Tag Archives: love

(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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THE CAVE: Getting lost in the darkness of a failing marriage

“You’ve been married for eleven years?” someone asks me.

“Yeah. Eleven years. It’s a long time. We’ve been together for fifteen.”

What? Did you get married when you were twelve? How old are you? You’ve been married fifteen years? What’s that like?”

I suspect that they anticipate me to tell them that marriage is beautiful and wonderful and that I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.

But I don’t.

Instead I tell them the truth.

“What’s it like? It’s, uh… Marriage is like this dark cave. And when you get married you both go into the cave together. You take hands and you step into the darkness. That’s the unknown – this new part of life. You walk next to each other for a while and then one day your hands get sweaty and so you let go of each other but it’s all good because you can still hear them next to you. You’re still talking and you know that they’re there. It’s dark. It’s black. But you know they’re next to you.

And then one day you’ve talked about everything and so you get kind of quiet and you decide that just spending time in one another’s company is enough. And so you just keep walking in the dark, next to each other, in silence. And it’s okay because you know that they’re still there. You can still hear their footsteps.

And then one day you ask them a question. And you get no response. And you realize that they are gone. You realize that you’ve gotten separated. You’ve drifted apart. And you are alone. And somewhere, they are alone as well.

You call out to them. You shout their name and you get no response. And so you go looking for them because you know that they’re there… somewhere. You know that somewhere in this cave they’re wandering around. They’re doing their thing and you’re doing yours.

You call for them and in the distance you hear them. And you keep shouting and you keep calling and you keep walking and you try to get back to them.

And you hope that you find them.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Some people are walking in the cave and they’re like, ‘I’m done walking in the dark with you.’ And those people turn around and they walk back towards the light. Sometimes they walk back towards the light and out of the cave together. And sometimes they do it alone.

And sometimes that’s okay.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

One day you wake up and you’re thinking, ‘This is not the person that I married. This is not the person that was standing next to me at the altar.’ And, if you’re self-aware enough you may realize that you are also not the same person that was standing at the altar and that your spouse is experiencing you in an entirely new way.

You’ve both changed. You’re both completely different people. And then you wonder if you can keep making it work. Because those other versions could do it… but you’re not sure these new versions are a fit.

How do you put together a puzzle when the pieces keep changing shape?

Now drop kids into the mix. Oh, shit. Things are getting complicated.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

You have a dream of having a career. A specific career. And so you educate yourself in that field. Maybe you go to college. Maybe you go to a tech school. Maybe you read books and watch YouTube videos. However you prepare for it, it is, at its core, a preparation. An education of self.

So then you get that job and then the industry changes – new technologies or practices emerge. So your boss sends you to receive additional training. You learn new ways to process information. You learn new techniques. The career field changes and so you must adjust.

So we apply hours and weeks and sometimes even years and sometimes even decades of preparation to a job (say hello, doctors!) and yet, when we discuss marriage, when we prepare to live with another person full time and make life changing decisions with them… we… do… nothing…

The church that married Jade and I encouraged us to take three 30-minute classes.

90 minutes of training for the task at hand is not enough.

I’ve been married for just over a decade and the training I’ve received on-the-job has not been nearly enough.

But marriage is not like a job. You just get thrown in first day with no idea what you’re doing and nobody encourages serious training. Nobody tells you to re-educate yourselves after five years or ten years. Nobody tells you that your marriage career is going to change and you’re going to have to make it work or get fired. And if you suggest education – if you suggest marriage counseling you get this taboo sense that something is wrong with you.

You know that feeling I’m talking about. That unspoken weirdness that everyone thinks but does not speak. This idea that is perpetrated in our culture that marriage counseling is for the weak and broken and… my personal favorite…

If you have to go to marriage counseling you weren’t meant to be.

Because if you have to ask for help it is because you are stupid. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that everyone else knows how to do this? Don’t you know that it comes easily and naturally to everyone else? Marriage is simple and straight-forward and if you need advice it is because the pieces do not work together and there is no hope anyways. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that it’s better to live miserable little lives than it is to seek counsel? Don’t you know that?

What if we applied that logic to other areas of our lives? Son, if you need to ask a question in class, you probably just aren’t smart enough to begin with.

If you need to look at the recipe for how to make chili, you probably weren’t made for chili. Sorry. It’s delicious but you don’t get any. Shoo-shoo, Oliver Twist.

Listen. Seeking education does not make you stupid or wrong. Seeking education makes you self-aware. Education and intellect craft a stronger individual, crafts a stronger family, crafts a stronger culture, crafts a stronger world.

Do not allow the uninformed to inform your thinking.

Do not be engaged and dissuaded by a society that has a 50% failure rate in marriage.

Set your own rules. Live by your own standards.

Education is not a swear word.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

I’m broken.

That’s a fact.

I’ve got a bunch of baggage that I carry around with me everywhere I go. I’ve got baggage about my family. I’ve got baggage about my parents. I’ve got baggage about my faith. I’ve got baggage about my body. I’ve got baggage about my personality. I’ve got baggage about my grades and my IQ and my creative abilities. I’ve got pride issues. I’ve got insecurity issues.

And my wife gets to adopt them.

And I get to adopt all of her bullshit.

And then we have to figure that stuff out together.

We say things we don’t mean. We do things we know we shouldn’t. We raise our voices and we walk away from conversations and sometimes we hurt each other with nothing more than our intent.

Thank GOD people have not heard some of the stuff I’ve said to my wife in the heat of an argument. Shit has come out of my mouth that I think about today and cringe. I have said things to her for no other reason than to hurt her. And that speaks to who I am (or hopefully was) as a person, at my core. At the time I would have said it was her fault. It’s her fault for being a specific way and I was just bringing it all to light and if it hurt her it’s because it was true.

These are the words and thoughts of someone that is selfish and arrogant.

The vows tell us that we’re going to be together through sickness and health, for better or worse but what they don’t tell us is that it’s sometimes going to feel like you’re dragging along a dead marriage, fighting uphill to make it work. They don’t tell you that there will be periods of time – not just days and weeks but entire months – that drag on through the gray drizzle of time and you’ll wonder just what is wrong with your spouse because it’s not you. It’s not you. It’s never you. It’s always them. Making mistakes.

“I’m trying. You’re not.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Getting married is like a light to all of your shortcomings as a human being. Your spouse will illuminate all the problem areas. It’s painful and it’s terrible and it hurts to look at yourself and see all the flaws. And it’s just so much easier to turn your face to one side and not look at that pile of problems that create you, as a person, and it’s so much easier to deflect blame to the other.

It is so much easier to look at someone’s shortcomings and it is so much easier to nurture resentment for a million little things and a handful of big things.

It is so much easier to judge others.

And it is simple to judge our spouse.

And so you choose.

Those three thirty minute classes didn’t prepare us for cancer at 26. They didn’t prepare us for lay-offs. They didn’t prepare us for invitro-fertilization. They didn’t prepare us for twins. They didn’t prepare us for a miscarriage. They didn’t prepare us for the day-in-day-out minutia of life and they didn’t prepare us for the fact that Jade likes things done a certain way and I like things done a certain way and those ways typically are not the same but are, more often than not, quite opposite.

Those classes didn’t prepare us for anything.

I wish I could say that everyday Jade and I choose to hang onto each other in the darkness of the cave but the reality is that we don’t.

Sometimes we are cold and calculating.

And sometimes we are terrible.

And cruel.

But we try.

We choose.

We choose to continue to stumble blindly through the dark, seeking each other.

And sometimes we choose to talk about walking back into the light. Sometimes we talk about what a divorce looks like.

And sometimes we have fun together and we find each other and we remember why we do this. We remember why the search is worth it.

We remember that we love each other and that our family is amazing and that we’re very lucky and it is only our own selfish shortcomings that are destroying us and we realize that if we can choose to be better people, we can choose to be the best for each other.

And when our spouse shines a light on our problem areas – our selfishness, our arrogance, our pride – we can choose to get angry that someone noticed our darkness… or we can thank them for being close enough to us to point out our flaws. And then we fix them together.

“But, man…” I conclude. “Marriage is really hard.”

The guy across the table looks at me. I notice he doesn’t have a ring on his hand. I wonder if he’s thinking about proposing.

“But it’s also amazing. Marriage is beautiful and wonderful and I’m married to my best friend and everyday is a marvelous adventure.”

 

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HUG CONTEST

I’ve got this thing that I do.

At night, after I’ve got the kids in bed and settled down, books read, conversations had, questions answered, minds settled, I announce a Hug Contest.

One by one, they each get to give me a hug and then, at the end, I announce a winner. And yes, I announce an actual winner. I tell one of them that they gave the best hug. I try to mix it up but I also try to be fair because, honestly, not all hugs are created equal.

When we started doing this, Rory was more of a quantity over quality type of guy. He would jump at me, throw his arms around my neck and squeeze so hard that I would begin to see black dots in front of my eyes. I would fall to the ground, he would wrap his legs around me and wheeze into my ear while straining, “Is… this… a… good… hug?” Instead of answering, I would tap out.

Bryce is always a welcome competitor afterward as she likes to gently but firmly wrap her arms around my neck and squeeze. It is as though she often times actually embodies the hug. Becomes the hug. Her hair nuzzles up against my cheek and tickles my nose.

Quinn likes to mix it up – she’s kind of a mixed martial artist in that capacity. Little bit of technique from here, little bit from there, put em all together and what have you got? I never know what’s going to come at me. Sometimes it’s quite nice. Sometimes it is exceptionally painful. Sometimes she takes the Rory route, sometimes she takes the Bryce route and sometimes she just gives me a quick squeeze, almost an accidental brush-by and says, “How was that?” like she’s gaging my reaction in order to perfect the technique.

But here’s the thing about naming a winner in a Hug Contest… more important than the execution of the hugger is the need of the huggee.

Sometimes I want a warm hug. Sometimes I want it to linger. Sometimes I want Rory to put me in a rear chokehold until I black out. The kids are aiming at a moving target but they don’t know it. Which is great because they just try their best every single night.

And every night there is a new winner.

And the winner is always so happy. The winner always goes to bed smiling. Because the winner won.

And the best thing? Even when you lose, you’ve still gotten a hug.

I started by just rotating winners and that worked for a bit. Rory, Quinn, Bryce, Rory, Quinn, Bryce. But it quickly became too predictable, even for a three year old. I wanted to keep them on their toes. I didn’t want them to think that they were trapped in a thankless system where they just won every third day.

So then I started actually judging them. And then I told them why. I would tell them why they won.

So then. Quinn had proven herself victorious in the Hug Contest two nights in a row and then Bryce had won the following evening which ended with Rory saying, “I never win!” and then on the fourth night, just as I was getting Quinn into bed, she says, “Can we do the Hug Contest tonight?” and I say, “Sure! Let’s do it,” and then Rory says, “I want to be the judge,” and I say, “You want to be the judge in a hug contest that you’re competing in? Do you know what conflict of interest means?” and he says, “No.”

So I tell him that he can’t be the judge and I tell him this because I know. I know. I know what this little scoundrel is thinking. He’s thinking that if he is the judge then tonight he could rig the competition in his favor. He will nominate himself as best hug giver. He will reap the plunder.

But I’m a parent.

I’m smarter than that.

I’m smarter than him.

And so I say, “No. Sorry, man. You can’t be the judge. You can’t do it. Not if you’re in the contest. It wouldn’t be fair,” and he says, “PLEASE!?” and I say, “No, dude. It isn’t fair,” and he says, “Ug, doood.”

And so we round robin this thing and at the end I’m feeling quite loved and quite wonderful and I tell them all, their six eyes staring at me, “You guys… this is a first time ever, history making event, in the annals of Hug Contest history…”

They wait with baited breath.

We have a three way tie!”

I applaud and then Quinn says, “Yippie!” and Bryce echoes her and Rory moans. “But who won?” he asks and I say, “You all did!” and he says, “I want to be the judge,” and I say, “You want to judge?” and he says, “Yes. I want there to be a winner. Not a tie,” and I say, “Alright. Let’s all give Rory a hug and he can decide who wins. A second Hug Contest in one evening! Another history making event!”

And Rory gets serious and he says, “No. No dad. I don’t want to,” and I say, “You don’t need any hugs?” and in my head I think, How convenient. You don’t even need to see the competitors. You already know who the winner is. You’ve got a lot to learn about being shady, bub.

And so I say, “Okay. Let’s hear it, Rory. Who’s the winner? Who is the winner of your Hug Contest? Who… have you named winner?”

And Quinn and Bryce and I sit and stare at him as he holds a finger to his lips. He says, “Hmmmm…” and really mulls over the options. Decent form, I think. He’s obviously fooling the little ones but not me. I’ve got your number, pal. You think you’re being shady? I invented shade. I am the tree that casts it.

And then he smiles, completely aware that now is the moment he is unveiling his master plan. He looks at me and says, “You are the winner, dad! You give the best hugs!”

And then my heart breaks. And then my stomach turns inside out. And then my eyes begin to fill with tears.

Ah, shame. Guilt. Stupidity. Give me your best because I deserve them all. I am insignificant and putrid and vile. I am disgusting and full of loathing. I am selfish and stupid and, worst of all, obtuse and ignorant.

Aren’t I a humble parent? Aren’t I a humble person? No. Not at all. You think you know so much but you know nothing, Johnny Snow. You see the worst in people. You expect people to act selfishly. You anticipate people to act in a specific way. You think you are better. And this is one of your greatest faults.

The mirror is a painful place to look. Oh, there’s a shortcoming. And another. And another. And another.

It is one thing to look at yourself, examine yourself, and come to terms with certain facets of your personality, slowly turning them over and slowly revealing them. There is something soothing in that process – the process of growth, which we are all on over many, many years.

Oh, but the pain of having a child reveal the entire ugly picture of yourself to yourself, all at once. It’s like the coroner pulling back the blanket on the corpse of a loved one and seeing them diseased and rotting. But it is not a loved one. It is me. And it is not my rotting skin but my heart.

I leave their room with my head down, the weight of my pride dragging me to the ground.

 

 

 

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Broken Bones over Broken Hearts

Thirty-three weeks ago I broke my oldest daughter’s arm.

I double bounced her on the trampoline and shot her straight into the cosmos with all of my weight, launching her into the crisp blue sky. When she came down, I heard a little pop noise and then she started to cry.

At first glance, there was nothing wrong with her arm. And it wasn’t until I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her towards me to say, “What are you belly-aching about?” that I noticed her bone to be shaped like a crescent. Which is to say, her forearm had a very unnatural drape to it.

She was put in a cast for several months until we finally got it sawed off, exposing her healed, albeit pale and slightly atrophied, new arm.

And then you think to yourself, you kind of play the odds, because this is what we do – not as parents but as people. We kind of think like, “She broke her arm. Cool. Now that’s out of the way.”

Now that’s out of the way.

There’s this idea that, for some reason, statistically speaking, it probably won’t happen again, right? We see this kind of reasoning in Vegas all the time. “It landed on red three times in a row. It must land on black soon!” We’re all endowed with this logic that events of the past somehow affect the possibilities of these things recurring. We like to think that bad news somehow gives us a pass from more bad news for the foreseeable future.

And even as you read this and comprehend the reality of that statement, you still believe it to be true. There is this hope in us that continues to fight the hopelessness of everything going wrong always.

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And it is in this state of mind that I’m sitting on my porch at sunset, sipping hot coffee and trading tales with a friend of mine. His daughter and my two oldest are both on the trampoline. Bouncing. Being kids. Being stupid. Being stupid kids. I watch as Quinn crawls outside of the protective netting, squats down and then jumps into the grass. Perfect execution. I give it a 10. Or I would have.

Her palms hit the ground as she tries to land in some kind of cat pose – her big thing is pretending that she’s a cheetah. She likes to run around on her hands and feet, actually galloping through the house. She cleans herself by licking the back of her hands and she drinks milk from a saucer. I could realistically spend an entire separate essay speaking about whatever that is but I don’t want to get off topic.

The next 30 minutes all happen very fast.

I watch as Quinn’s head pops up. She starts to cry. Something in my stomach feels wrong but I don’t move. Jade says, “Please don’t tell me you broke your arm.” Quinn stands up and starts running to the porch – not on her hands and feet but just on her feet, her left arm sort of dangling at her side and looking a little funky. Not bad. Not weird. Well, sort of weird. But mostly just funky. I’m looking at it while she runs and I’m thinking, “This is not looking good,” and then my second thought is this. “Thankfully it’s not a broken arm because she just broke her other arm a few months ago.”

That’s my thought. That’s my logic. It couldn’t be a broken arm. Her other arm was just broken. These things don’t happen twice. That survivalist hope is flickering in me. Not it!

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Quinn runs up the porch step and heads to Jade, who says, “Which one hurts?” Quinn signals with her head – sort of nods towards her left arm. “This one,” and sticks her shoulder towards Jade.

I look at Curtis, sitting next to me, and raise one eyebrow that I’m sure he reads as, “Kids, man. They’re always falling into pits and getting hurt, ruining my nice coffee.”

Jade begins to roll up Quinn’s sleeve, one, two, three times. She rolls it all the way to the elbow and I breathe a little sigh of relief because her arm actually is fine and I kind of was starting to worry that this was going to– Jade moves Quinn’s arm slightly and my angle changes.

It’s funny how a new perspective on reality can shift your world.

Her arm is not all right. Nobody would ever describe that arm as all right. There is something fundamentally wrong with that arm. It is shaped like the letter U.

It’s broken. This thing has been snapped like a dried twig.

I put my coffee down and stand up. “Thanks for bringing over pizza, guys. I really wish we could eat more but it looks like we need to mosey towards the hospital.”

I grab the car keys, throw Quinn in the front seat with Jade and back out of the driveway and, insurance and the American healthcare system being what it is, instead of driving to the hospital four blocks from our house, we floor the silver bullet to ninety and gun the twenty minutes on the freeway to the closest Kaiser Permenente.

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As I glide the mini-van back and forth between lanes, Quinn whimpers softly next to me. “Are they going to give me a shot?” I look over and see her forearm bent at ninety degrees and shiver. “Yeah, Quinn. They’re probably going to give you a shot but you know what? It’s going to make you feel a lot better. It will take the pain away from your arm.”

She sniffles a couple times and then gets quiet. Jade asks her what she’s thinking about. Quinn takes a moment to collect her thoughts and then yawns like she’s bored. Super lackadaisically she says, “You know what? My arm is actually feeling pretty good. I don’t think it’s broken anymore. We can probably just go home. We don’t have to go to the hospital.”

I look over and see that ragged skin bag holding the broken fragments of bone. “You know what, Quinn? Maybe it would be best to just let a doctor take a look. You’re probably right – it’s probably fine. But just in case, yeah?”

She sighs, resigned, and then falls to sleep, probably in a state of shock.

My heart breaks for her. There is a feeling of mad urgency to our movements. Urgency that must be thought through and defined. Every move must happen quickly. But we must be smart about it. Cooler heads will prevail. I can do nothing. I can just drive. I can just tell her it will be okay. I can take her to the hospital. I can do my part.

At the hospital we enter Urgent Care and find a line of eight people waiting to speak with the receptionist. Quinn is whimpering. Everyone turns around. A man with an eye patch at the front of the line says, “Is she, uh, okay?” and Jade says, “No. Her arm is broken,” and the man says, “Come on up here, lady. You can come on up here,” and everyone in line nods his or her head.

Thank you, humans. May good things come back to you.

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A receptionist named Flora says, “Next,” and we approach. She takes our name and information and tells us there is about an hour’s wait. Jade says, “This five year old has a broken arm and she has to just sit with it for an hour?” The woman shrugs. “I just work here.”

I ask, “Can we take her to the Emergency Room?”

Flora, “Yes.”

Me, “How much will it cost?”

Flora, “I don’t know.”

Me, “Will the wait be under an hour?”

Flora, “I don’t know.”

Me, “Do you have any pain medication she can take if we wait?”

Flora, “I’m not a doctor.”

Me, “Yes, I can see that. But can I speak with someone about some Advil or Tylenol or just a hammer we can bash her in the face with to knock her out?”

Flora, “You can speak to a nurse in about an hour.”

There is nothing I can do. There is only logic. Cooler heads prevail. Make the best decision with the circumstances provided.

We walk into the waiting room and I say, “Jade, do you have any cash on you?” and she says, “No. Why?” and I say, “Because I’ll just pay the person whose first in line. I’ll slip em a hundred bucks – that’s someone’s co-pay – we’ll slide in first.”

Jade says, “I don’t have any cash,” and I say, “Me neither. Plan B.”

We sit down and stare at Survivor on the tube.

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Forty minutes later they call our name. I stand up and fireman carry Quinn through the door. In Room 9 I set her down on the bed, careful not to disturb the broken 2×2 that is her arm.

Everything goes fuzzy for me – we’ve been back from Africa for less than 48 hours and my brain is still eleven hours ahead. I can feel myself falling in and out of reality – my vision keeps going black – someone is standing in the room with us. “Time for an IV.”

A thin woman with straight black hair tells us to lay Quinn on her back. Quinn says, “What’s an IV?” and I say, “It’s one shot that they give you so that they don’t have to give you anymore. Does that sound like a good thing?” and Quinn quickly does the math in her head. “I guess so.”

The woman says, “Okay, so let’s have you say your ABCs and by the time you’re done, I’ll be done too. Sound good?” and Quinn nods as a tear rolls down her cheek. Jade takes her face in her hands and begins to run her thumbs along the corners of her mouth. I put my hand on Quinn’s chest and my other hand on her elbow, readying myself to restrain her when she kicks against the IV.

I would take your place if I could.

The nurse asks, “Are you ready?” and Quinn says, “A. B. C. D. E. F. Gee…”

I watch the needle slide in and I watch Quinn’s eyes turn into glass plates and I listen to her voice rise several octaves and I listen to the alphabet begin to tumble out of her mouth as she races to the end, knowing that it will all be over once she hits Z. “HIJKLMNOP!”

“Slow down, Quinn. Slow down.” I hate needles and I hate IVs and my stomach is running and rolling and my mind is wheezing and my hands are sweating. Just being this close to needles sends me into this very anxiety filled place. Be cool. Be cool. Show no fear. Stare at Quinn. Be cool. Be strong. You are a source of courage. Mother and Father are the name of God on the lips of children.

QRSTUVWXYZ! Take it out! Take it out! Take it out! It’s done! Take it out!” Tears are racing down her face as she stares at the ceiling without blinking. “Take it out!”

I look at the needle and see the nurse pushing and pulling it, sliding it left and right, fishing around inside her arm. “The, uh, the vein keeps moving on me – keeps trying to get away. Try the alphabet one more time…”

ABCDEFGHIJ-J-J-J-J–

“Okay–nope.” Still fishing. The needle is making me sick. I hate needles. I can’t even look at them sitting on a table without feeling like my soul is twisting up inside. Tears are streaming down Quinn’s face and her mouth is stuck in a grimace of letters, “XYZXYZXYZ!”

“We almost got it. You’re doing really good. Could you give me the alphabet just one more time?”

AYEbeeCEEdeeEEefGEEEEEEEEEEE!”

“Alright, I have it.” The nurse pulls out the needle and tapes it and stands up as Quinn says, “Zeeeeeeeee. Zeeeeeeee. Zeeeeeee,” and then falls asleep before the nurse has left the room.

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I ask someone if there is a coffee station around and they say, “No.”

I slap myself around a little and pet Quinn’s hand while she sleeps. A doctor enters and says that he’s sorry about the wait but he’s ready if we are. We nod and a nurse inserts morphine into the IV while Quinn sleeps. Halfway through the syringe Quinn wakes up and sees a woman with a thing that looks like a shot poised at her arm and lashes back, “NO MORE SHOTS!”

“Sure, sure. Right. No more shots. There is no needle here.”

The nurse leaves and the doctor steps up. He’s a good looking Ken-doll type. Rippling muscles, beautiful face. Blond hair. A doctor. Lots of money. Has probably never broken his daughter’s arm double bouncing her on a trampoline. I look over at Jade just as she finishes scribbling her number onto some scrap paper. She hands it to him and mouths, “Call me,” and then winks.

Doctor Ken says, “Alright, dad. Let’s get her sitting on your lap and then you’re going to… I don’t want to say restrain… but it’s what I mean. You’re gonna want to make sure she doesn’t run anywhere.”

Jade says, “Is the morphine going to help?” and Doctor Ken says, “Uh… a little.”

I would take your place if I could. I wouldn’t want to. But I would do it.

He gently picks up Quinn’s mangled wing in his massive hands and feels it gently – touches it here and there. Tests it. Finds the sour spots. He says, “Do you know any songs?” and Quinn says, “I know uh, My Favorite Things,” and the doctor says, “I’d love to hear you sing it to me.”

And next is the moment wherein I realize two things. The first is that not much has changed in the last 100 years of medical science as far as bone-setting goes. The second is that I will never hear My Favorite Things the same again.

Quinn starts singing in a perfect voice, “Whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens!” and then Doctor Ken pushes the heel of one hand against the top of the break and the heel of his other hand against the back side of the break and I watch as his muscles strain under his shirt and his face distorts into a knot that looks like he’s trying to either pick up a heavy weight or fire out a huge turd.

Quinn begins to scream.

I’m sorry.

She doesn’t yell. She doesn’t shout. She doesn’t holler. She screams. And the worst part is that she does it while she continues to sing.

Bright colored packages! Wrapped up in AAAAHHHH!!! Wrapped up in AHHH ribbons! AAAAAAAHHHHHH! AAAAHHH!! STOP! STOP! THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS! AAAAHHHH! IT HURTS! IT HURTS! WHEN THE DOG BITES! WHEN THE BEE STINGS! PLEASE STOP! YOU’RE HURTING ME! IT HURTS A LOT! WHEN I’M FEELING SAD! PLEASE STOP! I WILL SIMPLY REMEMBER AHHHHHHH! MY FAVORITE THINGS! AHHHHHH! AND THEN I DON’T FEEL AAAHHHHHHH! SO BAD!

The doctor releases his pressure and the assistant steps in and wraps her arms in gauze that hardens into a plaster cast.

“Is that it?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Pick up some medicine from the pharmacy. Get rid of your trampoline.”

We go home and eat the cold leftover pizza. We go home and I pick up my old coffee, a fly drowned and floating on the surface. I carry Quinn to bed and set her down between Jade and I.

She says, “Sing me a song.”

And without looking at each other, Jade and I both begin to sing an off-key duet of My Favorite Things as she drifts to sleep.

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But I know this is not the end. I know this is not the last time. I know that she will spend her life being hurt and hurting. I know she will fall down and scratch her knee and cut her arm and maybe even break more bones. And I know Jade and I will be there to kiss them and bandage them and even take them to the hospital when it is necessary.

But it is the wounds that I can’t help heal that scare me. It is the broken hearts and the tumors of the soul that form when no one is watching. It is the wounds that cannot be healed with medicine. It is the day-to-day hopelessness that creeps into people that I fear for my daughter.

Someday she’ll come to me with a broken heart and what will I say? Someday she’ll come to me and say that she doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life and what will I say? Someday she’ll come to me and ask me hurting questions that I don’t have the answers to. Why did this happen? Why did that happen? It hurts me and I don’t know what to do. Why did my husband get cancer? Why did my child die?

I don’t know, Quinn. Life isn’t always fair.

But I’ll take broken bones over broken hearts everyday.

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TEARING OFF THE GIANT HOLY PENIS OF GOD

 Do we put God in a box?

 

The word God is a very heavy one and so let’s break it down a little before we move on. If I say the word dad to someone, they may get fuzzy feelings because their dad was amazing. The word dad has very positive emotional baggage for them.

 

Now, same word, different person. Dad can mean something vicious and upsetting to an individual that was sexually assaulted or abandoned by their father.

 

Let’s simplify this even further.

 

Wine Glass means something positive to an individual who enjoys the intricate tastes and aromas of the drink. However, I have a personal friend who sliced his hand so severely while cleaning a wine glass that he had to undergo extensive surgery and physical therapy before regaining the use of his tendons. He can’t hear the word without shivers running up his spine.

 

We each apply personal emotional baggage, whether that be good or bad, to every word.

 

For someone that received his or her first kiss in a movie theater, it’s a very pleasant thing. For someone who survived a mass shooting inside of one, the word elicits a very different emotional experience.

 

These are all very simple concepts that bring forward very complicated emotions.

 

Let’s try another word.

 

God.

 

Oooh, that’s complex. There are quite a lot of feelings coming to our minds right now and based upon the context of the last few paragraphs, you understand that someone else reading these same words is having a very different thought than you are. We are each experiencing God, in this moment, in very different ways.

 

Let’s mix it up a bit more.

 

Let’s take that idea you have in your head of God, whatever that is, whether it makes you feel nurtured or abandoned, and let’s add another layer onto it.

 

Bible.

 

I’ve written a couple paragraphs here that have made you, with your unique experiences, feel certain things. Just through a simple handful of words you and I have each come to different conclusions and emotional reactions. Now let’s look at a book that is filled with thousands and thousands of words. Some of them are poetic. Some of them are literal. Some of them are parables. Some of them are historical.

 

Now let’s apply each of our personal understandings to those words and you can see how this idea of God quickly spirals insanely out of control.

 

Should we complicate it further?

 

How about a multitude of holy scriptures? The Holy Bible. The Book of Mormon. The Apocrypha. The Gnostic Gospels. The Dead Sea Scrolls. The Torah. The Qur’an. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of scripture that exist outside of the Christian / Jewish / Islamic faiths.

 

Layers upon layers and words upon words written by people in different cultures in different eras that were influenced by different elements and then translated to other languages.

 

In fact, scholars believe that the pronoun Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit in the original Aramaic was feminine. SHE. And then it was lost in the Latin translation.

 

The image that I have in my mind right now is the world’s largest ball of yarn that has been knotted up to such a degree that it can never be untangled.

 

And perhaps that is exactly what God is. Something that can never be neatly laid out in front of us, dissected and examined.

 

How do we reconcile ourselves to this and find the true meaning behind anything? If I don’t know what you mean or feel when you say wine glass, how am I to know what you mean and feel when you talk about God?

 

The words of the Bible, even if you believe that they were inspired by the perfect hand of God, are still limited based entirely off of our unique interpretation of them.

 

Let that thought linger for a moment.

 

Even if the Bible is without flaw, our own unique flaws create problems where none existed because each of us interpret the words differently.

 

BIBLICAL MIC DROP.

 

So how do we come to know The Truth of God? How do we get to the pure emotion at the center of the words? An emotion carries so much weight. Explain love or fear in simple words. Use those grunts that tumble stupidly from your mouth to tell me what love does to your soul.

 

Perhaps we start this process by removing our labels. When we call God HE, we are applying thought and feeling to God based on our understanding of the word HE. Do we really believe that God is a male? That He has a giant holy penis? I mean, I’m being serious. Let’s talk this out. When we use the word HE, we are talking about a he / she scenario and we’re not ONLY saying that God is a HE but we are ALSO saying that God is NOT a SHE.

 

We have now placed a box around God. We have created parameters for God to exist within. Rather than God being big enough to exist outside of human sexuality, we have placed Him in a box that is human sexuality and then put Him over on the baby blue half. If we call God HIM then HE cannot, by nature of sex, be HER. We have now limited God.

 

Holy sausage party, Batman.

 

By doing this, we limit God through our label. And labels form expectations. When we call God HE we expect a certain type of individual. If nothing else, we immediately picture God as more of a father figure than a mother figure. That alone sends us spiraling into, what may be, a completely inaccurate understanding of The Immortal.

 

Just by the word HE.

 

Just by two simple letters pressed against one another.

 

Now let’s apply that understanding to something slightly more complex. Let’s try to understand The Holy Trinity. This idea that God The Father (male), Jesus The Son (male) and The Holy Spirit (once female, now neutered) are all single but different units. All separate but all together.

 

If that is our understanding of God, what word do we apply to it in our language? How do we describe that idea of three-in-one? A word must be attributed to it.

 

Alright guys, we are monks and we need a word to describe our understanding of God. God is all knowing and all powerful. God is within everything, dipped in our very existence. God is inside you and me and the air and our food and our thoughts and God has seeped into every nuance of our existence. God is both mortal and divine. God is both physical and spiritual. God is above and beyond our comprehension. God is outside of time. God is beyond form. God does not exist in many forms. God is above and beyond form. What word do we use to convey this sophisticated understanding? How do we convey a being that is above our understanding of shape? We need a word that means both all form and no form simultaneously.”

 

Trinity.

 

You can see how that word sort of works to convey that complex thought. You can see that they were trying to boil this very deep and sophisticated understanding of God down into this simple label. And you can also see that it’s a very bland word used to describe a very impressive idea. You can also see that the word Trinity is never found in the Bible and the concept was not created until well after the death of Jesus.

 

Another idea that was pitched and followed by the Christian church for a while was something called Adoptionism. This was the idea that Jesus was born a man, just like you and me. Absolutely no different. This is the belief that he was NOT born as the Son of God and that he didn’t become “divine” until his baptism later in life. An actual promotion from regular human to a God-figure.

 

And right now all the Christians are gasping at the heresy of… the Christian church’s early belief in the interpretation of the bible. This is our heritage.

 

These are just a few of the real beliefs that real Christians really followed based upon their very real personal interpretation of words. My, oh my, how we can pull so many conclusions from simple letters that have been mashed together to form words that are trying to explain emotions.

 

Words.

 

And so we start labeling God.

 

Even the word God is somehow limiting as to what we actually feel GOD to be. We see time and again in the Bible where it is clear that the authors were trying their absolute best to explain how massive this idea of God is while their words fail them miserably.

 

God is the Alpha and the Omega. Beginning and End. This guy is trying to say that God exists beyond and outside of time. He’s saying that God is not bound by our watches and calendars. Time has no bearing on God and means nothing to God. Time is a unit of simple measurement that creatures of this dimension are bound to. The way we can hold a film strip at arms length and examine both beginning and end simultaneously, God is not bound by our moments.

 

Whoa.

 

When Moses asks God what his name is and God responds with “I AM,” the author is NOT saying that God’s actual name is I AM. He’s saying that God cannot be bound by a name. God cannot be limited by a label. He’s saying that God IS. God is not a singularity with a face. God IS the breath of existence. The fabric of reality.

 

And perhaps through this understanding we also realize that even words like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, etc, etc, are all just more labels that we use to further ourselves from The Truth that is The Truth. Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran. Just more splinter cells that are drifting further and further away as we carefully craft more and more labels to dissect God, placing him inside smaller and smaller boxes.

 

By our labeling of God, we are limiting our own understanding of God. We come to the wineglass and we apply ourselves to it. We decide whether it is good or bad based upon our personal experiences but not upon a truth.

 

We come to God and we limit the absolute magnitude that is The Eternal. And by doing so, we choose to live in a muted world where we intentionally sell ourselves short.

 

We must remove the labels and forget the simple grunting words. God is more a piece of art than a diagrammed sentence. Or, as Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet ponders, “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”

 

If we put God in a box, we are putting God in a coffin and eventually He will become so sterilized and clinical that we’ll kill Him, bury Him and then kneel at the graveside and continue to mumble our empty prayers which are just words without emotion.

 

It is our overly simplistic, two dimensional understanding of God that destroys Him.

 

But maybe our understanding of HIM should die. Perhaps that spineless understanding of The Ever Present Always should be both castrated and killed. It is not until we tear off the giant holy penis of God that we stop picturing The Nameless Infinite as He. Perhaps The Real Truth is waiting for us to turn away from this mannequin we’ve been worshipping and come to understand that we will never understand.

 

Accept that the search is the answer because The Timeless Conscious has no end. God is not a math equation meant to be solved or a ball of yarn that is meant to be unknotted. We are meant to expand ourselves and mature our existence by experiencing God in our very lives.

 

We find God in kindness and compassion. We find God in empathy and sympathy. We find God in friendship and giving. We find God in a phone call or a smile to a stranger. We find God in holding a door for someone. We find God in helping a charity or doing dishes at a friend’s house.

 

That tingly sensation under our skin when we help an individual? That sorrow we experience when we see someone hurting? A high-five. An orgasm. Laughter at a birthday party. Tears at a funeral. Holding a new baby. Hugging your child. Laying in grass. A day off from work. A day at a job you love. A job well done. The smell of coffee beans.

 

This is God.

 

God does not exist in a box.

 

God does not belong in a coffin.

 

God is not a word. God is a poem.

 

God is the very beating of our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Quenching Waters of Shame

 

Let me tell you about one of the most shameful moments I have ever experienced. Let me tell you about the awful time I wanted to disappear into nothingness because I was so humiliated by my thoughtless actions. Sometimes Truth is a venom and when it works its way into our hearts it hurts fiercely but it also helps if you let it. It can burn away all the fat of reality until we experience only the kernel of humanity that is left.

Let’s begin…

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The heat in Africa is like someone holding a blow dryer in your face on a July day. It’s like eating mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs in a Jacuzzi. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 

When you get a bottle of water, you don’t sip it. You slam it. You slam it if it’s cold and freezes your throat. You slam it if it’s room temperature and feels like spit. There is no casual thirst here.

 

And now, standing in the dirt, covered by the shade of our van and wiping sweat from my face, I see Ryan, a Ugandan who’s tagging along with us, kill an entire bottle in no time flat. He wipes his mouth and says, “I know dis guy named Geronimo – he’s a big guy. Will take a whole bottle and just drop it right down his throat into his big belly.”

 

I lift the piss-warm water to my lips as my mind wanders back to America where a faucet gives me ice-cold water and I don’t have to worry about microbes giving me diarrhea and headaches. I say, “How fast you think you can slam that bottle?” Ryan shrugs and I pull the stopwatch up on my phone.

 

“GO.” Ryan kicks his head back and goes bottoms up. The clear liquid birdie-drops past his teeth and he doesn’t spill a drop. “Eight point five seconds. That’s insane.”

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He grabs a second bottle from our stash in the van and hands it to me. “Ready, Johnny?” I nod and watch his thumb hit the timer. I flip the bottle up, trying to imitate his method, but instead water jets up my nose and covers my shirt. I cough and water sprays out of my mouth. Ryan starts to laugh as I go into a choking fit. “Haha! Twelve seconds, Johnny! I win!”

 

No! I can do better! I can do –”

 

But my thought is cut short and the contest is forgotten forever as I realize where I’m standing, as I realize where I am and what I’m doing. “Maybe . . . we shouldn’t . . . do this . . .”

 

Staring at us is a small group of Ugandan children, twelve in all. Some of them are barefoot. Some of them wear shoes that are tied to their feet. One kid has a hole in his pants so big I can see his penis hanging out. Their shirts are either too big or too small for their bodies. Their skin is as dark as a plum and the dirt they are caked in is like a powder. One child has a herniated belly button the size of a kiwi. Their white eyes look at me. Look into me.

 

I’m not just in Uganda. I’m in the slums. I’m down here shooting promotional videos for an organization that houses abandoned babies, an organization that takes infants who have been left for dead inside of dumpsters and places them with new mothers. I’m down here representing them. And I’m down here representing America. And I’m down here representing humanity. And I’m supposed to be helping. I’m supposed to be in the dirt with these kids, giving them the tiniest shred of hope in their day. Earlier I was doing close-up magic—making a small coin disappear—and teaching them secret handshakes and they were chasing me around and hugging me and laughing and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!”— an African term that means white traveler—and a humbling happiness came over me wherein I knew I could not help them all and I knew I could only help in this moment.

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I look at their houses and I see mud walls with tin roofs. I see a canal, an undeveloped sewage system, that is one foot wide filled with human waste running in front of their homes. I see someone from my team open up a bag of suckers and I hear 30 children scream with so much glee that at first I think someone is being murdered. The children run around waving their candy in the air and laughing. I watch a two-year-old drop his sucker in some kind of dark brown mud. I watch him pick it up, wipe it on his shirt, and stick it back in his mouth.

 

I watch the mothers look at me and I know what they are thinking. They know where I come from. They know what I have. They know what they never will. Their mats in the dirt are as good as it gets and are as good as it ever will get. There is a quiet hopelessness that my presence rubs their noses in.

 

A drunken man wanders down the street and begins shouting at us in Lugandan, the local language. I ask Ryan what he’s saying. “He doesn’t want us here. He thinks you’re going to take his picture and make money from it and he will get nothing.”

 

“Can you tell him that we’re going to take the images to raise money for the babies?”

 

Ryan says, “He doesn’t care. Those babies are not in this village. Uganda is a big place. We might help someone but we won’t help him.”

 

We can’t help everyone.

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The man disappears and comes back holding an iron rod. He cranks the volume on his voice and begins waving it around. The man gets up in the face of a local girl and begins pointing at each of us wildly. Ryan translates for me, “Why are you helping them? They are white, and they don’t care about you! When they are done they will leave and forget about you and you will still be here, poor and broke!”

 

It’s easy to paint this man as the bad guy, but the truth is that he’s spent his entire life being treated like an animal as we all come from our homes and take pictures of him in his natural habitat. He feels exploited.

 

When he’s spoken his mind, he stumbles away.

 

In a place like this – where you have so much more than everyone else, where you’re the richest guy in the room and everyone knows it—it’s easy to start thinking of yourself as some kind of gracious Mother Teresa type. It’s easy to start believing that you’re sacrificing yourself for The Children. Vanity moves in fast.

 

“I’ve come from America to save you! Do not fear, simple African people, for I have brought you the best thing I can: myself!”

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I reach out and I take a child’s hand and I look into her eyes while I wonder how filthy those fingers are. How much human excrement is on them? I say, “How are you? What is your name?” while I scan her for any cuts that could infect me with HIV.

 

I’m down in it. For tonight only. And I am helping. But not this kid. Some kid somewhere will feel the effects of this video we’re making. It will raise awareness and it will raise money and that money will help some kid. But not this one. Not any of these. And the guy with the pipe is right. When I’m done here I am going to go back to America and you will still be here. And you will still be poor and broke.

 

But I won’t forget you. He’s wrong about that.

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The sun is dropping down, and this close to the equator it only takes 15 minutes to go dark. The kids chase after us, laughing and dancing, smiling and shouting, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as we walk to our van.

 

We get to the lot and I’m sweating. Ryan slides open the door and grabs a bottle of water, “I know dis guy named Geronimo—” And that’s how it all plays out.

 

How quickly we forget ourselves.

 

And now here I am, my eyes connecting with each one of the twelve kids. I think I know who they are and what they are. I believe that I am deep enough to understand the sorrows of their culture. And with clean water rushing down my chin and into the dirt, pooling in the dust at my feet, I realize that I am filled with more shit than the ditches in front of their homes.

 

I feel my heart break. Not for them. But for myself. I am baptized in shame. I swing my pack off and reach inside. Please, please let there be more. Please. My hand wraps around warm plastic and I pull out a bottle of water. I push through the crowd to the tallest child and say, “Are you the oldest?” and he nods. I hand him the bottle of water and I point to the crowd. “Share.”

 

Half the kids get a sip as it’s passed carefully between them, and then it’s gone and is discarded on the ground before they all look back at me. Nobody is multiplying fish and loaves here.

 

Our driver hollers. “Suns down. We gotta go.” And he means it. This is no place for a mzungu at night. I jump into the backseat and the kids all press their hands to the glass. “Mzungu! Please! They babble in their native tongue, shouting pleas at me.

 

I can’t help you.

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The engine fires up and the van shifts into drive. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” I press my hand against the glass and we start to move. I thrust my fist into my pocket. Where is it? Where is it? Hurry up! Hurry up, you fucking idiot! You fucking selfish idiot! The pocket is empty. I go for the other one—just a bunch of wrappers and lint. Where is it!? Where did I put it? There! My hand wraps around a single coin worth 100 shillings or about 3 U.S. pennies – the one I was making vanish with my close-up magic.

 

I swing open the door and reach out to the smallest kid, front and center. “Here! Here!” He holds out his hand and I drop the coin into his palm. His eyes turn into saucers. “Thank you, mzungu!” They all see the coin and they look at me and they start shouting, “Mzungu! Shilling! Mzungu!” They reach out for me, 12 dirty hands asking for my help, as the van speeds up.

 

I do them the courtesy of looking them all in the eyes as I slam the door in their faces.

 

I’m sorry. I can’t save you.

 

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HOOTCH

 

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It was supposed to be over one hundred degrees when we arrived in Gulu, a small village in Northern Uganda but, as the locals say, “God has blessed us and brought the rain.” I’m standing on the lip of our cruiser, a ten-person bus that I’ve taken to calling The Iron Donkey, and looking down the street towards Gulu’s own miniature version of The Sunset Strip. The entire length of the block is made up of shanties and lean-tos. Instead of doors, there are curtains. Instead of cement blocks, mud and corrugated steel. Instead of shingles, tin. If the big bad wolf comes around, he’s going to blow this entire place down.

 

Men and women sit under eaves, trying to escape the light drizzle while they wait for locals to buy their merchandise – sweet bananas, passion fruit, yams, mangoes, live chickens, dead chickens, chicken pieces and fry bread. All prices are open to negotiation.

 

Looking down the street I see dark faces and dirty people, individuals that my mind immediately associates with unsavory characters. I brush the thought away, remembering that I’m seeing them through a perspective that has been spoon fed to me through media and pop-culture for over thirty years. This looks like a slum to me, by my western standards, but to them, to everyone here, to these people, this is not a slum. This is everyday. This is what they were born into. This is what their parents were born into. This is the absolute unfaltering reality of their world.

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Ten years ago the LRA was here recruiting children into the Lord’s Resistance Army and forcing them to kill their parents. They’d give a ten year old a gun and tell him to kill mom and dad. The soldiers would come in and cut off noses, lips and ears of children just so that, when they looked in the mirror, they’d remember their leader, Joseph Kony. This street was once ravaged by rape and violence so recently that George W. was still in office when it was happening. Most of the locals are now just happy that those days are over and they can now sell their wares in peace. They can feed their family without fear of a lunatic kicking in their door and making them choose which of their sons would be sacrificed to the LRA.

 

That 20-something guy with the mangoes spread out on the blanket across the street? That’s the world he grew up in while I was kicking back Bud Lights in college, cruising around on my Honda motorcycle in Colorado. I tell people I’ve never won the lottery but I gotta tell you, being born in America ain’t a bad runner up.

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From my vantage point atop The Iron Donkey I can see behind these shanties to the village beyond. This street might be where these people work but where they live is tucked away and kept safe from prying eyes. Over the tops of the tin roofs, I can see a collection of huts – true huts whose walls are made from mud and whose roofs are made from thatch. I try to decide if these people live beyond poverty or outside of it completely. It’s easy to call them poor but perhaps their lives are just simpler than ours, unbound by complications like rent control, electric bills and social media.

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A voice floats through the air and lands in the crook of my ear, “What are you thinking, Johnny?” I turn around. Noah, our Ugandan guide, is looking at me and smiling. I look back at the tiny strip and point to a bright red shack with people sitting out front. “What is that?” He answers, “A pub. You call it a bahrrr.”

 

I picture a bar as I know it – dimly lit, some tables, chairs. There is a bar up front, proper. A mirror, some bottles. Beer on tap, people sitting with their backs to the front door. Pool tables, darts, etc. But this red place – none of that is inside. It’s too small, too contained. I look at the people and judge them by their specific demographic. They’re not drinking Jameson. Hell, they’re not even drinking Black Velvet or Wild Turkey or the soup de jour, Bud Light – and not just because this is an impoverished community but because most places in Uganda don’t carry those brands. So what’s inside? My imagination tries to picture what this place looks like and my curiosity is peaked. Is there even electricity? Is there a refrigerator?

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There are certain places on Earth that I assume I’ll never set foot simply because I would be unwelcomed. You know the vibe – certain places in Detroit, those nasty neighborhoods in New York you’ve seen in the movies, Skid Row at night. We try to make a peaceful world but there are places where a certain type of person just doesn’t belong because it’s private. It belongs to a culture and by stepping foot inside; you are invading it, exploiting it, making a carnival ride out of their personal world.

 

I also assume that this red bar across the street or the huts behind them are one of those places. That is some raw humanity that my cowboy boots and sunglasses would never be allowed in.

 

Still, it doesn’t hurt to wonder. I ask, “What do they serve?” and Noah looks down the street and seems to judge it. “Would you like to go inside?”

 

There is a part of me, inside my head, that shouts, No! Stay here! Stay here where it is safe! Stay here where your group is! Stay here where the bus is! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. You will not be welcomed. Remember when you got mugged in Nicaragua while heading towards a local bar?

 

But then the other half of me screams, Go! Quick! Go where there is danger! Go where no one else has! Run from the comforts you know! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. They may embrace you. And you helped rescue a lady during that mugging. If you weren’t there, who knows what could have happened to her.

 

Ah, back and forth. Back and forth.

 

I jump down from the lip and say, “Noah. I would love that. Is it safe?” He shrugs and begins walking, stepping in front of a car that comes to a screeching halt. I jog to keep up.

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Across the street my boot hits mud. Deep mud. Sticky mud. Heavy mud that clings like little fingers that seem to say Now that you’re here, you’ll never leave. I look up and see a sea of white eyes lacking any casual sideways glances. They are staring, no two ways about it. And whether I am welcome or not, I can’t yet tell. I nod at them, give the cowboy quick-chin-down and nobody responds. I try the more street version with the quick-chin-up but still nothing. It’s very possible that people don’t do that here and have no idea what it means. They might think that my head nod is just a nervous twitch. Or they might think that I’m throwing attitude. This is how new cultures are – things you think are simple and straight forward sometimes get totally lost. I walk around a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) with its wheels ripped off, leaking oil into the rain, none of it mixing together. The mechanic sits on a bucket with a rusty tool in his hand. I lift up my arm and hold out all five fingers in a stiff wave. He stares at me, blinks, and then lifts up his hand in acknowledgment. No smile.

 

I tap my left and right pocket. Phone and wallet still there. Check and check.

 

I lift my hand to another person and they immediately respond, meeting my action with the mirrored version. Noah hangs a right and cuts across the street again, putting us kitty-corner from our bus and about a city block away. “Noah, I’m catching a lot of eyeballs here. Are you sure we’re cool?”

 

“We’re fine. Mzungus just don’t come down here.”

 

“Why? Why not?”

 

“They come to Africa but they want the safe and beautiful version from National Geographic. They want to keep their shoes dry and their hands clean. They’ll help as long as it doesn’t put them in an uncomfortable place.”

 

“And where are we going?”

 

“We’re going somewhere uncomfortable. When people look at you, you won’t be able to just drive by and take a picture. You’ll have to look back at them.”

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We approach a blue building and walk past a man sitting out front. Noah says something to him in Lugandan and the guy responds. Noah jumps up the single step and pushes the curtain aside that acts as a door and I lose him to the darkness within. I lift my hand to the man and he ignores me. Standing out here alone makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, like a snail in an atrium without its shell. I step up onto the concrete “porch” and push past the curtain, trying to look casual and confident, trying to look like I fit in, a white guy wearing a white shirt with a white hood and white sunglasses. Didn’t plan that one out. May as well drape Old Glory over my shoulders and sing the national anthem while I’m at it.

 

Inside the shack, the rain is considerably louder, slapping against the tin roof, and the light is almost non-existent. It slips under the sheet that covers the door and illuminates a bit of the floor. Inside, two young girls stand in haunting silence. There are no chairs or benches in the room. Noah says something to them in Lugandan and they mumble something in response. He says something again and the older of the two, maybe 13, shakes her head and points.

 

Noah pushes back past the sheet and steps out into the rain. He strolls past several structures made of rotting wood and tarps. Four doors down we come to the small cell with red walls that I’d spotted across the street. Sitting out front are a number of men, six on each side, lining the benches that lead to the entrance. “Mzungu! Ahh! Haha! Mzuuuungu!” (an African term for white traveler). Their eyes are bloodshot and their limbs are loose. They comfortably lean against one another, all of them drunk. We’ve reached The Pub.

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Noah and I push through another sheer sheet and into a dark red room, eight feet across and eight feet wide. Parting the room in half is a counter. Behind the counter is a heavy woman whose eyes are barely visible above the tall ledge. Noah stands on his tip-toes and says something to her. He points to me. Her eyes shift in my direction but show no emotion. She says something and, in English, Noah says, “How much?” She quotes a number and he pulls out a bill, handing it across the counter. Pudgy fingers reach out and gobble up yellow money. I hear a shuffling, a clinking, a pouring, and then over the counter comes a dirty cup about the size of two shot-glasses filled with a clear liquid. She hands it to Noah, who hands it to me. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from The Goonies where Mouth orders water in the Fratelli’s restaurant before discovering Sloth.

 

It’s now that I notice another woman standing next to me with a wrap around her waist and a sleeping newborn swaddled into the backside. She smiles at me and I smile back, happy to see a friendly face. I smell the drink, breathing deeply. There is a hint of fruit and a punch of alcohol that burns my nose. “What is it?”

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Noah says, “Tonto. It’s made from sweet bananas – the little yellow ones.” It’s whiskey. Or moonshine. Or hootch. It’s made here. I take a little sip and the lady with the baby smiles. I smack my lips together and say, “It’s sweet. It’s like whiskey.” Noah smiles and signals me to shoot it. “Fast.” I pull in a breath and, on my empty stomach, begin to tilt the cup back. It takes me three drinks to finish it off. I pinch my eyes and pucker my mouth. I say, “Tastes a little fruity. It’s quite good,” and when I hand the cup back to the woman behind the counter, I see a small smile in her eyes. Is it pride? She takes the cup and places it back on the shelf behind her without washing it.

 

Noah says something to the lady with the baby and she nods twice before turning and leaving. Noah follows after her while I bring up the rear. The gray daylight cuts at my eyes and I squint, walking back out into the rain. The drink has gone straight to my head and I can already feel it loosening me up. The men outside again shout, “Yeah! Mzungu! Haha! Woo!” and I smile back and hold out my fist to one of them, not caring how it looks. Not caring about the social implications of lifting my fist or what that might mean here. The man stares at it, confused. Noah keeps walking. I don’t move. I just stare at him and wait for it to click. The drunk man laughs and lifts his fist in return.

 

Bump it.

 

I laugh and the rest of the men in the row immediately lift their fists as I walk past them. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Laughter chases behind me as I disappear back into the rain.

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The lady with the baby walks past six doors before taking a sharp left down a narrow corridor. I’m being led back into the quiet places. This is not the place that you see from the car. This is the internal. This is the inner circle. This is their community. Their private life. There is a sense of both fear and honor that mix around in my gut. The thought crosses my mind that it may have been years since a white man has visited. The thought crosses my mind that I could be making history.

 

I step out of the corridor and into a village where Africans in dusty clothes slowly walk back and forth. All eyes are on me, front and center. I lift my hand and say, “Hello. Hello,” being sure to hit each syllable hard. I feel like a visitor from outer space. I mean you no harm. Scattered abruptly around and seemingly without reason are huts. The huts. Real huts. That’s all I can think. These are huts. These are real huts. These are real huts that real people live in. I’ve seen them in movies and books but these are real. The real thing. This is what pre-civilization looked like. This is pre-brick and pre-commerce. I am in an African village. These are huts made of mud and thatch. People live here. This is raw humanity. This is pure. This is honest.

 

I want to pull out my phone and begin snapping photos. Look at me, Facebook! Look where I am! I’m at a hut village! But the idea immediately revolts me. A few yards ahead I see a small circle of people, eight in total. They sit in chairs around a small pot. Coming out of the pot are long straws that the people all suck on – it looks like some kind of water bong but there is no smoke coming from their mouths.

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Noah says, “Do you want to try?” and I say, “What is it? What are they doing?” and he says, “It’s alcohol. It is called Ajono.” We approach the circle and the people all look at me, each of them appearing more haggard than the last. Teeth are missing. Eyes are sunken. Clothes are torn and dirty. Hands are caked in age and filth. I look to my right and see another circle made of younger men, all of them sending me The Eyeball.

 

“Do you want to try it?” Noah asks again. I look down into the blue and yellow striped pot, the size of a basketball, and see a mixture that looks like water and sand and glue. It looks like chewed up sawdust mixed with spit. It looks like ground up peanuts and warm milk. An older woman stands up, pulls her straw out of her mouth and hands it to me.

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This is where the rubber meets the road. This is their culture. These are the hidden things that no one ever knows. You will not find this on a tour bus or a guided walk through a museum. This is a special moment. This is their community extending an olive branch to me. Welcome. This is they giving me a gift. The woman, mid-sixties, taps my shoulder and signals me to sit in her chair, a wooden contraption that’s low to the ground and, after I sit in it, I learn, exceptionally comfortable.

 

An old man across from me holds his straw in his hands and stares at me. Man, what have you seen? What things have you seen? Were you here when the LRA stormed in? What are those scars from? How long have you been here? What do you know?

 

I say, “Hello,” but he doesn’t respond. I look around the circle and see them all staring at me, waiting. Not pressuring me. Just waiting. Observing. Watching me take part in their tradition. There is something nearly spiritual about this. We are cultures combining, an unexpected exercise for both of us.

 

As with most of the monumentally memorable moments in my life, I never thought they would happen when I opened my eyes that morning. There is power in running towards fear. After all, can a true adventure be planned? Aren’t they, by their very nature, an exploration of the unknown?

 

I look back at the pot and the smell hits me. Rotten bread and moisture. I lift the straw to my mouth and think, Can I get Hep A from this? Hep B? I got my vaccines… Can you contract AIDS from backwash? I’m fairly certain that’s not possible. I pinch the straw between my lips and pull, pull, pull. The length of the straw is about three feet but the thick liquid comes up faster than I anticipate. It’s hot, like green tea that is just cool enough to drink without pausing. It doesn’t burn but it warms me. The taste is just bearable enough to take on, just awful enough to put my mind elsewhere while I swallow.

 

Sometimes taste is deceiving – sparkling water, curry and dark chocolate – sometimes you need a second taste to really appreciate whether you like it or not. I pull again and realize that this is not one of those things. This stuff just tastes like soggy bread with yeast. It is apparent that it will never grow on me.

 

I hear a laugh and when I look up, both circles, young and old, are watching me. A woman lets out a long cackle, which acts as a wick to the fireworks. The rest of the old people begin to laugh. They each pull their straws back into their mouths and begin to sip. Noah says, almost as a command, “Take more.”

 

I put the straw back in my mouth and pull deeply. Three, four, five, six drinks. The effect of the first shot is massaging my brain and I can feel this sludge caking my stomach like glue. The young guys begin to shout and I look over. A tall guy that would fit perfectly in the NBA yells something at me. I turn to Noah. “What is he saying?” Noah listens. “I don’t know. He’s speaking Acholi.” The NBA-guy yells something again and the woman with the baby says something to Noah, who translates to English, “He wants you to drink with him.” I say, “Should I?” and Noah tilts his head ever so slightly left to right.

 

No.

 

I don’t know why and later on I forget to ask. I stand up and admire the toothless smiles that shine up at me from these ancient villagers that have seen more tragedy than anyone on my block back home probably ever will. I stick out my fist to the oldest man and hold it. His smile grows ever wider as he pulls the straw from his mouth and bumps my fist. All the way around the circle I connect with each of them. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for this. Thank you.”

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I know, even as it’s happening, that this moment is unique and will play back through my mind for the rest of my life. I know that it will be rare to ever meet someone with a similar story who I can compare notes with. I understand how valuable this is. This experience is irreplaceable and will probably never repeat itself.

 

I turn to the eldest man, the leader, and I say to him, “May I take a photo? May I take a picture?” Noah translates and then the lady with the baby translates again and the man’s eyes shine. He nods his head yes vigorously. I pull out my iPhone, worth more money than they make in three months, and snap a photo of the brew.

 

I repeat, “Thank you. Thank you for this,” as Noah speaks over me, translating. An older woman gently claps her hands together. The NBA-guy yells again and then hoots. The mood is so good. So light. So pure. So human. There is so much awesome connectivity happening that I try to take it one step further. I don’t want it to end. I’m in The Current of All Good Things and I want to watch it all play out. My luck is ripe. I pull in a breath and look at the group of elders. And then I ask, “May I see the inside of a hut? May I look inside?”

 

Noah looks at me and then looks at the woman with the baby. The woman with the baby says something to an older woman. The older woman smiles and jumps up from out of her chair with more grace than I would anticipate possible. She says something that I don’t understand but waves her hand through the air in a follow me gesture. She leads us to her hut, signals one more time, and walks inside.

 

I watch the lady with the baby disappear. And then I watch Noah disappear. I turn my head back to the circles and the old man waves at me. I look back at the hut and realize that this woman is bringing me, accepting me, into the deepest part of her life. This is the deepest privacy this woman has. These huts are only ten feet across and everything she owns in the world exists inside.

 

The only place this woman has with more privacy is her heart.

 

I touch the soft fabric hanging in front of the door and push into the darkness and once again, out of the rain that is now turning my clothes damp. The humidity hits me first. It’s very warm – at least 10 degrees hotter in here than it is outside. It’s also dark. It’s very dark. The rain falls silent. The drape falls and the four of us stand in silence. Noah, the old woman and the lady with the baby all stare at me. To my immediate left is a small bench. At the back of the hut a small curtain hangs, blocking something. To my right another small curtain hangs, blocking something else. There must only be a foot or two maximum between the other side of the curtain and the wall. What are they hiding?

 

I look up and touch the ceiling. I want to say something profound, something that shows how thankful I am to be brought here, to be shown this, to have this shared with me, a stranger who is opposite in every way. The old woman says something, pointing to each area – the bench, the first curtain, the second curtain. The woman with the baby translates for Noah. Noah translates for me. He says, “This is her living room (the bench), this is her bedroom (first curtain), and this is her kitchen (second curtain).”

 

The only decorations are four pictures of Jesus hanging on the wall in the living room.

 

I don’t know how to feel. Sympathy? Pity? Envy? I reach out my hand and take hers. Her skin is paper-thin and she feels like an autumn leaf. Our hands are so different. Young, old. Black, white. She’s spent year doing heavy work and I’ve spent my time sitting at a desk and writing. Our fingernails tell the story of our lives. I stare into her eyes and say, “Your home is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. I will never forget this moment.”

 

Noah translates to the lady with the baby, who translates to the old woman. She gives me a tender smile and speaks a simple sentence. The lady with the baby translates back. Noah smiles and says to me, “You are not like the other mzungus.”

 

I smile.

 

Outside, the same rain that falls on Los Angeles, falls on everyone.

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Bedtime Stories: Chapter 2

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I ask Rory to step into his pajama bottoms and I say, “What is our bedtime story about tonight?” and he says, “A dragon!” and I say, “Good choice.  What color is the dragon?” and Rory says, “Red!”  I say,  “Wow.  And what color are his eyes?” and Rory says, “His eyes are pink,” and I say, “What else do we know about him?”  Rory thinks and then says, “He has wings!”  I say, “So he can fly.  Yeah.  I like that.”

Quinn says, “He has little wings!” and I say, “Little tiny wings?  On a great big body!?  That’s funny!” but Rory says, “NO!  BIG WINGS!” and then Quinn says, “YEAH!  BIG WINGS!” and I say, “Okay… here we go then…”

I say, “Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and… what was it doing?”

Quinn shouts, “FLYING!”

“Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and it was flying along, soaring through the air.  It flew over the countryside and over homes and cottages and villages and castles.  It flew over rivers and it went anywhere it wanted to go because it was a dragon.  Then, as The Red Dragon was flying over a pasture, it saw a field full of… sheep.

Rory says, “And two elephants.

Quinn says, “And two hippopotamus.”

“GREAT!  So The Red Dragon is flying over a pasture and he sees a field full of sheep and two elephants and two hippos and The Red Dragon swoops down and picks up one of the elephants in its great big claws and carries it away back to its mountain cave far above the clouds.

Rory stares at me with his mouth hanging agape.  I say, “Do you understand how big that dragon is?  It picked up an entire full grown elephant and then flew away.”

Rory says, “Bring my elephant back, DRAGON!” and I say, “We’ll get to that…”

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So the next day The Red Dragon is flying above the pasture and he sees the two hippos and he swoops down and he picks one up and he carries it back to his mountain cave far up in the sky above the clouds,” and Quinn says, “That’s my hippo!

I say, “It sure was!  And now it belongs to The Red Dragon!  I hope someone rescues them!  So… the next day, down in the pasture a couple of people are walking along, tending their sheep.  Who is walking along?” and Quinn says, “Miss Brittany!… and Nadia!… and Ben!”

SIDE NOTE: Miss Brittany is a good friend of ours, Nadia is her daughter and Ben is another friend.

I say,  “Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are out walking in their pasture looking for their missing elephant and hippo–”

“It’s my hippo,” Quinn says.

“Yeah, sorry… Uh… Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are walking in their pasture looking for the missing hippo and elephant that respectively belong each to Quinn and Rory… when suddenly… a great big shadow falls over them.  What was it?”

Rory whispers, “…..draaaaaagon……”

“Yeah.  It was.  The Red Dragon was back.  He swooped down again and he grabbed one of the sheep and–”

Quinn interrupts me.  “No!  Not a sheep!  A horse!”  I say, “But there are no horses on this farm.  We’ve already established this.  There are a ton of sheep, a couple of elephants and a pair of hippos.”  Quinn says, “They are not sheep.  They are horses.”

“Fine.  We’re replacing all the sheep with various brands of horses.  The Red Dragon swoops down and grabs a horse in its claws and lifts it into the air but that horse is Miss Brittany’s favorite horse and so Miss Brittany shouts… what did she shout?”

Rory says, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!”

I say, “That’s right.  And what is the horses name?” and Rory says, “That horse’s name is Maximus!

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“ALRIGHT!  Miss Brittany shouts, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!  Give me back Maximus!” and then she quickly gathers Nadia and Ben into one arm and she jumps into the air and she grabbs onto the horse’s tail and she gets carried away as The Red Dragon flies higher and higher and higher and the ground slowly drops away below them.  They fly higher and higher and higher–”

Rory takes up the chant, “–and higher and higher and higher and way high UP into the SKY!  ABOVE THE CLOUDS!”

“You got it.  The Red Dragon is taking them back to his cave high up on the mountain above the clouds.  That’s the plan anyway.  But Miss Brittany keeps shouting, “Let go, Dragon!  Let go, Dragon!” and so finally The Red Dragon does.  He opens up his claws and let’s Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben and Maximus fall.  They all plummet through the air, falling faster and faster and faster, head over feet and above them all they can hear is the booming voice of The Red Dragon laughing and laughing and laughing– BUT THEN!”

Quinn gasps.

“Another dragon… Quinn, what color is this dragon?” and Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and I say, “Any color you want,” and she says, “Oh, ok.  PURPLE!” and I say, “BUT THEN!  A GREAT BIG PURPLE DRAGON SWOOPS IN OUT OF NOWHERE and saves them.  He picks them up in his claws and places them on his back and says, “What are you doing here?” and Miss Brittany says, “The Red Dragon stole my friend’s elephant and hippo–”

Quinn says, “Oh yeah!  My hippo!”

“–and we’re trying to get them back.”  The Purple Dragon says, “I know where The Red Dragon lives and I can take you there,” and so he flies and flies and flies higher and higher and higher into the sky and above the clouds and to the mountain cave where The Red Dragon lived.”

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Rory says, “Is it a red house?” and I say, “But of course.  The Purple Dragon lands on the edge of the cliff where The Red Dragon’s Red House is attached and The Purple Dragon says, “I’m sorry friends, but I can go no further because I am too big to get through the door.”  You see, The Purple Dragon was enormous.  He was easily two or three times the size of The Red Dragon.  I mean, he was crazy big so he tells Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben that he’ll just stand outside and keep guard while they go in to find their missing elephant and hippo.  So, they leave Maximus sitting outside as they turn and enter The Red House.  They open the door and you know what they see?”

Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and Rory says, “What?” and I say, “It’s a big cave that stretches on and on and on and gets darker and darker and darker.  But far away they can hear their elephant and their hippo.  What does an elephant say?”

The kids each make elephant noises.  Quinn’s kind of sounds like a crying monkey.  Rory’s sounds like a donkey that’s been kicked in the testicles.

“Miss Brittany leads the way into the darkness until…… they can’t see anything anymore….. now, Rory, Quinn… both of you shut your eyes.”  Both of the children do so.  “Do you see that?  That’s what it looks like in the cave.  It’s so dark they can’t see anything… so they just follow the noises of their beloved animals on and on and– WAIT!  What’s that?

Quinn says, “WHAT!?” and I say, “THERE!  In the distance!  A light!  They rush onward to the light and it gets bigger and brighter and bigger and brighter and they find…. what is it?”

Quinn says, “Baby Dragons……..”

“Yeah… well, sort of.  They find a great big glowing egg that’s as big as our house.  A dragon egg!  It’s glowing and it looks like a lightbulb but when they touch it they find that it isn’t hot.  THERE!  Behind the egg!  It’s the elephant and the hippo!  They found them!”

Quinn says, “YAY!” and Rory is completely asleep now because I think he forgot to open his eyes.

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“Miss Brittany hops on the back of the elephant and Nadia and Ben both jump on the back of the hippo and then BOOOOM!  The giant glowing egg cracks open and then EGG-SPLODES into a zillion little pieces that fly everywhere and they hit Brittany and Nadia and Ben but they’re okay but out of the giant egg crawls…”

Quinn says, “A baby dragon….”

And I say, “TWO baby dragons.  They’re twins.  Just like you and Rory.  So the Little Girl Baby Dragon chases the elephant and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And the Little Boy Baby Dragon chases the hippo and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And Brittany kicks her heels into the sides of her elephant and she shouts, “Let’s ride!” and she disappears into the darkness with the Baby Dragons right after her.  Now remember, these are baby dragons but they’re very, very, very big!  Their egg was the size of our house so these baby dragons could eat a whole elephant!  Miss Brittany rides through the darkness and on her neck she can feel hot breath chasing just behind her and Nadia and Ben ride through the darkness and they can feel hot breath just behind them and everyone can hear the chomp-chomp-chomp getting closer and closer and closer and then in the distance they can see the light!  They can see the exit!  They race towards it and they burst into the sunlight but The Purple Dragon isn’t there to let them down from the mountain cliff!  The Purple Dragon is up in the sky wrestling and fighting with that naughty Red Dragon!  The Baby Dragons run out of the cave – chomp-chomp-chomp – and our friends are all trapped!  CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP!”

Quinn says, “Daddy, stop chomping on my ear,” and I say, “Oh.  Sorry.  Okay.”

“The Purple Dragon says, “JUMP!  JUMP AND I’LL CATCH YOU!  TRUST ME!” and so Miss Brittany and her elephant and Nadia and Ben and their hippo and Maximus all run towards the edge of the cliff and they fall and fall and fall and fall and fall and The Purple Dragon tries to break free from the much smaller but still very scrappy Red Dragon but can’t!  Our friends continue to fall, end over end, head over feet, over and over and over again.  They break through the cloud cover and the ground is getting closer and closer and closer!  The houses and the castles and the roofs are getting bigger and bigger and The Purple Dragon is still wrestling with The Red Dragon.  The Red Dragon laughs, “HAHAHAH!  HAHAHAHAH!  AHHAHAHAHAHAH!” and then, with a loud CRASH everyone smashes into the ground and dust and dirt flies everywhere and the earth cracks and there is nothing but silence.”

Quinn stares at me.

“The Purple Dragon and The Red Dragon stop wrestling and they just float in the air and stare downwards and The Red Dragon says, “Did they die?” and The Purple Dragon says, “That was a long fall…” and down on Earth… Brittany’s eyes slowly open… and slowly…. slowly…. everyone stands up.  You see, everyone had bits of dragon egg stuck to them from when the egg exploded… and everyone knows that as long as you hang onto a piece of a dragon egg, you can’t die.”

Quinn says, “Ohhhhhhh…”

I conclude, “That night, all of our friends had The Purple Dragon over for dinner and, Quinn, do you know what they ate?”

Quinn says, “They ate eggs.”

And I say, “That’s right.”

 

The End.

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When Wives Go Wild

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There’s this old episode of The Twilight Zone where these two neighbors are super chummy with each other at a dinner party.  One guy says to the other that he just had a bomb shelter put in and the neighbor chuckles to himself and pokes fun at the homeowner; says he’s far too over prepared.  The gag in the episode, of course, is that the warning sirens come on moments later and suddenly the neighbor wants into the bomb shelter.  Sadly, there isn’t nearly enough food for both families so the guy that owns the place locks his guest out.  Well, the neighbor, not accepting death so nobly, decides that if he can’t be saved, no one will.  The man turns into an animal and just begins ravaging this door.  He’s going at it with an axe, he’s screaming, he’s losing his mind, his eyes wide in terror and rage.

This is no longer a friendly neighbor.  This is primal man.  Borderline animal.

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The episode ends when the door is finally kicked in and the two men are about to kill each other when the sirens go off and the, “This is only a warning” recording comes on.

Awkward. Situation. For. Sure.

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The men revert back to their civilized states, nod to one another and then sort of shift slowly towards the door as standard life has been restored.  BUT… it raises the question, what sort of animals are we?  What sort of beasts are lurking just under the surface?  Just behind the veil of security, the illusion of law, the commitment of marriage?

What I mean is this…

My wife left tonight.  Not left me, thank goodness, but left to head out with The Ladies.  She and three friends have gone to watch a Roller Derby Tournament.  Yes, you read that correctly.  That’s what type of woman I’m married to.  In her free time she goes to watch other women get beat up.  She’s like Patricia Bateman but in a good way.

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So I’m dealing with one of these circumstances where I’m on solo dad duty and everything moves sort of slowly but we get it done and we cycle the kids through the dishwasher and into the pajama machine and then tuck them away in the sock drawer and everyone is happy but then… the house is quiet… and there are no adults… and so I look around and try to decide what to do…

What to do…

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And the very first thing that comes to my mind, THE VERY FIRST THING, is to make myself a bean burrito at 9pm.  NINE PEE-EM!  I suddenly have a flashback of myself standing in a dimly lit dorm room ten years ago chasing a six pack and three unfiltered cigarettes down my throat with a can of cold refried beans; a diet my dog wouldn’t even touch…. if my dog were alive… which she isn’t… please see last blog…

Now, contrary to popular belief, I AM 30-something and so I actually DO try to watch what I eat from time to time and especially when I eat it.  Gone are the days of chowing down on Taco Bell at midnight.  I’m an adult.  I’m married.  I have responsibilities… and so I pick up my phone and I text The Guys.  I text the two gentlemen whose wives are currently out with my wife watching women shove elbows into each other’s guts and faces like a modern day Coliseum on skates.  I hear Shang Tsung shout, “FINISH HIM!” and then some roller derby enthusiast rips off her skate and crushes her opponents skull with it.  Blood spatters all over the ground and the audience golf claps gently.

Fatality

The first guy, we’ll call him Mickey, says, “I’m drinking.  I’m drunk.  I’m drinking drunk.  I’ve had five drinks.  I’m alone.  I’m drinking alone… and bisquits and gravy sounds amazing.  AMAZING.  I wish I had bisquits and gravy.  I only have two week old lasagna.”

I say, “Don’t do it, Mickey.  It’s too late and it’s too old.  Just stay away.”  He says, “I’ll be fine.  I’ll microwave it.  Heat kills bacteria,” and I say, “I’m not sure… if… that’s… trooooo…”

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ABOVE: This is what all microwaves look like in my imagination.  Just total last resort.

In another text thread I hit up the other guy.  We’ll call him Andre (just because I don’t know any Andre’s and so never get to tell stories about them).  I say, “Whatchyoo up to tonight?” and he says, “I just finished eating a Kung Pao 3 Musketeer,” and I say, “Is that one thing or two?  Is that like… an American-Asian candy bar?” and he says, “It’s just one thing.  It’s Kung Pao with chicken, beef and shrimp,” and I find that I’m thinking about that bean burrito again.  I’ve got some salsa in the fridge.  I’ve got some sour cream I bought for some kind of potato the other day… do we have tortillas?  Screw it… I’d eat it on bread if necessary… even just mixing it all up like a stew doesn’t sound terrible

Andre says, “This is what happens when girls aren’t around… just regret…”

I text him back and I say, “We’re never truly men.  We hit college and that’s full maturity for us – for every man.  Everything beyond college is just a mask.  Some guys are better at wearing it but it’s all just a chore to be civilized.  As soon as our wives leave, we immediately revert (just like the guy from The Twilight Zone).  It’s just masturbation and sadness and nachos, in that specific order.

He laughs but, as I’m opening up a can of refried beans at 11pm I catch myself in the mirror and I realize that if I ever lose my wife, I am totally and completely doomed.

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ABOVE: If she leaves me, everything in my life will immediately go wrong.  I am certain of this.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

To my wife, who I know will read this because you read all of the garbage I write, good or bad; thank you for making sure I’m not a slovenly maniac with an axe trying to chop down my neighbor’s door.  Thank you for making sure I don’t subsist on refried beans and Telemundo alone.

Please, please, please, go crush skulls.  Please, please, please, go absolutely wild.  Please, please, please, always come back to me.

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ABOVE: If this town isn’t big enough for the both of us, I don’t wanna live here.

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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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