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.

“… the world is new.”

“In memory yet green, in joy still felt,
The scenes of life rise sharply into view.
We triumph; Life’s disasters are undealt,
And while all else is old, the world is new.”

– Isaac Asimov

It’s 6:21 in the morning, and I’m dressed for work. I’ve been up since 3:11 am, which is not that unusual for me. I’ve done 40 minutes at the gym, watched a bunch of football highlights, put out the garbage and recycling, and read a few work emails in the last 3 hours. I normally would already be at work, but something is wrong with my car, so I’m waiting until 7 when the auto repair place opens to bring it by.

I think it would be hard for most people to imagine living my life; but then, I think it’s hard to imagine living anyone else’s life. Most of us could not have imagined that we would live the lives we have lived. This is because life is big and full of randomness, and by “randomness” I mean, things outside of our control.

Most of us authors / introverts are kind of control freaks: in our works, we can make things come out like we want them to. This is rarely true in actual life.

This time last year, I was sitting beside my mother’s hospice bed in Green Valley, Arizona. The almost three weeks I spent there are a part of me now. My mother’s view of life was that we are all just links in the chain: she had seen her parents pass, and they had seen theirs, and so on.

I think seeing her three children made it easier for her at the end (we were taking turns, several weeks at a time). She said to me, at the end of a day when she’d mostly slept, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I grew up near the beach in Northwest Florida, the youngest of her three kids. We still have photos of a time my parents took us out to the beach in the fall, just to take pictures.

And yes, it was warm enough to go barefooted. I was, I believe, 6 or 7 years old.

My mother’s journey took her from upstate New York all over the world. My mother-in-law, who lives in town and is ninety-one years old, was born here after her family fled Russia/Poland to escape antisemitism. She’s lived a life impossible to imagine, although I ask her about it every chance I get.

Life is a great chain, I think: we are all connected, both back through our ancestors and to each other. But each link is still different, with unique memories and experiences.

And while we can’t fully imagine each other’s lives, it’s worth trying.

Joy and Discovery

Every weekend that I can, I go out for many-hours-long random drives in the countryside surrounding the city we live in. I do it just to see what I can discover. I love going down roads I’ve never been on, seeing towns or fields I’ve never seen. It’s pure joy for me.

Looking back on my life, I realize that every single joy I’ve ever experienced has, in some way, been intertwined with an act of discovering. We are born with a desire to discover. You see it, easily, in small children. Almost every discovery is an occasion for joy, and they want to do it, constantly.
So I got to thinking – how do we lose it? How do we lose our desire to discover?

Well, first of all, many people don’t. They continue to want to explore – new things, new places, new people, new ideas, even new music. My parents were like that, well into retirement years.

Still, many people do lose the desire to discover. And the question remains – why?

One reason may be that many people look back on the joy of discovery and come to associate it with the thing discovered, not the act of discovering itself. We all know people like this: the best music is from when they first discovered music, the best television shows and movies are from when they first discovered particular shows or movies, and so on.

In order to bolster their viewpoint, they tend to denigrate anything not from their discovery period. All music written since (fill in the blank year) is garbage, all television since (whatever) went off the air is trash, and the like. There is hardly a YouTube comment section concerning older music, movies, or television shows that isn’t filled with these same sentiments, over and over.

Life, to me, is about discovery: people who have stopped doing it have more-or-less stopped living, which is why, I think, so many people who are stuck in the past are so miserable. We are meant to be explorers, and when we cease exploring we have relinquished something vital.

Discovery isn’t about something having to be “new”, by the way. It can be our discovery of something very old, but which is, as they say, “new to us”. As a child, I discovered that my favorite children’s mystery series of books (The Hardy Boys) had started back in the 1920’s and had since been updated, so I went in search of the older originals. It took me years, but each original I found was another discovery that brought tremendous joy.

There can also be discovery in finding new ways of looking at familiar things. As a child, I loved Warner Bros cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of that crew. With age, a lot of the jokes took on different meanings, as I realized that a lot of the humor was way over my head as a kid. I have talked to young parents who loved the “Toy Story” movies growing up, who see a message in the movies about the relationship of parents and children that they couldn’t detect as children. Great works of art have a tendency to be sources of perpetual discovery. And yes, I consider Toy Story and Bugs Bunny to be great works of art.

Taking this discussion away from things to people, something analogous happens. Some people (a) seek out and enjoy meeting new people; (b) seek out and enjoy meeting old people; and (c) find new discoveries in people they have known awhile. Others do none of the above, and those people tend to be pretty miserable.

I mentioned my parents earlier. While they were living, they each went through stages of physical and mental decline. At each phase, they continued to explore and discover, but had to shift how they did it to accommodate new limitations.

One particularly sad group of people — at least to me — are those who love, and have loved, exploration and discovery, but who consider themselves unable to do it due to limitations imposed by life’s vicissitudes. It is as if they tie the act of discovering to the particular power lost, and without that power, no discovery is possible. Eventually, that no doubt becomes true, but there are those who give up discovery far too soon.

Exercising our creativity, by the way, may be the ultimate act of discovery. To write, to compose, to paint, to draw, to think up new worlds, new people – this is, as all writers know, both a tremendous joy and a tremendous frustration when it isn’t working out right.

So keep looking. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep searching. Keep creating.

Keep discovering.

Genetically Gifted vs… Not

(Originally published October, 2013)

I recently read an excellent blog post (since taken down) about one woman’s struggle with self-image and her fears about her daughter facing the same struggle in her life. This is a common, and often heartbreaking, topic I see female bloggers covering. It got me thinking, why aren’t there similar posts from men?

I’ve thought about it, and I think I have the answer. Women, here is a secret: most men don’t pursue any particular idea of masculine perfection, because we all realize early on that we either have it or we don’t.

The statistics bear this out: more women than men get married (among the heterosexual population) because all the women marry a smaller number of men, although, to be fair, typically one at a time.

In addition, a still smaller group (notably professional athletes, rock stars, and other similar types of “celebrities”) consists of men who father children with a disproportionately large number of women. The women sleeping with these men know that these men are serially promiscuous, but it does not matter, because these men are inherently desirable. Masculine desirability is largely a genetic trait, and the rest of the male population is pretty much left with alcohol and an active fantasy life.

So, ladies, when you battle your self-image, agonizing over how hard women are on themselves about their weight or physical imperfections, consider the alternative: you could be a part of a gender who realizes, at an early age, that there is no amount of lost weight, or clothes, or hair style, or working out, or anything else that will make you attractive to the opposite sex, and you either become resigned to being a genetic failure, or hope you catch a woman so wounded by the man she really wanted that she gets with you out of spite.

Or, if you were one of the lucky men, you could focus on pursuing excellence in some chosen field, be it music, or athletics, or putting out fires, or whatever. The confidence you would carry throughout your life would almost certainly serve you well in whatever career you chose. And you would be confident, because you would realize early on that most women are attracted to you, no matter how you might act – and that will tend to give a person confidence.  (It helps that, by-and-large, men don’t really begrudge other men this good fortune.)

As the father of a son, a stepson, and three stepdaughters, I have seen the way these various struggles work themselves out in my children’s lives (they are all 18 or older). Both of my sons were born the type of boys that girls like. They have other struggles in life, but that part of their self-image has never wavered – at least, not since middle school.  All three of my daughters are model-beautiful, but they have all struggled, to greater or less degree, with concerns about their physiques. Each of my daughters is arguably in better shape than either of my sons: my sons only give their physiques a second thought if they want to engage in some physical exertion and find themselves wanting. They then look at “getting in better shape” as a health exercise, not an appearance exercise.

Looking at everyone I know, probably the strangest thing in all this is that a number of women (not a majority by any means, but a decent number) are startling unaware of their own shallowness. Men hear over and over throughout life how shallow and visual they are, whereas women “care about the person” they are with. I have not found this to be the case as often as women suppose. This is an area where women’s introspection often lets them down: they can have a blind spot as to the real reasons they do things. (I am in no way diminishing men’s shallowness; however, in my experience, men are more willing to admit it.)

Unlike either of my sons, I was in the other category of boys. As a teen, I observed my female friends mostly longing after (or going after) the same few boys; I was not one of those boys. Like a lot of guys, I learned at a slightly later age that alcohol tended to cloud a girl’s judgment and give the rest of us something like a chance in the dating world; one of the reasons, I think, that alcohol is a staple of college life and beyond. It isn’t that I didn’t date, because I did. It was that I was nobody’s first choice. I’ve never slept with a virgin, never been married to anyone who wasn’t married before, and only have one child of my own siring through a woman (my ex-wife) who admitted she felt sorry for me. I consider myself lucky to have that one child.

I realized early that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones when it came to girls; but I had luck in other areas, and those could compensate me in living a great life if I would let them. I don’t look at it as tragic anymore – like I did in my twenties when I actively considered ending my own life – I just learned to look at it as the way my life was destined to be.

Let me say this as directly as I am able: men like me *can* find real love – I have – but it will always be a love we feel we need to earn every day. The genetically gifted man is unlikely to feel this way, because love, like air, is just something they breathe in.

Years ago my eldest girl brought home a guy that she, her sisters, and my wife all thought was wonderful. He was in the military, and travelled quite a bit. When asked for my opinion, I said: “He seems charming, but, since all of you took an immediate and very strong liking to him, I would suspect that to be the case wherever he goes. So be careful, as he is very likely to have girls all over the place.” And, indeed, he broke my daughter’s heart later by dumping her for another girl (and stranding her without a car) while she was visiting him where he lived. He, indeed, had “one [or more] in every town,” as they used to say. He was a prototype of the genetically gifted male, and exhibited an advanced case of the amorality that frequently comes with it. [The abiding lesson she learned from this: don’t ask my opinion about guys anymore.]

Feeling that love in a relationship of equal standing is something that continuously has to be earned isn’t really a bad thing, so long as both people feel that way. I suppose there must be genetically gifted men who are so well-adjusted emotionally that they approach relationships in something like that spirit: but, it is very hard not to take for granted what you always get for free.

Alsatian Dreams

Another restless night, up and down, up and down. When sleep finally came, images and stories poured in like floodwater.

There’s a girl with a bicycle in a field in France; it is August – August, 1939.  The war is just about to start, but she can’t know that yet. I know her in my dream, but in real life, she is someone I know now, a young someone who lives far away. But here she is France on the eve of World War 2.

It’s beautiful, but it feels ominous.

When I wake up, I’m trying to make sense of it. I spent almost nine months last year reading every WW2 book and watching every WW2 documentary and movie that I could find. And I had talked to my friend via text on Instagram earlier that day. So she ended up in Alsace on a vintage bicycle, wearing a vintage dress and hat as the clouds of war and genocide gather over Europe.

I am disturbed by all of this along several dimensions: the fear of impending doom, as well as thinking of all the people who were about to die horrible deaths 70 years ago this month. I’m also at least mildly disturbed any time a woman who is not my wife shows up in my dreams.

I look over to my right in the dark and my wife is there, lying on her side, breathing slowly.  Well, just because I’m having a bad night’s sleep doesn’t mean she should: so I get out of bed as gingerly as I can, get my glasses and iPad off the night stand and head to the other side of the house.

I know that dreams, for me, are often my brain trying to work out various issues that I’ve shoved aside. I do worry about some of my friends; the one in my dream, for instance, is someone I worry about a lot. Because life has been hard on her, and there are days I’m not sure she’s going to make it.

She also likes to be kind of stylish and vintage, if her Instagram is any indication, so maybe that’s where that came from.

I try hard not to worry about people whose lives I cannot really impact, but I seem incapable of doing so; when I manage it, consciously, my subconscious takes over and does it for me.

Later, after getting back from the gym, there is a message from my friend. Her health situation is deteriorating. We text back and forth for about 10 minutes. Then she’s off to get some sleep, and I’m off to get ready for work.

In the shower, the shampoo is running over my eyes, so I shut them. With my eyes closed, I see her again, in a French grain field, under sunshine and tall clouds, wearing a red dress and pushing a red bicycle. She doesn’t know what’s coming, but then again, no one did, really.

And none of us do now.


“You either own your mistakes, or your mistakes own you.”

You are almost five years old. We are walking through a shopping mall, one we come to every Wednesday night.

“We can pretend while we are here, if you’d like.”

“Pretend what?”

“We can pretend that this is a spaceship. These ceilings above us just slide back, and we can see the stars.”

“Are we going to Mars?”

“Yes, when you pretend, you can go anywhere you want.”

“…You can keep moving forward. When you do that, you may suddenly find yourself in a better place. But better places hardly ever come to us, we have to move forward to get there.”

There’s a message from you on my phone at lunchtime. I know you’re not working.

I also know you’re almost certainly still using.

Because you found a way, years ago, to take the ceilings off. To go to Mars. At least in your head.

I’m fifty-seven years old; you’re twenty-four now. In the six years since you left high school, you’ve given up almost everything and everyone you really loved to chase Mars.

And I had gotten tired, exhausted, from trying to carry someone who didn’t seem to want to move, forward or otherwise. So you left town to live with friends.

But I hear from you, ever so often, at lunchtime.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Have you been watching G-1 Climax this year?”

“No, I haven’t. How has it been?”

“Amazing. I had forgotten watching WWE how good wrestling can actually be when the performers just do it.”

“I’ll have to check that out.”

“Yeah, well I know you’re at work, but I just wanted to call sometime when I wasn’t asking for anything. Love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too.”

In my dreams, I’m still holding your hand, walking through a combination spaceship / shopping mall. I’m still trying, with everything I have, to make you see that you have what it takes to face life, to enjoy it, to thrive.

To show you that you can get rid of the ceilings that block out your real stars.

In dreams.

But, when I wake up, all I really have left is to love you.

Because nothing else has helped at all.

The Victory of Dreams Over Avoidance

There are things in my life I do not like to think about. As a probably predictable result, I dream about them instead. My dreams don’t make a whole lot of sense, tending to combine things in odd ways and tending to have no plot or point.

In other words, they are pretty much like my poetry.

Recently, I have had a number of dreams about my mother, who passed away this last December. I was fortunate enough to get to spend three weeks with her while she was in hospice. I wrote about it while I was there — virtually every day — but after the funeral, grieving kind of got overtaken by life: work, marriage, kids, grandkids.

At home, I’m a husband, a dad, a stepdad, and a grandfather. At work, I’m one of the bosses, plus I’m one of the older employees. At church, I’m the pianist. Everywhere I go, I have a job to do, a role to play, and, frequently, part of that is looking after other people’s feelings.

So, I push aside my own.

I have a number of friends who’ve lost parents in the last year. Grief is simultaneously the most common, and the most individual, experience in the world. We all grieve, but every grief is different. Most people who are grieving use every bit of energy they have just living through it.

Like a lot of men, I tend to substitute simple and practical emotions for complex and impractical ones. “Sad”, “Regretful”, and “Pensive”, for instance, all tend to come out as “Impatient” or “Weary”, which are both eminently practical: impatience pushes other people away; weariness allows you to leave and go to bed.

Where, unfortunately, the dreams are waiting.

They say that no matter what age you are when your parents die, you become an orphan, but that doesn’t seem to describe it completely to me. While my father and mother were alive, I was still their child. When my father died, I was still my mother’s child. But I no longer have that role. Instead, I’m all the things I listed up in the fourth paragraph.

When you aren’t anybody’s child, you can rightly be called an orphan. But it feels more like losing being a child at all. Because no one will ever see me that way again.

So I’m not really expecting anyone to be too concerned with my feelings. It’s more my job to be concerned with theirs.

I worry about my children and grandchildren a lot. I know this, because these worries show up in my dreams.

(Immediately after writing that last sentence, I got the photos below from my wife, who is visiting a dinosaur museum with two of my daughters and their children.

My oldest grandson, having the time of his life.

Yeah. I won’t have nightmares about that.)

I’ve had dreams where both one of my kids and one of my grandkids are in trouble, but they are somehow the same age. In one dream like that, I had lost track of them (my 24 year old son and 2 year old granddaughter, both 2 in my dream) while in a public place (a courthouse). I realized after panicking in the dream that I was in a dream.

That happens to me in dreams a lot — I suddenly realize I’m dreaming. Even so, I could still feel the panic.

Of course, courthouses can do that, even if nothing else bad is going on.

As I originally conceived this blog, writing was supposed to help me work through feelings for which I had no other outlet. Even in my writing, though, I’ve tended to focus on the feelings of others, or have relived incidents from when I was much younger — which is almost like writing about another person.

I can see that a more emotionally honest approach would be to write about my own feelings and the circumstances of my life as it is now. I have done some of that. By casual survey, two of the last twenty pieces I’ve posted have been contemporary, autobiographical, and relevant. Which means that 90% of what I write (if that is a typical sample) isn’t any of those things.

Because I am tired of waking up feeling like I’ve been in a prize fight, I’ve decided to spend the next number of days trying to do work through how I’m feeling out here. It might be poetry, it might be prose, it might be a big mess. But it will be honest.

So we will see how that goes…

Things I Only Think About Saying

Son: For my birthday, I wouldn’t mind having one of those kits.
Me: Given the relationship your mom and I had, there’s a fair chance you and I aren’t even related.

Cashier: I like your yellow car. Can I have it?
Me: I normally require a divorce decree first.

Co-worker: Any plans for this weekend?
Me: Yes, I’m taking a course in self-absorption. It’s self-taught.

Boss: What do you want to be doing in five years?
Me: Answering a different question.

Interviewee: What do you do most often in a workday?
Me: Despair

Friend: Do you still do that poetry blogging thing, or whatever it is?
Me: “Whatever it is” is actually a pretty good description.

Online friend: How is your workday day going?
Me: Like a porcupine working in a balloon factory.

Co-worker: What do you think my résumé needs to ensure I get that job?
Me: Cash. And maybe extra cash.

Reader: Where do your ideas come from?
Me: Thule, Greenland.

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.