Monthly Archives: November 2013

Talking to Strangers: Norma

The 405 freeway splits through Los Angeles like a bad scar, leading from The Valley, over the hill and into The City, finally ending somewhere further south.  It’s a terrible freeway and a horrible commute if you’re forced to take it; five lanes of 24 hour traffic jams.  You see that bumper sticker in front of you?  Get ready to read it 900 times.  The 15 mile drive I take on the 405 takes me just over an hour – two if it’s raining.  My gas pedal becomes obsolete and I do nothing but ride the break.  People always say, “Stay off the freeway if you’re driving a motorcycle!” and I always respond with, “Uh… the freeway at rush hour is probably the safest place you can be.  It’s a parking lot.”

The trick is this… well, there are a couple tricks.  The first is to not drive during rush hour, the second is to drive on the shoulder of the road, where it’s illegal, the third is to buy a helicopter but the fourth and most realistic option is to slap a baby in your back seat and take the car pool lane.

So my wife, she’s got an appointment on “the other side of the hill” and does just that; she snatches up Baby Bryce, buckles her into the mini-van and she’s suddenly gone and I have two kids with me and I’m so tired because I was up until 4am the previous night / morning working on a pet project and long gone are the days when I can sleep in until noon and so I decide to just turn on The Gumby Movie and lie down on the couch and shut my eyes but even that won’t work because Quinn is standing in front of me shouting, “DADDY, DON’T SLEEP!  YOU CAN’T SLEEP!  IT’S MORNING!” and she’s right… It is morning… and I can’t sleep… when a three year old is screaming into my eyeballs.

I sit up and rub my face and say, “You want breakfast?” and Quinn says, “I want cereal!” and Rory jumps, completely naked, from a chair, with his fists held in the air, nails a perfect landing and shouts, “I WANT…… TOAST!” and I say, “Let’s get dressed.  Let’s go get pancakes,” and they both say, “Pancakes?  PANCAKES!  OH-KAY!” and then we’re walking down the street together and then three blocks later we’re at a restaurant called The Hungry Fox – a place who’s tagline is “Happiness You Can Eat” – and then we’re sitting at a table and I’m ordering pancakes with Cool Whip and sausage and scrambled eggs and hash browns and coffee and orange juice and water and it’s just one meal and, yes, thank you, Waitress, I would like three plates.

Being Tuesday morning, the restaurant is nearly empty.  Quinn and Rory hop out of the booth and run a few aisles over to a fish tank to peruse its inhabitants.  “There’s a fish!  There’s his house!  There’s water!  There’s a rock!”  Everything is a majestic discovery.

The waitress, a woman sporting a simple name tag that says, “HUNGRY FOX” and then, beneath that, “NORMA” approaches my table wearing a large smile and carrying our food.  I’ve been coming to this diner for a while and, while all of the employees seem to be of an Asian persuasion with choppy English, Norma looks as though she’s entering her late 50s and is from somewhere in South America, deeper than Mexico.  Her English isn’t perfect but it’s close enough that it makes no difference.

She sets our pancakes on the table and my children scream, PAAAANCAAAAKES!” and come running.  Luckily, I’ve had the foresight to seat myself in the deepest, darkest corner of the restaurant, back in a place where we’ll be the least concern and bother to any of the other patrons.  Rory jumps into my lap and I say, “Don’t run in here,” and Norma says, “Let them run!  They are children!” and to Quinn I say, “Don’t scream in here,” and Norma says, “Let them scream!  They are children!” and then she pours me more coffee and Rory points at the Cool Whip and says, “I.  Don’t.  WANT.  THAT!” and I say, “Uh… that’s delicious and you DO want it.  Trust me,” but he persists and Norma says, “I will take it off for you,” and she picks up a fork, ready to scrape it away,” when I stop her and say, “It’s, uh, it’s okay.  I got it.”

Rory lifts up the fork I’ve used to scrape the Cool Whip off the pancake and he says, “I.  Want.  A.  NEW.  FORK!” and I say, “Hey… listen,” and Norma says, “Here you go, little one!  Brand new fork!” and then Rory, seeing that this woman is the weakest link, he says, “I.  WANT….” but I cut him short and twist his little body towards me and grab his cheeks and say, “You need to be less demanding.  Here’s some syrup.  Eat your pancakes,” and he sits down, picks up his fork and begins to eat.  He says, “This is good,” and I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “You’re welcome, Daddy.”

Norma refills the two sips of coffee I’ve taken and says, “Children, they are so wonderful.  I have four.  They are grown up now; the youngest is 24.  I am a grandma.  Four grandchildren,” and I ask her a few questions about her kids and I expect her to say, “Enjoy them… because they grow up so fast,” which is the Go-To Answer for all parents but instead she prophetically says, “Someday you will be an old man and you will be sitting in your house and your children will be gathered around you and their children will be gathered around them and they will all be looking at you and you will see your whole family and you will be so proud.”

The image in my mind is magnificent and I know that what she’s saying is true.  I’m by no means excited to get old but when I do finally crawl into that aged room, I want to make sure it’s furnished with all the things I’ve built over the past several decades.

She sets the coffee pot down on the table and, with very few words from me, continues speaking.

“I was married very young.  I was 22 and my husband was 17.  We were in love but… he has not always been faithful.  He has, well, floundered, I guess.  Listen, I’m no goodie-two-shoe and I been around but, he was around… he was always very good to his family, to his children.  He always made sure we were taken care of,” and I nod, not sure how to respond to her confession of infidelity.  She continues, “You wanna be happy in this life?  You gotta make the choice.  You can’t change someone.  You just say, I love you and I want to be with you and that is that.  I told him, you did what you did, I love you, I will stay.  And we’re still together.  So many people they get divorced.  Don’t get divorced.  It is such a yucky thing but… listen…”

And this is the part of the conversation that really stuck with me through the day; this is the part of the conversation that has had countless books written for countless audiences; this is the part of the conversation that affects every married or to-be-married person reading this.  Tune in.  Perk up those ears.  Here it comes.

She says, “People get married and they love each other.  They have a very beautiful marriage and they have kids and the kids are very beautiful and the parents love the kids and then five, ten, twenty years pass and the kids move away and now you live in a house with this person you don’t know.  You knew them twenty years ago but you’ve been living for your kids.  Now you have nothing in common,” and I nod, thinking of all my writing about kids and all Jade’s photos of our kids and all of our family time and how, specifically, beautiful I think it is and then she says, “Love your children.  Love your family.  It is wonderful.  But love your wife.  Otherwise you might be 45 years old and suddenly you’ve got divorce papers because neither of you know what you’re doing with each other anymore.”

This story from Norma really affected me and I want to throw it out into the masses and hope that it hits some of you the way it hit me.  I hope it rattles some of you the way it rattled me.  I hope that we never forget our spouses.  I hope we always prioritize them.  It’s very scary to think that safety in marriage is just an illusion.  I believe it’s when we think we’ve entered into that Safety Zone that things get careless and dangerous.  That’s when we stop paying attention.  That’s when things leave Co-Pilot and enter Auto-Pilot.

What can I do to prioritize my wife and my marriage and make sure that I don’t forget about them?  Or, more selfishly, what can I do to make sure my wife doesn’t forget about me?

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Pearls and Swine

When I was in college it seemed like everybody smoked cigarettes; Marlboro Lights, Parliaments, Chesterfields.  I knew this guy that used to walk into the liquor store across the street and just say, “Give me your cheapest pack,” and then he’d walk out with some off brand that had been manufactured in the Philippines that he paid $1.97 for and tasted like burning tar.

I’d be sitting outside of the dorms and my friend would smoke his last Filipino Light and he would turn to the guy next to him and say, “Can I bum a smoke?” and the guy would just shrug his shoulders and say, “Sorry, man.  I’ve only got three left,” and this would be an acceptable answer in the Smoker’s Community.  It was tantamount to saying, “If I had more, I’d give you one but I only have three left.”

The Smoker’s Paradigm:  If I had more I would gladly throw them around but now that they are a rare commodity, I want to desperately clutch them to my chest and horde them all to myself.

Fair enough.  They are yours and yours to do with as you see fit; to share, to squander, to horde, to trade, to invest like Prison Money but… that’s enough about cigarettes for a bit.  Let’s talk about Real World Money and how it slowly creeps into our lives, infects us and causes cancer just like that Prison Currency does.

Let’s talk about how Money can be an addiction and control you and how it’s so very difficult to Quit.

Go to the bank, get a loan, buy a car, drive it to high school, graduate, get a loan for college, go to college, get a job to pay your loans, live in a small apartment because you can’t afford a house because you have loans so get another loan to buy a house with a garage to park your car in, work 50 hours a week to pay off your loans.  Sign up for credit cards, buy stuff for your house, so much stuff, so much awesome stuff; 40″ flat screen TV, Blu-Ray player, iPad, iPod, iPhone.  How about iPoor?  How about uPoor?

Work more, pay the loans, both the bank and the credit card, work more, job sucks but you’re stuck there because of the loans, car is busted.  Get it fixed.  Car is busted again, sell it for less than a tenth of what you paid.  Get another loan, buy a new, nicer car.  Something big.  Something spacious.  Something fancy and glossy with a DVD player inside and seats that warm up.  Work more.  Pay for insurance.  Don’t get sick.  Don’t use your insurance.  Get sick, pay your deductibles.  Never use your insurance.  Throw your money in the fire.

Have a baby.  Pay the hospital.  Pay your insurance.  Go to work.  Miss baby rolling over, first steps and first words because most of your time is, realistically, spent at that job you have.  It’s statistics and odds, folks.  You are more likely to miss these moments because you spend more time at a job you hate than with a child you love.  Have another baby.  Buy a new house.  Fix the new house.  Take out another loan for the bigger house and the bigger car.  Hate your job.  Swim in debt.  Backstroke in it.  Hold your breath because you are drowning.

 

What if there was another way?  What if there was a way to be free of money?  What if money lost its stickiness and its bond over us?  What if the rope snapped and suddenly we were just floating in space and happy and, like Art Alexakis says, “Everything is Wonderful Now…”

What are we doing, going to jobs that we hate everyday?  Why do we choose this for ourselves?  Now, wait… I know how this sounds.  This sounds like I’m saying, “Stop going to work and be free, you hippy,” but I’m not.  I’m just asking… “Isn’t there a better way?  Can’t we have the job we want?  Can’t we work less and live more?”  I’m asking us to look at the box we’ve built.  I’m asking us to stand on a tall ladder and look down on the box that we (humanity) have built and I’m asking each of us to examine the individual coffin that we’re in.  That 40 hour work week isn’t a thing that is imposed on us.  It’s a thing that we impose on ourselves.  There are no rules.  There is no Guide Book to being an adult.

I’m asking each of us to say, “Why?”  I’m asking each of us to ask ourselves what our price is.  What are we worth?

Our days are not endless and innumerable.  Our days on this Earth are finite and they have a very real number tacked onto them and every time that sun sets, that’s one more stone that’s taken out of the pile and when that pile of stones is gone, so are you.  Someday that sun is going to drop below the horizon and the shadows on the ground are going to grow and grow and grow until the darkness ultimately consumes them and then… what?

When I am asked if I want a certain job, the first question I typically ask is, “What is the rate?” and that’s not me asking, “How much money will you pay me to do that job?” it’s me saying, “I have X amount of days on this planet and you are approaching me and asking to purchase one of them.  What do you think one day of my life is worth?”  How much will you pay me to sit in an office instead of with my family?

What is that answer to you, specifically?  $70?  $150?  $500?

My number is very high because I place great value on my life and my time and my family.

What is your number?  You see it in your head?  Do you see what you are worth?  The numeric equivalent of one day of your life.  Stare at it.  Hold it in place.  Now… would that number change if you knew you only had a week left to live?  Would your personal stock, so to speak, rise, in that final week?  Would you stop saying yes to Burger King paying you $70 a day and start saying, “I’m worth more than this.  My time on this planet is valuable.”  Or maybe you would make a bigger statement.  Maybe you would say, “There is no price you could pay me to work at Burger King because I don’t want to work at Burger King for the last week of my life.”

If you knew you had a week left to live… what would you do?  You’d probably quit your job altogether.  Fair enough.  But what would you do if you knew you had three years left to live and you knew that it was imperative for you to have a job?  After all, one must survive and eat and pay rent.

What job… would you choose for your final three years of life?  And if that job is different than the job you have now… what are you doing in the drop-dead horrible line of work you’re currently in?  No excuses.

Never say, “But at least I have a job” because that is nothing more than you settling for less and you are worth more than that.  You, and I am speaking to you, reader, are worth more than any sentence that begins with, “But at least…” because you are not a “least”.

Imagine, if you were a smoker and imagine, If you knew you had three cigarettes left… what would you do?  Clutch them to your chest and savor the drag of each one, smoking them down to the butt until the smoke burned your throat and the heat singed your fingertips.

Look at your life.  Every day is just a cigarette in a pack and everyday, one of those cigarettes is going away and if you keep saying yes to that guy that wants to bum one for free then pretty soon you’re going to be desperately wishing you had more, wondering where all your days went.

Life is too short to be in a line of work that does not motivate you.  You are so blessed to live in America where you can do any job you want if only you can pay the cost of motivation.  That’s it.  How badly do you want something?  How badly do you want happiness?  How badly do you want freedom?  Total freedom?

Your days on this planet are yours and yours to do with as you see fit; to share, to squander, to horde, to trade, to invest.

Remember, the only thing more valuable than your money, is your time.

Your time is pearls.

Don’t throw it to the swine.

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Time Machine

If it wasn’t for a clock’s ability to keep track of a relative path of time, I would never know where I’m standing in the universe.  Time is not like the sun’s movement in that it cannot be counted on.  Like a junkie with a speed addiction, Time seems to get the jitters and talk fast before crashing into a slow motion daydream for weeks on end.  It doesn’t move the way the sun moves.  It jerks and shakes in chaotic shifts and you never know what tide you’ll get trapped in or for how long.  Why does Time move so fast when I’m having fun?  It’s a horrible trick of existence – to make the wonderful times slide through our fingers like so much watered down gravy.

I look around me and realize everything is moving too fast.  I feel like I’m driving through the desert to Vegas and I’ve suddenly glanced down at the speedometer.  110 mph!  I wish life had a break pedal or at the very least, cops to pull me over and say, “Kids are turning three.  You done everything you need to, son?”  Everything is getting away from me.  Everyday is this intangible trinket that I can never touch or see again.  All I’m left with is a memory of what happened… or what I think happened… the way I remember it…

If Time truly does fly when you’re having fun, then I’ve been in a private jet since my two oldest kids (twins) were birthed into existence.  Two nights running I’ve broken down crying while saying prayers with them and I feel like a woman on a cheap Lifetime movie.  I just see these two children and they’re so… big.  They just look like little… I don’t know… children and this is both beautiful and sad.  They don’t look like babies… because they’re not babies.  Time, that witch, has stolen my infants.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s given me two beautiful children to replace them but… I don’t know… I want it all.  I want them both.  I want to hear Rory recite his entire bedtime prayers, ABCs, 123s, Itsy Bitsy Spider and color wheel out loud, all alone, without help… but I still want him to be a chubby baby that can’t sit up without assistance.

I want to carry him and hold him and he’s already getting to the age where I ask, “Can I hold you?” and he says, “No,” and even on those occasions where he does stretch his arms towards me, asking to be lifted up, I find that he’s nearly becoming too heavy to carry around for any reasonable length of time, his feet dangling down and kicking me in the dick while I carry him through Target.

I guess it wasn’t really so entirely noticeable until the third baby was born; Bryce has put everything into perspective; locked us all into a new view of ourselves.  Before, when it was just the twins, I had that memory, that intangible trinket; I had the memory and the rules and regulations were set by me.  I didn’t see them changing.  They just… they went to bed and they woke up and they were a little older and bigger and smarter but I never noticed a difference.

Bryce makes the intangible tangible.  She says, “This is how small they used to be.  This is how helpless.  Enjoy me while you can,” and then I’m on my knees trying to scrape those sand grains into my arms, trying to keep every moment from blowing away.  I don’t want it to leave me, I don’t want to sleep at night, I keep everyone up until the very last possible moment, knowing that sleep will rob another day from me.  I wish, momentarily, that there were Time Machines but, the truth is, Time is the Machine and it will never break and never stop, the most flawless watch to ever be created.

I want to shake Quinn and say, “Never leave!  Live with me forever!  I’ll build you a tree house in the backyard and it can all be yours!  No!  I’LL live in the tree house and you can have the front house; just never leave your Papa!”  I want to clip her wings so she can never fly but… I know that would be wrong…

My mother is in town right now, staying with us for several weeks to celebrate the birth of our new daughter, having arrived just on the coattails of my  mother-in-law, both of them from South Dakota.  I look at them and I wonder and I think and I try to imagine what it’s like to have your children living halfway across the country.  What is it like to only see them three or four times a year?  What is it like to applaud your children’s success and encourage them to chase their dreams even though you know it means breaking your own heart and sending them away into the wild where they’ll be out of reach, out of call, out of touch.

Maybe this sounds like so much hand-wringing to anyone without kids but… you’ve just got to trust me.  Children are the party that you never want to end.  They are the DJs of your life and the entertainment.  They are Fonzie.  They are your friend with the trampoline in the backyard.  They are Saturday morning cartoons and pancakes for dinner.  They are Hide-and-Go-Seek and Jim Henson and adventure and cheese quesadillas all rolled up into one.

There’s nothing we can do to stop time.  It’s not a tank we can stand in front of, it’s not a rope we can grab onto and it’s certainly not a vehicle we can drive.  Time is just a cannon we’ve been fired from and we have our arms outstretched and we’re watching the scenery pass by as sticks and bugs slap us in the face.  The trick is to not shut your eyes.  Open them wide and watch.  Watch everything as it rockets past you because this is the only trip you’re getting.  Touch the grass, smell the roses, whatever you need to do.  Just make it worthwhile because when the trip is over… when you hit the ground with a thud… that’s it.

Fly.

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Talking to Strangers: Walter

More and more I’m amazed to find that each and every one of us is walking around in a world filled with broken, hurt and damaged people masquerading as the happy and healthy.  I used to work at a job downtown – this was a place I was at for five years – and it wasn’t until my fifth and final year that I discovered a multitude of tragedies happening all around me in the secret and quiet places of people’s lives.  A woman I knew had become her parent’s caregivers half a decade ago, both mom and dad  becoming too sick to take care of themselves.  A man I knew, nearly forty years old but looking not a day over thirty, was trying to take care of his mother’s cancer treatments and medical bills from across the country.  Another man had a father that lived in Seattle, in a nursing home.  He would visit him twice a month, flying from LA to Seattle.  Sadly, his father had dementia and rarely knew that he was there or, if he did acknowledge his presence, he didn’t understand it was his own son.  This is the mentality we live in; come to work, act like everything is alright, keep pushing on, keep your head down, do your paperwork, check in, check out, go home and deal with your problems there.

It concerned me that I’d been working around these people so long, side by side with them, and I’d never bothered to ask, “How are you?” or, “How are you doing?”  I mean, obviously I asked them that but it was more in the, “Please don’t get too deep with me, did you watch Breaking Bad last night,” type of way.

After all, what could I do for them?  Could I help them?  Do I have the cure for dementia?  For cancer?  No… but I can listen.  You can listen.  We can take ten minutes, fifteen minutes and listen to someone get all those terrible things off their chest; venting.  We can dig deeper than we have, we can push harder than we do, we can attempt to be the people who warm the room.

It’s sad to live in a world where everyone seems happy but inside is dull and gray.  It’s sad to know someone for five years and not know that they fly to Seattle twice a month to see their dad.  It’s sad to be so oblivious.  And it’s these thoughts that are traveling through my head as I’m walking down the street to the local grocery store last Easter when I run into a middle aged black man on the corner, waiting on the stoplight for the red hand to turn into a walk signal.

I have my headphones in and am using them to talk to my mother via my phone in my back pocket.  I approach the corner and the man turns to me, all teeth and dreadlocks and says, “My man!” and I say, “Uh… hi…” and quickly avert my eyes.  This was back before I was making a point to Talk to Strangers and this man was really jumping into my bubble and I just wanted to get to the store and back home.  My mom, on the phone, says, “What?  Hi!” and I say, “No, hang on,” and the man says, “You got it!  I’ll wait!  What’s up?” and I say, “I’m talking to-” and the man says, “Happy Easter!  Praise the Lord!  He has risen!  Do you love Jesus?” and I say, “I love Jesus.”

In my ear, like my conscience, a female voice says, “I love Jesus too,” then, confused, “What are we doing?”

I pull out one of my ear buds and the black man with the dreadlocks says, “What you listening to?!” and I say, “I’m uh, I’m not listening to anything.  I’m talking to my mom on the phone,” and he says, “Oh, man!  Here you are!  Talking to your mom on the phone – God Bless Her – and you’re just going where you’re going and, oh man!  I’m keeping you!  I’m keeping you!  You can say it,” and I feel suddenly so… I don’t know… blessed to be around this man.  He had such a force of goodness coming from him that I wanted to soak it in.  I wanted to hear him talk.  My mom and the grocery store had suddenly and quickly become obsolete.

I say, “You’re not keeping me,” and he says, “Listen, tell your momz, tell her you love her for me,” and I say, “Uh… okay… I will,” and he stares at me and we sit in silence and the red hand turns to a white man but neither of us takes a step off the curb.  He says, “You gots her on the phone, don’t you?” and I say, “Oh, yeah… yeah…” and I lift up the mouthpiece and I say, “Mom?” and she says, “Yes.  Are you back?  What’s happening?” and I say, “I love you.  I’m glad you’re my mom,” and she says, “Oh, well, thank you John Lowell.  I love you too,” and then I say, “Hang on.”

The man that is all smiles and dreadlocks and loud voice and happiness, the man that is bottled energy; the man that appears to me to be the most genuinely positively happiest man I’ve ever seen in my life; this man who I am beginning to speculate of actually being a real life angel because of the way his presence is making me feel, bubbly, giddy, drunk on life; he gets very sober and he puts his face in his hands and he looks up and his eyes are watery and he says, “I lost my mom three months ago.  My mom is dead.  There’s nothing worse than losing your mom.  You tell your old lady you love her every day…” and I say, “Yeah.  I’m sorry… I will…” and then the red hand turns to a white man again and I step off the curb and The Man follows along side me, that broken part of him hiding again, he’s replaced it with his Public Self.  He says, “Easter is a fan-TASTIC time of the year!  I just love it!  Jesus has RISEN.  Do you believe that?” and I say, “Yes, I do,” and now, standing on the opposite side of the street, cross traffic moving again, he says in a huge, boisterous voice, “You are wonderful!” and I can’t help but smile.  He’s the type of guy that, even if he were houseless, he wouldn’t be homeless.

Is this guy houseless?  Mentally unstable?  I simply can’t tell… but I’m smiling again, this madman brightening my day.

He raises both hands to the air, fingertips up, closes his eyes and seems to pull something in.  Then he opens his eyes and repeats himself, “You are wonderful!  You are a wonderful person,” and he’s not talking to himself, some bizarre mantra.  He’s talking directly to me and so I say, “Thank you,” and then I start to walk away, feeling like maybe I am a wonderful person; feeling like maybe this guy just unlocked all of my potential and set me free, feeling like– I’m halfway across the parking lot when he shouts at me again, somewhere near the top of his lungs.  People turn to look at him, then rotate on their necks to find me, the object that he’s pointing at.  He shouts, “BE.  WONDERFUL.  BEE.  WUN-DERFUL,” and the words simultaneously send warmth into my heart and a chill up my spine.  It was more than fortune cookie wisdom.  It was a command.

I get back on the phone with my mom and try to explain the incident that just took place but find that I can’t quite put my finger on this man.  I can’t quite explain him.  I can’t quite tell you what he was like, how happy he was, how pure everything seemed.  It was like the badness couldn’t touch him.

As I speak with my mother, I watch The Man walk down the sidewalk and begin to accost another individual who skates around him, eyes pointed at the ground, mumbling some excuses as to why he can’t talk… and I can’t help but wonder if that man just missed an opportunity to have his life changed by The Man with Dreadlocks.

Over the course of the following year I think about him often and his words regularly echo through my head.  “Be Wonderful.”  What does that mean?  How can I apply it?  Am I supposed to approach strangers to spread joy through madness?  Is Being Wonderful opening doors for people and buying meals for strangers?  Is it listening to those around you?  Is it trying to help?

I think the short answer… the shortest answer… is yes and no.  It’s not one thing.  It’s not, “Do this and you will Be Wonderful” instead it’s “Be Wonderful and all these things will be you.”  Side note: Being Wonderful is very different from Being Fabulous.

A year passes and I discover all of these things about people that I work with, the stuff talked about above, and I discover things about myself that I didn’t know.  I discover that I don’t engage with people; I don’t dig deeper with those around me.  I begin asking more questions, both to those in my inner circle along with complete strangers.  I want people to know that I’m listening to them.

My children grow, my new daughter is born, my mother arrives in town and I find myself walking down to the grocery store two nights ago to fetch some croissant rolls for a German dish we’d discovered online.  I purchase the rolls, make small talk with the busy cashier and, on my way home, ear buds in, Deliverance being read to me by a man with an impeccable Southern drawl, who do I see approaching me down the sidewalk but The Man.

I smile at the thought of talking to him again and I pull down my ear buds as he approaches me.  He says, “My man!” and I say, “Hey!” and he says, “You having a good day?  A good life?  You gotta let that all OUT INTO THE WORLD!  You gotta share it!  You can’t bottle it up inside of you!  You look like you’re bottling it all up!  LET IT OUT!  Tell me something GOOD!  Tell me something GREAT!” and I say, “I have a new daughter,” and he stumbles backwards and says, “GET OUT!” and I smile.  This man is more engaged with me in ten seconds than I have been since leaving his presence nearly a year ago.  I’m trying to take notes.

He says, “How old?” and I say, “One month,” and he says, “GET OUT!  And what is the little lady’s name?” and I say, “Bryce Allison,” and he says, “What-what-what-where-where did that name come from?  Is that a family name?” and I say, “Yeah… it’s my daughter’s name,” and he laughs and says, “There ya go!  Hey, I gotta hug you!” and he leans in and I embrace him and squeeze.  He says, “What’s your name?” and I say, “Johnny.  What is yours?” and he says, “I’m Walter.  Thanks for asking!” and I say, “Walter, I ran into you about a year ago and we spoke for a bit,” and he says, “Really?” and I say, “Yes.  We were on that corner,” and I point and I say, “You were so happy and you told me to Be Wonderful and it was great advice and you made such an impact on me that I’ve told a lot of people about you,” and he covers his eyes and sort of laughs but when he drops his hands, I see that they’re watering again.

He looks at me and says, “I forgot about meeting you.  I forget a lot.  It’s because I am a —” and then he looks at me, expecting me to fill in the blank.  He points to a juice bottle in his hand and shakes it and I know what he wants me to say.  He repeats himself, “Walter is a — it’s okay, you can say it,” and I just shake my head and shrug, playing stupid, so he finishes the thought for me, “Walter is… an alcoholic… that’s right,” and I grimace.  My angel just another person that I neglected.  Another person who’s so happy and shiny on the outside and broken and desperate on the inside.  Another person slipping through my fingers because I was so consumed with talking about me and my family and my stories.  Here’s a man I’ve met twice who seemed so happy that he didn’t even have problems… even after he told me his mother died I didn’t even ask how.  I didn’t even ask how he was.  I just said, “Sorry,” like some dopey twenty-five cent Hallmark knock-off card.

Walter says, “Listen, my man.  Next time you see me, you say ‘Hi’ even if I don’t remember you!” and I say, “Yeah, fer sher…” and then Walter turns and walks away, vanishing into the night and I turn and walk away, back towards my house, trying to decide how I can Be More Wonderful.

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