Running as a Business

Disclaimer: I wrote the below post for a freelance project to compare preparation for race-running to digital marketing best practices. I ghost-wrote for a gentleman who competed in an IronMan Race, and he requested an overall rewrite. I thought I could repurpose the original version here, as it is pretty good. 

Last year, I competed in the New Jersey IronMan Triathlon. Of course, while I was diligently prepared to compete in the race, on race day, as I lined up next to thousands of competitors, I was somewhat apprehensive. Throughout the course of the race, I had much time to think of how the preparation that goes into competing in race like the IronMan mirrors closely the careful and persistent work that is required to run a comprehensive digital campaign. After the race, I was able to jot down a few of those thoughts, and I have collated them here in the hopes of imparting some wisdom. 

    1. Running a race requires a serious, goal-oriented, persistent mindset.

Much thought in business is given to how to develop key performance indicators, or how to set out to achieve goals that seem unrealistic. In the same way, an individual who is preparing for a race must take part in what University of Colorado professor Jim Collins calls “The Twenty Mile March.” First appearing in his book Good to Great, Collins writes of how the first teams attempting to reach the South Pole took differing approaches. One ultimately unsuccessful trip tried to take the 1,400 mile round trip in big chunks, relying on intuition and talent. The second, successful team set themselves up to simple march 20 miles, no more or no less, every day, regardless of their supply level, their ability, or the weather conditions.

 

good to great

Of course, in the end, the successful team, led by an individual named Roald Adumson, was the one who prepared thoroughly while setting realistic, achieveable daily goals. As I ran in the New Jersey Triathalon, this mental imagery stuck with me: in my preparation both for the race and in running my digital work campaigns, I was naturally more of 20 Mile Marcher, and not a “get-by-on-talent” type. In any significant endeavor, whether it is running a race or running a marketing campaign or running to the South Pole, diligence and preparation are key. Without preparation, you are selling yourself short.

  1. Technology is on your side: use it!

A key to being able to prepare and perform at a high level is to embrace technology and use it to your advantage. When I was training for the IronMan, I used apps like Digifit to track and achieve my optimal heart rate, to make sure I was consistently hitting the precisely perfect number of strokes when swimming. I became very much used to learning about myself and my body in ways most people never imagine. I found that I needed a specific amount of strokes in the pool to achieve my fastest time, or that, when riding dozens of miles on my bike, I should take drinks of water at specific times. I essentially was able to apply the scientific method to my body; using, as an example, at times I need to skip breakfast before training in the morning, and in those cases I realized that I would need to run at a slower pace for a certain amount of time, simply to make up for the lack of energy and resources of which my body was in possession.

Similarly, when running a digital marketing campaign, quantification and analytics makes the difference between a company that is surviving and thriving. The creation of Key Performance Indicators, is, of course, always vital. But the microscopic changes you make on a tactical level are as vital. If you are running a digital marketing campaign, and your Google Analytics account indicates that social media is not necessarily acquiring the requisite amount of customers, then your messaging and cost per click needs to be analyzed, and consideration should be given to see if your funds would be better spent within the Google Display Network or on Google AdWords. The amount of data delivered by most digital platforms nearly overwhelms, but, by sifting through it and applying the same scientific method you apply when training for an extreme endurance campaign, you can end up at the front of the pack, so to speak.

  1. Multiple parts results in compounding ROI’s

    I was lucky enough to have a natural advantage in competing in races like the IronMan, in that I had always been an avid swimmer at my school’s’ pool. Even more advantageous was the fact that, in my native town in Spain, each and every individual traveled around the very hilly town on bicycles, myself included. Running was, luckily for me, the only aspect of the race that I needed to improve upon–you can say I got great return on investment of simply beginning to run on a treadmill, because I had natural abilities in swimming and biking.

Going outside of the IronMan race and applying the idea of ROI to team-based races such as The Ragnar Relay Series or The Tough Mudder, the people with whom you run the race quickly create the compounding ROI. In these races, there are different types of terrain or different types of obstacles for your team to conquer, and each individual comes with a different set of talents to get over those obstacles; some individuals have upper body strength, which helps in conquering The Tough Mudder’s monkey bars, or others might run at a slower pace, which helps when heading straight uphill in the Ragnar. Similarly, when running an integrated marketing campaign, display advertisements might be best for creating general awareness, direct emails might be best for pushing customers to your website, and social media methods might be good for final conversion of sale. Whatever way you piece the team or the campaign together, know that, in the end, the combination of pieces is worth more than the sum of the parts.

tough-mudder

  1. In the end, both races and marketing result in what is called “flow.”

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly speaks of how highly-talented professionals, when they are practicing their craft, easily become engaged in Flow, and how they are easily their happiest when in this state. Flow is a state of optimal concentration with the activity at hand. I find that Csikszentmihaly’s state of flow often comes to me while running; after extreme distances, beyond, say, twenty miles, I often arrive at state of listening to my instincts, no longer thinking about training or work or marketing, but rather, experience a kind of free-form open emptiness in which continuing to run is the only thought in my mind. In short, that particular state of flow is one in which I am truly free.

    Similarly, I could never imagine myself doing anything besides what I do. Running a startup bootcamp, executing digital marketing strategy, and teaching others about it–these are things that create in me a sense of oneness with the activity at hand. Writing this article, even, fills me with a similar sense of unity. It is something that is very hard to describe, but time seems to move at a slower pace when I am in this state, and the task at hand is all that matters. Csikszentmihaly makes it the most clear in his work, and, whether you call it flow, zen, or just plain having fun, a person is most truly his- or herself when they are in this state.

flow-cover

    And, sadly, it is time for me to get out of my current state of flow. I wish to leave you with the hope that, whether it is because of your work or because of your workout, you end up consistently achieving that sense of flow. There is nothing else like it.

Drive Them Into the Sea

While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

 -Eugene V. Debs, labor organizer, five-time presidential candidate, most successful third-party candidate in American history.

Socialist.

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Eugene V. Debs himself. Sometimes I wear a shirt with his picture on it.

Continue reading Drive Them Into the Sea

Social Killed the Video Star

So, over the course of the last few days, Democrats, led by Representative John Lewis, have been staging a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. They have been sitting in there in what would be the media darkness, protesting in favor of gun control laws, but there is a slight difference this time.

That difference is called Periscope.

Periscope is a live video streaming platform that has only come around in the last year or so, but it is quickly becoming hugely influential. When the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan ended the session of Congress, aiming to short-circuit the head of steam the Democrats had by incorporating the July 4th holiday in his adjournment, the CSPAN cameras had to be turned off.

However, in the pocket of a random representative was Periscope, and the ability to sending a live broadcast to thousands of people instaneously, without major television networks and the censorship that their production schedules, their capacities, and their limited viewing audiences create. All of the sudden, CSPAN, and others such as the LA Times and every other online news source tapped into the phone of Representative Scott Peters, and now we are left with #NoBillNoBreak, a civil rights style protest led by John Lewis, the last living leader of the March on Washington, a man who spoke after Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech. 

So, I’m not going to go into detail about the logistics of the protest, or who is on which side, or who is right.

The direction I want to go in concerns the decline of traditional television.

I, myself, do not have cable, haven’t in the past, and do not plan on getting it in the future. And I think services like Periscope will signal the decline of those vast, customer-unfriendly, price-fixing behemoths such as Comcast and AT&T.

Think about it. Streaming live video is the last bastion of these empires. Currently, a significant portion of viewing audiences under a certain age watch their traditional television programming through innovative companies such as Netflix, Hulu (which is owned by Hulu), Amazon Prime Instant, YouTube, or some other platform. The only reason I’d consider going back to cable is for sports-watching purposes, but, with the rise of streaming services such as Periscope, I can picture a situation where a front-row fan season ticket holder is offered a discount by a company like Periscope or Facebook Live to broadcast the game unfolding in front of him.

Me? I’d much rather watch the live stream from a phone, because 1. The camera angles at the top of the arena totally lack intimacy and nuance of the game. 2. I can see the game AT ICE LEVEL (to use hockey as an example) which is an experience I will pretty much never have otherwise.

Just a word of caution, though, before we go adopting these new platforms, I go celebrating, or trying to implement such a business plan–the only thing holding up the rise of video streaming are Internet speeds. In order to stream video to mobile devices, or, more so, from mobile devices, the Internet and cell phone network speeds are the limiting factor, especially when it’s live.

Guess who controls those?

Yeah, that’s right, traditionally media companies. The technology is there. It exists in South Korea–people there make tons of money by simply live streaming themselves gorging on copious amounts of food— but we are just steps away from holding a similarly weird level of sway over the type of content we want to view.

You probably thought I was joking, didn’t you?

There was legislation on monopolies and price fixing surrounding Internet streaming speeds years ago, and, I promise, if there is again, I will be the first person to tell you.

Because his is how we determine who we want to be. This is we circumvent old, tired, and dying institutions, such as the US House of Representatives or Comcast.

This is how we #takethepowerback.

That Meaningless Word

I first heard the word when I was eleven years, two months, and some-odd days old. I was sitting in computer class at Saint John Fisher Elementary School, a Catholic grade school on the South Side of Chicago.

That day, of course, was September 11th, 2001, and the word was used in a quick rush to blame individuals for attacks in Washington, DC, New York City, and an empty field in Pennsylvania. That day, as I’ve written multiple times before, essentially marks the first time I thought of the world outside of the crusty Irish-Catholic neighborhood I came from. That day changed a lot. Nothing else was like it or could be like it again.

But the word–that word stayed the same, and it would be applied over and over and over, until today, to describe senseless acts of violence and hate.

That word is the word “Terrorist.”

These images still give people chills. And they should. But they are no longer part of our every day.

When I first heard it, it was by a math teacher who was trying to describe to eleven-year-old me why people on the television screen were burning flags and chanting when those buildings fell and thousands died. That teacher wrongly blamed “Palestinian terrorists” in the early moments, but at the end of the day, he could have said any type of terrorist, because apparently that word can be used to describe just about anything or anyone willing to hurt others to instill fear.

Since that day, we’ve had white supremacist terrorists killing African-American churchgoers as they welcomed him into their house of worship. We’ve had multiple anarcho-terrorists go to town on unsuspecting movie theaters or theater-style classrooms, mowing down strangers just because he, the shooter, sought violence on a scale that could not be inflicted in small amounts. We’ve had a young man lower his weapon on 26 children, and, everyone forgets, his own mother, for no reason other than he was sick and needed help.

The word terrorist more often gets attached to the shootings perpetrated by individuals of color, but, trust me, it’s been used to describe every cast, creed, and type of American citizen, including the individual who committed the attacks in Orlando yesterday. Most, if not all, are men, but all are equally “terrorists” if they kill more than a handful of people in an intentional way.

What strikes me about this is the context in which I first learned of “Terrorists.” It was in a dedicated, soulless attack by individuals from a foreign, nation-less entity called al-Qaeda. I knew then, all my friends knew then, all my peers knew then, that the world would never be the same.

But what came as unexpected was that the future attacks would rarely, if ever, come from outside entities, ever again. Those “terrorists” who decide to kill groups of people at once–since 9/11, they all have been Americans. They have all come from inside of homes like ours, in places we know of and could easily envision ourselves thriving within.

So what’s the point?

First, I’d love to ban the word “Terrorist.” It gets applied in a way that adds no description to anything. It’s a word like “Stuff” or “Things” or “Very”–It can be added to any act of violence to lengthen media copy to no effect at all. The height of American head-up-assery, to me, was the part of the Benghazi hearings in which the committee members sparred with Hillary Clinton to get her to admit the embassy attack was a “terrorist” attack. What value does that designation carry anymore?

But, really, truly what I’m asking for is an assessment of our priorities. Since September 11th, 2001, there has never, ever been another act of violence perpetrated by a foreign entity on American soil that even approached double-digits. There has essentially been no deaths from foreign organizations on American soil. Our gigantic defense budget and acquiescence to a 1984-ish surveillance state has ensured that.

This type of assessment focuses on gun violence in America.

It focuses on the state of our crumbling relationships between police and the communities they police.

It focuses on how people, normal, born-in-America Americans with a capital A can walk into a store on Wednesday with the intent of purchasing a weapon capable of killing dozens of people instantly and actually execute that mass killing of people on Saturday, or, in some cases, even sooner.

None of these people who have murdered handfuls at Sandy Hook or Aurora or Ft. Hood or the Navy Yard or Northern Illinois or Virginia Tech or Oregon or Ft. Hood again or Columbine or Pulse Nightclub-none of them were acting in conjunction with any other ‘terrorist’ actors besides, possibly, the voices in their head.

This time, the shooter acted to hurt people because men kissing each other bothered him, but does “Why” really matter when there have been so many “Why’s?”

Each and everyone simply desired to hurt a ton of people.

Our national culture said that that’s okay, and gave that person the weapons to do so.

And so it happened.

The conversation I wish to start, wish to consider, starts with guns, but essentially asks the following:

The amount of damage an outsider can do to the United States of America pales in comparison to the amount of damage we can and do commit against ourselves on a daily basis.

Why is that so?

If you find the answer, let me know, because I have no idea.

Infinite Water

I once went on a single date with a girl who attended Yale.

She was a computer science major who was working as a software development consultant for an international business conglomerate. We spent the whole night at an open air rooftop bar, and talked about everything.

She was clearly into me, which I’m used to in a way, but what seemingly impressed her most was that I had read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and done so in just three weeks.

For those who are unaware, Infinite Jest is the pinnacle of postmodern literature. It is 1,173 pages of highly-engrossing gibberish surrounding tennis, addiction, Canadian Separatists, and other non-sense. A distinguishing feature is the 200 pages of endnotes that must be referred to during the reading of the text, including multiple extensive footnotes on a made-up war game that involves nuclear physics.

She was really impressed that I had read the book, without support groups (which exist), on my own. I didn’t understand her concern at the moment, but I think I’m getting it now.

What I gathered from that particular David Foster Wallace work (and from a few others–the guy was a brilliant journalist for Rolling Stone for years before taking his own life) was that obsession, while needed to complete the actual reading of Infinite Jest, is the easiest way to go through life in a kind of single-minded self-centeredness that strips life bare. Essentially, reading the book and getting through it is a joke on the reader, kind of a “ha-ha, you just wasted months of your time.”

Now I can go on and on with recommendations of what to read by Wallace; his works have such an engrossing approach that I have read full, article length reviews of movies and books that I never heard of and have no intention of inquiring after.

No, I think his most important work is not on paper, but is contained in the viral-ish sound clip of a commencement speech he was invited to give at Kenyon College years ago. The video is embedded below.

It’s a long speech, just like everything else by Wallace, but the gist of it is that, each and every one of us has a choice.

We have a choice when, confronted with a situation that, from your own perspective, and because of human nature, must utterly, incomprehensibly be about you–you have a choice to decide to see it that way.

Let me harken back to that date that started this whole thing. The girl I was out on that date with–we never went out on a date again. And there are many ways to approach reasoning out why not.

I could sit and stew and say that she’s terrible. I could wonder how the amazing academic feat (by her Ivy League standards, not mine) of reading Infinite Jest failed to draw further interest beyond that initial date. I could wonder how things, for me, could turn out the way they did.

Or could, as Wallace admonishes, develop a million hypothesis that have nothing to do with me. Maybe she was transferred to India for work. Maybe the distance was too far. Maybe that fact that I, me, Jake Cashman, had read Infinite Jest was not the reason for whatever positive emotion came through at the moment that fact was revealed, but rather that person, any person, and not necessarily me, had read it was so startling and so a-typical that she could not help but release that emotion. It came bursting through like a gasp of shock.

This is the throughline, buried deep inside most of Wallace’s fiction and in the “This is Water” speech above. That, there are a million little impetuses inside every action, every glance, every step taken, that, if we are not careful to choose to believe in the potential path of causation that harms our own psyches the least, that gives the most other-ness to our internal process, we will tear. ourselves. apart.

We will become so inward focused with thoughts, and, inevitably, with thoughts about failure, that we will never survive.

Wallace should know. As I mentioned earlier, he failed to remember that the world around him was simply water, that he simply had a choice to interpret the world around himself in a way that kept him sane, healthy, and alive, and he hung himself at age 46.

But the simple lesson we can all take from his life’s work, his life, AND his death is thus: find the safest, most comforting and least vindictive way to explain the world to yourself, and do that every.single.time.

Make that choice.

And have someone else read the ridiculously long book. The Infinite Jest.

Trust me, it’s better that way.

 

Becoming A Student Again

In just a few weeks, I will be back in school (again) at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I am enrolled in their Masters of Business Administration program, aiming to graduate in about two years. I will likely live at my parents’ house for most of that time frame, and I will get by on low pay from two low-wage, part-time jobs, as well as whatever money I can make from these haphazard writings I put together.

In the past, all of that would have scared me. The idea of being amongst those millions of Millennials who are living with their parents used to abhor me. The lack of stimulation that sometimes comes with “do-nothing” minimum wage jobs would have freaked me out. In fact, in early 2013, I left American University’s Masters of Political Science program for these reasons.

My brother and I at American University. I spent half a semester there.
My brother and I at American University. I spent half a semester there.

And here I am, at the start of 2015, jumping back into school yet again, managing a hockey rink and a study center, living with my parents, and fully confident that I will get through this masters program.

How do I know that? Well, in addition to working full-time at a major non-profit for a year, attending American (albeit briefly), and writing as much as I possibly could, the two years since I finished my undergraduate degree has been a period of uncommon introspection.

To put it simply, I worked on myself. Through much effort, I grew uncommonly close with my mom and my sister. I found what talents I have. More importantly, I found out what talents I have that I enjoy. 

I’ve stayed true to myself and my principles. I dabbled in a lot of talents I knew I had but never made time for: painting and distance running even came into play.

I have been blessed to experience many beautiful moments recently: running through cornfields in rural Wisconsin as part of the Ragnar Relay series, watching the sunrise on Election Day 2012, participating in my sister’s wedding just this past weekend.

And I’ve made mistakes, too. I owed a fair amount of money to a university from which I never received one credit. I broke a lease on an apartment, and I watched my possessions float around during a flood in another one.

But this is what your 20’s is about. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes– the best moments in my life have come directly as a result of what other people would call “mistakes.” I have plenty of friends who made diligent decisions with their college degrees, with their living situations, with every aspects of their lives. They’ll be set up financially forever, and that’s good for them.

But for those of you who are like me, those of you who learn not by the book but by getting your hands on your goals, by learning while doing, a million “mistakes” will befall you. And that’s what should happen.

Because, while we may be returning to school in droves to earn degrees in the classroom, for most of us Millennials, the world was, is, and always will be our classroom, and we will never cease being students.

Just Keep Writing

It’s time I come to terms with something: I am an author.

Whoa.

I have to say it again: I am an author.

I have a completed manuscript that is tight and compelling. I am marketing my work to agents, and recently received one inquiry from an agent who wants to see the first three chapters of my work.

If that doesn’t count as being an author, I don’t know what does.

It’s somewhat nerve-ranking to think I actually have accomplished my goal, one that I’ve had since I was about ten years old. I’m here. I may not be published yet, but I have made it to where I want to be. I need to give myself credit.

I am at the mountain top.

When I think about all the things that had to come together to make this dream come true, I think some people would say that I’m very lucky. But then I’m reminded of something the little person actor Peter Dinklage said:

dink

love that quote. I cannot better say what means to be creative and true to your self regardless of the circumstances.

Some of you may know that I am making a few sacrifices to pursue this dream. It’s been tough to make those choices, but, I’ve found or attracted some very talented people, like Dinklage did.

My troubles made me who I am. The years and years of reading, the taste and knack for completing hard work, the true, pure introspection that I’ve engaged in– the word “Lucky” totally cheapens that, cheapens who I am.

Once I decided I wanted to write a book, I did it. I knew I had the tools, and I was in touch with several very useful and beautiful people who knew how to take what I wanted to do and move it to the next level. People truly do want to help if you give them the chance.

I’ve been engaged in another level of thinking, too, and I now know that I do not have problems achieving things, but rather sustaining them. I’m a person who really likes projects to be completed, that takes pride in executing a major writing project.

Maybe reading so much has pushed me in that direction. Maybe I am so excited about pushing through the text of a book that I am now naturally suited to work as an author, always moving towards creating a narrative.

But, at the end of the day, I put in the hard work, and nothing can cheapen that. I am here to stay, published or not, and I am going to continue to pound out article after article, chapter after chapter, from here until kingdom come. Because nothing, I mean, absolutely nothing, makes me feel better than writing. I am at my best right after I finish an article like this one, after I capture a scene, an event, in a way that is compelling and clear. It’s quite literally the activity I live for, the one that gives my life meaning.

I am going to keep writing, and I guarantee that more and more people will keep reading. I can feel it happening.

am an author. Wow. Saying that feels so damn good.

 

 

Progress and Recognition

In some ways, it’s strange to think that certain authors, artists, musicians, or other creative souls ‘fail’.

My opinion is that all art is beautiful and productive and visionary, but society tends to only reward some forms of creativity at certain times, sometimes almost purposefully waiting until after the artist dies to give the work the recognition it deserves.

My favorite book, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, is a prescient example of this. While the book itself is a dense, rambling bout of gibberish following a bumbling idiot around New Orleans, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Too bad Toole had committed suicide eleven years earlier.

What I am trying to get at is, while all art is valuable, somehow a good amount of artwork does not catch the spirit of the times, the ‘zeitgeist’, at the proper moment. It is so weird to think that someone like Toole could spend a good portion of his life writing Dunces, only to have its insight come to light many years later, after he himself had so drastically given up on its success.

Compare his path to recognition to that of Johnathan Safran Foer.

What makes an author like Johnathan Safran Foer a “young visionary?” The man continued work on his undergraduate senior thesis, and, only three years after graduation, it was published.

That work is called Everything Is Illuminated. It’s an international best-seller and was almost immediately made into a movie starring Elijah Wood. It’s been hailed as visionary and the voice of our generation and so forth.

EverythingIsIlluminated

While I stick to writing mostly because that is the medium I work in, I am sure we could find similar examples through all art forms. Further, I do not hold anything against artists like Foer, the ones whose work obtains success so easily.

I am trying to get at that special “substance” of a work, the “right place, right time” type of luck that Everything Is Illuminated obviously obtained. How does a work so easily harness the zeitgeist? How did Foer write a work that so simply fit with the coming literary trends?

Education may or may not be it. Foer studied at Princeton. Toole studied at Tulane University, and then went to graduate school at Columbia University. By some measures, Toole was more qualified for success, as he even taught at many universities.

Is it simply the people each author new? Maybe Foer just happened to have a connection to that one person he needed to know, a luxury Toole did not.

One can never tell. However, in looking at their styles and careers, it would appear that Toole was more scientific and detail-oriented when trying to publish his work. Foer seemed to know that Illuminated was a best seller, and his confidence may have simply radiated outward naturally.

The content of the novels are different in an important way. Toole describes the city of New Orleans through a series of seriously hilarious characters. Foer describes the cultural history of his main character as he traces his roots back to Ukraine. It’s an epic spanning several generations and dozens of beautiful, parallel moments in history, and, maybe more importantly, it mirrors a lot of the facts of Foer’s life. The main character is much like him, and Foer himself has Ukrainian ancestry.

For whatever reason, I believe it’s this pride in bringing out something that connects to his own soul that catapulted Foer to success.

I think, for a similar reason, my work will be successful.

Me? The other day, I received a positive response from a potential book agent for my work. They wanted to see the first three chapters of my work. After telling everyone who might care about this somewhat insignificant progression, I sent in the three chapters, hoping that something catches this agent’s eye.

I would then receive representation from this literary agency, and be much closer to having my work published. I’d be about 75% of the way to my life’s goal.

Do I have what it takes to make my work a sellable piece of art, as I want it to be? Or am I more of a Toole than a Foer, in the sense that my work may achieve fame way after the passion I had for it ceases?

Considering the consistent, incremental progress I have made over the last two years, I probably lie somewhere in the in-between.

It would be nice to be a Foer, but, right now, I’m good being a Cashman.

Eyes Like Weapons

He raised the gun and pointed it in the air, firing a single shot.

Nothing changed. No one noticed.

The night was unchanged by the report of the gun.

“Strange,” he thought. “Why is nothing bowing to me?”

The gun itself was a nickel-plated steel revolver, a six-shooter that, were this a combat situation or even target practice, would prove terribly inaccurate.

For his real purpose, the weapon proved sufficient. Nick merely wanted to feel the discharge of something, the creation of a reaction. The execution of… anything.

                He stuffed the pistol in the back of his jeans, climbed into his truck, and hit the gas. The truck’s headlights pierced the darkening veil that was the night, heading east, and then south, and then east again. Soon, the bulky shape of the weapon against his back became uncomfortable, so he reached back while driving, pulling it out of his jeans and placing it on the dash.

He had a long drive ahead of him, but Nick knew it was not an unpleasant one. The trip to Chicago would lull him into a trance, the draw of the Second City pulling him like the way a pair of blue eyes might pull him into the dance floor. Yeah… he was drawn to Chicago seemingly against his will, but he knew that the natural process would simply take him there, drawing him in seductively, so he considered it okay.

Those blue eyes were not a metaphor. They were the real thing. He thought back to the last time he saw her and shuddered at the way the conversation ended. Nick had played the conversation over and over in his head, unaware of the parts his mind had misunderstood or distorted in an attempt to hear what he wanted.

They were in his apartment in Madison, the building crumbling, their path a dead end.

“So you’re not coming with?” Her inflection made it unclear whether she says make a statement or asking a question.

“I could,” he said, wanting only to make the commitment once he was sure that was what she wanted. He gave no thought to himself.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for me, but a big change.” A silence hung in the air. “It’s going to be hard, and I don’t know anyone in Chicago.”

For a second, electricity passed between their eyes, but he cut it off by looking at a wilting flowers on the counter.

“I don’t either.” Nick’s comment had added nothing. This was his subconscious intention, because he couldn’t fathom who to turn to if she was unsure. Ever since he met her, Kristin had been his decision-making process. Her shaken confidence struck to the very core of his being. All his strength and ability was thwarted.

“Let’s give each other some time to think about this,” she said. At the time, Nick was grateful that she was taking action. Only later did he realize that this was the point at which he was supposed to jump on the grenade her heart was becoming.

She moved to Chicago a month later. He had not seen her since.

The moonlight reflects off of the cold chrome of the gun. Driving with his knees, he grabs it off of the dash and puts in the glove compartment. The gun is just a tool, one that he does not intend to use. He quickly puts it out of his mind.

The road goes on endlessly, forever straight and narrow, no rise or run in its slope.

Short Travels

I awake from the dream, startling my brother awake. The bunk bed has always felt like it was going to fall over, and our rooting around in the dark made its danger more real. In the dark, we could hear the creaking of the bed, but we could not see the invisible bolts falling out.

“What is it this time?” Brian asked, concerned in his own way.

I roll over to the side of the bed, looking down over the edge. Brian hides out of sight, undoubtedly still half asleep. He always seems that way.

I had long ago given up on explaining the causes of my insomnia— they weren’t objects or events, but rather just fits and starts, machinations of my mind carried too far, like a sled rolling downhill into oncoming traffic.

“Nothing,” is all I say.

“It’s always nothing. Now quit tossing and turning or you’ll be sleeping on the floor again.”

“Okay.” I am frozen by Brian’s words. I am totally capable of sitting still, rigid even. While my stillness might allow him to sleep, I’ll be stuck this way all night, staring at the posters on my ceiling, concentrating hard on stillness.

I wonder where Mom is. My heart begs me to say these words out loud. I have asked this question a million times, but no one pays attention when I do. I mean, they answer, but they answer in the same way a doctor answers when you wonder if the shot is going to hurt. So much of their words are a lie.

Brian is snoring again, and I wonder if that’s what wakes me up. Maybe it’s not my fault. Maybe my stupid brother can’t stop being so big and loud, and so it’s his fault and not mine.

I roll over toward the window, terrified that the movement will travel down the wood bunk and shake Brian awake. I hold my breath the whole time, and when he shows no sign of waking, I exhale.

I push my globe off to one side of the windowsill. Outside, there is one streetlamp, with its ugly yellow light, and the flat farm, the corn that goes on forever.

I wonder how much of the world I’ve seen. Miss Harkins has started teaching us fractions and percentages, and I know that a percentage could be a fraction, too. 80 percent is simply 80/100 said a different way. It’s not that hard, but all the other kids need help to understand, so, when she’s crouched down to their level, helping them, writing on their worksheets, I look at the map of the United States on the wall and think about my globe.

I’d say that maybe I’ve seen five percent of the world already. That’s a good amount for someone in the fourth grade. It seems like I’ll be able to go everywhere in the world if I’ve already seen five percent.

Brian farts in his sleep, and it breaks my concentration about fractions. They’re easy, but not too easy. I have to laugh at Brian’s sleep-farts, because if I laughed when he was awake, he would punch me in the shoulder.

I wonder where Mom is.

She hasn’t been home in weeks. Dad doesn’t talk much anyway, so when I asked where Mom was, I wasn’t upset about him being quiet. He just chewed on his tooth pick, like always does, and shook his head left and right, like I was asking him if the Cardinals won the game today.

Brian wouldn’t tell me much more. All he said was, “Gone.” Brian’s not that good with words, though. He’s good with sports and running and jumping and punching me and telling me I’m gonna sleep on the floor, but he usually can’t think of things to talk about.

I don’t know who else to ask. I can’t ask Miss Harkins; she just works at the school. And, with the school being so far away, so far that I have to take a bus, I don’t think she’d care. I think she drives to school, and that means she’s from somewhere else, somewhere where everyone has Mom’s and knows where they are.

I grab the globe and spin it, playing a game I made up. I put my figure on the globe as it spins and wait ’til it stops. When it stops on the water, I redo it. If it stops on a country, I pretend I’m in that country. The color of the country on the globe matters: if it’s red, I’m the king. If it’s green, I’m the president. If it’s purple, I’m a knight. If it’s orange, I’m just me. I’d do this for all the colors but I can’t think of other things to be.

I spin it, and it lands on America, on Missouri, even, right in the center of the country. That’s weird. All the states in America are different colors, and Missouri is orange on the globe, so I’m just me, and I’m supposed to imagine what it’s like to be me right here, where I am.

I look at myself, kind of sad about my dumb game. I know what it’s like to be in Joplin, Missouri, with my dumb dad and fat, stupid Brian. I want to cry, because my game is supposed to make me king of Zimbabwe or President of Australia or whatever, but instead, I’m still just me, exactly as I am.

I roll over and pull the covers over my head, trying to hide from my game, from myself. I wonder where Mom is and I wonder about all the countries in the world and why I couldn’t be in them, doing something else and not crying.

I hear Brian grunt, and I worry that he’s going to climb up the ladder to get me, but he must just be dreaming about a sandwich or something.

I laugh about Brian dreaming about sandwiches, lifting my head from the pillow, I see my own face outlined in snot and tears.

I turn the pillow over, lay on my back, concentrating on sleeping. It’s so hard, to sleep, but I’ve gotta try.