Monday, October 2, 2023

Community Combats Climate Change with Concrete Trees: Just doing our part

The epitome of sustainability

Our little community was in a pickle, to say the least. Our population was growing, and our roads were becoming parking lots, especially at rush hour.

We needed to expand our highways, but more roads mean fewer trees and we all know that’s bad for the environment. Deforestation, duh!

What could we possibly do?

We fielded a bunch of proposals for mass transit options, staggered commutes, and all kinds of stuff that people suggest to save the planet, as long as they don’t have to do it themselves.

I mean, really, who wants to ride a smelly bus to work when you can just jump in your comfy Tesla? Isn’t that good enough for the environment?

I guess I could consider staggering my commute. Does that mean I get to go in late and leave early? Because if it doesn’t, I’m not interested in that, either.

After listening to one crappy solution after another, we invited one last firm to the city council meeting. Sure guy, we’ll sit here and snooze through your dumb ass presentation.

We figured we’d dismiss it like all the rest, but at least we could show we’d done our “due diligence.” That just means acting like we’d thought it over really carefully before saying no like we planned to all along.

Only this guy waltzed in wearing his designer suit and blew us away with the best idea we’d ever heard. He said we could build roads and trees, like literally, build trees instead of planting them!

Impossible, you say? Oh no, nitwit. You’re not thinking outside the box. You’re trapped inside the box and the lid is closed tight on your tiny little baby brain.

So, here’s how it works. His firm sells those soundproofing panels you’ve all seen along the highway. Only his aren’t the typical eye sores littering the landscape.

Nosirree! These things have trees painted on them. Read that again so it sinks in and you absorb the genius—trees on sound barriers!

For every tree we cut down, he explained, we could paint one. Heck, we could paint two if we want. The number of trees is really only limited by the number of sound barriers.

You want a win-win, huh? You’ll never find a bigger win-fall (I’m so clever I just made that up!) than this—more roads = more sound barriers = more painted trees. It’s like math, the sort of math I, a person who can’t even make change at my kid’s bake sale, can understand!

Since we heard that illuminating presentation, we’ve been building roads and erecting (hahaha, I just wrote “erect”) sound barriers like gangbusters. We even took this revolutionary idea a step further by painting trees on both sides of the barriers. That way, we can chop trees down right in homeowners' front yards and give them paintings of fresh new ones to enjoy.

Sure, we get a few complaints. And they always walk away looking slightly confused when we explain how it works. But just like pigs in a blanket, every revolutionary idea takes a little getting used to.

We submitted a bunch of photos of our lovely trees just like the one up top to the National Community Planning Association. We’re probably going to win one of those nice dual-purpose crystal trophies that can double as a giant glass dildo.

Sustainability, that's what it's all about. And what, besides maybe a titanium phone that I'll replace next year, could be more sustainable than concrete trees?

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Time Marches On: Remembering my daughter

Together on a fall day

Fall colors begin to fade,
Giving way to dark and gray
Who exactly decided you couldn’t stay?

You can be the CEO
or just a street wino
Death as arbitrary as the wind blows.

Years go by and I still wonder why
I barely said hello to your sweet face before goodbye
Perhaps our time together was just a lie.

These new things I build
Hoping the void I might fill
Better to move, they say, than remain standing still.

But am I drifting further away
or drawing closer by the day
It’s all the same anyway.

“Do you have children?” comes the question I dread
Panicked responses swirling in my head
“No,” I answer as the rooster crows — truth unsaid.

The thought of never seeing you again too painful to bear
Reuniting in heaven my only hope of lifting this despair
Please God if you’re there, I beg you, answer just this one prayer.

I'll be waiting for you.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Outfoxed and Overthought: A story about time slipping away

Zapruder-like photo quality of my soulmate lurking at the edge of the woods.

There’s this fox that lives in my neighborhood. I bet I’ve seen it more times than anyone else has because I look for it. 

Most mornings I sit on my back porch having coffee. If I’m up and out there just before dawn, there’s a decent chance I’ll see it trot right past, presumably on its way back to its den after a night out carousing. 

Then later, when Kris and I take our walk, there’s another chance we might see it out sunning itself in the field, not too far from the safety of the woodline. It’s gotten so it will sit and look right at us without moving as long as we don’t get too close, not that I would. I think it knows who we are—a little bridge of understanding between our two worlds.

And then there are just occasional random sightings, like the time walking in a different area we saw it come trotting around a small grove of pine trees with a deer it must have roused chasing it maybe ten yards behind. I swear that damn fox turned its head toward me as it rounded the corner, a grin affixed to its face as if to say, “I’m just toying with that slow poke. It’ll never catch me.”

By the way, I’m 53 and I’m lost. I think I’ve been so from the moment people told me I had to be something other than a cowboy or an Indian when I grew up. 

I may as well be 15 all over again, never having kissed a girl or maybe one awkwardly, not yet able to drive, no longer a boy but a long way from being a man. Only 3 years from heading off to college, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with myself. I still feel the same way today, only a lot older and tired of thinking about it.

I managed to write my way into a pretty decent job this past year—a 10-month tryout of sorts as a contractor that I parlayed into a full-time gig. Now that I have it, I don’t want much about it besides the steady paycheck. 

I liked the cafeteria during my freshman year at Grove City College. You could go to the salad bar as many times as you wanted, so I did. They had stuff on there besides salad, like pudding. Sitting at dinner for two hours beat the hell out of trudging back to my room to study.

A high school buddy helped me pick that school. He was a diligent fellow and tried to do right by me. We both thought the small atmosphere and academic focus would be perfect for me. 

It didn’t work out as we planned. Channeling Holden Caufield, I nearly failed out and transferred to WVU after a year. To be fair, I’d kissed a girl by then, and a little rift between us played a role in my demise.

Being back on familiar turf was better, but I changed majors three or four times, including crying uncle once after picking up a hot Bunsen burner with my bare hand during a chemistry lab. I only finally graduated in journalism because it seemed to be the one for which I had the most natural ability, and word processors weren’t nearly as dangerous as open flames. 

Despite incessantly pondering how I’d earn a living writing for the hometown paper at five bucks an hour, I could still push through with a passable news column. My skillset was about as wide as a piece of thread though, and so it seemed were my employment prospects.

While I had no answers, lots of other kids, content to float from one party to the next, didn’t even have any questions. Many of them also didn’t make it to graduation.

Once I got a little foothold, however, the place couldn’t get rid of me. I amassed two graduate degrees and an alphabet soup of letters after my name, far more out of not knowing what I wanted to do and avoiding a depressed Gulf War-era job market than out of ambition.

Fast forward to the present and with several years after age forty where my tax return shows an income under $25,000, I’ve not only avoided a career but also narrowly avoided living in a homeless shelter at times. Luckily, the closest I came was as the fundraising director for one during one of my better recent years income-wise.

My working life has been a joke, moving from one dead end or wrong turn to the next. I wouldn’t begin to know who to blame, but I suppose pointing that fucking finger up my ass like Tool advises the kid wearing Vans and 501s in Hooker with a Penis is a good start.

The cafeteria is pretty good at my new job, too. Sometimes they make stuff I’ve never heard of, and I almost always order that. I invariably like it and end up looking up what it is and where it came from, but I doubt I’ll ever make any of it.

Ah, but the work. What can I say about the work? 

The work is fast-paced and tedious, a combination about as pleasant as pickles on chocolate ice cream. I’m a ball of nerves most days waiting on edge for that stupid Microsoft Teams messaging platform’s annoying ding to alert me that I’ve been “tagged” in another “deliverable.” That just means someone is telling me I have an assignment to write the same thing I always write—only differently, thanks.

Three months in, and I’m already out of stuff to say and ways to say it. What creativity I may have had for this line of work has been squelched by frenetic monotony.

My work computer is right here beside me on my desk, but I’m writing this instead of logging on to that. Like Kate Moss checking her weight in her heroin chic heyday, I also obsessively review my 401(k) balance daily, dreaming of retiring to a beach town before they figure me out or I reach the end of my rope and quit for no good reason, or maybe for a really good one. 

Apart from hearing occasional stories about otherwise healthy people dying, I enjoyed the slow pace of the pandemic. I wasn’t tethered to a strict schedule and didn’t have to worry about running hither and thither. I wasn’t making much money working part-time from home and putting my personal training side hustle on hold, but I wasn’t spending much either.

My time was more my own, and I was free to write a little most days and lift weights whenever I wanted. But even as much as I enjoy those pursuits and willingly engage in them, I don’t want to bang weights or the keyboard forty hours a week, never mind doing someone else's bidding.

As long as my basic needs are met and I’m comfortable, if I have a choice between working the long hours it seems to require to have one of those fancy cars I see in the parking lot of the office building where I work or having the time to myself, you can keep the car. I’m choosing the time every time. People make such a big deal about work ethic and hustling just to acquire more stuff, but sometimes, more than most people I guess, I’d rather bang on my metaphorical drum all day.

Kris and I made every meal at home and lazed around most evenings watching TV together during lockdown. We still mostly squeeze in both of those activities, but our days were more relaxed then.

We watched a miniseries called Maniac starring real-life besties Jonah Hill and Emma Stone—a neat little backstory that drew me in before I knew anything about the plot. Quirky nerd sparks friendship with pretty girl on set of coming-of-age comedy, then they both go on to achieve stardom before reuniting years later as adults so they can work together on this new project… sign me up! 

Far from my usual straightforward revenge or survival fare, it was disjointed and trippy. I had a little trouble following until I figured out that underneath all the plot twists, the show somewhat parallels their actual journey. Turns out it’s a pretty familiar story about finding that special connection that brings life into focus and helps give it some meaning. Unless I’m wrong and that’s not what it is at all.

Speaking of connections, it seems like I was a little more connected to the people who matter in my life and a little less connected to those who don’t. Kris and I had a weekly FaceTime call with my mom during which we would all play Yahtzee together. It wasn’t as good as being together in person, but it was better than we’d managed during many other busier times in our lives. 

I could tell Mom looked forward to our call as much as I did, even as she was starting to slip and have trouble articulating what she’d rolled. When the pandemic ended, so too did those FaceTime calls. Just a couple of short years later, she’s no longer well enough to take my calls.

These days, that 401(k) balance is rising like it’s supposed to as I diligently follow the standard advice to “stay the course” with my monthly contributions. What they neglect to mention about that much-ballyhooed time value of money equation is the inverse relationship with the more valuable of the two resources. 

Bean counting like a modern-day Mr. Potter, I think about the desperate race I’m running. Will I exhaust my good health and decent days before my balance is sufficient to walk away, or will I make it to that beach before the sun sets? Considering my father's death from a heart attack at 55 and my own type 1 diabetes, the odds may be as close as a coin flip. Faintly, I hear Mom’s soap intro whispering, “Like sands through the hourglass of time….”

Winning that race—not power or recognition—is my only work goal now. It’s not that I’m too earnest for the petty concerns of less righteous men and want to pursue a nobler calling like helping people; it’s that I’m simply too tired to care. Sometimes, I’m even a little relieved I don’t have to worry about figuring out how to pay for Ruby’s education or wedding, and my shame in admitting that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A classmate of mine recently died. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, but this wasn’t just any classmate. He was a good-looking, athletic kid who also had a rare genuineness about him. Nice to everybody, he was universally well-liked by jocks, nerds, gearheads, stoners, and any other group you can name. He was arguably the face of Bridgeport High School’s class of '87.

I doubt I'll ever attend another class reunion, but I considered attending his funeral. Being the type who stealthily dodges coworkers when I spot them at lunch so I can enjoy a quiet meal rather than endure forced conversation, I guess it makes sense that a somber setting suits me better than a social one. I saw it as a way to see a few people without the usual phoniness.

People suffering from extended illnesses often cling to life, never quite wholly ready to go despite their pain. Others never see it coming, assuming they still have more time one minute and dropping dead the next. Regardless of how it happens, if this fellow I remember so fondly can die before his time, then I’m damn well sure someone like me can too.

I’ve seen two foxes together on a few occasions. For all I know, the one that runs past the porch in the morning isn’t the same one that suns itself in the field in the afternoon.

I certainly don’t know if it’s male or female. That’s why I usually just refer to it as “it.” I don’t know if it’s hungry or full; if it has a mate and a litter of pups or is flying solo; if it’s sick or well; or anything at all.

I just catch these small glimpses and pretend they mean something, like that the fox and I have some sort of unspoken relationship similar to Jonah's and Emma's souls finding each other out of all the souls in the universe. Well okay, not exactly, but I do imagine a connection.

There's a line in the Robert Redford fly fishing movie A River Runs Through It where the narrator ponders how well he knew his deceased brother concluding, "...maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." My pretending about the fox that I actually don't know any better than any other is not too dissimilar from my understanding of most people, even some with whom I claim to be close.

I do know one thing about the fox. I know it isn’t wasting time thinking about me. When it’s time to hunt, it hunts. When it’s time to rest, it rests.

The Byrds wrote an old folk song about that sort of thing. Maybe I should go and listen to their lyrics about the seasons and all. Maybe I don’t need to unless I just feel like it.

Either way, my time is coming.

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

Our Baby’s Name Was Perfect Until We Met Her: ‘What’s in a name?’ you ask

We wanted an elegant and sophisticated name for formal occasions but one that could also be shortened into something quirky and fun for 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 also needed to know how to defend herself in a scuffle just as well as pose for a photo. I’d leave the posing to Mom, but I planned to show her a few tricks that would come in handy in those inevitable scrapes all kids get into.

A couple of years after her birth, in a moment that was simultaneously cringy and pride-inducing, I’d discover her M.O. for handling conflict at what was supposed to be a congenial neighborhood gathering. After another toddler bumped her aside in his enthusiasm to dig a particular toy from his toy box, she promptly gave as good as she got and then some, grabbing him by the back of his diaper, upending him headfirst into the box, and shutting the lid amidst his exaggerated wailing. Scrambling to free him while simultaneously stammering an apology and suppressing a giggle, I knew then that any fatherly teachings I had in mind about standing up to bullies wouldn’t be necessary. In fact, maybe I should give them self-defense lessons.

Samantha was perfect in many ways, both at the time and in hindsight. Call it bewitching if you need a little groan-inducing attempt at humor, yet here we sat, nearly a week into our NICU stay after her premature birth with no nametag on her crib. It just didn't fit, 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 usMary, Kate (Mary's sister), and mestarted 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 two-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 storytellersomeone 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 thirty-two weeks and two 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. She just had to be Ruby to be Roo.

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 participation 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, kind of like Roo did. 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 Rubyboth the real ones and the fictional ones. 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.

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!