Tag Archives: thankfulness

what if

“How are you?”

“How’s it going?”

“What’s new?”

While I’ve often had full-blown, soul-bearing conversations result from my posing these simple prompts, the typical range of expected replies remains fairly limited:

“Good, and you?”

“Eh, you know…”

“Not much. You?”

I suppose these exchanges serve some purpose in social settings, though I tend to be aware of the ironic distance evident in these greetings. That is, I find it odd that we ask how someone is if we don’t actually want to know. Most often, unfortunately, my observation is that these exchanges are an obligatory nicety we feel compelled to offer as a prelude before getting someone to do what we want them to do (e.g., ring out my order, buy this car, stop talking to me, etc.).

But that’s all a discussion for another time (and, in fact, one I’ve talked about often in previous posts as well as in The Best Advice So Far).

That said, of all such programmed responses to “How are you?” my least favorite is the seemingly ubiquitous reply of “SSDD.” It’s not that it offends me. It’s that it makes me sad. Sad to think that people choose to keep living unfulfilling, uninteresting, monotonous—unhappy—lives, day after day, ad infinitum.

Yet recently, someone asked how I was, and I found myself thinking and responding in just about this way—not in exact choice of words, but certainly in sentiment. It surprised me. And yet it felt like the most honest expression of where I was in that moment.

Back in 2011, my first year of blogging, I wrote a post following a period of “sleep walking” which had lasted about a month. It was weird. I didn’t feel like myself. But I at least felt like I was a semblance of that self. Then I woke up.

Halfway through 2015, life upended again with a systemic mystery ailment that came with a wildly spreading rash, incessant itching night and day, extreme fatigue, loss of sleep, digestive issues and more. It lasted over a year-and-a-half before I finally self-diagnosed the issue and returned to normal living.

Six months later, by June of 2017, the rash was gone but I still couldn’t shake the fatigue. Willing to try almost anything, I took a black pill that touted promises of natural energy from rare and exotic sounding herbs—but which instead quite literally nearly ended my life.

Still, I pulled through. Got life back on track, feeling positive and focused.

In September of last year, however, I got whacked again. I alluded to this in my last post. But at that time, I couldn’t bring myself to write about the issue, since I was still very much in its thrall. I’m ready now.

In 2018, I began writing my next book in earnest; and by the end of my August vacation to Florida, I was about 70% finished. I returned refreshed, ready not only to finish the book within another 30 days, but to expand into some new ventures that had me feeling excited for the fall.

However, the very next day, all of that momentum ended.

I woke up with red, itchy, stinging eyes. At first, I thought it might have been from all the travel the day before. Or from my last dip in the hot tub or pool in Florida. Or maybe the beginning of seasonal allergies.

By the next day, I awoke to find both eyes sealed shut with goop. The itching and stinging had turned to burning and pain. My vision was blurred. This was more than allergies.

Still, I figured it was probably just conjunctivitis, maybe something I’d picked up on the plane ride home. No fun, but not the end of the world. In fact, I still had some Ofloxacin in the medicine cabinet from a short bout I’d had the year before. I started the drops, sure I’d be fine in a few days.

Three days later, however, my eyes were a painful mess. I could no longer see normally.

I went to the local pharmacy’s walk-in clinic, hoping for something stronger. Maybe I’d developed a tolerance to the Ofloxacin. I was started on a new eye drop.

Things got worse.

Within a few more days, the whole shape of my eyes had changed from the swelling.

I saw my primary doctor. He immediately referred me to an ophthalmologist. New meds, both oral and drop, were prescribed.

Within a week, the pain was so bad that I was balling up wash cloths, pressing them to both eyes and tying them in place with a belt. I have a very high pain tolerance, but it brought even me to pitiful tears and whimpering. Sometime in the night, I fell asleep. I woke with the right side of my face completely sealed to the pillow case, as if I’d lain in glue. I couldn’t open the other eye, even with help from my fingers. I felt my way to the bathroom blind, still clutching the pillow to my face, where I had to use warm water, little by little, to peel myself from the pillow and my eyelids apart. Even with that, my vision was reduced to a blur through narrow slits. And twenty four hours a day, as best I can describe, it now felt like someone had taken a handful of fiberglass filaments and blown them directly into my eyes.

I used ice packs. I lay on the bathroom floor, dousing my eyes with eye wash like you’d do for a chemical splash in a lab. Nothing made it better.

Four medications later, the ophthalmologist noticed ulcers in my eyes.

He transferred me to a corneal specialist who poked and dug and scraped. Another month, and four or five new medications later, and nothing had gotten better.

I did my best to put my own “best advice” into action:

“You always have a choice.”

“Being miserable is a choice.”

“Practice positivity.”

But even little choices were becoming increasingly more difficult to make. I could no longer read—computer or books. I couldn’t see to write. I couldn’t do graphic design projects. Driving was difficult at best and largely reserved for getting to and from the doctors. Still, from within these limitations and through the pain, I kept re-centering, looking for the ways I could still choose happiness over misery or complaining.

But then two months passed with no solution in sight.

Three months.

Four…

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choice: the wall

The Best Advice So Far - choice: the wall - dilapidated building inland Bahamas

In my last post, I invited you to celebrate with me the successful completion of a yearlong writing goal I’d set for myself in 2017.

Since that post, I’ve allowed myself a break from all things blog. It was strategic. I knew that if I were to just continue on writing at the previously set “goal pace,” I would have felt locked into it rather than having been able, as I did, to have closure on that goal—and to then begin a new one.

Well, today is the day I begin that new goal where this blog is concerned.

As my focus turns toward writing the next book—currently entitled Tried and (Still) True)—I want to be sure that I continue to give the concepts in The Best Advice So Far adequate development. They are, after all, timeless—just as true and life-changing now as they were at the start of things.

I imagine it’s much the same as having a second or third child: being sure, with all the time and attention that the new addition requires, to continue to love and foster and invest in the firstborn.

An idea coalesced during my short writing break: Why not revisit the advice in every chapter of The Best Advice So Far again, but from an as-yet-unexplored angle or with new stories?

As soon as the notion hit me, it just felt somehow right. Familiar and yet at the same time fresh and exciting. And so, for most if not all of 2018, that will be my new goal and focus. I’m not committing myself to stick stringently to plan, if something outside the express realm of the first book should happen along the way and burn to be told. But I believe it will make for a good guiding force.

*****

Sometime back in the early fall, I caught wind of a great deal on a three-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas. Little did I know at the time, when I booked a cabin for the MLK holiday weekend, that winter in New England would be plunging the region into weeks of sub-zero temperatures. During the worst of it, temperatures dropped to -19°F with wind chill affecting -35°F. Attempting such simple tasks as pumping gas (should one have run out of the house quickly without donning gloves) was not only painful but downright dangerous. And try as I might—whether by standing awkwardly with my toes tucked under the old-fashioned radiators in my home, or standing in the shower several times a day for no other reason than warming up—I was never quite able to thaw the blocks of ice that had replaced my feet.

So when the day finally came, I was beyond ready to walk barefoot on sun-warmed grass or sand, to squint with hand-shaded eyes at a too-bright sky—and to bask in the profligate luxury of feeling too hot.

As it turned out, the day I left for Florida, my own home area had a freakish warm streak approaching 60°, while Florida saw a relative cold spell, with one night dipping into the 40s. Still, their “chilly” was shorts-and-flip-flops weather for me.

The cruise was all I had hoped it would be, a real soul restorer. And yet, again, I was surprised by the abundance of generally bad behavior around me.

Before we even set sail, during the mandatory safety drills which required that all hands (and guests) be on deck, many people were disruptive and outright rude to the staff: crying out angrily in the middle of instructions that it was taking too long, or that they were bored, or that the (extremely patient) muster leaders were keeping them from the bar and drinks they had paid for.

I frequently passed people grumbling (to whom, I wondered) about the overcast sky.

Several cruisers with whom I tried to engage in friendly small talk while waiting in a line or on a transfer ferry (not, God forbid, keeping them from the bar or their drinks) were unnecessarily aloof—even dismissive.

Late one night, after a full day of fun on shore and a posh dinner in the formal dining room, I came up to the main deck and slid, smiling, into one of the large hot tubs. I asked the two other guests sharing the spa—a father and his college-aged daughter—how they were enjoying their cruise. They immediately began to complain:

…about the weather,

…about the “small” size of the (eleven-story) ship,

…about the “inferior quality” of the food.

Within fifteen minutes, able to tolerate it no longer, I politely extricated myself from the conversation in search of cheerier company.

Mind you, there were numerous dining options available at all times, each allowing all-you-can-eat access to, I dare say, several hundred varied and exquisitely prepared foods.

You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m being generous to a fault as I describe the rude behavior of many aboard the ship. More than once, it was not only sad but uncomfortable, even for me.

*****

On Sunday morning, we docked in Nassau, Bahamas.

It’s not a beach sort of place. Rather, you exit the ship and are immediately greeted by a cacophony of urgent voices crying out from just beyond the iron fence:

“You! You! Taxi! Taxi!”

“City tour! Come now! I show you the best places only!”

“Beads! Necklaces! Good price, mon!”

Security guards usher cruise guests out of the melee and into a long, narrow—and carefully presented—strip of shopping options, where one can buy anything from Gucci watches and handbags to Vera Wang shoes at prices that hint at (if not outright tout) the use of slave labor.

The tourist shopping area pops in bright pinks, yellows and blues.

Walking beyond the shops funnels the wayward invariably toward Queen’s Staircase.

Approaching Queen's Staircase, all was looking picturesque and tropical.
A stone wall topped by long-rooted and lush trees funnels visitors toward the steep Queen's Staircase

The tall, steep set of stairs leads upward to—more shops on the periphery of what alleges to be the central attraction: Fort Fincastle.

A bright red cannon beside the manicured lawns around Fort Fincastle, Nassau, Bahamas.

For those who chose to look only as far as the wall or back toward the port, it’s idyllic:

Two luxury cruise ships (Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) dock at port, Nassaue, Bahamas.

But turn the other direction—to where the majority of the island lay beyond that wall—and the illusion quickly evaporates.

I stood on the barricade and hopped down a few feet to a square landing made of cracked concrete. From this perch, drifts of garbage became visible, piling up yards high against the wall. Peering through the nearest thicket of palms, I was able to just make out a shanty. A young woman slumped on the porch, watching a naked child and a chicken totter about in the dirt. A rope drooped low to the ground, laden with a few articles of clothing hung out to air.

I had no interest in the veneer that had been set up for tourists. I wanted to know the real people of the island. So it was that my travel companion and I decided to venture over the wall and into…

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huzzah

The Best Advice So Far - huzzah

I use the interjection “Yay!” a fair amount, though mostly in text messages.

Then there’s “Hooray!” which I say as well as write.

But far and away, my favorite exclamation is this one:

HUZZAH!

It just … sounds right (pronounced huh-ZAH, with the accent on the second syllable).

It looks right.

What’s more, it feels right, what with that buzzing double ‘zz’ and all.

It’s the kind of utterance that stirs speaker and listener alike, all but demanding a rousing stir of fist.

Aw, go on — say it. (You know you want to.)

HUZZAH!

I believe the first time I heard the word — or at least the earliest association I’ve made with it — was in an early film version of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge turns down his nephew Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner with his telltale “Bah! Humbug!” After his ghostly change of heart, however, Scrooge shows up after all, upon which Fred exclaims, “Why, Uncle, you’ve joined us! Huzzah!”

And so, Huzzah feels Christmasy to me as well.

Need I further explain my penchant for using it?

Well, today I offer up a hearty Huzzah!

On New Year’s Eve of 2016, I set a goal for myself: to… [click the button below to continue reading this post at the main site]

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candy canes

The Best Advice So Far - candy canes

I finally got my tree this week.

The front lot at Hanson’s Farm up the road glistened with new-fallen snow. They had fewer than a dozen trees left, having started with nearly two hundred just three weeks ago. This actually worked in my favor, given my longstanding tradition of choosing the Charlie-Browniest tree I can find — the one least likely to be picked due to some flaw or other.

Some I had to rule out on account of their being too tall or too fat to fit in the space, nestled between a window, the bookshelf and the low pitched ceiling in that corner of my second-story farmhouse living room.

Yet even with the further reduced selection, they all seemed perfect. Too perfect.

I gave them a second looking over and then a third, before deciding on the only one that appeared to have any gap at all in the branches — a little Fraser fir.

The owner, a kind-faced farmer with weathered skin and calloused hands, sold me the tree for just twenty dollars, including trimming the trunk by half an inch and settling my purchase into the trunk of my car.

It started to snow again on the drive home — that kind of gentle snow that looks like tiny perfect circles and falls straight down.

Once home again, I hoisted the tree onto one shoulder and edged my way up the narrow, steep stairs, seemingly without losing a single needle. As I settled the base of the tree into the heavy cast-iron stand, I noticed that the trunk was actually bent. I’d have to work a bit to get it to stay upright. I smiled. I’d chosen the right tree after all.

Lying on my back, branches outspread above me, I steadied the tree with one hand while turning the three keys bit by bit.

Check.

Tighten this one three times.

Check.

Loosen that one twice.

As I worked, my face mere inches from the stand, something rather magical happened. So cold was the tree still that, though the room was plenty warm and cozy, I could see my frosty breath.

At last, the tree was standing plumb.

I gave the frigid tree a day for its branches to settle. And by the next morning, the house was already permeated with the rich scent of evergreen. All of the water I’d poured just the night before was gone, having slaked the thirsty tree, and so I added more.

It was time to string the lights.

My lights are white, never the colored variety. No LEDs. No blinking. No fading. Just the old-fashioned, steady white bulbs — the kind where the whole strand goes out if one of them fizzles.

It’s very important that the lights wind deep inside the tree as well as to the tips of branches, as opposed to simply wrapping them round and round the outside. It gives the tree depth. And as much as possible, wires should be strategically hidden, since they break the magical effect.

Once the lights were in place — with just the right number remaining to weave into the wicker star on top — I gave myself an evening to enjoy the tree in that simple state.

Friday night, serenaded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, I decorated the tree with ornaments spanning a lifetime.

A set of six intricately painted Fabergé-style eggs, unpacked from their rectangular, satin-lined case.

Cookie-cutter shapes — a holly leaf, a stocking, a gingerbread man and others — each made by hand with nothing but applesauce and generous amounts of cinnamon, and smelling exactly as you might expect them to.

Classic glass bulbs, their crackled gold paint casting multiple reflections.

And, of course, the candy canes.

Actually, the candy canes are the first to adorn the tree. There are only five left from the set of twelve that first decorated the tiny tree in my dorm room during my freshman year of college.

That makes them exactly three decades old this year.

And, yes — they are real candy canes.

When Chad was still in high school, I had a group of his peers over around Christmas time. The crowd was bigger than anticipated, so I ran out quickly to grab some more food. When I returned, Chad told me, a look of comical disgust on his face, “I think something’s wrong with your candy canes. I ate one of them. It tasted gross and…[click the button below to continue reading this post at the main site]

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fake: part one

The Best Advice So Far - fake: part one

Due to a lack of sound sleep over the past couple of days, my brain is in a strange, swishy sort of place. Rather than fight it, I figure I’ll just ride the wave of weirdness and see where we land.

By and large, the word “fake” has a negative connotation:

Lucio’s new girlfriend is so fake.

The masterpiece was somehow stolen and replaced with a fake.

The newscast was decried as fake news when it suggested that the news about fake news was fake.

But I’d like to suggest that being “fake” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Case in point: fake teeth.

Let’s begin with some fun facts about fake teeth. The original version of the wind-up toy teeth was released in 1949 as “Yakkity Yak Talking Teeth.” H. Fishlove and Co. was the first to market the toy, and Fishlove remains a division of Fun, Inc., where the toy is still manufactured today.

They’re fake. But they’re apparently good enough an idea to have retained popularity for nearly 70 years. (I feel obliged to point out that it’s doubtful wind-up real teeth would have fared so well.)

Speaking of fake teeth, I’ve got two in my mouth right now.

About 25 years ago, a kid I was mentoring had a PTSD flashback and head-butted me in the face at close range. The blow broke a jagged corner off one of my two front teeth and snapped one of my bottom teeth clean in half.

Regarding the lower damage, even the slowest of breaths in and out over the exposed nerve was enough to make a lumberjack drop his logs and run crying for mama.

And it happened on a Friday evening going into a long holiday weekend, which meant I wouldn’t be able to get to a dentist until Tuesday.

Well, the nub of it (pun intended) is that I pretty much ate minimally through a straw, nursed two bottles of Anbesol and cried until I could get to a (very mean) dentist that Tuesday. The bottom job was a terrible match, but stayed in. And the top repair fell out in just a few months. I decided that I couldn’t afford to shell out the money on account of vanity, so I sported that chipped tooth for over two decades.

Last year, while on vacation in Florida, I made a new friend at the gym. We got talking about stuff that matters in life, and before I left, I gave him a copy of my book, The Best Advice So Far. Well, as it turned out, Houman is a dentist and noticed my chipped tooth, and I told him the story of how it had come to be. He kindly invited me to stop in the following year and let him fix it. It was a kind gesture.

Well, this year was “the following year.” I saw Houman again during workouts at the local gym. True to his word, he once again invited me to come let him fix the tooth. (And, no, I wasn’t smiling extra wide just so he’d notice.) I did go to his practice where I got V.I.P. treatment as well as the gracious gift of his skill and care in fixing that long-broken tooth.

As I walked out of Houman’s office, I couldn’t stop running my tongue over the smooth surface of the tooth. I took pictures and sent them around. I found myself repeatedly looking at it in the rearview mirror. And I immediately became aware that, for nearly 25 years, I’d been smiling in such a way that the top of my lower lip covered the jagged corner of that front tooth. Since that day, however, I’ve found myself smiling bigger than ever.

My real tooth was great. But part of it has been gone — the shards somewhere in the carpet or under the baseboard heater of a long-vacated apartment — for more than half my life. My new tooth … is fake. And yet it’s awfully good. What’s more, if I’m being honest, it makes me feel loved that a new friend would go out of his way for me for no reason at all.

In a further effort to be fair to “fake” (and because, as I pointed out, my brain is on its own little roller coaster) let me share with you a few more of my favorite fakes … followed by a few that foster frowns.

Fake Things I Like

Flavors

Fake banana flavoring (which my best friend, Dib, refers to as “breathy banana”) is definitely good, particularly when it comes in the form of a banana Popsicle.

And while I know it’s basically made of Vaseline and sugar, I do love me some Cool Whip. I don’t buy it myself, but my mom does; and when I’m visiting, well … I’d be lying if I said I didn’t maybe eat a spoonful (or two) of it, right out of the tub when no one was looking.

Medicine

In 2002, after three years of mounting health problems that finally had me sleeping as many as 18 hours a day, unable to work, I was officially diagnosed with…


happy sad

The Best Advice So Far - happy sad

I’m writing mid-flight, on my way back from the longest vacation of my life — five weeks in Southwest Florida. After so long away, it feels more like a move than merely returning from someplace I’d been visiting.

Late last night, I drove to the beach for one last walk.

The main street downtown was still aglow, lit up like Christmas. I’d strolled the strip often during my stay, this year and during the five years of previous visits.

I’d eaten at that Persian restaurant on the right.

I’d sat awhile on a bench in that tiny garden park on the left.

I’d played gin rummy and sipped iced chai and written blog posts in that little coffee shop.

People sat at outdoor tables, talking and laughing. Music greeted me from the open doors of a warmly lit restaurant.

Just a few days ago, it had all felt very much like my street — like a place and people who knew me well. Last night as I drove, however, it felt … different. A bit foreign. Like I was a ghost passing among the living, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

A few zigs and zags and I’d arrived at my destination. I kicked my sandals off into the car. I’d walk the shore barefoot, as ever. The colorful ceramic turtle mosaics set into the cement pavilion that opened onto the pier seemed somehow to be swimming … away.

Caribbean music pulsed from the close side of the pier, a group of young Haitian boys having an impromptu dance party. They parted as I approached, smiling and turning toward me with hands overhead and hips swaying, a wordless invitation to join them if I liked. I returned the smile and dance-stepped my way over to the stairway that let down onto the beach, the small crowd closing in my wake.

Above, in the sky, silent lightning played its own complex rhythms, reflecting off the waves beneath. The water was warmer than ever, tumbling over and around my feet, then pulling the sand out from under them in retreat.

A perfect night.

I walked with the knowledge that, whether I stayed ten minutes or two hours, there would come the time when …


hear! hear! (the story behind the audiobook)

The Best Advice So Far- hear hear

I still remember the first time as a mentor that I had to turn someone away.

Until then, no matter how many others I was committed to at the time — no matter how strongly I debated with myself that I couldn’t stretch any further — I found a way for “just one more.” But then there it was: the first I’m sorry, I won’t be able to.

As someone who believes in the difference one person can make in the life of another, and who is deeply empathetic, it was like a punch to the gut.

About the same time, years of “kids” I’d mentored, past and present, along with their families, secretly organized an appreciation dinner in my honor. I have to say, not only was I shocked, the timing was uncanny.

As part of the evening’s events, I was given a seat in the middle of the crowd. I remember meeting eyes around the room, one by one. For more than an hour, people spoke word of affirmation or thanks, expressing what I had meant to their lives. Tears welled up (just as they are even now, as I recall the day). Even being a writer, it’s be hard to put to words what that was like.

One young man, Alex, said something that night that has not only stuck with me, but which has changed the course of things thereafter. Alex said…