Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Alone


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

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

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!