Arch-Angel Michael spoke in Parable

Today’s post marks a bonus chapter in my series of posts centering around a fictional character in a contrived scenario while he tries to cope with the 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.

This past Sunday, I was supposed to meet with a casual female friend at Sunday service. Although I am a social person & enjoy meeting & greeting before & after service, I prefer to sit through the service alone. However, I ran into a casual friend from the same church while working out at our local gym earlier in the week. She hadn’t been to service in a while. I told her that she had been missing out because the sermons have been dead on & then mentioned where I normally sit. She volunteered that she would come sit with me. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about bringing someone else—even a friend–into my sacred square. Once I get my mind to “guard” something, I really hunker down like a German Shepherd. But soon I warmed up to the idea of having someone to share the message with on this day.

That morning, I had a difficult time getting out of bed. I was in danger of sleeping through Sunday service which, if nothing else, throws my entire Sunday–my only day off during the week–into a tailspin & I end up trying to play catch-up all day. Seriously, there’s no reason anyone should need that much sleep! Plus, I knew there would be someone waiting for me & that she would be disappointed if I didn’t show. So dutifully, I soldiered up, hopped out of bed, & made my hasty preparations for departure.

Well, we were already into the sermon & there was still no sign of her. It was no big deal. I wasn’t angry with her; she was just a casual friend who had a husband & family but expected to attend service alone on this particular morning. The gesture was more akin to inviting a co-worker or neighbor to Thanksgiving dinner when they had no one to share the holiday with. I wasn’t disappointed with my friend; but I was disappointed. My lips mouthed in silence the private lament that had already formed in my head: “L-O-R-R-A-I-N-E!” It was my friend who had stood me up, but it was Lorraine who I missed. It was Lorraine’s tall, slender form & long flowing hair that I scanned the congregation in vain to catch a glimpse of. It was Lorraine who had discarded me; who had discredited me; who deserted me. It was Lorraine who had ABANDONED me. And so, it was her name that I spoke meekly in my mind, like a haunting echo pleading for help lost amid a cloudy sky of expansive nothing. It was Lorraine’s absence that made me suddenly feel so isolated.

All the same, the service was stellar as usual. The message from the sermon was difficult to hear but necessary to receive. The preacher asked us what it was that we treasured the most in our lives? Then he challenged us to assess whether or not that thing that we treasured so greatly meant more to us than our commitment to God? He inquired, “What is it that you’re holding onto–that you’re clinging to so obsessively as to reduce your commitment to God?” Before he even asked the question, my answer had already formed silently in my mind. “Lorraine.”

No matter who disappointed me or who let me down, the blame would always fall on Lorraine. No matter who stood me up or broke a promise, so long as she were female, my mind would register it as yet another failure of Lorraine to recognize my value. It probably sounds unfair, but understand this: No female on earth has ever made me feel such enthusiasm for even the simplest moments in life. But by the same token, no other female on earth has ever disappointed me in so devastating a manner. After service, I walked over to my fellow congregant & close confidant, Michael. He had known about my fascination with Lorraine from the beginning. I told him what happened & that I blamed Lorraine. He chuckled. But then I asked him in earnest, “How long will it be like this?” And then, this long-time Protestant & true student of the Bible answered me in an almost parable-like fashion: “Well, that’s up to you. How long are you going to hold on to your disappointment?”

I mourned an inescapable awareness that the chains of heartbreak that I carried over Lorraine would burden me indefinitely. I looked up to the morning sky, searching for answers; but all I saw was that rain from a sudden storm had begun to come down.

Every time it rains, I always seem to think of her.

Sunday’s Sermon: Head in the Clouds

Because of that dumb virus, my Church has moved services outdoors. Or perhaps I should say, “Thanks to that dumb virus, my Church has moved services outdoors.” Because I really like it!

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I’m almost dreading when we have to move services back indoors–until it gets cold, that is. Although I am sociable & like to meet & greet before & after service, I prefer to sit alone on the periphery of the crowd to safeguard myself & others from said virus, among other things. Today was the first day that I turned completely away from the sermon & locked my gaze on the beautiful blue sky above. I still listened, of course, but I wanted to treat today’s sermon more like a meditation session than an academic lecture. I know, I know! Meditation & Church aren’t suppose to mix, but just give me a few paragraphs to explain.

I went through a period of depression a few years ago when I was living on the coast. Rediscovering how to go about my daily activities in a life that, at the time, appeared to be filled with endless conflict & obstacles felt like the process patients describe when recovering from a stroke. I just had to learn to live, all over again. I found that it helped pacify me when I would sit on the beach for a while & just watch the waves. Typically, I’d have to pick one spot in the surf & just force myself to lock in to that one spot. If I did it right, I would escape to a place of serenity after a few minutes. All my anxiety, dread, & suffering would evaporate, even for but a moment. Although I seemed to have described “meditation,” I consider this as more a moment with God. When I was a kid growing up attending Catholic Mass on Sundays, I remember a priest had implored the adults in the congregation: “Give over your stress, your fears, your anxieties to God–just for a moment! Receive the peace that God offers; know that He is with you.” That’s what it felt like as I watched the surf break against the shore.

So this morning, I found myself looking out first at the horizon where a nearby hill disappeared into a distant treeline & eventually into a blue August sky. I was trying to replicate that sensation I had achieved years earlier along the shore. I wondered what I must have looked like to members of the congregation. I half-expected a woman to approach me & politely ask, “What are you looking for out there?” But I had my answer ready because I knew exactly what I was looking for. “I’m looking for God.”

Again, re-visiting my experience-rich childhood, my friends & I would lay down in the grass & look up at the sky. The clouds didn’t appear to be so high up; they were high, of course–taller than any tree, building, or mountain that I could ever imagine–but they didn’t seem unattainable. “That’s where God lives, I told my friends once as I pointed up at the clouds. We’re looking at the floors of Heaven from underneath His house.” My friends looked up in awe, not wishing to challenge my statement but hoping to take in the impressive sight for themselves. “Wow!” we would all say in unison.

As I grew older, I realized that God didn’t live “in the clouds.” It was childish of me to limit such a majestic being to such a localized environment of “the clouds.” But I had to grow older & even wiser still before I realized that God resided everywhere. There was a song that made the charts back in the early 2000’s. A young woman proclaimed, “I can feel you all around me.” I later learned that the song was indeed about God. Even when I’m down; even when I’m not in Church; even when I’m feeling undeserving . . . God is there. And serenity–that escape from my regrets, my weighty choices, my anxiety–is there with Him, waiting for me. I’ve found His peace in the waves when I was depressed & in the sky when I was a child. And now that I need him again to guide me through my life’s latest crossroad, I know He’s out there somewhere. I just need to found out where.

Sadly, this morning I was unable to locate the answers I was seeking. No. I was too busy with my head in the clouds.

Stained Glass

Today’s post marks the fifth in a series of posts centering around a fictional character in a contrived scenario while he tries to cope with the 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.

Stained
Picture borrowed from online source.

I read somewhere that Canterbury Cathedral in England features over 3,600 square ft of stained glass. Stained glass had intrigued me from the time I learned about the topic during a childhood summer  camp. We were putting on a production of “The Pirates of Penzance” & every segment of the camp, even the art class, attempting to incorporate era appropriate themes into the daily activities. As a young boy growing up in the American Southeast, I was enthralled. “Wow!” I thought. “Pirates, sword fighting, cannons, &  now–treasure! What beautiful works of art!” I loved how a handful of basic colors like red, blue, white, & green could come together to create almost any image imaginable. I liked how the windows were like a jigsaw puzzle; with each piece representing a precious treasure all by itself. When they all came together, it was like a culmination of miniature jewels combining to create the ultimate MASTERPIECE! And when the sun shone through the other side of the glass, the entire structure would light up in an array of spectacular colors. In a time before electricity, a stained glass window with the sun’s rays behind it must have been the Medieval version of Times Square! Such a sight must have seemed like magic, or even better–a MASTERPIECE.

When I first saw Lorraine, I was dumbfounded by her physical beauty. I was a deer in the headlights; so unprepared to process the astounding scene of beauty before me that my entire body simply shut down. I’ve heard some religious texts describe this exact same state when a mortal finds himself in the presence of the divine. As I’ve made clear previously, (see“Breathless”), Lorraine is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. But what really blew me away about her was her demeanor. She was the sweetest girl I will ever meet.

Lorraine worked in an environment where she was surrounded by young, fit-bodied peers, including over-confident young men. I observed a great deal of fraternization, which is to be expected in any college-aged coed group. When Lorraine wasn’t studying or playing beach volleyball, she worked as a front desk attendant at the health club where I got my first job following my major surgery. And believe me–the “fraternization” wasn’t limited to similarly aged individuals. The managers were the worst–openly gawking & engaging female employees half their age while ignoring the male employees and frequently, even their responsibilities! But Lorraine somehow managed to remain coy in the midst of it all. She was so bashful, it was adorable! Somehow, she was able to keep all of the salivating wolves at bay & do so gracefully. And I say “bashful,” not “conceited” because she was amazingly modest. When she worked out, she always used the cardio equipment backed up against the wall so that people wouldn’t look at her backside while she got in her steps. When she worked on her abs or stretched, she’d always sneak off into one of the unoccupied yoga studios because she didn’t want the general public to catch her in a compromised position. And the greatest proof of her modest shyness emerged when she talked to any male co-workers. Lorraine never initiated a conversation; but if someone approached her, she would listen attentively & then respond cordially but briefly. She somehow managed to be polite without encouraging further interaction. The first time I actually talked to her, I must have looked like an imbecile! I was unprepared to receive her voice: how soft & feminine it was, but effortlessly confident. My mother had a jewelry box on her dresser when I was a child. It was crafted in the shape of a miniature chest of drawers. On top, it featured a bird cage with a fake parakeet perched on a swing. You could wind it up & the parakeet would swing back & forth while singing a calm music box melody. When I heard Lorraine’s voice for the first time, I thought of that music box. “Oh my gosh!” I remember thinking. “Even her VOICE is beautiful!” I probably looked like an imbecile because while I could think clearly in my head, I couldn’t say a word out loud.

Someway, somehow, I was able to get her to warm up to me. Lorraine behaved politely but cautiously around me for the first year-and-a-half or so, but eventually she started waving at me in the hallways or would stop to talk to me unsolicited. This was a big deal because Lorraine never waved to any guys much less stop & talk to them. She never caused problems for anyone & everyone who brought her up in conversation would describe her as “sweet” even if they had never spoken to her. She just exuded a peaceful, modest, non-judging persona that everyone seemed to appreciate from afar. But somehow, for a while at least, I got to the point where she would actually smile when she saw me! This was HUGE because Lorraine never smiled at ANYBODY! As I said earlier, (See“The Rain”) we were almost friends.

I even heard from a co-worker who had gone to high school with her that she had never even had a boyfriend. Despite her good looks, good grades, & aptitude in sports, she mostly kept to herself & a handful of close girl friends. I heard it was even a big deal when a group of her classmates observed her slow dancing with her date at her senior prom. This all matched up with what I had observed in my own experiences with her. Even at twenty-years old, Lorraine’s best friend was still her own mother, with whom she’d often work out. Lorraine was an absolute MASTERPIECE–to good to be true!

So you can imagine my shock when I happened on her rendezvous with that sinful manager. By this time, she was a nursing student & I was a security officer at our local hospital. There was a wing of the facility that was off limits to anyone but management & duty specific personnel. There were turbines & water heaters & electrical wires & such–big time OSHA hazards to leave opened to the general workforce. All doors in & out were locked. I was on patrol one afternoon. I know the schedule of everything that goes on at this hospital because it’s my job to know. The nursing students come in at 2 pm & they report to the 3rd Floor Conference Room before they do anything else. It was 2:10 when I came across those double doors for SECTOR A. To my shock, it came opened. I heard laughter & the voice of that idiot, meat-head manager from just inside the ajar door. And then, to my shock, I saw Lorraine emerge from behind the door–smiling, laughing, carrying on. When she saw that I was there, she stopped & when our eyes met, she had a horrified look on her face. I turned away & continued down the hallway to finish my patrol.

It felt like a normal day on my drive home. I wasn’t particularly agitated despite what I had witnessed earlier. But when I came into my kitchen wanting something to drink, it hit me. I flung my coat across the room & yelled some obscenity at that meat-head boss. Then I collapsed onto the floor & cried. I didn’t cry for long. My sense of duty soon kicked in. I couldn’t work for a man who I didn’t respect. I got drunk on Jack & Coke & then wrote my resignation letter that night. Fuck the job. Fuck the boss. Fuck everything. If Lorraine can’t stay pure, nothing on this God-forsaken earth is pure. Everything if polluted. We live in filth. Before the liquor took too strong a hold on me, I remember trying to visualize her face–the same beautiful face that had appeared so often to me even during my deepest slumber–but tonight, all I could see was debauchery. “I can’t even LOOK at you ANYMORE!” I yelled into my glass of Jack Daniels, thinking I was talking to her. I know it sounds unfair. I know it sounds insensitive. I know she didn’t owe me so much as an explanation much less any loyalty. But I’m still allowed to mourn. I’m still allowed to hurt. All I hear about is that I need to be sensitive to everyone else’s feelings. I need to go out of my way not to offend anyone. But what, I’m not allowed to feel offended myself? Everyone else’s feelings & sentiments & world views matter except for mine, is that how it works? Is that how this SHIT works? Tonight, I was going to mourn the loss of something that I had held sacred so so long & I didn’t care if that was selfish of me or not!

For three years, when I’d look at Lorraine, I’d see God’s earthly MASTERPIECE. But now, every time I see her, even if it’s just in my mind, all I see is . . . .

Shattered, stained glass.

Secret Santa

Today’s post marks the fourth 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.

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I grew up in a close knit family, complete with a foundation of traditional values. Holidays were a particularly special time to revel in our unity within the household as well as our community. My parents would always throw a huge Christmas Eve party & every relative & close family friend & community member would make an appearance. This would go on from about 3pm till about 11pm at which time we would all abide by the Catholic tradition of attending Midnight Mass. Once we all grew up & moved away, however, these holiday gatherings became less frequent. During one such holiday season, however, my siblings & I were all able to secure time off at the same time & we somehow managed to spend Christmas eve under our parent’s roof just like old times. It should have been a happy time, but for me, it had occurred after the Fall of Lorraine & I was off in a corner by myself moping. My sister, without even looking up from her book, suddenly stated: “She’s just a girl.”

I questioned her & she clarified. “Lorraine is just a girl. No matter what else you think of her. She’s young & her world view isn’t even developed yet; it’s not even based on real world experience, just her parent’s ideas more than anything.” I didn’t respond. I disagreed entirely with my sister’s assessment but I didn’t feel like engaging in a conflict on Christmas Eve especially over a topic I had already made by mind up about. No one had to understand why she mattered so much to me. No one had to approve of the pain I felt; it was real regardless. And it didn’t matter why she mattered so much; just that she did. I sunk deeper into my reflective shell. The crackling of the logs in the fireplace made it easier to escape into the deep recesses of my memories. I would take a trip into the past in order to understand the present.

When I was a kid, Christmas was such a special season of joy & anticipation. School was about to be out. Family would be visiting from out of town. We would decorate the house & presents with my name on them would appear daily underneath the Christmas tree. Yes, this sounds a bit selfish but this is a childhood memory, after all. Even if my sentiments aren’t exactly philanthropic, they are at least–pure. I used to spend my evenings after school, back in the days when I didn’t have any homework to do yet, placing all my gifts in one area & then examining the boxes. I’d usually use a Goldilocks technique–pick the ones not too small or not too big & that were neatly wrapped in a tight square or rectangle. I’d filter two or three of these “just right” sized gifts & play the guessing game. What could it be? I’d pick them up & assess the weight. I’d shake them & listen for any excessive roll internally. I’d hold them close to my ear to see if the gift would whisper a hint to ease my childish curiosity. I loved the smell of the wrapping paper & Scotch tape especially after the gifts had been under the tree for a few days because the tape would often have pine needles stuck to it, adding an additional dimension to the holiday-themed sensory euphoria. On Christmas morning, when I finally opened the gift, I found myself bewildered to discover that the excitement of owning that highly sought after toy failed to linger as long as the anticipation of yearning for it. By the time night fell over Christmas day, although I was happy to have the toy I wanted–I was sad to see the gift boxes & wrapping paper thrown away. It was as if the presentation of a gift from someone who cared about me mattered more than the gift itself.

Well, one Christmas when I was older, we did a Secret Santa gift exchange at work. This quiet, brown-eyed girl from Accounting who I had always admired drew my name. I know the point of a Secret Santa is to conceal the identity of the gift giver, but I tend to be resourceful at solving puzzles. I asked around, made some inferences, caught some breaks, & boom! I discovered who drew my name. She placed a beautiful package under our company tree. It was long with a silver base color but covered with a pattern of green Christmas trees all over. In certain areas, you’d see prominent red ribbons available; & sitting atop the box, as if a crown, rested a beautiful red ribbon. For 12 days (You know, like “The 12 Days of Christmas”?) I wondered what hidden treasure lay inside. When I finally opened it up, I was stunned to find it empty except for a small piece of paper containing a short note that read: “I didn’t know what to get you, so I decided on the gift of excitement.” And you know what? Because of who this note came from, I wasn’t disappointed. I had been excited leading up to the moment I opened the box & peered inside. And for some strange reason, the excitement of receiving that special toy that would often wear off so quickly during my childhood seemed to linger longer this time around. All she gave me was a stupid piece of paper; but my reaction to that gift is what made it stick for so long.

When I tell people close to me the story of Lorraine & how I was almost friends with this girl–the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, the sweetest girl I will ever meet–they laugh. “Why are you still thinking about her?” they’d ask. “You two were never even together. How could you love someone you were never even really friends with?” They’d chide & ridicule relentlessly, trying to change my mind about how I should feel about my experience. I used to try to convince them that they were the ones who were blind not to see it, but I stopped. I don’t have to convince anyone else that she’s worth pining over or that the pain is real or that the feelings I had for her before The Fall were real. All I have to do is think back to the gift of my Secret Santa. It doesn’t matter that my story with Lorraine didn’t end the way it was supposed to. It doesn’t matter that all anyone remembers about my Secret Santa is that I received an empty box. Lorraine gave me the gift of excitement. She made waking up on cold, winter mornings fun for this life-long night owl. She gave me a reason to smile while I forced myself into a cold shower, half-asleep or as I sat in a cold snow-covered car waiting for it to thaw out. She made the painful ritual of awakening on a cold, cheerless workday happy because I burned with the anticipation of seeing her again, even for a few minutes. Lorraine, like my Secret Santa, gave me the gift of excitement . . . and she never even had to wrap it. I don’t care if no one else will ever understand it; but Lorraine’s gift to me never faded away into darkness the way Christmas Day would fade into Christmas Night. Even now, when I think of her, my heart leaps. The excitement she brought to my life remains in it, even if she herself is gone from it. I wish I could tell her “Thank you, Lorraine; my lifelong Secret Santa.”

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!