Present Tense

There’s this thing I do when talking to clients about their work histories. I tend to ask questions in the present tense.

Who do you report to? How is the company structured? What level of authority do you have? Who’s on your team?

Sometimes the client will stop me and remind me that they don’t work there anymore. I can’t blame them for that, but there’s something else at work here.

One of the most powerful therapeutic techniques involves asking clients to put themselves in the center of a pivotal past event but in the present tense. It feels kind of weird to do but it works wonders. It forces the person to be in that space instead of thinking about being in that space.

I’m sure we’d all agree there is a big difference between telling a friend about how you love your partner versus telling that partner directly. Picture an estranged spouse on the Dr. Phil show pouring their heart out to the TV therapist who then yells at them in his incredulous southern drawl, “Don’t tayell me, tayell heeyim!” and then that person turns to their partner and can’t even get through the first few words with crying hysterically.

Look at wedding vows: brides and grooms run through their lines a hundred times without getting emotional but once they’re on that stage, in the moment, speaking to the object of their affection… well, that’s when we start taking pictures.

Context and time matters.

Speaking in the present tense invites us to go back in time, to actually see our colleagues, the rickety old office furniture, to remember the smells, the rumors, the cubicle wall that was always falling down, the pictures we pinned up on our monitor. Fully immersed, we recall more.

As someone tasked daily with making people recall things that happened years ago, I can tell you it works.

Once we get into our Way-Back machine, pick a date, land in that time, and get out of the vehicle, we’re well on our way to remembering things we forgot and changing our perspective of the past, which, you better believe, changes the course of time.

What Comes After A Good Cry

I had just finished crying over the loss of a friend.

It was 6 am and my daughter, the younger one, was up early laying in bed next to my wife, or, should I say, on top of my wife, annoying the heck out of her, trying to get her to let her watch baby videos on her phone. This is the scene I walked into from my office, my eyes still drying up.

When I tried to extract her from her mama, my daughter threw her body around and wailed . I thought it was a fake cry but it persisted, all the way down the stairs, through the hall, and into the living room. She was no longer asking for baby videos, just crying.

And how could I get angry about it? I had just had an inconsolable moment myself, up there in my office, where know one could see me.

I sat back with my daughter and laid her across my chest so that her head rested on my shoulder. Her body hiccuped out pain, tensing up with each indecipherable syllable. I stroked her head, a gentle motion in complete contrast to her jerking body and rhythmic shrieking.

I spoke to her but quickly realized I was speaking to myself, the man crying at his keyboard not moments before.

“It’s okay to cry. Sometimes you have something in you that hurts and it needs to come out and when it comes out it hurts more, but you just keep going through it because that’s what your body wants to do and it’s not up to you anymore and so you just keep going. And eventually it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Her wailing escalated, and I didn’t know if it was out of compliance or defiance of what I’d said.

The sun was just starting to come up and the room was lightening. There were toys on the floor, scattered and still, blankets and pillows piled around us. The coolness of the outside air seeped through the window panes just enough to make me realize it was there.

My daughter kept crying, trying to burrow her way into my chest, finding that place I had gone into earlier that morning.

Her hand in a fist gripping my shirt, my palm relaxed and flat on her back, the present and the past happening at the same time, each holding the other.

It was a perfect moment.

Chinese Shelf

We have this ornate wooden bookshelf in the hall. We call it the Chinese Shelf. It’s come with us across 3 houses and is always used in the same way: to display the things we brought back from traveling the world. Or rather that my wife brought back. She’s the one who’s done most of the traveling in the family, before we were family, to Japan, Thailand, India, Tibet, and, yes, China.

At our latest residence (you might call it the permanent one), the Chinese Shelf has collected more than just cultural mementos.

In being at the top of the stairs, positioned in the hall between the kids’ rooms and our room, it’s become a catch-all for a new kind of artifact: everyday household items that need to go downstairs, or that have just come upstairs but are in limbo of where they will ultimately be stationed, stored, or forgotten.

Things like rubber bouncy balls and empty kitchen bowls and sunglasses and duct tape and orphaned playing cards and unidentified little plastic caps, and hair-ties (with hair stuck to the little metal ring) and canisters of slime and phone charging cords and tubes of sunblock all cling precariously to the shelves, piled up on each and other, like suburban barnacles.

My wife wants to travel again. It’s become a motivating thing for her. She’s started listening to podcasts about earning free miles and money through credit card applications so we can travel more, like she used to.

I want to encourage this, so, even though we’re still figuring out how to fund these new adventures, I’ve cleared the Chinese Shelf of our domestic artifacts to leave behind the overseas ones – totems, pictures, paper swans, strange wooden heads and bowls, textiles, fragile marionette puppets, rocks, and shells – symbols of freedom from faraway friends and gift shops, objects that beckon memories and long for new companions.

I never was very good at finance, but I’m good at motivation and I know that in order to open yourself up for new things, you have to clear a space. You have to make the tough decision to get rid of things, to scrape off the barnacles, to chip away a little at your current conditions and change the shape of that stagnant state of mind.

You have to clear off a surface and make room for new.

Mr. Cook

Hey folks, we had a bit of a glitch with today’s post, so here it is again: an important one that poured out of me in like 15 minutes about the timelessness of beloved relationships….

My high school art teacher died Wednesday and, though I’m 3,000 miles away and missed his retirement party, I’m walking around with a heavy heart, the wind knocked out of me, in a daze.

So many memories piling up like all of those 4×6 photographs he had heaped in the back of his classroom on that long white shelf that ran the length of the windows. The photos, faded and curled and sticking together, were interspersed with torn-out magazine pages.

He never let you draw something purely out of your mind. You always had to go back to that pile and pick out images. At any given moment during the day, a student was at that pile, head down, peeling off photos in search of inspiration.

It was decades later, in my 40’s, when we became Facebook friends, and he shared snapshots of the islands where he grew up (and later convalesced) that I realized where those pictures had come from.

Rusted boats, doorways of vacant buildings, silhouettes of people, thousands of red, orange, and yellow sunsets, rock piers, tin cans floating in the waves, tree-lined horizons, industrial signs, antiquated flamethrowers, abandoned once-beloved automobiles with plants growing up through the engine…

He never talked about that place where all the photos came from, at least not to me, and I never asked. That’s one of the many regrets I have now, like visiting the school in my 30’s when he just happened to be home sick, not hugging him at graduation, and deciding not to call after watching him sing songs with his guitar on Facebook.

But it makes me smile through my tears, picturing him in the classroom, there behind me as I sketch out an antiquated flamethrower. Sensing my frustration with the line I’m on, he’d hand me a piece of gumbo eraser and whisper: “That’s it, Cliff. Just sneak up on it.”

And so I kep going, without ever looking back to thank him.

I see now, what he must have seen: the backs of our heads, our bodies hunched over giant white rectangles of paper, fixated on what we could create, our brains free from the pain of high school for 50 glorious minutes, as we unknowingly recreated – a million times over – the pictures of his sunrises and sunsets… the artifacts of long, solitary walks across decades, the things he and he alone knew the meaning of.

A Revealing Outfit

I hosted a “NeverWear” party one year. The idea was for people to wear the clothes they never wear. Heh heh. Get it? It was raucously successful. We had fur vests and bell bottoms, tuxedos and tiaras, name brands and no names, shirts too small and shirts too big.

People were given permission to put fashion on hold, vanity took a back seat, and we all came forward. Everyone had a story to tell, about their outfit but really about themselves: who they once were and what their boundaries are.

I have lots of ideas for parties. One I haven’t realized yet is “The Opposites” party, a step beyond the NeverWear theme, where partygoers dress in the exact opposite way as they normally do.

The instructions are purposefully vague.

The idea here is liberation and pride. Dressing wholly and obviously opposite is the same thing as underscoring the part of your identity you love most. It’s a coming out party in secret. You get to brag without bragging, tell everyone how you want to be seen and how you think you’re already perceived – a monologue we never openly deliver but should.

Truth on display.

What would you wear?

Different Cocktails

You’re out with friends and someone buys a round of cocktails. Everybody drinks up and comments on how great the cocktails are, but you’re thinking everyone is crazy, there’s way too much alcohol in here, or maybe it’s too spicy, or lacks any flavor at all. This shit is watered down and you can’t taste a thing!

You watch everyone dancing around and sipping on their little red straws like it’s the greatest thing in the world and you’re thinking: I call bullshit. I’m not feelin’ it.

And what if this happened to you every time you went to a bar? You might start feeling a little weird about it, pretending you actually like the drink, fooling your friends (and yourself) into thinking you’re catching the same buzz. Or, you might embrace the different drink you’re served, the tastes you were forced into from birth. Or, you might stop going out altogether.

One thing we’d all do, regardless of who we are or where we’re from… we’d send the drinks back. We’d get up in the Great Mixologist’s face, with a combination of rage and sadness and ask her to tweak the levels, to play with the balance.

And it’s annoying that we have to do this little extra step every time! We hate to leave our friends to walk behind the bar, tap the Bartender, and give her an additional instruction or two. Every time.

Sometimes our friends notice this and talk about it, sometimes they ask us directly and, though it may be coming from a place of concern, we wish they could taste what we taste, feel what we feel, and just for once have the same chemicals coursing through their brains and bodies as we do.

We work hard to get our cocktail right and we hate that extra trip to the bar, but it gets us out, which is always better than staying inside.

Enemies & Awakedness

I would like to thank my enemies – the dissenters, the faceless commentators, the backstabbers, the Yelpers, the rats, the arguers, the contrarians…

You force me to rethink my worldview, to review my blueprints one more time. At the very least, you inspire me to double-underline the keywords in my poems. At best, you make me tear certain parts out.

Although we hate to admit it, our enemies make us think harder and faster than our friends. When we jump into “Oh no you didn’t!” mode furiously typing out our reply or waving a finger in the checkout line, we’re immediately alive and functioning at our peak.

It’s like waking up from a nap when the doorbell rings. You snap into action. And if that surprise visitor is a threat to your family or an unknown entity of any sort, you come alive all the more, completely forgetting about those clumsy feelings you woke up with.

We celebrate awakedness as sacred, something to always strive for because everything else is possible once you’re there. Enemies (and by this, I mean people with views and experiences that conflict with our own)… Enemies deliver that sacred awakedness more reliably than anything else in the external world.

They draw X’s through our prose as we write it, hang on the delete key laughing, come storming into the room reciting their own crappy poems. When once we were rotely typing out our lines, now we hunker down, more entrenched, more committed, and perhaps secretly skeptical of our great message.

The bastards deserve a round of applause.

My Daughter Is A Disco Yeti

It’s Celebrity Day at school and, when so many kids look to pop stars for inspiration, my oldest daughter decided to wrap herself up in a white faux fur poncho and call herself a yeti, technically the Disco Yeti from Disney’s Expedition Everest roller coaster attraction.

Crazy girl.

It reminds me of the time I wore my grandma’s clip-on earrings to school in fifth grade. It wasn’t premeditated. I just saw them there laying on the back of the sink and clipped them on my ears. They were green and blue costume jewelry in the design of a flower. I sneaked out the door before my mom could see.

I don’t remember anyone’s reaction except for my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Lausten, notoriously the meanest teacher in the school who seemed to actually enjoy humiliating students. He called me to front of the class, his room was the only one with carpet, which made it hard to pull out your chair. When I reached him, his face scrunched up like he had just eaten something that made his stomach turn.

“Flamer,” he bellowed. “What the heck are you doing?”

He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t mightily clever like he usually was when destroying a student for entertainment. He seemed genuinely confused and scared, as if I had worn a completely different face to school, as if I’d grown 10 inches. I’d never seen that expression on him. I was kind of proud to put it there, like pushing him off balance with a new set of tools I didn’t know I had.

“Off. Now.” he said, with his palm turned up.

I’m not sure why clip-on earrings would prevent me from being able to learn Geography.

He gave them back to me after class and I wore them for the rest of the day. At least I imagine I did. I didn’t wear them to school again but not because of Mr. Lausten, because they gave me a headache (much like the large gold Queen Nefertiti hoop earrings I would wear 5 years later in high school).

So the yeti outfit doesn’t bother me. Looks like my daughter has a little bit of the ol‘ “Fresh Flame” in her.

I wonder what the faces will say to her. I wonder what she’ll discover in her toolkit.

Nearly Robbed

A few years ago we were nearly robbed. I say nearly because we stopped them at the perimeter. My wife heard a banging, looked out the second-story window, and saw two young men standing in our front garden about to crawl through a hole in the fence. She yelled some expletives and they ran off.

It spooked us all, particularly my daughter, who had a lot of questions, which forced me to confront my own demons about the whole thing.

As a parent, I try to avoid the good-guys-vs-bad-guys thing, something that’s pretty rampant in cartoons. Instead, I point out cause and effect: there’s a reason Evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz lives alone in his lair obsessively plotting to destroy the Tri-State Area. Once you figure out that reason, Dr. Doofenshmirtz becomes a lot less scary.

It’s an easy enough philosophy to apply to cartoons, but it had me in a bind trying to gently explain why someone would rob us.

“Sometimes people see things we have that they themselves don’t have and that they want, and since they don’t have them and don’t think they can get them in other ways, they try to take them from us.”

Man, it’d be a lot easier just to peg these people as bad guys.

But I kept working at it, fielding the barrage of WHY questions my daughter hurled at me like gobs of clay, slowly sculpting our answer. It took some time, but together we got there.

I knew we had arrived because, as my mind rifled through my own list of enemies, from shitty roommates to Facebook foes to parking space thieves to childhood bullies, my daughter stared out the window down into the garden where muddy workboots had trampled our flowers.

And then she looked up at me with no fear left in her face, just like she does after I explain away her bad dreams. She looked at me for a few seconds longer, searching my face like a crime scene, and then she went back to playing.


Why is HAPPINESS so hard to obtain when it’s the thing we all want in life?

There’s no shortage of it and we have the gift of free will to track it down and put it in our pocket, yet most of us don’t get the experience of emptying it out onto our nightstand at the end of the day.

It’s possible we’re looking too hard.

We dedicate our lives to finding it, spend years charting a path and looking under stones, seeking out experts in robes and ivory towers. We ask other people. Marry other people. We get sidetracked by quests for stability, for family, for notoriety, for wisdom. We trip over piles of coins and follow its shimmering path back to the source, where it spits out of a well like confetti. And as the coins drop from the sky like rain through our outstretched fingers and into our pockets, we’re disappointed that the well of HAPPINESS isn’t anywhere nearby.

I see people looking all the time. It’s my job, as a career counselor, to look with them. They never say it out loud: “Cliff, I’m looking for happiness,” but that’s what all of them are telling me.

They tell me about the stones they’ve turned over and we turn over some more and at the end of our session, they feel good but often don’t notice. I see that they’re laughing or breathing more easily than they were an hour ago, so I tell them this. I point to the thing that’s happening within them but often they’re still focusing on the notes they took and the plan they’re developing.

And it’s a good plan, but really just another distraction.