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Stranger Anxiety – 2016 Year In Review

2016 was certainly a year of upheavals.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how fast it all seemed to go by – how much happened, and changed, and somehow, seems now to have always been the way it is now. That’s one of the stranger elements of my life today: things are constantly in flux, but I can’t quite remember what life was like before. Who was I, then? Who am I now?

The biggest thing to happen this year was, of course, the birth of my second son: Maxwell Hudson Barrett.

Max is so different from Ollie; and he’s also very similar. Mostly, he’s a handful – needier, clingier, tougher to get to sleep. But he’s also a lot more outgoing than Ollie was – laughing, smiling, crawling around. The best thing is when they play together. Doing the dishes and hearing laugher coming from the play room is just one of the best things I get to experience on a regular basis.

Each morning I get up with the kids to make breakfast, and that’s some of my favorite time with them. Ollie climbs up on a stool to “help me cook” by making a giant mess; Max stands in the Exersaucer, eating cheerios and giggling at whatever Ollie does. After they eat I put them down and they play together, crawling all over the dining room floor, making “houses” under the table, clambering into boxes and over one another.

Ollie, meanwhile, has grown into a little man. His language acquisition is just crazy – talking to him is so much like talking to another adult that I have to remember to watch what I say to him (“That bird isn’t sleeping, it’s dead, bud – just like we’ll ALL BE ONE DAY”).

Ollie on halloween. He loves Bob the Builder.

He has his moments – he’s certainly learning that he can simply disobey requests, and that’s infuriating to a completely irrational level – but overall, he’s so, so much fun to hang out with. He’s curious and inquisitive, obsessed with trucks, and the intensity of his interest in things seeps over into my everyday life. Suddenly I’m out of my car taking videos of parked construction equipment so I can show it to him later that night.

Having language gives us an insight into his thoughts for the first time. It’s wonderful, and terrifying, to hear him repeat certain verbal tics or terms of phrase I’ve used. I heard him ask Max “Why would you do that?” this morning, and heard myself months earlier, getting angry after he spilled some cereal.

The pressure to be better than you really are is overpowering and probably what makes kids so life-changing, beyond the logistical nightmare of just keeping them alive. You need to show up as someone else, as the Ideal Self, rather than the version of you that just manages to get by – the version that’s showing up in every other part of your life. A welcome kick in the ass.

Family.

I think Thao and I did OK this year. Two kids at this age was both easier and far more challenging than either of us expected. It’s hard to make time for one another, and even when we do, there’s no guarantee there will be enough physical or emotional energy to do anything more than stare at our phones.

I have the stress of feeding everyone, of feeling like there’s never a down moment or a day off. Thao has the stress of being trapped in the house, of lacking adult interaction, of being solely devoted to someone else’s well-being. Those are big hurdles to get over, especially when the relief you feel when you finally get the kids to bed is shortly interrupted by those same kids getting up, crying, being sick, waking each other up, etc.

But I think we did all right. We made it through. We still love and respect each other. In many ways, my goal was just to survive, and we did that.

On the other hand, I think I’ve also realized that I, in many ways, shirked my responsibility for our relationship. It’s easy, when you’re dealing with work and kids, to forget that there’s other work to be done, within your romantic relationship. I let myself gain some pounds and get soft. I let myself abdicate on decisions I should’ve made. I focused too much on comfort, not enough on improvement.

That’s fine. You live, you learn, you get better, you try harder.

It’s hard to distill a year’s worth of growth into a post like this, but I’d have to say that the primary lesson of this year, the over-riding theme that weaved itself through multiple aspects of my life, multiple problems, multiple solutions, was assertiveness.

I’ve been taught and believed my entire life that the best way to get people to like you was to be nice to them; to be flexible enough that none of your desires were strong enough to conflict with anyone else’s. Everything from “where do you want to eat tonight?” to “how should I handle this issue with the kids?” gets this strategy applied to it.

In many ways, it’s self-serving; I rarely feel strongly enough about anything to warrant the disruption to my peace of mind. Or at least, that’s what I’ve told myself. But I’ve also realized that this can breed resentment, and obscure a lack of direction under a veneer or affability.

It’s come up in personal relationships, friendships, parenting, business – literally the same problems, the same solutions: be more upfront about what you need, speak up for yourself, etc. It’s kind of amazing how clearly the universe sent this message.

Undoing those tendencies is another matter, of course. There are years of ingrained behaviors to untangle, understand, and overcome. But at least I know what direction I’m headed in, and it very much feels like an inflection point – like there will be a clear before and after this process. And that’s exciting, even if the moment-to-moment of enacting that change is various degrees of uncomfortable and terrifying.

In any case. Let’s get into my goals for this year, and see how we did.

1. Go to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (Or Something similar) 2x a week. SUCCESS.

We can count this in the win column, though mostly for the “or something similar” part.

Towards the latter quarter of this year I started going to the gym twice a week, and really took to it. Twice a week has become three times a week, and just in the past two weeks I finally joined up with a jiu-jitsu school and started going in between gym days.

Combined with some simple dietary changes (try not to eat before 10am, avoid carbs before dinner, one cheat day a week, don’t drink calories, etc), I’ve quickly lost 10 pounds and added a fair amount of muscle. I don’t look too different, but I feel noticeably different, and I’m happy enough with my progress to see that propelling me forward.

2. Use a standing desk. SUCCESS.

I did, in fact, by a standing desk, and I use it every day, mostly when I’m on the phone.

I’ve always been a pacer while talking on the phone, so having the computer at eye level is a huge win for me. It allows me to stand and take notes, which I find very efficient, and in general it boosts my energy when I do it.

I have no idea if it’s “healthier,” per se, but I like it a lot.

3. Take family on a summer vacation. SUCCESS.

I took the family to Lake Winnepesaukee this summer, something that’s been on my to-do list forever, since when we used to spend summers hanging out at my friend Jay’s Dad’s lake house.

Ollie on the lake.

We had a perfect little shallow cove, so Ollie could run around and splash and play all on his own. We had some family up to hang out. We hung out on the deck and I got to swim out and watch the sun go down each night. The master bedroom was surrounded by huge glass windows, so you really got the sense of camping out.

It was fantastic. Like always, my brain kicked into high gear about halfway through, and I wrote and wrote about goals and problems and the places I want my life to go. I loved it.

4. Minimize Things. PARTIAL SUCCESS.

This was a vague goal, and I think I did OK. I cleaned out my old clothes, getting everything down to just things I am willing to wear pretty much anytime. Nothing stayed that made me feel self-conscious, or that I couldn’t dry in the dryer. That was a huge weight off my metaphorical shoulders. I simplified my “every day carry,” emptying out my backpack and stripping down my wallet and keys to just what I absolutely need.

Besides those things, I tried to simplify by getting rid of a bunch of books. I did all right. My office, however, remains cluttered with comics I no longer have time to read, and I could’ve gone further with this. Overall, I did a few things that made a difference, but I don’t feel particularly “minimal.”

If I lived alone, this might’ve been easier to do. Kids are maximalist by nature.

5. Dedicate at least half a day each week to creative work. FAILURE.

This is a goal that comes up again and again, and again and again, the business rises to consume it whole. I’m not sure why that is. This is an ongoing issue – a disconnection from my creative self – that causes me low-level anxiety, but I’m not sure how to “make” myself address it….or if I should just give up.

6. Do something each week to show my wife I love her. FAILURE.

Not that I did terribly, mind. I am a pretty affectionate person and do not shy away from such things. But I didn’t do it regularly in the way I had planned, possibly because making it regular takes some of the fun away.

7. Schedule 1 relational touch point each week. PARTIAL FAILURE.

Again, I did not hit the “weekly” touchpoint for this goal. But I did do much better about reaching out to friends, and making an effort to plan things. In general, I want to be much more proactive about maintaining social relations, and I feel this year was overall a marked improvement from last year, even if I wasn’t quite able to completely check this goal off.

This is a trend I want to continue next year: being more conscious about who I spend time with, planning that out, making it happen.

8. Pay off all credit card debt. SUCCESS.

We had about $30k in combined credit card and tax debt, and I was able to pay all of that off over the course of the summer. This is probably the thing I am most proud of, and to say it is a huge weight off my shoulders would be an understatement.

I have some business debt that I’ve added since, but that was a calculate maneuver that I have a system for paying off. Personal debt is something that seems to loom over me at all times, making me perpetually uneasy. Having that gone has been amazing.

9. Pay for Thao’s trip this summer. SUCCESS.

Another huge win for my confidence. I was able to pay for her airfare and lodgings during her trip to the Baby-wearing International Conference. This is one of those things where doing something for someone else is significantly more fulfilling than doing it for yourself.

10. Fund the college fund each week. SUCCESS.

I have fully funded a weekly deposit into both kid’s college fund, although after some calculations I realized the needed amount was double what I anticipated. Ah well.

I actually automated our investment overall, electronically depositing into our 401K and into the stock market each week. This was a real reach, and a significant hit to my “buffer” in the checking account, but one which made me feel much, much better about our situation. I’m sure this will need to be revisited soon, but the knowledge that something’s getting put away is comforting.

11. Refund the Emergency/Home Repair fund. FAIL.

I did not do this, mostly because I ended up putting more money into the other financial goals. But that’s OK. This is probably something that will carry over into next year.

12. Hit $250k gross business income. SUCCESS.

The business collected $260,343 in 2015, and our monthly run rate puts us in the $330-$350k range for next year (gross, of course). I couldn’t be happier with that progress – it’s crazy to remember how $250k seemed like such a reach, when now if we drop below $30k/month in subscriptions I get antsy.

13. Develop a meditation habit. PARTIAL SUCCESS.

I did start meditating this year, and kept at it for several months. I dropped it when the kid’s sleep schedules started to change (I had been waking up at 5am to meditate, but the kids started waking up at that time, and I was to exhausted to try for earlier), but have pulled it out intermittently ever since.

I also adopted a “meditation-ish” kind of exercise after my workouts, when I spend time in the sauna. I take about 15-20 minutes to vividly visualize what I want my day to look like, how I want to act, etc.

I definitely felt a change when I was meditating regularly, and I want to bring it back into daily practice. I was overall happy with my progress here, even though the end result didn’t look exactly like I planned.

So. That was 2016.

Obviously, this was a rough year in many ways. We had SO much trouble getting the kids to sleep. I had SO many time management issues, SO many stops and starts. I went from following politics every day to not being able to stomach listening to the radio.

But it was also a year of huge growth for me personally, and for our family. I feel like it took me many, many years to go from struggling to stable; now, it feels like 2017 is an inflection point, where I transition from seeking stability to seeking growth, fulfillment, and actualization. That’s exciting, and worrying, and awesome.

I won’t be upset to see 2016 go, but I would’ve been a very different person without these past 365 days. That’s all I can ask for, really.

Thanks to all of you that read and follow along. It means a lot.

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