Monday, December 31, 2018

My Silver Linings

2018 was a tough year.

One year ago, at the end of 2017, I made an end-of-year video showing all of the places we had gone as a family, the activities we had done, and the experiences we had shared.

It is now one year later and very little in my life looks the same. Still though I wanted to make an end-of-year video again this year. Yes my life is different, but I am still alive. Life has moved forward one day at a time, and despite loss and sadness and pain, there has been healing and growth and wonderful moments along the way.

The challenge with any end-of-year video is picking the right song. With my big beard I am required by law to listen only to hipster music, so I chose a song I love from the band First Aid Kit, a Swedish folk duo (you have probably never heard of them). The song is “My Silver Lining” and some of the lyrics feel like they were taken straight from my life:

I've woken up in a hotel room
My worries as big as the moon
Having no idea who or what or where I am

I definitely have had my share of hotel rooms this year, as my training and consulting has taken me to 19 states all across the country and even a couple of places in Canada. It is probably different for everyone, but when I go through a difficult time, the mornings are always the hardest. I think it is because I have not had time to get my defenses up for the day, and am hit full force with the cold, hard reality of what I am facing. There’s been a lot of that this year. And a lot of trying to figure out who I am.

Something good comes with the bad
A song's never just sad
There's hope, there's a silver lining

Yes, it has been a very difficult year. There are many things I have lost and that I miss and will probably continue to miss for a long time. But there are also things I have found. There has been good along the way.

  • I have met so many amazing people during my travels this year. New friendships have begun and old friendships have deepened.
  • I have gone places and had experiences I never had before, from the tranquility of Stanley Park in Vancouver, to the dazzling Christmas lights along the Riverwalk of San Antonio, to the Skyline Caverns of Virginia, to the quaint Jello Museum of Le Roy, New York, and so many more.
  • I have played with my beautiful grandson, and felt my heart leap as he looked me in the eyes and joyfully exclaimed “Pa Pa!”
  • I have learned to embrace and enjoy life just for life. To see the beauty all around me. To be at peace with myself.
  • And I grew a big beard.

Show me my silver lining
I try to keep on keeping on

And so I have and will keep moving forward, one day at a time, looking for and finding the silver linings all around. And they are there. Yes, life is challenging and unpredictable and painful, but it also has joy and beauty and wonder. We need to look for, embrace, and celebrate these silver linings.

My end-of-year video for 2018 shares some of these wonderful moments from my life this year. Thank you to everyone who was a part of my life this year in any way! You helped more than you may ever know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

It’s OK to Leaf it Behind

I have a difficult time letting go of things. I like to think that is a good attribute. I stick to my promises. I am stubborn. I never give up. Sometimes though, letting go is exactly what we need to do, even if it is not very easy.

  • Relationships end.
  • Careers change.
  • Hopes and dreams and plans do not always work out. 

Our instinct can be to try to hold onto these things, with our thoughts, with our hearts, with our actions, well past the time when we should have healed and moved forward. I have been thinking a lot about that. And trees. And leaves.

You see when it is autumn here in Ohio I love to watch the leaves change color and fall to the ground. It is absolutely beautiful to go for a bike ride along the Cuyahoga Valley towpath surrounded by a world of reds and oranges and yellows. Unfortunately that also means raking up several dozen bags of leaves in my yard from all of my trees, but that’s a small price to pay for the crisp air and colorful canvas of the fall.

As I was considering the trees and leaves, I realized how much autumn has to do with this problem of letting go. The trees can teach us a lot about ourselves and what we need to do. Here’s what I mean…

Let’s say I am a tree. And you are a tree. We are all trees.

Our leaves are the many different aspects of our lives. Our spouses or loved ones. Our friends. Our coworkers. Our jobs, hobbies, interests, hopes, dreams, passions. The things we pour ourselves into, and often define ourselves by.

But from time to time the seasons change and winter approaches. This happens for trees every year. We as people also have winters in our lives.

I don't know what it is for you, but I am sure you have faced many winters in your life. Some of mine have come in the form of crucial relationships that ended through death or divorce. Another from the end of a career that was an integral part of my identity. All left me blindsided, hurt, angry, and confused.

When the fall and winter come for a tree, what happens? Of course we all know they lose their leaves. But why do they lose their leaves? Take a moment and think about that.

Here is where a common misunderstanding often comes in. If you ask most people why a tree loses its leaves in the fall, you will probably get an answer that is only partially correct. They may say something about the days getting shorter, so there is less sunlight, so the leaves can’t make enough energy through photosynthesis, so the leaves die, and then finally after they have died they fall off of the tree.

Actually that is not true. Leaves don’t fall. They get pushed.

You see only the first part of that explanation is correct. The days do get shorter, temperatures do drop, there is less sunlight, and leaves are unable to make as much energy. This also leads to the leaves changing colors as the lack of photosynthesis allows other dormant colors in the leaf to show through. But that’s where the explanation goes off the tracks. The leaves do not die and just fall off the tree.

Think about this… Have you ever cut a branch off of a tree that was covered with leaves? Or maybe came across one on the ground that broke off during a storm? What did you notice about the leaves? If the branch lays on the ground for long enough, the leaves will most certainly become brown and withered and dead. However, they will not have fallen off. Instead the leaves will still be clinging to the branch just as tight as when they were alive. Why is this?

Well here’s what really happens with trees and leaves…

When a leaf is first grown, the tree also creates a special row of cells between the leaf and the tree called the abscission layer (same root as the word “scissors”). When the autumn brings changes to the leaf (lack of sunlight, colder temperatures, etc.) the cells in the abscission layer begin to extend and separate from each other. You can’t see this with the naked eye, but a microscope will show this clearly. These cells are just like a zipper being unzipped. The tree literally uses the abscission layer to cut the leaf away from the tree while the leaf is still alive. When the leaf falls, it is because the tree cut it loose and let it go.

Maybe we shouldn’t call this time of the year “the fall” but instead call it “the push”.

But why does a tree do this? Why does it let go of its leaves? There are actually many reasons why this is the best thing for the tree to do:

  • First, leaves contain water, which is fine during the warmer months, but would actually freeze in the winter, expanding and destroying the cells of the leaves.
  • Next, even though the leaves usually make energy for the tree, in the winter they can no longer do so. Instead the leaves would actually use up valuable energy to be maintained, during a season when the tree needs all of the energy it has left to survive itself.
  • Also, many leaves are beginning to show wear and tear by the end of the year, from wind and bugs and disease.
  • Finally, winter brings snow and ice. While rain may run off a leaf in the summer, snow and ice will cling to the leaves in the winter, weighing them down so much that the branches will crack and break, and the tree itself will be destroyed.

When the autumn comes and winter is approaching, a tree lets go of its leaves for its own survival, with the hope that it will live through the winter and have a chance for new life in the spring.

And just like a tree, there are times in our lives when we need to let go. Let go of a relationship. A job. A dream. Memories. Plans. Unforgiveness. Hurt. Anger. Regret. Guilt.

Holding onto these things occupies our thoughts, consumes our energy, weighs us down, threatens to bend and break and destroy us.

Sometimes we need to let go. To find out who we are at our core. To tend to ourselves. To hope that we too will survive the winter and have a chance for new life in the spring.

It doesn’t mean you are a loser. It doesn’t mean you are a quitter. It doesn’t mean you are a failure.

It means you accept that something has come to an end, and you are ready to move forward, to heal, to recover. And eventually the winter will end, and the sun will shine, and you will have the chance to regrow. New relationships, new dreams, new plans, a new life.

It's ok to let go.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Full Bleed

Back when I was in high school I was the editor for our school yearbook. I learned loads of publishing skills including developing photos in a dark room (with actual chemicals, as this was way before anything digital), writing corny captions, and designing creative layouts.

As part of making layouts, I learned the term "full bleed". This is when you take a photo, or some text, or any design element and run it right up to, or even over, the edge of the page. Normally you would have a margin around each page, but with full bleed you have a picture that breaks out of the traditional constraints and extends off the edge.

For high school yearbooks, full bleed is a good thing. For your life, it is not.

Far too often in my life I have been existing in a state of full bleed. Filling every square inch of my time, pushing myself to the edge, living without margins. Fully bleeding myself out.

For me one of the greatest reasons for this is technology. Now don't get me wrong, I love technology and it can certainly be a force for good, as it has often been in my life. Technology has allowed me to make amazing friends from around the world, improve education for children, and have a rewarding career.

But there is also a dangerous side to technology. It is so powerful and so convenient and so expansive, it can consume your entire life if you let it.

  • There will always be another email to read or write.
  • There is always one more blog post or website or YouTube video to explore.
  • The Twitter stream is actually an unending river.
  • Facebook has no bottom. You can scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll forever and you will never reach the end.

And it is all very justifiable.

  • Retweeting a great resource from an edtech friend.
  • Staying up until 1 AM writing a new blog post on a creative way to use a Google tool.
  • Working late to record a webinar to teach others.
  • Squeezing in time to stay up to date on the latest and greatest tech tools through podcasts or Facebook groups or RSS feeds.

Unfortunately our culture rewards full bleed. We wear bags under our eyes like a badge of honor, and take pride in how few hours of sleep we can get by on.

But we need margin in our lives. We need time that is not committed.

Margin is there for our safety. Think of the guardrail along the side of a twisting mountain road. It provides a space between you and a hundred foot plummet. There is no actual danger at the guardrail. The danger is another six feet away. The margin is there for when, not if, there is an accident, so there will be room to swerve and adjust and recover.

In the same way, life will go wrong. Maybe an unexpected illness, or loss of a job, or end of a marriage, or passing of a loved one. We need margin in our lives to see the warning signs, to have time to make changes, to avoid making things even worse.

But margins are not just about avoiding the bad. Margins are where real life can happen. In a book we use the margins to jot down notes about what we have learned, how we have been inspired, and what we want to explore. The same can be true in life.

When we work ourselves to the bone, fill up every spare moment, and split our attentions multiple ways, we can miss out on the best of life.

  • Life happens in the margins.
  • Life happens when we take the time to have a meal with a friend.
  • Life happens when we turn off our phone and look someone in the eyes and actually listen to what they are saying.
  • Life happens when we walk away from the computer and take a walk through the woods.
  • Life happens when we intentionally choose to do nothing. To give ourselves the gift of no agenda. To stop. To be present. To play. To simply live in the moment. To see the wonders all around us that are so easy to miss.

I don't share these thoughts as someone who has this figured out. I share this as the guilty party. Far too often I have lived in full bleed, with no margin in my life.

But I am trying to change.

You may have noticed my production of technology resources has slowed quite a bit. I have not blogged as frequently or made as many videos or shared as many tweets. I am still doing these things, but not as much. I am trying to find margin.

I have been catching up with old friends. I have been playing with my grandson. I have been questing in World of Warcraft with my daughter and son-in-law. I have been weeding and painting and cleaning. I have been reading books and going for walks and listening to music.

And I encourage you to do the same. When you work, work well. But know when to stop, to play, to live.

Leave margin in your life. And I will leave margin in mine. And I hope to meet you there.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Passwords and Positive Self-talk

I have never been really good at positive self-talk. And there I go again. That is a great example of how I am not very good at it.

However, I do believe in the power of self-talk, both positive and negative, to have a great impact on our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Psychology tells us that what we say aloud to ourselves really makes a difference. Negative statements can bring us down, while positive, encouraging words can build us up. It may be just bit by bit, but every bit makes an impact over time.

Historically I just have not been very successful at taking advantage of this. If anything, my self-talk is often negative, pointing out where I fell short, or forgot to do something, or let someone down, or don’t feel well, or am tired. Hearing these words from my own mouth day after day after day becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I have been working on how to improve this.

At first when I think of positive self-talk, I can’t help but visualize Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live. I can see him sitting in front of his mirror saying “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”. As much as I love that character, I am not sure if that approach fits my personality.

As I have said many times before, I am a nerd. So I have been trying out a technology solution to this problem.


Yep, I said passwords.  Passwords are something everyone has, and probably more than one. They are also something that we have to type in often, maybe multiple times per day.

Plus it is important to have a strong password that will not be easily hacked, to improve your security. A common suggestion for this is to use a passphrase rather than a password. A passphrase is a group of words or even an entire sentence. Since it is a sentence conveying an entire thought, a passphrase can be much easier to remember. Of course you can still get creative with capital letters, numbers in place of some letters, and use of punctuation.

So I have decided to make my passwords stronger, and in the process try to make myself stronger as well.

What I have been testing out is making my passphrase a sentence of positive talk. It could be anything like:

  • 4GiveYourselfAndMoveOn!
  • BTheChangeUWant2C!
  • Stop&CTheGood2Day!
  • I*Love*MyselfAsIAm!
  • IAmGr8ful4MyLife!

There are endless possibilities for the positive passphrase you could use. The key is to choose something that builds you up, helps you heal through the pain, and grow toward your goals. Something that acknowledges your value and the value of others. Something that helps you process the past and embrace the present. It will be unique for you.

On our work domain we have to change our password every three months. Of course I can change it sooner if I want. On my Google accounts I can change them anytime I wish. The point is I am now creating a passphrase with a positive message for myself.

Now for the next three months, day after day, maybe multiple times per day, I have to type in that message. When I log into my work computer first thing in the morning. When I unlock it after lunch. When I log in on a different computer for a training. And on and on.

Each time I do this, I am reading a message I sent to myself weeks ago. I am being reminded of a powerful encouraging truth that can help me heal and move forward in my life.

And sometimes it is perfectly timed. I have had those mornings at work when life has not gone well. Maybe nobody in the cubicles around me know that I am struggling, that I feel like a failure, that Facebook just had to choose this morning to show me a picture from 9 years ago of a happier time, that I am feeling lonely, that I am anxious, that I am depressed, that I am angry.

And then I type in my password. A message from myself to myself. It reminds me to forgive, to grieve, to stop beating myself up, to find the beauty, to take one day at a time, maybe even just one step at a time. And sometimes that is exactly what I need.

So everyone needs better passwords. Well if this is something you are going to have to type in hundreds of times over the coming weeks or months, then I encourage you to choose something that will literally encourage you. Create a passphrase of positive self-talk. Strengthen your password and strengthen yourself!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Broken Legs and Broken Lives

Time heals all wounds.

I am sure you have had someone tell you that before. Maybe you were going through a painful relationship breakup or the end of your marriage. Perhaps you lost a loved one. Or maybe all you had built, your career or business or life’s work, came to an unexpected end.

In such situations, well-meaning people will often try to encourage you by saying, "Time heals all wounds."

And they're not entirely wrong, but they are also not entirely correct. Time does heal all wounds, but that doesn’t mean it always heals them right. To understand this we need to think about a broken bone.

Let’s say you break your leg (skiing, or in a car wreck, or trying to do the floss dance). Given time, the broken bone will heal.

  • First your body will form a blood clot around the break to help fill the gap and send in needed cells.
  • Next these cells will start to produce cartilage between the broken portions to join the bones back together.
  • Finally, real bone forms to complete the healing of the break.

The entire process can take months or even years, but time will heal the wound. The question is... will it heal properly?

To make sure it heals correctly, what do we use? We put on a cast.

The purpose of the cast (besides giving friends something to sign) is to stabilize the leg and keep the broken bones properly aligned. That way when the bone repairs itself, it will heal straight.

Without a cast the bone will heal, but it can heal crooked. This could make it difficult or impossible to walk or run correctly, or could cause pain for the rest of your life from sore muscles and inflamed tendons and ligaments.

So what does this have to do with emotional pain? Well having a broken leg is a lot like having a broken life. In both cases:

  • You are in perpetual pain.
  • You find you can’t function like normal, not even being able to do the simplest routine tasks.
  • It gets especially difficult at night when you are not able to fall asleep.
  • And the medications, given to help with the pain, end up making your head fuzzy so it is hard to think straight.

But just like having a broken bone, when you have brokenness in your life you need to put on a cast. A life cast.

While time is healing your wounded heart, you need to surround yourself with things that will make sure it is healing straight and true. These things will likely be different for different people, but may include many of the following:

  • Get rest and sleep. Let your mind and heart and body recover. Your mind is most likely filled with anxiety or regrets or anger. You need to turn it off at night, so you can think more clearly the next day.
  • Get exercise. It can be walking or jogging or biking or yoga or playing a sport or lifting weights. Just do something you enjoy that moves your body and races your heart and tires your muscles. It may hurt but it will make you stronger and healthier and release those wonderful needed endorphins. Lately I have discovered orienteering which for me is an awesome combination of exercise, hiking, and problem solving.
  • Eat well. Unfortunately my “go to” food of choice in a crisis is Ben and Jerry’s Cinnamon Roll ice cream, which may just be the most delicious thing ever created. Nutrition is one of the first things we let slip when we are hurting, but a suffering body makes everything else in life seem worse.
  • Do a hobby. Maybe something you have always wanted to try. Or maybe an old favorite pastime you let slip away. Do something you enjoy. Write, paint, build, read, travel, cook, craft, woodwork, play games, or such. As I have been working through my pain, I have been taking time to write again as a way to be creative, but also to process my feelings.
  • Connect with others. As an introvert by nature, this one can be especially difficult for me, but we are not meant to be alone. We need to spend time with others to share life, to find and give encouragement, and to get our butts off the couch and our minds off our own problems for a while. If you don’t know where to begin, the Meetup app for your phone is a great way to find local groups of people who share your interests and hobbies.
  • See a counselor. Talking to friends is wonderful and encouraged, but it is so helpful to also have someone you can say anything to with no concern about hurting their feelings or straining your relationship. We need an outside perspective from someone who is not too close to the situation, to help us see clearly.

In short, fill your life with things that bring you healing and strength and joy. Whatever those things may be. Do the things now that you want “Future You” to be doing, five years from now when you have come out on the other side of this stronger and healthier. Do these things because they are your life cast.

Without these things, the wound will close and the bone will mend, but it may be crooked and you will find yourself living with unforgiveness and bitterness and self-destructive habits.

Just like you would put a cast on your broken leg, surround your life now with a cast of self-care, connections, and healthy activities. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. There will still be nights of pain and days of frustration. But day by day, sometimes hour by hour, you will heal. And you will heal true and straight and strong.

Time heals all wounds. Make sure your wounds heal well.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Eric version 8.0

I am turning 49 years old. That is not typically thought of as a milestone the way next year will be when I hit 50. However it still has significance for me.

You see I am a bit of a nerd. As humans we usually like nice round numbers like 40 and 50, but 49 is special too. It is a multiple of seven, actually a square of seven, and seven has a scientific connection.

Every day cells in our bodies wear down, die off, and then get replaced with new cells. Some do this quickly, like skin cells every two to four weeks. Some take a longer time, like bone cells that can last up to ten years. But on the average, scientists estimate it takes about seven years for every cell in your body to be completely replaced.

So every seven years you are literally a new person.

Well I am turning 49, so I have replaced every cell in my body seven times, and this is now going to be the 8th version of me. Eric version 8.0. Of course that sent me down the existential rabbit hole, asking the question “So who am I exactly?”

It reminded me of the ancient philosophical thought experiment “The Ship of Theseus”. It goes like this… Let's say there is a famous ship commanded by the hero Theseus as he travels the world, winning great battles. Over time though, parts of the ship start to wear out and break. So the crew replaces those parts as needed with identical new pieces. New boards. New sails. New ropes. But exactly the same. Eventually every single piece has worn down and been replaced while Theseus and his crew continue to sail the ship.

Here’s the question… Is it still the same ship? Even though it looks the same and has never stopped sailing, there is not one single piece of the original boat left.

I feel a lot like that ship. I have traveled a long way, fought many battles (won many and lost many), seen amazing sights, made mistakes, had adventures, and bit by bit have changed myself seven times over.

I have been...

A son of a father who struggled with alcoholism and who lost that struggle when I was eleven.

A husband to my college sweetheart, but seventeen years later I no longer was.

A husband a second time, and a step-father to three amazing boys, but after nine years I found myself alone again.

A father to my wonderful daughter, and a grandfather to her beautiful baby boy.

But like the ship of Theseus, who am I?

On one hand I feel like I am all of these people. I am 7 and 14 and 21 and 28 and 35 and 42 and 49. All of those experiences will always be a part of me.

But on the other hand I know I am something new. In so many ways I have changed. My hair has moved from my head to my face. My knees make popping noises they should not. I take pictures of my prescription bottles with my cell phone just so I can zoom in to be able to read the tiny directions. But I have also changed internally... many of my opinions and beliefs and goals and dreams. I am not the person I used to be, and that's ok.

I am a new person. Seven more years have passed and the ship of Theseus has once again been replaced board by board.

So now I am pulling out of the dock again and heading out on my eighth voyage. It's a new life. With the wind to my back and the sun to my face I am eager to see where my next travels take me, the people I will meet, and the adventures that await.