I’m glad I can talk to you

Today’s post marks the second in a series of posts centering around a fictional character in a contrived scenario while he tries to cope with the harsh reality of life’s disappointments. The following post & eventual future posts are in no way autobiographical & the scenarios discussed simply create a backdrop for reflection on general topics like processing grief & remaining motivated through adversity. 

Photo illustration by Mindy Ricketts
Photo illustration by Mindy Ricketts

WARNING: Excerpt contains profanity & anger-driven language to enhance realism & achieve dramatic effect. 

It was an awful day at the office. Once again, I had to do all the dirty work. I had to field all the customer complaints. I had to resolve all the disputes. I had to run around like a one man “9-1-1” Emergency Service Operation for eight straight goddamn hours putting out one fire after another, breaking up a fight here & there, & even saving a kitten stuck in a tree! Okay. I’m not really an emergency first responder so I didn’t actually perform all those tasks throughout the city; I was stuck in an office building all day. But it sure felt like it. And what burns me up inside is that the tall, muscular, big-shot section chief got all the credit! Of course. He’s bigger than I am. He’s taller than I am. Everyone assumes he’s better than I am. But any time there’s a conflict, he manages to be somewhere else. And when I approach him for help, he shames me into handling the crisis myself. “Well, don’t tell me your too afraid to handle this on our own;” or, “Well, we expect that our staff should be able to handle such a routine scenario without help.” I used to believe him & feel ashamed; that the boss man was too busy & too important to handle these menial tasks that were my responsibility. But eventually I realized that he was just too scared to do it himself. “Holy Hell!” I thought. “What’s the point of being that damn tall & that damn big if you’re just going to be a big pussy?” It pissed me off so hard to know this about our huge boss & realize that all the pretty women in the office celebrate him as a demi-god while they simultaneously treated me like the neighborhood stray puppy. But I’m used to it. It’s fine. My goal in life isn’t  to stoke my own pride. I’m glad to have a job. I’m not worried about what every pretty female co-worker thinks about me.

I’m only worried about what she thinks about me. Lorraine (pronounced Lore Rain)– the purest of the pure, the apex of feminine virtue–as long as she saw through all the nonsense & recognized my value over Mr. Lucifer’s, then I was fine. I realized a while ago that we can’t spend our lives trying to please everyone; because that’s impossible. The trick is to pick the people who we absolutely cannot let down; along with the people who absolutely would not let us down–& focus on pleasing them. In the process, we will inevitably accomplish a life path that will please ourselves. That’s the goal, at least. To heck with what anyone else thinks; as long as Lorraine believed in me, I had all the motivation I will ever need. As long as Lorraine invests herself in my success, I had all the support I will ever need. I should take a step back to establish who this Lorraine is.

Lorraine is absolute beauty. I realize that beauty is relative–& there is hardly a consensus on physical beauty. But that’s the reason why I can say with clarity that Lorraine is absolute beauty. Her beauty transcends the physical. Her beauty transcends any individual sense. I can smell, taste, touch, see, & hear her beauty all at once. Even her voice is beautiful! The first time I witnessed her speak, I stood dumbfounded–unable to respond for a good two minutes or so. It was as though I had witnessed a divine being appear before me and, before I could even acknowledge the reality of such a fantastic moment, heard the delicate creature speak to me in that soft, melodious, music-box like voice. I often struggle with insomnia. Years ago, me & a couple of my bachelor buddies exchanged notes on living alone. I discovered that almost all of us slept with the TV on because the ambient noise off in the distance was the closest thing to having someone there with you. Whenever I relied on this tactic to fill a lonely void, it rarely produced positive results. But as soon as I heard even two syllables of that musical voice of hers, I instantly felt comforted enough to allow the spirit of drowsiness to take hold of me. “Wow,” I thought. “I would never have trouble falling asleep again if I had her to talk to at bedtime,” I thought.

But today at work, I saw Lorraine do something that was so out of character for her. She stopped when Hot-shot Boss Man approached her in the hallway. Instead of politely responding & then quickly excusing herself, she chose to linger for some reason. I wasn’t spying on them; I just happened to be on my way to the copy room. But Lorraine’s response was so far removed from what I’ve observed her do for the past three years, I stopped to watch. Was something wrong? Did Mr. Lucifer “Look-at-Me”/I’m so great” boss man have some bad news for this angel? I had to know.

They lingered for several minutes–way more time than was necessary for a quick, impromptu work-related update in the hallway. I took a closer look, & gasped at what I saw. Lorraine was smiling & laughing & carrying on with this insufferable CAVEMAN! I couldn’t believe it! Lorraine had worked with this dumb-ass Mastodon for three years & barely even acknowledged him outside of a clear job-function related directive. And what’s more is that she smiled! She NEVER smiles! I’ve only observed her smile at me a handful of times & that was enough to make me feel special. What now? Does this mean that Mr. Big Dick boss was suddenly special to her too? “He’s a fucking pussy!”I wanted to scream.

“Jack, I’m glad that I have you to talk to. I’m so pissed off by what I saw today. What do you think?”

Jack fell silent as he usually does when I pose an emotionally charged question to him. He usually does this because the answer is self-evident. I’m only asking someone else because I’m hoping they will talk me out of believing what I already know. After a prolonged silence, I lashed out, having answered my own dreadful question in my mind: “Fuck that worthless, 80-foot tall, 2800 lbs, DINOSAUR! He’s a NOBODY! He’s a NOTHING! Everything these pretty women think he is, he’s not! I’m the one who faces down conflict! I’m the one who charges into adversity! I’m the one who exudes every single goddamn allegedly “manly”quality that these confused women automatically attribute to Mr. Bigg Boss just because he’s so fucking big but I run this shit! I’m where the rubber hits the road! Fuck that gargantuan dumb-asss! He’s the NOBODY! But everyone treats me like I am. Why? Because I’m not as tall as he is? Because I don’t make as much as he does? Because I’m not in charge the way he is? Holy hell! Does every single woman have to follow this same blueprint & submit to the man with “authority”? He’s a fucking spineless wonder!”

“I don’t care, Jack.  I don’t fucking care! To hell with everyone else but as long as Lorraine was free from this trance, then my world would still turn.” It used to bother me–this paradigm of the hot girls always falling for the bad boy. I figured that only applied to the bad girls. But after I found myself on the short side of the straw too many times, I realized that even the good girls fall for the bad boys, no matter what they “claim” to be looking for. Fine. I made peace with that. I could do without the whole lot of them; as long as Lorraine stayed pure. “Damn it, Jack! Not her too!” I screamed.

“Excuse me sir,” a kind female voice pierced my frenzied state. “Do you mind cashing out now? We closed twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh yes. Sorry. I lost track,” I replied as I paid the bill. I looked around & was stunned to see what had been a crowded bar just minutes ago now appear empty save for the handful of staff left behind. I noticed chairs stacked against the walls, the floor wet in spots from having been mopped–oh, & it wasn’t even dark in there anymore. They had turned the lights on. Wow. I had really been lost in thought. I finished the last little bit of my drink & headed for the door. I felt warm & silly & the world was spinning; but I was still pissed as hell. I was sad. I was sad that I had a jerk-wad boss. I was sad that I did all the hard work & received none of the credit. I was sad that Lorraine had behaved just like a another pretty girl today when I know she is so much more. And I was sad that I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about my problems except for a bartender & a couple of waitresses who got paid to pretend to care . . .  oh, & of course, my good ‘ole pal Jack Daniels. Yes. At least I had Jack to help me get through life’s latest crisis. As I step outside I notice the ground is wet & think, “It must have rained the whole time I was inside.”

And then the rain came down

Today’s post marks the first in a series of posts centering around a fictional character in a contrived scenario while he tries to cope with the harsh reality of life’s disappointments. The following post & eventual future posts are in no way autobiographical & the scenarios discussed simply create a backdrop for reflection on general topics like processing grief & remaining motivated through adversity.

Eve

Her name was Lorraine (pronounced Lore Rain). But it should have been Eden; because when I first laid eyes on her, I swear to you I caught a glimpse of paradise. Laugh if you must. Write me off as trite. But you have no idea what it meant to me; meeting her. I had been through a rough stretch in life. I have had a rough time holding down a job of late although I had a decent education and a solid work history before it all started. The depression, that is–I had a solid work history before the depression started. My jobs required a lot of direct client interactions. I was sales & customer service–& somehow responsible for all the world’s ills, seemingly. Everything that went wrong was my fault. Any change in contract, drop in price, stipulation to a promotion–everything from my customer’s point of view was my attempt to squeeze another dollar out of them & I had the power to flip a switch & make everything right again if they just yelled enough. I’m sure someone was trying to squeeze another dollar out of them, but it wasn’t me! It was The Company. I’m a nobody to them. I can’t affect changes; I just sit at my desk & do as I’m told. But customers–they were convinced I was lining my own personal pockets with every ticky tack fee or every promotion that they almost qualified for. Holy Hell! It was like being stuck in a state of constant war. And I was getting it from both sides–stuck in “no man’s land” in a trench warfare style never-ending gunfight. These circumstances would sap the light out of even the kindest soul & replace it with darkness. And that’s what it did. In came the depression–or as I would later refer to it–the darkness.

I got to the point where I would call out sick & lay in bed all day, listening to the sounds of the world going on without me outside. At first, I thought “Ha, ha. I escaped & you guys out there don’t even realize you’re enslaved!” But this didn’t last. With the passage of each hour, then each day . . . it seemed odd. I knew I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. I either had to get up & join the rat race with everyone else, or I hide to really disappear. I couldn’t be part way in this world, part way out. The bed was no place to spend my day; not unless I was old & infirm. But I wasn’t; I was just . . . tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of conflict; tired of being caught in the middle of everyone’s self-serving manipulation. I felt like a ghost for hiding out & dodging life. Here I was in my bed taking up space, using electricity, racking up bills–but I wasn’t actively participating in the world around me.

It was a horrible feeling. Once I even considered jumping off the balcony onto the concrete parking lot below. I had called out sick from work so frequently that I was at the end of my accrued sick time as well as The Company’s patience. I tried to pep talk myself into getting up to “face the bully.” I told myself, “I’m throwing my life away by not getting up for work. I’m on the verge of termination. What do I tell my parents? What will I do for money? If I don’t get up, I’m as good as dead. I should just jump off the balcony before I call out sick again!” And for a moment, I considered what it would feel like to jump off the balcony, because I dreaded the thought of calling out sick that much! I imagined the wind in my face. I imagined serenity. Then I envisioned a graceful, slow-motion leap off the banister like you see in the movies . . . but then, I thought of gravity & the acceleration of the human body on a vertical drop. Somewhere along the line I learned about an equation that calculated this exact scenario–terminal velocity or something like that. Then I remembered that I don’t even like roller coasters because of the free fall! Then I envisioned that hard concrete getting closer & closer until–SPLAT! I got up. I wasn’t calling out sick on that day; I wasn’t going to break my parent’s heart by asking if I could move in with them again. But I wasn’t jumping off that balcony either. I went to work–that day, at least

I ending up leaving that work environment. Big surprise. And I had spent the last couple of years of my life just putting myself back together. I had gone back to teach myself the basics; as if I had to go through my entire upbringing all over again but in a period of months instead of years this time. I finally found a job with my regional health care provider. It wasn’t anything special, but it was something to do; & it was stable. And, after what I had been through during The Darkness, stability was the best I had hoped for. I hadn’t dared to ponder on any of life’s deeper questions, like love. But when I saw her . . . life suddenly meant more than simply getting out of bed & holding down a job. Life was more than just a checklist of responsibilities. Life’s purpose was more than just avoiding disappointment, which had been my state of mind during the recovery. I didn’t motivate myself but telling myself how great life could be again. I motivated myself by telling myself I could get to a place where it didn’t hurt as much anymore; and where I wouldn’t hurt the people who cared, like my parents. I wanted them to spare them sight of watching me flounder my life away yet again.

When I saw Lorraine–in an instant, I regained a lifetime of dreams that had eroded little by little over the years. Maybe now, you do understand what it meant to me; meeting her.

We were almost friends. Yeah, I know. This isn’t your typical love story–or even your typical heart break story. To have a bonafide heart break story you’d expect to see a demonstration of love. And while I think I loved her, I know she never loved me. No. She was more a metaphor for what life could be. She was the reason I got out of bed to make it to work on time on those cold winter early mornings when I hated to do so. She was, well, we’ll get to that later. She was symbolic to me. And then she disappointed me.

I speak of her in the past tense not because she’s gone; she’s still alive & well, & even young & strong. I wish her well. I speak of her in the past tense because she’s gone to me. Because I no longer have any contact with her or knowledge of her whereabouts. I speak of her in the past tense because, from my point of view, she’s part of my past. I’ll never see her again; never occupy the same space as she does, or even the same Time Zone! Call me a loser if you must, but I’ll confess that she’s never ceased being a part of my present. Because even now, I think of her constantly. And I declare that she will be part of my future, because I know that I’ll never meet someone like her again. That, “There’s someone out there for everyone! There a million fish in the sea” bullshit is a young man’s coping mantra. I’ve been alive long enough to realize that, at least for me, my time & opportunities are limited. Given my parameters, I will never meet someone like her again.

There are people who will say I got what I deserved. They’ll say it was unfair of me to place this heavy burden on her; this standard to uphold so that I could maintain faith in the world. They’re right; it was unfair. I should have never made her the force that pulled me away from the balcony ledge, should I ever sink to such despondency again. It was unfair for me to expect so much from her; but I don’t care. She still failed me. And I’m still angry with her for it. Spare me the, “This is more about you than it is about her.” I know all that shit; but know this–it still hearts like hell.

I still like to stand on balconies. I don’t plan to jump off any of them, I just like to feel the breeze. I like to watch the world for this secluded, unseen perch. When you’re at ground level, you only see what’s directly around you, & that’s it. But up here, you can see so much more. It’s like having a glimpse of past, present, & future all at once. Yeah; I like it up here. But what I like most of all about this balcony is watching the rain come in. I can see the clouds form in the distance. Up here, I even seem to catch a faint hint of thunder before everyone around me does. And then when those water pellets of rain start clashing with roof, with rock, with concrete & ground–I feel serene inside. It makes me want to reflect, which is good. I have a lot to reflect on. Maybe I can filter out this anger I have towards Lorraine for having let me down so miserably. Or maybe I’ll find a way to forgive her & move on. after all, even Eden didn’t last forever.

This is where my mind was as I stood on the balcony struggling to make sense of it all; and then the rain came down.

 

 

A “Penny” for your Thoughts

Any NBA fans out there? Let me re-phrase. Any NBA fans out there who remember what the game was like before the No Fun Police legislated defense out of the game; during the time when big men would post up in the paint; during an era before a NBA “contest” would be a hard fought game instead of a 5-on-5 version of H-O-R-S-E from 25 feet from the basket? We don’t have to go all the way back to the “Show Time Lakers” with Magic Johnson at the point surrounded by a Who’s Who of pro basketball legends: I’m just talking abut the league back in the nineties. Back then, when Michael Jordan dropped a “double nickle” (a 55 point individual single game output) against the New York Knicks meant more than the Golden State Warriors putting up 141 points against the Washington Generals (Harlem Globe-trotters reference) because the New York Knicks were mean, muscular, & played defense as if they were defending a fresh kill against a pack of hungry hyenas! Well, back then, pop culture was still trying to find a new superstar to coronate as the “Next Jordan.” Mind you, this was fifteen years before the chatter started that Lebron James or the late great Kobe Bryant had either equaled or . . . gasp . . . even surpassed His Airness. Yeah. It started way back then. And early on, sometime during the mid-nineties, a rising star who caught my eye as a player who could actually replace MJ emerged onto the scene in the form of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.

Penny

 

Penny Hardaway wore No. 1 on his jersey, which was a bold statement given he was a junior teammate to NBA legend an immensely large human Shaquille “Superman” O’Neil. And like another great point guard with whom Penny drew comparisons, he played for a showbiz like franchise in the Orlando Magic. Penny Hardaway’s height, length, & athleticism–this brash new rookie managed to glide to the rim against physical, ferocious set defenses in a manner reminiscent of the Great No. 23. The fact that the aforementioned 23, Jordan, had changed up his offensive arsenal on account of his advanced age (mid to late thirties) for a pro athlete–the path appeared set for an eventual passing of the torch to occur. Even I, a die hard MJ supporter, could not deny the implications that nobody stays on top forever & that Father Time eventually takes his toll on everyone. Jordan, while still the best active player in the game at that time, had moved away from the flamboyant “Come fly with me” style that characterized his career in favor of a more veteran savvy approach that frequently took advantage of his older, more muscular physique to bully slimmer defenders around in the post. In short, Penny Hardaway sometimes looked more like the original No. 23 than Michael Jordan did!

It’s funny how hindsight is 20/20. Many fans still regard MJ as the “Greatest of All Time,” myself included . . . twenty-five years after one of the original debates. I mean no disrespect to either athlete as both gifted men accomplished a great deal at the Pro level. But early in his career, Hardaway got hurt & rumors surfaced that we would never regain “the Magic” he had in Orlando.

I remember watching a press conference as Hardaway introduced himself as the newest member of the Phoenix Suns organization. I will never forget how defiant this proud athlete was when he declared his intention to prove all his doubters wrong. I’m going from memory here, but what he said went something like this:

“I hear all the noise out there . . . That I’m washed up–that I’ve lost it–that I don’t have it anymore!” Essentially, Hardaway went on to declare that he was going to prove everyone wrong. I felt for my former sports hero out there–seemingly feeling abandoned by his fans & given up for dead as a superstar so quickly. In my mind, I equated his story as one of a Prince who was promised the throne early on but never got to become King. Quietly, I pulled for Hardaway to return to vintage form although I suspected he would not. I wanted to see him succeed–I sympathized with his struggle . . . because I knew that it was just a matter of time before I would feel that way on whatever path my own life would take me.

Not long ago, I came to terms with the proof of my own aging process. In an earlier post, I wrote: “Growing up is bitter-sweet. Growing old is, well–bitter. I was actually down on myself for a few days. I soon replaced that emotion with anger. I used my anger to rip through strenuous workouts in the gym, resolving myself to conquer Father Time on sheer anger & commitment alone if nothing else. But then I went to Church on Sunday for the first time since the Covid shutdown, & have since replaced my anger with yet another emotion.

Just because Penny Hardaway’s status as an NBA superstar ended around the time I witnessed that fateful press conference, he was still right to dismiss the idea that he was washed up. One era in his career may have been over, but his career would continue. And once Penny’s career would end, his life would continue. Likewise, just because I had lost my youthful boyish charm didn’t mean that I am now less valuable or even less likable. I’m a much better person in almost every way aside from metric that I carry a bit more mass around the waistline now (BMI) & a bit less mass atop my head (thinning). But in almost every other way, I am a much more complete person in the here & now. Perhaps I’m equally likable, albeit for different reasons. Long story short, without breaking into scripture & evangelizing to you–attending service yesterday provided me with meaningful perspective.

This journey we call life–maybe we shouldn’t think of it as a single multi-year, uninterrupted span of time. Perhaps its more useful to view our lives as a series of mini–lifetimes chained together. When one mini-lifetime ends, we have a brand new one to look forward to. In some ways, our new life will carry with it benefits that the previous one did not. In some cases, however, these new benefits will come at the cost of some qualities that we had held dear earlier. The trick is, at least for me, to learn to adapt a new standard to each new era in this extended series of lives. I’m no theologian, but right now, this perspective works okay for me.

I used to consider the term “washed up” the ultimate insult. But, like most everything else, the term carries with it whatever connotation I assign to it. Maybe “washed up” means nothing more than washing away the scars of negative feelings of that last era of live & emerging from the waters refreshed, ready to take on the challenges of the next era. This explanation works much better with my approach of treating life as a series of eras–or, if you prefer, mini-lives wired together along a multi-year, multi-path journey that hopefully brings with it more satisfaction than regret.

I’ve meant no disrespect to any NBA players or fans, past or present. Times changes, standards change. And I still count Penny Hardaway as one of my favorite NBA players of all time. What I used to perceive as a rise & fall of a gifted player–something that used to bring me sorrow–wasn’t anything to be sorry about at all. It’s just part of a process that most of us will experience at some point. There’s no shame in leaving who we were before in order to arrive at who we are now. I’m no philosopher or life coach, for that matter. This was just all my 2 cents; or two “sense,” if you prefer.

Three Rounds

A few years ago, I was down on my luck financially. Luckily, I have a great nuclear family so that, although we are all old enough to have our separate lives, someone was able to take me in. But the first few months of this arrangement were unbelievably precarious as I hadn’t even pinned down a job. All the same, we had a neighbor about my age who was in a similar situation & was living with his mom. He was more a blue collar guy; he worked construction jobs contract by contract & then would take several weeks off in between. He was in just such a scenario on the night in question. But, for his lifestyle, this situation was a bit more natural. As such, he was more laid back about it & would often want to go out to drink. While my circumstances left me a mood to join him, my lack of funds made me reluctant to do so. Easy solution. My neighbor–let’s call him, “Joe”–simply declared: “Oh, come on out. I’ve got your first few rounds.”

Beer
Twenty-one means 21! Please drink responsibly or don’t drink.

I’ll have to admit; since Joe was always a bit of a wilder guy than I was so I was often reluctant to hit the town with him simply out of fear of finding myself in some kind of trouble. But that night, I was glad that we went out. I needed the break. I needed a moment to leave all my worries at home for a bit. There was a decent crowd out & I found myself in a variety of interesting conversations. I took Joe up on his offer to cover my first few rounds & eventually ordered three drinks. My bill, with tip, probably came out to around twenty bucks before it was all over.

Well, a couple of years later, I had a U-Haul parked outside & furniture, large cardboard boxes, & a collection of various other worldly possessions strewn across the yard. Things had gotten better for me; not great, but better. I had managed to re-establish a constant employment status. I saw Joe smoking a cigarette as he watched me from across the street. He didn’t say a word but I remembered that I owed him $20. He had lent out a hand when I was down; I would not fail to re-pay him now that I was back up. I walked across the street.

“So you’re moving, huh?” he asked before taking another deep drag from his cigarette.

“Yeah. I guess the neighborhood will be all yours again,” I replied as we both chuckled.

We hadn’t really seen that much of each other over the last several months since that night we decided to hit up happy hour together. I coolly extended my hand out to him with a $20 bill in tow.

“Here you go, man.”

His cigarette arm dropped down low towards his hip as he looked at the Andrew Jackson perplexed. Neither one of us were rolling in dough at the moment; I was surprised he didn’t accept my offering, inquiring instead, “What’s this?”

Joe
For dramatic effect only. I do not promote smoking.

“Way back when, before I had even found a job in town, we went out to the bar that time. I didn’t have any money & you bought me three rounds anyway. I never forgot,” I replied as I extended the greenback out to him again. Joe looked at me for a moment & after a period of silence, you said, “No man. Keep it. I was never looking for you to pay me back.”

I majored in English in college. Majoring in English is a lot like major in philosophy; you learn to analyze your life experiences in every & any way that doesn’t involve numbers or hard science. In other words, I spend a great deal of time reflecting. I’m pretty good at it. But I have a sister who majored in both English & psychology & then went on to graduate school; & I think she may even be better than I am at it. I bring her up because she often reflects on the motivation behind the interactions she experiences within the family as well as her inner circle. She told me once that she used to do the right thing because she believed people would return the favor. She’d loan someone her car or listen to a friend’s problem because she knew someday the tables would turn & she would need these same people to do the same for her. But one day, she told me she realized what a flawed world view that was. It wasn’t flawed from a moral standpoint, just a practical one. People rarely returned the favor!

So one day while she sat on the couch in one of her reflecting moods, she told me: “Don’t help someone because you want them to owe you later on. Don’t do anything nice because you expect any kind of reward down the road. If you do, you’ll be waiting forever. Just help people; just be kind because it’s the right thing to do. If you allow yourself to be motivated by anything else, you’re going to be disappointed in life.”

I also have a brother who’s an unconfirmed genius. I say unconfirmed because he’s not a member of Mensa & no professional has ever assessed him. It doesn’t matter. He’s a genius–a real numbers & science guy. He’s never had to move in with family because of “hard times.” While the world was going gah-gah over Google, I’d just ask my smart brother. He’d frequently respond faster than Google did anyway! Blame it on the WI-FI. Anyway, my aforementioned sister went through a divorce a few years back. She stayed on good terms with her ex-husband; so much so that when her ex-husband had to move, she sent me over to help him. I didn’t think anything of it. Her ex-husband is a nice guy & I like lifting things anyway; I actually work in the weight room of a health club, in part because of the free membership. Afterwards, sister’s ex-hubby took me out to my favorite pizzeria & treated me to a fabulous feast.

Not long afterwards, I told my genius brother about my latest adventure in lifting heavy objects & the memorable feast that ensued. His response surprised me a bit. “That sounds like a lot of work. How much did he pay you?” he asked.

“Pay me?” I asked. “Well, he bought me pizza. Two different kinds even! I had so much I had to take some home.”

“Just pizza?” my intelligent brother inquired. “It seems for that amount of effort & time that he should have paid you.”

Now this brother of mine is not only smart but kind-hearted too. When I moved into my first apartment after college, he drove from his home two hours away & help me get moved in, assemble furniture, & the like. He never asked for anything & truthfully, I never offered. I just considered what I had done for my sister’s ex-husband something along the lines of what my brother had done for me.

“Three rounds,” I thought to myself while listening to today’s sermon. Not everything is about dollars & cents; or even dollars & sense. Sometimes, we just do what we do because it seems right.

Maybe more people just adopt the attitude, “No. Keep your twenty.” Then again, maybe I should go to Church more often!

Read the Fine Print

Fine Print
Photo borrowed from online SOURCE.

I used to be cute. I’m an adult male in modern day America. Describing myself as “cute” isn’t the image we’re taught to aim for. When people used to describe me this way, I took it as an insult as much as a compliment. Cute was for kittens; or girls’s shoes. Men weren’t meant to be cute. We were meant to be rugged, strong, & brave. And, if  you insist–sure, handsome. Oh, & don’t forget strong & tall. Growing up, boys were trained to be sexy, carnivorous, semi-tame apex predators. We would either become LIONS; or FOOD for the LIONS. But cute was as good as I could  muster; so I had no choice but to stick with it.  I was strong but never tall, so no one believed I was strong. And, before I had access to a real gym with its endless supply of 45 lbs plates, my strength was relative to men much larger than I was. But then, with the help of the decently sized college that I attended (gym access) combined with the natural weight gain that occurs in males after the age of 25 or so (pizza & burgers), I morphed into a sturdy enough male to go about my daily life relatively risk free.

But night time was different. With the darkness came the night scene. Clubs & bars with groups of young reckless males organized into small war parties on the prowl for beautiful & sometimes intoxicated girls. This was a world of crowded dance floors, short tempers, & extreme posturing from both genders. This was no environment for anyone other than the apex predators—the lions were out! I was more of a leopard myself. Solitary, exotic, & mysterious cats–not the largest predator but strong enough; & often the most cunning. Leopards are powerful enough carnivores to co-exist with lions; but they’re simply not large enough to confront the them. Leopards aren’t strong enough to be too proud, instead relying on the combination of their overall attributes. Leopards simply aren’t big enough to be king. They are condemned to resign themselves to success in the shadows; on the outskirts of the lion’s territory. It didn’t take long for me to tire of playing the part of the leopard. I wanted to challenge for the crown.

But first, back to the cute thing. It wasn’t so much that girls were falling all over themselves to date me. It’s more that they almost universally reacted positively to me. I have the personality of a Labrador puppy. Those dogs are so full of energy & enthusiasm; they have no concept of the term stranger. The Labrador pup more describes me than the leopard metaphor overall. I’d rather have someone feed me than have to hunt to eat. And back when I was cute, that’s exactly what happened! I’d go into fast food restaurants & strike up a conversation with the pretty girl taking my order. I wouldn’t think anything of it; I wasn’t angling for anything, I just liked being out & interacting with people. Frequently, I’d go to pay & receive a bill with a $0.00 balance & a smile. This even happened at more formal sit down restaurants. I remember yacking it up with the tall, slim blonde at our local I-HOP-type restaurant. My brother was stunned when our garrulous waitress came back from our request to pay the bill & instead leaned over to me to whisper: “Can you guys keep a secret? It’s on us tonight.”

“Gosh! What did you do?” my brother demanded as we walked to the car afterwards. “Nothing,” I replied. “Oh, you used your boyish charm!” he retorted.

Timeout. Keep in mind that as a male in his mid-twenties at the time, “boyish charm” was never rarely my goal. But it was, for better or worse, how I often came across.

I never went out with the 19-year-old waitress. I never even asked for her phone number. By all “manly” accounts, I struck out. But still, this instance of “striking out” demonstrates what I’m trying to convey. I used to be “cute;” not “sexy.” I was a leopard, not a lion. Or really, more accurately put–a Labrador retriever.

All this time, I yearned to be taken seriously. I pushed myself to become a sturdy man & not a cute boy. I was tired of getting carded every time we went out & other men failing to abide by common courtesies when I was out with my girlfriend.

Then suddenly, everything changed. People started calling me “Sir” in stead of “you boys” or “young man” when I’d patronize a local establishment. Bartenders would serve me without so much as a blink of an eye. The college girls working at the local grocery would scan my beer by punching in some imaginary DOB into the system. I looked at a receipt once & it said, “Visually Verified” next to my beer purchase. I’d have young men who towered over me physically defer to my expansive life experience when we spoke sports, current events, or other weighty matters. The change was just like night & day; as if by the flick of a switch. This all started about four years ago.

Around that same time, I found myself interacting on a personal level with a wider audience. Anyone from retired widows to bulky thirty-year old power lifters to high school students would engage me in polite & often enthusiastic conversation. It’s not as though I had a rich social life because I worked so much. After work, I’d work out & sleep as my primary recreational activities. But I have two jobs that involve working with the public & I lift weights frequently at our local health club. I also like to eat out to reward myself a couple of times a week. And these moments offered me numerous opportunities to engage in a variety of friendly but mostly casual conversations. However, I noticed that a larger percentage of the younger women–say, the 18-24 demographic–no longer reacted to me the way they used to. They were usually polite; but often brief & much less enthusiastic than most everyone else. I was perplexed. My personality hadn’t changed. I was sturdier & more grown-looking than ever before. And my audience of casual friends had the widest range age groups & backgrounds then ever before. Why wouldn’t the pretty college-aged girls who used to smile at me & give me free food & talk to me for hours at the local Walmart suddenly act aloof around me? Weren’t they proud to recognize that the exuberant Labrador puppy had finally evolved into a predator capable of challenging the great lion? I had finally achieved what I had been yearning to accomplish since puberty. I finally had some respect.

This past weekend, I went home to visit my parents. This isn’t totally unusual, but what was different this time is that I stayed overnight in the bedroom I used when I moved back home after college. Truth be told, I had been in & out of this room at various times throughout my twenties. I’d put up favorite photos from over those years on the mirror above the chest of drawers. I couldn’t sleep so I found myself checking out these pictures from my younger adulthood. And then, like a punch from a heavyweight boxer, the answer to the question I had been asking hit me straight between the eyes.  I could tell that the young man in these pictures “resembled” me, but no longer represented what I currently look like. I looked at my modern day reflection in the mirror & then at a picture from my youth. It was like one of those scenes from a movie. Almost before my eyes, the reflection looking back at me devolved from the dashing young upstart man to a man who has survived numerous struggles & had overcome endless obstacles. The reflection looking back at me looked like a survivor; but one whose survival had come at a cost. Gone was the boyish charm I saw frozen in the pictures that flanked the reflection of my true self. They say that a picture paints a thousand words. Those thousand worlds told me this: I may still feel like a Labrador puppy on the inside, but I project the image of an old war horse on the outside. Cute allows you a wide range of freedom. Cute gets the benefit of a doubt. Old war horses don’t.

Me
Big kitty, little kitty borrowed from online SOURCE.

Growing up is bitter sweet. Growing old(er) is well, bitter. And sweet, because it means I’m still alive. Bitter because each passing year brings us closer to another goodbye. Ever since I put down my toys to talk football, girls, cars, & ambition–I had prayed for the day the world would finally see me as a man. And now that said day has finally arrived, I’m wondering why I never considered that achieving my Holy Grail of dreams would come without a cost. But now I know that everything has a cost. There’s nothing for free. I finally achieved the self-assuredness & I had long sought; I had finally won some respect. But no one told me that in order to gain what I’ve always wanted, I’d have to lose something that I already had.

I’ve always heard the saying & I’m sure you have too. Be careful what you wish for. Because if & when it finally happens, it often comes at a heavy cost. Before you “Wish upon a star,” be sure to READ THE FINE PRINT.

I learned a harsh lesson this weekend. I told my sister that sometimes, when you yearn for an answer to a question that burdens you . . . you rarely consider that knowing could be just as painful as not knowing. But I also learned a positive lesson.

We’re always in a rush to acquire what we don’t have. That’s the American dream in a nutshell. But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. After this weekend, I have a new goal. I plan to appreciate the things I already have at least as much as I obsess over the things I don’t. Sometimes it helps to take a breathe & slow down. That gives us more time to READ THE FINE PRINT.

 

HARD AS STONE

SENSITIVITY STATEMENT

DukeCrop

I’m Jay Stone, Chief Petty Officer (CPO or simply “Chief”) in the United States Navy. At least, I think I’m still officially working for the Navy. You’ll see what I mean shortly. I’m the Team Leader of Bravo Team. No, that doesn’t make me the unit “commander;” that would be Lieutenant-Commander (LCDR) Graves. He’s the team’s commissioned officer & formal unit chief. As Team Leader, I’m simply the field lead operative. Depending on who you ask, I’m the team’s real leader while Graves is more of the department administrator. All the big wigs in Washington see Graves as the leader while most of the operator’s you meet in the field defer to me instead. You see, I’m an enlisted guy just like the other 80% or so of military professionals who trade slugs with the enemy face-to-face in the mud. But as a small special warfare element, everyone on this unit is a capable & experienced grunt. Graves included; hell, his nickname before he received his commission was Grunt!

Anyway, you’ll hear more about Graves–or “LT” as we call him–later. But while we’re on the topic, technically we should address Graves as “Sir” or “Commander.” But since most of us came up from SEAL platoons, which are 16-men units headed by a Lieutenant, its just habit to call the boss man “L-T.” He doesn’t seem to mind. He’s not too caught up in the officer/enlisted thing; but really at this level, hardly anyone is. As I was saying, we are a 5-man direct action combat unit modeled heavily after the US Navy SEALs. I say “man” because, as of now, there are only men on the team. We don’t have any qualms about having a women join our ranks. In fact, we often go into the teeth of battle with women leading the way; mostly the secretive CIA types. We are the CQB (Close-Quarter-Battle) element of a small special warfare task force, the name of which I will reveal later. Our unit, Bravo Team, infiltrates & exfiltrates our target areas the same way SEAL Platoons do–by Sea, Air, & Land. In addition, we share most of the same mission profiles, although our charter calls for a narrower list of responsibilities. We only deploy with a max of our 5 guys with occasional support of a 2-man sniper team; SEALs can deploy in a full platoon of 16, or at least they did when I was there.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about unit integrity & have you meet the other guys. Typically, I lead a 4-man team in the field; but I don’t technically always lead the way. That’s the Point man’s job. That would be Reyes. He acts as our primary pathfinder & almost always spearheads the formation. I’m usually next followed by our Assaulter/Breacher Bowman. After him its Compton bringing up the rear as Assaulter/Tail Gunner. This scheme represents our most frequently used load out. Sometimes, LT goes out into the field with us. When he does, he lines up between Bowman & me. This way, LT is the man in the middle if we make contact & he can split us up into two separate maneuver elements with me & Reyes as alpha & Bowman & Compton as bravo. LT can join either element as needed but he most often stays under cover & directs each element as an observing 3rd party. In our task force, we call this our “fireteam plus one”(fireteam + 1) format. When we go full force, we work alongside Variable, a 2-man sniper unit for fire support. Typically, that’s it; that’s all we got. Now, depending on the situation, we usually have close air support via helicopter or drone strike; but that’s when we really get fancy!

In formal military parlance, they call units like us low intensity conflict solutions. That’s a bit of a misnomer, because the conflict gets really intense & the stakes are always really high. When I say stakes are high, we are talking the difference between making to work for your 9 am presentation or nuclear holocaust depending on mission success or failure. I laugh when I hear my friends back home talk about not being able to sleep because of anxiety from their jobs. If they only knew!

Anyway, they call us “low intensity conflict” operatives not because the conflict is low stakes, just small scale. When I say small scale, I mean 4 to 16 guys taking on an enemy maybe 12 to 60 members strong; and that’s on a big operation. The fighting is still fierce & high risk, it’s just not high intensity in terms of a giant World War II style battlefield with 100,000 soldiers all jumbled in an area of a few square miles. Our missions look more like those of a big city SWAT team raiding a local organized crime warehouse. The difference is, our jurisdiction is global & the implications are bigger than that. How “big” you ask? Real “big”. We’re talking borders on your smart phone’s GPS change day by day based on the things me & my guys do the night before “big”. We’re talking North Korea doesn’t launch a missile capable of reaching our capital because one of my guys made a pin point shot with his last bullet from 100 meters with his left hand when he’s right handed “big”!

SShheeewww! Low intensity conflict. Pahhh-LEAZE!! Anxiety over having to present a proposal to the boss the next day. Most people wouldn’t last two hours in my world. But, truth be told, I’m probably no more stressed or no loss stressed than everyone else is at their office job or in their factory somewhere. Because the truth is, this is simply what I’ve chosen to do. And I explain it to people like this. Stress, fear, anger, anxiety . . . they are all just universal emotions. It’s just like turning up the volume on your fancy stereo when you favorite song comes up. If your volume meter only goes up to ten & you typically have it on 8 or 9 for your average song, you can still only crank it up one more notch even for a real kick ass song!  We can’t freak out 10 times worse than normal just because the stakes are 10 times higher. That’s a realization that brought me some finally brought me some peace. I used to resent my civilian neighbors more than I do now for living filled with such petty concerns. But then I realized that what looks petty to be as I’m trying prevent the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile looks big to someone back home trying to hold down a job. I don’t consider those guys lesser men anymore–just different. After all, I choose to do this. I was made to do this. God has different plans for different men; but we are still men. We are all still necessary & valuable. We each just have to serve our purpose. And I haven’t even gotten to the women yet! Where would we do without them?

Anyway, that’s what terminal recognition did for me; enabled me to forgive my neighbors for living a life different from mine. Terminal recognition is the term we use in the task force for that idea that we can only feel fear up a a set max level. Once you hit level 10, rest assured you are adequately aware of the high stakes. Focusing on your fear or how big a moment it is beyond this becomes counter productive. At this point, you’ve acknowledged the risk. Now it’s time to block out the emotion, formulate a plan, & execute it. That’s what we call terminal recognition. Any emotion beyond that point is just pure distraction.

We may be SEALs. We may be badass. We may be tough. But we’re still only programmed to max out emotional awareness at level 10.

I’m Jay Stone. Most people think I’m a hard-ass. The guys I work with tell me I’m “hard as stone.” And I don’t guess they’re wrong.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Current posts mirrors original content posted to affiliate site onesixthwar. Hosted here to minimize ads.

RETURN to HQ

FICTION FRONT PAGE

ADVENTURE FICTION

SENSITIVITY STATEMENT

LT

Up to this point (May 2020), I’ve used this site as a virtual shelf to display my collection of 12″ GI Joes along with an assortment of other 1/6 scale action figures.Now I’ve decided to write a bit of fiction recording the action through the eyes of my 12 ” heroes as they navigate the perils of my scaled down, imaginary world. I have always had a deep interest in the military, in history, & recently in politics: as such, I will strive to keep everything realistic insofar as I will base everything on the real world without specifically writing about real world events. I never served in the military. I do not intend to criticize or to judge anyone else’s culture, beliefs, or  life experience (see SENSITIVITY STATEMENT for details). I just want to tell a compelling story and, in doing so, demonstrate the reason that a man well into his thirties has remained so glued to relics of his childhood. Some people play video games to visit an alternate reality; I used to drink to do so. But now, I choose to do this. It’s more creative, less expensive, & less dangerous.

RETURN to HQ

 

Two Princes

“One, two, princes kneel before you . . . Princes, princes who adore you . . . One has diamonds in his pockets . . . This one, he wants to buy you rockets/ Ain’t in  his head, now.”     —-From a song by Spin Doctors, circa 1993

Princes
To view photo’s source material, CLICK HERE.

A few years ago, when I was already a grown man, my father revealed something to me. He had recently experienced a vision. Everything happened from the first person point of view & from the perspective of an older man. This older man seeks the counsel of a psychic. We’ll call him, “the Seeker.” Through the opaque sphere of the crystal ball, the Seeker perceives his past life as a prince. He sees the splendor of medieval castles complete with all the accouterments befitting royalty. The Seeker sees himself through the crystal ball as a strapping young man at the peak of his physical strength but still too headstrong & inexperienced to become king. Still, this prince appears right on the brink of ascension. The son brims with excitement at the prospect of replacing his father as undisputed ruler. You know how the saying goes; like father, like son. But in this case, the son has become the father’s biggest rival.

The vision becomes vague from here. You see, reading crystal balls is not a precise action like watching YouTube on your wireless tablet. Sometimes you can see a story with clear, concise chronology; but the more you watch, the more you become entranced with the whole practice. Towards the end, you only see bits & pieces of scattered images & then it’s up to you to piece together what it all means. I guess it’s because they didn’t have high speed WiFi during the era that produced crystal balls! Anyway, the Seeker also sees the image of an embellished broad sword hanging on a wall. The sword, although beautifully elaborate, has never tasted blood. The next image the Seeker relays is that of a treasure locked away deep underneath the castle in a room that seems oddly familiar. The Seeker leaves the session with the psychic believing only what he wants to believe. He perceives the images to mean that in a past life, he, the Seeker, had been a prince on the brink of greatness. But somehow, he dies before he fulfills his destiny–symbolized by the unused sword. However, the Seeker can still reap the spoils of the conquest he never completed in his previous life in his current one–symbolized by the hidden treasure locked in a room that he can almost locate. The trick, the Seeker believes, is to decode the hidden location of the treasure room through his repressed memory; then, the glorious reign he never experienced in his past life, he can enjoy in the here & now!

My older brother got married several years ago now. It was so long ago, the one & only child from that union is now a committed middle school student who already grapples with adult-level questions, like her future occupation. My brother is the kind of man who would have always lived this model, dutiful life. He was always a one-woman man; & true to form, he & his wife are still married & will always be till death do they part; because, that’s just the kind of man he is. This brother currently lives the life that our father would have hoped for all of us. I bring the story of his wedding into our current one because it was such a spectacular affair. They held their combined ceremony & reception at a venue that stood atop a steep multi-terraced hill. At least one of the hills featured a lavish fountain. Further down the terrace eventually disappeared into a gently flowing river.  And all the guests could enjoy this amazing sight from atop the pinnacle, from a reception area complete with tables shaded under white canopies; their banners flying proudly against the warm, blue May sky. The ceremony was one fit for a King–& a Queen of course. On a side note, I’d like to make a clarification in the pursuit of accuracy. Earlier, I stated that my brother had always been a one woman man. This statement was correct up to the time the happy couple’s daughter was born. Now, my brother is technically a “two woman man” but I think we can all give him a pass for this: his daughter does have a rather pleasant demeanor to her. It’s as though my brother & his wife have their very own princess!

TO BE CONTINUED (SOON)

Wedding
For photo’s source material, CLICK HERE.

It’s Covid19, but still: Take a Breath

Sometimes it is so difficult to allow life to happen in the order it should. For example, I had planned to post my reflection on the arrival of our real world SHTF scenario when life in the Great United States stood still in mid-March over Covid19 fears. It would’ve made so much more sense for that declaration to come before what I’m going to say today. That even in a crisis when many communities have been stricken with tragedy; there is still time to stop & take a breath, to look around, and to reassess the direction our lives have been going all that time before when we were stuck in top gear.

I watch the news too; as much as I can tolerate to do so, that is. My Mom used to say that too much of anything is a poison & she recently retired as an accomplished Family Care Physician.  So although I strive to stay informed, I refuse to spend my entire day soaking up all the doom & gloom. I recognize that many people have died; and many survivors suffer amid the loss & despair that have been left behind. Today I heard some expert on some network declare that breathing in the presence of another person in public spaces is one of the easiest ways to proliferate the spread, hence the emphasis on the use of masks. “They are not for your protection but for the protection of those around you,” the experts say. I heard on the radio yesterday that somewhere in Texas, a person could be fined $1000.00 per day if they are discovered in public without a mask. I also heard today some pundits debating the future of air travel, with one supposed employee of the airline industry asserting that all flights for the purpose of pleasure or leisure should be banned outright. She reasoned that the act of packing a cabin to even half of its occupancy capacity would expose everyone on board to the noxious fumes of one another’s breath. We have become a poison to one another. The virus is no longer the greatest danger we face but our own insistence on fellowship!

I took a walk today. The temperature was over seventy & the sun was bright. The only clouds in the air were the ones that looked like mass plumes of cotton balls strewn together & they were few & far between, exposing the serenity-inspiring blue of a wide sky on an early spring day. I took a deep breath; the air felt good. There was no one around so it was safe. But before long, there were people around; but way off in other wide opened spaces just like the one I happened to occupy. I saw neighbors walking their dogs; parents sitting with their kids on front porches; cars driving about here & there. Seemingly all the news had been about death & darkness but today, I saw life occurring around me—albeit at a slower than normal pace, but occurring nonetheless.  This more leisure pace of things brought back a memory from earlier in the week when I stood in a line—with individuals spaced out at six feet intervals, of course—at a local sandwich shop. The service was painfully slow. I pitied the small remaining staff as they fumbled around to diminish their huge work load. On a day back when “life was normal,” I’m sure every customer in that line would be fuming with indignant rage. But today, everyone quietly waited their turn. Everyone was polite even when receiving bad news, like news their online order was never found & all the time in line they spent had been wasted. Even then, everyone was at peace–& I believe it was because none of us had any place to go! When I cashed out, I told the checkout girl: “Thanks for being opened today.” She smiled. Just four weeks ago or so, I thought that the people who got to keep their jobs were the lucky ones. But today, I felt like those of us in line waiting for sandwiches during The Apocalypse were the lucky ones.

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I know that the last six weeks or so have been tough on many of us; even tragic for some. And I in no way intend to minimize the pain of those who are suffering. But even in the midst of all the uncertainty & chaos, I’ve found that it is still possible to find tranquility. It’s amazing what having a little extra time can do to our outlook on things; even a crisis. As I took another deep, unmasked breath of fresh air, I realized how much of our lives that we spend pressed for time—aggravated because we can’t quite meet our obligation to someone else’s timetable. With all that Covid19 has taken from us, at least it gave some of us something back—time.

So if you’re feeling down, just remember that good things can come even during bad times. I, for one, have taken a moment to reflect on what track I’m currently on in my life; and then question whether or not the destination it’s leading to is really where I want to go. When you’re working as much as most of us are, you hardly have time for some idle inner banter during the little bit of free time we may have.  But, at least for some of us, Covid19 has given us that, at least.

The experts seem to be telling us that our very breath is an invitation to death, at least when unmasked & in the presence of others. I find that thought ironic since life is not possible without breath. I say, if you have a space all to yourself & no one is around—take off your mask &take a deep breath. Take a few seconds to let it set in. Just a few weeks ago, the world acted as though the sky would turn blood red & come crashing into the earth. But who knows—on a beautiful spring day like today, you may as I did, look up while taking that deep breath in private & see that the sky is indeed intact . . . and very often, still blue!

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