Five Houses

My first house was snug, and shiny.  We arrived with empty arms.  We left a few years later cradling a toddler and dreams of more.

My second house was large, and promising.  We made it a home and grew a family.  And grew apart.  Several years later I left with a broken heart and a broken family.

My third house was a renovation.  It started with tears and welcomed love.  It was my shelter in a storm of transition.  I left two years later, my heart soaring for a new beginning and a new family.

My fourth house was idyllic, and pristine at the start.  We exploded into it with passion and fury.  It was a struggle to endure and more so to let go.  I left three years later with a broken heart and another broken family.

My fifth house is a blank slate.  It starts with tears and my arms wide empty.  I hope it fills with love.

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Quit It

“Nobody likes a quitter”.  This was the sentiment my mother instilled in me from an early age.  She identified what she saw as an emerging pattern during my childhood years that became cause for concern.  It started with Boy Scouts, after a poor showing at the Pinewood derby.  My dad didn’t have time to help me build my car and neither parent had the time or inclination to attend the event, missing the dramatic moment when my car lost a tire in the first race and flew off the track as I watched in horror.  For soccer I lasted a bit longer with maybe 3-4 seasons under my belt before realizing I wasn’t developing as a top-tier player, a fact I’d be reminded of daily when picked near last for scrimmage teams.  I saw no point in torturing myself or my teammates any longer so I opted out around the time I started middle school.   As the years passed I would go on to quit religious school following my Bar Mitzvah, the clarinet right before starting high school, and the cheesy karate class at the local YMCA almost immediately.

My mom called me a quitter, with nary a word minced or a feeling spared.  She said it had to stop.  I had to quit being a quitter.  The question is “when is quitting really quitting and when is quitting simply stopping”?  You can’t do everything forever, there’s not enough time in the day to continue on with every activity you’ve ever attempted.  There are some things you are just not well suited for.  You need to find your passion, something you have an affinity for and want to pursue indefinitely.  If you start something like martial arts or gymnastics what’s the acceptable endgame; earning a black belt or a regional championship, or do you shoot for grand master and Olympic medalist.  If you eliminate the option to “quit” what is the point at which you can say ‘I’ve given this a fair shot, I’ve learned what I can, I’m gonna move on’?

We can all agree that some things are good to quit.  We quit jobs we’re fed up with.  For Lent or New Year’s Resolutions we quit bad habits.  Smokers try to quit all the time with mixed success.  Actually in the case of smoking you have the opposite problem, where quitting isn’t even close to the endgame.  Every day you might be tempted to surrender the struggle to quit and just pick up the bad habit all over again.  You essentially quit quitting.

With all of that in mind, how does the concept of “quitting” apply to relationships? When is quitting really quitting and when is quitting realizing you are not the perfect match you once hoped for?  There are many opinions on the subject especially when it comes to divorce.  On the one side you’re advised to “stay together for the kids”, and told to work through the conflicts because “you made a commitment”.  On the other side you’re offered “happiness above all else” and “you only live once” as friends try to help you move on.  Blind commitment to a relationship seems to leave no room for the potential of a mismatch, whether it takes you seven days or seven years to discover it.  Certainly this sentiment can be overused and exploited as flimsy support of the male polygamy, but I’m talking about honest heart-felt relationships where a deal breaker surfaces for either party or someone simply falls out of love.  How much should you work through it in an attempt to keep the relationship alive and at what point is it time to cut bait and move on.    What is a valid reason to quit?  What differences are too different?  What offenses are too great to overlook?

A sense of commitment is the secret of a successful relationship.  Having a long view perspective on the relationship reduces stress and conflict in the daily grind.  If you can focus on the “we” and “us” in the long-term rather than the “you” and “me” of the short-term you will naturally approach hardships differently.  A national survey stated that 73% of couples sited “lack of commitment” as the major reason for divorce.  But what about conflicts with preexisting commitments; a friend they can’t stand, an in-law that doesn’t approve, or a child they don’t understand.  This leads to worse of all possible endings, where the love never quits.  The expression “sometimes love isn’t enough” sounds like a weak excuse until you’re grappling with it firsthand.  Conflicts with kids and parenting can cause a rift in a relationship that is elsewise resilient.  Can you justify breaking an earlier commitment to make a new commitment work?  How do you quit a relationship you don’t want to leave?

Oprah’s frequent guest, Gary Zukav, spoke of relationships in terms of growth and spiritual connections; a spiritual partnerships is a relationship between equals for the purpose of spiritual growth.  Each is responsible for their own spiritual growth but if the relationship should reach a point where one person is no longer able to grow then the relationship should be terminated.  Thus Mr. Zukav wisely provides a logical end point; when either person stops growing spiritually within the confines of the relationship.  Sounds great in theory but spiritual stagnation may be a difficult metric to measure. How do you separate stagnation from the many spiritual wounds a struggling couple may naturally inflict?

I become paralyzed in indecision, over thinking the whole dilemma but unable to ignore my mom’s voice in my head calling my childhood self a quitter.  I want to make sure it’s not true.  I want to be sure that quitting isn’t a faulty personal trait but a natural expression of free will.  There are plenty of things I didn’t quit.  I never stopped drawing. I never stopped gaming. I never stopped writing.  Some things, the important things, you don’t quit.  I will never stop loving my kids no matter what happens and I know I’m capable of a relationship I won’t quit.

I think in the end we never really know if the decision to quit is right, until after we’ve made it.  If quitting was the wrong call, we feel the strangling of our hearts almost instantly.  If quitting is the right call we feel a lightness in our hearts as it soars with relief and release.  Sometimes that choice is taken from us, and quitting is the only option. Either way we must continue forward.  We must continue to live, and to grow.  We will make mistakes and we will learn, hopefully, from those mistakes.  We must quit torturing ourselves for quitting, even if it was a mistake.

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My Bedeviled Angel

A lot of people persistently struggle when it comes to personal fitness, and in recent days I count myself among their ranks.   On one shoulder I have the ripped Angel with the 6-pack abs sipping the kale smoothie and on the other shoulder I have the pot-bellied Devil chugging malt liquor.  In my world Angel typically wins out in the war on workouts; Devil has a better chance asking me to not shower then asking me not to work out, so instead he contents himself with sabotaging my shopping list and convincing me that the 2g of protein in the Peanut Butter Crunch, twice that of most breakfast cereals I’ll have you know, is a healthy source of protein for growing muscles, so thank you captain.    Angel, satisfied that I’m at least eating my vegetables, settles for a palm slap and a guilt inducing head shake whenever I have a chocolate chip cookie to “cleanse my palate” after dinner.  Left to my own devices I manage to keep them both in check and come out on the healthier side of the scale.  It is, however, a fragile balance easily disrupted by outside influences.  I once dated a girl that newly discovered you could order French fries with a side of gravy, providing a slice of Thanksgiving any day of the week.  Needless to say Devil was giddy with delight and Angel almost passed out while frantically Googling cardiologists.

One of the more serious external threats comes from the wee folk,… not the leprechauns pushing brownie bits samples at Costco but my precious offspring with narrow diets and youthfully unclogged arteries.  These little Devils have no problem feasting on the “bacon platter” for breakfast (that would be a platter stacked with only bacon).  They suck through Otter pops faster than a chain smoker.  They refuse to touch any food tainted with the smallest fleck of green down to trace amounts of dehydrated parsley found on the wildly unhealthy garlic bread.   They are the demon spawn of Domino’s pizza forsaking colorful vegetables and unprocessed proteins.  Worst of all is the fact that the little Devils require so much nit-picky care for the preparation of an acceptable meal that it leaves little time for alternative arrangements and just a bitter choice between choking down dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets with everyone else or working on a healthier alternative through dinnertime and scarfing it down between doing the dishes and chasing down little Devils for bath time.

Parental time management takes the greatest toll on the Great Expectations that is self-improvement.   Most successful workout routines fall into the time range of 45-90 minutes.  Trying to ease your P90X fitness guilt with a handful of sit-ups and a vigorous dash to the mailbox doesn’t fill the void.  I need extended activity; A prolonged cardio burn like running the bleachers at a football stadium which is problematic in the limited circumference of my current dwelling.  Inside this apartment everything is literally a 10ft radius from my desk.  When I had my Fitbit functioning in the previous house I could easily hit my goal of 10,000 steps just from multiple round trips up and down the stairs and delivering laundry to the four corners of the homestead.  It’s hard to make up that difference when time and space are so limited.  I need to either fill all free time with additional gym trips or multi-task when little ones are around, doing speed rounds of sprint tag with alternating pull-ups on the money bars between pursuits as lava monster.  Maybe I can install a giant hamster wheel out on the balcony.

I know some of it is inevitable; we grow up and then we grow out.  Our metabolism naturally slows down over time regardless of how much spice we spike our foods with.  Diets have to adjust to accommodate changes in our aging body and our fading activity levels.  At some point we have to realize our food intake no longer aligns with our daily calorie burn.  Continuing to eat like we’re teenage athletes makes as much sense as keeping those size 30 jeans believing that one day we’ll once again have the waist of a 20-year-old.

By this point my personal Angel, who was meant to be the model of health and virtue, is on the verge of surrendering.  When the Devil upends Angel’s kale smoothie and pokes him the belly like the Pillsbury Doughboy he no longer seems to mind.  I suspect his becoming a little too chummy with his devilish counterpart and the temptations being whispered in his ear.  It’s only a matter of time before he’s stretched out on a recliner during 8oz curls and using the devil as his serving wench.  Time for more stretchy pants.

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Market Placed

Nothing makes you question your ranking in this game we call Life more than a hefty dose of judgement.  Not the simple parental judgement like you never measured up to your sister or you never fully committed to the clarinet but the self-imposed judgement that comes with putting yourself on the market.  Be it the job market or the dating market we open ourselves up to a level of critique that is tough not to internalize and impossible to ignore.  I’d like to think that I have a fairly solid sense of self, with a complete awareness of all my strengths and weaknesses, but then people keep telling me otherwise, so who’s a guy to believe?

While I’m certainly not in a good space to start dating again my return to the job market got me thinking about both pursuits with a classic exercise in “compare and contrast”.  With that in mind here are a few random thoughts about hunting for love vs hunting for jobs;

  1. When hunting for jobs you can proffer an impressive assortment of references and recommendations. When hunting for love it’s typically best to keep a separation between past and present partners.  Not to say all relationships end badly but few leave with a burning desire to fluff you with flattery in front of your next potential mate.  Likely any offered “constructive criticism” would be light on constructive and heavy on criticism.
  2. I’ve never been fired from a job, but I’ve certainly been “let go” of a few relationships. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if there was a corresponding concept of “collecting unemployment”; some form of lesser relationship provided temporarily to tide you over until a full-time position could be secured.  You did your time, you paid your dues, why feel guilty about getting back from the system?  Sure now that I write it down it sounds like state-sponsored prostitution but it started off as an inspired concept,… kinda like the Shake Weight commercials.
  3. There’s no negotiation for better benefits at the start of a relationship; Terms are typically vague or left unspoken. Benefits are offered spontaneously and generously during the initial vetting period… then drop off gradually with each subsequent anniversary.
  4. Relationships typically don’t require relocation and any required travel is usually a good thing. Invasive TSA screenings are more easily tolerated when you’re just hours away from umbrella drinks at a beach-side all-inclusive.
  5. Both markets offer convenient shopping sites online to assist with finding a good match. These sites help facilitate the connection starting with an email inquiry, moving to a phone screen and then finally to an initial meet and greet with the team.  Luckily neither one scores you with a Netflix rating system after the relationship is terminated.
  6. There is no “technical challenge” or “white board coding question” in a relationship, though you have to wonder if woman would approach prospects differently if there were; “you did a solid job in the cuddling and listening portions of the exam but we felt you lacked the depth of experience we’re looking for in the bedroom, so we’ve decided not to go forward with this relationship.” To which you’d think, with smug satisfaction, that it’s probably just as well since she had an annoying habit of speaking in the third person.
  7. When hunting for jobs working with a recruiter is a perfectly acceptable shortcut for finding the right position. When hunting for love though the idea of matchmaker feels old fashion and typically ineffectual in the long run, desperately misplacing you with only the small handful of leads they have at hand regardless of compatibility… ok, maybe they are exactly the same as recruiters.
  8. When hunting for jobs I feel I’m often competing against a much younger generation. When hunting for love at least you can target woman of the same age range. You’ll still be competing against a younger generation but woman will either be more subtle about their preferences, won’t show up in your search criteria or will be listed on a cougar-centric site that you’re too old to register for.
  9. Taking it a step further, when hunting for love we can be specific about not only age, but social class, faith, race and sexual preference. When hunting for jobs, all that crap would be illegal, at least on the employers’ side.  I do still have every right to steer clear of the faith-based radio stations and health care providers however, not because I have anything against them as an organization but because my digital resume would likely be blocked by blasphemy filters.
  10. When saturating the singles scene you very much want to find the perfect harmonic match. You want to be the “one”, without question.  When trolling the job market I’m not so hung up on such minutia; if we both compromise our idealistic views and settle in for a complacent yet mutually beneficial relationship,… I’m ok with that.

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Halos and Mickey Eyes

It was a typically beautiful spring day in Southern California; the skies were a clear, deep, blue and the soft morning breeze kept the heat at bay.   We had just entered the happiest place on earth, Disneyland, and paused to take our iconic picture in front of the Mickey flowers with the train depot backdrop.  I was filled with a sense of joy and nostalgia to be back on the sacred ground that held so many cherished childhood memories.  I turned around to share this joyous moment with my beloved children only find my six-year-old blubbering in tears.  She had been excited about the park in the days leading up to the trip and even moments before but apparently something had gone terribly wrong in the time it took to walk the 100ft from ticket booth to photo opp.  I leaned down to try and make out the soft mumbles between pitiful sobs. My sad little princess proceeded to tell me “there are no rides here, I want to go home”.  And thus our adventure began.

It was at the moment that I realized vacations are a lot like past relationships; regardless of the amount of grief you may have experienced at the time, it all falls away when you look back through the tinted glasses of nostalgia.   I read that for woman they describe a similar “halo effect” after giving birth.  Moms don’t actually forget the pain of delivery despite urban tales, but rather all the positive sensations that flood in following birth leaves a predominantly positive impression of the experience as a whole.  That, to a far lesser extent, is what happens on vacation.  Inching along perpetually winding lines in the heat of the afternoon sun for 60 minutes at a stretch feels downright torturous at the time, but once you finally board the boat and enter the swampy preamble of the Pirates of the Caribbean all that melts away and you’re left with the distilled thrill of Imagineering magic.

Of course when small children are involved the long lines become the least of your concerns.  I think I spent half of my time walking through the park backwards trying to wave my daughter along at a forced march; “Come on, keep walking. Yes, it’s a pretty butterfly.  No, you just had cotton candy.  Yes, there’s another bathroom just up ahead.  No, we’re not shopping for a toy.”  Though I must admit for all my impatience with her slothful speed she was the model of patience through those torturous long lines.  The questions “are we there yet?” and “how much longer?” were not uttered a single time in the park.  Lyft rides, yes, but park, no.

The requests that were ever-present were standard trio of hunger, thirst and fatigue.  Hunger was easily squelched with a backpack stuffed with store-bought staples, and thirst was managed by selling a kidney and investing a small fortune in bottled water.  But it was the fatigue that was hardest to deal with.  As an adult I’m thinking of vacation as an investment in fun and I had planned to suck every last once of fun out of the experience.  Wait, that doesn’t sound right.  What I’m saying is if it was up to me we’d be scurrying about the park from the minute it opened to ten minutes after it closed, having selected the most remote attraction as the final ride of the evening with a fleeting hope that we’d get locked in.  We’d stagger home, collapse into a dreamless stupor and wake up bright and early the next day to do it all over again.  With kids though I have to demonstrate a bit more restraint, lest my slothful rearguard become an unconsciously sack of potatoes.  Not only do we need to take breaks between rides but we also take mid-day breaks where there’s no expectations of movement or agenda and they can just veg quietly by poolside or bedside.  Once I see how much this recharging helps I realize how much we are taxing those little legs with an average of 25,000 steps each day; unless I want to do over a third of those steps with an unconscious sack of potatoes riding on my shoulders the down time is a minor concession.

Even with the rest stops we manage to rack up sufficient park time and all in all it turned out to be a really great trip; Ethan had memories of visits past and so got to enjoy the parks from a fresh teenage perspective while Emma had the height and the spirit to try every ride on our list, many for the first time.  After trying a warm up coaster in ToonTown we even tried her on Thunder Mountain.  This was quite a step up in intensity and I was worried it might be too much for her.  I needn’t have worried though; about half way through the ride I looked back to make sure she was doing ok and found her with arms waving in the air and a fierce smile shining on her lips.  The only hitch in the ride selection turned out to be the Matterhorn and the upgraded animatronics of the yeti; the previously laughable fuzzy dude originally only made a couple of appearances shifting stiffly from side to side.  Yeti 2.0 was transformed into a more terrifying threat jump-scaring around every turn.  Emma did not appreciate that one bit, and even Ethan thought it distracted from what was already not a thrilling ride.  I still liked it and one miss wasn’t such a bad thing.

We spent the final day exploring California Adventure.  At the suggestion of seasoned park goers we made our first stop at Fast Pass kiosk for the new Cars Ride (Radiator Springs Racer).  At the time we arrived, about an hour after the park’s initial opening, the Fast Pass reservations were already backed up to 6pm that evening.  Since we all had flights out later that night this was to be the last ride of the day.  Making good use of the Fast Pass system is key to optimizing your time in the parks, allowing you to alternate waits in the traditional lines with guaranteed slots in the express lines.  Even with the unexpected crowds filling the park on those non-peak Monday and Tuesday we still managed to hit most of the rides on our wish list, including two trips on the new and improved Space Mountain (now Hyperspace Mountain).  As the day wound to a close the only hold outs on our list were Peter Pan’s Flight and Toy Story Midway Mania.  What we did have though was a final golden ticket to one of the most popular new attractions in the park.  We returned to Cars Land a little early which was good because even the Fast Track lane was backed up beyond the ride entrance.   Progress was slow going and time ticked onward at a pucker-inducing rate; we still had to get out to the shuttle, back to the hotel, get a ride to LAX and catch the last flight for Sacramento.  As panic started to creep up the line finally surged forward and at last we were sitting in one of the shiny Car characters, looking around at the beautiful set design and anxiously awaiting the green light to race off into the desert scene.  Then we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Until finally the announcement was made; the ride was out of service with no estimated repair time.  The lights dimmed, the musical score silenced and the power flickered as they rebooted the Disney magic.  We filed out with the rest of the stunned crowd with a palpable sense of disappointment.

The chaotic ending made for a fitting bookend to the opening drama, since everything in between was filled with a wonderful collection of new memories.   We didn’t get that final thrilling new experience to instill a lasting halo effect, but all the bumps along the road way will still melt away with nostalgia to leave vacation memories I hope my kids will cherish for a long time,… until they can bring their kids and have them burst into tears in front of the happiest place on Earth.  Seriously?!

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Open Door Closes

When one door opens another closes.  That’s how the saying goes, right?  Right?  No, it’s not.  Sorry, were you still thinking about it?  Anyway, the actual optimistic quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell goes: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” It’s meant to give us a warm fuzzy about the hope and opportunity always sitting just out of view.  Lately I’m starting to feel like the reverse statement is more fitting.  Every time I seem to approach an even keel with good fortune opening before me, a random door or two seem to close behind me.  Sure, in the spirit of optimism, I should probably keep my eyes front and center and continue focusing on the open door, but it becomes hard to ignore the nagging slams behind you, not knowing which ones have closed and what implications they will have going forward.  I might turn around to address a new issue and after some struggle find a way to open it again, only to have another slam shut behind me, perhaps the one I was just happily gazing through just moments before.

Recently the company I’ve been working for was acquired by a larger conglomeration.  The particular division that I work for was deemed to be too costly and ultimately redundant next to one of the existing organizations.  So this week we were told during a rather jarring conference call that they were generously offering 6 available positions at said existing organizations to the 9 employees who remained.  In my mind this played out like the scene in The Dark Knight, when Heath Ledger’s Joker proclaims that he has a job opening in his organization but “there is only one spot open right now, so <snap> we’re gonna have try outs” as he tosses the two unfortunate applicants jagged halves of a pool cue.  When the announcement was made everyone exchanged an awkward glance, knowing that our former colleagues were now our competition against future employment.

As of this writing I’m not sure how this will all play out but suddenly I find myself potentially back in the job market.  Like my previous hiring ventures I have growing concerns over my growing age.  Not to say there is a prevalence of ageism in the workplace, but there are some factors that certainly work against you in the young hip world of small software startups.  Even if I was the same pizza gobbling video game addict I was at the age of the office population, I’m simply not that same person now.  I can no longer hold my own in a FPS blood match and pepperoni gives me heartburn,… and it has nitrates, a fact I’m sure the gathered youngsters would love having me point out.   As much as I might want to consider myself hip or cool, I don’t even know the right words for hip or cool these days and when I watch fast food commercials I don’t even know if the pitch person is an athlete or a rap star, having practically no exposure to either.

And then we come to the education vs experience factor. The software engineers coming out of college these days have state of the art equipment and applications at their disposal.  They have industry professionals as mentors encouraging them to push the technical boundaries of computer science. You end up with a mini-me genius willing to work for free pizza and FPS couch time, running against me who has actual dependents, a private living space and more than six items in the refrigerator that are not connected by plastic rings.  While I could safely say to the other candidates that I’ve forgotten more coding knowledge as a programmer then you will ever learn, I not sure if that speaks to the wealth of my knowledge and more to my sketchy Etch-A-Sketch memory.  On the other hand I do still know all the words to “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, but if I mentioned that in my defense during an interview they would just look at me funny, having no idea who Paul Simon is.

Another consideration is the possibility of returning to an actual office environment.  I’ve gotten much accustomed to my current commute to the home office.  I can go the duration of days without seeing another living soul or finding proper motivation to put on a pair of pants.  And that’s not in the same glamorous way I may have done it as a bachelor with those pizza fueled gaming marathons.  This is work, followed by more work, uninterrupted by any reality check or social contact.  Okay, there are still distractions; Distractions of cleaning and laundry and children and pets and shopping and napping and,… well okay maybe that last one is non-essential but it’s still an occasional distraction.  What will I do if I have to put pants on and stay somewhere other than home for 8-10 hours a day?  Who will do my laundry?  When will I have time to clean?  Where do I keep my wallet?

I’m taking it all in stride though.  Perpetual change makes for a youthful mind, right?  I don’t know, I just made that up.  But regardless of the current state of my “doors” (or my youthful mind), I need to appreciate all the opened ones and consider all the closed ones as potential for more openings.  I will step right up this closed door of employment, open it with bold certainty and declare to the hiring millennials on the other side “I’m not old, I’m prepackaged with experience!”

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Just the Rants, Ma’am

A while back I came across an article that stated that a majority of automotive accidents took place within 25 miles of home.  This little factoid was presented as a significant revelation that should shake the foundation of your entire belief system.  At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I do however think about this now each time I exit the store parking lot and struggle to get my seat beat buckled before arriving at my driveway just around the corner.  That in turn made me think about how utterly ridiculous this statistic was!  As with my micro trips to the grocery store, how often do you drive beyond a 25 mile radius in a given day? Looking at statistics, about 85% of commuters travel less than the 25 miles to work, and it’s unlikely that any of them will go further than that to find a good cup of coffee or buy a gallon of milk.  Anything in the 30+ mile range will either be reserved for a less frequent time slot or skipped over as non-essential.  So if no one is actually driving beyond a 25 mile range in any given day wouldn’t it stand to reason that any accident we might be involved it would be similarly limited to that 25 mile range?  Did we really need an insurance company to point out the limits of our daily terrain?  More importantly was that revelation actually meant to provide vital information or merely introduce a shiver of fear into our subconscious thus triggering a subliminal desire to review our policy coverage or have our brakes checked?

When I took Speech and Debate back in college I remember how we learned to question any and all information that we might gather for an argument.  The classic example was the popular commercial claim that 9 out of 10 dentists recommend a particular brand of toothpaste.  We were taught to question this on every level; how was the questioned framed?  How were these ten dentists selected?  And most importantly, what the hell did the tenth guy say?  If he suggested mayonnaise as an alternate oral abrasive we might reconsider the initial selection process.  And in that scenario why did the other nine guys recommend this brand of toothpaste when only given mayonnaise as an alternative?

Still these proclamations are made all the time to further endorse the perceived value of an advertised product.   Do we really need that added fiber, bleach, or vitamin D?  In this over marketed world are we filling a deficiency we didn’t even know we had?  Some clever additions seem less like an intentional innovation and more like a simple side effect of manufacturing.  A good example was found on my daughter sidewalk chalk that proudly proclaims their “anti-roll” technology because the chalk was square shaped to better fit into the packaging.  Though I’m sure this comes in handy when rendering your masterpiece on a 25% grade slope, how many people have gone out of their way to seek out this particular feature.  It’s all about value added, and the value perceived.

What are the limits of spin when building these perceptions?  Pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars to promote catchy names and acronyms for diseases you’ve never heard of and they blur the lines with the facts they present, the facts they omit, and the facts you wish they’d omit.  For example I’d never heard of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) until I saw the frequent ad for Requip during the evening news.  While I understand this could be a serious neurological disorder, in our family it was simply called “spilkes”, but I’m guessing that would be harder to sell a cure for.  And speaking of “harder” we can thank former senator and two-time presidential candidate Bob Dole for introducing us to Erectile Dysfunction (ED) and the magic blue pill.  Again a worthy remedy for those in need but despite Pfizer’s altruistic claims a good chunk of their income comes from users without any clear signs of ED or any honest concerns for erections lasting more than four hours.  But we ask ourselves if these things are necessary.  Will that magic pill change my sex life?  Will knives that can cut through a soda can make me a better chef?  Our practical mind assures us that none of this is necessary, but then our dreamy hopeful mind perks up with a persistent “sure, but, what if”.  This all comes back to the question of what level of alternative facts or false facts are acceptable in the world around us? Which ones are we willing to accept?

This question is most crucial when it comes to sorting out mixed messages of an individual, specifically an individual we voted into public office (or failed to vote against).  Politicians of the presidential persuasion often master the art of spin in their pursuit of office (and some continue beyond election, until the day they die).  In recent months the very news we rely upon has been called into question.  The free press is being labeled a societal evil for challenging the views of an eccentric egotist who is constantly parroted by a pandemonium of yes-men and one yes-woman (ironically “pandemonium” is the proper and fitting term for a flock of parrots – go figure).  The free press questions the facts of the administration and they in turn protest the fake new being reported about them.  So where does the truth lie?  If all facts are called into question, who can we believe?  Who is worthy of trust?

To this day, there are still people out there that passionately believe the government faked the moon landing.  Personally I don’t buy it; I’ve seen enough proof to convince me of its validity; how else would they have found that crashed Transformer ship from Cybertron.  But, on the flip side, can I prove that the government DOES NOT have alien life stashed away at an Area 51 type facility?  No, I cannot.  I think the likelihood is extremely low, and I have seen enough debunked UFO sightings to question the substance on which the urban legends are based, but I have no way to definitively discount the notion as fake news.  Unless a disgruntled janitor comes forward because his dental plan was denied how would I even hear about something like that?  Some secrets are simply above my pay grade.  Even if I feel, optimistically, that a free society should have no secrets, I know that’s simply not possible.  There are issues of national security and public safety that prevent complete transparency in government.  The civil servants must constantly manage the perception of its citizens.  We’ve seen it hundreds of times on every political drama ever made where a story needs to be twisted for mass consumption or to aid flagging approval ratings.

On a smaller scale there is the frequent “he said, she said” scenarios, such as recent sexual allegations against certain fancy foxes.  Unless you are a fly on the wall or a bug in the Towers you don’t have a firsthand account of what really went down.  Who’s telling it straight and who’s bending the truth?  While we don’t want to be insensitive to real victims it would be naïve to think that every allegation ever made was fair, complete and accurate and never motivated by greed or anger.  A case is made for either side, though it’s admittedly a hard sell to paint the accused as a victim.  Biases exist.  Emotions are manipulated.  Truth is forces down into a submissive role not unlike the original accusations.  From there, judgements are made.  We pick the innocent like we pick our sports teams and cheer when justice is done.  But can we be certain that justice is done when the issues remain raveled in spin?

As Mulder put it “the truth is out there”.  We can search for the facts and try to make informed judgements on what we believe and what we do not.  We can pick our sources, pick our media outlets and pick the political flavor we want it rolled in.  Sometimes it’s the pure firsthand accounts that comes with the satisfaction of reliability.  Sometimes it’s the once removed “other sources” or “unconfirmed reports”.  Sometimes it’s random nuggets from the internet like my son sometimes interjects even while acknowledging them as suspect.  The free press is meant to protect society by holding everyone accountable including those in public office… especially those in public office.  By the same measure we must hold the press and all they report accountable as well.  Even reported facts have 50 shades of gray (just with less bondage) between pure truth and pure rubbish.  The best we can do is keep questioning from both sides; never take a fact for a fact, or fake news as a falsehood.  Try to see through the spin and recognize when our information is unreliable or incomplete.

We many never know what the tenth dentist said.  We may never know if the G-men have little grey men stashed in freezer bags. We may never know if Trump was bugged by Obama or bedded by  Russians.  Sometimes it’s enough that we that we just ask the right questions and sometimes we might be satisfied just not asking questions we don’t want the answers to, like whether or not sushi has more calories that a Big Mac;  Really, I don’t want to know.

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Pretty in Ink

A couple threads of unrelated mental floss have recently intermingled in my brain.  On the one hand is the dissection of comedy at the hand of Steven Kaplan’s book “The Hidden Tools of Comedy”.  One of the concepts the book explores is that of the non-hero who, lacking sufficient skills to succeed, struggles against adversity but never gives up hope.  Lacking skills can be something as simple as not having the necessary knowledge to navigate a given situation like not being aware of something that’s plain as day to the audience but hidden from the poor chump in the story.  Mixed with that is a fictional piece I was working on which asks the question if you could go back and change certain aspects of your life, would you?  I think back to the various situations in my childhood that essentially fulfill all the requirements of a proper comedy, and left me mortified in the moment.  Little things like the time I walked into the plate-glass window at a mall that I was certain was an automated sliding door or the time I walked into the non-automated sliding screen door at my aunt’s house that I was certain was nothing but an open doorway.  In both instances I felt like a proper idiot at the time, lacking both the minimal perception to avoid the collision and the dignified grace to recover from it.  So I panicked.  Like any good introvert, I would rather peel off my toenails with pliers then draw unwanted attention to myself.  Had I been a quick thinking extrovert I might have hopped quickly to my feet, bowed with exaggerated flare and declared “tah-dahhhh” with a flourish of jazz-hands.  Instead I tried to swallow my head with my shoulders and quickly fled the scene trying to pretend as if nothing awkward had just occurred.  Of course after the horror had subsided it’s hard to deny the comedy of the situation.  What must I have looked like on the other side of that plate-glass window at the moment of impact?  I envision a pigeon, drunk on pyracantha berries, running into the bedroom window with a face flattening thud.  Do I wish I could have avoided that bit of theater?  Absolutely.  Would I chose to have those events expunged from my memory?  I’m not so sure.  These become defining moments in our past to be groaned about with friends over a beer or commiserated about with a therapist over a lumpy couch.  They add precious flaws to our developing personality.  They instill us with compassion for the foibles of others.  They make us more vigilant about plate-glass windows.

prettyink

That got me thinking of other moments I endured during adolescence that fit the bill of a non-hero struggling against adversity, lacking sufficient skills to succeed but never giving up hope.  One such event occurred just before my senior year of high school.  It was summer vacation and I was nursing some sort of stomach bug.  I had been popping chewable Peptos so I was feeling ok.  When we got back from the doctor I remembered that some of my swim team friends, including a girl I had a crush on, were doing the summer league around the corner from my home and they had a swim meet that afternoon.  School had been out for about a month, and while I can’t say absence made the heart grow fonder in this case, it did at least make my heart grow bolder.   With a dose of this uncharacteristic boldness percolating in my system I worked up my courage, and made the short trip to the pool.  The smell of chlorine brought forth a wave of nostalgic memories and my stomach flip-flopped with memories of meets past, nervous energy and lingering intestinal issues.  I took a deep breath and waded into the assembled teammates.  I did my best to be charming and in good spirits as I worked my way through the crowd.  I had a good visit overall, even getting some quality time to talk one on one with the girl of my dreams.  I returned home feeling pretty jazzed about the outing.  The euphoria, however, was short-lived.  Upon my next trip to the bathroom I looked in the mirror and discovered, to my horror, that the Pepto-Bismol had turned my lips bright pink all over.  Not just a little color around the corners of my mouth, but full on clown-faced pink lips.  Pink lips and no one says a word.  Numerous hours and conversations and not a single person was kind enough to point this out to me.

At the time I remember obsessing about the envisioned aftermath and how I was certain to be the target of everlasting jokes and insults for the remainder of my high school career.   It doesn’t take long though to realize that this type of embarrassment doesn’t last forever.  I could have faced far more embarrassing moments (and I have a few that I may or may not share), and a minor one such as this is quickly replaced by the next snafu that someone else will inevitably make.  Put in perspective the sting faded as summer rolled on.  In hindsight though, as a moment of my life, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.  Not only does it provide a great retrospective chuckle, but it was an instance of rare bravery that I am still proud of to this day.  That same introverted nature that would rather remove toenails then attract attention is not one to generally wade boldly into a crowd of people, friends or not.  This was an exception to be celebrated despite the outcome.  And so it is with many of our memories of embarrassing moments.  Each story offers insight into some significant aspect of ourselves.  Something we did.  Something we learned.  Something that changed.  If you removed every embarrassing thing you ever did in your life what would your past look like?

Another quote from Kaplan’s book is “Drama helps us dream about what we could be, but comedy helps us live with who we are.”  These memories keep us grounded by our imperfection and keep us hopeful from hardships endured.    Humor is vital for maintaining our happiness and keeping our sanity in a constantly crazy world.  So while we aspire to sophisticated greatness and unbridled bravery remember to smile at the painfully playful memories that made us who we are, bright pink lips and all.

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Dolled Up

Last night I almost got lucky with a doll.  No, it wasn’t that kind of doll and it wasn’t as unseemly as it sounds.  It was an ordinary school night and I was enjoying some after dinner playtime with my daughter.  As a rare departure from the typical Ponyville excursions this session featured the dollhouse and its miniature suburban occupants.  I was cast in the role of the character known simply as “daddy” (I’m apparently a victim of type casting) and was living in a spacious house with my young toddler and my ever-present mother who was there to help with the care of the baby and assist with the cooking duties since “daddy” is notorious for always burning things – I tell ya, burn one marshmallow topping on a sweet potato casserole and you’re marked for life!

Anyway as the story picks up we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of “the new girl” and are doing our best to tidy up the house and repaint the exterior in the hope of impressing our guest.  Lucy, the young woman, is a school friend of my mother’s; I can only assume that mom has returned to school in order to get her masters in child development, in order to maintain her personal growth and lord over me with how to best raise my child.   Lucy is quite charming on first impression and very friendly to both junior and me.  She offers to take the little one for a walk to the park, so I decide to tag along in order to better acquaint ourselves and show off my mad skills as lava monster.  The outing is a success and I invite her to stay for dinner.  Mom, in a rare display of trust and encouragement, allows me to prepare the meal, though prompts me several times to be sure I don’t burn everything.  So while Lucy continues to play with junior I make my way to the kitchen to whip up a special dinner for all of us.  We have cherry pie, of course.  It’s cooked to perfection, because mom reminds me yet again to take it out before it burns.  Lucy is so impressed with the meal that she decides to spend the night.  I see this as a very good sign.  She heads up to the bedroom, and falls fast asleep.  Being the gentleman that I am, I let her have her space and go sleep in the bathtub.

The next morning we surprise our special guest with breakfast in bed.  This time mom isn’t taking any chances so she makes the strawberry waffles herself and sets it all up on a tray with tea for me to deliver to the bedroom.    The meal is delicious, and the entire 24 hour “date” ends on a high note.  Lucy is so impressed that she asks if she could stay with us forever.  It seems a little forward but who am I to deny a pretty girl.

The following day starts with a joyous milestone as the toddler learns to walk for the first time and also how to climb walls, and the day ends with an affectionate hug from Lucy.  All in all a pretty darn good day. As evening approaches I decide to take a big risk and try to move things to the next level.  I head up to the bedroom, intending to innocently claim the bed in hopes that Lucy might repeat her previous routine and join me there.  Unfortunately as I lay there waiting breathlessly in the dark, I am instead spooned by my mother while Lucy sleeps downstairs on the couch in order to take care of the baby and make sure she doesn’t start climbing the walls again.  Rats, foiled again.  It’s a disappointment but I figure I would have plenty of opportunities in the future considering Lucy was now a permanent resident.  All that is left to do is figure out a way to gracefully ask my mother to move out.

dolledup

I wouldn’t have the opportunity to attempt any further shenanigans or parental displacement however as things started to decline sharply from there; the next morning Lucy woke up with food poisoning, apparently due to the fact that daddy was allowed to prepare another gourmet dinner – really I’m a good cook, I don’t know where she gets this stuff!  The situation was dire; we needed magic and we needed it stat.  So obviously we called two magical pony doctors who flew in for a magical house call and magically took care of both Lucy and mother who was stricken with the same sickness later that day.  I won’t go into details but thanks to the diligence of those medicinal ponies everyone was restored to perfect health in a few short days.

In the end it was an interesting exercise in imagination.  I often wonder how my daughter experiences the non-traditional family structure in a house divided.  She may have been too young to remember the start of her mom’s relationship but she has experienced a couple from my side of the equation.  What must that role look like to her? What is it like from a child’s perspective to have a new grownup tossed into the family unit?  In all honesty I don’t think the relationship between Lucy and daddy even registered.  Lucy was just a friend of mom’s who came over to take care of a little one.  From my perspective though, it was still an interesting bit of role-playing.  I’m not ready for another relationship and even if I were I have no idea how I’d approach the idea of dating again.  All I know is that whatever path I might choose it will never be as simple as having a beautiful woman delivered to my front door, have her unequivocally adore my kids in a non-creepy fashion, and then decide after couple of extended dates to live with us happily ever after, no questions asked.  That’s all about as likely as a house call from a magical pony doctor,… or a magical doctor, or a pony doctor, or a magical house call or a,…. Well you get the idea, it’s not likely.

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Tales from the Mid-point