Just One Voice

My first job was vacuuming pews, cleaning bathrooms, mowing lawns and doing light landscaping at our church.  I was 13 or 14 (don’t tell the department of labor), and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for making me get up off my duff and do something that summer.  Even though it was only a few weekdays and a Saturday morning and of course I needed a ride, the physical and solitary nature of the work felt good to me.

I could listen to my walkman (Jimmy Page’s solo album was a big one for me that summer), just do the work, sweat a little, and daydream of course.  It makes me a little sad for my kids that I think an experience like that might be much harder to find these days.  We’ve got our phones and our ten second attention spans, after all.  But that’s outside of the scope of this post, I guess.

My boss at the church, I mean I guess my human boss if you’re inclined to see things that way, was a guy named Gerry.  He looked a little like Cheech Marin from the Cheech and Chong series.  And he was actually pretty funny too, so that really solidified the resemblance in my mind.  He would check in with me two or three times over the course my shift and he didn’t really take any shit–if I was moving too slowly or he caught me getting lost in my head, he’d get on my ass.  “Back to work, kid!  You’re not getting paid to read the Pilot!”  (The Pilot, of course, is America’s oldest Catholic newspaper and a natural procrastination device for a 13 year old boy.)

We’d have lunch together on the days that he was around, usually on the side porch of his house across from the church.  His house looked a lot like ours was what I thought about most: kind of ramshackle, definitely rough around the edges, and their bulkhead looked even worse than ours did.  I know he had a wife and kids because his wife would come out and say hello sometimes and I’d hear kids running around inside the house while we sat and ate.  He’d ask me about school, what sports I liked and books I read, and we’d talk about the Red Sox.  I really looked forward to those lunches–I liked talking guy stuff with Gerry.

13 can be a tough time for a kid.  Your body is changing, your friends are branching out, and it feels like you wake up every day to a different world.  I remember being pretty scared and nervous most of the time.  But having someone in your corner, even for just a few hours every week, can make a world of difference.  It doesn’t have to be much, really, but just one voice is all it takes sometimes to turn your thoughts and way of looking at the world around.

One day I came to work and Gerry was gone.  He’d moved to New Hampshire or Vermont with his family.  I was pretty busted up about it, to tell the truth.  I remember going into the bathroom and crying like a baby, not really understanding why–it’s not like I was related to the guy or even knew very much about him.  He’d just been pretty nice to me at a time when I needed it.  And I guess sometimes that’s all it takes.  Just one voice.

Running a gym where people share their physical and personal stories with us, I try very hard to always remember that.  Most of us aren’t as far removed from that 13 year old kid as we think we are, and a lot of us walk through life bombarded by negative reinforcement.  We don’t look the right way, we don’t make enough money, we don’t quite measure up.

Sure, we can dig deep down and say fuck it, but that can be really hard for a lot of people without experience in standing up for themselves or hell, even thinking of themselves.  So I try to remember that sometimes, just one voice can make a world of difference, and that what comes out when you reach your hand to another person can be the most beautiful thing in the world.

Moving the Salt Shakers

The real witching hour starts around eleven PM.   It’s late enough that most everyone has gone to bed, but early enough for conjuring in sound mind, before the pilot light’s flickered down for the night.  You are alone but not alone, sitting at your kitchen table looking at salt shakers.

It’s some business article or other that you’ve been hanging onto for the last few years.  Sometimes you arrange the salt and pepper shakers the way you want them, and then sometimes people move them around on you.  There are no malign actors, no hidden messages.  People just like to move salt shakers around.  You do too.

But now it’s nearer to midnight and now it’s the same old story–what next?  There is the pull between thinking and doing.  And there is the part of you that will never, ever be satisfied with what you have built.  You want to build a tower so high for your boys to climb long after you are gone, and with every step realize that they were always its animating principle, your pride in them what drove you to keep going.  You want them to look at what you’ve done and see their own hearts in it.

You want them to know they were always good enough.  And you want your work to tell them that.

But this is vanity.  You are building with salt shakers, after all, and like most delusions of grandeur, this renders back to pillar in the morning light.  They will know they are good enough when they are good enough.  They will know that they have done things right when they have done things right, and only then.  And of course that is what you really wish for them: the certitude of done, the clear blue stream slit between fucking done and whatever comes next.

You want them to find that in ways you haven’t yet been able.  You want, when the time comes, for them to stop thinking so damned much.  To keep doing.  To push and move and build and, yes you know, to leave.  To get out from whatever shadow their house and their small town and their parents have enacted over them.

There is no small irony in this: in some strange way that you have come to understand, you feel closest to your boys when you are alone behind the wheel of your car, driving in silence into the night.  You feel like that is the truest and deepest part of you, the part that comes home with a clear head and an open heart.  The part that steps into every next stream but still looks back.  The part that keeps moving but always, at the end of the night, comes home.

But maybe this is folly. Maybe this is how you reconcile a simple inability to be still and present.   Maybe this is how you dress up your messy brain and maybe this is the bow you put on it.

And maybe one night you’ll be at your table, having come in from your car, and your boys will pass you on their way out the door for the evening.  Maybe your eyes will meet, theirs and yours, and maybe something will pass between the three of you.

I build because it is who I am.  I build so I can look back.  I go so I can come home.

I can’t know how far you’ll go, my boys.  But I will love you as long as we travel.

Something Real

Twenty years ago, time passed at the speed of sound.  It was the summer of 99 in New York City, the big hit was Ricky Martin Livin’ La Vida Loca, I was in a rock band with two of my best friends Amy and Ellen, and I walked into bars at one in the morning with an imaginary coterie like I was King Shit leading his Golden Boys (many more where we come from*).  Sometimes I stayed for ten minutes, sometimes I didn’t leave until the next day.

Everything was up for grabs; everything was open all night and songs were crowding out of my head three at a time.  I’d go for a walk, nowhere really, usually end up at a newsstand, and I’d have half of an album done by the time I got home.  The songs were all a minute long, but still.

Early in the summer, just before Memorial Day, we took a trip to Connecticut and then to Montreal to play our first couple of shows.  I’d had a few bands in college but this was going to be the first time I’d played at actual clubs like real bands did.  We’d had a show set up for a place called Coney Island High a few weeks prior but it had gotten cancelled so fuck it, road trip.  Connecticut was fine, but man we were nervous.  Man, I was nervous–I was terrified and sang like Bunson Honeydew.  I think it was a straight edge show though I can’t remember for sure.  In Montreal, however, we had a dressing room and a cooler of beer like some fifth-rate Van Halen.  I’m told I exhibited some real showmanship that evening.  We were off to the races.

We played songs with titles like “Exorcism Stacks,” “Bug,” “To March In That Proud Company,” and “Britt and The Suckers” which was about some imaginary girl gang and had a part I stole from that dummy Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.”  We practiced on Sunday afternoons at Coyote Studios in Williamsburg, drank Bud tallboys out of paper bags and fought like hell to hold off Mondays.  It couldn’t have always been sunny but that’s how I remember it–we squinted and shuffled back out into a city that smelled like pavement, exhaust, and overripe fruit.

The songs got shorter and more elliptical.  “Hope and Distortion” was about forty five seconds long and really I just wanted to slam on my distortion pedal and sing emotional things with these two dear souls I’d grown to love like sisters, so I sang about hope like calculus out on the miracle mile.  It meant nothing but felt like everything.

What happened one night at the Charleston was that we were playing a song called “World of Cops,” and there was this part where we locked back into the stomp and I remember it feeling like time had stopped for a few seconds and that I should hang on tight because I might not ever feel this way again.  I felt my pick and then my fingers hitting the strings, I understood why the sound coming out of my amplifier was clouded and diffuse, and I resolved to dig my feet in deeper and howl myself hoarse once the verse came back up again.  I caught Amy, always my checkpoint, out of the corner of my eye banging her head, and then Ellen on the other periphery of the triangle going tap-tap-tap on some sensible Adidas.  I remember thinking, with all the surety of a twenty-five year old kid, that this was as real as anything ever got, that the sound we were making felt so big that it might knock us all over.

Then things sped up again.  “Someday,” the song went, “when you’re old and when you’re grey.”  I sang it because it was true.  I didn’t really have a choice.  The words just kept coming.  I sang it because it was true then and it’s true now.

Someday, when you’re old and when you’re grey, you’ll think back on things and say…

*Soundtrack:
Don’t Stop Now, GBV
Do the Collapse (Demos), GBV
Orange Rhyming Dictionary, Jets to Brazil
Utopia Parkway, Fountains of Wayne
Collection, Misfits
Malibu, Hole
Author Unknown, Jason Falkner

The Chasm and The Fork

Before you reach the fork, you will have spat into the chasm.  Before you pull your hood down, pick your head up, and press on against the current, you will have considered the abyss and found it wanting.

There are moments in life where your sense of who you are in the world dies aborning.  You are standing at the edge of the hole, kicking pebbles into the maw, and there it is and there you are: your hot hand on the telephone receiver, your eyes wet with tears that sting like piss, and you realize that to move along you have to let something inside you die.

It’s either that or you jump into the pit and spend the rest of your life trying to make peace with edges and precipice.  So you let your eyes go dead, you say “I guess that’s how it’s going to be,” and you move along.  All you have to do is just keep changing the gauze.  It pulls a little less skin with it every time.  One day the wound’s whole enough to call whole again, more or less.

I don’t know anyone who’s accomplished anything great without having done their time in the pit.  You hit the pit before you hit the fork.  And I sure as hell don’t know anyone who’s done anything worthwhile without hitting the fork.

Here’s the deal: ten, fifteen, thirty years from now you will remember your moment.

One path just circles around to the start again, like some dumb sunny snake of a playground slide.  You’re just going to keep going up and down again.  You’re just going to stay where you are.

The other path is cold, wet, and you can’t see more than five feet ahead of you.  Truth?  You’re scared as hell.  You don’t know where you’re going but anywhere’s better than here.  Nothing inside of you is dead anymore.  Everything is alive, every nerve ending ajangle with urge, want, and desperation.

These are the days you will always remember.  Walking that path, stumbling down that path–this is what you will tell your grandkids someday…I looked back, I considered the fork, I remembered the pit, and I told myself to beat my fucking wings.

Every great story has a hero.  Every great hero has their moment.  Every great moment has its fork.

Beat your wings.  Get moving.

Don’t Give Up On Me

Recently a client of mine said “Don’t give up on me.”  The circumstances are unimportant, and the delivery method was almost offhanded, but even so, this really got me. I mean, this fucked me up.  I’ve been coaching folks for 10 years and leading teams for 20 and not a single thing I have heard in that time has affected me so acutely.

Hearing that stops you in your tracks.  You realize how bone-deep this thing can go.  And then you realize, with sadness and regret, how many conversations you wish you could have back.  How many folks you have let walk in and out of your life without telling them that you hadn’t ever given up on them.  And how many of them you should have pulled in close to say, “hey, I’m here…I’m here with you until the end…as long as you keep walking I’m going to take the journey with you.”

Goddamn, that is regret.  You never showed them your heart and now it’s going to eat you up inside.

I firmly believe that most coaches are repaying a kindness that they were extended earlier in life.  Not every coach, I guess, but most of them.  Somewhere along the way, someone took their time with us.  They sat with us.  They used that magic word: “proud.”  They demanded better from us.  They called us on our bullshit when that was the right thing to do.  (Lord knows, it was very often the right thing to do.)

They looked us in the eyes and they fucking believed in us.  Even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.  They believed in us and they told us so.  And we can recite, chapter and verse, every kind word they ever granted us.  Every harsh word too.  Having someone in your corner like that always felt like the greatest gift in the world.

And now we understand it’s our duty to pay that forward.  We think about the folks we would walk every last mile with, the folks we would go the distance for.  The folks, as one of my mentors Paul Reddick says, that we want in our huddle.  Ride or die, they say.  Go the distance, we say.  These are the folks we won’t give up on.  If you’re among that number, know this:

When we have a shit day or have trouble holding our own demons at bay, we hold our best selves in reserve for you.

When someone plays word games or runs sophistry routines on our workouts, we bite our lips, do our best, and wait for you.

When people say shit behind our backs, or hell, to our faces, we remember that they know about ten percent of whatever story they think they’re writing, and we count down the hours until we get to stand in our huddle again.

We understand, deep down into our fucking marrow, that we no longer have to be everything to everyone.  We remember our coaches, our champions.  The people who believed in us.

To us, that is sacred.

But most of all, we remember how many times we wanted to say the same damned thing.

“Don’t give up on me.”

Somewhere, once upon a time, someone didn’t give up on us.

And now, neither will we.

The Phone Booth

Out in the suburbs, before you get your driver’s license, before you turn 16 or 17, there is a particular kind of loneliness at the end of the night.  The convenience stores have closed, the last train into town has decamped, and wherever you are, you’re probably not supposed to be there.

Out under a thoughtless moon, you gin up big dreams but don’t know where to put them.  Sometimes you wish you could shoot out of town like a rocket, out from under the people who love you in search of the people who’ll know you.  Sometimes.  But most nights you just want someone to listen, for a minute or two.

I remember walking to the pay phone in the center of town with a roll of quarters.  I’d call friends. girls, radio stations.  When the money ran out, I’d call information.  I got good at talking out there in the silence.  After a while I’d sneak home and sleep in the basement until it got light.  I’d wake up with a raw throat and the belief that somehow, some way, I knew myself a little bit better than I did the day before, that I’d gotten myself a little bit closer to the person I was going to become.

Running a gym, talking with folks who are struggling to get themselves back into exercise, I hear a lot of loneliness.  I talk with folks who wake up feeling disconnected from their own bodies.  I sit with people who feel like they may have exhausted their last chance, or traded upon their last bit of goodwill.

It makes me think about the kid I was, and the grownup I sometimes feel like, and that some mornings I feel like I might need a medium to find the person inside, the one I wanted to be.

The one I still can be.  Because it’s never too late.  Even if it’s been a while, even if it’s been forever, it’s never too late.

The barbell may not solve all our world’s problems, but when I put my hands on that cold steel I feel like I’m closing my fist around a telephone wire right into the middle of my heart.  Every training session is an hour out in that phone booth, learning about myself, willing myself into next steps, wherever they might lead.

At the beginning of the session, silence.
And at the end of the hour, knowledge.

Crying

Like with everything, the answer is probably hormones. Or chemtrails.  Or the BPA they are putting in the drinking water.  Anyhow, I’ve noticed that since having kids, I am…how do you say this…provoked to tears much more quickly than I was in the halcyon days of youth when basically all I cried about was the stupid Red Sox and breakups.  And okay when Drago killed Apollo, I cried then too.

So it was that I’d gone into my oldest son’s classroom to see “The Invention Convention” the other day.  (Aside–I was so incredibly happy to see that these projects had all clearly been made by the actual students and not by the parents.  It reminded me of my 9th Grade Western Civ project: a chariot we affectionately dubbed ‘The Chocolate Wagon.’)

Anyhow, I was looking at D’s project and noticed that on the wall above, all of the students in his class had created posters to describe themselves.  These were all really cool and funny.  (Kids these days.  Funnier than you think they are.)  Looking at my son’s, I saw that the first word he’d written to describe himself was “Son.”

Even thinking about this now, I’m a little emotional.  Seeing this little not-so-little-anymore person sitting in front of me, behind his invention, in front of his poster, and thinking about him writing that word…well, like I said, I’m an easy cry these days.  I hope he always knows how proud his mom and I are of him.  And that he continues to try to get better at putting his own laundry away.

But ultimately I am sharing this not to talk about crying, although I suppose it’s a nice little hook.  I’m sharing this because I feel like it’s so easy for us to forget sometimes that we are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, pride and joy, best friend, partner.  The world is a busy, confusing, hectic place; life is fast, too fast, and all of it a widening gyre as the poet says.  At the center of the whirlwind, we can forget who we are.

And we are always ourselves, of course.  But we are also always ourselves, loved and cheered and appreciated by those who see our better angels.  Sometimes this part feels like finger tracings in the sand, like every tide pushes its imprint further into the past.  How quickly we forget.  How quickly we feel alone again.

Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if we made our own posters every so often.  Maybe it’s one of the best things we could do for ourselves, to remember how much we matter to the others in our lives.

Son.  Brother.  Father.  Husband.  Friend.  Uncle.  Goofball.  And so on.