A Book and a Puzzle

I got COVID back in February. Two weeks holed up in an apartment for an extrovert can be tough, but hey, given the situation it was the least I could do to help stop the spread.

Day 1 was spent doing schoolwork, cleaning the house, and catching up on the typical things that had slipped through the cracks in previous weeks.

Day 2 shifted to workouts, calling friends, schoolwork, Netflix, and playing the floor is lava… I was getting antsy. At this rate, 12 more days was like gazing up at the summit of Everest from base camp.

On day 3, though, something happened that I didn’t expect. Out of the blue, a friend stopped by and dropped off a book and a puzzle, both of which she knew would ease my boredom. Not only had she taken time out of her day, but she was thoughtful enough to choose gifts she knew I liked. I was shocked!

If you have some free time, think about how you can make someone else’s day today. Thoughtfulness in our modern era goes such a long way. Below are some ideas for you to get started:

  1. Write a friend a birthday card.
  2. If you find something at the store you think a pal would like, spend the extra dollars and buy it for them as a surprise.
  3. If someone you know is going through a tough time, spend some extra time with them to show them you care.
The “Mineralogy” puzzle from Jenna

“There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness, and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much.Mother Theresa

Give it a Break

You wake up and check the time on your phone. 6:30 AM. Thoughts of the busy day ahead begin to snake their way into your mind as you shower. You blink. You’re at work typing up another two reports for your boss while you sip on the black gold keeping you awake (coffee). After two meetings and a quick pottery class, you zip over to the dog shelter for your weekly volunteering. You don’t make it home until 9:30 PM. You’re exhausted, but at least you can sneak in an episode of that Netflix show you’ve been bingeing. Shoot. You told your friend you would get coffee with her this morning before work and completely spaced. You stop, shake your head, and chuckle, ruminating on Bilbo’s classic line, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

We all need time to step back from our routines. We have to realize it’s an issue when we can’t commit WELL to all we’ve said yes to. It takes some of the fun out of what we’re doing too. When you feel like this, just take a break. Don’t schedule anything. Even if it’s for a weekend, plan a little excursion to somewhere you haven’t been before! Try a doable camping trip, or if you have the bandwidth, do something fun, like drive to a nearby town and stay for a mini-vacation. If you do this enough, you’ll see the slice of bread you’re spread over begin to get smaller. And who doesn’t like well-buttered toast?

Lessons from a forest

The distant hiss of rubber on concrete drifts over the treetops and into my balcony. As droopy as some of the limbs are, their green leaves stand as markers of how resilient southern woods can be, even in the wake of a hurricane.
It was amazing to see the leafy branches of a nearby Sugarberry tree stand against Ida’s relentless wind. The reason it persevered so well through the storm is mostly due to several smaller species that have grown in close proximity. Those trees provided a buffer to the wind, and without them, I am sure the Sugarberry would have been next year’s firewood. Many isolated trees did not fare so well.
The winds of life can blow strongly, which is why we need each other when they do. Try and find a way to help lessen the impact of a friend hearing hard news this week, or provide encouragement to someone who could use it. You just might be the buffer they need.

In a Pickle

Lately, I’ve grown rather tired of having to convey the hushed statement, “Yeah… I’ve never been to Florida before.” I recently moved to Baton Rouge, and now had no excuse to continue this lifelong streak, so my brother and I decided to take a four-day road trip to the panhandle in May, old school style.

No smartphones, no google maps, no social media. Just us, the open road, some CDs from the library (that we had to dust off), and a few books to keep us company.

The first destination? A glassy lake in Blackwater State Forest. To two sweat-drenched dudes forced to sit in a wheeled box of metal careening down the highway for hours, this was not a far cry from an oasis in the desert (the desert being the heat of the southern summer). The unpaved roads took us into the heart of a lush forest, but lack of elevation made navigation rather difficult, and it took quite a while to find our spot (several locals showed us the way).

After we parked our car at a pristine “primitive” campground furnished with a metal fire pit and two picnic tables, we quickly ran down to the lake and soaked our feet.

“What about a quick swim to the other side?” I asked Ben.

“So down.”

We popped our goggles on and began the 300m swim to the other side of the lake. Soon the shoreline behind us began to obscure, mimicking the weed-covered lakebed that receded into the murky depths out of sight.

I couldn’t help but wonder, what was down there? After all, we weren’t in Colorado anymore. I had heard stories of gators attacking people who encroached upon their territories, such as the infamous “Florida Man” who claimed he saw the inside of one’s mouth while fighting to stay alive (check out the story here).

I quickly steeled my nerves and continued to put one arm in front of the next for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, texture once again graced the bottom of the lake and I knew we were close to the other side.

Ben and I stood up once we saw the depth was no more than waist height and looked around. Locals at the far side of the lake must have been either in awe or simply laughing at two goggled, scared non-Floridians standing near the reeds, like some bewildered aliens on foreign soil.

As our eyes adjusted we noticed several black blotches contrasting the glistening water in the middle of the lake. They vanished several seconds later, only to pop up nearer than before. Thoughts ran through my mind of getting bit by a passing water moccasin (a deadly snake endemic to the south), losing a finger to a snapping turtle, or getting pulled under by the Florida version of the Loch Ness monster. To this day I have no idea what those creatures were.

We now had two options.

  1. Swim back and risk the above.
  2. Wade through the reeds and if we survive suffer through the long trek back around the lake to our campground half naked with no shoes.

We sighed, cried, high-fived, and chose option #1.

An eternity later and I was never so excited to see that olive green lake bed materialize from the depths. We clambered up onto the shore and swore never to swim in a swamp again.

I’m sure many of you have had encounters with the unknown before. It’s always a learning experience, isn’t it?

Exciting, thrilling adventures await you if you step into the waters of adventure, but be prepared for what may lie beneath its shimmering surface.

Bear Lake at Blackwater State Park in Florida. This was taken after survival.

Gone Light

Calibri-esque font spread across a surprisingly airy cardboard box.

“Light II”

I excitedly opened the package and found a small encouraging note underneath the front flap: “The Light Phone is for going light. It is a choice. How will you experience your life today? Appreciate your time, life is right now.”

And there it was. The small device that would inevitably change the way I interacted with the world for at least the foreseeable future.

So what is the Light Phone II?

It’s essentially a fully functional phone dipped in the nostalgia of simplicity. No internet, no infinite feeds, and no apps. Just text, phone calls, music (which you have to upload from an mp3 file), podcasts, and basic tools such as an alarm and calculator. The display is e-ink, so think baby Kindle.

I am now one month into “going light”. Below are some reflections of my experience:

What I enjoy

  1. The freedom! The first week was spent battling the PTSD of constantly checking my phone for notifications. On several occasions I literally felt the buzz in my pocket just to realize it was in my head. This jerk reaction faded around the two week mark and I began to notice how little I reached for my phone. Ahhh. I do feel more present and less distracted than I have in a long time.
  2. The size. The Light Phone II is almost half as big as my previous iphone. It’s less noticeable, doesn’t jut into my leg when I ride my bike (slightly exaggerating, but you get the point), and feels sleek in my hand. Not to mention the fun e-ink display tends to turn heads. I feel like a modern rebel when I use it in public. Fight the system of distraction!
  3. The catalyst to good conversation. Lately I have been able to have quite a few discussions with friends who are considering limiting their phone’s grip on their attention. This has enabled me to provide insight to the possibility of limiting phone use and offer a potential solution to their dilemma.
  4. The lack of Google Maps. Why is this in the enjoy section? Maybe this comment is lost and can’t find its way to the section below… But no, it is here for a reason. I must say I do enjoy getting to know the area around where I live. I can now get to more friends’ houses on the fly, know the quickest route to stores and restaurants, and have even had to ASK a fellow human to figure out where some places are. Imagine that.

What I miss

  1. The fast texting. As beautiful as the e-ink display is, when it comes to texting the Light Phone II feels like an old VW Beetle puttering down the road as Ferraris zoom past in the fast lane. It’s simply archaic. I really am starting to miss the quick messages I could send my friends.
  2. The music. Although there are murmurs of The Light Phone II partnering with Spotify, the current mess of downloading songs from YouTube and converting them to .mp3 files made me nostalgic for about a day. Laziness of not updating the phone has caught up to me and listening to the same four songs is giving me more sympathy for Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. If you want diversity in your music, you have to fight for it.
  3. The pictures, memes, and GIFs. I went on a vacation with my brother two weeks ago. We had a blast and returned with loads of stories, but alas, no pictures for our more visually inclined friends and family. I also miss the convenience of using the iPhone’s camera to capture great moments. Caveat: Moments must be worth capturing to use your camera…
    I also used to send and receive the occasional hilarious Lord of The Rings related meme or GIF with friends (you’ll get the gist here) and also have to wait to get to my laptop to receive pictures sent to my phone (it forwards pics to my email). Not fun.
  4. WhatsApp and Groupme. As connected as I feel in the present moment, I have noticed my lack of correspondence with some of the more physically remote friendships in my life. This is unfortunate and I don’t want some of these conversations to go by the wayside.

Recommendation

If you’re looking to really minimize your social media footprint, don’t care much for cameras, and want to simply disconnect for a while, get this phone. It has definitely taught me a lot about how I spend my time and what I prioritize. If you do have a lot of friends or family members around the world, travel a lot for work or pleasure, or enjoy jamming out to that “Discover Weekly” playlist on Spotify, I would shy away from The Light Phone II.

My takeaways and advice

Will I have this phone forever? Probably not. The Light Phone II is a cool concept, but they need to work out some kinks before I will consider this a longer term phone. Get rid of the lag, offer music options, and provide solid maps, and I might switch permanently.

My advice?

  1. Disconnecting IS possible. Please do it more often! Try to engage in good conversation on a daily basis without your phone. You’ll thank yourself for it.
  2. Learn to listen well. Many people can’t or don’t try to truly listen to each other. This will heal many wounds and solve many problems.
  3. Keep your phone out of your room. Charge it in the living room and leave your room as a space to read, process the day, and reflect.

I’m staying with the phone until August as a dual commitment with my brother, then will most likely return to my familiar Apple product. Though I like slowing down to enjoy the view from my horse drawn wagon, I’m excited to return to many of my friends in the modern era. I just hope to do it with a newfound perspective on digital minimalism.

Too Close to Home

Friends, I want you to stop for 5 seconds and look around you.

Most likely, you will observe walls, windows, streets, and other man-made developments that comprise your immediate environment.

This is new. This is novel.

As you can guess, the Earth, however, is not new. Cycles of life. Seasons. Natural heating and cooling. These processes churn together in a rhythmic harmony that has kept our world habitable for millennia.

This global ebb and flow is being majorly threatened if not completely disrupted today.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL) 2020 “Living Planet Report” found a 68% decline in the 21,000 monitored populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians around the globe between 1970 and 20161. Sixty. Eight. Percent. Let that sink in.

And this is just one of a myriad of growing statistics today.

It’s saddening and disheartening. I tear up just writing about it. I am sure you, like me, want your children (or at least the children born today) to experience the same fresh air and witness the same natural world you probably were able to experience to as a child. I doubt, however, this will happen when looking at our current trends.

BUT there is hope. For example, the book “How to Avoid a Climate Crisis” by Bill Gates distills the science and concludes we can still curb this worsening problem, though it will take sacrifice on ALL fronts, both personally and as a global population2. I have hope we can find a way to think about changing our lifestyles now to avoid a problem that will soon be too difficult to fight.

So what can you do?

Below are three ways you can do your part today:

  1. Look at your single-use plastics consumption. Is there a way you can limit the amount of plastics you use? Maybe try going out to eat less, or bring a reusable cup to Starbucks in the mornings.
  2. Limit the amount of new things you buy! You can always purchase used clothes, or sew up a tear. Make things LAST!
  3. Try and limit your vehicle usage! Don’t have a bike? Get one! Close enough to walk? Do it!

I leave you with one of my new favorite quotes:

A special thanks to my dad, Paul Merrill, for the header images! He took these while on the beach in Kenya circa 2006.

To add a little pizzaz to your day, please check out his blog here.

  1. https://www.zsl.org/sites/default/files/LPR%202020%20Full%20report.pdf
  2. https://www.amazon.com/How-Avoid-Climate-Disaster-Breakthroughs/dp/059321577X#:~:text=In%20this%20urgent%2C%20authoritative%20book,and%20effects%20of%20climate%20change.

Variety

It’s cold outside in Baton Rouge this morning. Drops of dew cling to the stems and leaves of trees outside my apartment like small crystal balls magnifying a gray sky. From my window I can see cars jet past, parting waters like Moses in the ruts and depressions of the road. A bike ride is probably not on the docket for most folks today (or the few folks who do ride here). I’m sure many people’s usual agenda in this city has changed due to the weather.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Variety adds something new and unique to the regular pulse of daily life. Without seasons or weekly changes in weather the world’s bored news anchors would dust off their notes as they blink into the camera, attempting to shake off thousand yard stares. Thank goodness this isn’t the case.


If the weather happens to be rather consistent in your area as you read this, do something fun to add variety to your day in another way. Try checking out a new part of town, buying a new item you’ve never tried before from the grocery store, or taking a different way to work. Your mind will thank you for it.

Deep Roots

A large tree near my Aunt’s house in Belgium

I love my parents’ backyard. Every spring, ice and snow soften their grip on the dark soil, which expresses its gratitude by producing a multitude of healthy emerald blades of grass. But spring rains do not show partiality. Fueled by moisture and sunlight, dandelions begin to clump in small rebellious clusters that pockmark what should be a clean, crisp lawn.

“5 cents a weed,” my mom used to say.

Metal garden tool in hand, my brother and I would spend hours between lemonade breaks pulling these small pests from our lawn and restoring peace to the galaxy. Each little dandelion was yanked out with relatively little effort. Other sprouts such as the round-leaved mallow weed laughed at my attempt to extricate them from the ground. Like a lizard’s tail, they would grow back within weeks of being “pulled”. It became incredibly frustrating, yet their deep roots allowed for persistent survival each growing season.

If I thought these plants had far reaching roots I was wrong. Rutgers University published an article in 2017 highlighting the rare shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca, for you plant lovers), which has been found to have roots extending up to 230 feet into the subsurface in search of water. Surprisingly, these trees take up residence in one of the world’s harshest environments: The Kalahari Desert1.

Why am I going into detail on roots? We hardly see them on a daily basis. The answer is simply because I believe roots provide a pertinent and needed analogy to our lives as human beings.

As I’m sure you’ve been told, it turns out that what type of job we throw ourselves into, how we spend our free time, and who we surround ourselves with are all where we choose to place our roots. It’s naturally human to try to find a place to feed our souls. The more you put your trust in things that last the test of time, the more you love where you are, who you are, and who surrounds you. In essence, the deeper your roots go. When drought hits, storms arise, and the weather of life seeks to pull us from our spots and make us question why we’re even here, we have hope of making it through those times because we’ve developed deep roots. For me, it’s my faith and close friends that I find the need to continually invest in.

If you have a moment, take some time and consider where you’re trying to deepen your roots. It may turn out that some areas of your life need a reassessment.

1. Canadell, J., Jackson, R. B., Ehleringer, J. B., Mooney, H. A., Sala, O. E., & Schulze, E. D. (1996). Maximum rooting depth of vegetation types at the global scale. Oecologia, 108(4), 583-595.

I just wanted to be an extra

We have all had thoughts of turning a hobby or idea into something more. It’s only human to dream, right? Some might say to themselves, “This passion for sumo wrestling might just be a future career,” or “I could make some real money selling my ‘five turtles on a log’ paintings.” For me, it’s always been acting. Not to be the star of the show, just an extra in a movie. I imagine frazzled humans shuffling around a set with sloshing coffee in their hands as they prepare for the next scene. An exciting buzz fueled by starry film lights. With this shining vision in my mind, I began my hunt by signing up on a casting website looking for “talent.” The familiar little chime sounded in my inbox two days later. Something along the lines of, “Mr. Merrill, we formally request your presence at our studio in Denver next Thursday for an audition.” I jumped out of my seat.

A week passes and I’m there, staring at massive doors just opened by an invisible receptionist inside. I look up. A wall of glass creates a camouflaged mosaic with the sky. The building must be at least 15 stories tall. I lower my head and take a sniff. Good. The Old Spice Pure Sport is doing the job of masking my nervousness. A few moments later and I step into a brightly lit room. Behind the front desk sits a gal sporting a permanent smile who couldn’t be more than 18. She hands me an information packet.

“Just fill out these questions and you’ll be ready to go in no time.”

I fill out the three pages of questions and leave one of my throwaway emails. I’m quickly escorted down a narrow hallway to join a tightly packed line of fidgeting people, like a litter of puppies in a cardboard box. The line is getting shorter, as one by one each person is called into a windowless room to our left. About thirty seconds before being waved into this room I realize we’ve each received a short blurb to recite. Mine’s about the benefits of Advil. Shoot. I usually stick to Tylenol. I memorize as much as I can and before I know it, I’m standing at in front of a well dressed man who just put down his mug of coffee. At least this somewhat resembles a set.

“Great, Mr. Merrill… Let’s see what you’ve got.” I blink as the man scribbles something on a clipboard.

“Ehem… Um… here it goes.” I screw up my face in pain and get out something along the lines of, “Ouch! my head hurts. This Tylenol is not helping. You know what I need? Advil. With a 98% customer satisfaction rate.” Feigned pain followed by a pained smile.

“Good job Mr. Merrill. If you’ll head to the first room to your right.”

He scribbles something else down and before I know it I’m ushered into a second room with the rest of the group. It takes about 10 minutes to realize the platform cutting through the center of the room is not a public speaking stage. It’s some sort of runway. The same man who scribbled as I attempted the Advil ad struts into the room and explains that their “agency” is looking for the next best models. Models? Not what I had in mind.

Finally, he pauses before saying, “Now is your time to shine. This runway is your stage. It is a way to give us your best modeling talent. Show us a little pizzaz and strut down the ramp however you would like… Tut tut.”

I sink in my seat and look towards the exit. All the way across the room and the door is shut. Why? Why me?

But I do it. I walk down the runway to the fake cheers of the audience and now three judges at the end of the ramp. I attempt a kind of spin near the edge and walk back, shaking my head.

Before I can leave the room I now equated with a medieval torture chamber, I express that I just want to be an extra in a movie or show and whether or not they have acting opportunities. Seeing my sliver of hope shrinking, they hand me a 10 week “modeling” course and tell me to consider joining their studio. The course costs more than my car. So I tell them, “I just wanted to be an extra,” and left.

Some people may try and take advantage of someone’s passions by giving them a false hope that they can achieve greatness with little effort. “The path to fulfillment is within your grasp if you follow these steps,” they’ll say. I know better. There is only one true way to find that fulfillment when life throws the unexpected at you. And He says that the road is straight and narrow.

So next time your experience isn’t what you thought it would be don’t ever think that it’s hopeless and don’t wallow in self pity. These are all learning experiences to something more. Laugh about it and move on with your dream being a little more well rounded.

Amidst the barrage of false information and scams out there, I still have hope that a future acting opportunity will come along. I just hope it doesn’t involve a catwalk.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash