Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Holding Hands In the Mall


The first girl I ever loved, deeply and with my whole being, was Karen Johnson.  I remember my mother letting me dress myself for kindergarten, a policy she probably kept for self-amusement as I would walk to the bus in a tiny white linen suit.  Perhaps it was due to my suave and ultra-cool genes kicking in prematurely, or maybe because I had seen Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” about 500 times, but I knew I had only one shot at true love.  Just the night before I had wandered down the toy aisle of the grocery store and pleaded with my mom to buy the plastic gold colored heart chain that would surely demonstrate my feelings for dear Karen.  My mother smiled and asked “what do you need this for?”  “For a girl, momma.  I love her.”  She laughed, “Oh you love her, do you?”  I fell to my knees, pleading to her “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall in love…it just happened!”  It was clear to her, although I had no thoughts other than pure terror and exhilaration, that I had reached a milestone.  A new and very powerful piece of software had been installed in my brain, one that would help govern decisions and drive actions for years to come, despite its’ unfortunate habit of crashing from time to time.

Hi Karen, it's me again...pick up!
 It pains me to say it, but Karen and I did not last.  I saw her coloring with my backstabbing friend Richard after nap time. She was stuck up anyway.  I’m willing to bet we have all felt this puppy love at one point or another.  Every few years came a new lesson.  Why do I want to throw things at the back of that girls head on the playground and pinch her until she cries?  Isn’t this how you show affection?  For some girls, this may be just what they want, but as a general rule it shouldn’t be carried out past the playground years.  For all my effort I was finding my understanding of these long haired creatures sparse, let alone the confusing feelings I suddenly was forming for them.  When you find something or someone has the ability to enter all parts of your mind through the poorly guarded heart, you cannot help but admire the power of their beauty…it also wouldn’t hurt to develop a healthy fear of playing with such power.

While enrolled at Loretto, a boarding school in Edinburgh, I developed a crush for Jill Ritchie. She was an older girl who went to the neighboring all-girls school.  If you have ever seen the movie “flirting,” with a young Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton, then you have a pretty good idea of what boarding school is like for a lad such as myself.  We lived in a self-sustaining community that is designed to promote education, physical fitness, proper manners, a thirst for life and a hunger for knowledge!  All the while, staying within a campus surrounded by 12 foot stone walls.  Life on the inside was relatively civilized, after all we were brothers in arms, fellow classmates and warriors on the rugby field day in and day out.  However, as soon as Mr. Dickenson’s young blonde wife would stroll across campus we would club each other over the head with our heavy bounded copies of Macbeth in order to get a better glance, fleeting as it might be.  The notion of “love” was bound to evolve as we noticed girls develop physically, causing us men to devolve mentally into chest beating apes.  Perhaps the school, with its fortress like barricades, was designed to prolong the mental development of us little nippers before we hear the inescapable tune of the sirens song and spend puberty drifting towards their rocky source. 

Me looking cute. Paul looking..smart

The school could not keep us caged up and twisting in the wind forever.  From time to time they would bring in a group of girls from the neighboring campus for a social gathering like a dance.  This wasn’t you’re typical “throw the kids together and hope they don’t get pregnant” kind of school dance, this was a proper and respectful waltz. The waltz is a closed dance style, which meant hips would brush hips as you glide across the floor and, if you’re lucky, the shoulder area might brush against something that would be the highlight of your week.  It is funny to think now that this dance was banned by Missionaries and early settlers of the US for its sinful closeness…if I ever go back in time I want to show them a twerking video and see if their heads explode.

So anyways, this dance had all the awkward tension of any other organized dance.  Boys stood on one side of the room, nervously joking with one another while trying to size up the visiting team, and then had to take the steps across the dance floor with full knowledge that everyone’s eyes will be upon you as you extend your hand to the chosen debutant.  Jill just happened to be the shortest distance.  We danced and talked about school or whatever and then it was time to leave.  I asked to write her, this was pre-cell phone days after all, and so we became pen pals.  She was one of my best friends, always remaining nothing more of course as we are talking third grade here people, and my letters from her were like a glimpse inside the wolf’s lair of a totally foreign regime.  Her handwriting was aesthetically beautiful; round and bubbly, like the kind I would stare at in later years as girls would write their names over, and over, and over again in their notebook margins surrounded by hearts and stars. Her worries and concerns were unlike mine, likewise her goals and outlook on life was also refreshingly different.  You can never imagine the joy of receiving a letter from a girl on the outside with funny stories and Garfield stickers on it unless you had been there…or maybe if you’ve been in prison.  It is also hard to describe the pain felt to move away, it was astonishingly Shakespearean for a young heart such as mine.  I guess I was always drama king.

What I had found was a kind of pain that was almost perversely enjoyable.  Gradually, after the tears for Karen or Jill or whoever I loved for that three day stretch in grade school were long gone, I was left with this overdose of affection and sympathy from my parents.  I could get away with things which normally would get me in trouble.  If my brother tried our usual cat and mouse routine at the table and I happened to let an F bomb slip out I could not be held accountable, I was a man apart!  And shame on him for picking on poor, sweet little ‘ol me. I was drunk with power.  Later however this was not so much a chance to get Paul in trouble as it was an opportunity to show that part of myself I had spent so much effort to cover up.  Sometimes feeling sad and crying is a huge release, like releasing a steam value that was set to blow.  Not that I ever cried, I work out and hang up drywall whenever I’m sad.  Theoretically if I had, the only witnesses I would allow to my laments would be my faithful Australian shepherds Matildia and McGregor.  Try being sad or upset around a good dog and they will come lay their head in your lap to absorb your sorrows.  Cats on the other hand…well, cats are assholes. 

Me reflecting on a lost love
Fast forward through the pimpled, awkwardly dressed and baby fat days to the prime years of college; a time when you are actually responsible for holding down real commitments and relationships on top of juggling roommates, multiple jobs and of course keeping up with social circles.  It’s a wonder there’s any time for schoolwork at all!  But relationships were formed and I found I had learned to importance of being a friend first and foremost.  Not holding grudges about personal differences so that in time, long after we break up and start separate lives, we can still call to catch up and remember that something special is exchanged through connecting with another human being.  My first college girlfriend and her husband just welcomed a daughter into the world and I am so happy to know them both and be able to share in their joy as a friend who will always be there.  I remember sitting with her once at a coffee shop and noticing two kids awkwardly walking through the mall holding hands.  His face gave away his giddy sense of accomplishment and she had a smile that breathlessly spoke: “this was her man, they had chosen each other.” I smiled and told her that I would one day write about what I had just seen, what exactly that was I wasn’t sure, but I knew I recognized something universal.  Making a connection with anyone these days is hard enough, you might as well fight for the people you have cared about past and present.  Sometimes you need to get outside your own head and just enjoy the human connection.

There is no “One person for everyone”.   I used to pull my hair at this thought, how could I know if the one for me was in Ohio or Iceland?  Do I have to meet everyone in the world first before I give my heart to someone?  I think the proper approach is to stop weighing options and searching for excuses and flaws, cause guess what…you’ll find one.  But that’s ok, God knows you got plenty of your own (you, not me!).  My new understanding of love is seeing a flaw in someone, or at least a perceived flaw they might be self-conscious about, as an opportunity to show them how beautiful they really are.  It’s the human condition to feel flawed and lacking perfection.  This is why we fit so well together, we can fill the void in one another's soul and feel complete.  The Greek Gods Apollo or Aphrodite, the ultimate symbols of beauty and perfection, couldn’t be capable of such feelings as they have nothing left to attain, and nobody they need. I think a force of nature that can cause your knees to weaken at the mere sight of that special someone or launch the entire Trojan War is a force which deserves reverence.  Love should itch in your veins like an addiction, something that flows through you and polarizes every ounce of your being to gravitate towards someone who makes you feel good.  Your confidant, your best friend. 

Monday, September 30, 2013


    There are black and white forces in nature that can influence our inner being the way gravity introduces us to the ground when we try to venture out on weak branches.  We can look to the water and see salmon swim with unwavering determination upstream, or look above as geese hold a steady formation on a journey that spans whole hemispheres.  This is migration; a calling that drives life to fulfil a destiny.  For some that journey is necessary to reach a place where they will live out their days, while others must travel away from home only to close the last chapter of their life.  It can be easy to define these journeys amongst birds and fish, a clear path from A to B, however labeling the actions of man as a migration can be almost too easy, a cope out of sorts.  Surely our purposes, our dreams and goals are not governed by such baser instincts...we are evolved!  While there is truth in our “higher calling,” I feel the basic drives within us are no more than primal forces that have been dressed up and re-named to distance ourselves from our animal past.  Sometimes it is hard to know what stage of the journey we are in, or where our trajectory is carrying us, but we can always look back and take stock on the past in order to gain a perspective to our future.

      A good deal of who you will become depends on what you are exposed too and how you choose to deal with change.  I was lucky to have been well traveled at a young age. I experienced climates from the deserts of Nevada to the rainy hills of Scotland.  Most importantly, I recognized how tough it can be adjusting to new friends, different cultures and the restructuring of a family dynamic.  While my mother and father were not destined to remain a couple, they were still a team whose goal of raising two boys would be realized no matter what personal issues got in the way. It is from their example that I learned a journey does not end at the first sign of bad weather, but rather that life requires a willingness to jettison that which is not working in favor of reaching your ultimate goal.

    When I look in the mirror I think of my own parents who spent many years swimming upstream in order to make me the man I am today.  It is a signpost of growing up that you come to realize how you have been guided, nurtured and cared for in ways you might have overlooked.  A good portion of my mother’s life was spent carrying my brother and I along, while the mere memory of my father’s life and career continues to be a guiding star in my journeys and my understanding of what it is to be a man.  Some lessons are learned by mirroring their lives, and yet others come from recognizing missteps and learning from their mistakes, however few they might be. 

    My most impressionable years were spent in the mid-west amongst good hearted, honest and caring people.  I remember finding an escape from small town USA in the books of Roald Dahl and Michael Crichton and the attraction of New York through the films of Woody Allen.  My journey felt insignificant amongst the corn fields and calm shoreline of Lake Erie.  Now, having been gone from Ohio for ten years I can imagine no better place to grow up.  There is an honesty in the land and a genuine character to the people which I learned to appreciate fully after being away and seeing my past in contrast.  Like the Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon”, up close it all appears to be static noise, just a bunch of dots on canvas…but as you gain some distance from it you see the dots all merge together, blending seamlessly into something beautiful. 

    I do not mean to speak in generalizations.  There are always exceptions to this rule and I certainly do not mean to place all of my best times in one area.  I have met some of the best friends I have ever known in recent years, people that have become like family to me.  If Ohio was my more or less my safe harbor, Miami would serve as the place in which I “cut my teeth” on independence.  Although I had spent the better part of five years away from family in Toledo for college, I was still an hour or so away from a good hot meal or a place to crash when I needed to get away from it all.  Miami is the antithesis of Small town Ohio.  Miami is like a party you think is going to be very fun and exciting, but it turns out to be all marketing and no substance, but you stay even though you don’t really want to because you came with a friend who really wants to meet the girl that works at Segafredo’s down on Biscayne cause she mentioned she’d be there after work.  So you wind up sitting in the corner listening to techno while some dude name Arturo talks about how brilliant Swedish House Mafia is and you politely nod in agreement even though you are counting the cornrows in his hair and wondering how long it has been since he has had his teeth cleaned.  At least, that’s what it felt like to me after spending five years working a job that placed me in the heart of South Beach and Downtown Miami lifestyles.  On a positive note, I spent many days with my fellow ocean travelers swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic and some great nights with friends who will remain with me until the end.

    If there is one migration that is tends to lend itself to popular culture and, amongst my friends, seems almost an inevitability, it would have to be the migration west.  Although there is no more frontier to conquer, I find friend after friend following the call to California.  One of the hardest things about life is having to answer that yearning call to move on, take to the wind and leave what you have come to know as comfortable.  I have felt that nervous excitement many times and now, as my good friend prepares to make the move to LA, I romanticize over living the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” or Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend “ and once again I am reminded of my own journey and wonder what is next.

    Leaving a place you have come to know as home or watching a friend answer his call to flight can be bittersweet, but there is a kind of joy that comes from closing a chapter or being part of someone else's life story.  Our drives, while different in shape and form, can be linked to an overall goal which cannot be explained in equations, theories or long winded blog entries.  It exists primarily as a feeling, one that must hit you at a per-determined time.  For the creatures of the land and sea that might be governed by a change in temperature, the position of the moon or a shift in the tides.  Man, however, has lost our tuning and must focus in order to hear that call which has become distorted by social constructs and can be easily overlooked as mere daydreams. 

    I do not mean to glorify the act of travel as the overall means for change.  My journey is my own and I would not recommend anyone try to blindly follow another's path but rather to define their own.  In a way, travel has afforded me the ability to run away from responsibilities of growing up, in other ways it has given me a broader understanding of who I am and where I fit in the world.  It is a balance.  I have great friends whom I consider weathered navigators of their own inner journey.  I see friends grow exponentially by becoming fathers, businessmen, doctors, ect. while staying in the same geographical location.  They have answered their own call to change and the ones whom I respect will forever be a part of my own story.  I have amassed many close friends from different times in my life, all of whom make up constellations in my night sky.  When I need them to navigate through a dark night they are there to guide me.  Some are brighter than others but they all help illuminate my path.
    As I sit on the beach on this remote island in the pacific, I think of Herman Melville’s words in Moby Dick: “Meditation and water are wedded forever.”  While I am sure this is where I am supposed to be, I cannot avoid taking stock of my short and brief time on this earth while standing on the shores of something so vast and smile as I see it alive with travelers.  I feel connected to all the creatures that stir and jump out of the sea, following the warmest current while patiently moving forward into unknown waters.  Birds pass above; some use this oasis as a resting point, others sail right past, and still others see it as the final destination.  All life is motion, even when it appears I have landed in stagnant waters, there are currents swirling inside that will one day set me on a path, part per-determined and part decided by the tide.  I think viewing that migration not as a finish line but an overall journey is something we have forgotten and perhaps can re-learn by watching those travelers of the wind and sea.