Advice from the Dead

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.–Cicero

Recently, while cleaning out the garage, while rummaging through stacks of dusty boxes I came across a brown, unmarked envelope.

Intrigued, I quit rummaging, opened the envelope door and found my grandfather smiling on the other side.

Inside the envelope it’s 1954 and Pop was still years away from being Pop.

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Mike “Pop” is centered. His right hand holding a pilsner glass. To his right stands his Uncle Al.

Right now he’s Mike and he’s 25 years old and just bought at bar on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey.

He renamed the place “Mike and Ed’s” and he’s serving drinks to a row of rowdy Philadelphians who escaped the tightness of their row home lives for the weekend promise of some New Jersey shore magic.

It’s early evening and the bar, like the decade itself is based with thick,  masculine laughter which overpowers the bouncy doo-wop rhythm of  “Life Could Be a Dream” frisking out the jukebox.

It smells of a different time. Of Old Spice and cigarettes.

I move across the checkered floor to an open seat at the end of the bar and watch Pop make small talk with a few sunburned necks. He laughs and it’s hearty and deep just like I remember.

Pop looks up and nods as if he’s been expecting me.

He turns to the tap, pours a beer in a short pilsner glass and brings it my way. His skinniness surprises me. But the eyes, the smile, the roundness of his shoulders are all there, like they’ve always been.

Pop puts the glass down in front of me. His blue eyes meet my blue eyes and he lays his hand on top of my hand and tells me how he appreciated the funeral, how he appreciated the eulogy I delivered even though it was a bit brief. An entire life in 1,337 words? He thought I should’ve stretched it to at least 1,700.

He winks.

Then his face gets serious.  He tells me he’s disappointed we paid full price for the luncheon after the funeral. He tells me knows an Italian who rents a little room behind the scrap yard along the Delaware River. He tells me the Italian would’ve catered the whole thing, funeral and luncheon, for half the cost.

He tells me he doesn’t have long because other people need him.

He tells me that death is a lot like life in that sense. Someone always needs you.  Someone is always failing to listen. But death, he says, brings infinite patience. Sadly, life does not.

A drunk wearing a tilted fedora calls out, “Mike, Mikey boy bring me over another one. I told the old lady I’d be home by 7 and it’s quarter of!”

Pop shoots the old man a “wait your damn turn old man” look. A look he perfects when, in a few years he becomes a police officer and spends late hours working the fanged streets of southwest Philadelphia.

He returns to me, “See what I mean, no patience.”

Then he gets serious again. Hard lines form around his eyes.

“You know what the living say about the dead? About how, at least, the dead are in a better place.”

I nod.

“Wrong. What the living fail realize is that even though your setting changes, you do not. When you die you take yourself, for better or worse, with you to the other side.  Look around. All these men came here thinking things would somehow be better. But they’re miserable laying bricks in Philly and they’re miserable drinking beer in Jersey. Fools. They thought by crossing the river, by shifting states their life would magically improve. Life, death they don’t work that way.”

He tightens his grip on my hand and says, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are that matters. The same holds true for the afterlife. And you’re going to mess a lot of things up. But if can let love lead your way you might do just enough to get it right. And if you can understand this while you’re alive, I promise when your time comes, you’ll cross that bridge a happy man.”

He loosens his grip and the other hand drums its fingers on the bar and he looks out the window. His brow bent like mine when I’m contemplating something big.

I study his profile the way I did when I was a kid tucked in the front seat of his white pickup truck.

I remember how he would be driving and singing with Frank Sinatra and his profile would be glowing against the shifting sunlight and when the chorus hit he flashed a hard earned smile, a smile of a man who made peace with his life, with the world. A smile I can’t quite forget.

When his eyes return to mine he tells me the beer was on the house. But that was it. No more freebies. This isn’t a soup kitchen. And if I wanted another I would have to pay for it or wash dishes.

Pop takes his hand from mine. He steps back, smiles like someone about to board a plane and somehow, defying the laws earthly physics I still feel the pressure of his hand resting on mine as he drifts away, down the length of the bar, tending to the others who need him.

A bead of sweat rolls down the glass.

A heavy, hollow laughter steamrolls across the bar.

Something sits in my throat.

I want to call him back.

I want to breathe with him again.

I want to tell him I write stories about him so he doesn’t seem so dead.

I want to tell him how I missed him just a little more around Christmas. How I wish he could hold my children. How I wish they could experience his smile and hear his advice and feel the gentle pressure of his hand against theirs.

But I don’t.

Because you can’t.

Because you can’t tell the dead what they already know.

Because when you open an envelope and you’re greeted by the dead and they squint and smile and speak, all you can do is listen, consider your mortal ways and do your best to heed their eternal advice.

Be well,

Jay

 

The Easiest Way to Ruin Your Life

I can’t believe I almost let a 15 year old jackass ruin my life.

When I was in 9th grade, my English teacher walked to my desk and praised me in front of the class for a creative piece I wrote.

She said I exhibited a strong writing voice, a solid command of language and encouraged me to keep writing.

I smiled and as she whirled away the jackass who sat behind me called me a faggot.

That was 22 years ago.

Sure, I was an impressionable, insecure 15 year old, however 22 years later I still remember.

I still remember how slants of morning light sliced through the drafty classroom windows, how a couple kids laughed, how my teacher did nothing and I remember how the insult knifed through the stale classroom air, stabbed my eardrums, ripped down my throat and for many years, slashed at my soul.

For an embarrassingly long time I allowed the insult to cement a fear of writing in me. And by fearing writing I was failing to acknowledge a vital part of my identity.

In 22 years, I’ve learned that it’s easy to believe the insults. It’s easy to let others write your story. It’s easy to let someone’s opinions of you become your excuses.

And I have learned that the easiest way to ruin your life is to allow other people’s opinions of you become your reality.

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See when others foist their judgments upon us and we accept those judgments, we lose faith in our own ideologies, we lose faith in ourselves. We become afraid to forge our own truths. We become victims of our own lives.

Yet when we find the courage to seek out our own truths, choose to live by our own code we find the empowerment we’ve been looking for. We become the person we were meant to be.

Here’s little secret–there’s this private moment, just before I publish an article, when my heart quickens, my hands shake, a hot rush of insecurity rips through me and my mind runs.

What if I didn’t express myself clearly?

What if they laugh at me?

What if they don’t take me seriously?

What if I missed a grammatical error? And what if you find it? What if you tell that jackass from freshmen English class? What if he calls me and insults me and my often wild and liberal use of, commas?

But then I settle myself and think about how many stories went unwritten because of one comment 22 years ago.

So I smile, roll back my shoulders, tell that jackass to go fuck himself and publish without fear.

Be well,

Jay

 

What My Stand-Up Comedy “Career” Taught Me about Fear

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It’s 2005 and I’m sitting at the kitchen table leafing through The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mom is at the stove whipping eggs. The coffee percolates and the TV weather man urges us to keep the umbrellas handy.

Mom whirls around, offers me a plate of bacon and eggs and tussles my hair. I’m 25 and in a few weeks Cindy and I make settlement on a little house to start our little lives together.

It’s a scary and exciting season in my life. And as seasons go, you never understand their significance until many seasons have passed. Until you realize that your past experiences were preparing you to deal with future problems.

As I eat my eggs, my eyes find an advertisement in the paper for an amateur stand-up comedy contest for teachers sponsor by Chuckles Comedy Club. The contest boasts a $1000 grand prize and the honor of being crown “Philadelphia’s Funniest Teacher.”

It happens to all of us–when the gleam of a possibility arrives we’re electrified by the “What if…?”. Our heart quickens, our speech is fast and light and our imagination is seduced by the promise of grandiose achievements.

I see my name in big black letters stamped on a glowing theater marquee. Jay-Z is standing behind a microphone. He calls my name and “Big Pimpin” breaks over the speakers that causes a thunderous cacophony of applause and screams and women faint and men nod in respect and admiration as I saunter across the glossy stage. There are fireworks and acrobats. Beyonce is there.  I’m standing behind a microphone basking under a solitary stage light. My jokes inspire walls of riotous laughter that roll in like waves. I smile, my eyes glint in the spotlight and as I slide my hand in pocket I realize that I’m the envy of everyone in the room.

I snap open my flip phone (remember it’s 2005) and dial but before I punch in the last number something happens. Something always happens in the moments before you leap, before you dive into an unknown world.

“What if I fail?”

My heart quickens.

“What if no one laughs?”

A nervousness flutters in my stomach.

“What if I’m booed off stage like B Rabbit the first time he’s at The Shelter?”

I see the black letters of my name melting like wax on the marquee. I’m on a glossy stage, behind a microphone, under a column of light. My eyes are wide, darting. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I’m sweating and shifting my weight and there’s silence. A hard, loud silence that you feel more then hear. I look to my right and Jay -Z storms toward me, stops and pegs me in the ear with Beyonce’s sparkled stiletto. The spotlight clicks off and I’m alone on stage, cupping the side of my head, drowning in silent darkness of my failure.

I’m looking at the incomplete phone number and I feel the Four Horsemen of Failure: Concern, Doubt, Distrust, and  Fear charging hard towards me.

I tighten my lips, snap close the phone, finish my eggs and convince myself it was a dumb idea and I would’ve failed miserably and I’m better off not risking the embarrassment.

For the next few days, between eating eggs and packing boxes I was gnawed by the familiar “What if..?” paradigm.

“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And then, hours before the sign-up deadline, in a fit of either insanity or brilliance, I simply thought, “Fuck it. Even if I fail, mom will still make me eggs and Cindy will (hopefully) still marry me.”

This time, I snapped open my phone with confidence, punched in all seven numbers, left a message and a few hours later, a gruff voice called me and told me I was to report to Timothy’s Bar and Grill in West Chester, Pennsylvania next Saturday at 8 pm and that I would be the first comedian of the night.  Gruff voice explained that the contest was a single elimination, three round contest. The best comedian advancing each week until the final round.

Shit.

My stomach bottomed out. A streak of hot panic blazed up my chest.

For the next few days I jousted with the Horsemen. I wrote jokes, erased jokes, and threw out jokes. I watched hours of stand-up which only ballooned my self-doubt. I listened intently to the cackles of my inner critic. I entertained the idea of not showing up. Calling it off. Running away to Mexico. And I was convincing myself I was going to fail and that this simply wasn’t worth the effort or the embarrassment.

Days before the show all I had was a trashcan full of unfunny quips about relationships, politics, drive-thru windows and old people.

I’m 25 but look like I’m 18. In fact, as a teacher I was often mistaken as a student by both teachers and students. So I thought if I filleted my insecurities, if I had the courage to make fun of myself that people may laugh, at me or with me, either way I didn’t care.

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Just a couple of kids. No this is not our Sophomore Spring Mixer, this is our wedding rehearsal dinner. June 24, 2005. Apparently, I’m 25 years old.

So I committed to writing a 3 minute set about my insecurities.

My boyish looks, my fear of Victoria’s Secret and my pubic hair.

I felt that if I had the audacity to talk about the most private of things  in public I had a good chance on winning or at least earn the “Effort Award.”

But then the strangest thing happened– my self-deprecating jokes were not only good enough to win the first round, I road them all the way to the final where (triumphant trumpet sound) I was but crowned “Philadelphia’s  Funniest Teacher.”

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Comedy Gold! While writing this post I found some of my material. And yes bottom left is my ultrasound, the centerpiece of my gut-busting, mic- dropping finale.

I spent the next few months doing open mic nights, earning a little stage time, bombing some nights, killing others but ultimately I decided to hang up the microphone.

12 years later, when I hear the galloping Horsemen I return to the lessons learned that season. I’m reminded that despite my initial fear I didn’t die.

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time but my experience with stand-up comedy was laying the foundation for what I attempt do every week on this blog (without the 2 drink minimum). I attempt to tell my story truthfully, unadorned to entertain anyone who’s awesome enough to stop by and listen.

We often forget we’re just animals in fancy clothes and funny hats. When we sense fear, our primal instincts kick in and we run. But as the smartest animal in the schoolyard, we know that avoiding fear will only compound fear. And we also know that those who avoid risks will spend their entire lives just dangling from the monkey bars.

Be well,

Jay

So You’re on a Plane and There’s a “CODE RED!!!”

 

airplane-918916_960_720 I’m on Flight 1990 from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico and in the middle of reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson when a panicked voice breaks over the intercom, “CODE RED, CODE RED!!!”

A worried stewardess rushes up the aisle.

A nervous current catches and spreads across the cabin.

Passengers rise from their seats, careening necks out into the aisle.

“CODE RED! CODE RED!”

My buddy Pete, is on my left, middle seat, slips out his ear buds, looks around then looks at me.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s a CODE RED.”

“What’s a CODE RED?”

I don’t know but…

Another stewardess hustles down the aisle, passes our row and disappears into the back of the plane.

The cabin air turns soupy. The muddled passenger chatter becomes clearer in pitch and panic.

“What’s going on?”

“What’s a CODE RED?”

The stewardess who disappeared reemerges in the aisle. She is holding a red duffel bag.  Her eyes are wide and she’s out of breath, “Just stay in your seats, PLEASE!”

Pete’s eyes grow wide, “CODE RED. That doesn’t sound good.”

~

A few hours earlier, Cindy is watching me pack a suitcase, arms crossed, and chewing her bottom lip.

“Jay, what time is your flight again?”

“8:20 am.”

“Text me when you land?”

“Of course.”

“You’re going to be ok? Right?”

I jam a few t-shirts in the suitcase, look up and smile, “Relax, I’ll be fine.And plus, if something goes wrong while we’re 10,000 feet in the air there’s not a lot I can do.”

“Stop it! Don’t say that. You know how I hate planes.”

Cindy moves across the room, her eyes fill and she hugs me as I wonder if I packed enough t-shirts to last me through the trip.

~
Another nervous stewardess rushes past us with a red duffel bag in her hand. Pete and I look at each other.

I turn toward the window. A blast of pale white light slices through the clouds, through my little window and I hear Cindy’s distant, nervous voice asking, “You’re going to be ok? Right?”

As CODE RED chaos swirls about the cabin, I attempt to distract myself by leafing through The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and conveniently find the line…

 I see practical enlightenment as becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable–no matter what you do, life is comprised of failure, loss, regrets and even death.

I scan the cabin, look out the window into the blinding pale light, listen to the nervous twang of my fellow passengers and privately ask, “Is this one of those times? Should I get comfortable?”

The last few years of my life have taught me that sometimes a lot of times things get, as Manson writes, “fucked up” –like a “CODE RED” on an airplane floating 10,00 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.

And in these moments,when you’re at the mercy of fate and circumstance, our power resides simply in how we respond to such circumstances. Consequently, this is both empowering and unnerving.

Life is like this flight I’m on. It’s expensive and uncomfortable and suddenly when everything seems to be gliding along, you’ve got a CODE RED on you’re hands.  You panic. You sweat. You loss your breath. There’s nothing you can really do about it.  And you realize that you and this plane ride is a beautiful metaphor.

Because most of my pain (and probably your’s) is caused when we try, with all our human strength, to control the uncontrollable.

Manson attests that life would be much more fulfilling and joyful if we simply stopped, “giving a fuck about things beyond our control”. Like people’s opinions, or how much money our neighbor makes, or if your plane is experiencing a CODE RED.

If you don’t mind obscenity, if you’re looking for some honest, tough-love  perspective that will both tug at your heart strings and punch you in the gut, then I would recommend Manson’s book.

And in case your flying American Airlines in the future, a CODE RED is a medical emergency. In the case of Flight 1990, a girl fainted. I saw her at baggage claim. She was fine.

Maybe screaming “CODE RED” over an airplane intercom  is a bit excessive.

Because, “CODE RED” translates to ” WE’RE UNDER ATTACK… SAVE YOURSELVES!!!” ( Or at least it does in my mind.)

Also A.A.– maybe you should consider changing CODE RED to something less alarming, something less likely to cause mid-air heart palpitations, something subtle and unassuming like “Elmer Fudd” or “Banana Pancakes.” or better yet, “Elmer Fudd eating banana pancakes.” Just a thought.

Be well,

Jay