What If…?

A few weeks ago, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go initially. I had only gone to school with these people for those four years, having grown up in a different town. I didn’t think I’d have much to discuss with them. The crowd I’d hung out with in my early high school career weren’t going to attend—likely because most of them are surely dead or in prison. No, I did not hang out with the honor roll students. My crowd was morally ambiguous at best. My closest friends from my later high school career were unable to make it. Thus, I figured I’d be talking to only a couple others and wondering why I’d given up a Saturday night shift at work.

I went to my 10-year reunion when that had come about. There was a strange pressure to seem vocationally successful. Most of the conversation had revolved around that. What do you do? How much do you make? The prospect of going through that again was less than thrilling.

However, I spoke to a friend of mine shortly before the reunion. He’s slightly older and had opted out of going to his 20-year. He had been going through a divorce at the time of his reunion and felt like he didn’t have it “together.” Now, he wishes that he had gone. He helped make my decision. I would go, but would probably hate every minute of it.

With all of that said, I highly recommend everyone attend their 20-year. First off, we had more alumni show up than had at the 10-year. More importantly, the entire affair was different. We had all reached an age at which what you do was not nearly as important as who you are. I overheard discussions about careers. I even had a few myself. But there was a casual joviality present. My former classmates and I were not worried about who was successful. We were allowing ourselves to bask in the presence of one another. We were learning who each of us had become as opposed to what we had become. We smiled. We laughed. We told stories. We reminisced.

It was in that reminiscing that I began to wonder days later. How am I different from the boy that I was? What events changed me? What decisions did I make that altered my path? If I could go back and change anything, what would it be?

I lost my virginity at a young age. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone the importance and power of that act. Perhaps if I hadn’t lost it back then and waited until I could fully grasp the moment, I would view sex differently. Maybe I would have fallen in love with that woman. Maybe I would be happily married today.

When I went to college fresh out of high school, I majored in English with a focus in creative writing. I felt working long hours to pay for books and housing was too much of a burden on me on top of my classroom responsibilities. I was tired all the time. So, I dropped out. Having gone back later to earn my degree in Criminal Justice while working full-time and being a parent, that earlier workload seems miniscule. What if I had simply stuck with it? Maybe I would have gone on to live in a big city, writing for a prominent publication. Maybe I would be a successful fiction author.

At age 19, I was seriously considering going into the military. However, I began working at a restaurant that promoted me quickly through the ranks. I discarded thoughts of joining the military. I had a good job. I was respected and appreciated at work. I left the company years later and now find myself still serving and bartending. What if I had opted for the military instead? Maybe I would have risen through those ranks as well. Maybe I could have been a military man with benefits and a secure future. Maybe I could have gone on to work as a police officer or firefighter when I passed the testing, instead of losing points in the interview for having no military background.

At age 21, I met Sarah. She was the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’d ever known. She made me laugh. She encouraged my writing. She challenged me. I fell in love with her. After a few years of having been together, she was offered a career in New York. It was an opportunity she couldn’t allow to pass by her. She had to move halfway across the country. She asked me to come with her. Out of fear of the unknown and that level of commitment, I turned her down. Instead, we would remain friends and said if it was meant to be, it would. I still see her in my dreams sometimes. And it still makes my heart break. What if I had gone with her? Maybe she would have challenged me to be an artist with my writing in New York. Maybe I would have married the one woman who loved me for who I was and who also knew there was more inside me when I didn’t recognize it myself.

At age 24, I met Liz. Although Liz was also beautiful and intelligent, what drew me to her was her passion. She believed in living for the moment. She brought me adventure. I laughed with her harder than I have with any other woman. Together, we were a force with which to be reckoned. We drank. We joked. We made love. I loved her for the abandon she caused me to feel. All relationships that thrive from unbridled living, though, also struggle with brutal arguments. We had our fair share interlaced with the joy. When it ultimately didn’t work out, I found myself in a bad place. I drank too much. I slept with women for whom I felt nothing. I became slightly jaded. What if I had never met her? Maybe I wouldn’t be so cautious with women now. Maybe I wouldn’t prefer the company of movies at home over a couple cocktails in bars, enjoying the company of a lady.

I could have done any one of these things (and so many more) differently. Any one of those decisions going the other way could have changed me drastically from who I am today. I would be a different person.

Last night, as I do every night she is with me, I tucked my daughter into bed. She instantly shot her arms out from under the covers to put her hands on the sides of my face. She does this because I try to kiss her ears and make lip-smacking sounds. It’s a game we play. She tries to stop me. I try to sneak past her hands. She giggles, which is a rarity for an almost twelve-year-old girl. I then kiss her forehead and tell her goodnight.

It is because of that moment on those nights that I have my answer to the what would you change question. The answer is nothing.

As with the concept behind Chaos Theory and the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, changing the most seemingly inconsequential thing can change it all. What if I’d lost my virginity differently and was happily married? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had gotten an English degree and become a successful fiction author? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had moved overseas with the military and seen the world? Same. What if I’d moved to New York with Sarah? Same. What if I never met Liz? Most importantly, I would not have my daughter, because Liz is her mother.

Am I what most people consider to be successful? No. Do I sometimes struggle with bills? Yes. Do I sometimes get lonely when I have no one with whom to share my day? Yes. Do I sometimes think how nice it would be to live in a place where I could step into the ocean? Yes.

Would I change a single thing? No.

Because I have hands on my face. And a giggle in my ear.

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Cat’s In The Cradle

I’m a cat guy. It isn’t looked upon as favorably as being a dog guy. Dogs are man’s best friend. They’re loyal and submissive. And cats? Well, cats are just assholes.

I mean that with the utmost respect. I’m impressed with their callous nonchalance in everything. Dogs crave attention and love always. Cats crave it when and where they feel like it. When they require your attention, you damn well better give it to them. When they’re done with you, you’re dead to them. Who needs to pursue a relationship when you can come home to neediness, neglect, and emotional abuse, all rolled into a five-minute interaction with furry miniature demons? Honestly, walking through the door after work, I sometimes feel like an abused spouse who enters her home never knowing how many drinks Beaufort had earlier. What kind of mood will the hubby be in today?

I joke. Sort of.

I’d like to clarify that I do not dislike dogs. I like them quite a bit, actually. It’s just that dogs require much more upkeep than cats. I’m aware of the benefits of dogs. They give love unconditionally. They protect us fiercely. They’re genuinely happy to see us when we come home. My cats, subsequently, love me beyond measure when I’m opening a can of tuna or scratching that one spot on their bellies at just the right pace. A half-inch too high or too low, or if the scratching speed varies, I receive tiny teeth in my hand. If someone knocks at the door, rings the doorbell, or walks by the window of the apartment, the cats boldly and heroically run to the back of my bedroom to hide in the closet. When coming home after hours have passed, I am often greeted at the door by one or both cats, who then dismiss me when they realize I am not holding a can of tuna. However, my cats never need to go on walks and they poop in a box.

I recently re-watched the YouTube video Sad Cat Diaries. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you do. It’s brilliant and hilarious to both those who love and those who despise cats. The video had me asking myself how cats view the world. How intelligent are they? How do they see humans?

Most people, especially dog advocates, are quick to mention how much smarter dogs are than cats. The difficulty with finding a definitive answer lies in the inability to test cats as easily. Whereas dogs aim to please and obey well (and, thus, test easily), cats are aloof by nature and have very little patience for the shenanigans of humans. In short, zero f**** are given. In one study, evidenced by the few cats who were willing to participate, they showed intelligence levels equal to that of dogs. Other studies show that cats retain information better and for longer than dogs. As far as brain mass, dog brains make up 1.2% of their body mass. Cats brains only make up .9% of theirs. Although, when looking at the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex, cats have about 300 million as opposed to the 160 million of dogs. And the structure via brain-folding in the brains of cats is 90% similar to that of humans. Basically, cats are every emotionally-damaged and psychotic woman I’ve ever dated.

What I found most interesting is how it is believed cats view us. Dogs may not understand the word “human,” but they grasp that we are different creatures than them. They are dogs. We are not dogs. They interact with humans in ways unlike dogs. Behaviorally, on the other hand, cats seem to view humans as very large, dumb, clumsy cats. To cats, human beings are feline versions of Hodor. Just as with other cats, they respond to us by raising their tails, brushing themselves against us, and grooming us. Exactly how they treat their mothers. I considered sticking to Game of Thrones references, but I don’t believe Matthew Father of Kittens sends the right message.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to ask my cats if I have permission to use the restroom by myself.

Jigsaw Puzzles

I snuck into a girl’s bedroom last night. By that, I mean I was taking on one of the many roles of a parent. I was the Tooth Fairy. Some criticize method acting, but I maintain that I pull off a tutu and tiara quite well. My daughter lost one of the few remaining baby teeth she has left. By her count, she has lost six within the last year. Another one is loose as well. I suppose by the end of next year, she will have rid herself of those remaining teeth. Life, time, and experience take little pieces of us all. Like jigsaw puzzles we find in our grandparents’ attic.

The evidence lies partly in my hairline (or lack thereof) and my metabolism (see previous aside). In my early high school years, I had thick, wavy hair. Girls would sometimes play with it. My parents, on the other hand, would often ask when I was going to cut the mop on top of my head. They need not have worried. Time did it for me. Although it is nice being able to walk past the hair product aisle in the store without a second thought, I admit I hold a certain disdain for those men with finely-quaffed hair. I’m not wishing lice upon them, but my heart wouldn’t break. And then the metabolism. Every time I watch my eleven-year-old daughter inhale her meager body weight in food, I am reminded of the man I was in my early twenties. I was convinced back then that “serving size” suggestions were designed for toddlers. Now I find myself actively looking at the calorie-count of food on a menu. That second cupcake at a cookout bypasses my stomach and makes its way directly to my love handles.

On a wall in a hallway of my home is a picture frame that simply says, “Laugh.” That frame holds three pictures of my daughter when she was very young. In every picture, her eyes and mouth are open wide in full cackles. “LOL” and emojis hold no candle to those images. I haven’t heard her laugh like that in a long time. She’s not a sad girl. My daughter, like you and I, merely lost that piece of herself as she grew older. Certainly, we can still laugh until we cry at times, but it’s rare. Another casualty of growing up.

Hiding my face behind a blanket and then reappearing to say those magic words “peek-a-boo” once elicited squeals of delight from the baby who was my daughter. For her, in that moment, the world was full of wonder. Dad had vanished. Dad was back. Magic. I tried it again once recently just for fun. The response was not the same. As opposed to delight, her face held a look of slight worry and more than a little embarrassment. There was no squeal. Instead, the response was, “Really? What are you doing?” This, of course, while looking around to assure herself that no one else had seen the horrific display. I’m pretty sure I heard her apologizing to the cats on my behalf later. Life and experience took the wonder over something so ridiculous years ago.

Hair, physique, youth, metabolism, unbridled laughter, wonder. Life, time, and experience can take them all and more away from us bit by bit. It’s easy to think back on those pieces of ourselves we lose. What we often fail to recognize are the gifts that replace those missing pieces.

Where those baby teeth once sat in my daughter’s mouth, new teeth have sprouted. Those are the same teeth with which she’ll smile at a boy someday. That boy, mesmerized by that smile, will eventually ask her to be his wife. In his company, she’ll laugh until she cries. That game with a magical blanket will be played again, but with her draping it in front of her own children. Those delighted squeals will come to her ears and lighten her heart all over again. That man she married will lose his hair and get softer around his midsection. Her own hair will thin and her skin will loosen and wrinkle around her bones. Because of this, they will be able to say they grew old together.

Life. Time. Experience.

Take away.

Those Chains That Bind You

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” It’s a survival mechanism. Fear is designed to trigger the fight-or-flight response in animals. Fear is felt. Adrenaline is released into the body. The body then has the ability to act strongly or quickly. Fight hard or run fast.

I’ve felt fear many times in my life. When cornered at a fair by a fellow high school student who was adamant about going to blows with me, I felt fear and fought back hard. How it turned out is debatable. I concede that I got my ass kicked. My friends kept telling me that they were impressed that I didn’t get knocked out and was still standing at the end. Little victories, I guess. In grade school, when I was approached by Steve and his group of elementary bullies, I briefly tried standing up for myself by swinging the only kick I had learned in a Tae Kwon Do class I visited one time. After realizing that was the only move I had, we all came back to reality. Flight took over and I ran for my life. While bailing hay with my father in my teens, I picked up a bail and discovered a large black snake packed inside, the top half of its body sticking out and flipping directly in front of my face. Fight and flight worked together on that one. The strength with which I hurled the beast and his grass body cast was comparable to any feat of Hercules. The speed with which I ran the other direction while squealing was not. I know my father seemed to enjoy it. Looking back from the half-mile I had just run in 3.7 seconds, I very distinctly made out my dad doubled over, trying to catch his breath between the guffaws.

Hundreds of thousands of academic papers have been written on fight-or-flight. Scientists agree that these are the two responses to fear. This is survival instinct. We stand and fight, or we run away. Charge toward a cat. It will flee. Corner that cat. God help you. Then what of the opossum? Sure, the ugly little bastards have a terrifying hiss that is made worse by their beady, soulless eyes, but they’re also known to simply roll over and play dead. “Playing” dead might not be the correct term. The stress of confrontation sends their bodies into shock and causes a comatose state. They shut down.

It is this reaction to fear that too many of us struggle with in our lives, myself included. I’m not referring to those physical threats we perceive. Although, if you saw Taylor Swift’s response on Ellen, you might argue against that. I’m talking about the existential fear of failure.

It usually starts with a small, valid fear. Then it evolves into something altogether crippling. I watched it happen to my daughter this summer. In one of her early-season softball practices, she was hit by the ball three times. One of those hits left a pretty solid bruise. Naturally, she developed a fear of the ball. When at bat, her flight response kicked in and she would jump away from the pitches. She stood far away from the plate to avoid being hit. The problem is that good pitches were unreachable to her, even if she did take a swing, which was rare. When swinging, the effort was minimal. Thus, she was being struck out. Being struck out made her feel that she was letting down her team. That feeling made her doubt herself. A few weeks ago, I took her to the batting cages to practice in an environment where she didn’t have to worry about being hit by the ball. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about her having open-toed shoes on and we weren’t able to use them. On our way back to the car, she told me that she was relieved because now she wouldn’t have to “embarrass herself by not hitting the ball.” I took her back today. We worked on her stance and her swing. Her first round, she hit a few. But I watched her heart sink with every missed pitch and my encouragement fell on deaf ears. Fear led to fear of failure. It took over. She had given up. She had shut down.

To watch it was heart-breaking.

But we’ll practice more. She’ll fail more. She’ll feel that failure like a shadow following her around. Though, if failure is shadow, success is the light. And shadows only exist if light is around the corner.

We Become Art

Madison.” A single word you’ll find on my back, across my shoulders. My daughter’s name, written into my skin with needles and ink. I paid a man money years ago to stab me repeatedly. This might sound like an exaggeration, but that only means you never went to the particular tattoo artist I did. The bonus of using him is that I will never need to have my tattoo touched up. I’m certain the ink is in my muscles. That guy went deep.

I chose that tattoo in that place for a reason. I can now carry my daughter on my shoulders regardless of how old she gets. Cheesy? Maybe. But it means something to me. I’m proud of that work. The design of the lettering was created by a friend of mine. It’s unique. No one else will ever have the same name written the same way. It’s mine.

I like tattoos. I have many friends who have them. I like hearing the stories behind them. There are song lyrics. Children’s names and dates of birth. Those terrifying portraits of loved ones that always resemble something from The Walking Dead to me. Exact replicas of deceased parents’ signatures. Images from favorite films. Excerpts from favorite books. So many Japanese characters. I even enjoy the awful ones—those works of art decided upon during drunken stupors. Every tattoo represents the owner in some way.

I’ve heard some people criticize those with tattoos. “How could you deface your body like that?” “Why would you give yourself scars like that?” And it’s true that tattoos are nothing more than scars. They just happen to be the ones we choose. The choosing makes them art. And every piece of art has a history and an inspiration. It is because of this that I’m attracted to ink on the body.

However, I’m even more drawn to those “blemishes” that required no exchange of money or color schemes. I recently had a conversation with a friend about this. On her forearm is a dark scar. She explained that she got it when she had first moved into her apartment with her daughters. She had ventured out on her own and was making her first go at being a single parent. While making a pizza in the oven, the door she wasn’t used to had swung back up and hit her arm. The scar left behind is her reminder of that scary, freeing time. It will continue to act as a reminder for the rest of her life that she is a strong, independent woman who acted to take care of her children. That’s the beauty of those involuntary scars we hold.

After 37 years, my own body tells stories by way of accidental art work. My skin is my abstract canvas.

The middle knuckle of my right hand is carved with a small white crescent. In grade school, a boy named Jeremy was teasing me. I was getting angry and he knew it. With a mocking grin, he had dared me to punch him. The result was his tooth going into my knuckle. I felt a moment of exhilaration when that grin turned to surprise and pain. It was the first real time I ever stood up for myself to someone bullying me.

In my early twenties, while sitting on the toilet and reading various bathroom supply labels (it’s what we did before cell phones, kids), I looked down and noticed off-colored lines running across the inside of my thighs. When I had a conversation with my mother later, I asked if I had ever had an accident that would cause that. With an amused look, she told me they were stretch marks. My legs to this day act as a reminder of the chubby little smartass whose father used to refer to him as his “little human garbage disposal.” I wear those scars with pride and appreciate them every time I exercise.

My right shoulder has a white line given to me in my youth. It is the result of a gardening hoe being plunged into my skin. The hoe was wielded by a young girl who lived down the street. She had come to play gardening with one of my younger brothers. I didn’t like the girl and told her I wasn’t going to get my brother and to get away from our house. That scar reminds me of the wrath of a woman scorned. It should also act as a warning in dating volatile and insane ladies. Some of my dating history, unfortunately, suggests that I’m an idiot and a poor listener.

My left elbow and right calf share art work. At seven years old, I flipped my bike and it landed on top of me. The bolts from the front and back wheels found themselves inside me. One in my elbow. The other in my calf. Luckily, my crying was heard by Betty Cook, the mustached and muumuu-wearing babysitter who had the genius idea of pulling the bike off me and then pouring hydrogen peroxide directly into the wounds. That day, I learned to be more careful with my bike. I also learned that adults are often lying when telling you, “This will only hurt a little bit.” In addition, that Betty was not a nurse.

When I get tan in the summer, there is a thin white line that runs diagonally down my back. A scar given to me by a girl I know only as “Yoda.” This is obviously not her real name. I can’t remember her real name because I was very intoxicated when I met her. By the time I slept with her, I was extremely intoxicated. I knew what she was trying to do. I told myself I wouldn’t do it. I had standards. That was until she whispered filthy things in my ear. That scar, delivered by fingernails in the heat of passion, is a monument to the weakness inside me when tiny, unattractive women say horrible things after enough alcohol has been consumed. Am I petty and disgusting? That’s a fair assumption. Blame the scars. They tell only the truth.

Above my lip and just under my nose, there’s a nice divot. That one was brought about by me trying to work with pliers on my car. The pliers slipped and bashed me in the face. Whenever I think about trying to work on my own car, that scar reminds me to step away and consult a professional. There’s no room for a man-card when chances are good you’re going to maim yourself. And when you know absolutely nothing about cars.

Having worked for years in construction, my arms and hands are peppered with faint lines. Rogue joist hangers, stripped screws, unforgiving cement-mixers, and sneaky utility knives are all culprits. My lack of automobile and sports knowledge notwithstanding, I like to think they allow me to maintain some semblance of the aforementioned man-card. If I make no mention of my cats, I should be good…Well, shit.

Scars epitomize chapters in everyone’s lives. I know women who have survived breast cancer and have scars on their breasts. The marks of survivors. Women whose white lines on their stomachs tell stories of pregnancies or C-sections. The marks of mothers. Men who have only disfigured skin where limbs used to be. The marks of soldiers.

Whether we choose them or not, scars are beautiful. Don’t hide them. Don’t cover them with makeup or clothing. We should wear them proudly. They’re evidence that we’ve lived.

The Secret Diary

As a single man, I pride myself on my home being pretty clean and organized by typical single-guy standards. The dishes in the sink are at least scraped and rinsed. The inside of the shower, including the grout, is white. There are generally only a couple items of clothing on my bedroom floor. The inside of my toilet doesn’t look like a crime scene. My carpet, despite the best efforts of my cats and their apparent bulimic tendencies, is free of stains and vacuumed regularly.

Occasionally, I get in the mood to go full-on with my cleaning. Sometimes, this entails the bi-annual dusting of everything. How the cats still have fur on their bodies is beyond me. During these cleaning sessions, the toilet gets even more attention. Oh yeah. I get down on my hands and knees to scrub that awkward base of the toilet by the goose neck. Standing naked in front of a crowd of strangers wouldn’t make me feel as vulnerable as when I have my face that near to the receptacle that disposes of the fecal matter in my home. There’s an irrational fear that the contraption will choose just that moment to regurgitate its contents in a horrific spray. Every decision to eat buffalo wings and imbibe alcohol will flash before my eyes just prior to succumbing to death from disgust and shame.

Cleaning mode very recently brought me to the task of cleaning out the fridge. With this, I am not referring to the tossing out of old boxes of leftovers from restaurants. I’m talking deep cleaning. Removing the items individually, scrubbing the shelves and drawers, and then placing the items back in after taking inventory. Do you ever feel pretty good about your life? Do you feel like you’re an adult who can handle life? Deep-clean your fridge. That will bring you right back down to reality. The refrigerator is better than any journal. It contains all past hopes and dreams, moments, and even relationships, like some twisted scrapbook. Saving all my daughter’s art work since pre-school notwithstanding, I never considered myself a hoarder. The refrigerator called bullshit.

The door of my refrigerator was only a teaser trailer for what was to come. On it, I found a few strings of photo booth pictures I took with my daughter…four years ago. That’s fine. Pictures are meant to be displayed for the purposes of nostalgia. Then there were coupons. They were more recent and only expired a year ago. Texas Roadhouse offered a free kid’s meal to my daughter if I only signed to prove that she’d read three of the multitude of books she’s read since she brought it home from school. I won’t mention how many times we’ve eaten there since she brought the coupon home two years ago.

And then inside this chilled time capsule. At the back, I found a box of baking soda opened slightly to absorb any odors from foods. That baking soda not only absorbed nothing any longer, but had become roughly the consistency of the titanium used by NASA. At some point, I must have considered myself a connoisseur of ranch dressings. In addition to the regular ranch that actually gets used, I found BBQ ranch, spicy ranch, and Southwest ranch. Three bottles of mustard. One of those bottles is still edible enough not to kill me. A small bag of baby carrots for when I decided to snack only on vegetables. It was half empty. The half that were left had the consistency of stale gummy worms. A tub of garlic butter from when I decided to cook dinner for my ex who split with me a year and a half ago. Bottles of Angry Orchard hard cider that I bought last Superbowl Sunday for a woman in whom I was interested. She never showed up and I was stuck with gluten-free alternatives to real drinking. The crisper drawer held roughly seventeen thousand plastic tabs from bags of apples. If apples could talk, they would refer to my crisper drawer as Auschwitz. If “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” my daughter is going to be immortal. The bottom shelving inside had a nice brown hue from the time I decided to let my daughter pour her own Diet Coke out of a full two-liter bottle. That Diet Coke somehow made it inside the fridge, on my kitchen counters, the kitchen floor, and onto my socks. I was proud of how well she cleaned up her mess, until I pulled out the jug of iced tea that had been sitting in the back since Thanksgiving. This was just below the Hershey’s candy cane kisses from Christmas.

Then there was the freezer, or as I like to think of it, the retirement home for nutritional endeavors. In fairness, the ice is always fresh. Papa needs his cocktails chilled. However, in the opposite corner, I found half of a boneless ham, which will be great for dinner some night when I remember that it’s tucked away behind pizza and microwavable burritos. Homemade frozen yogurt bars that were inspired from a Pinterest recipe. They were healthy and delicious, the two out of ten that we ate. The seasoned chicken breasts that were grilled and then placed in the freezer in lieu of the craving for fast food that suddenly overcame me. Those chicken breasts represent the exact moment my inner fat kid stood tall. A bag of teriyaki chicken that had somehow survived two moves and was likely more chunks of ice than meat. An entire rotisserie chicken that was brought home to make shredded chicken tacos until I realized that I had somehow misplaced my crock pot. Basically, if there is a purgatory for chickens, it is my freezer.

Sadly, I found it difficult to get rid of most of the items I tossed out. They reminded me of various points in my life over the last couple of years, both good and bad. Now I’m just stuck with a boring refrigerator containing items that won’t send me to the hospital or make me cringe in repugnance. Give me a year. If you find me staring blankly into the fridge in the middle of the night, I might not be drunkenly searching for snacks. I might be reading my diary.

The Death of the American Educational System

If I ask you to recite the alphabet, what pops into your head? I’m willing to wager that it’s a catchy little jingle you learned when you were a toddler. All twenty-six letters of the English alphabet wrapped up in order inside a simple song. You and I learned the components of written language through music.

Music is only one of many programs now being removed at alarming rates from the American educational system. Funding is being pulled from the public-school system. As a result, schools are having to eliminate “non-essential” programs. These programs are deemed to either have served their purposes and are now obsolete, or to be unnecessary as a whole.

Some of the prominent programs on the chopping block are as follows:

–Gifted and talented initiatives

–Anti-bullying activities

–Mental health services

–International education and language studies

–Civics and arts programs

–Sports and Physical Education

Gifted and talented initiatives—Ending these programs is right up there with giving every child a trophy. Gifted and talented initiatives were originally designed to not only allow children to take pride in excelling in a subject, but to provide them with material in those classes that was more advanced. You know, furthering their education as opposed to having them stay stagnant by being taught material they already comprehended. The problem is that not everyone could take part in “gifted” or “advanced” classes. It hurt other children’s feelings. Now, instead of children having to work harder and better themselves to make it into these programs, most schools have eliminated them so more advanced students can hold themselves back to appease everyone else. This sadistic bondage of intellect would make Christian Gray proud.

Anti-bullying activities—I grew up in a time where bullying was just part of going to school. Of course, bullying was very different back then. No, I wasn’t the little asshole. I was the chubby kid who got fat-paddled in the locker room. I was the social moron who wouldn’t keep his mouth shut. So, during school hours, I needed only maneuver myself near a teacher. Bullying done. After school, I simply had to make it to the safety of my home. Door closed. Bullying done. But bullying is on a different level these days. No place is safe. Technology such as texting, instant messaging, and social media have made it an all new ballgame. Children now no longer have to worry about seven hours of the day. They can be abused all day and night through technology. Ridding schools of these programs is the equivalent of putting the elastic band of Awkward Kid’s underwear directly into the hands of Mr. or Ms. Mommy and Daddy Issues.

Mental Health Services—To combat the destruction of self-esteem done by bullying, or the issues at home that create the bully, children need only to speak to a mental health professional. Naturally, the next step would be to eliminate mental health services from public schools. If we’re okay with stepping aside from addressing bullying, let’s make it completely hopeless and offer no aid to those also struggling with academic stress or abusive parents. Schools shouldn’t have to focus on making children whole and mentally-healthy people. What does that have to do with standardized test scores? If you can’t pick up on the sarcasm dripping from these words, you did not belong in advanced or gifted classes.

International education and language studies—The land of the melting pot has come a long way. Even though the United States was built on the combination of many cultures and nationalities, we have decided that learning about them and their languages is pointless. As of 2015, there were 41 million native Spanish-speakers living in the U.S. Add to that number an additional 11.6 million native Spanish speakers who are bilingual. Within a fifteen-minute drive from my home, I have access to restaurants in all directions. Those restaurants include Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Japanese sushi, Italian, and Irish menus, among others. America itself was “discovered” by immigrants. And yet the educational system is eliminating programs that allow our children to live in today’s world in intellectual understanding with the other cultures upon which the nation itself was founded, and cultures that are included in our everyday existence. Lack of knowledge results in fear. Fear results in people electing into office inarticulate and illiterate douchebags who want to build walls.

Civics and arts programs—And this chills me to the bone. These are the very programs that cultivate free-thought. Civics education centers around teaching students how to be active participants in understanding and maneuvering a democracy. In short, how to be citizens. Arts programs such as music, art, and creative writing push students to see, hear, and experience the world differently and offer unique points of view. Ironically, it is a piece of creative writing, 1984 by George Orwell, that exemplifies exactly what happens when free-thought is eliminated from education. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you pick it up and look to the future the American Educational System is creating.

Sports and physical education—Growing up, I wasn’t the most athletic young man out there. I was overweight and not particularly coordinated. My dad insisted I play sports anyway. He put me in basketball. I was an excellent pick man. I was hard to get around, I guess. And standing still seemed alright by me. The coach always seemed thrilled to put me in the last thirty seconds of the game because he was obligated to do so. I tried soccer. Considering the amount of running involved, I was not a starter. I played baseball. I found out I had a hell of an arm and could fire the ball in from the outfield without my cut-off man. I enjoyed that. My coach had the brilliant idea to try me out as a pitcher due to my power. Apparently, throwing long distances accurately is very different from throwing short distances. Control was not my strength. It wasn’t until I almost murdered a batter that my pitching career ended. Regardless, playing sports taught me sportsmanship and team work. P.E. eventually found me in weight-lifting classes. It was there that I discovered an appreciation for physical exertion and where I lost the fat and replaced it with muscle. I became a healthier version of myself. In a world of technology that results in children sitting all day, sports and physical education promote movement and health. Yet these programs are being eliminated and we have the audacity to ask how we’ve become one of the most overweight and unhealthy countries in the world.

Luckily, science is still a subject touched on in standardized testing, which is what the United States government has decided represents a well-rounded education. In that interest, I’ll recite some science. Virginia Penhune at Concordia University did a study that showed music education, primarily musical instrument training, affects brain structure and motor abilities. Children who are taught to play musical instruments show a significantly increased connection between the left and right hemispheres of their brains. These physiological effects last into adulthood and improve their ability to listen and communicate. Other studies show that learning a second language influences thought, consciousness, and memory. Team-building exercises from sports and physical education result in better concentration. A protein is, in fact, released during exercise that transforms the brain for better functionality. A school in Naperville, IL tried an experimental mile-long run at the beginning of every school day. Those students’ test scores not only out-performed the neighboring districts, but entire countries. Claiming that these programs are unnecessary for the education of students is utterly ridiculous.

I’ve seen the results of poor academic communication and lack of free-thought first hand. I attended an online university a few years ago to obtain my degree in Criminal Justice. The courses required students to answer posted questions that pertained to the reading, and then to respond to one another’s answers to promote class discussion. What I found is that most individuals were unable to transfer coherent thoughts into written words. And many of the responses were merely regurgitated and inaccurate information. There was hardly any free-thought or critical thinking. One question posed to the class asked, “With the wide use of text messaging and instant messaging, are we losing the ability to write properly in an academic setting?” One woman’s response discredited the idea because, “When we’re talking through text message or instant messaging, we’re usually talking to friends or family. In an academic setting, we’re talking to teachers or other students. We change how we write.” Ignore the fact that her response didn’t answer the question at all (and the rest of her paragraph-long response was her repeating this in various ways). The biggest issue with her response was that absolutely nothing was capitalized, including her use of the pronoun, “I.” It was made only slightly more difficult to read due to there being three punctuation marks total between twelve sentences. Although I did enjoy her use of emojis in her academic answer.

In another instance, I was fortunate enough to read the back and forth correspondence of two young African American women when asked, “In today’s society, do you feel Affirmative Action works? If so, do you feel it works as it was originally intended?” This question was posed in a class titled Cultural Diversity. These two Black Women (that’s a minority within a minority, in case you’re not paying attention) claimed that Affirmative Action does not work, nor does it work as intended because these “Chinese people keep coming over here with absolutely nothing and within two weeks have mansions, nice cars, businesses, and millions of dollars…all given to them by the U.S. government while nobody else gets any money.” If this response had been given by only one woman, I could have chalked it up to simply an ignorant racist oblivious of the world around her. I could have ignored the fact that her answer didn’t touch on the subject of Affirmative Action at all. However, Black Lady #2 was on the same page and their conversation that followed was one of the most broken, unintelligible, and bigoted interactions I’ve ever witnessed. And I bartended for years in a hotel bar filled with old, White contractors.

So, why are the programs that could counter these things being eliminated from public schools? Most public-school funding is attached to how well schools perform on standardized tests. Free-thought and critical-thinking have no place in memorization. Teachers now are even encouraged to educate students on how to bullshit their way through multiple-choice questions. If there are four options and one of those is “all of the above,” that is often the correct choice. Otherwise, choices “B” and “C” are more often correct.

Is this the fault of the schools? No. They rely on money from the government to maintain programs. When money is cut, programs must go. And so go the “unnecessaries.” On the up side, the United States government has been using money that could be allocated to public schools for some extremely interesting studies just within the last couple years. Examples are as follows:

–$65, 473 to find out what bugs do near lightbulbs

–Around $150,000 to understand why politics cause stress

–$283, 500 watching Gnatcatchers (funded by the Department of Defense to watch a group of birds)

–$300,000 to found out if boys or girls play more with Barbie dolls

–$1.5M to study fish on treadmills (yes, you read that correctly)

–$3M to discover that the Jaws theme song causes negative feelings toward sharks

–$3.4M to study hamsters fighting in cages

–$5M to discover that college fraternities and sororities promote alcohol consumption

–$3.1 billion for vacation pay to government employees on administrative leave for misconduct (this figure is only for the year 2015)

Need I say more?

I Have Witnessed Purgatory, And It Is Speaking With Customer Service

I was extremely proud of myself. I put in a lot of research on this week’s piece concerning the American Education system. The goal was to put the finishing touches on that piece today and publish it. However, when I got off work and tried to text my daughter’s mother about our plans for the day, my texts wouldn’t go through. When I tried calling, my calls wouldn’t go through. Instead, I received an automated voice informing me that my phone had been deactivated.

I don’t want to out any phone providers, so suffice it to say that my phone provider company rhymes with Straighttalk. Yes, I’m that guy who prefers a flat monthly rate in lieu of taking a chance on hidden fees just to be able have a good phone and a little self-respect. My plan is all-inclusive. It’s cheap. It has a solid connection. I have never regretted it for a moment. And then I got the random deactivation message.

Ten days ago, I renewed my plan. The service worked. Nothing more was needed from me. So, to avoid adding “hoarder” to my list of undesirable qualities, I waited three days and then threw away the card with the PIN number and the receipt for purchasing that card. Did you just smirk sadly and shake your head at that last sentence? Yep. I’m an idiot. Naturally, because I threw the evidence away a week ago, the phone provider suddenly decided that they hate me.

This should have been a simple process. I’d call the company and explain the situation. Nope. My phone had been deactivated and wasn’t able to make phone calls to the number provided if I found any issues with my phone or service. Fine. I’d find the nearest wi-fi and use the internet to contact them in an online chat. Enter Isodora. Isodora needed only my phone number to “fix my issue,” which she would be “happy to do.” Of course, my phone number didn’t locate my account because the phone number had been deactivated. Could I please provide her with one of the unlabeled five sets of numbers inside the back of my phone? Certainly. We figured it out. After twenty minutes on hold while Isodora sent the same message of “one moment please” over and over again every few moments, she had a brilliant idea. I should simply tell her what the PIN number was for the card I purchased. Nope. Then I should just locate my receipt. Sure. And that is how I found myself digging through my garbage. I found junk mail. I found old napkins. Those, of course, were all buried under the pieces of raw fat I had cut from the chicken breasts I cooked for dinner a few days ago. I found the chicken with my bare hands only seconds before I found it with my nose. Still no receipt. Still no real fury from me. And then Isodora messaged me while my hands were covered in unspeakable things to inform me that if I didn’t respond to her within the next two minutes, she would have to end our interaction. Isodora did not like being on hold apparently. I told her I had no PIN number or receipt. She told me she couldn’t help me, but that I could simply go buy another phone card. I told her I had just dug through garbage. She said she was “sorry to hear that.” I told her I wanted to speak to her supervisor or someone who could actually help me. She told me that I could only speak to a supervisor over the phone, which I could not use because it had been deactivated. She was also “sorry to hear that.” But could she do anything else to assist me? “Yes. You can go f**k yourself.” Her previously-scripted responses did not seem to have anything for that. Our conversation ended. Am I proud? No. Did I feel a little better? No. But if I found out that I made her day worse, I would be sorry to hear that and offer to assist her in any other way.

And so, I borrowed my daughter’s phone to call a supervisor. Enter Pita. Pita and I had a much longer interaction than Isodora and myself. Unfortunately, this was because Pita heard my original issue, took my information, and put me on hold for twenty-two minutes and thirty-four seconds before disconnecting the line with nothing else said. Maybe she and Isodora chatted. The next phone call found me talking to a man whose name I could neither pronounce nor spell here. He seemed genuinely concerned and was very polite in his efforts to fix my issue. He at least took the time to come back on the line occasionally during the thirty-eight minutes he kept me on hold before yet another gentleman picked up the line, thanked me for holding, and then asked how he could be of assistance. Gentleman #2 also possessed a name I couldn’t pronounce, but that foreign bastard got my phone turned back on after only a twenty-minute hold. Thank you, Hindi Man #2! Would I like to take a short survey about the quality of my experience? No, Hindi Man #2. That is that last thing your company wants me to do. And I want nothing more to do with any phones right now.

I shouldn’t complain. I appreciate that the “customer service representatives” at least used their given names as opposed to butchered versions of “Steve” or “Sally.” Plus, blind rage does wonders for increasing heart rate. Cardio comes in all forms. And if nothing else makes me feel better, I can sleep at night with a smile knowing that Isodora will never go to Heaven.

Rhyme And Reason

What do you want to do?

That simple question has so many connotations.

It’s asked when making plans with a significant other: “We don’t have the kids tonight. What do you want to do?

While sitting with your high school guidance counselor asking about your future when discussing future colleges: “What do you want to do?

Naked and open with a lover: “What do you want to do?

Depending upon the situation in which the question is asked, it can invite thoughtfulness, stress, happiness, ambivalence, or arousal.

I was recently asked a version of this question at a party. A successful businessman and I were chatting. He told me that he had been hearing good things about my blog from mutual friends. Fellow bloggers know what an incredible feeling that is. I was absolutely thrilled. He asked a few questions about the blog such as, “What is it about?” It’s difficult to describe to casual inquirers. I usually just respond with something akin to “observational pieces.” They nod knowingly as though I answered the question. And I’ve allowed them to walk away if they choose unless they’re genuinely interested in reading it and follow up with more questions. The businessman asked me if I enjoyed it. I told him that, although it was hard work sometimes, I loved every minute of it. So then came the question. “What do you want to do?” I explained that writing was my passion and I want to do something with it. His response: “Okay. What do you want to do that will actually make you money?

The question, asked in this context, with a slight smirk on the gentleman’s face, did not invite happiness. Stress was in there somewhere, mostly brought on by defensive anger. This guy hasn’t even read my blog. He has no idea what kind of writer I am. Because I’m an adult, I kept my mouth shut. I answered with something extremely clever like, “Ha. Yeah…well.” I walked away. That interaction bothered me for the next couple days. Then I remembered a conversation I’d had with a coworker the night before the party. And I felt pity for the businessman and his lack of insight.

A coworker and I were finishing up our shifts. He told me that he was tired of working construction on the side. He was tired of building things so others could make money. He wanted to be the one making the money, having others work for him. My father is a contractor. He used to own his own business building custom decks. He didn’t bring in a lot of money doing it because he wanted to be hands-on in the imagination, design, and construction of his vision, working mostly alone. He was far from rich, but he took immense pride in what he did. My father is a creator.

And there it was for me. Remembering that conversation made me feel proud. There are those who desire money and power, and then there are those who create. The two sides rarely come together in the same person. Those who prefer money and power do not understand the motivations of those who create, and vice versa. The businessman is a partner in businesses. He has money and is amazing at seeing which businesses will be profitable for him. He is a partner in restaurants. But those restaurants would not exist if it weren’t for the brilliant chef who created the recipes in his own home. The same man who envisioned the food and atmosphere…and brought them to life through creation. Does that chef rely on the money from the businessman as well? Of course. Both sides are necessary to thrive when considering a business built on something unique.

I like my place in the cosmos. This laptop on which I type this minute. The fan blowing on me. The light bulb burning in my room. The clothes on my back. The clock ticking away on the wall. Every one of these was imagined, written down, and brought to creation. Without we creators, money men and women would have nothing from which to profit. And here’s the real beauty. Without profit, those money men and women consider themselves failures. Yet a homeless artist can still design exquisite artwork on a sidewalk or wall for the public to appreciate. We creators can work our trades anywhere because the only requirement necessary is passion.

I live in a two-bedroom apartment. I work in a high-stress environment for unpredictable amounts of money. I still wear shirts that I’ve owned for ten years. I haven’t been on a vacation for over eleven years. I will likely never have a summer house. I stress over utility bills and rent. I avoid buying name brand products. Would it be nice to upgrade from all of this? Would it be nice to have disposable income? You’re damn right.

The answer is simple. Find a career that gives me a lot of money in exchange for working hours that take me away from my writing and my daughter. Set passion and inspiration aside to earn a living instead of living a life. For me, that’s how a soul dies.

Will my writing ever earn me enough money to live without financial worry? The odds say it’s impractical to assume that. Is my writing the type of creation that brings electricity into a dark, cold room? No. Does my writing allow someone to fly across country in a matter of hours? No. Can my writing shock a physically dead heart back to life? No. But just maybe my writing can guide one person out of his or her own dark, cold place. Maybe my writing will bring together two people on opposite sides of the nation. Maybe it can spark the smallest amount of hope in someone’s broken heart. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t focus on absolutes. I prefer to envelop myself in what-ifs. I create.

(It) Feels So Good

When was the last time you felt angry? Sad? Hurt? Embarrassed? These images and emotions are easy to conjure. With very little effort, we can bring them back in our minds. Like cacti, they require minimal nourishment and still thrive. Also like cacti, they can be dangerous when handled. These feelings pierce us and cause us pain.

Now ask yourself another question: When was the last time you felt true joy?

On my way to work the other day, I pulled up to a stop light. The woman in the car next to me didn’t immediately register my presence. She was switching through the radio stations and, for just a moment as I pulled up and glanced over, I saw her face light up and her mouth drop open in unbridled happiness. I have no idea what she had stumbled upon. A favorite song maybe. A stand-up comic on a comedy station perhaps. Hearing her name being said in a news story possibly. Regardless of the cause, it was a second of pure joy. It emitted out of her like a lighthouse beacon. That light shone right into my own car. It actually made me feel better. And then it was gone just as quickly. Her eyes snapped slightly to her right and “reality” set in. She was not alone. Her face deadened and she started bobbing her head with only a hint of a smirk set on her lips. Nope. Flag on the play. Ten yards for exhibiting joy. No public displays of true happiness allowed.

I felt as though I had walked into a bathroom as a strange woman climbed out of the shower, unaware of someone else there. Her instantaneous withdrawal back into herself was like the yanking of a towel to cover her naked soul. It was surreal. And heartbreaking.

I’m left wondering at what point we stop allowing happiness to be all-consuming. Have you ever taken a two-year-old outside to blow bubbles or play in a sprinkler? Elation. Ever made a raspberry-fart on a baby’s belly? Jubilation. Look at the face of a seven-year-old on a bike, flying down the road at break-neck speeds with the wind tossing his hair. Revelry.

We are born with the capacity to experience joy in the simplest things. To be human is to be joyful. It’s only through our own shortcomings that we allow the world around us to take that away. Do bad things happen? Certainly. Is the world a stressful place? Absolutely. Does any of that matter? Only if we let it.

I’m working on opening myself to more unbridled joy. Last night, I made a taco salad that I’d anticipated for two days. I experienced what could only be described as ecstasy while eating it (the fact that I’d had a few cocktails prior should have no bearing). Saturday at work, I laughed with coworkers until I had tears in my eyes. I can’t even remember what we were laughing about, but I’m holding that feeling with me still today. While I drive to my daughter’s softball game tonight, I’m going to put the windows down and sing at the top of my lungs to whatever catches my fancy. Maybe I’ll inspire other car singers to put on their own concerts. Maybe they’ll do the same to even more. And that’s how it should be. When it comes to rapture, may it always be expansive.