These Five Little Words Launched Me Into My Mid-Life Crisis

note – this was originally published on the Trailhead Conference blog, which has since gone bye-bye. I subsequently published it on an also-bye-bye Medium.com page (link for teh googlez).

May, 2014. Interior, downtown Indianapolis branch of a large national bank. One personal banker seated across from me in a standard bank chair. One person, me, seated in my standard bank chair, listening to her speak.

The personal banker was, at best 26 years old. She had no clue what was happening in my life. She had no idea what had been transpiring the last six months, or the last six years. And because of that ignorance, what she said next devastated me.

She put her hands together, index fingers and thumbs touching, as if she were about to play a quick rhythm on a small drum. “So,” she said, and as she started to separate her hands (like Moses parting a bowl of soup), the next five words destroyed my life as I knew it and launched me full-blown into my “mid-life crisis”.

I have stated for the record my opinion that the term mid-life crisis is inappropriate, but since it’s still a fairly common term I’m going to continue to use it here. Plus we have the pejorative expectation that if you’re going through your mid-life crisis, that this is some kind of failure of your character. That you are somehow weak because you can’t stand up to the demands of life, and you’re seeking an easy way out.

Well, let me tell you, my mid-life crisis was certainly not a failure of my character. I don’t think anyone who saw me go through that would have said I was weak. That I had failed. That I had given up and was looking for a shortcut or a way out.

No, what happened to me was, essentially, a combination of multiple storms all hitting within a six-month period. And, to be honest, only one of those could be considered my fault.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your mid-life crisis happens to you, it does not happen because of you. Most often this is a period of searching, of introspection, of exploration, and usually they’re set off by some inciting incident. Mine lasted about two years, kicked off by four different major events all coming together in a pretty short time frame.

Within six months: my car died on the highway; my faith died in the pew; my career died in the cubicle; and my marriage died in a nursing home. I only noticed this was happening, though, when that personal banker spoke five short, simple words.

But…

Before I tell you what those words were…

Allow me to back up a little. I think it’s important you know some of what was going on at the time.

In the fall of 2013 I was 36 years old.

I’d been married for 14 years, and my wife and I had four children. I had a stable job at an insurance company, a reasonable group of friends at church, and some neighbors who knew a bit of what we were going through.

One cold Thursday evening in November, on the way home from work, I was driving down I-70 out of Indianapolis. My 1999 Toyota Corolla was flowing along like normal when, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. I managed to avoid getting squished by the passing 18-wheelers and get it off to the side of the road, and then to a gas station, through a clever system of keeping my foot on the accelerator just enough to keep the engine on, but not so much that I sped up and needed to hit the brakes, because every time I did that it stalled out again.

Five hours later, after a tow truck wait and a phone call to my mother-in-law to ask for an emergency run to take care of my kids, I got home with my never-to-run-again vehicle. For some guys, this could be the thing that starts them questioning, “Hey, what’s going on here?”

One of them might take a few days, decide that the repair would be worth more than the car, and just junk it. When he comes back from the dealership with an impractical new sports car, all the neighbors look at him funny. Classic symptom of the mid-life crisis, and the associated judgment, because all they see is indulgence.

What he was thinking, though, could have been just about anything. From “I’ve never had something that’s just for me” to “It’s my last chance before I have to get another minivan,” his thoughts could have been anywhere. Too bad we often judge those who are in the middle of this so quickly.

For me, it wasn’t that momentous on its own. But a flood was building, a silent accumulation of nature’s power that soon I would be unable to ignore. The car, though, was just the start. Strike one.

A couple of months later, around February of 2014,

I realized I wasn’t enjoying my work any longer. Sure, I was productive, as I needed to be. But I was also spending excessive amounts of time browsing the internet at work, doing side projects that made it “look” like I was working, and just getting the minimum done. I guess, since everyone essentially knew my home situation, they gave me some slack.

Yet as I looked to the future, I could see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t imagine pushing spreadsheets and databases for the next 30 years. It wasn’t in me to just keep doing a job for that long, and then retire to say, “Now what?”

It would be another year before I actually quit, but that intervening time I was actually dead in the office, just walking around and doing enough to not get fired. Strike two.

A few weeks after that, all of my spiritual questions began to come to a head. I’d been dealing with these issues for nearly a year, ever since God made a promise that did not come true, and I finally could not accept the absolutism, the short-sightedness, the irrationality, and the hypocrisy of my church any longer.

It’s not like there were any big scandals. (Those are often inciting incidents in and of themselves.) It was just that I started to see that for many of the congregants, their professed faith and their actions did not jive.

I saw countless instances of prayer for “a miracle” healing for someone who, frankly, would have been better off dead. And if, as they said they believed, that the home of the soul was in Heaven, why in Hell would they be striving so hard to keep such a soul imprisoned in this sinful, cursed, pained body? It didn’t make sense. That, and dozens of other questions and concerns came together to make me finally say, “You know, I don’t know whether there really is a God or not.”

When I could finally call myself an agnostic, that signified the death of my faith.

Strike three.

Unfortunately, I was so oblivious to it all that I didn’t yet see the writing on the wall. I ignored the incredible tidal wave of change looming, and I continued to push on harder and harder in the things I was doing, to make it seem like I was “okay”.

Finally, in May of 2014, the dam burst.

That young, naïve personal banker put her hands together and spread them apart. “So,” she said, and that was all right. Nothing wrong with that. “If you’re separating your finances…”

And the bell tolled for my marriage.

One more flashback may be in order.

In March of 2013, my wife was admitted to a rehabilitation facility, in order to supplement the stem cell treatment she’d recently received in India. She was having neurological degeneration, causing balance problems, emotional problems, and keeping her from caring for herself. We had spent two months in India for the treatment, and had been home for a month with little progress. The thought was, go live in the rehab facility and get help daily, to get back on track.

Eight months later, without any progress to show for the time, it was necessary to have her admitted to Medicaid, so we didn’t have to exhaust my financial resources to pay for her care.

After admission, the State of Indiana gives you 6 months to get the Medicaid recipient’s name off of all the accounts. Which I did, leading to me in a Bank of America office downtown Indianapolis. I explained the situation, and what I was doing, and how I needed new accounts that were just me and not joint accounts any longer. She said, “So, if you’re separating your finances-” and I didn’t hear a word after that.

I didn’t cry, then, but that was the moment that I lost my marriage. It was at that point that I realized we were separated. As much as I’d tried to fight it, as much as I’d denied the fact that we hadn’t had any kind of relationship for over a year, my marriage was done. We were separated, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and, now, financially. My marriage had died in that nursing home, and I had only just realized it while sitting in a bank.

Strike four.

Four momentous, life-changing, potentially tragic events 

that, yeah, reasonably would make one stand up and ask, “What in the world am I doing here? What does this mean for me? Where do I go? How do I move forward, when everything that I used to know just keeps changing on me?”

With all of those things coming at me, who’s to say that I was weak? That I was a poor judge of character? That I was at fault for any of that? Perhaps you can perhaps blame the religion thing on me. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith. But isn’t that just a demonstration of actual faith, that it’s not something imparted upon a soul, but it is an actual article of belief, that you choose to believe or not? And if I was finding more information that contradicted my original belief, do I not owe it to myself to at least consider that maybe my beliefs are wrong, and that I would do well to reconsider?

So… that’s how I came to my mid-life crisis. My journey out from that bottom took about two years. Lots of introspection. Lots of crying in the car, questioning and yelling and singing silly songs because I just didn’t know what else to do. Lots of long walks by myself, talking to myself, talking to the voices in my head, talking to the geese on the side of the path. Did those things make me weak? Did those things make me a bad person?

No.

And they are not for any other person who’s going through similar, or even very different, circumstances. There’s a real good reason why, even without major inciting incidents, that a mid-life crisis happens to good people, even if your car is still running and your faith is still flowing and your job is still reasonable and your marriage is still intact.

For the rest of us? Those who had some big “F you” from the universe that kicked us out of our comfort zones? We know better. We know we were actually doing a lot. We know we were sometimes doing much, much more than those who looked down their noses at us for being weak or self-indulgent. We know that we knew better than they did just what, exactly, was going on inside our own heads. And our results afterwards showed.

Experience. Transformation. Growth. We did these things and we came out of our mid-life crises set up for great things in the future.

It turns out this post was not about my mid-life crisis at all.

I’ve said that mine was all four of those things falling apart all at once, but, really, it’s probably more the two years that came after that were the crisis itself. Those events were just instigators.

And the straw that broke the camel’s back was, after all, really simple. Just 5 little words: “If you’re separating your finances.”

Be careful with your words, friends. You never know when they’ll have the power to change lives.

I don’t have space here for a full discussion of all that went on in my head (and in my house) over those subsequent months, but I probably will write about that in the future. For now, though, I just have a couple of take-aways.

For someone going through it right now: Keep going. You are the only one who knows everything that’s going on. And, yeah, it probably feels like you’re inadequate to the task, and that you are an impostor, and that you really just wish everyone else would shut up about it and let you get on with your life. You’re right. They should. But they’re probably not going to, so you’ll just continue on faking it, hoping to outlast the crisis as it blows itself out. You can do it.

And for those who are watching someone go through it, whether that be a family member, friend, or co-worker: Cut them a little slack, please. Let’s not pretend like you have any clue what’s going on inside that head, or inside their house, or inside their church, or inside their body. Let’s also stop with the hollow attempts at encouragements like “I can’t imagine what you’re going through! You must be so strong!” You’re right, you can’t imagine it. And I, while I’m in it, don’t feel that strong. I mostly feel like a fake, and if I really let down my guard and showed you the terrible thoughts inside my head, I imagine you’d run away screaming.

So let’s stop with the empty gestures, huh? Just be real, and give people some space and time to explore. You might not like where they’re going, but, hey, you don’t have to live their lives.

Extremely Bad Advice – Grieving Dog-Dad

Dear SJ: What can I get my grieving father?

My dad is a veteran and a goofball who is not very in touch with his emotions. Our childhood dog passed today, and I want to send my dad something to show him some love. He often feels guilty for showing emotions and despite that, he is clearly heart broken about our dog passing today. He could barely tell me. Our dog was the best companion to our family the last 16 years and she really helped my dad as an emotional support dog, especially when he was struggling with PTSD. He lives far away, so I want to send him something to show him some love. Any ideas?? He’s not really a flower guy and I don’t think anything overly sentimental would be right either.

— Long-Distance Mourner

Broken with grief man dog owner is grieving sitting on a bench with the lovely pet collar and deep weeping about animal loss. Home pets relatives and love concept.

Dear Long-Distance,

Okay, clearly, this is a little out of my league. I know, I know, shocker that SJ would admit he’s not quite up to snuff! 

But, yeah, every once in a while even a blind pig finds an acorn. See, this seems to be out of my usual realm of expertise because it’s clearly not about you. You’re not trying to manipulate your father into loving you again, or it’s not one of those situations where he’s been moping around the house for three months because Fluffy died and the dishes are piling up and the toilet’s dirty and you just want him to get off his ass already and contribute again.

Those situations are right up my alley because, generally, the problem is not the problem. It’s a symptom of something deeper, and just manifests as emotional distance or laziness. If those were the case, I’d blame the dog’s death, rather than laziness or your father’s drinking problem or your own whoreishness that’s instilling a negative reputation upon the whole family.

But here, the dog has left the building and that is the problem. You want to know what to do? Let’s start with what to don’t instead.

Don’t tell him that “It’s okay, she’s in a better place now.” That’s just ridiculous, facetious, and doesn’t do anything for his feelings.

Don’t tell him not to feel sad. We don’t choose our emotions. They’re an evolutionarily-crafted signal about the environments in which we find ourselves. We can’t decide not to feel something. We can only decide how to act.

Don’t tell him to “Get over it.” Even if this funk or fugue lasts months, that’s not doing anything for him. You think he doesn’t want to just get over it? Fuck! That’s exactly what he’s been hoping for!

read the rest on Patreon

Writing practice – 9/12/2020

What keeps coming to my mind is

What keeps coming to my mind is that day – that one special, glorious, magical, mystical day in which you both took me to the heights of ecstasy and dashed my heart at the bottom of the highest cliffs imaginable.

Do you remember? Of course you do. No human still with a heart would have forgotten that day. The emotions were too strong, like a tidal wave washing over the both of us, a relentless force overwhelming and tumbling and covering over us, and there we were, helpless against the forces of love and lust and desire and peace and power.

I wished it could have been different. Do you? Who am I kidding, of course you do. I know you wished it could have been more like a gentle fade to black, a casual loss of feeling that subsided over months, years, as the perpetual erosion of the hours gradually wore down the blocks we both were putting up as shields to our hearts.

Instead, it was a bomb that went off between us, one that disintegrate those walls and sent shrapnel flying into our hearts, our souls, and tore them to shreds too.

It would have been better if you hadn’t said it, too. If it had just been a thing that I was too scared of, or too weak to face, or too inexperienced to understand.

But when you did, when you said “I love you too,” it destroyed me. IT took me from the place of confidence and assurance that I couldn’t do right by you, couldn’t do enough for you, couldn’t be what you wanted and needed, and that I was fooling myself to think that I could, and It squished that idea through a wormhole the size of the galaxy and shot my thoughts and expectations halfway across the universe.

When I arrived I thought that I knew what I wanted. When I said what had to happen, I thought it was the right thing. When you knew what I wanted to say but wouldn’t let me say it, it confirmed my suspicion of imbalance, of an out of alignment relationship, of the distance not only between our beds but our hearts too.

And yet –

And yet

Why? Why did you say it?

Why did you tell me that? Why couldn’t it have just been my foolish, vulnerable mistake?

And that’s all it would have been, had you not said what you said.

But –

  But …

    But.

You did.

And now I sit here, years having gone by, and the wound occasionally opens once again. A short memory of that day, or the weeks before, or the first date, or how you first smiled at me.

There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought of you. I hate that fact and love it at the same time.

Hate that I am still so tied to the past.

Love that I can still feel.

Hate that I haven’t moved on.

Love that I haven’t given up.

Hate that I wish it would have never happened.

Love that I love that it did.

Writing Practice 11/26/2019

Stories of Your Life, page 119: It’ll be when you first learn to walk…

It’ll be when you first learn to walk. Your drunken-baby steps, uncertain and wobbly, that lead you only a few inches away from the safety of the couch at first, then further and further as you gain skill, confidence, strength.

Or – maybe – it will be when you first ride a bike. That proud-parent-even-prouder-child experience, when you go zooming off down the street faster and more sure than I could ever be for you right now.

Or – maybe – it will be when you have your first sleepover party, that time when I will for the first time be unable to sneak in your room at night and just watch, just check, just to make sure, once more, that you are, in fact, still breathing and are, in parallel fact, still my little daughter.

certainly it won’t be as late as when you get glasses. That’s going to be in about fifth or sixth grade, if family history is any indication. You’ll be what – eleven? Twelve? So grown up, and yet so vulnerable still.

I won’t even conceive that it could be as late as your braces, those fences inside your lips holding back your “true” development, but, at the same time, driving you to a more secure, more happy, more healthy body image. I must admit – I never went through that phase. The one bright spot in my DNA, I guess, so I don’t know how to relate to that. I’ll just have to listen then while you hate having braces and hate the rubber bands and hate flossing and hate the checkups and hate everything about it, just smile and nod, smile and nod.

Perhaps it would be foolish of me to think it would be at your first date. Or when you’re driving to your job. Or when you’re moving in to the dorm, or moving out, or when you finally come back to tell me the fabulous news. Or when you’ve finally gotten that sweet little bundle of joy of your own, when you feel “complete”, whenever that is down the road, whenever you’re able to give me advice on finances, or memory, or organization.

I could be forgiven for hoping it will last that long. But I know it won’t. Someday, it will come, that I will realize you are no longer my “little girl”. And then I will probably cry. Laugh, too, and give you a hug, but, yes, without a doubt, I will cry.

Until that day, though, I will savor these moments. I will cradle you here in the crook of my arm. I will feel the solid weight of your head against my bicep. I will stroke your tiny fingers, one at a time. Then all at a time, with my huge fingers, my giant hand, my overwhelming love. I will bask in this wonderful feeling, and together we shall march, arm in arm, into the future, as one. Let’s go, my dearest daughter.

Let’s go.

Writing Practice – 2/23/2019

[the punchline of a joke is:] Put up a Bingo sign. [I’ll tell the joke after the writing exercise.]

Here’s the scene: crowded airport, filled with travelers. Small kids with moms, business executives, families heading to another state to take a daughter to college. Within the crowd, one person stands out. It’s a clown, an old-man clown; he’s clearly been doing this a while, because his outfit is frayed and worn. not intentionally, but, yes, intentionally – his yellow suit is “patched” in various places with other colors of fabric, but as you watch you can see where the patches have themselves started to pull away from their seams. The seat of the suit is wearing through and has new holes. The gloves are dingy around the edges, and his shoes – large, exaggerated toe box, thick sole – are black but spotted, as if he’s needed a shine for quite a while but just can’t afford one. Or is too proud.

The clown doesn’t so much fight the crowd as meekly wait for the occasional breaks in the stream, to make his way towards Baggage Claim. The jostling jumbles his make-up occasionally. He usually covers his whole face with white, then comes back again with purple nose and orange oversized lips. Today he has added red cheek spots, in the hopes that looking happier will make him feel happier. It’s not working. The people in the crowd see him, smile, pat him on the back occasionally, maybe stop to take a quick picture – who can blame them? They’ve never seen a clown in an airport before – and then go on their way, when they feel the cloud of sadness wafting form him, rolling off the shoulders of the too-wide suit in waves that reach out five, then, fifteen feet in his wake.

He is not a happy clown today.

He holds a bunch of helium-filled balloons, another attempt to make himself feel what he doesn’t. It’s not working, either, their jumbled rainbow does not inspire joy, or elation, or even much more than a general amusement, even in the other by passers. Occasionally a traveler will stop to consider the logistics, whether the balloons, too, wen through security, or whether they were inflated past the gate. But none really stop long enough to ask the question. Most of those who do, who think of it, feel the blackness, the unseen sadness, radiating off his suit and shoulders and smile-that-isn’t-real and they move along without really knowing what it was that they wanted to say anyway.

Only one person actually talks to him. A young man, perhaps twenty years old, with Down Syndrome, and therefore a much greater appreciation for how hard it can sometimes be in life just to feel like you don’t fit in, stops and talks to him. “Hello,” he says. “Hello,” is the response. “You look sad.” “I am.” “I was sad yesterday. I had some ice cream. Maybe you should eat ice cream.” “Thank you, that is very thoughtful.” “Can I have a balloon?” The clown pauses for a moment, then hands the whole bunch, multi-colored globes and strings of gift ribbon a handful, to the young boy. His face breaks into a huge grin as his escorts frantically wrack their brain wondering how they’ll get these new objects through Security, and before they’ve even had time to ask “Wait, what?”, our clown has moved along. He is not happy, yet, for so many other events of the past three days weigh so heavily on him, but at least lightening his burden also lightened his spirit – a bit.

Our clown has found the DOWN escalator to take him to Baggage Claim and Ground Transportation. He has no baggage (physically) to claim. He carries a briefcase and thirty years of memories. He wishes it weren’t so, that this trip never happened, that he’d been able to reconcile before the end, but, alas, estrangement does strange things. Our clown finally notices his driver, one of only three or so, holding a sign with his name on it -“KYLE” –

“It really should say BINGO,” he thinks. “I mean, really, that’s who I am, right?” He looks at himself, then, and without a moment’s hesitation, and without a moment’s shame, the weight and grief of the past three days come flooding back over him, washing upon his heart like a tidal wave, overpowering him, and Bingo, Bingo the clown, the one who chose his “career” of happiness over his family, who allowed his pursuit of passion to drive a wedge between himself and his mother, his now-dead mother, his dead mother who never approved, who couldn’t see anything other than a whole in fancy-colored clothes, who herself was incredibly closed-minded, judgemental, rude and simple, who was now dead and rotting in a box six states away back where he’d left the family immediately after the funeral, his mother, he knew, would scold him for crying like this, for making a scene in the airport, for blabbering and streaking all that fake-up and messing up his old, worn suit, and causing a scene, his mother would have scolded him and told him to shape up, she wold have wipe his whole face clean of orange nose and purple lips and clear tars and yellow snot, she would have said, “There, there’s my boy, there, Kyle, why don’t we go home now,” and Bingo, he should have gone along, he would have buried his head in the corner of her shoulder, between her neck and her arm, he wold have felt her love and acceptance, for him, at least, if he were Kyle and not some simple sad sack clown, if he’d gotten a real job like architect or manager of the water treatment facility, or, hell, anything that wasn’t performing, he would have felt safe and comfortable, but – he couldn’t because he had missed out on all that those last 30 years, and now she was gone, and he was alone again, and, stupid pride, that’s all it was, stupid, so as Bingo/Kyle stood in the airport Baggage Claim and his tears dried and his snot ran onto his upper lip, he waited. He waited for a sign. For something inside his mind to tell him what was the right thing to do.

He didn’t know.

So , he waited.

***

Q: How do you get 500 old crows into a barn?

A: Put up a Bingo sign.

Extremely Bad Advice – Roommate “Situation”

Another one “borrowed” from Dear Abby. Thanks for doing the research for me, love!

Dear SJ: I’m a man in my mid-30s. For the past couple of years I’ve been in love with my best friend. She doesn’t know how I feel, and I know she doesn’t feel the same way about me. (She calls me the brother she always wanted.) I try hard to fight these feelings os our friendship can continue. She has been a huge part of my life, so losing her friendship would be devastating.

To make maters more difficult, we are currently roommates and spend lots of time together. My heart breaks when she goes on dates or talks a bout guys she may be interested in. I know she’Lloyd never see me as more than a friend. Is there any way I can get over these feelings so we can continue this amazing friendship? – FRIEND ZONE IN VERMONT

Dear FRIEND ZONE,

Seems pretty obvious to me. Your best friend / girlfriend is an incestuous freak. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not for everyone. But when someone talks about you as “the brother she always wanted”, that’s code for “I wanna bang my whole family.” Plus, why do you think she agreed to live with you? She’s been trying to grease the skids this whole time.

You see, there’s a big body of scientific literature that says exactly this: boys want to kill their fathers and replace them between their mother’s legs. It’s called the Oedipus Complex. It’s what drives so much of human evolution. “It was good enough for Dad, it should be good enough for me!” The parallel for women is the Electra Complex, which, my best guess is, has something to do with wiring your nipples to a car battery. Sounds like your friend has taken this to the logical extreme… if sons want to bang Mommy, then daughters want to bang Daddy. Since “society” says she can’t do that, she’s acting out in the nearest substitute possible: you.

She’s grooming you to be Dad’s replacement. It starts out as a surrogate brother, and once she’s got you hooked on that mental mind-warp she’ll start imagining her father’s face on your body when you’re doing it. Trust me, you don’t want to be on the inside of her mind when that happens. I’ve been there, it’s not pretty.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that she’s really interested in these other guys she’s talking about our dating. Those are just a ploy to make you jealous – to make you see her as desirable – to incite you to finally “man up” and make your move. Let’s be honest: there’s never in history been a male / female couple that is just really good friends without both of them wanting to bone. And it’s not anybody’s fault; that’s just how we’re wired as a species.

So, what’s your move? Forget about “getting over the feelings”. You and I both know that’s not going to happen. Instead, you need to step up and step out. Tell her exactly what you feel. If you need help writing the script, it should sound something like this:

“Hey, Roomie, let’s be more than roommates. You know your lady-bits tingle when I walk in the room, ‘cause I feel the same way. My Tower of Power gets all electrified just thinking about you. Those other guys? They ain’t got nothin’ on me. Remember last month when you ‘accidentally’ walked in on me in the shower? Yeah, I ‘forgot’ to lock the door, and you somehow ‘didn’t remember’ that I take a shower every day at exactly that same time. Let’s not kid ourselves any more. We should do this, ‘cause, feelings, and stuff. What do you say?” Trust me, it’ll work out great. Soon you’ll be banging like a screen door in a hurricane and everyone wins.

And because I’m a good guy, I’ll even give you a Plan B. If she does happen to reject you (even though my analysis is on point like 98% of the time), and you really do want to forget all about your feelings, try this. Hit yourself in the head with a hammer. If you can remember, afterwards, why you hit yourself, do it again. Repeat as necessary. Toodle-ooo!

Writing Practice 8/10/2018 – Destroy a childhood fantasy

Destroy a childhood fantasy…

Santa – been done.

Easter Bunny – Done.

Your parents are happily married – Done.

Your teacher loves you and reallylikes your stupid drawing of a cat – Done.

Doggie Heaven – well, now here’s a promising topic. Let’s see:

“Okay, Kevin, you know how you really love Barney over there, right? And Barney, well, he’s getting a little old. Remember how grandma got old and when her body couldn’t work any more, she went to Heaven? For dogs, there’s the same thing. Big fields to run around in, birds to chase all day, naps in the sunshine. It’s fantastic. Barney’s going to love it there. You want that for Barney, don’t you? You don’t want him to be in pain like this any more, do you? You want him to have the chance to be happy and playful again, just like he was when he was younger, right?”

Ah, the bullshit we spew at the younger, naive generations in order to ease our own trauma. Why lie? Because it makes us feel better. We empathize with our youths’ sorrow over a pet’s death. So we must attempt to alleviate our own suffering by first alleviating theirs.

Here’s the real deal, kid. Your dog doesn’t have a soul. There is no distinction between “Barney, the basset hound” and “Barney the doggo spirit inside”. Barney himself couldn’t tell you where he stops and another dog starts, outside of the physical limitation / barrier / known divide of his nose and ears and paws. So to presume that there is something different from the aging, failing, tumor-ridden body that can barely get up off the couch to pee, is a rather egregious transgression of adultory responsibility.

Instead of lying to you, to try to minimize your sorrow, we should instead be telling you the truth, and helping you to process the sorrow, to help you to understand and properly grieve the loss. Here it is.

Barney is dying. Barney’s body does not work so well any longer. Pretty soon, maybe today, maybe next week, but certainly not much after that, Barney’s body will not work at all. Then Barney will be dead. He won’t run and jump. He won’t chase birds and squirrels and eat treats all day long. His body will just be there, and the personality, the “spirit’ that you have called Barney, the one who, yeah, did like to lay on your bed at night, and who did like to eat Hormel Chili but not Manwich, and who, yeah, did get into the neighbors’ trash once in a while, that “personality” will die with the body. It’s impossible to separate them. They are a whole, a togetherness, and integrated union. Take your hands – lock them together in two fists. Can you figure – that’s it. See how, together, they make a strong, tight, compact bond? Well, take them apart, and what do you have? An empty palm. Nothing. Blankness. What used to be something.

And that’s how it’s going to be with Barney. His body will be “done”. His spirit will be “done”. At that point we can give him a burial, if you’d like, and I think it would be very appropriate to write a good-bye letter to Barney. Hey, you may even want to do that now, so you can read it to him. That way he can hear it, before he disappears, and then that can be your last, best memory of him. What do you think – are you up to it?

Extremely Bad Advice – Unluckily In Love

Dear SJ, I think I’ve fallen in love with my counselor. I’ve been seeing her for nearly a decade, every week, almost without fail. At first it was just because I was having so much anxiety over the economy (2008 and all), and then it was my kids’ birth, and then it was my dad’s death, and then it was losing my job, and then it was my wife having an affair. It seems like these things just keep coming at me, and throughout it all she’s been there, a comfort, a safe place, someone I can confide in and she’ll never judge me for how I’m thinking.

I want to tell her how much I love her. In fact, I think she loves me, too. She’s always smiling when I come to the door, and she never says I’m doing anything wrong, even when I was out of work and didn’t bother looking for a job for six months. She texts me every week a couple of happy quotes, on top of the messages to remind me of the session time, which has been set in stone for years, so I know she’s thinking about me too. I don’t want to miss out on a good thing, and if she’s for real, I’d would consider leaving my wife. If she’s not, I don’t know how I can face finding a new counselor for all the terrible crap I know is coming my way in the future. What should I do? LOVESICK IN LUBBOCK

Dear LOVESICK,

Well, it’s pretty clear that you’re in what you think is a tough situation. I don’t think so, because I’d never let myself get so far down in that pigsty that I felt I needed a counselor, anyway, but since you’re here, let’s get to it.

First, forget about your wife. It’s obvious that she’s not the one for you. She may have pooped out a couple of meatbags for half your DNA, but since she was willing to have an affair, that means she’s not as invested in the relationship as you need her to be. Regrets, shmegrets. If she really cared about you two things would never have happened.

One, you would never have felt the need to confide in a counselor in the first place. Well-adjusted adults do just fine baring their souls to their life-partners and listening sympathetically (or is it just pathetically?) in reciprocation. The fact that you did not get this from her and, consequently, needed to seek validation from a counselor indicates she is has not been, and will not be in the future, a good fit for you.

It’s clear she realized this long before you did. Thus the affair, which is #2 that wouldn’t have happened if she really cared about you. You couldn’t meet her needs, she probably tried to “open a dialogue” and you shot her down, so she went elsewhere. Surprised it took you this long to figure that out.

But back to your problem with the counselor. It’s also no surprise that this person who listened to your “issues” (frankly, I’ve never seen one a good weekend out at the lake can’t clear up) is now the one you think you should be with. See above, point one, and try to make sense of it all. I’ll give you a minute. I know it’s difficult to do logic problems of the “Since B then A” type with your Neander-skull, so here’s a hint: It’s because people who bare their souls to one another consider each other life-partners, and vice versa. You think she’s the one for you because she listened. It ain’t true, but it’s what you think.

So, we’ve taken care of the guilt you have about leaving your own wife, and identified that you believe you’ll be happier with your counselor. Why not go for it, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you that the era of simply declaring your love is long gone. These days, you need an obscenely extravagant gesture to get anything out of a woman. State’s Exhibit #1, the rise of the “Prom-Posal”, complete with self-indulgent live streams and blast replays to prove they have three more pubic hairs than their best friend or something. Ugh. Have I mentioned I hate society? But it’s what the world has degenerated into, so in order to win the game you must play by the rules.

Thus to get your counselor to agree to be with you, an obscenely extravagant gesture on your part is order. Forget spelling things out in food, or hiding in a cake, or hiring a band or something. Those have all been done before. And no, I’m not going to suggest you kidnap her or murder-suicide or anything illegal. (Long-time readers are spurting coffee onto their keyboards and shouting “WHAT?!?!?!” right now.) Those are too cliché. You need something unique.

So here’s what I suggest. First, buy the building where she rents office space. Over the next year, as other tenants’ leases renew, raise their rent to 10x the current amount. If they’re smart they’ll stop renting from you and move out. If they aren’t, hey, extra bank for you. Eventually all the rooms but hers will be empty. Offer to let her have the largest office for just the same rent as she was paying before. You can frame this as “A token of my appreciation for your loyalty.” She, having heard of the ridiculous increases in everyone else’s rent, will be so moved by your gratitude that she will accept immediately.

Then, when moving day comes, all you have to do is wait in the big empty office with a bottle of champagne and a dozen roses, and wearing nothing but a big shiny bow around your waist. She’ll get the hint and soon you two will be living happily ever after. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.

Writing Practice – 6/1/2018

Pen is running dry…

I like to watch the progress of the ink level in the barrel as I go along. Slow and steady it is, but it keeps going. The more I write, the less I have left to go until it’s all gone. Like footsteps, paradoxically, the more I write, the more evidence there is that I was here. The more pen on the page, means less pen ink in the tube.

I wonder if the people who made this pen thought about how it would be used. For grocery lists or for calculus homework. For taking notes in a quarterly divisional meeting at a large multi-national corporation, or for making doodles on the side of a notepad while waiting for the doctor.

The possibilities inside this pen are endless. There are whole worlds, whole universes, to be set free. Inside this plastic cylinder are dragons and demons and fairies and magic. Inside are robots and hyper drives and a new ansible and a Crucible. Inside are epic poems and haikus. Inside is a resignation letter from the President, alongside and mingling with the phone number scrawled on the back of my hand at that bar last week.

These things are all in there. They’re all potentials. misspellings and transgressions, sleights of hands and phurns of trase. Malapropism. Aproprisms. Run-on sentences. Adverbs. The month of September, and how it smells like sheep ready for shearing, how it feels like the ground is turning its own nose up at the change of seasons. Inside is a butterfly, dancing merrily on the edge of my shoulder, its delicate leg somehow caught in the uneven weave of my shirt, fluttering and flapping to try and escape, yet still entwined with me, so that I have time to take out my camera and snap a selfie, two, three, four, five, before I watch if finally leave, and take off and leave me wanting more once again.

It is a desert, and Antarctica, and Pluto, and Polaris, and protons, and Protease, and protein, and prescriptions and purses and pennywhistles and Pennywise, all in one. It is the large infinitely large and the small infinitely small together – mashed, waiting, uncertain as to whether it will manifest on the paper as power or pusillanimousness. The possibilities are infinite, a regular [unclear] Pen of the word, an infinite universe of quantum potentialities which do not coalesce condense collapse into one until I set pen to paper and become, in this world, the almighty.

Extremely Bad Advice – How to Deal with Sentimentality

Stealing from Abby once again – ’cause I’m too lazy today to write a new question.

DEAR ABBY: My adult son passed away two years ago at a young age. We were very close while he was growing up. He married young, and I maintained a great relationship with both him and his wife. They gave me the most precious grandchildren any woman could ask for, and I am extremely active in their little lives.

My daughter-in-law has moved on. She met a nice young man, and they are planning to be married in the near future. Do you think I would be out of line to request to have my son’s ashes back home with me? We live near each other, I love her very much, and we still have a great relationship. I don’t want to damage it by asking this if it’s not appropriate.

I would pass his ashes on to his children when they grow up, of course, but for now, I’d love to have my son back home with me and his dad because she has started her new life. My husband is noncommittal about the subject. When I broach it, he says he “doesn’t want to talk about it.” I really have no one to ask or confide in about this. Your thoughts would be most appreciated. — STILL BROKENHEARTED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR BROKENHEARTED,

Well, what can I say? I would say I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m not. I think “sorry for your loss” is about as meaningful as “the sky is really blue today”. If I was saddened by your loss, I’d tell you that, and perhaps that would do something. If I was interested in showing how much I care about you, I’d ask, “Oh, that must be hard. What do you miss most about him?” But, again, I don’t care, because your sorrow and misery really don’t affect me on the daily. Other than to provide fodder for my advice column, for which I will gladly say, “Next victim!”

Okay, here we go. The classic dilemma – who gets to keep the crispy bacon that used to be your son’s body? Because, let’s all agree, your “son” is no longer there any more, just like the dream I used to have of being an Abercrombie & Fitch model has blown off into the wind with that first hit of the mind-altering substance known on the street as Jif Extra Crunchy. Your son disappeared from the shell that held him the moment his cranial electro-activity ceased. What he left behind was the meatbag for DNA that did its job incredibly well by providing “the most precious grandchildren” [hold on – just threw up in my mouth a little].

And in order to do that, he had to procreate with his wife, your daughter-in-law (DIL). Who is now his widow. So, for that you should be grateful to her, not jealous.

What’s left is sentimentality. I get it. People have good memories of the past, and it’s hard to move on. It’s hard to imagine that your progeny wouldn’t love you as much as you loved him. How could he? You’re a mother, and everyone knows a “mother’s love knows no bounds”. He couldn’t reciprocate your devotion to him. And he proved this by not pulling an Oedipus and fucking you! He shagged the DIL, knocked her up a couple of times, gave her good memories, and now his burnt ends occupy a silver chalice on the mantle. Good for him and her.

But – you’re a selfish hag who has nothing left in her life, and you’re trying to fill your own void by commandeering what should be left to her in order to appease your own shortcomings. As evidenced by your question to me! Don’t do this. Would you be out of line? Absolutely. Don’t do it! Leave well enough alone. Your husband “doesn’t want to talk about it” not from an ethical or emotional perspective, but simply because you’re looney-tunes and he recognizes a bear trap when he sees it.

However, because I suspect you won’t take my advice above, being as reasonable as it is, I’m going to give you a bonus recommendation of some Extremely Bad Advice. This you’ll probably do with gusto. Have fun!

Step one: Offer to babysit the grandkids for a night. Give the DIL and her new guy a chance to go out and have fun.

Step two: Prepare for the switch. Get a plastic bag, about a gallon, clear (not white), full of ashes from your backyard barbecue pit. Take along a second, empty bag for holding.

Step three: Once the kids are in bed, make the transfer. Go full Indiana Jones. Play dramatic music, sweat profusely, look over your shoulder for booby-traps.

Step four: Revel in your glory. You now have your son’s actual remains, and she, the grandkids, and your husband are none the wiser. Dare I say they might view you as a hero for how magnanimously you deal with the situation? Visit a bar and order a glass of Chablis to celebrate. Send me the bill – I’ll gladly treat you for that job well done!