Give Unto the Poor

This is a story of moral curiosity. Read accordingly.

I had just completed my homework goal for the evening after getting home from work. I indulged in a much needed shower, and decided to make a quick trip to the nearby Walmart to pick up a bottle of wine to accompany some late night writing – a rare luxury given my class requirements.

I swung into the same tiny neighborhood market that I do nearly every night… dubstep blasting from my used Lexus speakers of course, and barely noticed, as I turned the parking lot corner, an assembly of grocery bags piled along the side of the street in front of the parking lot. In the split second I had to glance at this odd sight, I thought it just a line of trash… until I saw some feet and knees move.

I parked my car in the same spot I always do. A city police SUV happened to be idling two spaces over, and I made a mental note to stop the officer inside and ask if he was aware of the huddled figure draped in a bath towel sitting streetside just outside his squad car.

While it was nice of me to have such considerations, I never did encounter a police officer that night.

Summer was definitely turning to fall, and though not quite freezing, a chilling cold was in the air, which made the figure on the curb all the more deserving of attention. Deserving, that is, to my mind at least.

I scanned the isles for the absent officer, scanned the same isles again for a blanket, then found the wine isle (rather easily) and went to check out. This Walmart didn’t carry blankets, I was told at the register, but I got $20 cash-back just in case.

Generally speaking, a homeless person needs both shelter AND resources, so even if I couldn’t help with both, I could at least add a drop in the bucket towards one necessity.

Unfortunately, the shady-looking gas station across the street didn’t have blankets for sale either. They mostly just had gasoline. Gasoline, and cars blasting ghetto noise outside. I wove around motionless (yet hip-hop blasting) 90’s sedans sporting cheap paint jobs, tinted windows and lift-kits, and re-parked my car with the $20 bill still in my pocket.

I didn’t have my “piece” with me, so, like a normal person, I just got out, locked my doors, and avoided eye contact while making my way towards my gutter-bound beneficiary.

My personal poverty and debt facts aside, I had every intention of handing over my………………

……..my what?

My gracious gift of two fast food meals? My contribution of three small bottles of bottom-shelf vodka? Four packs of cheap cigarettes? One Uber ride? One day’s worth of pot-granted peace? A cheap blanket? A quarter of a rancid motel room?

What is a $20 bill to a person surviving on the edge of society?

I’ll tell you. It’s a “thank you”. It’s a “god bless”. It’s nothing to sneeze at – because it’s nothing at all.

It’s a fucking sandwich and a can of beer – and that’s all I was intending to hand this crumpled figure anyway. Why? Because I can’t afford health insurance or to shop at Kroger, but my pathetic feelings hurt for a faceless human who was shivering alone on a cold October night.  

So then why did I drive home without giving them the $20 bill?

I still have it – the $20 bill. It’s in the pull-out divider mesh drawer thingy that sits next to my Canon printer. It’s folded along-side my souvenir Bavaria lighter, my mini-stapler and my scotch tape.

If I didn’t need it…then why didn’t I just give it away to someone who did?

I was 30 steps away.

Because.

Because you don’t huddle unless you’re freezing. (And it wasn’t freezing outside.)

You don’t sleep on the side of the street if you intend to sleep at all. (The cops won’t let you.)

You don’t own more than you can carry if you are homeless. (That’s what defines a homeless person.)

You don’t wait outside unless you’ve been kicked out of an inside for some reason.

To be honest, I didn’t need to think about it too deeply. Everything was suspicious. The red flags were waving. I had no idea whose head was bowed under that dirty towel on the sidewalk. No idea for what reason they were sitting… what or who they were waiting for…why they hid their face…and why – or if, they were cold in the first place.

I’ve seen enough in my sad life to know that even a desperate form can be both a cry for help…and a crime in waiting.

So I left.

I drove away without helping.

I got home, tossed the $20 bill next to the printer, cracked open the bottle of rosé , made some dinner and wrote down this story mere minutes after it happened.

Why?

Because this story isn’t about a person in need. Nor is it about me.

It’s about you.

It’s about what you think about all this.

So, what do you think?

You’re welcome to share a comment on Facebook or send me an email directly if you really want to, but that’s not the point of this either.

This story isn’t over yet.

The best stories never are.

Preaching Matrices

My math professor, Dr Williams, isn’t your typical math professor. Not only is he chair of the mathematics department at my college, he is also currently writing his own Linear Algebra textbook, all the while taking more classes himself to further his own education, adding to the many degrees he already possesses. He’s in his late fifties or early sixties, and a family man. He has some grey in his manicured beard but is only partially balding. He is always well-dressed, and wears stylish, thick-rimmed glasses, though not thick enough to hide the perpetual twinkle in his eye. He is the engaging, enthusiastic, hilarious teacher every student hopes for, and exudes a contagious passion for his field of expertise.

But Dr Williams isn’t just a superb educator who lives and breathes mathematics. He also happens to be the pastor of a black southern Baptist church.

To say he is charismatic in the classroom would be an understatement.

This is the teacher that will throw a crazy-looking matrix problem on the screen and say: “Now this…THIS isn’t all it seems! There’s MORE to the story than you see here! Something you need to KNOW in order to solve this! What is it? Well, in Genesis…” and then proceed to tell a Bible story (adding that our homework is to read the story of Isaac and the wells if we haven’t already) because not only do we need to understand math, we need to understand how math applies to life. Or as he would put it: to LIFE!!

I just can’t help but love this man.

He started a lecture the other day with an exposition of the philosophy of truth and knowledge:

“What WAS it that John said? When they told him that there were rumors of the messiah, HE said: “IS this the one?….. or IS there another??”

It took more than a moment for his shaking finger to drop down to desk level after that exclamation.

You see, a given matrix, once proven that is invertible, can only have one inverse, and it is important that we students, like John the Baptist, read, study, THINK, and dig for the truth…especially when finding matrix inverses is on the exam.

The majority of the class seemed to just swallow his rhetoric, and I thought to myself: “I’ve got to say something…if for no other reason than to let him know that his audience (congregation?) is more diverse and intellectual than he thinks.”

So, after class, I step up to his pulpi- I mean, “desk” at the front of the classroom.

“Hey there, Mr. Henry! What can I do for you?”

I clear my throat, trying to hide a smile and look serious at the same time, and say in a low tone: “I disagree with your philosophy.”

His eyebrows shoot up, and he almost manages to hide a smile of his own.

“Oh? Which part?”

“Well, if I’ve learned anything from mathematics, it’s that it teaches us the limits of reason.”

“Yes,” he nods gravely, so I continue.

“It’s a wall – almost tangible. I don’t think that given the limits of human reason, we can make claims about a god that by definition exists outside of it. If we can conceive of it, then it becomes contained within our spectrum of understanding and cannot be what it claims to be.”

Still nodding, he says: “But you see I’m not trying to understand God at all – I’m talking about knowledge of God. That is different.”

My turn to nod this time.  

“Yes, but as an empiricist, I believe that all knowledge comes from us. From humans.”

He leans forward in his chair, no longer hiding the smile: “But that is something YOU CHOOSE to believe!”

I stop hiding my smile too: “And YOU choose to believe that there exists knowledge that is beyond us!”

Before he has a chance to respond, I cordially add:

“I guess that makes us both men of faith.”

At this point my smile has broadened into a congenial, yet suppressed chuckle, while his has turned into a hearty laugh. As I turn to leave, he leans forward extending his hand to me from across the desk.

We shake hands jovially, without any apparent need to narrate the moment.

That’s my cue.

I shoulder the other strap of my backpack and step aside to let the next student through. Just before I reach the exit, and with students waiting in line to talk to him, he calls after me using his booming preacher voice:

“That’s the kind of thinking I’m TALKING about!”

I can’t say that I’ve ever had my irreligiosity complemented by a preacher, but I suspect I may have made a friend of sorts… or maybe a worthy opponent.

I do hope it turns out to be both. And I like to think that that handshake across the desk spanned quite a bit further than the desk alone. The semester has only just begun, so I guess we’ll see.

If Mice Could Sing

…When you said your last goodbye
I died a little bit inside
And I lay in tears in bed all night
Alone without you by my side


But if you loved me
Why’d you leave me?


Take my body…take my body…

All I want is
And all I need is
To find somebody
I’ll find somebody

Like you…like you…

These are the words, sung in the warm, Celtic voice of Clare Stagg that had me wiping away a single tear before glancing down at my phone thinking:

Why the hell am I listening to this garbage?

I appreciate a wide variety of music, a variety that I am always trying to broaden and enhance. I’ve gone through all sorts of phases with music, ranging from death metal to blues, classic rock to ska, punk to choro, and many more.

Phases come and go, but I always return to some of the same favorite genres that just never seem to get old: jazz, classical, and…. one other one.

High-energy trance.

Yup.

Something a lot of people don’t know about me is my strange affinity for electronic music. (It’s kind of my dirty little secret.)

I’m aware of the images this conjures up:

…thousands of people packed into massive stadiums…. painted faces, flags and glow-sticks waving everywhere… arms swaying to mind-blowing light shows while drowning in beat/MDMA induced euphoria…and all in front of a single DJ on an enormous stage.  

For the record, I’ve never been to a rave or EDM event, but the music (if you can call it that) is something that appeals to me for several reasons:

  • It’s energetic and is highly conducive to maintaining flow-state. This helps me stay in “go-mode” whenever I need to be productive or drive fast (which is always).
  • It’s mathematically structured and therefore cognitively digestible for a machine-brained person like me. It’s almost like Bach, except you can move to it (fyi: you cannot dance to it).
  • It is unparalleled in its ability to draw out positive emotion. Trance is carefully designed to take the listener on an intense emotional rollercoaster ride by gradually building on an uplifting tune, adding deep base lines, pushing the emotion further and further until an accelerating drum beat brings the song to the brink of an almost unbearable climax that finally releases the listener with a return to the deep, heavy beat that is the undercurrent of the whole piece. Then it repeats the process.

I could make trance sound even more sophisticated, but who am I kidding? Trance appeals to the same base primitive emotions that country, hip-hop and pop music appeal to. Trance just does it electronically and with euphoria as its emotional medium.

Did I really just use the word “sophisticated”?

Ugh.

I hope it’s at least somewhat apparent at this point that I basically hate myself for liking this junk. If classical music is like an aged bottle of exquisite wine you found in your grandfathers cellar, then trance is like a line of coke you got from the McDonald’s dishwasher in exchange for a pack of smokes.

But it wasn’t the genre so much as it was the lyrics in Ciaran McAuley’s emotional new hit “All I Want” that made me cringe.

_____

You see, I have a certain dislike for “vocal music”. What I mean by “vocal music”, is any piece of music that has words in it.

(Please excuse me while I get on my soap box for a moment. Ahem.)

Music speaks loudest when it has no voice. This is because music has a voice and a language all its own, one that cuts through the limits of human grammar and vocabulary and touches our emotions directly. Music can tell complicated stories, unite a diverse crowd, and leave grown men in tears for reasons they don’t understand.

It has been said that:

Words, versatile though they are, are simply insufficient in describing the true depths of the human experience.

So humans built machines to speak for us – to work as proxies when words weren’t enough, and wrote a new language that both human and machine could speak.

We call these machines instruments…and we call the language… music.

Music is the message. And that message is only limited and cheapened by the addition of human words. The most heinous violation of musical purity by vocals is that it immediately identifies and separates speaker and audience. Music is communication. It can be a conduit for the expression of feeling, a source of feeling, a combination of the two, or even a complex mixture of the same.

The details depend on more factors than can be listed, so suffice it to say, music is a unique experience. Adding an “ambassador” for the music erases that amazing and unique potential for two-way communication and expression.

Finally, human words add specific meaning, which limits what the music might have said otherwise. Words add cultural and political baggage that can act as a geographical marker and/or a timestamp, thereby destroying a potentially timeless piece.

There simply is no substitute for pure music, music that has no need for specific and petty human meanings.

(Okay. Soap-boxing complete – thank you.)

_______________________

Yet, despite knowing all this, I still indulge in vocal music from time to time, and it just so happened to be those dumb, bleeding-heart lyrics that got me thinking about human song and its meaning in the broader sense.

I don’t know if maybe I was trying to understand why I liked this music, or if I was trying to justify why it was okay to like it, but I’m going to have to explain another strange feature of my mind for the rest of this to make sense. Please bear with me.

Dirty secret #2:

I have a habit of mentally reframing human behavior in alternate contexts when I encounter something that seems illogical or that I can’t quite wrap my head around.

I accomplish this by replacing the humans with one of two animals: for scenarios involving higher cognitive functions (usually group functions), I imagine bonobos, and for more basic mammalian behaviors, I imagine mice.

This conceptual thought experiment usually helps me sort out and understand what people are doing and why.

Here are some examples to clarify:

Why would a smart male teenager try so hard to fit in with a group of popular teenagers of vastly lower intelligence? Is this something a beta-male bonobo attempting to discover/gain status in an established social hierarchy might do to gain access to females and mating privileges?

Why would a non-starving person consume copious amounts of junk food when they know it makes them sexually unattractive and shortens their life span? Is this something a mouse with a genetic predisposition to favor rare and valuable nutrients would do when exposed to readily available sources of sugar and fat?

These are admittedly sloppy examples, but they at least illustrate the framework.

_____________________

So once again the question of music inspired me to attempt a similar thought experiment.

Why would anyone make or listen to this emotionally charged noise when we’ve already invented classical music and jazz (and choro)? And most importantly, what would super-intelligent aliens think if they were cruising by Earth and happened to hear this crap?

To find out, I decided to turn the tables.

Imagine with me if you will (I’ve always wanted to say that), a distant future in which humans are traveling on a spaceship and come across a small planet on which mice have become the dominant species. What would we hear if we directed our microphones towards their planet and listened? What kind of music would they be making?

What if mice could sing?

Well, first of all, although mice are capable of squeaking at frequencies human ears can hear, most of their squeaks extend outside of our hearing range and into the ultrasonic. It would be a lot of high-pitched noise to our ears, so we’d need to adjust the microphones a little to compensate. Second, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine what they would sing about:

Since these mice were small prey animals throughout most of their evolution, they would probably sing about a deep fear of or respect for predators. They would sing about heroes evading cats, snakes, owls and foxes. They would sing about mice who conquered their fears and who ventured out into the great unknown and survived.

They would probably sing about the things that are essential to the longevity of their species (ie: the things that are most dear to them): sexual attraction, offspring, companionship and all of the related emotions like connection, love, longing, and loss.

Mice would likely also sing about the simpler elements that comprise mouse life. Things like safety, food, sleep, shelter, nature, and peace. The things that make a mouse’s life worth living.

Some mice might even sing about the things that make a mouse’s life awful. Things like sickness, disease, starvation, even corruption and exploitation.

Is that too far-fetched? I think if we allow ourselves creative license to imagine this much (based on general mouse social behavior) we could be justified in assuming that mice would sing about the same things that humans sing about.

I guess humans aren’t so strange after all. Given that humans sing, it would be weird if we didn’t sing about the things we sing about.

So that’s one problem solved. I’ll need to be less harsh on vocal music from now on.

I would have ended things there, but the more I played around with this little thought experiment, the more interesting it got.

Back to our imaginary spaceship hovering on the edge of our mouse planet.

_________________________

If we “zoomed in” our microphones, we might focus on a single mouse’s heartfelt song. A song about tunneling in fields, maybe. A song perhaps for mouse children about the carefree mouse that got snatched up by a hawk. Or maybe a ballad about young mouse love. Maybe even a trance song about a mouse’s broken heart.  

But what would happen if we “zoomed out” our microphones a little?

A loud cacophony of thousands of squeaks and squeals, all in the same regional mouse language or dialect (most likely), accompanied by a confused mesh of all the various musical instruments that mice would no doubt have invented.

We could no doubt pick out all kinds of different songs at this distance. A funeral dirge here, a battle march there. Mouse kindergarten choirs, mouse garage punk bands, and mouse operas. Mouse songs sung in mouse showers, mouse songs sung in mouse streets, mouse songs screamed at the night sky, and mouse songs choked by mouse sobs.

But why stop there?

What if we zoomed out ALL the way? What if we could capture every single song being sung on this tiny mouse planet? What would we hear?

You might say we would get a coarse-grained snapshot of what being a mouse on the mouse planet at that one instant is like. A strange, confused, and truly overwhelming picture of what it is to be a mouse. It would be unfathomable, horrendous and terrible. It would be mesmerizing and humbling. It would be something never heard before:

A frighteningly complex uproar comprised of billions of mouse voices all singing, shouting, screaming, whispering, crying and wailing in a single, tumultuous song. It would be a song that began when the first mouse to develop vocal cords uttered its first squeak, and it would continue without intermission into infinity. An unbroken song.

This song would tell a tangled and garbled story of pain, and suffering, and love, and compassion, and laughing, and crying, and hoping, and dreaming, and eating, and sleeping, and mating, and dying, and living….and living.

Just living.

A story of living.

What we would hear emanating from our little mouse planet… would be a song about living.

An unbroken song of life.

I began to think at this point about how Earth really isn’t all that different from this imaginary “Planet of the Mice”.

We spend so much time living on our own little planet… we forget that living on this planet is literally all we do.

But while we’re doing it, we somehow always find time to sing about it, too.

We write songs. And then we sing them to each other.

The songs that an alien visitor would hear coming from our Earth would be no different than the many squeaks and squeals from that mouse planet we imagined earlier.

A deafening melting together of voices… singing together, crying together, feeling together… in a billion simultaneous and sequential movements to the grandest symphony ever composed…

…our very own unbroken song of life.

________________________

At this point I realized something about my silly trance song: it doesn’t speak for all of humanity – it’s just one small voice. That’s all. One small voice among countless others that make up a single snapshot of what it is to be a human on this planet.

After all, is Earth really that different from a mouse planet? And are humans really that different from mice?

What are we really, but lonely, grapefruit-brained mammals stranded on a lost little planet lunging through the universe?

If humans could sing, what would they sing? What do they sing?

I think I may have figured it out…

An unbroken song of life comprised of a billion wailing beings struggling to make sense of their existence…

…a billion voices singing their souls into the void.

I wondered what our song of life sounded like, and wished humans could hear it. I also wondered how we would react to it if we could hear it. 

Would we focus on the many cycles of life and find peace in it? Would the meaninglessness of it all induce feelings of despair? Would we recoil in horror at the unfathomable suffering, or maybe just laugh because no other reaction felt appropriate?

I wonder if we’d even find a word big enough to describe it all with.

Our song of life, that is.

As for me, I have no idea how I would react to the human song. I just hope, as I imagine everyone would, that it wouldn’t shatter the way I currently see life.

Because for me, from my narrow life and even narrower perspective, there is only one word big enough that touches all of the feelings that encompass the human experience in all its wonder and tragedy… and that word is beauty.

__________________________

Standing alone in the women’s shoe stockroom, with a wall of Steve Madden on one side of me, and a wall of Sam Edelman on the other, I looked down at my phone again. I decided it was okay to listen to these dumb songs after all, and chose a track that I knew would lift my spirits a little…or at least help me run stock faster:

the new release by Zach Zlov, “Regicide” from The Art of Skullduggery.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I’ll keep listening to my stupid low-brow trance music, at least for now.

After all, it adds to a certain unfathomable beauty that I know of.

But, and for what it’s worth, I did switch to Mahler’s fifth symphony afterwards to make up for it.

Shoes, Success, and other Ugly Things

“That’s how you know you’ve failed at life – when you’re twenty-four and working at a place like this.”

By the time he’d finished his sentence, I had already rounded the next corner and wasn’t able to pinpoint which teenager had muttered the comment. It might have been the tall blond one with the chiseled jaw, wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts and Sperry thongs. Or, it could have been the one standing to his left sporting an expensive new haircut, a pale-yellow American Eagle long-sleeved t-shirt and canvas Polo shoes.

But I like to think it was the one sitting on the padded stool, with his over-sized graphic tee and denim shorts. Why? Because he happened to be trying on a pair of solid black, extra-wide New Balance WX608V4 walking shoes – the kind nobody in their right mind would touch unless they were past running age and suffering from collapsed arches…either that or reluctantly complying with some strange high-school PE dress-code.

Since this one seemed closer to high-school age than wise old age, I assumed the latter to be the case.

But it didn’t really matter who said it. And it didn’t really matter that they even threw out a few theories as to why anyone would possibly choose to work at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. I didn’t catch the first theory; I barely caught “extra spending-money” as I walked by; and I missed any that may have followed.

Perhaps if I’d stuck around a little longer I’d have heard something closer to the truth. Something in the “desperate times call for desperate measures” category.

But I doubt it.

Did I really care what three random teenagers thought about me? Apparently I did, because their comments made me reflect on my situation a little more than I usually do.

When your company cuts your hours down to anywhere from 0 to 8 hours per week, it’s best to find a second job before the rent’s due. And if, say, you could only afford a single day off per week (exam days), then you might find you don’t have much time (or energy) for deep reflection.

But as I watched the trio saunter off towards the register (he really is going to buy those ugly shoes, geez), I couldn’t help but reflect just a little.

What did I imagine my future would look like when I was a pimple-faced, Axe-body-spray-wearing ball of smart-alecky potential?

At twenty-four?

Why, I’d be working on my first post-grad most likely. But I’d be almost finished. I’d be married to the love of my life of course, and maybe even have rugrats by then. Maybe I’d have authored a book or two. Maybe not. But I’d definitely have some published work in a respected journal, and maybe even a few patents in my name. I’d have mastered the violin by then (maybe not “Hilary Hahn mastered”, but I’d at least be orchestra-ready),and I’d have learned a third language perhaps. Other than that, I’d have digested a small library’s worth of books, and I’d certainly have traveled the world a bit more too. That last part goes without saying.

The details weren’t too important, but that much at least I would have to show for my life at twenty-four.

But none of those things happened. Turns out those little details make all the difference in the world.

I’ll spare you my life’s story. It’s not important. It’s a long and tragic story, just like everyone else’s. But, there is a short narrative I discovered that, though a bit cold, accurately describes my journey thus far. To be precise, it’s a poem – this one: “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson:

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

For what it’s worth, it’s worth reading a second time.

A good friend of mine introduced me to this poem about a year ago. He has a framed portrait of it on his desk at his business. I have it framed in my bathroom. It’s in front of the toilet, right at eye level, so any time someone goes number two, they come face-to-face with profundity.

Seriously though, there is a lot wrapped up in this short poem. The main idea is this:

You may not be entirely responsible for your situation. But once you realize that the only person who can change it is you, you no longer get to call yourself a victim. At that moment, you alone become responsible for either staying where you are, or for getting yourself out.

It’s about accepting the responsibility for your own life.

It’s a proposition that’s both daunting, and empowering. That’s why I like to be reminded of it often. It’s a good lens to view life through, since life is a continuous cycle of falling into holes and climbing back out. Of failing and succeeding.

Time and time again.

And like the sidewalk metaphor, life is full of sudden, unexpected drops and potential falls. You never really know what’s coming, and the scary part is trying to figure out whether you’re making your way out of an old hole, or burrowing into a new one.

Hell, it’s not just scary – on the worst days it can turn into a competitive bluffing game between confidence and doubt! It’s not a very fun game, especially when your future is hanging in the balance. On days like that, even something as simple as the wrong words at just the right time can upset the balance.

How? By giving doubt a voice. It isn’t hard to do. Even a denim-shorts wearing teenager can do it. And when doubt has a voice, it uses it to whisper things like:

“You’re failing – you just don’t know it yet.”

But here’s the thing: I really don’t think I am failing. I say this because I’ve failed before. I know what failure feels like. And if you’ve ever failed then you know what failure feels like too.

Failure feels different for everyone. Everyone’s failure is different after all. And it’s not always about jobs or money either. I was making good money when I was failing.

This is what my hole in the sidewalk was like: It felt like wasted potential, and it always felt like it was someone else’s fault. It tasted like vodka and regret…it smelled like pot and apathy. It usually sounded like grunge-metal or silence, but sometimes it sounded like the muffled sobs of a neglected wife. It was an Xbox controller and a leaky faucet. It was pride in action…it was despair in denial.   

But what about success? What does it feel like to succeed?

Is it a photo-op for a newspaper article with you shaking hands with important people while accepting an award?

No, that’s just a mile-marker for a certain kind of success. I’m talking about what success is made of. I’m talking about the countless tiny steps that lead to success. Can they be measured? Or generalized? Or codified?

I like to believe that they can.

Yes, this is the toilet-seat view of my bathroom.

I think success looks something like this:

overcoming barriers to success.

Anticlimactic, I know, but that’s the conclusion I came to after…stewing for a while. Obviously, you overcome barriers to success in order to achieve success. That’s like saying you have to climb out of a hole in the sidewalk to get out of a hole in the sidewalk.

But this is where I had my aha-moment.

We like to talk about barriers to success as if they were universal. As if everyone faced the same barriers when trying to achieve the same success.

But that just isn’t the case. Just like there are a thousand different ways to fail, there are also a thousand different ways to succeed. Each person’s success looks different, because the obstacles that stand in the way of that success are different for each individual person.

People don’t like to see it this way, but success isn’t really a competition between you and other people: it’s a competition between the version of you that succeeds and the version of you that fails.

I’m using my own life as an example here, but no matter who you are or what your goals are, you will face challenging obstacles that will test your resolve to make those goals happen. Whether or not you are up to those challenges, will determine whether or not you succeed.

So what does success look like up close? It looks like overcoming one’s barriers to success. One unique obstacle at a time.

____________________

 

That’s the realization that I took away from my brief exposure to unsolicited teenage opinion the other day.

Success doesn’t come easily. It comes with barriers to be overcome. Some of these barriers are explicit, like engineering degrees, but most are more subtle and varied. Obstacles like pride for example. What might pride look like?

Pride is an obstacle that can take the form of anything, really. But mostly, it takes the form of that one thing that we’re too good for. That one thing we say we’ll never do.

For me, it was accepting a minimum wage job at a discount shoe outlet store in a shabby mall. Before that, it took the form of living with relatives in a new city. Before that it was working a third-shift factory job to save money for a big move. Before that…

You get the idea.

That teenager (I really should just give him a name. Cliff? Clifford? Yeah, let’s go with that)…Clifford got me thinking about how I got here. In the end, he helped me realize that in spite of how things look on the outside, I’m not failing. I’m pushing through one of the many obstacles that stands between me and success.

And that is what success is all about. It’s what success looks like in real time. It’s what success looks like up close.

I’ll admit I was a little peeved at Clifford at first…and I’ve probably been a little too hard on him. No doubt he hates those ugly 608’s as much as I do.

But those shoes will get him one step closer to his own goal, whether that goal is a passing PE grade, or a more comfortable walk to the park to feed the ducks.

His shoes, much like success, just aren’t very pretty up close. I imagine that watching a bruised and bloodied person scrape and scratch their way out of a huge hole in the sidewalk isn’t a very pretty sight either.

I suppose I should be grateful to Clifford though. His words prompted me to delve into something that deserved delving. And maybe something that was worth sharing, too.

And you know what else?

He thought I looked twenty-four!

Now that’s the kind of honest compliment I’ll take from anybody, anytime.

…even from a New Balance-wearing teenager named Clifford.

What to do with Dirty Wine Glasses

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted June 14, 2019.

I washed my wine glasses today. That may not sound very exciting, but it is for me because these two wine glasses had been sitting dirty next to my kitchen faucet for over four months. Don’t get me wrong, I do 3-4 loads of dishes a week and keep my kitchen clean, so this was an exception.

The thing a lot of people don’t realize about dishes, is that for single items (like one plate, one fork, one glass, etc) it’s faster and easier to just wash them by hand in between each use without putting them away. Use a glass, set it in the sink, wash said glass the next day right before use, repeat. Simple, efficient.

This I think was the subconscious motivation for my leaving those wine glasses out. It was the first time I’d used them; they are rather nice, you see. They are Waterford crystal and normally cost a small fortune, but I happened to get mine, brand new, for a steal from a good friend. They are tall, clear, and when you clink them together, they ring like bells.

They were designed for special occasions and romantic dinners, and their first use in my care fell into both categories: the first real romantic dinner I’d had in years – the first of many, it turned out, over the next few blissful months.

So, I just didn’t see any point in washing them and putting them away just yet. They would be used again soon, after all. But for some reason they weren’t. Load after load of dishes made their way into and out of the sink, into and out of the dishwasher, into and out of the cupboards. And my fragile, crystal wine glasses just sat and collected concentric white rings of soap residue.

It got to where we hardly noticed them as they sat there. Sat, and waited it seemed. Waited through home-cooked meals and favorite movies. Through slow forest hikes and lazy Saturday outings. Through long walks, longer talks, and our dreamy Florida beach vacation.

I guess my other, less grand wine glasses needed to get used too.

It’s been a little over a month now since the sudden “I just think we’re better as friends” conversation. It’s the reason many don’t bother with nice wine glasses in the first place. Sometimes I think I bother too much.

But I like my silly wine glasses – it’s about putting out your best. Even though your best is fragile…and breaks. I think maybe I left them sitting out because they were unusable, but too valuable to just throw away. I didn’t know what to do with them. So I did nothing with them.

I suppose that over the weeks I began to feel sorry for my poor, dirty wine glasses… sitting there all alone… making church bell chimes whenever I accidentally bumped them. Maybe I felt guilty for withholding the washing they so desperately needed.

Or maybe, after all these weeks, it finally sunk in that they won’t be needed anymore. That they were just getting in the way and needed to go back to their cupboard. Back where they came from. Out of sight, and most importantly, out of mind.

But anything worth having is worth using, and anything worth using is worth taking care of. Honestly, those wine glasses deserve better. They truly are beautiful, and it wasn’t fair to leave them sitting out this long.

Once they are dry, I’ll put them back in the cupboard. Out of sight, on the top shelf, but not out of mind. I want those glasses kept in pristine condition. Not because there won’t be any more romantic dinners…

…but because there will be.

When Things Don’t Get Better

Note: This is an older blog post, originally posted November 19, 2018.

So I showed up to my math class a few minutes early today (don’t tell my boss – I want him to think I have a tardiness problem), and started chatting with the girl seated behind me. As an aside, I’ve discovered something truly wonderful: people have unique stories and are supremely interesting to talk to! Who knew?? Absolutely fascinating.

Anyway, she spoke fluent Spanish, so our conversation shifted towards language and literature. She began telling me about a poem she had selected to write about for one of her English classes. It was a poem outlining reasons not to commit suicide.

Oof.

We started talking about losing hope and giving up on life and this girl seemed very sharp and engaged in the subject and lamented the teen suicide epidemic, but didn’t offer much in the way of a solution. Ever eager to share my sagely wisdom with a young budding mind, I put on my warmest “oh-you-sweet-summer-child” smile and said:

“Young people just haven’t lived long enough to realize that life is change, that nothing ever stays the same, and that in time, things will get better.”

That’s right. Put that on a glossy motivational poster, slap a kitten on it, and hang it in your locker, because this wise old owl just delivered some solid life’s advice.

“But not always. Things don’t always get better.”

she said.

Those of you who were raised properly will remember getting popped in the mouth for back-talking like that.

“No, you’re wrong” – is what I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her about the people I knew who had been to very dark places but had come back from the brink (and even from over the brink) and who were living happy lives now. I wanted to tell her that feelings of despair and hopelessness are normal parts of life, but that they don’t overshadow the happy moments life gives us.

I wanted to tell her these things, but I couldn’t… because…well, she was right. I remembered the people I’d known for whom life didn’t improve.

The people whose hearts got lost in despair and eventually found comfort in darkness. The people who accepted their predicament as their destiny. The people who lived as shells, drowning in drugs and alcohol, and wallowing in bitterness and regret. People like I used to be.

I realized that the answer to this problem wouldn’t fit into an internet meme. Or even a single conversation. Or even a book. But I did have something to tell her. Not some kind of universal truth or anything, just something I’d learned (the hard way) from my own life, and something I was only able to recognize in hindsight:

Sometimes we need saving and it’s okay to clasp an outstretched hand. Even if we can’t expect life to get better, we can get stronger. There may not be many straws left to grasp at, but the idea that we are capable of more, is a straw the carries hope with it. And hope is the only antidote to despair that I know of.

I wanted to tell her that if young people could just believe, not that their situation will magically improve, but that they themselves were capable of changing, becoming better…or even stronger – that they weren’t powerless!……..well, I didn’t really know how to finish that thought.

This all came to me rather suddenly, and since it was getting harder and harder to talk over the professor, I made a few jots in my notebook instead. I had every intention of sharing this sad little piece of unpolished, unfinished, and profoundly inapplicable knowledge with her after class.

However, since our teacher decided to try and scramble my brain by tossing logarithms in with integrals, obligating me to stay after class to inform said professor (for the nth time) that I hate the way the textbook is teaching the material, I forgot.

I saw my young classmate leave the classroom out of the corner of my eye. She had ear-buds in and looked like she had somewhere to be.

This story doesn’t really have a conclusion. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I wish I’d had the chance to tell her that I’d spoken flippantly and arrogantly. It may not deserve a kitten illustration, but it made me think, so I decided to jot, and to share.

Pink Hair and Blue Swords

Note: This is an older blog entry, originally posted August 22, 2018.

This past weekend I went to Concerts on the Dock to read (I know it’s weird but I’m trying to blend in with the local community so, you know). Anyway, I’m perched atop a stool, sipping ginger ale and enjoying my book, when this kid (probably 8 or 9) waltzes up and unhesitatingly plants herself on the stool next to mine…and starts spinning. It bears mentioning that although my stool is also capable of spinning, I am not spinning.

Now, as a frequent “public reader”, I am used to being interrupted, so it’s really no big deal. Being the warm gentleman that I am, I take a moment to glance up from my book…and deliver a deliberate 1-second cold stare across the top edge of the page before dropping my eyes and finding my place again. This communications burst catches her mid-spin and I’m worried she’s missed it and won’t understand that even though I’m ignoring her, I really wish she would just leave.

“What book are you reading?”

Dammit. As I insert my bookmark (slowly, for emphasis), I begin to describe the thesis in as few and simple terms as possible.

What follows is a conversation about Harry Potter, someone named Percy Jackson, mythological heroes wielding magic swords, video games, toy swords, real swords and at this point I’m wondering if maybe I should try my stare again. My new friend (her words – not mine) explains that much like many others at Lowe Mill, she too is an aspiring artist. She runs off, but before I even have a chance to sneak a longing look towards my book, she returns with her art supplies. It’s a large kit containing oil pastels, watercolors, colored pencils, felt markers… in short: the works.

Apparently, it’s a hand-me-down from her older brother, and upon close inspection, it’s obvious this kit has seen better days. Several of the colored pencils are worn down to short nubs. The eraser is missing. And what’s left of the watercolors is cracked and crumbling. My new artist friend informs me that she is currently putting together her portfolio and hopes to share studio space with an established artist once she has enough work to put on display. She has apparently already sold drawings to her friends at 25¢ a piece.

You might say I have a soft spot for struggling artists, so when she asks if I’d like to buy art from her, I smile, and say:

“I don’t have any cash, sorry.”

Turns out this one’s pro bono, and I get to choose what she draws me. What a kid. I suggest she draw me something from that dumb fantasy novel she wouldn’t shut up about earlier (I didn’t use those words exactly), and she gets right to work. While she labors over a new creation, I step aside to acquire some cash.

As a new art investor, and her first sponsor, I figure I can do better than 25¢ – after all, it’s important to support local artists, and she really needs new supplies (it’s for her portfolio you understand).

After overcoming some minor obstacles along the way (that missing eraser turned out to be a real problem), I am presented with a stunning still-life pencil drawing of a sword with blue sharpie flames. As she removes her newly minted masterpiece from its college-ruled spiral-bound canvas, I surprise her with not one, but three crisp $1 bills.

“This is for new art supplies”,

I tell her with a smile, but just sternly enough to let her know I’m counting on her to work hard, apply herself, and make her dream of becoming an artist a reality (of course it went without saying that I had purchased her work at twelve times the going rate and expected some return on investment). Well… someday.

“Someday this will be worth lots of money”,

I tell her. We grin at each other. She’s happy. I steal an anticipatory glance towards my book. I’m happy too. We shake hands as up-and-coming professionals and their altruistic supporters often do, and bid one another farewell.

__________________

Fast-forward ten minutes.

I’m roused from my book by the swirling of pink hair above a spinning stool. It’s none other than my young artist friend.

“Hey, you’re back”,

I say, but before I can ask her how her portfolio is coming along, she holds up a small zip-lock bag for me to inspect.

“This one’s amethyst, and this one’s rose quartz”,

she says excitedly, and I do my best to match her enthusiasm. A true polymath, this one. She tells me the story of how she just got them from a vendor down the hall. How they sell all different kinds. How they only cost $3.

The word “crestfallen” gets thrown around a lot these days.

I hide my disappointment by nodding silently to everything she’s telling me, but I don’t really hear what she’s saying anymore. I’m a fool. This is what I get for thinking with my heart. For doing something kind. This is why you don’t give kids money. Because they don’t understand the value of saving and just end up blowing it on the first shiny piece of junk that catches–

“Want to buy more of my art?”

I look at her expectant face. We both laugh. It’s a strange mix: the mirthless chuckling of a man who’s just been hoodwinked by childhood innocence, and the cautious giggling of a four-and-a-half foot mineralogist who isn’t sure why we’re laughing.

I’m suddenly aware of the odd sight this kid and I are no doubt presenting to bystanders. I tell her that it was nice meeting her and that someone is probably looking for her, and send her on her merry way.

The future is still open to this kid, with all the occupations she would no doubt excel at, from artist… to con-artist. All I know for sure, is that my cold stare needs work. And if anyone is interested in original, local art, I can point you in the right direction.

Riptide – mixed media on paper; original work signed by artist: $3 OBO