Just people, that’s all

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“I love the Dollar Store.I don’t have to get all dolled up like going to a Wal-Mart”

anonymous internet meme.

I admit it, I am a Wal-Mart shopper. I see no need to pay more than I have to for toilet paper and socks. Yes, Wal-Mart doesn’t pay its employees very well and their lack of benefits may indeed be a burden on our health-care system by forcing workers into state exchanges. I always look at the flip side, they give a lot of people jobs that they might not otherwise be qualified. Yes, some of their employees are not qualified for much else. I said it. I just see people working which makes me happy.

I stopped in Sunday afternoon to use their coin machine. I had an ashtray full of change to cash in. Their machine takes 10% but I don’t care I’m not rolling coins. It occurred to me as I walked in that the holiday shopping season was in full frenzy and I had possibly made a mistake. As I waited for the machine to count my change I scanned the checkout area and it wasn’t too bad. I grabbed my receipt and headed for the line.

As I stood patiently in line, looking out of place I’m sure with no items in my hand, the woman in front of me abruptly spun around and said: “Savers is half off today.” She was clearly hammered, three sheets to the wind drunk.

I politely replied, “then why are you here?” I actually had no idea what “Savers” is.

She went on to explain that it is a store and that she had already been there, and called me “silly”. I looked politely around as she was talking and people were staring at her in righteous disapproval. Judging.

“My name is Janet, Merry Christmas!” she said thrusting her hand towards me. I introduced myself and returned the greeting. Janet motioned to the man behind her, who was dutifully emptying his cart onto the register belt as her husband. She went on to explain how she and Earl have no family and they will be celebrating early this year. Ignoring the opportunity to tell her it looks as if she has already started celebrating I let it go. Instead, I told her that she should be able to celebrate any way she wants to.

They checked out and started to leave and Janet turned and said goodbye to me. Once again everyone looked at this clearly intoxicated woman with disdain. I didn’t. My takeaway was that she was friendly and nice. Who am I to judge her? Unless she is driving of course. I wished her a Merry Christmas again.

Wal-mart is full of people, regular people who for the most part lack pretense. I’ll take that any day.

cheap beer and memories

If nothing else I am a guy that can learn a lesson. I’m open to it and I recognize the value of applying what I’ve learned to do right by virtue of having done it wrong. I’m also burdened with a tremendous memory, in particular for the stupid things that I’ve said and done. I beat myself up mercilessly to this day for things that I did even in my teens. Mostly between the hours of 11 PM and 3 AM.

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My mantra has typically been “I don’t think before I speak, I like to be as surprised as everyone else by what comes out.” I tend to be pleasantly sarcastic so I’m not very offputting. But Sunday I had the opportunity to see a friend do a replay of one of my most regrettable stupid comments. And it was an eye-opener.

A little back-story. When I was 20 my dad and I went to visit one of his co-workers. Another hard working truck driver who had just been diagnosed with Cancer. Dad and I drove 100 miles to see him at his vacation home because that was how Dad was. We arrived at Smitty’s house around noon and we got the tour of the house. Smitty led us to the kitchen and the big man opened the refrigerator and grabbed 3 beers in his enormous hand. As he handed one to me I stupidly said: “Ugh, Miller Lite.” Smitty looked at me and then at Dad. I looked at Dad as well and he was pissed, I just knew.

We eventually said our goodbyes and walked to the truck. His door was barely closed when he turned and looked me in the eyes, serious as a heart attack and said:” when someone offers you a beer I don’t care if it tastes like a warm glass of camel-piss you take it and you say thank you. Do you understand me?” I did, and I felt awful. But it stuck with me. From that day forward I always cheerfully accepted whatever anyone offered me.

Yesterday I was serving a charity breakfast. The Masons do a blood drive every year in our building and I make a full breakfast for all donors. I love to cook and I love to help. I look forward to it every year. In particular, I look forward to seeing my friend Paul. He seldom attends other functions but he always comes to this one to see me in the kitchen. On this day he stayed until the end to help me clean up.

We were joined in the kitchen by Dan, another friend. Paul and I were talking and Dan was scrubbing some pots. Paul asked me if I wanted to stick around and grab a beer with him after. I explained that I had to drive 2 hours home so probably no. It seemed I barely had time to turn around and there he was with three cans of beer, one for each of us. Miller Lite. I gladly accepted and all eyes were on Dan. Dan turns and says:”Miller Lite, that’s what I drink when I can’t drink my own piss!”

I looked at him and before I could stop myself I said: “Dan when someone offers you a beer just take it and say thank you. What’s wrong with you?”

Who said that?

Day 11…a letter to the leader of my faith

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Dear Grand Architect of the Universe:

It took most of my life and it wasn’t until I stopped looking that I found you.

When I was younger I watched my fellow humans hail you, bow to you, raise hands high in the air and shed tears to you. I tried to feel that zeal but whatever wiring those people had, I didn’t. Frustrated, I walked away thinking that you weren’t there.

I denied you for years. I never reached out to you even when under life’s heaviest bombardment. I decided you didn’t exist and I was not going to be a hypocrite.

I couldn’t believe that you could allow so many bad people to thrive, so many good people to suffer and let a baby get Cancer. At least not the kindly Gentleman with the flowing robe and white beard I was taught to visualize.

I lashed out at your believers. I felt that they were selfish, only asking things for themselves, for their own advancement. What do you care who wins a baseball game after all? I decided that it was fine for people to believe in you if it makes them feel better but you weren’t for me.

Eventually, I came to realize that I believed in evil. To believe in one you must believe in the other. I further recognized that things are just a little too perfect to just be the result of a random cosmic explosion. Finally, I decided that if I cannot prove you are not there then it is very possible that you are. I closed my eyes, opened my ears and sought evidence of your existence.

I became a member of the world’s oldest fraternity 6 years ago. Freemasonry requires that a man has a belief in a higher power. They do not require a particular deity or denomination. Freemasons refer to you as the GAOTU, Grand Architect of the Universe. I joined Freemasonry as a step in building meaning in my life, it naturally followed that such a desire would incorporate Spirituality. I was looking not only for the meaning of life but for meaning in my life.

I started slow. When others prayed, I meditated. I took that time to think positive thoughts about others and reflect on what I have lost and changes I need to make. I spent time with men of faith and found that these good men used their belief in you to help others, not themselves. I found their positive approach to life as a portal to allow you into my life. Now I am completely open to what you have in store for me.

As my personal life has deteriorated, my family life has collapsed and my health has declined, you have become more apparent to me. Not because my need for you has, but because of my awareness of how much I appreciate what I still have. I do not question you for what is happening to me, I hope that you will help guide those that I love in my absence and that you will guide me in my goal of becoming a humble, grateful and kind person.

I find myself outdoors a lot now. I am able to stare at the woods for hours on end taking in the beauty of nature. I see you in the industrious squirrel foraging desperately before winter. I see you in the bluebird flitting from branch to branch. I see you in the ripple of water on the lake as I paddle my Kayak. I see you in the mountain ranges on a sunny fall day, in the smile of a child and in the affection of a dog.

Yesterday morning I left the house early, dreading the doctor’s appointment I was heading to. I looked at the end of my driveway and saw a baby doe with its mother standing looking at me.

There you were.

Day 10…a letter to the leader of the Country

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Dear Mr. President:

You are perhaps the most amazing story in political history. Your election shook the world. It was historic on so many levels and the shock waves still ripple across the world one full year after your election.

On election night I watched the results unfold with unbridled glee. Not because I was supporting you, (I did in the same manner as every other election I have voted in, I voted against a candidate, not for one), but because of the sheer excitement of it. I felt vindicated because I predicted your victory when no one in my circle did. I simply knew that the polls were not accurate. That many who were polled either gave no answer or lied. for fear that supporting you would cause them backlash or social condemnation. Therefore the numbers that predicted a Hillary victory were simply not accurate and the “silent majority” would speak with their vote, not their voice. As I sat on the edge of my seat I embraced the tumult that then unfolded.

Of course, I didn’t realize the chaos that would ensue. The reaction from the pundits was hilarious and expected. While required to maintain an “objective” expression they failed miserably, they couldn’t contain their anger at your election. No surprises there for me. But the country itself did surprise me and continues to do so. College students felt violated and clamored tearfully for “safe spaces”. Grown men and women cried in public and called for the immediate disbanding of long-standing election protocols. In short, millions of people lost their fucking minds when their candidate didn’t win. It is a sad state of affairs but it is very telling of the mindset of our country. Our youth is unaccustomed to not getting their way, our adults have lost the ability of reasonable discourse, and our country is hopelessly divided. If you do an absolutely amazing job in the next three years your popularity will never exceed 50%. Fortunately, you don’t care about any of that.

Mr. President, you were elected by a lot of people who didn’t agree with the direction the previous administration was going. They didn’t necessarily vote for you, but for the issues that you stood for and that, let’s face it you were a lesser evil to many. You are not an ideal candidate. You are not Presidential in the way you carry yourself. You are crass, you can be a braggart, you are not well-spoken and you are impulsive in your words and actions. I can only speak for myself, but I thought your competitor was corrupt, while I only find you imperfect. I compromised a lot of my personal convictions to vote for you in hopes that you will grow into the job.

As the country still reels from your win, and as your critics and enemies pull out every stop to destroy you please remember that you hold the most powerful position in the free world. If I love my country I cannot possibly in good conscience want you to fail. That would be commensurate to hoping the pilot of my aircraft will fail. Do what you said you would do, fulfill your promises because that is integrity. Please also remember that with integrity comes the ability to absorb criticism, be civil to your detractors and to act upright at all times. The insolent temper tantrums, name-calling, and dick-measuring need to stop. It is not, whether you care about this or not, representative of your office. Even if I didn’t respect you, you sit in the chair that many great men have before you. Act like it.

The country is not broken, but it is cracking. Everything you do can either help fix or further the damage. I’m counting on you. Put the damn twitter account away and charge forward.

A concerned citizen.

Honesty or Hypocrisy…does it matter at this point?

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“I’m sorry Dad, I must have a bad connection. Did you say that you are at Church?” I could visualize my daughter’s confused face as she was driving. She was on her way to see us.

“Yes, you heard me correctly. Your grandmother and I are at Church but we’ll be back before you get here” I said. This is going to be discussed at some point I thought to myself. She has never heard me say that before.

I can’t put a finger on the date but for some time now I’ve become increasingly Spiritual. It has been a gradual process. I once considered myself an atheist but I opened myself up to the fact that I was actually opposed to organized religion.

I am a very cut and dry fellow, it has taken me a long time to recognize and overcome this trait. It used to be easy to say that things are either this way or that, nothing in between. I rejected the Church at a young age. I rejected all of it. I had some bad experiences at my church and I saw some brutal hypocrisy that turned me off to all of it. The Alpha-male in me took over. If I’m rejecting religion then I must be an atheist. Regrettably, I tried to be a good one.

I was committed to it. I even went so far as to hire a Justice of the Peace for my wedding. We were to be married in a Hotel and the JOP was instructed not to use the word GOD once. It actually worked out well on some fronts because my wife is non-practicing Jewish and the families were pushing for their own traditions.

As the kids grew we allowed them to make their own decisions. They were not baptized, bar mitzvah’d or bat mitzvah’d but we didn’t discourage them from believing. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah. I offered to take them to church if they wanted. They tried it and were not into it. We often talked about God and Religion and they marveled at my lack of belief. I was perfectly fine with the notion that once you die, you are gone. What remains is your legacy. I’ve always tried to be a good person so that was fine for me.

What my children didn’t know is that I was coming around a bit to Spirituality. I recognized that it was organized religion that I was rejecting. There had to be some driving force in the universe. I opened myself up to it but I never told my kids. It is pretty sad but I was embarrassed that I had changed my mind about something I had been so sure about. Of course, it is even sadder that I was even worried about coming clean. I felt like a presidential candidate who had flip-flopped on raising taxes.

We were enjoying a nice meal that night when my daughter says “Sooooo Dad, Church, huh?” I caught my mother smirking out of the corner of my right eye.

“Here we go,” I said. “Yes, kiddo I go to Church sometimes now.” The conversation I had been dreading for a long time was upon me. Having my mother in the room made it more interesting because she has always the one telling me that it was religion, not God that I had a problem with. I hate it when other people are right.

I explained to my daughter that I had to re-evaluate. That I had rejected religion but was seeking meaning in the world, in my life. I told her I started seeing God in nature, meaning in small things, that chronic illness and personal struggles had opened my eyes a bit. That I was not a bible thumper yet, that in fact, I was a bit of an oddity at church. I don’t sing, I don’t recite and I don’t engage in rituals like communion. I’m just not wired like that. I explained that when closing my eyes for prayer, I don’t necessarily feel what I think I’m supposed to but I take the opportunity to think good thoughts and wish good things for other people. I explained that I enjoyed the positivity of this particular church and that it can’t be a bad thing to take a few hours a week to think about others.

She listened patiently, I don’t know if she was thinking I was a hypocrite, if she was bored but putting on an interested face or if I was actually making sense. My mother certainly enjoyed it. I guess it doesn’t matter what she got out of it. Telling her was as much about me as it was about her. I needed to come clean. I feel like a small weight has been lifted. Being honest with my family outweighs being right at this point in my life.

Day 9…A letter to my parents

A letter to my parents

This is a difficult letter to write. Mom, you are here to read it. Dad, you don’t get to hear this but I sure wish you could. If what I have been raised to believe is true, that spirits live on, then maybe you are aware of the things I have said to your stone. You know, the things I wish I had said when you were alive.

I have no complaints. Dad, you would laugh at that and say “oh good” but hear me out. A lot of people my age complain about their parents. They say they wish they had gotten more of this, less of that, etc. This comes in many forms; they wish they had more money, more TV’s, more vacations. They wish they had less curfews, rules, siblings, after-school activities. The list goes on. And this gives a foundation for blame. Did you know that I grew up lower -middle class? Well I did. And I didn’t know it and I didn’t care. It wasn’t until I had another friend’s house, dinner, Television or car to compare it to that I even gave it a thought. Those are just things. All I know is that I never needed anything. If I was to compare it to what my children had you would think that I was poor growing up. In reality I was just fine.

Things don’t validate the childhood, the “adult you” validates the childhood.

Dad, you came from a hard scrabble background. You were poor. Plastic on the windows and dirt floors poor. You learned early on, unlike your siblings, that hard work was the means to self-improvement and your only way out. Everything you had you worked hard for and you cared for those things and made them last. From you I learned so many things that I carry with pride; to work hard and ask no one for anything, to always remember where you came from, be yourself if people don’t like you it’s their problem, that things always work out. You were a dedicated father and you did everything you could to give me a better childhood than yours.

Mom, you survived a near-fatal childhood disease. Your life was saved by an experimental medication regimen. Your mother was a very proper woman with a too-high regard for appearances and a fleeting sense of humor. Your father a properly grounded hard-working but fun-loving WW2 veteran with a huge heart. Your little brother tragically died at the age of 4. Your mother had a tragic series of miscarriages. You became their whole worldYour mother was overbearing. You feared to do the same to me. I always thought you had high expectations of me to pick myself and dust myself off when I was hurt, I now know that you didn’t want to smother and shelter me like your mother did. Your light-hearted approach to life always kept me grounded. I could talk to you about anything and you were the perfect comic sidekick to Dad’s straight man. Your laugh is still infectious, you are sometimes silly. But you are tough, your ability to bounce back from anything has inspired me.

You were a great team. Your loyalty to each other was unlike any I had seen. I saw the way you looked at each other and I wish that I had experienced a relationship as loving. It still breaks my heart how disappointed Dad was on your 49th anniversary, he was very sick and predicted (correctly) that he would not get to dance with her on the 50th. He cried that day.

I learned so much from both of you and I credit you for giving me something that I see lacking in today’s world. Values. Thank you for being everything that I value in life; honest, caring, and genuine. Let there be no doubt, you did a fine job.

Your loving son

my best thinking

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As part of acclimating to the much slower pace of my new environment, I have set a mental goal of accomplishing something significant, preferably physical, each day. I will not allow myself to be a couch potato watching 12 hours of TV a day and then go to bed mad at myself. A walk, a brief workout, some yard work does the trick. Just an hour of my day and I go to bed feeling accomplished, if only in a small way. It’s part of dealing with chronic illness, keep challenging yourself.

This morning I stepped out onto the deck and surveyed the trees surrounding the yard, Pretty barren. Yup, today I would do the leaves.

I went inside and threw on Jeans, a Henley shirt, and a heavy sweatshirt. I searched for my headphones, grabbed my phone off of the charger and headed outside. It was a cold day but I knew that once I was moving I would be fine. It is sad that I had to even think about that but as my condition has progressed I have grown sensitive to cold. Just another thing to deal with I guess.

As I head to the garage to grab my gear I look back and see Mom in the picture window. She looks happy. Happy that someone is there to help her with the yard since her husband died. Happy that she didn’t have to ask me to do it (she never would) and happy that I motivated myself to go out into the cold. I’ve been moping around the house lately and she knows that I need to snap out of it.

The work went smoothly. Clearing leaves is mindless work. I knew that I wouldn’t get it all done today but I could put a good dent in it. Headphones blasted a Spotify playlist into my ears, quieting the roar of the leaf blower. I barely notice the leaf blower going side to side, as if unaware that I was the one operating it, switching hands periodically to ease the fatigue in my forearms. I became fascinated with small details in front of me, like the random leaf that refused to submit to the onslaught of my blower and clung fiercely to the ground before finally yielding. I began to ease into a familiar Zen-like state where I do my best thinking. It happens a lot during yard work. Usually, my mind races and my thoughts barrage me like locusts on a windshield. In this state, they flowed like lava. As I worked I found my problems were right there with me, waiting to be addressed if I had enough yard to handle them all. I was in the right frame to sort them out. I savor and enjoy such moments, they are so very rare.

I have been in a funk lately on the heels of some disappointing medical news. While not normally prone to depression, this news came from so far out of left field that it shook me a bit. And for the first time in a while, I was thinking as if ole Superman had finally gotten himself in deep. I was in my own head thinking about my expiration date. I was feeling bad for myself. But the zest in the crisp Autumn air reminded me of the days when I had unshakeable faith that things would work out. As I worked in my father’s yard I thought of his eternal positivity and envisioned sitting on the wall and talking, like we used to. I thought of my children and how there were so many things I wanted to tell them. I focused on things that I wanted to do, see in my family and milestones to witness. I thought more about life in my years and not of years in my life. I canceled the pity party and committed to change my attitude.

All this from a fall day and a leaf blower? It’s hard to explain. It’s the act of working, which I miss so much. It’s being outside, where I have always been most comfortable. It’s 3 hours of yard work and a significant dent in a huge task. It’s the ache in my muscles. It’s the sense of accomplishment. All of these things showed me glimpses of the kid who stayed outside in the yard, long after everyone else went in. He would stand in the yard arms back, neck back, chest out and let the autumn winds flow all around him. That kid loved life, saw God in everything and knew how to be happy. He would want me to do that again.