What's Important 10: Not So Desperate Times, Not So Desperate Measures

I'm upset that I’m not more upset.

I don't write as much as I used to. It bugs me and it's mostly logistical because, you know, busy life and all that. And when I do write it's stupid shit like blogging or writing about comics. I have been editing a YA book for MONTHS now.

I miss writing literary fiction. I actually miss short stories.

But the other day I had a realization about writing: it's no longer essential.

People talk about the arts in what seems like hyperbolic terms, but it's not: the arts save lives. I don't know that I would say that writing saved mine, but it certainly allowed me to live. It's where I've tried to make sense of the world around me, tried to make sense of the distortions in my head. It's where I've set up shop and lived when life was its hardest.

It was sometimes all I had.

But it's not anymore. My life is so full I honestly have a hard time believing it's real.

In the past, writing meant the difference between losing my shit and holding on. Writing meant keeping my head above water. It meant giving me some semblance of control.

Writing meant that something good could come out of me.

But at some point I realized that something good can come out of me all the damn time and writing stopped being so special.

That's not to say that I don't still love it/hate it or that I'm not still drawn to it. And that's certainly not to say that it's not still important to my mental/emotional/spiritual well being. It is and it always will be.

But it's not alone anymore. It's not fighting a seemingly hopeless battle on its own.

It's no longer life support.

It doesn't have to be.

My need to write has changed and I can tell that it has changed my writing.

That's hard for me to reconcile.

I look back on the things that I wrote in the past and it feels like someone else wrote it.

I won't lie: I miss it. The fact that I don't write the way that I used to makes me feel like I've failed in some way. Maybe I have. Maybe I've let a piece of myself down. Maybe I'm neglecting a part of myself that needs tending to even if it's not as obvious as it once was.

But maybe I am tending to that part just in other ways. Perhaps this blog does that, or my ongoing autobiographical/journal type thing that I've been writing for years now.

I suppose my concern comes down to my emotional side, although just writing that I feel how wrong I am. It feels like maybe it comes down to my ego.

My writing is what allowed me to have an emotional side, but that's not true anymore. I don't need it as an outlet, not in the way that I used to. I'm still writing to be creative and I'm still writing to exercise my brain, but I'm not writing to vent.

I'm no longer exorcising demons.

That should be a good thing, right?

But I focus on all the potential I thought I had and the fact that it is seemingly going to waste. I remember that rush that came from rereading something and realizing that it was actually pretty good.

I even miss the rejection letters.

And I miss the fire.

I think maybe the fire is what made my writing special and that maybe it's gone now or, at the very least, it's not as hot, not as all encompassing. It no longer engulfs all that I am.

I still have things I want to write. I still have story ideas written on scraps of paper all over this office. I just don't know if I will ever get to them because I don't have the drive that I once did.

The hardest part about all of this isn't that it's happening, but that I'm not more upset about it. Because I should be, right? I used to be special. I used to bare my soul. I used to cry when I wrote. I could even make other people cry, too.

I was an artist.

And maybe that's not me anymore. Maybe I don't have that fire anymore, at least not for all the soul bearing and heart ache.

When Nicole and I first started dating I told her that I worried about being in a happy relationship because I was concerned what being happy would do to my writing. I won't lie; being with Nicole changed my writing. There was a very clear shift in my work.

But I adjusted. I adapted. I think I was able to find my voice even when I was no longer miserable.

Finding my voice again as a parent seems to be harder because being a parent is more consuming than being a boyfriend/husband. It requires a greater time commitment, it requires a greater emotional commitment.

So this is me, now, trying to figure out how to deal with this. In part I’ve accepted it because it’s easy to accept: I have distractions. But that’s probably not the way to get over something.

Maybe it’s time to try something new.

I’m just not sure what that is yet.

 

Football is Awful Despite My Nostalgic Joy

Football is awful.

The other day I was listening to Tiki and Tierney, a sports talk show on CBS Radio. It's one of those rare sports talk shows where they actually talk about sports and both commentators are not only knowledgeable, but conscientious. 

The day the story about LeSean McCoy came out, Tiki and Tierney spent their show talking about the various issues involved, from the veracity of the claims to the potential fall out, to any number of theories as to what really happened.

The Tiki of Tiki and Tierney is Tiki Barber, former running back for the New York Giants. He knows football. He played football for a decade and he was really good at it.

Their discussion ultimately landed on the issue of whether or not men who are already violent play football or if football makes relatively stable men more violent. Barber was definitive on this: the game makes men more violent.

It would be hard to argue anyone that point, let alone someone who played the game for so long.

It is a horribly violent sport and it seems to promote the absolute worst impulses in men, regardless of what Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights might try to tell you.

Feel free to read about the concussions that happen because of the game. It's so bad that former players have killed themselves due to the damage done to their brains.

Every year the NFL rolls out more and more rules in an effort to keep their players safe, and every year fans and pundits complain that the game has changed for the worst.

Because people want blood. And because those who lived through the arena want everyone who comes after them to face the same fight. It's stupid and barbaric but it's what we are as a country.

There is nothing good about the sport of football.

But.

Growing up, the start of the college football season was a big deal. It was the first sign of fall. There was so much excitement, so much passion from the fans, more so than even professional football fans. College football was currency. It kept the lights on. It provided entire communities with jobs and, more importantly, identities. It's big and bold and it is in my blood. A small piece of me lives and dies every Saturday with the Ohio State Buckeyes, even now.

But it is also everything I said above about the NFL, yet worse. The likelihood of deplorable behavior coming to light in the NFL is much higher than in college football. Collegiate athletes have a fortress around them. They are given passing grades. They are given nice things. They are protected by the law no matter how awful the crime.

College football perpetuates a system that is rotten to its core, a system that simply evolves at the next level, a system that his, itself, an evolution of the system before it (high school).

This is all without even touching upon the race dynamics in football which are completely unhinged.

Football is awful and it should be treated as such. It's is the perfect encapsulation of much of what is wrong with this country.

And the fact that I still feel those pangs of nostalgic joy each fall are the epitome of the hold it has on America.

Micro-inclusiveness: Raising a white boy

My son is four. He is as white as they come.

His current cartoon fixation is Handy Manny. He's watched roughly 8 episodes and so far we've mostly talked about the fact that Manny and his friends can speak two languages and I try to translate for him in a more deliberate way than they do on the show. Fortunately for both of us, my Spanish covers everything Manny and his friends say.

My son thinks it's cool that they speak two languages and has said he'd like to learn Spanish. But, you know, he's four, so we'll see how that goes.

It helps that he goes to a diverse school. His former best friend was from France and spoke both French and English. He moved away a few months ago and one of his other friends has now stepped into the "best friend" position. He's Chinese American and speaks English and Mandarin. For my son, speaking two languages isn't unusual.

He has two other friends that he plays with every day at school. One is a Chinese-American girl, the other an Iranian-American boy. There were probably a half dozen different languages being spoken at the latter's last birthday party.

This afternoon my son diverged from his Handy Manny fixation and asked to watch something else: Doc McStuffins.

You don't need me to go on and on about Doc McStuffins. Here's a decent overview, although even the accolades list doesn't do it justice. You can check out what Common Sense Media has to say, too, as they are usually pretty good about these things. Neither of those links really drives home how important Doc McStuffins is and how essential it has become.

More to the point, Doc is a black girl, just as Manny is a hispanic man. They are the main characters on their shows. They are not sidekicks, they are not punching bags. They are kind, nice, genuine problem solvers who happen to not be white.

I know that none of this is huge. I know that I can't suddenly claim that my son will treat every one equally when he's an adult because I don't have a crystal ball. I can't specifically tell you what kind of impact these shows are having on him, or even the impact of the fact that he has friends who aren't all just like him. I don't know how any of this works.

But I know that I grew up surrounded by white people, watching cartoons about white people, and while I don't think I am ever consciously prejudiced, I have no doubt that I am guilty of microagressions that I'm not even aware of. I also know that I spent most of my life being completely clueless about anyone who didn't look like me and even though that's changed over the last decade or so, I still feel like I missed out on a lot before that.

I think this is how it starts, though. I think watching cartoons with diverse characters is how it starts. Going to a school with diverse students is a start. Being raised by parents who are aware of how important this is is a start.

I think the goal of every parent is for their child to grow up to be better than they were.

In that case, this is definitely a good start.

The key is making sure that continues.

White Guys Saying Shitty Things

James Gunn was fired from as director of Guardians of the Galaxy 3 a while back. Disney fired him because of some offensive Tweets he posted years ago.

Around the same time, Dan Harmon deleted his Twitter account after alt right trolls found an old sketch he'd done that featured offensive content.

Then there's Josh Hader, the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers, who Tweeted racist, sexist, and homophobic things when he was younger. Or Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb who did the same, albeit limited to homophobic posts.

These men all have something in common: they're white dudes. They're white dudes who fell into the very white dude trend of trying to say really shitty things for attention.

While such behavior has been around for centuries, my generation grabbed hold of it and held it up as something to aspire to. My generation thought Bill Hicks, Denis Leary, and Colin Quinn were comedic geniuses. A large percentage of us even thought Andrew Dice Clay was great.

For Generation X, being an asshole was cool.

There are a lot of problems with that, not the least of which is the fact that only straight white guys could get away with being assholes without repurcussions.

And the more prominent this white guy behavior became, the more extreme it got as each white guy tried to out do the other.

It got worse with each iteration of this white guy. The comedians I mentioned above managed to more or less balance being assholes with making good, often thought provoking jokes. Periodically there would be some substance behind the asshole bravado, a poignant comment simply wrapped in bitterness. But as the trend grew, it became lesser, a photo copy of a photo copy of a photo copy until the only image you could still make out was that of a giant asshole.

The internet made this trend spread like wildfire. Humor sites that found a way to monetize this flavor of attitude popped up all over. Men who couldn't get jobs writing for those sites started blogs. Eventually we all moved to social networks, bringing the shitty things with us.

James Gunn is nine years older than me. Dan Harmon is two years older than me. I get it. I understand why they acted the way that they did, said the things that they said. It was, to be honest, an awful trend and, really, and it falls squarely on the feet of one demographic.

And, as usual, it's mostly borne from privilege. Women could certainly never get away with such behavior. Men of color could try it, but very few would get the pass that white men do.

I'm torn on the subject, but I don't think James Gunn should have been fired. I think he made some mistakes. I think he truly regrets them. I think that's what matters.

I also think that you'd be hard pressed to find a white dude of my generation who hasn't said horrible things. I also think that most of them don't regret it.

I guess all the Nazis coming out of the woodwork in America these days are right about there being a singular, white culture, and here's our defining contribution to society: we perfected being horrible people...and getting away with it.

Which is probably how we ended up with so many Nazis.

Boys Are Rough, Right, Daddy?

The other day my wife wasn't feeling well so she stayed home from work. Our son noticed this, of course, and asked me about it. I told him that momma would be home when he got home from school, but that she wasn't feeling well.

"I have to be gentle with her," he said. "I'll get all of my energy out at school so I only have slow energy when I come home."

"Yes, always gentle with momma," I said.

My son and I have established some boundaries with regards to rough housing. He's four, after all, so he's still figuring out the physicality of life. He wants to wrestle. He wants to run and jump and throw and hit. My wife is not a fan of this, but I love it. A big part of my relationship with my son involves physical interaction.

"I have to be gentle with momma," he said, "but I can be rough with dadda - because we're boys, right daddy? Boys are rough."

It's not often than you are aware of moments like this when they happen, but I knew this was important.

I would imagine that if I had said what my son did when I was his age, the answer I would have gotten would have been "yes."

I told my wife about it after the fact.

"Did you tell him that girls can be rough, too?" she said.

That's a totally legitimate response and would have been a good answer.

That's not what I opened with, though.

"You shouldn't be rough with anyone unless they tell you it's okay."

That's how I started.

"Daddy tells you it's okay and mommy says it's not. Boys and girls can both be rough, but only if they tell you they are okay with it."

I decided to address consent first, which I suppose is the kind of thing that a guy would do. Maybe I should have started with sexism, but I felt like saying "girls can be rough, too" was letting a genie out of a bottle that I couldn't pull back.

It would be like saying "you can burn lots of different things, but don't do it!" I think it was important to establish that being rough with anyone without their consent was bad and then to point out that girls can be just as rough as boys.

Did I address the issue correctly? I have no idea. Will this one conversation with my four year old determine whether or not he respects boundaries as he grows up? Probably not. But it was good to lay the groundwork.

More importantly, it was good to introduce the subject, more so for me than for him, because it's not going to go away.

Honestly, I've spent enough time around little kids to know that boys being rough is the rule, not the exception, while girls being rough is the exception, not the rule. But the goal is to consider everyone, not just rules and not just exceptions.

It was my first swing and I think I made decent contact. At the very least, it's a start.

Kyle Reviews Cartoons: Daniel Tiger

Daniel Tiger is essential television.

Honest to god, if I knew parents who told me they were only going to let their kid watch 20 minutes of TV each day until they were six, I would tell them that Daniel Tiger should fill those 20 minutes. That is how important Daniel Tiger is.

Because Daniel Tiger isn't just a cartoon, it's a parenting tool.

I suppose that's taboo these days, to suggest that television might in some way help with parenting. I know that "screen time" is a supposed to be a problem and that too many of us are letting television raise our children. I don't think that's true, but I will say that if the right television shows are doing the raising, it might not be that big of a deal.

Daniel Tiger is, of course, a character from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. But instead of being a supporting character depicted by a hand puppet, Daniel is the star of his own show, this time as a two dimensional cartoon.

It's worth noting that Daniel isn't 3D computer animation; he's old school. I think I would freak out if they ever made him computer animated.

It's Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood now and he's brought the rest of the gang from the land of make believe with him.

There's a lot to cover as far as setup for the show is concerned, so I'm going to pass the buck and send you to a nice overview of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

There are two essential elements to the world of Daniel Tiger:

  1. It's fairly diverse given how few characters there are
  2. Everything ends up in a song

That first point is important in a broad sense, although it's something that show like Sesame Street has embraced for decades. Children's television should reflect the world around them, not perpetuate a myopic view of society.

The fact that Daniel is, well, a tiger helps, because it doesn't give urgency to any one type of person. His school class consists of 2 other animals and 2 humans; Prince Wednesday is a white boy, Miss Elaina is a black girl.

The cast of Daniel's town are diverse, too, Dr. Anna to Music Man Stan to Teacher Harriet. It's also interesting to note how so many of the characters have descriptive names that refer to their occupations. Baker Aker is another.

But while the cast of characters is important as far as creating a healthy worldview, the songs are important when it comes to actually raising your kid.

Yes, I said it: Daniel Tiger can help you raise your kid(s) and there's nothing wrong with that.

There is a Daniel Tiger song for everything your child could ever go through. Okay, that's overstating it, but when it comes to things like going to the doctor, using the potty, getting upset, trying new food, etc. Daniel Tiger and his family have you covered.

Honestly, it's hard to explain how valuable this is unless you have a kid. The songs are short and sweet and easy to repeat so they end up living inside your kid's head...and yours. I will never forget the steps to using the potty: When you have to go potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way. That is every difficult step in one little ditty.

Is the world of Daniel Tiger perhaps a bit too cheery and bright? Probably. Are the characters perhaps to pure and innocent? Maybe. But this is a show for little kids and if there's ever a time when too good is okay, it's when you're little. Let them have this time.

Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood was co-created by Angela Santomero, who also helped created Blue's Clues, Super Why, and Creative Galaxy (as well as Peep and the Big Wide World and The WotWots, but we don't watch those). I started seeing her name so often that I have now come to assume that anything she does must be good. Everything she does also seems to be educational in some way.

I think in my theoretical ranking system for kids' shows, I had Blaze and Paw Patrol in the same tier; Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood would be well above them. It doesn't get much better than this show.

Positive Parenting From Negative Parents

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about our respective childhoods, comparing notes, in a way. While our upbringings were very different, they were thematically the same. Our motivation to do good -- or to not do bad -- was the same: fear.

Fear is fear is fear. Whether it stems from years being locked under a staircase or the sting of a belt or fabricated stories about people who will harm you, fear is fear is fear. There may be other problems that stem from the impetus for that fear, but that feeling itself is the same no matter where it comes from.

Entire generations of adults were raised through fear, through negativity.

My hometown has trick or treating on the Sunday closest to Halloween during the day. Everyone I have ever met from anywhere else in the country is been confused by this. But in 1981 a boy named Adam Walsh was kidnapped and murdered and kids going door to door at night was no longer considered safe, so my hometown decided to take precautions.

Part of it was the times; we were all prepared for nuclear war at any moment. Part of it was that the generations before us were raised with a very strict set of rules. But at some point the best way to get children to behave was through fear.

More often than not, it worked. I've led a pretty responsible life. I passed on a lot of chances because I was afraid of what could possibly happen, but I never got into much trouble.

There are, ultimately, two ways to motivate people: through negativity or through positivity. Negativity will get faster results and is much easier, but usually has unintended side effects. Positivity can take much, much longer, but the side effects are things like self-esteem and confidence. So it's probably worth the extra time and effort.

And not to sound like a hippy, but positivity is always the best course of action. Positivity will ultimately get the best out of people.

I think my generation realized that at some point. I think we decided that we needed to raise our children in a different way. We decided to try positivity.

The problem is that none of us really speaks that language.

You then get a generation of parents who were raised on negativity trying to raise their children on positivity yet lacking the necessary skills to do so. More often than not, if we mess up it will be in overcompensating.

And this is how we get to endless internet articles on spoiled, entitled children and helicopter parents. This is how we get to mindless jokes about participation trophies (which have actually been around for 40 years, but we didn't have the internet then).

We don't want our children to live in fear so we do whatever we can to prevent that, even if we end up making mistakes in the other direction - as we should. Because you know what the world will take away from you? Self-esteem. Confidence. Naivete. You know it will give you? Fear. Humility.

Shrinking an ego is infinitely easier than growing one.

I understand that we run the risk of raising a generation of spoiled, entitled jerks, but I think that's a chance we should take. Fear is the great enemy. Fear is the source of our misery. We have to do something.

For my part, I ask a lot of questions and read a lot of articles. I look for advice from people who know better. And perhaps that's the lesson: we really can't do this alone.

Each generation has the opportunity to do better for the next. That's not a chance that any of us should waste.

Emo Babysteps

I'm an emotional person.

In the past I would have said "emotionally unstable," and either description would surprise those who only know me on a surface level. The majority of people who know me well would probably go with a nicer form of "emotionally unstable." It's taken me years to get to the point where I realize that what I experience isn't unstable at all.

I feel things deeply, but I lack the necessary ability to process those emotions. I'm also a male that grew up in the American Midwest; emotions are meant to be bottled up, particularly if they are large and scary.

Those are the ones I have the most.

My emotions would manifest themselves in bizarre ways, none of which were really that much less awkward than if I'd just allowed myself to express them, but being weird is a question mark, while being emotional is a knowable, contemptible action.

I used to hang out with some gay guys. I say "hangout" because we all worked together, but we were friends, too, so I saw them a lot, and they had a big influence on my life. A couple of them regularly told me that I was closeted. And that was something I thought about, because I always felt like there was a part of me that I had held back my entire life, but it wasn't being attracted to men. At least that's something I think I could have figured out, particularly given that I was surrounded by people who would have been supportive.

I knew there was something inside me that I had been denying for my entire life. I could feel it. And I regularly wondered if maybe I was gay, just like I wondered if maybe I should find Jesus, or maybe I should move to a small town and dig ditches, or any number of things. There always felt like there was something else going on.

My answer came when my son was born.

I could bury happiness. I could bury sadness. I could bury anger. I even managed to bury love on a regular basis. But this love, this joy, it would not be denied. The day my son entered this world he changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

I have a vivid memory of sitting on the couch, holding my son, and telling Nicole that I felt like I was going to burst. What I was experiencing was overwhelming. It couldn't be contained and I had no idea how to deal with it.

It's been a battle since then. It's not just that I need to figure out how to live like this, it's that I want to be able to process my emotions in a healthy way for my family.

This is not made any easier by the depression that runs in my family, but that's ultimately a different issue.

I think a big problem is that our society considers crying to be a bad thing. And if you're a man who's crying? God, no. And there are a lot of things that make me cry, most of which don't make me sad. There is a disconnect in my head because of this. Why am I crying if I'm not sad?

This passage from an article from Time magazine explains:

But crying is more than a symptom of sadness, as Vingerhoets and others are showing. It’s triggered by a range of feelings—from empathy and surprise to anger and grief—and unlike those butterflies that flap around invisibly when we’re in love, tears are a signal that others can see. That insight is central to the newest thinking about the science of crying.

That's Ad Vingerhoets, a Dutch professor known as the world’s foremost expert on crying in part because of his book, Why Only Humans Weep.

I should probably be crying six to ten times a week, given how often the feeling strikes me. All indications are that crying actually helps your overall emotional state, too.

The question remains, though: how do I let myself go? How do I give myself up, hand over control? How do I create an environment where my son realizes that crying is okay no matter the reason?

I'm trying. The fight against my intense emotions regularly makes me feel worse and I can't afford to feel worse these days. I don't know that I'll ever be that person who takes ten minutes out of their day to have a good cry, but I can't be that person who spends all their energy trying to stop it.

Now I'm going to go watch the "Under Pressure" scene from The Magicians again and allow myself to feel it.

Non-fictional Fiction (Writing Stories About Girls Who Aren't Your Wife)

I have this ending that I wrote a good fifteen years ago.  The ending is so much better than the short story that it's attached to I almost believe that it was written by someone else.  And for years, I've been trying to figure out how to to rescue it.

It's a universal ending.  It's about a guy who realizes that the girl he's been sleeping with is more than that.  The writing is delicate and strikes just the right note of sentimentality.  I've gotten compliments on this ending, despite the festering wound that was the 20 odd pages that proceeded it.

Recently, I found myself writing a short story that was based upon the life I was living fifteen years ago.  And, not surprisingly, it matched up perfectly to the ending.  I just finished the first draft, or at least the first draft that I'm willing to pass along to my editor.

My editor is my wife, Nicole.  And that's where it gets weird for me.

Because I didn't know Nicole fifteen years ago, and this new story is ostensibly a love story about a girl who isn't my wife.  And it's written in the first person.  And a lot of what happens is lifted directly from my life.

I don't think I've given Nicole such a story in a long, long time.  I gave her "Unrequited" when we started dating and she liked it a lot.  I gave it to her friends and they all assumed she was who I based the main character on, even though I wrote it years before I met her.

I've written a few things here and there that featured women (seriously, I basically write love stories), but they were always stand ins for Nicole.  I mean, they were pretty obvious stand ins for Nicole.

Over the last few years, it hasn't even been an issue.  I wrote a non-fiction book that is just chock full of Nicole.  I wrote a YA book that is clearly not about me in any way, shape, or form.  So it's been some time since I gave Nicole a story to read that blurred that line between fiction and reality.

 Here's the thing: if you're going to write a love story in the first person, you need to believe that the narrator is in love, or at least has the potential for that.  And the narrator in this story is potentially in love with a woman who is not my wife.  Then again, this is a story that takes place before I met her.

Nicole has no problems with this. But I feel weird giving it to her.

This is the problem with my obsession with metafiction: no one else cares.  Nicole is going to read this as a story that takes place during a time before I met her, narrated by a guy who sounds an awful lot like me, but clearly isn't because, hey, look at that, I did not marry this fictional character.  And while I would be unable to separate my feelings while reviewing such a story, Nicole will do just fine.

For me, it's a big deal.  My life and my fictional life are so intertwined that it sometimes gets tricky, or at least feels messy.

But I suppose this is why I'm a writer and not married to one.

Love in the Time of Internet Dating

This will be posted on the morning of 4/18, also known as our wedding anniversary. It has been nine years since we got married, although we've been together for about 13.5.

I seem to post the following on a regular basis, probably every year, every time we have another anniversary either for our wedding or our first email exchange (see below). It's even been immortalized in print.

I wrote this for my own benefit, which is something I seem to do a lot, and being able to revisit it regularly is a big deal.

It's funny, I don't really think about those first few days, weeks, and months after contacting Nicole for the first time with any kind of excitement. Don't get me wrong, they're fond memories, but they don't give me a thrill which is actually a good thing.

Because if it gave me a thrill then I think that would suggest a context in which our every day lives don't give me a thrill and that's not true. Anyone who's been in a relationship for a long time knows that it changes over time, but Nicole still thrills me. I still get goofy excited when I see her, maybe not every single time, maybe not as much as I should, but still often.

When we have the energy and the time, we have inspired moments together. That's the best way to describe them. They're inspired. They are moments in time that can't exist anywhere else. There's the thrill, even now, 13.5 years later.

This is from a longer piece on my relationship with Nicole, that was in "I Pray Hardest When I'm Being Shot At," which is nearly as much of a love story about Nicole and I as it is about my grandparents.

If I remember correctly, I left all of these bits out of the book, though.

I just checked, and the document this is excerpted from is almost 70 pages long.  I am a crazy person.

Anyway, here you go, a little insight into how Nicole and I met...

 

I Hold Out Hope

“Hey,” said Brandon in his usually upbeat, somewhat innocent manner.

“Brandon,” I said.

This is the relationship we had: I was mean to him.

I mean, I wasn’t literally mean to him, but I joked around in a very mean fashion.

I knew he could take it though, or else I wouldn’t have done it.

“I just got a message from some guy telling me I’m cute and funny.”

See, he said things like this and it was impossible for me to not be mean to him.

It was impossible.

“I take it he’s never met you,” I said.

“On Friendster,” he said, which is funny because the assumption here is that I not only knew what Friendster was, but I knew how it worked.

But it was a safe assumption to make.

“You’re on Friendster?” I said as I typed the address into my web browser.

I wasn’t doing anything work related, anyway, and this gave me yet another source of distraction.

It was hard work finding ways to spend so much free time when I couldn’t leave the office.

I pulled up the Friendster page and logged-in – as I said, I not only knew what Friendster was, I was well aware of how it worked.

Hell, the last girl I really dated I met on this thing, but that didn’t last too long.

Still, it was an interesting system, particularly for those of us who had a hard time braving the Los Angeles social scene.

“Add me to your friends’ list,” said Brandon, so I looked him up and added him to my friends list.

“Isn’t that a great picture of me?”

By this point, though, I’d quit listening to him.

I was now scanning the people in his friends list in hopes that they weren’t all gay men.

They weren’t.

In particular, one photo caught my eye.

The name above it was Nicole.

So I clicked on her.

“Hello,” I said as the page loaded, “who’s Nicole?”

“You should send her a message,” said Brandon, “she’s totally chill. You’d get along with her.”

So I did.

And this is what I sent:

Date: Sunday, October 24, 2004 11:42:00 AM

Subject: Hello

Message:

Brandon said I should send you a message. It happened much like this:
Brandon: Some guy I don't even know sent me a message on Friendster telling me I'm cute and funny.
Me: You're on Friendster?
Brandon: Yeah.
Me: Let me add you to my friends' list.
**I look up Brandon.**
Brandon: Isn't that a good picture of me?
Me: Yeah, it's fan-freaking-tastic, Brandon.
Brandon: Isn't that a good description?
**I ignore Brandon and scroll down the page to his list of friends.**
Me: Hello. Who's Nicole?
Brandon: Nicole! She's a girl I used to work with.
You should send her a message.
Me: Okay.
It dawns on me, however, that this could be the worst conversation starter ever. But I hold out hope.

Kyle Reviews Cartoons: Blaze and the Monster Machines

My four year old son says things like "tensile strength" and "momentum" correctly. He builds things and discusses whether they're stable or not. He talks about combustion and and angles. None of that is all the time, mind you, and is generally buried under pretending to be a cat and telling me to do voices for all the Cars characters.

Still.

The concepts I mentioned are pretty big for a four year old (a three year old, really, as he started talking about them at least a year ago) and they didn't come from me or his mother. They came from Blaze and the Monster Machines.

There is a lot of like about Blaze and the Monster Machines, which airs on Nick, Jr. It has some really catchy, pop songs about things like structural engineering, trajectory, and potential energy. It's kind of insane, really, but they are educational ear worms, probably only second to Bubble Guppies in their quality.

The theme song is also pretty good.

For those who don't know, Blaze is a monster truck, the fastest monster truck, and he and his driver AJ have adventures, most of which involve winning races. They are joined by their monster truck friends: Starla, Zeg, Darrington, and Stripes. The main "bad guy" is a monster truck named Crusher who constantly cheats. Crusher has a best friend named Pickle whose only flaw is that he always tries to think the best of Crusher.

Blaze is the only monster truck with a driver for some reason (more on this in a minute). Blaze having a driver makes sense: he's a kid that serves as the doorway character for the audience. I just don't know why none of the other monster trucks have drivers or think it's weird that Blaze has one. I suppose it's a matter of limiting the number of characters.

All of Blaze's friends have unique qualities: Starla is a cowgirl, Zeg is a dinosaur (truck), Darrington does stunts (DARINGton), and Stripes is a tiger (truck). They all have a hook. Blaze's hook is that whenever he needs it, he can turn on his "blazing speed," which he can also give to others. This is why he always wins everything.

(Blaze is also able to turn himself into whatever kind of vehicle he needs to be to get past any and all obstacles, but that is an entirely different issue.)

 Below Blaze, l to r: Starla, Stripes, Zeg, and Darrington

Below Blaze, l to r: Starla, Stripes, Zeg, and Darrington

The show has two main problems, the first of which is probably glossed over by people who watch it: Blaze always wins.

I appreciate that Blaze is super cool and kids love him, but having him always win is the wrong message, particularly given that he often races with/against his friends. It regularly drives me batty that he always win. It's okay if he loses and kids need to know that because they are going to lose sometimes, too.

The other problem is a bit bigger. I mentioned Blaze's friends. Only one of them (Starla) is female, at least based upon the pronouns that are used. You can probably guess what color truck Starla is.

Yes, she's pink.

And of the seven monster machines on the show, she's the only girl.

The show tries to offset this with Gabby, who is the mechanic for all the monster machines. It's great that the person who fixes all the trucks is a girl; she's clearly smarter than the other human on the show, AJ. But she's not in every episode and even when she is, it's a supporting role.

Recently, the show introduced a new monster machine, another girl, named Watts. And you will never guess what color SHE is.

Yes, she's pink - well, magenta. She has electric wheels, though, so I guess that's better? And Gabby gets to be her driver, although the fact that Gabby has to be the driver of a female truck is a bit problematic, too.

 Blaze and Watts

Blaze and Watts

I've come to realize, though, that fighting the gender portrayal battle against cartoons is not one I'm going to win any time soon, so the best I can do is off set it in all other aspects of my son's life.

That sadly common fault aside, Blaze is a good show. The songs are super catchy and the STEM focus gets through to kids, or at least it does in my son's case. It's also a fully realized world, with pirates, a sphynx, a city full of race cars, an island full of animal trucks, and much more.

The toys are super cheap, too.

If I were creating some kind of ranking system for kids' shows, I'd put Blaze in the same tier as Paw Patrol. It's smarter, but it's hard to compete with the appeal of those talking dogs.

Kyle Reviews Cartoons: Paw Patrol

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Paw Patrol is like a drug addiction.

At first, it seemed harmless enough. In fact, it was actually kind of nice. But then you get in deeper and deeper and eventually you realize that it's sucking away your entire life.

Okay, maybe it's not that bad.

But there was a time when Paw Patrol seemed, I don't know, more innocent?

My son didn't watch many cartoons. The extent of his TV viewing up until that point was mostly Baby Einstein, Sesame Street, and Blue's Clues, which thrilled me to no end as I love me some Blue's Clues. He was also already obsessed with Cars and perhaps that's why Paw Patrol seemed so wonderful: his newfound love of the pups would at least temper his passion for Cars.

We played an episode of Paw Patrol for him months earlier, but he didn't respond to it. I don't know, maybe he wasn't old enough, maybe he was still too fascinated with Elmo, maybe the computer animation was outside the scope of his reality. But he didn't take to it. He didn't care.

Somehow, some way, we showed him another episode some time later. I have to assume it was out of desperation: he doesn't watch a ton of television, but he watches the same shows over and over again. Maybe we thought we could mix things up a bit by adding in some Paw Patrol.

We were doomed.

For those who do not have toddlers, Paw Patrol is a computer animated show that airs on Nick, Jr. It is produced in Canada and all of the main characters say "sore-y."

The main characters in question are a young man named Ryder and his team of highly trained talking dogs.

It's a fun show, don't get me wrong. It takes place in the fictional town of Adventure Bay which apparently has no public services to speak of, so they have to turn to a kid who lives in a tower and his pets to take care of pretty much everything. Car accident? Paw Patrol will save you. Water main burst? Paw Patrol. Trapped in a cave? Paw Patrol.

Besides their human leader, Ryder, the rest of the Paw Patrol is made up of Chase, Marshal, Rubble, Zuma, Rocky, and Sky. They're all dogs. Sky is the only female. She wears pink. But she's also the only one who can fly (or she was until recently).

The Paw Patrol is marketing for kids to the extreme. Each dog has their own color (six of the seven colors of the rainbow). Each has their own specialty which comes with not only a pack that can do things (Rubble's pack has a shovel, Chase's pack can shoot a net), but with a dog house that turns into a vehicle.

You've got the complete package there: anthropomorphic characters, clearly defined roles connected to colors, and gadgets. It's the perfect storm of kids TV.

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Paw Patrol also has one of the greatest theme songs in children's television history, which means that it is evil. I have gone weeks with that song in my head. I know every word. I've even learned how to play most of it on the guitar just to make my son happy.

The main problem with Paw Patrol is that it's never ending, which means each season they need to come up with new ways to keep the kids entertained, which invariably involves coming up with new vehicles and gadgets for the pups. The Paw Patrol has a large RV type vehicle that they can travel in. So if they have a land vehicle, shouldn't they have an air one? Thus the Air Patroller was born. But wait, if we have the land and the air covered, what about the water? And so we got the Sea Patroller.

But what if they go to the jungle? Shouldn't they have special outfits for that? And special vehicles? What if they get new packs that allow them to fly? Maybe there should be more pups? How about a bilingual pup? Or another girl!

That last point is a tricky one. The Paw Patrol falls into the same out dated trope as nearly every other cartoon: the girl character has to wear pink. Not only that, but Sky was originally the ONLY girl on the team, the TOKEN girl, if you will. Someone somewhere must have pointed this out to the creators, so eventually Everest was added, although she's not in every episode.

It's easy to hate the Paw Patrol. The characters are relentlessly cheery and naive, the show has a basic formula it repeats every episode, and the Paw Patrol are EVERYWHERE. They are toddler crack.

But in an era where every studio thinks it can produce a computer animate show, the Paw Patrol looks pretty darn good. As the show evolved, the creators really started to embrace the idea that the computer generated animation was meant to feel like claymation and it really shows. Compared to shows on PBS or even the Disney channel, the Paw Patrol is a work of art.

Sure, I've spent a lot of time over analyzing the show. The pups are often facing off against an eagle, and given the show is produced in Canada, I feel like that must be a subtle jab against the U.S. Rider is supposed to be 10, but he's clearly the same age as Katie, who runs her own pet grooming store, and seemingly older than Daring Danny X, who does ridiculous stunts that he would have to at least be a teenager to perform (he's also a horrible, horrible addition to the show). There is a statue of Mayor Goodway's ancestor in the middle of town, which suggests that the position of mayor is handed down like royalty. That ancestor also looks exactly like Mayor Humdinger, the mayor of Foggy Bottom, Adventure Bay's rival town. Why?

I could go on.

As far as TV for toddlers is concerned, Paw Patrol isn't bad, which is good, considering that it is everywhere and completely unavoidable. And at the very least the show teaches kindness. Problematic gender roles aside, kindness always wins the day, powered by friendship, and there are worse lessons a toddler could learn.

Ultimately, Paw Patrol gets a thumbs up from me. Let your kids watch it, just be prepared for the rabbit hole you'll find yourself in.

Me and my friend whiskey redux

A month ago I wrote a blog post about my rocky relationship with whiskey, which stemmed from habitual drinking and an inability to relax. The post went up last week, as you read this.

In those three weeks, I have managed to tame my habit, although it hasn't been easy. I decided to set a schedule for myself, as giving myself the option to have a drink any time I wanted seem to be a fool's errand. This habit just has too much of a hold on me.

I decided that I would drink on Tuesday nights and on Friday nights, with an option for Saturday nights. That's 2.5 nights a week, down from, well, 7. I've tried to get myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour even if I've been drinking which, as anyone who likes to drink knows, is easier said than done.

I feel better than I have in a long time, although I've had so many bouts of illness lately that I might just feel this great in context. But between getting more and better sleep and eating better (my current diet is so good it amazes me) I feel healthy.

But no matter how good I feel, no matter how much it might mean to me that I feel good, it's still a mental fight most nights. I'm still tempted and I still rationalize. For example, I did not drink last night, Saturday night, but I am drinking right now, Sunday night. I'm not really concerned that I broke my self-imposed structure, but it is a little disconcerting how easily I can rationalize my decision. Not only can I claim that it's okay because I didn't drink last night, this is also the first day of Daylight Savings, which means it feels an hour earlier than it is, which means that falling asleep on my own would be that much harder. A drink should help with that, right?

My ability to rationalize nearly any event or decision in my life is both a blessing and a curse. I would say that it helps me sleep at night if I were actually able to do that. It's mostly just gotten me into trouble.

But so far I've managed to beat this habit. I've held firm on my schedule, even with the aforementioned switch up. It's Monday as  write this and I didn't drink last night or the night before and I won't drink tonight.

I'm proud of myself.

I don't know that it's gotten easier. There are supposed to be markers when you quit smoking where it gets easier: 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months. This has not been my experience with taming this habit, but maybe that's because I'm not going cold turkey. Still, every night I have the same internal battle, but so far I've been winning.

My main problem right now is convincing myself that I can be creative without drinking, which sounds ridiculous, I know, but my brain is what it is. My writing has fallen by the wayside over the last, oh, four years which, strangely enough, happens to be how old my son is. I am never going to have a lot of time to write, so I need to be using what little I have to the fullest -- so no pressure there.

The bottom line is that I'm getting this thing under control, even if it's a fight. That in and of itself is enough to give me confidence that I can get other aspects of my life under control if I just focus.

Like writing.

Or even being a better husband.

Or maybe not checking on my sleeping son 4 times a night.

...that last one is going to be the hardest.

Me and my friend whiskey

I'm a habitual drinker.

I'm drinking while I write this. As with most nights, I'm at my desk, a class of whiskey to my left, this keyboard and monitor in front of me. I will probably spend most of my time blogging when I should really be working on the bajillion books and short stories I have in various stages of completion. But blogging is infinitely easier and I don't have to convince anyone other than myself to publish it.

For what it's worth, I'm drinking Redemption Rye on the rocks from a Jameson's Irish Whskey glass.

I'm not an alcoholic. I would imagine that would be where most people's minds would go after reading that first line. I've had that discussion with a trained professional. I've never gotten black out drunk. I've never had a drink in the morning to get right. I've never shirked my responsibilities so I could drink.

In fact, I usually don't have a drink until around 9 o'clock at night because that's when my son has fallen asleep and even then that's only if my wife is home, as every once in a while she'll have to work late. I don't drink a drop unless the day is done. I am an unbelievably responsible drinker given how often I do it.

Drinking for me is a habit, one that has me around its finger.

I associate drinking with a lot of positive things, which is saying a lot given that my uncle drank himself to death. 

I fully admit that whiskey has been a way for me to cope with the things that I don't want to cope with.

But through the various ups and downs of drinking, in the end it has always been my way of relaxing, my way to shut myself off so that I can enjoy myself.

I am constantly at war with myself and alcohol creates peace.

A secondary problem is the fact that I've been drinking for about an hour now and the above line just came to me and I really, really like it and legitimately wonder if I could have come up with it stone cold sober. I think I could have. But I don't know.

I have always used alcohol to relax, to escape the part of my brain that prevents me from doing any number of things that I want to do. It is easier for me to write when I've been drinking because my mind doesn't wander as much, I have an easier time accessing the part of my brain that feels complete when I write, and I become less concerned with the world around me.

That last point is crucial. I think too much. I think way, way too much. I don't sleep, although at this point that's less to do with how much I think and more to do with the fact that my body has become accustomed to going to bed under the influence.

My habit has become more pronounced since I became a parent. That time once my son has gone to sleep and before I do is precious. It's when I am free to do what I want and what I want is to be able to relax, either for the sake of doing nothing or to write. And so I have a drink.

But I am well aware that this is a habit and it has become a point of contention for me. Aside from the obvious health issues (although I generally don't have more than a single drink each night [although I should point out that my drinks are roughly twice the size of a regular drink]), there's the simple fact that I hate that anything has any kind of control over me. I hate that at a certain point during the night I want to have a drink and I have to fight with myself about it.

I recently got sick yet again, so I went weeks without drinking, although I was still using relaxing agents in the form of cough medicine. At a certain point it was no longer necessary for my cough, so I stopped, and actually started going to bed chemical free. I had troubles falling asleep, but I was so tired from being sick that it wasn't as bad as it usually was. I was also going to bed earlier, which meant I could still get a decent night's sleep even if it took me a while to doze off.

At the tail end of my illness, I told Nicole that, if I started drinking every night and staying up late, to remind me of how good I felt now that I was getting some sleep. It's true; I felt great. It wasn't just that I no longer felt drowsy at various points throughout the day, it's that I felt happier.

It wasn't just the extra sleep that had changed me. Because I was sick, it gave me an excuse to not put pressure on myself to accomplish anything at night. It gave me permission to sit in front of the TV watching old episodes of shows I loved while reading comics and YA books.

I was finally able to relax.

But now I'm more or less better and I've returned to normal life and I find myself facing the same issues as before: I want to have a drink at night. I want to be able to relax and enjoy myself. I want to be able to write without thinking it's pointless.

The funny thing is that I'm actually great at rationalizing most things in my life, yet those few hours at night mess with my head.

It's Friday night as I finish writing this. My son is asleep. Nicole is asleep. Tomorrow is my morning to sleep in. I'm having a glass of Jack Daniels and I'm writing. This is only the second time I've had a drink this week, so I feel good about that.

I'm struggling with acceptance. There's hasn't been a night when I haven't thought that I should just have a drink and hide out in my office like I used to do. There hasn't been a night when I haven't felt bad about not doing anything, not using my time constructively, and there hasn't been a night where I haven't felt bad about feeling bad.

But tonight is the one night where I'm able to have a drink with no regrets. Tomorrow night I will endeavor to relax without one. Hopefully, slowly but surely, I can finally break this habit, and be all the happier for it.

I know that I don't need a drink to be happy; I just don't know if I need one to be content.

Parents: Use your phone as much as you fucking want

As much as it pains me to use the current hip vernacular, I'm going to: parent shaming.

At one point, I think the focus for parent shaming was screen time, as in how much time your child can spend staring at a screen of some kind. But there have been inconclusive scientific studies on that front, so it's not as sturdy as some other parent shaming options.

Diet? Sugar is the heroin of toddlers, after all.

Education? The best time to learn a second (or third!) language is at the age of two, you know.

Culture? Listening to an opera would be so much more stimulating than listening to the Cars soundtrack (again).

But, no, those options are somewhat narrowly targeted and, for many parents, easily avoidable. What, then? What is something that every parent does that can be ridiculed by those who wish to feel superior?

Cell phones.

Boom.

You use your cell phone when your child is with you? That is shocking -- shocking, I say! Your child is going to think you care more about your cell phone than you do about your own precious little angel!

It is impressive how many parents take to the internet to rail away against the evils of using your cell phone when your child is present, pretending as if they're doing it to somehow help other parents. I can't imagine a single parent reads these articles and suddenly changes their ways. No, they're written so the writer can feel superior.

I know full well how tempting it is to use a device as a baby sitter. I also know that there are other toys which can do roughly the same thing while allowing your child to control the creativity. That said, I don't begrudge anyone who's in a position where a device is their best option. I know too many single parents to think that a tablet can't be a life saver.

But let's get back to parents using cell phones.

I understand the basic concept behind the complaint, the idea that kids will think that they are less deserving of your attention because you are looking at your phone all the time. But consider that thought. Think about how much the average parent has to do with their child over the course of any given day. It would be physically impossible to spend more time on your device than interacting with your child. They are tiny tyrants who need you to survive. A cell phone isn't going to dress them or take them to school or get them to bed. A cell phone isn't going to comfort them when they get hurt or help them through some strong emotions. We have few moments that aren't controlled by these kids and very, very few of those moments can be solved by cell phones.

So if your kid is playing and you decide to check Facebook, where, exactly, is the harm? If your child needs you, you're there. But your child doesn't always need you and, honestly, it's probably good for them to realize that. "Hey, child of mine, you're doing fine on your own and I trust that you can scoop sand into a bucket without me watching you like a hawk, so you do your thing, I'll be right over here if you need me."

The crazy thing about it is that if there's another parent shaming method out there, it's the "helicopter parent" who is always hovering around their child, never letting the kid do things on their own.

So if it's bad for us to follow our kids around and obsessive over them and it's bad for us to do other things while we're with our kids, then what, exactly, are we supposed to do?

I am overly sensitive about my son knowing how much he means to me. I tell him constantly. It's a whole thing. So at some point early on in his life I decided that if I'm going to use my smart phone around him, I'm going to tell him why I'm doing it. I want him to understand why looking at this tiny screen would be something I would want to do while he's eating dinner or or watching cartoons.

So I say things like "let's see if mama has left work yet" or "let's see what the weather is going to be like" or "grandma sent me a message." I try to explain what social media is, but he does't seem to care. In fact, he doesn't really care about any of that, but I feel like telling him what I'm doing at least helps him realize that there's a purpose, that I'm not just looking at my phone for no reason.

I explained this to a therapist who works with children and she told me it was genius, so I'm running with it.

Here's the thing: being a parent is hard. I realize that's like complaining that your diamond shoes are too tight, but it is what it is. And sometimes you can only take so much Paw Patrol or so much doing funny voices before you need a break, and in today's day and age, a break is looking at your phone. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

So for those who are thinking about telling other parents they need to stop using their phones so much around their children: don't. Get off your high horse and just let a fellow parent be. We are all stumbling through this together and the last thing any of us needs is someone giving us shit for looking at Facebook while our kid is crashing cars into each other.

Go to town, parents. Use your phones as much as you want. I don't have the answers for that and I'm not stupid enough to think that I do.

Me and my fancy birth defect

Image by artist Robert Stokes

I was born with pectus escavatum. Go ahead and Google that if you want, but fair warning, any images you come across will be kind of gross. They're not upsetting by any means and gross might actually be overstating it, but it's a major physical birth defect, so you should have some idea of what you're getting into.

But I'll let the Mayo Clinic give the basics:

"Pectus excavatum is a condition in which a person's breastbone is sunken into his or her chest. In severe cases, pectus excavatum can look as if the center of the chest has been scooped out, leaving a deep dent.

While the sunken breastbone is often noticeable shortly after birth, the severity of pectus excavatum typically worsens during the adolescent growth spurt.

Also called funnel chest, pectus excavatum is more common in boys than in girls. Severe cases of pectus excavatum can eventually interfere with the function of the heart and lungs. But even mild cases of pectus excavatum can make children feel self-conscious about their appearance. Surgery can correct the deformity."

I had that surgery, when I was 5. It lasted 3 hours. They cut open my chest, pulled my breastbone forward, and sewed me up. Just writing about it puts pressure on my chest, like its ears are burning.

I've been thinking about my pectus escavatum a lot lately. I got sick again recently, and I say "again" because I have been sick an inordinate amount over the last 12 months, and every time it has been an upper respiratory issue. I had pneumonia and coughed so much that I fractured a rib. I've had bronchitis twice. I have been a mess. And while dealing with my most recent bout of bronchitis, one of my doctors mention that perhaps my abnormal chest might have something to do with it.

Yes, I had the surgery, but that was in 1980, and even today the idea that you can simply correct something like that so that it's totally normal is a stretch. My chest is substantially better, yes, but it's still abnormal.

And while many, many years of alcohol, carbs, and a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to the buddha I carry above my waist, it's amplified by my complete lack of a chest.

I've never spent much time thinking about my chest. I don't take my shirt off very often, I suppose because of it. Every once in a while I have to explain the scar that spans the width of my breastbone and the other scar, higher up on my chest, marking where they removed an excess lump of cartilage when I was 18. Very few people have ever noticed the tiny scars I still have where the tubes went in.

Thinking about it now hasn't changed my overall perspective as far as how being born with such a drastic defect has impacted me. I doubt that most people with such things really think about them.

But I am now realizing how hard this must have been on my parents.

I don't know how prominent the pectus escavatum was when I was born. I'm thinking it couldn't have been that drastic just given the general physical shape of a baby. It would have become more pronounced as a I got older.

It's not like this was an indentation in my leg or something: important organs live in your chest, important organs that needed room to grow.

As if the birth defect wasn't bad enough, my parents then had to sit through a 3+ hour surgery that involved cutting open their 5 year old son's chest. I can't even imagine what that had to have been like for them. I'm having a hard time just thinking about it.

When you have a kid, every little thing takes on new meaning. Things I haven't thought about in years have taken on new meaning. Things I do and see every day have taken on new meaning. Every single thing is different.

Like my fancy birth defect.

Discography: Fugazi, Part 8: The Argument

Twenty, thirty years from now, when the story of Fugazi is written by smarter people than me, they will probably point at "The Argument" as their crowning achievement, the culmination of their evolution as a band and the pinnacle of what they could do.  That would be hard to argue with.

I point to this: I had a friend who absolutely hated Fugazi, but loved this album.  This was Fugazi at a different level.  This was a band that produced "Red Medicine" and came through "End Hits" and ended up here.

This was a focused band.  The opening lets you know that this is going to be a journey.  "Cashout" is all about the vocals and a noise rock chorus that would make no sense coming from anyone else.

The verse on "Full Disclosure" has so much urgency you have no choice but to get swept up in it as it pulls you into a surprisingly poppy chorus, the likes of which would feel right at home on the alternative top 40.  Even crazier is the outro that follows the last chorus, like something ripped from 90s radio, as if Fugazi are finally acknowledging all their contemporaries.  Of course, they follow that section up with some good old fashion punk rock noise, a reminder that they cannot be pigeonholed.

"Epic Problem" is Ian McKaye's vocal stylings at their best.  The beauty is that he makes the lyrics a part of the song, a part of the actual structure of the music.  It helps that the music is great, with yet another 90s inspired section in the middle (I should probably point out that this album came out in 2001).  And then we get the outro, which is something right off of "13 Songs" with a little "Repeater" thrown in to finish it off. It's a little bit sing song, a little bit head bopping, and more upbeat than you would have expected given the beginning of the song.

Remember those things I said before about Guy's guitar style?  Welcome to "Life and Limb."  It's already a great song, but then you get to the center with this wonderful, quirky guitar solo over straight up pop music.  We come back to the moody stuff, of course, but that center section makes the rest even better.

You may have noticed a trend developing. There's an awful lot of pop music on this record, but it very often undercut, either by wedging it into more jagged parts or by layering it with discordant guitars. It's the perfect give and take for Fugazi, something that took them 7 albums to get to. These songs have the straight forward core of the best "In on the Killtaker" tracks with all the experimentation of the strangest "End Hits" songs.

When Joe Lally is singing you have an idea of the type of song you're going to get. "The Kill" fits right in.  It's ethereal, as most Lally sung songs are.  The song never explodes, never builds to anything, but it's a constant, mellow groove with a nice change from the verse to the chorus.

Let's just get right to it with "Strangelight" -- as interesting as the song is, it's what happens at the 4 minute mark that truly makes it great.  I don't even know what that note-y part is being played on (guitar doubled with keyboards? With a violin?) and the changing piano chords make it sound ominous.  It's wonderfully dissonant, yet darkly triumphant.

This could be the Fugazi album with the most mood changing moments in songs.  In this case, I'm talking about McKaye's vocals in "Oh," which is mostly sung by Guy.  But read back over my comments on the other songs on this album and the shift in tone is a regular theme.  Interestingly enough, the shift seems to frequently come at the end, a fitting microcosm of Fugazi's library of work.

"Ex-Spectator" has a wonderful, double drum opening.  The verse is sparse and the chorus is full and powerful, driven by McKaye's vocals.  What's really interesting about this song is how it almost seems like an answer to "Public Witness Program" from "In on the Killtaker."  Both songs seem to be about the dangers of not getting involved, but this song pulls the character forward.  The public witness can't stand on the sidelines any longer.

"Nightshop" is probably the clearest use of keyboards we've seen from Fugazi (at the two and a half minute mark), and they're used to excellent effect. We also treated to some acoustic guitars, as if the band decided they were going to jam all their non-traditional (for them) instruments into one song. This song makes me long for a new Fugazi record because it suggests that they were just beginning to experiment.

And now for "The Argument," theoretically the last song on the last Fugazi album.  It's everything you could hope for from a final song.  McKaye has said that the song is about how he will always be against war.  But he frames it as being a bigger argument that's generally not made.  The song itself would suggest that McKaye is calling out those who get bogged down in the small debates, who never see the forest from the trees: "that some punk could argue some moral abc's/when people are catching what bombers release."  It's an argument against the myopic.

It's also the perfect example of the evolution of the band.  The vocals are perhaps the pinnacle of what McKaye has managed to do over the years.  The song is fairly quiet and pretty, with a quixotic keyboard break.  And then it explodes.  It explodes in exactly the way you would want a Fugazi song to end, with heavy guitars from McKaye and a dynamic, catchy note-y part from Guy.  It's damn near perfect.

And then it's over.

If this is the last we ever hear from Fugazi....well, I'll still be sad about that, but they went out on a high note.

Happy birthday to my favorite person in the world

I spent a lot of time today thinking about writing this. This is what I do, right? When I need to express myself I write about it. I completely fail at verbalizing my feelings. I just lack that ability. But writing? Writing I can do. I can write about how I feel.

It's a little intimidating, though. When you read this it will be Nicole's birthday and I will buy her some gifts and we'll have dinner at her favorite restaurant and I will, at this point, have helped our nearly 4 year old son make something for her. And I know she'll love all of it because she's honestly just too good of a person not to.

But that isn't enough. No Italian food, no matter how good, can really convey what she means to me. The crazy mess of a gift that our son will make can tell her how much he loves her and the fact that I helped him make it can send a similar message, but it's still not enough.

I don't know what is.

I could talk about how much my life has improved since I met her, but that's placing the focus on me more than her. I mean, it's true, my life is infinitely better than it was before Nicole became a part of it. And it's true that only someone as amazing as her could have helped me along my way, but those details are filtered through a lens of me when I want to talk about her.

I could talk about how much she's changed since I met her because she has. I think part of that is my doing, but I think most of it is the fact that she's always growing. She wants to be a better person which is a bit insane given how great of a person she already is. But she doesn't realize that and even if she did I think she'd still try to be better. She's a perfectionist that way.

She's surprisingly not judgmental given she's such a perfectionist. Yes, she will often grade you on a curve if it involves something she feels strongly about, but even then it's never personal. She wants the best of everyone, especially herself, it's just that she's only ever able to see the best when it comes from other people.

She's puts all of herself into everything she does which, I have to admit, I'm jealous of. She has focus, even for things she might prefer not doing. She's often not even aware of this because it's her natural state of being.

She wants to do more. It doesn't matter what it is, she always wants to do more, she always feels like she has to do more.

She doesn't.

I think she actually allowed herself to just exist a bit more after we met.

It's funny to think that, if we were both asked, we'd both say that it was the other's confidence that pulled us in when we first met. I had never met anyone as confident as her and I think she was attracted to how confident I was. And yet neither of us was actually all that confident.

We learned that about each other over time. We understood each other. I've joked that my crazy balanced out her crazy but it's ultimately true.

I've watched as she's gone through as many emotional traumas as you can think of and she's come through all the stronger for them (even if she doesn't realize it). I've watched her basically restart her career and triumph. I've watched her become a mom and absolutely triumph. I married her and discovered a shared peacefulness that I didn't know existed.

She's genuine, which is not something you can say about many people these days. She legitimately cares about others. She is who she is; there's no pretense. She's passionate and funny and so, so smart. And she has empathy, perhaps the greatest gift anyone can have.

I can only speak to her life after she met me. I think her life before that was plenty full, if not missing something. I think she would have been happy had we never met, but I also think there would have been a ceiling on that happiness, a high point that she could never pass. And I think that every day since we met has broken that ceiling.

My brother was my best man and in his toast he mentioned that he knew Nicole was special to me because when she talked I actually listened. I didn't just pretend to listen or half listen while I thought about what I was going to say in return, I actually paid attention to what she was saying. And my brother was right. Nicole teaches me, although I often don't even realize it's happening.

So much of writing this has made me realize how difficult having a kid is. Time is so precious and when you have a kid you begin to short hand everything. I don't listen to Nicole the way that I used to and that is something I have to change. She looks at the world slightly differently than I do and it's a perspective that could help me if I only choose to hear it.

She makes me better and she makes me want to be better, not out of some feeling of obligation to her, but by example. And I like to think that I help her realize that it's sometimes okay to not be better.

I wish we had more time to spend together and I wish that that more time came with clearer minds so we could enjoy it. We're working on it. This is the downside to having two completely dedicated parents. This is the downside of two people with brains that never stop.

Yet that's why we work. For as much as she will talk about my crazy brain, hers is just as energetic, running at a mile a minute, going this way and that. But I understand it, so we're able to make our two brains work to our advantage.

Looking back on the above, I don't think I've managed to truly express how much I love Nicole or how phenomenal she is. But I don't have to. This is just my attempt at doing so, one singular moment in time where I will either succeed or fail. But I will have many, many more moments and at some point I will get it right.

For now I will just say "happy birthday" to my favorite person in the world. I love you so much that it has nearly driven me insane.

But just "nearly."

Discography: Fugazi, Part 7: Instrument

It became fitting that Fugazi released an album of outtakes (and documentary) when they did.  The band had already gone their separate ways and were making music together less and less frequently.  The writing should have been on the wall.

It's hard to call "Instrument" an actual album, as it's not.  It is exactly what it sold itself as: a collection of outtakes.  Sadly, most of those outtakes aren't particularly interesting.  It actually goes a long way to confirming that the band is the bunch of lo-fi, regular guys that everyone thought they were.  "Instrument" is filled with the type of junk that is being recorded in every basement in America.  This is Fugazi showing us that they're no different.  They record every single thing they think sounds good, too, even if they realize after the fact that it's crap.

In their defense, there are some gems on this record, some bits and pieces that I would have loved to have seen as complete songs.

The "Apreggiator" demo is interesting given how much they increased the speed for the recorded version, which was a smart decision. 

"Afterthought" introduces us to Fugazi using keyboards and it become apparent over the course of this album that they could have done great things with keyboards. Why they never did more, I don't know, but between this song and "Little Debbie" it was clear they could have produced something great incorporating keyboards.

"Trio's" is darkly atmospheric, more so than anything else the band has recorded, which is probably part of the reason it never materialized on an album.  "Turkish Disco" is the first track that sounds like a relatively complete song, so much so that I wonder why it didn't end up on another record. 

The question about keyboards is also applicable to piano, an instrument Fugazi used as window dressing in the past, but never as the focus for a song. "I'm So Tired" suggests that they should have placed it front and center for at least a few tracks.

The demos for "Rend It," "Closed Caption," and "Guilford Fall" are interesting enough for big Fugazi fans. The "Rend It" demo is great given how drastically the song changed over time.

"Swingset" has a fantastic verse, but the attempt at a chorus makes it clear why it's an outtake.

"Shaken All Over" is basically just a recording of Joe playing a bass line.

"Slow Crostic" is exactly what it says: a slower version of "Caustic Acrostic." This particular track is noteworthy because it's the basis for a song on the Wugazi album, a mash-up of Fugazi and the Wu-Tang Clan.

In the end, "Instrument" is a collection of songs for only the biggest of Fugazi fans.  It's great as a glimpse inside the creative process, but doesn't offer much beyond that. It is, to be honest, an odd duck of a release. Nothing about this record suggests that it needed to see the light of day, yet here we are.

It really just kind of mucks up the Fugazi library.

25 Years Ago I Joined a High School Rock Band

"How would you like to be closer to Eddie Vedder?"

Honestly, I thought Jeremy was going to tell me he had tickets and backstage pass for a Pearl Jam concert.  Credit where it's due, he chose the exact right thing to say to pique my interest.

Twenty-five years ago today, when high school let out for the weekend, my friend Brett and I went to a house on the other side of town, walked down into the basement, and met Jeremy and the three other members of a then unnamed band.  Brett had brought his guitar because he wanted to jam with them.  I was there to audition as the lead singer.

That is ultimately hilarious because a) it sounds like they were a big time band looking to replace a member and b) I couldn't really sing.

Jeremy was the drummer.  He was a junior like I was and I would have considered him a friend even then.  I recognized the other three -- they'd all gone to the same elementary school as me.  Tony was the bass player.  Matt played one guitar.  Rob, whose dad's basement we were in, played the other guitar.

I was a tall, skinny, socially awkward soccer player who was obsessed with grunge and alternative music.  They were of various sizes, engaged in various activities at school, were obsessed with Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and were, I think they'll agree, nearly as socially awkward.

My audition consisted of singing "Somebody to Shove" by Soul Asylum.  It had to have been awful, but I'm going to guess that the PA system we were using wasn't good enough for them to notice.  And so, Rob stuck his hand out and asked me if I wanted to be in the band.  And we shook on it.

Up until that point, high school was not particularly fun or easy for me.  It would not have been a stretch to say that Brett was the only constant friend I had.  I played soccer and I was pretty good, but I was too weird to really be a part of that social group.  I was smart, but I was far too lazy and unfocused to be in any academic groups or cliques.  I spent most of my time in my room reading and writing fantasy fiction.

To say that I was unsure of my place in the world would have been an understatement.

In no time at all, the band, Oral Groove (usually written in all lower case letters ala e.e. cummings), became almost everything to me.  It set me on a path that I'm still on, one that I never would have started along if it weren't for that band.

It wasn't just the band that changed me, it was the friends that suffered through every show.  We jokingly referred to them as the Oral Groupies (Anne and J-Sully, in particular, deserve a special shout-out here), but they weren't really there for the music so much as to support us.

We were in the trenches of adolescence and we did everything you would imagine high school kids would do.  We formed our own clique.  I had a few other friends and I did a few other things, but in the end everything revolved around the band.

A lot has changed over the last twenty-five years.  The band members themselves are scattered across four separate states.  Our large, extended family has created larger, extended families.  Some of us kept playing, some of moved on, but eventually each of us set on to our individual paths.  That didn't involve being rock stars, but that was never really the point.

I would be a very different person today if I hadn't joined Oral Groove.  I don't know, exactly, who that person would have been, but I can guarantee that I would not have liked him as much.

And I guarantee you he wouldn't have been as happy.