Fortune Teller

I love a good Chinese buffet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what’s your sign?”

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Hidden Treasures

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that is imperative for humanity to thrive.

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

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

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

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

As is tradition, someone needs to start:

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

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

Your turn…

Who Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This year, she wants to be a hot dog.

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

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

The September Of My Years

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

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

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

No one likes a Tammy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what has become of me at 38.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what has become of me at 38.

I’ll take it.

Dream A Little Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams are necessary.

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

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

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

What is your dream?

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

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

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

What’s yours?

Total Eclipse Of The Heart

“Eclipse” is a noun, meaning “an obscuring of the light from one celestial body by the passage of another between it and the observer or between it and its source of illumination.” It is also a verb, meaning to “obscure or block out” or “deprive of significance, power, or prominence.”

As I sat outside today during the solar eclipse, a few things happened. First, there was the obvious. What should have been a typical afternoon with a bright sun shining down instead became an odd twilight. The shadows were long and moved in directions different than usual. Unfortunately, cloud cover restricted any real view of the eclipsed sun itself. However, that allowed me to focus on everything else. During those few minutes, the world shifted. Cicadas and crickets suddenly began their evening chorus. The birds changed songs and began harmonizing their melodies of dusk. Even flowers started to close in on themselves as if tucking themselves into bed. It was surreal. It was amazing.

But something else happened as well. A couple that lives across from me stepped outside to witness it. We talked beyond the off-handed greetings we share occasionally as we pass one another. We had conversation. My social media feeds were filled with photographs of an eclipsed sun and posts about the beauty of the celestial event. All the talk of hate, violence, bigotry, and politics disappeared for a short while. It, like the sun, had been eclipsed. These things still existed, but for a few moments, they were out of sight.

I’m certainly not claiming that the real problems of the world should be ignored or tucked away to be forgotten. They should be addressed and it’s imperative that we stand up for what is right. But today has shown me that human beings are capable allowing themselves to be enveloped in things other than anger, hatred, and sadness. We can see beauty. We can share beauty with one another.

So, I ask myself, “What angers, upsets, or saddens me? Is it a problem that needs to be addressed right this minute? Am I angry, upset, or sad simply because someone doesn’t agree with my particular viewpoint? Or is it an actual injustice that is harming myself or others? If not, why allow it to control my emotions?”

Whenever possible, I will choose the eclipse. Maybe if we set ourselves on the course of appreciating a book, someone else’s opinion, a song, a child’s laughter, the company of a friend, or the touch of a lover, we can all choose the eclipse. And deprive all the rest of its significance, power, or prominence.

What If…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would I change a single thing? No.

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

Jigsaw Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life. Time. Experience.

Take away.

Those Chains That Bind You

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

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

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

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

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

To watch it was heart-breaking.

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