The Man with the Hole in His Brain-Chapter 2

The Man with the Hole in His Brain- Chapter 2

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. ~ Theodore Roosevelt 


Ms. Baker knew The Man with the Hole in His Brain before he was a man. And presumably before there was a hole in his brain.

Ms. Baker knew him as The Boy with Blue Eyes.

Their story, like all human stories, sewn with a subtle yet remarkable thread, crossed its first stitch early one morning, twenty-four years ago, in a loud and stuffy classroom.

Ms. Baker was locked in screaming match with her first period class when she felt the hot-rush realization that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

She stopped screaming, locked her knees, jerked her right hand up to her heart as if she was pledging allegiance for the second time that day.

Her first year teaching 9th grade English simulated a car crash, everyday

Screaming, clutching, tightened lips, big eyes and a sudden loss of gravity as if her white Corolla spun through faculty meetings and parent-teacher meetings and back-to school night at dangerous speeds causing her jet black hair burst from their bobby pins, her axles snapped and she collided head-on with an 18-wheeler hauling bushels 14 year-old ramrods.

“What is wrong with you people? Why are you so disrespectful?”

She wanted to do something dramatic with her hands, point a finger, pound a desk, but she couldn’t. No bra.

“Are you going to cry Ms. Baker?”

“That’s enough. Quiet!”

But quiet never came. Her yelling only fed their fires. Someone threw a ball of paper across the room. Someone screamed fuck.

Ms. Baker, still pledging allegiance, verged on something wild. Clearing her throat, she felt a violence boiling in her gut however, she caught the blue eyes of the boy who would grow up to become The Man with the Hole in His Brain and the boiling settled and simmered.

The Boy with Blue Eyes was writing a story about a boy who ran away from his unruly high school and found refuge in a New York City hotel with a green-eyed prostitute during the blackout of 1977.

The Boy with Blue Eyes reminded Ms. Baker of her younger self. Quiet, friendly, imaginative. When she jockeyed with the class, he would sit at his desk and write. His assignments were always completed on time and done  exceptionally well. In fact, they often took him hours to complete. Not because they were difficult but because he was obsessed with achieving a sort-of written perfection.

Ms. Baker spun to her desk, picked-up a pack of papers, held them to her chest, turned and faced the classroom.

Embarrassment, yes, but it was the end of September, and the classroom was still warm, as if summer was coming and not going. And the streak of sweat that rushed down her spine was a combination of internal and external forces in the classroom.

Ms. Baker moved to his desk and stood before The Boy with Blue Eyes. The classroom roared.

A kid with a marijuana leaf painted on his backpack stuck his head out a window and barked at a squirrel dashing across the courtyard.Two football players arm wrestled in a corner. A group cheered. Someone threw a dollar bill down on the desk. Two girls stood in the back of the classroom by a bookcase lined with dictionaries talked fast like they were in a smoky night club.

Ms. Baker looked down at The Boy with Blue Eyes, smiled and handed him a piece of loose-leaf printed with a recent assignment where he wrote about an innocent Puritan woman accused of witchcraft.

“Nice job! You have a strong writing voice. Keep writing!”

Mrs. Baker smiled, and The Boy with Blue Eyes smiled but before he could respond, sitting behind him was a kid known as Fire Hydrant, who Ms. Baker legitimately feared, and who said things like, “Ms. Baker,  you’re sexy when you’re angry.” Leaned into the ear of The Boy with Blue Eyes and whispered “faggot.”

Ms. Baker is Mrs. Clearly now.

When she married, her and Mr. Clearly moved to Virginia where he still sells insurance and she teaches a little private school where she stills teaches English and supervises the school’s poetry club.

Mrs. Clearly’s classroom is quiet now. She hasn’t screamed or forgotten her bra in years. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at her school. Her skirts are longer now and her words have a seasoned, weighty quality to them. They are clear, direct and poised. Her teaching methods have been featured in education magazines and she facilitates a program for first year teachers in her district.

She tells first year teachers about her first year of teaching. How it is was a daily car crash.

She tells them new teachers get in trouble when they try to over complicate teaching. When they try to do too much, they often forget the fine details, like wearing a bra.

The teachers laugh.

Then Mrs. Clearly sits down and gets serious, almost sad. “I heard Fire Hydrant call The Boy with Blue Eyes a faggot. I saw his bright blue eyes dull to gray. Then, he quietly closed his notebook, put down his pen, and lowered his eyes.” Mrs. Clearly shifts her weight, “I knew he had given up. I should have said something. But I didn’t. I was afraid.”

She tells the teachers she heard Fire Hydrant graduated high school, graduated college, scored a job selling pharmaceuticals, got married and had two sons. “He has a good life. But– but I’m sure he’s ignorant of the damage he caused that day. I guess, from time to time, we’re all guilty of such ignorance.”

The Boy with Blue Eyes stopped turning in writing assignments, his grades dropped. At the end of the first semester he transferred to another school and never saw Fire Hydrant or Ms. Baker again.

The notebook remained closed for almost a half-century, until a doctor found something wrong with the boy’s brain and The Boy with Blue Eyes became The Man with the Hole in his Brain.

Finally, with nothing to lose, he opened the notebook, picked up the pen, and started writing again.

He’s a writer again. His words walk a tightrope of transparency and vulnerability while attempting to maintain a masculine balance. He writes to entertain. He writes to discover truth. He writes to feel strong. He writes to fill the hole in his brain with imagination instead of hopelessness and resentment. He writes secrets he can’t tell his wife. He writes to make his father proud. He writes in case he dies young. He writes so his voice may one day comfort his children when they’re older and far from home. He writes for Ms. Baker/ Mrs. Cleary. For Fire Hydrant. For himself. Because twenty four years ago he gave up on a dream. He let an opinion dry his pen, quiet his voice. When he was a boy he let the critic win.

He now understands how Ms. Baker, Fire Hydrant, and the fictitious boy who ran away from high school to find a green-eyed prostitute in the sitting confidently cross-legged in lobby of the Warwick Hotel in the violent heat of 1977, stitch his story.

He’s thankful now for Ms. Baker’s silence, for Fire Hydrant’s mockery, for a green-eyed prostitute who taught him how to remain still in the cold glare of the critic.

When perspective broadens, gratitude becomes profound.

It took years for the boy’s eyes to light-up a wondrous blue again. Years to pick up the pen and open the notebook.

Years to stare back at the things he was once afraid of.


Checkout Chapter 1 of my serial story “The Man with the Hole in His Brain”

“The man turns back to the mirror. His eyes are deep blue like the child’s.  Below his soft chest,  beats the heart of a child–boundless and wild. A heart that yearns to play outside again. To run, jump, tackle, and swing. To sweat, to bleed, to get dirty again. A heart that is much younger then the body that holds it.”

The answer is not out there.

Many young people think the answer will be found in a magical land known as out there.

They can’t wait to graduate high school, move out of their parent’s house, leave the confines of their hometown behind and get out there.

Older now, I realize the answer is not out there. The answer has always been right here, inside me, wherever I am.

If only we could travel inside ourselves with the same vigor and optimism that we travel to some distant land, hoping to find the answer, we may have saved a lot of time and money.

Be well,

Jay

It’s National Decision Day

May 1st is National Decision Day, the deadline for high school seniors to decide which school they will attend in the fall.

For college-bound seniors this is an important day. It represents the first of many, many major choices and changes they will experience as an adult.

But for those of who are older, whose college years have flipped by like an empty Solo cup, May 1st is still a beautiful day to make a decision.

Life pummels us with decisions.

Some days we lament the mistakes we made.

Some days we are so scared of making choices that we simply refuse to  make them. We procrastinate. We take naps, clean out the pantry, and binge watch Game of Thrones to avoid making a decision.

Whether you’re 17 or 37, May 1st is a great day to make a decision.

A great day to understand our life will be ultimately defined, not so much by our decisions, but by our reaction to the consequences.

Be well,

Jay

Saturdays are for seizing

Someone once told me Saturdays are for sleeping.

At 22 I agreed. At 38,  I couldn’t disagree more.

You aren’t going to work. You aren’t going to school.

You have a few errands to do. Maybe your children have soccer games this afternoon.

Besides that, Saturdays are for seizing.

For seizing all the reading, writing, exercising, eating, fishing, gardening, painting, dancing, and lovemaking you missed during the week.

Except for sleeping.

If you’re properly alive, you will never, ever seize enough sleep.

Be well,

Jay

A Culinary Failure

Warning: This post contains images that might be disturbing for some readers. 

For my 38th birthday, my mom surprised me with a three week subscription to Purple Carrot.

Purple Carrot is a vegan, meal-in-a-box company that delivers-to-your-door all the necessary ingredients for preparing and cooking a nutritious, plant-based meals.

You simply unpack the food from the box, follow the easy 6-step instructions and in 30 to 40 you have a fresh, restaurant quality meal.

When I married my wife I assumed the role of cook.

I learned how to cook a variety of meals, most involving meat: beef sliders, steak fajitas, zesty barbecue chicken, roasted chicken, ham and noodle casserole and rustic pork chops.

(For health reasons, 8 months ago I baptized myself in coconut milk and converted to veganism. My family are not vegans, so most nights I have to cook two dinners– one for them, one for me.)

I stake myself as a good cook. I’m fairly confident in the kitchen. Yet what I do lack in culinary flair, I make up in my ability to uncanny ability to read a recipe.

On this night I attempted to cook Purple Carrot’s “crunchy and lightly-browned” Eggplant Mousakka.

Mousakka is a Greek dish. A casserole layered with eggplant, crushed tomatoes and topped with a creamy tofu spread.

The picture looked delicious. 

I went to work.

I peeled and sliced the eggplant into 12 silver dollars pieces. I then dropped the tufu brick along with finely chopped garlic, smoked paprika, dried oregano, a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper into a blender and blended until it was all one smooth dream.

Next, I browned the eggplant in a hot sea of olive oil. When the eggplant was crisp, I removed the eggplant with a pair of tongs, layered the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish with the eggplant, added a layer of crushed tomatoes, added another layer of eggplant and topped it with a smooth layer of the tofu blend. 

I popped it in the oven, set the timer and waited. 

It smelled good.

Real good. So good that my chicken tender children remarked how good it smelled.

“Dad, it smells like a restaurant in here!”

Twenty minutes later, when the timer sounded, I slipped on an oven mitt,  opened the oven, retrieved the Pyrex dish, removed the foil and found this:

Before anyone could catch a glimpse, I threw the tinfoil back over the Pyrex, cuffed the edges and forced the monstrosity back into the dark oven for another 5 minutes.

For the next 5 minutes I guarded the oven, spatula in hand.

I was there to prevent anyone from looking the big oven window and, god forbid, if the eggplant monster smashed through that big oven window I was there, like a Royal Guardsman, armed and willing to protect my family.  

When the timer sounded, I slid on the oven mitt, removed the dish from the oven, uncuffed the foil and found this:

I tried to convinced myself–“Maybe it tastes better than it looks?”

Because it looked awful. So awful, the kids remarked, “That looks awful.”

I read the recipe out loud and as my index finger drew imaginary lines under each word.

I went outside to the trashcan and fished out the original box the meal came in, looking for an ingredient, the one I clearly forgot to add.  The one that would surely make my Eggplant Moussaka look like the one in the picture.

The box was empty.

I moved back inside, to the kitchen, to the counter, looked down at my eggplant abomination, took a deep breath and concluded that I did something wrong.

I scooped out an eggplant wheel and dropped it on a plate. Feeling the eyes of my family on me, I forked a wedge the eggplant, said a quick prayer and slid it into my mouth.

They watched as I chewed, then swallowed.

“How is it dad? Is it good?”

I ran a napkin across my lips, leveled my eyes and said, “No. It’s awful. It’s really awful kids.”

It’s such a sobering moment, especially for us adults, when our final product fails incredibly short of our imagination.

When we Ziploc creativity, vacuum-seal boldness, tritely follow directions and yet still we fail.

It’s as if everything we learned about achieving success, whether in the kitchen or in life, was suddenly compromised.

I did what I was told, followed the instructions and still I failed. 

And in the end, you can only stand over the kitchen sink, force Dr. Frankenstein’s Eggplant Moussaka down the drain with a kitchen brush, listen to your stomach growl and realize you’re not as good as you once believed.

Be well,

Jay

When Your Child Realizes How Cruel The World Can Be

Hours before my daughter’s 10th birthday I committed murder.

Call me heartless, call me a bastard but since I don’t own a gun or crossbow–I did it with a hammer.

Trust me, I didn’t want to do it. But, as life teaches, sometimes you have to do things you never thought you would do.

I did it minutes before midnight, when I assume most murders are committed.

I did it in the shadows behind my house, near the trashcans. So the body could be easily disposed.

Before dinner, Haley was eyeing the evening news. She stood petrified before the television, like a child summoned to the blackboard trying to solve some hand-scratched equation in front of the entire class.

Haley is coming into her own now, realizing that the vague, glittery conceptions she once held of the world, a world of painted in rainbows, frolicked by unicorns is tragically wrong.

On this given night, a crazy man plowed a van through a crowd of innocent people in Germany.  A deranged woman shot four people at the YouTube headquarters in San Francisco. And President Trump postured behind a podium, promised to build a wall, promised harsh consequences for any uninvited guest who mouses through cracks of our star-spangled foundation.

Haley frowns at the television. Her little fists tighten to little knots. She looks at me, worried, like she wants to ask big, serious questions–Why are so adults narrow-minded? So bitter? So destructive? What, in God’s rainbowed heaven, is fucking wrong with adults?

Later that night I set traps and went for a beer.

With my elbows on the bar, I received the following text from my wife:

“He’s slowly dying. There’s blood everywhere. He’s still making noises.”

The next day morning, as I drove with Haley tucked in the backseat, we held a conversation:

“Dad, last night, you know how the mouse was still alive in the trap…”

“Yes.”

“…how it was squeaking…”

“I know.”

“… well, did you kill it?”

A child’s youth passes uncomfortably fast for a parent.

Sometimes it’s hard to look at my daughter, like I’m keeping a secret from her. I realize she toes the most difficult years of her life. I know she’ll soon be run off her feet by cruelty– the human cruelty that is the star of the nightly news.

The cruelty that a hammer and I are capable of.

“Yes, Haley. I killed the mouse.”

“Why? He was just a little mouse.”

I eyed Haley through the rear-view mirror. She turned away from me, brought her knees up to her chest and looked beyond her window to find a world scrubbed of glitter, void of unicorns and fanged with adults poised to do monstrous things.

Be well,

Jay

The Air Max 90 (Or The First Time I Learned About Envy)

This week’s publication is dedicated to my friend and fellow writer Deb Dauer, who recently passed away from complications caused by ALS. 

Although my time with Deb was brief, she taught me to live, to write with courage and spirit and that true happiness can only be found in the connections you make. 

Thank you and be well my friend. 

What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.—Deb Dauer 


At 10 years old I learned about envy.

It was 1990 and Nike had just released the Air Max 90 sneaker.

To the uniformed catholic school boys, sporting navy blue slacks, yellow dress shirts, navy blue ties all accented with black pleather shoes, which were sold exclusively at a local mom-and-pop shoe store that resembled a shoe museum rather then a working shoe store, fashion-wise—gym class was a big deal.

A pre-adolescent parade of parent-bought sneakers.

In a corner of the gym, a gym which was actually an oversized classroom,  stood a loose ring of cool boys— all wearing Air Max 90s.

They were fingering their soles, the soles with the little plastic window that might have been windows into their young souls because the boys were outwardly happy—laughing and smiling and worshiping the Made-in-China-Manna stitched with a Swoosh, that fell from Heaven and slid onto their feet.

Picture courtesy of soletheory.com

Across the gym/classroom I stood on my assigned red dot, alone, staring down at my  pedestrian sneakers.

I felt something sour inside. A sudden smallness. An inferiority.  A failure to appreciate what I had.

 It had nothing to do with running faster or jumping higher.

The Nike Air Max 90s were cool. And at 10 years old, I was learning the world was cruelly split into two— the cool and the uncool.

At 38, as a parent and writer I’m constantly comparing myself to others.

Which makes me feel like I’m in gym class all over again—standing outside the circle of well-laced people, hoping for inclusion.

Let me be clear—comparison is not a healthy practice. Comparison will always prevent you from discovering and maintaining lasting happiness.

I teach my children and my students that envy is a corrosive emotion. A cancer that will always lead to dissatisfaction which often trigger destructive behavior. Yet I’m guilty of envy, of comparisons.

I told you last week I meet a young woman who was an aspiring fitness blogger.

She had a defined blogging niche and a growing audience. She was 15 years younger than me, had been writing for only a few months and spoke with a confidence and coolness that I was envious of.

After she pulled from our conversation, waited at the bar for another Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but feeling like I was back standing on my red dot in gym class, looking down at my unbranded sneakers, feeling small again.

I know self-inflicted comparisons hurt. Yet this knowledge doesn’t stop me.

Like knowing too much tequila triggers  nuclear hangovers and liver disease and bad decisions yet still we fasten our sombrero, throw caution to the wind and drink more than we should.

A year later, in 1991, Nike released the Air Max 91. When my neighbor got the Air Max 91s, I bought his Air Max 90s for $20.

I remember how that night I went home and tried out my new/old shoes in the backyard.

The Air Maxs didn’t make me run faster or jump higher. I didn’t feel cooler or happier with them on my feet. It fact, I was uncomfortable. The shoes were a size too big and insoles were molded to the topography of my neighbor’s feet.

As a father and writing teacher, I want my children and students to be authentic and honest with themselves. Be affable to their dreams. Invest in their uniqueness and voice.

I want them to know no matter what products the world flexes on them, no matter the level of success their competition achieves, sustained happiness is purely a product of authenticity.

Now, like an adult, it’s my responsibility to heed my own advice.

Be well.

Jay