Tag Archives: los angeles

Bud Light: Heads Up

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It’s been pretty quiet over at JohnnyBeBald for the past couple weeks and I have to apologize.  First, my wife and I were out of the country celebrating her 30th birthday (Insane Adventures of Two White People Who Don’t Speak English in Nicaragua coming soon) and then upon our return I jumped into directing the below Bud Light spot for a commercial competition.

I’d love for you to click the link and check it out.

http://zooppa.com/en-us/ads/16-oz-cool-twist-aluminum-bottle/videos/bud-light-heads-up

In the coming weeks, brace yourself for tales of a mugging I was part of, a gypsy circus we attended and an 80 year old man with a shady past.

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Talking to Strangers: Gary

I’m standing in my kitchen preparing to feed my dog when I suddenly hear an intense, gut-wrenching wail emanate from outside.  The pitch and tone of this noise is so off balance, so absurdly wild that it’s hard to equate it to anything that is “everyday” without bastardizing and perverting it first.  It is whale music if said whale lived on the land and had first consumed a large quantity of oxycontin; sort of a very slow motion ooo-waaaahhh

It is a sound so haunting and unearthly that I assume whatever creature is making it is probably either in the throws of its death rattle or a raging frenzy fueled by pure blood lust.  It is the sound of a cat dying while giving birth.  it is the sound of a real life tree frog so amped up on Monster energy drinks that it’s genuinely trying to sing something by Limp Bizkit.  It is the sound of eternal despair.  Standing at my window, an image from The Princess Bride pops into my mind wherein the main character screams and his friend mentions that it reminds him of The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

This is The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

I set the dog’s food on the counter and approach my side door, peering out, past my driveway and over the tall hedge that separates my family from The Neighbors – the nameless entities that exist within such close proximity to me without actually affecting or intruding upon my bubble of influence.

There in his driveway is The Man, walking by himself, shoulders slouched, head down, feet dragging.  He walks down the concrete path, turns at the sidewalk and heads towards the grocery store; his body shaking and wrenching and racking with sobs.  I am compelled to immediately leave my house and grip him and ask, “What’s wrong?” because he looks to be in so much emotional pain that my heart, as a human, is hurting just watching him… but it feels strange to me and the task feels like a true challenge that I’m not sure I can take on.  I want to call out to him but I don’t know his name.  After seven years of living next to this man and his wife… I don’t know their names.  This fault is a personal short coming of my own and says more about me than it does about them.

I watch him disappear out of sight and then the opportunity is gone…

A physical description of the pair would look something like this…

The guy is tall and slim with uniquely distorted facial features.  He looks to be in his late 50s / early 60s.  Huge eyes behind bigger glasses; long scraggly hair that cascades down his skeletal face but the crown of his head is hopelessly bald; jutting chin with small mouth; thin arms, big hands; long legs that take tiny steps; he’s an odd pairing at every angle and, every time I’ve overheard him speak while sitting outside, I can’t help but imagine Goofy, that famous Disney character, after having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for the better half of a century.  His voice is bubbly and cartoonish while still maintaining a throaty quality, unexpectantly hitting the highest-highs and lowest-lows seemingly at random.

His wife is short and plump with long black hair and a featureless face.  I have probably glanced at her sideways 300 times and… I’m not even certain that I could pick her out of a line-up.  This, however, is not a short coming of her face.  This is a short coming of myself and my own awareness.

Everywhere the two go, they go together; always and forever the two are a pair.  In all the years that I’ve lived in this house, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either of them one without the other.  And this is why, on this particular day, I knew something was up.  Something was strange.  Something was wrong.  Something somewhere was not right…

On this day, disappearing from my sight, the man was walking alone.

The next day my sister, her husband, my niece and my wife are all packing into our cars, rushing out of the house; we have hot plans to hit the zoo in about 25 minutes and we’ve got free tickets if we can be there by one o’clock.  A friend of ours is doing us a favor by meeting us there to get us in even though it’s during her children’s nap time and so she’ll have the kids in tow and it’s just, y’know, it’s rude to keep people waiting.  Time is ticking and the kids aren’t listening and they won’t get in their car seats and the sun is beating down on me and dangit I’ve forgotten my phone inside so I run back into the house to grab it.  When I walk out, the first thing I see is my sister and her family sitting inside their car, waiting for me.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.  The second thing I see is that my wife has successfully buckled in my children and is now sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The whole show – hurry, hurry – is on my – hurry, hurry – back.

The third and final thing I see is my skinny, nameless neighbor standing in his driveway staring at me through the hedge, his eyes peering out between broken shrubbery.  I nod but he doesn’t move.  I step off my porch and say, “Hey,” but he doesn’t respond.  Just those eyes… watching me, staring at me, unblinking, vacant.  I open my gate and begin to walk down my driveway, wondering if this guy is in some kind of drug induced hallucination (because he strikes me as the type who has them once in a while) and I’m trying to debate just how weird this is about to get…

He sidles a few steps to his left to a vantage point wherein I can see him a bit better.  He stares at me and cocks his head and I say, “Hi, there.  How are you doing today?” and he says, in that haunting, helium-high voice, in a tone that suggests he’s done nothing worse than burn the meatloaf, “Well, today I am not doing very well,” fiddles with his hands, looks at his knuckles, looks up at me with direct, piercing eye contact, “You see… my wife died yesterday,” and immediately I am hyper aware of my surroundings.  My sister is watching me.  My brother-in-law is watching me.  My wife is watching me.  This man is watching me.  I do not know his name.  I do not know his wife’s name.  He has been my neighbor for seven years and I do not know their names.  I want to hug this man and give him some comforting words but, first and foremost, I don’t believe there are any words that will help him without simply minimizing his tragedy.  Secondly, there is a hedge separating us.  I pick up a leaf and begin tearing it apart.  I say, “Your… what!?  What happened?” and then immediately wonder if that’s a socially acceptable thing to ask.

How does one respond appropriately?

Why is this man telling me this?  Who am I to him?

And then I realize that, outside of his wife, I am perhaps the closest thing to a human in his life.  I don’t talk to him but when I see him I lift up my hand in recognition.  When we run into each other at the grocery store down the street I nod, I smile.  I say hi.  I do nothing.  I don’t do enough.  But I wonder if I’ve somehow done more than anyone else.  I wonder if most people turn their backs on this guy with his unique features and strange voice and ratty clothes.  I wonder if I, even in my state of absolute minimal contact, am The Guy Next Door for him; a familiar face.

Someone.

My phone in my pocket is on silent but it buzzes.  The Family is wondering what I’m doing; chatting up Mr. Tall Glass of Water when we gotta be hitting the street.  They can’t hear anything.  They don’t know.  They just see Johnny having a quiet conversation with The Neighbor.

I am acutely aware of their waiting and watching.

He gathers himself up and says, “Well… we used to live in Denver.  When we moved to Los Angeles several years back, she developed asthma.  Two days ago she caught a cold.  Night before last it got worse.  I told her that we’d take her into the hospital in the morning if she was still ill.  Yesterday morning we woke up and she was having troubles breathing.  She sat up and I said I’d get her some tea.  When I got back to our bedroom she… she had died.  I tried giving her CPR.  I tried like hell.  I called the paramedics.  This was at 7:45 in the ay-em.  They came and tried to revive her.  They really did try their best.  They took her away and pronounced her dead at Kaiser at 8:16 but… that’s not true.  She was dead at 7:45.  She died here.  In our bed.”

And then he stares at the hedge and picks up a crisp leaf of his own and begins to destroy it, bit by bit.  I don’t say, “Are you alright?” because I’m sure he’s not.  I don’t say, “How are you doing?” because I’m sure he’s not doing well at all.  I don’t say, “Do you need anything?” because I think he just wants to talk to someone and have someone, anyone, listen to him.  I think the words don’t matter as much as the physical presence of a human, leaning in, nodding, making eye contact.  I think he’s a lonely man who was living with a lonely wife and they both took care of stray cats and now…

I look at him and hear his voice and realize that the sound I heard earlier were his true wails of grief; a man sobbing with unexpected loss and inconsolable grief.  It truly was The Sound of Ultimate Suffering.

He says, “We always thought I’d die first.  I’ve had Stage 4 cancer for 15 years.  I’m 57.  We talked about what she’d do when I died but we never… we never talked about this… she was only 46.  She was healthy…”

The phone in my pocket buzzes and I’m certain it’s my family again, asking me what gives.  I ignore it and instead say, “I had cancer… I had Stage 4 cancer…” and he says, “You and me… we are both miracles,” and I nod because the idea makes me feel like there is magic living inside of me, as though I somehow cheated death and now everyday is a bonus I wasn’t supposed to receive.

He says, “I don’t want to keep you,” and I say, “Don’t – you’re not…” and, while I am always physically uncomfortable making people wait I just… this is obviously too important to walk away from.  He sees I mean it and I’m not leaving until he’s done talking and so he opens a floodgate and begins drowning me in a very personal history about how he used to be addicted to oxycontin but now he only strictly consumes methadone (which he “pack rats away”).  He tells me horror stories about oxycontin and about his struggle with drug addiction and how he couldn’t let it go.  He calls it a Merry-Go-Round from Hell that I couldn’t get off of

He shrugs, done with his story.  Done talking.  Done, maybe, with everything.  I stick out my hand and say, “I’ve lived next to you for so many years but we’ve never met.”  He grabs my hand tightly, in a firm man-handshake that I would not expect from his physical frame, and says, “I’m Gary,” and I say, “I’m Johnny.  What is your wife’s name?” and then a thought runs through my mind that tells me I should have said, “What was your wife’s name,” but I don’t bother correcting my macabre grammar.

He says, “Veronica,” and I say, “Beautiful.”  I say, “Gary, I don’t know what you’re going through but let me know if there’s anything I can do…” and he says, “There is nothing you can do for me.  I see your kids.  Hug them.  Enjoy every day.  Because it will be taken away…”

And then he turns and walks up the driveway.

Two days later I see him returning yet again from the grocery store (alone) with a bag of cat food while I’m sitting on my front porch.  I raise my hand in the air and shout, “Hi, Gary!” and he stops in his tracks, stares at me for a quick moment before averting his eyes, mumbling something under his breath and disappearing out of my sight.

Another two days pass and, as I’m pulling into my driveway I see a couple of Jehova Witnesses walking up to Gary’s house, towards his front door.  They knock but there is no answer so they turn and try their luck elsewhere.

Another 48 hours have slipped by and still I’ve neither seen nor heard any sign of life from The Tall Man that Lives Over the Hedge.

It’s now been five days since I’ve seen him and I’m beginning to wonder at what point I realistically need to walk over there and knock on his door because, honestly, all I can think about is his large stockpile of methadone.

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No Concern of Danger

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I’m sitting at a friend’s house, at a Superbowl party.  The game is on but, like most people at Superbowl parties, I’m not really watching it.  Like most people, I come for the queso and stay for the deep fat fried turkey.  Everywhere I look are close friends, good acquaintances and strangers who, judging by their honest faces, have the strong potential to someday be either.

The man next to me, Curtis, is one of my closest friends and is currently holding my youngest daughter on his lap, letting her spittle and saliva run over his thumb and down the back of his hand.  This is the sign of true friendship.  At my feet his daughter, three, plays with my twins, also three.  I am grateful to avert my eyes from The Big Game to focus instead on their little one.  Rory picks up a green truck and begins to slowly push it across the polished wooden floor, making noises that sound like the imaginary driver is grinding the imaginary clutch.  I slide off the couch, reach forward, grab him by the foot and pull him to me.  He squirms and laughs and fights me off and says, “NO!” but I say, “Play with me!” and I take the green car and he crawls away.  I roll it across the ground and Rory retrieves it for me.  I give him a hug and kiss him on the cheek and say, “Thanks for bringing this back.  I love you…” and he wipes off my kiss and runs away.

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Later, I’m standing outside as our host lowers a turkey into a deep fat fryer.  The oil rises, the turkey sizzles and the smell of cooking bird immediately fills the air.  The Host clinks his beer against my coffee cup and says, “I hope I don’t burn my house down,” and I silently nod in agreement.  The front door opens and Rory pokes his head out, looking from side to side.  He lays eyes upon me and says, “Daaaaaaad?” and I say, “Yes, Rory?”  He walks out the door, leaving it hanging open, walks down the steps, makes his way across the driveway, approaches me, standing toe to toe with my person, looks up into my face and says, “I want a cupcake.”

A reasonable request.  I say, “Okay… let’s go get you one.”  He leads me back across the driveway, up the steps, through the door, past the TV, to the table and points at a tray of frosted pastries.  He says, “That one.  The green one.”  I grab it, put it on a plate and, just as I’m getting ready to cut it up for him he says, “No… I can do it.  I can eat it.  By myself.”

He’s growing up and it pains me.

Sitting down on the floor I convince him to let me hold the cupcake and feed him because it’s so messy.  When we’re finished, his lips, chin, teeth, fingers and hands are covered with green frosting.  Without thinking he wipes his face on his shirt and asks for another cupcake, a request which I deny.  Instead I take him into the kitchen where I begin to press a wet a paper towel against his face and hands.

How much longer will this be acceptable?  When will he push me away, embarrassed?

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The game ends and the slow murmur and shuffle of people gathering their items begins; jackets, car seats, tupperware, car keys.  My wife puts shoes on the kids and packs Bryce away while I wander through the house aimlessly, saying needless good-byes to people.  We both thank our friends for hosting the party and then walk out the door, into the light drizzle.  In my right hand I carry Bryce’s car seat and in my left hand, Rory and I grip each other tightly.

Having to have parked on the street, we make the long walk down the driveway of the gated community, through the gate, and into the wet street, the neighborhood being one of these places that simply doesn’t have sidewalks.  The van is about a block and a half up and the street is fairly isolated so there is no concern of danger.

The group of us walk and talk and we praise the children for playing nicely and for sharing and for being so good.  We walk and talk and say that we had so much fun.  We walk and talk and I turn around and say, “Here comes a car,” and all of us push to the side of the road until it passes.  We continue to move towards our car, twenty feet away, so close, which is nice because I’m starting to feel the weight of the baby seat on my right arm.

Rory begins pulling at my hand and I say, “Rory, we’re walking in the street.  You need to hang onto Daddy’s hand,” and he says, “I don’t want to!” and I say, “You have to,” and I say, “We’re almost to the car,” and then I turn around and see another automobile coming towards us.  I holler behind me, to Jade, and say, “Another car, step aside,” and we push ourselves towards the side of the road, in between two parked cars.

Rory tries letting go of me again and I say, “Rory, stop it,” because now he’s just being naughty and he knows that he needs to hold my hand.  He jerks once, twice and then screams, leaning backwards.  I say, “Rory.  Rory!  RORY!” and then he gives one final scream and then everything else happens fast.  Too fast.

Rory jerks his hand free from mine and I feel him slide out of my grip.  His little body stumbles backwards, foot behind foot.  The dark road suddenly goes bright with headlights and I cry out and Jade shouts, “RORY!”  He takes two more steps, out past the parked cars, into the street, and my stomach turns into a knot.  I reach out but he’s gone, too far away.  I drop Bryce and try to move but I know I can’t make it in time.  He steps on his shoelace and his body tumbles to the ground.  The car – a large black SUV – comes up on him and my breath catches in my throat.

Rory shuts his eyes and I want to but can’t.

The SUV blasts past him no more than a few feet away.  If he hadn’t stepped on his shoelaces… if if if… the possibility hangs in the air like a vampire.

I take three large steps towards my son, grab him by the collar and lift him into the air, his feet dangling, and I forcibly drag him back to the curb while he still, to my great amazement, continues to attempt to pull out of my grasp.  I drop him on the hard concrete, squat down, grab his face in my hands and squeeze his cheeks so he can’t look away from me.  I say, in the absolute angriest tone I can fathom, “Rory!  You do NOT let go of Daddy’s hand when we’re in the street!  You were almost run over and KILLED by the car.  That car almost RAN YOU OVER.  You almost DIED.  You do not ever, ever, EVER let go of my hand EVER AGAIN.  Do you understand me?!” and, instead of confirming with me he simply begins to scream and pull at my hand saying, “LET GO OF ME!  LET GO OF ME!”

I grab Bryce and begin to march to our van at double speed, dragging him behind me, scared, angry, furious.  I open the back door and say, “Get in your seat,” and, instead of listening, he says, “NO!” and so I pick him up, throw him into the car, crawl in after him, pick him up and throw him into his car seat.  He screams, demands candy, which totally baffles me, throws his hands in the air and screams again.  I thrust his arms through the straps of the car seat and say, “Candy?  Candy!?  You’re not getting candy!” while in my head I’m just thinking, “Thank you God thank you God thank you God that I get to buckle him in tonight kicking and scream I love him I love him I love him…

On the way home all I can think about are small coffins and cemeteries that I can’t bring myself to leave.

I almost lost him.

I could never forgive myself.

We get home and I put pajamas on Rory, put him to bed, kneel down next to him and whisper prayers in his ear, prayers that only he can hear.  I say, “Dear God, thank you for Rory, thank you for giving him to me, thank you for protecting him tonight.  Thank you for everyday I have with him.  Thank you for blessing me with another night with this beautiful little boy,” and I pull back and I look upon his face and I see him in a new light.  I see how blue his eyes are.  I see the swirls of designs in them.  I see how little and how white his teeth are.  I see the perfect gaps between them.  I see his blonde hair, pieces sticking up in the back, his little fingers poke over the blanket and I see that his fingernails are filthy with perfect dirt.

Everyday with my children is a beautiful gift that makes me sick with despair and anxiety.

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THREE FALLS

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You receive a small package; a tender baby.  It is placed neatly in your arms for the first time and you cradle it, snuggle it, kiss it.  You ever-so-gently place it in its crib and you fawn over it.  You rub your hand down the side of its cheek.  You beep its little nose.  You tickle its feet.  You drop it on the floor on accident and you can’t believe what you’ve just done!  Are the windows closed?  Did anyone FREAKING SEE THAT?!  Okay, no…. I think we’re okay…. no one needs to know… and if they ask about the wounds we can lie about the details later.  QUICK!  Make up a story!

He fell down!  No, idiot!  That’s what you’re trying to get away from!  The dog stepped on her!  No!  Almost worse!  You left the kid where your dog runs?  Screw it!  The baby gets put in long sleeves until the scabs fall off.

Birth may make you a parent, but dropping a child is the true initiation for both you understanding that you’re not a perfect parent and for the child being truly welcomed into this world made of sharp objects and hard surfaces.  SO, without any further adieu, here are three stories, in escalating order, about my children being dropped.

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QUINN

I sleep very strangely.  I don’t mean the physical way my body lies, I just mean the way my brain behaves.  I’m the guy that will awake in the middle of the night and begin a conversation with my wife about guns and security cameras.  My sentence structure will be all broken and fileted,  but I’ll be really passionate about my points.

ME: “You know our security cameras?”     JADE: “HUH?”     ME: “Our security cameras… on the walls…”     “JADE, “WHAT?”     ME: “Our freaking security camerason the wallswith the guns on them!”     JADE: “Are you sleeping?”     ME: “SHUT UP!”

Another instance:     I wake up and put my fist straight up in the air, towards the ceiling.  I open my hand and point my palm back down at Jade.  Basically it looks like I’m trying to perform voodoo on her.  She wakes up and sees me doing this and says, “John?”  ME: “What?”     JADE: “Why are you doing that with your hand?”     ME: “SHUT UP!”

In any event, I’ll awake in the middle of the night to change a diaper and my mind will be somewhere else completely.  I’m saying, it’s over in Willy Wonka Land or Narnia or Iran.  It is just off the beaten path and I am standing up and walking around and functioning (to some degree) but my exact sobriety is and should be definitely called into question.

So, Quinn is around six months old and she wakes up in the middle of the night and, as parents do, I wake up and I lift her out of the crib and I place her on the “changing table” – which basically just amounts to a waist high dresser with a changing pad on it – and I smile at her and poke her nose and tickle her feet and do all those things that gentle parents do and then I turn to grab a diaper and just, just, just out of the corner of my eye I see her role over and then everything slips into the slowest of motions.

First, I suddenly remember that she has begun rolling over as of late.  Check.  Second, I realize that she’s fallen off the table and is tumbling through the air, plummeting towards the hard wooden floors.  My arm lashes out instinctively and (thank God) my fingers just snake into the fabric of her pajamas and I catch her about 12 inches from the floor, my eyes still pointing the wrong direction.  It is a scene directly out of an action movie wherein the hero catches a high impact bomb at the last possible second.

She didn’t hit the floor so I don’t know if that counts in regards to my theory but trust me when I say that it was enough to fully wake me up and send my heart rocketing into my throat.

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RORY

This second instance happened several months after the above scenario; I remember because we were back in South Dakota for a hot summer and my family was out for a walk while I wore Rory in one of these front facing “Child Backpacks”.  You’ve seen them, no doubt.  Anyway, I know it was later in time because Rory was tall enough to keep kicking me in the dick with the heel of his shoes with every step I took.  Mark my words, the person who invents the fashionable male cod-piece accessory for those is going to be a very rich person.

As we walked and talked, the sun beat down on us making me slip on my uber-hip, over-sized aviator sunglasses that, I guess did sort of obscure my vision, on top of the fact that I had a GIANT TODDLER HEAD BLOCKING MY VIEW….. so, obviously, I didn’t see the enormous rock that had been set in my path.

Let me just pause for a minute to say that falling down is the worst.  First of all, it’s embarrassing.  Even simply slipping in public is bad.  You’ll be walking and your toe will catch on a sidewalk lip or you’ll step off the curb funny or you’ll dip down into a pot hole in the cross walk on the corner of third and Santa Monica while you’re trying to act cool and then you’re just lying in the street and you wish you could just die please kill me.

But… falling with a 30lb cinder block attached to your chest is even more frightening.  First of all, I couldn’t see anything so I was just spiraling into a fluff of albino hair oblivion.  Second of all, you know the kid is fragile and, since he’s strapped to my chest, he’s bound to take the brunt of the fall.  I mean, I am going to crush this kid between myself and those really jagged pink rocks that they put on streets (I was walking in the street – I’m from a small town so it’s okay).

Again, slow motion.  Let me break it down…

First, my foot steps onto a large rock and twists to the side so I come down on my ankle.  I say the F-word.  Let’s just get that out of the way now.  Yes, it sounded just like the kid from A Christmas Story.  I try to shove my other foot out in front of me but the angle of my body makes it impossible and instead I just look like a flailing lamb caught in a fence.

I realized I was about to crush Rory so, again, those weird parenting instincts that you have just take over and I wrapped my arms around him in a protective cocoon and twisted my entire body to the side, coming down and landing hard on my elbow (again, on those horribly sharp pink rocks).

Again, I said the F-word.

Rory was fine.  My elbow, not so much.

Now, according to my theory, this too is not a story about a child hitting the ground but it’s getting significantly closer.  Listen, getting hurt is just a game of numbers… and the more kids you have and the more time you spend with them, the more likely it is to happen… which is a perfect segue to our final story…

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BRYCE

Having three kids of varying age spans is a very interesting dynamic because you can’t – you simply can’t – play with all three of them at once.  Rory and Quinn want to wrestle and jump in the leaves and ride their bikes and play in the fort and be chased and sword fight and build towers and destroy towers and Bryce wants to be held, burped and fed.

Now, it’s true that I can hold Bryce and feed Bryce and burp Bryce while I do some of the above things but I can’t truly engage with the older children while handling a baby.  It’s just a factual matter of splitting your resources.  So, what this typically looks like is, “Let’s take care of the baby’s needs (food, comfort, sleep) and then when the baby is sleeping, let’s give full reign to the older ones and everyone wins.”

Makes sense.  System works.  Great.  Wonderful.

A week ago Jade leaves the house to do some thrift store whoring and takes Quinn with her – we like to split the Twinkies up whenever possible just to give them that a taste of solitude – which leaves me on Rory and Bryce duty.  Easy.  First, the bottle; take it out of the fridge, put it in the bottle heater, get it way too hot, burn my fingers, get pissed off at the archaic steam technology, cool the bottle down, dump breast milk on my wrist and all over my forearm, feed baby, burp baby, get breast milk burp-up all over my forearm, bounce baby into dairy induced coma, lie baby on the center of our bed, walk away.

This is routine.  This is everyday, several times a day.  This works.  I have no reason to question this method.  It’s tried and tested.  I pat her butt until she’s asleep – pat pat pat – and then I sneak out of the room, go outside and play with Rory in the backyard.  We run, we chase, we sword fight, we slide, we laugh, we play, he shows me a lady bug and tells me that it’s naughty to pee in the grass.  I concur with him.

In the driveway, around the side of the house, I hear the familiar hum of our mini-van’s engine, followed by the beep-beep of the door being locked; Jade is home.  I sit down in a lawn chair and wait for her to make her way outside and, when she finally does, she’s carrying Bryce.

Strange.

Stranger yet is the first question she asks me.

“Why did you put Bryce to sleep on the floor?”

I’ll cut to the chase because you, like me, are probably already going, “WHAT?!”  Yeah.  King sized bed.  Two and a half feet off the ground.  Wooden floor.  Baby doesn’t crawl.  DOESN’T CRAWL.  Baby was sleeping in the center of the bed ten minutes ago and somehow managed to push herself to the edge of the bed and…

Jade says, “I came in the front door and heard Bryce sort of… I don’t know… it wasn’t really whining so much as it was… whimpering.”  I’m a monster.  “I went into the bedroom and called your name but didn’t see you but could still hear Bryce,” Monster, Monster, Monster.  “I walked over to the side of the bed – the far side – and she was just lying on the ground.  Why’d you put her to sleep on the ground?”  MORBID VILE MONSTER!

“I, uh,” I stammer before standing up and slowly taking the baby from my wife’s arms, examining her.  Jade says, “Why are you looking at her…. oh, no…” and I say, “She was in the middle of the bed!” and Jade says, “I win!  I didn’t drop her first!  Victory to me!” and then she begins playing a fake trumpet and throwing dried leaves into the air.

Bryce is fine.

Her initiation is complete.

She is officially human.

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GLIMPSE: Rory & Quinn

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I sit in restaurants, at booths, looking at the patrons around me and I can’t help but wonder what conversations are happening at their tables. I walk through the mall and I see the people passing me and I wonder what they’re buying and why. Maybe it’s a gift for a boyfriend… and then I wonder how their relationship is going. I sit on the freeway, stuck in rush hour traffic and I watch individuals all around me driving from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Van Nuys. I watch cars merge onto the freeway, swerve and exit. I watch car accidents and I watch people text and drive, wondering who they’re speaking with.  I walk to the grocery store and I look through open windows that I pass on the sidewalk; a woman making dinner, a couple watching Law and Order re-runs, a man playing guitar…

The mundane fascinates me.  The minutia.  The moment-by-moment of everyday life.  I watch and I wonder what they’re doing and where they’re going and I wish, often times, that I could sit next to them; listen, watch, observe… follow them and… confession time; on several occasions I actually have. Twice I’ve followed a car for well over 15 miles just to see where they ended up. It was completely out of my way but I had nowhere to be so I just turned on some music and… this is actually sounding significantly creepier than it did when I chose to do it.  When it was happening, I assure you it was all very organic and natural and… innocent?  Is that the right word?  Probably not.

If I were ever granted the power of invisibility I wouldn’t go into the girl’s locker room or rob a bank… I’d just follow people around at the grocery store or sit in the passenger seat of their car and I’d listen to their conversations and I’d smile and, well, be creepy and invisible.

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Some fifteen years ago The Real World on MTV tried giving us a glimpse into what this was like. They tried to be the fly on the wall and they tried to let the average joe see what it was like to be an average joe.  The only problem was this… reality TV is not reality TV. It’s not reality. It’s not real. It’s moments that have been fabricated first by a producer and then manufactured by an editor using music, sound effects and specific sound bites from interviews taken out of context.

As an editor that has spent a little time in reality television, I can tell you with complete honesty that my favorite part of the job has never been viewing the final “designed” product but rather in sitting in my edit bay and watching the raw footage play out. I have spent literally hours watching strangers sit around a dinner table and chat or families getting prepared for their day by brushing their teeth and talking and just spending intimate moments together. All of these interesting and unique human moments are forever chopped up, cut into garbage and destroyed. You’ll never see them but… it’s all I want to watch. It’s all I want to see. I want to see TRUE REALITY TV. I want to sit as a fly on the wall and watch an evening in someone’s life. I want to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes, exist as they do for a few hours.

Keeping up with the Johnson’s? I want to keep up with the Kirkman’s, the Brady’s, the Morgan’s and the Chu’s. I want to know what four hours in the life of a man with triplets is like or a Seattle DJ or an internet spokesman. What does their work look like? Their commute? Their home life?

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I want to see this… so I’ve created, what I would consider as a pilot episode to this experimental project. It’s currently (appropriately) called “GLIMPSE” because it is, by definition, just a little peek, and the first episode is about my two oldest children. I’ve chosen to follow them from the moment they awake from their naps around 4:30pm until they go to sleep around 8:30pm.  The footage is completely unedited and plays out in real time save for a few spots where my camera’s memory card fills up and I had to switch it out.

I’d love for people to be able to turn on an episode of GLIMPSE and just play it in the background. Watch one minute or five minutes or 1 hour or 4 hours. Watch the beginning, skip the middle and watch the end. Watch only the middle. Skip around. It makes no difference. Just… catch a glimpse. See a moment. Experience life through the eyes of someone else.

This is episode 1. GLIMPSE: Rory & Quinn.

Enjoy.

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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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