Saturday, March 25, 2023

Lord of the Plains: Discovering the Real Taylor Sheridan

Ben Foster in Hell or High Water (2016), OddLot Entertainment and Lionsgate Films

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs in one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties. I work for a venerable finance firm that doesn’t just have an office building but supports an entire “campus.”

Fitting, as many of my co-workers graduated from prestigious Ivy League universities situated on sprawling grounds. I did not.

Cowboying? Folks from these parts don’t even mow their own lawns. They have nannies and personal assistants and people to do their shopping for them. And yet, the water cooler chit-chat at that campus often revolves around them counting the days between Yellowstone episodes, giddy with anticipation I've not seen since that long ago summer when we all wondered who shot J.R.

Widespread appeal far beyond what you’d normally expect for a show about rural people doing rural things, buoyed by their unusual good looks and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of ass kickin' thrown in too, is exactly how we got to where we are today. And just where is that, you ask?

Kansas, my dear Dorothy, or Montana—same difference as long as it's somewhere with a view of the big, blue sky. Maybe it’s not so perplexing that these city slickers who have everything they could possibly desire except space to spread out want to be out there in the great wide open, so long as they’re actually all bundled up warm and cozy on the other side of their 80-inch TVs watching those pretty ranchers ranch and not getting any mud on their own designer boots.

They’ve glommed on so hard that Yellowstone’s cavernous borders couldn’t hold back this relentless westward expansion. Faster than you can say “gold rush,” we loaded up the wagons and moved not to Beverly Hills but right on into writer and director Taylor Sheridan’s whole “universe” of spin-offs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan too, but the Yellowstone universe sounds as nauseating to me as the Marvel multiverse. "Why is that?" you may be wondering.

Sticking with the wagon train theme, the answer is simple: y’all have hitched your wagons to the wrong horse. I’m sorry to tell you, but most of you Dutton groupies are just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies to my personal Western hoedown.

Yellowstone has its moments—Rip throwing a chair through a glass wall, eating a bullet to the belly, and beating Beth’s assailant to death comes to mind—but it’s still largely Sheridan-light. Its darkness and violence are muted by just enough hope and soapy intrigue to keep mainstream audiences coming back for their next fix.

The real Sheridan forces you to mainline that smack straight into a vein, whether you’re up for partying that hard or not. In the same way that A Perfect Circle or Puscifer could be gateway bands to Tool—solid in their own right but lacking the depth of Maynard's masterwork—Yellowstone, the pinnacle for many of you, should really only be an introduction to the best of Sheridan.

So come along now and let me show you a few of his real classics, but be forewarned, I like my entertainment the same way as my coffee, the only way a proper cup should be brewed—intense, relentless, suffocating, and black like my soul. What can I say? I guess the familiar taste of blood in my mouth has become oddly comforting in the course of a life lived.

Regardless, you'll find little in the way of catharsis here; just a brutal acknowledgment of the way things are. Okay, maybe there’s a little healing in these stories, but much like in real life, you have to endure an awful lot of pain for what’s usually a bittersweet payoff.

We first find ourselves sitting on a drab front porch on a poverty-stricken Indian reservation in some desolate corner of Wyoming. By featuring Native American characters, often but not always portraying them hopelessly, Sheridan has done more to generate awareness of the challenges they face than any other modern filmmaker I can recall, yet I’ve never seen that fact acknowledged in coverage of his work.

The tragedy depicted in this monologue, however, isn’t the exclusive domain of Native peoples. Coldly indiscriminate, it touches all races and socio-economic backgrounds and is one I’m all too familiar with—child loss.

"''re never gonna be the same. You're never gonna be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing's ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer—you allow yourself to visit her in your mind—you'll remember all the love she gave you, all the joy she knew.' Point is, Martin, you can't steer from the pain. If you do, you'll rob yourself. You'll rob yourself of every memory of her, every last one, from her first step to her last smile—kill 'em all. Just take the pain, Martin. You hear me? You take it. It's the only way you'll keep her with you."

In that monologue from Wind River, the Corey character, played by Jeremy Renner, shares more truth about the bleak reality of losing a child than anything I've ever heard from any other source, including all the professionals with whom I spoke. He's the only one who didn't gloss it over with some weak platitude about time healing all wounds or things happening for a reason.

After that feel-good moment, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that life is all sunshine and rainbows. I'd better bring you back to Earth with a visit to grayed-out Kingstown, home to not one, but seven, prisons and a host of sordid characters who either make their living off them or are incarcerated in them. Mercifully, we're on a boat with a hint of sunshine for this little gem delivered again by Sheridan favorite, Renner, this time as "Mayor" Mike McLusky.

"My father used to say, 'I can't wait to get old, for my mind to soften and my memories to rot away. The hardest thing to do is forget—forget the scars that life gives you, forget the scars you gave others. The challenge, then, is hiding a few memories worth keeping from your dying mind.' He told me to keep a journal and only write down the good things. Then, when the bad things fade away, you can read about the happy life you had. But minds don't forget so easily, and the horror that we witness and endure takes root. Only madness and dementia can remove it."

At least I have that to look forward to in my decrepitude. When I inevitably forget Ruby's name and everything she meant to me, I'll also finally be purged of the haunting memory of the day she died in my arms.

And now to where it all started for me, where I first felt Sheridan speaking to me more clearly than any other filmmaker today—on a dusty hill outside some nondescript West Texas dustbowl town. A modern-day cowboy of sorts—just not the kind you’d want anywhere near your daughter, or even your enemy for that matter unless you really hated him to the core—sits high on a rock, his rifle resting on his knee, and surveys the scene below.

What Tanner Howard, acted superbly by Ben Foster, sees is a dirt road lined with police cars and civilian trucks, all of them heavily armed and trying to pin him down on that hill. He’s led them here where he knows he’ll make his final stand and die, but incomprehensibly to most of us, that’s fine by him. While his methods and morals may be ruthless and twisted, he has a code of honor centered around family and he aims for that death to matter as much as it can in this grim version of Sheridan's universe that was born not on a picturesque Montana ranch but in a fiery hell (or high water).

Satisfied that it will, he inhales deeply and, in tribute to the Comanche who we've all but exterminated in our real westward expansion of the American empire, declares himself “Lord of the plains.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Alone: A story about breakfast gone bad

Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

He sat at the counter sipping his coffee and waiting on his breakfast. This place was far from an authentic diner but was the best he could do in this upscale neighborhood dominated by trendy pretenders serving outlandish fare at outrageous prices.

If he stuck to the special, he was alright. Venturing out to the “chef’s selections” might mean avocado toast or oats soaked in kefir, whatever that is. Most of the menu appealed to a crowd more interested in sharing pictures of their trip to the diner on their social media than in actually eating anything resembling real staples like thick-cut bacon and over-easy eggs fried in the grease or biscuits and sausage gravy.

He was snapped out of lamenting the softening of the world and the disappearance of the classic American diner by a sudden realization that the place had gone eerily quiet. Knowing the designer-clad masses would never choose silence over their own blithering, he turned his stool to see what could have precipitated this minor miracle.

He didn’t have to look far, as the barrel of the AR-15 strapped to the man’s back was inches from his face. Glancing down the row, two other similarly armed companions took their seats.

He saw red in an instant. He felt his face flush with anger, and any hope of a self-preservation-inspired flight response kicking in was lost. There could have been ten of them and he wouldn’t have cared.

Loud enough to startle the big one next to him he bellowed, “Is that surrogate for the dick you don’t have that’s dangling from your shoulder supposed to intimidate me?”

Baffled, the burly biker-type turned and said, “What?” as his friends also spun their stools toward the commotion. Every petrified eye in the place was on the lone antagonizer as the three men jumped up to confront him.

“Oh, right, you and the two grits with you are too stupid to know what ‘surrogate’ means. I’m not asking to stand in for you with your skank wife; I’m asking if you think your toy gun scares me?”

The trio had fantasized about any number of different scenarios playing out when they decided to stroll down the town’s main street while displaying their assault rifles in plain view. Being hostilely confronted by an unarmed man wasn’t one of those scenarios.

Dumbfounded, their ring leader managed to muster, “We’re just out enjoying the day and exercising our right to bear arms. Do you have a problem with that?”

“You’re not going to do anything whether I do or not”, he scoffed. “My father was a hunter; you’re just an attention-seeking freak. So here’s the deal. You’ve got five seconds to put the barrel in my mouth and pull the trigger or leave. If I’m still alive in five seconds and the three of you aren’t gone, I’m going to stab you in the throat with my fork and listen to the gurgling sound of you drowning in your own blood while beating those two to death with their own guns. Just give me the reason I’ve been begging for.”

And then he punctuated the insanity, leaning forward, opening wide to invite the gun’s barrel, and blaring, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh” directly into the man’s face.

They had no choice, and he knew it. They weren't killers, so they weren't going to shoot him. And never mind the numbers advantage; the second he called their bluff they had no interest in fighting.

“C’mon, let’s go. He ain’t worth it.”

Getting a final dig in as they tried their best to move quickly and discreetly toward the door, he taunted, “You’re right, fat boy. It’s not worth me doing exactly what I said I would.”

The momentary excitement over, he turned back to the counter and took another sip of coffee as if nothing had happened, but the rage simmered just below the surface. He breathed deeply and steadied his hand to keep from spilling.

“Wow mister, that was something else!”

Surely the hipster would go away and he could finally eat in peace if he didn’t acknowledge his presence.

Lingering annoyingly, his new admirer added, “It’s about time we stood up to those right-wing nut jobs and put them in their place.”

“We?” What did you do, tofu, besides sit there and piss your skinny jeans?

The kid may have been a naive idealist, but he didn’t have to have much life experience to realize he’d badly misread the room. He started backing away, but it was too late—the stranger had a fistful of his spotless “work” jacket and had yanked him forward and nearly off his feet. They were only inches apart, and the kid was helpless.

“There’s no ‘we’ here. If this place burned to the ground, I'd find a way out and leave you to die. How's that for getting canceled? I hate you and your rich little friends as much as I hate them. You just weren’t in my face disrupting my peace like they were. But now you are.”

“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please, let go of me.”

He released his grip on the jacket and gave a little shove, causing the kid to stumble backward. Their booth emptied in seconds as the group scrambled for the door, leaving several twenties on the table.

Shaking his head in disgust, he returned once more to the now-cold coffee. Too bad he didn't have a little whiskey to splash in it after the morning he'd had.

He started to motion to the waitress to freshen his cup when he realized there was no waitress. She must be hiding, petrified, in the back, he thought.

In fact, she wasn’t the only missing person. The restaurant had almost entirely emptied, and he knew he'd better leave in a hurry before the cops arrived. He felt a little bad about the commotion he’d caused, but mostly he was just irritated that there’d be no breakfast this morning. 

He pulled a five-dollar bill from his wallet and left it next to the cup. Bracing himself against winter’s chill, he trudged to the door and out into the cold, alone.

Monday, March 28, 2022

What's in a name?

We wanted an elegant and sophisticated name for formal occasions but one that could also be shortened into something quirky and fun in everyday use. We'd privately chosen Samantha and planned to call her Sammie for short.

In my mind's eye, I could see myself palling around with my little peanut, Sammie, on our many adventures. In these fantasy outings I concocted in my head, her mother had often dressed her in overalls instead of a dress, and she dragged a little stuffed monkey around with her.

With no real point of reference having lost my own father at age three, I don't know why I pictured fatherhood that way. I just did.

She could wear a dress to church and be called Samantha, but for our daddy-daughter outings, my Sammie needed to be ready to get a little dirt on her knees. She needed to know how to take a bump just as well as pose for a photo, and I planned to show her how. As I'd find out later, she knew how to take a bump, and give one, just fine all on her own, thank you very much.

Samantha was perfect, bewitching if you need a little groan-inducing attempt at humor, yet here we sat, nearly a week into our NICU stay after her birth with no nametag on her crib. It just didn't fit after she was born, and we were reluctant to name her.

But the wait was getting ridiculous, if not embarrassing then at least uncomfortable. Our baby deserved a name.

So the three of us - Mary, Kate (Mary's sister), and me - started yet another brainstorming session. We ticked through name after name, rejecting each for one reason or another and sometimes for no reason at all.

Elizabeth was too ubiquitous. Valerie had been a mean girl on 90210. Kelly was Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell. And Tiffani... Tiffani was definitely out since she'd played them both!

And then Kate said, "Ruby." I don't think she even managed to get the word out without giggling through it. In fact, we all laughed at first, dismissing it even more quickly than the rest.

It was such an old name. It reminded me of a Coney Island fortune teller in a floor-length red velvet dress and white shawl that had faded to off-white over the years, cleverly parting tourists from their hard-earned money with outlandish tales of riches they'd acquire and hearts they'd break along the way. It certainly didn't conjure an image of an innocent little girl.

We hadn't yet heard her raspy laugh that sounded more like it belonged to a smoker with a 2-pack-a-day habit than to a baby. That would come a few months later when her unmistakable personality started to develop.

Even so, maybe we intuitively knew already that she wasn't going to embody the typical image of an innocent little girl despite possessing a certain angelic quality. Our original choice, Samantha, wasn't a name for a delicate flower, and neither was Ruby.

Maybe she was destined to be more of a mischievous storyteller - someone who knew things about people and the world that she shouldn't rightfully know at her age or at any age. She already knew how to breathe room air without her oxygen mask, and she shouldn't know that at 32 weeks and 2 pounds. I didn't think she should know how to scoot toward my hand to say hi when I'd put it through the care porthole in her incubator either, but she knew that, too.

Ruby lingered in my mind overnight, and I brought it up the next day. To my surprise, Kate and Mary didn't despise it either. The more we repeated it, the more it grew on us.

I don't remember who first called her "Roo" or when. Did that come before or after we told the nurse to write "Ruby" on her nametag? Had we brought her home from the hospital, or were we already referring to her as "Roo" in the NICU?

It doesn't matter, because, from the moment I heard "Roo," wherever I was, I knew that was her. There was no lingering, no growing on me, and no adjusting to it. She was Roo, through and through, the first time ever I heard it.

CODA won Best Picture last night. I don't think too much of awards for art. Do we really have to compete over everything? Aren't some things just meant to be enjoyed and appreciated without a scorecard? I know my opinion is unpopular, but shouldn't simply participating be good enough for some of life's pleasures without crowning winners and losers?

You sang. You danced. You acted. You created something, and maybe someone will find some beauty in it. Good for you! You made the world a better place in some small way just by having the courage to participate. Here's your trophy. Go in peace and create some more.

These awards do serve a purpose, though. Occasionally, some small film I might not have otherwise heard about gets enough press to pique my curiosity, and then I go and find it.

I'm going to find CODA and watch it. It must be pretty good to have won, but more importantly to me, the title character's name is Ruby.

To this day, that name is rare enough to stop me in my tracks when I hear it, and I feel a connection to every Ruby. Mostly though, I feel an unbreakable bond with the one Ruby who was a part of my life for a few short years.

"What's in a name?" you ask. If that name is Ruby, then, for me, everything.

Scroll past the photos if you'd like to listen to a pretty song I thought of today when I was writing about that beautiful name. It probably didn't win any awards, and neither did Roo, but that won't stop us from enjoying it just the same.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Lessons from a Poet and a Coach on How We Spend Our Time

I’ve laid bare my journal for you, or at least the January 28th entry. It’s not that provocative though, so I hope you’re not disappointed.


Journaling every day isn’t for me even if I might want it to be. It becomes a burden when forced and is only meaningful when something is burning to escape from my brain to my fingertips to the page. This observation seems appropriate given that I’m just now making my first entry of the year with nearly a month gone.

Journaling proponents I’ve read advise putting pen to paper for a more tactile connection to your writing. Since I learned to type well years ago, I’ve never been able to return to longhand writing. I like the speed with which I can type my thoughts before I “lose” them, the ease of making revisions, and the neatness with which sentences appear on the page compared to my slow, messy writing.

I also have the urge to publish nearly every thought I put down, like some sort of public record that will be here when I’m gone to prove I existed. Most people prefer to keep some thoughts private, but I have the idea that our most private thoughts—the ones we wouldn’t want anyone to see—make the best writing.

Coach Jamison

Is it weird to think about your high school football coach when you’re 52? Don’t answer that.

I used to think my coach—a legend in our small town who brings to mind the country song lyric, “I’ve got some famous friends you’ve probably never heard of”—was above the mystique of being Wayne Jamison. He didn’t care about all that adoration. 

The wins, losses, and championships weren’t even for him. They were for the players.

He saw himself as a teacher of the game who’d rather be left alone to play golf after the final whistle blew than talk about what just happened. 
His postgame interviews were brusque, and he avoided interactions with parents that might influence decisions about playing time. Ironically, his very aloofness created a curiosity about him that contributed to the attention he tried to avoid.

I think I was mostly right about him, but after he retired and began attending games and sitting in the press box, I got the idea he actually did enjoy the large shadow his image cast and took pride in that field that was named after him. He liked being Smiley, the four-time state champion with the quirky personality and even quirkier offense.

Until I gave it some thought, I preferred my earlier, idealized image of him being above petty concerns. Later, I came to appreciate him as an ordinary human being like the rest of us, except that he was a damned good coach who resisted the temptation to make a simple game of blocking and tackling any more complicated than that.

He drove other coaches nuts trying to solve the mystery of Bridgeport football when there really was no mystery. He just drilled his teams in the basics until they did them really well—a lesson I’ve applied to weight training and to life in general.

If anything, his stature as a giant in our community should be enhanced by his humanity rather than diminished by it. He fought the same battles we all fight yet still managed to positively impact so many lives
And really, why was I so uptight about the man evolving beyond the grumpy coach persona in his later years and being pleased with the way his life turned out?

Maybe, like his brand of football, I was searching for mystery in him where there really was none. Well, perhaps a little, like the way he could call a timeout when we were reeling, stroll into our defensive huddle in an oddly reassuring way that promised he was about to right the ship, tell us to watch for a certain play after the timeout, and then, like magic, here came that play into the awaiting buzzsaw, just like he said.

I'm smiling uncomfortably because I am... uncomfortable that is. Get me out of here!


Punctuality stifles creativity. That’s not my opinion; it's a fact. Or is it? 

I have my opinion on opinions, and you’ll be subjected to it in the next section. Whatever it is, I’ve certainly observed the negative effect of punctuality on creativity in myself, running here and there, watching the clock to make sure I'm not late for my many obligations. 

I work at a military school where punctuality is especially important. I even enjoy the structure at times, and I certainly value the discipline of maintaining a regular workout schedule.

But what if I have to be at a meeting at the exact moment I’m having a revealing thought about an article I’m writing or may write? If I rush to the meeting, that seed of creativity is lost, perhaps gone forever.

To hell with the meeting. No one is going to remember I missed the stupid meeting. They won’t miss the article I didn’t write either, but not writing it will eat away at me.

Am I the only one who feels this way? People sure seem uptight about time, and I often feel alone on an island with my thoughts.

Good, but just give me time to have them.

Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town

I saved the best for last.

The Triggering Town is a quaint little book of writing advice for young poets authored by Richard Hugo, a poet from the Northwest and creative writing instructor at the University of Montana in the 1960s. I’m neither young nor a poet but I enjoyed it immensely and have since speculated about how exhilarating it must have been to sit in Hugo’s classroom.

In the introduction that resonated so deeply with me, he tells readers arguing is a waste of time that could be better spent on meaningful thought or pursuing one’s craft. I agree and have learned this lesson the hard way after being drawn into lengthy, draining social media arguments, usually over political opinions I stupidly shared.

I'd even expand Hugo’s advice to include not criticizing, complaining, or gossiping, though arguing is the worst. Think about the things we argue over. They’re merely opinions or preferences and are hardly ever objectively provable except for my opinions. My opinions are facts.

Indisputably, Tom Brady, Tool, winter, western films, and weight training are all better than any five things you might name. No really, Tommy actually is the best and if you can count to seven you know that in your heart even if you don’t like it. The rest might be opinions, maybe, but that one’s just a simple fact, Jack. 

Better than whatever you like, factually.

Also better. He'd shoot your boy scout superhero in the face.

I've grown soft and old, so I'll allow that on some plane of reality you might possibly think the great Lynyrd Skynyrd is Tool's equal, but you're wrong. Sweet Home Alabama may have been the original "fuck off" song and a dandy at that, but just indulge your senses in a listen to Swamp SongTicks and Leeches, The Pot, or Hooker with a Penis if you want to hear the masters of the genre at work.

Tool may have written a bunch of songs about that enlightened third-eye state and how we're all connected, but make no mistake, there are plenty of nitwits out there with whom they'd lost that tenuous connection and they had no qualms about telling those assholes to go to hell. I love them above all others for that dichotomy and there's no argument you could float that would sway me otherwise. Is this what you wanted? Cause it's definitely what you're getting.

So many opinions, and so incredibly annoying when I shove them down your throat, yet these are the kinds of pointless disagreements we often have. We could argue until we’re blue in the face about how my band, athlete, film genre, and hobby are all better than yours, and I’ll surely take you to task over the beauty of falling snow, but no one will ever change their mind. Go on thinking sand in your ass crack is wonderful if you must.

January 29, 2022... Perfection!

Maybe you find my pigheadedness slightly humorous when we're only talking about trivial topics, but the arguing and divisiveness would escalate if we tackled religion or politics. Despite our passionate pleas, what do any of us really know about those topics anyway? I’m a mess of contradictions, as I’m sure most people are.

I think the government should stay out of our lives, but in a society where we all have to live together under certain rules that might inherently favor some over others, I also believe in government safety nets as a helping hand up for those who may fall behind trying to play by these rules invented by other imperfect people. I can barely articulate that. I certainly have no business trying to argue it.

In the end, all arguing does is drive a wedge between us. Even if we say a disagreement is forgotten, it’s not. We remember little pieces of each, and these pieces add up. We didn’t even have a real argument and you’re a little pissed at me about Brady. Eventually, we’d rather not bother talking with that argumentative person because the talking just leads to more arguing.

I know you're mad, but I can't even.

I guess some weirdos actually enjoy arguing. Some of them probably even went to law school with me (file that folly under lessons learned the hard way). Beware of their traps lest they draw you in and drain your creative energy in their pointless vacuum.

If one makes a genuine effort to avoid arguing and other boorish behaviors, then what’s left to talk about besides trivial events like the weather or what we’re having for lunch? Lunch is safe. Since I like everything indiscriminately, I’ll even agree with you that whatever you’ve chosen is an excellent choice. 

Sushi? Hell yes! Burger? Order me one, too! Salad? Umm, you mean as a side dish, right? Great, I’ll take the macaroni. Nah wait, make it potato.

Enough already! How about sprinkling a bit of genuine honesty, vulnerability, and emotion into these snoozefest conversations? 

Okay, but do you have to whine so much (probably not you per se)? Who wants to listen to someone blubber about their problems when we all have our own? If it’s not clear, I sure don’t.

Maybe we should all just quit talking so damned much. I'm okay. You're okay. Enough said. 

With the lip-flapping distraction minimized, we'll have a lot more time to immerse ourselves in our passions. We can leave our problems in our journals, or for oversharers like me, in our blogs.

Wrapping It All Up with a Neat Little Bow

How about that? This mess of seemingly disjointed thoughts ties together after all, sort of. 

The blueprint for living life more on my own terms, even while keeping one eye on that annoying clock in the corner, was right here in front of me all along. Although he became more receptive to an admiring public as he aged, I can't imagine the original Zen master, Coach Jamison, ever bothering to argue with anyone about anything. 

His insistence on simplicity and focused effort, while avoiding distractions like pointless banter, was key to his success and happiness. Perhaps this formula can also serve as a guiding light for me.

But also, what are you having for lunch? And if not Tool, then what lousy band is your favorite?

The sun'll come out tomorrow, but not a moment sooner, and I couldn't be happier!

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Little Frog Dying on the Side of the Road

My girlfriend, Christina, and I go for a short walk around our neighborhood just about every morning. It's the sort of thing I used to sneer at. 

"That's not exercising," I'd think, swearing I'd never stoop so low.

I guess never is now. These days, I relish our walks and the thoughts that bubble up, though today's bubbling bubbled over.

She somehow spotted the little frog and stooped to have a look, despite him being no more than two inches long and his coloring blending in with the pavement. He didn't immediately jump, so I bent to investigate as well.

I love frogs. I have since I was a little boy and don't even know why. I just think they're cute, I guess.

Nothing appeared amiss at first. He was just a bit slow to react.

But he was also in the road and that wouldn't do, so we found a stick with which to nudge him. He made a small hop on my first gentle poke to his butt, and everything seemed normal to me.

When Kris said, "I think he has blood on his mouth," I finally noticed everything was all wrong with this little guy (or gal). Not only was he bleeding as she said, but he was also missing parts of his left front and right hind legs.

Needing a pause, I looked away. When I saw the freshly cut grass, it hit me: he'd been caught by those whirling plastic weed trimmer threads and cut to shreds. Not surprising, since the incessant mowing and trimming is a near-daily occurrence in our neighborhood from April through October, but frustrating nonetheless.

I know the grounds crew is just doing the job they're paid to do, but I couldn't help being annoyed seeing the mangled frog and thinking about how humans have this obsessive need to control everything in our environments. Mangling things as we shape them to meet our selfish needs seems to me to be what we do best.

The only other similar incident in my lifetime was arguably much worse. I've blocked out the details of my awful lawn mowing encounter with a nest of baby rabbits years earlier, but I do know I killed at least a couple of them.

I knew this little frog wasn't going to make it, even if he'd managed to instinctively hop when I'd nudged him. I also thought one of God's creatures deserved to be as comfortable as he could for whatever short time he had left.

Kris helped me move him a short distance into the shade at the side of the road next to a bit of water. This wasn't perfect—probably not where he'd have gone to die had he been able—but it was better than laying out in the road.

We often joke about the amount of meat I consume. We've determined it's over a hundred chickens a year (two a week consistently) on top of all the beef, pork, and fish that I also regularly include in my weekly meals.

For the most part, at least until recently, I've thought nothing at all about this. Humans are at the top of the food chain and that's just the way it is in a violent world where survival and sympathy don't often mesh.

After going fishing with my friend Mike and eating a couple of the fish we caught, I had a tiny passing thought about the order of things. It's not like I've never fished before and eaten my catch, but I'm also not out there every weekend and have been especially scarce at the streams in adulthood compared to my youth. So the experience was newish enough that I had this rare moment of self-awareness considering how the fish at the end of my line had given its life to provide me a bit of sport and another meal.

On the heels of my fishing enlightenment, I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, and the creaky old gears of my mind turned a bit more. Everyone I mention this book to says they've already read it but also never shared any of its wisdom with me, so thanks for nothing. I'll just figure things out on my own.

What I decided is that I won't be scrapping my carnivorous diet for some bean sprouts like Millman, but I did hear his words about the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. I'm starting to pay a little closer attention to those connections.

I'm trying to remember to say grace before meals, for example, just to give thanks for the animal that gave its life so a big fat ass like me can live a while longer. I remember about half the time, but that's better than not at all.

This little brown went back in the stream rather than onto my dinner table.

Like consuming my catch, interconnectedness isn't a new concept for me either. It's just another I hadn't considered in a while. 

My hard-drinking college English professor and coach of WVU's club rugby team, Dr. Fitzpatrick, lectured extensively about how "everything is connected to everything else." He also told me I looked like Sylvester Stallone one night after we'd both had a few too many beers, so consider the source.

I was too young and foolish to immersively read most of the books he assigned, skimming titles I'd have enjoyed like Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany only to extract the information we'd likely be tested on, but Fitz's words resonated with me then and they resonate with me now. That would be the words about connectedness; the ones about Sly didn't ring true with me or with any college women that I recall.

On top of saying grace half the time, I also read more now. Like Mike Tyson said, "Old too soon and wise too late." Or was that a lesser scholar named Benjamin Franklin?

Reading Millman's words about feeling his teacher's presence in the wind rustling through tree leaves—knowing that he needn't wonder any longer where the old man had gone because he was everywhere and had never really left—brought me some comfort. I thought about my daughter, Ruby, and my often desperate longings about where she might be, and that gnawing fear that I'll never see her again eased just a little. 

Maybe if I open my eyes, I can see a little of her now. Perhaps she's here with me all along this walkpart of the stream and the trees and the breeze.

That's why a little dying frog on the side of the road suddenly mattered. She's part of that little frog, too. We all are, and it's part of us.

I was tearing up a little as we moved the frog and promised to come back later. I'd like to say I didn't feel self-conscious about that, but it wouldn't be true. I tried wiping my eyes as we passed some other people continuing on our walk so they wouldn't see me sniffling.

My humiliation was fleeting. In the next breath, I got mad and thought, "To hell with them. I don't even like people. If it was them on the side of the road bleeding from their mouths, I wouldn't lift a finger to help."

I guess I still have some work to do on this idea of everything being connected because I sure don't feel nearly as strong a connection to my fellow man a lot of the time as I do to nature. Besides, if you don't want me to react violently, just like something wild, then maybe don't provoke me with your leering.

When Ruby's death was really raw a few years ago, I'd become infuriated hearing about someone taking the loss of their pet extremely hard. I was clouded by grief and had that all wrong. Nowadays, I roll my eyes harder at mourning the loss of most humans.

What are we compared to the loyalty and unconditional love pets freely give? Destructive and self-serving come to mind. 

We returned early in the evening as promised and found the little frog dead, just as we knew we would. We carried him about thirty yards on a piece of tree bark to a wooded area next to a stream, dug a small grave, placed him in it, covered it with dirt, and marked it with a couple of stones and some wood.

We even made a small cross from a twig before I mumbled something about him returning to his maker, but it's too short to see in the photo. Besides, a visible cross would attract someone to kick it over, and my dwindling opinion of human nature would dwindle some more.

A place to pause on my walks.

Looking closely now at the photo of the little grave we made, I see how it kind of looks like a frog's body with two legs drawn up to each side. We didn't do that intentionally—we were just trying to cover the earth and mark the spot—but I'm glad I noticed the resemblance.

This might all seem a bit silly and melodramatic. Surely I've encountered many dead animals in my lifetime and never took the time to bury them. That's true, but for some reason, I did take the time to bury this one.

Valuing life and recognizing that it matters can't be a bad thing. If we all could do just a little more of that, myself included, then maybe we'd start seeing a little more of the good in each other. 
Maybe I'd also develop a bit more compassion for my fellow man as I continue exploring this idea of interconnectedness.

Rest in peace, little frog. Thank you for the difference you made in my life one dreary day in May.

I'll see you again on a sunny day. I already do.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Thoughts on Criticism

I started this blog as an outlet for my grief after my daughter, Ruby, died. I haven't posted anything to it in quite some time because, while grief is still an important topic to me and one that plays a significant role in my daily life even some seven-plus years after her death, I've written most of what I want to say on the topic for now.

Rather than confining the blog strictly to grief topics, I've decided to broaden it. I'm quite an introspective person, perhaps too much so at times. I get in my own way with all this sitting around thinking and don't get as much done as I should.

Well, tough shit. Or as Popeye would say, "I yam what I yam."

I need a place to grapple with all this annoying thinking. Ah-ah-ah, don't even start with, "Why don't you just keep a journal, Chuck, rather than subjecting us to your inner musings?"

I already did that, and here's the problem. Some of these thoughts I write down rise above mere journal entries, at least in my not-so-humble opinion of myself. They're not really articles either though. Or if they are, I don't know who would run them.

So this is the new space in which my blog will operate. If I think it's better than a journal entry in that it has some shareable value, but it also doesn't quite rise to the level of a full-blown article, at least not one with a market, then it goes here.

You're certainly free to skip on past if the words don't speak to you, but hopefully, some of them will speak to some of you some of the time. I welcome any comments, and while I may not respond to all of them, it'll be nice knowing a few people are reading.

Now that logistics are out of the way, let's get to it. Thoughts on criticism, per the clever title above, is the topic of my first entry in the new format.

Criticism stinks!... the TLDR version of my post.

I suppose if someone is being paid to be a critic, then they must do their job. Bosses, teachers, and parents can also rightly criticize from time to time in order to help someone live up to their potential but should do so judiciously, as we should also do our best to accept well-intentioned criticism graciously. Most other forms of criticism, to me anyway, are just jealousy.

Here’s Tom Brady’s pre-NFL draft criticism, written by a scout who was being paid to be critical, so I won’t, in turn, criticize him for writing it. I’m just sharing it as food for thought, and would also caution you to leave your own particular feelings about polarizing Brady out of your reading, lest you miss my point altogether.

"Poor build. Skinny. Lacks great physical stature and arm strength. Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush. Can’t drive the ball downfield. Does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib. Gets knocked down easily."

Washington Post reporter, Sally Jenkins, shared that evaluation in a recent column and concluded with her own perceptive take on those aspects of character and will that are so much harder to measure: “From the outside, that is.”

For me, a few thoughts came to mind related not so much to this sort of 
institutional criticism (talent evaluators, film and book critics, etc.) that offers some clear value but more to our self-criticism and criticism of each other. It's the latter that sticks in my craw and that I mostly rebuke.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something. Push the negative self-talk aside and just do whatever it is you want to do as hard as you can do it and let the outcome tell you whether it was possible or not. Even then, you may not want to give up after one or two unsuccessful runs at a goal. Regroup, learn from your mistakes, and make another push. Brady himself once went nearly a decade between championships.

Even more important than whatever you tell yourself, don’t tell your kids or significant other they can’t do something. You may think you’re protecting the ones you love, but you’re only handicapping their efforts right from the start and doing irreparable damage both to their psyche and to the relationship itself. Be a source of encouragement or at least shut the hell up. Let them find out for themselves what is and isn’t possible.

Before you open your hateful mouth to criticize a friend, coworker, or even someone you don’t know, do the thing better yourself. The hypercritical person is usually dissatisfied with something in their own life and takes some morose pleasure in bringing others down with them. They’re too scared to risk failure themselves, so they sit on the sidelines and criticize others.

Most of us are perceptive enough to see that sort of pettiness exactly for what it is anyway, so don’t be that person. Live your own life, drawing inspiration from others’ often-unlikely triumphs that can help you achieve your own goals, and don’t dwell so much on their failures.

In many ways, I’m not a very positive person. I even wrote a list of over fifty things I hate that got a few laughs. I prefer unvarnished truth and try not to sugarcoat much of anything I say or write. Overly positive-sounding social media influencers sicken me, because I know they’re frauds who simply want to build fake images in order to sell something. I also openly criticize politicians and systems I think aren’t working, sometimes even changing my mind and looking dumb later.

Despite my negative predilection, I try to walk my talk with the advice I’m giving here. If I see someone trying to accomplish something, I try to be a positive voice of encouragement. If someone brings a project to my attention they’re considering undertaking, I certainly don’t rain all over their parade with all the reasons why I think it will fail. I’ve been disappointed too many times in my own life by people who I thought would be in my corner taking a dump on my ideas that I don’t want to be that crushing blow to anyone else. I may point out something to consider or even that they might do better, but I do so in a spirit of wanting to see them succeed and hopefully they recognize the difference.

We have enough people who never put themselves out there to try to accomplish anything. We should stop tearing those down who are taking on difficult challenges and start building them up. And if we can’t find it in ourselves to do that, then at least do as an old saying my mom used to repeat often advises: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

Monday, April 13, 2020

Let's Call It Social Huddling Instead

According to my mom, my nephew Max is convinced he's "died and gone to heaven" amid the coronavirus-mandated social distancing restrictions. Apparently, the introvert gene is strong with that one.

For those of us, including me, who derive a lot of our happiness from our own elaborate little internal worlds, rather than from much of anything the external world and the people who inhabit it provides, I get what he's saying. If you think about it, a twelve-year-old lucky enough to have been born into a caring, middle-class family has just about everything he needs and wants right there at home.

He has a big yard complete with a nice above-ground pool. His brother, Harrison, is a bit younger but big for his age and rowdy enough to hold his own when they play together. He has plenty of video games for when he doesn't want to move from the couch. His mom's cooking is better than anything they're serving at the school cafeteria. And despite everyone's best efforts to keep the learning going, whatever homeschooling set-up they've arranged isn't likely to be as restrictive or demanding as a traditional school day.

What's not to love?

Quarantine wiped out the remaining school year, but these two aren't upset.

More to the point, what's really missing from this new existence? Social interaction with his friends is the obvious choice, but that's offset by more time with his mom and dad and he's still just barely young enough that they're the most important people in his world. If I had to guess, I'd say Max would gladly trade FaceTiming his friends for more time at home with his nuclear family.

If they haven't begun to already, priorities are about to shift. He's involved with sports, and that's only going to become a bigger part of his teenage life. Soon, girls will also start to play a more significant role. As late-blooming as I was, bloom I finally did, and that silly boy eventually will also.

Right here, right now, at this exact moment in time very well could be the last window of opportunity for Max to really bask in the love of his family and feel that he's completely fulfilled, or at least so close that a few missed activities pale in comparison. Yet what do I see many families with children similarly situated in those preteen years doing instead of taking advantage of this time that can never be regained?

In a word... complaining.

For every social media post I see about families snuggling up with a big bowl of popcorn and a movie and enjoying being together with no outside distractions, I see five where they're whining about how their kids are driving them nuts. They've had enough of this seclusion and can't wait for schools to reopen and life to return to normal.

These posts make me want to tear my hair out by the roots. Not really. I like my hair. It's rapidly graying, but I've been blessed to keep a fair amount of it. I think I'd rather pull the poster's hair out, or maybe do something a little tougher like grab him and try to shake some sense into him.

What are you talking about you're sick of your kids? You do realize they share your genetic makeup, don't you? Ergo, if they're that unbearable to be around, maybe take a glance in the mirror.

The way I see it, this is is your chance to really get to know them. Instead of sleeping through another boring Zoom meeting with Bob and Carol and Andy from the office, cancel that dumb meeting. 

Grab that baseball glove you haven't touched in twenty years and head out to the backyard for a catch with your kids. You might be surprised at the things they'll tell you about their lives while you're throwing a ball back and forth.

Tell Bob and Carol and Andy business sucks right now anyway, and since there's nothing to do about that you think they should go have a catch with their kids, too. They're probably just as sick of Zoom as you and will gladly zoom right on out of there.

The reason I have so little patience for complaining about being stuck with your family is simple. I lost a child. Cancel that. I didn't lose her. I roll my eyes when people use vague terms like that to be polite. I know right where she is, and she's never moving from that spot. So just spit it out. She died.

Call it what you will though. That doesn't really matter. I'm just providing some context for my perspective on this whole quarantine thing.

To me, all the wallowing and self-pity is simply short-sighted, self-centered, and downright soft—not gentle soft either, but spineless soft that nobody wants to be. You're supposed to want to spend time with your children more than anything else.

I'd trade anything, including your kid, to be stuck somewhere with my kid. We'd build a blanket fort and hunker down in it, just the two of us in our secret hideout while the rest of the world passed right on by. We'd bake some cookies. We'd make up stories about her stuffed animals' adventures. Who am I kidding... I'd break out my own stuffed animals for adventure stories!

We'd do anything and everything besides complain. I wouldn't let myself do that, and I wouldn't let her either. If things got a little tense or we grew weary, I'd hold her precious little face in my hands and I'd say something like this: 
You're my one and only daughter. You're my world. I love you the most, and we're fine. We're more than fine. We're whole and perfect and I selfishly don't ever want this to end. But when it does end one day, as all things do, and you're back out in the wonderful world, I want you to remember this special time we had together. When you hit a rough patch—and you will—I want you to know that I have your back no matter what. Be whoever you want to be. Change your mind as many times as you want. My love for you has no conditions. It is limitless and eternal.
I think a lot about creating my legacy. When I waste an afternoon scrolling social media and don't write anything, I get mad at myself because I didn't add anything to this so-called legacy and I'll never get that time back.

I'm right to a point, at least about time being our most precious resource. The reality for most of us, however, is that our legacy isn't about the stuff we do. We're not going to do anything memorable enough for it to be about that.

It's about the lives we touch. If you're a parent, far and away the greatest impact you'll ever have on the life of another human being is the imprint you'll leave on your own children.

That's your real legacy, and I'm trying to tell you not to blow it. Don't let yourself be distracted by work or friends or social obligations or charity or anything else. There will be time for those things or there won't. It doesn't really matter.

When I step back for a second, I do realize it's easy for me to sit here on my couch and play armchair quarterback. It's just me and my fiance, and we have it pretty good here. We have a large enough home with separate workspaces so we're not on top of each other all the time. We haven't suffered any drastic loss of income. We even have a killer home gym and can keep right on training as usual. Apart from me chewing through our groceries faster than she can order them, our stressors are pretty minimal.

So sure, I can tell you how I'd entertain my child all day in some blissful land of make-believe, but it's speculative. I'm not really responsible for doing any of that anymore. 

We talk about the "new reality" of the pandemic. I have a different sort of new reality that isn't really so new anymore after seven years, but that I'll probably never adapt to completely. 

In this reality, I spend my quarantine days watching exactly what I want to watch on TV rather than catering to a child's programming tastes. I fritter away my afternoons writing blog posts instead of morphing into a teacher for subjects that didn't even really interest me when I had them, much less many years later. I don't even have a full-time job to juggle from the confines of home-based isolation.

My situation is probably quite different from yours. In some ways, it's harder, but in some ways also much easier.

Lessons roll on, and you can even bring a stand-in to this school.

When you really think about what you were doing a couple of months ago though, do you even miss the rat race of running from one practice or activity to another, schlepping your kids around like some kind of parental Uber service? Doesn't the whole thing seem a little shallow and pointless? Surely there's a bit of relief in having a temporary—emphasis on that last word—break from maintaining that hectic pace.

I've heard folks describe quarantine as a version of the movie, Groundhog Day. I suppose I can see a bit of truth in that, but I see even more similarities with the furry rodent in the monotony of most people's ever-repeating workday and lengthy commute.

We'll all be back to that drudgery at some point. Then maybe we'll find ourselves wishing we were back here with the ones we love the most. That’s how life often works—longing to be someplace we’re not and only realizing after it’s too late that where we were is the place we always wanted to be.

Without being completely naive to the challenges of your situation, I'm simply suggesting a flip of the script. I've read some interesting viewpoints questioning the social distancing strategy, and perhaps a prolonged period isn’t even the right public health call, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt. Instead of seeing being sequestered with our families as complete drudgery, let's try using the time to connect with those we live with every day, but maybe don't really see as clearly as we should, in meaningful ways that might not be possible under normal circumstances.

We're not social distancing from all those people and activities we miss. We're social huddling with the ones who matter most.

The two interspersed photos are of my lifelong friend Stacy Bartlett's children. Stacy also shared an Easter poem he wrote for them that echoes the theme of this blog post. I'll end with that.

An Easter Message for Morgan and Schaffer

The Easter Bunny is sad to say
Coronavirus came his way...
I’ve been “holed-up” with family,
And could not make deliveries

To all the kids this Easter season,
Social distancing is the reason.
But have no fear as all is well!
To you both, I’d like to tell

How great you’ve been
while stuck at home -
When outside is where
You’d like to roam…

I know it’s tough
to be away
From friends and school
And to miss your Play…

And the Disney Trip
That you had planned,
Sadly canned…

But think of all the fun you’ve had!
Being “trapped at home”
With Mom and Dad!

You’ve done school work from home,
Helped with chores-
Piano, singing,
Karate and puzzles galore…

Morgan made a movie
That I really liked!
And Schaffer learned
To ride his bike!

I hear you’ve been watching
The Masked Singer,
I thought the Rabbit (season 1)
Was a Ringer (that means I thought he was the BEST!)

And LEGO Masters
Looks like fun!
Which team, do you think,
Is Number 1?

Hours of Fortnite,
Haiku, and reading books-
Eating everything dad cooks…

Walking Luna-
Playing “Wall Ball”,
Glad to see you’re not
Bored at all!

Tornado watches, movies,
No A/C-
This too shall pass,
Just wait and see...

So, in the meantime
please enjoy
A couple of the gifts and toys…

That I could get for you
From your list -
If I’ve missed some items
Please don’t get....angry

Besides, it’s not about
Those kinds of things
That get you through
The day with wings…

It’s always about
the love you share each day -
How you show it,
And the things you say…

To those closest to you
Friends and family you love -
And don’t forget your God above!

Please make the most of this
Precious piece of “together time" -
I hope you both enjoyed
My Easter Rhyme...