year, Same Essay: Thoughts on the New Year for 2014

This year’s Thoughts on the New Year essay is very long and personal. The tl;dr is that the last couple of years have been rough financially and professionally but this year will be better. Also I got engaged this year and have a great little family with my fiancee and my cat and that pretty much makes 2013 a success.

There is a moment every morning — usually when I’m elbow deep in our fryer cleaning it out with a hose and heavy-duty degreaser, or maybe when I’m getting the three-sink system setup for that day’s service — that I start to question most every decision I’ve ever made. From high school through the present day, I can see a pattern of decision-making that has led me farther and farther away from my passions and talents, simultaneously taking me deeper and deeper in debt. I’ve gone from passionate about life and writing and music and sports, independent financially and flourishing mentally, to having to rely heavily on my and my fiancee’s families’ social and financial capital in a way that I neverĀ ever wanted to have to.

I have no idea how to get out of the hole that I’m in, but I do know that cleaning the fryer isn’t paying the bills and any prospect I have right now will take me even farther away from that professional mountain I’m trying to climb. All of this and more goes through my head every day before 11 a.m.

At the end of 2011, I wrote the first of my now-annual New Year’s essays, which I doubt anyone reads but which feel are a little more honest or accountable than if I just wrote them privately. I don’t make resolutions but I try to establish themes for the coming year, which I started before these essays: 2010 was the Year of the Alex, 2011 was the Year of Good Decisions (ha!), 2012 was the Year of Good Work, and this past year, as stressors really started wearing on me, was the Year of Getting Right.

Did I Get Right this past year? Oh hell no. but maybe it’s the coffee, maybe it’s the good music, maybe it’s knowing that no matter what I’ve got a support system that will keep me off the streets — whatever it is, for some reason I feel oddly hopeful about 2014. This is going to be a Year of Good Returns.

First, a little more about this past year: 2013 wasn’t all bad. I got engaged, and that’s more awesome than I could ever say. As things got really bad for us in New York and it became clear we needed a change (and also needed to move in with one or the other set of parents), we moved across the country. That was an extraordinary drive and a great American experience. As sad as I am to have left New Orleans, and as homesick as I get these days for my childhood/youth/early adulthood in Baltimore, Northern California is spectacular, and we’re lucky to be here. Through fall I worked an incredible harvest job — best job I’ve ever had, only it was so short — where I just drove around to different parts of wine country and worked hard, and I’ve never felt so good. And I love my fiancee’s family, so it’s nice being close to them, even if sometimes I really miss having my own space.

After harvest has been difficult, but it wasn’t all bad. There’s plenty to build on for this coming year.

So, what do I mean by the Year of Good Returns? One sense is the more obvious one: By putting good work in (hello 2012!) I expect to get good returns out. In this sense it’s a way of building on this past year’s attempt at recalibration, but with more of a focus on working hard to get there, and expecting good things to come out of it.

But in another sense, this is a way of calling for a return to the parts of my past that I’m so proud of. Writing, music, sports: my life used to revolve around these things, and I was on the verge of becoming really good at all of the above before getting completely lost.

These New Year’s essays always feature music in one way or another. In 2012 it was the Muppets’ Rainbow Connection, last year it was the Spanish version of You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story 3. Notably, this year as I write this I can’t stop listening to Alexi Murdoch’s Orange Sky, a song that I intimately associate with senior year of high school, but which also features prominently in that great Maya Rudolph movie Away We Go. (“Are we fuckups,” Rudolph’s character asks her boyfriend John Krasinski. “We’re not fuck-ups,” he responds. “I think we’re fuck-ups,” she decides. I think about this movie all the time.)

I want to return to the things I used to be so good at, and stop being a whole lot of unfulfilled raw potential and started doing something. Unlike most years, I’m making some tangible, measurable goals to achieve this:

  • Run two half-marathons and one full marathon
  • Practice guitar regularly, and perform live at least once by the end of the year
  • Brush up on my Chicago Manual of Style and APA citation, and begin freelance copy-editing academic papers
  • Launch my Northern California culture blog, “Monarch y Mariano,” by March
  • Begin work on super-secret creative endeavor

I will do these things, and I will feel better about myself, and I will love myself and be better able to show my love for those around me. And even if I’m still working in a restaurant, these will be all the good returns I need.

Happy 2013 to all.