Why I Live in Iowa

Well first of all, I don’t live here because of the weather.

Ah, the weather in Iowa. I saw something once that described Iowa’s weather as “four glorious seasons,” and while it’s true they can be glorious, mid-March pretty much obliterates all of the accumulated glory.

The middle of March in Iowa is one of the dreariest, grayest, wettest, slushiest experiences imaginable. Winter hasn’t let up yet, there usually are still one or two heavy snowfalls left to go, and the ground is covered with filthy slush and muck, sand and salt, all the grime of the winter-long attempts to keep the roads passable.

March in Iowa is the time of year when I curse my Scandinavian ancestry, and wish my ancient relatives from Sweden and Norway hadn’t found the weather in this part of North America to be quite so comforting and hospitable.

March in Iowa makes me wish I had been raised in a warmer, sunnier culture and clime, one of those countries where everyone is seemingly born knowing how to salsa dance, instead of my Scandinavian roots, with our dour work ethic and our pragmatism and our reticence, and my enduring inability to dance until I’ve had at least four drinks.

So I don’t live in Iowa because of the weather. Although this summer has been one of the coolest, driest, most delicious summers of my life, and autumn is lovely as well, and spring is incredibly exciting every year – I always forget how good it feels to be able to walk around outside without a jacket – and frankly, there are a lot of things about winter that I enjoy as well – I like the coziness of winter, I like snuggling up with my wife in front of the TV, I like ice skating, I like eating chili and popcorn and oven baked sweet potatoes, and I love the lack of yard work, the lack of insects, and the general lack of pressure to do anything at all – it’s like having three months of permission to not leave the house unless you really need to; you don’t have to feel guilty about not being physically active and involved with the world, you can just write it off by saying, “Hey, it’s winter.”

Come to think of it, maybe I actually do live in Iowa because of the weather.

Losing the Battle

When people talk about someone who has recently died, they often say that this person “lost the battle.” As in, “he lost his battle with cancer.”

I don’t like that phrase.

By talking about death in terms of “losing a battle,” it makes it sound as if there’s something the person could have done differently, or done better, in order to stay alive longer. This is not always the case. Sometimes illness comes on quickly, relentlessly, with no time to adjust.

Of course, there are always things that each of us can do to live healthy and stave off illness, but you also hear about people who’ve never smoked a day in their life who get lung cancer. There are horrible diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that have no known cause or cure. 50,000 Americans die in car accidents every year – many of whom were sober and wearing seat belts.

We all die. It’s going to happen to every one of us. We’re all going to “lose a battle” someday.


Earlier this month, we hosted my friend Satoru from Japan for his annual August vacation in Iowa.

Ben and Satoru in Kansas City - August 2004

My friend Satoru has come to visit every August for the past 7 years in a row. Each year in August, he uses some of his very rare vacation time to come and stay with us for a few days. He first started back in 2003 when I was a bachelor in a one-room apartment, and now he’s still coming to see us every year now that I’m a married man with a baby and a house.

It’s always a whirlwind of activity when Satoru is here.There’s always so much to do and so little time.

Here is what we did this year, start to finish:

Had dinner at home with friends, went out to breakfast at Cracker Barrel, went bowling, had a barbecue dinner at my parents’ house, went swimming, went bowling, played tennis, went on a long bike ride on the bike trails that lead to downtown, went canoeing with friends on the Raccoon River, and spent a lot of time at home playing with the baby.

No wonder I needed a three-hour nap the day he went home.

It’s been really good to be able to stay in touch with Satoru. I don’t know anyone else from Japan who’s made the 14-hour flight every year to come to Iowa for vacation – we need to get him some special award from the Governor, or something.

Every year, his visit gives us the opportunity for a nice “staycation.” We spend the week doing some of our favorite outdoor activities, seeing some fun places around town, and eating at our favorite restaurants.

I never enjoy our house more than when we share it with others.

Being a Sports Agnostic

One of the things I’ve noticed during the past few years is that I don’t care about sports anymore.

I watch sports, I follow sports, but I don’t really care about sports.

I enjoy watching sports (my wife and I always watch the Olympics and the World Series and the Super Bowl together, and I follow the World Cup every four years), but I don’t really have any rooting interest. I don’t have any favorite teams. Whatever part of the brain makes people into “sports fans” just doesn’t function for me anymore.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to love sports. When I was a kid I used to read the baseball standings in the Des Moines Register every day, all summer long. I used to live and die (mostly die) with Iowa State football and basketball.

I just don’t have that kind of time and energy anymore.

I’ve become a “sports agnostic.” I recognize that sports are important to a lot of other people, and I appreciate the joy and connectedness that following a sports team can bring to people’s lives, but I can’t quite get there myself.

Somehow I got to the point where I feel like, “Why do I care about a bunch of mercenary millionaire jocks? They’re all on steroids anyway.” As for college sports, now that I’m getting on in years, isn’t it rather silly to live and die by the athletic achievements of a bunch of 19-year-olds? (Granted, some of the “student athletes” are actually a lot older than that, due to the various shenanigans involved with drawing out their NCAA eligibility, but still…)

Maybe my attitude will change someday when we’re not raising a baby and I presumably will have more free time than I do now. Maybe our children will turn out to be athletic prodigies and I’ll enjoy coaching their teams and watching their games.

But I don’t think so. I might never again enjoy sports in the same way that I once did. And that’s OK – I have more “grown up” things to worry about now – like paying the mortgage, cleaning the gutters, doing dishes, and mowing the lawn.

Say, maybe that’s the answer – maybe sports is valuable as an escapist activity, to get us away from the mundane drudgery of our daily lives.

Even so, I don’t think sports is worth the effort for me. I can’t be a “true believer” anymore.

Running with Haruki Murakami

I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s new memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. Ever since I got back from Japan in 2002, I’ve been reading his novels – they tend to be full of mysterious, quasi-supernatural surprises, but still grounded in humdrum reality. This was the first memoir that he’s written – it’s about his life as a long distance runner (he’s run 25 marathons), and what he’s learned from running, and how running has helped him improve his writing (and vice versa).

My wife and I recently started running as well, so I felt particularly motivated to read this book.

murakami book image

I must say, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the book as much if I wasn’t already a Haruki Murakami fan. It’s a rather quiet, unobtrusive book – and only 193 pages. I sometimes found myself wishing for him to share more details and delve deeper into the ideas he was discussing. But it was very satisfying for me to learn more about one of my favorite authors and just hang out with him for a few hours while he shared some of the values and dedication and life lessons that he’s gained from running.

One of the points that I liked: Haruki said that as a writer, he feels that his lifestyle is inherently unhealthy – he feels that the act of writing in itself causes a person to build up a kind of spiritual “toxin” in their system. (I can relate to this – sometimes after I’ve spent a day writing, alone with my thoughts, I feel drained, and slightly crazed.) Haruki feels that running is the ideal exercise to squeeze this toxin out of your system – it refreshes your spirit and enables you to rejoin the world.

Ever since my wife and I started running earlier this spring (which was also the time when my freelance writing business started to grow), I’ve noticed that writing and running both require the same kind of mental stamina. It’s all about putting one foot in front of the other, breaking down long distances (or long projects) into more manageable pieces, and instilling the right kind of discipline and focus to complete the run (or the writing). When we first started running, we could only do two or three minutes at a time – tonight we ran for seven minutes at a time, for a total of 21 minutes of running (with three 3-minute walks in between). It’s the same kind of mental attitude to write a long assignment or run a long distance – I now feel that I could take on a writing project of almost any length, and soon, I’ll be able to run a lot farther than I thought was possible two months ago.

Haruki Murakami says that when he dies, he wants his tombstone to say, “At least he never walked.” He’s 60 years old now, and I hope he’ll be around (and writing) for many years to come.

Steve Earle

On Tuesday night, as a belated gift for my 30th birthday, my brother Luke took me to the Steve Earle concert at Hoyt Sherman Place. Steve Earle is a legendary country/folk/blues/rock guitarist, and he recently released an album of songs that were written by the late Townes Van Zandt.

At first I was skeptical about going to this concert. It was a beautiful night, and I was reluctant to spend it indoors. I didn’t know much about Steve Earle or his music, and I don’t listen to much music these days because I’m insanely busy (married, homeowner, father to a 1-year-old baby, working 1.5 jobs).

But here’s the thing – I really loved this concert. Steve Earle is amazing. He’s a guitarist and singer-songwriter, and his music has some growl to it – he’s got grit and authenticity. He’s 54 years old and has survived drug and alcohol addiction and incarceration and has been married seven times (twice to the same woman). He lives in New York City but came of age in Houston, Texas and can sing with equal credibility about the plight of West Virginia coal miners, the heroism of Maine Civil War soldiers at Gettysburg, and the versatility and stamina of the Korean immigrants who own the 24-hour corner deli on his block.

Steve Earle is a genuine showman. I was transfixed by the music and by his performance – I was very glad to have been there. What a great birthday present.

As usual, I was wrong to be skeptical. Lesson #456 in the importance of being open to new experiences – even when (especially when) you’re 30 years old and married and busy.

The Best Days of My Life (So Far)

I recently turned 30. There’s no denying that it’s a milestone of sorts, and it’s prompted me to think back on some of the great life experiences that have brought me to this point.

So here is a list of some of the best days of my first thirty years, in no particular order:

  • The Day I met my Wife: Every romantic relationship is a kind of miracle. I sometimes think back on the years when I was single, and I remember thinking, “I’m never going to find someone,” and then one day, somehow, I did. I think about that sometimes – my wife and I have been married for three years, we’ve known each other for five years, and I still sometimes marvel at how unlikely it is that we ever managed to find each other. I’m very grateful to have her in my life.
  • Our Wedding Day: There’s a whole industry devoted to planning weddings, and you can read countless books and articles that tell marrying couples (mainly the brides) how to fret about the details, how to navigate the family conflicts and hurt feelings, etc., etc., but what no one ever tells you is how FUN the day will be. I really enjoyed our wedding day – that maybe sounds banal, but it’s true. I remember we got to a point all of sudden where all the stress and details and “is the caterer going to get here on time” and “is the cake going to be frosted correctly” all just dissolved away, and my bride and I were left to go through the journey of the event itself. It was truly an honor to look out at all the rows of friends and family who had traveled so far to be with us for the special day – that exact group of people will never again be together at the same place and time; it was a singular gathering of our closest loved ones.
  • The Day our Baby was Born: What a day. What a night. Our baby was born at 7:08 p.m., and I sent an e-mail to friends and family later that night saying, “My heart is full of gladness tonight – we are witnesses to the miracle of life, we are connected to all human kind.” All the old cliches applied in full force. We were connected that night to every other new parent who has ever held a new baby in their arms, across the globe, down through the centuries. It was a profound and moving experience.
  • Our Baby’s First Birthday: When our baby turned 1, it was a cause for a big celebration. I was so grateful that we’d managed to make it through a full year – changing diapers, wiping up spit-up, living on one income. So many things that I had worried about had turned out to be better and easier than I had expected. It was a beautiful spring day, we grilled chicken breasts and had chicken tacos and homemade cupcakes and limeade, and all three of our baby’s grandparents, two great-grandmothers, and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins were with us to celebrate at our house. It was just a perfect day, and I was so grateful for all of it.
  • My First Day in Paris: I visited Paris for the first time with my friend Fabrice – we took the train from Cologne to Paris, passing through Brussels. All of the standard compliments about Paris fit – it’s the City of Light, it’s the city of romance, the whole city makes you feel like you’re living in an Impressionist painting. I’ve been back two times – once by myself (again to visit Fabrice) and once with my wife (before we were married). I don’t speak French and I may never manage to learn, but I hope to make a few more visits to Paris during my life.
  • My first night in Japan: It’s been almost eight years since I arrived in Japan for a year on the JET Program. I still remember that first night so vividly – the neon lights of Shinjuku were bright as day; I could see my shadow on the pavement. The crowds were so vast; an ocean of humanity. Tokyo is the most populous city on Earth; I remember feeling that just by being there, I had drawn closer to the very pulse of the world. I was out of my mind with jet lag and could barely speak a word of Japanese, but  my life had never felt so completely my own – I was on a grand adventure in an undiscovered country.
  • My last day of high school: I still remember how good it felt to finish high school – not the graduation day itself, which was anti-climactic, but the last day of school; the last day of waiting for a bell to ring to grant permission to move to the next class, the last day of school lunch, the last day of risking detention for being late to an 8:05 class (I was often late – I’ve never been a morning person and I served several detentions, even as a senior honors student). Finishing high school felt like being paroled from prison – it was a day that I had hoped for and anticipated for so long, and finally it had arrived. It was the end of the petty tyranny of teachers and administrators, the end of the various indignities of being a high school student, the end of having to ask permission to use the restroom, the end of an age when you were always under someone’s supervision and control. Just being able to drive myself to Burger King felt like the pinnacle of freedom. My classmates and I were jubilant as we walked out of school that day – there were back slaps, fist pumps and chest bumps; my friend Trent was chomping on a cigar that he had managed to smuggle into school for the occasion. The last day of high school was definitely the greatest day of my life that I had experienced to that point so far. Of course, thinking back on it now, 12 years later, high school takes on more of a sheen of innocence; there are many worse things than to be a high school student in a house full of brothers and sisters, with good friends, with parents who love you.
  • College graduation: I always tell people, “I’m really glad I went to Rice, and I was really glad when it was over.” College graduation was a bittersweet but happy day for me; for most of my life growing up, I had really looked forward to college and now that it was ending I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. I knew that I was going to miss my college friends (and I did – for years) and thought that I would miss certain aspects of the college lifestyle, but my overwhelming feeling was that I was glad to be done and ready to move on to some other way of living. I have yet to experience anything in my working career that has been as challenging (some might say “punishing”) as what I went through as an undergraduate at Rice University. (Maybe I haven’t been working hard enough in my career.) Rice University was a crucible. It truly forced me to focus on the academic subjects that I did best in and cared about the most; despite years of accolades in high school, and a respectable two years at Iowa State, it turns out that I really wasn’t that great of a student at Rice. I didn’t graduate with honors or anything; I was just glad to have gotten my 120 credit hours and finished my single major in History (it seemed like everyone at Rice had at least two majors, usually in wildly different subjects – Biology and Sociology, for example). If our son wants to go to Rice someday, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it – not that we’ll be able to afford it anyway. (By the time our son is ready to go to college, private university tuition will probably cost $500,000 per year – and entry-level jobs will probably still pay about what they do today. But that’s a subject for another day.)
  • Random Others: Some of the best days of my life haven’t been the big milestones, they’ve been the quiet little days along the way, the ones you might not even notice at the time. I remember thinking on the 4th of July this year, sitting on my parents’ deck, eating some fantastic homemade potato salad, “is this going to turn out to be one of the best days of my life?” Driving home on dark Iowa highways, watching the fireflies flashing by at 60 miles an hour, playing guitar with my brothers on Christmas Eve, walking in the park with my wife, holding my hands out to catch the outstretched arms of our toddling baby boy – this is what the best days are made of. I’ve had a beautiful life – and there is still much to look forward to.

Why Hire a Freelancer?

As far as I can tell, people hire freelancers for one (or more) of the following reasons:

  • They need to do something that they don’t know how to do.
  • They need to do something that they don’t have time to do.
  • They need an extra set of eyes on a project – one additional perspective or external validation.
  • They need something done faster than they can do it themselves.
  • They need something done better than they can do it themselves.

I try to think of my clients’ projects as “problem situations.” The work that I do is not just about “writing,” per se – ultimately, I’m in the business of helping people solve problems.

End of a Busy Week

It’s been a busy week.

I’ve been up until midnight the past three nights in a row, working on two freelance projects.

The first project was some editing/re-writing for some literature to accompany a new photography exhibit at the Denver Contemporary Art Museum. It’s a photography exhibit by the artist Kevin O’Connell, who has taken some amazing photos of utility scale wind farms – his photos show the immediate reality of windmills and demonstrate how they relate to the surrounding landscapes.

The second was a grant writing project for a public health project in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) seeking funding for a Culturally Appropriate Tobacco Use education program for Aboriginal youth. Aboriginal kids in Canada have much higher rates of smoking than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, and one of the challenges is that tobacco has been used as a traditional sacred plant in Aboriginal religious and cultural ceremonies. The group that I was working for is trying to introduce a new curriculum for how to teach Aboriginal kids about how to avoid smoking, while still understanding and appreciating the traditional (and much safer) use of tobacco in their culture.

Both of these projects were quite interesting and gave me some fun challenges to think about. But I promised my wife, no freelancing this weekend. This weekend is going to be all about time with family – hopefully going to the pool tomorrow, watching Mad Men on DVD, and relaxing together. I feel that I’ve earned the time off.

Life Changes

I’ve recently made a few changes in my life that have greatly improved my outlook on the world. They include:

  • Started waking up 45 minutes earlier. I’ve never been much of an early bird, but lately I’ve somehow managed to start my day at 7:15 a.m. (or even earlier!) I think the baby is mainly to thank/blame for this change – his sleep schedule pretty much dictates ours. Being up earlier allows me to change the baby’s first diaper of the day, take a more leisurely shower, and eat pancakes at the dining room table instead of scarfing a granola bar at my desk. I hope I can stick with this – I’d like to be more of an early riser.
  • Weekly meal planning. My wife and I have started sitting down on Sunday afternoons with a few cookbooks, and actually planning a whole week’s worth of meals. It saves time and money at the grocery store, and cuts down on those occasions when it’s 6:45 at night, there’s no food in the house, we’re hungry and distracted, and so we finally give in and call for takeout. We’re trying to run our household more like a summer camp – set a schedule, everyone knows what’s for dinner, and there are lots of amusing/annoying songs. (OK, I’m kidding about the songs.)
  • Going jogging every other day. My wife and I recently started a beginner’s running program. We started running 2 minutes at a time (with 4 minutes of rest) and now we’re running 3 minutes and then resting for 3, for a total of five cycles (30 minutes) at a time. Thanks to our awesome jogging stroller, the baby gets to join us. He seems to enjoy riding in his jogging stroller – he usually just sits there and plays with his favorite wooden spoon from the kitchen.
  • Coming home for lunch. I refuse to eat lunch in my cubicle anymore. Instead I drive home. It’s a bit impractical, but it’s forcing me to get outside during the day and get away from my work. If you can manage to do it, I highly recommend it.

That’s all for now. As soon as I discover some other positive life changes, I’ll let you know.