Monthly Archives: November 2018

I Didn’t Know Ponds and Cigars Could Do That

vintage wedding photo

Pardon the crookedness of this photo. I wasn’t planning to publish it. These are my maternal grandparents on their wedding day. I’ve always liked this photo. A lot. (Image/Matthew Fray)

That’s my grandparents on their wedding day about 62 years ago. It’s one of my favorite photos.

The handsome gentleman on the left died last night, just one week after his 85th birthday.

Father of eight. My mom’s the oldest.

Grandfather of 23. I’m the oldest.

Great-grandfather of three. My son is the oldest.

Nearly 40 years ago, my grandparents traveled 400 miles west to be with my young parents at the hospital.

My dad was 23. My mom was 21. My mom had received a college scholarship far from home, and that’s where she met my dad while she was in school.

I was supposed to be dead, according to the doctors and nurses. They told my parents and family to expect the worst.

But then I lived anyway, because I don’t always do what I’m supposed to.

My father handed my grandfather a cigar at the hospital. Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon.

It’s a boy.

When I was 3, my grandparents again drove west from Ohio to visit me and my parents.

While someone wasn’t looking, I decided to run off into the woods on the edge of our lot. I wandered those woods for more than an hour.

I came across an elevated storm drain spilling rain runoff into a creek bed.

While it was likely just some nasty corroded old water drainage infrastructure, it looked magical through the prism of a 3-year-old.

I thought it was a waterfall.

Then I wandered some more.

Eventually, I heard my grandpa’s voice cutting through the woods. Calling my name.

He must have been terrified. But he wasn’t angry. Not only wasn’t he angry, but he let me take him by the hand and blindly wander those woods again searching for that shitty waterfall I was so excited to show him.

I never found it again.

He never got angry with me.

Not long before my 5th birthday, my mom and dad divorced and then my mom and I moved into my grandparents’ big farmhouse with them in rural Ohio.

They lived on 43 acres, which felt to me like Oz.

They had a small pond, just a little over an acre in size on the other side of a field, far enough to drive to.

There was a little one-room wooden cabin with an old cast iron wood-burning stove that I never saw anyone light or use. Rustic. Dusty. Bugs. Smelled old.

But we called it “the cottage.” And it was perfect.

There was a weeping willow tree close by—a large one—where you could usually find the empty shells of cicadas stuck to the bark of the tree trunk.

If my grandfather wasn’t taking me on a fishing trip to a large nearby lake, or to watch me fail at fly-fishing in the river, we were catching fish at the private pond.

With his youngest son—my uncle—about to finish high school, it must have been perfect timing having me show up to live with them.

He included me in everything age-appropriate.

Not a huge talker. Not like me. He was a doer.

He didn’t really have to say anything, because what he DID was always so transparent. His actions always told the story.

We’d spend hours along the shore of that pond. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling. Landing a fish. Then releasing it. Casting. Reeling. Casting. Reeling.

Dragonflies would buzz around. Wind would stir the trees and tall grass. Grasshoppers. Crickets. Bullfrogs.

And my grandfather.

There to help me tie a better bass-hook knot if I needed it. There to help me unsnag a hook. There to praise me when I landed another largemouth or catfish.

In a life that sometimes feels too heavy, and with a mind that sometimes feels too busy, that was where everything melted away.

The relative silence of the great wide open. The only nearby machine being that fishing rod and reel providing life-sustaining therapy I never even knew I needed.

I didn’t know fishing in a pond with my grandfather could do that.

Two years ago, my grandparents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, and my son got to be there for that. When my grandparents, both in their 80s took to the dance floor at the reception hall to share a dance in front of everyone, my great-uncle—my grandma’s brother—faux-scolded my grandpa: “Keep your hands off my sister!”

More than 60 years of marriage. Eight children. All the grandkids. Health problems. Friends dying. Watching all of the good and bad things happening to all of the branches on his family tree.

I doubt he thought of himself as the patriarch of the family, the way most of us looked at him, but that’s all I could ever see.

A man who loved and served. Steadily. For 20 years longer than I’ve even been alive.

Last summer, my family flew in from all over the country for a family reunion at my grandparents’ house. My grandpa’s last one. Everyone knew it.

I was outside talking to everyone. Someone sent word that my grandpa was asking me to come inside. He had something he wanted to give me.

His kidneys were failing. He was going through dialysis. Painfully. And he didn’t want to. But my grandmother didn’t want to say goodbye to him no matter how in love with Liam Neeson she might be.

So he persevered. Because that’s what you do when you love someone.

I sat on the couch nearest his easy chair. The man was tired. Physically weaker than I’d ever seen him.

But his eyes were clear. And so was his mind.

He asked how I was. He asked about my father hundreds of miles away. He always asked about my father.

He handed me a cigar.

Wrapped in plastic. Blue ribbon. It’s a boy.

I’d never seen it before and thought it was strange that my non-smoking grandfather was handing me a tobacco product.

“Your dad gave that to me in the hospital the day you were born. I thought you should have it,” he said.

I stared at it for a moment, digesting the implications. It looked almost new.

it's a boy cigar

This is the one. It’s resting on my bedroom nightstand. I didn’t know a little thing could be worth so much. (Image/Matthew Fray)

My father—long-divorced from his oldest daughter—had handed him a cigar nearly 40 years earlier celebrating my birth.

Then my grandpa raised eight children. Entertained hundreds of friends and family members in that old farmhouse through the decades. Ran a business. Moved to a smaller house nearby 10-15 years ago.

And throughout all of that, he took care of a cigar.

Just some crappy cigar.

Because it mattered, I suppose. Because it represented the grandson who lived when he wasn’t supposed to. The grandson he found in the woods. The one he must have thought would be somewhat of a stranger to him growing up, but was then granted an entire childhood with because of life circumstances no one ever saw coming.

I didn’t know cigars could do that.

The last thing my grandfather did was fight to stay alive as long as he could because my grandmother wanted him to.

He didn’t have to spin any stories. He’d just hand you a cigar, and you knew.

He didn’t have to tell everyone how much they were loved—particularly my grandmother.

Because he gave his last breath living it.

And if you’re guessing that’s something I can latch onto and feel proud of today, you couldn’t be more right.

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You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

man pulling luggage by pexels

No matter how beautiful things look up ahead, it’s hard to find a place to set down the heavy stuff. That’s why I mostly keep it shoved away in a closet. (Image/Pexels)

I’m good at hiding it.

The emotional baggage I drag around all the time.

Most of the time, I forget it’s there until something triggers it. I don’t like talking about it, because people sometimes assume it means I’m hung up on my ex-wife and pining for a life that I’m nearly six years removed from and barely remember anymore.

I remember being married, of course. But I don’t remember ME when I was married. I don’t remember what I thought and felt in my everyday baseline emotional state of being.

Those life choices led to the worst thing that ever happened to me, happening. So I’m not sure why pursuing that would make sense to anyone.

I also don’t like talking about it because it makes other people uncomfortable, like all those nights when I was freshly divorced and intellectually aware that no one wanted to talk about it and see me cry in the middle of a bar on a Friday or Saturday night. I used to always say to myself: “Don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce.”

And then, without fail, I would talk about my divorce like a massive, undisciplined asshole.

So when I was walking around Las Vegas last week with two work friends, they couldn’t have known that underneath my calm exterior, I was triggered and distracted by more than all the flashing lights.

The past doesn’t always cooperatively stay hidden in the closet.

It was the week of July 6, 2007.

Our close friends were getting married at Bellagio in Las Vegas on that day. My wife and I were the maid of honor and best man.

They wanted to get married on 07-07-07 (because Las Vegas), but a million other people had the same idea (because Las Vegas), so logistically it made sense for them to move the wedding to the day before.

I don’t know what my marriage was back then.

Good? Bad? Average?

She’d have a different perspective, anyway. We decided to start the trying-to-have-children process not long after that trip, which might signal that she was already unhappy at that point and thought having a baby might make things better.

Regardless of how okay I thought my marriage was at the time, 39-year-old me today would have totally pegged us for a future divorce.

She was hanging out poolside with friends at Caesars Palace and shopping in the Forum Shops.

I was playing in a poker cash game at Harrah’s, warming up for an afternoon tournament at Paris.

This past week in Vegas, I didn’t play one hand. Not one. I chose to go out with coworkers and be social, rather than sit at a table with nine strangers.

But when I was in Las Vegas for the first and only time with my wife, I ran away to play cards and do what I wanted to do, rather than invest my time connecting with my wife and friends.

If writing is my thing now, poker was my thing back then.

I was running through everyone at the afternoon poker tournament in Paris.

My wife stopped into the poker room on her walk back to our hotel room to see how I was doing. I was at the final table. Maybe five or six players left out of a field of about 200.

I was on the cusp of victory, and instead of sitting down to cheer for me to win, she said she’d see me back in the hotel room when I was done, and left.

It kind of hurt my feelings. That she had so little interest in this thing that mattered to me.

I was too dense to recognize the 500 times I had made her feel that exact same way over the years, and make that connection that might have saved us later.

I won the tournament.

And I wanted her to be proud of me. I wanted her to think I was good enough.

The tourney winnings paid for the Vegas trip, and then some.

I didn’t know back then that money couldn’t fix what was broken.

I didn’t realize back then how bittersweet it must have been for her to watch me succeed at an activity that adversely affected our marriage because I usually invested more time in watching, reading about, and playing poker than I invested in anything constructive, or proactive, or meaningful to our marriage.

Still. It was a good trip. Fun. Reconnecting with old friends. Making new good memories together, including a fun night with the bride and groom having lots of drinks and laughing at a Lewis Black comedy show at the MGM Grand, and then a memorable laugh-filled walk back to Bellagio afterward.

I hadn’t thought about that moment for years.

And then fast-forward to a week ago, when I found myself walking through the MGM Grand 11 years later.

Even though I LIVE IN THE SAME HOUSE that we lived in together as a married couple, and see and talk to my ex-wife several times per week and it’s super-normal and functional, here I was in Las Vegas on some random casino escalator having a moment.

Then, my friends and I walked north up the Las Vegas Strip. The same walk the four of us had made 11 years earlier on the Vegas wedding trip.

And involuntarily, I felt it.

I don’t know why that mattered.

I have no idea why it made me feel.

But it did.

It just did.

A couple of years removed from divorce, I spent a few days at Disney World and the Daytona 500 with friends, including a woman who liked me.

We were walking around the Magic Kingdom together, just the two of us.

It was cute. I liked her.

But, inevitably, we ended up walking right by the spot where I’d proposed to my ex-wife. We were talking about something, my friend and I. But walking by that spot on the bridge felt just like driving by a place where someone you know died in an auto accident.

Your insides recoil a bit involuntarily.

If you stay cool, it remains invisible to people who don’t know you very well.

The engagement-spot trigger. At Disney.

I don’t know that I’ve ever told anyone about that.

And then a similar thing sort of randomly happened again in Las Vegas.

I’m not sure what to do with that.

There’s luggage—an invisible suitcase—where all of the memories live.

The good and the bad ones. The laughs and smiles and triumphs. But also, the guilt and fear and shame.

It’s baggage. Human baggage. My baggage. But I think everyone else has a little too.

It’s the kind of baggage that single people don’t want to deal with while dating because baggage usually contains or requires a little hardship.

Baggage contains surprises, because it’s full of all the grimy, ugly history that sometimes tarnishes things that looked beautiful just the day before.

The thing about baggage is that you’re supposed to be able to set it down. Just set it down and walk away. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Baggage is something you’re supposed to be able to lose. Or give away. Or destroy.

But it’s like the longer we stay alive, the more things we shove into our suitcases. They just keep getting heavier and more difficult to drag around with us.

Maybe we will be able to set them down someday and walk away. Or maybe we’ll trade them in for new ones.

I don’t know.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Because it’s always hiding in the closet.

Hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Most of the time, not even me.

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Pain is History’s Most Effective Influencer of Human Behavior

(Image/Shutterstock)

I don’t know how many times I had to be burned by the hot steam that escapes a simmering pot after removing the lid before I learned how to do it without getting hurt.

Same with boiling water, or drinking hot liquids without giving them time to cool.

When I was in college, I had to drink 101-proof liquor while it was still on fire in order to learn not to do it anymore.

I’ve touched barbecue grills while they were still hot. I’ve burned myself while removing baking trays from the oven. I’ve burned myself with candles and lighters and the cigarettes I used to smoke in my teens and 20s.

I have no doubt that my parents, teachers, and other adult guardians such as my grandparents and babysitters regularly communicated to me that I shouldn’t touch hot things because I would get hurt if I did.

But, either through thoughtlessness, recklessness, or simple ignorance, I still managed to burn myself dozens of times in my life.

If I did something which resulted in a painful burn, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful cut on my hand, I usually didn’t do that again.

If I did something which resulted in a painful financial expense, I usually didn’t do that again.

Do you think there’s a chance that even one person in human history (after the invention of fire) truly learned to avoid touching hot things without experiencing a painful burn wound somewhere along the way?

I can’t prove it. But I’m thinking not.

My son didn’t learn not to touch hot things because his mom and dad are amazing communicators who beamed that critical life information into his head with our brilliant words.

It’s because he did a bunch of reckless little-kid shit like all of us did and got hurt a million times. Now, he’s marginally better at not hurting himself because pain-avoidance is what most living things are already programmed to do.

Something happens. It’s awesome. Do that a bunch more times.

Something happens. It’s horrible. Avoid doing that ever again.

Cause and effect. It’s how we learn pretty much everything that helps us avoid death and dismemberment every day.

Shitty Husbands Learn They’re Shitty the Same Way Kids Learn to Not Touch Hot Things

All of you knob sanders can save your whiny retorts.

But, Matt! I’m a man, not a child. I don’t like you comparing me to a kid!

Join the club.

Listen. You’re either:

A. A shitty husband who KNOWS he’s shitty and that he’s intentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you can go grind some more knobs and piss off, or…

B. A shitty husband who DOESN’T know he’s shitty and that he’s unintentionally damaging his spouse and marriage every day, in which case you’re EXACTLY like the kid who doesn’t know that touching the grill lid is going to burn him. There’s a difference between being a moron, and truly NOT knowing something you couldn’t possibly know. Not your fault at all. It doesn’t make you a kid. It makes you INNOCENT up to a certain point. Or…

C. You’re someone this doesn’t apply to at all, which makes you the least knob-cobbling person here.

Don’t sweat the technique.

This isn’t really for you guys anyway.

It’s for your desperate, crying, pissed-off wives who are trying to figure out why you don’t love them anymore.

The thing I know that they don’t, is that you more than likely do love them. Very much. And that you are largely unaware of the pain and frustration they’re feeling every day.

If both of you told someone the story of your marriage, it might sound very different.

Your wife and/or family mean everything to you. And whenever the subject comes up, you tell anyone who will listen how much you love and value them.

And you actually believe it. You feel it.

But your wife doesn’t feel it.

There isn’t just one reason why. There are dozens, including things that happened 10 years ago that you don’t even remember anymore.

It makes sense that you don’t remember. They didn’t matter to you at the time. They were the equivalent of room-temperature water sitting on the stove. They were the surface of a barbecue grill that hasn’t been fired up in weeks.

Whatever.

It’s your wife I’m talking to anyway. Because it’s getting harder and harder to write to you. You think you’re right. You think I’m wrong about your marriage. And that’s fine. Maybe I am sometimes. There’s no chance everyone’s marriage is just like mine was, nor that every married couple is just like my ex and I were.

I assume you will continue to keep touching stuff and getting burned until the consequences hurt enough to start doing something differently.

Telling someone that their feelings and perceptions are either right or wrong seems pretty useless, but we spend a lot of time doing or at least thinking it.

It’s really easy for me to stand up and walk to the other end of the room.

If a quadriplegic tells me that it’s hard for them to do that same thing, how valid or useful is my opinion anyway?

A husband’s or boyfriends’ incessant dismissal of his wife’s ‘complaints,’ or frequent invalidation of the things she says matter to her—it’s a marriage killer.

Regardless of gender or marital status, a spouse or romantic partner on the losing end of those exchanges over the course of several years will FEEL as if their spouse doesn’t love them. Maybe even hates them.

After all, why would someone who loves me repeatedly do things that hurt me even after I said they hurt me?

I don’t know how to stop it.

I’ve been writing the same crap for more than five years. If I had the words that actually moved the needle, I’d use them.

Every day, several thousands more people end their relationships, and at the root of that split is THIS dynamic.

I want to encourage your wives to be patient with you like we’d expect them to be with children. Moms understand that their children weren’t intentionally running around trying to break things or burn themselves.

Those same women who are exceedingly loving and thoughtful and patient with their children frequently demonstrate an inability to provide that same level of patience and forgiveness with their spouses.

Which is sensible enough.

She didn’t marry a kid intentionally.

She’s not sexually attracted to children.

She had the expectation upon exchanging wedding vows that having an adult partner for the rest of her life would enhance adulthood. That it would be better to have a built-in support system. A financial and sexual partner. A parenting partner.

People get married because they believe their lives will be better afterward.

And then, like touching an extremely hot surface, sometimes we learn the hard way that that isn’t true at all.

When marriage makes your life harder and shittier, you start to believe that your life will be better if you stop being married.

And once someone starts believing that? Party’s over.

Just maybe she’ll actually buy the idea that you honestly don’t know that what you’re doing hurts her, and just maybe when she truly understands that you’re innocent of trying to cause intentional harm, she can find the right words and tone to reach you.

To convince you not to do that thing that’s going to hurt later.

Someone asked me recently whether I could have learned how to stop hurting my wife WITHOUT her leaving me. If there was some magic combination of words that might have worked.

The answer is no.

I was certain—CERTAIN—that I had a firm grasp on things. That I was smart. Decent. Good. Correct.

That if something didn’t seem painful to me, then it must not be painful to anyone else.

And if they tried to tell me it was painful, then they must be mistaken.

And if they’re mistaken, I must help them see things more clearly.

I ran up to my wife every day for several years and kicked her in the shin, and then when she said “It hurts me when you kick me in the shin,” I treated her like an asshole incapable of evaluating for herself whether something actually hurt or not.

I can’t be certain that had my wife changed her approach and communication strategy that it might not have more effectively helped me understand then what I know today. But I’m certain that nothing was ever going to change without someone trying something different.

She finally did when she took off her ring and found a new place to live.

Divorce Insurance Premiums are Expensive

I did things which resulted in a painful divorce. I can’t prove that I won’t do some of those same things again. After all, I’ve burned the roof of my mouth with hot food or drinks several dozens of times.

But for the same reasons that I’m intellectually aware of all of the potential burn hazards out there that I mostly succeed at avoiding in my daily life, I feel pretty confident that I’m unlikely to repeat the same behaviors I believe are directly linked to the slow and unpleasant death of my marriage.

And that’s awesome. I feel pretty empowered, actually.

But the cost of acquiring that knowledge was really expensive. And I don’t mean money.

I felt burned everywhere. Inside and out.

And for the first time in my life, I felt enough pain where death didn’t feel like such a bad thing. I was more scared of hurting that much forever than I was of dying.

Perspective is a powerful thing.

Before I put my hand in fire, I didn’t know it was hot, even though someone warned me about it.

Sometimes, maybe you just have to hurt bad enough to learn what not to do anymore.

I hope someone proves me wrong.

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