How I Did It.
Author’s Note: I began the year with one mission: to #DoBetter. I ended up accomplishing quite a bit. I’ve been approached by several people to discuss the quote-unquote “secret to my success.” Truth is, I have no idea — what follows is my best guess. What you’re about to read recounts the events of 2015 — what happened, why it happened and how it happened. All of it true.
Part I — Reset (January 1–February 27)
My Grandfather’s last words to me were “I used to hear a lot of good things about you. Not so much anymore. If you ever get your act together, you’re going to do big things.”
I gave him a hug and left the hospital. That was August 11, 2003. He died 12 hours later.
On December 30, 2014, and after a lengthy escapade of Gin Fizz and Sazerac and Jazz and Crayfish Etoufee, my third trip to New Orleans in less than a year was coming to a close. I was on my way back to Austin from Alabama, but I was also on my way back from a lot of things: Namely, erasing a surreal four year alternate timeline spent trucking back and forth to San Antonio for a woman I no longer called mine, and a nightmare-ish year spent jobless, car-less and homeless which has been documented elsewhere. I decided to redo, relearn, rediscover and reconnect everything in my life. And I knew what was coming. I knew this would be the year to do it.
I trudged to the mailbox on January 4, 2015, and received an envelope postmarked from North Tonawanda. Like Red from the Shawshank Redemption stumbling into that field in Maine under a rock that had no earthly business being under that oak, I nervously opened it. I held in my hand a check for the largest sum of money I’d ever held in my hand at one time and nervously trekked to the bank. This was my reset button. This was my ticket out.
I reinvested it and withheld a small amount to pair with some money I’d accumulated from taking back a ring I’d purchased, a ring not intended for me. A ring intended to be given to someone on 12.13.14. With what I had on hand, I purchased my dream guitar — a Taylor 814ce, and a portable yet powerful PA, a Bose L1. Now, I could finally begin playing as much music in the Live Music Capital of the World as I wanted.
I was recovering from shoulder reconstruction, and was finally medically cleared to start playing live shows again for the first time in three months, so I started the following day at Red Eyed Fly. That began a run of 171 shows in 365 days. Within three months of playing, the guitar / PA investment paid for itself.
I started over. I decided to stop drinking. I cut out processed foods. I gave Crossfit a try. I moved out of my old apartment, dumped a chunk of my furniture and dumped a chunk of cash into a condo across the street. I purchased a memory foam mattress that feels like sleeping on a hug. I got rid of all my clothes and bought a small amount of new ones that more fit my mood. At the end of the month, I released a single, an ode to my sister and my grandfather called “Leave the Light On.” It felt appropriate. Everything done in January was big and heartfelt. I spent a lot of those early days (and very late nights) camping out at a Kava Bar, reading poetry, the Gita and the Dhammapada. I also meditated at the local Shambhala temple. I went to a wine and paella tasting in the company of good friends. This new, simple, quiet life suited me. And in the dark cold of the winter, I was warm with joy.
When it came time for me to visit my mom (and surprise my sister!) in Orlando, I was looking forward to finally feeling like I could visit my family and not be ashamed of myself and all my unfulfilled potential. I struggled with this in the past — always feeling like I should be better than I am, or should have accomplished more, or should’ve made better decisions. Hell, if Monday Morning Quarterback was a real position, I’d make the Pro Bowl.
I came out of “Drink-tirement” to drink “Around the World” at EPCOT, which is when you visit all 12 countries in the world showcase and sample the national drink of each. It was a bucket list item for me and ended up with me face-first in a bucket — allegedly needing to be carried out of a Disney Theme Park while screaming “MERICUH.” As you do.
And when it came time for me to use the last of the largest check I’ve ever seen to pay off the balance of a loan my mother inexplicably entrusted me with when I was down on my luck and needed my 2010 Hyundai Sonata out of repossession jail, I made sure to write her a heartfelt thank you. I remember that most of all.
I experimented with playing sober shows — something I hadn’t done since I started playing music — and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Cu29. Pat O’Brien’s in San Antonio (where I met my two favorite superfans). Dozen Street. Gypsy Lounge. Lucky Lounge. Stompin Grounds. New venues. New horizons. New faces. New places. Emboldened by my suddenly very busy music career, I announced to the world I would be finishing an album, “Mileage,” and releasing it on 10.5.15. I picked the date because, like 12.13.14, it was mathematically perfect.
And I continued to write. I started exploring the beauty of this new life, this awakening in places like “How to Get a F**king Life,” and “Success in Six Words.” Peace. Serenity. Rebirth. Out with the old and in with what I really, really wanted.
But like any dog with too many fleas, even a stash of bones and a comfortable dog-bed couldn’t stop me from scratching. I started smoking pot again for the first time since I was 21. I’d put a THC tincture in my tea and wander around town like a newborn. I messed around with a litany of women I didn’t love. I got (too) cozy with a 19 year-old model, and (too) cavalier with a 46 year-old housewife. I’d often wake up late, beating myself up and bleary-eyed.
I thought back to what my grandfather said to me: Man, if only I could get my act together, then I could really do some big things.
Old habits die hard. Soon, I would find out just how hard they’d all be to kill.
Part II — Reward (February 28 — April 17)
“Be good. Be well. Be interesting.” A motto which became my manifesto — published for the world to see — except from this point on, I only really got good at the third piece of that triumvirate.
I didn’t plan on drinking that day. It was a long one. But if I was going to be as epic as possible, I figured a drink couldn’t hurt. It started at a show at Bat Bar at 12:30, then meandered to The Parish for friends and food, and I met a comely blonde who I then followed to Cu29 for more revelry. We made out a bit and I left to play a secret show at Geisha Room. With a full-on army amassed by then, we went to Lucky Lounge to tear up the stage. That was one of the most exhilarating days of my life. And I needed more of them.
A woman I had a strong passion for recently broke up with her boyfriend, so I took her out for drinks and conversation. We had an incredible evening that lasted until 4 a.m. On a weeknight. This would become commonplace. I played another show at Dozen Street, then wandered to Red 7 to watch my Paella and Wine friends’ band tear up their last show before embarking on a trip to Spain. I played a 62-song show at Pat O’Brien’s before running back to join these same friends for a birthday party. I started seeing yet another woman unexpectedly. She was whip-smart and enjoyable company. And then another, who seemed to have a thing for me but not as big of a thing as she had for the bottle. The days were wild. The nights were long. I rested with Yoga.
No amount of Yoga could’ve prepared me for SXSW 2015 — a two-week madcap blitzkreg of music and mayhem, where I played 14 shows in 11 days, had a bit role in a vodka commercial, spoke at a panel, snuck into private parties, and drank my weight in free booze.
But, the concerts — oh, the concerts — where I got to see a litany of bands for free with myriad wristbands affixed to my arm. The complete list, which reads like a who’s who of who I adore:
Chance the Rapper & The Social Experiment
Plain White Ts
Green River Ordinance
Talk in Tongues
The Karma Killers
Daddy Long Legs
Lost in a World of Color
Samantha Lee and the Family Tree
Every night went longer than the last. Every day at work more exhausted and hungover than the day before.
Drunk off Hendrick’s Gin and my own success, feeling like I was finally maximizing every spare minute spent meandering around this metropolis, I dove into finally writing an epic seven-part anthology of my 2012, the year I found myself living in the back of a rented Jeep and panhandling just to eat. I published seven parts in seven days and I was floored to find out it went viral overnight. It became the most-read post on Medium.com that week. Employees at ESPN, CNN, Al-Jazeera and the Austin Statesman, athletes, business magnates and influencers retweeted it, calling it “gripping,” “heartbreaking,” “inspirational” and “darkly funny.” An employee at The Cauldron came across at, and encouraged me to send him a sports column for submission. More on that later. I followed it up by writing another minor viral sensation, “How To Talk to A Woman.”
SXSW concluded with the “Jailhouse Jamboree,” a barn-burner showcase I was privileged enough to play (as the only male on the bill!) as an opener for Ruby Rose.
And, yet, despite my SXSWTF experience, the night I remember most was a relatively tame evening out with a good friend from work, where we enjoyed some anonymous entertainment from friends I’d met at an earlier show, and some unremarkable Mexican food. Simple. Quiet.
The musical hits kept on coming, as I played a wild show at World of Beer and the Austin Weekly Singer Songwriter Series at Red Eyed Fly. I released another single, “None of the Above.” I appeared on a local compilation album. I parlayed my rising stature in the scene to a trip to the local FOX affiliate’s morning show, where I played a song I’d written and even read off a teleprompter for the first time since I gave up being a Weatherman long ago. The show host quipped, “You could do my job better than me.” I smirked.
Another insane show at Sweetwater sounded like a dream, then ended one of my myriad semi-casual relationships (the one with the gal who could outdrink me) as I pressed for it to get serious. Grown weary of my constant partying, I wrote the double-barreled blast of “You Are Enough” and “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Drink.” They were thinly-veiled cries for help as I plunged deeper and deeper into late-night debauchery.
But then came the Holy Grail of concerts, Stevie Wonder at the Frank Erwin Center. I went alone and didn’t drink a drop. For as many women as I was dating at the time, and as many drinks as I was drinking at the time, there was no way I’d ever be able to taint that moment at less than 100% or with someone who wouldn’t enjoy the experience as much as I did.
But that was just one night. I developed a reputation at work for being a hard partying loose cannon — often showing up 30 minutes late and resting my head on my desk for another 90. (Secretly, some friends noted I wreaked of “the night before” despite my best efforts to shower and douse myself in Banana Republic cologne.) But I also developed a reputation for being damned good at my job, working as hard and fast as I possibly could (much of that a response to being fired once for not working “fast enough”) and enjoying my profession more than many believed could be possible. It was true, my job grounded me, kept me sane and fulfilled me in ways that nothing else in my life — not the music nor the writing nor the women nor the booze — ever could touch.
When my creative director left where I worked, he informed me a team I had been on the DL moonlighting for while their copywriter was out on maternity leave wanted to bring me aboard. A bidding war between the two teams broke out. I was honored, really. I couldn’t imagine there would come a time in all my life where me, a man who’d been fired from six of his previous seven jobs, would ever be wanted by people in a professional setting. I turned down more money to switch teams, earn my first promotion ever and try something new, which I felt was more line with my skill-set — a lot of involving writing aspirational one-liners to make people feel warm and fuzzy. I can see some of you rolling your eyes right now.
The deal finished on Friday, April 17, 2015. I played a show at Bat Bar then reflected upon all my good fortune. I took to Facebook and wrote this:
“Six months ago today I walked out of surgery with my shoulder in shambles. High on oxycontin. All that has changed since then has been everything. I wish every single one of you the six months I’ve had. On Monday, the final piece of my golden era will be revealed. I love every one of you. I cannot believe all the good that has come of my life since then. It’s overwhelming and damn near impossible to process. To friends. To family. To fortune. Thank you. You made this all possible and I hope in six months to tell you this has been the greatest year of my life. Cheers.”
It was true. Everything was falling into place. All my dreams were coming true as fast and as furious as every night spent chasing an unknowable white whale.
The night of April 17 was the absolute pinnacle of my life to that point. On the morning of April 18, I woke up. No, I mean … I really woke up.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I should have never woken up at all.
Part III — Relief (April 18 — June 14)
I’d been chasing a ghost.
I have a saying, “Never hit on midnight.” It’s a blackjack term, but it doubles as a life philosophy that I’d recently forgone in pursuit of maximizing every waking moment with epic amazingness. I wondered what I was trying to find. And I came to a stunning realization: I was lonely. Not lonely in the sense of not being around people — I was around people 24x7. Working during the day. Out every night. Entertaining people through music. Engaging people through writing. But all that activity wasn’t satisfying me. All that activity did was reinforce how alone I was.
Loneliness isn’t feeling like you don’t really know anyone, loneliness is feeling like no one could ever really know you. Whether you’re at the bottom or the top, there’s no cure for loneliness except from within. My inner monologue is what prevented me from being fully present. Drinking silenced the inner monologue.
So I quit drinking again, and decided to pour myself into my passions harder than ever. Perhaps if I could learn to be present by simply pouring myself into things that make me feel present (at least, by my own admittedly low standards of presence).
I released two more singles in rapid succession, “Up and Away” and “Falling From Above.” I was tipped a $100 bill at Pat O’Brien’s to play an extra 30 minutes. I played a singer-songwriter showcase at the Gypsy Lounge. I participated in the critically-acclaimed “MASH OF THE CENTURY” with a great friend of mine, where the two of us took turns playing mashups of covers. I played what was, to that point, the best set of my life at Badlands. I played an epic show at Cu29. I guest-hosted an open mic at Red Eyed Fly. I played an intimate “Storytellers” show at Stompin Grounds. I played a show at Pat O’Brien’s during the heaviest rain the area had seen in 33 years.
I wrote with reckless abandon, writing “Dispatch from the End of the Golden Era” and “Stop Signs” to faint response. I wrote another viral hit, “The Art of Intimacy,” which none other than Umair Haque (a profound influence on this blog and my writing in general) found to be an invigorating read.
And then, of course, this woman I had a passion for since March continued to be a thing. We agreed we wouldn’t rush into a relationship, but we kept seeing each other. We hit up a music festival together. We hit up a friend’s show. We went on a luxurious dinner date. We swapped song ideas. Things were falling into place. I was less lonely.
Free from the throes of impulsively drinking myself into a stupor, I decided to get active. Medically cleared from shoulder reconstruction and done with physical therapy three months early, I ran the Capitol 10K and the Sunshine Run. I borrowed a friend’s mountain bike to complete the 50-mile Real Ale Ride. I figured if I was going to be lonely, at least I was going to something good for myself.
I went with a friend and saw Butch Walker for the fourth time (and second time that year) at Stubb’s in one of the greatest concerts I’d ever seen. The small, simple pleasures began to make me happy again — and yet they were selfish pleasures. Though I was no longer indulging, my pursuits felt self-indulgent. After all, there’s only so many ways you can please yourself before realizing that a legacy is only left by pleasing others.
That mental shake-up came quite literally.
After the Earthquakes in Nepal, a friend who’d been living there at the time shined the bat signal asking for a benefit concert to be held locally to raise money. I took the onus upon myself to create it. Through Lucky Lounge and the Red Eyed Fly, I had venues willing to partake. What followed was an enormous, surprising success. A 22-act, two-night, three-stage musical all-star extravaganza featuring friends of mine in a quickly-cobbled yet well-oiled tribute concert. The sheer thrill of seeing so many friends help out, so many friendly faces on stage and in the crowd, was breathtaking. Between our efforts and the efforts of friends across the world, #Rock4Relief raised over $5,500 for those afflicted by the earthquakes.
I remember at the end of the night, being on the raised outdoor stage, closing out the Red Eyed Fly and hearing the cheers of people praising me for putting something so wonderful together. And I remember not being able to take credit for it. I didn’t want any. After all, it was everyone else that made the show the success it was. The venue who agreed to host it. The musicians who agreed to play, showed up on time (in some cases from other cities), and played their asses off. The merch gal who made T-Shirts and drove in sick from Houston just to sell them and help host. They made it all possible. They were what gave the event its life, gave the cause its vitality and what fueled me to humbly become overcome with emotion on stage.
That moment, I realized there were no more ghosts to chase. That what I’d been craving all along was connection, a sense of purpose and duty. And ain’t nobody ever found any of those things after midnight, or at the bottom of a bottle, or at the farthest reaches of human potential.
When you’re chasing ghosts, you’re chasing your own shadow, and your own shadow is a very dark thing indeed.
I set out from that point forward to chase the light. That light comes in the form of banding together with others to create something larger than the whole.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in the endless sunshine of the Austin summer, but brightest light would arrive in a form I had spent my entire life striving for, but never expected would shine upon me.
And it was coming very, very soon.
Part IV — Rediscovery (June 15 — July 25)
Dreams never die, they just lay dormant.
I originally went to Syracuse University to become a sportscaster. My high school AP U.S. History teacher signed my yearbook, “To the next Bob Costas.” My family was behind me and expected big things. It wouldn’t take long for me to disappoint them.
The career fizzled out. It never materialized. I spent a very short amount of time as an intern at the Utica NBC affiliate, and an even shorter amount of time doing the weather at the CW affiliate in Syracuse, which was essentially staffed by a group of Broadcast students at SU and watched by approximately 15 people. And then … nothing … I graduated with a degree in Psychology from the University at Buffalo, my fourth school in four and a half years, with a 2.9 GPA and no job prospects. I started as a survey taker for $9 per hour.
Flash forward again, and I started sports blogging for free for a site The Love of Sports. Some good writers got their start there. Some who are now featured prominently on ESPN and FOX Sports. Me? Heh. I broke some news, started a few memes, wrote a couple well-received think-pieces (including one that Mark Cuban seemed to really enjoy), and then … crickets. Derailed by my 2012 crisis of confidence, and inability to make ends meet, I lost interest and faded back into obscurity, content with getting paid to do marketing writing.
It had been nearly three years since I last wrote a sports column, which was always a favorite pastime of mine, and directly led to me becoming a paid brand copywriter for my current employer. I’d given up on my strange little dream career to pursue other things. Life often gets in the way of life. But, I felt like I was in pretty great shape, and I had some time freed up from not going out and getting smashed every night, and I felt mentally sharp and emboldened by my year to that point. I’d been out of the game too long, and no itch can stay unscratched forever, so I plotted my return.
On July 5, I emailed the editor at The Cauldron — a smart sportswriting haven not unlike Grantland (RIP) — who saw “How I Got Here,” and dropped him a 1,000-word piece on LeBron James. No pitch. No introduction. Just a, “Hi, maybe you could use this.”
— And use it he did.
“LeBron James: Living the Millennial Dream” was my step into the major leagues and became the most-read column I’d ever written. I was back to writing, and in a big way. I decided to forge ahead. Within a week, “Serena Williams: Greatness in the Heart of Darkness” outdid my previous work, and was read around the world. Something big was beginning … I could feel it.
As I settled back into the comfortable groove of writing for the Internet, I settled into a burgeoning social circle of deep-thinking intellectuals with a passion for meditation, mindfulness and really, really fucking delicious tea. We gathered for lectures, Yoga sessions, meditation, creative workshops and more. I ended up writing, playing, singing and recording a song for part of this group, and it was released on July 16. “Playing to Win” is nominally a song by the Brothers Vinyl. But, oh, I’m in there. Trust me.
In our quickly tightening peer group, one woman stood out in particular — a radiant soul so ridiculously driven and determined that she found herself without a car or a home in order to launch herself into her dream career (sound familiar?) — I knew I liked her from the start. We spent our mornings rock climbing along the scenic 360 Bridge in Austin. We spent our late nights sitting by Walnut Creek reading. I occasionally wandered over to her house to play guitar.
We would often sit and talk for hours and comb the universe over a variety of topics — love, happiness, manifestation, belief, religion. We shared our stories and joined forces. Her and I started a series of video life-coaching podcasts — her as the starry-eyed big thinker, and I as the actionable pragmatist. We were a formidable team. As I worked on my latest piece for the Cauldron, we agreed we’d spend a Saturday together rediscovering another shared passion we’d both been away from for too long — golf.
I’m no athlete and don’t profess to be great at any sports. An avid runner, I am slow and methodical, beating myself to death against lungs that earlier in the year, a doctor claimed put me uncomfortably close to death if I had an asthma attack. Joke’s on him — I’ve been hearing that for 30 years. But golf? I’m a natural at that. I regularly shoot in the mid-80s despite having only played a handful of rounds in my lifetime. For me, there was always something that made sense about just placing a ball on a tie, lining up to hit it, taking a big swing and just coaxing the ball where it needed to go. It was a zen-like experience that was all feeling and no thought. It’s one of the few things I ever set out to do in life that just clicked.
I used to play with a torn labrum, with my shoulder often coming unbuckled during a round before I’d pop it back into its socket and continue on with the 18 holes. But it had been five years. And with my shoulder well-and-truly healed, it was time to get back into it.
My team at work sponsored a charity event at Top Golf, where I was invited with an extra ticket. I figured this would be great prep for getting back out on the course for the first time since I moved to Austin. In the pod to my left, 1983 and 1995 Masters Champion, Ben Crenshaw. To my right, skateboard icon Tony Hawk. And there I was in the middle of it, swinging away, and by the end of the night they were the ones watching me.
And on the morning of Saturday, July 25, at 8 a.m., this woman and I hit the links to start playing.
I had a rough go at first, posting a 53 on the front nine before settling down and shooting even-par on the back side. Not bad for a five year layoff.
When I checked my phone following the round, I noticed something striking. I had over 400 new Twitter notifications. I clicked into the app. My column, “Don’t Look Now, but ESPN Radio has quietly evolved,” posted that morning. And it was being read by everybody. Scott Van Pelt called me out. The column circulated all the way up to the top brass at ESPN. I got shout-outs on ESPN Radio and Sportscenter. If I wasn’t going to be the next Bob Costas, I would absolutely settle for the current Bob Costas saying “at-a-boy.”
The column dwarfed everything I’d ever done before. Industry insiders DM’d me to say “congrats” and “thank you.” Radio stations called me to interview me. It was a surreal moment in my life. The weekend hack from Austin, who dropped out of the most prestigious journalism school in the world 13 years earlier, was suddenly a living, breathing voice in an industry that I thought had spit me out forever. The gal and I shared a celebratory meal at Shake Shack. How could the day get any better?
Well, I had a show at Cu29 that night. And I brought my goddamned A-game. Several friends of mine joined me to say hello. I was in top-flight form, playing well past my midnight end time all the way to close. I looked around and found myself pausing mid-set in awe. Dreams never die, they just lay dormant … until you wake them up. When I settled up at the bar, Topo Chico in hand, pondering the events of another very busy day, a towering pinnacle of a day in a year already filled with them, I openly wondered if — after nearly seven months of moving, writing, working, playing, music, thinking, recording, running, biking and sobering — the magic was all out.
I’d soon find out the magic was only beginning.
Part V — Reverb (July 26 — October 3)
“Thank you.” They’re the two most important words in the English language, and two words I had never been particularly good at saying. So I made a pact to start saying them as often as possible, often in the form of thank you cards sent to random people for what they’ve meant to me and how they contributed to my life in whatever meaningful way they did.
And on August 5, when two people who needed a real thank you for helping to kickstart my music career, I sprung into action.
A couple friends ran a riotously popular open mic night at Firehouse Lounge in Austin. They informed the world that this would be their last Wednesday as hosts, and so I ran on down.
I always threatened to have the saxophone player jump on stage with me. And on this night, I knew I’d never get another chance. So I asked him to come on stage. A surprise in my back pocket.
“Can we play ‘Lease?’” He begged, referring to his favorite song of mine.
“Not tonight,” I said.
And so I gave him the introductory chord progression until we were on the same page. And then I stopped. And then the first verse. It was his song. A song by the band he formed with the other host. And I covered it note for note, eventually calling the other host to come up and sing the last chorus. “Thank you.”
I wrote a column called “Happiness is Overrated,” thanking Samantha Steele for saying what I always wanted to say but could never articulate — that peace and gratitude are what really matter.
I wrote a thank you note in the form a column for The Cauldron thanking him for being an athlete to come out as an atheist, as well as a poet, a thinker and someone far removed from football’s bizarre meathead jock culture.
I thanked the “Bros” who, earlier in my life, constantly cut me down, for teaching me how to live with “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Bros.” It was a surprise smash hit on LinkedIn, which, to this day, is a social medium I do not understand.
Another way I wanted to say “thank you,” was to start a Wednesday night open mic in place of the one that ended. I wanted to give the people who frequented the place that became like a family for so many a soft place to land. Through the kind folks at Cu29, I had a venue to do so — and on August 19, I started hosting an Open Mic of my own. I wanted to give back to the people who gave me so much, and I wanted to pay it forward and hopefully jump-start someone else’s music career in Austin the way open mics got me going in the beginning. It’s still running to this day.
But, truly, the best way to say “thank you,” is living well. I poured my heart and soul into my work, creating some of the finest branding work I’d ever done for a team that took a big risk in selecting me to do some of their writing for them. It was well-received and some of it ended up in Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine.
And it was at this time that people began to notice a transformation in me. A physical transformation. From not drinking, running, biking and eating well, I had lost a staggering 44 pounds. I had more energy than ever. I wrote about it. To this day, I am still losing weight. At one point I was 208 pounds— now I check in at a mere 154.
A lot of people talk about their “Finest Hour.” On September 10, 2015, between the hours of 7 and 8 p.m., I literally had it. I received a phone call from my editor at The Cauldron, and he revealed a secret to me — the site had been bought by Sports Illustrated. He wanted to bring a handful of writers over with him, and he tapped me to be a part of it. I didn’t have to think twice, and I couldn’t thank him enough. I graciously accepted. Mere minutes later, I received an email with a link to a Google Drive — I opened the link to find 11 WAV files of songs I recorded. The album, “Mileage,” was done — and I couldn’t thank my producer enough. I quickly burned the files to disc and drove around Austin listening to each song, in order, in my car. Within one hour, I became a writer for Sports Illustrated and a professional recording artist. I’ll put those 60 exhilarating minutes up against any other in my life any day. And somehow, at 9 p.m., I took to the stage at the Sahara Lounge, to play an hour-long set of songs I’d written over the summer that didn’t appear on “Mileage.”
Within a week, I had dropped my first column for SI, and later that week, I played another show at Cu29, with my old creative director and his wife stopping by to say hello.
Speaking of stopping by to say hello, I got a call from my dad who told me, “I’d like to come to Austin for your birthday.” It would be the first time my dad came to visit me since I’d moved in 2010. I was ready. I was excited. I was, strangely, nervous. What would happen if he came and found out my life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be?
I made it a point not to do anything out of the ordinary. My dad would spend “a weekend in the life of John Gorman,” and maybe he’d like it — maybe he wouldn’t. But I figured if he saw me doing things I enjoyed, maybe he’d enjoy them, too.
I had planned a big show for my 33rd Birthday at Stompin Grounds — the bar where I got my musical start in Austin. I’d bring out the Question Jar — an idea I stole from Mike Doughty where people can write questions and I would draw from the jar and answer them in between songs — and play all original music from all my years of making it. And yet this time I was nervous as hell … why?
My dad had never seen me play music.
Oh, sure, he’d seen a couple of high school talent shows back in the late 90s, but this was an entirely different animal. This would be me, unguarded, singing lyrics about drugs and one-night stands and violence and love and sex and anger and hypochondria and so on. What would he think? What if nobody showed?
When my dad arrived the day before my birthday, I took him for some BBQ at a joint I enjoyed. We went for a walk around town and I showed him Stevie Ray Vaughan’s statue and the place they film Austin City Limits. I played a show at Voodoo Room, all covers, as a warm-up for the next day. Then, I took him to Cu29 to watch two of my friends play music and have him sample some of the cocktails I took (perhaps too much of) a liking to earlier in the year.
The next day, we had breakfast tacos and I bought a rug to finally complete the reassembly of my living quarters after I ditched everything to start fresh in January. The reset was complete. We ate dinner at my favorite restaurant. We stopped in at the Kava Bar where I did most of my writing. And then it was on to the show.
And, like at the last open mic, I had a surprise in my pocket.
A parade of friends filed in to celebrate with me, as I rummaged through my back-catalog of music for an hour or so. I answered questions. I made off-color jokes. I enjoyed myself. And then, in the middle of the set, I stopped.
“Hold on,” I said, as I whipped out my phone. “I have to do this.”
I then began to tell a story — “For the past 12 years, I’d been writing a series of songs that would become an album. For the past 30 months, I’ve been recording it. And, as of right now, you can have it. Pay what you want. ‘Mileage’ is released. This is my ‘thank you’ to all my friends who are here right now.”
And a lifelong labor of love finally became available for public consumption. I played the songs from it, continued to answer questions from the jar until they were all gone, and had the best time hanging out with my friends after.
My dad and I played darts with my friends until closing time. I smoked cigarettes, said many “thank you”s and basked in the glow of what felt like yet another peak.
The very last thing I did that night, before scuttling off to start my 34th trip around the sun, was kiss a woman I couldn’t stand to not kiss any longer. We’ll talk about her soon.
But first, we need to talk about everything else. And I do mean everything.
Part VI — Renaissance (October 4 — November 7)
“All I want is to smoke a fucking cigarette!” Said the young man who ran into me while I was texting and walking outside Dizzy Rooster in downtown Austin. It was Shia LeBeouf. 20 minutes later, he was cuffed for public intoxication. I know that struggle. Sometimes all you want to do is feel normal. Sometimes that’s impossible.
I drove down to San Antonio to play Pat O’Brien’s to play a last-minute show, and I left with a golden parachute. $500. I visited an old haunt with an old friend. I sat in on drums with another old friend’s band. I had a lot of emotions as I passed by the exit where I would normally go to see my ex. I gave up this life, this city, to pursue something different — something on my own terms. I gave up this city to chase ghosts. I thought about if trading love, simplicity and peace was worth it. That I had to think told me everything I needed to know.
I bolted town to take an adventure, to escape all the madness. I saw some rocks. I had the best meal of my lifetime. Duck confit ravioli. I spent a day and caught up with an old friend and ended up catching feelings. I’m certain it wasn’t received well. I called a friend of mine in a panic at 3 a.m. “I think you just need to rest,” he said, “and maybe just be yourself.” How? After cutting out drinking and sloppy food, and exercising regularly, how could I still be this burnt out? This is what I tried to avoid. The answer puzzled me.
I didn’t think I’d end up in Las Vegas. I never much cared for the town. But my best friend from Buffalo, the one who saw me off to Austin, was going to be in town for a law conference, and his girlfriend would be there, too. I got a room at the SLS, which — after merely being cordial and asking the desk clerk about her day — was upgraded to the Penthouse suite on the 28th floor. The room was the size of a mansion. It felt like everywhere I went this year, I was this much closer to “arriving.”
I woke up that morning and ran down the strip. 8 miles of opulence and decadence. And I then I met my friends. We spent the day wandering about town, zip-lining, gorging ourselves and we caught Penn and Teller. For the first time in my life, I played Blackjack. Midnight showed. I didn’t hit. I kept my money. I played another hand. 21 showed. I won and immediately stopped. Sometimes, it’s best not to hit on perfection, either.
The following day, my friend wandered off to the law conference and it was just I and his girlfriend for the afternoon. We went to the top floor of the Mandarin to a tea house and talked a lot. She had become close with my ex. And I opened up about wondering if it was all worth it. If achieving everything your heart desires is worth more than not breaking your own heart to get there. We both cried a lot. I learned two things that afternoon: You don’t have to make someone smile to make someone happy, and I absolutely, positively needed that cry to heal a heart I never gave a second thought to. As we went around on the High Roller, high above the Vegas skyline, I again realized that it was the small things that made life special: friends, family, health and laughter. Honor what you have, and what you want will come. And though I’d done a superlative job at going after what I wanted, I’d done a pretty shitty job at honoring what I had.
I returned home to another friend in from Buffalo, a friend whom I was — his words, not mine — “responsible for my music career, and responsible for meeting my girlfriend … I should give you a blow job on stage.”
We played four shows in three nights and generally had the time of our lives, bringing Buffalo to Austin and making merry with friends of mine who were in the music scene. I barely slept.
I continued to write, penning several SI columns, a short story, a collection of my aphorisms.
I did more branding work. I had an ad appear in USA Today, I did some volunteering at our giant annual tech conference.
I was podcasting with a friend from Buffalo, we hosted a weekly Fantasy Football show where we talked about the Buffalo Bills, the NFL and whatever else was on our minds. It was enjoyable. It was fun. And they provided great comfort for my Tuesday nights in.
And I continued to run — faster and farther than ever before. And with everything I did, I realized I was plunging deeper and darker into my own head. I was tired. I was scared. I felt like I had to keep this up to keep going. Burning the candles at all ends. I was hosting an Open Mic on Wednesdays, playing a weekly residency on Thursdays, another weekly residency on Fridays, and a show every Saturday — and that was just on weekends when I wasn’t traveling.
Burnout. At the worst possible time. Physically and mentally exhausted, and yet, I was far from finished.
I had an idea back in January that my father deserved a surprise party for his 60th Birthday. I made the 12-hour trek from Austin back to Alabama, stopping in Memphis for evening on Beale Street and a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game. Everything was happening. All at once. And there I was, flooring the gas once more.
I arrived in Alabama a couple of minutes before my dad did. I was greeted by his wife, his best friend and my uncle. The look on his face was priceless. We ate that unparalleled Alabama White BBQ Sauce for dinner. We cobbled together a group of his coworkers and friends and celebrated deep into the night. Friends. Family. Health. Laughter. If you go where you’re supposed to go, you’ll end up where you want to be. If you go where you want to be, you’ll miss the places you’re supposed to go.
When I celebrated with my dad on his birthday, as he did with me on mine, I remembered feeling an overwhelming sense of “This is where I am supposed to be.” And everything, all the pressures of constantly trying to undo and outdo myself, melted away. I could simply exist. And that, more than anything, is what I needed. I was burnt out. This year … this month in particular … but this year … had sapped the life out of me. All the energy I expended to try and be the best at everything had pinned me on E. I walked around like a zombie on painkillers, anxious, exhausted, paranoid. That kind of “success,” whatever it was I was doing, was completely unsustainable and a one-way ticket to an early, gold-plated grave.
All I wanted was to smoke a fucking cigarette.
I made it a priority to shut down when I returned home. I cancelled my residencies at the clubs I played at. I stopped writing for a bit. I scaled back to just work and preexisting social commitments. I’d work on myself. I would finally rest.
At least … I thought I would. Until she walked in.
Part VII — Recharge (November 8 — December 31)
It’s always a woman, isn’t it? Remember the one from my birthday I absolutely had to kiss? Well … I took her out to dinner at a local French restaurant. We chatted. We dined. We chatted some more. But, mostly, we chilled. I felt no pressure. I felt no pretense. I simply existed, free from the burdens of my own inner monologue and relentless drive for perfection.
I locked myself in my condo for the week that followed. Just rested. As a recluse. I watched ESPN. I laid still.
At 4 a.m., I made a decision to drive out to Shiner, Texas to run a half marathon. I had only run one half marathon before (in 2014), and I hadn’t exactly trained for this one, and didn’t think I would finish. It was a cold, dreary day. I had no expectations. I took off at a snail’s pace and gave it a go. I played LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 in the speakers. One mile. Two mile. Three mile. Huffing and puffing. Fucking lungs. Just let it in. Four mile. Five mile. Six mile. Seven mile. I stopped to take a picture. The sun cleared out from the clouds. I was more than halfway home. I can finish this. Eight mile. Nine mile. Ten mile. Eleven mile. I glance at my watch — I’m making good time. Twelve mile. Thirteen mile. My phone falls out of my pocket. I curse. And then I sprint. I finished in a time of 2:31. I shattered my personal best by 17 minutes.
I wandered around like I’d just won the race. A giddy smile on my face. A breathless excitement. I was alone. I was at peace. I drove the two hours back to Austin and napped before another evening with the woman, at a friend’s birthday party. We chilled. We relaxed. We drove home at 5 a.m. and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for.
Later that week, the two of us drove over to a friend’s house for a Thanksgiving feast. We chilled. We relaxed. We ate bacon-wrapped turkey and chicken wing dip.
The following day I trudged over to the cinema to catch “Creed.” I went alone. I relaxed and saw a lot of myself in the movie. It’s about a man who can’t escape his destiny, so he decides to embrace it by relentlessly doing what he was born to do. I know that struggle well.
A column of mine I poured my heart into — an interview with an Olympic hopeful — was on the shelf at SI. That week, it ran. It became the most well-read, most highly-regarded work I’d ever created — music, branding, writing, the medium mattered not — this was my magnum opus, an engaging read about a stirring subject. She was a woman who found out late in life she could run like the wind and gave up everything to do it. I called the piece “Race Against Time.” When I went back and read it after it’d been published, I realized I’d written partially about myself. I’m a man who found out late in life I could “run like the wind.” And so I did.
On December 1, I went and saw a friend and life coach speak. I asked him about impostor syndrome — the feeling that one day you’ll be found out and all your good fortune will be taken away from you. He didn’t really answer my question, but during his response I got my answer.
You fight impostor syndrome not by achieving more beyond your wildest dreams, but by doing small things well, so that when big success comes your way, you’ll know you deserve it. In other words, “honor what you have and what you want will come.” Too much of my year was spent swinging for the fences instead of just swinging well.
I think back on all my success in the past year. And I think back to what truly makes me happy. It was the small things. They were all small things.
- The way my guitar sounds and feels when I pluck the strings.
- The way I hold deep conversation without descending into debauchery.
- The way my mom hugs me when I fly in to say hello.
- The roar of a crowd after playing my heart out.
- The way my song comes through the speakers, or my words jump off a page.
- The taste of paella or duck confit ravioli.
- The thrill of seeing my favorite musical artist live.
- The exhilaration of finishing a race.
- The fulfillment of helping those in need.
- The joy of seeing your byline for the first time.
- The view from the 360 bridge.
- The alignment of a perfectly-struck golf ball.
- The quality time spent wandering the city with my dad.
- The reunion of good friends from long ago.
- The satisfaction of a job well done.
- The release of letting go of old demons.
- The look on my dad’s face when I surprise him by just showing up.
- The comfort of falling asleep in a woman’s arms.
- And, of course, saying “thank you.”
On December 7, my company made me an offer to be an official employee after over three years of contract work. With it, came a substantial raise and a promotion. And it made me proud. Not for the increased influence or increased affluence, but because I had actually done a little thing well enough, for long enough, that they wanted me to keep doing it for them. It’s all I ever wanted was to be wanted. In a year full of grand, thrilling, exasperating moments — that was the best moment of all …
… until December 22, when I walked into a Wells Fargo and made a payment of $1,105. It was the last of over $51,000 in debt I had in 2012, which saddled me with great financial hardship documented elsewhere. I was free. It was a perfect example of doing one little thing well, repeatedly, until I got the result I wanted.
That’s just one piece of a puzzle that’s as of yet undefined. There’s plenty I want to work. I want love. I want to stay sober. I want to fix my lungs. I want to communicate better. I want to laugh more. I want to become a better writer and a better human. Getting your shit together isn’t as easy as rattling off a list of accomplishments. It’s sustained, small, incremental excellence that builds on itself, brings you peace and leaves joy in its wake for others.
I’ve been to the top of many mountains. I’ve soared to new heights. In a year of constant heat checks and dares, of breathless effort and endless accomplishment, I learned that there’s always another mountain to climb, but there’s no view quite like the one you get when you can look someone else in the eye and you both know exactly what the other is thinking. I bought a camera the other day and spent an afternoon running and taking pictures. That’s where the cover photo for this story came from — it’s me looking this city square in the eye. And the city’s telling me, “Get out of the middle of the fucking road, dummy. You’re gonna get yourself killed chasing the perfect picture.”
Life isn’t about living a great story, it’s about living a good life. It isn’t about going where you want to go, it’s about going where you’re needed and saying, “I like what you’ve done with the place.” It’s about love, laughter, friends, family and health. It’s about believing in other people and letting others believe in you. From living in a rented Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot to making six-figures and staying in a Penthouse, I can assure you that every stop along the way, the rest is all bullshit.
My Grandfather’s last words to me were “I used to hear a lot of good things about you. Not so much anymore. If you ever get your act together, you’re going to do big things.”
A lot of good things were finally said about me this year. I hope you heard them, Papa. I did big things. And I hope one day I get my act together. Maybe next year.