working

the house where we grew up

” First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross

The image conjured up is of a fast-talking, cheaply dressed guy with a face unctuous and pocked with acne. He avoids eye contact but acts like your best friend even though you just met. He is not someone one would trust with important financial decisions.

This is how I picture the typical sales guy. Which is highly ironic since I have been in and around

inspiration

with blinders off, leaving the enchantment forest

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely the were to crack.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

My wounded friend sat across from me at the Fleetwood Diner one morning. He fidgeted. Every few seconds he grabbed the bill of his baseball cap and shifted it backwards across his head with both hands. Then he scratched his scalp before quickly replacing the cap.

We had been talking about his life. About how things had fallen apart for him. He had been forced out of his job because of his friendship with a guy who was arrested for doing some bad things.  I won’t reveal any more because I want to protect his identity. It doesn’t matter anyway.

MaineTrip7The point is that my dear friend, in his 40’s, divorced and in a less-than-fulfilling relationship with a woman for the past six years, was looking at rock bottom. Normally his sense of humor is as big as the Oscar Meyer hot dog van, but he didn’t laugh. He barely smiled. He was scared for his future.

“I just hate people thinking so badly about me,” he said.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee.

He toiled for years in his field creating systems and award-winning programs to help others that now would likely be abandoned because none of his former colleagues would care as he did. He did a lot of good work that will be forgotten in all the recrimination for a massive lapse in judgement over how to pick friends. He is an involved, caring dad and has a strong community of friends.

His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee. I steered the conversation toward the future.

“What is next?,” I said. “What are you going to do?”

Everyone has bad days. Sometimes we have bottomlessly bad days. Stretches of time where we feel completely lost. Where getting up and getting dressed and stepping into our busy lives is as hopeless as a crowded elevator that stops on every floor with mind-numbing muzak to boot. Where we can’t decide the next step for fear we will always make mistakes. And where we feel completely powerless to do a damn thing about it.

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we think. Life isn’t supposed to be so hard.

I listened to a podcast recently of an interview with Casey Neistat. Neistat is a YouTube dynamo. He puts out a v-log, or video blog, doing at least one video a day. He has a coveted studio in Manhattan. And his videos cover everything from quick hacks to make existing products better to an epic adventure skiing through Manhattan during “Snow-geddon.” If anything Casey Neistat is as self-made as they come. He didn’t go to college. Today he speaks to executives at Google and Microsoft and others about creativity.

It’s when life is hard that you grow.

imagesWhat struck me during the conversation was that Neistat wasn’t boastful despite the accolades his interviewer piled on. Instead he said what made him appreciate his life were the hard times. You remember the down times in life so much more vividly than the good, easy ones. It’s when life is hard that you grow. It’s the place character is built.

This is what the conversation with my friend at Fleetwood reminded me of.

Where do we get the notion that life is not ever supposed to feel shitty? Why do we hold onto expectations and enchantments so much even when they are falling apart? Why do we judge ourselves and others so viciously when we struggle? “I’m glad I’m not that guy,” we say.

I can look at my own difficulties in life and see it is true that when I was the most distraught was when something propelled me to change.

Being estranged from my oldest daughter…taught me some things about being a parent. 

Being estranged from my oldest daughter for three years taught me some things about being a parent. It took me a while to understand, but I learned about being a better dad not just to her but to each of my kids and step-kids.  Being fired or laid off three times in six years taught me something about being employed and how I want to work. I still think one of the guys who fired me is an asshole and I’m not alone in that but what matters is not that this organization didn’t want me to be a part of it any longer. What matters is what I did next and what direction I chose from there.

It was in my miserable divorce and aftermath that I learned about boundaries and personal responsibility and who I wanted to be in a relationship. Cancer and a pulmonary embolism taught me how precious and fragile life is and how to advocate for myself in a medical situation. A sawed off finger taught me about attention and focus and a little about what metal does to flesh.

My friend said I inspired him. He called me resilient. I sloughed off the compliment because I don’t see any other way to live. Things happen. Life happens. We are the ones who choose if something is bad or good. We get caught doing something unacceptable at work and our job gets taken away. It’s just a job. Get another or do something different. Do something about a relationship that doesn’t even come close to feeling good and never will.

My struggles have helped me grow, in effect become a better, more authentic person. Yes, they have helped define me. My life experience is richer because of the difficult times in my life. I am more sensitive, compassionate and dare I say wiser because I have had to let go of enchantments that life had to be a certain way. But it’s not the bad things as much as what I did next. More things will happen to me. I will likely label some “bad” and some “good.”

You are what you do. There is no other way. I love my friend and have enormous sympathy for his predicament. I’m also excited as hell to see what he’ll do with the lemons he’s been handed.

“I’m thankful for my struggle becaue without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.”  — Alex Elle, author. 

figuring it out

i believe in your victory

Adversity toughens manhood, and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempt from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.” –Patrick Henry

Vin Diesel smirks from the cover of a recent Men’s Fitness magazine. He is all biceps and muscled shoulders. His white t-shirt is too tight. Under the title, “Diesel Strength: Vin’s Max-Your-Life Secrets”, he reveals what it means to be true in one’s “man-ness.”

Of all the more important things one could think about–including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions–I find myself pondering what it means to be a man nowadays.

It is a running joke between my wife and I how manly I am compared to the average guy. On one end are men like Vin Diesel or her perennial favorite, Matthew McConaughey, once her gold standard in masculinity. On the other end are gay men in film and entertainment like Anderson Cooper and fashion icons like Tom Ford with more style, class and something else essential in the rubric of manhood, authenticity.

My wife kids me that she wants me “just this side of gay” which is not meant to be a slur. Quite the opposite in fact. To she and some of her friends, gay men embody more style, have better grooming than the average “manly man”, are funnier and are generally more authentic with their feelings. Gay men are not caught up in appearing tough.

To be a real man, I must be as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever…

You might see the enormity of my challenge. To be a real man, I must dance along a line: as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever.

Between us, my wife and I have four daughters and one son. It is important for my daughters and for my son to see what authenticity looks like in a man just as it does in women. This includes kindness. I am trying to teach our kids the right way to treat people under all conditions. My wife and her friends sometimes chide me for being a softy. My demeanor is deliberate; Kindness and sensitivity are just right. They are as masculine as strength and grit. 

I want my children to grow up with a sense that chivalry and equality can exist in the same household.  In a world of rudeness and self-absorption I want them to see that kindness and style are cool. That women don’t have to always be feminine and masculine at the same time in order to compete with–and attract–the manly men they will work beside in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the tough guy heroes actors like Diesel play. In fact, one of my favorite movie roles is Diesel’s Riddick. Don’t even get me started on Fast and Furious. Car movies rock. 

There is, however, something in our DNA as a culture that speaks out of both sides of its metaphorical mouth: We say it is cool for men to freely express their feelings while in the same breath we make fun of it as weakness. It’s okay to have style that stands out but too much attention to dress and we’ll call you gay.  Not in a complimentary way. We want strong heroes but we say men who exhibit too much strength “need to get in touch with their feminine side.”

No wonder it’s so hard.

It is not beyond me to be sensitive. I can cry. Really. This made me cry: Drew Lynch: Comedian with a Stutter Wins over America’s Got Talent Judges  Ondine, a beautiful movie with Colin Farrell as a down-in-his-luck Irish fisherman who catches a mermaid in his net, made me ball. In fact, I have a reputation for being really sensitive.

Like some gay men might be.

Before you dismiss me as a whiny, confused baby boomer, you have to consider I also do guy things:  I mow the lawn. My puny biceps, built from years as a runner and cyclist, bulge as I wield the Craftsman weed whacker like a maestro.

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I go up on my roof to clear leaves. I know which end of the hammer to hold. I build with the focus and skill of an experienced contractor. (okay, I’ll admit this is an exaggeration. I’m more like those DIY’ers begging the guy at Stadium Hardware to help me out of a jam I’ve created in a home renovation project gone awry).  I am pretty competent around power tools, though those who know I had a little accident recently and there is now one less power tool in my quiver (see Everything Seems Like It Used To Be Something Else).

Just like Diesel, only me.

In recent years I have upped my fashion game. Deliberately. I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room. Even if I’m only slightly better dressed than other guys, that’s okay. I notice the nuances of how guys dress and where they go wrong.

I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room.

I check out men’s fashion on Pinterest and in magazines. When I dress for work I choose specific combinations of pants, shirts and ties, even socks and shoes so that I can convey a certain look. Is my deliberateness in choice of dress gay?

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To me, a sense of style, sensitivity and kindness are the badges of an evolved man. They have nothing to do with sexuality. Displaying kindness even in the face of the judgement is as masculine as muscle.

Kindness is opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).  I participate in folding the laundry and doing dishes, vacuuming and cleaning and thank her in front of them when she does all those chores. I am not saying other men don’t do these things and more. I am not better than anyone. And I know my daughters have other male role models in their lives; my ex’s husband appears to treat my daughters’ mother with kindness and respect.

I show my kids simple things like opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”. Can we appreciate an individual’s approach to style as well as their emotions without questioning their sexuality? Can we as a culture disconnect sexuality from a judgement about masculinity?

When I cut off my middle finger in a table saw a couple weeks ago, the pain was off the charts. I didn’t cry a tear. Is that manly enough?

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”.

I smile when my kids notice my efforts. My stepson regularly opens my wife’s door, his sisters’ doors and mine. One moment he rushes ahead to hold the door and won’t relent until we pass. The next we discuss his favorite tool brands (“Dewalt is my favorite, then Porter-Cable, then Kobalt,” he tells me.) This lesson has stuck.

To me there is nothing more powerful than a man living his truth. I only know Vin Diesel the actor not the real man inside. So he can punch harder, kill more aliens, and drive faster than I ever will. He is a man’s man. I will never have his biceps nor his six pack. I’m okay with that. As long as I earn the respect of my wife and my kids for the kind of man I am, I can live with not being a super man. A gentle man is just fine.

“This is the test of your manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?” –Orison Swett Marden

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health and wellness

seems like everything used to be something else

The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.- Aristotle

The “e”, “d” and “c” keys are impossible.

they rest on my keyboard just as they always have. it is not their fault they are now icons of despair. the middle finger keys’ places are not meant to have any meaning other than being letters set in rank according to someone’s long ago sense of how frequently words require their use. their presence more than any other letters reminds me that now is a different time, a sort of post-finger apocalypse where the entire typing and writing landscape has changed.

a fraction of a second’s inattention using a table saw, rushing to finish a home project, cost the middle finger on my left hand its life. my carelessness using one of the most dangerous of tools even in safe conditions doomed this useful and loved digit.

now the index finger, my middle one’s smaller neighbor, will bear a double burden. it unnaturally will have to take on much the work the middle finger so easily accomplished.

new mental gymnastics are required. the first few words i started to type were awkward. the first “e” i pressed didn’t happen. it was there. i saw it and naturally my brain told my middle finger “press ‘e’ .” the “e” didn’t respond. there was only air. i stopped typing in that moment and thought about the significance of not only my missing middle finger, but missing fingers for everyone. how different things now will be. my left hand is bandaged so even simple tasks like hitting the shift key and a letter at the same time are not really going to happen.  i know this is a temporary adjustment. but it’s significant nonetheless. i will have to adapt to an unfamiliar way of doing something that has been an intrinsic part of my life since i took my first typing class in eighth grade.

the worst part may not be actually losing my middle finger.

the worst part my not be actually losing my middle finger. on Saturday evening my wife and i had sushi with her parents. i ate as i always eat sushi, with chopsticks. but this time i used my right hand (i am left-handed). it was an adaptation that happened as if automatically. something i just did in order to eat. i wasn’t perfect, but i didn’t have the other-handed awkwardness one might expect.

the darker part is the haunting vision of the moment when the rotating saw blade chopped though flesh and bone.

the darker part is the haunting vision of the moment when the rotating saw blade chopped through flesh and bone. it plays over and over in my head, especially at night just as i lay down to sleep. the past few days, just as i close my eyes, like some horror movie opening on a big screen, i see the churning blade rising up through my finger. the alarms in my head are screaming. i see blood shooting out like auras of sun spots in all directions. i feel the chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk as the teeth scrape the bone. i cannot pull my finger away. i amth watching as if i were watching someone else’s horror. suddenly the pain kicks in and i sweep back to now. in my vision i pull my hand away, scream to whomever is in earshot-“CALL 911!” the burning in my hand rises. i feel faint as i bend over, squeezing my right hand over my left. someone places a blanket over my hand to stem the bleeding. just before they do, i see my poor, trusted middle finger dangle, like a fallen, dying soldier. massively raw at its base, as if gnawed by piranha.

it all was so surreal, movie and real life coalesced. a bad dream. i do not cry. i am embarrassed, scared, angry at myself for  rushing, for not being more cautious. i’m worried what my wife will think. what will my kids feel? dad, the freak with a lobster claw for a left hand. all these thoughts running through my head. all the while the intense burning of my wound.

but when i try to sleep is only the moment where blade and flesh and bone interact that stirs me. haunts me. the replay is so vivid, so real. i sense the rotating blade against bone. i feel the burn. i see the blood. it only lasts a couple of seconds before i wake, trying to stir to consciousness and away from nightmare. it cycles through once or twice before i am able to sleep. i don’t know if it is fatigue or the narcotic pain reliever or both. i don’t care. i welcome the peace from this horrible stupid accident. this lapse in judgement and precaution. it didn’t just cost me my middle finger. this accident is a scar on my psyche. i know it’s not fair to put it into the same silo as servicemen who suffer PTSD from wounds caused by war–not even close and i’m deliberately trying to avoid that comparison–yet something lingers.

i am a DIY homeowner who overstepped a safety boundary.

i am not a soldier. i am a DIY homeowner who overstepped a safety boundary. who tried to do too much too quickly without taking precautions. i set the stage for this exact situation to occur. all the stories one hears about people exactly like me getting injured while using power tools and i am now one of the many, a statistic compiled in an emergency room.

“diagnosis: TRAUMATIC APMUTATION OF OTHER FINGER(S) (COMPLETE) (PARTIAL).” as i stare at the notes from the ER, i get a sense they were written for someone else. “amputation” is such a vile word. as disgusting as any ever spoken. now i am forever connected with this loaded term.

i went to the garage this weekend. the table saw lies quietly on the concrete floor, like some sleeping dragon after a meal. dried blood spatters the table and dots the blade. i was anxious about table saws before the accident. now i am more so. it’s crazy to be irrational about a tool. it’s not a sleeping dragon. the saw has taken an anthropomorphic leap. maybe i have to have a villain. i do not wish to power up this tool agin.

i will look at the empty space on my left hand, knowing that my moment’s inattention caused that. the stitches eventually will be taken out. the wounds on my hand eventually will heal. i’m not so sure about the collateral damage in my head.

the journalist david moranis, said:

i believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet i also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.

maybe it was time for my middle finger to get ground up in that saw. maybe i needed to suffer this trauma to grow. who knows what doors will open with this new awareness i possess. sure, i lost my middle finger. i could have lost all of the fingers on my left hand according to the ER doc. somehow the damage was limited. i still have NINE fingers, including two all-important thumbs. there’s solace in that. i got off with a warning, a speeding ticket in the fast lane of my life. i still don’t know what to make of it all. i guess i’ll figure it out.

 

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essayist’s post-script: it has been seven months since I last wrote in this space. i have had a serious case of writer’s block. or maybe i’ve just been experiencing life without a pen in hand (ironic seeing the above essay). these seven months have felt oddly; i often felt that i had lost my voice and didn’t have quite the words to say. i hope this is a return to regular writing in this space. as always thank you for reading. if you have any response, feel free to write in the comment box after every post or drop me a line at christianRward@yahoo.com. – cw