Enter the Metaphor

selective focus photography of person holding baseball bat

My friend offered to coach my daughter in softball, so we grabbed a bucket of balls, a bat, and some gloves and went to the park.

At first, she struck out a lot. Her swing was off. I tried to give her pointers: “Keep the bat level… Swing all the way through,” but it didn’t really work.

My friend had a better idea.

“Pretend the ball is a piece of fruit, and when it comes near you, you want to slice that fruit in half.”

Smack. Smack. The hits started coming, but they were soft hits; they weren’t making it out of the infield.

“Hit ’em harder,” I cheered excitedly.

My friend took a different tack: “Imagine your sister just stole your favorite doll.”

Hazel doesn’t play with dolls, I thought to myself.

Then. Whap! Hardest hit of the day. Rolled right past me into the outfield.

Ah, yes, of course. Metaphor.

We don’t tell kids to point the tips of their skis together. We say, “Make a pizza slice.” It’s common knowledge at this point. A picture’s worth a thousand words. Kids work better with images.

Adults too.

The #1 way to change someone’s mind is not by making a good argument; it’s by sharing a metaphor.

If a friend says something like, “I feel like I’m drowning,” the best way to save them is to get in the water with them. To enter the metaphor.

“How do we get your head above water?”

But don’t stop there. Change the rules.

“The walls are closing in on me.”
“You’re forgetting that these walls are made of straw.”

“I can’t see through the forest.”
“Let’s cut down some fucking trees then.”

I’m so far down the rabbit hole.
“Maybe you’re still close to the surface, but you just don’t realize it.”

Usually, when people present metaphors, it’s not creativity that drives their vision; it’s that this is what they actually see. If you can tweak that image just a little, you can change their whole view.

Instructions can feel like lectures. “Hit it harder! Stop self-sabotaging!” You immediately create a power structure: you’re the expert, and they’re the idiot. Not a good recipe for lasting change.

Metaphors, however, are safe for everyone: a parallel universe, the land of make-believe, where the walls aren’t real, where sharp objects can rubberize in an instant, and nobody gets harmed.

The most dramatic and sustained transformations I’ve seen don’t come from brilliant advice or the lips of a sage; they materialize in a make-believe world.

You might not be able to hit a ball zinging at you at 30 miles per hour
… but you can slice an apple.

You may not feel like you can solve all of your problems at once
…but you can cut down a tree.

Enter the metaphor and make a change. Make the sea evaporate. Turn stones to jello. Knock down trees with your bare hands. You are the God of that world.

And, contrary to all the rules you learned as a kid and codified into laws as an adult, what happens in that world… happens in this one, too.

Permission to Speak Freely

White and red bokeh photography

I often say inappropriate things. I can baffle and offend. I confuse people.

My mind skips around. I connect strange dots. It’s a blessing and curse.

To be odd and unexpected.

Still, I speak freely. Less analysis upfront means less stress in conversations and more brain power to wonder.

My Japanese aunt calls it having a “clean mind.”

Not shaping my own words according to what others might think, say, or do.

I have a guiding principle that allows for this to happen.

Kindness.

Above all else, I care about people: the person I’m with, the person I’m passing, the person I may have just offended.

I don’t have to worry about my linguistic mishaps because they are unintended and will be cleaned up naturally in the next sentence.

You will see it in my eyes. Feel it in my voice. Something that cannot be faked.

I mean no harm.

I want you to flourish, to be better than you were before, to reach whatever you’re reaching for. Deep in my heart, I want this to happen.

So, if I misstep, bear with me.

I’m doing my best and I’ll come back around.

We’ve got places to go, debris to clear.

It’s all possible, with strange dots.

You’ll see.

That Judging Thing

Silhouette of persons hand

Don’t judge me!

Sorry. Can’t help it.

We’re designed to judge each other; it’s for our safety and survival.

Our brains make rapid-fire decisions about what we see based on past experience, learned and lived. We tell ourselves (in a split second), we’re more likely survive if we partner with those people, instead of those people.

Ironically, this proclivity toward likeness is what divides us.

You can’t stop judging; you’re human.

But you can train yourself to notice when you’re doing that judging thing and then step back to reevaluate.

It’s that 2-second pause that will save us.

It’s the space for growth, a tiny little Hobbit door to the other side, appearing out of nowhere and all too often overlooked.

But it’s there.

Pause, step through, and we all live.

Repainting Memories

Multicolored abstract painting

When I was in 5th grade, I wore my mom’s clip-on earrings to school.

Actually, they were my gramma’s earrings, that kind of old, decorative jewelry with the plastic jewels where the metal doesn’t really shine.

It wasn’t meant to be a statement. I just kinda liked the pinch on my ear lobes, the weight of them, and how I could feel a slight jiggle when I turned my head. So I kept them on as I walked out the door.

I became a spectacle in class. I distinctly remember Mr Lausten, the meanest teacher in the whole school, calling me out: “Flamer! What the heck are you doing?” He shook his head.

A defining moment for me: disdain from an adult about something out of the ordinary, a clue that much more was possible than the lines we draw for each other, that the world wasn’t perfect and no one had all the answers. Not even teachers.

I felt like I was on to something.

It always bothered me when a kid was yanked out of line to write a phrase 50 times on the blackboard. I hated how the dirty kid got made fun of all the time.

I was too young to understand how class influenced uniformity and that we’re conditioned to break into tribes, so all I saw was difference and sameness, meanness and isolation.

I never joined in, but I didn’t intervene either. I do remember wondering why some kids were together at recess, and others were walking around by themselves. I’d like to say I broke the rules, that I went against the norms of the playground and stood up to bullies, but that wasn’t the case at all. I wasn’t Superman. I was 10.

I’ll say this, though: After Mr. Lausten made fun of me in front of the class, I didn’t take my earrings off for the whole day, even when they started to hurt.

I suppose it was my first protest, standing up to authority, sticking up for the kids I never got to know but should have, breaking the minds of the people who draw the lines and play within them, and most of all, quietly and righteously telling my 5th-grade teacher he can fuck off.

It was the loudest I could scream at the time.

That day marked the end of the earrings chapter (until high school, anyway), but the beginning of something new. It wasn’t a coincidence that about that time, I dove into Hip Hop, started reading books on my own, picked up breakdancing, and threw snowballs at cars.

I never meant any harm.

I was just trying things out, drawing my own lines, and stepping back to see the designs.

I wonder if this thing has always been in me; if rebellion flows in my blood, or if it’s something I learned. If not the earrings, would it have been something else?

It certainly feels that way.

Even now, upon playback of that 5th-grade memory, I fantasize about standing up on my school desk and ripping a guitar solo.

That would have been cool. It’s not regret; it’s more like coming back to an old painting and drawing back over th lines.

Adding some color.

Making it even better.

A celebration of sorts.

A scream, finished.

Emotion At Work

Unilateral layoffs
Getting fired without a reason
Watching your colleagues get fired
Doing the firing
Dealing with a VP that yells, abuses, and harasses you daily
Getting a new supervisor that changes your daily life without your input
Watching your beloved company get acquired and slowly disappear
Being taken over by private investment
Getting overlooked for promotion because you didn’t get to know the right people
Having your career stall, nosedive, or fail to launch because of what you look like
Having the project you’ve been working on for years disregarded
Watching less qualified people pass you out
Being set up to fail
Getting framed
Being systematically deprioritized and “managed out.”

It’s just business.

Or is it?

Companies, protected by a silent collective agreement very few of us remember signing, commit some of the most egregious acts against people.

And yet these people — that is to say, us — we’re supposed to just move on, to box up our stuff and find a new place to spend our 40-60 of waking hours every week. And here’s the real crime: we’re not supposed to be hurt.

Toxic masculinity at work no doubt! This shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as “strong men” are the original architects of the workplace.

And so the rules are laid out: emotions are not allowed at work. Or, I should say, reactionary emotions are not allowed at work. Yelling at someone is definitely allowed, but being upset about getting yelled at isn’t. Ripping the floor out from under someone is allowed; screaming while you free fall into a black hole isn’t.

You’re fired. Don’t cry at my desk.

A strange request.

When a kid gets expelled, he’s almost immediately sent to a therapist.

Imagine coming home one day and your family tells you you can’t come in the house anymore. Without telling you why.

For some reason, emotions are allowed to enter these scenarios, but when it comes to work, we’re supposed to bottle it up and never let it out.

Emotions aren’t the type of thing that you can check at the door. Emotions flow like water, like lava; they fill every space and every person. When you deny an exit to your emotions, they pool up, fester, harden, and press hard on your insides; they crush you from the inside out.

When we don’t acknowledge trauma, we can’t acknowledge what it’s doing to us. Without properly disposing of it, we unload on our family, we vent, we drink, we sleep all weekend, we yell at the faceless people we play video games with, we swing the bat extra hard. We destroy people on Facebook.

Putting People on Stage

I’m not claiming to have all the secrets to raising kids right but if I were to give one piece of advice to parents it would be to build a karaoke stage in your house.

I’m not talking about just going out and buying a karaoke machine; I mean creating a permanent space for singing and stage antics (think cartwheels, splits, and do-si-do’s).

I’ve seen the benefits.

Something happens to people when they sing into a microphone. Doesn’t matter if they’re out of tune or stumbling over the words. With support (and plenty of applause!), they come alive. In some ways, I see my work as a coach like this, as if I’m giving people the stage. Sing however you want, and I will applaud.

One of my favorite things in the world is witnessing people expressing themselves as they really are, particularly if they haven’t been able to do so in other parts of their lives. It’s like watching a flower open up, like hearing a swallow as the sun rises…. but in a headbanging kind of way.

Kids who grow up with their words amplified learn to love their voice, and everything else in your life is possible when you love and embrace your own voice.

Yeah, I love singing glam rock at the top of my lungs, but I’ll always make room on the stage for the shy kid (or adult!) who loves the song and needs an audience.

What you do on a karaoke stage, you can do in real life.

When I used to teach, sometimes I’d get nervous before a lesson. Singing always helped. Though it was scary to do, often on my way to class, I’d belt out a quick verse. It cleared my guts and gave me air. People’s heads would snap up in my direction, which told me, yeah, I was really doing this. Sometimes that’s all you need.

I give you the same advice when life gets hard.

Put your voice into the world, regardless of who’s around, and sing through your fear.

The Aftermath of Joy

I woke up slightly hungover, throat thrashed from singing Nirvana, Boys II Men, Extreme, and The Commodores. I still had my smiley face scarf in my hand, glitter eyeshadow spritzed across my pillow. Downstairs, empty bottles, crumbs on plates, “wounded soldiers” and wine glasses squeezed onto every surface. The 50th Birthday sign still lit up, disco ball spinning.

And the memories… yummier than the appetizers.

People from every chapter of my life, many that flew in… Family, friends from college, post-college, pre-kids, during kids, during second kids… singing their hearts out, gushing with love, high fives everywhere, so much applause.

Few things are as timeless and lovely as standing in a circle of friends and receiving the birthday song in a raucous chorus, all eyes filled with big red hearts.

And before that, all of the texts, GIFs, Facebook posts, I-love-you-mans, and LinkedIn messages coming in from everywhere — thoughts about me (and us!) lighting up for just a moment, like a constellation speckling the sky.

From clients and colleagues too!

Halfway through life, and I’ve chalked up some fantastic memories with beautiful people, generous people, kind people, including you.

I am grateful, full as the moon, bright as the sun, and looking to the horizon.

There’s plenty to celebrate and much more to discover.

Come with me.

Let’s rock.

Evaline

Yesterday we found out Evaline got into a bunch of good schools.

I danced a jig and ran upstairs to call my brother. Molly went into her Facebook groups and forums to share the news and do more research. Hazel went back to her iPad, and Evaline put in her AirPods and scrolled TikTok.

I wonder where she went to.

It’s a lot to take in.

When I came down the stairs, literally panting from excitement, Evaline confronted me immediately, not to give a high-five or inquire further about the schools or share understandable worry about the distance between here and there — none of that came out; instead, she wanted to iron patches onto her Girl Scout vest.

So I went down into the basement and got the ironing board.

Her vest is pretty full; it took some strategizing to figure out where the remaining patches should go. And it’s not a quick process, this ironing thing. You have to iron the vest first, then iron the patch through a cloth (to avoid burning the threading), then turn the vest over and iron the back, then turn the vest over again and iron the edges of the patch.

And I’m not the best ironer (as you may have guessed from where I store the ironing board).

We went at it, and Evaline talked the whole time. About the patches, which ones were her favorite, which ones didn’t matter, which ones were the most fun to earn. She was quite the chatterbox, going off on her memories. And, there I stood with my head down, moving the iron back and forth in gentle strokes and thinking about the joy and pain of walking out of her dorm room for the first time.

My girl. Going to college.

It was hard to think about anything else, but I felt bad about not listening to her, so I pushed away my own bittersweet thoughts and attempted to go where she had gone.

At first, I didn’t get it, but then I saw what was behind all her chattering and pointing, what was manifesting right there in front of me: that beautiful emotion that all parents hope to see within their child and particularly within their teenager, the elusive feeling you can’t fake, the one that says everything is going to be okay:

Pride.

She was proud of that vest and all it symbolized. When I looked closely, I could see what she saw: sleepovers with friends, robotics, roller coasters, her pickle car for the pinewood derby (Mr. Pickles!), morning movies, and years and years of booth sales. (At 17, she still does cartwheels with her bestie in front of the movie theater to sell cookies, even though she’s 17 and even though grown men come up to her and tell her she’s too old and too tall to be selling Girl Scout Cookies.)

Fuck that.

The girl don’t care. She likes what she likes, and that’s it. It’s why she’ll talk about the behavior of the goats at the zoo for 20 minutes or tell us with an accompanying reenactment about how hard it was to get the set for Chicago through the door of the technical theater department. It’s why she’s been in Circus for 10 years and can recite Avatar episodes verbatim. It’s how she can get so much joy from collecting rubber duckies, talking about the circulatory system, and ironing on patches to her Girl Scout vest. And, in my opinion, it’s the very thing — her essence, her passion, her intrinsic desire to seek out fun — that got her those acceptance letters.

It’s impossible to miss. You see it right away: that thing that makes her Evaline.

I’ve seen it her whole life and I made it my duty to keep it alive. To protect it. To grow it. We both have.

Funny how, just a few days before my own birthday, I’m writing about Evaline.

I guess it makes sense. I’m a dad.

In this moment. And forever.

That much is clear, listening to my girl talk a mile a minute about her memories while I try desperately not to burn the edges of her well-earned patches or cry a little bit about how much we’ve been through, and what’s to come.

Impromptu Joy Ride

Light trails on highway at night

I was pulling the car out to get to the garbage bins. but instead of leaving the car idling in the driveway, hopping out, and finishing my chores, I just kept backing out.

At first, I was just going to go around the block and pull back in, but the beats were good, and it was a warm enough evening to open the sunroof. So I took a left instead of a right.

An impromptu joy ride.

The song ended, and the vibe changed, but I was already committed, so I pulled up the curb, scrolled through some old faves on Spotify, and found Propellerheads — a killer late 90’s EDM album with the clever title “decksanddrumsandrockandroll”

Great album, but there’s a standout song: Take California. The bassline just makes you want to drive, and then when the beat drops, you feel like you’re in a movie: the good guy going out for vigilante justice, the hero hunting down a treasure.

It was this song that I listened to on my very first car ride in my very first car: a 1990 Toyota Camry LE. It cost me $9,900, more than I ever paid for anything EVER, and I was proud I talked the owner down that extra $100. She kinda laughed.

I had the song picked out and popped it on the minute I left her driveway: Rt 280, Redwood City to San Francisco’s Outer Sunset. A lusciously curvy, speedy freeway. I played that shit on repeat 6 or 7 times, all the windows down, sunroof slid back, flying in the dark, enjoying the empty lanes at 9 o’clock at night.

And here I was doing it again, only this time I’m driving the streets of Oakland and the car wasn’t used; it was new and cost much more than $9,900. And was big enough to accomodate 4 child seats — certainly part of its allure.

How far I’ve come.

Reflecting on my first car during that impromptu joy ride was like reading an old journal; you have to laugh at yourself: so serious, so wrapped up in the problems at hand, tied in knots over things long since solved. The writing is so dire, filled with tons of absolutes: I’ll never be able to… why is this so… it always happens this way…

All that figuring… pages and pages of scheming plans and coming up with workarounds, rationalizing, wishing, masking regret with lessons learned.

In the wisdom of old age you learn to value perseverance over almost everything else.

However I’m feeling, whatever is happening, just keep moving forward.

Better advice than any genie can give.

That and taking a joy ride through the streets of your town in between taking out the trash and putting the kids to bed.

Those two things will get you far.

Keep moving, enjoy the wind in your hair, remember what you’ve been through, and be proud of how far you’ve come.

Take California.

These Things

Paintbrush and Keyboard

On the last day of packing up my childhood home, I rubbed my hand along the molding that held all of the hash marks of our heights through the years. And with the sight of each penciled-in slash, that feeling of a ruler on my crown.

And shoes… shoes are so hard to throw away. They look back at you as if making a final plea. Weathered and worn, their scuffs and holes tell stories, like an old pock-marked movie theater owner. Ghosts in our closets, threatening us with our own secrets.

The loose lightswitch; how I’ve cursed that thing and, on better days, laughed at it in the dark.

Even more aggravating, the wooden animal sculptures on the end table in the hall, with their long narrow legs (a sculptor’s practical joke, no doubt), always topping over at the slightest nudge by a knee or elbow. I’ve scolded them too. But I love them, I love how they’ve made every one of us stumble and cuss on the way to our beds.

My computer keyboard! Such an immense love for this tattered antique, with its letters rubbed off from decades of the soft solitary dance of my fingertips, alone with me in the magic, an accomplice in my quest to find the gods. Will it be wrong to weep when it gives out on me?

These things — they make a sane man look crazy just by being the recipient, indeed the adored object, of his fleeting tribute.

It’s my mother’s fault; ah, the queen of inanimate objects, of THINGS! She had a lamp in the corner she called “mother.” The flowers in her garden represented loved ones passed, green traffic lights on the way to piano lessons — yes! A sure sign Grampa Vic was giving us a wink. Pictures, blankets, collectible pencil sharpeners, stained doilies, an oversized grainy TV, half a dozen neatly folded washcloths never moved, the Lion’s Club blazer in her closet — all bringing her closer to people who aren’t here anymore and, sadly, farther away from people who are.

When I finish a book, I always hold it against my chest for a while, as if the author could know, as if the pages could feel my thumb fanning them tenderly. And for a moment, maybe, just maybe, I too can feel all the others who laid still after the last page, their eyes closed like mine, still as a corpse in the greatest reverence to what they were given.

These things hold the milestones of our lives like pressed flowers, sometimes more alive than we are ourselves. They talk to us, scream at us, and cry with us. They are companions in a hard world, obeying our orders to stay the same, to hold still—the only things that hold fucking still as the world whips and spins and splits apart.

I keep a paint brush on my desk, a gift from my art teacher for being a varsity scholar, or a “varsity scoffer”, as he used to say. When I notice it, I pick it up and brush it across my palm. The bristles are perfect; they’ve never been touched by paint.

Is it so crazy to believe that these things are alive, that they can hear us and record our lives when we’re too busy to do it ourselves?

Our trail of evidence. Oh, that we’ve lived!

And though they cannot breathe and sing and travel to the moon, they are sure to outlast us, to remain faithfully quiet and still in our absence, to hide in plain sight in order to be found once again and touched and held in the shaking, searching hands of the ones who loved us most.