Tag Archives: Johnny Be Bald

MECHANICAL DONUT: CHAPTER 7

 

Hey, baby! Whether you’re here because you like the comedy or the train wreck, it’s Cancer Monday! And this week is a double whammy because you’re getting chapters 7 and 8 together! Oh, my goodness. What a deal.

So. If you’re all caught up and want to continue reading, please do! If you’re new here. WELCOME. This is a story about when I had cancer. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes there is just fierce ambivalence to the force of life. Click here to jump to the beginning and start reading this tale of wonderful woe from the very top.

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For the past few days, I’ve been drinking a radioactive concoction called barium and trust me, there is neither anything berry or yum about it. Seventy-two hours ago, a small yellow package showed up at my front door postmarked from the hospital, asking that I mix this powder with water and drink deeply. How to describe it? So many competing tastes and textures. If I were being polite, I would say it has the consistency of semen swimming in powdered eggs (powdered lumps included) and tastes of Elmer’s glue with just a hint of mint.

So no, it’s not terrible but it is bad enough to make me plug my nose and gag while I try to chug it as quickly as possible lest flies mistake it for what it smells like and begin to lay eggs in it.

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The chemical drink, I’m told, causes my insides to “light up” and reveal any inconsistencies with a “normal, healthy human,” which, as far as I can tell, I am not. I’m not exactly sure what this procedure will be, but I assume they have some kind of machine that will take pictures of my insides; some kind of giant X-ray. I’m imagining lying on a bed and smiling; it’s school photos all over again. THEN I’m imagining going across the street to Denny’s because I saw that they’re featuring their seasonal pumpkin pancakes right now, and I feel like I deserve a little comfort food.

A male nurse with black hair and a soul patch approaches me with a gown and says, “OK, Mr. Brookbank, we’re going to get you in and out with your CAT scan. First, we’ll have you put this gown on and then we’ll get you all hooked up with your IV and blah blah blah.” Everything else he says turns into static. My eyes shift to my wife, who grimaces. I say, “Uh . . . OK . . . OK. Do you . . . do you have a restroom I can change in and, uh . . . have a panic attack?” and the male nurse with the soul patch says, “Yes, absolutely. Right this way.”

Inside the bathroom I change into the knee length, butt-revealing gown and stare at myself in the mirror; blue eyes filled with fear, wispy beard standing on end, skin the color of bad eggs. I don’t give myself a pep talk. I don’t say anything. I just stare at my reflection and try to imagine what it feels like to not be afraid of needles.

“Everyone is afraid of needles,” my wife says and I respond with, “No. Nobody likes needles. Not everyone is afraid of them. I don’t like the cold. I’m not afraid of it. You don’t like onions. You’re not afraid of them. My fear is deeply psychological and . . . it’s very . . . you wouldn’t understand. They’re pointy and silver and . . . They’re just so fucking pointy and silver!”

The Internet tells me the complex is called trypanophobia, an illness so foul that they actually had to give it a name no one could pronounce.

Soul Patch calls my name and escorts me into The Room. The door shuts and clicks behind me. In the middle of the floor is a giant Mechanical Donut, 6-and-a-half-feet high with a bed that rolls in and out of its delicious center. Next to the circular, steel pastry is a robotic arm that has a bag filled with clear liquid dangling from its “hand.” It is this clear liquid, I understand without being told, that will be shot into my veins to assist and activate the barium.

I ask Soul Patch how long he’s been doing this and he says, “Coupla’ years,” and I say, “I mean IVs. How long? Are you good at it?” and he says, “Oh. Yeah. Couple years. I’m good.”

Yeah, right. Your voice has the confidence of an eighth grader buying beer. Intern! Intern! Intern! And for the first time I find myself intentionally trying to focus on the pulsating lump of my lump, trying to distract myself from the needle.

I ask him what the CAT scan is for, and he noncommittally answers, “Oh, you’re a new patient, and we just like to do preliminary work on everyone prior to surgery,” and I say, “But specifically my pelvis, abdomen, and lungs?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah . . . sort of everywhere, but yeah. There, mostly,” and I think, “Shame on you, kid. You’re not old enough to buy beer and that is a fake ID.” I think, “I know what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see if it’s spread anywhere. You’re looking to see if it’s growing. You want to know what to do if the surgery doesn’t work or if you’re too late.”

Soul Patch tells me to lie back and I do, reluctantly. He tells me to hold out my arm and I do, reluctantly. He holds my wrist and starts to slap around my forearm with two fingers. “How,” he asks, “are your veins?” and I tell him I don’t know. He asks if I’ve drunk any water recently and I say, “A little,” and he says, “Uh, OK. This is usually a bit easier if you’ve been drinking water but we’ll see what we can—” slap, slap—“do . . . . ”

My eyes are the size of dinner saucers, and my hands curl into fists of fear. I want to scream for Jade to bring me water, water, WATER!!! A cup, a glass, a gallon, a hose, anything. We’ll see what we can do??!! What does that mean?? I imagine him sliding the needle under my skin and into my vein, missing and probing, fishing, hooking, sticking, stabbing, wiggling, my wrinkled and hibernating vein exploding over and over, blood leaking out and running all over the floor. In my mind, Soul Patch keeps saying, “Oops, oops, sorry, again, once more, my bad,” until I finally just pass out.

“There ya go.” I look down, and it’s done. He tells me to lie back and keep my arm with the silvery, pointy needle sticking in it above my head. “Keep it pointed at the ceiling,” and I say, “The needle—is the needle still in my arm?” and he says, “Uh . . . no. It’s just a small rubber hose,” and I say, “Can I bend my arm without getting poked?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah. I’ll be in this room over here and I’ll give you directions over the intercom.” I try to bend my arm and feel a little poke. Intern! Or maybe it was just the tape pulling at a hair. I don’t know. But I bet that needle is still in there. In my arm. In my vein.

Soul Patch’s voice comes over the intercom, and I turn my head to the left. He’s in a booth that looks like it’s being protected from radiation caused by nuclear fallout. I have to pause and wonder what sort of danger my body is currently in, what sort of rays I am about to endure. I try to remember what it was that The Fantastic Four were hit with when my train of thought is interrupted.

“Remember to keep your arm up—at the ceiling—like you have a question.” The only question I have is, When will this be over?

I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.

The tech, from his bomb shelter, says, “And here comes the dye.” I watch the fluid come down the bag, through the tube, and into my arm, and then I’m pretty certain that I have legitimately shit my pants. Everything from my abdomen to my thighs is steaming hot.

The intercom comes back on. Soul Patch says, “The dye may cause you to feel like you’ve . . . wet . . . your pants,” and I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, trying not to focus on the warmth in my pelvis.

The bed jerks and slides into the donut. I open my eyes and read a sign taped to the top of the donut hole: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE LASER. A female robot voice comes through the donut, The Bakery God, and says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” And I do. And I shut my eyes. And I pray. Not to the bakery god, but to That Faceless And Eternal Being. I do not blame you. I do not understand. Help me.

“You. May. Breathe.” The robot says and the bed pulls me out of the donut sanctuary. “Doing OK?” Soul Patch asks, and I say, “Yeah,” but in my head I think, Not so great . . . . Did I shit my pants?

The bed jerks forward again and the robot tells me, “Hold. Your. Breath.”

What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .

What if . . . .

What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.

“You. May. Breathe.”

Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.

“Hold. Your. Breath.”

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Like all good hospitals, ours made us wait the entire weekend before giving us the (maybe) life-changing results of our test. Over those three days, every stomachache turned into stomach cancer, every pain in my finger exploded into bone cancer, every headache transformed into brain cancer. By the time they called back late Monday afternoon, I had diagnosed myself as a tumor wearing clothes.

“What are my results? My, uh, my test results?” and the lady on the phone says, “I’m not allowed to give out that information, sir,” and I say, “I know. I know you’re not. But it’s OK. It’s me, er, my body. It’s my body. It’s not a secret to me,” and she says, “I just really can’t, and actually, I just don’t have access to the information. The doctor would, however, like to speak with you.”

Outside, thunder claps and lightening strikes and the camera zooms dramatically into my face and I hear the soundtrack of my life play dun-DUN-DUUUUUUN!!!

I take a half-day off work the next day and drive back to Arcadia to visit with Dr. Honda, the friendly neighborhood urologist. When I arrive, all the receptionists know me by name and smile and welcome me in and everything is just too friendly. Jade and I sit down and she picks up the same copy of Better Homes she’d been reading previously and opens up to the page she had habitually dog-eared.

A woman calls my name and both my wife and I stand up. I start walking forward while Jade casually slides the magazine into her purse. The receptionist leads us back through a narrow corridor crowded by old people with various urinating issues. We take a seat in the room where I was told I had cancer and Jade says, “Is this where he told you?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Where were you sitting?”

And I say, “Here.”

And she says, “And was he right here?”

And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Did you cry?”

And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”

She glances suspiciously around before sliding out her hot copy of Better Homes just before Dr. Honda knock-knock-enters. Jade shoves the magazine back in her purse like she’s just been caught trying to purchase extra-tiny condoms. The doctor shakes my hand, and I introduce him to my wife. He smiles and says, “Nice to meet you,” and takes a seat.

To his right he sets down a regular manila envelope with my name scratched onto the tab. Inside that envelope, I think, is everything. My future is just out of my reach.

He makes small talk with me and asks how my job is going, and I answer in short but courteous statements. He finally says, “Welp!” and grabs the folder and opens it on his lap and here comes The News.

“You have,” and he slides his finger down the page, turns it, examines the second page, “stage one cancer.”

I drop to my knees and tear my shirt and wail and scream and curse the Earth and the doctor says, “That’s . . . uh . . .that’s the kind we already knew you had,” and I immediately sit back on the paper-covered table and compose myself and say, “That’s great!”

Dr. Honda says, “It hasn’t spread. We’ll do the surgery and that should be it.”

YES!” We are going to (literally) cut this villain off at the pass and bury it alive. Goodnight, dickwad!

“Just out of curiosity,” I ask, “How high do the stages go?” and the doctor says, “Four. They go to four.”

 

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If you’re reading this with us weekly, thank you. The above chapters were such a bizarre place for us. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety. What is going to happen is a good question but what IS happening is maybe the better one.

Next week we’re going to get into sexy finances. That’s right, sweetheart. Chapter nine is about sperm banking. World’s most awkward excerpt below . . .

 

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The woman behind the desk hands me a cup and says, “Back through that door on the right. No lubrication. No spit,” and she looks directly at my wife and I say, “Oh . . . Ooooooh . . . .

We walk through the appropriate door and find ourselves in a room roughly the size of a hotel conference hall. Everything is white. Everything is sterile. The fluorescents buzz in the ceiling. On the walls: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Of course.

Sitting next to the door is a small table cluttered with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions. Motivation. In the center of the room is a chair that can only be described as something you would get a root canal in. It’s black, leather, and constantly at a slight recline. I sit in it and assume that this specific posture has been scientifically proven to help nervous men climax in public places.

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(The Father of) The Mother of Dragons

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My friend Jack and I are standing in my front yard talking about The Big W’s – Weather, Work and Wives – when Quinn runs up and slams into my legs, a big smile painted across her face. I assume that she probably wants to tell me about a bug she saw, a rock she found or a bird she heard – these are the ecstatic ramblings of children long before the boring gray fuzz of adulthood has tainted their world view.

Jack bends at the waist and slaps his hands onto the tops of his knees and, in a sing-song voice says, “Why, hello there, princess!” Quinn looks up at him with a furrowed brow then looks over at me and I can hear her thoughts, Why is this guy talking to me like I’m a baby animal?

How are you doing, Princess?”

“I’m, uh, fine?” and she says it like a question.

“You are beautiful, Princess! You are just beautiful, aren’t you?”

I cringe at the buttery compliments.

Quinn looks up at me. “Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Are, uh, princesses… uh, real?”

“Yes.”

“Like… on this planet?”

“Yes.”

“And they’re alive right now?”

“Yes.”

These are the three qualifiers Quinn uses in order to distinguish when and where a thing took place. She understands that things could have existed BEFORE now but exist no longer – like dinosaurs – or that things could exist outside of this country – like things in Africa – or that things could exist outside of this planet – like the sun and the moon. What she’s really asking is, “How accessible are these things to my reach?” How accessible are princesses to me? That’s the real question.

Can I be one?

Jack answers for me. “Of course they’re real! There’s one standing in front of me right now! A pretty princess! That’s you!” I cringe again. The last thing I want is my daughters to associate with characters who get trapped in towers, are afraid of spiders, and constantly require some form of assistance.

That is no one to make into a role model.

These ideas of “princess” are not inherent from birth. These ideas are fed into our daughters. We show them the pictures. We show them the movies. We glamourize the idea and the lifestyle. They are magical and beautiful and they don’t have bad hair and they never wet the bed and they don’t have to have jobs or work and everything is wonderful and their lives are perfect and how does it always end for a princess?

Happily Ever After.

And in all fairness, why would you not want that? I’m half tempted to throw a dress on myself and march around a castle while tethered to the sexual whims of some hunky prince in order to forego a few of the greater responsibilities of my standard adult life. Don’t judge.

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We may not intentionally give our children this idea that they should actually dream to be a princess (I would never!). We may not intentionally feed this lie to them (They’re just movies!). We may not intentionally form them to believe this (Do you want to be a princess for your birthday?) but there are lessons in repetition and our culture helps shape that which we are.

It shapes girls through childhood with fun movies. It shapes ladies through their teen years, which we then couple with beauty magazines. It shapes women through adulthood, which we then couple with pornography. And they take all this baggage into the work force, which we then couple with an antiquated and slowly dying cultural idea that men work and women stay home and then we wonder why women make, across the board, slightly less in the workforce.

Perhaps we’ve spent decades telling girls that they deserve slightly less. Perhaps we’ve spent decades convincing ourselves that they deserve slightly less.

And maybe we all, on some level, believe it… even if we say we don’t. Perhaps there is a part of us all that still believes they are the fairer sex.

How do we know if we believe this? Well, if a man tells you that his wife works full time and he is a stay-at-home dad, what is your first, internal, gut, emotional reaction?

Your very first reaction is probably, like mine. “Wow, that is a-typical. I wonder what that’s like?”

I have full acceptance of it – no judgment – but there is this part of me that acknowledges that it is somehow out of the realm of what we typically understand to be true.

And herein lies the problem. Because we, as individuals or as an entire culture, can simultaneously acknowledge that it is okay and “progressive” for a woman to work and a man to stay home while also understanding that part of us finds it to be outside the norm.

And so if you also think it to be outside the norm, it is because you believe (or have been told to believe) that, like me, women have a specific place and men have a specific place. If your first thought is “That is unique,” then you too are trapped in this way of thinking even though you don’t think you’re trapped in a way of thinking.

Culture has also made you and I, as men, believe certain things without our knowing that we believe them.

Scary.

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Perhaps we re-educate our daughters on what it means to be a woman. Perhaps we re-educate our girls on what it means to be a princess.

Perhaps we put Jack’s princess to rest.

Or better yet, perhaps we kill her completely. Perhaps we just let her starve to death in the tower as a lesson for not having the get-up-and-go to rescue herself. Rapunzel, you had hair. You could have crawled down yourself. Cinderella, you could have left. There was NOTHING tying you to that house. Those people hated you. Ariel, you doctored your birth form and gave up your entire world for a guy you just met simply on the hope of Happily Ever After.

These. Are. The. Lessons.

Settle for less.

Wait for help.

Change who you are.

And if you make twenty cents an hour less than men doing the same job, maybe that’s just your place. After all, that’s what we’ve taught you.

Perhaps feminism wouldn’t have to exist if we raised our daughters believing they were bad asses from the very beginning. Perhaps our daughters would never ask, “Am I good enough?” if we stopped telling them stories that highlight all the reasons why women aren’t good enough / pretty enough / strong enough.

Perhaps we start telling them stories about women that are leaders instead of women that wait for leaders.

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Quinn looks up at me, a revelation dawning across her face, “Dad, am I a princess? Is this true?” Jack has planted the seed.

And now I must garden.

“Well, let’s see… do you have a crown?” “No.” “Do you have a scepter?” “No.” “Do you have a castle?” “Uh, no.” “Do you own any lands? Is your mother a queen? Do you have servants? Do you settle disputes amongst your countrymen?”

“Uh, no. I don’t do those things.”

“Then you probably aren’t a princess.”

Jack says, “Why would you tell her that?” and I say, “The same reason I tell her that she is not God nor an earthworm.”

“Dad? Is, uh, Cinderella a princess?”

“Yes, she is.”

And in that moment I see the light in her eye. I see the draw of The Princess. I see that my daughter wants it because, at her core, I think most little girls do. And that’s okay too. But how do we separate all the terrible trash from the good stuff? How do we tell them that it’s okay to be a princess and it’s okay to be pretty and it’s okay to dance and fall in love but… there is more. That is not all. The princess you know is an incomplete story. Because she is an incomplete character.

She is flat and brainless and you are not.

In her question I see an entire culture of beauty pressures and weight problems and negative encouragement and impossible goals and cosmetic surgery and feminism and macho bullshit swirling in a tornado, trying to rear its head, trying to sneak into Quinn’s ears and her head and her psyche, trying to poison the vision of who she is. Trying to mold her (and I mean “mold” both in the sense of “forming shape” and also as “an organism that slowly eats away and decays”).

Maybe that voice in our culture is impossible to stop. Maybe it’s a hopeless battle and all of the body image shit that bathes and berates our females is impossible to hide from.

But maybe not.

Maybe we just need to alter the messaging a bit.

I squat down onto one knee, proposing an idea.

“Quinn, you know what? Princesses are real. There are princesses on this planet right now. On this Earth. And you know who the best one is?”

“Uh, Cinderella?”

Me, “Nope.”

“GREAT GUESS, PRINCESS!” That’s Jack.

“The greatest princess of them all is a woman just like you named Daenerys Stormborn. And she is the Mother of Dragons.”

“DRAGONS!? SHE HAS DRAGONS!?”

“Oh, yes. Three of them.”

Jack, “I don’t think you can tell her that.”

Me, “You think I should stick to Cinderella and her transforming pumpkin-carriage as the barometer for reality?”

Jack shifts his eyes, “Uh, what?”

“THREE DRAGONS!?” that’s Quinn in full excitement.

“Yeah. And you know what else? She flies around on them.”

“WHAT!?”

“And they breathe fire.”

WHAAAAAT!? FROM THEIR MOUTHS?!

“Bingo.”

Can I see a picture?!”

I pull out my phone and, thanks to Google and the wonderful CG team at HBO, I show her a picture of a very real looking Daenerys riding a very real looking dragon that is breathing very real looking fire.

“OH. MY. GOODNESS.”

“Can I tell you something else? She is a very. Powerful. Warrior. She is strong and she is brave and she stands up for people that are weak and she stands up for people that don’t have a voice. She is a hero. What do you think about that?”

“THAT IS REALLY KEWWWL!”

“Yes, it is. I agree. Now then, what do you think? Would you rather be Cinderella with her glass slippers going to the dance or Daenerys Stormborn with her dragons, breathing fire and battling the wicked?”

“I want to be Dan Harris!”

“I thought so. Remember, being pretty is nice. But being smart, brave and kind – being a leader – this is who you are. This is what’s really inside of you. Capiche?”

Capiche!

Quinn smiles and runs away. I stand up and smile at Jack, “Sugar and spice and everything nice only goes so far. Sometimes you’ve gotta pour a little whiskey in the soda if you want it to bite back.” Jack smiles in a way that makes me think he does not agree.

And that too is okay.

I acknowledge that someday Quinn will grow up and will most likely seek a spouse. And when she does, I want her to choose someone that she wants to be with. Someone that accentuates her happiness and helps to highlight her charm.

Our culture has a loud voice. And that voice tells us that spouses complete us. The voice tells us that our spouse is our other half.

But I say no.

I say we are complete people before we meet one another. A person does not complete another person. A person adds their brew to the mix. They bring their own ingredients and they help create a spicier dish but they do not complete the recipe.

Marriage does not complete you anymore than having children completes you anymore than having the proper job completes you anymore than having the right pair of pants completes you.

You are you.

You are you regardless of who you’re with.

Quinn doesn’t need someone to complete her. She can choose to be with someone because she loves being with them. Because their company is delightful. Because they find happiness in the other’s presence. Not because they will give her Happily Ever After.

Quinn comes running back, wrapping her arms around my leg.

“Daddy?”

I place my hand on her forehead. “Yes, Breaker of Chains?” Quinn squints at me. “Uh, those dragons… are they real?”

Ah, I knew that one was going to come around.

Sometimes, as a parent, it is our job to build up our children and raise them to be the best version of themselves that we believe they can be. Sometimes it’s our job to protect them from all the flying bullshit in the world – at least for as long as we can. Sometimes it’s our job to remind them to think for themselves and to question the status quo. Sometimes it’s our job to tell them the very hard truths of life.

And sometimes.

Sometimes.

It is our job to lie.

“Yes. The dragons are real. They are the last three in the world. And Daenerys has them and she flies around on them, fighting evil. And you, Quinn. You can fight evil as well.”

“I’M GOING TO!” and she turns and runs off into the yard, where I hear Rory and Bryce laughing.

Sometimes lying is good.

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Oh My Darling Clementine

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This has been a long time in coming and I keep putting it off and I continue to tell myself that it’s because I’m busy but I think the truth is that it’s my last words to her and they don’t feel perfect yet.  I keep changing things and deleting things and adding stories and I feel like I’m not saying enough about her.  Now, weeks later, the truth is I don’t think these words will ever be perfect.

Final words rarely are.

Clementine is a cocker spaniel that my wife and I have had the very great pleasure of being friends with over the last seven years.  She traveled the country with us, made us laugh and watched us grow.  In many regards, we owe Clementine a great deal because she was very much like a first child to us.  We received her as a puppy, potty trained her and had to temper our schedules to meet hers.

She was our dog but she was also a member of our family in a very important way.  My children loved her, my wife loved her, our friends loved her and I loved her.  Looking back through my photos and memories, I see that Clementine is in many of them and she isn’t tucked away in a corner as an afterthought; she’s sitting on my lap, resting at my feet, standing by my side, a very prominent part of our lives.

Oh My Darling Clementine, you are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine…

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I never wanted to get a cocker spaniel.  They always struck me as dopey looking, mangy animals.  So, when my wife presented me with the idea of acquiring a second dog some 7 years ago, I adamantly fought against the idea tooth and nail.  wanted a dauschund or a Saint Bernard.  I couldn’t tell which way my interests were leaning but I definitely wanted something with personality; something who’s actual physical attributes just popped out at you.  I wanted a furry eclectic curio on four legs.

My wife persisted.  She pulled up photo after photo of dopey looking, mangy cockers and said, “Look at this one!  It’s beautiful!  It’s like Lady from Lady and the Tramp!” and I’d say, “I’ve never seen Lady and the Tramp,” and she’d say, “What kind of sad and despicable childhood were you raised in?”

But she didn’t give up and I quickly became schooled in the history of the spaniel simply by proxy until finally, like the battered husband that I am, I caved and threw my hands up into the air and melodramatically moaned, “FINE!  FINE!  Let’s get the cocker spaniel!”

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ABOVE: The lesson I learned was to make sure the doors were all shut before letting Clementine out of the bathtub.

 

One month later Jade and I found ourselves standing in the LAX parking lot with a small crate at our feet.  Our visitor had arrived.  The breeder told us that Sweet Pea (her name for our puppy) was the runt of the litter and just wanted to be held.  “She just wants to crawl into your lap and be cuddled and snuggled,” the breeder would say via her weekly email to us.  “I named her Sweet Pea because that’s what she is – just a darling little Sweet Pea – the most adorable personality.  You’ll love her.”

We’d seen photos of her online but nothing compared to the moment when we opened her kennel door and little Sweet Pea hesitantly stepped out, afraid of the world.  I sat down on a curb stop and watched as this little fuzzy dot crawled out into the California sun after flying straight through, all alone, from Florida.

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ABOVE: The very first time we met little Clementine.  Her very first picture with us.

She hesitantly peeked out, a big white ball of fuzz with brown splotches, looked around with the world’s saddest eyes, slowly walked over to me in the teeniest, tiniest little steps, hopped into my lap and laid down.  She was the most adorable puppy I’d ever seen in my life and I just wanted to pet her and squeeze her and hold her and keep her.  From that moment on I couldn’t imagine having gotten any other dog besides a cocker spaniel.  We told her that her name was Clementine and from that moment on, she owned our hearts.

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ABOVE: Our little vampire would nibble on your toes with those sharp fangs.

Clementine was born with the absolute friendliest demeanor you’ve ever seen in an animal and even in her later years she had the attitude and spirit of a puppy.  She simply exuded joy.

She was a terrible guard dog and would bark at her own farts.  She was as dumb as a box of rocks and would lose in a fight every time but she the one thing she was good at, she was great at.  She was the type of dog that loyalty speaks of in its truest sense.

She really was so very, very stupid but so very, very respectable.  In my opinion, personality will win out over intelligence every time (and that rule applies to both animals as well as humans).

She was a very simple animal to love.

In fact, some of my fondest memories of her are simply driving in the car, she resting on my lap while America’s countryside passed by.  She and I saw quite a few states just like that.

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SOUTH DAKOTA

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MONTANA

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UTAH

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COLORADO

I always loved taking a break and escaping to the dog park with her for a bit.  I’d let her off the leash and she’d wander away and get lost and not be able to find her way back to me.  Meanwhile, I’d just sit on a picnic table and watch her sniff around, unable to pick up a scent and now, writing this, I see how horrible that would actually become.  Eventually, she’d simply give up and stand by some new owner.  She would simply insert herself into a new family.  That said…. perhaps loyalty to ME was not her best attribute so much as loyalty to the human race… or mankind… or The Cause… or Joy.  She was just very stupid and lovable.

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ABOVE: The park in Denver where I proposed to Jade.  We revisited it with the dogs on a vacation passing through CO.

One of my final memories of her was taking her for a stroll with my children and teaching them how to walk her; me trying to teach them to gently nudge without yanking her around.  I’d hand Rory the leash and he’d walk her and then I’d hand Quinn the leash and she’d walk her.  All by themselves.  As we neared our home I told Rory to go run with Clementine.  “RUN!” I shouted as I watched the two of them scramble down the sidewalk side by side before disappearing into our driveway.

A moment later Rory jumped out from behind the fence followed directly by Clementine and I always imagined that they would somehow be really great friends for many, many years – a boy and his dog.  The idea always seemed very romantic to me.

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ABOVE: Baby Rory and Clementine.

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ABOVE: Baby Quinn and Clementine.

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ABOVE: Little Lady Quinn and Clementine at a family campground.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Last Wednesday night my family went out to a little place called Jerry’s Pizza for dinner.  We just wanted to get out of the house and so we loaded everyone up and took off.  Before I left, last one out the door, as per usual, I checked to make sure the back doors were locked, Clem had water, the stove was off, and then I reached down and rubbed her nose and said, “See you in a bit, Clemmie.  Be good.  Good girl.”

And then I walked out the door.

And then we ate pizza.

And then we came home and kicked open the doors.

And then I sat down to do some work.

And then around 10pm as I was feeding Clementine, I realized I hadn’t seen her for some time.

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We have a completely fenced in yard and so it is not unnatural for us to kick the doors open and let Clementine take rein of the property.  That said, over the course of the last few years that we’ve lived in this house, she’s gotten out a handful of times BUT each time, by the Grace of God, she has made her way back home, typically by Jade or I finding her or by the hand of a gentle stranger.  Again, Clementine will go to strangers.  She will get in their cars.  They don’t even need candy.  They just need to ask.  She will adopt herself into their lives.  Thankfully she wears a collar with our contact info and most people are kind enough to heed it.

SIDE BAR:  IF YOU ARE A DOG OWNER, GET A COLLAR WITH YOUR CONTACT INFO ON IT.  When I see a dog walking around without a collar or without plates, I think of all the times my dog has gotten away and I just shudder.  GO.  NOW.  TONIGHT.

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I called her name a few times and hit all of the standard hiding places; under the bed, under the couch, under the desk.  Sometimes she just hides.  This is not abnormal.  Sometimes you think she’s gotten out but really she’s just lying under the couch and doesn’t feel like coming out.

I find nothing.

I walk outside and all the gates are closed and locked.  I call her name.  Nothing.  I walk into the street.  Nothing.  I walk down the block, calling for her.  Nothing.

She’s gotten out before.  I know that panicking doesn’t help.  I force the rising knot in my stomach to untwist.  I try to run through the emotion and get straight to the logic.

I walk around our block, one of those huge city blocks that is the size of three normal blocks.  I walk into the next neighborhood.  I get in my car and drive around.  I come home and Jade leaves to try her luck – keep in mind that the children are asleep so we can’t fully abandon the house.  In this state of, “I want to go find my dog,” one of us is always forced to plant our feet at the house and it makes us both incredibly anxious.

So I pace.

Twenty minutes.  Thirty minutes.  Forty-five minutes.  Ninety minutes.  Nothing is turning up and it’s getting late.  This has never happened before.  She’s never not come home.  We’ve never had to go to bed without her in the house.  She’s never done this and I feel so helpless.  I suddenly realize how big the world is.  I can suddenly see how massive everything is.  My dog is missing and she could be anywhere.  Any backyard.  On any street.  In any neighborhood.  With each passing moment she could be getting further and further away and I don’t even know it.  Blocks are turning into miles.  She’s leaving Van Nuys… into Panorama City… crossing a busy street.  Traffic is flying by.  Horns are honking.  She’s scared.

Or she could be coming closer!  And so I call her name again but there is no response and, ultimately, Jade and I go inside.  And we go to sleep.  Because, frankly, we don’t know what else to do and now, today, I regret that decision.  I regret it horribly and painfully.  I hate that I stopped looking.  Knowing what I know now I wish that I had just kept going and kept going and shouted longer and louder and looked harder and driven further.

But we didn’t.

And that night I have a dream that Clementine is returned to us and I’m hugging her and smiling and laughing and when I wake up in my bed I’m so happy that everything is over and that Clem is back, our little Sweet Pea is back, and then I remember that she isn’t here and we haven’t found her and that it was a just dream and I’m heartbroken again.

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ABOVE: Road trip to Montana.  Clementine was very wonderful to snuggle when she was clean.

Jade goes to Staples and makes fliers.  White ones.  Hangs them up on telephone lines.  She makes a huge poster and hangs it on the front of our house so anyone walking by can see that she’s missing.  She calls shelters and animal hospitals but no one has seen a cocker.

This, of course, is GREAT NEWS because we know she isn’t hurt or dead.  There has been no confirmation.

But, worse than that… we have nothing.  We have no idea.

Jade says, “I just spoke to Tiffany and she says that some people find nice dogs and kidnap them and try to sell them,” and I say, “BASTARDS!” and Jade begins to scan Craigslist for people selling cockers.  She finds one and, when she asks to see a photo of the dog, the man deletes the posting and I think Clementine has slipped away from us for good.  I become positive that the man has my dog and that she’s in his house.  I wonder if she’s in a cage or on his couch.  Is he treating her nice.  Does this guy live on my block?  In my neighborhood?  Could Clementine be so close?  OH, IF I FIND THAT GUY I’M GOING TO BREAK HIS WINDOWS!

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Jade reads on a lost dog forum that in order to achieve higher visibility, fliers should be bright pink or orange because they attract the eye.  People tend to look past white ones.  So Jade goes back to Staples and prints off another hundred fliers and she covers our neighborhood with them.  She puts them under windshield wipers and on light posts and she hands them to people and she talks to strangers and, meanwhile, I’ve got an edit that’s due the next day and am working and I hate it.

Rory and Quinn, my three year old twins, stand in the front yard and, whenever anyone walks by they say, “Have you seen my dog?” and the people smile and shake their heads and walk away.  Someone else walks by and they say, “Excuse me?  Have you seen my dog?” and they smile and shake their head and walk away.  Rory shouts, “She’s white and red!  She’s lost!  You go find her!” and then the person is gone and I wonder if my son feels as helpless as I do, trapped in a yard.

I get angry at Clementine and I say, “Stupid dog!  What are you leaving the yard for!  Where were you going?  Where are you?”  and then somebody tells us about Pitbull bait and how dogs that are in dog fights need to train and so lost and found dogs are sometimes used as bait and I shut my eyes and try to wash the image of Clementine being torn to pieces by a dog and his asshole owner but I can’t.

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That night Jade goes to sleep and I’m still working, the front door hanging open.  I go outside on a whim, hoping to just see her prancing down the street towards our house, back from her big adventure.  My brain doesn’t accept that she’s gone and I just expect her to…. be back.  I shout her name.

Nothing.

A Latino couple walks up to me and the woman says, “We lost our cat,” and I say, “Yeah,” and she says, “Your dog was beautiful and so friendly.  A lot of people would find a dog like that and keep it.  Take it home for their kids.  So friendly,” and I imagine these people picking up my dog and I imagine Clementine in their house on my very block, loving her and feeding her and playing with her.  BASTARDS!

I vow to get her back.  I’m going to find the selfish pricks who think it’s okay to steal dogs and I’m going to get her back.  And when I find the guy who did this I’m going to kick the shit out of him.  Or I’m at least going to try because some things are just worth getting your nose broken over.  I’m hurt and angry and heartbroken.  She’s part of my family and my house is feeling like a puzzle piece is missing.

I love my dog and I miss her and I WANT HER BACK!

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Last year we put our older dog to sleep and we grieved fiercely over her loss but there was preparation and peace surrounding the process.  This was just chaos and confusion and neither of us knew what to feel or what to expect.

That night I go to sleep and I dream again that Clementine has returned and the next morning I awake and I begin to feel the very real twinge of loss setting in.  Could she be gone?  Really gone?  Truly gone?  My heart pushes the possibility aside, unwilling to accept.  I get up and tell myself that someone will bring her back.  Someone has her and they’ll bring her back.

A woman emails us, someone who saw the Craigslist ad that we posted.  She tells me her neighbor stole her dog and kept it hidden for three months until she put up a $500 reward.  BASTARDS!

We put up a $500 reward.

Nothing happens.

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ABOVE: Waking up at a truck stop after a night of sleeping in the car with these two.

That night at dinner we get a phone call from a stranger.  They say they’ve seen our flyer and they’ve seen our Clementine just last night one block from our home.  I immediately drop my fork, grab my keys, jump in my car and head into the setting sun.  I stop in the parking lot she was allegedly last seen in and scour it top to bottom in complete desperation.  I call her name.  I shout.  I walk for blocks.  I jump back in my car and drive and shout and nothing.  The sun is gone.  It’s dark.  I go back home.  Every time I turn back I feel like I’m quitting.

I walk in the door and I can see on Jade’s face that she’s hoping and expecting me to walk in with our dog.  It’s the first solid lead we’ve had and now it’s dead.  I shake my head and her shoulders fall.

If you’ve never loved a pet, a part of your soul has not lived.

We eat dinner in silence and then Jade takes the car out to look while I get the kids ready for bed.  She returns empty handed.

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ABOVE: This is her excited face.

That night we decide to start a Facebook page called FindClem.  If someone is keeping her or trying to sell her, we’ll just make her so internet famous that they’ll get busted.  We’ll create an enormous viral campaign.  Clementine has a face made for radio – just a droopy, mangy maw and I became convinced that people would help us.  I stand in my kitchen and say, “We’ll blow this thing up!  We’ll get her back!  We’ll make t-shirts!  Stickers!  Tweets!  We’re going global!”

We never go global but over the course of the following 24 hours we amass a total of just over 100 likes, mostly from complete strangers.  People emailed us and personal messaged us with links to cockers that fit Clem’s description being sold online.  IS THIS YOUR DOG?  DID I FIND CLEMENTINE?  LOOK HERE!”

None of them were her but it was inspiring to see such help rally in such a short time span.

We go to sleep.

In the morning my friend texts me and says he had a dream that we found Clementine and that she was hiding under a car.

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We take our fliers and we head back out into the street.  Rory and I walk down one side of the block while Jade, Quinn and Bryce walk down the other as we begin to canvass East.  We hand fliers to everyone we pass.  We hang them up on pegboards in restaurants.

When we reach the end of the road we turn around and my anger rises every time I see one of the hot pink MISSING posters lying in the gutter.  These are my hopes that people are discarding, throwing on the ground.  My fury peaks when I see that people have intentionally ripped them off several light posts. For every good person out there it seems there are two or three awful ones… maybe more.

We meet back at the car and, in a Hail Mary move, decide to try one more place – the bridge across the street.  We hit the walk button.  We pass over the crosswalk.  We approach a man fixing a bicycle.  I hand him a flier and say, “Lost my dog,” and he looks at me and looks at the flier and he stands up and he smells like alcohol and he points at Clementine and he says, in a thick Spanish / drunk accent, “This your dog?” and I say, “Yes.  Yes.  Have you seen her?” and he says, “I seen this dog,” and everything in me blooms.  Hope.  Fear.  Anxiety.

The man, whose name I later learn is Carlos, reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a collection of hot pink Lost Clementine fliers.  Maybe 20 in all.  Jade says, “Why do you have those?” and Carlos points to the dollar signs on the poster and says, “Is there a reward?” and I say, “There is a reward for the dog, yes, yeah,” and he says, “Is there a reward for information leading to the location of your dog?” and I say, “There is a reward for my dog,” and he says, “I have your dog.”

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ABOVE: Brookbank Christmas card 2013.

Jade and I both look at each other and my stomach flip-flops and Jade says, “Where is she!?  WHERE IS SHE?!” and he points back to the money and I say, “Show me where she is,” and he says, “Come here… I show you…” and I tell Jade to stay with the kids and I turn and I follow this stranger down the sidewalk as he takes off at a brisk pace.

As I jog to keep up with his Goliath steps, he glances over his shoulder and casual states, “I live out here, you know?  That’s my home.  I live on the street,” and I nod silently as he points back to his bicycle.  Half a block later he stops at the crosswalk and says, “Here,” and I look around.  I say, “What?” and now I feel like a fool.  I’m letting a drunk man lead me around as I stupidly follow blind hope.

He says again, “Here,” and then, “Friday night.  I saw that dog running around right here.  I thought to myself, what a beautiful animal.  I used to have a dog like that when I was a boy.  A cocker spaniel.  White and spotted like a cow.  Beautiful dog.  I thought… that dog is lost.  I came to pet it and it ran back and forth and before I got to it…. it jumped into the street and was hit by a car and was torn into two pieces.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

This is the part of the story where my stomach drops to the floor and I stand up straight and I can feel a nervous breakdown beginning to grow and I lean in and I say, “What?  What’s that?” and he says, “I’ve never seen anything like it before.  A car ran her over and tore her in half.  She was so beautiful but she was a mess,” and I say, “My dog was….. hit by a car?… and you saw this?”

He says, “Here… look, look.  Follow me,” and he marches into the busy traffic, nearly a third of the way across the street.  He says, “Right here.  This is where she was,” and then he walks back while he points at the ground.  I look down and see what looks like a tire burn out.  I say, “What is this?  What?  The tire mark?” and he says, “No.  That’s no tire mark.  Your dog was hit there-” and he points to the spot as I watch a half dozen tires run over that exact place, perfectly aligned in the street.

He says, “I couldn’t leave her out there.  I was drunk.  I went out and I picked her up.  All of her pieces.  All of her insides.  And I dragged her,” and he points to the tire skids, “over to here,” and he steps down into the gutter a points at a blotch of dark black matter.  I look at the mark in the center of the road and I look at the smudge in the gutter and I look at the skid mark connecting them and I say, “That’s…. her blood?  That tire mark is her blood trail?” and he says, “Yes!  It was terribly sad!  And I couldn’t leave her here.  She was too beautiful.  So beautiful!  So I scooped all of her pieces up and I carried them across the street and I put them in that garbage can.”

He points across the street to a garbage can I’ve walked past at least a dozen times since losing her.  “No…” I think.  “Please don’t let that be true.  Not like this.”

He begins running across the street, saying to hell with the traffic light.  He cuts between speeding cars and my hands are starting to shake.  We approach the garbage can and he says, “I put her in here but it was just… so much,” and I say, “So much what?” and he says, “I didn’t want anyone to see – children or people – she was -” and he grimaces and rubs his fingers together, never completing the thought.  “So I cut the bag out of the can — you see here — you see where I cut it?” and sure enough there is a bit of black torn plastic left inside the now empty garbage can.

I don’t want to believe anything he’s saying.  I’m certain he’s drunk.  I’m certain he’s crazy.  I’m certain he’s just a violent and horrible man who wants to tell me lies and he’s making it all up and nothing is true but I follow him and I listen to him and I can’t stop because I have to hear it all.

He says, “This way.  I took her over here… in the bag…” and he takes me to a dumpster about twenty yards away.  He says, “Here.  She’s in here.  Now.”

And I bite my tongue and I bite my lip and I rub my hands on my pants and my knees are weak and I can see Jade watching me from across the street and I say, “My dog is in this dumpster?” and in my head I’m thinking, “My Sweet Pea is in this dumpster?  My baby that crawled into my lap at the airport?  My precious Clementine is IN THIS DUMPSTER LIKE A PIECE OF TRASH!?”

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Carlos says, “Yes,” and then hops in and starts pulling boxes out and pushing things aside.  He finds black trash bags and pokes them and prods them and moves them around before he says, “I smell her.”  He lays his hand on a bag before quickly pulling it back and says, “This one…” and I look at him and I say, “Open it,” and a fear comes over his face that makes me wonder how bad it all was.  He says, “You serious, man?” and I say, “I need to see her.  I need to see my dog,” and he bends down and sticks his finger into the bag and tears it open and yellow ooze pours out and I look away but it’s just rotten restaurant food.

He says, “She’s not here…maybe they emptied the trash,” and I think, “Or maybe you made the whole thing up to get money,” and then The Logic in me speaks up and says, “There are too many compelling facts.  The mark in the road.  The fabric on the garbage can.  The fact that the story was so quickly fabricated and told in such detail.  The location of the event to the parking lot from the previous call.”

I don’t want to believe it and so my heart cries liar.

Carlos and I cross the street as Jade approaches us.  I say, “Jade, this gentleman is alleging that–” but Jade, with red eyes, cuts me off and says, “I know.  I just heard.  His friends told me,” and she points to a group of rag-tag homeless men that are halfway to oblivion well before noon.

A man on the street says he was there as well.  Says he saw it happen.  But my heart still disagrees and won’t process it.  Not Clementine.  Not like this.  Not my Clementine.  She’s too sweet.  Too precious.  Too little.  I’m still picturing her in someone’s living room, eating popcorn with them while they watch a movie.

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ABOVE: An art installment at an abandoned desert museum.

I leave Carlos behind and approach another homeless person on the block.  I ask her if she knows Carlos and she says, “Yeah,” and I say, “What do you think of him?  How is he?” I feel like I need to know what the personal integrity of this man is, which just seems crazy.  Anything to prove him wrong.  How did my day end here?  How did this all happen?  I’m so angry that I ever suggested going to Jerry’s Pizza.  I count all of my decisions back and try to figure out how this could have been avoided.  My thoughts are interrupted by Jean, the homeless woman, “He’ll lie and cheat to get what he wants.  He ripped my friend off twice for more than a hundred bucks.”

Is this man some kind of con artist that has hatched a story just in case he came across us, my wife and I, suspecting that we’d be looking in the neighborhood?  Is he telling me the truth?  If he saw my dog die and thought he could make money, why didn’t he try calling us off the number on the fliers?  Why was he collecting all of our fliers?  He says it was so people wouldn’t waste time searching for a dead dog.  Or maybe it’s because he didn’t want other people to be conscious of the reward money.

I walk home, jaded and confused.  I try to separate logic from emotion, an act that has been nearly impossible over the last hour.  My brain and my heart are telling me two different things.  Inside, Jade and I discuss what we’ve seen and heard.  I tell her that I don’t know what to believe and she agrees.

Forty-five minutes later I go back to the intersection and stare at the streak and try to imagine Clementine but I can’t.  I see Carlos staring at me but I ignore him.  I look at the garbage can and I look at the dumpster and my heart breaks open.

I walk home and I tell Jade that I think Carlos is telling the truth.  I tell her that my brain is saying it all makes sense but my heart is unwilling to accept it.  She nods and her eyes gloss over with tears for our little Clemmie.

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ABOVE: Clementine getting cozy with cancer-era Johnny.

That evening we log onto our FindClem Facebook page, our beacon of hope, and create a post that reads, “The saddest of days in The Brookbank Home as we discovered today that our very dearest Clementine is no longer with us. Thank you so much to everyone that helped and reached out. We appreciate you all.”

After typing the words, I just stare at them for a moment as the pieces and the truths all fall into place for me.

All the dark and disgusting things that have been in my heart, all the fear and despair that I’ve kept mostly at bay are creeping towards the surface.  The Black Abyss that has been circling me like a mist is getting thicker.  Typing the words has brought this dormant thought to activation but it isn’t until I hit enter that I realize it’s true.  And in that truth I understand the certainty that Clementine is gone.  Forever.  I realize that I will never see her again.  I realize and understand that I will never pet her again.  I will never take her to another dog park.  I will never go on a vacation with her ever again.  I’ll never wake up to her curled up on my feet and I’ll never get to watch my children chase her again.  She’ll never greet me at the door.  She’ll never see me off.  I’ll never get to take her on another walk.

Ever.

Again.

The RETURN key clicks and the post appears for the world to see.  It’s broadcast in front of me like a fact and everything that has held on for the last three days let’s go; breaks like a levy.  I stand up and I walk to the corner and I fall against the door and I simply weep into my hands for the loss of my friend.

The anchor of hope is gone and it’s been replaced by a weight of bricks tied to my neck and I can feel it pulling me down and making me sick.  I want to lash out but there’s nothing to grab.  Jade puts her hands around my waist and sobs into my shirt.  And it goes on and on and on.

It’s not right.  None of it is right.  Clementine getting out of the fence was mischievous and stupid.  Clementine getting hit by a car was, frankly, just bad luck.  But Clementine being picked up by a drunk man and disposed of in a dumpster…

It’s not right and she deserved better.

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***   ***   ***   ***   ***

We’re just over a week out from her death and I still find myself reacting to muscle memory.  In the morning I go to feed her and when I have leftovers from dinner my first reaction is to just toss the scraps on the ground.  Before I go to bed I catch myself just before I shout, “Bedtime, Clem!  C’mon!”  Sometimes I think I hear a scratch at the door and, just because I believe in miracles, I go and check… but it’s never her.

I hear dogs barking in the street and I always pause to listen for her voice… but it’s just strange canines that belong to other families.

We’ve picked up her bed and have begun the process of de-dogging the house – giving away her bag of food and putting away her toys.  I pulled the cover off her mattress and threw it in the laundry basket only to have Jade call me back a few minutes later.  I rounded the corner to find her holding it out to me.

She says, “I’m going to wash this,” and I say, “Okay,” and she says, “Do you want to smell it?  This is all we have left,” and I am suddenly faced with this goodbye that I wasn’t at all ready for.  I grab the stupid dog blanket and I shove it into my face and I inhale and I can smell her.

One last time.

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ABOVE: The very last photo taken of her with my youngest daughter Bryce, just a day or two before she disappeared.

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“How I Was Nearly Beaten, Mugged and Kidnapped in Nicaragua” … OR … “How I Spent My Wife’s 30th Birthday”

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For the longest time I’ve had this ridiculous hero fantasy wherein I find myself in a hostile situation with various other civilians – the two most used locations in my brain are a gas station robbery and an airplane during a terrorist take-over.  I hear stories about these things happening all the time; I read the news articles, I’ve seen the YouTube clips uploaded from security cameras, I’ve watched the Caught on Tape! TV specials.  Everything is calm and then, just like that, you’ve got a gun in your face, piss in your pants and the register is hanging open.

I always hoped that if I were to find myself in a real life crime-drama scenario that I would be the guy who Did the Right Thing.  I tell myself that I would act honorably and valiantly but there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says, “When sword meets steel, you will fold.  You will hide behind a rack of candy bars and sports car magazines and you will squat down and shiver and pray and wait for it to be over.”

I tell that voice that it’s wrong.  That I’m made of better material but… until it happens… you never know what you’ll do.

Two and a half weeks ago while visiting a foreign country, I finally got to see if The Voice was right…

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For my wife’s 30th birthday we wanted to do something exotic… something extravagant… something adventurous.  We talked about Red Lobster but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about skydiving but said, “NO!  Bigger.”  We talked about having a Latin American themed birthday party complete with pinata that looked like Jade but we said, “NO!  Bigger…. but let’s save that idea for 31…”

BELOW: A photo journalistic approach to some of the awesome things we thought about doing for Jade’s birthday…

Petting a camel.

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Having a staring contest with a seal.

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Going camping.

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Wearing masks.

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Breaking things.

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Around this time we serendipitously ran into a couple at an ice skating arena one night who told us they’d just returned from honeymooning in Nicaragua.  “Nicaragua?” I say, “Isn’t that a war-torn, poverty stricken, wasteland?”  The husband shrugs and the wife says, “Yes and no.”  They pull out their iPhones and show us pictures of an exotic paradise, photos of extravagant beaches, videos of adventurous hikes, swims and ferry rides.

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We were sold.

“The only thing you gotta remember,” they say together ominously, “Is that everyone there is really poor and they’ll steal things from you… not because they’re violent but because it’s a course of survival…”

Two weeks later we’d purchased our tickets and two weeks later again we found ourselves airborne, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, heading for a land who’s foreign tongue we did not speak.  I felt like Indiana Jones and my wife was that short Asian kid that follows him around, always helping him out of trouble.

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Neither of us had experienced international travel before besides the one time my wife visited the Bahamas and the single time I was in southern Texas so neither of us really knew what to expect.  Everything was new and revelatory; virgin territory.

On the plane I sit next to a Jehova Witness who just retired two days ago.  To celebrate she was moving to Nicaragua for three months.  Thinking about her I realize that she’s still there now (at the time of this writing) and it makes me jealous.

The captain buzzes over the intercom and tells us we’ll be landing in twenty minutes.  Jade and I push up the window, expecting to see Strange and Foreign Nicaragua, a land covered in jungles and vines and explorers carrying machetes but instead we only see a phosphorescent orange glow emanating from the city; a color that screams the word “HEAT!”  Traffic slowly crawls below us, cars and trucks and motorcycles.  From above it looks like LA at night… or Miami at night… or New York at night….

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ABOVE: Nicaragua by day, which is more what I was anticipating when I opened the window.

The plane lands, everyone stands up, Jade and I grab the only thing we’ve packed – a backpack per each of us – and exit the plane.  It’s then, as I step into the terminal, that it all hits me very hard.  I am in a foreign land.  I don’t know anyone and, most noticeably, I can’t read any of the signs.  Letters that I have been familiar with my entire life strategically reorganize themselves to stand out like strangers on boards that might as well have been blank.

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ABOVE: Bookstore in the airport.

The airport is quiet.  There are few people and no security.

Outside we find a man that the hotel has sent.  He holds a sign with our name on it and, as we approach, he introduces himself as, “Mumble-Mumble, I speak very fast Spanish.”  I place my hand against my chest, feeling like Tarzan, and say, “Johnny,” and he says, “Yonni,” and I nod.  My wife says, “Jade,” and he, like everyone that’s ever met her, says, “Jane.”  It’s good to know that the mistake transcends language and culture, making us feel right at home.

He takes us to an unmarked car and opens the doors for us.  PS, we’d read stories about taxi drivers picking travelers up, driving them into dark alleys and mugging them so i was ready for his attack… if it were ever to come to that…

The man, Mumble-Mumble, drives us through a large city called Managua and it’s unlike any I’d ever seen.  Homes and businesses in various states of disrepair are found on every corner.  Domiciles that most would find uninhabitable are everywhere; we see toddlers walking in ruins, families eating in filth, couples enjoying the night air, surrounded by debris; corrugated steel, cracked wood and rubble.

We pass a street corner where a small gang of eight year old kids are washing windshields for money.  On the same corner are women covered in short dresses, long hair and thin sheets of sweat, selling themselves on a humid night.

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ABOVE: This picture was not taken at night… but all the pictures that were taken at night were dark… so you get some day time photos.

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ABOVE: For the low, low price of just 85 cordobas, you too could enjoy the processed goodness of a quesoburguesa doble!

Jade and I begin trying to converse with our driver.  The three of us speak slowly, trying to find familiar words and phrases; shaping things with our hands.  He tells us he has diez hermanos or ten brothers.  He tells us that the children working the streets are the children of drug addicts who can’t take care of them.  He tells us that Marc Anthony is playing a show in town tonight.  He tells us we should go.  He says, “Trabajo!  Trabajo!” and snaps his fingers and dances but I don’t know what it means.

He turns off the main road onto a dark street and the solitude of our situation creeps under my skin.  We pass abandoned garages and dark homes and broken windows; patched up fences and homes with no doors.  A group of six motorcycles blow past us, their engines tearing through the silence of the night and the driver tells us there will be a motorcycle convention in the center of town tomorrow but all I hear is “There are motorcycle gangs everywhere.  Watch out!”

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ABOVE: The outside of our room at Hospedaje Naranja.

He takes us to Hospedaje Naranja (Hotel Orange), where we’re staying the night, and walks us to the front door, who’s gate is locked from the inside.  A woman cautiously peeks around the corner before recognizing her friend, smiling and pulling the dead bolt.  Jade and I step inside and the woman quickly latches the door behind us with a nervous giggle.

She speaks fluent English, checks us in and asks if we’re hungry.  She suggests three restaurants and, little do I know, but this is the first of several choices that will ultimately lead me to an undesirable end.  We choose the closest; a Peruvian place three doors down the street and our fate is sealed.  The woman says, “Very close.  Very safe.”

We put our bags in our room and walk the half a block to the restaurant.  It’s now 9:30pm and dark.  Every car I hear approaching is a kidnapper, a thug, a villain ready to Do Crimes.  We enter the restaurant and order our food in the best Spanish we can muster.  Jade orders wine and I get a shot or trajo of whiskey.  We order a pasta plate and share it.

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The woman who owns the restaurant approaches our table and asks where we’re staying, asks what our plans are, asks how the food is.  She sits down at the table and tells us that her tablet (knock-off iPad) is broken and it’s erased all of her family photos.  She says something about batteries and RAM and wireless signals.  She asks if we’d like her to pull some herbs from her garden to make us a fresh and delicious tea but we decline.  Jade, because she’s genuinely not interested, me because I’m afraid she’s going to slip me some kind of date rape toxin that will render me useless before I wake up handcuffed to a bed with a man named Tony rubbing his dirties all over me.

The woman sighs, disheartened, and then we take another turn closer to the pit.

I say, “Is there a bar around here?”  The woman looks at me quizzically and says, “Bahr?” and I say, “Yeah, uh… drinks?  Beer.  Cerveza?” and she says, “Bahrr?  AH!  Pub!?” and I say, “Yes!  Si!  Si!  Pub!” and she tells us that there’s one on this very block.  She draws an invisible map on the table and says, “Go right and right and right.  Not far at all.”

The night is young and, maybe it’s my one shot of whiskey or the fact that I’m realizing that my fear of all Nicaraguans has been unfounded and that everyone truly is kind and gentle but the pub sounds like a good idea.  The taxi driver was friendly and helpful.  The woman in the lobby was generous and wonderful.  The restaurant owner and our waiter were both smiling and genuine people.

“This is Nicaragua,” I think.  This is how life should be.  I’m projecting my anti-trusting violent mindset onto these people.  I’ve watched too many movies.  Seen too much TV.  People are people and people are kind.

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The woman says, “I will take you there,” and we say, “Okay,” and she grabs her coat and then we’re in the dark street and then we’re walking towards her SUV and then Jade is saying, “Wait, what is happening?  I thought she was walking us?” and then I say, “Yeah, but she’s driving us.  It’s okay.  She’s nice,” and then the woman is on the other side of her car and Jade and I are standing in the dead street with both doors open and Jade is whisper-shouting, “We don’t know her.  She could take us to some factory and sell us into sex slavery and men will stick it to your maize-hole,” which of course is a Spanish joke if you can translate it and I say, “Don’t worry.  Everyone is so nice!  She’s just going to give us a little ride!” and Jade says, “I don’t want to.  I don’t want to go,” and, looking back… I’m really amazed at how stupid and careless I was about to be, crawling into a car with a stranger.

Luckily, we never saw how that story ended because, like all good stories, the unexpected occurred.

Suddenly, the woman, out of my line of sight on the driver’s side of the car, screams.  SCREAMS.  She hasn’t stubbed her toe or slipped or broken her ankle.  This scream tells you immediately that something nasty is happening.  Again.  SCREAMING.  In my mind, I remember it all in English, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.  It seems like she would have shouted in her native tongue but all I can recall is, “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!  No!  Stop!”

Jade says, “What-” and I begin to hesitantly walk towards the back of the car… and then from out of the darkness a man appears, slightly heavy set, Latino fella.  Late 20s.  The image is blurry and I’m having a hard time processing what is happening; everything has gone from calm and unsure to chaotic and unsure in literally seconds.  I see the man and I see the woman and they are struggling.  The woman is hanging onto something – her purse – and the man is pushing her away from it, trying to break free.  She’s struggling like it’s her newborn child he’s trying to pull away and, finally, he succeeds.  He grabs her dress by the shoulder and violently throws her to the ground.

The entire exchange happens in one or two seconds; I walked around the back of the van and then saw a man overpower a woman and throw her to the ground.  It was very fast.  Everything else moves at an incredible rate… everything else moves faster than I can process; faster than I can make decisions or weigh pros and cons.  It all just…. happens.

But this is my moment.  The one I’ve been waiting for my whole life.

And when it is upon me, I don’t think, “Here is my moment,” and The Voice never speaks up.  There is no internal dialogue of whether I will act or not.  Whatever is inside… just exists.

The man turns and begins to run and I immediately break into a sprint after him, my Dad sneakers slapping the hot concrete like pistons.  And then there is suddenly a motorcycle with a second man in the street, waiting, but I don’t slow down.  I don’t know where it came from or when it arrived or if it was there when we exited the restaurant but I am certain that my runner is heading straight for his getaway driver.

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ABOVE: This was not the robber… believe it or not, we did not pull out our cameras during this ordeal.  This is just a random man on a bike.  Although, the bike looks similar and the man looks similar…. so…. maybe…….

I’m out of shape but The Thief is even thicker in the center than myself so I’m able to close the gap between us just before he reaches the bike.  He pauses momentarily to skip and hop into the air; the plan to land on the back of the bike and his friend to, of course, escape into the darkness with their loot but…

…I don’t know where the truth is in this following section and I don’t know where my wishful thinking is – everything is a gray blur – but I’ll give it to you how I remember it and how I hope it happened.

The Man slows down to leapfrog onto the back of his accomplice’s bike and, as he does so, glances over his shoulder.  This is the first time, I believe, he realizes that he is being pursued… and it shocks and surprises him and causes him to stumble, foiling what would otherwise have been a practiced and flawless landing on the bike.  In the background, echoing, I can hear someone screaming.  Maybe it’s the woman from the restaurant, maybe it’s my wife, maybe it’s both.

The man stumbles and, instead of hopping smoothly onto the bike, lifts his foot up and catches it awkwardly after seeing me.  He lifts his foot again and lands half sideways on the seat, hop-hopping to keep his balance, the back of his left knee draped over the seat prematurely, the driver now struggling to hold things upright.  I catch up to him and, as I’m running, begin to pull my fist back.  I’ve never hit anyone in my life and it’s about to happen.  We are on an impact trajectory, folks.

The Man holds out his left hand, trying to block me and, with his other hand, pulls back his fist and begins to say, “No!No!No!No!” and then this is the first time that everything slows down.  Finally, the fast forward is done and a clarity rolls through my brain.

I see two men standing in front of me that are clearly capable of very dark things.  I see two women standing behind me, the latter of the two pressing 50.  I see myself stopping these two men and then me standing in a street with both of them coming towards me.  I don’t know if they have knives or guns.  I don’t know anything.  I don’t know anyone.  I’m in Nicaragua.

And then I see my children, in my head, clearly.

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ABOVE: The two things that I love most; my children and my hammock……… Oh, and Jade is nice too.

And then I realize that whatever is in that woman’s purse is not worth losing what I have at home.  I don’t care if she has a hundred thousand dollars in there and three gold bouillons and the Busch’s Baked Beans family recipe.  I suddenly realize that that purse is going to go away… and I am completely okay with that.

I pull my punch and take a step back.  The guy sees me hesitate and hops the rest of the way onto the bike.  I assume that our exchange, his entire pause, was roughly seven seconds.  Just enough…

The bike revs and the two men wobble and then take off into the darkness just as a third man appears over my shoulder; this one running directly towards the motorcycle.  Like the others, he too came out of nowhere and it only takes me a moment to realize that it’s the waiter from the restaurant.  He shouts and the bike revs and takes off but he doesn’t stop.  He cranks his arms and chases the bike for a solid 20 feet.  His arms outstretch… the bike picks up speed… he’s closing the gap… as the bike finds its balance… and then just before the bike is out of his grasp, he wraps his fingers into the shirt of The Thief and throws him to the ground, pulling the entire bike sliding onto the concrete with a bang and a hissssss.

Looking back, I wonder if the two criminals were thinking the same thing I’ve been thinking, which is…. seven seconds.  If we’d only had seven more seconds… if that stupid American hadn’t…

In those seven seconds they would have been able to ride free and clear.  As is, they did not.

Two, three, four, six, nine, twelve men suddenly come running from behind me; various restaurant workers who heard the ruckus.  The driver stands up, pulls his bike up, hops on and takes off, leaving his partner in crime lying in the street, alone, as the twelve men encircle him before dragging this would be felon to the curb and begin beating him mercilessly.

Jade and I slowly step backwards, towards the other side of the street and disappear into the shadows, retreating back to the confines of our hotel.  For the remainder of the night we lie in bed and slowly flip through 93 channels of Spanish television, hoping to learn a few phrases for the coming week but the only word I’m able to pick out is ayuda.

Help.

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At midnight I shut the light off and try to go to sleep but merely stare at the ceiling for what feels like hours.  My heart rate has long since returned to normal but I still feel as though adrenaline and fear are pounding through my veins and my brains.  I hear a noise outside and go to the window.  Nothing.  I crawl back into bed and hear a scamper from the room next door.  I listen and wait.  Nothing.  I get up and use the bathroom, make sure the window is locked and secure.  I double check the lock on the door and then peer out from behind the curtains slowly.  I hear a motorcycle approaching and wonder if it’s the same man, coming back to the neighborhood to pick up his limping and beaten friend.

I crawl back into bed, under the cold sheets and wonder what it’s like to live in a world where this occurrence does not throw you into a state of panic and fear and unease.  I think about the men that came running from the restaurants and realize that this wasn’t the first time this had happened.  This wasn’t An Event.  This was A Lifestyle.

This was Managua.

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Crumbling Castles

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I play rough with my kids; really rough.  Horseplay, in my house, is not only accepted, it is encouraged.  I love sitting with them and reading books and cuddling up to tell them stories but one of my favorite things to do is to chase them through our home, tackle them, tickle them and then drag them kicking and screaming back to me as they try to escape my clutches.  I hang them upside down and howl.  I pin them to the ground and growl in their ears.  I crawl across the floor like a primitive man pretending to be a primitive horse, snarling and thrashing after them.  I pick up pillows and I throw them at their fleeing backs.  Hard.  I hit them behind their knees with said pillows as they run, knocking them to the floor.  Usually they’re fine but sometimes they bang their hands / arms / heads / faces against the ground.  This is the cost of horseplay.

They run and laugh and squeal and scream and hide and then beg me to keep chasing them.  If I get tired they slowly approach me and say, “Get… my… fooo-hooot….” and then they wiggle and waggle their ankle at me just out of reach.  It goes without saying that I’ve been kicked in the teeth and headbutted more than once.  Last month my son stuck his finger knuckle deep into my eyeball… twice.  That is not an exaggeration.  My eye was pink and blood shot and everything went fuzzy for several hours.  It was both painful and horrifying.  Sometimes I lie on my back and my daughter jumps off the couch and gives me two knees to my ribcage, causing me to spit out a harsh, “WHOOF!”  This is also the cost of horseplay.

My children love me and I love my children and we know that we are just playing and we’ve had many conversations about Good Hit / Bad Hit and how a Hi-5 is a Good Hit but slapping someone when you’re angry is a Bad Hit and… children just have a very interesting way of not only absorbing information and processing it but they’re also amazing at outputting certain… enlightenments, I guess is a good word… that hit you in the gut harder than their tiny fists.

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Two days ago my daughter walked past me and I stuck out my foot and tripped her.  She stumbled, once, twice, caught herself, turned around and gave me the stankiest eye I’ve ever seen.  It cracked me up.  I thought it was absolutely hilarious.  Further, I thought that SHE thought it was absolutely hilarious… which is why I do it whenever I get a chance.  I thought our little game was like, “I pick on you in an endearing way and you think it’s playful and funny and it’s our quirky little relationship,” but, my wife, who apparently doesn’t “get” the thing I do with the kids, she says to me, “You’re so mean to the kids,” and I say, “Mean?  Mean?  What is this, mean?  Oh, give me a break.  I’m not mean.  I love them and I’m playing with them!  They love to play!” and she says, “No.  You pick on them.  You’re That Guy,” and my stomach churns because, to me, there is no worse insult than being called That Guy.  It could mean any number of horrible things but, whenever someone says it, you know exactly which one they’re talking about.

I say, “I am not That Guy,” and my wife, refusing to back off her horrible, stupid opinion, says, “Yes you are.  And you’re hurting their feelings.”  Yeah, right.  Didn’t she see how I was laughing when my daughter stumbled?  Didn’t she see how funny that was?  I push myself off the couch and lie down on our floor, calling my daughter over to me, “Quinn!  Quinn… C’mere a sec…” and Quinn approaches me and I pick her up under her arms and lie her down on top of me, belly to belly so we’re eye to eye.  She doesn’t flinch and she doesn’t fight it and I say to my wife, “Yeah, she looks really afraid of me…

I turn to Quinn and I say, “Quinn…” and my three year old daughter says, “Yes, Daddy?” and I say, “Is Daddy mean to you?” and Quinn, without skipping a beat says, “Yes,” and I literally feel something in my heart pop and snap like a crusty bungee chord.  I want to put my daughter down and run away, hide in a closet, shut off the light and live the rest of my days in complete hermitude.  Quinn, unaffected, continues.  “You tease me… you tease me a lot,” and I just stare at her, into her eyes and I wish I had one of those weird whipping devices that the albino in The DaVinci Code had.  I need it.  I need to use it on myself.  I am a horrible person.

However, since I don’t have that archaic whipping device, I decide to torture myself by just pressing on.  I need to hear it.  I need to hear all of it.  I say, “Does Daddy hurt your feelings?” and my daughter, instead of saying anything, she just sticks out her bottom lip (NO!  NO!  NOT THE QUIVERING BOTTOM LIP!  GIVE ME THE WHIP-THING!  NOT THE LIP!  NOT THE LIP!) and she just nods, her eyes wide and sad and… they’re just so… SAD!

I gulp hard and try to decide how much I hate myself right now.  Is it like an 8 or a 9?

My daughter, apparently recognizing my weakness, decides to deliver the coup de grace with the most despondent phrase I have ever heard a three year old utter.  She says to me, “You hurt me.  You hurt my feelings.  I take my feelings…” and then she reaches up and pretends to pluck something out of her hair before shoving it behind her back, “…and I hide them away.  I hide my feelings away from you.”

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!!!!!!!!!

I feel like I’m going to puke and then pass out.  This vision and view of the world I had in front of me is crumbling and blowing away before me like a castle made of stale bread.  I grab her gently by the shoulders as my eyes begin to fill up with tears of remorse and stupidity and selfishness and I say, “Quinnie, Daddy is so sorry.  Daddy is so sorry for hurting you,” and she looks at me and then says, “Ohhhh-Kaaaaay,” and just like that, I am forgiven.

Kids are incredible.  What a lesson in humanity this three old just schooled me with.  “Hey, Dad!  KNOWLEDGE BOMB!”  KER-BOOOOOM!

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My daughter gets up and scurries away, leaving me feeling broken and alone.  I call my son over, deciding to get all the dirty work out of the way at once.  If I’m going to be emotionally flogged, let’s just be sure to break me completely…

“Rory… hey, Roar.  C’mere a sec…”  My son approaches me and flops down onto my chest, knocking the wind out of me.  He laughs and pretends to bite my chin.  “Yaaaahhhhsssss?” he says in some weird Southern drawl and, like tearing off a Band-Aid, I respond quickly with, “Is Daddy mean to you?” and, in matched speed he answers with, “Nope!” and I say, “Are you sure?” and he says, “You’re not mean, Daddy!” and I say, “Do I hurt your feelings?” and he says, “NO!  You don’t hurt my feelings!” and there is a little wash of relief that pours over me.

Good, good, good, good, good…

I say, “Okay.  Thanks, buddy.  I love you.  Go play,” and I stand him up before  shutting my eyes to recount this revelation as he begins to walk away but… too soon.  He doubles back while I’m not paying attention and drops both knees into my abdomen, his laughter the only sound breaking through my pain.

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It’s just another reminder that, no matter how many parenting books you read, seminars you attend or videos you watch, there is no right way to raise children because each and every child is so completely and stupendously different.  Just because you have two children (and this goes double for twins) doesn’t mean that you have two of the same child.  They are people, like you and I, each with their own sets of bends and interests.  Each has their own sets of needs and desires and wants and what hurts the feelings of one may actually be the fuel that powers the second.

My children never fail; they are unceasingly unapologetic in their quest to build me into a better man, father and human.  They constantly remind me how far I’ve come but are sure to keep me humble by reminding me how far I have yet to go.

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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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Talking to Strangers: Pam

There are two forms of help you can offer a person.  The first is a kind that helps them; this might look like buying someone a meal, giving someone a ride, feeding someone’s dogs for them or volunteering at a food shelter.  Whether the act is big or small, it’s the kind of help that serves others.  It’s a selfless act that strictly affects them.  This is a good and healthy brand of interaction; giving of your time and energy and compassion and it’s a very difficult activity to take part in because most of us, myself included, are guilty of the second kind of helping…

The Helping Disease.

This is the kind of helping wherein I do something for a purpose or a reason and that purpose and that reason are never just to help.  There are one of two underlying motives in this type of help, both of them equally destructive.  The first is the You-Owe-Me mentality that comes along with helping, specifically, a friend or family member and I hate it when this sort of thinking creeps into my psyche.  “Oh, I’m taking So-and-So’s parents to the airport this morning?  Well, now they owe me big!”  or, “I lent this person my circular saw and it’s so expensive and now next time I need something…” Or, “Sure, I’ll baby sit your kids…” and then in the back of your mind you know you have an Ace up your sleeve for later.

I hate it.  I hate feeling like that and I hate rolling that first kind of Helping over into the mud and watching it transform into that second, gross kind of Helping.  It’s not healthy, it’s not selfless, it’s not good.  This second brand of Helping People is nothing more than Greed in Disguise and we’ve all been guilty of it.

It’s Helping Others only to Help Yourself.

Once in a great while, however, you’ll help someone for a third reason, and maybe this third reason is even just a little worse than the second one.  This third reason can’t be pinned down and it does a much better job of hiding because we’re able to slyly slip it into conversations while trying to make it look like something beautiful.  We say things like, “Oh, yeah… so I was mowing my grandmother’s lawn…” Or, “The other day I gave someone a fifty dollar tip on a forty dollar check.”

It’s this kind of Helping that quietly serves you and draws attention to you.  It’s the kind of Helping that one does and then holds onto like an expensive gem and waits for the perfect opportunity to alert those around them of their actions.  They want to be noticed and talked about and awarded for their kindness.

Worse than that they (or me) are not doing it to Help someone else, they’re (I’m) only doing it to Help themselves (myself).  It’s damaging and taints the whole process and the Heart of Helping.  It changes you and is a sickness; a cancer in the heart of generosity.  And it’s this third disease that is brought forth and put on display in today’s Talking To Strangers.

This morning I found myself sitting solo at a table outside a Jamba Juice.  Having just walked out of a chiropractor appointment, I was feeling loose as a goose and decided to treat myself to a fruity beverage, kick back in the morning sunshine and soak in the entertainment on my phone in the particular flavor of Plants vs. Zombies 2 (a free download, FYI) when suddenly, a raspy voice calls out to me, “‘Scuse me, sir?  You got any change you can spare fer some food?”

I want to help the homeless and the needy.  I really do.  Let me start by saying that.  It’s very Jesus-y and I like that.  I like being as Jesus-y as possible.  But… there’s this other part of me that says, “I want to help you… I just want to do it tomorrow… or at some other juncture in time when I’m not actually around…”  I want to help but helping the homeless is so… I don’t know… hands-on-interactive.

I want to give you food and help but I’m afraid that I will become trapped in some kind of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario wherein our relationship will spiral out of control and soon you’ll be living on my couch and wearing my ties.

I hear a lot of people say, “I try my best!” and they are either, A.) not very good at trying or B.) clearly delusional because we don’t try our best.  We don’t do all we can do to help those around us.  We don’t, in fact, often try a fraction of our best.  The truth is, we try sometimes and only if it’s convenient for us.

My knee jerk reaction is for my martyr’s heart to leap into my throat at the sight of a person in need directly before quietly mumbling some half baked lie, looking away and heading for the nearest cover where I can work on hating myself for the rest of the day for being too much of a coward to stop what I’m doing to help.  It’s that Selfish Human Technique we’re all so good at.  Don’t pop my bubble!  The Bubble of Safety!  The Bubble of Separation!  I’ve spent many hours getting my bubble just the way I like it and I don’t need any strangers coming in here and messing things up.  Don’t.  Pop.  My.  Bubble.

But today, in this story, I try.  Because… the truth is, this story would actually be pretty boring if it started with, “A guy asked me for some money” and then immediately ended with me saying, “BEAT IT, NERD!”

That said… allow me to get back to the matter at hand.

I put down my phone and look over.  Hold eye contact.  Talk.

I say, “No,” and I say, “I don’t carry cash,” and, the truth is, these are both lies.  I have about sixty dollars made up of various denominations in my front, right pocket but I won’t be giving a dime to someone who clearly has a difficult time managing their finances.  Sidenote, I always try to look The Homeless in the eyes to let them know that I’m not afraid of them.  Not in a Knife-Fight sort of way but more in the I Understand That You Exist and I Want to Respectfully Acknowledge Your Presence sort of way.

The guy is slightly overweight and sitting in a wheel chair.  His hands are filthy but his socks are pearly white like they’d just been washed or recently purchased.  He has on black sweat pants and an Avengers superhero t-shirt that has been stuffed to make it intentionally look like he has breasts.  Above that is a rugged grey beard that he’d been growing for a while and on top of his head is a shoulder length woman’s wig with bangs.  He is a brunette.

I say, “I’ve got a credit card and I can buy you something from Noah’s Bagels if you’d like,” and he says, “Yeah, that would be nice,” and I say, “What do you want?  What sounds good?” and he says, “I don’t care,” and I say, with just a hint of playful humor in my voice, “You don’t care?  You don’t have a preference?  You don’t prefer something special?” because now I’m invested and I don’t just want to help this guy, I want to really help him.  Not like… help him get back on his feet or anything, I just really want him to have a spectacular breakfast.  I want him to walk away going, “I ASKED THE RIGHT GUY THIS MORNING!  WOO-HOO!  THAT BREAKFAST HIT THE SPOT!”  because this exchange is no longer about him.

It’s about me.

It’s that third type of helping that has just taken over; The Kind of Helping that is about me getting my jollies.  The kind that is about me feeling good about myself.  The kind that specifically says things like, “I don’t want to help you get back on your feet, I just want you to know you asked the right guy for breakfast this morning.”

The Selfish Helper.

Me.

I repeat my question and say, “Anything?  Anything at all?  Any special requests?” but he just says, “Nope.  Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I tell him I’ll be right back and, just before entering the bagel shop I’m struck by genius and turn around to say, “You want coffee?” and he says, “I can’t drink coffee,” and I think to myself, Man, this guy is really killing my Helper Buzz.  I’m having a hard time feeling good about myself with him being so polite about his needs.  LET ME HELP YOU!  LET ME BE YOUR 9:30AM BREAKFAST HERO!

I walk inside and tell the worker I need to order something healthy.  If the homeless guy can’t drink coffee, he’s obviously UNhealthy (fair reasoning)… so I’m going to get him the healthiest but still most delicious thing on the menu and when he opens it up he’s going to be like, “What a thoughtful person that bald fellow was!  Healthy and delicious!  I usually only get one or the other, what with being poor and all and my beggars-can’t-be-choosers life motto but here it is – delicious AND nutritious in a single sandwich!”

The worker points out some wheat bread selection that has mushrooms and Swiss cheese and asparagus on it.  It’s under their SMART CHOICE menu that’s been written on a chalk board in fancy cursive handwriting so you know it’s good.  I mean, you know it’s a Smart Choice if you’re ordering off of a menu specifically labeled Smart Choice.  I look around and briefly feel sorry for all the other frumpy ghouls dining off the Idiot’s Choice menu.  Dummies.

I toss on a lemonade flavored vitamin water thinking he’d love that; getting a refreshing drink – that’s been filled with vitamins no less! – when he didn’t even ask for one.  The clerk rings it up and… nine bucks.  That’s the cost of integrity.  I am a person with integrity and it was purchased for almost an entire ten dollar bill.  Now we’re talkin’.  Karma Payment Plan, baby.  This is coming around BIG TIME.  THIS IS WHAT GENEROSITY LOOKS LIKE!

I’m standing there and I just wish there were some way that all these people in the store could KNOW that I wasn’t actually going to eat this sandwich I’d just purchased off of the slightly more expensive Smart Choice menu.  I was going to leave and give it to a horribly crippled, transgender man in desperate need of my services.  How could I show them without actually SHOWING THEM?  How could I tell people that I’d helped someone (third brand of helping) without being too On-The-Nose about it?  How can I draw attention to myself without turning a spotlight on?  And then, like a cattle prod to the rectum, I knew… I’d go home and write a blog about it, disguising my selfish gloating in staccato bursts of pathetic, self examining humor.

I walk outside with a little bounce in my step and sit back at my table.  The guy stares at me like I’m trying to pull something over on him.  I don’t think he’s used to people taking a moment to “Give back to the community” as I like to call it.  I slowly and deliberately hand him his sandwich so he knows that I’m not afraid of his interaction.  His presence does not offend me.  I am in no rush to get back to Plants vs. Zombies 2.  I’m okay with being in proximity to him and his homeless aura.  To show him that I’m serious about the interesting moment that we’re sharing, I ask him a personal question.  I say, “Where do you live?” and he says, “Here. On the street.”

I say, “How long you been out here?” and he says, “Three months,” and I ask where he was before this and he tells me that he took an Amtrak from Missouri with a friend.  I say that I’ve never been on the Amtrak before and that it sounds like a fun adventure.  He tells me he’s probably going to leave after a few more months to go home.  I suppose even the homeless like to get a vacation in from time to time because working to stay alive is a full time job.

I ask him what his name is and he looks off towards the horizon.  He hesitates and his eyes seem to gloss over for a moment under that wig that may or may not have been purchased in a party store before he says, “Pam.”  I say, “You’ve got nice hair, Pam,” and he says, “Thank you.  I wish it were mine.”

And then he blurts out something about how he has to get going and I can almost see the awkward fear in his eyes.  Something in his voice is too familiar and then… yeah, he sounds like me trying to avoid someone.  He sounds like me mumbling up my half baked lies.  We had crossed over from the customary exchange of strangers and he wanted to say, “Don’t pop my bubble!”

I told him goodbye and watched him roll away, all alone, down the sidewalk.  I sat in my chair sipping my Mango Delight Smoothie and watched him eat his sandwich half a block away, all alone.

Made me feel good.

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