Park Squirrels & House Squirrels

Empty asphalt road between trees

A Park Squirrel crosses the Road and goes into the yard where she sees two House Squirrels. She knows they’re House Squirrels because they don’t have stripes on their backs.

The two House Squirrels spot the Park Squirrel immediately. They know she’s a Park
Squirrel because she has a stripe on her back.

The House Squirrels are scurrying around The Big Wooden Fence like they always do. It’s morning, after all.

The Park Squirrel, having crossed the busy street, goes to the base of the tree and calls up to the House Squirrels: “Let’s scrounge for nuts in the grass,” she says, eager to make new friends.

The House Squirrels look down at her and laugh: “That’s crazy. We never scrounge for nuts. We just fetch them from the porch.”

And they go on their way.

The Park Squirrel ponders this. Nuts on the porch… whoever heard of such a thing?

And though she is brave enough to cross the street and proud of the stripe on her back, she begins to cry because three minus two always equals one.

The House Squirrels notice her crying but continue to scurry. It’s not their fault that the Park Squirrel is sad. They want to scurry, not scrounge. And they should be able to do what they want; they are squirrels after all.

Comforted by this, they go on their way.

But the Park Squirrel keeps crying because three minus two always equals one.

“What is your problem?” the House Squirrels ask, not at all realizing that asking from the Big Wooden Fence is different than asking from the ground.

“I don’t want to scurry on the fence,” says the Park Squirrel. “I’ve never done it before. And I don’t know how to fetch nuts on the porch.”

“That is not our problem,” they say, not thinking of the Park nor the House nor the Road.

And they go on their way.

But three minus two always equals one, so the Park Squirrel screams at the top of her lungs. She screams so loud it travels up The Big Wooden Fence to the House Squirrels and it travels across the Road and down the hill to the Park Squirrels.

“You are ruining our fun,” say The House Squirrels, still up on The Big Wooden Fence.

“But I am not having any fun,” cries the Park Squirrel.

“You were not invited,” say the House Squirrels.

“But I am here now,” says the Park Squirrel.

The House Squirrels look at each other, searching for an answer but, in finding nothing, they make a silent agreement, a contract that will change their lives forever. And their children’s lives, and their children’s children…

“Go away,” they say. “Stop making us feel bad.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad” says the Park Squirrel.

“That is not our problem!” say the House Squirrels. “We are squirrels and we can do what we want.”

So the Park Squirrel turns and leaves, still crying, because three minus two always equals one. And, even the strongest among us — even those who dare cross the Road — want to be two and not one, because one is perilously close to zero.

The Park squirrel walks away, her idea of The Big Wooden Fence changing shape with each step. She hates herself and loves herself at the same time. She’s proud of her stripe and resents it. She doesn’t want to, but she hates the House Squirrels. She hates The Big Wooden Fence with all its rough edges, its burls, its nails. She hates the House. She hates the Yard.

And as she approaches the Road, thinking of her mama and the Playground and the Tall Skinny Trees, she realizes she’s too tired to cross, so she squats down in the grass and cries, because three minus two always equals one. Always.

Even if you’re brave.

And the House Squirrels go on their way.

Hidden Moments

Photography of city

If I hadn’t stopped scrolling, I wouldn’t have started petting Ziggy.

If I hadn’t pet Ziggy, he never would have put his head in my lap and looked at me with those eyes to take him for a walk.

If I hadn’t gone for a walk, I would not have run into the Italian Ice guy.

If I hadn’t got an Italian Ice, I never would have looked for a place to sit by the lake.

And if I hadn’t found the spot by the tree on the hill by the lake, I would have missed the moment when all these wonderful things happened at once:

Ziggy, stopping his panting...

The blue raspberry part of my “Spiderman” Italian Ice finally revealing itself...

Whodini’s “5 Minutes of Funk’ playing on a car radio…

A baby and a man laughing in unison…

Two runners criss-crossing in opposite directions and both of them, at the same time, giving me the “whassup” nod.

A kayak gliding by and slicing apart the reflection in the water behind the runners…

The sun moving just a hair closer to the horizon, enough so that the light got squeezed between the tops of the buildings, and softened…

A breeze. Ah yes…. my reward for noticing.

It was a close call.

I could have missed it all. I could have missed this moment, had I stayed back there at the house, laying on my back on the living room rug, feet up on the sofa watching someone I don’t know try to bank a frisbee off a refrigerator into a garbage can.

The best moment, or maybe just the moment you need right now, is out there hidden underneath a stack of other moments waiting to be discovered, like a diamond in a piece of coal, created a long time ago and ready to come out for you.

You can’t know. It doesn’t take much work.

But you’ve got to move.

The Troll Game

Attentive boy sitting on bed and playing card game at home

I agreed to play 30 consecutive games of Castle Mania with Hazel, or “The Troll Game” as we call it. (She had advocated for 50 games but I talked her down.)

Castle Mania is a simple but surprisingly suspenseful card game where you team up with each other to prevent a pack of trolls from knocking down your cardboard castle.

For each turn, there are 4 things you have to do in a specific order:

Flip a card
Play a card
Move the trolls
Pick another troll and put it on the board

Hazel could not remember this.

I reminded her for the first 2 games. Then I gave her the handy reference card, which, or course, she never referenced.

She’d forget it was her turn, forget one of the steps, or forget the order of things

After 3 hours, we’d reached 10 games and she was still messing up.

I needed to go for a walk.

It bothered me that she wasn’t getting it. But I wasn’t even 5 minutes into my walk when I realized something:

Not more than a few weeks ago, I went to a poker night with some friends. The poor fella to my right needed to remind me it was my turn nearly ever single time. I’d get the small and big blinds mixed up, and even have to ask him what the chips were worth. After a while, he just started prompting me at every turn, before I could mess up. We joked that he was my classroom aide, there to help me do what everyone else can do on their own.

So, I didn’t have to very look far to understand what was happening with Hazel. I could look inside for this one…

I like poker, but I like hanging out much much more.

When I’m at the table, I’m usually paying attention to what’s going on between hands: the conversation, the dynamics, the quips, and above all else, the beautiful comradery that just sort of happens, that falls on everyone like a blanket of sunshine. Without realizing it, we all start to get warm and glowy.

That night, I placed fourth and lost all my chips, but I didn’t care. I got what I came for.

I suppose I’ll always be a mediocre card player because I’m too busy paying attention to everything else.

And I guess Hazel’s the same.

You learn a lot playing 30 games of Castle Mania in a row.

I thought it’d be a waste of time: playing a kids game, going around and around, staying in the same place for the entire afternoon.

But with time and repetition, things come to the surface, or rather, you just start seeing things in a different light, like staring in a mirror and watching yourself become a stranger.

I watched her on game 11 and noticed how goddamn happy she was and how much she didn’t care about being reminded how to play each and every hand. She spoke in a funny voice, laughed when I flung the cards and missed the box. She put her hands to her mouth in faux fright as I drew my next card.

I didn’t have to worry.

She was glowing. She was getting what she came for.

And then a miracle happened.

At the end of game 12, Hazel got it right. Flip, Play, Move, Pick…

Just like that. She did it super fast, no hesitation. She totally nailed it. And then she paused afterward.

I noticed. She noticed. I could tell she noticed I noticed.

And then she broke the silence in a way that was too perfect for her to understand, as if she had been in my head this whole time, alongside me for my walk, sitting next to me at the poker table, and even somehow there beside me, when I was her age, in a first-grade classroom, messing up the order of things.

“It’s YOUR turn,” she shouted.

“Oh,” I said. “Whoops.”

And we both laughed.

Freedom

Shallow photography of usa flag

Freedom is a weird thing.

When we declare one freedom, we take away a bunch of others.

If I’m free to drive any speed I want without stopping, then pedestrians lose the freedom to cross the street.

If I’m free to put a stake in the ground and declare a piece of land my home, then billions of other people across generations, past and future, immediately lose that same freedom.

If I’m free to say no, then someone, somewhere, perhaps living right next door to me, is losing the right to say yes.

We, Americans, tend to simplify the concept of Freedom. We use the term as if we all want the same things when we know all too well that that just isn’t true. The constitution and all of its “oh-yeah-and-this-too” amendments are far too interpretable to be universal.

And the framers — the designers of our sacred plans– they weren’t Gods. They were men. Men who owned other men, which makes them less than perfect in my opinion, or at least fallible enough to warrant revision.

With so many freedoms to choose from, I may raise the flag for a different reason than you do.

Without wanting to hurt you, I may be fighting against your freedoms.

And you may be fighting against mine.

This is a difficult place to start a relationship, particularly if we’re intoxicated by the illusion that a single, perfect Freedom is what binds us together.

In actuality, it’s just a starting point – a huge headstart for sure, but just a start, nonetheless. Freedom gives us a chance.

It’s Compassion, Kindness, and Empathy that bring us together – being brave enough to consider your freedoms alongside mine.

That’s a heavy lift.

Much harder than raising a flag.

Roller Coasters with Evaline

It’s one of our favorite things to do: blow off the day and go to Six Flags.

For me, it’s a way to remember I’m alive, that I’m in control of my destiny, and that I value fun, awakedness, and spontaneity more than the other stuff.

For her… well, I’m not sure what it’s about. She’s 16. We haven’t talked about it. “Fun” is probably a good enough reason in itself.

But after the Superman ride, a sad thing happened to me: I got dizzy. It was probably that backward twisting part. I was more nauseous than I let on. Getting older. Man, I’d rather have bad knees than a weak stomach. At least for this kid.

(But I guess I need the knees for the other one, so….)

We’d only been there an hour.

What’s a dad to do when they’re nauseous and dizzy from a roller coaster, but go on another roller coaster? And another. The heart never makes logical decisions.

After a while, my Dad Power waned.

“Nah, you go. I’ll wait here.”

Awful words to say.

Evaline took the single-rider line and I talked to the teenage attendant, who really couldn’t be bothered. Small talk… Really old man?

But we had fun in the in-between moments. And there’s a lot of those at Six Flags. Waiting for the attendant to let you through, waiting for the dolphins to show up, walking all the way across the park to get to the good rides, looking at sharks, eating ice cream, searching for a cool spot in the shade.

The trick with teenagers is to not ask too many questions, to not use the time but to enjoy it. Even when your head is spinning and your girl is going to college in 2 years.

Standing in line waiting for the tram, I counted the rides we went on.

1, 2, 3… 4? We drove all the way up for 4 rides?!

I looked over at Evaline who was balancing herself on the handrail, her bare legs almost touching the ground. Was she doing the same calculation: dividing the fun by the work and scoffing at the remainder?

I got my answer on the tram ride.

While I was concentrating on staring straight ahead so I wouldn’t throw up, she slouched down in her seat and put her head on my shoulder. Kept it there for most of the ride, which is an awkward position for a girl who is 5′ 11″.

I guess it’s not just about fun.

And I guess I’m not the only one who’s getting older.

Some calculations always add up.

My First Poem

silhouette of child sitting behind tree during sunset

I’ve been going through old papers. My mom saved everything, especially the art stuff: Half finished pictures, 3 words on an otherwise blank page, an excessively pasty attempt at a pop-up book…

I found a gem.

Apparently, when I was in second grade I wrote my first poem.

It went like this:

I am a brown squirrel.

I saw a girl.

I gave her a pearl.

She put it in her curl.

I even made a little drawing to go with it: a curly-haired girl with big puffy lips and…wait for it… a pearl in one of her curly Q’s. It didn’t make much sense. You can’t put a pearl in a curl.

But, now that I’m older and have gone around the world a few times, I think it’s pretty cool.

You can’t change who you were and what you did as a kid. So, when you rediscover an old memory, it can be a little risky. Maybe you’re not the kid you thought you were, or wish you were. It can mess everything up.

But this poem was a bullseye. I like everything about it.

Way to go, kid.

Everyday Meaning

View of the rock in the ocean

I got lucky. Or the opposite.

Whatever… I’ve created a mechanism that draws people to me who are in a dilemma and ready for something new.

And they ask me with the passion and wonder of a child shouting to the ocean,

“What should I do?”

What a gift: to be brought in at this moment.

Pretense and analysis are left at the shore. Even the clothes come off, whether the sun’s out or not. Such trust. It’s touching.

Every day — every single one of my days — is filled with meaningful conversations that I can only partially control.

And that other person, they’re all-in, up to their chin and ready to go under, or at least willing.

1, 2, 3. Blub, blub.

We can barely see each other at first,

but eyes adjust, and I’m used to the murk so I reach out my hand first.

It becomes easier to hold our breath, and we come up together, perhaps a little seaweed on our shoulders, some sting in our eyes.

But our lungs are relieved and it feels warmer than before.

We’re both glad we did something so crazy in the middle of our day.

And we’re excited to swim back in.

My Daily Meditation (the other one)

Photo of a man sitting under the tree

I’m a pretty calm dude. I’ve always been this way, but it’s a talent I become more and more proud of as and enter middle age.

Life is hard. Adults have more responsibilities than time, more aspirations than years on a calendar. There’s always a good reason to be stressed: thinking about the future, lamenting yesterday’s to-do list.

I meditate daily but only for 10 minutes right when I get up. It’s essential but, truth be told, I don’t think it’s this little morning ritual that carries me through the day.

I think it’s this one:

I write resumes for about 3-4 hours/day. Usually straight through, if I’m lucky.

Wait, he didn’t just say resume writing is his meditation, did he?

Yeah, kinda crazy, but bear with me.

If you ever walk in on me when I’m in the middle of writing a resume, you’d see I’m almost in a trance. If someone says my name, it’s usually a good 5 seconds before I remember where I am and can acknowledge their presence (much to my family’s chagrin, I’m sure).

And it’s not just the writing part that does it. That’s certainly lovely way to stay present, but I think the meditation goes deeper with the mundane shit.

Do you know how many times I’ve bolded and spaced out the letters in the word “Professional Experience,” using only key strokes?

A fucking lot.

Yeah, I could use templates and pre-saved beautifully formatted keywords. Well, sometimes I do… (remember, adults don’t have a lot of time).

But I’ve noticed that when I’m doing it the other way, the long way, I actually start singing. My fingers move without me looking at them. The keys on the keyboard sing back to me. There are no thoughts.

It’s cathartic to watch the format of the characters change in front of me, like a watercolor painter doing a wash, or a child poking his finger into the middle of his mom’s latte.

It’s nuts.

I love it, which makes me feel like a simpleton and a genius all at the same time.

While people are out saving the world and getting promoted, I’m in a small room alone, watching words move around on a page.

I guess the good news is… with enough repetition and lack of effort, you can meditate on anything.

Even Microsoft Word.

Grandpa At His Best

Brown and gray mountain

I had been running around all morning figuring out how to FedEx my suit overnight so I’d have it in time.

When I opened the door to the room, there he was, laying on a single bed, on his side, knees bent, hands flat together, snugly tucked under his cheek. He lay there grinning, in an almost feminine pose.

Hazel let go of my hand and lept onto the bed. She lay across his tummy and sang him the birthday song.

But it wasn’t his birthday, that wasn’t his bed, and this wasn’t his room. He’d never done anything in a feminine way, and, if Hazel had actually met him and had the chance to jump up onto that bed in a room I’d never known, he wasn’t the type of guy to stroke a little girl’s forehead. He certainly never stroked mine.

Nonetheless, this is the dream I woke up with, the first image of my day.

And it has me smiling.

Does it matter that it never happened, that it never would?

The kind moments with my grandpa were few and far between. He was always sending us outside to play, complaining about the mess we made.

But I remember his laugh. (Anyone who ever met him, remembers that laugh.) And we did have a few gentle conversations when I was in college. He’d grown his hair long and white, which I thought was cool. And he asked me what I was interested in. Trying to impress him, I said Black History. He mentioned some book that he aimed to give to me. We were walking slowly and I had his full attention. It was strange and by the time I was acclimating to it, we were out of things to talk about.

A moment of compassion from a man I barely knew, proof that a sea of kindness existed within him, like a warm hot spring beneath the dry, cracked earth.

And though that warmth rarely bubbled up to reach us on the surface, it was good to know it was there.

80 years of toughness undone in a single conversation…

remembered 30 years later…

and now changing the course of the day for a middle-aged grandson who, through his own dance with destiny, has developed the same loud, unforgettable laugh.

Hazel stayed on the bed. Without really even knowing him, she hugged him so tight he looked over at me, the one who brought this child to him.

And he laughed, as only he can do.

I stood in the doorway, trying to take it all in before anything else could take it away.

Hey, grampa.

Good to see you.