the sum and total of now

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.

-Cormac McCarthy

New Year’s resolutions have always been like Keyser Soze to me. I’ve never been able to keep up with them. I’ve tried, and sometimes I managed to stay with them for a month or so, but then I lose track of the goal and forget what I was doing. As I get older and less smart (wiser, maybe, but also aware of how little I actually know about life), I’ve begun realizing that the best way to know where the hell you’re going is to know where you’ve been. I don’t do retrospectives or lists of accomplishments anymore; that’s for award shows and television series finales. I’d rather discuss some of the things that defined what I’m taking from this year to the next one and into the years to come.


I met someone this year. Well, technically, we first encountered each other on a Facebook group late last year. She dropped her phone and accidentally friended me. I wasn’t sure what to make of her, so I went to her page and liked what I saw. I told her she was my kind of nerdy. We’ve pretty much been together since then. She’s a traveler, writer, adventurer, asker of hard questions, and lover of quiet. Oh, and a good human. She’s also a southerner (read: Northern Alabama), which is a place that, until late October, I knew next to nothing about. Now it’s one of my favorite regions in the American south. She challenges me, engages me, makes me laugh, and makes me want to be a better human. I think I’m going to keep her.

I left a place I’d lived for a long time. It was the longest that I’d lived in one city since before college. When you live in a place for that long, and especially a place as big as the largest city in the Midwest, you end up loving and hating it. You see its beauty, its draw, its intrigue, its nastiness, its difficulty, and its quirks. When you live in a place for that long, it becomes part of you, whether you like it or not. Chicago changed me. I can’t look at anything the same way anymore. One thing you learn living in a city like that is empathy. There are, depending on which stats you look at, 2.4 or 2.7 million people living just within the city limits. Everybody has a unique life that is just as vivid and as important as your own. There’s actually a word for that: sonder. It means that everyone has a story, and sometimes you’re just an extra in it.

My family got bigger. My middle brother got married, to a woman so right for him, I couldn’t have made her up myself if I tried. I’d had a shaky history in western Pennsylvania (I was bad accident on the turnpike there 10 years ago; walked away with seat belt bruises, a totaled car, and only one thing damaged: a broken blender pitcher), so I was a little anxious on the drive out there. I ended up really liking Erie, and the wedding, which I was in as a groomsman, was fun. It was a hot day and I’m not much for dancing in public (ask my prom dates), but everybody was in good spirits.

You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.

It’s been a complicated year in another way. It has been the year of the elephant in the room. Some of us have done a pretty good job of minimizing its presence, some of us engage with it sometimes, and some of us can’t stop talking about it, whether to poke at it or cheer it on. Look at social media. It’s everywhere. People are stressed, angry, burned out, exhausted, and divided. There’s been a lot of nastiness this year, from all directions. We’re all worn out from it.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about “the other.” What I mean by that is certain people who’ve been classified as “the other” as a way to separate them, demonize them, and make them monolithic. That’s certainly been the case this year. Governments make them seem this way to justify their beliefs and actions. We begin to identify a people by the crimes, actions, or positions of governments, or of very small but very loud and visible minorities of a population. Often, a government or splinter faction does not speak for the people, but for itself to justify an end.

The problem is, nations are not monolithic. Peoples are not monolithic. I’ve known a lot of people in the past year who have felt the elephant’s presence on a very personal level. They feel attacked, marginalized, and hopeless. And sometimes, that’s what an elephant like this does. It wears you down. You don’t feel like you have the energy to persist.

But maybe we’re paying attention to the wrong elephant. Maybe the first one isn’t an elephant at all. Maybe it’s a snake, pretending to be an elephant.

In Kenya, elephants are treated as sacred and as being in touch with the physical world and a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. They are gentle and quiet, until something they love is attacked or endangered. In other places, they’re tamed, by first being treated as sacred, and then abused, and then coddled again, which is why they sometimes go on rampages, because they’re confused and tired of maltreatment.

I’m reminded, as I often am, of a passage from a novel that has stayed with me for a long time (it comes from the same novel as the rest of the quotes I’ve used in this post):

You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

Maybe the real elephant is what McCarthy calls “the fire.” The fire is the sometimes subtle and dim, sometimes bright and blazing power of decency, kindness, and humanity that seems to have escaped much of what we have been made to believe is our world. The snake wants us to come down to its level, and to believe that this is all there is: That we have to be afraid of each other, or angry with each other, or that we should hate each other. That leaders are supposed to be bombastic and crude and dishonest.

Maybe the fire is us. Maybe it’s the people among us, for whom we experience a kind of obscure sorrow, that we empathize with them but don’t quite know them, who are doing their best every day to keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.

And then when the time is right, just as the natives of this land used to do, they’ll dig the smoldering coals out from the ground, turn the coals into a conflagration, and make the world as they want it. Like the man whose birthday we just celebrated four days ago, the person who carries the fire may not always look powerful. The fire can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. But that’s the thing about fires: They always start small, and once they’re burning, they’re impossible to ignore.



best-laid plans

We are meant to leave home.

Every human is supposed to leave the place where they grew up, and some of us never return. Whether we never live there again, or come back and never quite return mentally, it’s necessary to our evolution to put it behind us and live anew, somewhere else. We are meant to heed the soft call of the open road. It widens our perspective, helps us develop empathy, and learn to be the person we were meant to be.

When I left my hometown a decade ago, I made myself a promise: Never, ever come back here. Not to live, anyway. Six months and two weeks ago, give or take a few days, I broke that promise.

Robert Burns once wrote that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. I returned home to one new family member (my nephew) and one temporarily absent (my brother), and a job in a new industry. That job is gone now. Temporary. I’ve returned to the company I left before moving back here (another promise broken), but not before learning that life has a few things in mind for me beyond my best-laid plans.

A few weeks ago, I was in a minor accident. My car, 15 years old and north of 182,000 miles, was not badly damaged but declared a total loss. I wasn’t hurt. The accident happened at the same intersection where I bought the car a decade ago. The used car lot that was there is now a gas station.

A few days after the accident, I joined my favorite adventurer (my better half) to heed the road’s call, to her homeland in the south. The road has the power to show us things we didn’t know we needed to see.

Alabama, at least in the northern third of the state, is lovely. It’s mountainous, dense with history and character, and full of people who prove that the stereotype about the place is wrong. Southern hospitality is real, white sauce goes well with barbecue chicken, and culture is as much a way of life as football. When you’re on the road to somewhere new, leave your preconceptions at home, and don’t keep them after you return.

On our way back north, we met Nashville’s Hattie B, and paid homage to the king of southern comfort food, the Waffle House.  It wasn’t yet cold or hard here, but it was coming. There was a chill in the wind, and the rain had turned cold. A few weeks later, we knew that summer’s lease had all too short a date.

Autumn is performing its terrible dance here. It’s cold, blustery, and gloomy. The rain and wind have stripped the trees of their colors, and snow is on the horizon. In some parts of this state, it’s already on the grass. So naturally, I took the adventurer as far north as I could yesterday without crossing water. I introduced her to the Straits of Mackinac. The entire region was desolate. The tourists have gone to shelter in warmth, and the workers have scattered to the winds. Mackinaw City, normally packed with visitors from everywhere, was all but abandoned, except for a bar, a pasty shop, a few hotels, and a gas station.

We followed the Lake Michigan coastline on the way home. We encountered the first maple sugar maker in the United States that’s also a winery, experienced normally-bustling Traverse City in off-season quietude, and saw the after-effects of lake effect snow on an inland forest.

As for me, I’m learning that the plans we make don’t always come to fruition. Life has other plans, at least in the interim. The road always offers me solace and wisdom, as it has for the past decade. I won’t be here forever; this much is for sure. Where the road will take me next is anybody’s guess. While I’m here, I might as well learn a few things, as this long strange trip continues.


Changes of scenery usually yield other changes throughout life. This was true when I moved away to college, and it’s been true as a result of every other move I’ve made since. I’ve been back in Jackson for just over two months, and while I’ve broken free of Chicago’s gravitational pull, parts of life there have stayed with me. Nothing really surprises me anymore (not that anything really ever did when I lived there).

My history with this town has taught me a lot about what matters in life and what can fall by the wayside. When I left nine years ago, I knew that I was leaving a town inhabited by a lot of people who either revel in, or languish in, drama and pettiness. But, as it turns out, this is true everywhere I’ve been, and likely everywhere I’ll go. All I can do is stay clear of it. If anything, I notice it here because I expect it.

Some of this is fabricated, and some of it is real. Jackson has a large population of people who live at or below the federal poverty line. When the recession hit in the last decade, it was, in many ways, a depression here. I know some people who are still out of work. And where there’s poverty, there’s crime, and there’s drugs.

I make the reference often that Jackson reminds me a lot of Harlan County, Kentucky. As a fan (maybe the correct word is “aficionado”) of the acclaimed television series “Justified,” you might know where I’m going with this. Harlan is a real place: a small town in the heart of southeastern Kentucky’s coal country. In the show, it was ravaged by poverty after the mines closed, and many of the residents turned to other means of living, like crime, and other coping mechanisms, like drugs. (Sadly, the Harlan of “Justified” is based on fact.)

One of the drugs that gets a lot of airtime is something known as “Hillbilly Heroin,” also known as Oxycontin. Oxy is a pain killer, and a narcotic. It was a product of the opioid craze in the 1990s. It’s highly addictive, and overdosing is usually fatal.

Jackson has a drug problem, Heroin, Oxy, meth, and some cocaine make it to the streets around here. 51 people in the county died from opioid overdoes alone last year. The state of Michigan has more opioid prescriptions than it has residents. And the United States has more opioid prescriptions per capita than any other country ON EARTH.

This is part of a larger problem, and one that has no easy, or at least no readily available, solution: Poverty. I’m not going to go into that right now because I could be here all night, but the short version is, nobody should have to live like this.

There was an overdose caught on camera last month. A man overdosed on Meth or Oxy, in front of the Jackson Police station. The video, shot by a bystander, went viral on Facebook. I don’t know if he survived it, but it’s indicative of the problem we have here. Nobody seems to have any idea how to combat it, because it’s rooted in economic strife, and that clearly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

coming home

Thomas Wolfe wrote a book once called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” His editor, Edward Aswell, published it after Wolfe died in 1940, when Aswell found a manuscript called “The October Fair.” I haven’t read the book in years, but a passage of it stayed with me:

He had learned some of the things that every man must find out for himself, and he had found out about them as one has to find out–through error and through trial, through fantasy and illusion, through falsehood and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused. Each thing he learned was so simple and obvious, once he grasped it, that he wondered why he had not always known it. And what had he learned? A philosopher would not think it much, perhaps, and yet in a simple human way it was a good deal. Just by living, by making the thousand little daily choices that his whole complex of heredity, environment, and conscious thought, and deep emotion had driven him to make, and by taking the consequences, he had learned that he could not eat his cake and have it, too. He had learned that in spite of his strange body, so much off scale that it had often made him think himself a creature set apart, he was still the son and brother of all men living. He had learned that he could not devour the earth, that he must know and accept his limitations. He realized that much of his torment of the years past had been self-inflicted, and an inevitable part of growing up. And, most important of all for one who had taken so long to grow up, he thought he had learned not to be the slave of his emotions.

Even sixteen years ago, this resonated with me, though I didn’t understand why.  After being away from my hometown for basically a decade, it makes sense now:

For a long time, I concerned myself with the opinions of others regarding how I lived. My appearance, my ideas and ideals, my location, my job, financial status, relationship status, even where I grew up. As I became more worried about these things, I became more insecure and unaware of who I actually WAS and more concerned with how people SAW me. Eventually, I realized that while some people’s opinions of me matter more than others (family, inner circle), none of them needed to matter more than mine. And mine, for lack of a better word, sucked. I’d found myself in a dead-end job that paid horribly and left me feeling exhausted and used, with most of my close friends off living life elsewhere. Looking in the mirror was a challenge. A friend told me it was time to crawl out of the pit, and even helped me do it. No, I’m not “better” now, but it’s a start. The new job doesn’t suck, and I may even stay with it for a while. I’ve met new people who build me up and show me genuine kindness and concern. And old friends are becoming good friends again.

But my hometown isn’t the shining city on a hill that I believed it was when I was young. My former pastor, Ron Martoia, once brought up the “(insert important ending thing here) won’t be the same again” cliche. And then he said that nothing is ever the same. Life’s only consistent is change, and I knew that when I drove west toward California, Jackson would be different when I got back, either to live or to visit. It’s changed a lot since then, and that’ll continue.

Coming back here has also led me to face some of the demons I left here. If you come from a town like this, you’re bound to have history with certain people and places, and whether they’re here or not, the void shouts at you just the same. Part of growing up and discovering yourself is learning how to let go of the things that no longer serve your life as helpful, constructive, or uplifting. It’s learning to ignore the ghosts of days gone by that make life easier as we get older. And sometimes, the ghosts present themselves as good and special, when they’re really just more of the same. It’s hard to ignore those, but if you pay attention, you’ll see what they really are: desperate attempts by your own darkness to return to the comfort and ease of the old you, while leaving the possibilities of who you are NOW to wait standing for a train that will never come.

English science-fiction writer Douglas Adams once wrote, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I’ve ended up where I needed to be to be.” I do not pretend to understand the jagged path of my life, but with every switchback turn of this long strange trip, the road becomes a little more clear.

don’t look back

It’s been more than two years since my last post here. A lot has happened since then, but most of the details aren’t really that important. What matters now is that yesterday, after nine years away, I moved back to my hometown. I had been in Chicago for almost six years, and very little had changed for me. I’d done some growing and some learning, but mostly, I was restless and tired of doing the same thing every day. I learned that my brother, the Marine, was deploying to Afghanistan, and his two-year-old son (known from here forward as “the nephew”) was going to be without his father for a year. His mother takes care of him, as do my parents, but I knew that coming home was the right thing to do. The timing was perfect, with my lease ending this month. I quit my job, packed a truck, and drove the 220 miles between Chicago and my hometown.

I left this town nine years ago, just as the recession was taking hold. A drive around the city today reminded me that it was a recession elsewhere, but a depression here. Blight, neglect, squalor, and poverty are the norm in much of this town. When I got on the road almost a decade ago, I had (somewhat-high) expectations that once I cleared the city and the state and the region, the world would open itself to me and I would prosper and grow and experience happiness. It turns out that that wasn’t the case, and I was naive to think that way. Life has humbled me since then, in several ways. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “Only he that has traveled the road knows where the holes are deep.” I’ve stepped in a few holes, and fallen into a couple deeper ones, since I left, and I’m not expecting that coming back here ensures closure of the circle and the continuation of the life I left behind when I went west. There wasn’t much to leave behind then, and there wasn’t much to leave behind in Chicago. I’d made a few friends and had a crappy job and a tiny apartment that cost me way too much, but staying there just for the food and the culture wasn’t worth my sanity anymore.

So I got a new job, I’ll be moving into my brother’s place when he ships out in a month or two, and I’m reacquainting myself with a hometown that I’m seeing with new eyes and different expectations. I’m not planning on settling down here, because this town hasn’t fit me personally in years, but at least for the next year or so, I’m here. This is the road I’ve chosen, and looking back now would be counterproductive at best, and damaging to my sanity at worst. What follows from here is documentation of life in a depression-ravaged Midwestern post-manufacturing town after almost a decade away. Some of it will be sad, some will be contentious, some will be funny, and some will be up for interpretation. Regardless, the Long Strange Trip continues.

forbidden fruit

The concept of a banned book has always perplexed me. Most of my history as a reader includes some legendary volumes, including several frequently- and formerly-banned books. I understand the idea of immoral or dangerous material, but what I don’t understand is what the real trouble is with banned books. Fear and insecurity of parents and educators seem to factor into the motivation for barring books from schools, but the removal of a book from a school, to the right student, would have the same result as making something illegal: It only makes the mind crave it more.

Oscar Wilde once suggested that “immoral” books “show the world its own shame.” Such is a situation that happened two years ago with a graphic novel taught within the Chicago Public Schools system. I have not read Persepolis, though I’m familiar with its reputation. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a teenage girl coming of age in 1979 Iran, following the revolution. What I found offensive about the situation was not that the schools decided not to trust the intelligence of its student body to treat the book as an explication of the culture as it was during a difficult time. What bothers me the most is that CPS felt the need to lie about the entire situation and pretend that there was no call for its removal when the link above proves otherwise.

Banning books is one of our culture’s ways of hiding shameful and difficult truths about the world, about human nature, and about the danger of ideas. “Ideas are bulletproof” says a famous anti-fascism graphic novel (V for Vendetta), and books are notorious carriers of these indestructible weapons. We use ideas to create stories that laugh at war (Slaughterhouse-Five), expose dangerous industry (The Jungle) and hateful thoughts (Invisible Man), look deeply into the dangers of excess and moral depravity (The Great Gatsby), and demonstrate the dangers of government control (1984).

One of the greatest banned books of all time was banned because of its use of violence to make a point. It was a science fiction story about a dystopian future where Aldous Huxley’s and Neil Postman’s warnings of a technology-driven future where the technology we love had all but taken control of us, had come to fruition. Books were banned and anyone caught with them was arrested and their books became inferno fodder for firemen who set fires instead of extinguishing them. Television had become the only real method of entertainment. People didn’t really have conversations anymore. (Does this sound familiar?)

Ray Bradbury’s classic warning of anti-intellectualism, Fahrenheit-451. It may be the most ironic banning in history: A banned book about a future where people no longer read books.

Bradbury once said, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” I find it sad that instead of facing our own shame and allowing our youth to learn about our failures and flaws, we’d rather hide them in the name of censorship and safety which only thinly veils our embarrassment and shame. The world is messy enough. We don’t need more people running about with lit matches, trying to hide the mistakes of our history for fear that someone may not be able to handle or like a few words or a few images in a book that teaches a valuable truth. Our practice of banning books has to stop.

the voice

We each have quirks that make us different, unique, and distinct. Some of them are physical, while others are personality-based. For me, my most obvious quirk is my height. I’m short for a 33-year-old man (5’4″), and as is expected for a short child, I had my share of bullies and critics. While those days are long done, their words and actions stay with me, all these years later. Scars and souvenirs.

I’ve always been different in other ways. My personality is the most rare of the 16 Jungian types, and I’m also an Empath and a highly sensitive person. What this all means is that I’m very good at reading people, especially on an emotional level. It also means that negativity lingers more loudly in my head. Between my bullies, relationships with narcissists, friends who’ve left me at the side of the road, and other mistakes along the way, it’s the critics whose words stay more closely at the fore than the people who support me and push me to chase my daydreams.

As an INFJ and an Empath, I’m very adept at reading other people, but it’s difficult for me to distinguish between my own emotions and someone else’s. Whether it’s my best friend, a coworker, stranger on the street, or someone on social media, it’s hard to tune out the signals being broadcast to me, because the signals often become the narrative.

My story isn’t unique. I know more than a few people who’ve dealt with similar troubles and struggle to remain above water as reminders of the bridges long burned continue to surface among the cinders. The words and actions of our critics become our perspectives because no matter how much help we have, no matter how many years have passed, no matter how long-healed the wounds may be, we have no choice but to see the world differently.

Most of us do not own our perspectives or experiences; even those of us with only minor damage. They come from the words and experiences of others. We’re taught to see things through the eyes of others and accept them as fact, as a sort of half-honest empathy . Understand where I’m coming from, and you’ll understand me better, they tell us.That’s a legitimate statement, but at what point are we allowed to see the world through our own eyes? At what point will they see where we’re coming from?

Allow yourself to hear your own inner voice. It, not the voices of days gone by, is the most important voice. Let it speak for, and through, you. Let it give you back your strength and your power. Listen to it closely. It will not lead you astray.

We all have a voice in our head. The question is, is it yours, or is it someone else’s?

Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness, and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy… Or they become legend.

-Jim Harrison