Don’t Know Much

advice

(Thought Catalog is going to publish an e-book of my various articles. What follows is a prologue for the e-book)

At a wedding reception a few weeks ago, I decided to approach the DJ.

“Do you take requests?” I asked.

“Of course,” he responded.

“That’s wonderful” I said. “Could you turn it down a bit?”

And all of the sudden, there it was- as plain as the prunes on my plate. Old man disease.

I’m trying my best to stem the tide of old manhood but it’s a pretty formidable sonofabitch. I’m not doing one arm pushups in front of a mirror at 24 Hour Fitness or driving a corvette or wearing skinny jeans. I don’t even have a 30 year old girl friend.

But I am doing something just as cringe-worthy. Giving advice. Lots of it.

This would be fine except for one small problem.

I really don’t know shit. And the older I get, the less I know. It gets worse every day. It seems I now only add to my list the things about which I know nothing.

I’m not sure why I have a compulsion to dispense advice. My Dad wasn’t, by any means, a man who ever donated his two cents on issues writ large.

He was pretty good at truncating one of my whiny jags with his “no-excuses” ideology.

When we lost the city football championship to St. Charles in eighth grade, I cried because our star player was out with an injury.

“If Ronnie Hughes played we would have won” I whimpered.

“If your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle” said my Dad channeling Yoda. This was his version of “Do or do not. There is no try.”

But when pressed with a difficult question about life or religion, he’d just give a shrug of his shoulders. It drove me crazy.

I thought this was supposed to get easier. Someone has the answer key to life, don’t they? The one that grades your paper, tells the unassailable truth, explains it all in black and white.

Because for me a constant grey keeps creeping in, pushing away the clear lines. And it’s harder to see where one color ends and another begins.

Is life just random, disordered chaos or a perfectly harmonious universe where everything happens as it was preordained? What about destiny? And war? And truth? And suffering? And the popularity of kale? I’m only certain that I don’t know.

Neither do you. You think you do but you confuse belief with fact, opinion with certitude.

You’ve found clarity in religion or math or the stars or booze but in the candid corners of your mind, the shadows of your thought, lurks doubt. If so, then congratulations because you are at least asking questions.

I don’t feel as though I’ve earned a single bit of respect, a modicum of a free pass just because I’ve reached a certain age. If I appear to address you from a lectern, rest assured it’s a wobbly pedestal.

The only thing I can offer is my own perspective which was shaped by time and my unique experience. And a friendly reminder of the absurdity of life and it’s randomness and that it’s an incredibly short trip. The larger answers, such as they may be, are for you to figure out on your own.

My advice isn’t perfect. It’s not for everyone. It’s not one size fits all. It won’t chart your destiny. It won’t bend God’s will in your favor.

It is primarily designed to encourage you to get out of your own way, explore alternate views, embrace others. If any of it deters you from finding your own answers or asking your own questions, kindly disregard.

Because the shrugs from my Dad? Turns out he was right all along.

My Wife Killed Uber

Lily-Tomlin (1)

My wife accidentally dialed her friend Susan a few months ago.

Susan texted back later: “Sorry I missed ur call. Did you need something?”

“No. It was just a booty call.”

…..Susan has been a little scarce this summer. So I had to tactfully explain to my wife the rather substantial difference between a “butt dial” and a “booty call.” Yes, I’m 51.

My wife has a history of bringing technology to its knees. Living in the netherworld between old and new, it’s Flintstones meet the Jetsons. Fred Sanford and Leland Stanford. She will order a pair of shoes from Zappos and try to pay for it with a check. She’d use a drone to spy on whether our neighbor ordered new pillow shams. She’s a dial up modem in a digital world. Alexander Graham Dell. Buffalo Bill Gates.

And as you can tell, there’s also the issue my wife has with the language.

It started with Siri.

My wife’s relationship with Siri began well. Siri was handy with directions to a new restaurant. She could assist with selecting a nearby veterinarian.

As their relationship progressed my wife began treating Siri as a fail-safe for her own faulty memory. So it went from simple commands to impossible recall.

“What was the name of that movie I wanted to go see last week?” was just one of many inquiries. Stupid Siri couldn’t remember.

“What was the name of that book Jill was telling me about, you know the one with the two sisters who get mad at each other and don’t speak for several decades until one is on their death bed and by the time the other sister arrives it’s too late?”

Siri stopped listening at “What.”

“Why is my husband such a jerk?”

Yeah Siri. Why?

It takes Siri awhile to get used to pronunciations and the subtle nuance of speech. It would take Siri even longer to recognize the influence of Chardonnay in my wife’s slurred syntax. This is why Siri was unable to help plan a trip to the quaint California wine country town of Simona; and was unable to locate fish dicks in the freezer section of any local grocery store; and couldn’t help my wife download the classic song by Smokey Robinson, “I Suck at that Emotion.”

I finally had to tell my wife that Siri called me and said she needed a break. My wife didn’t care. She was tired of Siri anyway.

As if running off Siri wasn’t enough, my wife then proceeded to kill Uber. You read that right. It’s uber for Uber.

“Have you ever heard of Uber?” she asked one day.

Mindful of my responsibility to humanity, I decided to tread lightly.

“Is that the all male nude German revue in Deep Ellum?”

“No. It’s this cool taxi service you can get with your phone” she said.

I prayed I wasn’t too late.

“I think it only works in Russia” I said.

I thought I had deftly avoided the issue until we were on vacation last week. We left our hotel and my wife started frantically dialing a number on her cell phone.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Trying to call Uber” she said.

Shit.

“Uber is an app. You can’t call them.”

“I know what Uber is. I used it yesterday to go down to the wharf.”

Confused, I asked: “Did you call them?”

“No. I used the app. But now I need to tell them something.”

“What could you possibly need to tell them?”

Starting to give up on finding a number for Uber, she figured I was her last resort for a semi-attentive ear.

“Well first of all, the driver yesterday had this awful scent in his car so I wanted to make sure they sent a different driver. I smelled like jasmine all day long.”

“There’s more?”

“I have a great idea for them.”

My silence gave her an opening.

“Instead of water bottles in the cup holders they should offer small glasses of wine to their passengers after 5 p.m. They can call it a ‘wine down’ service.”

“Sounds great. Give them a call.”

And I’ll be damned if she didn’t. Somehow she found a customer service number for Uber and regaled that poor bastard with the story of the stinky driver and her money making ideas. Over the next few days she was wearing the guy out so I had to tell her Uber had gone out of business.

No matter. She was talking to someone on her phone yesterday in the back yard when I got home. They seemed to be having a nice chat. When she came inside I asked.

“So who were you talking to?”

“Siri. I was telling her this great idea I have.”

“Oh really. What is it?”

“Siri told me not to tell you. She thinks you’re a jerk.”

10 Roadblocks to Happiness

Image

  1. You ascribe intent. 

Another driver cut you off. Your friend never texted you back. Your co-worker went to lunch without you. Everyone can find a reason to be offended on a steady basis. So what caused you to be offended? You assigned bad intent to these otherwise innocuous actions. You took it as a personal affront, a slap in the face. 

Happy people do not do this. They don’t take things personally. They don’t ascribe intent to the unintentional actions of others. 

  1. You’re the star of your own movie

It is little wonder that you believe the world revolves around you. After all, you have been at the very center of every experience you have ever had. 

You are the star of your own movie. You wrote the script. You know how you want it to unfold. You even know how you want it to end. 

Unfortunately you forgot to give your script to anyone else. As a result, people are unaware of the role they are supposed to play. Then, when they screw up their lines, or fail to fall in love with you or don’t give you a promotion, your movie is ruined. 

Lose your script. Let someone else star once in awhile. Welcome new characters. Embrace plot twists. 

  1. You fast forward to apocalypse

I have a bad habit of fast forwarding everything to its worst possible outcome and being pleasantly surprised when the result is marginally better than utter disaster or jail time. My mind unnecessarily wrestles with events that aren’t even remotely likely. My sore throat is cancer. My lost driver’s license fell into the hands of an al-Qaeda operative who will wipe out my savings account. 

Negativity only breeds more negativity. It is a happiness riptide. It will carry you away from shore and if you don’t swim away from it, will pull you under. 

  1. You have unrealistic and/or uncommunicated expectations

Among their many shortcomings of your family and friends is the harsh reality that they cannot read your mind or anticipate your whims. 

Did your boyfriend forget the six and a half month anniversary of your first movie date? Did your girlfriend refuse to call at an appointed hour? Did your friend fail to fawn over your tribal tattoo? 

Unmet expectations will be at the root of most of your unhappiness in life. Minimize your expectations, maximize your joy. 

  1. You are waiting for a sign.

I have a friend who won’t make a decision without receiving a “sign.” I suppose she is waiting on a trumpeted announcement from God. She is constantly paralyzed by a divinity that is either heavily obscured or frustratingly tardy. I’m not disavowing that fate or a higher power plays a role in our lives. I’m just saying that it is better to help shape fate than be governed by it.

  1. You don’t take risks. 

Two words: Live boldly. Every single time you are offered a choice that involves greater risk, take it. You will lose on many of them but when you add them up at the end of your life you’ll be glad you did. 

  1. You constantly compare your life to others. 

A few years ago I was invited to a nice party at a big warehouse downtown. I was enjoying the smooth jazz, box wine and crustless sandwiches. What more could a guy want? Later in the evening I noticed a steady parade of well-heeled people slide past and disappear into another room. I peeked and saw a large party with beautiful revelers dancing and carrying on like Bacchus. Suddenly my gig wasn’t as fun as it had been all because it didn’t appear to measure up to the party next door- a party I didn’t even know existed until just moments before. 

I do this frequently. Those people are having more fun. Mary has a bigger boat. Craig gets all the lucky breaks. Ted has more money. John is better looking. 

Stop it. 

Always remember what Teddy Roosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” 

  1. You let other people steal from you

If you had a million dollars in cash under your mattress, you would check it regularly and take precautions to insure it is safe. The one possession you have that is more important than money is time. But you don’t do anything to protect it. In fact you willingly give it to thieves. Selfish people, egotistical people, negative people, people who won’t shut up. Treat your time like Fort Knox. Guard it closely and give it only to those who deserve and respect it. 

  1. You can’t/won’t let go

These are getting a little harder aren’t they? That’s because sometimes you have to work at happiness. Some hurdles are too difficult to clear by simply adjusting your point of view or adopting a positive mindset. 

Do you need to forgive someone? Do you need to turn your back on a failed relationship? Do you need to come to terms with the death of a loved one? 

Life is full of loss. But, in a sense, real happiness would not be possible without it.  It helps us appreciate and savor the things that really matter. It helps us grow. It can help us help others grow. 

Closure is a word for people who have never really suffered. There’s no such thing. Just try to “manage” your loss. Put it in perspective. You will always have some regret and doubt about your loss. You may always second guess yourself. If only you had said this, or tried that. 

You’re not alone. Find someone who understands and talk to that person. Reach out for support. If all else fails, try #10 below. 

10. You don’t give back.

One way to deal with loss is to immerse yourself in doing good. Volunteer. Get involved in life.

It doesn’t even have to be a big, structured thing. Say a kind word. Encourage someone. Pay a visit to someone who is alone. Get away from your self-absorption.

When it comes down to it, there are two types of people in this world. There are givers and there are takers. Givers are happy. Takers are miserable. What are you?

 

 

Summer Scamp

Image

When my oldest kid, Stephen, was about 13 years old he decided he wanted to go to summer camp. My wife spent several weeks preparing for his week-long sojourn- marking his name in his underwear, buying a new flashlight with several extra batteries, lining his brand new sleeping bag with lice repellant, updating his personal information on the camp website, making certain his inoculations were in order, checking the credentials of the camp nurse.

He did the usual things one would do at summer camp in the deep piney woods of Texas. They shot bows and arrows, swam in a lake, played a few rounds of grab ass, made fun of each other, and accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Pretty standard Bible Belt camp fare.

My second child, Sophie, went to camp a few years later and we undertook similar preparations. In fact, I wrote about it here. We bought and decorated a new trunk, put together costumes for the various themed events and wrote her letters in advance so she would get some mail. They played water sports and dodge ball, sang campfire songs, and made new friends. Oh and they did the Jesus thing too.

This year my youngest, Hallie, decided to go to camp. Things are a little different with your third.

“Don’t forget I’m going to camp tomorrow” she said.

“You are? How come you didn’t tell me?” I asked.

“Told you 3 times, e-mailed you twice and forwarded about 5 other notices from Camp about forms they needed.”

“Oh. Sorry. I thought that was spam. Are you going to need a ride?” I asked only half kidding.

“I can probably get a ride but I still need a few things. Where’s the sleeping bag?”

My wife hardly looked up from her book.

“I think we gave that away last year. We didn’t think we’d ever need it again. There are some old blankets in the linen closet that you can use.”

“Do we have any sun screen?”

“Ask one of your cabin mates if you can borrow some of theirs. I’ve already been to Walgreens three times this week” said Mary.

Okay we aren’t really that bad but our parenting skills have diminished greatly with our third. I used to impart nuggets of wisdom and encouragement. Stay above the fray. Help those less fortunate. Don’t gossip. Now it’s “go ahead and forge my name to the consent form” or “just rub some whiskey on it.”

She has pretty wide latitude to do as she likes as long as it doesn’t involve me having to bail her out of jail or raise a grandchild.

And I must say she’s a pretty damn good kid.

I read lots of advice (including my own) about how to raise kids. After 22 years of doing it I know only two things for sure.

First there’s no right way or wrong way. Some kids need structure, some don’t. Some are trustworthy, some aren’t.

Second, most kids figure it out with or without us. Sure there are some foul balls but for the most part everyone is going to grow up and find their own way and be fine. They’ll have rough patches, they’ll do stupid stuff, they’ll get knocked on their ass. But who won’t?

I’m not sure what Hallie did at summer camp this week. Even though she was less prepared than her older siblings I doubt she howled at the moon or smoked weed or taught her fellow campers how to forge legal documents. I did give her some parting advice as I dropped her off last week. I told her that if she did happen to talk to Jesus, it’d probably be best to not mention my name.

Almost Cool

Image

“Can we make a deal?” I asked my wife.

“About what?”

“When we have these couples over this weekend can you please not tell them the ski pants story?”

“Oh for goodness sakes. That’s a cute story.”

“It makes me sound like Michael Sam’s boyfriend. I’d just rather you not.”

“That’s fine. I didn’t know it bothered you so much. I won’t tell that story if you promise not to ask your weird questions.”

My wife and I are having some cool parents over to dinner next weekend. A younger, hipper set. Tall dads, hot moms, high income earners all. Worse yet, this group already hangs out together so this is an audition of sorts. These are all parents of my daughter’s friends so my youngest daughter is justifiably nervous.

I’ve never been very good at first impressions. I’m what you might call an acquired taste. Kind of like portobello mushrooms or Josh Groban or gripper underwear. People prefer french fries, Adam Levine and boxer shorts but when there’s nothing else around, I’ll do.

My wife, however, is excellent. She likes to tell stories among the women, usually about my latest f up at Home Depot or the time I was mistaken for a Peanuts character when we were on vacation at Disney World or the time I wore women’s ski pants during an entire week of Spring Break. Oftentimes the stories involve some callow behavior of mine, like when I blocked my neighbor’s satellite dish during the Super Bowl or when I wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the Star-Telegram calling for the systematic euthanasia of all cats. When the couples all re-congregate for dinner, most of the women look at me with what is likely to become longstanding enmity.

Frankly I stink at the tete a tete of social engagement. And I’m getting worse. In terms of conversation currency, I’m cash poor. I don’t fish, hunt, play golf, barbecue, drink single malt scotch, smoke fine cigars, collect vintage cars, watch TV, take Eco-tour vacations, Cross-Fit, go on mission trips, bird watch, geo cache or juice cleanse.

My awkwardness may also have something to do with the fact that I don’t get much practice. Most of my conversations these days are with myself and usually begin: “What made you think that was a good idea?”

I do have some almost cool stories. When I was 12, the Oklahoma City 89ers Triple A baseball team raffled a mini bike. My ticket number was called and I raced to the field to claim my prize. Since I was under 18 they needed a parent or guardian to take possession. Trey Hodges’ mom had dropped us off for his birthday but she was nowhere to be found, and likely too inebriated to be able to give legal consent anyway.

There’s also the time I sat on the front row of a Bette Midler concert and I’m pretty sure she winked at me. Unfortunately this was before cell phone cameras.

So what do you do when you’re not, yourself, very cool?

I suppose I could talk about cool people I know. I have a friend from high school who just won the Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, everyone grew up with someone who has a claim to fame. When I announced to my office the news about my friend’s Pulitzer, our recently hired clerk chimed in:

“That’s cool. One of my ex-boyfriends is a Chippendale.”

I got nothin.

This is when I resort to what my wife refers to as my “weird questions.”

As a special needs student of the human condition I often ask difficult questions without proper context or the requisite degree of intimacy. Most of them drift toward the morose.

Do you believe the choices you make are fate or free will? Can happiness exist without sadness? Where does your soul reside? What is consciousness? What is enlightenment? Why is there something rather than nothing?

My “weird questions” don’t typically get much traction at these affairs. Since I don’t want to embarrass my daughter I think I’ll stay away from them and just listen. If forced to engage, I’ll have to wing it. I wonder if any of them would like to hear the story of the time I wore women’s ski pants.

All in a Family

Image

My daughter Sophie was sitting next to my son at breakfast one morning when she asked: “Who do love more daddy, me or Stephen?”

“I love you both the same” I answered.

“No but really who do you love more?” she persisted.

“It’s like this Soph. What if I asked you who you love more-me or mommy?” I instructed.

“Oh that’s easy” she said without missing a beat. “I love mommy more.”

Stephen perked up.

“Yeah. That’s easy. Mommy” he added.

We still laugh at that story but I hope they have come to learn what I now know. Love really can’t be measured or compared. Once it makes it’s way to your soul it is immutable, especially among family. As I get older I mean family in a broader sense than I ever thought possible.

In early 2003 I started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA is an organization that places adults with abused children as they navigate the court system. After consulting with my wife and kids, I decided to give it a try.

My first assignment was a 5 year old boy who was found on the side of a road wearing threadbare clothes in frigid temperatures. The CPS worker described his living conditions as “deplorable” and “beyond words.” Live pet snakes were allowed to slither around the house. There was clutter and filth everywhere. I quickly realized it is one thing to learn about these children in a lecture, it’s another thing altogether to see the physical and emotional imprints of abuse.

I wasn’t much help. Neither were the courts. This child needed intense therapy.

My second case was a beautiful baby girl who was removed from the custody of her meth-addicted mom. Some wonderful, worn-out grandparents stepped into the uncertain fray.

I started to question whether I was cut out for the job. My next assignment-a brother (age 13) and sister (age 15) – were on their second removal from their home and living in a temporary group home. One warm Spring afternoon I drove over to meet them. We sat at a picnic table under a large elm tree in a barren yard. I tried to engage them together, then individually, with humor, with cajoling, with stories, with rambling, nonsensical monologues.

When I asked brother how he liked his new school-his fourth that year- he said he hated it. He was so alone. An hour later I left the group home, got in my car and drove away. Two blocks down I pulled to the curb because I couldn’t see through my tears.

We were lost. All of us.

The next week, and for several ensuing weeks, I continued to visit. I attended the court hearings where a collection of strangers weighed the bleak alternatives that await unwanted adolescents. It was a long slog.

The more time I spent with my two charges, the more I realized how little they wanted me to talk or ask questions. So I finally just shut up. That was it. They wanted me to listen. And to not just listen, but to listen without judgment or criticism or advice.

Finally a placement was made. The brother went to another group home; the sister to a foster home. Their case was over.

But something kept gnawing at my conscience. I decided to continue to make periodic visits to both of them. After a few years the sister moved to Washington and I lost contact with her.

I still keep up with the brother. Every month we get together for lunch, or I’ll go visit him at work or school. We talk about everything: girls, school, careers, God, beaches, racism, philosophy, cars, white people, sports, haircuts. I consider him one of my greatest blessings. My family thinks of him as family. When he graduated from high school, his CPS case worker and I were his only family in attendance.

No one is going to make a Sandra Bullock movie about his life. Alas, he’ll never play in the NFL. It’s not really an extraordinary tale to anyone-except me.

Last September 4, I texted my friend to wish him a “Happy Birthday.” He texted back: “Thank you Mr. Tim for being a mentor and father figure to me for the past 10 years. My successes in life couldn’t have been possible without your guidance and love.” 

I hope I can convey this to you without it sounding like some bullshit false modesty or some wretched, disingenuous humblebrag because it is absolutely true. My friend taught me more than I could ever teach him. About strength; and faith; and the fundamental goodness of people; and forgiveness; and the foolishness of stereotypes; and how to carry on in spite of the willful ignorance of a few; and how to heal; and how to live life in the full spectrum between loss and love.

A week from Friday my friend will graduate from college. And I’ll be there to cheer him on. Proudly. In the family section.

Screw You Randy Newman

Image

Screw you Randy Newman. And you too Stone-Tarlow shoe company. I’m coming after you. Who’s with me?

I’ve had it in for Newman since 1977 when he released his hit single “Short People.”

“They got little hands, little eyes, they walk around tellin’ great big lies. They got little noses, tiny little teeth. Don’t need no short people round here.”

For a 5’4″ fourteen year old boy, that can be pretty rough. Even if Newman had most of it right except the part about the nose. Mine is rather large.

Who is Stone-Tarlow you ask? They’re the company with an ad in the back of Boys’ Life magazine for shoes that would make you 2″ taller. The ad showed a pretty girl with the caption: “I go for a TALL guy.”

So when people want to talk about the slings and arrows of discrimination, I hear you. Noone wants to be short. Every variation of the word is negative. Your flaws are shortcomings. Half-asses like to take short cuts. Losers get the short end of the stick. Hot heads are short tempered. When you got less than you bargained for you were short changed.

It’s a terrible and continuing injustice. The Academy Award for Best Picture went to “12 Years a Slave.” But I don’t see anyone beating down my door to make “50 Years a Short.”

Before you rush to the comment section below let me just say I’m kidding. Sort of. Did I feel self conscious about my height? Of course. But I’m not walking around with a chip on my shoulder about it.

In fact, I’m a little fed up with ignorantly sensitive people. The controversy with Stephen Colbert this week is an example. Colbert was roundly vilified for his segment on the Washington Redskins where he spoke of the “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Shit people, take an English class. It’s a literary device known as satire. Go read “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift. Or if you’re too lazy to read, go watch Archie Bunker in All in the Family. 

Have we grown so, um short sighted, that everyone has to be not just universally accepted but also celebrated?

I’ve gone on record on this very blog and stated that I support gay marriage. I do, however, have a problem when a man loses his job because he happens to hold a different view on the subject. The CEO of Mozilla was forced to resign over a $1000 personal campaign contribution to California’s Prop 8 initiative which called for a ban on gay marriage. Give me a break. When you fight tooth and nail for tolerance, here’s an idea. Exercise some. Not everyone is going to like you, or agree with you or accept you.

So at the risk of offending fat people everywhere, can we all just get a little thicker skin?

We can right after I exact my revenge on Randy Newman. How about we gather in Beverly Hills for a Million Man March? Actually my wife suggested a Half Million Man March. Just because it would be, you know, shorter.