Remembering Which Way is Up

When I was a kid we went to the beach every summer and, naturally, I spent a lot of time in the ocean. I’ve never technically been that good a swimmer, but I did over time get very good at messin’ around in the waves – dodging, jumping, going under, and otherwise having a blast at old Poseidon’s expense.

One day, probably after a storm, I was faced with what is still to this day the largest wave I’ve ever seen that didn’t involve George Clooney or mediocre sci-fi movies starring Matthew McConaughey. The thing was huge and I happened to be too far away to dive under it and too close to it to run away. I was, however, perfectly placed for the wave to break directly on top of me. I had just enough time to inhale and then I was tossed about, pounded in to the sand, thrown in the air, lather, rinse, repeat.

I think there were a few moments in there where I legitimately thought that I had met my end, that I wouldn’t be able to orient myself enough to find the surface. I didn’t know which way was up, so I did the only thing I could do.

I waited.

And, eventually, the waters calmed. Light from above reasserted itself. I remembered which way was up. I swam. I broke the surface. I opened my eyes and took a breath.

Which is, a little bit, how the last three years have felt.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that things are dramatically different from the last time I posted. Back then I was in a different job and was not a father. Now I’m in a new job and, well, let’s just say I know way more about Thomas the Tank Engine than I ever thought I would. Being a father (and being the husband to a mother) is one of the true joys of my life. I love it.

But… it’s also very hard. And sometimes exhausting. Ok, often exhausting. For the last two and a half years, I’ve had my head down – learning how to be a dad, re-learning how to be a partner, moving from one urgency to the next, making food, drying tears, always always doing that next thing that is need to move him out the door or get him ready for the day or ready for bed or…   Well, you get the idea. Somewhere in there (and I don’t mean this as dramatically as it will come out) I think I lost myself a little bit. Lost those intangibles that I need to make my soul put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

Writing is one of those things. This blog is one of those things.

But now, I think, I’m finally at a place where I can return some focus to the things I need for fulfillment. I’m not saying I have this whole “raising a kid” thing figured out, far from it. What I am saying is that it feels like the waters are calming. That I can finally see which way is up.

Ad it’s time to break the surface, open my eyes, and take a breath.

It should be easy, it’s just talkin’ to people…



It’s one of those things that I’m not comfortable with, makes me feel awkward, but I acknowledge is absolutely necessary, like taking your shirt off at the beach.

Even though I’ve struggled with it, I have had some success over the last few years. What’s below is a short how-to article I wrote for my grad program’s alumni association newsletter.


In 2009, my wife and I moved to Chicago so I could start work at my current job. After a few months of settling in, I decided I wanted to put myself out there and become some small part of the city’s larger preservation community. At that time, my professional circle was limited to my immediate coworkers. I knew I needed to “put myself out there” but wasn’t sure where or how to start.

Then I remembered some advice my mom gave me. Advice which I ignored for years but that I now (grudgingly) admit was spot-on.

  • Step One – Read all you can get your hands on regarding the local scene. Newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, tweets, you name it. Become an information sponge.
  • Step Two – Leave your house; get away from your desk. There are probably lectures, exhibits, roundtables, meet-ups. Go to them. For now it’s ok if you don’t talk to anyone. Steps one and two are all about learning the issues, learning the names, and becoming conversant.
  • Step Three – By now you’ll probably have learned the names of some individuals, organizations, or projects that interest you. Google the heck out of them and get the all-important contact info.
  • Step Four – (This for me was the hardest part) Write an email. Make a phone call. Trust me; people are way more friendly and giving of their time than you assume they’ll be. My email went something like “I’m Mike Plummer, I’m not from around these parts, heard you speak at/read your blog post about/walked by your project and thought it was really interesting. I want to get more involved. Any suggestions?” Of course, the actual conversations were much wordier and/or flattering, but you get the idea. Mom also suggests offering to buy someone coffee and ask them about their work, which is a.)a good idea and b.)terrifying.

In any case, I (who totally self-identifies as socially awkward) was able to stumble my way through those four easy steps. Within a year of moving to the area, my professional circle was exponentially larger, I was invited to join my local preservation commission, was asked to join the board of a foundation that runs a historic house museum, was asked to present at the statewide preservation conference, and (far and away most importantly) met some great people and got my name out there.

In no way, shape, or form am I now “Mr. Connected”.  But I now know several Mr. and Mrs. Connecteds and am more than comfortable shooting  them an email if I need to be put in touch with someone. In my mind, that’s just as good.

It worked for me, it can work for you too.