Jigsaw Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life. Time. Experience.

Take away.

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Those Chains That Bind You

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

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

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

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

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

To watch it was heart-breaking.

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

We Become Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhyme And Reason

What do you want to do?

That simple question has so many connotations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It) Feels So Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seasons

While I sit here typing this, my daughter is in her room, listening to music. Although our generations have very different ideas on what constitutes “good” music, I forgive her because I recall vividly my own parents looking at me with a somber disappointment when wandering into my room while I had my own tunes cranked. Music is music. If it moves your soul somehow, it’s doing its job. I’m left wondering if any of the songs playing in her room will make it to her own life soundtrack. If the one I’m hearing this moment makes it, my daughter must have a future in rave clubs or Hindu prayer. I’m baffled. And kind of wish I had a glow stick right now.

Having said that, I introduce you to my Life Soundtrack, Volume 2:

Track 1: Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong by The Spin Doctors—Before you can drive, finding yourself in your older sibling’s car as a passenger is exciting. Factor in that sibling’s friends, and you aren’t simply riding to the store or another errand. You are taking a journey. You are peeking into the wonderful world of what will be. Taking a short trip out of town in the back of my sister’s white Ford Tempo, observing the interactions between her and her friends Chris (a drummer in a band) and Brian (the singer and a guitar player in the band…and the man who would become my brother in law many years later), I was overwhelmed. What that overwhelming sense was exactly, I couldn’t have told you at the time. As a grown man now, I realize that it was my first glimpse into the magnificence of those friendships we develop in our late teens and early twenties. Those friendships that incorporate our views on how the world affects us through the art around us. The Spin Doctors were thrown into the stereo and Chris went on a rant about how they were completely underrated when it came to their percussion. He slapped out the drum beat on the dash with reverence. Brian tossed out his own air drums while singing along in harmony with my sister. I had not known friendship of that kind yet. Nor was I sure that I would. That would come later. But for those three minutes and fifty seconds, I was involved in something special.

Track 2: Black by Pearl Jam—Most regular karaoke singers can tell you the first song they sang. Mine was included in Volume 1. Karaoke can be a blast when you’re out with friends. Drunken renditions of anything by mediocre or poor singers are the staple of karaoke. Having worked in karaoke bars for a little over a decade, I saw more than my share. I have advocated many times for the possession of special licenses being necessary to sing Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Adele, Whitney, and Journey. Many, many have tried. Most have failed. Horribly. But at least it gets the crowd smiling, even if it’s from overpowering uncomfortableness. On the other end of the spectrum are those singers who take part in competitions. I’ve competed myself. Karaoke competitions can be brutal. They are far from The Voice, but within the community of karaoke singers, there is a feeling of honor to be included on stage with other, incredible vocalists. And the Midwest is filled with those. Thus, when stepping into competition, it can be daunting. I never felt like one of the strongest singers in the group. Judges felt I was good enough to make it to the finals quite a few times, so I believe I’m decent at it. However, competing isn’t my strong suit. My stage presence is awkward, to put it very mildly. I never know where to look—At the judges? The crowd? Over their heads? The stage occasionally so I don’t fall off and die? The screen with words occasionally so I don’t forget where I was and then die? So, I cope with it by drinking a lot of the free beer in the green room prior to going on stage. Obviously, this is the best course of action. It has resulted in me usually making some inappropriate, sexually-connotated joke toward one of the male judges. Once, it resulted in me dropping to my knees for dramatic effect at the end of the song…only to realize there was another run of the chorus through which to make it…now on my knees. In short, I feel like I often fail miserably at the competitions. However, back in 2008, I performed Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett (which involved a lot of pacing back and forth drunkenly across the stage) followed by Pearl Jam’s Black (which many people told me not to do for competition) for round two. For whatever reason, a certain calm came over me as soon as I started singing and I stopped worrying about the judges, the crowd, stage presence, and even my vocals. I just sang. I let a song that I loved take over. I sang it for me. And I won first place. I’ve performed it more times than I can count since then. But I think of that song any time I feel I don’t belong, or I’m in over my head. My own little grunge rock version of “I’ma do me.” Even typing that out made me cringe.

Track 3: Heaven by Warrant—Yes, this dates me a bit. Shut up. In fairness, this song was released when I was ten. It didn’t come into my life significantly until I was thirteen, at which point it would go on to represent the loss of childhood as I knew it. Small town life meant that all the kids in school knew one another and options for romantic relationships were limited. Add a kid being overweight and obnoxious into the equation, and you have a boy who focuses most of his attention on his step-father’s stolen Playboy magazines and practicing how to kiss on My Pet Monster. I’m not proud. But those shared affairs with that furry, plastic-nosed, stuffed son of a bitch prepared me for my shining moment with Emily Corn. Granted, Sarah Dixon was my first kiss (and resulted in a mixed tape), but with Emily, I shared the dance. You know the one. That junior high dance at a home off school grounds. Young hormones were racing. I didn’t have much of a clue as to what to do with those racing hormones, but she didn’t seem to mind the slight poking against her thigh and I certainly didn’t mind that she didn’t mind. All I knew was that I could smell her perfume and her giant hair tickled my neck. And that there was no way I was going to pull away for a second in case she came to her senses. It was with Heaven playing in the background during my most-assuredly stellar slow dance moves that I had that real kiss. Emily, if you read this, I apologize. Your lack of giant, warty nose or elongated plastic teeth probably threw me for a curve. I can only hope you were cheating on your pillow or a random poster on your bedroom wall.

Track 4: Seasons by Chris Cornell—If you haven’t seen the film Singles, do yourself a favor and find it immediately. The storyline is incredible. The actors are brilliant. It’s a fun and heartfelt watch, especially for those in their twenties who are trying to “discover” themselves. The best part about the movie, though, is the phenomenal soundtrack. It encapsulates rock music of that time, especially the Seattle Sound. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam have cameos. Throughout the film, Cornell’s Seasons plays periodically. I was in high school when it was released. I didn’t find it until a couple years later. Despite not being in my twenties yet, it spoke volumes to me. Now in my thirties, that hasn’t changed. And Cornell’s brilliant chord structure and amazing vocals still punch me in the heart every time. The song is so well-written that it doesn’t take me back to a specific time or place in my mind. It takes me inside myself. This piece itself represents those seasons of change.

Track 5: Break on Through by The Doors—The 1960s marked a change in the climate of music. Even the Beatles took a turn. In 1967, The Doors attacked the music scene. Jim Morrison saw himself as a poet and the music was background to that poetry. Being well before my time, I didn’t discover The Doors until high school, when I read that a lot of my favorite current bands at the time had been influenced by them. The first song I found was Break on Through. It embraced the angst in me and gave validity to the questions I was asking about “what it all means.” Even the keyboard had the desperate urgency I felt about things I didn’t yet fully understand. It was listening to The Doors that I experimented a lot with hallucinogens in an effort to see the world differently. Whether it worked or not is up for debate. And I’ve chosen to avoid angst as much as possible now. But the music still reminds me to never stop trying to see the world through different eyes.

Track 6: While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles—Todd Griffin was the biggest Beatles fan I’d ever met, and my best friend in high school. While I was listening to both modern and classic rock, The Beatles had just been something I’d disregarded. I knew their stuff. She Loves You and Hold Your Hand just weren’t my bag. They were a little too pop for my taste. They were cute. And they didn’t have that poetry that I wanted. And, so, while riding in Todd’s car (his car, his music, was the rule), he put a cassette in (yes, a cassette) and I found myself listening to a beautiful tune. He’d thrown in The White Album by The Beatles. While My Guitar Gently Weeps blew me away. I’d been duped into enjoying a band I told him I wouldn’t ever like. That summer was spent with us cruising around after work, jamming out to The Beatles from their album Rubber Soul up to Abbey Road. Once, while sitting at a stop light, a couple in their forties pulled up next to us and told us that we were listening to some awesome music. Then we all sang along at the top of our lungs until the light turned green. It’s not often that teenagers blasting stereos at intersections have positive interactions with adults. The Beatles made the world a better place that day.

Track 7: The theme song from Wow, Wow, Wubzy—If you’re a parent, you have at least one of these awful song types stuck in your life soundtrack. This was a cartoon my daughter watched non-stop until the Care Bears snatched her attention during age two. In case you don’t know about Wubzy, he’s yellow with a high-pitched voice and a jagged tail on which he bounces from time to time. Think of a canary-colored rectangular Tigger on crystal meth who has not had the decency to go through puberty. Then give the little bastard a catchy theme song that still sneaks into your brain after a decade. I give you Wubzy. The unfortunate thing is that this annoying song, regardless of its ability to make me consider breaking my television years ago, makes me smile when it attacks my mind like an unwanted musical ninja. It conjures up images of my daughter in her pajamas squeezing up next to me on the couch after an afternoon of chasing bubbles and riding her tricycle outside. In the realm of songs that move your soul, this one is up at the top.

Track 8: Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin—I credit my love for Zeppelin to my step-father. When I was young, my relationship with The Step-Dad was typical. He wasn’t my father. He would never be my father. I would make it very clear to him that he was not wanted. This naturally led to us not being BFFs. I thought he was an asshole. He rightfully felt I was the same. Our interactions in my early youth consisted primarily of me being a prick and him punishing me for it. Every year for my birthday, he would buy me one of those small paddles with the elastic band coming out of the middle that attached to a rubber ball. A toy that no normal human being could figure out how to work properly without some contractual aid from Satan. Within a week or two, the elastic band would break. And now he had a new paddle with which to spank me when I was yet again doing something stupid. One day, while in the middle of a spanking I’m sure I deserved much more from, the flimsy paddle broke on my ample butt cheek. Like the moron I was, I laughed. He spent the next two hours in the garage carving The Mother of All Paddles. This thing was a beast. Taped handle. Holes drilled into the center for better aerodynamics. And I’m fairly sure it was partially forged from the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. That was our relationship. I misbehaved and said horrible things to he and my mother. He responded by swatting me on the ass with Sauron’s Wrath. We had an understanding.

In high school, my mom found my weed and hitter in my pants pocket because delinquents are idiots who forget they also expect their mothers to wash their laundry. My step-father volunteered to drive me back to my dad’s house that evening. I slumped in the car, waiting for the lecture that I was going to dismiss. Instead, he broke the silence by telling me that he used to smoke a lot of pot back in his day and he just wanted me to be very careful about the weed I got. “People put all kinds of crap in it these days. Make sure you know what you’re smoking so you don’t end up with something dangerous.” He then went on to regale me with tales of pot-smoking from his early days. We laughed. We bonded. It was on that car ride that he became a person to me. This was parenting that you won’t find in any how-to books. But for me, it was real. Not long after that, I started pouring through some of his music. One of the first songs I found was Over the Hills and Far Away. I can’t listen to a Zeppelin song without thinking about the man who provided tough love and eventual openness to a kid who went out of his way to make it hard. Thank you, Gary.

 

What songs are part of your life soundtrack? Why? I’d love to hear them.

Learn To Fly

I knew a man named Hugh Peck. Hugh, like so many other young men in the first half of the twentieth century, decided to enlist in the military and fight against the rising threat from the Axis Powers. Some were infantry soldiers. Some were mechanics. Some were sailors. Hugh was a pilot. According to his own joking account to me one day, he wouldn’t say he was a very good one. He was shot down more than once. I was young, but that sounded like a pretty amazing pilot to me. I remember falling off my bike and tearing up my elbow and leg one afternoon. I was terrified to go on another ride for a long time. I mean, that fall was a good couple of feet. But Hugh, who had been shot out of the sky, got right back into a plane to do it all over again…and again. That is courage beyond anything I can imagine.

He is one of millions of men and women being honored this Memorial Day. And just like them, he assuredly went by many monikers. Perhaps Huey when he was a boy. Maybe Peck by his school friends. Having personally known many military personnel, I’m sure he had some colorful nicknames that would never be uttered in church, given to him by his fellow pilots. To my mother and her siblings, he was just known as “Dad.”

Hugh Peck the WWII Pilot is not who I remember. Although the man I knew deserves to be honored along with all the other veterans who have since passed, it isn’t about his service to this country for me.

I’m thinking about the man who taught me how to put my bait on my fishing hook without it falling off when I cast it. Sitting next to him on a boat lazing by the shore, I learned that quiet reflection holds unrivaled potency. From him, I learned that the drunken ramblings of Harry Carey calling a baseball game were perfect for a nap in great company. Watching him tenaciously build his model airplanes, I witnessed the elegance of combining hard work and passion. And that the finished product can make you stare in awe when it takes flight. Hugh was a man who wrote his “girl” back home, promising her that, when he came back from the war, he was going to marry her and that they would have children. That they’d be together forever. With the exception of eight months between my grandfather’s passing and my grandmother’s, he stayed true to his word. That’s integrity.

Yes, Hugh Peck was a WWII Pilot. But that is not why I remember him. Happy Memorial Day, Grandpa.

The Greatest Man I Never Knew

Are you ready to hold your little girl?

Eight words that signaled an unprecedented shift in my life. I was no longer just some guy. I wasn’t going-to-be-a-papa. Those words meant that I had joined the league of Fathers.

I didn’t join a fraternity in college. I was never part of any clubs in high school. Being a member of a group never particularly appealed to me. However, sharing the name “Dad” with millions of other men was all right in my book. I try to steer clear of the term “daddy” due to disturbing connotations from adult films and creepy old men with money in their pockets and young models on their arms. No thank you.

The third Sunday of every June is Father’s Day. In just a few weeks, I will be celebrating my eleventh. Strangely, there isn’t much hoopla surrounding the holiday. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1972. Mother’s Day, on the other hand, has been a national holiday since 1914. This is no surprise. Mothers become just that as soon as they learn they are pregnant. We dads often (even in our own eyes) don’t become fathers until we hold our children for the first time. To put it simply, we’re behind the curve.

There has been a shift over the decades in a positive direction, I suppose. The push to celebrate Father’s Day was originally proposed by a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd who was raised, along with her five siblings, by a widowed father. She recognized back in 1909 that a father can do whatever a mother can. I’m not saying we can do it well, but we can come close, by God. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I can braid my daughter’s hair. Granted, the braid falls out in roughly thirty-eight seconds, but there is a braid there for most of a minute.

With that said, there is a disturbing trend that still exists today. Go to any public men’s restroom in a restaurant or store. Look for the baby-changing table. I promise you, if it is not a federal building that must have one by law as of October 2016, you will be hard-pressed to find one. More times than I can count, I had to change my daughter’s diaper as a baby by first wiping up the disgusting bathroom floor in the handicapped stall and then laying down a mat I had to bring with me. Whenever I would ask these businesses why they didn’t have changing stations in men’s rooms, they always responded with an off-hand comment about them not being necessary in both bathrooms. Translation: Men are not deemed caretakers.

Likewise, taking my young daughter to run errands often resulted in receiving some semblance of a question from at least a couple women: “Oh, so Dad has to babysit today, huh?” I am far from some “snowflake” who needs a “safe space” from hurtful words. But I will admit that this question always irked me. Would that question be asked to a mother? No. A mother is watching her children. Caring for them. A man is seen as babysitting his children. The same rings true for fixing a child’s hair. My mad braiding skills notwithstanding, I legitimately rocked a pony tail like no one’s business (back when my daughter didn’t insist on having her hair down in her eyes at all times—now I know how my parents felt during my Grunge stage in high school). Women would look honestly surprised and tell me that I had done a good job “learning from mom” as though I could never have figured out how to pull strands of hair through an elastic band on my own without somehow decapitating the child. Translation to both of these examples: Men are not deemed caretakers.

I used to take great offense to these things. I used to ask myself, “How, in this modern day, are fathers seen as less than nurturing?” Seen as incompetent and uninvolved with child-rearing. Why?

The answer is simple: We need to do better, gentlemen. How many children are raised wholly by single mothers? How many fathers walk out of their children’s lives? How many fathers make other plans on the days they are supposed to have custodial visitations? How many fathers insist on being at war with their exes who happen to be the mothers of their children? How many fathers can’t list their children’s favorite colors or passions? What are the names of your children’s best friends? What size shoes do your children wear? What are they learning in school? How do you lower your children’s fevers?

A brutal reality was evident to me a few months ago. My daughter’s school held its annual Father/Daughter Dance. It’s an event that allows little girls to put on beautiful dresses and corsages to be taken on a date with the first man they truly love—Dad. As I stood in the gymnasium, I observed over a dozen fathers looking at their phones instead of their daughters. A little girl’s first date. A father standing with his face cast down into the technology in his hand instead of at the young lady who only wanted Dad to “see what I can do.” All around me, I saw fathers failing without even realizing it. To be there and to be present are very different things.

I am certainly not a perfect father. I could do better. I rarely take my daughter with me to pick up prostitutes or rob banks, but I could do better. Can you?

Happy Father’s Day, fellas. Let’s earn it.

What A Girl Wants

If you have access to social media, you know that it’s a wonderful world full of opinions and memes. Granted, “you’re” is usually used incorrectly in the majority of the memes and the opinions are often regurgitated false-truths that haven’t been fact-checked. Welcome to the Internet. I allow my “grammar police” self a lot of leeway to turn away in this forum. Likewise, opinions…well we all know that old adage.

However, in the spirit of posteriors, orifices, and ownership rights, I’m going to give an opinion of my own. Straight women: Stop.

In the process of waiting on a table this week, one woman had shown up before the rest of her party. This should have been a simple process. I greet her. I take her drink order. I make the drink. I deliver the drink. Just as she ordered her beverage, though, I looked her in the face and thought, “Wow, she has beautiful eyes.” They were striking. So striking, in fact, that as soon as I got to the drink station, I realized I had no idea what she had ordered. Feeling like the idiot that I sometimes am, I laughingly told my coworkers around me about my predicament. What came next was unexpected. One coworker said, “You didn’t say that to her, did you?!” The other coworkers seemed equally concerned. As though telling a stranger that she had pretty eyes would be on the same level of asking if I could sniff her neck. I had not said anything and, after witnessing the horror on the faces of my fellow employees, decided I should probably never interact with a woman again.

I did what any server does in the forgotten-drink-order situation. I went back with a tray of the three basics: iced tea, water with lemon, and Diet Coke. I apologized for being an idiot, told her I couldn’t remember what she had ordered, and then jokingly played it off that I might or might not be drunk. I did all of this while avoiding eye contact as adamantly as one would avert the gaze of Medusa. Apparently, I don’t comprehend language when confronted with pretty eyes.

What bothered me more than looking like a fool was the reaction of my coworkers. No, I did not compliment a woman I did not know. But why would that be such a terrible thing? In my fascination, I asked coworker #1. She explained that it’s “creepy.” That the woman would already know that she had pretty eyes and didn’t “need” to hear it from me. That every “creep” out there probably compliments her all the time on those eyes. I then asked if I it was better for a guy to be an asshole and insult her. She told me no. That attractive women “just want to be left alone.” Maybe my coworkers are in the minority.

Here’s the problem: My social media feeds are filled with memes and famous quotes posted by attractive, straight women. The running theme consists of “queens” deserving to be treated as such by their “kings.” They say there are no good men out there. They complain about “f***boys” and idiots. And women are creating more and more of those “f***boys” every day.

I completely understand that hearing compliments on your attributes by slobs with neck tattoos and straight-billed caps turned sideways must get old. It must make you jaded. So focus on genuine compliments. Those delivered without the man licking his lips. Those not telling you how “fine” your ass or “tits” are. If men aren’t allowed to voice genuine compliments, they are forced to focus on apathy. Men who neither share nor care are deemed to be the very assholes women are supposedly trying to avoid. Enter the douchebags.

My friends Jordan and Rebekah are a happily married gay couple. I involved them in the Pretty Eyes debacle. They both seemed baffled. Who wouldn’t like hearing they have pretty eyes? They admitted that being a straight woman inundated with constant compliments by guys must be tough. But then they hit me with the real problem: Women know exactly what they don’t want, and no clue as to what they do want.

As a man with three sisters, and who has worked in the service industry for years, and who has social media, I have listened to countless women complain about their love lives or lack thereof. All those attributes about men that they can’t stand. Let’s break down the popular negatives:

  1. He’s an idiot
  2. He’s unemployed
  3. He’s too negative
  4. He lives with his parents
  5. He flirts with other women
  6. He’s unattractive or too short or too tall
  7. He has no sense of humor
  8. He’s too clingy
  9. He wouldn’t make a good parent
  10. He does drugs

These are all valid arguments against grown men when looking for a relationship. These items are on my own “red flag” list when considering women. But, if there is a negative list, turning it around would be a positive one, correct? Thus, you should know what you want.

  1. Intelligence
  2. Steady employment
  3. Positive outlook
  4. Supports himself
  5. Loyal
  6. Attractive
  7. Funny
  8. Confident
  9. Solid father
  10. Does not do drugs

That would seem to be a list of things straight women want from a man in a relationship. Certainly, some of the items might have stipulations. Steady employment at minimum wage makes it difficult to support oneself. Attractiveness is subject to interpretation. Confidence can spill over into outright conceit. There’s always a middle ground.

The point is that there are numerous men out there who fit these criteria. Where are they? They’re the guys to whom you bitch about other guys. So stop. Stop looking for “likes” on your female empowerment memes from women who perpetuate the cycle. Stop treating every man who wants to treat you well as though there is something wrong with him. Stop falling “more in love than you’ve ever been” every two months. Stop allowing men to ask you to “hang out” instead of taking you on a date. Stop telling men not to compliment the things about you they find captivating. Stop turning the good guys into the apathetic pricks you can’t stand.

And then start. Start realizing that having a door opened for you or a chair pulled out doesn’t mean he’s fake, but that he was raised a certain way. Start to understand that some men really are interested in how your day was. Start accepting that he might be mesmerized by your smile or your odd laugh. Start loving yourself enough to allow a good man into your life. Start being the woman who deserves better.