When I was eight years old, a stray dog showed up in my neighborhood foraging for scraps in an overturned garbage can. I grew up in one of Tampa’s lower-income neighborhoods, the kind of place where (at my mother’s orders) I was never to leave the cul-de-sac without a parent. To most of our neighbors, a stray dog was just more Town ‘n’ Country window dressing, not worth
any more attention than the folks who parked their cars directly on their lawn, or the baggy-pantsed teenagers who wandered the streets smoking after school.
But my mother had instilled in me from a young age an earnest compassion for all creatures great and small. That compassion was a bit harder to apply here, as she had also raised me to be a lifelong cat person and every cartoon I had seen up to that point had made all dogs the mortal enemies of all cats. My friends’ dogs covered a spectrum from yappy and snappy to old and lumpy, so I didn’t quite get the appeal. This stray was different, though. She was gentle, curious, and playful. She had my trust from the moment our eyes met, as she slobbered all over my younger neighbor Anthony with a massive lick to the face. Clearly, this was not the aggressive dog from all the cartoons.
Anthony and I spent that whole day playing with the stray in our front yards. We named her Rex, in part because that’s what Spongebob had named his worm-dog-pet-thing, and also because I’m a millennial, and it’s my god-given duty to destroy traditional gender roles, even before I knew what gender actually meant.
It was Winter Break, so I spent several full days in a row hanging out with Rex. Tampa was getting chilly (by Tampa’s standards), and I had started to worry about where she went at night. I begged my parents to let me keep the dog over and over again. To my simple child brain, Mom would never say yes because, again, Cat Person™. In reality, dogs are a heck of a lot more demanding than a pair of aging cats. My parents probably hoped Anthony’s dad would adopt Rex, as he was the owner of the aforementioned old and lumpy dog. Imagine my surprise, when Christmas morning rolled around and my parents said we could keep Rex. A rare Christmas miracle for the Jewish kid!
It did not take long for Rex to become my constant companion, an overnight cure to my adolescent loneliness. I took her on walks around the cul-de-sac, tore trenches in the backyard from running too fast, and made her the subject of every school writing assignment I was given. She was my dog, and I was her boy.
Rex and I the night we adopted her. December 25th 2001
When I was twelve, my parents divorced. Mom, the Platonic ideal of a Cat Person, got full custody of Rex. We moved to a new house in a safer neighborhood, and the dog, who had up until now been relegated to the backyard and the garage, became a full-time indoor resident.
Though I was still the one who took her on walks and kept her in my room overnight, Rex started to show more respect towards Mom as the new head of the household. The clearest example to me was how she would raise a ruckus every time Mom came home from work. Rex never barked like that for me. One time a pair of plumbers spent an afternoon working in the house, and Rex refused to leave Mom’s sight the entire time they were there. One of the workers told my mom, “She’s not watching us; she’s watching you.”
This woman had become the most important thing in the world to Rex, and she didn’t even know that Mom was the reason she had a home in the first place. Even if her little dog brain could have understood that, I doubt it would’ve changed much. Rex was as giving to my mom as my mom was to everyone else. Finally, Mom had met her match in compassion, and it could not have been more deserved.
Some of that motherhood rubbed off on Rex, too. Moving indoors also meant that she started interacting with our two new kittens daily. Nobody knew what to expect the first time Bailey, the braver of the two cats, hopped over his gate and marched up to Rex in the living room. Time froze as we waited for nature to take its inevitable, brutal course. Rex then extended to Bailey the same greeting she’d offered everyone since the first time I saw her: an enormous lick from a tongue that was bigger than his entire face.
From that point on, Rex became something of a mother to Bailey, his brother Cantu, and their later-adopted sister Fluffy. Every day, the cats lined up for their turn at an ear bath from Rex. And every day, she cleaned them with a focus and determination that instantly called to mind the stereotypical image of a doting mother. Were these cats simply the rambunctious puppies she never had? Or was Rex mirroring the care that my mother showed all of her pets? It’s tough to speculate on, but given that some dogs truly do consider cats their mortal enemies, I like to imagine that she learned some of that behavior from watching us.
After I shipped off to college, it was Jackie and Rex against the world. Mom became the one who walked and fed the dog every day. For her part, Rex stayed by Mom’s side more than ever. Anywhere Mom went in her downsized townhouse, her footsteps were echoed by the gentle tippety-tappety of dog paws against the tile floors just behind her. If Mom was going up and down the stairs to wash and then sort the laundry, well then damn it, Rex was following her each way. As Rex got older, she abandoned any pretense of boundaries with Mom, and decided that actually, she had been a lap dog this whole time. The closer Rex could be to Mom, the happier she was; it didn’t matter if she was more than half of Mom’s size.
Even with months-long gaps between my visits, Rex still didn’t bark for my arrival. It could not have been more clear that I was no longer the dog’s favorite. And I was okay with that! As much as I used to think of Rex as “my'' dog, I think in the end her real purpose was to look after all of us. No matter the situation, Rex was there to accompany the lonely, protect the family, and render smiles out of tears. In other words, she was a dog.
In a lot of ways, my mom overcoming her hesitancy in adopting this dog was one of the best things she ever did for me, but I only recently learned that she came to this decision after a conversation with her own mother. For context, my grandmother, who is otherwise an incredibly caring individual, hates pets. She calls them “animals,” not pets, and thinks they all belong outside. I spent every afternoon at Grandma’s house after school, playing by myself in her backyard. She could see better than most how lonely I was, what with my incredibly small list of friends and my many complaints of bullying at school. So, despite her aversion to animals, it was Grandma who swayed my mom with a single sentence:
“Sam needs a dog.” Grandma always knew what we needed, be it homemade tea, a nap, or fresh-baked cookies. So when she said “Sam needs a dog,” it meant I needed a damn dog.
Mom let Rex into our family out of the kindness of her heart, and Rex spent the rest of her life repaying that kindness with interest. I wonder if Grandma knew how much she was helping her own daughter when she encouraged her to adopt this stray mutt. Regardless of the answer, what this tells me is that if you take care of your loved ones, that care will find its way back to you in some form or another. Maybe it will be in the form of a son who calls you every week and writes essays about how great a mother you are. Maybe it will be a fifty-pound dog who thinks she can fit in your lap. Whatever form it takes, I hope that care finds you.
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.
My mom Jackie, fully unbothered by the fifty pound dog on her lap.
Looking back on my blue green planet,
Looking at how far I’ve flown,
Looking into the far endless dark,
Roaming the final frontier, home distantly present,
This vast shining star reservoir above, neighboring the many solar flares thereof,
I mention my findings in my memoirs: My thoughts, My reactions, My Dreams,
Eye to eye, screen to screen, glaringly numb,
Do they know? Are they aware?
As I attempt to rest floating within my lair,
The air in here I compare to a black and white back home,
Noir, the ever mystery of why despairs and affairs are often depicted with such fanfare,
The expel of malware from their hardwares, often unfair,
Rockwell and Roswell would be upset,
Therefore in my head, I declare a rare repair of my own software,
Laying bare wondering with the utmost care,
How somebody like myself could fare, out there, living a life on such a dare,
To risk, to open, to love, to crumble--
My thoughts tumble pulled to stumble, dry-white silent mouthful,
Relaxed hopeful, the full empty roomful,
I am in fact, humbled by the spoonful, yet baffled on how so many are so well-traveled,
Especially with how high above I’ve worked to become so elevated…
I often hesitated meditation, refusing my present presentation, relying upon pseudo self-regulation,
But aware of the slight depressive mind narration, I escaped into jailed sedation,
Eyes fainted, mind tainted, breathing regulated,
Vein to blue bloody vein, heart to red running heart,
Black wounds junction at the meeting,
Such feelings are fleeting as I allow self-bleeding,...
My skin, such a fiasco escape of the ticking grey and white,
The strife of my ongoing plight on this flight I constantly fight...
Wondering if risking my bright yellow shining light is worth--
A future sight in a chance to right a so-called “right”...
Why is innocence of an untested unright deemed to be not right?
Nicolas Sparks might write stories to delight--
Yet such themes I’ve often felt so denied as I irrationally found no time to bear such risky painful lives…
This black sky above me is currently airtight,
Why is being human so human?
Why blush to crush to only be crushed??
Much of the lushes in passing I’ve collapsed in reacting,
Notwithstanding the many crude hunches my eyes tended to horizontally follow,
Routinely, I’ve punched out to expunge the masculine bunch--
I wonder how hollow my corrections tend to swallow,
Those hardened Martian urges I tightly walk across run shallow in my shadows,
Such a rush in judgement, such indecision...a fissure within my boned earth,
An earth I grapple to hero, to not villain,
Configure to decency, to sense, to respect, not to where my species has been,
The desire to unify with one of Venus’ mysterious inhabitants erupts, in a whisper,
My face, my mind, my earth then gushes for the familiar, for the safety,
Pronounced, reliable, static, sedated, deafening…
Not a life I would have blatantly fated--
I have yet to attempt change, feeling ashamedly so,
At my current age compared to my youth, I initially miscalculated,
Assumedly predicted a fuller life filled out expeditanially more--
I felt now I’ve ignored too long my soul’s inner roar for something more,
Something I’ve never even implored before...
Fear, oh you familiar drug I’ve often abhorred and adored...
Then one midnight as I snored on board,
Beyond the many stars I’ve explored with these eyes, what appeared in front of me I could’ve sworn--
A woman….my age, my glasses, my goodness!
I fastened on her, then onto how those asses at NASA bypassed such a delicate phantom hourglass,
This stranger: smiling, confident, focused, not embarrassed, moving flawlessly barefoot into my comfort,
Blushingly frozen-red, my escape cut short as her long raven hair flowed,
I recall the moment as she opened my helmet, destroying my familiar,
Her green eyes my brown eyes locked, licking lips apart, vision all a blur to what was about to start:
A kiss, a first kiss, admittedly...my first kiss...
A long lust-filled long-awaited kiss,
Arms sway lifelessly, legs heavy grounded, gravity taking hold,
Her body warmth, piercing the icy thorned overgrowth,
I recall feeling such bliss lips to lips, also feeling slightly pissed as I quickly reminisced on all the lost time I’ve long missed,
Her hunger, her desire, her fire...I am engulfed,
The heat so neatly messy, my muscles tensing, such wet dancing flames blazing,
Body onto body, my arm hair raised to greet her goosebumps,
Lips to lips to neck to chest to lips to neck,
My mind blind yet my sight retained,
Succumbing, her arms enclosed upon my pulsating neck, my hands mindlessly traveling,
Our rhythms syncing to the Earth’s natural rotation,
A sudden jolt, her raised smile upon my hand’s newest body discovery,
I weak to this uncharted territory,
Breathing elevated, everything quivering, temperatures intensified,
Nobody could trivialize the size of this mutually orchestrated circumstance,
The emergence of two souls in trance, only enhanced by our bodily advances,
Her face, her voice, her earth!......gasping!, erupting!, exploding!.....
...Then as suddenly as it quickly appeared…!!
...All turns to nothing…
Awakened, falling from my bed, from in my apartment, onto the planet itself,
I concentrate hard on what has transpired, memories quickly fading--
Inspired I instantly try to rewrite the memory onto paper,
As I recall my dream, I realized how much I’ve been living above but not as much below,
My disappointment was not in having such a vivid dream,
But how for so long I’ve slumbered alive, leaving often-dreams behind,
Staying with Houston instead of launching as an Explorer,
How blind I find to have survived a life without a decent try,
So much life out there waiting for me to find…
Therefore, I shall step out into the unknown, to prove my existence,
And she will be there, waiting for me...to be better, to be aware, to be ready,
And I understand many have taken that one small step already,
But when it becomes my time to take one giant leap,
It’ll be for all humankind.
It’s that time of year! The sun is out, birds are chirping, summer is just around the corner, and you know what that means? Purging the old to make room for the new. It’s Spring Cleaning season, baby. I’d like to think of it as “New Year's Resolutions: Take Two.” Spring is our second chance to tackle those promises we made to ourselves when we counted down to 2021.
However, something is holding me back from taking the fullest leap possible. The residue of 2020 still lingers on me. An old mildew smell, a grease stain I can’t get out.
I am drowning in last year’s “laundry.”
You know what I’m talking about, right? The pile of dirty clothes you leave on your floor for days, culminating into a mountain, bigger and bigger, until it’s too overwhelming to face.
That’s how last Spring felt.
In March of 2020, a hole was planted within me. A helpless, crushing, pit in my stomach. It plowed through my chest, making it hard to breathe or stand up. I covered the pain with binge watches, bottles of wine, and mindless drives with nowhere to go. I needed to feel in motion and whole again. Instead, the laundry piled up, clouding my vision of peace and stability.
Throughout the year, there were glimpses of light and hope for the future. Late night discussions with friends who made me feel alive, dressing up and putting on makeup to go to the living room, and scavenger hunts to spice up a COVID birthday. I grasped any joyful moment so tightly my fist hurt. Depression and hopelessness begged for my attention but I pushed it away, afraid of the pit I’d gotten to know so well.
Holding onto the good and ignoring the evil, doesn’t mean it disappears. The pile grows, slowly but sure enough as time goes on, the pile transforms into an uncontrollable mess. It’s not until you sort, load, and wait, that you’re finally at peace (that is, until another load builds up).
That’s the promise I made to myself this year. Sorting through the mess, no matter how painful, to find my grounding again. Or else you’ll find me at the bottom, crushed by sweaters and jeans. Even though we don’t like to admit it (at least I don’t), every item in our “closet” means something. Whether it’s that ugly sweater your great Aunt gave you, or your favorite ballgown. We can’t hide from them. We have to face each piece; clean them, wear them, love them, until it’s time to let go.
This Spring, I vow to be patient, allowing myself to go through every item of clothing; touching, smelling, crying, laughing, ripping, throwing, embracing. I’ve learned that ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it’s magically solved.
After a year of a growing pile, it’s finally time to do my laundry.
It’s 2009, and to quote one of my favorite movies, I’m a “virgin who can’t drive.”
I walk everywhere. I have to. My parents work full time so if I want to do anything during the hours of 8am – 6pm I have to find my own way around. This includes walking uphill 2 miles from school with my textbooks only to get home a sweaty, hormonal mess.
Summers are the worst – it gets so hot in the suburbs. Me and my smart-ass friends lope around our town searching for fun things to do and places to go that have air conditioning and don’t care that we loiter or never buy anything. I marvel at the creativity of teenagers to find things that fill their time during the age when you’re seemingly too old for most summer activities and too young to leave the confines of your neighborhood.
My house is the starting point of the “long hang” because I live so close to premier destinations like the movie theater, Borders, Jamba Juice, two 7-11s, the park and two grocery stores. The world is our oyster.
My parents are rarely home during the day so we can scheme in peace. Down the street is my elementary school equipped with a huge black top and a jungle gym. During a blackout, we try to find refuge in the shade of the jungle gym since none of the usual spots had AC anyway. We trek around sweaty and self conscious, trying to distract ourselves from the heat by talking about our favorite bands and watching the guys skate down the mini hill on the playground. The afternoon heat is unbearable but the socialization is worth every drop of sweat.
When the power goes out we really have to use our imaginations. Even though my house is still cool, we can’t stand the thought of staying inside and not getting into trouble. At fifteen, it’s still awkward to have people of the opposite sex over to your house just to hang out. I only just started having real guy friends last year and we’re all still figuring it out. The only way to comfortably hang out is to subject ourselves to the dry heat of the suburb.
Mel, Liam, myself, and one or two of Liam’s friends make up our group every day. Me, Mel and Liam are kind of like a trio before Liam and I start dating. I realize that probably messed things up in her mind, but it’s always nice to have another girl around. It took the pressure off me to keep up with the boys.
We have our summer uniforms. The girls try to wear as little clothing as possible but still stay covered in fear of being called a slut – a difficult line to walk. Decked out in Hollister and Abercrombie layered tank tops and cut-offs, I always pray that no one notices mine are secondhand. The guys we hang around with are skater kids. In the style of the time, they all sport some kind of long sweeping hairdo across their foreheads. It gets greasy and stringy on hot days, but they never sacrifice their look for the weather – tight skinny jeans, usually matched with a band t-shirt (Green Day or A Day to Remember), vans and of course their boards. A lot of them straighten their hair, which is fun for Mel and me. Sometimes they let us do it for them. At the time I think they’re cool, but no one is cool when they’re 16 years old.
Liam and I recently got together after flirting for a year during drama class. He hit a growth spurt right before we met and he’s gangly, not really sure what to do with his body and his new found popularity now that he’s handsome. He doesn’t really skate though, mostly just longboards. The skater friends I’ll make in college would probably refer to him as a poseur. I think he is still trying to figure out where he fits in and later in the relationship he’ll take out his uncertainty and insecurities on me. But for now during the summer, he’s sweet and we’re inseparable.
When the sun starts to go down we go to City Hall with his friends and their girlfriends. They are all mostly my age but they all seem so much older than me. In my head I think it’s because they smoke pot and have sex but I don’t. Liam has been bugging me to smoke pot but I don’t really care to (later he starts bugging me to have sex as well). I got my period when I was 12, but those raging hormones of curiosity when it comes to sex still don’t hit for a few more years. It’s not that I’m uninterested – I like making out with Liam, I just don’t have too much interest beyond that. Or maybe I’m just afraid. It doesn’t matter either way – it’s way too hot to lose your virginity.
Adults, and some of my friends, warn not to go to the park after hours because that’s where kids deal drugs and smoke pot. I don’t care when I’m with Liam though – he’s 6’3” or something stupid tall like that.
One hot summer night, there must be truly nothing else to do because a huge crowd of kids form at City Hall. Not just the usual crew we muck around with. Liam’s sister is there – she’s a year younger than me and two years younger than Liam but she’s tall and curvy making her look older. She definitely looks older than me, I look like a kid. Probably why I’ve developed a sassy and “grown-up” sense of humor. I have the personality of fitting in when I don’t have the looks.
We glean from his sister there’s a fight about to happen at the park. Two brothers from our school are going to either beat each other up or beat someone else up. I don’t know them so I don’t really care. The group of teenagers on the lawn buzz with the excitement and the break from the hot mundane of August. I’m surprised the city security guards aren’t trying to break us up – they hate it when we loiter. A comment is thrown out that Liam’s sister has made out with both brothers, who is she going to root for? This makes Liam uncomfortable and he calls her a slut after she walks away. I don’t stand up for her, I don’t discover feminism until a year or two later but I’m not sure if I would anyway. Don’t want to look uncool and get involved with sibling relations. His sister being involved turns us off from watching the fight, we stay behind at City Hall while everyone walks to the park in classic teenage mob mentality.
Liam and I make out at City Hall. One of Liam’s other friends has stayed behind as well and he’s uncomfortable by our PDA. We don’t care though. He could’ve left. Eventually we walk to Liam’s house on the opposite side of the park. We catch snippets of the fight - someone’s eyebrow was busted open.
We end our hot summer day at Liam’s place. The boys play video games while I lounge in Liam’s bed trying to move as little as possible in unbearable heat. I’m not sure how I’m going to get home - I’ll probably walk.
Remember in preschool, right after recess but before snack time how you were forced to lay on that crunchy old mat and dare I say it, take a nap? As a kid, I detested that hour of the day. I wanted to get dirty in that not so hygienic sandbox or burn my butt on that piece of metal they refer to as a slide. As an adult however, I have done a complete about face. I have zero interest in the smelly tire swing and any moment to shut my eyes is a gift from the slumber gods. Be it power naps, bedtime, or the coveted sleep in ‘til one pm zees, a jolt of euphoria runs through my body at the mere thought of being cozied up in some soft cotton sheets and my cheek hitting the pillow. To me, my daily slumber habits are like a perfectly coursed out meal at a fine dining establishment.
Let’s start with napping. Like tapas style appetizers, I take two twenty minute power naps a day. I find that napping boosts my creativity, especially when I have a deadline looming. I swear this isn’t just some lame procrastination technique. Every time I have napped before an audition, it has been a smashing success. Prior to my accidental napping revelation, stress and anxiety used to run havoc on my professional life. I was going up for a series regular role on a major network television show and it was a disaster. I had my agent and manager calling constantly, switching audition times and delivering rewrites. I was in a complete state of panic throwing myself on my bed and balling my eyes out over the pressure. Somehow in the midst of my melt down I fell asleep. When I woke up half an hour later, I felt calm, clear about my character choices, and learned my lines effortlessly. I went into the audition surprisingly confident. I was not chosen for the role, but I did get a callback and felt good about my work. Since then my version of the quick “nooner” is a twenty minute power nap and I have them quite often and shamelessly, like a guilt free tuna tartar.
Naps are the appetizer, which makes a proper eight hours of sleep the main course. Yes, I said eight hours because that’s how much sleep as a grown ass woman that I personally need. It is during this hiatus from the world I delve in to dreamland setting my imagination free. My dreams are very cathartic allowing me to forget the woes of the day, coming up with solutions to problems that my awake brain can’t figure out, and even opening up my third eye to allow a prophecy or two to take place. I have woken up knowing that my best friend Stephanie is going to call me at two pm on Tuesday, heartbroken about another dud she is dating and guess what...at exactly two o’clock on Tuesday my phone rang and it was Stephanie! Now, I dismissed this as mere coincidence, but then the trippiest thing happened: she started venting about David the dud! Was I turning into Miss Cleo? Though being able to foretell the future via dreams is a rarity for me, what is not are several good REM cycles where I wake up the next morning as if life hit the reset button. I am clear headed, my muscles are relaxed, and I am a kinder human being. The exact same effects as a petite filet!
From filet to finish there is the final course: sleep in day. It is that sugary hit that you are oh so rarely afforded but are always highly anticipating. Now, because I wake up at the crack of dawn to workout, sleep in days are cherished. It is in these moments of partial cognition I get to daydream about my future or inhale the scent of lavender laundry detergent permeating off of my fresh linens. Part of my personal joy with sleeping in is being present. It is the one segment of my day that has no agenda except just being with myself. It is my own version of a zen garden, but in bed! In these sweet short lapses of time, memories of burning questions that have been plaguing my brain for ages reveal themselves...like what color were the kitchen countertops in my childhood home? I pondered this question endlessly. I thought about it on the treadmill and in the car. I even tried to meditate on it. Nothing. Then one early afternoon I’m sleeping in and boom! Ten year old me is grabbing a banana from the wicker fruit basket that was on the slate gray countertop. The countertop was slate gray! Not only that, I remembered the detail of every tiny square tile including a pink punch stain on the grout. The answers flooded in effortlessly. I don’t know why but remembering that random fact brings me so much satisfaction, maybe because now I could have other thoughts on the treadmill like, how many more miles until I burn off this tiramisu.
If it has not already become evident, like a scrumptious meal I love a succulent siesta. Be it a power nap app, a main of eight hours, or a sleep in confection; slowing down my brain waves is one of my favorite parts of the day. Unlike scorching my tushie on a slide, concocting my own sleep recipe brings balance and elation into my life. A stark contrast to the cranky kid who restlessly flailed on her crunchy preschool mat after recess but before snacks.
To me luck has always been either fantastical circumstances or an unfortunate incident of being down on my luck. They seem to go hand in hand. Sometimes you get the fun, colorful marshmallows and sometimes life gives you the slightly healthier part of dry, lightly frosted oat cereal. Well, it certainly does not involve a leprechaun who is trying to run away from children because they are always after his lucky charms which are strangely still kind of magically delicious to a woman in her thirties. I have moments of out of this world experiences that give me wondrous stories to recall. But I also get those hard, painful predicaments that usually provide a lesson leading to personal growth.
Here’s an example of a moment I felt that occurrence of luck and unluck hitting me at once in a tidal wave of a very unexpected event. For legal reasons I probably can’t say the television show or the host this involved, so I will censor the names for this piece. I was always a big fan of this show and the talented comedian/actor who was the host for many years. I even went to three other tapings after moving here. I used to watch this show when I was a teenager before moving out to Los Angeles from Colorado. I can remember laughing at him doing sketches as the Queen of England. Making her talk about her corgis, while drinking gin from a flask, which the dogs weren’t even visible in the scene. Don’t even get me started on his impression of Prince Charles with these gigantic prosthetic ears, bubba teeth, and comb over bald cap. It all made me laugh out loud. I can still remember laughing and watching this on my little VHS player TV in my bedroom. My fandom for this show stemmed not only from the host's unique style of comedy, but he did everything different from the other shows. He was brilliant, funny, and not afraid to get personal in his opening monologues.
That day of the fourth taping I attended felt like one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was seeing the show with my friend and we were seated in the third row. My hair was extra bright red from a fresh salon visit and I was wearing a black and white polka dotted dress. Ironically the late night host was wearing a black and white polka dotted tie as well. We were matchies! He did his opening monologue and we all laughed and cheered. Before the commercial break he had to do his cold open which involved pulling someone from the audience. Sure enough he looked over at me and said, “Okay, Red get up here.”
I was shocked and was looking around to make sure he was talking to me and not someone else who could be called Red for obvious hair reasons. Then he insisted I come up so I walked up as they parted the set dividing the audience and stage. I was getting the mic put on me, a nervous wreck. The host shook my hand, said hi, and asked if I had seen the show before. I, of course, informed him yes and the many years I had been watching. He then said with a grin and a let's-see-what-you've-got-kid kind of tone, “Oh, great then you know what the fuck you’re in for!” He swiftly walked to the opposite side of the set. I looked back at him certain with a look of what?!? I turned toward the sudden rush of live television coming at me. The crew announced they were starting back up in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and I felt like a deer in the headlights. As cameras were zooming in, lights shining down on me, an entire audience of people watching and waiting. It was extremely intimidating and yet as a natural born performer I also felt at home. I took a deep breath thinking about how much I needed to heighten my game to match his amazing comedic timing. This was seriously happening right now and somehow I had to figure out how I was going to step up to the entertainment plate. Bring it on TV man! My right leg was containing all my nervous energy because it was the only part of my body shaking like a leaf. I decided since I had no idea what to do with this moment I would use this nervous personae I was already channeling and played it up a notch for the audience.
When the recording began, he walked around me like a detective in an interrogation and my eyes were wide eyed staring straight ahead. Immediately the audience began to laugh as he asked me to state my name for the camera. With my saucer eyed stare into the camera I faintly said my first name. He then insisted I say the full name which I did as if recalling oh yes I do have a full name. Oh yeah! The audience continued laughing as he circled me and asked his questions. Throwing comical jabs at me and me answering back with equal silliness. It was one of the coolest, most magical moments I ever had. I felt all my improv training and skills were riding on an electric slide. In my mind I took on a female Don Knotts persona but also being myself. I played up being a nervous wreck as I was being circled by one of my favorite people in the entertainment industry. I was up for the challenges he would throw my way. Jokes and innuendos and I played along all my wit. The adrenaline was pumping through my veins, my heart was racing and I felt my thoughts were firing off like fireworks in my brain. My words are perfectly in sync with my mind. My responses to his jokes and jabs felt perfectly timed. I don’t think he was expecting it quite honestly. Not to toot my own horn but I could tell he was expecting me to just blush and giggle in embarrassment on stage. I stayed there right with him the whole way through. The audience continued laughing at our comedy spar off. We talked about my hair’s reddish hue, my home state of Colorado, and my terrible British accent delivery when he asked if I could do that kind of dialect. It really was rubbish at the time.
After that few minute intro was done and they were moving on to the interviews, the cameras stopped rolling and were being moved to the interview desk. He shook my hand, told me I did a great job, wished me luck with everything, and kissed my cheek. I thanked him and took my exit off stage. Suddenly all the adrenaline from my nerves hitting me on the inside like a tsunami. I crawled my way up the audience back to my seat where my friend was ecstatically excited to tell me how fun it was to watch. It was fun and throughout the show little jokes from the intro were reappearing with guests. I was thrilled, but to this day I consider it a fluke. Perhaps a stroke of luck. Definitely a happy accident.
Now for the unlucky part. The day the show was taped to air was the exact day of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. Absolutely scary and tragic. I received a phone call from the show’s producer that unfortunately because we referenced Colorado so much in the intro and the host had joked about the movie in the monologue, both segments had to be scrapped and reshot. I was also told that according to the television lawyers I couldn’t get any of the footage, not even a still of the comedic fun moment occurring. I was bummed for so many reasons, I also felt guilty for being upset when people lost loved ones and lives in that tragic shooting. Way more important than my comedy kismet moment. Once I saw the new intro the host shot I realized he made the right decision to reshoot that introduction. It was very honorable and I respect him greatly for it. I mean, it really was just a fluke anyways. That’s what I always tell myself and one hell of a story to retell. What a fun experience it was and that feeling of being in front of that audience and making them laugh with him I am seriously grateful for that memory. I will treasure it forever. I later did a stand-up show with a bunch of Colorado comic friends to raise money for another Colorado Native comic’s hospital bills. It felt good to be part of a group of people helping out one of the shooter’s victims and families.
I’m sure my future out here will continue to have moments like this of luck and unluck. The ups and downs of the difficult business of being an actor with those few exhilarating happy accidents from being at the right place at the right time. My ambitions are like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. I am one of the kids chasing him for the opportunity. Who knew my life could relate so much to that silly cereal cartoon fella. I think I will always chase after these dreams and why not because, after all, they are magically delicious.
Have you ever met a self-professed mean person? Have I witnessed this phenomenon in a vacuum, or do most people, at least upon meeting them, hold the opinion that they are, at the very least, good?
Given the state of things as of late, I have got to call “cognitive dissonance” here. Excuse my Freud, er I mean French. I’m calling bullshit: plain and simple.
I have always thought of myself as a kind person. I grew up in the South, drenched in the infamous smiling-at-strangers Southern Hospitality. The logic behind this sharing of perpetual happiness allegedly derives from the concept of loving one’s neighbor. Smiles begat conversations spontaneously erupting only to end in an invitation to lunch or dinner (whichever meal was closest). This was presented to me as kindness. Perhaps, in many ways, it can be.
Moving to Los Angeles in my teens meant journeying to a land where an errant smile is construed as either stupidity or selling something. It was jarring to learn that smiling does not necessarily constitute a measure of one’s kindness, especially when some smilers in LA will begin hurling obscenities your way seconds later.
Back to my initial query: what person trying to develop any sort of rapport with another human doesn’t use at least one of these terms as a self-descriptor? It is almost as if, societally, there is an importance in being at least perceived as a good-hearted person, veracity be damned. Anyone who has met a human before can easily say not all humans are nice or kind. Yet in English, there is the term “humankind” to refer to the lot of us on this spinning wet rock…but I digress.
Thanks to COVID, I definitely spent a good deal of time waking up to just how unkind humans can be, how niceties are either manufactured or non-existent “these days.” Emails “hope to find me well” when I sincerely doubt anyone is really doing “well” by any previous metric. Everyone else having time to think gives us space to see how unkind we, as a populace, are to our environment, to our fellow beings (be them animal or human), and to ourselves.
This leads to an exact counterpoint that kindness and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses in modern American culture. If you’re kind while working in an office, that’s the surest way to end up working late or through the weekend for people who left at 3pm on a Friday because they felt like it. If you’re kind in the stock market or big business, that’s the surest way to piss off investors since your dividends aren’t competitive with other sharks in the water. If you’re nice to a salesperson, that’s the surest way to walk away too-many-dollars poorer for something you still don’t understand even hours after the initial exchange took place.
Perhaps this is where the distinction comes in. Why, in such a selfishly “independent” nation as America, are there so many who are willing to smile wide in the midst of outright meanness? Why is there a subset of the populace placating these people with the smile of “perseverance”? Kindness is key. I can’t be nice to everyone; believe me, I have tried. All that gets you is fatigue that sleep can’t cure and disease-causing repressed anger. After a good wrestle with denial, I took a look at how either of those adjectives might apply to me specifically.
Predictably, what I found within was as ugly as what I found in the world. I found an inner critic so harsh, it’s no wonder I hadn’t lived up to all of the potential heaped on me from a young age. That monologue on loop in my mind had an answer for every question of failure and confirmed why future choices would be wrong with what felt like searing accuracy. Upon deeper questioning however, the Critic sputtered and defended itself, talking in circles until I would relent just to get some mental quiet. The judgements I would make on the smallest of ideas made me second-guess if my creativity existed at all. Friends and acquaintances would laud my zaniness at happy hours and remark about off-the-wall thinking that came naturally to me, yet I couldn’t convince the cassette tape in my head that I had any value.
Beneath that cacophony of negativity beat a heart overflowing with concern and care for others. When you’re cruel to yourself yet want to be kind to others, what ends up happening is saccharine-sweetness oozes out instead of genuine care. Why would I stay in wretchedly awful situations until tears would spring to my eyes so I could confidently yell “I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!” when, in fact, I cared a great deal.
Since when did trying one’s hardest to be a kind person become so problematic? In my case, it had to be due to my complete erasing of myself in favor of others. When I was a kid, my father would take me to school every morning. Without fail, before I was allowed to hop out of his truck and rush into class, my father would make a point to tell me to “be a helper.” For 6 years, 5 days a week, I would hear that phrase and do my utmost to live up to it. When other kids were angry that I ruined the curve of a test and told me to fail to make it easier, I seriously considered getting questions wrong. I learned that not having to study for tests got me A’s, but I made a point to never try much harder so as not to upset the other uniform-clad kids around me. I was told to sing quieter in choirs because the others “couldn’t be heard.” Rather than quit the choir and start my own band, I allowed that criticism to inform my hobby of singing until it became the quiet, self-deprecating thing I can’t help but do in the shower, car, or rarely in public when my itch to perform leads me to signing up for an open mic. All of these efforts were to at least seem like I was kind. The older I’ve become, the more one question has begun to nag at me with ever-increasing volume:
By becoming less-than, who was I helping?
I have stepped into every single situation with which I was entrusted and poured an obscene amount of care and attention into it, hoping to high heavens I would get a shred of said care back. I now hope to serve as a cautionary tale to say no, that’s not how it works. That’s not kindness. The peculiar thing about kindness (and my theory on why customer service is work that is vastly undervalued) is its anti-transactional nature. When you consider computer coding or making a sale, there is a transactional if-then element to the motions required to execute an action. Kindness, sure, can beget more kindness in the way that if you smile at someone and they smile back, both of your days are made. But as sure as you take the risk to smile, the other person could easily respond in various other negative ways.
In the same way that people say you must love yourself before you can love others, the same caveat applies to kindness. You must be kind to yourself, which means forgiving yourself when the most you can do effectively that day is wake up, and allow yourself to forgive your human frailty. This is the only way to garner enough empathy for that jerk who cuts you off or what have you, and that isn’t even, necessarily, a failsafe.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there is no failsafe to much of anything. I also know that being kind is vital to surviving this life. It’s the only hope we’ve got, and, happy to get this song stuck in your head after such a heavy thought, “We’re All In This Together.” That simple thought is the ticket to a kindness that won’t kill you. Knowing that others are in the same boat is oddly reassuring. I’m not the only person who has cried on the planet, nor am I the only one prone to a fit of giggles over something mundane or innocuous. If someone cuts me off while I’m driving, I try to remind myself of the times I’ve been running late and cut in front of someone else (hold your gasps of horror; of course, I’ve done it, and you know you’ve done it, too). If I am ever down, someone out there can help pick me up. The frustrating thing about this anti-transaction of kindness that many can call the Golden Rule or Karma is yes, you “get what you give,” but it is never how you expect. Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable means risking getting yelled at by strangers. But haven’t you had the kind of day where all you want to do is swear at anyone who crosses your path? Because I definitely have. Should you be yelled at like that? No. But can that little edge of empathy make hearing it a little less of a drag? Perhaps.
Love is, without a doubt, the most powerful force in this world.
I just felt all the cynics and “realists” roll their eyes collectively.
But, seriously, that is something I know to be true. You can call it cliché or cheesy or whatever you want, but there is no doubt in my mind that love in all its forms is the only thing that can transcend this life.
And I didn’t know that until I was faced with death.
I had been pretty fortunate throughout my life to never have to deal directly with death. My grandfather died in 1997, but I was only four years old at the time so I didn’t really understand it. As I grew up, I became more curious about him. I would watch old home videos he was in, ask my dad questions about him, try to find out about his time in the Air Force through the internet, etc. Even though I lost him so early in my life, I still felt this pull to him- like he was with me, sending me love and light along my way.
I was a freshman in college, when I first experienced death head on, and the true magnitude of love.
I got a call one day after class that my former church youth director, mentor, and dear friend Chris Camp had been taken to the hospital after having a seizure. At this point, he was only 28 and overall pretty healthy. I had no idea it could be anything serious.
After a short time, we got the diagnosis. A brain tumor.
I could not believe it.
I met Chris when I was around 13 years old. He had watched me grow up. He had always given me advice or provided a shoulder to cry on when I needed it. We had just gone on a trip to Disney World with the youth group May of that year. It seemed such a far cry from taking funny stone-faced Tower of Terror ride photos to suddenly visiting him in a bleak hospital room.
While his sarcastic and lighthearted personality hadn’t changed, seeing him attached to tubes and monitors made me physically ill. But I held it together for most of the visit until he hugged me and said, “I’m going to be alright. No matter what, I’m going to be alright.”
As I drove home in the rain, tears streaming down my face, I kept thinking, “Why couldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t I have the brain tumor so he wouldn’t have to suffer?”
I suddenly felt the gravity of life’s mysteries weighing heavy on me. I felt the fear of the unknown leaving me entirely. And I felt a glimmer of the true magnitude of love- a willingness to sacrifice my own life for someone else’s. Not to say there wasn’t anyone else in my life I would have done that for, but this is the first time I was confronted with that feeling.
For over a year, I watched helplessly from the sidelines- doing what I could to make him laugh or cheer him up when he needed it, celebrating with him in April of 2012 when his brain scan had come back completely clear, and mourning with him when the cancer returned in full force in June. We celebrated his 29th birthday praying there would be a 30th.
I got the call in early October, the one that everyone who has ever had a sick loved one dreads getting- The “If you’re going to come, you need to come now” call.
The last day I saw him he wasn’t conscious, but he moved and moaned as if he knew I was there and wanted me to know he could hear me. I held his limp hand and watched him breath slow, labored breaths. I told him I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I was worried about whether or not the guy in English class liked me, or what dress I was going to wear to prom. I was sorry for not seeing the bigger picture and for not spending enough time with him while I had the chance. And then, I couldn’t help but laugh, because I could almost hear him saying, “I’m dying. Get over it.”
A day later, I was in rehearsals for The Crucible at Ole Miss. I heard my phone ring, and stepped out to take the call.
Even though I was expecting it, the words, “He’s gone,” hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank into the corner of the hallway and couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do? Go back inside with everyone whose worlds were still intact, those who hadn’t noticed everything was just a little darker now?
It was a pain like I had never felt. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I just wanted to curl up and forget.
But in the months and years to come, something magical happened.
It’s hard to notice the beauty of love while in the depths of grief, because the pain can be so overwhelming. But once the pain subsides ever so slightly, once you can hear their name without immediately bursting into tears, once you can celebrate the life lived rather than mourn the life lost, you experience the bountiful abundance of love.
I realized throughout my experience that even if I stopped thinking about him every single day, even if I forgot the sound of his voice, even if I forgot the corny jokes he told, the love I had for him and he had for me would never disappear.
I think life has a way of testing newfound epiphanies, because, while this was my first major brush with death, I certainly knew it would not be the last. And that test came this year.
My grandmother lived a full and healthy life when she was younger, but was plagued by a host of health problems toward the end. She was tossed back and forth between assisted living, the hospital, rehab, and hospice. She had memory loss similar to dementia, although I’m not sure if we ever got a clear diagnosis. She was unable to understand where she was, she had trouble breathing, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating. And on top of it all, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
I wanted more than anything to be able to see her before she died. The last conversation we had was in the summer of 2020, and I just wanted to tell her one more time that I loved her. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to, as she died on January 10th of this year.
As much as I wanted her to stay, I knew she was in pain. I knew she had poor quality of life. And just like with Chris, I wished for it to end. In this, I was reminded of one of the fundamentals of love- If you love someone, you want what’s best for them, even if it isn’t what you want.
The morning after she died, I was out early walking my dog when all of the sudden it started snowing. It was beautiful and quiet and serene, and I found myself smiling so widely because I could feel her there. I felt her telling me that she was okay and no longer suffering, that she loved me and was now watching over me.
Death can teach us some pretty powerful things about our world and our lives, and yet we are so afraid of it. We don’t talk about it, and when we do, it’s in somber and hushed tones. But truthfully, I don’t think it’s death we’re afraid of. I think it’s the feeling of no longer having that person in our lives. It’s the feeling of the absence of love. And I’m here to tell you that the love will never be absent.
Energy can neither be created or destroyed. So regardless of the circumstances of death, the impact of someone’s life makes a permanent imprint on the earth through the love given and love received. It can never be destroyed.
With Chris, my grandmother, and everyone I’ve ever loved who has passed over in this life, I realized we will always be tethered to each other, as if they are just in a different room rather than a different realm. And love is that unbreakable tether.
The love that permeates through our being will always remain, no matter what.
They say 27 is the beginning of a time for great personal reflection, change, and a crossover to another phase of one’s life. They say this has to do with Saturn returning to the same place in its orbit as it was when you were born. They say it technically takes Saturn 29.5 years to make a full rotation around the sun (I confirmed this on NASA’s website), but you start to feel the effects at 27. They say, because of this, the effects can last until about thirty (astrology is an EXACT science). They say Saturn’s return is about maturing and taking stock in your life as it is and what you want it to be going forward.
They say all this, but I don’t have a telescope so I must rely on hearsay.
While I’m not one for astrology, as I approach my 27th birthday tomorrow (feel free to tell me what being an Aquarius means), I can’t deny I haven’t done some reflection as of late. I graduated college in 2015 and moved to LA immediately after with goals of working as a writer. In the five and a half years it’s been since, I have made some efforts towards that goal. I’ve gone to numerous screenwriting Q&As, I’ve hooked up with a writing partner and we’ve put some pretty funny things on the page, I’ve connected with the author and real life subjects of a book I’m adapting, and I’ve become the coordinator and occasional contributor to a blog for a highly regarded theater company (thanks Liz and Riley!)
To be fair, surviving in LA is a challenge enough (I’m on my third apartment with my ninth and tenth roommates), but I can’t help but look back with some disappointment. After almost six years I still have a day job (that isn’t writing). I haven’t written nearly as much on my own and nothing I can really show as a sample. I’ve been adapting that book on and off for years and do not even have a rough draft I’m happy with. And while I’ve been working to survive, not to mention figuring out mental illnesses (gotta love just now being diagnosed with ADHD), ultimately when I look back I have to take stock in my role in this.
Maybe I keep waiting for something to happen, but that’s the problem.
Change is a part of nature, but the natural process is slow moving. It can be sped up though by some hands on effort. The world itself is supposed to change at a slow rate, it took billions of years for the grand canyon to form. On the other hand thanks to human industry and capitalistic greed, we may destroy this Earth in the next 50 years! If not sooner! Glibness aside, we people are not the Grand Canyon. We don’t change just with the passing of a new year or the position of Saturn in its orbit. We have to take action in our efforts.
With my 27th year on the horizon, I am looking to make some changes. Making some clear efforts to be better than where I am now and strive towards where I want to be. A friend of mine from college, Zach, recently reminded me I once said I’d give LA a ten year shot before reassessing (thanks for the reminder, bud). Zach also used to say life is about self improvement, and there’s nothing better to think about when falling asleep then what you did today, and how you can do better tomorrow.
Whether it is that big ball of gas with its rings of ice and rocks floating in the sky, I can’t say. It feels like there are moments like this in all sorts of people’s lives. Bill Hader talked about living in LA for five years, working assistant gigs, until he realized he needed a creative outlet. He joined an improv group, eventually got discovered by Megan Mullaly, cast on SNL, and now writes and directs one of the best TV shows out there.
Billy Joel once sang “I'm sure you'll have some cosmic rationale,” but this change is only going to happen if I do something about it.
Now, where to begin? Ah yes, Concerning New Years.
New years for many years meant for me to clean house with everything the past year taught, brought, and fought for me. I guess in many respects, a year renewal holds differently per the individual. I know of many friends right now who are starting their own businesses, some are reaching their long thought out health goals, and some are welcoming new family members into their tribal brood. What we can mutually agree on is our feelings towards 2020 since we certainly had no such feelings transitioning from 2019 to 2020.
I had hoped to finish working my accounting job so I could pursue acting full time. I was ready to tackle auditions, attend script analysis classes, continue gym training to a healthier lifestyle, and to fully embrace an unknown future laid out before me. As I write this we know exactly what had happened instead. I am unable to truly specify the dismal dismay we all share for the last particular year. Open your phones and you’ll find countless memes, posts, songs, articles and videos collaborating what we truly feel, especially as we slowly march together into the new year, with reluctant hope.
My question is: why reluctant? Why should we fear what has yet, or not yet happened? Because we have all been hurt. Hurt is a very universal feeling. It proves you are alive, you are human, yet so many attempt to avoid it at all costs. None were spared from the relentless onslaught of hurt the previous year brought upon us. So can you really blame us if we entered the new year with the same mentality as Frodo Baggins did when he returned to the Shire? He was home, he was amongst friends/family, his normal life restored, his world was saved from an enormous catastrophe, and yet a small part of him knew. He knew he could no longer see his life the way it was before, no matter how many times he was told “Frodo, you’re safe now.” Seeing his resolution brought me comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in feeling what I was feeling, as I’m sure we could all mutually feel for. We’ve seen things, experienced things, we know things will still take time before any sort of normalcy returns, and yet, we have this shining reluctant hope, buried deep down inside every one of us. We almost don’t want to stick our heads out of the bunker until we are absolutely certain the war is over. We never could’ve imagined our lives playing out the way things are, or how much we had to transform to this new world.
This is what I can assure to you: whatever flame of hope you have, if it is blazing mightily, or dimming weakly, if it’s still there it is worth the trouble keeping it burning. We somehow slowly stumbled upon the finish line of a year we initially figured would be endless. Yet, we are stronger; we are wiser; we are more patient, appreciative, and grateful for what we have, who we are, and where we are going. This has been an accumulation of many pivotal life events we’ve worked so hard in arriving at, to which when the pandemic hit, the universe provided us a way to stop, smell the roses, and reflect. Please, I implore you to not lose hope. Darkness is not forever, darkness must fade away at some point, and the light will shine upon your smile once again.
We still have a long road ahead of us, and we still feel so restless of what this new year has in store. As of the start of this year 2021, just recently discovered that I contracted covid-19, and had to suddenly learn the intricacies of the virus and in recovering from it, but that is for another tale.
With that being said, I leave you with these words from J.R.R. Tolkien from The Return of the King, by Frodo Baggins:
“How do you go on when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back. There are some things time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep that they’ve taken hold.
You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one, and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy, and to be, and to do.
Your part in the story will go on.”
Wishing a Happy Hopeful Safe New Year, to you all! I Love you, from the bottom of my heart.