Entirely a Shit-show, but Not a Shit-show Entirely: 2020 in Retrospect

I promise, this post will highlight some good things that happened in my life in 2020, but first I have to acknowledge some unavoidable and inconvenient truths about this past year.

There is no doubt that when the history books are written, 2020 will go down as an epic shit show of a year. In early 2020, it was evident that a major epidemic was brewing in China — a virus which would eventually break free of the Chinese government’s efforts to contain the damage and become the COVID-19 Pandemic. We watched in horror as first, Europe and then the United States struggled to control the virus. We watched an epic failure on the part of the Trump administration when they at first ignored the virus, then downplayed it, prematurely declared victory, and finally walked away from it while we suffer death rates in excess of 9/11 on a daily basis in the United States.

Our economy faltered and failed. The most vulnerable among us became victims as the pandemic ripped through communities and people who could not work remotely continued to go to their jobs so that they could put food on their tables, or lost their jobs. We watched as relief packages expired and our Senate Majority Leader blocked meaningful legislative action to assist those who needed it, as the chill of autumn crept in and people couldn’t afford food, let alone heat.

And if a Pandemic wasn’t enough, we watched again and again as police in America killed black men and women. Our cities burned during the summer as years of rage boiled over, but there were far more peaceful protests in the name of Black Lives Matter than there were riots. We watched as President Trump used protests as a politically convenient tool to further his agenda of hate and chaos. He used tear gas on peaceful protesters to clear a street in DC so that he could have a photo op in front of a church while holding a bible as a prop, upside down. He waged an very real press war on a very imaginary radical left that he calls Antifa. Let’s be clear, Antifa is Anti-Fascist. Every American should be anti-fascist — the Greatest Generation fought to destroy fascism in the 30s and 40s.

Yes, 2020 was a shit show. We have all suffered with isolation and fear this past year amidst the pandemic. However, I know that there were also good things that happened in my life this past year and I was reminded of many of them last night when I scrolled through the photos in my phone. Yes, it’s been a year of challenges, but I realized it wasn’t all bad.

Before I begin sharing some of the good things that happened this past year, I need to acknowledge that I am privileged. I work for an information security company that has been wildly successful during the pandemic. Our company has been successful in part because so many other companies were not prepared for a rapid shift to remote work and needed to make significant investments in their infrastructure as digital transformation accelerated as a result of the new realities of the pandemic. My job was 100% remote before the pandemic and the biggest change for me with respect to work was that I began meeting with my customers over Zoom rather than in person. I’m tired of this, to be sure, but I am also fortunate. Our company shifted to 100% remote for all employees early and has not gone back to in person work. We are truly fortunate because we get to work safely from home, day in and day out. This privilege has meant that I have been shielded from the harshest realities of the pandemic and for that I am truly grateful.


The year started off, much like any other year. I was blissfully ignorant of what has happening in China on January 1st 2020, as were most Americans. On New Years Day, we went to Harpers Ferry for a hike and enjoyed views of the Shenandoah. Over the course of the month, I began to hear the name “Wuhan” more and more frequently, but it was distant. It was something that was happening in Asia. It felt a bit like SARS to me. I was mildly afraid but not overly concerned despite the fact that during the SARS and H1N1 epidemics I’d been part of a planning exercise for a pandemic while working at a global media organization.


In February, news of the virus had started to become more urgent. My company typically hosts a technical conference in February for the global systems engineering and professional services organizations in Vegas. There was some talk about whether to cancel the conference, but it went forward. We were advised that our colleagues from APAC would not be in attendance and that if we felt unsafe, we could opt out of the conference. I went to the conference, despite some reticence. I have taken to going to couple of shows when I’m in Vegas now since I don’t drink or gamble. I saw Aerosmith on February 10th. It would be the last live show I’d see in a long time. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry put on an amazing show.


In the middle of March, I had my last in person meeting with a customer. I remember offering my hand for the customary handshake and my customer taking it and then saying, “oh, wait, we aren’t supposed to do this anymore.” Despite knowing that the guidance coming from the Trump administration that masks were unnecessary, I remember thinking that they would be a good idea. But they were hard to find and I felt that health care workers needed them more than I did.

In my town, there is a special place called the Donut Shack. The Donut Shack was a local independent business that was started 30 years ago and had the best donuts ever. In 2019, the owners retired and sold the shop. The first new owners, ruined it. They sold within 3 months. The second new owners, destroyed it. It sat empty for a few months. I was quite sad. Early in 2020, I was alerted to the fact that a third set of new owners was working with the original ownership to learn their craft. March was special because even though we got stuck in lockdown, the Donut Shack reopened and the donuts are as good as they used to be!


My wife loves San Diego Fish Tacos, and along with her quest to find the perfect Caesar Salad, she regularly orders fish tacos when we are out. They are almost always a disappointment. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but cheese does not go on a fish taco. Neither does lettuce. As the lockdown began to stretch on, we started to get antsy and she started talking about the foods that she missed. Fish tacos came up. I scoured the internet and found a few recipes. I tried a few and in April, I perfected Baja Style Fish Tacos! There was much rejoicing and even my picky son loved them!


If you know me, or if you have been following along for a while, you know that is love bicycles. As the lockdown stretched into May, I started looking for additional ways to get outside. I had done a 4 weeks to faster 5K training regimen in April and was getting tired of running. I wanted to get out on my bike, but I have been struggling with tight hamstrings as a result of too much time in the saddle for a few years. When I was younger, I rode mountain bikes but after a few gnarly accidents I’d put my Specialized Rockhopper into retirement. I was dying to get out in the woods and one day, I decided to take my bike to a local trail. After that ride, I came home and said to my wife, “I don’t know why I ever stopped doing that.” Thus began my re-entry into the MTB world and began my quest for a new ride which proved difficult because everyone in the entire United States was buying bikes last spring!


In June, the fact that we’d been stuck in the same 5 square miles was really eating at us. We weighed the pros and cons of going on a vacation heavily. I was initially very much against the idea, but after talking with a few friends I warmed up to the fact that I could quarantine at the beach just as I was here at home. We rented a place and went to the beach. It was lovely. There were very few people at the beach and we had all our meals in the house. Many of the restaurants were closed entirely, but a handful were offering take out. We were very careful and wore our masks and abided by the rules of Delaware at the time. One day, I went out for a paddle in a kayak on the Delaware Bay. As I was paddling I found myself surrounded by a pod of dolphins! They were so close to the boat I could have touched them with my paddle, which of course I did not do. It was a special moment.


I’d long wanted to upgrade to a full suspension mountain bike, but since I hadn’t been riding on the trails, I never felt that I could justify it. As I started riding on the trails more regualrly, it became apparent that my 22 year old bike was in need of an upgrade. I wrestled with whether to upgrade to a 29er or a 650b ride. After a few test rides, it was clear to me that I didn’t want a 29er. My buddy Eugene let me ride his Yeti SB140 and I was instantly in love. I ordered the last one I could find in June. In July, my new bike came after a long process (the original bike shipped with a crack in the head tube). I rode it a few times at my local trail system and in mid July, I went down to Virginia one Saturday for an epic ride at Fountainhead with my buddy Eugene from work. It was great to see Eugene after a few months of talking on the phone and team Zoom calls. We tore up the trails and it was one of the best rides of the summer on my new bike.


August found us feeling cooped up again. We made plans to go to NY to see my wife’s family for the first time since the previous November, but they got thwarted when Governor Cuomo announced quarantine restrictions on visitors from Maryland. After some searching we found that we could get a cabin on the grounds of the Greenbrier in West Virginia. We did not want be in the main hotel because we wanted to be as careful as possible and the cabin presented us with a way to go but maintain social distancing. When we entered the property, the staff took our temperatures. If you had a fever you would be turned away. We enjoyed our trip. Nearly all our activities were outdoors and by ourselves. When we were with others everyone wore masks. While we were there, a good friend with deep roots in the local area pointed us to an amazing little cafe in Lewisburg, WV.


In September, the restrictions in NY were lifted and we went to visit my wife’s family. Because we did not want to put them at risk, we stayed in a hotel rather than at their house and we met outdoors for a walk and lunch at an restaurant with outdoor seating. It was nice to get to see them and also to see some of the first fall colors of the year. And of course, September was also important because September 23rd was my 5th sobriety anniversary! I remember early in the Trump administration saying that it would be a miracle if I got through his presidency sober. Well, not only did I get through four years of ignorance and chaos, but I also got through the pandemic (so far) without taking a drink. Miracles.


In October, the restrictions on in person meetings of more than 10 people in Maryland were briefly lifted. This afforded my son’s scout troop the opportunity to meet outside with masks. We had about six meetings as a troop before it got too cold and the restrictions were put back in place as the virus began to rage again. We managed to get the only scout camping trip of the year in during the month of October. I vividly recall talking with other dads on the trip about how good it felt to be outside and how much we all needed that trip.


In November, we watched as 81,283,485 Americans showed the world that we don’t stand for fascism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Sadly, 74,223,744 Americans showed the world that these things are not deal breakers for them. The next 50 days would be filled with disinformation and flagrantly false statements from the president as he and his team of thugs worked to find any possible way to hold on to power. Every lawsuit that was brought was struck down by the courts because they were all baseless. It was a sad time in America. We have a lot to wrestle with as a nation. Somehow we need to find a way to bridge the gaps that exist between so many people. I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people vote more often than not out of fear than they do out of conviction. We’ve weathered a rough few years that nearly tore the country apart. But I have faith. Faith that things will get better. Faith that truth and justice will prevail. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently said when he paraphrased the 19th century Unitarian Universalist, Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


December didn’t feel much like December. We lost my uncle Danny to cancer in December. He had been sick for a long time, and while it was sad to see him go, we all knew that he was finally at peace. Still, his death hit me more deeply than I originally thought. I’ve lost a lot of people over the years and many of them have been 65 or younger. As I am now 48, this can be scary and overwhelming. I know that I’m doing the right things to maximize my time on earth, but it’s still scary to see so many people die early in my family.

Between Danny’s death, the general malaise of the pandemic, and the aforementioned disinformation campaign coming from the White House, it was really hard to get into the Christmas spirit. There were no holiday parties to attend, and we didn’t get together for a family meal on Christmas Day. Still, we had a nice Christmas. I built a custom gaming PC with my son for him for his Christmas present and we got got a few more hikes in as well, including one at one of our favorite spots on the Chesapeake Bay.

Yes, 2020 was a shit show. There is no doubt about it. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We did a lot less than we would have in a typical year, but we were also lucky to be able to do a lot more than others. We were cautious about when and where we went and we wore our masks religiously. I’m sure that some may judge us for all the activity that we partook in. That’s fine, we made our choices based on our circumstances. When we were home, we were isolated and so we were reasonably assured that we were not carrying the virus. We were fortunate that we did not come in contact with the virus in our travels. Thankfully, we have our health and there is hope on the horizon in 2021.

Having Fun in Sin City, in Recovery

Vegas is not my favorite place. I didn’t like Vegas when I was drinking and I find it overwhelming now as a sober guy. It’s really more about being an introvert than it is about the drinking, drugs, and debauchery that are on public display. I am sensitive to being overly stimulated and Vegas is a constant buzz of activity, blinking lights, and noise. And yet, I’ve found ways to go to Vegas and enjoy myself.

It took me a long time to get here though. In my first few years of sobriety, the trips to Vegas felt like a burden. I felt like I was being tested — put in an untenable situation. How could a guy in recovery be expected to go to Vegas?

I get to go to Vegas roughly twice a year for my job. Usually for one technical conference and for my company’s sales kick off. Both are grueling events that start at 8 AM with sessions until 5 or 6 and corporate “fun” events in the evening. Corporate “fun” is code for drinking. For the first several trips, I would grind through the days, make an appearance at the corporate event, and then retreat into my room. It was a strategy, but probably not the best strategy.

Last summer, I tweeted my dread about going to Vegas and a fellow technologist who is in recovery responded with a tweet that reframed my perspective. He said, “Vegas has great food. It’s a Fat Boy’s dream. Let me know where you’re going and I’ll give you some restaurant recommendations.” Now, I’m actively working to not be a fat boy, with some success, but I love food and so this resonated. I got some recommendations and made some plans.

Previously, going to Vegas and partaking in the drinks at the corporate events meant that I didn’t spend any of my money at these events. I ate what they offered, which is generally garbage, because I really didn’t care since I was getting loaded. But now that I’m sober, I really do care about the quality of the food on offer. And the company has policies about not expensing food at these events. Since they are paying for all the catering — I get it, even if I don’t like it — I’m not allowed to expense any meals that I get on my own.

Vegas is expensive. The same cup of coffee that I get for $3.13 at my local Starbucks is over $7 in Vegas. Lunches, a sandwich and fries, are over $25 in the hotels. I don’t like it, but I have reconciled that I am making a choice that helps me to stay sane and sober in Vegas. So I spend my own money and don’t worry about it.

I’ve also learned that I don’t need to be at every corporate event. This past trip, I didn’t attend a single corporate party. And guess what? No one noticed and no one cared. It helps that I’m open about my recovery. My management knows that I don’t drink and so the expectation that I’ll hang out at a drinking event isn’t there.

Since I got sober, I’ve been going to a lot more concerts, and guess what you can find on pretty much any given night in Vegas. That’s right, a concert. And not just a local musician busking on the sidewalk. I now make it a point to look for an act that I’d be interested in seeing when I go to Vegas. Last summer, I saw Jackson Browne one night in Vegas and this past week I caught Aerosmith. I’ve gone by myself, and I’ve invited members of my team to join me.

Again, it’s money out of my own pocket on a business trip, but it’s worth it to keep me sane. I’ve also realized that I used to spend more on booze in a week than the price of a ticket to a show. A ticket to see a band is money well spent when I put it in that light.

And so, my perspective on Vegas is changing. Whereas I used to say, “I have to go to Vegas twice a year for my job.” Now I can honestly say, “I get to go to Vegas for my job.”

Do you travel for business? If so, how do you keep yourself busy when the corporate parties get rolling? Drop me a line in the comments with any additional ideas.


Another Gift of My Sobriety

Reconnecting with my wife has been one of the most precious gifts of my sobriety. In the depths of my drinking, there were times when I felt that I’d lost her emotionally — times when I felt like we didn’t connect at all — and I didn’t know why. The reason is quite clear in retrospect, but when you’re stuck in your shit, you don’t see it.

In the early months of my sobriety, when I was waking up to feeling things again, I was often overwhelmed and my defense mechanism was to retreat into myself. There were times when I felt that I was completely blank. Times when I didn’t know what to say or do. And during those times, I was fearful that things wouldn’t get better, even though people told me that they would.

Gradually, as I became familiar with feeling my own emotions again — my actual emotions, rather than emotions heightened or dulled by intoxication — I started to find that I wasn’t completely broken. I began to mend myself and my relationships.

When I was in the depths of my drinking, my wife would try to get me to come out of my shell. She would propose date nights, dinner and a movie. And I resisted. I didn’t think that I liked movies and dinner meant not drinking the way I wanted to. Those nights were pained. We would go to dinner, I’d pregame with a secret glass of bourbon before going out, and then order a drink at dinner. It would disappear before the server was back for our order.

We would go through the motions of having a date, but I wasn’t there. No conversation took place. Imagine two people sitting in near silence at a nice restaurant eating dinner, glumly. That was us. And it sucked, for both of us.

After I’d had a bit of sober time, learned a few things about myself, and started to actually relate to other people again, the idea of a date with my wife was appealing. Suddenly, it was actually something that I looked forward to, and that I enjoyed.

This past weekend, we took an overnight trip to Philadelphia on Saturday and had a great time. It was largely unplanned. It wasn’t until we were going to bed Friday night that we decided that we’d be going to Philly on Saturday.

Saturday morning we went to our son’s basketball game before we got ourselves together to head out. While my wife was busy after the game, I looked over a few hotels she’d suggested. One was totally booked, and the other was a bit more expensive that we really wanted, but I found another that looked like it would be nice and fit our budget. When she got home, I booked it on my hotels.com app.

We packed up and took Mr. Grey to his cousin’s house and then got on the road. We got to Philly around 3 PM and had dinner reservations for 8:45 — late, but we hadn’t counted on the fact that this was the weekend before Valentine’s Day and just like us, others were celebrating too. Since we had a little time, we hit Reading Terminal Market and had a snack at Tommy DiNic’s.

I know you’re thinking that Philly is known for Cheesesteaks, and it is, but in my not so humble opinion the much better sandwich in Philadelphia is the Italian Roast Pork sandwich. Slow roasted pork, sharp provolone, and broccoli rabe. It may not sound as good as shaved rib eye, caramelized onions, and cheese, but trust me — its that damn good.

After that snack, we walked up Chestnut Street and ducked in and out of a few shops before heading back to get ready for dinner at the Butcher Bar. Dinner was a bit of a bust. The food was fabulous, but the atmosphere was just not our scene. Lesson learned, don’t ask your thirty-something coworker for restaurant recommendations when you are in your mid to late forties.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast at the Green Egg’s Cafe, where I had short rib eggs Benedict — yes, poached eggs atop slow roasted short ribs, with potato pancakes instead of english muffins. It was divine.

At several points during the weekend, I was keenly aware that we were having a lot of fun, just being together. We’d woken up and made a loose plan, gone to a different city and enjoyed the city as best we could during the short time we had there. It occurred to me several times that this is how things are supposed to be. I was keenly aware that we were having fun and it was a lot like when we were first dating. I know deep down in my soul that this is a gift of my sobriety. And for that gift I’m grateful.

Presidents Weekend, Maine, 2016

IMG_1972On Friday we did something that most folks would find foolish.  We headed north rather than south in the middle of winter.  We flew to Maine.  We left the relative warmth of Maryland (23F when we left) for the relative cold of central Maine (-9F on Sunday morning).  But our time here has been full of warmth.  And not simply because there’s been a fire burning non-stop in the white cast iron stove in the living room, because we’ve been with our good friends, Shawn and Andy and their daughters.

IMG_1942We flew into Portland around lunch-time on Friday and headed into the city to find some grub.  We settled on a place called Duckfat.  Now, I’m a fan of duck fat — whether its the name of a restaurant in Portland or the actual fat of a duck, so there was really no other option.  I didn’t even need to look at the menu, which by the way, is full of goodness.  Belgian Frittes, Brussels sprouts with lardons, brisket panini’s, a nice selection of beers — even if I’m not drinking them, I still look a the menu — and house made sodas (I did sample a cherry flavored concoction which was fantastic).

IMG_1956After lunch, we took a trip to L. L. Bean in Freeport.  Mr. Grey had a blast looking at the fish in both the trout pond and the fish tank.  We also got him a new winter jacket — a 650 fill down sweater — which ended instantly the fights about wearing his winter coat in the cold.  Best $99 I’ve spent in a long time.  After a sufficient amount of time (and money) was spent at Bean, we headed up the road to Oakland.

It had been two years since I saw the entire Kalback clan at one time.  We instantly fell into good conversations and the kids started to play as if they’d been playing together every day for the past two years.  We all snuck out on the ice of Salmon Lake for a bit before the light faded and it was an early night for everyone.

A few years ago, we visited in the fall, and I have very distinct memories of feeling like I couldn’t get enough to drink.  There was plenty of beer available, but I could tell that my drinking was different than my friends.  I was not satisfied with a few beers.  Looking back on that, it should have been a stronger warning sign to me than it was, but I didn’t heed that warning.

IMG_1979Saturday, after having breakfast, we headed out in the cold and snow to a place called Quarry Road Trails, where the kids sledded and Mrs. TKD and I went for a snowshoe walk on a trail. As we were walking around I couldn’t help but think to myself, this is what its supposed to be like.  This is living.

One thing about Maine that’s for certain — you get a real sense of the vastness of the world and the universe.  You come to understand quickly that you are a tiny speck in terms of the rest of the universe.  There’s something chilling and awesome about that realization all at once.

After returning to the house, Shawn, Andy and I went for a snowshoe hike on with their dog Cutler.  I overdressed and quickly found myself hot and sweaty, which was not a good thing in the cold.  We were only out for an hour, but by the time we got home, my sweaty undershirt was making me cold.  I’d remember that the next day.

Sunday was very cold and the wind was chilling.  My weather underground app said that it felt like -23F.  I believe it.  Because of that, our outside time was curtailed quite a bit.  We took the kids to the local Y and they enjoyed some time in several bounce-house contraptions.  Shawn was kind enough to watch the kids while Mrs. TKD and I went into Waterville and had a cup of coffee at Jorgensen’s Cafe.IMG_1971

Again, in the late afternoon, Andy and I took Cutler for a stroll.  I wore less clothes and was not cold at the end of the hike.

In a few hours, we’ll be packing up and heading down to Portland for the night and then tomorrow we will be flying back to Maryland.  It will be back to the grind for me and with that thought there is a sense of dread.  That may mean its time to start making some other changes, but it’s to early to tell.