American Dreams

I first met Abdi and Omar Mohamed in 2006, or maybe it was 2007. I can’t remember the exact date. I didn’t record such things back then. It was through our local soccer club in Northeast Columbus, called Blast FC. My son Xavier played for the Blast, which brought together the more competitive and skilled recreational players whose parents were willing and able to fork out the extra fees for some great coaching and more competitive games. Lesh Shkreli, a former professional soccer player from the former Yugoslavia, ran (and still runs) the boys’ side of the club. Lesh was always generous with his time and offered a few scholarships to talented kids from the neighborhood. Enter Abdi and Omar.

My son’s age group featured a duo of Somali boys, which later became a trio, who lived nearby and loved soccer more than anything. Abdi and Omar Mohamed (unrelated, although they claimed to be at first) were both extremely shy and polite and they each had smiles that would disarm a would-be bank robber. These characteristics made it easy to offer them the occasional ride home from practice when they needed it. Little did I know that this simple and minimal act of kindness would enrich my life for years to come.

The occasional ride home turned into the occasional pick up for practice or for a game, which then led to me providing rides for the boys to tournaments, which then gave rise to me signing off on parental forms and handling birth certificates and all kinds of other ancillary matters. I became a surrogate soccer dad. I don’t say this because it was a hassle or a burden of any sort. I always wore it like a badge of honor. To earn this right, I needed to go to each boy’s house and meet his father. To shake hands and look the patriarch in the eye, because both Abdi and Omar were (and still are of course) well-loved and well-cared for by their respective families. However, as part of a wave of Somali immigrants who settled in Columbus, Ohio, their families often took working class jobs (sometimes multiple) and simply didn’t have the luxury of taking the boys to their events. In Abdi’s case, his father was (and still is at an advanced age) a hard-working small business owner. Omar’s father was working in a factory on third shift. The families greeted me kindly, offered me food and drink, and thanked me for my service. Just like that, I had a bigger family. I became the boys’ primary provider and decision-maker for soccer concerns.

Soccer concerns dominated most of our free time in this age bracket. The boys diligently practiced throughout the year often 4 days a week in addition to games. Lesh always found indoor spots for his teams to practice, so skills training went year-round. We played in indoor leagues in winter and outdoor leagues in spring and fall. Now having been around the game for 40 years, I can say that Lesh offers some of the best youth training around. If a player was serious, he could potentially go far. My own son thrived in this environment with his own accomplishments. But his is another story. This is a story about two of “my” other boys who took their training seriously and went all the way.

As our team aged, some boys developed their skills beyond others. Omar certainly stuck out from the rest. He displayed skills and creativity in games that impressed everyone, including the opposing team coaches and parents. Abdi was always incredibly talented and smart, but he lagged behind in size, which made it easier for bigger kids to knock him off the ball. Omar was our superstar. Abdi kept working. A couple of years later, we picked up a third Somali boy, Mohamed Adam. Mohamed was a big boy and he carried himself authoritatively. He became our midfield enforcer and garnered a lot of attention. Omar kept shining. Abdi kept working.

Often, we would have to stack the four boys in the back of my small sedan to get everyone home. My son and Abdi were the smallest. Inevitably this led to shenanigans. The bigger boys wouldn’t pick on Xavier as much even though I encouraged it. If we’re going to be a family, everyone is going to get equal guff. But the reality is that Abdi took most of the ribbing. Just when I could see the frustration on his face, I’d verbally slow down the shenanigans and tell the bigger boys to watch out because Abdi is going to be bigger than all of them one day. Abdi would figuratively thumb his nose at them and sit a little taller, smiling. Don’t get me wrong here, the boys were all respectful and treated each other like – well – brothers. They may pick on each other in the car from time to time, but let someone from the opposing team step on Abdi or whack my son from behind. Paybacks are hell. Usually, that came from Mohamed.

As the boys aged, we did like all families do. We started to drift apart. Soccer club politics, playing opportunities at other clubs, high school interests, all kinds of things set in. But even when you don’t see your teenagers all the time any more, there is still a bond. Every now and again, we’d run into each other around town and catch up. It was – and continues to be – great. We keep contact through social media and I have followed the boys’ soccer careers ever since.

Dreams Come True

Everyone from the team is now in his early twenties. Three years ago, Omar signed his first professional contract to play for FC Cincinnati. Since then, he’s moved to the Portland Timbers, spent time on loan in Sweden and Switzerland, and if all goes right, he’ll be joining his old manager back in the US for another pro team this fall.

Omar and I share a friendly hug after a rainy game in Cincinnati

Abdi joined The Ohio State University out of high school in 2015 and started as a freshman at center mid, where he played for three seasons. For his senior year, he transferred to the University of Akron and changed to the position of right back. Akron is a smaller college than OSU, but their soccer program is much bigger. This past season, the Zips went all the way to the final in the College Cup and I cheered Abdi on from my living room. Abdi’s performances in college earned him a spot in the Major League Soccer (MLS) College Combine. We got together for a good luck dinner prior to Abdi’s departure, a photo from which is the lead picture in this post. I presume he did well because this past Friday, January 11, 2019, he was selected by New York City FC in the second round of the MLS Super Draft.

Abdi Mohamed selected by New York City FC (NYCFC) on Friday, January 11, 2019

Beaming with Pride

As I watched the video on my phone of Abdi being selected by NYCFC a sense of pride welled up inside. Not because I had anything to do with Abdi’s success. No, his work is all his. Just like Omar. For that matter, just like the other successes that other boys from the team have had. Rather, the sense of pride that I have for Abdi as he hugged his father in that ball room in Chicago after being drafted was my sense of pride in America. Say what we will about all the negative headlines and the three ring circus that we call Washington DC. But the fact remains that this country, warts and all, still provides a chance for a young man who came as an immigrant from war-torn Somalia to settle into sleepy Westerville, Ohio and to “make it.” Obviously, Abdi has a lot of work ahead of him. Getting drafted essentially means that he’s earned the right to put his head down and keep working the way he’s always done. But just for a moment, let’s celebrate this young man. And yes, let’s celebrate America, which is still the land of opportunity.

Running My First 50k

I started this blog post the morning before attempting my first 50k run. The title of this post very well could have read, “My first ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) Race.” As I stated in an earlier post, Taking a Zero Day, I had some setbacks in my training routine running up to the race. Those setbacks lingered. And then lingered some more. My foot never really healed all the way. The most I had run at one time for the 3 weeks prior to the race was 4 miles, and my foot hurt every time. So to think I could make it 31 miles was pretty silly. But, somehow it worked.

Before the race, I took a mental assessment over breakfast of my physical and mental states. Here is what I wrote down:

  • Body feels good, well-rested and ready to work
  • Ankle pain 3 out of 10, worst when I flex the outer part of my foot upwards
  • Thinking about which wheel will fall off first: most likely my ankle, maybe my legs from a lack of running, least likely my cardiovascular system
  • Considering disappointment of being listed on the race results as DNF
  • Thinking about letting down Matt – my friend and running partner – whom I roped into this crazy idea
  • Given that it is a trail race, I cannot walk the required pace to make the cutoff time
  • Realistic probability of finish: 30%
  • Trying to quash the negativity, I am starting affirmations and visualizing a pleasant run in the woods

Then it was time to go. So I stopped thinking and put myself on auto-pilot. I loaded up my truck with my pre-packed supplies from the night before, and drove to the race start in the dark. When I say I stopped thinking, I put all my meditation practice into effect. I stopped assessing and ruminating. I stopped thinking about disappointments and pain. I used the skills I have learned in meditation to go through the motions and accept whatever came. Once at the race start, I continued to go through the motions. I met up with my friend, we made the decision to run light and rely upon the aid stations for food and drinks. Soon it was time to start.

The Rocks and Roots Trail Series at Alum Creek State Park in Lewis Center, Ohio, is one of the best organized I’ve ever experienced. It is a very small race, capped at 400 runners, and it is organized by runners for runners. I highly recommend it if you can get a spot. The leading picture for this post is one of the many stunning views you’ll experience throughout the two 10k loops of this fun and challenging course. So with some quick, no-nonsense announcements and an old-fashioned, “Ready, Set, Go!”, we were off at 8 AM.

I started off limping and then eased into a slow, methodical stride. A funny thing happened. My foot pain spiked early and then within 10 minutes subsided back to a 2 or 3 out of 10. I thought, “I can live with this.” So I just kept going. That’s how it went. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I just kept going. One foot in front of the other. 4 hours into the race, we had completed our first 30k (18.6 miles). If you’re doing the math, these are not fast miles, but that’s OK. We decided that this was a “just finish” race because it was our first attempt at this distance and, given that it was a trail race where we go up and down ravines and hop over downed trees, this was never going to be flat out. At 30k, the course was getting really boggy. There were significant portions of the course where the term “running” simply did not apply. Think, “ankle-deep pancake batter” and you get the picture. For these portions, we slowed to a walk and then picked back up on drier parts of the trail.

Somewhere around mile 29, I caught a root with my bad foot and it sent pains spiking through my leg. So I walked for a bit. My running partner and long-time friend – ever patient – walked along just in front of me, willing me forward. There was no stopping now. I had to cover the two miles back to the finish line anyway. So I walked on and used deep, focused breathing to let go of the pain. Soon I was back to trotting on drier spots and slogging through the mud.

And then it was over. We popped up out of the woods and came down the final stretch to the finish, where 20 or so people were cheering us on. Just over 7 hours of constant movement, and we had done it! Our first 50k. Matt and I crossed the finish line together, just as we had started. I want to be clear here that he could have gone ahead and beat my time by a good 30 minutes. But that isn’t who he is. After getting our medals and picking up our bags, we cheered the next 5 runners down the path. As the post-run chill sank in, we decided to call it a day and head back to our families, exuberant at our accomplishment.

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I feel great. My foot is a little swollen and tender, but I’m able to walk and be productive the day after a 50k (31 mile) race. I accomplished a major 2019 goal on day 6 of the year in the face of adversity. Perhaps I spend too much time on Zen Buddhism in my blog, but I will tell you dear reader that without my experience in sitting meditation, there is just about zero chance I would have attempted this race, let alone finished it. With that said, I also want to recognize the power of the team. Because without my friend Matt running along with me, I would have limped slowly across the finish line wondering what more I had left in the tank. Here’s to friends and zen!

Cheers!

Why We Travel

Our family just returned home from a family weekend trip to the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth – as the name suggests – is a bit like a small town was scooped out of the Bavarian part of Germany and transplanted in Central Michigan. My wife and I stopped by Frankenmuth on our way to Traverse City in the summer and we concluded that this would be a fun place to bring the kids for our Christmas trip. I don’t think I’m spoiling the blog post here to tell you, dear reader, that we parents miscalculated the kids’ embrace of this little trip. Put simply, we missed the mark.

Scooped out of Bavaria

I started drafting this post in the hotel room the morning of our departure. As I sat down to write, three of our four kids were staring creepily into their personal device screens with headphones in. The older two kids were sharing a sofa, which means they were within 2 feet of one another, and yet they were in their own little worlds. As I watched them geeking out, I sat for a moment pondering the failure of this trip.

We reserved a suite in a hotel with a water park, replete with kids’ adventure areas, multiple water slides, a lazy river, and an old fashioned indoor pool and hot tub combo. Right next door was Bronner’s Christmas World, which is an out-and-out extravaganza of Christmas consumerism. If nothing else, it is worth a walk through to see the nearly countless ornament combinations in terms of color scheme and thematic character. The town of Frankenmuth is well-decorated year-round, and although it could be accused by more cynical travelers of being a bit of a tourist trap, it has a quaint charm that draws people in.

Before we think more deeply about this failure of ours, let’s first talk about the magnitude. Our daughter didn’t bring a swim suit. The two youngest boys brought swim suits, but each was at least one size too small. No one brought sandals or any form of cover up. In essence, this trip wasn’t really on their minds. All of the kids turned us down when we offered a walk down town in the well-lit evening to see the Christmas decorations and to pop in and out of the nearly 20 fun and unique shops on the main street. Instead, they opted to keep their noses in their individual devices in the hotel room. The three boys spent an hour in the water park. Our daughter went out with me the morning before we left to pick up breakfast for the family. But other than that, it was a pretty dismal showing.

Where did we go wrong? The last several years, we have had fun trips to some great destinations that they’ve really enjoyed. Have we lost them? Has the internet cyborg finally mind-melded with our children to the point of no return? I resisted the temptation to get angry and tell them off. “Your mom and I planned this trip for you and now you’re going to enjoy it!” But that’s self-serving. Yes, their devices can be like black holes, but we’ve overcome this digital inertia before.

In short, we missed the mark because my wife and I were drawn in to the quaintness of this town and we projected our 40-something perspective onto the kids. “Oh they’ll love it,” we told ourselves this summer. “We can take them shopping and get them tickets to the water park and they’ll have a blast.” The truth is that our kids mostly don’t like shopping and they rarely go for swimming these days. This caused me to start thinking about why we travel in the first place. Now wiser from a failed journey, I think I have it.

We travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. Frankenmuth didn’t do that for our kids. Don’t get me wrong, Frankenmuth is a lovely town. But given our kids’ historical travels and experiences, there was nothing new enough for them to overcome the tractor beams of WiFi. Are they spoiled? Debatably, yes. Could we, rather, should we have predicted the outcome? Absolutely. Next year, we may not travel with the kids. We might be coming to the end of a cycle with them where our interests are just too different to pull together. However, if we decide to travel, the uniqueness of the new experiences must be enough to pull them out of their routines. Because if not, it isn’t worth the time and energy.

Taking a Zero Day

In hiking parlance, taking a zero day means taking a day off. It isn’t often that I take a day off of running, especially with a long race coming up. I am preparing for a 50k trail race, which is the first time I’ll officially run longer than a marathon. To support the extra ups and downs of a trail race, I recently added 3 mile stair workouts with a weight vest and the change in training strained some muscles in my arches. I did my best to run through it, but the pain kept increasing as I put in miles on my other runs. So… time to take a break.

Taking a break from 6-days-per-week running after eight months should be easy in theory. As in, I could simply not run. But breaking a habit, even a habit that takes effort, is leaving me feeling adrift at the moment. This weekend, I found myself feeling stuck – almost paralyzed – and quite unproductive. It was like I had a computer program in my brain that said, “run” and when the “run” program didn’t execute, I struggled to figure out what was next. Instead of just skipping it and moving on to the rest of my chores, I sat stewing on the fact that I couldn’t run. I’d flex my feet and wince at the pain instead of simply moving on. What a wonderful opportunity to use a bit of mindfulness practice to overcome my faulty program!

First, sit with it. Instead of fighting reality, I took the opportunity to sit with the discomfort of the break in routine. I sat in meditation and worked on settling my brain. I found that I was stuck on repeat. “I just want to run. But I can’t. Stupid foot. Why did I have to overtrain? Maybe if I flex it, it will feel better.” Rinse and repeat. I thought through my attachment to the task of running. Really, I was attached to the expectation of being pain-free. I wanted things to be different than what they were right now. Instead of repeatedly berating myself to accept what was, I decided to focus on what I could do. Perhaps an anti-inflammatory or some ice or a bit of massage therapy? So after breaking the mental cycle of wanting to run pain-free, I decided to make a to do list. First, I’ll use a tennis ball to put pressure on the affected areas. Then I’ll follow that up with some ice. Finally, I’ll take some ibuprofen at bed time to calm the angry muscles. Satisfied with a plan, I was starting to let go of the attachment.

Second, take action on what I can do. I put my plan into action. I grabbed the tennis ball and put as much pressure as I could stand on the affected area. Rolling it over and over for about 5 minutes. The logic here was that I probably made the small muscles in my arch area “angry” with all the stair work and needed something to break up the knotted tissue. After some rather intense moments, I got an ice pack and applied 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off cold therapy for a half an hour. Nearing bed time, I took some ibuprofen and called it a night. The next morning, my foot was feeling significantly better.

Finally, accept the progress and use it as motivation to continue on the path to recovery. This morning, I decided to take another zero day. Two in a row? Yep. My wife and I took the kids skiing this morning for our second-youngest child’s birthday, so it served as a nice distraction. After we got home, I resisted the urge to attempt a run and – even better – resisted the urge to go back to stewing about not being able to run. Instead, I folded laundry, I tidied up the kitchen, I wrote my first blog post in a month, I caught up on televised soccer matches from the day, and this evening I’m going to watch a movie with my lovely wife.

Who knew a zero day could be so much fun?

Planning for Next Year

It is November, which means it is time for my wife and me to think about next year. In our annual planning process, we like to revisit what we wanted to accomplish this year, check in on our direction, and then think about what’s next for the coming year. Today, we drove home from Nashville, TN. The 6+ hour drive afforded us some much needed focus time, so we used it for our annual planning process, which I have described below.

Be, Do, Have

I mentioned this in The Business of Relationships, but to save you the extra clicks, I’ll revisit here. When we talk about our goals, we like to use the format of Be, Do, and Have – in that order. Like most people, when we started out in life as young adults, we approached things from the opposite direction: Have, Do, Be. We decided what we wanted to Have, which then dictated how much money we needed and therefore what we Do, which in turn informs who we will Be. Now that we’re older and a little wiser, we like to approach things in the order that works for us these days: Be, Do, Have. Like Stephen Covey, we want to start with the end in mind. How do we want to be remembered? That’s the Be. Who we are (Be) dictates what we will then Do; for a living or as we give our time and money to various causes, which then informs what we’ll Have – whether that means things we need to acquire in order to support our goals or postponing personal purchases in order to direct funds towards the big stuff.

Direction

Consistent with the Be, Do, Have approach, this year we gave some extra thought as to who we are. What are the things that we spend our time and money on? We affirmed our statuses as spouse, parent, family member, business professionals, and then dug into our hobbies and other items on which we spend time and money. Then we revisited our direction as a couple to make sure we’re still aligned. We agreed to continue our direction from last year:

  • Simplify our lives
  • Reduce our impact on the environment
  • Choose experiences over things
  • Participate in our community
  • Be life-long students
  • Reduce stress / improve the quality of our lives
  • Improve our financial future

Current Year Progress

Last year, under each of the directional bullets, we listed out sub-bullet goals. So we took the time to check in on our progress for each one. For instance, under the heading of Simplify our lives, we said that we wanted to declutter and organize several specific areas of the house to help keep from buying things that we didn’t need. We checked off the parts of the list that we accomplished and sustained, which provided a great sense of accomplishment as well as a little motivation to have another great year in 2019.

Planning for Next Year

As we came across goals that we didn’t accomplish for 2018, we reevaluated them. Do they still fit with who we want to Be? If so, we moved them forward to 2019. Then we thought about what else we want to accomplish under the directional bullets detailed above.

By now, I think it is clear that this is not a New Year’s Resolution process. We’re not looking to lose 20 lbs. or finally quit smoking. This is really more of a balanced scorecard approach to the business of our family. We sign up for a lot of goals, some of which stretch us beyond our comfort zone and we have no idea how to get them done. We don’t always get everything done. But if it is worth pursuing, then we carry it forward and try again.

This coming year, we’re excited for some big goals. Melanie is making great progress on her fitness goals this year and she’s looking to hit her target measures in 2019 while figuring out how to sustain them. She’s looking to do that while working full time, volunteering with her sorority, and pursuing a Master’s degree in the evenings. This year, I’m looking to step up my involvement in my hometown community as an Alumni with my college alma mater; I’m looking to run my first ultramarathon, and summit Mont Blanc to name a few. Like I said, we may not get it all done, but it should be one heck of a ride just trying!

What are your goals for next year?

Do you have a similar planning process?

Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.

Our Devices are Probably Listening to Us

You have probably seen the Facebook / cat food test on YouTube. Now, I am no conspiracy theorist. I don’t wear a tinfoil hat and as a law-abiding citizen, I’m not terribly concerned about Big Brother or Big Data or whatever the next Big thing is. But still. It is creepy to think about. In spite of Facebook’s continued assertions to the contrary, it seems to keep coming up for us. My wife – who has designated herself as our family’s Facebook liaison (more on this in a minute) – has observed it repeatedly in the last several months. She has a conversation about some product or service that we don’t currently use, and then she starts getting ads about the product or service on Facebook within 24 hours.

Listening Devices

Now let’s consider for a moment the latest fad in technology. The virtual assistant operating via a microphone and speaker. Alexa operating on the Amazon Echo, Siri on your phones and Homepod, etc. These devices are listening for you to command, oh I don’t know, “Play Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.” In addition to taking you on a trip down musical memory lane, isn’t it in the best interest of their parent companies to listen to your conversations? Everyone wins when they provide you with deals on the products and services you’re considering, right? I have not seen the code and so I cannot comment on whether or not it is happening. However, at this point, I operate on the assumption that it is.

Tech’d Out

Some time ago in a morning meeting, one of my team members asked the question, “What future technology are you most excited about?” My answer: “None.” I know I’m starting to sound like everyone’s Dad here, but seriously – where does it stop? I feel over-marketed, over-surveyed, over-autodialed and over-emailed. I don’t feel like I need more. As mentioned earlier, my wife knows that I’ve grown weary of social media, so she has volunteered to be our “Facebook liaison.” I guess it means that she’s active enough for both of us. Love you, hon!

There is No Tech on the Trail

This past weekend, my marathon training schedule called for a long run of 16 miles. I’ve been pounding the pavement lately and my calf muscles are feeling a bit knotted up. So I opted to put my 16 miles in on the trail. With an elevation chart that reads like a saw blade, I got one heck of a workout. But you know what else? I got trees, dirt, mud, underbrush, spiderwebs (enough to stick my hat to my head), sun-dappled landscapes, lake views, and a whole lot of quiet. At the end, I felt great. I felt like I had put in some serious work and that I had gotten a reprieve from haptic alerts, pop-ups, and calls from New Jersey offering low cost health insurance. So… if you’re like me and getting a bit tired of Big Tech, I highly suggest getting outside. Happy Trails…