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.
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.
And with official entrance into the late-thirties rodeo, I’ve finally gained enough confidence to admit –I’m lost.
A few weeks ago at a party, I fell into a conversation with a young woman who recently graduated from college. A mutual friend introduce me as a “writer” and informed me that young woman had started a blog.
“A blog. That’s great.What do you write about?”
“Thanks,” she smiled and nodded, “It’s a fitnesss blog. I’m currently training for my third full marathon and I’ve always enjoyed writing. I feel now I have some experience and knowledge to share with the young adult fitness niche.”
“So, what do you write?”
I smiled, “Words.”
Not amused, she pressed, “Seriously, what do you write? What’s your niche?”
Niche is a popular word in the modern writing community. Niche is your area of specialization–fitness, parenting, politics, education, drunken knittting.
The internet affords anyone the ability to start a blog and write on absolutely any subject. And any modern writing tutorial will explain the importance of having a clearly defined niche–especially in the hyper-competive internet age.
Write well about a specific subject, write well for a specific audience,and over time you’ll achieve success.
“I write stories. Mostly personal stories, about… well about a lot subjects.”
“How long have you been writing?”
“Everyday for two years. And I’ve published at least one story each week over that time.”
She took a sip of her Pinot Grigio, “Cool. So…what’s your niche?”
I hesitated, did a quick inventory of the everything I’ve written and said, “You know, I don’t know my niche. I guess…I guess, I’m lost.”
Over the past calendar year, I have explored a variety of subjects.
Below you will find 13 excerpts from stories I have written over the last year.
Each on a different niche, each furthering my lostness.
In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another.
It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.
A chronically sick man (me) whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.
And yet she still takes notes.
As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.
Young men, like the gods we dress ourselves up to be, often believe we are the sole creators of our success and happiness. So we distance ourselves from others.
We forge fantasies.
We mask our unhappiness and insecurity with false bravado and empty dreams. We puff out our chest, turn our hat backwards and pretend we’re in control of our life and that fate is just a motif found in ancient Greek theater.
“Do you have any advice on how to cross a threshold?”
“Crossing a threshold is often mental. The initial fear of just transitioning from one place to the next often prevents us from progression. But when you find the nerve to finally cross, you realize there was nothing to fear at all. ”
I stood up, shook his hand, said I was looking forward to seeing him in six months. He smiled, spun away, opened the door and disappeared.
I slipped on my coat and strode through the threshold, from the examination room into the hall and back into life.
A life born of thresholds, waiting patiently for us to simply brave up and cross.
Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.
There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.
In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.
This is not to shut you out.
I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.
In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.
Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.
Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.
You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.
But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.
When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.
You can’t be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Show gratitude and you’ll find happiness.
Chase (my 7 year old son )and Deb (my friend with ALS) confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.
Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?
And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.
Because real, lasting happiness requires you to do uncomfortable things. Let go. Give up. Be honest. Move on. Admit flaws. Admit mistakes. Accept judgment.
“It was nice meeting you,” the young woman smiled, moved to the bar, poured another Pinot Grigio and struck up a conversation with a young woman holding a plate of pita chips.
I don’t have a niche.
I’m not a blogger. I’m not concerned with SEO or affiliate links or popular trends. I’m not here to tell you about 5 easy ways to find romance or 3 foods you must eat before lunch or how to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
And I’m not a fiction writer either. I do not have the patience and imagination to create new worlds for invented characters to get drunk in, have sex in, slay dragons, rob banks, bypass time, build robots, dismantle bombs, dismantle children, befriend tigers and on one fateful afternoon, get shot and tumble into lifelessly into a swimming pool.
I’m 38 now– eight years too old to lie to myself.
I’m lost. I don’t have a niche.
All I have are my experiences, my voice, my conviction to write as truthfully as I can and a growing desire to be found.
This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.
Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.
But such is the writing life.
When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.
Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.
When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.
But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.
The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.
Here’s What I’ve Learned
I’ve learned writers are architects.
We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.
We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.
I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.
I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.
There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.
I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.
However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.
If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today, here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.
This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.
The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.
The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.
The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.
Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.
The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.
The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.
The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.
The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.
She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.
And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.
This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.
Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.
PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.
Like I told you, I always knew I would marry Cindy. Just one look and I knew with bone-certainty it was love. Soul mates. Kindred spirits. Whatever you want to call us, I always knew we were fated to be together, build a life together.
However, there’s been a problem swirling in human DNA since the reign of the ancient Greeks. When Oedipus challenged fate, lost, and naturally, carved his eyes out.
It’s an inherited belief that with a certain mix of age and experience we think we’re strong enough, smart enough, and tough enough to best fate.
During my senior year of college, I read Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the first time. His images of the unfurling freedom waiting for him out on the glinting asphalt of the open road were intoxicating.
At the same time I also realized I wanted to be a writer.
Drinking beer, listening to Pink Floyd, I fancied images of heading west, attending grad school in some big university, rubbing elbows with famous writers, moving to a big city, leasing an overpriced one-bedroom loft and scoring a job as a sports journalist.
I knew I wanted a writing life. But I thought I wanted a writing life on the road. A life to offer me the excitement that my current life lacked.
I felt confined. Trapped by my small private college, my hometown and everyone in it. Including Cindy.
I thought I wanted more.
I’m not proud of myself.
I remember, as I entertained a sports journalism life, how much of an asshole I was to Cindy. How reckless I was with our relationship.
As she sat on her bed in her dorm room, white Christmas lights snaking across the joint of wall and ceiling, I told her she was holding me back.
Young men, like the gods we dress ourselves up to be, often believe we are the sole creators of our success and happiness. So we distance ourselves from others. We forge fantasies. We mask our unhappiness and insecurity with false bravado and empty dreams. We puff out our chest, turn our hat backwards and pretend we’re in control of our life and that fate is just a motif found in ancient Greek theater.
I yelled at Cindy.
I told her after graduation I was heading west. I was going to be a sports journalist. I wanted a life on the road, going to games, sleeping in hotels and writing stories. So I invented a life that a 22 year old man would likely invent for himself. Exciting, mobile, and bursting with possibilities.
When I told her to let me go she sat on the edge of the bed and cried.
When I told her it was over she protested and I grew angry and stormed out of her room and marched down to my dorm and got drunk with Pink Floyd.
When you get a chance, I highly recommend reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.
It’s by far the most soul-cleansing book I have ever read.
Early in the novel the alchemist explains to a young shepard, Santiago, that all people are born with a Personal Legend.
That your Personal Legend is your destiny. It’s the person you were born to be.
According to Coelho, children are very much aware of their Personal Legend. Whether it’s writing, painting, fixing, building, singing or rodeo clowning children know, even if they lack the ability to explain it, that by pursuing their Personal Legend they will reach spiritual enlightenment and earthy happiness.
But we grow up.
And not in a good way.
We question our Personal Legend. Our passions turns bitter. We start to value opinions over the intrinsic truths that were once as tangible as flesh.
We adopt shiny, plastic notions of happiness because they are easy to assemble and sell at cocktail parties.
We distance ourselves from our Personal Legend, leave it behind like a broken Chevy on the side of the open road and sink into a life we will soon come to despise.
Many years ago I was reckless with my relationship with Cindy. Too scared to accept my Personal Legend. Too self-adsorbed to recognize that Cindy and I share the same Personal Legend.
Thankfully, she was not.
Sometimes she’ll read my work and laugh. Sometimes she’ll cry. Sometimes she’ll, as Springsteen once wrote, “laugh and cry in a single sound.”
Sometimes she’s quiet. Sometime she hugs me and smiles. A smile that reminds me of what I have and what I almost lost.
It’s evening and I’m writing this at our kitchen table. The table is strewn with the kid’s homework and half-filled cups and credit card bills and it’s marked with a splatter of forgotten spaghetti sauce that is beginning to harden.
There’s nothing exciting about scene. It’s painfully pedestrian. Epically suburban. It’s the complete opposite of where I wanted to be when I was 22.
Even though Dina, the girl who always wore sleeves, has been a student in my class since September, I really meet her for the first time last week on a cold, January morning.
On January 18th I facilitated my 5th Write-a-Thon for my students. The Write-a-Thon is a voluntary, two-hour writing event where students are allowed to write on any topic, in any genre they wish.
It’s an event designed to encourage teenagers to express themselves, discover their voice and tell their story in a welcoming, enjoyable environment free of the judgments and the awkwardness that define high school.
Halfway through the event, during the 15 minute intermission, I like to catch up with some of the students to see how they’re doing and hear what they’re writing about.
So I started a conversation with Dina. The girl who often came into class early, reading some YA title as she waited for me to start the day’s lesson. The girl who sat in the front row and sometimes traded smiles with Paul, who sat across the room, when the lesson became boring. The girl I hardly knew.
But when my conversation with Dina was over, I was left humbled and inspired and thankful I finally got to meet her.
Write about your pain
For a long time I believed that I hadn’t suffered enough to be a writer.
I was never a drug addict, never traversed the Iditarod Trail, never abducted by aliens.
I felt I was to pedestrian to be a writer.
As twisted and as selfish as it sounds,the writer in me secretly wished something bad would happen so I had some real material worth writing about. (As if living is not suffering enough.)
Real writers, I thought, suffered romantically, cinematically. Their addictions and tribulations spawned our favorite books and movies.
I felt that until I suffered hard I would always be short on material.
Then something happened.
I got sick. And my sickness caused brain damage. And my brain damage stole my coordination and blurred my vision. I was told I would spend my life in popping steroids to temper my chronic pain. I was told my I could lose my sight, my ability to speak at any time. I was told I was destined to suffer.
Congratulations– I guess. I got what I wished for.
I, an average middle-class white kid from the sprawling lawns of suburbia, finally had something worth writing about.
A few days before the Write-a-Thon I read a personal narrative Dina wrote for a class assignment that made me want to talk to her.
So during the intermission I told her how much I enjoyed her writing. How her writing has a maturity, a grit and gravity that I rarely read in student writing. How I admired her ability to write so openly about her depression.
As the other students ate bagels and talked, Dina sat down in a chair alongside my desk. I remember it was unseasonably warm. I had my sleeves bunched about my elbows. But Dina’s sleeves were ringed around her wrists. Where they could usually be found.
I asked Dina if writing was an outlet for her. A place to go to find strength, to find peace.
She gave me a half smile, looked down and sat quietly. Then she held her index against the corner of her eye as if she was holding something in.
Then she took a deep breath, removed her finger, leveled her eyes into mine and let this out:
“I was taken from my mom when I was two. I’ve lived in seven different foster homes. I’ve seen a lot. Been through a lot. Which has made me a really distant, a really closed-off person. When things got bad I use to self-mutilate. You know, cut myself. But I write now. Writing takes the pain away. Writing is where I go when I want to cut myself.”
Where there’s a scar, there’s a story
Pain is a fine place to begin your writing. But you can’t end with pain. You must use your pain as a means of finding a higher purpose.
I cleared my throat, found my voice and asked Dina what her plans were after she graduated high school?
Without acknowledging the scars that run like railroad tracks underneath her sleeves, along the underside of her forearms, without considering the nights she was forced to sleep on a basement floor of drug infested foster house, without recalling the time she watched her one foster dad stab her one foster mom with a fork over and over and over again until the kitchen floor pooled with blood she smiled and said, “I want to be a social worker. I want to help foster kids the way I wished somebody would have helped me”
When the students began the second writing session I felt embarrassed that it took me so long to meet Dina and hear her story.
At 17, Dina already believed in her pain. She knew it was the pain that helped her find purpose. And she knew it was her responsibility to tell her story, to share her pain so that others may find their own reasons to believe and that she could find the peace she was looking for.
As the students wrote, I began writing this story. Humbled and a bit unnerved that I, their teacher, had so much more to learn.
(Please Note–The student’s name in this story has been changed.)