Comfort Leaves

Photo by Susan Licht

Suffocating used to scare me when I was a child.  My first and only actual panic attack occurred when I was five and my little brother choked on a cucumber.  He coughed for a few seconds and then spit it out.  Ironically, I was the one that couldn’t breathe or swallow because I thought baby Andy was going to be killed by a ruthless vegetable.

I also thought suffocating was something anyone could do on a whim.  Not with rope or water, but by choosing not to breathe for awhile.  I just figured if somebody wanted to commit suicide, they could hold their breath and they would suddenly die once the air had completely left their lungs.  I was so convinced that this was true, I monitored my breathing every day for what seemed like a year.  I was somehow able to turn an autonomic bodily function into something I had full control over, which I know now is almost the equivalent of me stopping my digestive system or preventing my pupils from dilating.  At the time, however, this was a totally rational fear which lead to many nights lying in bed, breathing like I just climbed a stairway to heaven and hoping this journey wouldn’t become a reality if I stopped manually taking in each gulp of air.

I stopped paying attention to my breathing once I realized it was pointless.  Like when I accidentally wore sweatpants to gym in middle school, I came to the conclusion that my body was going to do whatever the hell it wanted to, whether I liked it or not.

If only everything became less scary when we aged.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

I was in elementary school when my friends and I used to chase leaf twisters on the soccer field at recess.  This was brought on by seeing the movie Twister in 1996 and deciding that I wanted to devote my life to being a storm chaser like Helen Hunt.  Leaf twisters were a safe place to start because they were slow-moving, small in scale, and made up entirely of crumpled, dead plant pieces that toddlers jump in for fun.

Most kids used recess as a chance to play soccer and climb on the monkey bars.  The children who made the mistake of being my friends were forced, by me, to stand against the building and wait for strong gusts of wind.

“Can’t we wait on the swings?”  They would ask.  “This is so boring!”

“Are you insane?”  I would yell.  “You’re really going to let you’re guard down on a day like today?  What would you do if the playground got hit by an L5 and you didn’t even see it coming?”

We used the “L System” to measure the strength of a leaf twister.  L5 creatively and nonsensically stood for Leaf 5 which was the strongest on the scale and carried anywhere from five hundred to five hundred and fifty leaves in its funnel.  There was never enough time to count, but as nine-year-olds we had very good instincts.

When a leaf twister would finally appear (and this usually occurred once every seventeen school days) my friends and I would physically chase it.  We had no equipment to monitor the wind gusts.  We had no trucks or vans.  We just ran after the twister until it disappeared, which was usually within ten seconds after it formed.

I was only lucky enough to catch a leaf twister one time.  It was such a pivotal moment in my childhood that I still remember it vividly today.  The twister formed within several yards of where I was standing.  It was an L3 at least.  I was alone.  By this point in my storm chasing career, my friends had all ditched me to throw rocks at the classroom fat kid.  Not knowing what to do when I actually caught a leaf twister, I ran towards it at full speed and jumped inside.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before in my short life.  Leaves floating around me like planets around the sun.  A spiral of red, orange, yellow, and brown on a crisp afternoon.  The sensation of being a part of a natural phenomenon so incredible that you think it’s magic.

The magic didn’t last long.  That specific moment was short-lived (the twister imploded after a weak four seconds), but so was childhood wonder in general.  Especially after I grew up and learned more and more about real tornadoes.  The ones that flatten houses and leave entire towns demolished in their wake.  I may have discovered the beauty of being able to breathe without thinking about it, but much of the world became darker with age.  Cap guns became real guns, fireworks became missiles, waves became tsunamis, and Lindsay Lohan became Lindsay Lohan.  It’s only natural that the harsh realities of life take over as time passes.

A few nights ago, we had severe weather in the area that kept me confined to my living room, glued to the computer screen.  Between the computer, my television, my phone, and my tablet; my weather tracker was enough to make most meteorologists sad or fearful for my well-being.    But the storms had to be tracked.  They had to be monitored.  I had to watch for them.   If one ever formed near my town, I would need to know and seek shelter immediately.  And it’s in that shelter that I will wait in fear for everything to blow over, counting my breaths, and longing for the days when a tornado was something to run towards at full speed.

The Spare Key to a Happy Life

Spare Key to a Happy Life

I’m not much older than the two employees who work for me.  Maggie and Annie are only separated from me by a four year gap.  That being said, the things they teach me aren’t typically age related.  Learning from them is just one link in the long chain of capable, intelligent women teaching a clueless man basic life lessons.  A chain that began the first time I talked to a girl in elementary school high school and continued through college when my roommates, Christa and Sarah, showed me how to properly live on my own and dress like a man with the potential of finding a mate.

Driving back from lunch one day, Maggie and Annie continued this tradition by slapping me in the face with an obvious mistake I had been making since moving to Ohio.

“How do you not have a spare key to your apartment?”  Asked Maggie.

“Better yet, how does somebody else not have a spare key to your apartment?”  Annie followed up.

To me, the answer was obvious.  I don’t like giving people the ability to touch my things.  A year ago, my girlfriend at the time couldn’t stand my messy living quarters and would attempt a full cleanup every time I left her unattended.  This meant dusting my new 60 inch plasma screen, my video game systems, and my various Apple devices.  The thought of a cheap cloth rubbing all over my toys was enough to make me go gray.  These spontaneous fits of cleanliness often ended with me prying the duster out of her hand and screaming that this was bad for feminism.

“But what if you die?”  Maggie asked, taking the conversation to a whole new level of grim that I didn’t think was possible to top until my intern spoke immediately after.

“Nobody will know until the smell of your dead body reaches the hallway.”  Annie chimed in with her naturally gleeful tone.  “And even then they might just think it’s your messy apartment.”

They had a point.  Anything is possible.  I could always choke on a Pop Tart or slip in the shower.  I could adjust the wires near my Playstation and get electrocuted or crushed by my television.  I could be robbed at gunpoint which will, without a doubt, lead to me taking a bullet for my iPad.  And then there’s always my biggest fear of surviving the next eighty years and dying of old age in my Ohio apartment with nobody there to notice or care.  I’d rather be struck by lightning with my hands in my pants.

By the time we returned to work, Annie and Maggie had already moved on to asking me why I don’t clean the spiderwebs off the windows in my office.  I didn’t have the energy to explain the difference between a happy homeowner spider and one that’s out for blood and vengeance.  My mind was still on the spare key dilemma.  I thought about it for the rest of the day, right up through returning home to my empty apartment.

I was in the shower, sitting for safety reasons, when I came up with a solution.  I wasn’t going to trust anybody with a spare key.  Instead, I decided it was time to try my hand at dating again.  I would put myself out there in search of companionship.  

Over the past few months, I had mostly been using my online dating account to look the profiles of girls in the area and rate them.  I would rate them based on their looks.  I would rate them based on their personalities.  But in the end, I did nothing more than rate them and move on.  When I tell friends about this in person, I really annunciate the word “rate.”  

But on this particular night, I took it a step further.  I put myself out there.  I started sending messages.  I started making the effort to talk to girls.  I started to step up my game.  Hoping that I may someday find a woman to call my own, to hold at night, and to call the police if she ever finds my lifeless body on the kitchen floor.

Straddling Death

Graves

A couple years after graduating high school, my senior year Spanish teacher passed away.  I was home for break and and decided it would be best to pay my respects.  I was taking a shower in preparation for her calling hours when I felt an unusual lump near my groin.

As it turns out, both sides of my groin had the same lump in the exact same place, but I swore that one side was more lumpier than the other.  I studied it enough to know.  I spent at least an hour in front of the bathroom mirror running the fingers of both hands over each side at the same time to get a comparison.  One lump was definitely larger.  But maybe it was my imagination.  Nope.  One lump was definitely twice as big.

Years later the doctors would tell me that these “lumps” I was feeling are natural parts of my body.  Like the time I was 16 and thought I had early-onset colon cancer until I learned the definition of a hemorrhoid.  Or the time I had a pimple that was too close to my mouth, but didn’t have any ex-girlfriends to courtesy call.  I’ve always been known to be an irrational hypochondriac, so on this particular morning as I crouched on top of the bathroom counter, gliding my fingertips over my inner thighs, I was certain I was on death’s door.

There is no worse time to have a health scare than the morning of your Spanish teacher’s funeral visitation.  In fact, standing in a line of crying people to say goodbye to somebody for the last time is a great way to come to terms with your own mortality and the fragility of life.  Nowadays these types of emotions can be avoided with a well-placed iPhone.  A simple round of Angry Birds or a glance at a Twitter feed to forget you’re depressed.  Unfortunately, I only had a flip phone and therefore had no choice but to deal with feelings.

My Spanish teacher was well-loved.  You could tell by the way the line of people stretched all the way around the building.  A sea of people in black, standing below a grey sky, too mournful to notice or be bothered by the light drizzle.  There were old people with faces of stone, having been through this too many times before.  There were young people tugging on the shirtsleeves of their parents, asking questions about the purpose of a finite life.  And then there was me, my hands in my pockets, fidgeting with my private area and caressing my imaginary tumors.

There are many places in life you don’t want to be caught stealthily poking around in your pants.  The playground is a good example along with a school play or a dance recital.  On this particular day I shamefully added funeral home to that list.

It took forever to reach the front of that line.  At one point I almost wished I was paying my respects to an old drifter I met on the road somewhere between Massachusetts and Ithaca.  A kind, gentle man with very few friends or family.  It would have been the same emotional experience, but in the duration of a much shorter line.

Standing in these circumstances for a half hour gave me too much time to think.  It’s not often we take the time to reflect on the fact that life ends.  We tend to put death in the back of our minds for a reason.  On one hand, it might be freeing to make every day count knowing you have an expiration date.  On the other hand, nothing puts a damper on the holidays, relationships, having children, working, traveling, buying a puppy, and enjoying the beauty of the world more than the thought that everything is going to die someday.

So we place that thought in a little lock box that we only open when somebody actually does die or you feel an abnormal growth near your junk.  As a hypochondriac, I probably open this box more than most.  Never for very long.  But enough to get a nice glimpse.  Then I quickly shut it until the next wake or funeral.

When I made it to the front of the line, I stopped touching myself just long enough to pay my respects to the family of the deceased.  Then I met up with a few friends at our favorite restaurant down the street.  We told our favorite drunk stories from college and laughed about old high school memories.  It was so engaging, I forgot to touch myself.  Later that night, I discovered that my groin was bruised from excessive rubbing and I would worry that it was because my tumors were starting to bleed and I was going to die a lot faster than I originally anticipated.  I laid awake at night, praying to return to school whereI could party and drink and learn and love and life would seem so infinite again.

I’ll Have the Future Usual

Leah was in the middle of cleaning when I arrived to pick her up for lunch.  She was sweating, but that’s to be expected when it’s almost 90 degrees outside and the house you signed for only two days ago doesn’t have any form of air conditioning yet.  Still, grinning from ear to ear as she came to the door, you would have never guessed she had been scrubbing down an empty kitchen all morning.  Since we became friends in high school, Leah has always seemed to dread cleaning as much as I dread weekends, hamburgers, and finding fifty dollars on the street.

“Welcome to my home!”  She exclaimed as she let me in.  “Sorry about the boxes.  We don’t officially move in until the end of the month.”

“It’s already cleaner than my apartment.”  I pretended to joke.

It was also much larger and better fit for people to live in.  The main floor had a kitchen, a spacious living area, a beautiful, half-covered patio and a room that was created for the sole purpose of sitting down.

“Where does the television go?”  I asked.

“There’s no TV in this room.”  Leah explained.  “Just chairs, a couch, and we’re thinking about putting some bookshelves over there.”

“That will look beautiful.  So the television will be tucked away in a cabinet?”

“Nope.  No TV at all actually.”

“Wow.  I can already picture the layout in my head so vividly.  So the TV will go up on the wall?”

The basement was also impressive, with a home office and an area that Leah set aside as a man cave for her husband, Matt, who she married last fall.   Seeing the space made me jealous until I remembered that the only part of my apartment that isn’t a man cave is the shared laundry room.

Our last stop was the upstairs, where I caught of glimpse of the three bedrooms.  One for Leah and Matt and the others for guests.

“That is until we have children.”  Leah chimed in.

I was careful not to mention babies before she did.  Back in high school, Leah had her perfect life all planned out.  She would be married and have at least four kids by the time she turned twenty-three.  She is now twenty-five with no children yet.  Standing next to the financially stable, happily married woman in her three-bedroom home on a quiet suburban street, I didn’t have the heart to remind her that her dreams were dead.

“That was the grand tour.”  Leah announced as we returned to the kitchen where we started.  “What do you think?”

“It’s big.”  I said.

And I meant it in more ways than one.  Leah and Matt were the first friends I grew up with to actually invest in a real house.  Walking from room to room, I knew I was witnessing the beginning of something.  Back in high school this was lifetimes away.  Now it was easy to picture the bedrooms filled with kids.  It was easy to see me visiting the same home ten years from now with my future wife.  I could see the kids playing in the yard while we sipped wine on the patio before retiring to the sitting room to talk about life and stare at bookshelves.

“So what were you thinking for food?”  Leah asked, interrupting my all too realistic vision of the future.

I figured we could either grill steaks on the kitchen floor or go out somewhere.  I opted for the latter option because it meant I could be of use finding a local establishment where Leah and Matt could become regulars.

In high school, this was the T.G.I Fridays at the mall.  This was mostly because, for our first couple years, we needed a hangout spot where we could kill more than a couple hours before our parents came and picked us up.  When we finished eating, we spent most of our time playing at the arcade, reading in the book store, and watching fights between white, over-privileged middle school gangs.

We continued eating there upon returning home from college for summer and winter breaks.  Almost six years went by before my arteries grew too clogged for that kind of lifestyle.   But if you had told us Freshman year that this mall restaurant would play a significant part in our most developmental years as people, we would have probably laughed.  And I would have ordered a salad every now and then.

This time I was ready.  We found a local place a couple miles down the road.  Having learned nothing growing up, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with peanut butter.  Having learned more than I did, Leah ordered a salad.  And for the first time since graduating high school, we talked more about the future than we did the past.  We imagined Leah and Matt eating here after watching their kids play soccer.  We imagined that they would each have a special item on the menu that they would order every time.  Maybe someday they will even be that little old couple, sitting in the booth they’ve sat at for years, feeding each other during the early bird special at four in the afternoon.

It may be many years down the road, but it’s something to consider.  After all, when we were teenagers sitting at our usual table and eating our usual food, touring each others first homes seemed like nothing short of an eternity away.

The Escape from Philly Story

There’s a wall in the Philadelphia International Airport that’s lined with pictures of celebrities, athletes, and notable public figures holding up signs that read, “I’m in Philly.”  These photographs were probably taken while passing the time during a major delay, cancelation, or mass grounding of airlines.  They were snapped while wading in a river of disgruntled passengers working their way to the front of the terminal to be rerouted.  And they were carefully photoshopped, so as not to reflect the honest, original verbiage, “I’m Stuck in Philly.”

After giving a presentation on millennials in the workplace to a group consisting of mostly baby boomers in Valley Forge, my team and should have been in the air, sipping Diet Cokes and exchanging knowing head nods because we were halfway to Cleveland.  Instead, we found ourselves stuck on the runway in an aircraft traffic jam.  Hours earlier, our presentation had us tearing down walls and opening up a dialogue between two often-conflicting generations.  Now there was a healthy mix of young and old trapped in a hot, long metal tube, making small talk, breathing the same air, and getting familiar with each others’ bodily odors.  The man next to me smelled of Cool Ranch Doritos.

My team was separated. Our intern (we’ll call her Annie) was up front eavesdropping on the flight attendant as he spoke on the phone with the pilots, relaying the information back to me via text as any great intern would.  Our Social Media Specialist (we’ll call her Maggie…probably to her strong disapproval) was a few rows behind me, talking to a man in his mid-fifties about her job and the presentation we gave earlier that day.

It was a well-received presentation, so at least the trip hadn’t been in vain.  The part of the talk I gave was on work-life balance and how it’s fading for millennials.  We look towards work for life experience and we often value this over a large paycheck.  We also want to be the same person at work as we are at home, rather than having a professional personality and a fun personality.  Despite our insistence that this is completely true, a fine line still exists. For instance, I consciously censor myself more at work compared to the shit I write in this blog.

I thought a lot about our presentation as we slowly drifted towards the runway.  When they grounded the entire airport due to weather, I started thinking about how much I wanted to be in my own apartment in front of my television.  When we returned to the gate and deplaned, I was thinking about how trapped I felt.  When we attempted to take off a second time only to return to the gate again due to traffic, I was too exhausted to do any thinking whatsoever.  And when our flight was finally canceled, I used whatever energy I had left to imagine myself punching a small, crying child.  Anything to make myself feel better.

An hour later, Maggie, Annie, and I were in a rental car, embarking on a six and a half hour drive to Ohio.  It was almost eleven-o-clock and there was no way we were going to make it back in a single trip.  Annie was navigating from the backseat.  Maggie was riding shotgun, calling every hotel along our route for available rooms that we didn’t have to rent by the hour.  We didn’t have much luck.  As it turns out, southern Pennsylvania right off the highway is a popular vacation destination this time of year.

The first stop we made was a Walmart in a shady area just outside of the city.  Maggie and Annie were wearing business attire for our presentation and needed to purchase clothing they could sit in for the next several hours.  I needed an energy drink.   When we asked the rental car associate about the nearest clothing store, this was the only one he knew that would still be open.

“But you shouldn’t go there after it gets dark.”  He advised just as the sun had finished setting behind the freeway that was about to become our best friend.

I knew he was most-likely referring to the gang-related activity and crime that occurs around most major cities, but I fashioned my business cards into a cross and hung out in the garlic aisle just to be on the safe side.

Our second stop was a Starbucks a couple hours into our trip.  We had just driven through the major thunderstorm that had grounded all flights leaving Philadelphia to begin with.  Nobody spoke during the most intense moments, when my hands gripped the wheel so tight that my knuckles turned white and the visibility in front of us felt like it was no more than a few feet.

Our last stop for the night was at the only hotel that had rooms available on our journey.  It was the kind of hotel my dad used to put our family in to save money on our vacations to Cape Cod, only with slightly fewer prostitutes outside.

As I carefully put my bag atop the table and zipped it up tight to keep the bedbugs out, I realized I was so exhausted from the trip I could barely stand.  I fell backwards onto my bed and planned to remain there for the next three hours until my alarm went off and the drive continued.

I was exhausted, but not ready to sleep yet.  The events of the day were still fresh in my mind. Maybe it was the fact that I was finally lying down and the day was over that made this string of inconveniences appear less horrible than they seemed when they were happening.  The two failed attempts our plane made to take off became much more comically unfortunate than they were when we were actually on the plane.  The eight hours we spent at the airport went from a travel nightmare to a story for fellow travelers on our next adventure.  And then there was the drive…

There was a moment when we were driving through the strong storm that you could see the bolts of lightning coming down behind the hills around us.  There were moments where the world would light up like it was daytime and the sound of thunder was mixed perfectly with our shouts of awe.  And there were moments where, despite the fear of crashing, we were still singing along to the radio at full blast to make the best of the situation.

In an alternate universe, our plane would have taken off without a hitch.  We would have made it back in time to have dinner, go out for a drink with friends, catch up on television in front of a sixty inch plasma screen, and go to bed at a reasonable time.  It would have been…convenient.

But good life experiences rarely happen when things go according to plan.

While trying to fall asleep, I imagined how I was going to tell our story to everyone in the office the next day.  And I tried to imagine all the things that could go wrong on our three-hour drive in the morning.

Will we break down?  Will we get held up in a gas station robbery?  Will one of us get car sick?  

I doubt I’d greet any of these situations with any enthusiasm if they actually happened, but could you imagine the look on everyone’s faces when we bring this up at lunch?  It would be so epic.

A Review in the Middle

My employee and I recently sat down for a mid-year review.  It’s basically a chance to check up on how things are going.  Are you happy in your role?  Do you have any criticisms for me?  Is there anything I can do to make this experience more rewarding?  Do you respect me as a boss?  Do you think I’m funny?  Am I cool?  Is this shirt too blue?  Is my laugh annoying?  Am I talking too much?  Do you hate me?  You do, don’t you?  Oh my God I can’t believe it.  I’m a complete failure.  I’ll never be good at anything in life.  Will anybody care if I locked myself in a closet, sat in a corner, cried until my eyeballs started to bleed, and never came out again?

It’s a very standard business practice.

It’s a process you can’t conduct too often or your employee will think your insecure, which I’m totally 79% positive I’m not.  It’s also a helpful tool to gage performance before it’s too late for both you and your employee to make changes.

Barbers should do this.

“Anything you want to tell me before I turn my head to talk to my colleagues about their kids and drag these clippers across your scalp?”

Cab drivers should do this.

“Before we get on the highway, you should know I only accept buffalo nickels as a form of payment and this full ride will probably cost you sixteen dollars.”

Presenters should do this.

“Does anybody just want me to stop here on slide 53?”

Everyone should do this.

Even if it’s alone for ten minutes a day, a half hour a week, or an hour a month.  Because there’s a benefit in taking a moment to reflect and ask yourself if your life is going the way you want it to go.  If not, what needs to change?  How can you make it perfect?