Oh, Christmas Tree

Zen. Part of the name of this ongoing blog. It’s a school of Mahayana Buddhism that encourages enlightenment through intuition received from meditation. Meditation is achieved by being present in the moment while letting the mind wander in a way. I am no stranger to this concept.

Someone asked me not long ago how I come up with my ideas for writing. Trying to explain it was difficult. I threw out words such as “reflection” and “slivers,” but I’m sure it sounded like a kindergartener attempting to explain the premise of a movie he had recently seen.

The fact is, most of my writing comes to me while in a bastardized version of meditation. Late after work on weekend nights, after I’ve had a couple cocktails and step outside for a cigarette (therein lies the Vice)—or while driving without my daughter in the car, I’ll turn off the radio and just be present. Random thoughts flicker and float like snowflakes from flurries or embers from a fire. Many of them are nonsense, but a few slivers wedge themselves into my consciousness. They’re often unformed thoughts that I jot down in my notebook and they may stay there indefinitely. Others plant themselves and almost immediately bloom into something that touches my heart or makes me say, “huh.”

As I sit here writing this, I’m looking at the Christmas tree Madison and I put up last night. I’m home alone. The cats don’t count, and they’re utterly disinterested in the tree in a strange un-cat-like manner. I blame video games and social media for their behavior. They think they know it all. Typical teenagers.

But, I digress. The Christmas tree always relaxes me, much as it does so many other people. It is a symbol of the holiday season. A miniature version of the old adage that hard work pays off. No, I didn’t go all Clark Griswold and cut down my own. I leave that to my sister and brother-in-law. However, if you think taking a fake tree out of the box in which it has been crammed for most of a year and bending it back into something resembling a tree is easy, you are sorely mistaken. And the 3000-foot string of lights I got for it because I apparently write better than I read is not the easiest to wrap around when two cats are attacking the bulbs as they trail across the floor. I would say that my daughter helped, but Madison mostly just laughed at the cats. Until the ornaments.

Our tradition with the ornaments is no joke. Every year, we go together to pick out a new one. The chosen ornament will be inscribed with our signatures and the year we got it. The decision for the ornament requires careful thought. This is not kid’s stuff.

When the time for the ornament-placing comes, all the ornaments are laid out on the floor, with our personalized ones set aside in their own group. These go on first, so they can hold the most prominent places on the tree. Then go the bulbs. Then the others. We don’t talk much while we put them up. Zen and all that. Over the years, my daughter has taken more of a role in where to put them. If you are obsessive-compulsive, I do not suggest examining our tree. There’s a solid chance you’ll suffer a panic attack. But, to me, it is perfect.

Last night, after Madison had been asleep for a while, I was winding down for bed myself. I was finishing my drink and had turned off the television. The only light in the living room was from the tree. I sat back in my recliner and enjoyed its company. I was present in that moment. If I didn’t have a hint of a smile on my face, it was certainly in my soul.

Looking over the tree is akin to observing a quilt that was created over generations. A tapestry of ornaments that tell stories.

There are those we chose together, each with varying degrees of penmanship as the years rolled on. A big bulb from ’09 that shows a snowman Madison insisted was Frosty. The signatures were both written by me, because she hadn’t quite mastered writing her name at the age of three. A bulb with the Grinch from ’11—her name scribbled in her own hand with a lot of jagged swirls brought on by her newer talent and her lack of sizeable hand to hold the ornament still. Pinkie Pie from ’15 with her signature prettier than mine. The latest ornament that she picked yesterday is more adult. Blue with a white glitter winter wonderland encompassing it. Together, they all tell the story of a young child who has grown into a young lady. It’s intriguing how your heart can break and swell at the same time.

There are the other ornaments, of course. A stork carrying a baby in a pink blanket. Madison was given that by my oldest sister for her first Christmas. A painted E.T. that was given to me by my own aunt when I was four. A collection of beautifully-crafted ornaments from India given to us by my cousin when she lived there. A random piece of paper containing small shapes and designs drawn by the budding artist who shares my home, secured to a branch by a paperclip punched through it. And my favorite: A pink bulb with a tiny white handprint stuck to it, the fingers drawn on to look like snowmen—a present from when my daughter was in Kindergarten. The attached note says, “These aren’t just five snowmen, as anyone can see. I made them with my hand, which is part of me. Now each year when you trim the tree, you’ll look back and recall, Christmas of 2011, when my hand was just this small.”

And more. Quite a few more. We’ll need a bigger tree soon. But, for now, one side of my living room is lit up with light and magic and memories. This tree is my Christmas.

The holidays can be stressful. They are full of running around and expenses. Coming up with new places to hide that damn elf (and remembering to move him every night so your cover isn’t blown). Family we haven’t seen in nearly a year. Some we like. Some we may not. Extra cooking and colder nights.

But, if you haven’t put up your tree yet, I suggest you do it. Take your time. If you have children, have them help. The gift comes later when you’re alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, plug in your tree. Put down your phone. Turn of the TV. Turn off the lights. Ease into that Christmas quilt and wrap yourself in the tapestry of memories. You’ll be happy you did.

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Speak To Me

Beautiful. Hurtful. Hopeful.

Each of these words evokes a set of emotions or thoughts within an individual. “Beautiful” can refer to the physical beauty of a face or a sunset, or it can refer to abstract beauty such as a piece of music.

All of them contain the suffix “-ful,” meaning “full of.” In each example, the base words have different origins. “Beautiful” means “full of beauty.” The word “beauty” goes back to its Latin origin of “bellus.” “Hurt” possibly goes back to an Old Norse word “hrutr” meaning “ram.” Meanwhile, “hope” doesn’t have an exact origin, but it is believed to be Germanic. “Hopa” in Old English, “hoop” in Dutch, or “hoffen” in Old German.

I appreciate etymology. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and, also, how their meanings have changed throughout history. As a writer, I have a vested interest in words.

The choice of words, whether in spoken or written language, dictate the mood and interpretation of an exchange. I like to think that every interaction through language is a blank canvas. The basis for the interaction is unimportant. It can be an academic or philosophical discussion, a light-hearted conversation between friends, or quiet pillow talk with a lover. But every one of these begins as a blank canvas. Before words are spoken or written, there is nothing. The words chosen are paint with which we color and create. The result might be a dull, unimaginative still life. Or it could be a vibrant, abstract piece that thrills us and allows us to see something differently.

There is a reason poetry is considered the “language of love.” It revolves around the use of language intended to evoke strong emotion. To this point, a scene from Dead Poet’s Society comes to mind. “A man is not ‘very tired.’ He is ‘exhausted.’ And don’t use ‘very sad.’ Use…exactly, ‘morose.’”

Being born in the U.S., and not being an early-generation immigrant, I was taught English and spent a few years of high school and college learning a foreign language. Like a lot of American adults, I’ve done a less-than-stellar job of retaining that foreign language. Although, those “dirty” words that were never taught in class never escaped me. Female genitalia and curse-word knowledge galore up in this hat rack.

I learned Spanish, which seems to be the most useful foreign language in the U.S. I found it to be a fairly simple one to understand and interpret. Between written and spoken languages, there are several cognates. For example, the English “beauty,” as I said before, originates from the Latin word “bellus.” In Spanish, it is “belleza.” In Italian, it is “bellezza.” In French, it is “beaute.” Even in different languages, the words are represented similarly. They began in old written form and have evolved over time into different languages with like properties. Language is enchanting in that way.

For my book, however, I have begun researching a very different language. ASL, or American Sign Language, is something altogether unique. And it is elegant.

It’s a language not based on letters pieced together (the alphabet as an exception), but one that communicates through the imagery from what is seen or felt. It is the purest language I’ve ever run across. ASL encapsulates the wonder of language for me. Conversations are had by hand gestures and facial expressions that emote experiences. That’s a conversation.

An added bonus to researching ASL is that my daughter seems interested and it’s fun to teach her random signs. The other day, as we were on the way home from her school, we were working on a few. After being caught up in it for a bit, she started laughing and said she hoped no one was watching us because we would look like insane people. Probably. Or Italian women. I’m okay with either.

The English word “dance” is thought to come from Old French “dancier,” which possibly comes from Low Frankish “dintjan” and related to Old Frisian “dintje,” meaning to “tremble or quiver.” If you’ve ever been to a rave or a club playing hip-hop, that sounds about right. If you’ve ever seen me dance, “horrific” should also have been included in the origin of the word. In ASL, one simply holds his or her non-dominant hand in front, palm up, and points the first and middle fingers of the dominant hand down at the palm, like legs. Then he or she sways them back and forth like a pendulum. The image is like a person swaying on air. I dig that. Simple. Graceful.

This is how language should be.

And to keep with the dirty words, thanks to a recent conversation with a friend, I learned that the words for “fellatio” are just what you’d think they would be.

And So It Begins

Advice is a funny thing. Many of us, myself included, can dole it out in abundance.

I have given advice to friends about relationships and life choices. Obviously, being 38 years of age, single, and living in an apartment qualify my advice. Over my years bartending, I have given it to complete strangers who have bellied up to my bar to “drink away” their worries, only to spend the next couple hours talking about those worries with the guy supplying said drinks that were designed to create temporary amnesia. I have even given myself a lot of it internally, looking into my own eyes while shaving or brushing my teeth. I have decided that I am not a great listener. Most importantly, I have given a lot of advice over the last few years to my daughter.

“Follow your dreams.”

That’s the big one. That has been a recurring theme in my parental advice. Certainly, I’ve given out the basics: If you clean your room regularly, you won’t have to spend so much time on it all at once. If you don’t toss your clothes randomly into your closet, you’ll be able to find your favorite set of pajamas. Brushing your hair well after your shower will prevent this rat’s nest on top of your head in the morning. Doing your homework as soon as we get home frees you up for the rest of the evening. Ranch dressing doesn’t necessarily have to accompany every meal. To be fair, the last example might be incorrect. Everything is better with ranch dressing. Yes, I am from the Midwest.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. In a small way, I no longer feel like a hypocrite in this respect. In just a couple months, I will be celebrating one year of publishing a new piece every week. Every Monday, I sit down and finalize a new work of writing and feel a wave of satisfaction when I click “publish.” I feel good about myself. I feel accomplished. That is, apart from last week. Last week’s piece was never written. It wasn’t written because something else has been circling my mind. I thoroughly enjoy my weekly pieces. However, a weekly blog is not my dream, as much as I love it. Doing what you love shouldn’t come in tiny pieces on a weekly schedule. I want to write. So, I have begun working on a book. The ideas for that book consumed me and made it difficult to focus on anything else.

I briefly considered putting the blog on hold altogether. Luckily, a very good friend of mine gave me some solid advice when I asked for her input. Following that advice, I’m going to publish here bi-weekly. This will free up my time a bit to work in a world of fiction, but still allow me to keep up with my readers and give me an outlet for my daily reflections. I get the best of both worlds.

If you follow me regularly, I appreciate it more than you can know. If you have randomly stumbled across this and do not follow me, I am giving you the advice to make better life choices.

So, why the decision to write fiction? As with most choices I make, it came from reflection. And at the heart of it is my daughter, Madison.

A new teacher started at her school this year. In the world of private Catholic school, he is something of an anomaly. Although her school is incredible and provides her a top-notch education, the encouragement of free-thought and imagination isn’t the highest priority. But this teacher fosters creativity. He holds early morning sessions to teach students to draw. He asks them to bring in writing they’ve done in their free time to share with the class. He even supported a rap battle between two students.

After learning about this during a school open house, I asked Madison if she had taken in any of her writing. Her response: “No. It isn’t done yet. It’s not ready.”

I know that feeling. When I decided to announce to my friends and family that I was starting a blog at the first of the year, it was a little terrifying. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have any pieces even completed yet, other than a few that I’d written a couple years before. But I did it. I leapt. And it felt right.

In thinking about my daughter’s blossoming interest in reading, writing, and drawing, I started to think about how it had all begun for me. Fiction. Stephen King. J.R.R. Tolkien. Dean Koontz. Kurt Vonnegut. Reading these and so many other works of fiction inspired me. I wanted to write. I wanted to create worlds in my mind. I wanted others to be immersed in the worlds I had imagined into being.

My daughter is my life barometer. As such, giving her advice begins the pressure of living that advice.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love.

Okay.

Fortune Teller

I love a good Chinese buffet.

I hadn’t tried Chinese food until I was in my early 20s. After a particularly vivacious night of imbibing alcohol with friends, including a woman with whom I was secretly in love, the next day’s suggestion was to hit a Chinese buffet and eat away our hangovers. Now, I’d heard the horror stories. Some guy knew a guy who knew a guy who knew for a fact that a certain Chinese restaurant was shut down for violating every health code and two hundred kittens were removed from the premises. However, the request for Americanized Chinese food kept in steam tables and behind sneeze glass was proposed by the enamored. I figured if I was going to die from food poisoning brought on by a delicacy of cat, there would be no one better with whom to spend my last day on Earth.

Maybe it was the hunger brought on by the hangover. Maybe it was the company. But that meal was freaking delicious. Sweet and sour chicken, Lo Mein, Crab Rangoon. I was hooked.

I go to the buffet closest to me at least once a month. The employees are friendly. The atmosphere is welcoming. The buffet area is clean. The prices are very reasonable. And if the tragic rumors from naysayers are true and I’m eating cat, I at least have a backup cuisine idea when the zombie apocalypse occurs. Both of my cats are plump and well-fed. General Tso’s, get in my belly.

Me, I love the food. My daughter, she loves the fortune cookies a little more. She insists on cracking each of ours open to read our fortunes aloud. She gets a little sparkle in her eye every time. A peek into the cosmos. A tiny letter from the all-knowing universe. The last time we went together, her fortune told her she would come into money. She lost a tooth less than a week later. Boom! Nailed it.

While there is some debate on the origins of fortune cookies, they are an American creation. Most evidence points to fortune cookies being created by a Japanese company in San Francisco in 1906. Then why do we associate fortune cookies with Chinese food? Because during WWII, when internment camps were created for Japanese Americans, a Chinese entrepreneur jumped in and took the idea of fortunes on Japanese treats that were browner and larger, and decided to place them inside the smaller Chinese versions we know today. Thus, Chinese fortune cookies are a staple of those meals. Now they are created in mass quantity in factories with terribly generic “fortunes,” complete with lucky numbers. Plural. Five or six different numbers that are “lucky” and for which we should look in our daily lives. And sometimes those numbers work because we maneuver them to work.

Have you seen the film Number 23? In short, it is about a man’s obsession with the number 23. Go figure. He claims that the number is cursed and connects everything. I was born on September 14, 1979. September 14th. 9/14. 9 + 14 = 23. Yeah. I might be a demon. Ignore the fact that I disregarded the year I was born. It doesn’t fit with the theory.

And that is how fortunes and horoscopes work. We take from them what we will and discard the rest that doesn’t apply.

Horoscopes at least have a deeper history. Astronomers began looking to the stars and constellations as far back as Babylon. Babylonian astronomy bled over to Egypt, where it was modified slightly. That bled over to Greece, where it was again modified slightly. The Greeks created the basic version of what we now recognize as astronomy and horoscopes. That the alignment of the stars and moons and planets on the day we came into this world dictate what type of person we will become. Of course, being born and being a part of the creation of life are very different time frames, but it’s difficult to determine at exactly which point we became life, so we go with the day of our births. Never mind the 9- to 10-month discrepancy.

Today, there are entire collections of books on signs of the zodiac. Daily newspapers print vague and open-ended predictions for everyday people. Nearly a quarter of Americans check their horoscopes regularly. Some insist on reading them before making any decisions on dating, employment, or finances. I remember my oldest sister had a book back when I was in high school that broke down the personality of every sign in detail. So much so that each sign had three different categories, depending on where they fell within a sign’s time frame. I happen to be a Virgo III, in case you’re wondering. Was the corresponding “personality description” accurate? Sure. That’s the wonder of speaking in obtuse terms.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer conducted a study. Forer had his students all take a “personality” test. After taking the test, each student was given the “results” from their answers. However, unknown to the students, the result was the exact same for each, pieced together from varied newspaper horoscopes explaining personality traits. The students were then asked to rate the accuracy of the personality findings on a scale of 0-5, with 0 being very poor and 5 being excellent. The average score rating was 4.26. Regardless of their birth dates, zodiac signs, genders, upbringings, or personal beliefs, the newspaper horoscope mash-up represented every student greatly in their own eyes.

I know all this. Yet, I still glance at my horoscope whenever I find a newspaper lying around. I still throw salt over my shoulder if I spill some. I refuse to open an umbrella indoors. And my heart sinks just a little if I break a mirror.

Why? Because I also know that this universe is so much bigger than me. There are so many mysteries that I do not or cannot understand. I, like so many other human beings, live my life on a just-in-case basis. But that same concept got me writing again. It is what allows me to see fascinating connections in most things. And it is what will push me across a room to approach a stunning woman entirely out of my league.

“So, what’s your sign?”

Hidden Treasures

We all have them. Those nameless, random mementos of past relationships. It might be an old sweatshirt, ticket stubs from a movie, a love letter, or even just a picture. Some of us have entire collections. Why do we hold onto them, years and sometimes relationships later? It’s because they remind us of times where, maybe for only a brief period, we were truly happy. That sweatshirt that smelled like the other person, sending us to sleep with a gentle smile on our faces. That movie where you first touched each other’s hands in the dark, feeling terrified and exhilarated at the same time, realizing that one simple gesture could say everything. That love letter that makes you shake your head in embarrassment from its contents, but reminds you of what it feels like to have another pour his or her soul onto paper just for you. That picture of the vacation you took that first made you feel like a co-adventurer in the world with another. What is yours? Or, maybe you’re like me and had a whole box. My treasure box. It held grandly written letters, photographs, dried flowers, and so much more. Mine no longer exists. It was the casualty of an old girlfriend who found it and didn’t understand that the box was not about those women of the past. It was about reminding me what young, stupid love could feel like. It was a staple to remind me to never stop loving with my heart, or to foolishly relegate the responsibility to my head.

Why am I writing this? Because that box has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve found myself weighing my heart against my head too often over the last few years. Too many of us do. We suffer heartbreak and put up walls. We become jaded and cynical. We run from feelings as if they’re the new plague. And why shouldn’t we? We’ve all experienced that sickness that comes with a broken heart or unrequited love. Wouldn’t it make sense to be calculated and rational, especially concerning that organ that is responsible for pumping the very lifeblood through us? In short, no.

A beautiful friend of mine met the man who would become her husband. He proposed three weeks in. Obviously, she turned him down. Still, like a madman, he continued to pursue her. Was he insane? Desperate? Foolish? No. He was a man who knew this was the woman with whom he could spend the rest of his life. The beauty of this story is multi-faceted. Not only did he not give up. She didn’t either. She stayed. And theirs was a marriage that inspires me still. She never walked across a parking lot…he always dropped her off at the door to walk through the rain himself. They danced. They laughed. They loved one another in a way that doesn’t allow room for the mind to ruin it. And he did, in fact, love her for the rest of his life.

I mention this because love like that does exist, even after years of marriage. The saying claims that love is blind. I disagree. Blindness is a handicap. Love is awake and dreaming. It should be approached that way. Certainly, dreams end. But, every so often, we can close our eyes and find that dream again. Think about your treasure box. Remember that, although life doesn’t always go how we hoped, we collect incredible memories not from what we were afraid to do or say, but from all those moments we were both stupid and intelligent enough to set aside the real world in pursuit of something bigger than we felt we deserved.

 

I wrote that last piece a few years ago. I decided to include it in this blog because I have started a new treasure box. I was looking through it just last night.

My daughter, in addition to being a budding writer, has taken a shine to drawing lately. I couldn’t be prouder. As Einstein once said: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.”

Madison gave me one of her drawings a few days ago. As is her fashion, she snuck it into my bedroom and set it on a table. I hadn’t noticed it until last night. It came from her imagination and found its way onto paper. That paper found its way into my bedroom as a surprise gift. Certainly, it is worthy of finding its way to the Treasure Box.

The best part about that box is that I can never open it without looking through it. It is filled with talismans of incredible power. Art work from kindergarten and ticket stubs from zoos. A piece of hair from her first haircut and teeth that fell out long ago. A corsage from a father/daughter dance and homemade Father’s Day cards written in jagged script with misspelled words. On and on.

To open that box is to be transported back through time in my mind and in my heart. But, just as surely, it sends me forward in time too. To sift through those items is to observe the evolution of a life well-lived. Who she was to who she is. And it leaves me wondering who she will be.

An artist, discovering the use of color and shading in college? A writer, penning children’s books as an adult? A veterinarian, smiling calmingly into the eyes of creatures she loves unconditionally? What atrocious hair styles will she come home with in the name of fashion? How often will her remaining teeth flash in smiles? Who will put a corsage on her for her first school dance? How will her handwriting differ when she signs her driver’s license?

Someday, many years from now, I’d like to go through that box with her. I will pull out those items one by one and explain their places. Each item a chapter in her story. I have a feeling the completed work is going to be a page-turner.

Your Turn

We’ve all done it. We sit around with friends or family. Maybe it’s around a dinner table. Maybe it’s around a fire with a few cocktails in hand. Maybe it’s in a bar with more than a few cocktails in hand. Yes, my friends and I really enjoy cocktails. But we sit with others and share stories. One story leads to another. That one leads to another.

If your friends or family are like my own, these stories often provoke laughter or thoughtfulness.

I’m a writer. I’m a story teller. My friends are very aware of this. Most of my stories and anecdotes have never and will never make it to this blog. Most of my friends have heard those stories and anecdotes a hundred times. I know this because I have heard even more times, “Oh, I know this one. You’re ridiculous.” And yet those friends stay for it because I’m telling it to someone new. The friends who have heard it sometimes even chime in. They have become part of the narrative.

That’s the elegant thing about telling stories. We can share them with the world and so the world then shares them with us.

The act of humanity’s story-telling has existed as far back as we have. Long before the written word, stories were passed down from generation to generation, whether it be through spoken word, song, or hieroglyphics.

The goal with my writing has always been to share a part of myself with the world. And the aim in that is to make others laugh or think deeply, if even for just a moment.

I think that is imperative for humanity to thrive.

The last few months have been a barrage of stories told through news outlets and social media. These stories include natural disasters, celebrity deaths, mass shootings, racial tension, and angry talk of posture during sporting events. Bitter words have been thrown around. Friendships have been ended. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness have abounded. So, this week’s piece is going to be a little different.

I want you to tell me a story. Whether you follow me on WordPress or Facebook, I want you to tell me a story. Comment with that story. I only ask that it be positive. Make me laugh. Make me think. Make me smile. Tell me about the funniest thing that ever happened to you. Tell me about the first time you fell in love. Tell me about the happiest you’ve ever been. Tell me about your family. Tell me about your friends.

I’ll read your story. Perhaps you’ll inspire me to tell another of my own. Maybe other readers will be reminded of theirs. Feel free to share this piece. That’s what story-telling is all about.

Pull up a chair. Grab a drink. It’s story time.

As is tradition, someone needs to start:

When I was 19, I moved into the first apartment I felt was really mine. I’d lived on my own in dorm rooms and other apartments, but I had never even bothered to decorate them to any extent. Sure, this apartment was in the “hood” and it was merely an efficiency, but it was mine. It was the first place I regularly shared my bed with a woman. Anna had a couple hours in the morning between classes at her community college. On those mornings, she would come into my apartment while I slept and slide under the covers next to me in just her underwear. Although there was sexual tension, we didn’t make love. Her body pulled back against mine, the feel of her skin against my chest, and the smell of her hair in my face felt more than comfortable. It felt right. In those hours those mornings, I became an adult. While she would breathe lazily against me before she dozed off, I began to understand marriage and love and companionship in a way I had never previously done. Existential realizations don’t always strike us like lightning. Often, they ease into us like oxygen.

Much later, in that same apartment, I was sharing my bed with a different woman. The goings-on were much more adult-oriented. There was no underwear. The apartment building belonged to my father. Thus, it was a lot like living at home, except Dad had a little further to go. He had a key and would often use it after a quick double-rap on the door with his knuckles. Immediately following my adult-oriented activities with Jill, as we lied in all our glory in the afterglow, my father keyed his way in after his quick knock. Jill, not a shy girl, merely looked at him and said “hello” while I lunged for the blankets to cover her. I never reached them before my father had mumbled a squeaky apology, exited the apartment, dove down a flight of stairs, and driven a block away. He and I have never since spoken of that day. I still have no idea why he came in the first place. However, he never did key his way in without a lot of knocks and an abnormally long pause. And I now know what my father’s face looks like when he dies a little inside from embarrassment.

Your turn…

Who Are You?

It’s that time of year. Pumpkin spice has come back full force. Like the unknown member of a 90s girl-group who was cut from the ensemble for being too annoying. She’s here. She has her own reality show. And every White woman in the United States is bingeing.

I’m not a huge fan of Fall. I love Summer. Sure, the changing colors of the leaves is beautiful. And I’ll admit that it’s nice not to step outside after a shower and immediately wonder if I forgot to dry myself completely because my clothing is suddenly sticking to me. However, in Central Illinois, Fall signals the end of sunny days and driving with the windows down. Soon, the only person being serenaded by my renditions of the Meghan Trainor songs playing on my daughter’s favorite radio station will be myself and my daughter, if she’s lucky. Sorry, random drivers stuck next to me at traffic lights, you will be missing out on something extraordinary.

The only saving graces from Fall are Thanksgiving (one of my favorite holidays) and Halloween (a holiday I have come to appreciate again in recent years).

I loved Halloween as a kid. The idea of dressing up as someone else held within it something magical. And let’s not forget about the deliciousness and danger of candy that, according to my mother, had an extremely high chance of containing razor blades and/or poison. I would either end up with a belly ache or spend my adult life like a villain in a Christopher Nolan film. “You wanna know how I got these scars?” So intense and exciting.

At some point, the idea of dressing up and asking for candy seemed childish. I stopped. Later, Halloween brought with it a disdain as I was bartending and hated having to ask patrons to remove their fake teeth so I could understand their drink orders. Or remove their masks so I could properly match them to their drivers’ licenses. Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the slutty versions of every character out there brought to me courtesy of Girls in Their Twenties. Nurses and police women and witches, oh my. But even that lost its appeal after a time.

Years back, I began to enjoy Halloween for a different reason. I had a daughter. And her choice in costumes has spoken volumes about who she is as a person. What I had not previously realized was that Halloween costumes represent who we are or who we would like to be. Sadly, this also means that some of my previous examples require nursing or criminal justice degrees and cosmetic surgery. Get to it, ladies.

My daughter, Madison, has always been a unique soul. It is hands-down my favorite quality about her. When she first started deciding as a young child what to be for Halloween, she stuck with what she knew. Cheer Bear cost me a small fortune online, but her ecstatic smile when she put it on made it well worth it. Next came the Disney princesses. Snow White and Belle hadn’t known beauty until they were represented by this little girl. She chose these because they were the characters in her books and movies. And then there was the shift. She moved away from cute and pretty to stronger female characters. Jessie from Toy Story, Batgirl, Supergirl, Princess Leia, and Rey from Star Wars: Episode 7.

This year, she wants to be a hot dog.

I love it. Weird, quirky, and hilarious in an off-beat way describe her personality to a tee. For me, this costume represents her as an even stronger woman. She isn’t looking for a prince. She can’t fly. She won’t save the universe from evil. She doesn’t need to. She has the power to make herself laugh, and uses this power without a care as to what is popular or “swag.”

I considered getting a costume for myself this year. But I don’t need one. While she’s in that costume, I get to be an unbelievably proud father. No accessories needed.

The September Of My Years

Do you remember your birthdays when you were younger? Those themed birthday parties that held you as the center of attention? Inevitably, an aunt, uncle, or grandparent would come up to you, possibly give you the dreaded cheek pinch, and ask, “Do you feel older?”

No one asks that anymore. Why? Because they don’t want the real answer.

Yes, Tammy, I do feel older. Thanks for bringing that up. If you’d like, you can kick one of my cats in front of me and hint that it looks as though I’ve put on a few pounds. Maybe tell me I’m not intelligent, or that you’ve heard rumors that everyone secretly hates me.

No one likes a Tammy.

The fact is, my recent birthday does have me feeling older.

The day before, I spent an hour and a half at the Department of Motor Vehicles so I could renew my license. I sat in the company of an older woman who, unlike any other person in the building, was having to wait for her number to be called. She did some pacing. She did a lot of cursing under her breath. In fact, the only time she smiled was when she was finally having her ID picture taken. It was a smile of victory. My own picture turned out very differently. The employee taking the picture told me to look at the big cut-out of SpongeBob SquarePants just below the lens. And then kept telling me to lower my chin while still looking at the image. The resulting photograph makes me look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but with an odd double-chin of which I was unaware I had. No worries. I’ll only have to carry that around with me for a handful of years, terrifying any cashier who is unfortunate enough to card me for alcohol.

Today, just before sitting down to write this, I had to access my blog page and change the age in my description from 37 to 38.

Within the last month, I’ve noticed that I now have random pains that like to surprise me. Upper right thigh? Check. Left ankle? Check. These make for an interesting image when they decide to kick in at the same time. I end up moving like an extra on The Walking Dead who is about to have something sharp poked through his forehead. I just hope Maggie does it so I can look her in the eyes and have one beautiful, shared moment.

A few weeks ago, a random customer on whom I was waiting (let’s call her Tammy), interrupted me while I was listing our draft beers to tell me I should get Botox because I have a frown wrinkle between my eyebrows. In fairness, “Tammy” had no wrinkles at all (nor expressions), despite being in her late sixties. Botox is afloat because of “Tammy.” However, that made me look at the rest of my skin. I now have weird wrinkles at the back of my wrists. Although I’ve prided myself on never being the guy with a furry back, rogue hairs occasionally pop up on my shoulders. Revenge is exacted on the bastards by way of a pair of tweezers and me craning my neck at an impossible angle, making the side of my neck look reminiscent of smooshing a bulldog’s face.

Standing up from this writing to use the restroom and grab some Tums reminded me of the substantial arthritis in my lower back to match the acid reflux.

Speaking of the restroom, I’m proud to announce that I usually only have to get up once in the middle of the night to use it. That doesn’t account for the twenty minutes of weighing my options before doing so. Can I sleep for another couple hours before urinating all over myself, or would it be better to do the hobbled zombie-walk to the toilet before the sounding of my alarm?

Do you remember the word “metabolism” from health class in junior high? It seemed like just one more thing we were being forced to learn that would have no bearing on us in life. “Metabolism” was my body’s form of trigonometry. It sounded important, but I would never have to worry about it outside the classroom. Now, I’m thinking of putting together a scrapbook in honor of my lost friend Metabolism. She was amazing. She was always there for me, even when I didn’t realize it. 15,000 calories in day? No problem. She rolled up her sleeves and kicked some tail. In the wake of Metabolism’s passing, eating a piece of bread is the equivalent of attaching an air pump to my love handles.

In my twenties, I was complimented all the time on my butt in a pair of jeans. I would get at least a few compliments while bartending every month. I’m not a vain person, but I’ll admit it always felt good. Those days are past. Imagine a Stone pine tree morphing into a Weeping Willow. You just visualized what happened to the old caboose. From a smile to a frown.

This is what has become of me at 38.

I had to renew my license because I have been driving for over two decades. During that time, I have traveled to some incredible places. I have seen the country.

I had to change my age on my blog page because I have been doing what I love and writing with dedication for almost a year.

My ankles and hips sometimes ache because I have spent my entire adult life working on my feet. I have built decks and houses. Homes for families. I have transported patients around a hospital, having conversations with them about their lives and watching them go from their worst to their best. I have trained servers and bartenders for a prominent restaurant chain, being partly responsible for the success of that company. I have served adult beverages that conquered people’s nerves enough to introduce themselves in bars. Some of those couples went on to marry and have children.

My skin has wrinkled and become tougher because I have spent so many gorgeous days in the sun. Cookouts with family. Walking the zoo with my daughter. Having drinks on a boat with friends.

I have acid reflux because I have spent decades feasting on delicious meals.

My back aches because I spent years carrying around the most unique and beautiful human being I’ve ever met. She calls me Dad.

My bladder, as tired as it may be, is only exhausted from multiple years of imbibing cocktails and holding it so as not to miss one more laugh with company.

As for my metabolism and sad posterior, they’re simply reminding me that exercise is important and to never become complacent.

This is what has become of me at 38.

I’ll take it.

Dream A Little Dream

On my bookshelf sits a book entitled The Dream Encyclopedia. It was given to me on May 30th, 1997. I know this because it was inscribed by my Senior year high school Psychology teacher. She didn’t give me this gift because we had some creepy, torrid love affair. She gave it to me because she saw that I was fascinated by sleep and dreams during that section in the course. It was a graduation gift. Her last chance to foster the further education of an engaged student. I’ve always appreciated that. Some teachers teach seven hours a day, five days a week. Others are educators. Thanks for being the latter, Mrs. P.

My interest in sleep and dreams hasn’t changed much over the twenty years since I left high school. We are supposed to spend 1/3 of every day sleeping. 1/3 of our lives in this state. I don’t spend that much time eating or drinking, and I will die within days if I forego either of those. How could this thing that takes up so much of our lives not be interesting? How could I not want to know more about it?

There are five stages of sleep. The first four are difficult to keep track of, so pay attention. The stages are called 1, 2, 3, and 4. I had to bust out my old Psychology text to remember that. The fifth stage is known as REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). If I lost you, I apologize. The scientists and/or psychologists who named these were arrogant pricks. They clearly wanted to prove how scholarly they were.

Each stage is marked by different changes in brain wave patterns. The initial shift from waking brain waves to those of Stage 1 elicits a sensation of falling. Have you ever fallen asleep at school, work, or on an airplane? That feeling that suddenly snaps you back to waking—usually paired with a generous amount of drool spilling from your cakehole—was you moving into Stage 1 sleep. Without getting too technical, Stage 1 results in theta waves. It’s a light sleep. During this stage, you can be woken easily by outside stimuli, such as a cat meowing for attention because your daughter went back to her mother’s house and is not giving him affection every single second, meaning you just want to close your bedroom door, but that will only intensify the meowing and you work in the morning and just want some damn sleep so you can earn enough money to buy the little bastard some more cat food.

Stage 2 is actually the most restful stage, although not the deepest. It is also marked by theta waves, but the frequency and amplitude increase. Because Stages 1 and 2 are such light sleep stages, if you are woken during one of these, you will probably not recall being asleep at all. Have you tried taking a short nap before and heard your alarm go off after not believing you slept, but still feeling slightly more relaxed? That is likely what happened.

Stages 3 and 4 are marked by delta waves. They’re pretty close to one another, apart from 3 having slightly fewer delta waves than 4. These are the deepest stages of sleep. It’s tough to be woken up from them. When you are, you wake feeling groggy and disoriented. They are also where sleep-walking and sleep-talking occur. Personally, I’ve never been known to sleep-walk. My oldest sister, on the other hand, used to do it occasionally during puberty. My step-dad once recalled sitting in the living room in the dark, watching TV when my sister stepped out of her room and stood at the edge of the living room while staring at him and not responding to any questions. For a few minutes. That anecdote made me realize my step-dad was a braver man than me. He neither cried for mercy nor loosed his bowels into his pants. If I were sitting in a dark room and a young girl in a nightgown did that to me, the result would have included both. I’ve seen The Exorcist. I know what’s up. While I don’t sleep-walk, I have been told I sleep-talk—or, more accurately, sleep-giggle. Yeah. I mumble something incoherent and then giggle like a little child. I may have just realized why I’m still single.

REM is the final stage of stage of sleep, also known as dreaming sleep. In this stage, brain waves are akin to those of being awake. Your eyes dart from side to side under your eyelids. Your face, fingers, and toes might still move sporadically. However, the muscles in the rest of your body become nearly paralyzed. This is your body’s way of keeping you from acting out your dreams. I once read about a man who had a rare condition. His body wouldn’t become paralyzed during REM. He dreamt that he stabbed his mother to death and woke up to find that he had actually done it. If there were an award for the worst dream ever, that guy won hands down.

Most scholars agree that REM is the most important stage of sleep, although they can’t necessarily explain why. Most believe it is in this stage that we compartmentalize our days. We sort and order our brains and the result is dreaming. How important is it? In a study done on rats, they were woken as soon as their brain waves showed movement into REM. After a long period of being deprived of that sleep, the rats died. Similar studies were done on humans. Most of those subjects began having waking hallucinations and exhibiting signs of insanity.

Naturally, this would suggest that REM sleep is imperative for intelligent, living beings. However, dolphins and whales don’t seem to have this stage at all. Meanwhile, the platypus, arguably the stupidest creature in the world aside from the “cash me ow-sie” girl, spends a great deal of its sleeping time in REM—more than any other animal.

What I find especially intriguing about REM sleep is that it auto-corrects. On average, we have 4-5 full sleep cycles per night. We move down from Stage 1 to REM. We then move back up through the cycles, with Stage 1 being replaced with REM again. Then back down and back up the same. The first REM cycle generally lasts only about five minutes. As the cycles go on, 3 and 4 become shorter while 2 and REM become longer, resulting in a REM cycle of about forty minutes just before waking. When subjects are denied REM, they often skip the other steps and jump right back into it, and for longer periods of time. Have you ever woken up because you were having a terrible dream, only to fall right back into it? That’s why.

Dreams are necessary.

I also discovered over time that they can’t be generalized. The Dream Encyclopedia offers interpretations for various images we might see in our dreams. Those interpretations are amazingly diverse. For example, water in a dream can be a reference to the unconscious. Because fluids are involved in sex, Freud believed it was a sex symbol (but, in fairness, that guy connected everything to sex). Some claim it speaks to a feeling of drowning. Others to an expanse of possibility.

The truth is that no book can tell us what a specific symbol or image means. It is represented within our own minds. A child dreaming of a clown might see it as joy and laughter. My youngest sister would probably see it as impending death. She claims I tied her to a chair when we were young and forced her to watch It. While I don’t recall that at all, her absolute phobia of clowns must be the result of something…And I was an asshole in my youth.

What about our waking time? Those dreams that exist not in our minds, but our hearts? Are those dreams really any different? They’re unique to all of us. I would argue that they are also necessary to maintain our sanity.

What is your dream?

Are you a painter? A singer? A writer? A doctor? A body-builder? A dancer? A parent? A soldier?

We often discard these dreams all the time. We toss them aside to “live in the real world” and spend our lives in some deep sleep in which we walk and talk, but have no memory of it. We convince ourselves that dreams evaporate and are forgotten.

But dreams are necessary. And they always auto-correct.

What’s yours?

Twilight

I’m single. That used to mean something different to me. Being single meant I was “on the prowl.” No girlfriend. No ball and chain. Nothing holding me back. I’d get ready to go out to the bars that night and give myself a pep talk. I might even have followed it with a wink.

Did you just cringe? Yeah. Me too. I hate that guy. That guy was a douche.

Don’t get me wrong. That Guy provided me with a lot of stories. My close friends know about “Yoda” and “F.P.L.” as well as a sad parade of others. They know about jacket-stealing crazies and cyber-hacking lunatics. That Guy was a magnet for trouble. Maybe he knew I’d write one day and was simply trying to provide me with unlimited material.

Thank you, That Guy, but your stories should never be told to the general public. Your shenanigans should never be put into written word.

Regardless, That Guy never lasted long. Empty casual flings led to a longing for “the real deal.” A real, long-term relationship. So, That Guy would step aside for The Other Guy. The Other Guy created online profiles on dating sites. He scoured those sites, reading endless profiles about women who “looooove” football and prefer to spend their days running seven consecutive marathons, attending every country music concert in a tri-state area, and sky-diving into piranha-infested waters because “yolo.” On a disturbing side note, my laptop did not highlight “yolo” as a possible misspelling. None of the women were there for casual hook-ups so, if that’s what you wanted, “swipe left.” When the Other Guy would find a woman who seemed interesting, he would try to have conversations with her, asking her about things she’d written in her profile and offering witty and intelligent banter. He wouldn’t try to maneuver her into a casual hook-up or send unsolicited pictures of his no-no region. Obviously, that worked out well. Number of women met in person from online dating: 0.

Recently, I’ve found myself in uncharted territory. I’m comfortable.

I work. I pick up my daughter from school. I spend time with her that night. I drop her off at school the next day. I do some chores. I exercise. I go to work again. I come home. I play video games. I watch movies or television. Rinse and repeat.

This Guy’s life is far from exciting. But it’s comfortable. There is an odd calm that has come over me. A twilight version of my life—I’m not referring to Team Edward vs. Team Jacob (Team Jacob). When the sun is starting to sink below the horizon and the air cools just a bit, the world for me is filled with something soothing and beautiful. It’s akin to the moment just before two lovers fall asleep in each other’s arms while they quietly talk about nothing. That is This Guy’s life right now.

Some of my friends are worried about me because they never see me out. Others have probably nearly forgotten me completely. Yet others have voiced how disappointed they are in me for “losing my mojo” and no longer having any new outrageous and/or disgusting adult stories to tell (you’re a terrible influence, Lori).

I’ve been That Guy. That Guy is obnoxious and kind of creepy. And I’ve been the Other Guy. The Other Guy gets lonely and craves companionship. But This Guy—This Guy is happy. This Guy is a writer. This Guy gets to sit outside and watch the sunset.