Paperback Writer

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a simple enough question. We’re asked that by teachers, parents, and grandparents all throughout our childhood. I still ask myself that sometimes at 37. In grade school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Dinosaurs were just cool. And what boy doesn’t like the thought of digging in the dirt to find hidden treasures and the bones of ancient creatures? For a brief period, I considered being a stand-up comedian. This was mostly because I was the obnoxious class clown. My music teacher gave me part of a class to stand up and do whatever I wanted if I would just shut the hell up for the rest of the week. I won’t lie. My impressions of Goofy being beaten up by Batman were pretty on point. You know, if Batman existed before Bruce Wayne ever hit puberty.

Junior high and high school brought about the writer. College then changed the writer. In my early twenties, the writer took a back seat to Jagerbombs and Miller Lite. At 26, my daughter was born. Everything took a back seat to being a father. I wrote a little here and there, but never with any decent amount of vigor. I chose to see the world through the eyes of a writer, but one who pens children’s books and whose main character unfolds daily in front of his eyes. My story was one of wonder every time my daughter hit a new milestone or discovered magic.

It wasn’t until a short while ago that I made the decision to focus on putting pen to paper again. I have a notebook in which I jot ideas when they arise. My daughter has caught on to this. She asks me what I thought about whenever she sees me put my hands on the black leather binding. When I drive her to school every Monday, she inquires as to what this week’s piece is about. I adore these times. I get to share a little of what’s going on in my mind as well as any facts I learned in my research. I’m grateful to her for at least putting up the front of being interested in the physiological aspects of tears and laughter. Like a pro, she interjects with random “hmms” and “ohs.” Right before turning up whatever Shawn Mendes song just came on the radio. That guy has her in chains.

Last week, I picked Madison up from school and she informed me that she had started writing a story. Chapter one was finished and I was regaled with the beginning of the tale of Shadow and Glamor, two sisters who had been separated as babies when their parents split up. Mom kept Shadow. Glamor was taken away by Dad. Neither sister knew the other existed. Later in life, Shadow and her mother moved to a different town and Shadow started at a new school full of bullies. A girl stepped in to help Shadow with the female bullies and the two girls became best friends. Spoiler alert: The friendly girl was Glamor. The story is written in the form of a screenplay, complete with cues for the characters to sit or fall. Because Glamor was a mystery character, her name was listed as “????” until the climactic finale.

Mystery. Drama. Intrigue. One hell of a hook.

I’ve been proud of my daughter a multitude of times throughout her life. Parenting in the early years is filled with moments of joyful pride in our children. Learning to crawl. Learning to walk. Learning to speak. Learning the alphabet. When they say “please” or “thank you” for the first time without being prompted. Graduating from a baby in diapers to a child in cotton glory. A perfect score on that test at school.

None of those moments hit me quite as hard as listening to the story of Shadow and Glamor. There was an urgency and thrill in her reading of it. She was expanding on things during the course of narrating the tale. This wasn’t a milestone that I read about in the What to Expect books. This was the forging of a world through pure imagination.

Like a lot of children in today’s world, Madison got hooked on YouTube videos. Videos of other children playing with their toys and unfolding adventures of their own creation. It was slightly disappointing to see her so absorbed in the imaginations of others while (as I incorrectly assumed) not using her own. However, I realize I have a movie collection that rivals that of Family Video. And I too watch of lot of videos online. My videos are slightly different and would never be found on YouTube, but sometimes there are toys involved there also.

Now I see that my daughter is not only using her imagination. She incorporates real life into her drama. And not only the fun parts. Her story is speckled with harsh realities. Broken homes. Loss of family. Relentless bullying. And underlying all of these realities is hope. She is a laugher. A crier. A dreamer. A writer.

As parents, we want more than anything to leave behind a legacy for our children. For some, that means leaving behind money or a business. For others, that means instilling them with religious or cultural beliefs. If we’re lucky enough, we get to see tiny flashes of those legacies shine through before we leave this world. My legacy? I want my daughter to look at this world as the wonderful, beautiful disaster that it is. I want her to realize that hope is not an abstract concept. Shadow and Glamor understand.


Between A Laugh And A Tear

My grandmother once took me to one of the Naked Gun movies for my birthday. We sat next to each other in the theater, eating popcorn and sharing a little bonding time. About halfway through, something glorious happened. My grandma laughed so hard that she peed her pants. Through guffaws and tears, she struggled to explain the situation. And then she started laughing even harder. It is the first real memory I have of finding another person’s misfortune so absolutely hilarious. In short, I blame my grandmother for my sick sense of humor.

As I’ve stated in previous pieces on this blog, I’m a crier. But almost equally, I am a laugher. You have video of a father getting hit in the genitalia by his child with any object at all? Why are we not watching that right now? You heard a filthy bar joke ten minutes ago? Why have ten minutes passed without you telling me this joke? You just saw a woman with toilet paper hanging out the back of her skirt? Point her out to me this instant. YouTube clips of cats lunging four feet in the air after being scared by cucumbers? Let’s do this.

I’m aware that most of these examples involve the stress or suffering of others (thanks, Grandma). But I am no sadist. I laugh at myself more than anyone else. Years ago, I was in my bathroom at home with my girlfriend at the time. The thought occurred to me that I should let out a massive fart in this wonderfully small space as a surprise for her. I looked coyly at her and said, “Hey, babe, I want to give you something.” With that prompt, I lifted one leg and pumped one fisted arm down like a semi-truck driver pulling the air horn. And I shit my pants. Not a little. It wasn’t a moment of, “Oh, I think a bit of moisture escaped.” I filled my sweat pants. It was like Pompeii. My face likely matched that of those poor villagers’ seconds after the eruption. My girlfriend’s eyes grew massive. Her mouth dropped open in the kind of smile only a toddler can make when being told he or she is going to Disneyworld. “Did you just shit your pants?!” There was a lot of gesturing and commanding on my part to get her out of the bathroom immediately. Through insane laughter, she kept telling me to turn around so she could see. Terror, tragedy, and the suffering of others. These make incredible comedy. And what do we do with comedy? We share it with others. Which is obviously why she was outside the bathroom door moments later on the phone with her mother, squealing delightfully about how her grown, idiot boyfriend had just defecated himself mid-prank. After I finished wiping my legs and taking a shower, I also joined in on the joviality.

What I love about laughter is that it is universal. It’s encoded into our DNA. It isn’t a learned behavior. Before babies can speak, they will laugh. Those individuals born blind and deaf? They also laugh. Regardless of race, religion, sex, or creed, every human being has the capacity for laughter. Better still, it’s unconscious. Genuine laughter can’t be replicated artificially. Try it. Ask someone to laugh for you. Anyone who has worked in the service industry will tell you how hard it is to laugh on cue. “Here’s your tip: Don’t eat yellow snow.” “I don’t need sweetener for my tea. I’m sweet enough as it is.” Or, as they finish the last bite of their food, “That was terrible. I guess you better bring me another meal.” Wink, wink. If you are guilty of any phrase resembling these, please stop. Just stop. We hate you.

I’ve done research on laughter. Disturbingly, a plethora of the research discusses tickling. I’m not sure what kind of creepy uncles are writing this research, but they do seem to be fairly well-educated. Research talks about the physiological aspects of laughing. How primates also laugh by way of panting or grunting.

The most intriguing thing I found about laughter, though, is that it’s contagious. This is why sitcoms have laugh tracks. When others laugh, we usually laugh ourselves. We do so because laughter, being universal, is a way for us to communicate as a social group. It puts everyone at ease and on the same page. That is part of the reason that some people find themselves laughing at funerals or other stressful events. They are making an unconscious attempt to settle a palpable situation.

I’m no politician and, despite how smashing I look in a two-piece bikini, I’ll never be Miss America. However, if anyone were to ever ask me about world peace, my answer would be “laughter.” It is the only language that all human beings speak and understand. Better yet, like a brilliant virus, it’s contagious. So, I make this promise here and now. Whenever the world calls on me, I vow to ruin any pair of pants I own. I’ll fill my diet with granola and Indian food if necessary. Like Gandhi, I’ll attempt to spread peace and harmony, but with more genitalia jokes and far less class. You’re welcome, world.


There’s a founding concept of chaos theory that has been coined the “butterfly effect.” The term was coined by a Meteorology professor named Edward Lorenz who claimed that the simple flutter of a butterfly’s wings could ultimately cause a tornado. He came about this idea by plugging information into a computer program that was designed to predict weather patterns months in advance. The program took into account a number of variables such as wind speed and temperature. While repeating a simulation he’d run earlier, he decided to round off a variable to one one-thousandth of its actual number. This miniscule change in only one of a dozen variables altered the findings of the simulation drastically. Basically, it is impossible to predict the future because the tiniest event could alter the fabric of that future in ways we can’t even imagine.

Chaos theory fascinates me. The butterfly effect is a daunting prospect. Every individual action we take resonates across existence. No pressure. There are stories of people who were supposed to be on the planes or in the buildings on 9/11. Random, seemingly innocent events changed that. One woman stepped out of the World Trade Center tower for an unscheduled cigarette break only to look up and watch a plane destroy the floor she’d just left. One flight attendant made an error on her keyboard and was not able to be on flight 175 as she’d requested. That flight attendant is now a cardiac nurse. How many lives has she saved? How many of those lives will go on to create new lives? How many of those lives will be involved in curing cancer, feeding the hungry, or saving the lives of even more people?

I’ve had my own experiences with chaos theory. I once ate a cheeseburger from a certain fast food establishment that specializes in Hot Eats and Cool Treats. The pickles tasted funny, but I was hungover and hungry. What if I hadn’t had drinks the night before? What if I took two seconds to remove the pickles from the burger? What if I’d driven three minutes the other direction to eat Arby’s? The chaos that ensued a few hours later would not have happened. I was previously unaware that a person could evacuate all bodily fluids from both ends simultaneously. I was also unaware that I was religious enough pray for a quick death. If you tell yourself that my experience was not as life-changing as those survivors from 9/11, you’ve never had food poisoning.

I’m friends with a woman whose mother got pregnant with her at a young age. The grandmother insisted on an abortion. The mother backed out at the last minute and my friend is now a member of this world. She has children of her own. What will her children go on to do? How will her children’s children go on to affect the lives of thousands of others? In what ways will those thousands of others go on to shape existence because of their interactions with a few? I am by no means trying to (nor will I) get into a pro-life/pro-choice debate. I have no business as a human being telling anyone else what to do with his or her body. I only know for myself that I have laughed and had incredible conversations with a woman who was never supposed to exist.

Chaos theory is something with which I can really get on board. I embrace that nothing is set in stone. It suggests that every second is full of possibility. And I don’t have to go big to make an impact. I can hold a door. I can smile at a stranger. I can listen and ask questions to my daughter as she explains how hilarious the latest YouTube video from LDShadowlady was. I guess I had to be there. The point is that the smallest gestures can ripple through eternity.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a video a couple days ago that encapsulates the potential of these small gestures. This is the link to that video:

I have no idea what my mark will be on this world. I have no idea if I’ll even leave one beyond the moment I stop breathing. What I do know is that I have infinite opportunities to do so. Bring on the chaos.

Unchain My Heart

My siblings and I were latchkey kids growing up. Our parents were often at work before we left for school and didn’t come home until after we’d already been there. It was a different world back then. The Internet hadn’t taken hold and convinced every parent that leaving their children unattended in the house guaranteed that they would be kidnapped and murdered. Likewise, physical punishment still existed and the fear of damaging anything in the houses of Mom or Dad was very real. As such, siblings were left in the charge of the oldest sibling. When I was about eleven, my oldest sister was left in charge of myself and my youngest sister, age two. Just as I walked into the living room, I saw my youngest sister had climbed up over the back of the couch, perching precariously on the few inches the furniture provided. I looked to my oldest sister, age 16, who was engrossed in whatever terrible soap opera was on the television at the time. My bet is on One Life to Live. Hope and Bo, I still love you. Anyway, oldest sister wasn’t paying attention and youngest sister toppled over the back of the couch, wedging herself between the furniture and the window. In those few seconds, I was overwhelmed with emotions I didn’t understand. I felt startling fear. The kind of fear you would feel if a cobra suddenly lashed out at you from a seemingly innocent pile of laundry. I felt helplessness and the panic that comes with it. I burst into tears immediately from pain I didn’t physically feel. I felt embarrassment and self-disappointment. All those sensations hit me so quickly that all I could do was start yelling at my oldest sister while we pulled our youngest sister out of her predicament. I was unreasonably furious. Youngest sister was not seriously injured. Oldest sister was upset. And I couldn’t stop myself from shouting like a madman.

The shouting had burst out of me because I was an eleven year old boy who had just experienced his first process of powerful empathy and had no other way to express the torrent of emotions. I had actually felt my youngest sister’s fear and helplessness. I was also feeling my oldest sister’s embarrassment and self-disappointment for not paying attention for just a moment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as:

  1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
  2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

The Latin roots of the word are broken down with “em” meaning “in” and “pathos” meaning “feeling.” The word literally means “in feeling.” Some of my cold-hearted coworkers like to claim that I’m sensitive. They claim that I get “in my feelings.” Don’t get me wrong. I have never and will never break down in tears at work. They’re referring to the fact that I, a man, have two cats named after Grey’s Anatomy characters. They know very well the story of me tearing up once to a Snuggles commercial. And, yes, I will openly discuss incredible shows like This Is Us while simultaneously having nearly zero knowledge of any sporting event on the television in the bar. It doesn’t help that I say phrases like, “I’m a man” after being called sensitive. Me thinks one doth protest too much.

Honestly, it’s a little sad that someone being “in their feelings” is used as an insult. Empathy is a tool for survival. Visit the maternity ward and observe the newborns. One newborn will cry and it will set off a chain reaction of the other newborns crying. Newborn babies feel empathy for one another. If a parent is stressed out, a baby will often pick up on this and cry harder. As a mouthy, fat kid growing up, the ability to read and incorporate the emotions of others saved me from crossing the line and getting my ass kicked more times than I did. One of my brothers once did the whole silent-mock-mouth-movement to our dad when he didn’t think Dad was looking after a particularly vicious lecture to both of us. Empathy allowed me to quickly pick up on how the situation was about to escalate. I moved out of the way a second before my brother went airborne. I like to think that I can pick up on a woman’s emotions fairly quickly. That’s really just a confusing and horrific burden. If it’s that time of the month or if she’s pregnant, buckle up, buttercup.

There are two types of empathy. The first type, cognitive, is possessed by almost anyone other than a sociopath. It’s the ability to relate and understand another’s emotions. It’s conscious. It’s what brings about sympathy. “I don’t have to walk in your shoes to relate to your plight.” I can see the homeless man with a sign on the street by Wal-Mart and feel sympathy for him. I can relate to how awful that must be. I can imagine the embarrassment of standing in front of people and asking for help. We understand and relate to him, but we don’t actually feel his emotions. The second type of empathy, affective, is subconscious. With affective empathy, we can actually experience the sensations, emotions, and feelings of another. We mirror those things within ourselves, sometimes bringing out physical manifestations such as tears. The neural pain circuits in our brains are actually triggered. This is why we cry when we see a young girl surprised by her father who has been deployed overseas for a year. This is why we cry at weddings. We can subconsciously feel the emotions and feelings of that father, that daughter, and the bride and groom.

There is the saying, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Forget walking in their shoes. Try walking beside them. Look at a mother’s face while she holds a crying baby. Talk to an elderly person about the loss of a significant other. Breathe in the belly-laughs of two children cackling at nonsense. Ask your spouse to tell you about a powerful childhood memory. We have become a society that communicates through emojis and clicks on tablet screens. Condolences are given through circular frowny faces and trite clichés about thoughts and prayers. Couples sit at dinner and never make eye contact while playing with their phones. Children can’t vocalize how their days were because their parents have lost the ability to translate emotion. Relationships fail more often than not because the most basic emotional cues are indecipherable to the members of a couple. We need to put away our cameras and capture moments in our minds. This world is full of beauty and anger and elation and pain. I want to feel it all. To be human is to be “in our feelings.”

Do You Believe In Magic?

This piece was written originally two Christmases ago. I apologize to the handful of readers who have read this before. But I did say in my first piece on Of Vice And Zen that some of my old work would make its way onto this blog. Now it has a real title and a fun picture! As I sat down to write this week’s publication, I realized that I didn’t  have everything just the way I wanted it. Unlike my underwear and socks that will be put away days after I finished doing laundry, I want my writing to be completed wholly. In addition, I took my daughter to the doctor today (nothing serious), and experienced a moment that reminded me of this piece. She took control of the appointment, talking to the doctor in her own words. A helpless child was not standing in the room with me. I was in the company of a growing woman. It was a breath-taking and humbling moment. So, without further ado (I’ve always wanted to have a reason to say that)…

“How does that train not wake up his parents?”

This is heavy stuff. A question posed to me by my nine year old daughter while we decorate the Christmas tree and watch The Polar Express. This question inevitably leads to awkward answers we parents have to carefully supply to maintain the illusion of magic. Answers that often only lead to more questions and more awkward answers. Which then lead to more questions. I think I handled it like a pro. Vague, calculated responses that made me think a future in politics could be lucrative, assuming I actually knew anything about current events outside of my newsfeed. Don’t get me wrong; I would unfortunately rock any discussion concerning the status of the Kardashians or wildly inappropriate memes, but I’m not sure that knowledge would effectively run a country.

Regardless, I digress. What this random question triggered in me was a line of thought that brought a sadness. I came to the realization that this might be the last year this beautiful young lady believes in Santa. The rumors have already begun in her class. They revolve around rational thoughts leading to suspicions that their parents might very well be horrible liars who have manipulated them into being good (at least for the last couple months) by threatening the disappointment and passive aggressive wrath of a bearded fat man who spends an absorbent amount of time playing with toys and tiny slave workers.

Sadly, once the myth of Santa falters, soon follows the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the understanding that spinach can make one strong like Popeye, and the acceptance that Dad really did make that quarter disappear behind the ear. There goes the magic. I thought about this with immense disappointment. The passing from being a child of wonder to a person of skepticism.  But is that really the case? Not necessarily.

I smiled while I watched her put the last few ornaments on the tree. She has so many more moments of magic ahead of her. Are these moments about mythical people or creatures? No. But they will be no less powerful. They require an amazing recipe of hope, faith, joy, and unbridled belief in something bigger and far more mysterious in the world. I’ll touch on some of them. Feel free to add to the list your own magical moments post-fairy tale apocalypse.

  1. Although she’s already begun on a beginner level, she will discover her ability to cook, I mean really cook, her own dinner. Just a first step in becoming her own person who does not need to rely on Dad or Mom to provide sustenance. Small step? Perhaps, but there will come a moment when that kitchen will cease to be a bunch of cabinets and instead will have evolved into a playground of self-importance. How the magic will shine when I first taste one of the worst breakfasts I’ve ever had while smiling and nodding. Maybe I’ll go all out and do the whole circular belly rub to really drill the point home.
  2. As a father, I try to avoid thoughts of boys being in her life. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I suspect that she is beginning to realize that boys do not, in fact, have cooties. And someday, far before I’m ready, she’s going to find her first crush. The boy she draws hearts for. She’ll put his name inside that heart along with her own and a mathematical symbol. I would prefer the symbol be subtraction, but I don’t believe I’ve attended enough church in my life for that particular prayer to come true. That time, that first crush, is nothing short of magical. You and I, we each had one. Who was yours?
  3. The first real friends-date with no parents. Often, this is a time for a movie. She and her girlfriends will go to whatever awful movie is all the hype in the theater at the time. I like to think I raised her better and that she’d force them to appreciate Star Wars: Episode Nine, but those little teens are persuasive. However, the movie itself is pointless. This date is not about watching a movie. It is about freedom from those pesky parents. She will feel like a trusted and independent member of society. She need not know that Dad will probably be a block away with binoculars.
  4. If she’s anything like her father, she will explore the boundaries of the English language. I’m not referring to those words with multiple syllables. No. Those four letter words that often require random asterisks in written form so my grandmother doesn’t have a stroke while simultaneously shaking her head and planning an extra visit to church to pray for her grandson’s eternal soul. Those words have power. Using those words for the first time is to control the universe. Friends may ogle in surprise. Strangers who overhear them will look away in disgust (especially if they’re wonderful ladies like my grandmother). Parents will immediately become war-time torturers and interrogators at their mention. “I’ll take the soap out of your mouth as soon as you tell me who taught you that word!” Certainly, she won’t have learned it from Dad. Those words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and even entire sentences if used properly. Make me proud, baby girl, as soon you turn eighty and I’m gone.
  5. I will hold her arm as she walks stoically down an aisle surrounded by friends and family. She will look up and see the man she loves take a breath and wipe away a tear while he gazes at her. They will both say some things before he hugs her tightly. There will be no kissing at my daughter’s wedding. That day, that moment will make her believe in fairy tales again.
  6. A doctor or nurse will someday place a child on her chest. This child will have been conceived in a way that my church-going grandmother will understand better than me, as my daughter will have never so much as kissed her husband. But that child, that new life, will be a greater present than any given by ole Kris Kringle. Faith, joy, fear, hope, love. These are the center of magic.
  7. My daughter will decorate a tree with that child, much older now. She will talk about Santa and write his name on gift tags after the child goes to sleep. She will bake cookies and put them out on the coffee table to be eaten by herself (throwing them away would be both a waste and a dangerous breach of security should the child check the garbage in the morning). Diet be damned. Most importantly, she will again know the wonder of the mythical man who brought her so much joy in her youth, this time from a different viewpoint.

Yes, I left certain moments out. I did this for two reasons. First, as I said, you should fill in your own. Secondly, some moments are not meant for a father to recognize due to his daughter’s lack of anything resembling romance, and the fact that all men in her life will be eunuchs.

I don’t know much, but I know this: I will hold onto the childhood magic as long as I can. However, when it goes, I won’t be sad. Look at this life, baby girl. Look closely. Pick a card. Any card.

Love Song For No One

I slept like a baby last night. I mean that in the realistic sense. I tossed and turned. I woke up every couple of hours. I sweat. Random, nonsensical images kept flashing through my mind. And at one point, I thought I was going to shit myself. It turns out, if you want to sleep like a baby, have a late-night meal of Ramen noodles, an apple, and Very Berry Cheerios. It’s the perfect storm.

I often eat late at night. Half the week, I don’t get off work until about 10pm. The other half, I work the lunch shift and can’t eat until I get home. Thus, late night meals hold me over until after work. I know. Eating late is terribly unhealthy. As is smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka. Next thing you know, they’ll be saying that heroin and unprotected sex with prostitutes is dangerous. It was the knowledge that late-night eating is unhealthy that prompted me to throw together this “more healthy” combination. I was proud of myself that my meal didn’t consist of most of an entire pizza. My whole being disagreed.

What I needed at the moment of culinary decision-making was a significant other. A grown woman to tell me that grown men have no business eating like that. My daughter is no help. She’s ten, and would consider the prospect of the Ramen/apple/cereal entrée to be a delicacy. I would explain to her that those things do not make up a real meal and force her to dine on something of substance. Pot. Kettle. May we discuss color schemes?

And so, I’m back to the thought that has plagued me a lot recently. I should start dating again. It seems like a simple enough concept. You go out. You meet people. You take said people out on dates and discover whether or not the two of you connect. You get to have sex that doesn’t involve your laptop or smart phone. You have someone to talk to about your day. You have someone to smack the Cheerios out of your hand at midnight.

The problem is that dating sucks. It wasn’t bad for me in my twenties. I was bartending in a karaoke bar. I dated a lot of women from there. I met my daughter’s mother in that bar. I was in an environment designed for people to meet others my age at that time. Now, I’m 37 years old. Spending time in bars just makes me feel ancient. If you’re in a bar with a shaved head and a goatee, and you aren’t the bouncer, you’re out of place. Hip hop and rap play so loudly that I can’t have a conversation. Despite my claims, I’m not actually much of twerker. My balance, especially after vodka, is not ideal for dry-humping on a dance floor. I’ve heard it said that how a man dances is the equivalent of how he is in bed. If that’s the case, I am so, so sorry to any woman with whom I’ve had sex. That must have been an uncomfortable, awkward experience. Like dancing The Robot, but with a robot that has epilepsy.

The wonderful world of dating has changed a lot over the last decade.  The Internet has taken over. I tried my hand at it. I downloaded dating apps. Those work wonders, from what I understand, if you live in a large city. I do not. Instead, I am forced to read the profiles of women to whom I used to serve drinks regularly. The pictures always look amazing. Their profiles are meticulously written and sound intelligent and interesting. But I’ve seen how they carry themselves after shot number three. And I’ve listened to them carry on conversations at my bar. Sorry, sweetheart, your profile isn’t exactly accurate. How is it that every woman in the world loves sports and is an adrenaline junkie these days? I couldn’t care less if I never see any type of game on TV. And there is no way in hell you will ever find me jumping out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air. I haven’t attended enough church in my life to have that kind of faith. Oh, you’re not looking for a hookup? I should swipe left? Perhaps you should respond to different and interesting questions from a guy who isn’t immediately sending unsolicited pics of his junk. I’m classy. I save that until at least conversation number three.

Online dating doesn’t allow me to gauge a woman the way I need to in order to find out if I actually like her. I need to hear her inflection and tone. I need to listen to her words without autocorrect fixing her grammar. I need to see a genuine smile break out on her face instead of the one from selfie number 27. I need personalization. And here lies the problem: I don’t bring random women around my daughter. Considering that I have her three days a week, we’re down to four. I work evenings three of those four. That leaves Monday. Monday is the one day I neither work nor have my daughter after I drop her at school. I’ve been trying to start a movement in which Monday is the new Friday. It hasn’t caught on.

I briefly considered attending church just to try to meet a nice woman. Considering I’m not religious, I would feel like the guy trolling maternity wards just to find loose women. Just because the probability is high doesn’t mean you should do it. That was a joke. Take it easy, angry new mother. Likewise, approaching a woman with a flirty look on your face in the baby aisle at the grocery store might seem like a good idea. However, if you don’t preface “Those diapers are the best,” with “I have a daughter and I tried numerous brands,” the woman will assume you have digestive issues or a weird fetish. You know what? Just never approach a woman with a flirty look around any baby items of any kind. Scratch that. If you’re me, never approach any woman with a flirty look, period. I can’t pull it off. I look a little rapey.

Then there is the issue of being a 37 year old single father. I would like to have another child someday. Women my age are generally done having kids. Which pushes me toward women in their twenties. Until I try to talk about life with them and realize I could have legally driven them to kindergarten. Nope. So, I’m pushed back to “age appropriate” women. The type of women my friends tell me I should date. Women in their thirties usually have children of their own. If they don’t, they seem to have a problem with my relationship with my daughter’s mom. We get along well. Although a relationship for us wasn’t in the cards, we created a phenomenal young girl that has us connected for the rest of our lives. We both understand that and remain friends. She’s married now to a great guy. I attended their wedding. I love that my daughter can see us talk and laugh together. Girlfriends without kids, on the other hand, see the “baby mama” as an ex-girlfriend instead of the mother of my daughter. The two of us being friends has created issues. My last girlfriend actually ended our relationship because I wished Madison’s mom a Happy Mother’s Day on Facebook. Social media strikes again. Apparently, the problem was that my girlfriend was supposed to be the “woman in my life” and I should have tagged her in a post on Mother’s Day. Of course, my girlfriend had no children. I suppose I could have tagged her in a post about her soon-to-be barren ovaries, but I think the tone would have been wrong. I wish she was the only one. That was the second time a woman in her thirties took issue with Baby Mama.

So, I’m looking at women my age who have children of their own. This involves scheduling around all the children and shifts at work. Those without restraining orders on crazy exes would be ideal, but I’m a realist. In addition, I expect the children to be well-behaved, as that is how I raised my own daughter. I would like this woman to be intelligent, hilarious, attractive, and sane.

Holy shit. I’m going to die alone.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

What’s your go-to song in the shower? What song did you dance to at your wedding? Which song reminds you of a loved one who’s past? Did you lose your virginity to a certain song? If so, what was it?

It’s surprising to me that I haven’t written about music before. Music is a big part of my life. I guess I consider myself a singer. I’ve competed in karaoke competitions for many years. I’ve even done well enough to win some money in a few of those competitions. When I clean my apartment, I crank up some tunes and go to work. I need a playlist while I’m showering. I have a great number of friends and family who are musicians and singers. Music is everywhere for me.

That isn’t to say that I love all types of music. Although I understand the draw of hip-hop and rap, it just isn’t my thing. I was at a bar Saturday night to celebrate a good friend’s birthday. What the DJ had going on was disturbing. There was a lot of bass and lyrics about putting middle fingers in the air or something. As music is concerned, it apparently did its job because girls with ill-fitting clothing were popping their asses to the crowds of guys with straight-billed caps who were licking their lips. It felt a bit like watching the mating rituals of some ancient Aboriginal tribe that should have gone instinct. People were “dancing.” I guess that’s the point of music. Me? I like songs with lyrical quality. Tell me a story. Make me feel something. You know, other than epilepsy. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

The magic of a song for me is how it can instantly transport someone to another time, another place, another set of emotions. Individuals with severe stutters can often sing without a hitch. I watched a video of a man with dementia who could barely respond light up and start talking coherently when he was given some headphones playing music from his past. Another video shows a street musician singing I Will Always Love You to a girl with Down syndrome. She had amazing moments where she lifted her arms as though she was conducting the music herself. Her disability almost disappeared in those few seconds. If you have ever watched cable, you’ve most likely seen those abandoned and abused dogs. That’s sad. Hearing Sarah McLachlan accompany the images is so much worse. Well played, advertisement. Well played. Whenever I hear The Gourds version of Gin and Juice, my mood is brightened and my mind goes back to being in my early twenties, working in Florida. Every morning, my coworkers and I would jump into the jeep and blast that song on repeat on the way to work. I swear it cured hangovers from Jägermeister.

If you haven’t noticed, the majority of the titles for my pieces on this blog are also song titles. Music, like my writing, is part of me. I see my life like a story that is being written as I go. And there is a soundtrack. I’m not sure it’s entirely fitting or appropriate for the situation, but there’s music, by God. I caught myself humming It’s Raining Men the other evening while cooking dinner for my daughter and me. I have no idea what that means. If it’s my subconscious trying to tell me something, the joke is on him. I can’t pull off the cowboy, Indian, biker, or police officer look. But I do look good shirtless in my utility belt. Hallelujah.

My life soundtrack Volume 1:

Track 1: American Pie by Don McLean—I had this song about the Day the Music Died on vinyl and used to play it over and over again in my bedroom when I was a pre-teen. His lyrics were poetic. They told a sad and brilliant story. This was the first song I ever sang karaoke. All eight minutes and thirty six seconds of it. I knew every word by heart. It was probably terrible. But an extremely drunk man stumbled up to me and told me that if Bruce Springsteen ever covered that song, that’s what it would sound like. Thank you, Super Drunk Guy, for encouraging me to continue singing. I hope you still have a liver.

Track 2: Crazy Mary by Pearl Jam (originally by Victoria Williams)—Riding shotgun in my oldest sister’s white Ford Tempo. The summer air blowing through the windows and those haunting minor chords telling a somber and powerful tale. I sat there elated and humbled that I could be included in this moment. Sharing a love for music with a woman who had been my arch enemy through early childhood. It was an acceptance into her world. Her showing a piece of herself to me without saying a word. Thank you, Kim.

Track 3: Goodnight My Angel by Billy Joel—The first woman I ever loved romantically. Kara Bohannon. My freshman year of college, I saw her at a house party from across the room. She was wearing a green sweater, blue jeans, and a brown leather jacket. I thought she was stunning and crossed the room to show my roommate “how it was done.” After saying something stupid about her having the best bellybutton I’d ever seen, she shut me down and walked away. She later found me in a ridiculously drunk stupor on the couch and tied my shoe for me as though I were an infant. In fairness, that would not be a far off assumption. It took me three months to find her again. She played this song for me and told me how her father used to sing it to her when she was little. I later shared the same song with my daughter when she was a baby. Thank you, Kara.

Track 4: A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum—16 years old. Sitting in the cab of my dad’s truck when this song came on the radio. He immediately stopped the conversation to turn up the volume. Among the smell of stale coffee and cigarette smoke, my father turned from the no-nonsense man talking work ethic to a lover of art. He sang along tentatively while I watched him go back into his own life soundtrack. It was like watching the metamorphosis of a caterpillar in front of me. I remember thinking right then how amazing the power of music was. Thank you, Dad.

Track 5: The Freshman by The Verve Pipe—The summer after my senior year, I went on my first solo camping trip with friends. No adults. Just a group of teenagers, a trunk full of illegally purchased alcohol, and so many ideas of bad decisions. During the two and a half hour drive to the campsite, we played this song at least twenty times. It always brings me back to sitting in the back of the car with my cigarette smoke blowing out the window and a chorus of voices wailing away. Think the scene from Almost Famous on the bus, but with less harmony and much more off-key. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Track 6: Long Day by Matchbox 20—Back when LimeWire was still a thing (because who doesn’t love giving their computers AIDS?), illegal music downloads were huge. The best part for me was finding an acoustic version of a song. A version I’d never heard. Sarah Fergemann, my girlfriend at the time, shared a love of Matchbox 20 with me. While I was at work, she downloaded an entire album worth of songs she thought I’d love and burned them to a CD. An exquisite acoustic version of Long Day was the first song on that CD. I own it still and occasionally go back to listen to it around all the scratches. It takes me back to sitting on her couch, talking about our hopes and dreams, and my first time getting drunk off wine. The leather-bound notebook in which I write my notes for this very blog was given to me by her to encourage my writing. That was thirteen years ago. I’m sorry it took so long, Sarah, but thank you.

Track 7: Angel Eyes by Jeff Healey Band—I met my daughter’s mother in a karaoke bar. I was the guy who took his karaoke singing a little too seriously. She was the girl who would hold a microphone in her hand, but sing into her Bud Light bottle. Not particularly on-key. I liked her anyway. It was in that bar that she would have me sing Angel Eyes to her. So many drunken nights in a bar surrounded by our friends. But even in the middle of all the shenanigans, that one song could make her stop and smile. And made me feel like great things would come of this. Which leads to track eight. Thank you, Liz, for both tracks.

Track 8: With Arms Wide Open by Creed—Before you judge me…never mind. Your judgment is valid. But this song was sung by me to slyly announce to the bar full of friends that I was going to be a father. Yes, it was Creed. But it didn’t take away from the lyrics. And it certainly didn’t take away from the fact that every time I hear the song, I go back to the moment I was told I was going to be a dad. Or the moment my daughter’s mother called me at work to shout the word “Madison” in my ear because she’d happened to come up with a name she thought we would both like. And that song plays in my mind every time I reflect on taking Madison out of the nurse’s arms to hold her for the first time. That simultaneously weightless and heavy moment. Responsibility and possibility crashing into each other.

Track 9: Let Her Cry by Hootie and the Blowfish—I have a picture of me with hair. Well, most of my hair. In that picture, I’m leaning down over a baby and my mouth is open. The baby is smiling up at me. I’m singing Let Her Cry to my daughter. It was my baby go-to song. She loved it. So many times that I would come home from bartending at three in the morning, Madison’s mom would have hair pulled up in a messy bun while staring at me with bloodshot, tired eyes. Madison wasn’t an easy baby. Colic plagued her. She cried. A lot. When I would come home from work, her mom had been up with her all night. It was then my turn to take the devil spawn baby so her mother could get some sleep. It was one of my favorite parts of the day. Madison had usually just about worn herself out from crying. So she and I would curl up in the recliner and I would sing Let Her Cry while rocking her. She was often passed out within fifteen minutes. Those fifteen minutes were ours, though. The smell of baby skin and the sound of her breathing slowing down between the words. Her staring at my mouth through content and heavy eyes. Secret seconds that belonged to no one but us. Thank you, baby girl.

Track 10: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star—Potty training is long and tedious. If you’re a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Taking ten minute bathroom breaks every twenty minutes or so just in case. Toddlers aren’t the most patient companions on these trips. Distractions are a necessity. Thus, Madison had a toy microphone that played a selection of song instrumentals. One particularly long day, we’d been on the toilet more times than I could count. It was the last push to get her out of diapers. The microphone went with us every time. I would sing along to every song on there. I was getting pretty good at London Bridge. I won’t lie to you. In the middle of it all, though, something just clicked for my daughter. She busted out Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as if she’d been singing it forever. It was a little off key. Some of the words were wrong. And it was the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. My daughter had crossed the threshold from a baby who bopped or hummed along to songs and became a singer. She looked in my eyes the entire time. I looked at her with my own content and heavy eyes. And the teacher became the student. Thank you so much, Madison.

I’m absolutely missing some songs to my soundtrack. It’s Volume 1. I can’t give them all away.

But, I’m interested in your own soundtrack. What songs punctuate the story that is your life?

Photo credit:

Have You Seen Me Lately?

Tennis balls can act as makeshift silencers on the ends of guns. However, they also leave behind small yellow or green fibers that can be traced later by investigators. These are the types of things you learn when you love the art of criminal investigation and have been binge watching Forensic Files on Netflix. Forensics is a fascinating subject to me. It amazes me that everything we touch and everywhere we go, we leave something behind.

I once farted in an elevator before getting off. That was some serious trace evidence. At least the woman’s face suggested that as I exited and she entered. It would seem that she is not a fan of surprises. I hope her husband remembers that for any birthday celebrations.

My cats are pros at leaving behind forensic evidence. Perhaps they understand my appreciation for it. I can never murder a hooker in my apartment. Cat hair everywhere. Those assholes will have me in prison in a matter of days. One cat likes to eat too quickly and then leave half-digested evidence on the carpet. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the hallway. Where I walk sleepily in the dark to use the restroom. Where I will swear profusely while washing the evidence off the bottom of my foot. The other cat has what can only be a serious gastro-intestinal issue. I need only to breathe to determine that he has used the litter box within the last twenty minutes. And scratched the outside plastic of the litter box instead of covering the clues with the freaking litter because I raise stupid cats.

Right now, on my bathroom vanity mirror, there is a star, a heart, and a smiley face with the tongue sticking out. I discovered them when I took my shower today. They weren’t there when I stepped in. After the steam collected, I realized that my daughter had used her fingers to leave behind something to make me smile. I could have been an adult and wiped them away. I think they’ll stay there for a while. I’ve been awoken multiple times to myself hacking as a lone hair from my daughter’s head has found its way into my esophagus. She likes to jump onto my bed and talk to me about the latest characters she created on Animal Jam. Those little hairs always make me grin after the initial panic of staring death in the face. The trash can in her room always has a story to tell. Often, that story involves her sneaking an apple when I’m not looking and ravaging it in her bedroom. I don’t mind apples. When I find a boy in her room, I’ll put use to some tennis balls.

I’ve left behind a lot of evidence in my time. Sometimes I even get to solve a mystery.  Waking up Saturday morning to the empty remnants of a previously unopened box of Girl Scout cookies. This forensic trail generally leads to the vodka being much lower than it was when I got home from work Friday night. In my younger, more virile years, my bedroom was a wonderland of evidence pointing to poor decisions. A woman’s sock. A condom wrapper. And for some reason, a ski mask. Some mysteries are better not solved.

The truth is, the best things we leave behind can’t always be observed under a microscope or even with any of the five senses. Everywhere we go. Everything we do. We leave behind a part of ourselves. I held the door for a random attractive woman at a gas station years ago. She smiled, thanked me, and touched my arm for just a moment. I never got her name. I never saw her again. But she pops into my mind occasionally. It feels good every time. With just that two second interaction, she left something behind with a stranger. The idea of it is daunting.

I ask myself often what it is that I’m leaving behind. How did I affect someone’s life or day without even knowing it? When I meet someone, will I have a positive or negative impact? When I die, how will I be remembered? I think this blog is my way of trying to control a little of that. I am in no way a great philosopher. I have no delusions about changing the world with my writing. But just maybe I can help someone look at something differently. Maybe I can just make someone laugh when he or she is having a particularly bad day. Maybe my daughter will read my writing one day and understand her father a little more intimately than a lot of children ever “know” their parents.

Welcome to my crime scene.

My Funny Valentine

“It’s just a ridiculous Hallmark holiday.”

That statement fills up my Facebook newsfeed pretty regularly toward the end of January and into the first half of February. It’s also heard from the mouths of co-workers, friends, and random passers-by. Valentine’s Day seems to bring out in people a certain loathing disdain. Some claim it isn’t a “real” holiday. Some smugly say that we shouldn’t have one day to show our significant others that we love them, but that it should happen every day. Some believe it’s a holiday that ostracizes single people everywhere. Me? I like chocolate. It is delicious.

The origins of Valentine’s Day are a little cloudy, but the timeline is still pretty clear. What was once an ancient Roman holiday known as Lupercalia (February 15) was turned into a Christian day of feast (February 14) around 496. In the 14th century, the big V day was officially associated with love by none other than the famous author Chaucer. Celebration of the day continued into the 18th century. It was celebrated by people giving gifts and handmade cards that featured hearts and cupids. Hallmark was founded in 1910. I’m not a mathematician, but those numbers don’t add up. To all the “Hallmark holiday” people: please shut up. I mean that as politely as I can when talking to broken records who repeat inaccurate clichés over and over.

Has Valentine’s Day become commercialized? Sure. And of course no other holidays do that. “Man, I’m stuffed from that delicious feast at which I told everyone how thankful I was. I should probably nap before I wake up at the butt crack of dawn to shove and yell at people. Grandma needs that 75% off big screen next month. ‘Tis the season.”

So, why do we celebrate it at all? That’s where the history gets muddled. Kind of like me trying to remember why I decided it was a good idea to eat an entire large pizza after drinking for eight hours. The most common lore behind Valentine’s Day revolves around a certain priest, St. Valentine, who married couples in secret after marriage had been outlawed by the Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius worried that men with wives at home would be less effective soldiers, or that they wouldn’t want to go to war at all. When St. Valentine was discovered, he was executed for his acts. There is stipulation that he either fell in love with or had befriended the jailor’s daughter while awaiting execution. Before he was martyred, he supposedly sent her a letter signed, “From your Valentine.”

Regardless of how accurate the story is, it became a holiday that we’ve celebrated for centuries. If questionable historical significance is a problem, a large part of society might argue that a holiday celebrating a miraculous birth by a virgin leaves room for more explanation. I will admit that I’m unclear on the Valentine’s Day significance behind flying, naked babies wielding archery equipment. But I chalk that up to the same people who connected resurrections with egg-laying bunnies, and the births of saviors with rotund old guys using slave labor to build gifts for children. I’m a free spirit. I just roll with it.

Another argument against Valentine’s Day is that we shouldn’t have to have a certain day to tell us to show our love and affection to our significant others. I agree with that wholeheartedly. Love and appreciation should be shown every day. But what’s wrong with having one day to make it a really big event? I think of it as the Superbowl of love. I’d like to point out here that I just used a sports analogy. Be proud, Dad. It’s not all books, movies, and video games for this guy. Anyway, if we’re lambasting holidays because the meaning behind them should be celebrated and honored every day, we should probably get upset with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day. That would be upsetting. I’m kind of partial to Father’s Day. I would bet anyone who uttered out loud, “Mother’s Day is bullshit,” would be met with a few horrified looks. I have many friends who both serve and have served in the military. Although we should appreciate them every day, I like that they have their own holiday. My grandfather was a pilot in WWII. He’s now passed, but I love the idea of honoring our deceased ex-military collectively on one day.

Finally. Aww, the bitter single people. The day that forces us to avoid social media in an effort to not see sickeningly sweet posts about how happy everyone else is. The pictures of cards and candies. The plethora of engagements. Long soliloquies about how “my significant other is better than yours.” I get it. I’m one of you. I haven’t had a meaningful relationship in years. There’s the distinct possibility that my daughter is going to be the one to find my body one day. It will have been partially eaten by our two cats. I mean, if they panic when they see the bottom of their food bowl, I can only imagine what they’ll do when the food is gone and I’m not responding to their monotonous meows. I only hope they start with my love handles. I can’t seem to completely get rid of those bastards for anything.

The fact is, we need a day dedicated to love. Especially in these times. Why not do so by honoring a man who gave his life in the pursuit that endeavor? Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about being in a romantic relationship with someone. Nor does it have to be about commercialism. Here’s a tip, fellas. Listen to what your significant other has to say throughout the year. A gift that touches on something your partner mentioned she (or he) loves or appreciates doesn’t have to be expensive. It only has to be meaningful. Are you widowed? Spend the day going through old pictures that make you smile. Are you single? Adopt a shelter pet. Bring a homeless person food. Crash a singles party, have a few drinks, and hope for the best.

How will I celebrate? After I get off work tomorrow, I’ll be picking my daughter Madison up from school. She’ll probably have a Valentine card for me. I still have every one she’s ever made. I’ll have one for her too. We’ll exchange cards and talk about her day at school. Then we’ll go home and get ready for date night. My Valentine’s Day won’t consist of dozens of flowers or an expensive dinner at a five star restaurant. It won’t end with rose petals and lingerie. I’ll be exchanging poorly written homemade cards with my Valentine. I’ll sit at Olive Garden across from the most beautiful girl in the room. We’ll talk and laugh about whatever comes to mind. It will end with me tucking her in, telling her I love her, and listening to her giggle while I make kissing noises into her ear. My heart will be full. That’s a great day in my book. That’s a solid holiday. Happy Valentine’s, baby girl.

Lift Me Up

My first thought was to start this off by telling you to close your eyes and think back. Yeah. Close your eyes. I actually began to type that. Forethought is not necessarily a strength of mine. Hindsight? I have that on lockdown. “In hindsight, I recognized that she had crazy eyes the moment I met her and I should never have dated her.” Or, “In hindsight, sending that text message to my ex, Crazy Eyes, after the sixth drink was probably a bad idea.” You get it. But I digress.

The original point was to have you think back on role models throughout your life. I would say that family members are an obvious choice, but I’ve been watching a lot of Shameless recently and that isn’t always the answer. Me? I’m certainly not the perfect father. However, my daughter has never had to find me passed out anywhere on the ground and I put that down in the win column. Likewise, my ten year old daughter is a huge fan of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and gaming. The Nerd Force is strong with that one. She is humble, kind, and polite. I like to think I played a part somewhere in there. But that’s what I’m supposed to do. As a parent, I should be a role model for my child.

The really impressive role models to me are those random individuals who find themselves invested in our lives through no course of heredity or marriage. I think most of us have a teacher or two who played these roles. Sometimes, it’s the old neighbor down the street who is stocked with years of wisdom and a brazen openness that our parents are not. The common thing about true random role models is that their lessons and direction continue to guide us well after we’ve lost contact with them. Those who’ve stuck with me the most are those who turned a little light on to a specific aspect of my life.

Mrs. O’Brien. My fifth grade teacher. To say I wasn’t the most popular kid in fifth grade would be an understatement. Pretty much the equivalent of saying that Sauron didn’t have the best interests of Middle Earth in mind. See what I did there? Although “nerd” is the new cool, that wasn’t the case when I was in fifth grade. I was overweight and pretty fluent in Smartass. In case you’re not a member of society, that combination is a fairly sure-fire way to get your grade school ass kicked regularly. I handled it with grace, which is how I once found myself in the cabinet under the classroom sink trying to dislodge the world’s most brutal wedgie. I mean, that thing was up there. Really, really up there. Drug mules would have looked on in pity. It was so far up there, in fact, that I had to hide under the sink so I could take down my pants in order to follow the thread. Mrs. O’Brien discovered that I was under there sans pants. Due to my history of having a smart mouth and being a disruptive class clown, most teachers at that time would have disregarded it as something I probably deserved. I probably did. But instead she stood guard in front of the sink cabinet, blocking the students’ views, to allow me a shred of dignity. That shred was thinner than the current string between my butt cheeks, but it was something. After class, she asked me to stick around so she could talk to me. The advice given to me by her stays with me to this day. I didn’t exude much confidence. Overweight grade schoolers rarely do. I walked with my shoulders hunched. Head down. Avoiding eye contact whenever possible. I was the gazelle who wandered from the herd. Mrs. O’Brien explained the power of exuding confidence. She told me to practice at home walking with my chin up and my shoulders back. To look people directly in the eye. She said it would change how people viewed me and, thus, how they treated me. It wasn’t easy. It felt uncomfortable. But it worked. There were still a few incidents, but those were the result of my mouth and me not realizing that I wouldn’t be physically in shape until high school. I have people occasionally tell me that I come across as cocky. My inner fat kid smiles every time.

Mr. Brown. My junior year History teacher. Mr. Brown was a short, feisty Vietnam vet from Kentucky. His teaching methods were not that of a traditional high school History teacher. He threw Nerf balls at students who were dozing off or talking. He asked students to stand on his desk and model outfits if they were dressed nicely that day. He would give them the equivalent of an “A” on a quiz if they did, encouraging his classes to dress respectably and to not fear the judgment of others. Unfortunately, my collection of flannel shirts never fit the bill. It wasn’t my fault. Grunge was a lifestyle, baby. Mr. Brown didn’t stand up front and drone on about the Hamilton/Burr duel. He had us act it out. Instead of bringing history to us, he brought us to history. We were active players in a timeline. He explained that learning history wasn’t about memorizing facts about a bunch of dead people. It was about learning our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. His lectures were raw and honest. When we discussed the Holocaust, he showed us Schindler’s List in its entirety (much to the chagrin of parents and the school board), pausing it regularly to explain the historical importance of a scene. Human history was tangible and right in front of our eyes in a way no textbook could deliver. When we got to the Vietnam War, he had us open our books to the first page of the section and read the overview. Then he had us close our books and began the real story of Vietnam.  The decisions behind the U.S. getting involved. The cultural attitude of the time. And what it was really like to be there. I remember his face and the sad, distant look he got when he described the first time he killed another human being to save himself and the other men in his unit. How he had been ashamed that he crapped his own pants the moment he did it. This was real life. This was not a textbook. War was not a distant concept. It was standing in front of us with tears in its eyes. Mr. Brown’s non-traditional methods landed him a three month suspension and regulations placed on what he could or could not do in his classroom. He retired the year after that. He said that he wanted to teach. He couldn’t do that their way. What he taught me more than anything is to be true to who you are. Never let others stifle your passion.

Dwight Szabo. When I was 19, I started working for a restaurant chain. After about a year, I was offered the opportunity to corporate train. I began travelling the country and training servers at the new stores. At my first opening, my Training Manager was a gentleman named Dwight. He was a huge Vince Lombardi fan. He believed in teamwork and pushing his people to better themselves. At trainer orientation, he handed each trainer a notecard and told us to write down on the front what we hoped to gain from the experience as corporate trainers. For example, if one was a server trainer, maybe he or she would like to learn how to broil steaks. On the back, we were to write how we thought we could accomplish that goal. Dwight promised that he would do his utmost to make our goals happen. I was impressed with him immediately. It was clear that he loved what he did. And that he wanted to guide his people to bigger and better things. He was a leader and an inspiration. So, on the front, I wrote that I wanted his job. On the back, true to my self-sabotaging nature, I wrote that I would accomplish that by sleeping with the three female front of the house trainers. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant or bar, you might think that could be considered sexual harassment. Amateurs. In hindsight, it was probably not the best move. That evening (night number one at the opening), there was a knock on my hotel room door. It was Dwight. He was holding my notecard in his hand. His exact words were, “What the hell is this?”  Damn. Well, I had a good run. Dwight asked if I meant what I wrote. After a lot of very eloquent stumbling over of words, I told him that I really did want his job, but that I was only kidding about wanting to have sex with the three women, at least for the purposes of getting the job. Dwight, the class act that he was, had taken the back side of the card for what it was. He was asking about the front. He told me that my goal was the only really solid one he’d gotten. From that point on, Dwight became my mentor. Two years later, Dwight retired from corporate to be the Managing Partner in his own store. I got his job. I haven’t spoken to him in years, but he remains a close friend in my heart.

The most powerful lesson I ever learned from Dwight involves sincerity vs integrity. We were with a training team that was together for three straight openings, back to back. When you live and work with your people, you become a family. Our family had run into some rough patches. One trainer’s father had committed suicide while we were on the road. Another’s father had suffered a massive heart attack. Morale was low. Some of us had become disheartened. Focus was waning. So, Dwight brought in his friend Don. Don had a project for us. He handed us each a notecard (those bastards loved notecards). On the front, we were to write the word “sincerity.” On the back, the word “integrity.” The directions were to write ten things on the front about which we had sincerity. Those things that we really, truly believed. For example, I believe in working hard for what I get. Easy peezy, lemon squeezy. Then, on the back, we were to write ten things about which we have integrity. Those things about which we’re sincere, but also follow through with completely. No cut corners. No bullshit. Gut check time. It was here that I felt like a piece of trash. Whereas I was able to name ten things without a problem about which I was sincere, I could only come up with two about which I had real integrity. After the notecards were put away, we took a break. The other trainers were laughing and throwing footballs around. I was on the side of the building in a state of shock. How had I become someone who believed in so much and followed through with so little? Obviously, the rest of my “family” had no problem with that. Dwight found me around the corner and asked me if I knew what the difference between myself and the others was. He said the difference was that I “got it.” That I had been absolutely honest with myself when none of the others had. He claimed that, if they had, they wouldn’t be smiling and laughing. I’m still aware that I lack real integrity in various facets of my life. But I know when I’m doing it. The little notecard flashes in my mind’s eye regularly. Without having to speak to him, Dwight Szabo gives me a kick in the ass whenever I feel like cutting a corner. Thank you for that, Dwight.

I like to think that someday I’ll be a random person’s role model. Granted, it will probably just involve them knowing which morally questionable websites pose less threats for viruses. Or which cheap vodkas won’t give them hangovers, but I’ll take what I can get. You know, little victories and all that.