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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.

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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.