Changing The Color of Shadows

Taken from the Sky Lift at the WI State Fair, August 2017

What good are opinions?

When you stop to think about it, they’re for the opiner more than anyone, a way to say, “I’m here.”

But it’s more than that.

When I hear people giving their opinion, the refrain I hear in my head is usually one of two things:

“No one has listened to me.”

OR

“I’m not listening to you.”

(Actually, it can be both of these at the same time!)

Oh, and there’s one more phrase that comes to mind, the one that gets us into the most trouble, particularly when we’re not standing in the same room and our comments are in boxes.

“Let’s argue.”

Of all of these, the first one is the most forgivable and most interesting. You’ll know it’s the first one because once you take the time to listen, the person’s entire body will change. They will change shape and color, like a ripening fruit. Their shadow will lighten, from black to a beautiful almost imperceptable shade of blue.

And the both of you will be able to move on, go a little bit further than you expected.

Moving is always more interesting than standing still.

What’s more important? What’s going to help you ripen?

Hearing your words out in the open air again?

Or hearing theirs?

Umbilical Cord

Girl riding bike in the middle of the road during day

When Evaline was a kid, I took her down to Jack London Square where the pavement runs straight for a good half mile. We brought her bike, which she barely wanted to touch, hadn’t touched since we got it.

It was early enough that there weren’t many people out, just us and the straightaway.

From the look of her first ride, I thought she’d never get it.

But, oh, what progress you can make in an hour!

By the time the crowds came in for brunch, I was keeping her balanced with just 2 fingers under the seat.

And she could feel it too. She’d look back with a smile on her face so wide, I couldn’t stop smiling, myself.

And then the moment:

I let go without telling her and looked on while she pedaled away. For a rare few seconds, I was the only one with the secret, a moment precious enough to be a painting.

And then reality set back in and I saw the bumps in the road. I saw the people coming in from the sides. I watched her front wheel wobble.

And I ran after her.

She’s a teenager now — 16 — and the potholes are way bigger, the crowds thicker, and the road is anything but straight. I can’t see around these damn corners and she’s going so fast…

But even if I could keep up, she doesn’t want me running alongside her anymore.

This may be the hardest part: standing still while she pedals away. Out of my sight except for glimpses of her at the intersections: a flash of color, that wild hair.

I have some solace though: a plan I hatched when she was born.

They made me cut her umbilical cord but they sure as shit can’t stop me from building another one.

This time, indestructible.

I’ve been pouring everything I got into that thing. For years. My body is drained and weak from all the work I’ve been doing, a big red stream from my heart to hers, a lifeline only I can see, but I know she can feel.

This umbilical cord is different. It can stretch miles. It can go around corners, weave through traffic, squeeze through keyholes, go underground and into the dark places that I know she has to go into but sure as shit don’t want her to. My new umbilical cord is amazing.

The only thing it can’t do is conduct soundwaves. I know because I’ve hollered into it until the vein in my neck popped out. Nothing like that gets through.

Only the quiet stream of things right out of my heart. That’s what works.

Know how I know?

I’ve been standing here for a while now. Out of a hundred intersections, I swear I saw her look back at me. It was only once or twice, but I saw her head turn, her hair shift in the wind, the whites of her beautiful eyes. I know I saw it. I can’t be wrong.

It’s got to be working.

Give ’em a Beard!

Gray scale bearded man

A creative writing professor once told me, “If you’re bored with one of your characters, try giving ’em a beard.” It became a thing. When something was off in one of our stories, he’d slam the paper down and yell out “Give ’em a beard!”

Simple logic that somehow freed us up, made us stop trying so hard, and helped us recognize that every moment — every single fragment of time — is being created; that nothing’s written yet.

I’ve taken this sage advice well beyond fiction.

When I’m bored with my shirt, I turn up the collar.

When I’m bored with breakfast, I reach for the hot sauce (even if I don’t like it!).

When I’m bored with bedtime stories, I use a new voice. (Always good for a quick head-turn and a laugh from my reading companion).

The difference between bored and unbored, inspired and uninspired, is trivial, as effortless and achievable as flicking on a light switch, writing a word on a page, sprouting a whisker.

Change your morning, change your mood. Change the course of your life.

Don’t go big. Go small.

One detail.

Give ’em a beard!

In The Shadow of Epiphany

Landscape photography of green leaf trees

Epiphanies can be deceiving.

Once we figure out the way – Eureka! I’ve found it! – we tend to disregard all other paths. It feels good for a while but, in the fog of euphoria, we stop looking around. Holding tightly to our compass, we become crotchety.

Simply by the passing of time, the woods thicken, the shadows change places, and our breadcrumbs begin lying to us.

At this point, we get worse than lost.

We get confident in a fading truth.

And put our best effort into blaming the trees.

The Inquiry of a 6-year-old

Bay Bridge at Night

We’d just seen “Annie” in the Presidio, her first real production so she was pretty wired even though it was 10 o’clock at night.

On a whim, I decided to drive her by her mom’s old apartment in lower Pac Heights.

“The white one?”

“Yup. See that window there? That was her bedroom. We painted it orange. And right up there… that’s where we had our first kiss.”

She stared intently, almost in disbelief, as if looking at the royal palace of the queen.

Then she looked at me and maybe she saw something I didn’t mean to let out.

“Do you miss it?” she asked?

A pretty deep question for a 6-year-old.

One thing I love about kids is how they force you to answer any question in the most simple way possible, which means you always get down to the heart of what you believe.

“I loved living here when I lived here, and now I love living in Oakland with you.”

She looked relieved.

“That’s the beauty of life, girl. Things keep changing. You get older and you try new things. You move around. You see the world. You fall in love.”

She looked at her mom’s window and I half expected her to open the door and run up the stairs, to dive into her own fairytale. But after a moment she reclined into her seat, signifying the tour was over.

She was asleep by the time we hit the bridge.

I thought about my answer. Did I really mean what I had said? Doesn’t everyone want to go back to their twenties?

As I flew across the bridge, I kept glancing back at her sleeping, head hammocked in the seat belt.

I turned up the radio. Taylor Swift sang about first love, heartache, and driving through red lights with the windows down. Seemed appropriate.

When I got home and unclicked Hazel’s seatbelt, she reached out for me, eyes still closed.

I slumped her over my shoulder. She instinctively clutched my neck.

So many different houses, different walkways, different staircases. So many drives home. Someone in their twenties was kissing their future wife on a roof. And there I was, a million kisses ahead of them… making my way up the stairs.

My legs were tired under the weight.

Each step was slow and measured.

Careful now.

You’re almost home.

There Are Good People Everywhere

landscape photography of seashore during daytime

There are good people everywhere.

Better than that.

Everyone is changing,

like the glint of the sun reflected on the ocean:

a thousand slivers of light

wiggling gently

taking shape,

disbanding,

coming back together,

And, each one of us,

A god for all the others.

With the vibrations in our voice,

with the tiny muscles in our face,

with our hands,

attached to arms,

attached to thought,

we can tremble the waters.

We can move the sun.

Oh, I Wish I Hadn’t Read the Comments Section

woman in black dress holding brown paper bag

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

All I wanted was to read the news.

I scrolled down too far, and BAM, there they are:

Angry people with differing views.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

It’s such a sad sight to see.

Opinions are flying. The doves, they’re dying.

Bruce is wrong and Jed is so mean.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section,

Too late now, I’ve gotten sucked in.

I can’t let it go. Jed has to know

the truth and the life that’s I’ve lived!

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

Darn it! I’ve become one of them.

I’m typing so fast. I shall not come in last!

Take that, Bruce! Shut it, Jed! I’m with Mel.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

Jed’s jab is now stuck in my head.

He’s so idiotic, so stupid, moronic.

I can’t, I just — what’s that he said?!

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

I really don’t like to curse.

But this dude I don’t know, we’re in quite a row

and no one can find the reverse.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

Mel’s right: this is not worth my time.

I just can’t get through. What’s a writer to do?

Without rhythm, we will never rhyme.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section.

I left the thread but the damage is done.

It ruined my walk, and now I can’t talk

without thinking of Bruce, Mel, or Jed.

I don’t even know these people. What do I care?!

Why did I do this again?

How could I think that my heart wouldn’t sink

when I crushed others with the thoughts in my head?

I should have known better than to scroll down that far

and see the shots fly on the page.

And the worst of all? My own shallow fall

into the darkest depths of my rage.

Oh, I wish I hadn’t read the comments section,

because now my brain’s filled up with crap.

But for YOU my kind reader, I hope you can see that,

the comments are not where it’s at!

How I Came To Be

Painted Ripples

In 9th grade, I was generously forced into journaling by my English teacher. In college, I eventually found my way into a short-fiction class, and was sold. I wrote all the time, was working on stories all the time, daydreaming about my characters, while real-world people talked about real-world things, such as what they were going to do when they graduated.

“So, you gonna write the great American Novel or what?” someone asked?

Somehow this pursuit never occurred to me.

My portfolio consisted of 10- to 15-page stories about friends getting stuck in the drive-thru at McDonalds, a shitty small-town job in a plastics factory, a straight married man reflecting on secretly being gay, painting dumpsters for a summer alongside grubby maintenance workers, going to a carnival and running into my buddy’s flirtatious mom…

In other words, silly little stories.

I went to LA after school and immediately hated writing-as-a-business. I left after a year, and became a book store guy in San Francisco, then a recruiter for technical writers — perhaps I picked these writing-adjacent jobs on purpose, or perhaps I just needed the money.

I was still writing. This time… a rebellious girl who dressed up as a paper mache green grape, a trio of graduates tripping on mushrooms in the Safeway, a grown man — well 20-something kid — hiding in his late grandpa’s closet while his mom and girlfriend fought over his heart, a younger boy finding a box marked “dad” and what was inside.

I never asked if these stories were worthy of the bookshelf either.

They just came out.

Sometimes as a recruiter, I’d stay late at the office and talk to my clients on the phone about their lives. Without the pressure of recruiting them, I would just listen.

And I loved it: hearing those little moments that changed their lives, what they hoped would happen. I’d hang up and sit there, in the dark, slouched in my office chair, trying like hell to wish or pray their fairy tale ending into existence.

And I wouldn’t need to write when I got home.

After a few more of these late night conversations, I looked into nearby counseling graduate school programs — something I swore I would never do, having endured a nosy family therapist through my parents’ divorce. Alas, destiny has a way of not shutting the fuck up!

Had I stopped to think about it, I may have realized that those stories I wrote — about friends stuck in parking lots and alcoholic janitors — they were never about finding a path to the bookshelves. It was just me trying to tack on new endings to things I saw in real life, trying to give my beloved broken characters a second chance, the road they longed for.

I’d toil over the final line of a story for days, sometimes never finding it, but relishing in the messy cross-hatching of possibilities. The right ending has to be in here somewhere…

I eventually went back to school and became a therapist — well, a career counselor — and to this day I still write stories and wish for happy endings, only now, instead of delivering fate and luck and love to imagined heroes, I do it for real people.

Who Are The Strong Ones?

Lonely Tree

How noble is it to fight for the status quo, when you’re the one who is benefiting from it the most?

How courageous is it to follow the ideas, the rules, and the body you were born into?

Isn’t it braver and more admirable to walk into the wind, to stand up at the dinner table and announce who you are when you know people will turn away?

Who are the strong ones?

If it’s safety and security we seek, then we should value generosity and understanding more than tradition.

We should commit to bettering ourselves, not determining the lives of others.

Real confidence, that is, the authentic belief in oneself, is as quiet as the night sky; it leaves room for the resonance of other voices and the sparkle of new thought.

It is certainly possible to love what you have and long for something more at the same time.

And it is noble to let go of what you love so that others may have what they need and step out of the wind.

Squeakers & Non Squeakers

Portrait photo of smiling man in black real madrid printed t shirt posing with his thumbs up

They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

I guess that means I get no oil.

That’s okay.

When I’m looking for a gutter cleaner or a floor refinisher, I try and be as nice and accomodating as possible.

Have to call me back? No problem. Can’t fit me in this week? That’s cool. Send a text instead? You got it.

It goes with my philosophy. When working with people, always try to be GREAT…

Gracious
Responsive
Empathetic
Attentive
Trusting

To some, this means they can put me on a shelf (so they can deal with the squeakers, presumably). They’re thinking, they don’t have to worry about me so, well… they don’t. And I move on.

But the ones I do end up working with?

I get a big smile when they arrive.

A handshake with eye contact.

Stories about their kids.

Discounts.

The bonus plan.

A little more than originally promised.

Suggestions for maintenance.

Tricks of the trade.

Referrals.

Ideas for the future.

Another handshake.

Another smile.

Two thumbs up.

And that good feeling when I close the door or drive away.

It’s my belief that people usually want to give you their best. You just have to make space for them to do it.

By not being squeaky, I get a lot more than oil.