Thursday, December 13, 2012
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?"
*sternly blank stares*
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:
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 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
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 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.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
But, sadly, you'll probably just come off looking like a know-it-all little vat of who-gives-a-crap facts with a borderline autistic ability to find meaning in the meaningless.
So, you have to stop yourself. Stop yearning to contribute to every single problem that anyone has ever had. Form a complete opinion, not just the hot topic words du jour. Nothing in the world continuously reminds of this than election season. Boys, God only knows what the political world will look like by the time you are grown, especially considering the exponential dumbing down of the U.S. voting populace in 2012. Knowledge takes time. It takes living. But mostly it takes exposure. These days, politics feel more like a dangerous game of three card monte. You only see the blur of hands gingerly moving about in a carefully orchestrated dance built on misdirection, leaving you begging for any hint, albeit slight, of which one to choose.
People are busy. Forty hours are usually unable sustain a growing family alone. So we're pulled. We are pulled to our kids, to our jobs, and to our ever declining hobbies. We are stretched, like too little butter and too much bread. I always loved that phrase. It's so descriptive that I actually gulp at the thought of trying to swallow dry bread. I digress. Once we are stretched to the point of breaking, the last thing on your mind is trying to research who to vote for, or their political history. So you make a terribly easy choice. You vote on religion, or party, or style, or a snazzy speech or two. What you're miss are the details.
You miss the curiousness of a junior Senator, with very little political background suddenly becoming the next great hope. You miss the son of a former president and head of the CIA whose cabinet is immediately filled with the same power players who've been in and out of every administration in the last 40 years. You miss an orchestrated power couple built for speed and selling power. You miss an extremely aggressive manipulation of religious pandering to buy votes, with very little return other than a growing divide.
A divide of the populace. The deeper the divide, the easier for thinly stretched, well meaning people to pick the obvious good rather than the obvious evil. The republicans are obviously greed infatuated corporate monkeys who love nothing more than to use the Good Book (giant print edition) to crush in the skulls of anyone who ever thought Nancy Pelosi had a good idea and the democrats are obviously evil God-hating satanists hell bent on couch surfing the day away and goosestepping all the way to food stamp line.
That's what we're told. That's what we're sold. Carnies and rubes. And it works.
It breaks my heart and confuses my mind to see two groups of generally good people, so connected by their humanity, their struggles, their nation, and their God attack each other so viciously solely based on simply picking the wrong card. "But Jamey, we ain't connected by our God. I'm a baptist and that crazy liberal ain't even read Leviticus." I believe we are connected because we are created. We are created by a God that loves us. You're not loved more than another.
Kids always ask their parents which child they love the most. I did. I'm sure you will. I never understood what was so hard about picking a favorite when I was a child. I was sure it had to do with not wanting to hurt the lesser child's feelings. I was ignorant of a parents' love. You're not loved a little, a medium amount, or a lot. You're loved. It's a definite, complete state of being that is so powerful that it is only insulted by assuming that a lesser love could ever exist. I feel the same way when I ponder the Love of a Creator for all of His created. We are loved. It's that simple.
But we look for wars. We look for battles. Every since little boys imagined their first tree limb to be a tommy gun, or every little girl longed for whatever it is little girls long for, we've all searched for conflict. It's exciting to have a cause. It's exciting to have an answer. Today it's called the war on religion, or the war against the constitution, or the war on human rights. I've seen no declaration. I've seen no attacks. It's not war. It's a discussion, and discussions benefit from input, and from collaboration.
Quick question for you. Who's winning? Who are the great victors raising their flag high atop the battlefield. Republicans? Democrats? I doubt either group feels like they are winning. I would imagine that they mostly just feel opposed. Opposed to the rhetoric. Opposed to the speeches. Opposed to the ignorance from both sides. Opposed to the lack of peace. All the while, the divide grows. It grows until we feel like strangers with no bond. It grows until we tire, but are ever stoked to action by those that actually benefit.
So boys, I challenge you to dig deeper. To ignore the noise. To seek no wars. To seek only those things that bind us together. And if you haven't figured it out, this isn't simply about politics. It's about how you live every day. If you constantly tout your own answers, you'll undoubtedly miss the truth. If you constantly seek conflict, how can you ever be expected to find peace?
Monday, July 2, 2012
From my earliest years, that I can remember, I was always a musician. Be it the piano, the trumpet, or singing, I was always involved in music. The curse of it was that it came easy. That's not meant to be boastful or braggadocios, but rather, it's meant to be telling. That statement, being fact, points toward what held me back from counting my till for many years. In school, other subjects didn't matter, I had music. When the time came to choose a college, it didn't matter. Wherever I went, I knew I'd make music, and would more than likely be successful at it.
But you see, something happened along the way. I lost my true North. While I gained great enlightenment and enjoyment from my musical career, I saw no future. There was no path. In fact, most of my years of performing had only brought seclusion and loneliness. It wasn't necessarily the cat's meow to be a great baritone in small town South Mississippi. And the competitive nature of the college environment only seemed to further separate me from having relationships with my peers. It was dog eat dog, but I didn't have an appetite. That's not to say that I wasn't competitive. I was. Voraciously so. The problem was that winning never gave me what I wanted, and losing never hurt as bad as it should. This was never more greatly emphasized then when I decided it would be a good idea to go out drinking tequila the night before the finals of a regional singing competition, where I felt I was favored, and ended up being so hungover when it was my turn to sing that I forgot the name of my piece and who composed it. I sang well enough to win, but it was so obvious that I wasn't IN the competition, that I ended up finishing second.
This was the first sign.
If I'm going to be honest, the second sign was my general mental condition at the time. I wasn't living for a future. I was selfish. Your mother seemed to be the only person in my corner, as she always has been. Maybe to a fault. Maybe she should've ditched the head case, or maybe I'd disguised just how deep my despair ran even to her. Either way, she was on board, and we began to plan for the future.
Somewhere along the way, 9/11 happened. The world seemed bigger, and scarier. In truth, maybe the sensationalism of it all worked a little too well on an early 20's know-it-all. Either way, I began to wonder a scary thought. "Was music my only skill?" Had I spent so many years taking the easy road of expectations, that I'd forgot that life was about the challenges we don't see, or the fears we've yet to dash? Either way, I knew that it was time to make a move. This was further reinforced by one of my professors who gently suggested that there was no way I would ever be a successful music teacher. I think her heart was in the right place, but she had all the tact of a bulldozer.
It was clear. My spots were destined to change. The time had now come to be uncomfortable. To be unsure. Nothing makes you more unsure than boot camp.
That's right, I unceremoniously dropped out of college, with one semester to go, and enlisted in the Coast Guard.
It seemed like another crazy and half thought out move to most, but to me, it was just what I needed. I needed to be in the pack. To struggle. To fight. To fail. I needed to see that I could prove myself wrong; that I could move the mountains of doubt in my mind, no matter how small the rewards. What happened next is a story for another time. But the winning wasn't in the result; it was in the trying. That's what changing your spots is. It's real, unadulterated trying. Yearning. And those who come with you? Those are the ones that are worth it.
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Carnies are those people that wake up every morning dreaming of how they can get a two inch advantage on the nearest rube by running their con du jour. Rubes are the unsuspecting masses that are usually too bored by the mundane manor of their existence to offer up the tiniest bit of cynicism toward what they're being told.
You'll see it on television, politics, religion, and in any kind of art. One of the hardest realizations of your life is when it hits you that some jerk got one passed you because you were too busy watching the card in his right hand, while his left was stealing your wallet. It happens. I happens because the input is too great. Capitalism has led to an increasing population of wolves scratching and pawing to make you their next meal.
So, here are some simple steps to help you steer clear of the carnies in your world.
1. Question Everything.
I was raised in an environment that was not pro-questioning. Much of that probably had to do with the fact that I was the last of four children and my parents were most likely exhausted. Plus, I was a curious little twerp. The kind that at 6 years old believed that I deserved a justifiable answer to why singing at the top of my lungs during dinner was unacceptable, morally. Because I said so didn't cut it. I wanted to know my parents' motivations for their responses.
As much as I annoyed my parents with trivial questions about everything, I completely supported my right to do it. And I'll always support yours. Don't take anything at face value. As overwhelming as the answers may seem, always try to figure the world out at a motivational level. The same things that drive you, drive others. Trust me......or don't.
2. There's no such thing as a limited time offer.
That slimy salesman who's telling you that it's now or never is full of it. Everyone needs groceries. Everyone has a house note or car note that comes around every month. He's going to need your twenty bucks just as bad next month as he does today. The only thing on this planet you can control are your decisions. Take your time and make a good one. Don't let someone with motivations other than your own make your decisions for you.
3. Don't miss the forest for the trees.
Usually, the big picture is the right picture. Every decision you can make is made up of details. Sometimes the details are used to take your mind off of the big picture. "Ooo, this shiny new car gets 3 mpg more than the one I have. I'll save TONS." Sure, but the one you have is half paid for, and the financing charges will drive your monthly payments up by 20%. Big picture: You have a car. Stop right there.
4. Don't believe anything you see on TV.
You're not the audience, you're the market. Never forget that.
Now, here's the point in the blog where I tell a ridiculous story that is loosely based on the moral above.
Christmas time is made of traditions. Most of them have little to do with why we celebrate the holiday, but we hold to them because the makes us comfortable. Nothing is easier to control than comfortable people.
One of those traditions in my day was a ridiculous Christmas movie called, "A Christmas Story." It revolved around a young boy in the 1940's struggling to deal with whether his one Christmas wish would come true. It's a funny movie that we watched every year. Towards the end of the movie, his family's all too important Christmas meal is destroyed. In a last ditch effort to salvage the holiday, his father takes the family out to the only restaurant in town that's open on Christmas day.
Skip to Christmas 2006. Jackson was two years old. We'd celebrated our respective family Christmases at both families and left Jackson with Amanda's parents for a few days. The plan was for him to return home to find the goodies Santa had left behind. The truth was, that I was active duty Coast Guard at the time, and was assigned to stand gate guard duty on Christmas day.
So, Amanda and I returned home on Christmas eve and worked tirelessly to assemble Santa's gifts. When dinner time came we were faced with the harsh realities of a bare cupboard and empty stomachs. We rang up a few local eateries to see if anyone was open. No luck. That's when my mind flashed back the "A Christmas Story." Surely, if they were able to find a meal on Christmas eve, we would be able to find something. So we headed down to a brand new Chinese buffet that had just opened near our house. The "open" sign flashed with the distinct glimmer of fried rice hope.
We spent the next half hour or so scarfing down indiscriminate meats coated in copious amounts of soy sauce. We dined along side the saddest collection of Christmases gone wrong that the imagination could assemble. We stuffed ourselves and headed home. After a couple of hours watching television, we killed the Christmas lights and hit the sack. After all, I had to report to work at 0600. Work was over an hour's drive away, so I'd need to be up and running by 0430 at the latest.
My mind raced with the excitement of my child's Christmas, time spent with family, and a fortuitous meal as I drifted off to sleep.
Now look, it was December. It was cold outside. Not freezing, but pretty chilly. Surely this was the reason that I was roused from my sleep somewhere around midnight. My feet were like icicles. The rest of my body was cozy and warm, but my feet were freezing. I couldn't explain it. So, I got up and put on a big, thick pair of tube socks and returned, carefully to bed so as not to wake Amanda. Ten minutes went by and my feet were still shockingly cold. So much so, that my entire body began to tremble uncontrollably. So, I got up and put on another pair of 1980's chic tube socks. Ten minutes later, still trembling. Something must be wrong.
I finally got the courage to wake Amanda up and explain my condition. She checked me for fever, but everything checked out. So, I spent the next hour or so tossing and turning in extreme discomfort. By body pulsed, quivered, and even began to convulse a little. You know how I said earlier that you should question everything? Well that doesn't apply to the small voice in your brain that gently recommends that maybe you should be near a toilet.
Thank the Lord I listened to my still, small voice. No sooner than reaching the bathroom did I begin vomiting. I'll spare you the lovely details, and tell just this one thing. At some point, you run out of things to expel from your body. The bad part is that your stomach never relays that information to your brain, so the dry heaving continues. After two hours of vomiting and heaving I began to be concerned with the state of my eyeballs. I strained so hard that I was sure they would pop out of my head.
This leads to Amanda entering the bathroom to check on me, only to find me hunched over the toilet, heaving with my hands over my eyes to protect them from the power of the repetitive thrusts. Truly, a sight to behold. Kids, marriage ain't always pretty. But, it is usually funny.
Somewhere around 0330 the sickness subsided. I hurt. Notice how I used the word hurt as a verb? That's because I wasn't hurt. I actively, and continuously hurt. Which part, you ask? Every damn one of them.
My bout with apparent food poisoning had left me a whimpering, weak, shell of a grown man. I barely had the strength to raise my head. I struggled to find my cell phone and locate the phone number of the watch leader. She would be my only salvation from any continuation of this nightmare.
Now look, I'm an emotional guy. I'll tear up over movies, or the occasional sad episode of extreme makeover home edition, but I don't usually cry from pain. I get mad and drop a curse word or two, but not tears. The same cannot be said as I heard my calls continually go straight to the watch leader's voicemail. There I sat, slumped over in the dark, my uniform shirt half on and unbuttoned, with one pant leg barely pulled up past my knee, too weak to get fully dressed. Seeing this scene, Amanda pleaded for me to come back to bed, then relented and helped me finish dressing. You know you're in bad shape when your wife has to tie your shoes for you.
What happened next is a mystery to me. Somehow, I blinked and was standing in front of the gate at work, wearily staring at Chance, my guard mate for the next twelve hours. Chance and I were friends. If I remember correctly, he looked at me and accused me of showing up to watch intoxicated, as I stumbled to my post. I relayed the story of my evening to him and he was kind enough to allow my to rest in the guard shack until a relief for my watch could be found.
Around 1000, my relief showed up, and I headed home, stopping by the gas station to pick up large doses of gatorade. As I walked through the front door of our house I collapsed onto the carpet, unable to gather the strength move. I called out to Amanda, who was now just as sick as I was, to let her know that I'd made it home. We both slurped down some gatorade and went back to sleep, all day and all night. Lesson learned.
I never should've listened to that stupid Ralphie kid and his degenerate father!
Friday, January 27, 2012
Think about it. How many times have you had a time sensitive task to accomplish, only to be delayed or sidetracked by everyone and everything around you? If you're like me, the answer is EVERY time. That's not bad luck. It's the fact that you've lost focus on the fact that our society is a very complex and delicate balance of needs versus resources. When one's need imposes on another's resources the system breaks down. This is true from the simplest of tasks all the way to the causation of haves and have nots. So where does the fault lie? In you? In that other person in your way? How about the innate unfairness of reality itself?
This goes back to one of the most key lessons my father ever taught me. You can not control other people. You can only control how you react to other people.
This requires a focus on empathy and perspective. Human nature is selfish. It's not that people are selfish. No, I don't believe that. I believe that a majority of people, if prompted, tend to behave in a socially equitable manner. The problem is that once we become adults there are fewer prompts in our lives. That's why it's so important to select a partner that has the ability to truly help you maintain perspective. If left to your own devices, your focus will most likely turn toward some false importance to your tasks, forsaking the needs and resources of those around you.
My hometown, Purvis, MS, is a painfully small town. All the sidewalks are promptly rolled up far before sundown. Streetlights tell time and steeples litter the skyline. It's in South Mississippi, so it's very hot most of the year. This leads to finding creative ways to stay cool. My parents had a pool installed when I was a young child so, for me, that was never a problem. However, those without a pool were left to their own devices. This usually led to swimming holes and creeks.
If you've never swam in a creek, let me educate you a little. First off, creek water is damn cold. I mean blue lips, shaking legs, and chill bumps cold. The only thing that slows the onset of hypothermia is the fact that you must constantly swim for you life in fear of water moccasins. If you're not familiar with water moccasins, let me educate you. You know how, when referring to snakes, people say something like, "oh, it's more afraid of you, than you are of it." Those people are NOT referring to water moccasins. They are terribly aggressive and they love hanging out in creeks.
The safety precautions associated with creeks are not what I would call thorough. Usually, you just walk up to the edge, look for snakes swimming on the surface (for about 7 seconds), and jump in. The initial shock of 45 degree water takes your mind off of the snake issue, broken bottles everywhere, even the rusted out washing machine. I never understood why every creek near our home seemed to be an outdated large household appliance repository.
As if this experience wasn't enough of a test of wills/manhood, the boys in my town inevitably took it a step or two further. One specific creek out in the country was crossed by two bridges that were adjacent to one another. The smaller bridge was for cars to cross the creek, while the larger bridge was a rail crossing.
The car bridge only sat about 12-15 feet off of the water and was our backwoods version of a high dive. The rail bridge, and I'm guessing here, was probably about 50 feet off of the water and was thus used for only one thing, a man test. Now I never saw anyone jump off of it in person but the stories of those that did were that of legend. Let me set the scene for you. To reach this bridge you had to climb up a very steep hill, mostly composed of gravel. Once at the top, you would walk out to the center of the bridge and peer down at a landing zone which was only about 12 feet wide. There were no depth markers and you definitely couldn't see the bottom, due to the mud. You had no way of knowing your plunge would land you smack dab on top of a discarded Maytag.
This may sound like a crazy venture, but the combination of shame and boredom is a powerful cocktail. I was not insane, and was sure that I'd probably chicken out, but that didn't mean that I shouldn't at least climb to the top to appear brave. I still remember the climb up. My friend Allen and I struggled to reach the top, all the while attempting to compromise, while still saving face, over who would be the first to jump. But something happened on the way out to the center of the bridge. As fear led me to stare down at the cross ties of the rail line I saw something amazing. There, wedged between two of the ties was a giant turtle. He had obviously slid on to his side and become stuck.
My heart began to race with fear for the turtle. What if a train came and the cross ties shifted? He could be crushed. After all, there was no telling how old this turtle was, or how long he'd been stuck here. Allen and I quickly devised a plan. We would each pick a side and see if we could slide him out.
We obviously took into account that this could be a snapping turtle. Everyone had heard the legend that if a snapping turtle were to clamp down on your hand, only a strike of lightning would make him release his grasp. Who's got that kind of time?
It took us quite some time to extract the big guy. Once we got him out we were faced with a very precarious situation. There was no way we could just leave him to be hit by the next passing train. So, we picked him up and walked to the hill that we'd painstakingly climbed just minutes earlier. We looked at the gravel, and the incline, and decided that there was no way we were going to be able to get him back down the hill without one or both of us falling to certain peril.
That's when we devised our master rescue plan. It was so obvious. It was staring us in the face the whole time. Turtles are armored and amphibious.
Satisfied with our plan we quickly shuffled to the center of the bridge, counted to three, and released our new friend to his life of freedom.
As we peered down, I became more than a little concerned at his rate of descent. He also began a troubling tumble. I began to doubt if he would be able to stick the landing. My 11 year old brain assumed he would make a small splash and pop back to the top to the cheers of the crowd, like an Olympic diver. I was a little off. It seems that we both GREATLY overestimated the strength of his armor plating. Apparently, when a giant turtle hits water at 80+ mph they tend to explode as if they'd been rigged with dynamite.
Silence hung in the air, as time froze, so that our minds could fathom the unspeakable horror we'd just witnessed. We screamed in unison. I've never been so distraught over something my own hands had caused. That was the hardest part. As soon as I saw the first errant piece of Mr. Snappy fly through the air, the wind expelled from my lungs, and the obvious idiocy of our plan crashed down on me in pure, unadulterated shame.
This whole time, we'd only focused on ourselves. We were so excited to be "helping" this creature survive this horrible ordeal, that we'd lost touch with his reality. Sure, being stuck on a bridge sucks. But it's freaking club med when compared to being tossed off of it by two dumb kids. We viewed ourselves as saviors, never realizing that our method of salvation was completely idiotic. What in the hell were we thinking?
How could we possibly think that a turtle could survive a 50 foot fall? The truth was that we never even considered it. The logical option was cast aside for fear that we might be hurt. Instead, our little brains chose the option that was easiest for us, with hardly a thought as to the physics of the operation.
Our perspective was that we were heroes. His perspective, if he was capable of logical thought, was that we were executioners. All the good intentions in the world couldn't make up for the fact that we failed to maintain perspective.
Saturday, January 7, 2012
This little delusion is the first lap in the marathon of parental milestone chasing. Everything in our lives is measured and captured. First poop, first words, first recognition of appendages, and even our dietary milestones. As an infant, the milestones are day to day. The older we get, they tend to spread out over years, and eventually, decades. Somehow, me getting to work on time at age thirty-two doesn't exactly necessitate that my parents dance around the living room proclaiming my brilliance.....sadly.
It cracks me up, and is a little confusing, every time I see one of those wacky commercials for a revolutionary product that will supposedly teach calculus to a two year old. I mean, every parent surely knows the importance of your infant's ability to design a suspension bridge! Meanwhile, the kid still craps in his pants. I don't get it. Why has the parenting world somehow forgotten the importance of the natural maturation process. No house has ever been built roof first. There is no reason to rush toward milestones. One day they will only exist in blurry pictures and even blurrier memories.
Not surprisingly, some of the milestones of my life were surrounded in humorous and somewhat uncomfortable situations.
I'm the youngest of four children. As I've written before, I'm much younger than my siblings. In 1985 I was six years old, while they were fifteen, sixteen, and nineteen. Most everything I learned at an early age stemmed from my eavesdropping on teen and adult conversations. I tried my darnedest to make sense of the world far before I should've. This sprint towards understanding came to a head one fateful night during a forty-five minute car ride.
My oldest sister, Diann, attended Jones County junior college in 1985. The school was about forty-five minutes from our home. I'm not sure what type of performance she was involved in, but whatever it was, it required the attendance of my mom and I. So, we loaded up in mom's BOAT of an Oldsmobile, and hit the road. My memories of this night are somewhat blurry, but that car is cemented in my mind. It was a dull red monster of a car, with a bench seat in the front, and a door that was three times my body weight.
Only a few miles down the road, my mother's peaceful drive became traumatic as I turned and asked, "so mom, santa claus isn't real is he?" She paused and then resolutely confirmed my suspicions. I remember her asking if it made me sad. If I remember correctly, I was more satisfied that this knowledge would certainly propel me into early adulthood. No more kiddie tables for this guy!
Once the seal was broken, I couldn't be stopped. For this day would bring about a reckoning. Over the next few interstate exits, we covered my conclusions on the actual state of the world. Santa was only the first victim of this conversation. His death was soon followed by both the tooth fairy and the easter bunny. With every question I grew stronger and sat a little taller, while my mom slinked into her driver's seat unable to come to grips with the reality that so many of her last child's milestones were collapsing at once. At this point she could barely look at me. She stared forward at the road as if her next glimpse would certainly find me sprouting whiskers and singing bass.
That's when she made the near fatal mistake of inquiring if I had any more questions. In fact, I did. I took a few seconds to get the wording just right, then turned to her and asked, "mom, what is sex?"
Now look, I have to give my mom some credit. She remained surprisingly calm as her blood pressure spiked to life-threatening levels. The blood rushed from her face and she quietly responded with, "well, (enormous gulp) what do you think it is?" I then began to explain, in a very elementary fashion, the fractured logic that I'd pieced together from many random conversations. As my skewed explanation reached a crescendo, my mom did the only thing her sanity would allow her to do. She diverted. She nodded her head and assured me that I was right, all the while praying that my questions would cease or that the exit for the college would come soon.
Satisfied with my understanding of human biology, I stepped out of that car a new man. "Good. Now that we got that out of the way, I can certainly turn my attention toward world peace." My mom, on the other hand, was scarred. Her disappointment had turned to horror. Her legs were weak and no eye contact would be had as we sat through my sister's program. I can only imagine that she was somehow trying to figure out a graceful way to explain to my dad the traumatic events that transpired during our trip. Poor thing.
Post Script - My crude concept of human sexuality would lead to a very embarrassing scene some years later. I only remember sitting in my seventh grade health class, eyes as wide as saucers and hands trembling as I silently mouthed the words "SHUT UP."
The following years were relatively vacant of milestones, as I'd rushed through so many at a young age. During these years I focused on music. I played trumpet and sang. In junior high, I attended our local church, and was a member of the youth choir. At this young age, pre-puberty, I sang soprano. My voice was very childlike and I was more than happy to sing anything Bro. Von Kanel put in front of me. In those days, churches regularly participated in youth choir tours. This mostly involved traveling to a nearby state, singing in their local churches, and leading vacation bible school during the day.
This particular year, I was selected as the protagonist in the musical and was given a few critical solos throughout the score. For the first few churches we visited I sang my songs, in the intended keys, and did pretty well, for the most part. However, at some point during the middle of the week I began to feel a hoarse feeling in my throat. Something wasn't right. The more I tried to clear my throat, the worse it got. For some reason, those high notes that were once so clear, were now miles away.
Over the next couple of days I went from having a slight, soprano voice to a disturbingly low bass voice. The disturbing part comes when you consider what the members of the congregation saw. Out on the stage would walk this tiny little kid, with a suspiciously symmetrical bowl shaped hair cut. Expecting a mouse of a voice, they were shocked to hear something that more resembled a record player that was too low on batteries. My cute little upbeat songs, were not droning along like a funeral dirge. The pleasant smiles of the churchgoers were replaced with a combination of confusion and boredom. I was literally singing grown adults to sleep. It's hard to lift people's spirits when they are terrified that the performer may, in some way, be possessed by the devil.
These days, I'm thankful that most of my milestones have passed. I'm more than happy to age uneventfully and focus my attention on the milestones of my kids. But I swear to the Lord, if Jackson catches me alone in the car, and begins asking too many questions, I'm going to just pull the car over and walk.