Monday, January 12, 2015

Say a Pray for the Pretender



I've been to some crazy places over the past year; the deserts of Egypt, the sweltering humidity of South America, incredibly remote corners of the Australian outback, and Houston.

Ok, that last place while not as exotic as the spots, but they all have one very important thing in common with the others, people.  Of course, in Houston it's LOTS of people.  Not so much in South America, and virtually desolate in Australia.  Still, there are people there.  Don't think that's amazing?  Well, let me put it into perspective for you.

I know where I came from.  I was born in a tiny, culturally stove-piped, town in South Mississippi.  I know how I got to where I am now.  I know where I went to college, why I took my first big boy job, how I transferred from place to place, and how I ended up in Southeast Texas.  My journey is unique to me.  If I really wanted to bore someone to death I could break down each decision point that led me to where I am.  Most likely, the poor person forced to listen to this story would agree with some decisions I've made, but still disagree with others.  It's those points of disagreement that are really interesting.  You see, if by chance we were born in the same place, with the same upbringing, skills, talents, and opportunities, those decision points are where their life story would veer off of the path I've taken, leading them to unknown and unforeseen outcomes.

That's what is so amazing when you consider all of the people you meet on a daily basis, no matter where you meet them.  They have a story that started in some similarly boring fashion and the compounding debt of the decisions they make on a daily basis brought them, for better or worse, to a place where your paths intersected.  Boring so far?  Give me a second, I'm getting there.

Let's take this phenomenon and put it in the back of our minds for now.

We live in an amazing time.  Travel is easy and relatively inexpensive.  Technology is moving faster than you can imagine, and communication with even the most remote outposts on this planet is seamless.  The stage is set for humankind to make amazing breakthroughs in medicine, music, business, thought, and even religion.  But do we?  Do you?  When was the last time you were innovative and at the forefront of your field?  What's holding you back? I can almost see your shoulders shrug....

Something is going to happen to you.  It happened to me, and if you're lucky it will happen to you too.  Somewhere along the way in your life you're going to begin to ask very hard questions with even harder answers.  You're going to realize that life is fleeting.  It doesn't seem like it right now, but once those calendar pages begin flying off with increasing speed and decreasing self-worth, you'll recognize it.  So what happens first?  Panic.  You'll probably look at your spouse, your job, where you live, what you drive, what you wear, and how you spend your time.  You'll try and measure these things to see if they're worthy of how you spend the fleeting time you've been given on this earth.

You know, when your mom and I got married people told us "if you can make it past 5 years, you'll make it" or " most marriages fail at the ten year point."  Ominous, right?  Staring down an expiration date on a healthy marriage is not a sane way to exist either.  I have a different theory though.  I think most marriages begin failing when one or more of the participants reach this existential crisis in their life and think that somehow the other person is responsible for their unsure nature, guilt, pain, or fear they have over where their life is currently or how it will unfold.  They never make the connection that the key may just lie in their own mind and heart.

So let's take a left turn.  Why do people live in Louisiana?  Or Calgary?  I'm not asking why people live there now.  I'm asking why on God's green earth did settlers travel for thousands of miles, reach a god awful swamp teaming with disease, bugs, alligators, and suppressing heat and suddenly conclude that their journey was complete.  Or in Calgary, how does -30 Celsius and ten feet of seem like somewhere fit for human beings?

The really important question is not why did they stop, but why did they ever leave?  What possessed these people to pack their belongings into a wagon and ride off into the great unknown?  Despotism? Cruelty?  Land?  Riches?

What if that's the childish answer?  What if what led them to take these incredible leaps was something much deeper.  They didn't have the luxuries of distraction that we have today.  No water bill kept them on the hook to go, day after day, to that job that they hate.  No silly reality shows to keep their minds idle long enough to waste the day away.  What if they had enough time to consider that they only had one shot?  What if the fear that you feel when that thought creeps in is the same fear that led them to venture out into the unknown?  Were they fulfilled when they got there?  Who knows?  But, somewhere along the way they accomplished great things.  They reached new lands and experienced real things.

So how do their adventures apply to you? Well, they sought something.  Of course, they were lucky in that there was a great unknown out there for them to explore, and it was a literal place.  I'm not recommending that you seek out unexplored lands, filled with dangerous and exotic people.  But when the time comes; when you begin to panic over your existence; when you start to inventory the things you've collected to find your station, then I want you to seek.  Seek out who you really are, where you are, what you know, what your fears are, and what you want your mark to be.

 Do not go gentle into that good night….especially not in your damn thirties! 

Seek to reinvent yourself.  Don’t be convinced that you’re only talent is that thing you’ve always done.

Seek to master a skill, even if it is something no one else cares about but you. 

Seek to learn traditional skills, the ones your great grandparents used to survive. 

Seek out knowledge.  Read.  Don’t get stuck on one book.  Read them all.

Seek to create.  I don’t care if it’s a poem, a song, a shirt, a candle, a piece of furniture, or a booger collection.  Make something.  Learn for yourself how hard it is to start with nothing and care for something enough to give it value.

Seek out new relationships.  Meet and love lots of people.  What’s the point in discovering new people to hate?

Seek the world.  Travel.  Even if it’s only to the next town over, get away from what you know and see what’s out there.






Friday, May 24, 2013

Comeuppance Bathed in Ranch Dressing

I trust me.  I've met me.  Yep, myself and I have spent lots of valuable time together.  You can learn a lot about a person by being them.  I know what I'm good at, and what I'm thinking.  I know when I've reached my limit, and when I'm just getting warmed up.  That level of comfort with my own capabilities usually leads me to prefer my method of doing things.  Some would call me a control freak. I would call it......ok fine, I'm a control freak.  I don't do it out of some dark narcissistic place, or because I fear others' success.  I'm not sure why I do it.  I guess I'm just willing and almost craving to accept both the credit and the blame for everything I do.  That's much less scary to me than not having had a hand in my own doings.

By asking me to join you on a road trip, ostensibly you've asked me to drive you somewhere.  By planning a cookout, you've challenged my ability to grill the world's best burger.  Don't even get me started on the subject of board games.  I'll be rolling the die for our team, thank you very much.

There are many things in your life to control, if you really consider all of the decisions you make and behaviors you exhibit on a daily basis.  It's a bit overwhelming, actually.  That's probably what leads people to agoraphobia.  By trapping themselves away, they are more capable of controlling the limited amount of stimuli to which they expose themselves.  I wouldn't consider myself to be anywhere near that extreme of a case, but if you see me at wal-mart buying blackout blinds for the windows and mason jars to pee in, do me a favor and get in contact with a member of my immediate family.

And just when you think you've got your little master plan worked out, when all the pieces are in place, and when the storyline finally makes complete sense, that's when someone drops a bomb on you.  For me, things were going well.  I had a new career, a beautiful new wife, and a neat little shotgun cottage in a seaside town to call my own.  The world was my oyster.  Things were going great at work and newlywed bliss was, well, blissful.  Then I heard something so slight, almost a passing thought, that would rip any semblance of control from my grip.  One night, while I stood watch on the Coast Guard Cutter Blackberry, Amanda called so we could talk about our day.  We joked, planned the coming weekend, and finally, she gave me a shopping list of things to pick up on the way home from watch.

Shopping List:

Diet Coke
Cereal
Pregnancy test
Rice
Chips

Wait.  "What the hell was that third thing, again?"

That's right, boys.  Six months into my newly formed marriage, Amanda became pregnant with Jackson.

Fear crept in.  Cold sweats and stomach knots.  The whole shooting match.

Youthful arrogance is the world's fiercest paper army.  The first beat of the real life's war drum dashes your might and leaves you with the empty realization that you are, in fact, a pompous fool whose age had outgrown his maturity.


 Weeks crept by.  While trying to explain relativity Albert Einstein stated:

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." 
 

That's almost perfect.  My version goes like this:  "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour.  Overreact to every sensation, movement, and noticeable step of fetal maturation over a gruel period of nine months, with absolutely no ability to sooth or fix anything, should something go terribly wrong, and time will move slowly enough for you to count the cricket farts at dusk.  THAT'S relativity, and it's possibly God's cruelest joke on humanity."

Sure, it's a bit wordy and graphic (insectually speaking), but entirely accurate.


All the same, the mental anguish I was experiencing over my lack of control of pregnancy would soon manifest itself into one of the purest imaginable pictures of comeuppance.

About four months into the pregnancy the Coast Guard sent me to "A" school.  For eight weeks I would live away from my pregnant wife and spend my days learning my new job, in a classroom setting.  I met a friend at "A" school named Michelle.  Upon hearing that my wife was pregnant, Michelle offered to switch watches with me so that I could go home every weekend to spend time with my wife.  This was a kindness I'll never forget.  Every Friday, I would load my little Saturn sedan up and drive three hours back to North Carolina.  Every time I arrived, I knew what was in store for me.  Amanda would greet me at the front door like I'd been gone for ages.  The type of romance usually reserved for newlyweds, and since that's exactly what we were, we lived the stereotype.

The next day, we'd drive twenty minutes to Wilmington with three tasks to accomplish.

Task 1:  We'd hit a few different baby stores and purchase a few new blue items for our precious baby boy.

Task 2:  We'd go see a movie.  The theaters were usually kept pretty cold, so this was a nice break from the North Carolina summer's heat.

Task 3:  Hooter's.

Amanda loves the Hooter's restaurant chain.  The lure of fried pickle perfection and spicy buffalo sauce allowed her conscious to overlook the fact that we were being served them in a self-esteem wholesale warehouse spurned on by a myriad of missed daddy-hugs.  When your baby wants wings, you give her wings.

So Saturday after Saturday we performed our little ritual and Amanda couldn't have been happier.  This all changed on about my fourth weekend home.  Somehow, while I was gone for the week, Amanda's cute little baby bump had shifted to what resembled a basketball smuggled in her shirt.  No longer did she greet me gleefully at the door.  Instead, I knocked on the door and through the window I noticed a very different reaction.  She looked at the door, rolled her eyes, took a deep breath, and fist fought with gravity to get to the standing position.  I almost passed out.  

Everything went great the next day, until we pulled into the Hooter's parking lot.  There I sat, staring at my very pregnant wife.  Sure, the look on her face was a brand of voracious anticipation usually reserved for children on Christmas morning, as dreams of pickles scorched in vegetable fat danced in her head.  The look on my face was the realization of what was about to happen.

Sure enough, as I seemingly dragged my poor pregnant wife into Hooter's to scope community college dropouts in shorts the size of band-aids, "Amber's" and "Kourtney's" (spelled with a K so you know she's spunky) perky smiles turned into scumbag scorn.  I spent the next forty five minutes with my head staring straight down to avoid eye contact.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to stand up and say "Look, this wasn't my idea!  She loves it here.  Her heart goes pitter patter for wing sauce.  For God's sake she's got sauce up to her elbows and a smile a mile wide!  I'm not the kind of guy who drags his pregnant wife to Hooter's to scope out 19 year olds.

That's when I realized that she actually DID have sauce up to her elbows, and most importantly, a smile a MILE wide.  She was so happy.  I slowly lifted my head.  This was not an occasion for shame.  I did it.  I contributed.  This was my role.  I couldn't do anything about the stuff that really mattered.  I couldn't pinpoint the cause of her phantom pains.  I couldn't MAKE the baby safe.  I couldn't magically fix her placenta previa (look it up).


But I could do this.  I could follow her around baby consignment shops looking at 6,435 different designs for baby bedding.  I could drive home every weekend.  And, I could definitely fight off the cut eyes and hateful snickers of Hooter's girls so that my sweetheart could drown her uncomfortable condition in a bath of wing sauce and ranch dressing.

Now that I think about it, I really hope Kourtney didn't spit in my food.



P.S.  I know I was a little rough on the Hooter's girls.  It's all in good fun.  I'm sure they're actually nice, well-meaning ladies. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The #1 Rated Blog in Las Vegas

It had to be perfect.  There was very little room for mistakes or ambiguity.  If I was going to nail this anniversary vacation, giving Amanda a truly memorable trip and thereby securing my status as "thoughtful," then every contingency must be considered.  Our decennial anniversary deserved nothing less.  Only the cream of the crop of leisurely activities would make the cut.  This would take skill.  This would take commitment.  Most importantly, this would take the patience of digging through a myriad of mostly valueless results when the words "vacation Las Vegas" were typed in the google search bar.

No matter how many Yelp or Tripadvisor reviews you read, at some point you're going to have to make a decision.  There's too much to see, too much to read, and far too many options.  To stay on the strip or not stay on the strip.   Which shows do we see?  Where do we eat?  What's worth spending our precious and limited time?

You can read all you want.  You can make lists of pros and cons.  Go ahead, build up your tower of pre-conceived notions.  It doesn't matter.  Once our plane landed, the real education on Las Vegas and our Anniversary vacation EXTRAVAGANZA began.

Here's what we learned:


1.  Little League

It doesn't matter what you do, or how well you do it.  In Las Vegas, everyone gets a trophy.  From the moment your step off of the plane, you are bombarded with advertisements.  The only thing remarkable about advertising in the Las Vegas is the massive amount of money spent on one basic concept.  Be it a show, a restaurant, a resort, or a used underwear store, they're all #1.  I'm not saying that they value their product, and it's many mentionable qualities.  No.  Those don't matter.  The only thing that matters is that someone, somewhere, listed them as #1 at what they do.

Advertising executives in Las Vegas must be collectively stroked out by the desert sun, or too enamored with the potential of free drinks at the penny slots, to realize that at some point as potential customer may wonder what it is they're selling.  But they can't be bothered with that.  They show up Monday morning, splatter the heading that there product was listed #1 by some random blogger or daily rag, then head back to the golf course for the back nine.  It's good work if you can get it.


2.  Beware the Good Deal

We needed a car.  Parts of our vacation would include trips out to Red Rock Canyon and the Grand Canyon.  That's a bit of a haul on rollerskates, so a rental was needed.  Now, I rent cars often.  I usually rent from one of the bigger chains because they have offices near my house, but that simply wasn't an option in Vegas.  My jaw draped perilously close to the floor when I saw the going rate for rental cars in Vegas.  I think they confused rent with purchase.

However, in the long list of available rentals, two companies listed near the bottom certainly captured my attention with their commitment to competitive pricing.  But, it made no sense.  Why were two companies so much cheaper than the rest.  Were they fly-by-night operations?  Did "full-size" really mean "horse drawn carriage?"  If so, I'd need new boots.

But still, I booked it.

As we approached the sales counter, my heart sank into my stomach.  Every other rental company visible in the rental center zoomed customers through the check-in process and got them quickly on their way.  All the while, "cheap company A" had a line a mile long, the head of which consisted of employees seemingly arguing with would be customers and trying to convince them to purchase their "guaranteed fuel program" like something out of a bad timeshare pitch.

I knew it.  This would be painful.

When our turn arrived, I approached the counter, gave the employee my name and reservation number, and awaited my paperwork.  The deal I agreed to, through a third party website, was for $77, not including insurance.  The employee confirmed my selection, entered the info on my driver's license, and returned with a price of $207, and change.  As soon as the price left her lips, I quickly snapped, "no."  Apparently, that's the magic word because she immediately tried to renegotiate by stuttering, "uhh, how about $130?".  I informed her that this too was an errant price and that I refused to pay it.  I showed her the agreement on my handy dandy smart phone, which was listed as follows:

Base Rate - $47.85
Tax and Fees - $29.68
__________________
Total Price - $77.53


Upon seeing this, she informed me that I would need to add all three of those figures together to get the real price.  This when the reigns on "snarky Jamey" could be held no longer.  Right there at the counter, two lessons were given.  First we discussed the meaning and usage of the word "Total" in the English language.  Next, I made her add the base rate to the tax and fees rate, and even instructed her how to carry the one, a la first grade arithmetic.

This brazen act led to a silent solidarity among fellow screwed over customers, as smiles were shared and heads were collectively nodded in approval.  No longer would we stand for this injustice.  No longer would additional fees and fuel plans balloon our prices beyond budgetary constraints.  This is America, damnit!  We're not going to allow you to terrorize our vacations by stealing manna from our Vegas buffet mouths!

Just before we were able to don matching kilts, paint our faces, and start war chants, the manager arrived at the desk and confirmed my low, low price.  Whew, that was close.  He had no idea how close he was revolution.  I had the mob on my side.  Crisis averted.  And even though the rental employee smiled at me through her teeth, I could tell she was still terribly confused by addition.


3.  "Oh, it's just right there"

Here's a Vegas vacation Jamey pro tip:  pack rollerblades.  Even though they seem to be adjoining, everything in Vegas is extremely spread out.  Distance is simply a mirage.


4.  Jose Canseco in a push-up bra

I just think I'm savvy.  In reality, my naivety is apparently limitless.  I would never have thought that adult aged human being would consider the Vegas strip, at midnight (or any time for that matter), as an appropriate place to bring their children.  Walking the sidewalk of the Vegas strip is like having an AOL email account in the late nineties.  No matter why you're there, eventually you're going to get spammed by porn peddlers.

This usually comes in the form of people wearing shirts with the words "Girls, Girls, Girls"across the back, handing out flyers for free cover charge to the nearest strip establishment.  These flyers resemble business cards seemingly designed by a ruthless hoard of 13 year old boys.  They don't waste time with helpful information.  It's just a picture of a nude, or at best scantily clad, twenty year old and an address.  By the end of the night, the sidewalk is littered with these cards.

And there, as parents struggle to negotiate the crowded sidewalks and bright lights, they can't be bothered with checking on the actions of their cute little rugrats.  This usually leads to the kids picking these cards up and trading them around like the world's most inappropriate baseball card.  Amanda and I watched in horror as a young couple walked away from their four year old little boy, who stopped in the middle of a busy intersection to kneel down and pick up booby cards...in Vegas....at night.....in a crowd of hundreds.  Sometimes you wish child services responded to some sort of bat signal.


5.  Bambi

Time in Vegas isn't really measured in hours.  That's far too complicated.  Rather, it's measured in motif.  The morning hours are dominated by hangover shuffles, heels-in-hand walks of shame, and bathing suits.  The afternoon is dominated by those seeking to acquire show tickets in their comfy shoes and sunglasses.  But nighttime.  Oh nighttime.  That's when the hair gel, hooker heels, teeny skirts, and shiny shirts come out to play.  We enjoyed this time of day the most.  That's when the people watching aspects of Vegas really kick it into high gear.  On our final night in town, we decided to run out to a nearby restaurant for a nice meal before seeing Cirque Du Soleil.    As our weary feet knowingly carried us through yet another stale and smokey casino, a bustling group of young twenty-somethings burst out in front of us.  They couldn't be bothered with the fact that they'd nearly trampled us to death.  No, no.  They were far too important and well dressed for such a selfless notion.

The group dynamics were as follows:  Two single girls, complete with skanky dresses and blown out hair.  One single guy with shiny shoes, a shiny tan, and an even shinier shirt.  Finally, the ring leaders.  The power couple at the center of this obnoxious orbit were straight out of central casting for Jersey Shore.  The guy was a brand of confident rarely seen in the human race, completely devoid of insecurities.  His best girl was a sight to behold.  She was about 5'5", 84 lbs, in a shiny leopard pattern dress like something out of that terrible toddlers and tiaras show.  Her shoes were more stilts than heels.  I began to wonder if she might be a Cirque performer.

Just as my disillusionment with the human race reached it's climax a cleansing and powerful wind of humility swept across the group.  In the course of their young and invincible strut through the casino, stilt girl failed to consider that the equation of ridiculous shoes + marble floor would most likely result in tragedy.  Time slowed as her ankles resembled those of a baby deer struggling to take it's first steps.  It took her a GOOD second and a half to complete her fall.  Captain slick hair, try as he might, was unable to rescue his toothpick with bangs from her descent.  In the struggle, they ended up collectively collapsing in the middle of the crowded casino.  For that moment, the glitz and fake glamour of Vegas revealed itself as lacking the stability and foundation of common sense.  This was Vegas in a nutshell.  


Don't let this blog fool you.  It was an amazing vacation.  We had a blast.  We spent time together....alone.  We made each other laugh.  We pushed each other to hike the freaking Grand Canyon.  And we even massaged each others calves the next day as the limitations of ibuprofen became all too obvious.  It wasn't perfect, but we were.  We committed ourselves to enjoying our time away.  We committed to having long, in depth conversations about grown up topics.  And mostly, we committed ourselves to go with the flow, even if it involved a math lesson or two.






Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dress to Impress....Then Shut Up

I'm terrible at first impressions.  To be honest, I'm not that great at second impressions either.  I'm usually way too wrapped up in my own brain/psychosis, worried about how I will be perceived, to realize that I'm absolutely blowing it by running off at the mouth.  Somehow my "please God, LIKE ME" insecurities usually just come off as snarky.

Lesson 1:  Know your audience!

I've never forgotten my first rodeo.  I don't mean that as a figure of speech.  I am literally referring to my first trip to a God's honest, pole-bending, bull-riding rodeo.  The weird thing is that I grew up a stone's throw from the Purvis fairgrounds, where rodeos were held on quite the frequent occasion.  But since I was not well versed in the way of the cow, or all that interested, I never attended one.  That was until puberty hit and I realized that there might be girls there.  One problem.  I didn't have a scene.  That is to say that I really didn't fit into one specific category.  Even if I did, cowpoke would have been pretty damn far down the list.  Like you'd need a pair of binoculars to see it, far.  Things like ninja, or scuba diver, or neurologist would have been MUCH further up the list than cowpoke, if that helps to put it into perspective.

Still, when my friend suggested to me that we should go to the Friday night rodeo and that girls would surely be in attendance, I jumped at the opportunity to go.  I didn't know what I was really going to, but I was sure I'd figure it out once I got there.  Just before leaving school that Friday my friend warns, "hey man, don't forget, wear something nice.  Don't come out there in a t-shirt and flip flops."

Now, this is possibly the ONLY, and I mean ONLY instance where I would have benefited from paying attention to the T.V. when one of those commercials for the local western wear store flashed by during my break from Star Trek TNG.  Only then would I have seen that there is a certain "dress" attire that comes along with going to this type of event.  One should wear a brightly colored and rigorously starched shirt.  The kind of thing you'd find in your average Garth Brooks video.  This shirt should be tucked into a pair of jeans so tight that one would imagine them shown on posters for what not to wear on the walls of urology school.  Apparently, only the fastening strength of a comically sized belt buckle was appropriate to ensure that the aforementioned pants were adequately supported.  However, most of these buckles usually contained some type of writing that would suggest that they were earned by merit of some previous cowpoke accomplishment.  Since my CV was a tad light in the cowpoke accomplishment section, I would have to seek another route.  Finally, a well worn pair of work/cowboy boots were needed to ensure that one could safely traverse the perils of your standard county fairgrounds.

However, since I'd lacked the attention to noticed the above clothing, I went with the following:

(1) Bright white pair of Nike running shoes
(1) Pair of fashionable ankle socks
(1) Pair of Duck Head brand vividly pastel plaid shorts (pleated for comfort)
(1) Bright yellow Duck Head brand polo shirt (tucked)

I pulled up to the fairgrounds and threw my truck in park.  The excitement of tonight's festivities nearly overcame me as my senses were teased by the bright lights, sea of fellow rodeo-ites, and the curious smell of animal feces.  This was surely a scene set for romance.

My feelings of excitement were quickly dashed as my compatriot's voice cut through the air, "What in the hell are you wearing?"

His words cut through my idiocy and I crashed back down to the reality that my motif of Easter-preppy might not fit this crowd.  Blood rushed to my face.  My stomach instantly began to ache.  His words rang truer as I noticed my Nikes were beginning to slightly sink into the mud of the fairgrounds, their pearly white soles tainted by more and more brown stains.  Surely, this would result in one heck of a lecture from my OCD father as he would make me use warm soapy water and a toothbrush to return them to their store bought condition.

Needless to say, many folks that evening had a fun, raucous time watching the harrowing events of the rodeo.  I, however, was not one of those people.  No, I was the preppy fruitcake sitting alone at the end of the bleachers as cowboy after cowboy stared, spit their chaw, shook their head in disgust, and muttered their visually guided perceptions of my sexuality.

I didn't know my crowd.  I didn't take into account that I might be better suited to dress for the occasion.  You would think I would've learned my lesson.

Lesson 2: Go easy on the smart mouth

My first instinct, especially when I'm nervous, has always been to crack a joke.  You know, cut the tension.  The problem is, if the people you're around just met you, then they might not see your comments as a joke.

My first time meeting Amanda's family was stressful, to say the least.  There was no easing me into the family.  After a few weeks of dating, she brought me home from college for the weekend.  It was sure to be a fun time as not only would I be meeting her parents for the first time, but also both of her older brothers.  No worries.  I'm usually good with moms.  I'd just be nice, courteous, and mind my table manners.  Swallow before talking, try not to choke, and compliment the food.  I can do this.

Memories of the rodeo came flashing through my head as we set down to dinner.  For it was at this time where I learned that her dad was a prior dairy farmer with a PHD in Animal Science.  Both brothers were raised on the farm, and the youngest held a Masters in Animal Science.  I quickly looked down to make sure that I was plaid free.  Whew, no worries there.  Was khaki too preppy?  Forget it.  Just listen and be nice.  If the sweet and unfairly attractive blonde across the table likes you, then surely there must be something you can do to make friends with her family.

That's when the conversation at the table shifted to someone the father and sons knew who had recently sold a horse for an exorbitant amount of money.  Ribbons of thought shot through the inner recesses of the smarty pants portion of my brain.  Before I knew it, a perfectly crafted witty retort exploded from my mouth.

"Did you say (insert insane dollar amount)?  That's crazy.  What would you say a horse does that would make it worth that amount of money?  It would have to look REALLY handsome with that saddle on, right?"
 
*crickets*

*sternly blank stares*

*more crickets*

Blood once again rushed to my face.  I wanted to crawl under the table as her father and siblings outlined to me the purpose of this type horse and it's very real value in very matter of fact tones.  My joke BOMBED.  Like a fart-in-church level bombing.  That first impression was shot.  They either didn't understand or didn't appreciate that I was simply trying to make an endearing joke.

Remember how I said earlier that I wasn't very good as second impressions either?

Fast forward a couple of months to my first trip to her family's cabin at the Neshoba County fairgrounds.  I've written about the fair before.  It's a week of baking in the hot Mississippi sun, watching horse races, eating food that isn't very good for you, and sharing a 300 square foot cabin with 25 other attendees.

At first, everything was going quite well.  I seemed to be getting along with her extended family, as everyone settled in for some nice conversation, following dinner.  I slyly slipped away to the upstairs bathroom to see a man about a horse.

As I flushed the toilet I failed to notice something.  I never noticed that the water wasn't running.  This reality came crashing down as the toggle switch to the toilet clunked down, without bringing forth one drop of water.

Blood rushed to my face.  Here I am with my pants around my ankles, trapped in the bathroom, in no condition for family pleasantries, and only one way out; through a herd of my new girlfriend's family members.  For what seemed like hours I just sat there listening to my own heartbeat as it became heavier and heavier.  It seemed as if my entire body jolted with every pulse.  Finally, I heard someone coming up the steps.  "Dear Lord, please let it be Amanda!"  I quietly call out:

Me:  Umm...Amanda?

Voice:  No, it's David (Amanda's brother)

Me: (inner-monologue)  $#!%

David:  You okay in there?

Me:  Can you get Amanda?

David: I guess

Amanda soon joined David at the door

Amanda:  What's wrong?

Me:  It would seem that the water in the cabin is malfunctioning

Amanda: Uhh, ok.  What's wrong?

Me:  Well, I already went to the bathroom....

This is where David rejoins the conversation.

David:  Is the toilet clogged?

Me:  No, it flushed once

David:  Okay, well what's the problem?

Me:  Umm....how do I say this?  You see, there are two parts to this job.  I used up the one flush on the first part of the job.......I'm stuck.

David's voice is now pained as he struggles to hold back the laughter when he speaks.

David:  (in his best, overly calm hostage negotiator voice)  Well, what are our options?

Me:  I have no idea.  What are the chances that the water comes back on soon?

David:  Not too good.  There are a lot of people at the fairgrounds tonight and it puts a lot of stress on the system.

Me:  The system is stressed, huh? 

David: Do what you can and come downstairs.  I'll get our cousin to take you to his house to, uhh.....finish the job?

Me:  Kill me

As a gently came down the steps en route to the front door, EVERY eye quickly darted away as the mere thought of eye contact with Mr. dirty butt would be too much to bear.  All's well that ends well though, as somehow once I returned all those snarky little jokes I'd use to diflect my embarrassment were somehow KILLING now.  I don't care how nervous the laughter was; it was laughter.  I would take it.

I guess lesson three is:  When in doubt, be REALLY, REALLY human.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

This is Uncomfortable (Don't Make Eye Contact)

I listened to a great interview this week.  It was with an author who'd recently released a book on manliness, and his lack thereof.  He'd written this book after finding out that his wife was pregnant with a little girl.  He was immediately struck by the reality that he was not, in fact, a manly man.  He didn't grow up doing manly things.  He could barely throw a baseball, didn't know how to properly go camping, and had never been in a fight.  Having a daughter meant that he would be her example of the kind of man she would one day seek, and feared that he would be found lacking. 

This really made me think.  What is "manliness?"  My mind immediately flashed to flannel shirts, ultra-dark denim jeans, and a bottle of Brut cologne.  The kind of guy that owned every tool, and organized them on some type of cork board in the garage.  The kind of guy that owned lava hand soap.  The kind of guy that has a legitimate need for steel toed boots.  A woodworker.  A scotch aficionado.  A guy who would never use the word "aficionado." The kind of guy that would jog home from a vasectomy. 

With this, I began to take an inventory of my own manliness.  First up, showchoir, sequinie vest and all.  Nope, anti-manly.  Marching band: nope.  Theater: lord no.  This wasn't going well.   I did play sports in high school.....but it was golf.  Still, that's going in the manly column.  Then my most manly achievement slapped me in the face.  I was a deckhand on a buoy tender for my first year in the Coast Guard.  It doesn't get more manly than that.  Upon reporting to the unit you're issued a hard hat, life jacket, and chest hair.  I was apart of a twelve man crew who worked 80 hours a week on a 60 year old boat to service buoys and lights marking the navigable channel of the Cape Fear River.  Yep, chest hair.  It was a work hard/play hard job where any visible cracks in your manhood would result in merciless taunting.

So we kept up appearances.  While underway, none of us shaved.  We tore the sleeves off of our coveralls and were covered in the filth that results from spending 15 hours a day scraping barnacles off of buoys with a putty knife.  Damn, that's manly.  Upon returning to homeport we looked more like refugees than sailors.  We grunted, cursed, spit, and yelled.  This was light years from showchoir.
After visiting a nearby shore unit our Chief decided that a movie night for the crew would be a nice, safe way to blow off some steam.  So we piled into a liberty van and headed down to our local movie theater to check out the latest blockbuster.  I was a civil war flick, whose name was familiar.  But the problem was that we'd been working way too much to check out the reviews.  None of us knew what we were in for.  We had no idea that our civil war, shoot 'em up movie, came with a swimming pool sized shot of estrogen.  That's right, we purchased our tickets, piled into the theater, and watched Cold Mountain.

If you've never seen Cold Mountain, let me provide you with a review.  It was like watched the cutest puppy you've ever seen get continuously run over by a lawn mower for two and a half hours.  It turns out, the civil war was pretty sad.  Not phone-company-commercial sad.  More like, the-complete-and-utter-absence-of-any-redeeming-qualities-sad.

Needless to say, our jovial mood was quickly squashed.  With every death of a lovable character, we slouched deeper and deeper into our chairs.  There may have been a sniffle or two, but I can't swear to the less than manly culprit.

As we silently walked back to the van once the movie ended, our shoulders were collectively slumped in dismay.  The manliest crew on the manliest boat on the East Coast just endured a two and a half hour depressive chick flick.  Not to mention that Jude Law's attempt at a southern accent was further insult to injury.  He spoke almost every line in that movie with shockingly little movement of his jaw.  His mouth was agape, and the words somehow poured out in a mushy fashion.

I laughed on the inside.  Our manly facade was scraped away.  No one boasted.  No one bragged.  No good-natured ribbing occurred at all.

But I was quickly shocked back into reality when one of my shipmates broke the silence by stating, "that war movie really sucked.  Who picked that anyway?"  No one confessed.  Manliness restored.

I think that as a father my view on manliness has shifted again.  What should I expect of myself?  Where do I draw the line between compassion and authority?  It not always so easily visible.  Am I being an example of strength for my boys to rely on in hard times?  Would they gain more from my vulnerability?  God knows, they need look no further than this blog to see all the vulnerability they'll ever need.   

Screw it, I'm going to home depot.  I need a cork board.







 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Notch in My Mental Armor

To be honest, as this blog pretty succinctly details, my mental armor is pretty notched up.  That's how it happens.  Little things.  Tiny little occurrences that you pay very little attention to somehow seem to pile up in the recesses of your subconscious until you dump them.  How do you dump them?  Hell if I know.  My advice is to save up the copay, hop on a couch, and let the crazy flow from you like a river.  Some people actually claim that therapy helps.  Me, I always seemed to stick to the "That's for other, weaker people; I can handle it myself" approach.  After all, I'm a fairly bright guy with an over-inflated sense of self control.  I should be fine.  Scratch that.  I AM fine.  Just fine.

2003 was a very weird year for me.  Lots of changes.  I dropped out of my cushy little private college, got married, joined the military, and moved sixteen hours away from my home with my new wife.  We settled into the nicest 650 square foot home that we could afford in our upscale town, that doubled as a vacation spot for the rich during the summer months.  Nothing forces you to grow closer to a new spouse than literally being unable to avoid them at all times.

I adjusted to a military life of order and strict discipline.  To long days on the river and increasingly shorter nights of sleep.  But I could handle it.  I was fine.

A few months into this new life we held a work life training session over the span of a couple of days.  It consisted of the usual "how to manage your life" sessions on relationships, money, time, work, and stress.  The session on stress contained a neat little handout.  The handout was a one page list, front and back, of life situations that one could face.  We were instructed to place a nice check mark next to any of the things that we'd experienced in the last twelve months.  As I began marking off life experiences, I noticed that my sheet was pretty full.  It seemed that I'd been subconsciously going through quite a few significant experiences, but had failed to sense their importance.

A few minutes after I turned my page in, I was asked to step outside by the instructors and my commanding officer.  The head instructor approached me with a pathetic display of baby gloves as he asked me if I'd been experiencing any nagging health issues he needed to know about.  He asked if I'd been to a doctor lately, or if I was seeking any professional counseling.  I responded no to all of his inquiries.  He looked very puzzled and informed me that my life had changed so drastically in the past year that he was concerned over my mental health.  He was concerned that my stress levels would begin to affect my ability to work well with others, my marriage, and even my physical health.

I blew off his questions and returned to work.  But I was puzzled.  How was I supposed to feel?  Why didn't I feel the "right" way?  Was I broken?  Was I a super hero?  Ok, probably not a super hero.

Life churned on.  Two kids, three hurricanes, a car accident, three jobs, the end of my twenties, and a stagnant feeling of overwhelming ordinariness.  Flash to a few months back.  Amanda and I took the kids to the Neshoba county fair.  It's a family event for Amanda's family, but I don't always go.  In fact, I rarely go.  There are so many things to dislike about the fair.  It's CRAZY freaking hot, dirty red clay, crammed accommodations, screaming kids, drunk rednecks, country music, bad food, and oppressive boredom.  But I'd skipped out a few too many times, and I could tell that Amanda really wanted me to come along this year.

The day before the fair I began to experience some weird sensations.  I began feeling some slight tinges of pain in my right side.  The pain was fleeting and pretty tame, but it was there.  Over the next few days, my symptoms increased.  I won't say what all they consisted of, but there was gastrointestinal distress......for 5 days.  While at the fair, someone mentioned that I might be experiencing a slight gallbladder attack.  Once we left the fair, my condition greatly improved.  Must've been the food.

A few weeks later I flew to Texas to interview for a job.  A big job.  A job that would change our lives, significantly.  A job that would alter my career path in a very positive way.  I slapped on a coat and tie, jumped on a plane, and withstood almost four hours of interviews.  It went well.  The moment my left butt cheek touched the seat of the cab that was to return me to the airport, I got a strange feeling.  I was dizzy.  The pain returned.  I couldn't make things slow down in my mind, but as I reported in to Amanda on the phone I sounded like I was nearly asleep.  I missed my flight and the discomfort increased.  The entire flight home was a blur of dizziness and worry.  Was something wrong with me?  Something really wrong?

It came and went over the next few weeks but I tried to ignore it.  That's when a cute little tropical storm popped up in the gulf.

"I don't need this.  I need to hear about this job.  Why am I so stuck in this repeating cycle of plodding failure and shortcomings?  Why don't they want me?  Was I too eager?  Too confident?  Not confident enough?  Gee, that storm slid right by Florida.  Do I really want this job? Of course I do!  Huh, that storm sure looks like it's headed this way.  Maybe they'll call tomorrow.  ok, not today, but maybe the next day.  Damn, still no call.  Hurricane Isaac.  I don't like the sound of that.  I've got too much to do this week."

This constant and incessant mental chatter was only compounded by that tinge of pain.  It's getting worse.  I couldn't make it stop or stretch it out.  That's when the dizziness returned, only this time it came with a vengeance.  Much more intense than it'd been before.  This followed with bi-hourly trips to the bathroom for four hours and finally, vomiting.  After I vomited, my energy level dropped and I fell asleep, hard.  Monday morning, I woke up and began working from home.  I had a great day and felt SO much better.  Must've been a bug.  After work, Amanda and I ran out to pick up a few things to hold us through until the storm passed.  After supper, I sat in front of the computer and the feeling returned.  This time was worse than ever.  My hands trembled as I googled "gallbladder attack."  The symptoms were dead on.  I might be in trouble.  Then, at the bottom of the page I was referred to other issues that it might be.  These read like a horror story of death and woe.  "Ok, I'm definitely in trouble.  I can't get it under control.  Why can't I just get control?" 

 As I walked, nervously, into the living room Amanda's face said it all.  She knew I was worried.  I don't worry.  Ever.  I'm the calm one.  I'm the re-assuring one who calms everyone else down.  But this time's different.  I grab the keys and tell her that I've got to go to the emergency room and that I'm in trouble. 

The triage nurse seems unconvinced of my imminent doom.  She takes my blood pressure.  175/80.  Uhh, that seems a tad on the high side.  She tells me that I need to calm down or I'm going to cause myself some serious issues.  She tells me that when people come in to the ER with the conditions I rattled off to her, they are in extreme pain and vomiting uncontrollably.  She assures me I'm not dying, though I'm sure she's wrong.  So I settle into my hospital bed, backless gown and all, and try to settle down.  They take samples and give me an IV, should I need medication.

I freak out with every button pressed by the radiologist as she ultrasounds my entire abdomen.  I try to read her expressions as she stares at the screen.  Surely something will give away her poker face.  Nothing.  A little later a very bored doctor comes in and explains that the ultrasound showed nothing but perfectly healthy organs.  The lab report from my samples showed likewise.  Nothing.  My nurse explained that he'd done the same thing a few years earlier.  He told me not to worry.  Gee, nice prescription.

But, it was something.  I panicked.  Not baby panic, or a little worry.  I manifested symptoms that wrecked my body and my psyche.  I've not dealt with the things in my mind.  They caught up with me.  I mostly use this blog to tell wacky stories from my past.  Honestly, it's deflection.  If I think about that stuff long enough, may I'll convince myself that I'm so much more stable now.  That I'm headed in the right direction.  That I know the way.  The illusion of control is only an outward expression.  You can only say "don't worry" for so long.  Eventually, your mind will slam on the brakes.

So what's the resolution?  There isn't one.  At this point the only thing I'm convinced of is that our lives are a never ending daisy chain of inner-conflict.  You don't always get to resolve everything.  Those words you said, that insult you hurled, that job you missed, that money you wasted, those years you wasted, that life you wasted.  You don't get do-overs.  That's the real panic inducing thought.  My fear was only compounded by the realization of finality.  If I was dying, this was it.  I'd had my chance.  This is what I did with it.  I worried about jobs, and money, and insults, and misused words.  How incredibly small.  That was my real fear.  My primal fear.  I wasted it.

Oh wait, I'm not dying.  My story isn't finished.  I still have a pen and plenty of blank pages.  hmm.  What to write?  What to write?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Did It and You Will Too

Boys, I saw something funny earlier this week.  It was this meme:






I can't begin to tell you how true this will prove to be in your life.  Sadly though, for me, it's not entirely accurate.  If this was a true representation of my life and search for adolescent interestingness (yes, I know that's not a word), it would state the following:

"I used to strain and yearn to figure out how to be 'with it'.  Most of the time I looked like so many pubescent fools before me.  Now that I don't care anymore, I can truly see how there really was no 'it,' other than tucked away in the unreachable recesses of 'coolness.'"

A little wordy, for sure, but all too accurate.  The information flows at mind-blowing speeds these days.  I'm going to tell you something that will probably freak you out a little, but when I was a teenager, the internet was a brand new, sparsely inhabited wasteland of slow dial-up (look it up) speeds and AOL chat rooms.  It certainly could not be relied upon to keep one up to date with the current status of hip, when one was trapped in a small backwards Southern town.

So, I searched.  I tried things out.  Surely at some point I'd strike it hipness rich by donning the appropriate look, attitude, or music scene.  What I'd never considered was the fact that those in my peer groups were just as hip ignorant as me.  Here are some of the highlights of my unrealized quest:


In the sixth grade we took a field trip to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum.  It's ok, take a breath.  I know that sounds a little too exciting to imagine.  In reality, it was INCREDIBLY boring.  *Funny side note:  While wondering through the museum I would've never guessed that among the exhibits and photos on the walls was the cutest picture of my future wife, and your mother.  She's going to kill me for this, but here's the photo)




Your Pop used to run a dairy farm when your mother was a child, and to think that I probably saw this photo that day, thinking nothing of it, is still a pretty neat thought.

Anyway, the one hope to salvage any fun out of this incredibly boring day was left up to the ability to use the little spending money I was given by mom and dad to purchase just the right item from the General Store.  Now, like you're probably imagining, the General Store at the Ag museum was not filled to the brim with the coolest of items.  There was pralines, beef jerky, polished stones, fake arrowheads, etc.  Just your usual crap.  Certainly nothing worth spending, nay investing, my precious $10.

That's when I saw it.  It was if a light from God, himself, shone through the window at the preordained time and angle to reveal to me his wish for my investment.  There, gently hanging from a swiveling rack near the register hung a simple, yet elegant cross.  But, this was no ordinary cross like those the wealthier kids would wear gaudily strung up by a blasphemous gold nugget necklace.  No, this cross was classy and subtle.  It was a beautiful statement of commitment to God and fashion.  It spoke to me.  Hell, it spoke WITH me.

Oh, it seems that I may have forgotten to mention that the cross was to be worn in the form of a magnetic earring.  

Give that a moment to sink in.  I'll wait.

Surely by now you understand why I was unable live without that cross delicately clinging, with what little magnetism it held, to my ear.  I was able to ensure it's stability if I held my head at just the right angle.  Sure, my neck got a little sore at first, but it was a small price to pay for individuality and religious freedom.  My mom said very little about it when she picked me up from the bus.  It was as if she knew what was coming next.

I remember, in stark detail, the look of surprise on my dad's face as his 12 year old son be-bopped through the front door, with an apparent neck injury, and a shining beacon for Christ dangling from his ear.  While I'm sure his inner emotions consisted wholly of glad tiding of great joy, his outward expression of that joy consisted of instantaneous rage as he leaped from his chair and was across the living room in a split second.  Before I could even mutter the word "magnet," he'd ripped it from my ear in one swift motion.  I'm lucky, really.  He was so overcome with jealous envy of my new prize, that had it been a real earring, I could've been really quite injured.

It didn't take long for it to sink in that mine and my dad's ideas on individuality were quite different.

This was only one of a handful of missteps towards cool.  Here are some bullet points of the highlights from the next few years:

Bell-bottoms were not designed for 5'3" teenage boys
My hair was far too doo-doo brown for the red hair dye to really set up
Platform combat boots look awfully similar to high heels
A boy flipping his long hair out his eyes really does look like he has a tick in his ear (who knew)
No matter what Eddie Vedder says, flannel just makes you look like a bum

I did it.  You'll do it too.  It's just part of the journey.  For goodness' sake, it's the only thing that can explain leisure suits, big 80's hair, and emo culture.

You'll do it.  But, it damn well better be a magnet too.