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.

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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.