Tuesday, April 28, 2015

While Baltimore Burns

As I mature, I'm learning that multiple propositions can be true at the same time. That most issues aren't either or. They're usually both and. As I watched Baltimore burn both literally and figuratively, I devoured media coverage and social media responses. (I'm a Communication professor. It's my job. Or something like that.)

From nearly everyone, I noticed either or thinking. Trying to blame one side or the other. Very little gray. Very little nuanced thought. But I believe the truth is far more complex than cable "news" commentators and social media "scholars" will have you believe. For example:

People in power shouldn't oppress those without power. It's morally wrong and disgusting. Rich, white, conservative, heterosexual, Christian men in the United States have created a system in which minorities feel compelled to lash out. And I'm not sure I blame them for lashing out. I get upset when something petty doesn't go my way amidst a lifetime of privilege. Imagine how angry I'd be if the entire system was designed to work against me! It's pretty easy sitting on top of the mountain. Imagine spending your entire life (and multiple generations) trying to claw your way up that mountain only to get knocked off over and over again?

And …

Oppressed minorities shouldn't break the law. There are better ways to overcome oppression. African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, Muslims, and various immigrants have all been oppressed in this country. Rich, white, conservative, heterosexual, Christian men have traditionally been equal-opportunity oppressors. But not everyone turns to crime. Many get educated, work hard, and inch their way to the top (or as close to the top as the rich, white folks on the mountain's peak will allow them). It will always be easier for some than others, but purposeless crime is never the answer.

And …

Police officers shouldn't target oppressed minorities with deadly force. Breaking the law doesn't automatically equal a death sentence in this country. I would never want to be a cop. The job seems incredibly dangerous and shockingly thankless. I have no idea how it would feel to deal with criminals on a daily basis, many of whom want to kill you. Most cops are good human beings who do their jobs well, but police should never shoot a man in the back as he's running away, or illegally put a suspect in a choke hold, or break a man's spine while he's in custody, and on and on. It shouldn't happen. It's not okay. And no, criminals don't deserve it. In fact, we're all criminals. If you speed, you've broken the law. If you get shot by the cop who pulled you over for speeding, you didn't deserve to die. You weren't asking for it. Punishment should always fit the crime.

And …

There's a fine line between protesting and rioting, but no one should ever loot, especially when that looting only damages your own community. There is no excuse or justification for members of a community destroying the small businesses in that community. None. Zero. Hardworking black men and women are losing their livelihoods in Baltimore because looters are reacting without purpose or reason. It breaks my heart to see it.

And …

Media coverage is designed to attract viewers and generate advertising revenue. It's all biased, all distorted, all designed to exploit victims. I watched coverage on CNN and Fox News last night and wanted to puke.

All of those are true, right? Only shouting one truth while ignoring the others doesn't help. It only divides, angers, and creates more problems.

Where are the thoughtful people? Where are the people who aren't manipulating others in order to position their political party for the 2016 presidential election? Where are the people who desire real change? Real equality? Where are the people who actually give a damn about other human beings, instead of just playing a game to further their own "brand?" We need those people to step up. To dialogue. To take thoughtful action. To make the world a better place for every human being, regardless of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Our Dog Almost Died Last Week

For years, we've given our dog small rawhide Dingo bones every night while we eat dinner. They occupy her for a few minutes so we can scarf down our food without incessant begging. Because our dog is a glutton, she has a habit of swallowing the bones before fully chewing them. That's what she did last Thursday night, swallowing the end of a rawhide bone that became lodged in her throat.

I felt like I was in a movie.

Cue choking dog.

She kept trying to throw up the bone, but couldn't. She wheezed and tried to run away from us. At one point, she ran into her crate (a place she never goes voluntarily).

Cue hysterical wife.

My wife loves our dog. Probably more than she loves me. For a million reasons that any pet-lover understands, Fiona is like our child. Especially since we don't have children. Needless to say, my wife flipped out. When Fiona ran into her crate, my wife shouted, "She's going in there to die!" I called the emergency vet; the woman who answered the phone told me to bring her in. So we ran to our car.

Cue torrential downpour.

It's been thunderstorming in Cincinnati for what feels like decades now. Last Thursday was no exception. The minute we pulled out of our garage, the skies opened up and we were caught in a monsoon. I could barely see five feet in front of me as I sped north on Interstate 71. I almost wrecked a handful of times as my wife shouted for me to drive faster.

Cue dying dog.

Fiona was in real trouble in the car. It was obvious the bone was stuck in her throat. She could still breathe, but it was in gasping breaths. She didn't understand what was happening, which made her panic. She's an anxious dog to begin with, and losing the ability to breathe wasn't calming her down. For most of the car ride, I honestly thought she was going to pass out and die in my wife's arms (if we didn't hydroplane off the road first).

Cue dying phone.

It just so happened that my phone was at 7% when we left our home, and Google Maps was draining the battery fast. And, just to make the night a little more fun, my wife ran out of the house in such a hurry that she forgot her phone. So, one phone, its battery nearly drained, and we had no idea where we were going.

Cue being lost.

The emergency vet I Googled was 25 minutes north. My wife was convinced there was one closer on Red Bank Road. We had never been to any emergency vet before, so we weren't sure where to go. As we approached the Red Bank Road exit, my wife pleaded with me to take it. I did. Immediately after, we found MedVet on Google Maps. My phone was now at 2%.

Cue the passing of the storm.

It all seemed to happen at once. The rain stopped. The bone finally dislodged itself and Fiona was panting heavily, but her breathing had returned to normal. We pulled into the emergency vet's parking lot. We sat there for a minute and debated whether or not we should go in. We finally did because if we didn't, and something happened to Fiona that night, we didn't want to live with that regret. She checked out just fine, and she's currently barking at another thunderstorm as I type these words.

Cue the lesson learned.

I have no idea why we all take life for granted the way we do. I suppose our brains just can't fully grasp how quickly it all can end. One minute we're chewing on a bone. The next we're gasping for breath. It feels like we're going to live forever, but we know that our time is limited. For some reason, even armed with the understanding that it can all be taken away at any moment, we still spend a large chunk of our lives angry, or sad, or afraid.

Maybe someday we'll figure it out. Maybe not. But for now, I'm going to practice making each moment count, starting with this one.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Why Baseball Is More Than Just a Game

Whenever people talk about their favorite sports these days, you often hear football. Sometimes basketball. Soccer's popularity is growing in the United States. Rarely do you hear baseball anymore. But baseball was my first love, and I have a suspicion it always will be my truest love.

I understand why football is popular. I like the action (although studies show that there's only 11 minutes—out of 3+ hours—of actual "play" during an NFL game. The rest is spent calling plays, lining up players, attending to injuries, and watching replays). I also like the pace of basketball games. College basketball is just over two hours. That's way better than 4-hour college football games.

I also understand why people criticize baseball. There's probably too much standing around, spitting, and cup adjustments for the average sports fan. But baseball has always been about more than just the game. Baseball is art. And more importantly, baseball is a time machine.

James Earl Jones says it best in Field of Dreams:

They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past … They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces … The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.

Not everyone has the same childhood, of course, but mine consisted of Knothole baseball games at Aicholtz Field in Cincinnati. It consisted of watching afternoon Cubs games on WGN after getting home from school. Of driving downtown with my dad to watch Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Dave Parker, and Eric Davis play at Riverfront Stadium. My favorite number is still 5 because that was Johnny Bench's number. And my number for the Mt. Carmel Fireballs.

My childhood consisted of playing whiffleball against my brother in our front yard. Of sneaking the radio into my room after bedtime to listen to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall call Reds-Dodgers games. Of collecting baseball cards and chewing the rock-hard sticks of bubble gum like it was my job.

Today is Opening Day in Cincinnati. No city on Earth celebrates the beginning of a new baseball season like the Queen City. The Reds were the first professional baseball team, and 5 World Series titles later, we're still one of the best franchises in history (only 6 teams have more championships). There will be a parade. There will be hundreds of thousands of fans downtown. There will be hot dogs and beers. Sooooo many beers.

And it all brings back wonderful memories. Memories of a better life, when there wasn't so much to do. So many responsibilities. So many heartbreaks. It all just seemed better back then.

If you don't get it, that's okay. Lots of people don't. I don't get soccer or the Kardashians, but it's okay if you do.

I wonder how much of life is like this. People not getting the things that make other people's hearts sing, so instead of trying to understand (or quietly going about their day), they mock. They ridicule. They don't understand, so they destroy. I wonder if we'd all get along a little better if we took the time to hear the melodies of one another's singing hearts.

Oh, and Go Reds!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Listening, Learning & Extending Grace

I'm a bit of a voyeur. Not the creepy kind that gets arrested outside your house. The kind that's (legally) fascinated by people. I'm a Communication professor at the University of Cincinnati, and when asked why I chose that field, my answer is always the same. Originally, I wanted to be an anchor on SportsCenter, but after taking a few classes, I realized Communication was a field in which I could be a non-incarcerated voyeur for the rest of my life. I love studying people—their behaviors, word choices, relationships, nonverbal communication. It's probably why I obsessed over reality television way back when Survivor first aired. (What year was that? 1962? Feels like it.) And why I still watch shows like The Bachelor, Big Brother, and Food Network Star even though they can be ridiculous at times. They're "real" people reacting to "real" circumstances. (Don't worry, I know a lot of it is scripted and staged; there's a reason I put real in quotation marks.)

This brings me to Wednesday night, February 18. An arctic front blasted Cincinnati that week, resulting in lots of snow, frigid temperatures, and a full week of school closings and delays. The University of Cincinnati's president is very active on social media (he's tweeted almost 35,000 times; for perspective, I feel like I tweet a lot, and I'm just over 9,000 tweets). Students love his engagement, but it also opens him up to thousands of Millennials (the name for this generation of students) demanding snow days (even when it's not snowing). They tweet their pleas, and because I'm a voyeur who finds most of them funny, I often read through President Ono's timeline on Snowmageddon Eve.

That's exactly what I was doing Wednesday, February 18 when a theme began to emerge. But it had nothing to do with the Snowpocalypse. Many students were tweeting President Ono about a photograph he re-posted on Facebook.

The Cincinnati Bearcats played the Xavier Musketeers that Wednesday night in our intercity basketball rivalry known as the Crosstown Shootout. Our school colors at UC are red and black. For the game, one of our students painted his face red and black. Specifically, his face was painted black and his beard was painted red. President Ono re-posted a photograph of that student on Facebook to celebrate school pride. That's when the backlash began. Many students criticized Ono for promoting a student dressed up in blackface for the game. They claimed it was racially insensitive.

In case you don't know what blackface is, feel free to Google images, but to sum up, it's when white people painted their faces black to portray African Americans in the theater. And almost always, the character would depict African Americans as insensitive stereotypes. A truly awful and insulting form of "art" no matter what century you're living in.

I'm going to be honest here. My first reaction to the backlash was, "This is ridiculous. The kid is just showing school pride. Everyone needs to relax. Red and black are our school colors. What are students supposed to do? Why does everyone have to overreact about everything these days?"

Being the voyeur Communication scholar I am, I was hooked. I read every tweet. I studied the profiles of everyone tweeting. I wanted to know more.

And then the debates began. Others (mostly white students and alums) found these tweets, and they began to tweet back. Some of them were saying the exact things I was thinking (some of them weren't). Then the replies to the replies came. And so it went for hours. The next day, President Ono released a well-written apology, and my guess is that a meaningful dialogue will result from the incident.

Since then, I've spent a lot time thinking about what happened. And here's where I've landed: We all need to spend more time listening and learning.

I'm not trying to earn a gold star here, but I'm socially liberal (which would earn me a detention from some of you). I spend a lot of time speaking out for the oppressed. I've done it in my classrooms. I've done it online. I've done it behind closed doors. I know I've experienced white privilege my entire life. That doesn't mean I haven't worked hard to get where I am, it just means that I'm reaping the benefits of a system that has been rigged in my favor for hundreds of years. I get frustrated with old, rich, white, straight men who believe the only way to stay on top of the mountain is to knock everyone else off.

And, with all of that said, I have a lot to learn.

Instead of taking time to understand, I immediately jumped to conclusions. Instead of listening, I wanted to talk. Give my opinion. Tell everyone else how they're wrong and I'm right (I have that urge a lot).

I wasn't all wrong, of course. Neither side of an issue ever is (unless you eat ham instead of turkey on Thanksgiving; that's 100% wrong). And every side of every issue is filled with flawed human beings who are almost always a mixed bag of motives. Some people just want attention. Or retweets. Or website hits. The reality is that I'm a mixed bag of motives too, and writing this post is evidence of that.

But part of my mixed bag is the desire to help create a better world where all people are loved and respected. And, frankly, for me, that means fighting for and with people who have been oppressed for a very long time. Oppressed by people who look just like me. Not everyone shares that desire. But everyone has a responsibility to listen and learn. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep my ears and mind open about issues I don't fully understand because education is our only hope.

But, here's what I would like to say to the people currently fighting for equality. I realize I have no right to ask for this, but I'm going to ask anyway because I think it could help. Please have patience with me. Please have patience with the people who want to do the right thing, but aren't always sure how.

When I was in my early 20's, I probably made a lot of insensitive gay jokes. Because that's the world I grew up in. But then I opened my ears and mind, and I changed. As many of you know, I've spoken up about gay rights for almost a decade now. Even when that stance cost me. Because it was right. And it still is, so I'll keep speaking up.

But 22-year-old Steve wouldn't have said a peep. He might have even been part of the problem.

I bet this time last year I made insensitive jokes about transgender people. Because I didn't understand. I'm not saying ignorance is a good excuse, but it was my reality at the time. And then a transgender woman began writing for Rebel Storytellers, the organization that hosted my podcast. I met Paula. I got to know her. And everything changed.

The world is changing very quickly, and unfortunately, some of us are having a hard time keeping up. There's language I've used my whole life that was never considered insensitive that I can no longer use. Jokes that were perfectly fine five years ago that could probably get me fired today. Ultimately, these cultural changes are for the best because we're learning to value all people. But people like me need a shred of grace. Not because we deserve it, because we don't. That's not how grace works. No one deserves it; I just know that grace changes lives. The more that everyone on this planet is willing to extend just a little bit of grace, the faster change will happen. I'm convinced of that.

No one is perfect. We're all going to make mistakes. If a person is moving in the direction of hatred, insensitivity, and judgement, I say, fine, have at 'em. I have very little patience for people who want to make the world worse for others. But if an imperfect person is moving in the direction of love, compassion, kindness, and goodwill for all, let's treat one another as allies, because it will take a diverse group of passionate, like-minded activists to change the world.

Or maybe I'm wrong about everything I've written. If I am, please extend me that shred of grace. If you do, I promise to keep my ears and mind open.

Monday, March 2, 2015

What "The Dress" Can Teach Us About Life

If you inhabit planet Earth, you probably know about The Dress. Last Thursday, someone posted a picture of an inconspicuous dress online.

Half of the world saw a black and blue dress and the other half saw white and gold. For the record, I saw a black and blue dress my first 8 million viewings, then it magically turned to white and gold for like 10 seconds, and I've seen black and blue ever since. What's really bizarre is that I saw the same exact picture as black and blue, then white and gold, then black and blue.

A million articles have been written about the science behind the dress, so feel free to Google those if you're interested. I'm going to take a more philosophical approach here.

I think The Dress symbolizes something much deeper.

The dress is real. That dress actually exists. You can buy it.

But our perception of the dress is influenced by our unique lenses. Some people optically see black and blue. Others see white and gold.

What happened on social media was fascinating. People obsessed about the dress. People argued about the dress. People lashed out about the dress. At one point, I tweeted, "I'm literally getting angry at anyone who tweets the dress is white and gold." That tweet got 18 favorites, so I clearly wasn't alone. All because our perception of the dress was the only one we could understand. All because we couldn't see through other people's lenses.

Can two seemingly contradictory things be true at once? Could the same dress have been black and blue to some people and white and gold to others? Heck, can three things be true at once? Or ten? Or a hundred?

I wonder if there are any lessons to be learned about politics here? Or perhaps faith?

I wonder if there is a God, and if different people use different lenses to experience that God, and if no one is necessarily right or wrong, but instead, our lenses are simply different?

When someone else sees God differently, we get angry and defensive. We lash out and call people names. Why? Maybe we feel insecure. When lots of people were seeing white and gold, I felt like I was going crazy. How could you see white and gold when it's clearly black and blue? Am I nuts? Is my eyesight screwed up?

Sounds a lot like, How could you think God is (fill in the blank) when he is clearly (fill in the blank)? Am I nuts? Is my worldview/religion/life screwed up?

Ultimately, with either scenario, it's easier to stand your ground. Double down on what you can see. Discredit others in order to justify your personal experiences.

I've entered a season of life where I'm learning to not just keep my own eyes open, but to also try (in what limited way I can) to see the world through others' eyes. At the very least, I'm going to keep my ears open, because if I can't see the world the way others see it, I can at least listen to their stories of what it's like to be them. For now, maybe that's enough. It's at least a good start.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Be a Beacon of Hope

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." This is my attempt to break the silence.

A transgender teen named Leelah Alcorn (who lived just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio) killed herself on December 28, leaving behind an online suicide note that begins, "Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would've lived isn't worth living in … because I’m transgender." I originally planned to link to her suicide note, but Leelah's parents had it deleted from Tumblr. Luckily, before its removal, I pasted a large chunk of it here:
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.

I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.

So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
I'm not going to pretend I know what it's like to struggle with gender identity. Nor will I pretend to understand how difficult it must be to parent a transgender teen. Of course it's a challenge. And I won't even begin to fathom how devastating it must be to lose a child. Just heartbreaking.

But I believe Leelah's suicide can serve as a wake-up call for millions of people around the world. In the midst of this tragic loss, my question is this: Aren't goodhearted Christians tired of seeing others (especially young boys and girls) struggle to be accepted? How many suicides will it take before we stop and listen to their cries for equality? How many lives ruined before we reconsider our position?

I understand how—if you feel like someone's behavior is destructive—a loving act would be to help him stop that behavior. If my friend is addicted to smoking crack, the loving choice would be to help him put down the pipe, not accept him for the crack-smoker he's become. But if your version of love leads to a teenager's suicide, that analogy begins to break down. Maybe "tough love," or an "intervention" isn't always the most loving response.

I'm not asking everyone to change overnight. All I'm asking is this: Be open to dialogue. Get to know people misunderstood by society. You might be surprised how similar you are. For those of you who share my desire to see the oppressed set free, it's time to speak up. Stop playing it safe. Life's too short. Someone you care about might be struggling right now. You could be his or her beacon of hope. Life's seas are so dark and so treacherous for so many people—why not provide safe passage? Why not be the one to offer safe harbor?

Elie Wiesel wrote, "I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Amen.

I'm honored to know Paula Stone Williams. If you haven't read any of Paula's work, you're missing out. She's brilliant (and one of my favorite writers). Paula is also transgender. If you want to learn more about her experiences, check out Paula's blog here.

I'm also inviting you to read Paula's recent post here. If nothing else, that could be your starting point. Education is a good thing, and everyone—including myself—can learn something from her story.

If you've landed on this page, and you're struggling to accept your unique, wonderful self, please know that people care. People are fighting for you. Don't hesitate to reach out for help: Visit www.thetrevorproject.org or call 1-866-488-7386 to speak to a trained counselor.

May we all find the courage to live free as our true selves. Rest in peace, Leelah.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Gift of Perseverance

When I was a teenager, my sister and I would drive to a tree farm and cut down our own Christmas trees. One for her house. One for my parents' house. We didn't make the trip every year, but we did it enough that I became fond of the tradition.

When my ex-girlfriend and I started dating back in 2002, we thought it would be fun to drive out to that same farm and cut down a live tree.

We were wrong.

On our way east, a parade completely shut down Route 125, leading to a detour, and the detour was so backed up that we sat in traffic for almost 3 hours. The drive was only 30 miles. That's an average of 10 miles per hour and 5 rage fits per minute.

We finally arrived shortly before closing, and for some reason, I thought a butter knife would be sufficient for cutting through the trunk of a pine tree. I was sadly mistaken. Okay, so it wasn't a butter knife, but the saw I used had the dullest blade ever. My Dollar Shave Club (tell them Steve sent you) razor would have been a better choice.

The farm was closing soon, so I sawed, and sawed, and sawed with all my heart. After (what felt like) three months of sawing, our tree finally fell to the ground. The muddy ground. Did I forget to mention it was unseasonably warm that day, it had rained the night before, and we were walking through mud puddles the entire afternoon?

We were already having a miserable day, so we escaped tree hell as soon as possible. No hayride. No hot chocolate. No Christmas caroling. None of the reasons that actually made the excursion fun. Instead, muddy feet in my car, our tree tied to the roof, and two annoyed people sitting in silence.

We got back to my apartment and realized the tree wouldn't stay vertical because I had expertly sawed the trunk at an angle, and the tree stand kept tipping over. So, I started sawing again … with that same dull blade, and I was literally making zero progress. Not exaggerating here—I sawed for an hour and the trunk had a mark the size of a paper cut. I was so frustrated and, predictably, taking my anger out on my ex. We finally drove to the store and bought a new saw. Amazing how much easier it is to saw through wood with a sharp blade.

A few minutes later, our tree was ready to be decorated.

And decorate, we did. Dozens of ornaments, hundreds of lights, and, of course, the star on top. After a very long day, our tree was finally finished (and looking exquisite). As we sat and basked in its beauty, the damn tree fell over. Sap-filled water went everywhere, ornaments broke (including an ornament that had been passed down in my ex's family for a long time), and pine needles invaded my carpet like an army of skinny, green demons.

I snapped and vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

In 2005, I was living with approximately ten friends at the Riddle House (long story involving a lot of animal sacrifices and group showers), and when Christmas rolled around, Aaron (the patriarch) and I went shopping for a tree. After checking a couple of places, we ended up at a lot in Hyde Park. We found the perfect tree, and while Aaron was finalizing the purchase, I noticed a cat hanging around the nearby house. It looked like a nice cat, so I reached down and started petting it. After a couple of minutes the cat decided it was tired of my affection and chose to bite the hell out of me. The dude selling the trees was like, "Hey, that wasn't very nice." I said it wasn't a big deal, that my family cat did the same thing all the time. And then he replied, "Oh, it's not even our cat; it just kinda hangs around here and the people upstairs feed it."

What?

I said, "Oh, that's perfect," and pretended like the cat didn't break skin, even though half of my hand was missing (I'm exaggerating a bit). But deep down I knew—I had the rabies and my days on this planet were numbered.

What a wonderful Christmas miracle to contract the deadly kitty rabies.

I had a nice gash in my hand as a reminder of my encounter with Catjo, but at least the tree looked nice.

I vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

Liz (then my girlfriend, now my wife) and I went to that same tree lot during our first Christmas together in 2007, bought a live tree for my apartment, and decorated it. The tree was beautiful and provided many hours of enjoyment. Lovely, wonderful, gorgeous tree.

But the holiday season took a turn for the worse on December 28, 2007.

That morning, I woke up and watered my Christmas tree. When I brought the glass back into the kitchen, I noticed there were several bugs around its rim. So, I went back into my living room and looked at the tree, and you guessed it, there were bugs everywhere. I know people exaggerate these kinds of stories, but this is no exaggeration—there must have been 200 bugs on the floor under my Christmas tree. They were these spider looking things (luckily, they were big enough to see, and slow enough to be easily killed). I went to work killing as many as I could find. It was disgusting. When most of the bugs on the floor were dead, I realized I had to get rid of the tree as soon as possible. Of course, the only way to accomplish this was to stick my arm inside of the tree (into a potentially huge nest of bugs) and carry it outside.

Anyone else just shiver thinking about it?

After a few minutes of freaking out, I grabbed the trunk and leapt down my stairs (tripping and almost breaking my ankle in the process). Pine needles flew everywhere, but the tree eventually made it outside. Once I was safe, I looked at the base of the trunk and saw hundreds of bugs. The tree was infested.

I went back into my apartment and spent another thirty minutes killing the remaining spider-thingies. Then, I spent the next thirty minutes sweeping up the pine needles (and additional bugs) from my hallway and staircase (I'm itching like crazy just writing this story). After taking care of the common areas of the house, I went back into my apartment and cleaned like a madman. Finally, after feeling my skin crawl (I never knew what that felt like until December 28, 2007) for the better part of two hours, I took an amazing shower. A long, scalding, bug-murdering shower.

My beautiful, perfect, fantasy-come-true Christmas tree was infested with bugs. The outside was gorgeous; the inside was a ticking time bomb.

I vowed never to get a live tree again. But then …

I did. The following year. And the year after that. And after that. And last year. And this year.

And they've all been great. No tipping over. No spider families.

Because you can't give up. You can't quit. With little things like Christmas trees, but mostly, with the big things in life like relationships, businesses, organizations, goals, hopes, dreams.

Everyone fails. Everyone falls down. Some people stay down. They quit. People who accomplish amazing things just keep getting back up. Natural talent matters, but we're all good at something. Skills matter, but you can learn those. The key difference between successful and unsuccessful people isn't how much they fail, because we all fail all of the time. The difference is that successful people ultimately get back up one more time than they fall down.

Perseverance is one of the greatest gifts you'll ever give yourself.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Home Field

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.



I walked to the front of the room, stood behind the podium, and nervously wiped my brow. I cleared my throat and began.

It was an average Saturday morning in April. My dad and I rode together to the golf course for our 7:30 tee time. I preferred to sleep in, but my dad woke up the way young men charge into war. No daylight should be wasted after 70, I suppose. "Someday we won’t wake up at all," he used to say.

My brothers and sisters all moved away years ago, but I hung around my hometown. Partly because my kids were settled into a school they loved. Partly because my wife’s family lived down the street from us. Mostly because there was nowhere else to go. I never believed in leaving just to leave. Some people do that. The allure of “somewhere else” pulls them away. But the reasons you were miserable in your hometown usually travel with you. Like a stowaway suitcase tucked away in the corner of your trunk.

On a drive we had taken a hundred times before, my dad inexplicably began to reminisce about the baseball field he helped build and maintain 40 years ago with his buddy, Chuck Beck. The field I grew up on—shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, fielding grounders. That diamond was like my second home. Hell, my dad and I spent so much time there that it was more like our first home. Neither of us could quite remember how to get there (three decades of new construction and altered traffic patterns will do that), but we knew the field was close. To this day, I swear I smelled stale hot dog water and Cracker Jacks that morning.

I stored away the memory and spent the next five hours knocking a little white golf ball around a big green golf course. My dad shot an 80. Which isn't bad for a 71-year-old man. Or a 41-year-old man, it seems, since I shot an 84.

On our drive back home, I pulled the car into a gas station and turned to my dad. “Where’s that baseball field?” I asked.

“I can’t remember exactly,” he said. “I know it’s around here somewhere.”

I looked at the clock in my car’s dashboard. “It’s barely noon. Wanna go exploring?”

My dad grinned. I took that as a yes and pulled out of the gas station. We must have driven around town for an hour before finally stumbling upon a familiar street. Then a familiar landmark. Finally, the field appeared like an arid oasis in the desert. I shut off the engine and stared.

It was the most depressing thing I had ever seen.

“It’s grown over,” my dad mumbled.

Grown over didn't begin to capture the disarray. The dirt infield had transformed into a grass infield. Well, more like a weed infield. I assumed dirt was under there somewhere because I understood the earth’s composition, but it would have taken an industrial-sized weed wacker to find it. The wood benches and bleachers were rotted. The backstop had been torn down and the chain-link outfield fence was so rusted that I was afraid of catching tetanus from standing too close.

My heart sank. Here was this place that, once upon a time, was brand new. The field had been smooth; the outfield grass had been freshly mowed; the silver fence had gleamed in the sunlight. The benches held excited children and the bleachers gave nervous parents a place to sit when they weren't pacing. No one pictured this day during the grand opening. No one knew then how time and neglect would ruin my childhood playground.

My dad was a private man, and I respected that. He certainly wasn't going to break down in tears in front of me, but he looked defeated. I could see it in his eyes. I felt the same thing. That field had been my sanctuary. Even as an adult, I still dreamed of being a kid running the bases without a care in the world. Life was so much simpler back then. Long bicycle rides and catching lightning bugs. Evening newspapers and best-friend sleepovers. Handwritten letters and collecting baseball cards.

Glimpsing into the past that afternoon gave me an idea. I sat my wife down later that night and shared my plan.

“I’m going to restore the baseball field.”

“What?” she asked. Not in an accusatory way. Not in a dream-crushing way. She really had no idea what I was talking about.

“I’m going to cut the grass, fill the infield with dirt, build a new backstop, replace the fence, install new bleachers … the whole shebang!”

Caroline got that look in her eye. The one she always gets when I announce on June 10 that I’m going to finish the basement over summer break (I’m a high school physics teacher), when we both damn well know summers around the Sizemore house consist of lazy mornings on the golf course, lazy afternoons by the pool, lazy evenings behind the grill, and lazy nights falling asleep on the couch watching Cincinnati Reds baseball games. We’re a pretty lazy bunch by nature.

“I’m serious, Caroline. My dad’s not going to be around forever. I wanna restore that field. It’s not a billion dollar stadium. I can do it in a couple of months. Imagine the look on his face. Imagine me playing catch with my dad on a field he built 40 years ago. A field where I got my first hit as a kid. If there’s a heaven, it’s that baseball field.”

She kissed my forehead. “Do what you need to do, sweetie. You know I’ll support you either way.”

I got to work three days later. I had my two boys (ages 11 and 13 at the time) help when a few extra hands were necessary, but I did the bulk of the work alone. It was spring; school was still in session, so I couldn't devote myself to the project full time. I spent my weekends at that field. I spent most of my nights at that field racing against the sunset. I canceled golf with my dad in hopes I could finish the field before Father’s Day. In fact, except for a handful of brief phone calls from time to time, I went seven straight weeks without seeing either of my parents. It was the longest stretch I could ever remember. But it would be worth it when he took off the blindfold and saw the field restored.

Fast forward to the day before Father's Day. One day until the scheduled grand opening. Progress on the field was lagging; my plan was in serious danger of flopping. Time was running out and my masterpiece still needed brushstrokes. I worked my rear end off that day. People often use the cliché that they put “blood, sweat, and tears” into a project. There were definitely tears on that field. A few drops of blood (I'm not as good with a hammer as I thought). And a whole lot of sweat. I wanted to share a moment with my father that historians would be writing about centuries from now, and nothing was going to stop me.

Nothing except the earth's insistence on rotating on its own axis.

As twilight began drawing its curtain across the sky, I stood up, took a step back, and basked in the faint glow of failure. Nothing was ready. The infield still had too many weeds. The fence needed another coat of paint. The benches were uneven and wobbly. Not to mention boring. The home team's bench didn't have three decades of carvings etched into its rotting wood. No preteen curse words like “poop” or “fart” to induce giggling. No declarations of adolescent love. Just plain, lifeless timber purchased from Home Depot.

I dropped my hammer, sat behind home plate, and leaned against the newly installed backstop. It fell over. While debating whether to laugh hysterically or hammer the now-horizontal backstop into splinters, I heard a voice behind me.

"Rough day?"

I jumped to my feet and spun to face him. "Dad, what are you doing here?"

"Haven't seen you in a while. Stopped by the house tonight and spoke to Caroline. And before you go and get mad at her, she was worried about you. Said you haven't been yourself lately. She didn't want to tell me where you were, but I dragged it out of her." He looked around the field as the sun set over his right shoulder. "What are you doing?”

"Trying to restore the field.”

“Why?” he asked.

“So we can use it,” I said.

“For what?”

"For what? For baseball!"

He grinned. "How's it going?"

I couldn't help but smile. My dad always had a way of breaking the tension with a sarcastic comment. I stared at the ground. "I feel really stupid, Dad."

"Why?"

"I wanted to do something special for you—for us—and I screwed it up. I had visions of a spectacular reveal. Like in the movies. We'd play catch and hug and …"

"Wander into the cornfield together?"

"Very funny," I said. "I just wanted to create a magical moment. Now everything is ruined."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. You tried to do the work of ten men all by yourself. Considering, I'd say you did a fine job. And we can still play catch. Just maybe no ground balls until we haul the rest of these rocks out of here."

I picked up one of those rocks and chucked it into the outfield. “I feel like I missed out on so much life these past two months because I spent all of my time out here trying to recapture something I lost 30 years ago. I’d lie awake at night dreaming about this day. But I spent almost no time in the present. Not with you, not with Caroline, not even with the kids—unless they were pulling weeds. And what did it get me? A half-finished cow pasture."

My dad smiled. “You should be proud of yourself for coming out here and working so hard. But I did miss beating you at golf,” he winked. I laughed for the first time all night.

We stood near home plate—about the only part of the field I installed successfully—and talked for a few more minutes before dusk enveloped us. To this day, I remember every word of that conversation.

We drove home separately. On the way, I thought a lot about my dad. About our glory days on that field. About the sacrifices he made for his family. Maybe the secret to life is experiencing joy in whatever moment you find yourself in. Maybe happiness isn't lost somewhere in the past or waiting somewhere in the future. Maybe it’s here. Now. In this moment.

Nostalgia—I wish it could be like the good old days!—is living in the past. Hope—I can’t wait for something different to happen so I can finally start living the life I've always wanted!—is living in the future. I wanted to live in the present.

And so I did. At least, I tried.

And when my dad died 7 months later, I’d like to think our last 7 months together were richer because I partially restored that silly baseball field. Not because we played catch every day—although we did a few times, rocks be damned—but because we treated each moment like a gift—on the golf course, at the dinner table, during those boring car rides. We laughed so much. I miss my dad’s laugh.

I paused to look around the church. So many faces of friends and family stared back at me. Some smiling. Some crying. All wearing their emotions on their sleeves.

And when cancer took my wife 11 years later—three days ago—I was devastated, of course. I still am. Who wouldn't be? But these past 11 years with Caroline were the best years of my life. And I hope her life too. Because we lived every day like it was a blessing. Almost, anyway—after all, we were only human. We had ups and downs like anyone else, but we kept fighting to stay in the present. No matter where we were, that place was home, if only for a moment. Not an old baseball field. Not my childhood elementary school. Not the bigger, better house that would finally make us happy. Not the afterlife.

This life.

After that Father’s Day on the baseball field, everything changed for me. I realized my home was right here. Right now. It had been all along. That home was Caroline for a long time. And our years together were amazing. I’ll never forget her, and I’ll probably never fully get over losing her, but I’m going to keep living. I'm going to keep loving my—our—children. I'm going to keep spending time with my 80-year-old mother. And every once in a while, I'm gonna sneak back to that old baseball field to play catch with my adult sons while swapping stories about their grandpa.

And their mom. Especially their mom.

Tears welled in my eyes as I finished Caroline's Eulogy.

So before you leave today, I want to hug every person in this room. I want us to tell stories about Caroline until we're hoarse. Stories that make us laugh. Stories that make us cry. Because although I don't know what tomorrow holds, on this day, in this church, we are home.

If you enjoyed this short story, you may also enjoy The Narrow Path by Steve Fuller.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Enjoy Yourself; It's Later Than You Think

A few years ago, I watched the series finale of a television show called House. I loved the main character, Dr. House. He was a narcissistic jerk (who may have reminded me of myself), but he was a lovable narcissistic jerk, so I tuned in every week. The final scene of the series still haunts me to this day (in both good and bad ways).

The show's plot was way too complex to explain in a single blog post, but essentially, Dr. House's best friend (an oncologist named Dr. Wilson) was dying of cancer and only given 6 months to live. Dr. House faked his own death (I told you it was complicated) and arranged for them to spend Wilson's final months traveling the countryside on motorcycles.

As the series fades to black, House and Wilson begin their journey cruising down the highway. In the background, a song plays. The song's chorus:

Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself while you're still in the pink
The years go by as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself; it's later than you think.

I haven't been able to get those lines out of my head since.

In my 20's, I thought I would live forever. Not literally, obviously. I understood that all living creatures eventually die. But it felt like I had all the time in the world. There was always tomorrow. I could be anyone. Do anything. Sure, there was stress and anxiety and fear, but the future was as limitless as my dreams.

As I near 40, I realize that I'm on the back end of my life. Not that I'm old, but death is no longer an imaginary friend. My mortality feels real. And that's changing everything.

For sooooooooo long, I've played by the rules of a world that has an agenda. This world wants my time. It wants my money. It wants my energy. It wants my precious, fleeting, ever-dwindling minutes. And for sooooooooo long, I've obliged. I licked my index finger and stuck it in the air to determine which way the winds were blowing, and then I acted out a script someone else had written for me.

The world said to follow the rules, so I followed the rules (without stopping to question if the rules had my—or your—best interests at heart). The world said to spend money and time on my external looks, so I emptied my wallet, stood on a scale, and stared into the mirror looking for flaws. The world said popularity is what ultimately matters, so I desperately tried to be noticed. Aren't I clever? Aren't I smart? Aren't I talented? Aren't I important? Please tell me. Like my Facebook status. Retweet me. Read my blog.

The term "midlife crisis" gets overused, but I've experienced something over the past few weeks that feels like a turning point. I don't want to wait around for a near-death experience, a cosmic tragedy, or a terminal diagnosis to start living.

Of course, we all understand in the philosophical sense that everyone has a terminal diagnosis. Most of us just aren't sure how much time we have left. But my guess is, it's later than you think.

I'm not saying I've found the secret to life. I'm sure by this time next year I'll be on to the next existential crisis. But I'm committed to trying. My wife and I decided to do something next summer that is abnormal. It's not cheap, but we have the money. It could flop, but that's okay. Why wait for the perfect set of circumstances that may or may not ever come? Why wait for life to slap us upside the head to start living?

Some people think our summer plans are crazy. Or selling our house. Or moving downtown. Or waiting to start a family. I've certainly been judged for some of my choices throughout the years. But that's because most people are so unhappy (or insecure) with their own lives that they only feel better by tearing down someone else. (I only know that because I've often been the unhappy, jealous, insecure person driving the bulldozer.) Luckily, we can rise above. Chart our own courses. Death is eventually coming for us all, so we might as well live the lives we were created to live in the time we have left.

Oh, and the next time it rains, throw on some old clothes (or even better, throw on a suit or dress), and go play in the mud. Because … enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.

Monday, September 29, 2014

4 Lessons I've Learned From My Dog

Fiona is 9 years old. She's my adopted puppy child. She was two when Liz and I started dating and five when we got married. I missed those early formative years (which is why she's so misbehaved now), but I've been around long enough to fall madly in love with the furball. And she loves me too. To the point of obsession. Follows me everywhere. Constantly wants to be on top of me. Goes crazy whenever I leave. She's infatuated (but who can blame her?).

Recently, I've been paying attention to Fiona. And in doing so, I've realized she has a lot to teach me about life. Here are 4 lessons I've learned from my dog:

1) Fiona's taught me about love. People say this all of the time, and it's true. Nothing on this planet will love you like your dog. There's something holy about it. Leave her for a two-week vacation, she goes crazy when I get home. Yell at her for something silly, she immediately wants to curl up with me and seek cuddly forgiveness. If someone tried to hurt me, I have no doubt Fiona would defend me to the death.

I don't love like that. My love is conditional. My love comes with so many strings attached that you need a marionette to control it. No one loves me like that. Liz loves me, but it's conditional on me keeping my pants zipped and treating her with respect. My mom's love is in a whole other category (no human being loves you quite like your mother), but even that love is conditional. But not Fiona. I could be the most awful human being on the planet, and she'd stay by my side. It's a humbling love that, strangely enough, makes me want to be a better person by challenging me to love like that.

2) Fiona's taught me about freedom. When I take her on walks, she's awful. She does this thing where she leans her entire body weight in the opposite direction of where I want her to go. Most of the time, I eventually have to pick her up and carry her. Her stubbornness drives me nuts. But the strangest thing happens when I let her off the leash. She normally walks right along side me, barely wavering from the sidewalk. When she's restrained, she's desperate to disobey, wander, and misbehave. But when she's given freedom, she seeks out the alpha male to lead her. Perhaps freedom leads to obedience and constraint leads to rebellion?

3) Fiona's taught me about sacrifice. I'm often a selfish person. (We all are to varying degrees, of course, but a lifetime avoiding responsibility likely leads to more selfishness.) Sure, I'm often generous, but mostly, I just want life to work out the way I want it to work out. I want to do what I want when I want. In some small way (I'm sure children take this lesson to the 10th degree), Fiona is teaching me that caring for others feels better than looking out for myself. I love all of my family and friends, but I would walk through fire to keep Fiona and my wife safe. I can't imagine someone hurting either one of them. Bad news for the person who tries.

4) Fiona's taught me about my dad. Last week, I had this super emotional day where I cried over my childhood dog that died 16 years ago. My dad loved that dog. The family joke was that he loved Sadie more than his children, and while I'm sure that wasn't true (and by "sure," I mean "probably not"), there was an undeniable connection between the two. She loved him too. Followed him around; curled up next to him every night; licked him constantly. As I mentioned earlier, Fiona is that way with me. Her obsession always seemed so odd until I thought back to Sadie and my dad. There's a reason the phrase is Man's Best Friend. This may sound crazy (because I know women have special connections with animals too), but I think dogs look at men as their alpha male leader, and men look at dogs as the one living thing on this planet that loves us in spite of our rough edges. Men can be insensitive and closed off and feel underappreciated, but dogs don't care. They love us anyway. Maybe I'm nuts, but I began looking at my dad differently after making this connection. Maybe I saw him through Sadie's eyes. Those big, brown, loving, puppy dog eyes.

Okay, I gotta go. There's something in my eyes. They're tears. Tears are in my eyes.