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.

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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.

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.

In My Life

“Sometimes, you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” –Dr. Seuss

It’s fascinating to me how relevant a children’s author can be. This is a hand-written quote that I keep on the door of my fridge. My daughter brought it home from school during Dr. Seuss week. Like so many things she has brought home from school, I treat it like a treasure. Sure, I keep the graded papers for spelling tests on which she got above perfect scores with the additional bonus words. But the best treasures are those little pieces of art that make it back. Dried, creepy macaroni faces and collages. Paintings done entirely with her finger- or handprints. Beauty, creation, and miniscule parts of her weaving them together.

I’ve been looking at this Dr. Seuss quote a lot recently. In two days, my young daughter turns eleven. She will no longer be a little girl. She will have graduated to a pre-teen. I already see the changes happening with her taste in music and personality. Where I used to be the person to whom she felt most connected, her life is beginning to revolve around her friends and those things outside my house. I can accept it. But I want to write this so she might have a treasure of her own upon which she can look when she’s older. My memories. My valuable moments.

Dear Madison,

   About a year ago I found the pair of underwear you hid in your closet. You’d obviously sharted just a little in them. Out of embarrassment, you must have tucked them in the corner so I wouldn’t find them in the garbage. That was not my favorite surprise gift. However, like a gentleman, I simply washed them and put them back in your drawer. You learned a true life lesson. You once drew a picture that said, “Everyone poops.” Way to keep it one hundred. There’s a whole book dedicated to that idea. The book that you won’t find is “Everyone sharts.” Never be ashamed. I have a much more intimate relationship with your fecal matter than you’ll ever understand. You were a shaker and mover back in your day. More than once, during diaper changes, you kicked poo into my mouth. Every time, I thought, “I can’t wait until she is potty-trained.” Those few-minute increments we had, though, are sometimes missed. You don’t need me like that anymore.

When you were a baby, I’d get home from work late at night and your mother would hand you to me immediately. You’d often been up crying for hours. To say your mother looked good would be a horribly untrue statement. Beetlejuice was before your time, but google it one day. Your mother had that hair style down pat. She would go to lie down for sleep and it was my responsibility to calm you. At the time, coming home to a shrieking infant was less than ideal. I had to pace with you for a bit, your head by my shoulder, causing partial deafness in my ear. I’d thump your diaper firmly while bouncing you and whispering, “Shhhhh…,” over and again. Eventually, you’d stop wailing and we would curl up in the recliner and I’d sing to you while we rocked. Looking back, those were magical moments. You’d stare at me while we swayed in the chair and then you’d fall into a deep sleep. Completely content in my arms. I couldn’t tell you the last time you fell asleep on me. Now I watch you have that with the cats. You understand the power of those moments without even realizing it yet. You’re a great mom.

This morning, while I drove you to school, I interrupted Taylor Swift to bust out a few bars of The Muffin Man and Little Bunny Foo Foo. You looked at me with that face. While thinking about valuable moments, those two songs came to mind. We used to crank those bad boys in the car. The girl working the Dairy Queen drive-thru window got to witness a live concert years ago. You and I were in the moment. We were feeling some Muffin Man more than usual and we weren’t about to let that jam get away from us. Full voice. Heads bopping. We never even broke the poor girl’s gaze. You went with that glorious abandon right beside me. I hope we made her day. I know you made mine.

I can recognize the difference between Mozart and Beethoven only after countless hours of watching puppets move to their music on your Baby Einstein videos. I begged for the day that you would graduate to something different. Unfortunately, that graduation led to Thomas, Percy, Hiro, and all the other trains. Like any parent, I wondered how a child could be so enraptured by watching the same movie for the seven-millionth time. I didn’t fully grasp how incredible it was that you were loving something that much. Maybe it was jealousy. Now, when I pass Thomas and his friends in the toy aisle, I give a little nod. We might not be your first choice for entertainment anymore, but we know what it is to be loved unconditionally by you.

You still haven’t figured out the concept of closing your door when you’re changing. I have to make a conscious effort to not look anywhere in the direction of your room if I walk down the hallway to use the restroom. God forbid I see you in your underwear. You’re becoming a young lady who wears training bras now. I accept your aversion to letting boys see you in any state of undress. I expect you to remember this in high school and college as well. But there was a time when I had to dress you. I had it down to an art and there wasn’t a onesie out there that I couldn’t conquer. But what I wouldn’t give to go back for just one day and have those few minutes of dressing time. I might take my time instead of timing myself. During those instants, you would stare at my face and study me while I rambled on about what we were going to do that day. You might not have understood me, but you were an excellent listener.

You don’t ask if you can stay in my bed anymore. It was a battle when you were young. You used to sneak in early in the morning. Sometimes I’d make you go back to your room. Sometimes I’d pretend I didn’t notice so I could smile while fake-snoring. Now you have a full-size bed and prefer to sleep with the cats since they aren’t allowed in my bed. I get it. They’re cooler than me. But I still get to tuck you in for now. Occasionally, you won’t walk to your bed on your own and you make me pick you up and carry you. You’re not light anymore, but it’s worth it to get to carry you while you laugh. And I appreciate you fighting me when I try to kiss your ears. That little girl who giggles at my scruff still makes me smile. I’m happy she’s in there, if only for a very short time.

The point is that you’ve given me so many valuable moments. I wish I would have recognized some of them before they became memories. I look forward to making so many more with you as you become this amazing young lady.

Happy Birthday, Baby Girl!!

Unchain My Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

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

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

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

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

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

My life soundtrack Volume 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: http://media4.picsearch.com/is?KFUhTeglGbuf_B3c9Ony3Atr8nPsHNUVhylqO1QZeuk&height=259

Lift Me Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn the Page

books

What do you like to look at when you visit someone’s home for the first time?

There are the obvious first-impression items. Decorations, furniture, pictures. These things are all laid out and organized specifically to promote a particular impression of who a person is and how that person keeps his or her home. However, if most people’s homes are anything like my own, they aren’t entirely accurate. If I know I have company coming to visit, my first order is to tell my daughter to make her bed and find her bedroom floor. The glass coffee table, usually home to Littlest Pet Shop toys and delicately-placed fingerprints, is wiped down and the toys are replaced with the TV remotes that spend most of their time on the arms of the couch. The toilet is inspected to get rid of any rogue poo splatters that might have not flushed away. God forbid any guests assume I use that retched device for evacuating my bowels. I make sure the stove top is clean enough so as not to allude to any past events of feeding myself or my daughter. The throw on the back of the couch is replaced with one not covered in cat hair. My guests will naturally assume the cats use the cubby I bought for them. They do not. The bathroom counter will show no signs of me brushing my teeth, shaving, or wearing deodorant. Any evidence of having used the faucet will be eradicated. Scented wax will suggest that no part of my home has ever smelled like last night’s dinner or a fart. Luckily, I’m an excellent cook and those two cannot be confused.

These things are just what we do. We clean and organize. We make it clear that we are not people just like everyone else. But there are those items in our homes that give away our secret selves. They offer peeks into who we really are. I’m not referring to our medicine cabinets, despite some sociopaths feeling it is okay to find out if a homeowner is depressed or ever had a rash. I once had a friend come out of my bathroom and ask whose moisturizing gloves those were in my closed shower. Um, they were exfoliating gloves, Marcus. And they were mine. You freak.

My movie collection is extensive. It does offer a small look into my secret self. There are a lot of chick flicks. We’ve already established that I’m a crier. Although I love music, my collection isn’t very large. But music collections offer other previews. The problem is that it’s rare to listen to an entire album. Usually, a person skips to his or her favorite handful of songs. Likewise, movies only take a couple hours. There isn’t necessarily a lot of dedication involved in music or film.

Thus, I like to look at a person’s bookshelves. Bookshelves are beautiful open doorways into the soul. Most books take days or weeks to finish. That is a lot dedication in today’s busy world. A collection of books is like a map of someone’s passions and interests. The secret self on display right in clear view. Whereas we rearrange our coffee tables and bathroom counters to hide the messy day to day happenings, bookshelves are rarely altered for perception. No one thinks about it.

My own bookshelf represents me pretty well. It’s a five-shelfer. Not that I’m tall by any means, but I needed a shelf that would hold a lot of books. Every shelf is filled, with a few of my latest books resting on top of the others. I’m not terrific at letting go of things I enjoy. The top shelves are bowed from years of heavy hardbacks weighing down on them. I can relate to that. Sometimes I feel a little bowed myself. Although the books are fairly well organized, there is a certain chaos to their placement. I can definitely relate to that. The shelves often find themselves acting as the home to various trinkets belonging to my daughter. It currently houses a small bottle of blue raspberry-scented hand sanitizer, two Littlest Pet Shops, the game Jenga, and three smashed pennies with the logo from the St. Louis Zoo imprinted on them. As with the shelves, there is always a piece of my daughter with me. The most read and loved books have weathered edges on their covers, bent pages, and cracked spines. Like a person who has lived a full life, books also show their wrinkles, laugh lines, and scars. I have plenty of all of these.

One glance at those often dusty shelves, and you see the real me. An inscribed copy of the Holy Bible. I’m not a religious man, but it was a gift from the first woman I ever loved. I keep it to remind myself that faith comes in many forms. And that sharing your faith with someone isn’t always about religion. The collection of the What to Expect books. I read them front to back because I was terrified of failing as a father. While that dread never completely leaves, they helped me at least step into the business of parenting with some idea of what the hell I was doing. Most of Stephen King’s books. I was always an adept reader, but didn’t fall in love with reading until I stumbled across my first work of Stephen King in sixth grade. The book report was due in four days. I finished the book in three. A dictionary. Something about opening those musty pages when looking up a word is far more satisfying than Googling it on my phone. Psychology text books. I’m still fascinated at how a lump of sludge in our heads can do so much. The Idiot’s Guide to Playing Guitar. I have a classical guitar in my closet. And I can rock out probably a good four chords, no problem. Just don’t ask me to switch between those chords without doing that weird neck-crane move while I stare at my fingers. True crime and criminal investigation books. I know more about forensics, criminal investigation, and serial offenders than the average Joe. I try to avoid discussions on the topic with a woman until she has at least spent the night and left unharmed. First-date talk about serial killers and behaviorally profiling them generally doesn’t lead to a second date. The Lord of the Rings collection. Tolkien was one of the most dedicated writers ever. He insisted on having incredible back stories for his characters. He loved them and it showed. I’m still slightly upset I wasn’t allowed to name my daughter Eowyn. Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Dr. Seuss at its finest. This book is also inscribed. It was given to me by my sister when I graduated high school. It reminds me that, while I might not always have a clear idea of where I’m going, other people believe in me. And that children’s books don’t have to lose their potency just because we grow up. Robert Fulghum’s collections. Fulghum was introduced to me early in my original college career. He quickly became, and continues to be, my favorite author. Those books act as tokens that original plans don’t always turn out how we hoped. But also that we can always take something away from any situation. And that the written word has real power. These are only a handful of the doorways in the mansion that is me.

Unfortunately, with the creation of tablets, fewer and fewer people own actual books that can be displayed on shelves. Me? I’ll stick to my books. There is something so much more exciting about turning an actual page as opposed to scrolling a screen. Tablets don’t have that scent of old ink on yellowing paper. Stories on a piece of electronics can’t be transcribed. And I love having my secret self in plain view if you’ll only look hard enough.

Through the Looking Glass

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My interior decorating tastes have changed a lot over the years.

When I was really young, I was a dinosaur guy. I wanted to be an archaeologist. In retrospect, it was probably because I could spell the word and was fairly impressed with myself. I mean, dinosaurs were cool too, but look at me use that big word! Thus, I had a Brachiosaur coat rack hand-crafted by my grandfather up on my wall. I never hung a coat up there, but my G.I. Joes had some pretty intense adventures dangling precariously from those wooden rungs. Snake Eyes, you will be missed.

After discovering my step-father’s Playboys, the inside of my closet had some incredible art that was both beautiful and functional. To say he was upset to find all of his centerfolds missing would be an understatement.

In high school, my walls were littered with posters for bands I loved. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Spin Doctors, Bush, Led Zeppelin. I still miss my Led Zeppelin Swan Song poster. It was purchased at a head shop. The place was a dark and impressive haven that reeked of incense and innocence lost.

By college, I had upgraded from posters to cloth wall hangings. So many unbelievably drunk nights passing out on the top bunk under the watchful eye of Jim Morrison. He was also assuredly judging my self-abusing roommate who could not figure out that bunk beds shake, or that a roommate coughing and shifting above you is a subtle way to tell you to remove your hand from your pants. Creep.

For a while, once I had my own apartment, I got on a pretty solid Kim Anderson kick. For those who don’t recognize the name, Anderson does all the black and white pictures of kids in adult clothing doing adorable adult things like making out. There is almost always a rose or something similar that is in full color to offer contrast. The ladies who visited thought it showed a sensitive side. Those little monochrome kids got me a lot of action. However, there comes a time when a man having pictures of unknown children hung around his home becomes disturbing. Be free, you little freaks.

I recently started reflecting on my wall decorations during a bored late night pace session around my apartment. My daughter was at her mother’s house. It was that time of night where the vodka had done its job and placed me in a pleasant haze of relaxation. My fingers were tired of working the Xbox controller, so shooting and verbally degrading teenage boys online was put on hold. I needed a break from bingeing my shows. The cats had passed out so I couldn’t even have a conversation about who was or was not a handsome boy. And so, I paced and looked at my interior decorating choices for the last ten plus years.

My home is covered in photographs. My daughter’s birth prompted this shift. I was never a big picture-taker. I believed in living in the moment and that stepping out of the moment to take a photo was counter-productive. It wasn’t until I realized the power of photographs that my mind was changed.

To be fair, I am not a photographer. My pictures generally end up blurry with a significant portion of the subject of said picture missing. Don’t get me wrong. When trying to take photos of my daughter on a carousel at the zoo, I’ve come back with some incredible pictures of the kids directly in front of her. And don’t get me started on the masterpieces of my daughter’s back above the ass-end of the gazelle she was riding. Clear as day.

My older sister is the photographer in our family. She really is amazing. Although her family group photos are nice, it’s her ability to capture the candid shots that blows my mind. My favorite photos of my daughter ever are the result of my sister having that eye and sealing forever a precious moment. The Latin translation of photography is “drawing with light.” To that end, she is an absolute artist. Her artistry is what has helped me fully appreciate the pictures on my wall.

The utter beauty of photographs is that they tell so much more than what is shown on that little piece of paper. Behind every moment captured is a series of moments that led to that particular one. Every image on my wall is a rabbit hole. A fabulous leg of a journey through my own personal Wonderland. The picture at the top of this post is from my daughter’s second birthday party. She was offering me a taste of her cake because I had asked her if it was good. By merely looking at it, I am flooded with memories. It was a proud instant for me. She was not coveting the cake for herself. She was giving something of hers to me unselfishly. She was letting me know that we are companions in this world. That my efforts at teaching her to be a good person and to share had not been in vain. And that Care Bears are awesome.

With each picture, I remember not only being somewhere, but how it felt right then.

I can see me holding my daughter for the first time. But I can also remember how her skin smelled like something brand new and unjaded. How terrified and in awe I was at this tiny person in my hands. How I thought her mother was simultaneously the most vulnerable and strongest I’d ever seen her while bringing our daughter into this world. The panic I felt while racing to the hospital, worried that those train tracks were going to pop my little namesake right out. The night I found out I was going to be a father. All of these memories and emotions from one image on one piece of paper.

I can see myself laughing with my dad and brothers. What the photo does not show is the filthy joke that got us laughing in the first place. The comradery I felt right then with other men with whom I’d shared my entire life. How hungry I was waiting for the burgers ten feet away to finish cooking.

Senior pictures. Come on. What twisted sadist decided these would be a good idea? I won’t go into detail. Poorly constructed facial hair. Awkward poses. Clothing chosen by the parents. These, much as my mindset and attitude during my senior year, will haunt me forever.

My grandparents together at one of the last family functions I would ever see them. How unforced their smiles were standing side by side after decades of marriage. How Grandma kept referring to my daughter as “him.” Being a preteen and Grandpa taking me out to fly a model plane he had helped me construct. The awful smell of freshly-caught fish cooking in the kitchen. Nap time when I was little on their hideous orange couch.

Photographs are not only chapters in our autobiographies, but existential compasses simply by reminding us where we’ve been, and so where we should go. I invite you to pull out your old photo albums or take a stroll around your home. Go through the looking the glass.