The Things You (Also) Learn

When I was a teenage boy, I developed a fascination with a girl in my school whose name was Vicki. She was very beautiful, and I used to fantasize about what it would be like to kiss her.

What I learned: It seemed like it would be a wonderful thing to actually kiss a girl.
What I (also) learned: It really doesn’t matter unless she wants to kiss, you, too. She didn’t.

At that age, I shared certain characteristics that had people typically classifying me as a “nerd”. As such, I did things like read comic books and science fiction stories and talk about them with my friends. In those stories, certain characters can do things like ‘stop time’. I used to fantasize that I could stop time for everyone but Vicki and me and then she’d realize maybe I was exactly the boy she’d always dreamed of.

What I learned: Fantasies help us see our way out of seemingly unsolvable problems.
What I (also) learned: I have no ability, whatsoever, to stop time. I could, however, spend time, which I did watching Vicki walking around school hand-in-hand with the captain of the football team.

I talked to one of Vicki’s best friends, a girl named Joan. Joan could tell I had a bit of a crush on Vicki. She explained to me that Vicki “liked me” but just not “that way”.

What I learned: The concept of “liking someone” just not “that way” is of intense importance to girls.
What I (also) learned: Like the Backstreet Boys, I wanted it “that way”. Alas.

About a year or so later, I started to notice how beautiful Vicki’s friend Joan was. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d never noticed it before. We had several classes together. We always talked. Maybe, I had been missing out all of this time. So one day, right after class as we were walking next to each other in the locker hall, I asked her, “Would you like to go out with me?”

What I learned: Sometimes, you just have say what you are thinking.
What I (also) learned: It’s better not to ask questions you don’t already know the answer to. I got just-not-that-wayed. Again.

By this point (it was my Junior year in High School) my tally was as follows:

  • Number of girls I’d been out with : 0
  • Number of girls who seemed even mildly interested : 0
  • Number of reasons to continue living I could actually think of : not many
  • Number of girls who liked-me-but-just-not-that-way: seemingly all of them

What I learned: Every food chain has a bottom.
What I (also) learned: There are options. The French Foreign Legion was (and is) still hiring.

I did eventually start dating, after having remade myself over completely. By that, I mean I changed: (1) the way I looked (I tried to look like everyone else); (2) acted – I became far less nice; and (3) spoke – I talked a lot less, and became kind of a 17-year-old version of world-weary.

What I learned: There’s nothing wrong with looking for new ways to connect with people.
What I (also) learned: Pretending to be someone I wasn’t seemed to make me wildly popular with girls, more-or-less overnight. I eventually stopped being phony – I think. However, there is a reason so many guys become posers in the dating world, namely: it seems to work.

However, like good things, all bad things, too, must come to an end. I dated someone long enough that they actually got to know what I was really like, and she actually seemed to like that guy better than the one I was pretending to be.

What I learned: Lies are like manners – when you’re tired or your guard is down, you tend to forget all about them.
What I (also) learned: It’s better to be liked for who you are. If you haven’t found someone who appreciates you, it means just that: you haven’t found them yet. It doesn’t mean you never will.

By the way, I saw Vicki maybe twenty years after we graduated. She was still very beautiful, and very funny. We got to reminiscing about old times, and I couldn’t help but finally admit to her that I had a crush on her for years.

She said, “Wow…. I never really liked you that way… but that’s sweet.”

Some of us never lose our knack for being just-not-that-wayed. It’s kind of a gift.

And I would have never made it in the French Foreign Legion, anyway.

Falling, In Love

[Originally posted May, 2018. 30 days of prose, day 10. – Owen]


Falling in love is like stepping off of a flying airplane; them loving you back would be the parachute. But that parachute doesn’t always open.

Splat.

Love in relationships always comes with risk. We can’t know what others are really thinking, and we can’t know how years or circumstances might change them. But we step out anyway.

And sometimes, we crash.

Hearts, however, are usually stronger than bodies, kind of like the flight recorder on a airplane.* They are usually ready shortly for service on another flight. The decision to step off a plane again, though, gets much harder.

Before I met my wife, I had lots and lots of practice at falling in love. Many of these were more like falling of a curb than an airplane: short fall, easy landing, right back up, no problem. But others were harder: awkward falls off of bicycles, and diving boards, and even a roof or two.

Finally, I stepped off a plane for real, and man did it feel good. Scenery rushing by, blue skies, green pastures, and another person there with me. It was such a rush.

Then I hit ground, hard, in a fenced off area called “divorce”. As I lay there, wounded, I saw her (my ex) bounce immediately up and get on another plane.

One person’s crash is another person’s escape, I guess.


So why do we do it? Why do we try again?

I can’t answer for you, but I can answer for myself. I loved the feeling that came with stepping off of that airplane, and I wanted to feel it again. In addition, I wasn’t going to let one person stand in for any other person I might love for the rest of my life. For that next person might be my parachute, and I might be hers.

The other reason I had for trying again came from an observation I’d made, which was: planes can crash whether we ever get off them or not. Isolating myself hadn’t prevented crashes in the past, but it had prevented joy.

In the end, we love because we’re made to love, and because the choices of others do not determine who we are.

But it sure feels like they do those times we hit ground.


* I innocently asked my dad when I was a kid why they didn’t make planes out of the same material as flight recorders so that people would survive the crash. I got a long explanation on the aerodynamics of heavier metals.

The Girl, The Surf, and Other Things

I always considered myself to have been a total disaster as far as dating went until I met my wife. Many of my ex’es however, have strangely fond memories of our time together. Not all, by any means: but a surprising number seem to have thought it time not entirely thrown away.

In a way, that shouldn’t surprise me, since most of the dating stories I have recalled or recounted over the years were positive ones. I know I dated some duds, and I know I was a dud to some of the people I dated, but the stories about dating I best remember were about good, nice experiences. In most things in life, the good and bad get all mixed up together, but sometimes, there is much more good than bad.

For instance…

I was nineteen years old, living in Florida, finishing my second year of college. Some old high school friends who then were at Auburn told me they had a friend they wanted me to meet. “She would be PERFECT for you,” they said. They brought her down during the Spring break when many of us would go back to our parents’ houses. So a bunch of us met up: my Auburn friend and his girlfriend, three other guys, this woman, and me. We started out going to a restaurant near the beach.

Well, my friends weren’t wrong, she did seem pretty cool to me: however, she seemed pretty cool to the other guys who were also there unattached. So, one by one, we would each talk to her, and I remember thinking as we walked out of the restaurant headed to a bar out on the beach that this was probably going to be another one of these occasions where this one of my friends, (we’ll call him “A”) would end up with the girl.

But that isn’t how it worked out.

While we were looking out of the bar window at the dark surf (you just see the white foam of the waves closest to the shore in the lights from the bar) she mentioned that she had always wanted to swim in Gulf of Mexico at night.  “Let’s go, then,” I said. “It’s still cold,” the other people chorused. I looked at her.

We went.

The others took their drinks onto the beach. She and I removed some (not all) of our clothes and got in the water. The Gulf of Mexico never gets terribly cold, but it was very bracing. She and I mostly just laughed at the silliness of it: bobbing up and down in the surf in the dark, trying to see each others eyes (it was a cloudy, moonless night). We were more-or-less invisible to our friends, but they could hear us laughing. Later, we found out that these same friends all thought we were doing something else out there.

We weren’t.

The decision got made thereafter (in the manner of inebriated people) to go to late-night miniature golfing. She and I sat on a bench, drying off with beach towels around us, while the others played mini-golf (also in the rather raucous manner of inebriated people). We sat and quietly talked for the forty minutes or so we were there. Since our two Universities were only about four hours apart, we left with the promise that I would come up and see her at school sometime soon.

And I did. But that would be another story, one that doesn’t have a happy ending. But about that night, there is a lot I remember:

I remember thinking she had an amazing smile.

I remember the shocked look on our friends faces that we would go swimming like we did (Floridians aren’t exactly Minnesotans when it comes to cold).

I remember sitting there at miniature golf, wishing the evening wouldn’t end.

I remember that I liked the sound of her voice, a musical kind of (cultured Tennessee) accent I had never heard before.

I remember us holding each other’s forearms in the surf for stability as we gently rode the waves up and down.

I remember the feeling I had getting back in my car, that I had someone to look forward to seeing.

I remember my friend “A” slapping me on the back and saying, “Good job, tiger.”

As it developed, that relationship went bad and it got bad, but it wasn’t bad, if you know I mean. Bad rarely cancels out good; it does sometimes, I realize.

That night was special to me. I don’t know if it will seem special to anyone reading this. But I liked her, and I had the nerve to go after her. And she chose me among that group of guys. Even if it was just for a night, and even if the night did not include any of the things people associate with adults dating. It was a night that mattered to me, and, in my twenties, those were few and far between.

It Feels Like Grief

“Jobs are merely leased, and leases get called.

But it feels like grief.”

— From my Instagram feed


She messaged me at work early Monday:

I am very likely getting fired today. I want you to know it was a true pleasure working with you, and thank you for all your support through the years.

She did get fired, later that day, although with some kind of financial package to aid with transition.

I heard from her later that night, having reached out to her through Facebook. She said she thought this meant she had a better future ahead of her somewhere else.

I told her I would miss her.

She messaged me at work the next morning, asking if I would help her replacement, a guy she had only recently hired. I said “of course.”


I first met her eight years ago. We had an immediate affinity. She changed jobs several times, all promotions. I changed jobs once and bosses multiple times. During all that time, we either worked together or stayed in touch.

Her last promotion had been to a very high position. One with a lot of responsibility and a lot of employees. One where a lot could go wrong.

It did.

She has a family, a husband and three kids. She has been the primary earner.

She just last month became a U.S. citizen. She’s been in this country since the mid 00’s.


As of this March, I will have worked for the same company for twenty-four years. I have seen a lot of people come and go. Some few of those who left did so involuntarily. I have come very close to being fired myself on two occasions.

The longer you live, the more grief you accumulate. It makes me rethink how wonderfully brave the old people of my youth were, although I was uncognizant of it at the time.

The respiration of life involves the inhalation of hope and the exhalation of grief, and like breathing, we do both automatically.


I wake up worrying about various issues to do with this company. Those are not concerns for her anymore.

Later, I walk up to a door and scan a badge. The door opens. She can’t do that anymore.

I walk to a desk and see pictures of my wife, my kids, and my grandkids. Her desk now lies empty.

My friend will be fine. She’s smart, she’s capable, and she’s no longer tied to this particular corporate millstone. I’m happy that she is finally free.

But it feels like grief.

That Field Off In The Distance

Fields, hills, trees… these are magical things.

I know this, because, as a very small child, I spent hours looking out car windows, wondering at it all. At home, I poured over illustrations by Richard Scarry, and I was sure that every road, every house, and every animal held a story — and that the landscape itself was the book.

Every chance I got, I wanted to explore. I frequently wandered off, and got lost a time or two (or three). I explored woods and bayous, lakes and fields. When I was old enough to ride a bike, I used that. When I was old enough to drive a car, I used that.

People could overwhelm me, but observing and exploring — those were like nourishment to me, and to my imagination.

We were meant to explore and make sense of our worlds, to build pictures in our heads from these explorations. We were not meant to go through life unnoticing, because GPS has it all figured out for us.

We were meant to see, not just look at pictures.

We were meant to learn, not just look things up.

We don’t really live in a world without frontiers; in fact, we have them, and they’re largely unguarded. The map is not the world, the story is not the person, and the picture is not the thing.

Freedom from the paralyzing anxiety of modern life is available: it is that field off in the distance, or that trip, or that walk over to have a conversation with someone in person.

Fields, hills, trees… these are magical things, and you and I — we were born to know the magic.

 

 

 

 

Indebtedness

My fire burns in orange hues
Amid the thankfulness of woods,
And I would be the things I choose
And more than just consumer goods

For life, and loveliness, and loss,
I have awakened now to this:
That much of love is free return
Of our true soul’s
Indebtedness


As a kid, Thanksgiving was my favorite non-Christmas holiday. (It seems unfair to count Christmas in the competition, as it has so many things going for it, from a kid’s perspective, that it is essentially a category unto itself.) In the house I grew up in, Thanksgiving consisted of:

1) A large meal, my favorite of the year, which included turkey and stuffing.
2) Playing football in the yard.
3) Watching football afterwards. And
4) Being allowed to start playing Christmas music.

Not too much to it, really. But I loved it.

For around five years, we shared Thanksgiving dinner with the Glasgow family, whose mom was a teacher friend of our mother. Mrs. Glasgow was from Switzerland, and was a wonderful cook, and she and my mom working together produced the meal.

We also had seemingly limitless ripe (black) olives at that meal, and every year, I attempted to eat a few before the meal started. You might think it ironic that I had a tradition of stealing food on Thanksgiving, but ironies like that were lost on me. I just knew I loved black olives. I still do, in fact.

The fact that the meal took hours to cook, and that we could smell it all that time, and that we had to wait unusually long to eat probably contributed to my minor league larceny. But still.

In later years, we stopped having dinner with the Glasgow family (their three kids were older, and had already moved out). We then incorporated another tradition: on the same table we ate dinner on, a large jigsaw puzzle was set up and the family would work on putting it together. Well, everyone in the family except me: I never liked jigsaw puzzles. We would also listen to the now-permitted Christmas recordings, which included some old radio plays of things like “A Christmas Carol” (with Ronald Coleman) and “A Pickwick Christmas” (with Charles Laughton).

Christmas, even back then, tended to bleed into other holidays.

Underneath our traditions lay a view of the world, fundamentally a religious view, but transferable to other contexts. That view was: our good fortune is a thing to be grateful for, as much of it is due to factors outside our control. That hard work, temperance, and prudence are necessary, but not sufficient, things to achieve a measure of security in this world. My mother certainly knew what it was to go hungry, so her form of thanks-giving was more than an academic kind of thing.

Outside of a religious context, the concept of indebtedness is often looked at as a societal thing, and terms like “giving back” are used. I found out in my later years that my parents gave something like one-fourth of their income to charity, notably ones fighting hunger and aiding orphans and people without homes. So their giving thanks took on a tangible form.


Yesterday was Thanksgiving; in the evening, my brother arrived here in Arizona. We will be spending the day today with our mother in the nursing home, and I’ll be headed back home tomorrow. It will be the first time more than two of us have been together for Thanksgiving (albeit a day late) since the old jigsaw puzzle days.

Which is something to be very, very grateful for.

The One Where I Fall On My Face Halfway Through Blogging About A Different Topic

(Originally Posted in 2013. – Owen)


Blogs: because I just wasn’t self-aggrandizing enough.

To be honest – I was a kind of a jerk as a kid, a sort of angry punk as a teen, a hapless, clueless libertine in college and a sickly, morose recluse in my twenties. Since then, I’ve mostly been insensitive and self-absorbed. That much variety has to be a resume enhancement, don’t you think?

Prospective Employer: It says here you have experience as a Wastrel?
Me: Yes, ma’am. I moved from there into Dissipation before doing a stint in Blaming Others.
Prospective Employer: Is there any sort of jerk you haven’t been?
Me: I don’t have much experience with Vituperation; if you have openings in Bitter Recriminations, I think I could learn very quickly.

I was walking down stairs this morning in the dark, and missed the last step. I fell on my knees and my face onto a hardwood floor. When I sat up I could see blood on my shirt and pants and more drops falling. So I did what any other 51-year-old man in my situation would do, I yelled for my wife.

Me: Honey!!!
Her: What is it?
Me: I kind of fell and I’m bleeding. Could you bring a cloth or something? I’m afraid to move without knowing how bad it is.
Her: (After a moment, turning on the light and coming downstairs.) What did you do?
Me: I missed the last step.
Her: Why didn’t you turn the light on?
Me: I don’t normally.
Her: I thought you did.
Me: I can see now that would have been wiser.

FACTOID: Putz and clutz rhyme, but aren’t used together that often by poets.

The dog seemed interested in the blood on my sleeping clothes, but declined to offer any assistance other than giving me a sort of canine “you’ll live” look.

I started a blog to make a difference.
I wanted to change the world.
I wanted people to see the real me.
But the me I show people is better than the real me.
Kind of like the great retorts you think of *after* that encounter with a jerk.
I’m probably the jerk a lot of people encounter.

I don’t know if realizing that will actually change the world, however.

If I wanted to be argumentative, I would say that depends on the definitions of “actually”, “change” and “world”.

I don’t want to be argumentative, I want the truth, which Jack Nicholson would no doubt tell me I can’t handle. He would be right, but then again, he’s Jack Nicholson.

Perhaps I fell down stairs as punishment for what I was like when I was younger, or for what I’m like now, or because my blog isn’t bravely revealing enough.

Perhaps you’re fishing for compliments, and you don’t have a license to fish here.

On an unrelated note, I think I’ve invented a sixth “love language”. It’s kind of a cross between Quenya and tlhIngan Hol.

You can do obscure jokes but you can’t obscure the truth.

The truth?

I should have turned on the light.