I Had More Sense in My Teens than my Twenties

When I was finishing my junior year in high school, I had just turned seventeen. I had never been on a real date, never had a real girlfriend, and was unhappy with myself. So, that summer, I decided to do something about it.

I had been earning good money playing the piano, and summers were peak earning time. So I set out a list of things about myself I wanted to change. Looking back, they seem relatively minor; at the time, they made a world of difference.

First, early in the summer, I got contact lenses. I had been wearing glasses since 6th grade. It took me a few months to get used to them, but once I did, I was less self conscious. Probably because I seem to spend every third minute pushing my glasses back up my nose, a habit I was happy to leave behind.

Secondly, my father had been cutting my hair for as long as I could remember, because he had a barber kit and it was free. I told him I wanted to go to a “hair stylist” (which was a new concept for boys and men back in the 1970’s). He said, “Fine — as long as you pay for it.” Which honestly seemed like a fair trade to me. So I got a real haircut, which also made me feel a little bit better.

Thirdly, during the summer, I quit taking classical piano lessons. I knew at that point that music was not going to be my primary vocation (although I continued to earn playing), so leaving that off suddenly left me with an extra two to six hours per day that I could use to do other things… like pursue any interest in girls I might have. So that was big.

I also started buying a few of my own clothes — not a huge deal, but it gave me the chance to buy things my parents would not have.

And then — I thought at first it was my imagination, but no, it seemed to be real — I started feeling like I was getting a different reaction from people wherever I went. Girls started flirting with me, not a lot of them, but some, and I could tell the difference. I had been told that girls liked “confidence, but not arrogance” which is a type of high-wire act teenage boys all attempt and typically fail at, at least at one time or another. But I was staying on the wire.

In the early days of writing poetry on this blog, I went through my first real kiss, my first real girlfriend, and my first real love. Those were three different girls, and all within that year. It’s been more than 40 years now, and I am still grateful to those (now) women, because those were wonderful experiences, and they were wonderful to be able to share them with. Life being what it is, I do not know that they all feel the same way. I know one of them does, because she told me.

So, like virtually every teen, I struggled with self-image; when I decided to try to do something about it (and was fortunate enough to be able to pay for the handful of things I did), I felt what we would now call “empowered”, although at the time it was called “self-confident”. If I fast-forward from age 17 to age 25, I was once again feeling isolated (this time due to prolonged illness), but did nothing proactive to get myself out of it until more than a year of therapy finally got me pointed in the right direction.

It’s strange realizing that I had more sense in my teens than in my twenties; the stereotyped view is that we get wiser as we age. I had not.

Every life has its trauma: but correlative to that are the wonderful and good things that also stay with us. It’s not nostalgia: I wouldn’t trade the life I have now to go back there. But it is a type of gratitude, and it is a good feeling knowing, with all that life confused me at that age, I realized I had the power to change myself, at least. Learning that has given me the confidence to do a lot of other things since.

I’ve long since stopped wearing contact lenses (they would have to be about an inch thick); I have very little hair left to be styled; and very few people who know me now associate me with the piano. But for me at least — and maybe for you — the pathway towards the life you want comes from taking little steps to be the person you want to be.

Another Lesson Unlearned

When I was nineteen years old, I got a letter from my high school girlfriend, my first real love. She’d met someone else at college, someone who meant more to her than me. It was over.

The story was a complicated one, and involved a considerable amount of hypocrisy on my part (which my father called me out on). But one of my friends kind of set things in perspective for me.

“The person who is there will always mean more than the one who isn’t.”

She was in Colorado, I was in Florida. What shot did I really have?

It’s been 41 years, so I’m mostly over it. I’m standing alone in a pizzeria; one of the employees walks out from the back to take my order. But then he decides to answer the phone first. Then he takes another call. I could hear the voice of my 19-year old buddy, with a slightly modified message:

“The person who isn’t there will alway mean more than the one who is.”

So what cellphones have done to personal relationships, takeout has now done to customer relationships. People who are actually there have become the least important people we know.

As to my old high school girlfriend, she’s still married to that guy, so she chose wisely. When I came home, I was going to tell my wife about what happened, but she was on the phone. That, and nothing really had happened.

Another hard lesson unlearned.

Insomniac Free Write

I’m sixty years old, and I should be past this, but when I even casually go through any of my favorite social media, the overriding impression I come away with, regardless of the type of video I watching or picture I’m viewing, is that I lost life’s genetic lottery.

For some reason I cannot fathom now, when much of our entertainment focus moved from Hollywood to locally produced videos, I thought I’d be bombarded less with perfect faces and bodies of people who seem to live lives without financial (or any other) constraints. I could not have been more wrong.

For example, I watch an excellent Book Reviewer on YouTube named Merphy Napier. In a recent video, she and her husband are spending two weeks in Puerto Rico on exotic beaches doing exhilarating things while they both look amazing. She manages to read several books and manga while she is there and does her usual flawlessly professional job of reviewing them, but what strikes me more is their sort of casually perfect life.

Meanwhile, here, my wife had knee replacement surgery last week, and I’ve been helping her with what she needs, getting her back and forth to therapy, picking my grandchildren up from school and pre-school, walking around with my (usually sunny) 6-month-old granddaughter trying to get her to stop crying, working on huge projects at work (while running back and forth between working at an office and at home), and having my heart broken at work by seeing friends of mine in the organization being casually thrown away by people who don’t appreciate their work. I don’t really sleep much, unless I take over-the-counter sleeping aids, and I look more-and-more like an exhausted Santa Claus — if he really let himself go.

Meanwhile, back on YouTube, here are perfect looking people changing costumes, performing amazing athletic feats, and aging into even more flawless sex symbols — even the ones whose channels are strictly about intellectual pursuits. My body looks like it was made from Play-dough, then beaten with a baseball bat.

If you look at the picture of the insomniac woman I attached to the beginning of this essay, you see the modern view of insomnia: sad, desolate, tired — but still perfect looking. Neither Hollywood nor modern social media can conceive of people who look like I do, unless the plot requires someone to ridicule.

When you see what (and who) people spend all of their free time watching, whether in movies, television, or on social media, and you realize that you have none of the desirable qualities people apparently crave, it can get pretty depressing. For any of you out there who think that only women think this way — that is, that they feel unworthy given that they don’t meet the physical ideal they see around them — think again.

In summary: insomnia sucks, knee replacement surgery is horrible, being homely is no fun whatsoever, and it’s my own damn fault I watch good-looking people on YouTube — I mean, podcasts arguably exist specifically so we don’t have to look at the people speaking.

Hope you all are sleeping better than I am.

Wayward Thoughts

Memories aren’t sepia, but fading photos make it seem that way.

My dream: to go an entire day without being criticized.

Integrity means being the same person wherever you go (says a man writing under a pseudonym).

My diet is terrible, but I’ve been making up for it with lack of exercise.

There is no time like the present, although a few seconds ago was pretty similar.

If you haven’t spoken to people at least once in the last week while on mute, what are you really doing?

It’s as important to take life humorously as to take it seriously, and it should probably be about 50% each.

The difference between politicians and black mold is that you can, with extreme effort, get rid of black mold.

Love is the answer. Unfortunately, the question appears to be “What should we never display in public discourse?”

Interpretive Dance

(This post was inspired by the piece “Unzesty” from Renee over at “This Dead Horse”.)

When people tell you what a poem “means”, they are almost invariably telling you stuff about themselves, and only partially about the poem. Poems come to life through interaction with listeners or readers, so this seems only natural: any interpretation is telling you about that interaction, which necessarily contains the person who has said interpretation.

Like Renee in the blog post above, I can recall teachers who graded us on repeating back their own interpretations of poems, more-or-less verbatim; like her, I had to learn this the hard way, by failing a few quizzes before I caught on to the game being played. This didn’t seem like a practice calculated to building a love of poetry; it seemed more designed to create something like a cult around the professor, and there is a whole world to explore in that phenomenon.

Many of us want to appear as “oracles”, people whose insight into truth is not to be questioned. One need only go so far as Twitter to see screen after screen full of people who make assertions as to the ultimate truth of everything, and with serene confidence. I had professors, both in poetry and philosophy, who had little-to-no interest in developing the critical thinking skills of students: they had already obtained all truth, and it was the student’s job to ingest it and regurgitate it, unchanged.

It is easy to see the hallmarks of wounded ego in all of this. Very few people care about poetry — you can take it from me, I’ve been a philosopher and a poet — and the natural response of all of us who feel compelled to pursue interests few others have is to dismiss all others as a bunch of unfeeling idiots. They are not, of course, and it is only our desire to feel that our passions should be shared by the rest of the world that causes us to react this way.

I assumed that the teacher described in “Unzesty” himself thought pretty much nonstop about sex and death, so he saw it everywhere he looked. That human beings confute sex and power dynamics constantly is another topic about which many pages could be written, and a significant number of those would be dedicated to college professors and other people in positions of power.

If the concept of “privilege” means anything — and many dispute that the concept does mean anything, other that to be used as an empty pejorative — it is that no one sees all things objectively, and that honest perspectives on the meaning of things have equal validity. This is a vexing reality to all who love something so much that they become an expert on it.

Those other people, with their opinions. Geesh.

(For other posts from the Mighty Cheer Peppers, see here.)

The Fatigue of Ordinary Gentlemen

Jacket Blurb: In this not-really-anticipated new tale from author ordinaire Owen Servant, a motley group of “heroes” from unknown parts of history assemble to exchange vague platitudes and argue over where to eat lunch.

Note to self: when and if you ever write a book, do not attempt to craft your own marketing.

For well over a decade, I had this dream of living in a camper, traveling all over North America, seeing the sights, reading books. I’m not quite sure where the money was supposed to come from to support that existence; my dreams have always been light on practical details. In my dream, I lived alone, of course, because that was the life I always imagined.

My actual life is nothing like that. I am a married grandfather with four or five children (depending on how you count) and four or five grandchildren (depending on the same counting convention) who is a mathematician at a large Fortune 500 company, where I am also what might be called an executive.

My typical work day is from 6 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, with sporadic night meetings. I also work most Saturday mornings. I have roughly 50 or so employees I am directly or indirectly responsible for.

In becoming a mathematician, I assumed I would be able to lead a thoughtful and secluded life, so I’m batting 0-for-2 there, as well. I do attempt with some regularity to think, but am not as successful as would be ideal. Maybe if I had a camper.

When I do get home, I’m typically doing things with the three oldest of the aforementioned grandchildren:

This photo was taken in my backyard, 2 days before Halloween, 2022.

Since the time change, I get up almost every morning at 3:30. I get up, do a devotional/meditation, roll out a yoga mat and stretch for maybe 20 minutes, sit down in my study to read Nano Poblano posts, then write as much as time allows before I have to get ready and head to work.

I go to sleep around 9:30 at night.

I write at speed and rarely do much, if any, editing. As such, I routinely make mistakes, which is fairly representative of my life as a whole. I have a lot to do, and I do most of it, although more-and-more in a kind of waking haze, never getting enough sleep, but slogging on, nonetheless.

Sometimes, on a Sunday, I go out for drives in the countryside, listening to books or podcasts. In days like we’ve been having here recently, cold and clear, I can feel from the hills and trees and farms I pass the beauty and magnificence I longed to be seeing as young man, when I dreamed of a camper life.

I am lucky to have the life I do have, and I treasure it. But I am becoming aware of how life, and age, prepare us through tiredness for eventually letting go. I have so much to be thankful for, and only so much time to experience it, so I’d best get back to it.

Is your real life different than people might get from reading your blog? What dreams did you have that you never realized?

Farm and Away

There’s something both beautiful and sad about farms.

Some of the beauty comes in the interaction farmers have with the land. Even though technology develops and changes over time, the relationship of farmers to the land itself does not. “The land” here means not only the soil, but the seasons, moisture, wind, and any number of other variables we could call “natural”.

Nobody who farms for a living thinks human beings have “conquered” nature, because, in any given year, at any given point, nature can take it all away. No one who farms believes they have it all figured out.

Farmers are trying to preserve the land, not just because it is their livelihood, but because it is a duty. The land may turn on them for periods of time, in its unpredictability, but farmers never turn on the land.

Farming is seasonal, and seasons measure time. Part of the sadness of a farm is the passing of time, and the memory of those who’ve served that particular land.

The passing of time is an “everywhere” thing, of course: in cities and other busy places, we can cover much of that up with bustle and newness. When you’ve seen the same farmer working fields for forty years and realize one day he’s not there anymore, there is no missing it.

I grew up in Florida: not the part you’ve ever heard of, but that other part. We had the beach and we had the Gulf (of Mexico), but we also had farms. And cinder block. Florida in the 1960’s was largely comprised of cinder block: the houses, the stores, the restaurants.

I would say, “you had to be there” to picture it, but you didn’t, because… cinder blocks.

My best friend’s grandfather had a farm about thirty miles from where we grew up. Sometimes I would tag along on visits. They lived in a cinder block house, with a cinder block shed, and what seemed to me to be an enormous tractor parked in the yard. By today’s standards it would be more like the size of an ATV, but I was young.

When my friend’s grandfather passed away suddenly, the farm changed hands. I have driven by that place a handful of times in the thirty years since, and it hits differently than other memories. It’s like farmers and the land become one, and their inevitable separation seems that much sadder.

When I had to travel out of town recently, I drove largely through farm country. I live in Georgia, which means if I’m trying to get anywhere in anything like a timely manner, task one is to avoid Atlanta at all costs. So I took a circuitous route through the country, and enjoyed it immensely, as I love just driving through countryside.

Fairly near where we live is a large solar farm; it is a place where urban and rural sensibilities seem to coalesce. I only comment on that because there are very few places in modern life where that can be truly said. Our election maps look suspiciously like population density maps, which makes me think that urban versus rural ways of looking at the world may be more fundamentally different than people would have us believe.

At one time in my life, living out in the country was a dream of mine; having no practical skills of any kind whatsoever kind of disqualifies one from the farming life. Since I’m not crazy about being in crowds, I’ve spent almost my entire adult life living in suburban areas on the edge of rural ones, belonging to neither world, but accepting, and even admiring, both.

Do you have a secret desire to do something you are completely unqualified to do?

For more “Nano Poblano” goodness, click here.

In The Storm of Comparison

I have had problems with envy throughout my life. Because I was born an ugly child, I’ve always envied good-looking people. In fact, I still do, even though I married into a family full of them. Envy, of course, is born of comparison, and our ability to make comparisons is often imperfect and distorted.

When you are an ugly child, people around you will let you know, as children typically comment immediately on anything that seems unusual to them. This comes from lack of empathy and perspective, of course, but we all know adults who behave the same way, commenting on people or to people about whatever they think needs fixing.

In case you don’t know, ugliness is a situation many feel needs remedying, and fast.

As an early adolescent things only got worse, as my desire to not be seen as unattractive had grown considerably. The winds of pubescence blow hard, and they blew me very close to suicide. Fortunately, I found a few lights on shore to help steer me away, people who seemed to love me in spite of my rather manifest flaws.

One other thing that helped, in my later teens, was realizing I wasn’t the only one. I got to know people who envied me, not for my looks, obviously, but for other things I could do. I came to realize that envy was a kind of weird one-way comparison where we pick out what we want to focus on and ignore everything else that might lead to more qualified or nuanced conclusions. None of us are all good or all bad.

Yesterday, I went to see my nine-year old grandson compete in his first archery tournament, which he won, by the way. As he was walking out to receive his medal, the group of junior high and high school girls sitting behind us were saying things like, “Oh my God, he’s so cute!” and “Look at him!”

I’m glad for him that he gets that life to experience, and not the one I had, but the nine-year-old still inside me is envious. What I wouldn’t have given to hear that even once.

When this subject come up, people sometimes ask me if I still think of myself as ugly. The honest answer is, “yes”, but the beautiful woman I share a marriage with begs to disagree. She does wear pretty thick glasses these days, though.

The concepts of “beauty” and “ugliness”, I’ve come to think, are kind of like music: they don’t inherently mean anything, but they sure feel like they do.

This post is part of Nano Poblano 2022. Click here to experience the madness!

A Trusted Advisor

People tell me things. I find this to be strange, as my perception is that I rarely shut up long enough for the other person to get a word in edgewise. Yet hardly a day goes by that someone or other isn’t telling me some kind of secret, unsolicited.

Maybe I’m really a bartender, and just haven’t learned to accept it — possibly because I don’t drink alcohol.

Recently, a very young woman who works at our company cafe told me that she doesn’t understand guys at all, and wishes she could find one who actually saw her, and heard her, and liked-her-as-her, not for what they hoped they could get from her.

I told her that there are indeed guys like that out there.

Where? she asked.

The fact that I get a biscuit and a Coke Zero five mornings a week has apparently qualified me as a relationship counselor, so I gave her the most Dad-like advice I could think of, namely:

“Find activities you like to do with other people, both men and women, and where you aren’t there primarily for the purpose of meeting anyone. If you meet someone, great; if not, you should be able to have fun anyway.”

She said that was actually do-able, so she’d try it and let me know how it went. Then she gave me my biscuit for free.

Okay, I made up that last part.

I am not quite sure why it is people trust me; I don’t trust me, and I’ve known me quite a while. Maybe people mistake my predictability for reliability; getting the same breakfast every day isn’t the most accurate indicator of emotional stability, however.

I am sixty years old, so I would say there’s a grandfather thing going on, but truthfully, things have been like this since I was about sixteen years old. Choosing me as a confidant has never seemed like the wisest choice, to me; but people did it, do it, and will seemingly keep doing it, so, there you go.

Currently, I’ve driven a ways out of town to some farmland to watch the sun set. Sundays, I will often go out for drives in the country; it’s lovely around here, and particularly in the fall.

Thinking about what I wrote, above, I realize: I tell all of you who read this blog my secrets, it’s only fair that people in real life tell me theirs.

It’s some kind of balance.