1, 2, 3; OCD; dunk and spin and vomit and breathe

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

Excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions).

People often joke, in passing, about “their OCD,” citing it as their reason for doing something a certain way, a certain number of times, or completing a series of steps in a particular order. For me, it’s a real thing, and it began when I was like four.

 

Age 4: OCD first manifests itself as a verbal ritual.

Each night, as everyone was climbing into bed, slipping under covers, and adjusting their heads on pillow tops, my infamous spiel would start:

“Goodnight mom, I love you.. we’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, Rose,” she’d whisper above the sounds of my brother, Bobby, settling into bed beside me and the noises of our dad slipping off his work shoes, coughing (he was an avid smoker at the time and coughed incessantly), and settling into bed beside her.

I listened to her as she answered. And then I’d ask again:

“Goodnight mom, I love you — we’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, Rose.. you know we’re going to have fun tomorrow, sweetie. We always do.” I could hear the disappointed strain in her voice; it sounded like ‘here we go; how many times will I have to answer this question tonight?’

It was usually somewhere in the dozens, and my mother was more patient with me than my father was. I don’t fault him for it.

I remember him abruptly getting out of bed one evening, after I’d posed the question to my mother (and, incidentally, our whole group) 12, 18, 24 times. He walked over to Bobby and I’s bedside, placed a hand on either one of my shoulders, and then used their weight to press my body down into the bed as he commanded “STOP. IT.” While he was doing so, and as I was sinking uncomfortably into the mattress, I very quickly asked my mother the same question. Again. I could not stop. It was driving him crazy. It was driving ALL of us crazy, INCLUDING me. No one ever took me to a doctor, though; not in our homeopathic, “Jesus and vegetables are the answer to everything” household. Anyone could have told you that it was clearly OCD, or some kind of mental compulsion, and that there were tons of ways of treating it (both medicinal AND therapeutic). But it took me years to begin the process of managing my OCD, and it was after I’d diagnosed myself. 

 

OCD continued its strange reign all throughout my childhood, toying with my mind, manifesting in different forms (some repetitive and recognizable; others entirely new) and processes (some logical, some senseless) and enduring for varying lengths of time.

 

At age 5, I noticed that every room in Grammy’s house had blinds.

And each set of blinds had a long, white, stringy cord attached to it. Always happy to help, I took it upon myself to tie each long, white string into a perfect knot. I can’t tell you why; I just intuitively knew that this needed to happen. Grammy would then follow in my footsteps, walking from room to room and “inspecting” my work; untying the knots and, depending on how well my toddler hands had done at securing them, it could take her a while.

 

Same year, same house: It suddenly occurred to me how many kittens there were, stalking through the tall grass in the backyard and expertly patrolling the neighborhood.

It made sense to me that it would be best if they were all in (1) central location, so – to achieve this – I spent my early mornings setting about the amusing task of collecting each cat, bringing it into the house, gently placing it into the dryer, and then closing the dryer door — dutifully returning outdoors to retrieve the next full-grown cat or kitten. I didn’t know what the dryer WAS, of course; that it was a very dangerous and potentially lethal heating element, and I certainly didn’t know how to turn it on (thank. goodness.), but it still concerned Grammy when she’d come along behind me, minutes or hours later.. following the sound trail of muted “meows” and discovering a sad pile of kittens trapped within the walls of one of her ancient appliances.

 

Fast forward to age.. 11. Grammy’s living in another house now. Mom, dad, Bob and I are in another house that’s just 10 minutes down the road. We’re all residing in Central Florida.

I want to go spend the weekends at Grammy’s house — she has kids my age running about wildly in her neighborhood AND the backyard boasts an above ground swimming pool. But I can’t. My mom would let me spend the weekends there, no doubt, and Grammy would love to have me there. So why can’t I?

“Why don’t you want to go with Bob this weekend, Rose?” Sierra asked from the front seat, seeming puzzled as she reversed the car out of Grammy’s driveway. I inched my face closer to the backseat window and watched Grammy waving at us. Bobby was standing there beside her, looking both happy and vacant.. absentmindedly holding onto a duffle bag and peering off into the distance.

“Because, mom,” I answered her sadly, returning to a reclined position in my seat and sighing as both of them passed out of sight, “if I leave the house, you’re going to make it messy. I just know it.”

 

And that was the “great cleaning plague” of 2002-2004. 2 years of insane preoccupation with the state of the house. Was it clean? If so, how clean was it? Are we talking clean on the surface, or deep DOWN clean? And if the room itself appeared to be clean, what was the status of the closet? Were there unfiled papers in there, lining the shelves with rebates, warranties, and policies? Was there an incident of clothes slipping off of hangers? A calamity of boxes lying haphazardly on their sides? A subtle, disconcerting situation where powdery piles of dust were secretly collecting and banding themselves together in small yet militant messy forces in the hidden corners of the small room? I shuddered. There was no way I could leave the task of maintaining the true cleanliness of the home in Sierra’s care. She would forget about most or all of these things, and then everything would fall to pieces.

“Cleaning the house” went far beyond simply washing dishes, tidying my room, and sweeping the hallway once or twice a week. For example, on “trash night” — the evening before the trash man or woman would come barreling down the road in their massively-sized truck — if a *single* paper towel, empty box, or food item had been tossed into the trash can in the kitchen (and believe me; I checked), I had to remove the entire bag, tie it off, place it outside (where it could get carried away as quickly as possible) and then replace it with a clean, new, fully barren trash bag. This was law.

Another compulsive activity during this time period: I felt the persistent need to lay clothes out for my dad on the night before his next work shift. Why? Who fucking knows. It began to drive him just as crazy as the verbal ritual of ’95, so after spending several months openly displaying this new behavior (waltzing into his room, picking out items, folding them neatly and then placing them carefully on his dresser), I had to begin sneaking into his room and completing my mission as quickly as possible while he was engrossed in a game of online chess. Sometimes, I’d casually bring up some random topic or make up and ask a question (under the guise of entering his room to hold a conversation), but the true intent was to distract him while I satiated the feverish state of my mind: “If his work clothes aren’t lying in a neat pile on top of his dresser, then that means they’re stuffed messily into a drawer, and knowing that they’re there – in that crazy, unorganized state — well how the hell could ANYONE sleep, knowing that?”

It was a miserable time. For everyone.

 

My mother, Sierra (who initially, of course, ENJOYED this particular “tic”; who WOULDN’T love a house as sterile and clean as a cancer patient’s hospital room?), began to worry. “You should try fasting and praying about it, Rosebud,” Grammy suggested in front of Sierra and I one Sabbath afternoon. “Ask the Lord to take these thoughts and compulsions away. He can help you.”

“Okay,” I agreed hopefully, feeling just as troubled as they felt sympathetic. So I “fasted” for one day — as long as a 12-year old could possibly stand to fast; I skipped breakfast, felt like I was dying to death at lunch time, and then broke my fast with a heaping bowl of spaghetti around approximately 1 PM.

“God knows your heart,” Grammy consoled me, nodding encouragingly. “You did the best you could.”

And guess what? That tic went away. Crazy, huh? Present day, you know my thoughts on religion and the portrayal of the christian god. I’m not subscribing to anything or committing to anyone right now, and my professional opinion is that it was more of a mental victory than it was a magical deity benevolently granting me freedom from my diseased mind.. but, the experience was a testament to how having faith in something (whether that something is intrinsic or outside of yourself) can empower you and assist you in getting through some things. Before I become offensive, I’m going to stop right there.

 

Now, as a 12-year-old who was finally free from the household-cleaning-burden, I COULD go to Grammy’s house on the weekends. I was, long at last, able to enjoy the above ground pool.. sort of.

 

When obsessive cleaning walked out the door, mathematical pool patterns snuck right on in and took its place. Playing in the pool became, more or less, just another chore.. an activity riddled with numbers, patterns, and processes of its own.

 

Long after Bobby had exited the pool, gone into the house and dried off (so he could lounge in front of the television and play Mario on the Super Nintendo), I remained in the pool, conscientiously marking “activities” off on my mental checklist.

  • Dunk into the pool – completely submerging your head – 12 times.
  • Swim in circles around the pool ten times EXACTLY. Start at the front of the ladder, stop at the back of the ladder.
  • Hold your breath for 45 seconds. I don’t care if it hurts. If you don’t do it right the first time, you’ll have to do it again and again and again until you get it right.
  • Do an interesting sideways dip into the pool 4 times left, 4 times right, and then 4 times straight (up and down).
  • Crouch in the middle of the pool and turn around slowly, a full 360 degrees, ending softly in your starting position. If you end too quickly or end up rotating too far, dunk and do it all again until you get it right.

It was like a strange, fucked up ballet routine.

 

creepy ballet

 

Let’s move on to age 14.

At this juncture, my family moved to Alabama. It was precisely then that I realized – with a tingly sense of excitement – that there was something new that I had been dependent on all of my life – that I’d been interacting with on a daily basis – that I could really enjoy controlling. My food intake. And not just volume intake; I could also strictly regulate what types of food I accepted into my body. Yes; this would be a fantastic venture.

 

My diet quickly began to consist of just as many fasting days as eating days.. and the fasting days took place, of course, under the pretense of me “clearing my mind spiritually.” My family deeply admired my religious fervor. Meanwhile, I monitored the scale daily, feeling elated when another pound would drop off and it would read a slightly smaller number than the day before and then, conversely, feeling terrified when it tipped ever so slightly in the other direction.

 

On the days when I did eat, my carefully regimented and vegan diet looked exactly like this:

  • Breakfast: (1) 1-inch cube of vegan cheese and a sliced kiwi.
  • Lunch: an 8-ounce fruit punch-flavored carton of Juicy Juice.
  • Dinner: a freshly prepared salad and 1/4 cup of soy ice cream.

 

Combine that with a developing body, hours of enthusiastic skateboarding, and countless laps around the block and you have yourself a perfectly anorexic teenager. This thing has lasted for years. Looking at history and case studies, the “overlap” of OCD coupled with an eating disorder can be absolutely lethal; I am fortunate that it wasn’t.

 

I only threw up once, and I’ll never forget it. I pushed myself off of the bathroom floor that afternoon, flushed the toilet, looked into the mirror — watching the tears streaming down my face because I hate vomiting more than anything else in the world — and I told myself: If you’re going to EAT the food, you’re going to deal with the consequences, dammit. So I resolved that I just wouldn’t eat.

Presently – on good days – I forget all about my eating disorder. On bad days, it’s like it never left (and FYI, an eating disorder never really does). There’s a certain victory — this sense of accomplishment — in denying food. I can’t deny it. And it’s alluring. I just have to rationalize my way out of and past it, constantly.

 

But before we wrap all of this up with a full present-day summary, let’s visit 3 years ago.

Three years ago, I was in the middle of obtaining my Associate’s Degree at Jeff State Community College. One professor tasked the class with writing a research paper on any topic we wanted. OCD immediately came to my mind. I read a few books and, in the process of conducting my research and writing my paper, I was reminded of how HUGE of an impact OCD had made on my life.. as a toddler, a child, a teenager and, even, an adult. In one of the books, I read a person’s account of how their OCD had gotten SO severe that they had started worrying that they were running people over anytime they drove their car over speed bumps. I finished the sentence and had to stop reading; why? Because my heart had stopped.

 

Only a week before, I, myself, had driven over a speed bump on the way to work. The exact same speed bump I drove over every day on the way to work. But on that particular morning, as I did so, I thought to myself: “Hmmm. What if that was a person? Isn’t that what it would feel and sound like to run over something.. like a person? And how HORRIBLE would it be if you ACCIDENTALLY ran over someone and didn’t REALIZE it and then they ended up dying because you didn’t STOP to check on and help them?”

Utterly horrified, I remember making a U-turn, driving back down the same stretch of concrete, seeing no one lying there, and hating myself. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Rose?” I knew, intuitively, that I’d just crossed the line and moved into a terrible other level of this disease.

 

And reading that another person had let theirs get to that point, too, was a wake up call for me.

 

ENOUGH, I decided, audibly slamming the book shut and making up my mind. “I’m done checking the stove burners every single morning WHEN I HAVEN’T EVEN USED the stove in days, unplugging the lamp every time I leave the house, and ensuring that the refrigerator door is completely, 100% closed. OF COURSE IT IS! AND OH WELL IF IT ISN’T. And I’m also done wondering if I’ve just driven into someone and accidentally run them over when that’s INSANE and you’d CLEARLY KNOW if that happened.

 

For a while, with that strong “surge” of determined resolve, things got better. I was making a consistent, concerted effort to deny my compulsions and to resist my urges, and it made a difference. But the thing about OCD is, if you aren’t actively resisting it, you’re, by default, allowing it, and that makes relapsing as easy and effortless as agreeably floating with the current, down the river.

 

Let’s talk about present day.

I fell in love with a woman last year and realized I was gay. Yeah; that’s the story I haven’t told to you all and the one that I likely never will.

I divorced my very best friend.

Anticipating uncertain living arrangements, I preemptively re-homed my precious and adored rabbits.

I entered into another relationship immediately after my divorce — far too quickly, much too soon.

And now here I am; 24, divorced, single.. in the process of refinancing a home and living in and out of coffee shops. Still half-assedly trying to manage my OCD but, when I’m feeling stressed and exhausted, letting it manage me.

 

In recent months, I’ve added on a few new tics; one of these is running my hand underneath each faucet in the house 1, 2, 3 times before leaving the house. Just to make sure the water isn’t running at all. Because if it is.. well, it’s SUPPOSED to go down the drain – that’s how it’s designed to work – but if it doesn’t for some reason, it could fill up the sink, overflow, begin to flood the house with copious amounts of water and then drown my German Shepherd. I don’t really give a shit about a ruined home, but I am in love with that stupid dog. This tic is so famously commonplace that my roommate even wrote a little jingle about it:
“Is the water off? Is the water off? Is the water off? Swipe swipe swipe!”

Another one: Whenever I stop and park my car somewhere, I close the door, duck my head and, using the driver’s seat window, peer inside to ensure that the interior light is completely off. My car battery died once when I was parked at a Cracker Barrel 5 years ago — presumably because I hadn’t closed my door well enough — so I’ve been “checking” ever since.

A third: No dish or cup is ever clean enough. It could have just come out of the dishwasher — with the surface of the dish still scalding hot; the top, bottom and sides of it sparkling clean — but I have to run it under the faucet and rinse it at least ONCE before using it. Just in case.

 

And then there’s food. My favorite. I’m really trying to stay in control of this one. I forgot about being anorexic for a few years there.. until – in the course of one month5 different people asked me “when” I was expecting (oh yes; they sure did. It happened back in 2013 and you can read about it in one of my older blog posts: All The Chubby Ladies!). As a result of this obscene questioning, my anorexia returned with a vengeance and I quickly dropped from 140 pounds to 110 (typing out the number 110 just now actually made me cringe, because it looks like too much; I know that’s not normal).

On the days where I feel slightly out of control and want to, in an effort to regain this control, remove food from the equation, I still make myself eat a salad, or a banana, or a simple bowl of soup as some kind of rational, kind gesture towards my future self. We can’t have you keeling over while you’re trying to teach class next week, idiot, I mutter to myself affectionately over all of the negative, internal mind chatter.. draining my bowl of soup and kind of hating myself at the same time because I know that I’m not going to lose weight this way – I always want to – and that I might even gain a fucking pound because of the damn soup.

 

So it’s a struggle. A constant struggle. I joke about my OCD, like many other people do (and fun fact, many of these people don’t actually have it), but for those who do, it’s a serious inconvenience. It can dominate your life, direct your most minute movements, and drive you absolutely insane if you let it. I’m not going to take “medicine” for mine. I honestly don’t need to. I could stop it if I wanted to.. but sometimes, I don’t want to, because in a busy life and chaotic world, it’s nice to have something you can do, count, control, or say over and over and over again.. even if it seems like a stupidly meaningless tradition or sounds like a terrible, discordant lullaby. It’s familiar. It’s routine. It’s stable; unchanging. It makes you feel safe.

And sometimes, it’s simply nostalgic and sentimental. At night, just before we both begin to fall asleep, my roommate will wrap his arms around me, kiss the top of my head and whisper: “Don’t worry, Jace; we’re going to have fun tomorrow.” 

 

Goodnight Jace, I love you; you’re going to have fun tomorrow, right?
Aun Aqui

 

 

My fancy breakfast date with Mr. No One

This is a fun tale to tell.

Mr. No One? Who the hell is that?

You may have seen his occasional comments on my blog over the past couple of years.. specifically, back in May of 2014, when they started popping up. The “posting name” varied slightly as the months rolled by.. starting out as “No one of consequence,” quickly changing to “No one,” and then finally, consistently appearing as what appeared to be his officially decided-on title: Mr. No One.

 

Every now and then, I’d get a notification at 11 PM, 3:30 in the morning, or 2:25 PM. Random times. The notification would be an email from WordPress where I was being notified that a Mr. No One had just commented on the blog. Again.

Wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I’d stop to read each comment immediately, always wondering who this random, faithful poster was. I definitely over analyzed his messages and his writing voice, but by doing so, I was able to assign three definitive adjectives onto the helmet, shield and breastplate of this mysterious persona:

  • Intelligent
  • Detached
  • Vaguely supportive

 

So I’d read the comment, re-read my post (either in its entirety or just a particular portion of it) in light OF the comment, and then I’d move on with my day.. not feeling unsettled, exactly, and certainly not feeling creeped out. Just stumped. It would be like me ending a sentence without

 

..see? You’re left wondering if you read that incorrectly or if I died in the middle of typing the sentence out, and then all your mind can really do is try to place a word or a small collection of words at the end of the unfinished sentence to afford some closure.  To attach some meaning. Yeah. With Mr. No One, there was never any closure.

 

Last year, even though Mr. No One didn’t have his “posting” name linked to an existing blog, a social media page, OR what appeared to be a valid email address, I tried responding to some of his comments. Why not, I mused, carefully typing out a quick and inquisitive email to my number one fan. I need to come across as being appreciative of his time and vaguely curious as to his identity, but not desperate for it. I drafted the email, read it back to myself (as the author, for proofing purposes), closed my eyes, and then read it AGAIN — this time, pretending to BE Mr. No One (how will he “interpret” this? I asked myself). I made a couple of quick edits (with the aim of sounding less desperate), and then I clicked on the word send.

 

Sometimes, he emailed back. Sometimes he didn’t. When he did, I didn’t learn anything about who he was.. only who he wasn’t, and this was through thoughtful questioning and deductive reasoning. In one of my first emails, I ventured to ask him three questions that I believed would help satisfy my curiosity, and questions whose answers, I knew, wouldn’t merit such detailed specifics that Mr. No One would feel like his anonymous identity was threatened. Pulling up a copy of that email in my Gmail account’s “sent” folder, I can quote that my first three initial questions were:

  • Have we ever met in-person?
  • How long have we known each other?
  • When is the last time we knowingly communicated with each other (IE we spoke and I knew WHO I was talking with)?

He responded with:

  • Yes.
  • Years.
  • Years ago.

 

Well damn, I thought to myself, elated that he’d responded but disappointed at his perfectly preserved anonymity. I re-read the questions I’d posed, his oh-so-typically vague answers, and cursed myself for not asking BETTER questions. Feeling gutsy, I sent another email, and in the email, I asked a better question:

  • Are you Jonathan, Jarrod, Micah or David?

 

I felt pretty sure that he must be ONE of these people. I’d run through various situations in my head and had analyzed different personality types and these processes had narrowed my suspicions down to those four characters.

He answered within the hour:

  • No.

 

I proceeded to ask what city and state we’d met in; he responded that we’d met in the “greater birmingham area.” Becoming increasingly confident that I’d continue to receive answers to whatever questions I asked, I followed up with 4 more questions.

  • What year did we meet in?
  • Are we friends on Facebook?
  • When is the last time we SAW each other?
  • Am I asking too many questions?

 

His answers:

  • I don’t know.
  • No.
  • I don’t know.
  • No.

 

UGH! I screamed inwardly. WHO THE HELL IS THIS CHARACTER? 

 

The emails stopped for a while. I continued blogging; he continued reading and commenting on occasion, whenever he felt like it. On my latest post – It’s not the coffee; it’s me – he posted the following comment:

You’re overlooking one very important aspect of the coffee experience. It’s halfway between gas-station and coffee-shop, and that’s ‘diner coffee’. Sometimes you just need the never-ending coffee experience of a Waffle House. You can be around people, but they mostly don’t want to talk to you. Oh, and you need to find a place that does a Vietnamese iced coffee. There’s your dessert.

 

And I recognized it instantly. My “in.” This was my chance. Was I brave enough to take it?

 

I clicked on the fake-ass email address that his posting name linked to and began crafting yet another email. It consisted of just two sentences that conveyed confidence and that I knew he couldn’t possibly help but respond to.

“So,” my message read, “if you’re still living in the greater birmingham area, I’m free all weekend. Which Waffle House do you want to meet at?”

 

I sent the email, feeling my heart racing and feeling VERY pleased with myself. You’re so freaking brave, Jace, I complimented myself, genuinely impressed. This dude could potentially KILL you and yet here you go, waltzing right into the very face of danger.

 

I shared my email with one of my closest friends before sending it (to get her reaction). I’d been sharing “Mr. No One updates” with her for several months by now, so she was very “in-the-know” about the situation.
“Wowwwww.. REALLY?” she read the draft and then looked up at me with raised eyebrows, returning the phone into my hand. “Are you actually willing to meet up with this guy?”

 

“Oh, yes,” I answered quickly, “I definitely am.”

 

“It could be unsafe, Jace. Like, really unsafe.”

 

“It could be,” I agreed, “but I’m not liking feeling disturbed about not knowing his identity. Especially at night. When I think about it at night, it makes me feel nervous, and I’d like to feel more in control of the situation. I’m willing to chance it. I’m just hoping he’ll agree to it”

 

And guess what? He did.

“…and ruin the mystery?” he emailed in response. Here we go.

 

We exchanged several more emails as we fine-tuned our plans; in one of these emails, I proposed that we meet on a Sunday morning at 7:30.

 

“I can honestly say that I don’t remember the last time I was awake that early on a Sunday,” he hesitated. I was worried that he was going to back out.

 

“Well then how about we meet at 8:00 sharp?” I offered in reply.

 

“Nah,” he concluded, “7:30 am is absurd and great. I’ll see you then.”

 

What a character, I thought inwardly, beginning to question the soundness of my own decision. Isn’t this how people get killed? I considered the question seriously. “I mean really.. on paper, it’s like this: you’re meeting up with some stranger who’s been lurking on your blog for two years at a Waffle House. That just sounds off.” I paused. “It’s sketchy as hell, Jace.”

“BUT,” I argued with the voice, “it was YOUR idea to meet up. Not his. And you’re meeting at 7:30 am, at a Waffle House.. not at 2 am in some abandoned alley downtown. This person doesn’t seem to have ill intentions. They seem friendly and vaguely supportive. Remember?”

I shook my head, unable to firmly choose a side but feeling far too curious to take the ‘cautious route.’

“Whatever. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

 

Sunday morning rolled around quickly. I  woke up and slipped on my dude jeans (loose-fitting, black denim pants), gray vans, and a black t-shirt with outer space swirls and galactic patterns woven into the design. “If I DO die this morning,” I thought to myself cheerfully as I dried my face with a towel, “I’m at least going to look like a total cool guy.”

 

I hopped in the car, drove for about ten minutes, slowly rolled to a stop in the Waffle House parking lot and then looked down at my phone before heading in: 7:26 am. I was prompt. My mother had messaged me over Facebook again that morning (I had just shared with her, the night before, what my plans were). If I do get kidnapped/killed, I had reasoned inwardly, it wouldn’t be right to have NOT told her.

“Please be careful!” her email read. “Do not leave the restaurant with him.” But what if he says that he has candy in his car? “Keep your cell phone with you at all times,” her message continued. I will.. until he realizes that I have one on me and throws it out the car window, which will happen just before I’m blindfolded, tied up, and sadly tossed into the ravine.

I activated my emergency brake, locked the driver’s seat door before slamming it shut and then began walking towards the Waffle House.

“Well now.. what should I do at this juncture,” I wondered for the first time. “Stand outside and wait for someone I may or may not recognize to walk up? This blogger has to know what I look like, because they said we met in person years ago. OR,” I thought at the half-way point of my short trek through the parking lot, “they might already be inside waiting for me. With a table. Or at a booth. Wearing sunglasses and a ball cap and with a carefully concealed handkerchief that’s been soaked in some kind of chemical and that they’ll discreetly press against my face when no one is looking and which will make me pass out. Then comes the phone tossing and the unfortunate fall into the ravine. OH MY GOD; I might die today.” I was probably making a strange face when I looked up and noticed an oddball standing beside the front door. I paused. He looked vaguely familiar.

“Hey,” I called out tentatively, in a friendly voice.

“Hello,” he answered. He WAS wearing sunglasses and a brown bucket hat.

“Are you maybe meeting someone here?” I queried openly, feeling awkward.

“Yes. You.”

My heart lurched. “IT’S HAPPENING! YOU’RE MEETING MR. NO ONE! YOU’RE LIKE THE COOLEST DETECTIVE ON THE PLANET RIGHT NOW! AND IT DOESN’T EVEN LOOK LIKE HE’S GOING TO KILL YOU!”
“Let’s go inside,” I stated immediately, not really knowing where to begin but deciding that it would come to me by the time we’d found our seats.

 

We sat down at a booth (after I asked if he wanted to sit at a booth or at the bar and then answered for both of us, before he could cast a vote). I plopped my wallet and phone down on the table, tossed my hoodie over onto the empty booth space beside me, and then looked across the table at him. Mr. No One.

“So,” I began, “you look VERY familiar. You play in a band downtown, right? That must be where I’ve seen you.”

“No,” he answered simply, still settling in across from me. His beard – one of his most prominent and outstanding characteristics – fell down to where his belly button would be. He wore a necklace consisting of bottle caps strung together on a black cord. These were the two things I noticed first, after the sunglasses and brown bucket hat.

“Okay,” I responded slowly, continuing to eye him and flipping through old personnel records in my memory, “then where have we met? How do I know you?”

“The credit union.”

 

“OH MY GOD,” I exhaled, “that IS IT!”

 

He reminded me of his name, and, with a name and location now framing things into context, I was instantly able to recall all of our interactions. I had worked, years before, as a teller at a small, local credit union. This particular member — Mr. No One, who I will henceforward fictitiously refer to as Ryder – would come in once every two weeks, and I’d help him with his transaction as we chit-chatted about school, the novel I was working on, and other random things.

“You suddenly disappeared,” he explained, “and when you did, I remembered that you’d signed one of my insurance papers once, so I looked your name up online. Your blog was the first thing to pop up.”

“Really?” I leaned in, intrigued, uncomfortably resting my elbows on the table. “The blog, of all things.. that’s surprising.” I paused. “But why did you decide to look me up, though?” I asked him. “I’m just curious.”

He shrugged. “You were the only person in that branch I could talk to.”

I nodded, satisfied with his response. “I like your shirt,” I offered suddenly, pointing directly at it. “Appreciate the rainbow.”

He looked down at the shirt himself. “I thought it would seem friendly.” He pulled his beard over to one side so I could snap a picture of it. “Don’t worry,” I murmured out loud as I held my phone up in front of him, “I’ll make sure to keep your face out of the shot.”

20160424_080809

 

We ordered breakfast. “And what would you like to drink?” the waitress asked, pen in hand. I smiled to myself, remembering how I’d ended up here with Mr. No One: for the purpose of experiencing diner coffee. “Coffee with creamer, please,” I answered her. He ordered the same.

In a moment, she’d placed two mugs of coffee on the table, along with four creamers.

“You already know pretty much EVERYTHING about ME,” I began, dumping creamer number two into the mug and stirring it around with a spoon,”but I know nothing of you. Other than your name and where you bank.”

Despite targeted probing, I learned precious little about Ryder, because he’s a pretty quiet guy. I did learn that he makes signs (the creative type; no surprise). He’s married. He likes to knit and crochet (especially bottle-covers that are in the shape of Octopuses) and enjoys eating virtually anything other than hot dogs. He had two cats, but they died, and while he’s not a big fan of television in general, he enjoys watching food and travel shows sometimes.

“So what’s going on with you and Charlie right now?” he asked me after patiently answering a steady stream of questions that I’d posed to him. “I know that you two were on for a while and then off and then..” he trailed off, waiting for a reply.

I smiled a little, holding the gigantic mass of smothered and covered hash brown steady with my right hand and cutting into it with my left. “Charlie is actually sitting right over there,” I motioned towards him with an inclination of my head. “Behind you. My mom made me promise that I’d bring someone with me.”

Ryder turned around and laughed heartily. “Ahhhh.. your security detail. Yeah. I knew you could take care of yourself, but I also figured that SOME kind of plan was in place. Back-up of sorts.”

“Yep,” I laughed along with him. “I dropped Charlie off at the gas station before actually pulling in to the Waffle House parking lot. He said, this morning, that he was going to try to dress inconspicuously, but he honestly just ended up looking like a Jehovah’s Witness.” Charlie was wearing clean, blue jeans, a beige button-up shirt with a blue paisley tie, and had a journal tucked under his arm that could easily be mistaken for a leather-bound Bible. Ryder turned around to get a second look at him and then nodded in silent agreement with me.

And we’re friends, currently,” I finally answered him, “BUT that could change come this afternoon. Who knows.” He laughed quietly. “Really though,” I followed up more seriously, dunking another bite of hash browns into the small pool of ketchup on my plate, “I intend on staying friends this time. I really need time to myself right now. And I’m pretty sure that, before settling down and committing myself to someone for FOREVER again, I’ll want to date a woman or two. After all.. since I first realized I was gay last year, I’ve dated ZERO women, and I think that that’s an integral part of this ‘whole thing.'”

He seemed supportive of the decision. We moved on to other topics: the OCD ticks stemming from my childhood onward; the establishment and dissolution of my heterosexual marriage; my passionate bout with and – now – neutrality towards religion; my gender identity, recently re-homed rabbits, and dumbass (but dearly loved) German Shepherd. I eventually described my mother’s frantic state of being over the nerve-wracking reality that I was meeting up with some stranger I’d been conversing with over the internet.

“And she did specifically instruct me to NOT get into your car with you,” I shared with him very seriously, “so if you even bring the matter up, it’s not happening.”

“Ahhh, right,” he concurred agreeably.

“But I told her that if CANDY was offered, I MIGHT.”

“You might,” he repeated, “but what if I’d had a burrito in there?”

“Oh my god,” I laughed out loud. “YOU are hilarious. Which of those cars is yours?”

 

The Waffle House grew increasingly crowded, so we decided to carry the conversation outside. He grabbed the ticket off of our table and paid up at the front, which was unexpected. I thanked him.

“No problem,” he smiled. “A cup of coffee and a plate of hash browns; you’re a cheap date.”

 

We talked outside for a few more minutes, and then I tapped, from the outside, on the window beside Charlie’s table (to get his attention). He looked up; I caught his eyes and motioned for him to come and meet me outside. He and Mr. No One shook hands with each other, and then we all celebrated the fact that I wasn’t dead.

“Ahhh, but I forgot to bring the pepper spray,” I mourned.

“Eh, you’ll bring it with you next time,” Ryder offered encouragingly.

“I sure will.”

 

Mr. No One and I shook hands and then retreated to our vehicles. I looked over from the driver’s seat and smiled at Charlie on our way to the grocery store.

“Did you enjoy meeting Mr. No One?” he asked. “Was it an interesting experience?”

 

“It was SO interesting,” I answered, letting my left hand dangle limply outside of the car window and feeling cool air rushing through the empty spaces between my fingers. “The mystery was always intriguing, but I’m really glad I know who he is now. I’d have never guessed it was him. And I’m so glad that it WAS him, Charlie; he’s a very sweet, gentle, thoughtful and interesting person.. super nice guy, and totally harmless. What an interesting morning.” With my fingertips closing around the steering wheel and my foot tapping lightly on the gas, I slid my tongue across the roof of my mouth, remembering the way the coffee had tasted at Waffle House. Slightly bitter; vaguely sweet; earthy. It was functional, and socially, it had been fun to sip on, but it was nothing to write home about. I think I’ll stick with my fancy, weekly cafe mochas, I mused.

 

Whew — STILL HERE!
Aun Aqui

 

It isn’t the coffee; it’s me

You know what I loved most in elementary and middle school? Vocabulary lessons. There were very few of them given, but learning new words and then practicing using those words in carefully crafted sentences was one of the most interesting and rewarding exercises. Tonight, we’re going to have a scaled-down vocab lesson consisting of just (1) word that I’m certain all of us have encountered and used before: escape. For starters, here’s a good definition of the word “escape”:

Breaking free from confinement or control.

It’s actually a really good definition, and I’ve been enjoying this whole “poll thing” we’ve been testing out, so let’s do that again.

When you hear or read the word “escape,” it sounds and looks pretty intense. Doesn’t it? And the word carries certain connotations. My first thought – in response to the word “escape” – is this: someone’s been stolen, and they’re locked inside of the trunk of a car at this very moment with some psychopath in the driver’s seat, and they’re slipping and sliding around roughly in the back as that rotten, deranged idiot pilots them through some dirty, slummy, run-down part of the city. And that person needs to figure out how they’re going to escape. Quickly.

 

That’s VERY intense, isn’t it? But you can picture the situation very clearly in your mind, I’m sure, and you can also quickly and easily infer the urgency behind and the severity tied up in the word “escape.” But escaping confinement and control isn’t always so dangerous, and it isn’t always a life or death matter. More often than not, it’s simply escaping a stressful situation, difficult, unwanted circumstances, or an unpleasant state of mind or being. In my case, it’s often the latter. I’ve found – consistently, over the years – that my mind is the worst kind of prison. Maybe you feel similarly. I told a friend once that I felt like a prisoner, and he responded affirmatively: “Well then you are. You are what you choose to be. You are in prison, Jace, and you are also the prison, the guard, the door, the lock, and the key.” I’ve shared the quote with you all before, but it bears repeating. I try to remember that freedom begins in the mind, and that happiness isn’t external.. it’s internal.. and that the key to happiness is honestly just you deciding whether or not you want to be happy, and me deciding whether or not I’m going to be happy. It’s a conscious choice; a deliberate decision. It’s a matter of choosing and allowing happiness for yourself, and I’d like to pose a serious question to myself and to you: Is happiness your default? Shouldn’t it be? Or does it need a reason to exist; some kind of stimulating sensory experience, exciting life event, big career development, “specially” designated occasion, or the introduction of some new, interesting person on the scene? You tell me.

 

So now that we’ve established

  • what “escape” means,
  • what “escaping” is,
  • how people like to escape, and
  • why people choose to escape,

let’s move onto coffee. What the hell does coffee have to do with ANY of this?

 

Well, at its most basic level, coffee is born out of the coffee bean. Coffee beans are ground up, brewed with water, shimmied through a filter, and then taken with creamer, sugar, or simply enjoyed plain (“black”). It’s a stimulant, of course.. coffee. Most of us love it. Growing up, I never liked coffee, and I never, ever had it on a “routine basis.” I tried it for the first time when I was 12 – totally black; no creamer, no sugar.. neither a bell nor a whistle was to be found within the whole, entire mug – and I HATED it. With a passion. I hated it enough to banish it from my life for a solid four years. THEN, I turned 16 and, on my birthday, my mom was out of town. For religious purposes, I wasn’t usually allowed, under her jurisdiction, to take in stimulants, but with my fun, easy-going grandma in town, I ventured to ask if I could please buy a cappuccino from the tiny Starbucks inside of the Super Target. “Sure, go for it,” Grammy answered simply, smiling and looking distracted as she steered the cart towards another part of the store. We parted ways, and I bought some random-ass cappuccino at the front counter (I felt awkward approaching the barista, not know WHAT I was doing, and didn’t want to look stupid by “taking too long” to place my order, so I literally just ordered the very first thing I saw listed on the board). I took a single sip of the drink and, four years later, I hated it, too, so I pawned the rest of the cappuccino off on Grammy, who readily drank it and even seemed to enjoy the horrid beverage.

But when I began working full-time and going to school part-time at the age of 19, I decided to give coffee yet ANOTHER go. Guess what? I STILL wasn’t buying into this coffee crap. “WHY ARE PEOPLE SO OBSESSED WITH THIS SHIT?” I wondered to myself, feeling genuinely puzzled. “It is so GROSS.” And then last year, just before I turned 24, I bought a coffee maker for the house — not for me; for my ex-husband, Chris. His work schedule had him waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning every day, and he liked to drink coffee before heading in. The first few times he brewed coffee, it seemed like way too exciting of an event for me to not be a part of it, so I would tentatively fill a cup half-way full with coffee and then dump ounce after ounce of creamer into it, stirring it all together until it took on the shade of a washed out, camel-brown. I found – to my utter delight – that this homemade coffee tasted palatable. Simply, barely palatable. And so it began: my coffee obsession.

 

In the beginning, with the coffee maker conveniently present in the house at all times, I started brewing and drinking coffee two-three times a week (just “for fun”). And then, as it occurred to me that I was transgender/gay/going to have to divorce my best friend in the whole entire world, life at home became increasingly stressful. Spending time at home depressed me, and even walking around the neighborhood didn’t place me “far enough away from it all” to feel like I wasn’t a part of what was happening, so I began scouting for places to crash at during the weekends and on weeknights. Aside from skating at the park downtown, there seemed to be one other good, untapped option: visiting local coffee shops.

And I started touring them all.
For fun, I’m listing them below.

 

Revelator Coffee Co (first visit had me thinking the staff was snooty; second visit, they were slightly friendlier, but I’d still describe the atmosphere as being sterile)
Seeds Coffee Co (unremarkable)
Church Street Coffee (owner offered me a free pastry at closing; thoughtful!)
O’Henry’s Coffee (fun flavors; also located next to a burrito joint, so that’s a plus)
Crestwood Coffee Co (relaxed atmosphere, cool artwork on the walls; located in the same shopping plaza as Seasick Records)
Urban Pops (laid back vibe, delicious cannolis; super sweet store owner)
Octane (located next to a burrito joint.. HUGE plus)
Urban Standard (pricey tofu scramble, amazing made-from-scratch biscuits, excessively cheesy grits; CUTE brunette patron whose name I’ll never ever know)
Redcat (my #2 fav coffee shop in the WORLD; GREAT peppermint mocha latte w/housemade whipped cream, fantastic grits, comfy couches and steady, friendly staff)
Saturn (my #1 fav coffee shop in the UNIVERSE; outer-spaced themed w/attached music venue.. unbeatable)

 

Some people, like my deceased Uncle Junior, turn to drinking alcohol when they’re down. I take off running into the sweet, warm arms of a coffee pot.

 

So.. what’s so great about local coffee shops? Why do I spend so many dollars and so much of my free time frequenting them? There are a couple of reasons. A couple times two, actually. Four, to be exact.

 

  1. The coffee they serve. It’s delicious.
  2. The free wifi they offer (which I use while writing these blog posts).
  3. The sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet but always populated and lively atmosphere that they feature.
  4. The escape they afford. 

 

I still remember one of the first times I leisurely walked into a coffee shop. I viewed the whole thing, as I do many things, as an experiment. I approached the front counter where a guy was drying a mug with a towel. It was very picturesque; I felt like I was in an 80’s movie. “Hey!” he greeted me. “What can I get you?”

“Hmmmmmmm,” I murmured out loud, placing my finger up against my lips and squinting my eyes in the direction of the menu that was hanging on the wall. “Do you have any fun coffee?” I asked, very seriously.

“Fun coffee?” he repeated, setting the cup off to the side and resting his elbows on the counter. He raised his eyebrows inquisitively and inclined his body towards me.

“Yeah — you know, fun coffee,” I reiterated. “Where it tastes more like a dessert than coffee?”

“Yeahhhhh,” he answered slowly, understanding dawning upon him. “We do have fun coffee!”

“Awesome!” I responded, feeling relieved and clapping my hands together in excitement. No stupid cappuccinos this time! “What are my options?”

“Well,” he began, looking back at the menu himself and taking a quick inventory, “we haveeeeeee.. a vanilla chai latte..”

“Ewww, that’s boring,” I mumbled out loud.

“I’m sorry?” he queried, turning his head back to face me — smiling and looking a little surprised.

“Oh, nothing,” I responded quickly, “what are some other options?”

We talked it over and I decided to try a mocha with extra half and half. I took a seat on the leather couch after placing my order and, when he brought the doctored up mocha out to me, I was absolutely delighted. I remember returning the next week and him asking me: “So, how are you liking these mochas with the extra half and half?” #love #supportlocalcoffeeshops

 

So the coffee is great. I’ve found my flavor, and I’m officially a fan. Coffee has actually become somewhat of an addiction for me, and I fully realize that. Scarcely a day goes by without me having coffee in some form or fashion (I have my “types” of coffee classified into two groups: “coffee shop coffee” and “gas station coffee”). Whatever type of coffee it is, it just makes the day more interesting.

 

But beyond enjoying the flavor of the coffee and the barely-noticeable adrenaline boost that it gives, I enjoy leaving the house, going somewhere that is full of people, and then being surrounded by voices, bodies, machines, pastries, and that general “coffee shop aroma.” For me, it — drinking coffee and visiting coffee shops — is an escape. The whole process, the whole event, the whole thing. And I just realized that today.

 

I was wrapping up a project and preparing to leave work this afternoon when a friend messaged me something that was unexpectedly impactful (we had been talking lightly — about music, recording, and records; his plans for the evening and mine).

“I’m feeling kind of blue,” I texted at one point, being honest, “so I’m heading to Saturn after work for coffee and writing.”

He responded within seconds, with no hesitation, and this is exactly what he said:

“Lemme give you a piece of advice that you didn’t ask for. You could go to Europe. You could go to Mars. That baggage is coming with you. Getting out won’t fix shit. Cleaning the house won’t fix it. You gotta face it (insert heart emoticon). But you do you, Jace. You’ll figure out what works for you.”

I looked down at my phone, reading each line carefully and then re-reading them all, and then I closed my eyes. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach; it was nauseating. He’d just hit a nerve. I could feel it. I started crying, and then I had to catch my breath and coach myself into making it through the last half hour of work before indulging myself with a minor emotional breakdown.

 

But he really nailed it.

 

What some people use television, food, drinking, drugs, and Jesus for, I use coffee and coffee shops for: they’re an escape. A coping mechanism. They make me feel like I’m “fixing” something.. like I’m making my problems go away. But all that’s really happening is I’m distracting myself from them and moving myself away from them. They’re not going anywhere, and I’m reminded of that each time I return home and they’re still there.. on me, in me, all over me again. The relief I experience from keeping “busy” and “getting out” is temporary, and it feels nice, but it’s fleeting. Now — the writing really DOES help; it is my own “free” therapy regiment. But I’ve got to get out of this mindset that I can only find mental clarity and emotional relief when I’m sipping coffee among strangers — when I’m far away from home. It’s hard to pinpoint when that mentality began, exactly, but I feel like it was last year when my world fucking flipped on its axis.

 

“He’s right,” I admitted, intuitively, “but I’m still freaking going to Saturn after work.”

 

And here I am.

The barista greeted me by name when I awkwardly approached the front counter three hours ago, reaching into my backpack for my wallet.

“Hey, Jace!” she called out, smiling — a petite blonde with short, wispy hair; wearing a tight-fitting green t and cool arm tattoos.

“Hey!” I smiled back at her and then shifted my eyes downward, onto the counter. “And you’reeeeee.. Payton?” I tilted my head slightly and looked up at her for confirmation.

“Yep,” she caught my eyes and smiled again. I felt awkward, so I very quickly got down to business.

“I’MMMMM going to get the same thing I got last time, because it was perfect; a mocha with extra half and half.”

“Okay, cool,” she nodded in agreement, “and I didn’t actually MAKE your drink last time, so did we steam the whole thing or did you want the extra half and half mixed in on top?”

“That.. sounds great,” I replied simply. “Honestly, I don’t understand ‘how’ this works or happens, but I’m sure that mixing the half and half in on top will be awesome.”

She laughed. “Okay, Jace. It’ll be ready in just a minute.”

“Take your time!” I called out, moseying over to the couch (my couch). I followed the steps my OCD laid out plainly before me; I obeyed all of the rules:

  1. Plug laptop into the wall.
  2. Return wallet to second compartment of backpack.
  3. Remove headphones from backpack, insert them into mobile phone, load Spotify.
  4. Sit down on couch, cross-legged.
  5. Log into WordPress and get to work.

 

I finished the mocha within 30 minutes. Various people have approached me and talked with me.. about music, Taco Bell, open mics, softball and Atlanta, Georgia. I enjoyed each conversation while trying to end them as quickly as possible. I’ve drafted yet another wordy, pointless post, and at 9:10 PM, do I feel any better? Kind of. Sort of. Writing weakens my depression; the coffee tastes good.

But I’m kicking myself right now, because my weaknesses are totally evident, and my quickly developing patterns are perfectly clear. When I feel like control is slipping away from me — when I feel stressed and depressed and lonely — I do three things:

 

  1. I push people away.
  2. I start hating and refusing food again.
  3. I blow money on coffee and run away from home.. in reverse order.

 

I feel fat, I feel claustrophobic, I feel worthless, and I feel conflicted, and I just want to lose myself in a crowd. Any crowd. People are crowding into the music venue “part” of Saturn right now, lining up to listen and scream along while Elle King performs her hit song, Exes and Ohs.. and me? I just want to feel okay. But I know that no one can make me feel that way, and neither can any thing. Relationships are draining. Things are distracting. It’s up to me to be okay. No one can tag and check the baggage in for me, and it’s impossible for them to carry it around on my behalf. My baggage is a part of me; it is inseparable from me. No one can get down to the root of my sadness, or identify the cause of these upswings and downward spirals the way that I can. It’s my mission to dig and search until I find out what’s going on.. until I discover what’s rotting underneath it all.. and it’s a daunting task: having to depend on, rely on, and trust just yourself. It sounds like an easy enough thing to do, but how can you really trust yourself when you’re changing all the time? When you can’t make a decision and stick with it, or a choose a path and stay on it? It’s easier to trust other people. It’s easier to let them carry you than to support your own weight. It’s easier to believe them when they say that you’re beautiful and sweet and smart and worthwhile than it is to tell those things to yourself and believe that they’re true.

And it’s hard to live like this; oscillating day by day and hour by hour.. waiting around and wondering when the pendulum is finally going to decide that it’s less humiliating to break than to waver.

 

Slowly sipping away,
Aun Aqui

 

My Sweet, Stupid Car

I washed my car last Friday night.. and when I say washed, I’m talking old-school, bucket-and-rag-in-hand WASHED the vehicle. For those of you who “know” me, you understand that this is quite the deal, and it was honestly a PRETTY involved endeavor — way more than I imagined it would be. Without going into excessive detail, here are 3 quick lessons that I learned while soaping, scrubbing, and rinsing the sweet and stupid, dingy-looking Neon:

 

  1. When you’ve allowed dirt and grime to build up on your car for three solid years, attempting to hand-wash said vehicle with COLD soapy water is not as effective as you’d like for it to be. Save on some elbow grease by opting for soapy, scalding hot, burn-your-skin-right-off agua next time.
  2. When you first enter the car washing business (as I did last Friday), you’ll discover that your not-dominant hand is pretty much useless, and you’ll also find that your primary hand tires out really early on in the game.. so make sure that you have scheduled a friend/bf/gf/spouse/stranger you hired on Craigslist to be on stand-by and ready to jump in during the particularly painful moments when your wrist feels like it’s possibly-to-positively broken.
  3. Don’t wait another 3 years before you wash your car again. It’s so stupid to wait that long.

 

So.. now that you know that I washed my car (yes; that is the overarching “theme” of this post), let me give you some back story on this.

 

9 years ago, I was 15 years old and living in McCalla, Alabama. I was one of those socially awkward home-schooled kids at the time, so life was pretty drab and uneventful for me. I had just picked up the guitar, so during times when I wasn’t schooling myself, skateboarding around the neighborhood, or reading about Jesus (I was a hardcore christian at the time), I was teaching myself to play the guitar. One afternoon, during a slightly underwhelming one-man-christian-rock-band practice session, an announcement from my mother broke up the relative predictability of my day.

“Hey Rose,” she peeked her head into my room (which, I’ll note, was painted a dreamy light blue), “Micah and Amy called a few minutes ago and told me that they have something they want to give to you. We’re going to meet up with them in Atlanta on Sunday.” She smiled mysteriously and then dipped out of the room in a flash.

“Wait, what?” I called after her, still holding the guitar in my lap and continuing to gaze at the doorway. “Something? What are Micah and Amy wanting to give me that would require us driving to Atlanta?” Suddenly, it hit me: “A KEYBOARD!” I yelled a little louder, setting my guitar carefully down onto the floor and running into the kitchen (where I knew my mother had scurried off to). “It’s a KEYBOARD, isn’t it?” I repeated, beaming. The whole family knew that I was, at this point in my life, a developing musician, and it was also public knowledge that a keyboard had been on my radar for quite some time now.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Sierra smiled mischievously.

“Ahhhh.. now I know that’s it,” I shook my head at her, “because otherwise, you wouldn’t be smiling like that.” Pleased by my own quick detective work, I settled back into the pleasant monotony of the day, ending my guitar lesson a little early and grabbing my skateboard out of the bedroom closet. Full of adrenaline, I flew out of the house and ran all the way to the main road, taking a victory ride down the rough, uneven roads of my little country neighborhood.

 

Sunday rolled around and Padre, Sierra and I packed ourselves into dad’s Grand Marquis. I brought my MP3 player and a journal with me so that I could be all quiet and introspective and teenager-y during the 2-hour drive. I watched from the backseat as an endless backdrop of trees rolled by and could just barely hear, above the sound of my favorite christian rock bands, the muffled and indistinct murmurs of Padre and Sierra as they chatted on-and-off. As per usual, it didn’t take very long for me to become car sick.

I voiced my discomfort and Sierra, always prepared, handled the matter instantly. “Here you go, sweetie,” she cooed consolingly, extending her arm into the backseat and placing a Ziploc bag full of saltine crackers into my hand.

“Want me to stop for a Sprite?” Padre offered, catching my eyes in the rear-view mirror. I was 93-pounds and slightly anorexic at the time and, in my estimation, every calorie counted. I knew that a Sprite would be chock-full of them. “No thanks, dad,” I answered quickly, smiling at him. “These crackers should do the trick.” And they’re bad enough, I thought to myself miserably, overestimating the number of calories they contained in my mind and then wondering how many laps I’d need to walk that evening to make up for them.

We arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, at around 4 PM. Dad pulled off of the main road (West Peachtree Street) and brought the Marquis to a halt in the Mellow Mushroom parking lot. Mellow Mushroom? I perked up in my seat. Their pizza is AMAZING! I instantly realized how hungry I was and remained firmly seated as my internal calorie counter began cycling out of control and screeching, threatening to combust. “Oh fuck it,” I sighed defeatedly (except, at the time, my internal dialogue was probably a bit more kosher — something to the effect of, ‘ohhhhh gosh!’). “I’ll just eat salad for the rest of the week,” I decided.

We entered the restaurant and immediately located Micah and Amy (my aunt and uncle) and their son, Christian. They were seated on couches in the waiting area. After walking over to them, exchanging hugs and inquiring on how everyone’s trip went, we all sat down together at a table for 6 and placed our orders. I can’t remember what everyone ordered, but I know that I chose the tofu sub (which I believed would be at least a little less fattening) and Micah opted for a pizza. We waited for the food to come and then, when it did, we enjoyed it. I nibbled at my sub somewhat nervously, eagerly but anxiously anticipating that golden moment when the shiny, black-and-white keyboard would be presented as mine. “A guitar AND a keyboard? I am so blessed,” I sighed inwardly (insert praise hands).

We wrapped up the meal, trekked outside, and – once the conversation began consisting of more spaces than words – Sierra commented on how late in the day it had gotten. Everyone in the group consented that it was time to return home. “Before we do, though,” Mike spoke up quickly, “Amy and I have something we’d like to give you.” He caught my eyes and smiled.

Ahhhhh, here we go! My heart started thumping a little harder and faster as I smiled back at him. It’s about to happpppppen! I am going to sound like MOZART.

Mike motioned me over and gestured for me to extend my hand. I did so, and then he dropped what appeared to be a car key in it. “Just walk over to that blue car over there,” he pointed about 15 feet away from where we were all standing, “and open the back trunk. Whatever’s in there is yours.”

I sprinted, taking those 15 feet in virtually 3 steps and reaching my destination quickly. I used my shaking left hand to insert the key into the trunk. The key locked into my place, I turned it to the left, and it flung open to reveal —– nothing.

I tried to hide my disappointment, immediately thinking: Oh no — they forgot it! And they’re going to feel soooooo bad! But it’s so not a big deal. Just visibly make it seem like it doesn’t matter. RIGHT NOW.

I turned around, faced the group, and laughed a little. “Awwwww.. it’s empty,” I offered lightheartedly, still wearing a smile.

“It is?” Mike looked genuinely worried. He walked over, bent down and took a survey of the trunk himself. “Well bummer,” he murmured sadly. He paused. Everyone was quiet; the silence was uncomfortable. I itched to make it go away.

Just before I was able to crack a joke, Micah shrugged his shoulders dramatically.

“Well,” he concluded, his voice rising a little, “since we forgot to bring the keyboard, I guess you’ll just have to take the car.”

My heart stopped.

For the first time in my oh-so-predictable and uneventful life, I had just been taken by COMPLETE surprise. For a few seconds, I couldn’t even form the words to speak, to ask, to confirm. Finally:

 

“The.. car?” I was crying. Everyone was smiling, except my cousin Christian, who was laughing, good-naturedly, at my emotional display. I looked over at Sierra and she was flashing a beautiful, toothy smile, with tears streaming down her cheeks, too.

Mike wore the proudest smile on his face. I looked over at Amy and she was beaming.

A car! I was on cloud 9.

 

There you have it. At the age of 16, my aunt and uncle treated me to my very first automobile: an electric-blue, 1999 Plymouth Neon. It was so unexpected. I didn’t come from a family that was “well off,” so I had NO expectations of just “getting” a car. I had assumed that it would be one of those things that I’d have to work for, but it turns out that I used that car to commute to my very first job. I rode in it when I moved away from home — traveling from Florida to West Virginia, West Virginia to New York, New York to New Jersey, and then from New Jersey all the way down to Alabama to marry Christopher. The Neon enabled me to get to and from college; it held up nicely on road trips and work trips; it helped me make it to the courthouse back in November of last year when I filed for a divorce (it was one of the worst days of my life), and for two years now, it’s carried me safely to and from late night music gigs, beautiful parks, and local coffee shops.

 

And for the last 6 years, I’ve been waiting for the old clunker to break. Year after year, though, it’s continued running with minimal maintenance and very little love.

For the last 3 years, I haven’t even bothered to wash the damn thing.

 

As I was leaving band practice earlier this month, Chris walked beside me as I carried my guitar over to the car. I popped the trunk and he ran his finger across the top of the hood of the car, remarking on how incredibly dirty the vehicle had become. “Yeah,” I laughed a little at his observation, “a co-worker actually asked me, last month, if I would wash the car if they gave me a gift card to some local car wash.” He laughed. “Are you serious? What did you say?”

“I said HECK NO!” I answered in a high-pitched voice. “It’s been three years, dude.. I’m not even going to give it up now.”

“Why are you so weird about this?” Chris asked. “Like, why don’t you want to wash your car?”

“Because,” I answered simply, looking the vehicle up and down, “it’s a waste of my time. Once I have a car that I give a damn about, I’ll wash it. Every week. Hand-wash. I’ll keep it as nice looking as my bike.”

Chris shook his head at me. “You know J, you really SHOULD give a damn about this car. Think of everything it’s seen you through. Like.. four years ago — when the front tire blew out on the interstate and we were on our way to Florida to visit your family; remember how we had to walk all the way to that auto store to get a spare?”

I remembered. “Yeah — I was soooooo glad you knew how to put it on!”

“Yeah,” he nodded his head, looking far away, remembering the same event I was. “I know that you think it’s just going to break down on you any day now,” he continued, “and from time to time, you WILL have to replace the tires, change the oil, and have it looked at.. but it’s actually holding up really well. Even though you don’t give a shit about it.”

I reflected on what he’d said. “Honestly,” I answered him quietly. “You’re so right. I DO give a damn about this car, Chris. I LOVE this car. It has literally been with me since I was 16.. I never would have had a car otherwise.” I rested my hand on the roof of the car, affectionately, and distinctly felt the hardened grime on the inside of my palm, rough against my skin. I removed my hand, grimacing a little. “You know what? I AM going to wash this car. Because it deserves it. And I want it to know that I love it.”

Chris rolled his eyes and smiled.

 

So I washed it as soon as I got home from work last Friday night. Check out the before and after pics!

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And this whole car-washing-business got me to thinking about (2) things: gratefulness and investment. Gratefulness is easy to expound on; I’m sure that, right now – off the top of your head – you’re consciously grateful that you have..

  • a place to stay,
  • a job or school to report to,
  • a means of transportation,
  • food on the table,
  • some coffee in your mug, and
  • a little bit of blow money in your pocket (and I’m not talking about drugs.. I’m saying, money you can blow.. on like, burritos, outer space stickers, or cool old stools that you happen to find at the thrift store. I’m talking about spare change, you guys).

Okay. NOW, with “the obvious stuff” out of the way, think about the things that you might overlook.. the things you may easily take for granted but that you can also be grateful for. In particular, I’m thinking about your relationships with people and your relationship with yourself. Who do you love having in your life? What do you love about them? How do they motivate you, support you, and challenge you to become a better person? Do you take the time to actively tell them and show them that you’re thankful for them — their time, their attention, their presence? Turning your gaze inward, what are the characteristics and aspects of yourself that you appreciate? In other words, what do you love about yourself? It isn’t vain to think about these things — it’s actually GOOD to take a “personal inventory” every once in a while.. to notice and appreciate the things that you like about yourself. If you haven’t viewed yourself in an openly positive light before (or just haven’t done so recently), it may seem a little awkward at first, but try it out anyways. Type out a bullet point list in Word. Hand-write delicate, affirming sentences into a journal. Whisper your truths out loud. Just find a way to get them out there. If you feel like sharing what you come up with, please do! Post it as a comment below.

For me, physically speaking, my favorite aspects of myself would be my hands, my wrists, my scarred knees, and my collarbone; for some reason, they are my favorite parts of myself. I think it’s because, when I look at them, I see a boy.. not a girl. And it isn’t that one gender is better than the other; it’s just that THAT is what feels right TO ME. Now — my face, my chest, my hips.. those are not my favorite physical aspects of myself. But I’m learning to, beyond downplaying them, accept them.

Spiritually and internally speaking, my favorite “things” about myself are these:

I love that I love life. That, behind my mind, my eyes, and my perspective, even the simplest outings, assignments, and interactions are transformed into small (or really, really BIG) adventures. It’s something I learned as a child, and I’ll never, ever forget it: life is a total adventure. Every single day of it.

I love that I am driven enough to pursue the things that I want. For example, writing about it has it at the top of my mind: I’m very proud that I took the time to teach myself to play the guitar when I was a teen. I remember how absolutely convinced my mom and dad were that they were wasting $200 at Guitar Center that afternoon, but I knew, deep down on a soul level, that playing the guitar would become more than just a hobby for me. Although I’m nothing close to Mozart, once I learned to stop comparing myself to other people (as far as intelligence, looks, or talents are concerned), that fact ceased to bother me. Music is one of my great loves, and it’s also free therapy! I put in the time and effort 10 years ago, and now I’m able to enjoy playing, creating, and sharing music with others whenever I want.

I love that I schedule time to have fun on the weekends, and that I spend a large portion of that time writing. Words are one of my most favorite things in the whole entire universe. They are, in just three words: magical; healing; powerful.

 

We’ve touched pretty heavily on gratefulness, so here’s a quick thought on investment.

I went on a hike with a friend last week, and this is a brief excerpt from our conversation (I’m recalling from memory, obviously).
“Have you ever experienced an ego death?” He asked me out of nowhere.

“What the hell is that?” I answered him, keeping my gaze on the trail, lazily scouting for any interesting and colorful rocks that might be on the ground.

“I honestly don’t know,” he admitted.

“Well, it sounds pretty profound,” I offered.

“I think it’s where,” and here, he began gesturing with his hands, “everything you perceived about yourself just sort of.. crumbles. And you’re left with something completely new.”

“Oh — then yes. Definitely,” I answered him quickly. “I experienced an ego death last year when I realized that I was gay. Yep. Before that time, I had defined myself by my gender, my ‘christian lifestyle’ and my marriage. I may have dipped out on religion two years before then, but when I realized that I was gay, it felt like everything I’d ever known about myself or associated myself with and everyone I’d ever known just flew right out the window.”

“And what did that feel like?” He asked quietly.

“It was very strange,” I responded. “Surreal.”

We were both quiet for a minute.

“Was it sublime?” He queried.

“Definitely,” I nodded, quickly flipping through old memories in my mind. “It was a thrilling time period, really — just, invigorating. Where I had been deeply rooted before, I was now suddenly in this terrifying state of suspension. I’d effectually stripped away, in one fell swoop, everyone’s expectations of me.. including my own, so there was no longer a model to pattern myself after, or a mold for me to try to fit into. I had to come up with something new now. I was able to become something new now. But it was also unsettling.. losing my grip on everything ALL at once. It felt like my identity had just gone up in flames and I knew that everyone thought I had completely lost my mind. It was a rough time period because I had to learn how to rely on just me. I didn’t really realize, before, that I had been relying on other people so heavily. But truthfully, I was, subconsciously, in the habit of viewing and estimating my own “self worth” in light of how I felt other people liked, loved, or hated me, and I was constantly gauging my own abilities based on how I believed THEY assessed and valued me, and what THEY thought I was capable of. Because I wasn’t accustomed to loving or trusting myself, it was a rude awakening to discover that I only had myself to count on. That only I could support and see myself through this.”

I paused. “Damn. So yes; I have definitely experienced an ego death.”

Then, our conversation drifted off into the topics of transitioning (which I’m still NOT going to, btw, in the traditional sense of the word) and body modification. We discussed that transgender people aren’t the only people who feel trapped in difficult, contrary bodies.

“Absolutely not,” I voiced in agreement with him. “I mean, the list goes on. Women often feel like they need breast enhancements because they feel like the boobs they were born with aren’t good enough, because they don’t resemble or stack up with what they’re seeing in cinema and magazines. And then, I’m totally playing off of a stereotype here, but so many men haul their asses to the gym and work out constantly to achieve this ideal, ‘masculine’ image which is ALSO portrayed to them in the media.. like that is what they’re supposed to look like. Me.. I buy into that shit, too.. to a degree,” I followed up quickly. “Like, I had to pierce my ears and ink up my body to feel more ‘correct,’ and ‘masculine,’ and you.. you’re on hormones.” We looked at each other, shrugging and nodding.

“We’re all just doing what we can to feel more at home,” I concluded softly. “Some of us take more drastic measures than others, and then some people just don’t even bother with trying to change a thing; who’s to judge any of us?”

We invest in these bodies because we want to feel comfortable in them. Right? Well, that stream of consciousness led me to thinking about my car and how it took me three whole years to wash it.. because I thought, for that length of time, that it wasn’t good enough — it wasn’t worthy of being washed. And then, I thought about my house. I let that place get messy as hell ALL week long and then rush to clean it and make it look “presentable” RIGHT before each showing. Why? Because I want the prospective buyer to enjoy how nice-looking it is. I want them to think: boy, I’d LOVE to live here. But why isn’t it enough for me to keep the house clean so that I can enjoy how nice-looking it is? And why do people feel the need to get top-surgery, douse on make-up every single day, work out obsessively or lose a never-changing 5 pounds? Is it so they’ll look more presentable to the world so that the WORLD can “enjoy” or approve of them, or is it just so they’ll feel better about themselves? 

 

And since you mentioned make-up..

I saw a meme on Facebook a while back that was a real game-changer for me. It was a picture of an old, Romanesque statue — specifically, a nude sculpture of a woman. She had her arms raised and, in the picture, someone had photo-shopped a phone into one of her hands, making it look like she was posing and taking a selfie. Tons of people had begun posting comments stating that “women who take selfies are so vain” when one wise person, who really caught my attention, stepped up and said something to the effect of:

“Oh.. so this sculpture was originally made so that men could enjoy looking upon a nude woman. Right? So they could enjoy her beauty. And society says that THAT is okay. But god forbid that a woman should look at herself and also see beauty.”

That struck me as being very true. Simply recognizing the beauty inside or outside of yourself and appreciating that beauty does not make you vain. At all. It was crazy; this person had, with less than a paragraph, caused me to change my mind on something I’d always taken a firm stance on. Why? Because it made sense. I had just always been wrong.

For years, I’d thought of make-up as being nothing more than a stupid waste of time. I believed that women who wore it were vain; they they were just wasting money trying to cover up imperfections, and that they were stupidly obsessing over their appearance. And do some women do that? Obsess over their appearance? OF COURSE they do. And so do some men. But make-up isn’t the issue, and I realize that now. Moving on.

Before ‘making’ this realization, I had actually brought the matter up with a friend during one of our usual, candid discussions.”Well what about you?” She asked me very seriously. “You like to wear boys’ clothes, spike your hair up, and tattoo your arms. You wear those two captives on your ear and that pendant around your neck every single day. And you do all of these things, I’m assuming, because they make you feel comfortable in your body and because they make you like the way YOU look. Right?”

I stood in her doorway with my arms crossed, arching my eyebrows at her. “Yeah?” I answered. “And?”

“And that’s exactly what WOMEN are doing when they put on MAKE-UP,” she breathed out quickly, looking exasperated.”They want to LIKE the way they look, too, and make-up helps them achieve that.”

“Yeah, but are they really doing it for THEMSELVES, or are they doing it because they feel like they HAVE TO in order to compete and keep up with other women, or to at least look presentable to a world that dictates how they’re supposed to live?” I paused, and before she could speak again, I held up my hand. “Like — okay; you want to wear make-up for YOU. Cool. I agree with that. Wear it because YOU like it. That’s empowering and great and awesome and whatever.” She shook her head at me, filling the air with quiet disdain and listening along in silence. “BUT,” I continued, “if you’re doing it because you feel like you HAVE to.. because people will think you are ‘letting yourself go’ if you don’t.. then I don’t respect that. Only do it if you’re doing it for you. Having any other kind of motivation proves you to be unauthentic and it’s just a stupid waste of time,” I concluded, raising my hands in surrender and backing out of the room, watching as she continued to shake her head and catching the hint of a smile on her lips.

 

 

Full of so many dumb opinions that I treat more like facts,
Aun Aqui

Imagine this: STOP imagining terrible unrealities.

Let’s kick this Friday night off with a poll.

 

I’m just curious, that’s all. I hope you all find the survey results to be interesting. Personally, I’ve enjoyed having dinner in all of these various “situations” over the course of my life. As a kid, I liked eating while I worked on the computer (and by “worked,” I mean while I booted fellow game players off of games.com and toyed with HTML codes on Nickelodeon.com; have I ever mentioned that my first “dream career” ever was to become a computer programmer?). As a teenager, I briefly longed for good, ole-fashioned family meals; the kind where everyone’s seated at a circular table together. Youuuuuu know — someone says something adorable and hilarious that makes everyone else laugh, and at some point, you look up from your picture-perfect plate of carefully portioned mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy to see mother delicately modeling a quaint, yellow serving bowl in the palm of her hand and affectionately asking no one in particular if they would like some vegan butter for their rye bread.. but I quickly realized that it was a stupidly romantic idea and that everyone really just wanted to claim their seat on the couch, watch Ruben Studdard battle Gay Aiken (I say this affectionately and in good humor; please remember that I am ALSO gay) on American Idol, and then get through the “main meal” as quickly as humanly possible so that each person could start dipping into their own personal pint of Ben and Jerry’s. As an adult, I now enjoy dinner in many forms and fashions: perching on the stairs and gazing through the clouded window pane of the side porch door, absent-mindedly biting into a piece of gluten-free cinnamon raisin toast; reclining in the driver’s seat of my car and nibbling on a carob + peanut butter granola bar; sitting cross-legged on the concrete slab that’s just outside of my garage and munching on sprouted tortilla chips, with my German Shepherd curled up closely beside me, patiently waiting for handouts; or sprawled out on the bed with a plated soy cheese pizza beside me and a blog post on the screen in front of me. I’ve also attempted, on a time crunch, to consume a bowl of cereal while driving to work, and that’s why I’m a better motorcyclist than I am a car-driver. Returning to my teenage dream, I do still like the idea of eating dinner at a table, and I do just that when I have someone to eat with. My best friend/roommate, Charlie, and I take dinner together practically every night (since we’re both vegetarians who like the same food and enjoy spending time together in the evening). Here are two recent customs we’ve incorporated into our evening mealtimes whilst sitting at the tiny dinette table together:

  1. “It’s ‘Make-A-Joke’ Contest Time!” Big surprise; I invented this one. When “make-a-joke contest time” happens, participants must, while continuing to eat, make up a joke – their very own, a true original – and then share it with the group.. aka, the other person sitting at the table. As players, you take turns making up jokes until they begin sucking so bad that you’d both rather just eat in total silence. My personal, favorite, ORIGINAL joke went as follows: “So the living room sofa and the lamp are trying to figure out where to hang a new wall painting, right?” I began, moving lettuce around in my gigantically-sized salad bowl and stabbing my fork into the middle of a dried cranberry. Charlie nodded in understanding, motioning for me to continue. “Right — okay, so, they are arguing over the whole ordeal (“put it here”; “no, I like it better there”) when eventually, the rug – which has been quiet this whole time – says: ‘Listen, guys; I think we just need to table this.'” I stopped speaking, tears practically streaming down my face from the funniness of my own joke. Charlie laughed along politely and agreed with me that it was the best joke of the evening.
  2. “Solve The Riddle, Dumbass.” The title of this game/activity is unofficial because we’ve never formally created a title for it, but it emerged out of another idea that I submitted weeks back and which Charlie graciously approved. When “Solve The Riddle, Dumbass” begins, players will use Google’s search engine to seek out riddle pages/websites and will begin reading the riddles out loud to see who can answer them first. And why the hell am I sharing all of this with you? Because I ran across a riddle over the course of dinner two nights ago that touched me in a deep and profound kind of way. It’s pretty central to this evening’s blog post.

 

Are you ready for it?

Okay; here it is.

 

“Imagine you are in a dark room. How do you get out?”

 

You stop imagining. 

 

The lightheartedness of the evening pretty much ended for me after reading the answer to that one. That, and I watched a video of a cute German Shepherd “protecting” a lobster on YouTube, and this simple pleasure very quickly turned into becoming the cause of an all-out sob fest when Charlie pointed out to me, mid-video, that the people laughing in the background and filming the video were probably about to boil the featured lobster for dinner. “Are you INSANE?” I answered him. “There’s no way they’d do that. What kind of person could EVER do that?!” What a devastating evening. I was very quickly brought “up to speed” with “how people do.” And you know what? To anyone out there who takes a LIVE LOBSTER and throws it into a pot of boiling water: I hope that YOU come back as lobster in the next life and that you experience the exact same fate. I fucking kid you not. I mean it with all of my motherfucking heart. Now.. THAT’S a subject for another blog post entirely.. and because it’s a subject that I feel 100,000,000% passionate about, it’s going to be a post that will, I anticipate, effectively wipe out 96.7% of my friends list. So.. for the time being, I’m really, really trying to keep my #humanswhohatehumanswhoeatandkillanimalsunnecessarilywhentherearesomanyothernonviolentandhumanefoodoptionsoutthere condition in check. Btw: Wanna watch the video and cry your eyes out, too? Here it is.

Note: The publisher of the video stated, in the video’s description, that they “were very surprised to see her (the German Shepherd) act protective over one of the lobsters (that they) had planned to eat for a lobster dinner.” Reading very deeply into the word “planned,” I’m choosing to be hopefully optimistic and to believe that, once they saw how compassionate, sweet and loving the German Shepherd was acting towards that frightened, LIVING and soon to be prematurely DEAD creature, they decided to keep it as a pet instead, or that, maybe, they chose to release it back into the wild where it could enjoy its remaining years, just as they will surely enjoy theirs without being boiled alive and eaten. #done

 

So — I think I need to re-insert the profound riddle now due to how off-topic we’ve gotten. I apologize. (Closes eyes, shakes head softly, clears throat.) Once again, here is the riddle.

 

“Imagine you are in a dark room. How do you get out?”

The answer: STOP IMAGINING.

 

And here’s my Q: How many situations could the startlingly simple truth of this riddle apply to in “real life”? A: ALL OF THEM.

 

Personally speaking, I get caught up in how I think other people are perceiving me. Constantly. And not just because of my orientation.. it’s also because of my body weight, my blemished face, my overall 14-year old appearance, my publicized lack of religion (“s/he must be so immoral”), etc etc etc. My own insecurities and fear of rejection — the concern I feel over being misinterpreted, falsely represented, generally disliked, or of having my character or reputation maligned – push my mind into a very dark place.. essentially, a dark room. Negative thoughts immediately begin to fill the crevices, the tiny cracks between the wall and the door, and then feelings of powerlessness and cowardice lock me in. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3, and it’s awful. And the worst part is that it’s all imagined. Often, when I’ve opened up and admitted to someone how I feared they were perceiving me, or how I thought they thought negatively of me, they’ve dismissed my doubts and insecurities instantly. “Why on earth would I, or anyone, think that about you? Where is this even coming from?”

 

Think of the wasted time. The wasted energy. I have, undoubtedly, ruined what could have been perfectly good days; carelessly tossed aside cheerful moods, and missed out on meaningful experiences, interesting encounters and positive exchanges. I did that to me. No one else did. I could have chosen to be open, candid, optimistic and confident. Instead, without having any reasonable grounds for doing so, I assumed that I was being rejected, looked down on, or that I was unwanted, and so I just watched the boat that I could have boarded and discovered a whole world of new adventures on sail sadly away.

 

And of course, dark rooms come in many different packages.. personalized packages that have been customized JUST for you and are perfectly tailored to meet your individual needs. Packages that influence you to

  • regret the past to the point of despair
  • fear the future because you can’t totally control it
  • worry about losing someone you love a lot
  • feel scared that you’re going to end up alone because you feel inadequate, weak, and unimportant when you’re on your own..
  • whatever. The terrible possibilities are endless.

 

Try to remember that what’s going on in the present moment is what’s actually happening. I AM sitting alone, on a couch, in a hip cafe downtown right now. I DID drink my “fun coffee” (aka mocha w/extra half-and-half) way too fast and now my heart is racing a little. I am wearing a pair of stained, gray Vans, new earbuds that I purchased from Target earlier this afternoon, and I am planning on skateboarding at dusk before heading home. Some of these things are happening right now, and some things are playing on the fictitious mind-reel of my immediate future.. but if I spend the afternoon worrying about repairing and remodeling the house next month, paying the fire dues that are due in September, wondering whether or not I need to consider pursuing my bachelor’s degree in 2017, or speculating as to whether or not social security will still be around when I’m 67, then I’m not living in the present moment.. and I’m certainly not enjoying it.

Now, very important disclaimer here: I’m all about planning and preparing for the future.. one of my life mottoes is “set yourself up for success,” and many of my friends would say that I actually plan, schedule, and “map my life out” in such precise detail that it’s a problem.. but worrying over the future? Forget about it. It’s pointless. Maybe I’ll die. Maybe I’ll live. Maybe I’ll crash on my motorcycle one evening and lose an arm or a leg! Tragic. I’m hoping that it’ll be my right arm, because I don’t practice writing/eating/drinking with it enough to be properly prepared for it to become my dominant hand. Maybe, when I’m forty three, I’ll be poorer than I am now, but perhaps I’ll be richer.. or maybe I’ll always be suspended happily in this lower-middle class arena. Maybe I’ll be single next year, or maybe I’ll be dating someone.. does it matter? Maybe I’ll gain 10 pounds this summer, or maybe I’ll continue to lose weight as I let my eating disorder control me. Maybe, one of these days, I’ll really pull the reigns in on my OCD habits, or maybe I’ll let them run rampant and dominate me.. if I let this happen, then maybe things that I don’t have to compulsively “check” right now will suddenly pop up on my radar, further complicating my life, cluttering my mind, imposing on my tight schedule and further setting my nerves on edge. Maybe I’ll find a god or a religion before I die, or maybe I’ll continue on like this, happily uncommitted to anything and anyone and content to wait, watch, and wonder. Wait for what, you ask? For death, I suppose. We’ll see what happens, or does not happen, after that. I’m honestly not worried about it. I have good intentions, and whatever reasonable, rational, kind-hearted being might be out there hypothetically knows it. I’m not afraid of anything except cockroaches.

 

My friend recently entered into an unexpected and absolutely blissful relationship. He texted something to the tune of this a few days ago: “I’m so happy, but I’m also so worried. I’m afraid that this person is going to end up falling for someone else or losing interest in me.”

Two shitty possibilities, I mused to myself. I thought about his predicament; being madly in love. I remembered feeling that way about someone (loving them more than life; thinking I couldn’t possibly live without them and so on), so I could relate.

“K,” I texted back, “it’s like this: if you end up staying with this person for the next forty years, and you’re spending every day for the next forty years worrying about whether or not they’re going to be there tomorrow, then you’re wasting every fucking day that you’re spending with them.” Aka: quit your worrying, cuh. Look at what you’re missing out on RIGHT NOW, that is ACTUALLY HAPPENING in your life, by toying with these senseless and unpleasant “what ifs..” by entertaining these awful unrealities.

 

But it’s very easy to say “quit worrying about it” — especially when you’re not the one who’s worried. I’m fairly certain that actively practicing not worrying is one of the greatest challenges ever. Me? I sometimes worry that Chipotle will go out of business someday and then I won’t know what the hell to do with myself. Lunch? What IS lunch? Glorious burritos will be a thing of the past. If/when it happens, I’ll have to hope that I’ve saved up enough vacation time to call out of work for at least a week so that I can mourn. And the mourning process will be ugly. I will spend hours scrolling through old Facebook posts on my timeline.. posts where I tagged Chipotle, using words like “delicious,” “amazing” and “tofu-licious” to describe our time together.. desperately wishing that I could go back in time to spend just one more lunch break or evening there..

 

But then I remember that I’ll probably die before Chipotle ever goes out of business, and that Chipotle will probably follow (or precede) humankind to Mars someday. You get what I’m saying here. It’s this:

 

If you’re worrying about tomorrow, you’re not really enjoying today, and it sounds cliche to say it, but today is all that you really have. That’s it. Life is a magical gift, you guys. As magical as outer space. The fact that your soul and your consciousness exist — that you can move, talk, think, create, love, and breathe — is insanely amazing. The potential in you is limitless, and the possibilities before you are endless. Live actively, feeling and seeing everything around, outside, and inside of you to the fullest degree possible. Find the light in the room and turn it on. In pursuit of it, grope along the walls, if you have to; brave your way through chilly clouds of ghosts and courageously dispel terrifying thoughts of being lost in there forever and find the freaking switch. Better yet, use your fear and your rage to tear down the walls, to punch a hole through the roof, and then proceed out into the open. Live. Your. Life. It actually occurred to me a few weeks ago, for the first time EVER, how incredibly UNNATURAL it is for us to LIVE indoors. I’m speaking literally now. Think about it.

 

As children, we go to school indoors.

As adults, we find work in offices, buildings, factories and the like.

And then, when we aren’t in school or at work, we come home and watch TV in living rooms, cook meals in kitchens, and sleep soundly in bedrooms.. surrounded by all of these goddamn walls ALL of the freaking time! They’re EVERYWHERE! And we wonder why everyone is taking pills for their depression. Why? Because our lives are not natural. We’re doing it wrong.

 

I used to spend my weekends – my off days – holed up in the house, too.. obsessively sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing, drying, and organizing for hours. Then, I’d binge-watch Gossip Girl or Fringe on Netflix. Then, I’d eat something. After that, I’d play guitar on the floor, write out an entry in my journal, or work on some kind of “creative process or project.” After a while, I’d eat something again and then fall asleep soon thereafter. The end. Now, I spend about an hour quickly “tidying” the place up on Saturday morning and then escape for the weekend, every weekend.

I like to go out for coffee on the weekends. I love riding my skateboard across the smooth concrete at Railroad Park. Without setting a timer, I explore aimlessly downtown; taking pictures, window shopping, and watching people. I go hiking with my German Shepherd at the abandoned golf course down the road. I sit in the Observatory and watch trains go by, enjoying the soothing quiet and the collective, industrial noise all at the same time. I feel alive, and free, and happy when I’m outside. By deep contrast, I feel stifled, depressed, unmotivated and lonely when I’m stuck indoors. I may not exchange even a single WORD with another soul from the time I leave the house to the time I return home (with the exception of ordering my coffee at the front counter and then thanking the barista who makes it for me).. but just being outside, surrounded by people and trees, and taking in all of the different colors, textures, buildings, scenes, sounds and machines.. all of it makes me feel alive. It makes everything better, and it’s so simple. It’s so easy to step outside, into the world, and then to feel the weight of the world slipping softly from your shoulders. Why on earth wouldn’t you?

 

So.. bringing it all back to the front and then breaking it down like a party in the back:

  • Enjoy dinner. However the heck and in whatever form or fashion you want to.
  • It isn’t the central topic of this post, but please; love and respect all animals. Not JUST the cute ones (like dogs, cats, bunny rabbits and Cecil the Lion). Just imagine that you’re a lobster the next time you’re at the grocery store and want to bring a lobster home to boil him alive. You freaking asshole.
  • Enjoy your life. Don’t walk, submissively and willingly, into dark, scary, and musty old rooms, and don’t let anyone pressure you into them, either. If you know you’ve cowered and compromised in the past and you feel like you’re trapped behind a heavy, locked door right now (whether it’s one you created for yourself or something that someone designed just for you), bust that sucker down and march confidently into whatever kind of present you want to experience. My favorite band, at the moment, is Glass Animals.. and the lyrics to their song “Flip” fit in quite nicely here:

    I wanna go back, I wanna go back; I’m gonna go back to a face, no more mask. I was in full bloom until I met you.. I’m gonna shake my fetters, I’m breaking loose.”

 

Fun fact: In middle and high school, during roll call, calling out “here” never really sounded right. It just didn’t seem to cut it. I always preferred..

 

Present,
Aun Aqui

Childhood Wishes and Evergreens

WordPress Draft #19 is sitting patiently in the queue. I hoped to wrap it up and get it out this weekend, but decided, roughly 10 minutes ago, after scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook and noticing a posting pattern, that this “subject” easily took precedence.

As you likely know, today is “national siblings today.” Some people, I know, are inclined to feel slightly bitter on days like today, as well as on any related holidays (ie father’s day, mother’s day, valentine’s day, etc). People who have either lost loved ones or who presently find themselves without a lover on a day specially designated for celebrating love with things like chocolate and stuffed animals can feel a little left out on days like today, and these people will experience varying degrees of pain and sadness as they’re reminded of either their loss or the bothersome existence of that vacant ‘post’ in their life. Regardless.

 

When my brother, Bobby, passed away in 2012, I was tempted to join this bitter crowd. “People celebrating their siblings like this is just INSENSITIVE. Do they even stop to think about the people who have been left sibling-less in this life because of old age, sickness, or tragedy?” But it didn’t take long for me to decidedly abandon my trek towards that crowd. Why?

 

Loss is tragic; it’s important to recognize it, feel it, and empathize with those who have been affected BY it. But love should ALWAYS be celebrated. One of the finest displays of love is in relationships — whether those relationships be romantic, friendly, or familial in nature. Appreciating that someone else exists, recognizing their freedom of will and choice, caring for their feelings, health, and overall well-being, acknowledging that you enjoy spending time with them, complimenting their strong points, applauding their talents, accepting their weaknesses and forgiving their shortcomings.. all of these activities and all of these things are love. So, today, when I noticed that it was siblings day, I wasn’t bitter. I honestly wasn’t even sad. There was, undeniably, a single, achy pang that pulsated through my heart when I thought of Bobby, but at the same thought of him, there was also another feeling that was even more present than the painful one: happiness. I am genuinely happy that people take time to share how grateful they are to have the family members, lovers, co-workers and friends that they do. “But they should be thankful for these people ALL year long,” some argue, “not JUST on some holiday.” DUH. Of course they should. Siblings Day is still a fantastic idea. It isn’t an excuse to neglect loved ones during the OTHER 364 days of the year. It’s like this: National Burrito Day happened on Friday and I’m still eating burritos year-round. To be perfectly clear, my burrito-buying-and-loving-festivities are NOT reserved for that single day – that glorious holiday – alone. That would be insane. So that logic (“turning appreciation for someone into a holiday makes it seem unimportant to appreciate that person during the rest of the year”) is totally invalid.

 

Moving along..

 

After smiling at about a dozen of these sibling posts, I immediately knew what I wanted to spend the next 30 minutes of my evening doing. And that is this: drafting a quick post that contains (2) of my (very) old written works. Both of them are about Bobby, and I wrote both of them while I was in school.

 

I wrote the first one when I was in the 3rd grade, in response to the question: “If you could have one wish granted, what would it be?” The second paper was an autobiographical narrative that I wrote for a 10th grade AP English assignment. I’m inserting both of them (the essay and the narrative) below, and I’m telling you RIGHT NOW that – with the exception of possibly correcting an obscene “your” to “you’re” and vice versa here and there – I am going to attempt to resist the urge to edit/ rewrite/ refine everything.. so please bear in mind that these rough pieces were written many years ago and with the vocabulary + writing finesse of an 11- and 16-year old.

 

First up:

“If I could have one wish granted”
A 3.5 Paragraph Essay by Amber Roderick (Editor’s note: Who the hell is THAT?)
Period 5, 11.19.04

 

If I could have 1 wish granted, I wouldn’t have to think twice of what it would be; my wish would be that my brother hadn’t of had cancer. You see, he had radiation. Now, he has the mind of a 9 year (old).. and probably will. Always.

School? Yeah, he goes to school. He’s 15 (turning 16 in a few weeks) in highschool. But, of course, he doesn’t go to the normal classes. Nope, he goes to the ‘special class.’ You know, he’s one of those guys who rides the ‘retard bus,’ the kind of guy you make fun of because he is disabled, because he is different.

Just put yourself in his position; he is limited. He can’t play sports, he can’t read or do math higher above 2nd grade level. He doesn’t date. He has no confidence, he has low self-esteem, and he has no friends. He see’s (*sees; couldn’t resist) people staring at him.. he hears the names he’s called. He see’s (*sees; come on, Amber) the girls ignoring him, and the guys avoiding him, making no effort to pay him any attention what-so-ever or befriend him. He realizes his limitations; that he’ll most likely never be able to drive, or get married, or have a baby, or get a decent job or ever live on his own.

Sometimes, I feel guilty, when I wonder what it would be like to have a.. well, ‘normal’ brother. What would he be like? Would he look the same? Would his personality be different? Would he have a girlfriend? ..would we be friends?

What things we take forgranted (yep, one word, but at least I didn’t spell it out as ‘for granite’), playing sports, reading, going out on dates, just being apart (*a part) of the crowd, are things he dreams of.. things he wishes he could accomplish. If you were only given a day in his life, you’d see what he has to go through everyday.. and maybe then, you could reach out to him, befriend him.. you have no idea what 1 act of kindness can do.

 

 

The end. Okay; up next (and I really will try to refrain from editing this time)..

 

Evergreen
AR Roderick – Autobiographical Narrative – Period 2 – 5/4/09

He crawled like an infant, but he wasn’t one. He called out her name, mournfully, beseechingly, as if he were a child in agony. Mentally pained. Inconsolable. Unending. He grappled for the door knob, frustrated, trying to pull himself back up. My mother stood over him, bending slightly, her hands dangling at his sides and not quite touching them, looking helpless and awkward. She wore the saddest and most uncertain expression on her face.

My brother, Bobby, is twenty years old, but most people wouldn’t know that. He looks forty and acts twelve. He’s handicapped, disabled, special. He’s like the kid who rides the short bus, or the one at lunch who everyone stares at, that doesn’t seem to realize that food is dripping from his face, trickling down his chin. He’s never dated a girl, driven a car, or even had a real friend. He is very alone, very bored, and very unmotivated.

I tend to blame my family. They always pampered him. During the cancer treatments, they went by his every whim, and even afterwards he still got whatever he wanted. Who could blame them? No one knew how long he would be here, for how long we should have him. We still don’t know. (Editor’s note: Bobby passed away on 5/11/2012; we had approximately 3 years left with him). If they had known, though, I am sure they would have done things differently; encouraged him to learn, to read, to write and sing, to show himself friendly and to think of others.

I remember when we were kids; I was penny and he was buck. When we played, Grammy would call Bobby “sick kitty” and I would be the “well kitty.” I don’t know if I ever fully realized that he was different in a bad way, and that other people saw him differently than we did. I knew that he was a picky eater; that he would scream at me for singing and pull my hair out when I upset him. If anyone beat him at video games, his temper would flare. He visited hospitals a lot, and we even lived at a Ronald McDonald house for several months. It was so much fun playing tea party with my grandma in the bath tub. She always tried to make sure that I didn’t feel neglected.

I also remember being sent away. They told me that it wouldn’t be long; that I would love being with my Aunts Debbie and Jill; that they would mail me (*letters) all the time, come see me soon, and would miss me terribly. (Editors note: I was about 3 years old when I was ‘sent away.’) Apparently, I got sick a lot, and if I got Bobby sick while he was receiving treatments, he could die.

Now it’s ten years ago. Bobby is cancer free. He is very thin, a little unsteady when he walks, his eyes just a tad crossed and his vocabulary severely limited, but he is living, breathing, and laughing again.

Now it’s a few years ago. We find out, after weeks of funny, episodic behavior that Bobby has epilepsy. This means that he will have to take even more medications than before. It will take some adjustment, but between my mom and grandma, Bobby will be taken care of. Yes, he will be taken care of, my mom and grandma can support each other, and I will just keep to myself.

Looking back, it’s last year. We’re in the hospital with Bobby. It’s about 12:00 in the morning and we’re waiting for the doctor to come in. Bobby’s shunt has been malfunctioning and he’s been falling over (because of it). He’s lying in the hospital bed quietly now, thumbing his fingers, a serious look on his face. But he’s not scared. Bobby tells everyone that he loves hospitals; they are like home to him, he says. A nurse who had been giving him a shot once asked if it was hurting him. “No,” he told the person, “I like it.” The man or woman probably thought that he was being sarcastic, but I know Bobby. He meant it.

So now he’s sitting there. I’m listening to music and trying to fall asleep. A female patient in the same room as us (we’re separated only by a curtain) has some sort of a stomach ailment. We can hear her moaning. Her son is sitting in the room with her, then pacing at times, talking on his cell phone. We are released late that night, after the doctor comes in saying that Bobby is fine. We drive home, turn off all the lights, and I fall into bed, exhausted and numb.

Now it’s today. Bobby is still trying to get off the floor. He has fall down seizures; they call them “grand mals.” He has to wear a helmet virtually all the time, since we don’t know when he is going to fall and wouldn’t want his shunt to get hurt. My mom is still trying to help him up; she seems at a loss to know what to do. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for her. I stand there and watch, thinking about the past – guessing at the future. It’s hard to look at him now. I can’t understand it, and it’s bewildering, but it seems that, until this moment, as I see him crawling on the floor like an infant, frustrated, embarrassed, crying, that I haven’t understood what life is really, actually like for him. It is hard. It is challenging. Only it wins. Every time he has fallen, every night he has spent in the hospital, it has won. It is winning now, beating him, hurting him, devastating him, exhausting him. Life is a bully. But I also realize something else: Bobby is strong. Bobby is the Florida palm tree that withstands each and every storm during hurricane season. Bobby is the last flower in bloom, the one that holds on to the cold and bitter end. Bobby is the branch that floats and does not sink. Bobby is strong. Bobby is brave. Bobby is resilient.

 

Bobby is an evergreen.

 

(The end)

As a final editor’s note, I’ll mention that I read and typed all of this out very mechanically, operating in a manner that was as detached and robotic as possible, because it’s still impossible for me to really think of and remember Bobby in a personal kind of way without wanting to lose my fucking mind.

 

Brothers for life,
Penny
Well Kitty
Aun Aqui

 

 

Life Lesson #2: Don’t flirt with the brunette at the coffee shop unless you know how

I was sitting on an old leather couch (originally solid black; now, black with crackly, zig-zagging lines of copper) in a new-to-me coffee shop: Urban Standard. My best friend and I were sharing the space with him on his laptop and me on mine. I ordered a mocha, a small plate of scrambled tofu with bell peppers, and a hearty bowl of grits. The grits were too cheesy for my liking (I prefer bland, plain-tasting grits), so I pawned them off on my best friend, accepting half of his made-from-scratch biscuit in trade. We leisurely finished off our breakfast, taking turns talking and laughing, and then he plugged in earbuds while I pulled on a pair of headphones, and we both amiably set off on our separate writing endeavors.

 

I knew that he was working on a new entry, and I had set the intention of finally editing and publishing a blog post that I had drafted two weeks prior; a sort of informal treatment on personal financial management. You can read it here, if you’re interested in such a boring topic. Anyways, in-between swapping out this word with that one, paraphrasing a sentence here and there, and then sometimes erasing and rewriting entire paragraphs, I’d look up and gaze around the room, taking everything and everyone in. To my immediate right, a bald-headed young man (wearing a gray t-shirt that read “Art should make those who feel comfortable UNCOMFORTABLE and should comfort those who feel UNCOMFORTABLE”) was interviewing a young black woman. She was wearing a flow-y blue dress and had amazing hair, and they were talking about – big surprise – art. Specifically, photography. After ardently trying to tune out their loud banter for approximately two hours (with a shuffled alternative/electronica mix on Spotify), I suddenly noticed a sharp rise in the pitch of the dude’s voice. Then, in response, I could hear the chick positively squealing with delight. I looked up as casually as I could, letting one ear muff slide discreetly down and off of my right ear, and heard him saying something to the tune of “and this would increase your annual income by at least 10k.” Awwww, I thought to myself, he’s offering her the job! That’s awesome. I smiled and resumed my work.

 

There were other interesting persons visiting the cafe. Lots of UAB students; girls wearing – you guessed it – either gym shorts or sweatpants paired with a not-even-optional over-sized athletic t-shirt. They all (I’M NOT exaggerating) wore their hair swept back into a messy bun or ponytail. I eyed lots of dudes who came in wearing suits (the suits; NOT the dudes) and then watched as they dictated their orders at the front counter. The orders were, obviously, to-go; these men looked very busy and seemed especially important. A 60-something-year-old guy was, for a period of about 45 minutes, conducting an interview with a petite blonde at a wooden table in the middle of the room. He seemed very charismatic and flirty; she laughed a lot and nodded agreeably at everything he said. I rolled my eyes a little.

 

Once I’d finished critiquing the first 2000 words of my post (as well as everyone in the room with me), I noticed her.

 

She stepped in through the front door and then paused, her eyes searching the room (I felt like, more than for someone, she was scoping for an area that contained very few someones). In the process of searching, she made eye contact with me and I immediately dropped my eyes downward and fixated them on the screen of my laptop. Am I blushing? Why the hell would I be blushing? Stupid.

 

I could see, out of the top-corners of BOTH of my eyes, her footsteps approaching the couch. My heart raced. She did it; out of the 15 or so available tables in the partitioned, double-room, she sat down at the table directly beside me (it had previously been occupied by the interviewer and his interviewee, but they had just vacated the premises to pound the pavements of downtown Birmingham together to, presumably, sort out all of the fun details regarding benefits, paid off time and etc). She sat down gently and quietly and, as she did, I stole a glance at her simple black shoes. Her black denim jeans. Scanning my eyes upwards, I looked at her white and black, cotton, short-sleeved shirt. Not a t-shirt; slightly dressier. She had pale skin. Her hair was shoulder-length; brown on the bottom, but with interesting colors mixed in as you neared the roots.. some reddish tones. I felt like she could somehow feel me looking at her, even though all of this happened in 4 careful seconds, so I quickly averted my gaze and tried to focus on the remaining 1327 words in my post.

 

Eventually, she got up to use the restroom and order coffee. I feel like a STALKER right now, I admitted to myself. Except I was here first and I’m really NOT staring at her. I’m just very aware of her and her movements. GOD that sounds creepy. Why do I feel drawn to this person? Is it because she’s adorable and quiet? 

 

She returned with a coffee in hand and pulled out a journal. She began writing (with, I noticed, her right hand), occasionally stealing glances around the room and, now and then, gazing dreamily out the window. Sigh; she’s even a writer, I thought to myself miserably.

 

My friend had no idea that I was smitten. He continued his writing with admirable focus. I silently slapped myself across the face. Once we’d both reached stopping points and had finished proofing each other’s pieces, he asked: “Are you ready to go?” My heart sank. I’d run out of time.

 

“Yeah!” I answered enthusiastically. “Let’s go check out What’s On Second.” I stuffed the headphones into my backpack, unplugged my laptop from the wall, and tidied up the couch. I grilled myself inwardly, asking: IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU CAN POSSIBLY DO TO LINGER? Maybe, if you do, she’ll say SOMETHING.. like “hey; I noticed you typing away on your laptop. Are you a writer? It looks like you’re on the way out right now, but I’d love to get your number. Maybe we can talk sometime.”

I shook my head. Nope; there was nothing left to do. And I certainly wasn’t going to say a damn thing. I did have a bottle of furniture polish back at the house, but it would look stupidly awkward and possibly insane if I polished a cafe’s leather couch, anyways.

So I shrugged the backpack onto my left shoulder (the right one was still sore from a tattoo I’d got several days previously) and – without even looking up at her and stealing a sweet, final glance – I trekked across the room.. reaching the front door too quickly, and opening it too easily. I held the door open for my best friend, smiled at him as he exited, and then left. #somuchdrama #TOOmuchdrama

 

“You could have given her a BUSINESS CARD, you IDIOT,” I snapped at myself. “It wouldn’t have been weird at all. You would have just said ‘Hey! I saw you come in earlier and I noticed you writing and I felt this.. strange connection with you, and I just wanted to let you know that, if you’re looking for a place to work; you know, for a job, that my credit union, where I work, is currently hiring, and I don’t know you at all but you could email me or call me – my number is on this card – and we could talk about it or anything else, because if you already have a job and you like it then you obviously wouldn’t want to switch jobs, but WE could still talk. If you wanted to. Otherwise, you can just just shred this, or throw it away in a regular trash bin.. there isn’t a card number or account number on there or anything super sensitive, so it’s no big deal; discard it however you want. My name is Jace, by the way. It used to be Rose.”

“You know, it’s better that you didn’t,” I conceded, actually feeling relieved. “It’s definitely better that you kept the business card to yourself.”

 

I went out to dinner with two other friends that night; the occasion: a last minute celebration for a friend who is doing phenomenally well with her sales at work. She requested that we meet at a restaurant called Ginza, which specializes in Chinese/ Korean/ Vietnamese food. I ordered the Nabeyaki Udon: a light and brothy soup featuring udon noodles and containing pillowy mushrooms and bloated-looking turnips. It was also served with a raw egg which was supposedly going to cook inside of the soup. As soon as the waitress had smiled and walked away, I quickly scooped the egg out of the soup and tossed it onto a napkin.

“Why are you wasting the egg?!” My friend chastised me, inserting a fork into the middle of her tempura-fried shrimp and swabbing it with the egg.

“Ehhh.. it was freaking me out,” I answered quietly, watching her. “Anyways,” I began, “there was this really pretty, in a gorgeously and refreshingly simple kind of way, girl at the coffee shop I went to earlier this afternoon, and I wanted to talk with her SO. BADLY. but I just didn’t have the guts to make it happen.” My friend made a sad face, in sympathy, while my other friend just rolled his eyes, popping another vegetarian sushi roll (fried in avocado; tasty) into his mouth.

“Yeah,” I continued, dejected, “I actually thought about giving her my business card before I left.. you know, just quickly dropping it onto her table and saying, like, nothing at all or just stuttering a few quick words–”

“WHAT?!” She interrupted me. “Oh no.. Jace, no. You can’t treat everyone like an employee.”

“Yeah,” my other friend interjected, trying to stifle his laughing, “DO NOT try to pick up a girl by talking about your job and handing out a business card, BRO. Sooooooo lame.”

I scowled and stared down into my stupid bowl of noodles.

“I’m not even READY to date ANYONE right now,” I defended myself. “And I don’t want to! I’m not looking for another relationship. I just had this insane and irrational but tremendously gripping fear that I would never see her again, and that we wouldn’t have another chance to meet, and that – without at least knowing her name or having her number, or her knowing or having MINE, we would be.. lost loves. Forever.”

They found this hilarious, so I waited their giggles out patiently and then breathed a sigh of relief as our conversation drifted off into another vein of thought. At one point, we all jokingly teased about how cute the waitress wearing the rectangular glasses was and took turns guessing at what stupid pick-up lines I could try using when it suddenly hit me:

“You guys..” I began slowly, still processing the thought myself, “earlier today, when I was at the coffee shop, I forgot that I’m not actually a boy.” I paused and they waited, looking confused. “That means,” I continued, “that if I HAD tried to talk to that girl, who was probably a straight girl, that she probably would have been freaked out. Or at least definitely not interested and I would have just totally embarrassed myself. Honestly?!” The horror of my reality continued to sink in. “It’s going to be VERY difficult for me to ‘find’ anyone. I’m not a BOY in pursuit of a girl. I’m.. gay.” I paused one last time. “And there aren’t that many gay people.”

They were really laughing now. Finally, my male companion was able to offer, in consolation: “Jace, you aren’t that bad off. It’s 2016 now. There are plenty of gay people out there, and people who are just open to experimenting. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

 

I wouldn’t even consider dating someone who was just “looking to experiment,” but I didn’t even bother stating that aloud. My friends already know that about me. And I’m honestly not worried about the matter at all. My heart still grows ridiculously tender when I reflect on my lost love — the girl that I saw but didn’t speak to (2) days ago and who I will quite possibly never, ever know or see again. And what’s the goofy lesson inherent in this exaggerated but truthful tale? It’s twofold.

  1. Be courageous. Tactful, but courageous. If I were actually in a place where I was ready for a relationship, I would like to believe that I could have found an “in” — a way of starting a somewhat normal conversation with this girl. And at dinner, I learned, from my female friend, that – rather than using business cards – you can “break the ice” with someone in a more personalized and less business-like way. “For example,” she explained to me, “you mentioned that you noticed her writing in a journal. Right? You COULD have made THAT an “in” by leaning over and casually saying ‘Hey! That’s a really neat journal. Can I ask where you got it?'” She paused for emphasis. “See? That’s an open-ended question. That would at least get the conversation started, and then you could see where it led to from there.”
    “THAT IS BRILLIANT!” I cried. “I NEVER would have thought of that!”
  2. Just stay single, Jace. Don’t assign some kind of arbitrary time period to yourself (we’ve all seen how well that works out for you), but don’t rush into anything, either. Quit checking out girls at the coffee shop and focus on your writing. Write about fictitious heartbreaks; don’t cause one or experience one yourself. Also: Remember WHY you wanted to be single in the FIRST place. You haven’t been a single, independent entity since you were 15; that means that you’ve been coupled with, tethered to, caught up with and accountable to someone else for the last 9 years. You had to hurt others and fight yourself for this kind of independence, and guess what? You won. You’re finally in a place where you can navigate, develop, explore and grow freely without worrying about another person and how your actions will impact them.. so take some freaking time – enough time – to utilize this freedom and to, by doing so, hopefully figure out
  • who you really are,
  • what you really want, and
  • who you really want.

All you know about bullet point #3 right now is that you want a partner who is independent, driven, ambitious, creative and stable. Someone who doesn’t need you, but who wants you; someone who simply enjoys your company but also craves their own. Someone who will challenge you. Someone you can admire. Also, you obviously, on a super superficial level, have a type, so you can add that to your short list of “knowns”. The girl in the coffee shop definitely shared two things in common with all of your movie-star crushes..

 

 

As you can tell, I obviously adore blondes with blue eyes. Obviously.

 

Awesomely Awkward and Adventuring Alone,

Aun Aqui

 

Keeping It Real: Financial Fitness and Freedom

Part 1: Highschoolers with money, kids, and a career

Picture this: You’re given a randomly assigned life situation (like single, married, or married with kids) and a career with a corresponding budget (for ex: a nurse aide making 28k). You then walk into a room that contains 12 stations and begin making decisions regarding how you’re going to spend your moolah (in regards to housing, clothing, utilities, transportation, groceries, recreation, etc). Also, you’re like 14 years old with zero “real world” experience and are touring the room with 53 other high school freshmen. Get the picture?

I drove to Chelsea High School on a Friday morning (two weeks ago) to volunteer for the Keeping It Real program (a financial literacy program slash reality fair that aims to help kids learn how to manage their not-so-distant future finances). After parking my dingy, blue ’99 Neon and asking an adult on the premises which door I should use to enter the school, I signed in at the front office and then curiously roamed the school’s narrow hallways in pursuit of the library (where the event would be taking place), passing seemingly endless columns and rows of metal, blue lockers and striding across shiny, polished and stained concrete floors.

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After locating the library, I entered it quietly, scanning my eyes across the room and watching as a small number of adults bustled about, setting calculators, pencils, erasers, and handouts onto black folding tables. I recognized my co-worker, Jess, at the other end of the room and immediately headed her way. I smiled and greeted her and then asked which station she’d chosen. “We haven’t selected stations yet,” she answered, helping another volunteer position chairs along either side of one of the folding tables.

“Sweeeeeeeet,” I murmured to myself, proceeding to circle around the room and considering station titles: Housing, Transportation, Insurance, Utilities, Groceries, Clothing, Education, Finance, Fun Stuff, That’s Life, and Second Job.

Second Job — that one stuck out. I’d once (during a rough patch) worked three jobs, so I certainly understood both the benefits and the downsides of working a second or third (and even fourth) job.

Dibs, I thought inwardly, setting my backpack down beside the table and placing my water bottle on top of it.

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About ten minutes later, the event coordinator motioned for everyone to draw themselves into a huddle as he gave a quick rundown of how the event would play out.

“We’ll have different groups of students coming in at various intervals throughout the morning,” he explained, “and the first two groups are going to be our largest; 54 in the first, 53 in the second.” He raised his eyebrows impressively and then adjusted his glasses. “As students approach your station, review their options with them, and while you definitely want to remain mostly neutral and unbiased – letting them make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions – you may want to softly advise them and give them some pointers on what would best suit them, based on their randomly assigned life situation and career.”

Makes sense, I agreed inwardly.

 

He concluded the overview with an enthusiastic clap of his hands and, right on cue, a steady stream of students began flooding into the room. The coordinator beckoned them to form a pool in the middle of the room, and then he projected his voice as he announced their instructions: “Please visit each station. Log expenses in the debit column of your worksheet and income/additional revenue in the credit column. Keep a running total of your balance and make smart decisions. Good luck!

 

I watched the students break away from the circle and begin navigating the room. The Housing and Transportation stations tended to, with each group, receive immediate attention; stations whose attendants inquired: “Do you want to room and ride economically or in-style? Would you like to rent a 2-bedroom, 2-bath loft downtown, or purchase a single-family home in the suburbs? Are you going to ride a BMW to work or a used car that you found on Craigslist?” So many options.

 

I was in close proximity to the Clothing station (where Jess was working), so I tuned in to the brief synopsis she gave to each new group of students that approached her:
“You can choose to wear trendy, designer apparel, or you can opt to shop clearance racks and thrift stores for your clothes.. whatever your personal preference is!”

I overheard a few of the kids critically assessing the two options:
Kid 1: But what if I just want to wear this hoodie all of the time?
Jess: You can’t wear that hoodie all of the time.

Kid 2: Do I actually have to wear clothes?
Jess: …it depends. What kind of job do you have? 

 

I smiled at each of the kids that approached my station. “Hey there! Want a second job? Need one?”

“Yes; badly. I’m totally broke,” a lot of them would say, gesturing sadly towards their financial worksheet.

“No problem. Let’s see what you’ve got going on.” I’d look over their worksheet with them, taking their primary job into account, and then we’d go over their options together (using a laminated, second-job guide) and figure out what type of secondary job would best suit their lifestyle.

 

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“Now, you’re already working full-time as a veterinary assistant,” I pointed out to one kid, “so it would probably be a little impossible for you to balance holding down THAT job with traveling around for the military,” I paused, allowing time for the sensibility of the statement to sink in.

She nodded in agreement.

“So,” I continued, “more realistically, what we’re looking at are these categories: pizza delivery, waiting tables, or ‘other sales’.. ‘other sales’ is going to encompass any other type of secondary job; anything from working part-time at Urban Outfitters or Publix to landscaping or playing gigs on the weekends.” I’d adjust my example slightly based off of the apparent (or assumed) interests of the kid standing in front of me, often throwing out names of well-known sports stores, clothing outlets and grocery chains.

Many students chose pizza delivery. “Fun choice,” I’d compliment them. “You’ll get tips and, probably, free pizza.”
“YESSSSSSSS!” a goth dude bellowed enthusiastically, thrusting two fists into the air.

 

And while many of the kids chose pizza delivery, most of them selected waiting tables. “With that position, you’ll enjoy a lot of flexibility with your schedule,” I’d offer. “And remember that you can tell your employer that you can only work on certain days, at certain times, and that you only want a certain number of hours. Also,” I’d throw in excitedly, “choose a restaurant that you like, like Chipotle, because you’ll PROBABLY get a discount on the food there.” They would smile and nod along happily, apparently feeling very good about their decision.

“I’m choosing Applebees,” I heard one girl whisper to another.

 

Some kids would walk by my station hesitantly, taking in the name: second-job (probably thinking “thatttttt sounds boring”). I’d invite them to stop by and discuss their options, and then they’d comment that they didn’t think they really “needed” a second job.

“I’ve still got $187 left for the month, so..” one shared proudly.

“That’s goooooood,” I agreed with him, “but let’s say your tire blows out on the way home from your first and only job one evening. Now, you’re broke.”

He lowered his head dramatically. “Okay; I do need a second job.” Smart kid.

 

We discussed that a second job can be used to help supplement your income (as in, you may want to use that additional revenue to help pay the bills), but that, more often than this, the “ideal” purpose of taking on a second job is to help you save more money. “And save for what?” I questioned them (and then immediately answered).”For things like emergencies, and retirement, AS WELL AS for fun stuff.. like vacations, cars, dining out with friends, attending concerts, binging on burritos.. whatever you want.” It didn’t take long for this to make sense to the kids. The simple logic behind “why you should save money” really seemed to make an impression on them. They were able to see the necessity of – and even the freedom associated with – saving, and it made me feel very proud of them.

 

It was a good time. I enjoyed observing the students and talking with them. Many of them, I noticed, traveled around the room in small packs, and it was always very easy to spot the leader of the pack. Usually, it was the loudest kid; the one who appeared to be the most confident, well-groomed, and poised. Once a student had completed their worksheet, they’d either continue to float around the room or would settle down onto one of the couches in the central part of the room. I conducted a secret, half-assed social experiment on two groups of students, and by that I mean this: twice, when things slowed down, I looked over, randomly, at a group of kids (who were settled down onto couches) and took a quick count of the number of students on their phones.

 

Group 1: 8/8 students were on their phones. Every single one!

Group 2: 4/6 students were on their phones.. aka, 2/3 kids (the 5th, who I’m not counting, did REFERENCE her phone every few seconds but was still seemingly able to carry on a conversation with her phone-less companion).

 

It’s just interesting. I never carried a cell phone on me when I was in school. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se.. it’s just interesting.

 

I appreciate that Chelsea High School is making a concerted effort to equip students with practical knowledge that will help them manage their finances thoughtfully and responsibly as adults. And with that being said, I’d also like to offer a few brief tips that I think adults (and possibly even kids) may find interesting.

 

First, some background on this:

I’ve had 5 friends approach me just in the last few months, asking for help with their finances (with questions like: how can I save more/ pay off this loan faster/ establish my credit/ restore my credit/ reduce my expenses + increase my income?). I work in the financial world, so it (financial management) is a topic that I’m pretty passionate about. I helped develop a super simple “personal financial management” training program at work last year, and I’m going to share a few tidbits of that program, as well as some of my personal opinions and experiences, with you all.

 

Part 2: Jace’s take on Personal Financial Management.

What is personal financial management? Simply put, it’s managing your money, your debt, and your credit, and hopefully, it’s doing all of that well.

 

Up next, what is personal financial management composed of? There are three main categories: saving, spending, and borrowing.

 

Saving: Not fun, but super important.

From childhood onward, the idea is impressed upon all of us that it’s important to save your money. But why?

  • For emergencies. Examples: breaking your arms and legs due to an unfortunate skateboarding mishap and missing work for 3 months; having your front tire blow out on the way home from a music gig; unexpectedly owing on your taxes. 3/3 of those happened to me, personally. Well.. 2/3. I haven’t killed myself because of skateboarding. YET!
  • For retirement. You’re going to get old and tired one day. When this happens, you want to be able to settle down, relax, and live comfortably. Right? Well.. relying on social security alone (btw, DON’T) isn’t a bright idea. You can plan and prepare for a comfortable retirement by opening up an IRA or a 401k (check with your employer on the latter; if you want to start out small and can only commit to one, I’d recommend going with the 401k because, chances are, your employer is going to match a certain percentage of your contributions; that’s FREE MONEY, dude).
  • For fun. Whether you like purchasing objects (cars, furniture, music gear, garden gnomes) or paying for experiences (concerts, vacations, facials), the possibilities are endless. And many of them cost money.

And because there are different takes ON saving, it’s important to keep your different saving endeavors separate from each other. My financial institution gives me the ability to open multiple savings accounts and assign customized titles to them (like “roadtrip” and “burrito fund”). Do what works for you.. just make sure that your SERIOUS saving endeavors (emergencies and retirement) and FUN saving endeavors are kept separate from each other. Don’t dip into your “I just lost my job” fund to purchase a new bass guitar. Unwise.

So; we agree that it’s important to save, right? But how can you make that lofty and noble idea of saving money a reality?

  • Payroll deduction/direct deposit
  • Automatic transfers
  • Piggy (or bunny) banks

Some people prefer saving “set” amounts (ex, $50 each paycheck). I’m more of the mindset of saving a percentage of each paycheck.. that way, the amount you’re stowing away is relevant to how much you’re bringing home that particular week or month (since it may fluctuate). Financial experts typically recommend that you save 10% of each paycheck; for every $100, that’s ten bucks. For every thousand, it would be $100. Pretty feasible, right? Make it a point to save your money.. not an afterthought. If you don’t deliberately set out to save money, it’s not going to happen.

 

Spending: The Fun Part.

The single most important aspect of this category is actually threefold:

  1. Be aware of how much you have in your account. Don’t overspend. Use a check register (if you’re pen-and-paper/old-school), or check into your mobile app frequently.. however you prefer keeping up with your account. And when you are reviewing your account, don’t look at your balance — look at your AVAILABLE balance. This number should take any pending, PIN-based debit card transactions into account. Keeping this number in mind, you’ll still need to consider that there may be electronic withdrawals you’ve pre-authorized and checks that you’ve written that HAVEN’T cleared your account yet, so what’s showing – at this very moment – as your “available balance” may require some tweaking on your part. Not good with adding and subtracting mentally? Use the calculator on your phone.
  2. Be aware of how much you’re spending. Some financial institutions and apps offer money-tracking and budgeting/saving tools. Check around. Find an app that categorizes your spending, or print off your statement, use a highlighter, and do it yourself. You may be surprised by how much money you’re spending on clothes, household trinkets, or dining out. I realized last month, when I casually glanced through my Visa Credit Card’s e-statement, that I spend an astounding number of dollars on burritos. And do I regret it? Nope. I wouldn’t take back even one of those damn rittos. ❤
  3. Spend wisely. You’re shopping, surveying the clearance racks at Von Maur, and find a Free People-brand (YOUR FAVORITE!) t-shirt that you just adore. It’s usually $127 but is on sale for only $78.

Guess what? $78 is, generally speaking, still WAY TOO FREAKING MUCH for a t-shirt. Don’t be a sucker for sales and clearance racks. I’ve found that, when I find a household item, clothing item, or grocery store product that I like, I pause before dropping it into my cart or shopping basket. I ask myself: will I love wearing this? If it’s something edible, I ask: is this healthy? Or not really healthy but so delicious that I just don’t even care? If I’m not head-over-heels for the clothing, fully persuaded on the tiramisu, or just feel like spending those dollars on that item isn’t a great idea, I put it back. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Be critical and selective and downright picky about what you choose to spend your money on.

 

Pro tip: If you feel like you’re disciplined enough to handle it, make it a habit to put your gas, groceries, utility bills and miscellaneous expenses on a credit card. Why?

  1. Many credit card companies “reward” you for using their card (via points or cash rebates). You can typically redeem your rewards for merchandise, travel discounts, or cold-hard cash.
  2. By using your credit card versus your debit card, you are NIXING the chance of overdrawing your checking account with a plastic card transaction. My general policy is to put everything on the credit card and then transfer the payoff amount once monthly. This way, I earn points, don’t pay interest, and never overdraw my checking account.
  3. If you’re using your credit card to make purchases and then making timely monthly payments (while allowing at least a small balance to carry over to the next month), it will actually report positively on your credit. Score, score, and SCORE.

 

If you decide to opt in to that #creditcardrewardslife, here are two cautionary tips:

  1. Don’t eff up your credit card’s balance-to-limit ratio. Utilizing more than 30-40% of your card’s credit limit will report negatively on your credit. Example: If your credit card has a limit of $1000, don’t carry a balance of more than $400 on the card. Don’t do it!
  2. Don’t use the card to make cash advances! The interest rate is going to spike a little and your credit card company may even charge a fee for you doing the cash advance. Better to withdraw straight from your savings or checking account (at a branch or ATM and, preferably, an ATM without a surcharge).

 

Borrowing: Bittersweet. Like dark chocolate.

We’ve all heard the saying: You have to have credit to get credit. Right? Right. And for me, establishing credit was a bitch one of the most frustrating experiences ever.

“Oh, it’s easy to do!” my friends assured me. “Just go to the mall and ask JCPenney to give you a credit card.”

 

So I did. And JCPenny said: “Ha, no.” K, what they actually said was: “It looks like you haven’t established any credit yet, so we won’t be able to approve your application at this time.. but as soon as you HAVE established credit, we’ll be happy to help to you.”

Fan-freaking-tastic, I thought to myself. And how the hell am I supposed to achieve this, exactly?

Eventually, a co-worker presented me with what was, for me, the perfect solution: a share-secured credit card. I cuss, on occasion, in this blog, so I’m not going to link to my financial institution’s website, but if you’re interested in applying for a secured credit card yourself, just hit me up and I’ll give you all of the details.

 

Once you HAVE established credit, maintaining and improving your credit is key. Do this by:

  • Maintaining a decent and modest credit utilization ratio. Remember: Keep that credit card balance in check. Don’t let your balance owed exceed 40% of your total credit limit.
  • Keeping your longest trade-lines open (aka, even if you aren’t using it, try to keep your oldest credit card account open. It makes you look stable). Bonus tip: monitor your credit card statement – as well as any other kind of financial statement – carefully and closely and regularly. If any fraudulent activity occurs, it’s likely that you’ll have a narrow time-frame to dispute the activity. Be vigilant.
  • Making your payments on time. Not late. Ever. If you are going through a rough patch and think you might need to make your payment AFTER the scheduled due date, contact the financial institution, utility service/phone provider or credit card company and ask them if you can make payment arrangements. This can (possibly) spare you NOT ONLY from being assessed a late fee or having your service suspended/terminated, but it will also help protect your credit from plummeting due to negative reporting.

 

Even if you don’t plan on intentionally “getting yourself into debt” by taking out an installment loan or using a credit card, keep in mind that circumstances and situations may arise that you didn’t plan on and that you’d hate to NOT be prepared for. If you own your current car outright and it gets totaled and you DON’T have enough money to purchase a new one, you may be in a position where you HAVE to take out a car loan in the future.. and it’s likely that, if you EVER want to purchase a home, you won’t have the full amount of money available to do so on-hand. So, if you think you may need to borrow in the future, make it a point to establish your credit NOW so that, when you DO put in your application, you’ll have a better chance of getting the answer you’re hoping for. With a good credit score a solid credit history under your belt, lenders will see you as a responsible, trustworthy borrower and they’ll love the hell out of you.

 

 

My final tip relates to the station that I managed at the school: seeking out supplemental income.

If you’re working a full-time job and you’ve reduced your expenses but you STILL aren’t making enough to make ends meet and save money, you may need to simply increase the amount of money you’re bringing in. Consider taking out a part-time job.

 

Pros:

  • You can choose a place you like and, hopefully, receive a discount for working there.
  • With the extra money, you’ll experience less stress (related to your finances) and enjoy more purchasing-power.
  • You’ll be better prepared for emergencies and can enjoy “splurging” on vacations, objects, and burritos without guilt or negative repercussions (like bouncing a check at the bank, having your debit card declined in front of a group of friends at “the” Olive Garden, or having your water service turned off because you didn’t pay the bill because you were BROKE after downing 6 beers and rocking out to Steely Dan at the BJCC last week).

 

Cons:

  • The more time you spend working, the less time you’ll spend relaxing. Monitor your stress levels, and schedule time to have fun — whatever your idea of fun is (planting yourself on the couch and watching Netflix, skateboarding at the park, painting in the garage, going out for dinner on a weeknight.. anything goes).

 

The nice thing about personal financial management is that it’s never too late to start (or improve). I hope that the kids that came through the program a few weeks ago never have to experience an NSF fee, having their AC turned off, or being denied for a loan application.. and I hope that you don’t EITHER. But sometimes, that sh*t just happens to us. Learn from it, take control of your situation, and work with what you’ve got.

 

And once you’ve helped yourself become financially fit and free, be sure to pass the word along.

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Flinging dollars at rittos erry’day,

Aun Aqui