Chapter 159: The Man Who Drowned on Freedom

In 2009, I was away from DC for a total of 17 weeks. I pulled this off by working remotely when possible and squeezing the theoretical maximum utility out of my vacation days. Each biweek required accounting for 80 hours of work, so working 60 hours one week meant taking the second week off required only 20 hours of leave. I worked like a madman, emptied my leave account, and saw the world.

In March of 2010, however, I accepted an offer to attend law school part-time for four years in DC. A month later, I agreed to move in with Jess, my then-girlfriend, while we were both traveling in Spain. I knew that my life would soon look unrecognizable, and had committed to a path largely centered in DC. I chose this path deliberately and after careful thought, but the anticipated stability was a source of consternation for a lifelong traveler.

Burning Man

In an attempt to make the most of my dwindling pre-law school freedom, I flew to Sweden in May of 2010 to meet up with my friend Dave, who was working on a clean energy project. It was a reunion for two travelers who had spent two months together backpacking through India as part of Dave’s around-the-world-in-9-months trip. We ate and drank our way through Stockholm, explored the countryside, and hiked to wave farms hiding near the coast.

The night before our big drive over and through the fjords to Bergen in Norway, we stayed at a hostel in Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden. Dave bought a bottle of aquavit and a deck of cards, and soon we made friends around a table in the main common area.

One traveler stood out. An American. A bit older and calmer than the others. Thin, with long hair and a steady gaze. He was in Gothenburg to wait for a friend so they could travel north and see the northern lights. He told remarkable stories. How he had sailed around the world. How he was preparing to motorcycle across Africa. We played cards and drank aquavit for hours.

Somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, during the dot-com boom, the technology company he founded was acquired and paid him out handsomely. He packed his bags and had been traveling ever since. He learned to sail, to repair a motorcycle, and to speak multiple languages, and had acquired a lifetime’s worth of stories. We were mesmerized.

He did not gloat. He was not proud. If anything, he seemed resigned. As if this whole thing was his second choice. As if he had seen something better and it had passed him by. This was just his path. He talked of the future as an unstructured expanse to be filled with the next grand adventure as I might talk of having to find a new apartment. He talked of loneliness. Of meeting his friends from back home and their wives and children. Of having no home, no plan, and a rotating cast of acquaintances who floated in and out of his life. He laughed when someone suggested that he was “drowning on freedom” but said nothing in response.

The next day Dave and I drove north along the coast into the forests, up into the hills, through the valleys, up higher and higher until we dove into the fjords, cutting through tunnels and over bridges. We stopped to look at waterfalls and eat hot dogs from Norwegian gas stations. After a foggy day in Bergen, we drove back along a different route and Dave dropped me off in Oslo to fly home.

A year and a half earlier, shortly before I punted on my law school applications for another year, and one month before my first date with Jess and the start of my trip to India, I documented three radically different visions for the year leading up to law school, partly inspired by Dave’s trip around the world. I named the document “Life Options”:

  • Don’t Move Out and Don’t Quit Job: I would go to India with Dave for 1-2 months, return to DC, and travel as much as possible before starting school the next fall. But I couldn’t take a big trip, and paying rent on an empty room felt silly.
  • Move Out and Don’t Quit Job: I wouldn’t need to pay rent while traveling, and my ability to work remotely meant I could work something out for the time between vacations before starting school.
  • Move Out and Quit Job: I would have close to eight months and minimal expenses to see the world. As I noted in the document: “there may never be another time I can pull this off.”

In the end I didn’t file my law school applications that cycle, mooting the plans I had worked up. But the wanderlust that had inspired them remained, and inspired the 17 weeks of travel I managed in 2009. It also inspired the trip to Spain with Jess where we decided to move in together. And it whispered faint doubts into my ear as I sent off my deposit for law school and discussed moving in with Jess.

Which brings us back to Gothenburg, and the traveler.

I don’t believe in fate and I don’t believe in luck, but it was useful for me to have met that traveler in Gothenburg. Because he was someone who took his wanderlust to the logical conclusion: a life of constant travel. A life without a home. He was someone who, when given all the freedom and money he could manage, chose a path that focused on the short term to the exclusion of the long term. A life without roots.

I’ve always known that a life without travel is not the life for me, but the traveler showed me that a life with only travel might not be the life for me either. As is often the case, the ideal path is somewhere in the middle. And that realization was profoundly comforting as I invested my time and energy into building a career and a life and a home in DC.

When I left the traveler back in 2010, he was waiting to meet a friend so they could go see the northern lights. It took me more than seven years after that day in Gothenburg to see the lights myself.

This last September, my wife Jess and I watched the green lights dance across the sky through the window of our plane to Iceland, careful not to wake our two and a half year old daughter, Lucy, on her way to her fourth country bag. Once there, we helped her swim through the Blue Lagoon to find Icelandic mermaids and waterfalls, follow cats through elf gardens, and make “soup” in an empty coffee cup on the black sand beaches of Vik.

I will always have that itch, that wanderlust that makes me want to drive into the sunset or bag a new country. That itch has led me to some remarkable places. But I decided back in 2010 that it would not prevent me from building a career and a life that challenge me. From putting down roots. And that decision has led me to some remarkable places too.

I once met a man who drowned on freedom.  I did not follow him.


Chapter 158: Expecting

“My wife and I are expecting a baby in November.”

This sentence came out of my mouth for the first time in the Spring of 2014. Like many phrases that change the world, the full weight of its meaning washed over me in ever increasing waves.

“My wife and I . . .”

One of my first reactions to the news of my impending fatherhood was to subconsciously rearrange my entire outlook on my marriage. Before our future child entered the picture, it was just Jess and me. Sure, we were married, but a childless marriage doesn’t look that different on a day-to-day basis from a stable, long-term relationship.

Once the child entered the picture, however, we suddenly became a ‘family,’ a unit that required stewardship above and beyond the maintenance of a single relationship. My decision of what to do after law school took on a new dimension, and I spent most of a week calculating financial projections before I realized what was happening. The math was the same as before, but my role in the math had changed drastically: I was now part of a family with a future child. That required a variety of new spreadsheets.

“. . . a baby . . .”

A baby starts off as a concept. You can infer its existence via a test and some morning sickness, but, for a father especially, a baby resides on a transdimensional plane. Other than implication (and morning sickness), it does not yet interact with your world. Then you hear the heartbeat. And see the arms and legs kicking on the ultrasound. Over time you can even start to see the bump. Even after all that, our decision to keep the gender a surprise and to use the genderless nickname of ‘the Borg’ kept a certain science-fictional quality to our future child. It certainly existed; the medical profession and Jess could attest to that. But the bump kept getting larger, and eventually the Borg started moving and kicking. Our transdimensional baby began interacting with reality in a way I could feel with my hand.

Our baby kicked my hand.

“. . . in November.”

Nine months is a long time. In between finding out we were expecting and the grand reveal, Jess and I each interviewed for and were offered new jobs, I graduated law school, we moved into a new house, and I quit my government job of nine years to try my hand in Big Law. Our lives were almost unrecognizable. All of this, to say nothing of the morning sickness, back pain, and false labor my wife endured.

Nine months is also a blink of an eye. We had books to read, trips to take, life to sort, all before everything would be flipped upside down. It felt like I barely had time to paint the baby’s room, assemble the crib, and meet our doula before I was racing to the hospital through rush hour traffic with a screaming wife beside me.

“. . . expecting . . .”

As the months marched on and the baby became more and more real, the implication of the word “expecting” became sometimes overpowering. I’ve read books and my fair share of the Internet, and throughout my life I’ve known several families who’ve suffered the heartbreak of a miscarriage or stillbirth. There’s no way around it. Pregnancy isn’t a sure thing. You can paint the baby’s room, assemble the crib, and still, in the back of your head, know there’s a chance that . . . . I can’t even write it, because it hurts my heart to even think of it. But it’s there.

I’ve always tried to avoid ever blindly assuming the positive outcome. Whether it’s playing a board game or taking the bar exam, I focus on the set of likely possibilities and mentally prepare for each one. Sometimes those possibilities are heartbreaking. But it’s your job to shoulder them as an adult.

You shoulder them when buying seemingly endless amounts of stuff, and moving into a bigger house to have more room for the baby. You shoulder them through the weeks of fruitless false labor. You shoulder them through hours and hours of actual labor and pain, your strong and amazing wife’s eyes pleading with you to make it stop. When the labor stops progressing and they bring up the idea of a c-section, you tell her “Baby, it’s going to be okay, I promise you, it’s going to be okay.” When the baby’s heart rate drops and it turns into an emergency c-section, you hold her hand and caress her hair behind the screen, trying with every ounce of your being to project the cool calm center of the universe you promised yourself you’d be.


And then the baby’s out. She’s a girl, and everyone’s cheering. A little baby girl, with ten fingers and ten toes and squinty little eyes, screaming with every ounce of her being, and she’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in the world. And all the stoicism and planning and pretending to know what you’re doing pours out of you through giant streaming tears while sitting alone the next day on a couch in a darkened waiting room because you went to take a walk and everything hit you like an exploding star of joy and you sat down and cried and cried because you realized you were the luckiest man who had ever lived.


Chapter 157: I saw a man pursuing the horizon

Poetry and songs have a reflective quality; we find meaning in them based on where we are and what is happening around us. While I’m not sure where I first found it, the following Stephen Crane poem has been the most reflective series of lines I have ever encountered:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

When I read this poem in high school, I was the narrator, the pragmatist, the rational observer. I saw the world for what it was, is, and always would be. Surrounded by silliness in high school, I worked minimum wage jobs with coworkers at various points on the path to self destruction or mediocrity. To high school Sam, the narrator was the sympathetic party; his insight into reality could prevent the pointless tribulations of others if only they’d listen.

When I read this poem as I was applying to law school, I was the horizon pursuer, the poet, the irrational chaser. I rejected the nihilism of my early patent office days. Sitting in a comfortable chair and nitpicking everyone else’s achievements and delusions was no way to experience the world. To future law student Sam, the chaser was the sympathetic party. Even if all you did was chase, that was a source of meaning in and of itself. Happiness is doing, not getting what you want.

When I read this poem more recently, I was both. Everyone was both. In every direction, people chasing and others rationally tearing them down. Every decision had consequences. Nothing was clear cut. Move to the suburbs and raise a family? You’re crazy to give up your independence. Stay in the city and dive into your career? You’ll look back and regret the life you never started. Drop it all and give in to the wanderlust? You’ll give up your friends, your career, and your life for a handful of expensive stories. Cling to your reality with all of your strength? It’ll change anyway, and those stories you’ll never have are cheaper than the regret of not having them. Everyone searching for an adventure, a challenge, a dream. And everyone else out to validate their dream, their challenge, their adventure. None of it wrong, and yet none of it right.

Each of these readings was a reflection of a moment. In high school I was slowly realizing that I did not belong in rural Pennsylvania. In considering law school I was realizing that my career path was no longer exciting. More recently, the post law school expanse of opportunities stretches out before me with countless options. All of them with upsides. And all of them with downsides.

Some days I chase the horizon. Some days I stand my ground. And some days the world is too big to fit inside my head.


Chapter 156: Road Trips and the feeling of Floating

When I was a kid my family would take me and my brothers on lots of trips, and some of my strongest memories are from the river trips. We’d load up our van full of gear, strap one or two canoes onto the roof rack, and drive off somewhere remote to find a river. The canoes would be hauled into the water and loaded with camping gear, food, and supplies. We’d strap on life jackets and climb into the boat, and my Dad would push us away from the shore, jump in, and then paddle us into the current.

The moment we’d sever our connection with the land was always quietly momentous to me. It was the moment we started to float. Everything we needed was in the canoe and we could stop anywhere, whenever we wanted, or continue on for hours at a time. We were a floating spaceship that contained all that we needed to survive. Whenever we stopped at a sandbar or river bank, we could create a village of tents and shelters, with hot food and drinks and maybe a fire, that could survive rain and windstorms with ease. The next day we would pack our village back into the canoes and push off into the river again. Back into the current. Back into the freedom of choice of where to go and what to do. Back to just floating.

The feeling of floating builds up over time. It starts small and grows into a habit over the days and eventually into the Fact that meandering down the river each day was the most natural thing in the world; who would want to camp in one site very long when there was so much to see further down the river? Floating meant freedom and exploration and the future.

Floating is fundamentally a feeling of travel. Pushing off into the unknown with the expectation or hope that it’ll all work out alright. Backpacking, whether through the woods, Europe, or India, captures much of it. Whether you sleep in a tent or a hostel, wandering through cities and mountains for long enough convinces you that you could go anywhere and do anything, given enough time, food, and money.

In each case the medium of travel defines the experience of floating. Backpacking requires public transportation or a trail, and river trips require a river. The most American medium of adventure is of course the wide open road. In America, we take road trips.

You load your car full of gear, food, and supplies. You strap yourself into your seat, turn the ignition, and drive away from your house, into the current of a great American highway. Everything you need is in the car, and you can stop anywhere, whenever you want, or continue for hours at a time. You become a floating spaceship that contains all that you need to survive. Each day you stay in a hotel or camp you create a little home, but the next day you push off into the current of the highway again. Back to the freedom of choice of where to go and what to do. Back to that feeling that meandering down the road each day was the most natural thing in the world.

Back to just floating.


Chapter 155: Life is about saying yes to things

20130725-090317.jpgA year ago today I married the most wonderful woman I have ever met. The following were my vows to her.

I can tell you the exact moment that I realized I wanted to marry you.

It was December 31st, 2010, about a year and a half ago, and we were riding up a chairlift in Colorado. It was, without exception, the single coldest day of skiing I have ever experienced, with a temperature of negative 8 degrees and at least 30 mile per hour winds. You are always, always colder than I am, so if my fingers and toes were freezing together then you must have been close to turning into a popsicle. This was only your second time skiing. But you knew I loved skiing, and you wanted to go out and share that with me.

When I put my arm around you and asked if you were up for another run, you replied with as much gusto as you could, “Yes.”

And in an instant it clicked. I saw a vision of us, of our lives together, and I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.

Because you say Yes to things.

You say Yes to adventures, to dinner parties, weekend trips, house guests, staying in, going out. You say yes to hitting every restaurant in old town, to learning my favorite board game, to going out of our way to visit Andorra even though it’s kind of a dump, to simply taking a walk because I need to clear my head.

And it’s not just the easy things. You said yes to dating a compulsive traveler, someone who left for two months after a single date. You said yes to dating someone who could have moved away to law school, to the idea of long distance if we had to. When I did stay, you said yes to moving in with me the same month I started school, something widely considered to be a crazy idea.

But then you said yes to coming to live with me in Germany last summer, to going on an impromptu road trip to Venice, to taking a walk to Piazza San Marco, to turning a corner to find an empty bridge, and … to me when I got down on one knee and asked you to marry me.

So my vow to you … is that I will say Yes to things too.

I will say yes to adventures, to dinner parties, to staying in, to going out. I will say yes to doing the dishes, to the ups and the downs, the twists and the turns, the joys and the sorrows of life.

Because life is about saying yes to things, and I want to spend the rest of my life saying yes to things with you.