Tag Archives: Ohio

Life & Love: When Basketball is More Than a Game

LeBron hugs Larry O'Brien trophy

Those bracelets he’s wearing say: “I Promise.” And in a highly unorthodox and unexpected way, he kept a promise made long ago. The implications are bigger than just basketball. (Image/Jose Carlos Fajardo-Bay Area News Group)

Six years ago, I sat in stunned silence on the edge of my living-room sofa with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face.

I couldn’t speak.

I was three years away from getting divorced, so I didn’t know that feeling was a diet version of what I’d experience every day for months a few years later and that it would hurt so much that death would sound more like relief than something to fear.

That feeling.

It’s the life-transforming anguish that sometimes connects readers here to the words on the screen. You’ve either been so afraid, so sad, so angry—so hurt—that you feel mentally and emotionally lost, and spiritually dead, or you haven’t. And when you have, you obtain the superpower of empathy—the life skill of being able to share a moment with someone on a deep and meaningful level because you can feel what another feels, creating powerful and important connections with others.

Six months had passed since I lost my job on Jan. 1, 2010 as part of a corporate downsizing during the worst macroeconomic conditions I’d ever seen.

I was failing my pretty wife. She was sitting on the other sofa with two of our friends who’d come to share the moment.

I was failing my two-year-old son. He was asleep upstairs.

Life was getting hard. But at least we had hope. There’s always hope. Right?

I was still a college student in my home state of Ohio when I first heard about the Akron kid who played basketball like Magic Johnson—an artistic and unselfish facilitator, but could score like Michael Jordan—a hardcourt assassin.

From Ohio?!

From Ohio. “The Chosen One,” Sports Illustrated annointed him a month or so later. A skinny fresh-faced kid unapologetically wearing Jordan’s #23 on his jersey.

He was five years younger than me, and according to the SI article, had Jordan’s private phone number in his cell phone.

The Birth of Hope

It must be hard for non-sports fans to understand. I think it might even be hard for people whose favorite teams win a lot.

That’s not how it has been for sports fans in Cleveland, Ohio. Not since the 1960s.

I’ve heard the narrative—literally—my entire life, watching my favorite football team fumble away championship opportunities as a child. I cried, and my mom got upset because “it’s only a game.”

It’s no secret to anyone paying attention: Cleveland teams don’t win.

Still, we dream.

Still, we hope.

It was almost exactly 13 years ago when a series of events which included a lot of losing basketball and fortunate bounces of ping-pong balls allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to own the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft where Akron high schooler LeBron James was the presumptive choice.

Northeast Ohio’s native son.

I sat in joyful silence on the edge of my living-room sofa a thousand miles south in my Florida apartment with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face when James became a Cavalier.

It felt like destiny.

The humble, but confident kid promised to “light Cleveland up like Las Vegas.”

This combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan was the chosen one. A force greater than some silly “curse.” This kid was going to save the downtrodden sports town.

This kid was going to win titles.

It was truly the birth of hope.

And Then the Death of Hope

Then it all went up in flames that night six years ago. The Decision.

Back in Ohio, but unemployed. Not enough alcohol. My little boy, who was supposed to grow up watching James and the Cavs win titles, was asleep upstairs.

My dreams of watching games, sharing moments, and celebrating with him—shattered.

It’s the same thing that happens to us when we divorce. We lose our partners. We lose our families. We lose our homes. But we lose something else you don’t hear many people talk about.

We lose our dreams.

We lose EVERYTHING. We lose yesterday AND tomorrow. Our past memories are poisoned and we realize our future plans are lies.

It’s devastating.

And yeah. It’s not up to the same level, but people who’ve never been divorced can’t tell the difference: You can feel that sitting on your living-room couch watching your favorite athlete tell the world on national television that he’s WILLINGLY dumping your favorite team, his hometown, and moving to the state you’d come back to Ohio from, to join another team.

You’re not allowed to tell me that it didn’t matter, or that Cleveland fans reacted poorly, or that it’s pathetic that adults would let something like a basketball player switching teams affect them so much.

If you’ve never felt totally out of control and as if your heart would stop while fighting tears and trying to remember to breathe at some really inopportune time like a conference room meeting at work, or at a party with friends, then you’ve never felt the crippling power of anxiety.

If you’ve never invested your emotions in athletes on a TV screen or from overpriced seats at a stadium or arena, then I wouldn’t expect you to get it.

It mattered.

This wasn’t just some basketball player moving to another team.

It was rejection.

It was embarrassment.

It was betrayal.

Friends were losing all those nights together at the arena. Local businesses were losing all that income from excited fans. Families were losing all those nights together sitting around the TV sharing the moment. Together.

Fathers had dreams for their sons. Gone.

The Cleveland faithful had taken to calling us Believeland. A laughable name used recently as the title of a film documenting the sports culture in Cleveland—one rife with heartache and disappointment.

Believeland?

Right.

Hope had forsaken these lands.

Our Unfinished Stories

People like to say: “Everything happens for a reason!”

I don’t agree with that because I don’t believe little kids get cancer “for a reason.” But I totally agree with the spirit of the phrase, because I’ve seen it play out time and time again.

As the stories of our lives are written, things which were hard to go through and difficult to understand at the time often prove to be these important pieces of the story which had to occur in order for future good things to happen.

So, it’s not: “Everything happens for a reason!”

It’s: Someday, something is going to happen. Something big and important and beautiful. And when that moment arrives, it will become apparent that the ONLY way that could have happened was for life to work out exactly as it did.

I know I’m just some asshole-nobody, but I like to tell myself that maybe some of the words here can help the right person at the right time. Maybe someone can be a better husband and father and save his family because the right sentence resonated in the right way.

Maybe the ONLY way for me to evolve into a man capable of raising my son to be a good man, or loving a future partner as they’re supposed to be loved, or writing something that matters, was to experience the worst thing that ever happened to me.

Maybe easy is bullshit.

Maybe difficult is the only way.

Maybe that’s where redemption lives.

The Long and Winding Road

When James joined the Miami Heat, a bunch of things happened.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a now-infamous letter assassinating James’ character. I haven’t read it in six years, but I remember Gilbert calling him “the self-declared former king.”

James teamed up with two NBA superstars and became the presumptive championship favorites every year. They went to the Finals all four years he was in Miami, winning the two in the middle.

The Cavaliers got terrible. Losing James created one of the largest freefalls from winning to losing the sports world had ever seen. But when you lose in the NBA, something else happens: You increase your chances of getting high draft picks to select the best players. Which happened.

The Cavs earned another first pick in the NBA Draft, which they used to select a 19-year-old Duke freshman named Kyrie Irving who only played 11 college games due to injury. They had the fourth pick too. They picked a guy from Texas named Tristan Thompson which excited approximately zero Cleveland fans.

Because LeBron grew up around here, and people know people, one of my closest friends told me a story that sounded plausible, if unlikely: LeBron James wants to come back to Cleveland.

Good things don’t really happen to Cleveland sports, so it was easy to dismiss as hopeful fantasy.

But then, another year went by and the whispers turned to internet rumors which turned to national stories: LeBron might come home.

I’d been divorced about a year. Things were mostly still shitty, but I was writing here and choosing hope.

And then it happened: LeBron James announced he was coming back to Ohio, rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers, and committing himself to ending the 50-year stretch of misery that had become part of the very fabric of the region.

Redemption Song

LeBron James swallowed his pride to return to his homeland, forgiving all the hate and anger thrown his way four years earlier. He hoped fans would embrace him again.

We did, of course. He had us at “I’m coming home.”

He put his ego aside, agreeing to rejoin a team owned by a man who destroyed him in a venomous public letter that will live forever in Cleveland sports lore.

Because of the long and winding road full of unwritten stories, who could have known that the two players picked in the 2011 NBA Draft could have ONLY happened if James was not in Cleveland?

The Cleveland Cavaliers became instant title contenders.

In James’ first year home, the Cavs made it to the Finals. Two of our three best players were injured and couldn’t play. He makes a heroic stab at it, but the Cavs ultimately lose to the Golden State Warriors. Another bullet point on the Cleveland Never Wins Championships resume.

Enter 2016.

The Cavs are just okay. Clearly underachieving, but maybe this is just who they are. Not good enough.

The coach is fired halfway through the season. Meanwhile, the defending champion Warriors are having the best season in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs (the only other franchise to beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals) is also having a historically great year. Either team looks poised to throttle the Cavs in a hypothetical Finals matchup.

Around the holidays, drink in hand at a birthday party, my friends and I laughed at the situation even though no one considered it funny.

“How CLEVELAND is this?! LeBron wins championships in Miami, comes back to Cleveland where everyone assumes we will finally win one, and then we run into the most dominant team in NBA history!”

Only. In. Cleveland.

People say that around here. People feel that around here.

But then things, just, happened.

The Cavaliers started playing better, dominated in the playoffs, and we found ourselves back in the NBA Finals with the team that knocked us out a year ago.

It was probably going to happen again, too, because this is Cleveland.

The Warriors won the first two games. We’re not good enough.

We won Game 3. Hope?

We lost Game 4 at home. Over. It’s never happened before. No one recovers from 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. All 32 teams who have tried—failed.

But then very non-Clevelandy things happened. One of the Warriors’ best players was forced to miss Game 5. LeBron and the kid we have only because LeBron left both scored 41 points.

We win.

Game 6 is back in Cleveland. LeBron goes for 41 again, because he’s not a normal person.

And then Game 7 was back in Golden State’s home arena, where they’d only lost four times during the entire season and playoffs to that point.

My Florida buddy texted me two days before the game. He was sitting in the room with me the night the Cavs drafted LeBron 13 years ago.

“Percent confidence for you that Cavs win Game 7?”

My brain said we had a shot. My heart damn sure wanted it. But this is Cleveland.

“49%,” I typed back.

I was on the phone with my dad before the game. He told me one of his friends had placed a bet on the Warriors.

I involuntarily said: “Good,” but I really meant “Screw that guy. I’m never talking to him again.”

I was invited to join friends at a big watch party in downtown Cleveland.

I declined. It was Father’s Day.

Just me and my son. A young boy who loves basketball, but is still too young to stay awake through a late-night game.

He fell asleep on the couch next to me, still too young to know that Cleveland never wins.

But in a weird way, this was it. This is what I dreamed about rocking that swaddled baby boy back when the world was still different. When it was better?

Was the world better before the worst thing that ever happened to me, happened?

Could the Cleveland Cavaliers contend for a championship if LeBron never leaves, allowing them to get Kyrie and Tristan?

With 4 minutes and 30 seconds to play, the game was tied 89-89.

I was sipping vodka for medical reasons for the first time since the first couple of months following my wife moving out.

I sat in tensed silence on the edge of my living-room sofa with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face.

No one could score.

And then with 1:55 left on the clock, I finally see how Cleveland will lose. A two-on-one fastbreak with the NBA’s MVP the past two seasons and the guy named NBA Finals MVP against us last year.

The Warriors will make a layup. The fans will go crazy. And that will ultimately prove the difference.

And then, in a split-second, LeBron James flew through the air like a human missile and blocked the would-be layup in the most amazing, powerful, unexpected, iconic, meaningful, magical basketball play I’ve ever seen.

Since a sleeping child was the only other person in the room, I never got to say: “HOLY SHIT. DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN?” so I’m saying it now.

Then, more time ticked off. Still tied at 89.

And with 53 seconds left, Kyrie Irving—the guy who only plays for the Cavs BECAUSE LeBron left Cleveland for four years—makes my new favorite three-pointer, a highlight we’ll be seeing and talking about in Northeast Ohio forever.

A shot block by the kid from Akron. Redemption.

A heroic dagger from LeBron’s unlikely future running mate. Providence.

A memory for every father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, neighbor, stranger near or far whose hearts were on the line. A moment.

The kind we usually only have when tragedy strikes. Those uniting Where Were You When…? moments are so rarely joyful for so many people.

Champions.

Cleveland, Ohio.

Believeland.

Champions.

Are you shitting me?

And now everything gets to be different. Because it happened. So now it CAN happen. Belief and hope won’t just be the harmless weapons of the delusional, but the justified tools of people who have been there before.

My little son woke up the next morning with no memory of the night before, despite my efforts to wake him.

“Who won, Dad?” were the first words out of his mouth. “Let me guess: The Warriors,” he continued, sadly.

“Here, kiddo. I have it recorded. Let’s watch the final two minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

And then I hit the Play button and watched the miracle again.

This time, complete with celebratory hugs with my son. A dream I thought was lost, but wasn’t. Because we don’t always know what will happen next. Because we don’t always understand why yesterday happened. And because we have no idea what’s in store for us at the end of the long and winding road once this next chapter is written.

When do sports matter? Times like this.

When is something silly like basketball more than just a game? On Father’s Day. When curses are dispelled, and dreams come true, and hope returns.

Sometimes Life is a game.

And sometimes, a game is Life.

A moment.

Providence.

Redemption.

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More Than a Game

Image/Nike

Image/Nike

On Jan. 17, 1988, I sobbed on the living room floor while my mom yelled at me for crying.

“It’s just a football game, Matt! It’s not that important!” she said.

Even though I was only 8, I knew she was wrong.

My stepdad had walked out of the house without saying a word. He didn’t take a coat even though it was freezing out there.

We just watched the Cleveland Browns fumble away the Super Bowl, and my stepdad and I were devastated.

“It’s not that important!”

My stepdad took a long time to come back inside.

Don’t tell me what’s important. I wanted my favorite team to win in the biggest game of the year, and when they didn’t, I cried because it hurt, and I don’t give a shit whether that makes sense to anyone.

Don’t tell me it didn’t matter, because my heart broke, which means it mattered.

People care about what they care about. I respect almost any demonstration of enthusiasm and passion, even if I lack interest in the subject.

My mom didn’t understand why a football game could mean so much.

A lot of people don’t.

Maybe it’s because we live in Ohio, and Ohio is “boring,” so we all care about things like football, basketball and baseball more than people who live in places where surfing and mountain climbing and Upper East Side parties and Hollywood Blvd. are viable options.

But we do care about these things. Passionately.

 …

On Thursday, my favorite basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is going to begin a best-of-seven (first team to win four games wins) series that will determine this year’s NBA champion.

Anyone even loosely familiar with American professional sports knows the city of Cleveland has not won a pro sports championship since 1964—the longest drought of any major U.S. city. The national media reminds us all the time because they’re evil sadists.

Under normal circumstances, that would make us media darlings—the You can do it! underdogs many of us love to root for.

But somewhere between the feel-good story that is the Golden State Warriors and their totally likable superstar (NBA MVP Stephen Curry who is super-easy to root for) and the bizarre hateful-admiration combo many people feel toward Cleveland superstar LeBron James, I get the sense most people will be rooting for the Warriors. And that’s fine.

 …

Here’s the thing I want people who don’t care to understand: I’m not rooting for the millionaire athletes you don’t believe deserve the praise and admiration and money and attention they get.

I’m rooting for my friends.

Kris and Todd and Dusty and Steve and Tim and Angie and Nate and people I’m forgetting to name. Long-time Clevelanders who have faced heartbreak after heartbreak from the bloody front lines. They’ve been waiting their entire lives for this. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for my neighbors. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for co-workers and the people I see walking around in Cavs hats and jerseys. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for my tribe. The people who live where I live and care about what I care about. We deserve it.

A common interest is not always enough to bring people together.

But in Ohio? In Cleveland? That’s exactly what it does.

Because it’s more than a game.

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The Secrets We Uncover

It's not just you. The stalagmites do look a bit like penises.

It’s not just you. The stalagmites do look a bit like penises.

One minute I was standing on a hilltop in the Ohio countryside, scanning miles of farmland in every direction.

The next, I was 103 feet below the surface on a guided tour of one of my home state’s best-kept secrets: the Ohio Caverns, where my young son and I explored a couple miles of underground magic. Back when glaciers were forming my part of the world, the melting ice would unleash huge amounts of water that eventually formed a bunch of lakes and rivers. But some of that water would work its way through cracks in the surface and carve out underground aquifer tunnels we now refer to as caves and caverns.

The surface was basking in 80-degree sunlight.

The caverns, a steady 54 degrees. (They are always 54 degrees, whether it’s summer or winter.)

The surface showcased everything one would expect to see in rural Ohio. Farms and fields. Country roads. Birds. Dogs. Cars. Tractors. People.

The caverns featured the kind of things most of us only see on episodes of Planet Earth.

My almost-7-year-old was in awe. I was, too.

The cavern ceiling and walls were limestone canvases, painted with gorgeous blacks, browns, greens, whites and oranges from the various mineral compounds leaking through the surface. Crystal formations, big and small, were growing from both the floor and ceiling from calcium carbonate buildups over thousands of years.

I am humbled by the awesome might of the oceans.

I am humbled by the majesty of the night sky.

And I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I am equally humbled by seeing underground crystal formations, some of which took more than 200,000 years to form.

This is what a 200,000-year-old stalactite looks like.

This is what a 200,000-year-old stalactite looks like. It’s just under five feet in length.

That’s one of those numbers that makes your brain hurt when you try to comprehend what you’re seeing. I take a lot of joy from moments like that.

Because I spent a lot of time driving over the past few days, I had plenty of time to consider the implications of the caverns’ discovery.

Two things stood out.

The Things Beneath the Surface

The most obvious takeaway from the experience was the realization that caverns just like these (gorgeous, priceless places) must be much more common than most of us think. Presumably, anywhere with glacial activity consistent with the Great Lakes region in North American and semi-similar ground composition.

I’ve spent most of my life standing on ground in Ohio. And sure it’s very pretty in spots, but frankly, all pretty typical. Particularly away from the cities.

And all this time, I might have been standing above undiscovered treasure. Above some of the most uniquely beautiful things I have ever seen, masked by all the things I’m programmed to expect.

It makes me think about people. About what we see and think about them versus what’s actually there underneath all that apparent normalcy.

How you could never know who a person is just by what you see and hear.

But it also makes me think about one of life’s most exciting truths: There are still many secrets waiting to be discovered.

If You Believe There Are

I think some people believe everything has already been thought of. That there are no new discoveries to be made.

But I don’t believe that. Scientists discover new biological species all the time. We see constant advances in medicine. In material science. In computer processing. In digital technology.

A person who believes everything has already been done, or thought of, or discovered might be tempted to stop searching. To stop asking questions. To stop seeking better, smarter ways of doing things.

But a person who believes in secrets will continue to search for answers.

I believe in secrets.

I think about marriage and divorce a lot because divorce was the hardest thing I ever did and it seems like half or more fail, and it all makes me think there must be a better way.

There are secrets. Secrets to unlocking the reasons why husbands and wives continually fail by making the same marital mistakes over and over again.

Somewhere, amid all of the happy older couples celebrating 50 or 60 years together, and all of the broken, sad and angry people running away from a relationship they so desperately wanted just a few years earlier, are answers.

Why do so many husbands do that?

Why do so many wives feel this way?

What are the commonalities between all the couples who make it?

What are the common personality profiles of couples who make it versus couples who don’t?

What if it’s as simple as asking the right people the right questions? What if the key to helping people make it, or helping them figure out how to choose compatible partners in the future, is simply a matter of discovering answers to old questions and looking at the data from a different angle?

We walk around constantly taking our surroundings (and the people in them) for granted. We have an amazing capacity to get used to just about anything. And as our familiarity increases, our curiosity wanes.

But what if we didn’t forget to ask better questions? What if we didn’t forget there are always secrets waiting to be uncovered?

It makes you come alive on the inside.

It makes life adventurous.

It makes the ordinary extraordinary.

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The Saddest Place in the World

everything will be okay

If the pursuit of happiness is our most-important Earthly mission, my neighbors and I are doing it wrong.

According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, my decision to live in Ohio—along with the other 11.5 million people who choose to live here—makes me a stupid moron.

The Buckeye State is the No. 5 overall saddest state in the United States, according to the 2013 index, down a couple slots from the year before. Had Gallup interviewed me, we might have been even higher on the list.

Ohio has problems.

We’re among the leaders in teenage pregnancy. The weather—at least in the Great Lakes region—is cloudy and shitty an extraordinarily large amount of time. We’ve got a bunch of meth cookers and users. Old Rust Belt cities. Disappointing sports teams. A bunch of dipshits. Too much crime and poverty for a state that is supposed to be part of the Midwest—America’s heartland—full of gorgeous fields, picturesque farms, quaint little towns and villages, and some of the kindest people in the world.

A plethora of decent-sized cities like Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as mid-sized population centers like Toledo, Dayton, Akron and Youngstown have created this interesting blend of country-ish Midwest, and Rust Belt urban centers.

Everyone likes different things. Ohio is the No. 7 most-populated state in one of the world’s so-called superpower nations. So, it’s not some rinky dink shithole by any objective measure. But it has some rinky dink shithole pockmarks in it.

Lousy real-estate values. Sub-par employment numbers. And an overall lack of mental and physical health all converge to manufacture this sad state of affairs.

If you look for the sadness, you’ll find it.

You’ll see it on the worn-out faces of blue-collar workers at the pub. You’ll see it on the faces of people walking down the streets, pushing or pulling all their possessions in shopping carts or rolling luggage.

You’ll see it on the faces of stressed-out moms and dads trying to have a pleasant family meal at some casual dining chain restaurant.

A family trying to manufacture a good time, but both parents and all the kids wishing they were doing something else.

I think that’s because you can be sad even while doing something we think is supposed to be fun.

Good News!

The state rank thing is bullshit.

For two reasons.

Reason #1: Despite the researchers claims that the results statistically cover 95 percent of American households, there are so many anomalies, it’s easy for me to dismiss it.

North Dakota, for example, went from the 19th-ranked state in 2012 all the way to No. 1 in 2013.

North Dakota.

I’ve never been to North Dakota. I understand it’s a gorgeous place full of super-nice people. And both of those things go a very long way with me.

And, please, if you’re from North Dakota, I pray you don’t take offense to this: But… really?

North Dakota?

I’m supposed to believe that the highest concentration of people with the greatest quality of life live in North Dakota? And that something amazing happened between 2012 and 2013 to justify the leap from No. 19 to the top of the list?

Sorry.

Reason #2: Wherever you go, there you are.

I was born in Iowa. Lived there until I was nearly five years old. I’ve spent lots and lots of time in Iowa. It’s ranked No. 10 on the list. It was No. 9 the year before.

And I do really like it there. At least the part of the state I consider my other home. People are very nice there. And they are a happy bunch, it seems.

But you know who’s not happy there?

People getting divorced.

People who lost their friends or their parents or their children.

People getting diagnosed with horrible illnesses.

People touched by some of the real horrors of the world: murder, rape, kidnapping, suicide, etc.

Those people aren’t happy at all. Even if they live in Iowa.

Even if they live in North Dakota.

The Sunshine State

I wanted to move to the beach because the sun and the beach make me happy.

Maybe it’s the Vitamin D.

Maybe it’s because it’s beautiful.

Maybe it’s a figment of my imagination.

I just know I wanted to be there, so I made it happen. I moved to Florida after graduating from college. But my then-girlfriend/fiancée and eventually wife was extremely unhappy.

I had my own issues with being so disconnected with my family and social network.

So, we made it our mission to return to Ohio a little more than a year down there.

It took us nearly three years to succeed. Every news reporting job I didn’t land was like a dagger. Things I used to hate, like shitty rusty cars and snow storms became novelties.

The sun and blue skies became a curse.

The pristine condition of the roads and buildings and automobiles felt sterile and fake. Things that are actually wonderful became not wonderful. Because of our perception.

And then we got back to Ohio.

A good job. A nice house (that we could afford, unlike in Florida!). Being surrounded by friends and family again—the most priceless, wonderful and important thing in the world, I think.

We were happy.

But Life Happens

It does.

No matter where you are, life happens. We know people who get sick and die. We have financial problems and stresses. We have drama at work and with members of our family.

Our human relationships suffer from ignorance. From selfishness. From stubbornness.

We age. We lose that innocence.

It’s brutal, I think. How ill-prepared so many of us are for the rigors of adulthood. All those years just blissfully running around playing with toys and video games and going to parties.

We can’t even help it. No one wanted to spoil it for us.

Our grandparents don’t tell us. Our parents don’t tell us. Other adults in our lives.

No one tells you the big secret: Shit’s about to get real.

And it does.

The shit gets real. As we lose people and things and marriages and ourselves.

I bet even people in places like North Dakota and Colorado and Hawaii feel that exact same way.

Nobody’s Gonna Tell Us How to Live

At least not me.

We get to make our own choices.

I’m a little stuck here in Ohio. Because of my five-year-old son who I will never, ever leave until he’s grown up and tells me to piss off.

And, yeah. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs around here.

The weather is shit.

The economy is shit.

I don’t have any family nearby.

And there are a million things to get sad about.

But I’m not going to wallow in that sadness. And no one else has to, either.

You should stand on the shores of Lake Erie on a beautiful summer evening. You can’t see the other side. The only thing missing is the coconut palms.

Gorgeous.

You should see how fun downtown Columbus is on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon after the Ohio State Buckeyes get a win.

Joy.

You should see the smiles on the faces of all of the friendly people. Infected by our Midwesternness. Beautiful smiles. And politeness. And charity. And kindness.

My people.

There’s no place like home.

But I know a secret: EVERYBODY feels that way.

You look around wherever you live—even in Los Angeles or New York—and you can see all of the good this world has to offer.

Everyone can do that. In every nook and cranny. And I think a lot of us do. But that more people should.

The fifth-saddest state?

Maybe so.

But I can choose happiness.

No family.

I’ll build something new.

Divorce.

Someone will want me.

Money.

I can be whatever I want to be.

I’ve lived in the saddest place in the world.

A lot of people live there. We all needed to be there, because it’s okay to hurt. But we’re always on the lookout. For a vacation out of there, or better yet, a permanent relocation.

There are no big, bright Exit signs in the saddest place in the world. There are no maps. No specific instructions to get us out of there.

And that’s because it’s an illusion. We can’t really run away from all of the things that actually matter.

All that stuff lives inside of us.

Mementos tucked away in a drawer.

Fuel that needs burned.

Luggage full of things we might need later.

We can’t run away. We can’t relocate to some magical place where the elusive “happy” exists.

It’s part of the lie we believe.

And totally impossible.

Our only choice is to change ourselves.

To change the world.

And that’s totally possible.

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So This is Christmas

I'll just keep walking forward. Waiting for the snow to melt. The flowers to bloom. The sun to rise. Because those things will happen.

I’ll just keep walking forward. Waiting for the snow to melt. The flowers to bloom. The sun to rise. Because those things will happen.

Christmas is less than two days away.

The most-beloved holiday on the Christian calendar. It’s so popular, most of the Jewish people I know celebrate it, too.

I don’t think we should wield the word “magic” too lightly, but that is precisely what so many of us experienced on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning throughout our childhoods.

Do you remember that first Christmas where the magic went away?

Maybe it was whenever you stopped believing in St. Nick’s Christmas Eve rounds. Maybe it was a holiday season spent away from your family. Maybe it was after a great personal loss. Maybe it was after your family went away.

I remember my first one. It was during my last year of college, and I lived far enough away from my family where I had to leave early Christmas Eve to head back to school. On Christmas Day, my job working with special needs people required that I be at a house with mostly strangers helping to prepare Christmas dinner.

It was my first Christmas dating my ex-wife. She was home with her family. I spent Christmas Eve night alone, assembling a large DVD cabinet my parents had given to me.

I spent the day with strangers. We ate turkey and watched The Goonies. We made the best of it.

But Christmas came and went without any of the magic I’d felt my entire life.

By next Christmas, I was living in Florida. That decision murdered Christmas.

I spent that Christmas Day with a handful of new friends I’d met at the newspaper. None of us could afford to fly home to be with our families—or we were on call at the paper in case of a major news event. As the lowest members on the totem pole, some of us had to be available.

I didn’t have a Christmas tree.

We played basketball in 80-degree temperatures.

The magic was gone.

It Found Me Again

Moving back to Ohio returned a bit of magic to the season. While it was my wife’s family and not my own with whom we would celebrate, it was still family. When our son came along five years ago, it further enhanced the holidays.

Even last year, with my marriage on the rocks, Christmas brought us all together. It was—literally—the last time it felt like family with my ex-wife, son and I together.

Then, poof.

Gone.

Everything.

Normalcy. Peace. Routine. Tradition. Love. Happiness.

The ever-hopeful voice that lives inside my head still whispered the possibility of unexpected Christmas blessings.

And perhaps they’ll come. I always like to say that there’s no reason to believe today won’t be the day that the best thing that ever happened to you, happens.

But as I sit here staring at the calendar, wondering where all that time went between spring when my life fell apart, and now, when I’m still firmly in wake-up-and-just-try-not-to-die mode, I feel… I’m not sure what.

Not joy. Not peace. Not magic.

But I also don’t feel horrible things.

Not despair. Not dread. Not hopeless.

I’m somewhere in between.

I’ll wake up with my son on Christmas Eve. We’ll have breakfast and I’ll take him to his mom’s.

I’ll spend the day wrapping gifts. Buying odds and ends for a small gathering of friends Christmas Eve night. Once again, a rogue group of people, away from their families, making the best of it.

Things can never be the same.

I don’t get to wake up an excited little boy on Christmas morning ever again. It’s all part of that hourglass sand moving from top to bottom.

I don’t get to wake up with my family. Drinking coffee. Eating pastries. Opening gifts. Watching A Christmas Story or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

There’s a fair chance Christmas morning brings with it a slight hangover from too many Christmas ales.

I’ll attend church alone.

I’ll spend the day picking up the pieces from the night before.

Perhaps I’ll listen to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on repeat for a while, because it’s my favorite Christmas song.

Maybe I’ll watch Elf because laughing is healthy.

Maybe I’ll volunteer at a local shelter.

Maybe I’ll drink alone.

Maybe I’ll cry.

I don’t know.

I just know this is it. My new life.

And I must accept whatever comes. And just… deal.

So this is Christmas.

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How to Swear: Welcome to O-#%!*ing-hio

Swearing

If you can read this, you might be from Ohio.

Because the folks at Mashable took their sweet-ass time reporting this awesome story, many people didn’t learn until yesterday that Ohio is the “sweariest state” in America.

The Marchex Institute actually discovered this and reported it back in May as part of National Etiquette Week.

So, I’m a little late to the party. But I’m going to try to be fashionably late.

The Potty Mouth State

Is that where I live?

Because honestly? No way we cuss more than New York and New Jersey.

I’ve lived in the Buckeye State since just before my fifth birthday, with pit stops in Illinois and Florida sprinkled between.

Also, I’ve lived in three distinct parts of this state. And I’m legitimately surprised to read this.

Here’s my favorite part: This wasn’t the NSA listening in on our personal phone calls or anything, which is when I’m guessing most of us really let loose.

This data was based on more than 600,000 recorded phone calls to BUSINESSES.

Ha!

Presumably customer-service lines and stuff.

I’m always nice to the customer-service people I talk to. Even when I’m furious. Because, A. I know they’re getting earfuls all day every day and are immune and don’t care. And B. Kindness gets you better results.

But I like to imagine what I WOULD say if I couldn’t control myself.

For example, I used to be a Time Warner Cable customer. And while I don’t want to bag on Time Warner (because their local customer service team was top notch, and because they FINALLY carry NFL Network), that company was—without equal—the one I always said the most bad words about.

I imagine people who feel as I do, but don’t give a rat’s about kindness, say things like:

(Ear muffs, sensitive readers!)

Pissed-off Ohio Time Warner customer who just waited on hold for an hour on the only night this week he didn’t have to take his kids to an extracurricular activity or complete a project at home: “Hey! Time Warner! This piece-of-shit “refurbished” cable box is on the fritz again! Want to explain to me why my goddamn rates go up twice a year when your product is so fucking horrible?”

Time Warner rep: “I’m sorry you’re having problems with your equipment, sir. My name is Jonathan. What can I help you with this evening?”

POOTWC: “Well, let’s see. Shows we schedule on DVR don’t record. The fucking screen freezes and pixelates constantly. Your channel guide isn’t updated, and half the time it’s wrong when it is. And any time we try to call for help, all you assholes ever do is recommend we restart the cable box.”

Time Warner rep: “I’m sorry to hear you’re so frustrated with your cable equipment, sir. At Time Warner, we strive to provide the very best service at affordable prices and we pride ourselves on satisfying our customers. Have you tried restarting the box?”

POOTWC: “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”

Time Warner rep: “I’m sorry, sir. Can you please describe your problem?”

POOTWC: “… *takes a couple deep breaths*… Your shit sucks. My box doesn’t work right. Please fix it.”

Time Warner rep: “Sir, would you please read to me the 15-digit serial number on the bottom of your cable box?”

POOTWC: “Why don’t you just know wha-… nevermind… hold on, I’ll need to get my reading glasses and completely fuck up my entire home theater setup to pull this off.”

*Gets reading glasses on, grabs flashlight, gets even more pissed while pulling wires and shit all over the place while trying to read the bottom of his cable box*

POOTWC: “B-1-5-6-9-8-7-F-J-O-O-8-9-1-1.”

Time Warner rep: “Those are zeros, sir. Not Os. We never use the letter O in serial numbers because they’re too easy to confuse with zeros.”

POOTWC: “Um, I’ve got a fucking zero for you. I think the second quarter has already started, and I’ve seen zero fucking minutes of football because I’m a Time Warner customer and God hates me.”

Time Warner rep: “I’m sorry, sir. Time Warner Cable is committed to providing the very best television and Internet service in the industry. We understand how much you love to watch football and we thank you so much for choosing us as your cable provider… Do you see anything happening on your television screen?”

POOTWC: “No. This box is a piece of shit.”

Time Warner rep: “I understand, sir. Thank you for your patience as we work to resolve your problem in a timely fashion. Could you repeat that serial number one more time, please?”

POOTWC: “Are you fucking… *deep breath*… you ready?”

*repeats number, emphasizing the zeros*

Time Warner rep: “I see. I had it entered wrong. I apologize for the inconvenience, sir. Thank you for your patience.”

POOTWC: “I’m not being patient. I’m fucking pissed.”

Time Warner rep: “I understand, sir. We’re going to have your television service back up and running as soon as possible. I’m sending signals to your machine now. You should see the box reboot. Please let me know when you see activity. This could take a few minutes.”

POOTWC: “Great.”

Time Warner rep: “Who’s playing tonight, sir?”

POOTWC: “The Cleveland Browns are playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Time Warner rep: “Really!? I grew up in Pittsburgh!”

POOTWC: *muttering* “Of course you did.”

The cable box finally starts rebooting.

Time Warner rep: “How are the Browns doing this year?”

POOTWC: “Don’t watch much football, huh? They’re fucking terrible. And when I say ‘fucking terrible,’ I don’t mean they’re having a bad year. I mean they’re having a bad millennium. Because—maybe you don’t know this—but the Cleveland Browns actually relocated to Baltimore back in 1995, so we didn’t even have our favorite team for three years. The Baltimore Ravens have won two Super Bowls since, including last year.

“When the team moved, that’s when I became an alcoholic. And while you might think that’s a bad thing, it’s actually been a GOOD thing, because then God gave us our team back in 1999 as a cruel joke. A bunch of us in Ohio got really excited about it and bought season tickets and got our hopes up about our bright future. But then we started actually playing games. And I’ve needed the drinks more than ever to cope.

“Between 1999 and now, only three decent things have happened: 1. A shitty nine-win playoff team in 2002, where we lost to the fucking Steelers after blowing a huge second-half lead because Dennis Northcutt can’t catch. 2. Joe Thomas. 3. A shitty 10-win season in 2007 where we didn’t make the playoffs because all the other teams were awesome that year, and because we couldn’t beat the Cincinnati Bengals—who blew ass—in an easy must-win late in the season, and because of Derek Anderson. And now, every year, we win four, sometimes five games. Our players always disappoint. Our coaches always seem incompetent. Our front office always seems incapable of acquiring new talent. Our quarterbacks ALWAYS get fucking hurt, so we always have to start shitty no-name players who have, literally, never started in the NFL before, so we get beat embarrassingly bad, and then everyone laughs at us.

“The one upside to only winning four or five games every year is that we ALWAYS have really high draft picks so we get to select from the very best players in college football using the system designed to create parity in the most-popular professional sports league in many parts of the world. Sooner or later, EVERY team gets good and has their day in the sun.”

Time Warner rep: “But not the Cleveland Browns? They don’t get their day in the sun?”

POOTWC: “No. Have you been listening to anything I’ve said at all? We always draft players who are out of the league three or four years later. We’re terrible. We always lose. We’re always sad. We’re always drunk.”

Time Warner rep: “Are you drinking now, sir?”

POOTWC: “I’m always drinking. Please don’t turn this box back on. I can’t watch that shit anymore.”

Time Warner rep: “But sir, your cable equipment should finish rebooting any minute now, and your game will be back on for you to enjoy!”

(And just then, the game does come back on. A Steelers linebacker destroys the Browns’ no-name quarterback and the ball comes flying loose. A Steelers player returns the fumble for a touchdown. It’s 24-0 in the second quarter.)

POOTWC: “FUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why me, God!?!?! Why!?!?!?!?!?”

(The piss-drunk, angry Ohioan tears the cable box from the wall and throws it as hard as he can on the floor, stomping it to bits in front of his wife who will now start having an affair, and his two young children, who will now need therapy but not receive any.)

POOTWC: “I’m going to need a new cable box, man. I just fucked mine up.”

Time Warner rep: “I’m very sorry to hear that, sir. We can have a cable technician deliver a new box to your house in 14 business days between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Will that work for you?”

POOTWC: “I hate Pittsburgh. And I hate you. And I hate my life. And I hate my football team. And I hate my shitty job. And I hate that I spilled bourbon all over me wrecking that piece-of-shit box. I need to go get another drink. Thanks for your help, Jefferson.”

Time Warner rep: “It’s Jonathan, sir. Thank you for being a valued Time Warner customer.”

POOTWC: “Your whole company can eat shit and die except for you, Jeremy. You’re the best.”

We use bad words.

We use bad words.

Welcome to Ohio

You know what’s a little bit bullshit, though?

All the crap this state takes from pundits and naysayers.

I am UNQUESTIONABLY biased and overly defensive of my home state. But I’m also kind of an expert on Ohio. I’ve lived here for the better part of 30 years, covering much of the state. AND I have excellent taste in things.

1. We have three major cities.

2. We have one of the Great Lakes.

3. We have nice people.

4. We have affordable real estate.

5. We have pretty natural resources.

If you’ve never been here, Ohio is nicer than you think.

I Have A.D.D.

This post jumped the shark during the fake Time-Warner call. Sorry.

I almost deleted this entire thing, but I feel like I’m in too deep at this point and just have to go with it.

I’ve been all over this country. From New York City to San Diego. Key West to Chicago. Las Vegas to New Orleans. Detroit to Charlotte. Kansas City to Cleveland.

And I’m REALLY surprised that such a large sampling of phone calls pegged Ohio as the state using the most bad words.

And that makes me wonder: Is my propensity for using bad language a function of my growing up in this state? OR, am I simply part of the problem?

I don’t like to end posts with questions, because then I can’t be clever the 15 percent of the time that I’m actually clever.

But today it just feels right.

What state, or place in the world, do you consider to have the most foul-mouthed people?

Inquiring minds need to know.

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The In-Laws

The holidays are coming. As does the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.

The holidays are looming. As is the all-too-literal winter of my discontent.

The losses in divorce are great.

There’s a huge pile of them. And a lot of collateral damage.

With the holidays approaching, the one I’ve thought about most is the loss of my ex-wife’s family.

You see, I live here—in northeast Ohio—in large part because of her.

I willingly came here and was happy to be here.

But taking my wife out of the equation? I don’t really want to live here anymore.

Today, I live here because of my son. Because I would never, under any circumstances, choose to relocate somewhere where I saw him less, or made him feel like his father was abandoning him.

There’s just no way. There is no person. No amount of money. No anything that could pull off that magic trick.

I’m here.

My choice.

Own your shit.

My ex-wife’s family is amazing.

Her mother is precious and kind. Always so steady. Even in the worst of times. A steady presence for her children and grandchildren. A steady presence for her now-estranged son-in-law.

My ex-wife’s only sibling is the best brother-in-law imaginable. Kind. Generous. Hard-working. An incredible uncle. He’s the perfect blend of his steady mother and his kind, generous, hard-working father who he lost two years ago. He and his wife have a beautiful little girl who’s life is rapidly passing me by, and will continue to.

Her immediate family took me in right away despite recognizing I wasn’t like them. I can’t pinpoint exactly all the differences. I’m maybe less country. A little softer. A little more selfish and self-centered.

They all have siblings. While I do have two stepsisters—good ones—and a half-sister 14 years younger than me, my upbringing was predominantly that of an only child. And I have those traits. The good and bad ones.

But they took me in just the same.

I think the one thing they always recognized despite my many flaws is that I always had my ex-wife’s best interests at heart.

From Big Families to Small Ones

My mom is the oldest of eight children.

Family gatherings—even the impromptu ones on random Saturdays and Sundays growing up—were pretty big events. The holidays, weddings and other family reunion-ish events were almost epic in scope.

I have a million and a half cousins. The youngest ones are still in high school.

So, even though I grew up an only child, I was always immersed in a big-family environment.

It was wonderful. I am so fortunate I was able to grow up as I did, where I did, and with the people I did, family and otherwise.

It was a rude awakening when my ex-wife and I moved to Florida—1,200 miles away from everything and everybody we knew and loved—upon graduating college.

Down there, everything was different.

No big family.

No huge social network.

No nothing.

Just my ex-wife’s aunt, uncle and adult cousin who lived more than an hour’s drive away. And the few friends we were lucky to make in a community dominated by retirement-aged people.

One Thanksgiving, it was just a half dozen of us eating turkey and ham in our apartment. A bunch of kids far away from their families and unable to afford the airfare home, or unable to get away because most of us were on-call newspaper reporters.

One Christmas I made lasagna for a few of us. We drank a little beer. We watched a basketball game no one cared about. We played a little basketball ourselves because it was 80 degrees outside.

Everything was strange.

We made the best of it.

But it was strange.

Home beckoned. And Ohio—all the good, bad and in-between—is home.

New Family Traditions

And so they began, almost immediately, as my wife and I relocated from Florida to Ohio in the fall of 2005, just before Halloween.

It took me a little while to get to know her large family. While I’m an Ohio native, this new, faraway region of the state was foreign to me. New faces, new places.

But here we were.

You could see on her face how happy she was. Celebrating Christmas with her parents. With her brother, who had also returned to Ohio after several years living in southern California.

Living a three-hour drive from my family and hometown was like living next door after those years in Florida.

It was wonderful.

Very kind, decent people on both sides of her family.

Her mother’s family. And her father’s family.

I was, and remain, particularly fond of her father’s side of the family.

There are aunts. Aunts who hugged me like their own every time I saw them.

There are uncles. Uncles who helped repair our cars and complete home-improvement projects.

There are cousins. Reflections of their parents, and in a lot of ways, reflections of my own family and my own memories, as I observed everyone come together during life’s best and worst moments.

They are beautiful.

And I love them.

And every time I flip the calendar, I get a little sicker as it represents more time disconnected from them, and the realization that the holidays are five minutes from now, and they can never, and will never, be the same without them.

My new family.

My new family that isn’t.

Living in the Now

I don’t have a choice.

None of us do.

We live in the present. We play the cards we’re dealt.

We can piss and moan and whine, and God knows I do that all the time. But the cards don’t change.

We play with them. Maybe win a hand. Maybe lose a hand. Maybe fold them altogether.

But there’s always a new hand coming. Always an opportunity for that next win.

And that’s what keeps me going now.

It’s been a decade now since a bunch of random young adults gathered in our apartment to celebrate the holidays the best we could even though everything was weird and wrong.

And that’s what I must do now. Be resourceful. Be grateful. Identify the good and celebrate it. Because there is always good to focus on.

But that doesn’t mean I can just forget everything that’s now missing.

When you lose a spouse, sometimes you lose more than a spouse.

Sometimes you lose a family. A big one. A wonderful one.

I haven’t spoken to any of them since the separation. I don’t know whether it was supposed to be my job to reach out. I never really know what to do in these awkward human situations. So I tend to err on the side of withdrawing.

I’m sure some of them think I just moved on and don’t care. I wish there was some simple way to let them know that’s not the case. To let them know how much they matter. To let them know how grateful I am for all they’ve done for me.

They turned a strange land into home. They turned strangers into family.

Like miracle workers.

And someday, I think, they’ll probably have to do that again. There will be some new guy. Some stranger they’ll need to turn into family.

My son’s stepfather, whoever that may be.

Once in a while, I pray for that guy. Whoever and wherever he is. That he be blessed with the strength and wisdom and kindness and ability to love required to care for my son’s mother, as she will deserve once she learns to love and forgive again.

That he be able to love my son as my stepfather loved me.

That he be everything I’m not.

That he be a much better man than I ever have been or will be.

I want that so much for my son.

I want that for my ex-wife.

I want that for that beautiful extended family who has treated me like gold all these years.

And I pray they will treat him the same and that he’ll deserve it.

But deep down?

I hope they always miss me and like me better.

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The Giving Tree

You don't notice my favorite tree. Because it's unremarkable. Right up until it turns a brilliant red, makes the world a better place, and reminds us that we all have something special that isn't always obvious at first glance.

You don’t notice my favorite tree. Because it’s unremarkable. Right up until it turns a brilliant red, makes the world a better place, and reminds us that we all have something special that isn’t always obvious at first glance.

It just stands there.

Quiet, steady and stoic.

The ultimate wallflower.

I rarely notice it. It looks just like thousands of others. Millions, even.

But then the calendar turns.

And autumn’s annual pilgrimage begins once again, delivering the deft touch of Mother Nature’s paintbrush.

The Ohio countryside, her canvas.

The magnificent trees, a spectacular display of her talents.

I forget every year. The breathtaking beauty of it all. But then the sun shines just right—causing fiery reds and oranges and yellows to burst from the green.

And my favorite tree stands out from them all.

It’s neither tall nor short. Neither big nor small. Neither insignificant nor particularly noteworthy.

Not most of the time, anyway.

But then fall happens. Abscission. The death of the phoenix.

Almost every day I see this tree.

And it’s always just a tree.

Only yesterday it was more.

The sunlight danced with it, showcasing vibrant reds and purples as the green slowly concedes that winter marches forth.

Unrivaled beauty in a sea of arboreal competition.

I stopped and stared at it several times.

And that’s when it dawned on me how much that tree was like us.

Like people.

People like me.

People like you.

Just a Number

My stepdad taught me many wonderful life lessons.

He’s the man who taught me how important wisdom was. Sometimes we humans spend a lot of time focusing on intelligence, wealth, and our eternal pursuit of happiness—whatever that is—and don’t think much about being wise, perhaps at the expense of other things we want.

It’s almost never wrong to err on the side of wisdom.

But he once told me something I wasn’t wise enough to disagree with at the time.

We were discussing my college plans over dinner. He, my mother and I. I was enrolled in a small, Catholic high school. There were just 75 kids in my graduating class. Just under 400 in the entire school.

And I liked it. It’s what I knew. I liked knowing almost everyone. Having almost everyone know me.

But for college, I was thinking about bigger, public universities. My parents wanted me to go to a small, private school.

“At a big school, you’re just a number, Matt,” my stepdad said.

The implication being, it’s hard to succeed. To be somebody. To make a difference.

I only nodded, not necessarily disagreeing.

Of course it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond.

But I don’t really care about being a big fish.

I want to be a bright light.

And one bright light can illuminate a whole bunch of darkness.

More Than Just a Number

That’s what you are. More than just a number.

And that’s what that person over there is. That person you don’t know and aren’t paying attention to. They’re someone who matters, too.

We’re not just numbers.

But we blend in, though. Just like my favorite tree.

We’re easy to miss, sometimes.

People buzz along in their cars and trucks passing this tree every day. And most of the time it looks just like the rest. Green leaves. Typical. And in the winter, no leaves at all. Hardly worth a second look.

They don’t pay attention. Why would they?

The tree just sits there, contributing silently. Doing its small part to pump oxygen into the air. To support life.

Growing. Maturing. Just a little more every day.

But still, we don’t pay attention.

The bare, leafless tree looks just like the people I pass on my morning commutes in other cars who are paying equally little attention to me.

Just another thing taking up space. In a vast sea of seemingly forgettable things.

There’s nothing remarkable about any of it most of the time.

The tree can even look sad, shrouded in the gray of winter.

But the clocks keep ticking.

The planet keeps spinning and pirouetting around the sun.

And then light. And warmth.

New life.

And like that phoenix, it rises from its own ashes, giving birth to color and beauty once again.

And it sits. Fitting in. Looking pretty, but unexceptional. Not calling attention to itself at all.

Only the tree is not unexceptional.

It’s special. And unique.

It’s perfect in its simple, everyman form.

Quiet, steady and stoic.

Waiting patiently for that next moment to shine on another exquisite, future autumn day.

Capturing our awe.

Being more than just a number.

Filling us with gratitude.

And giving us hope.

Photo courtesy of Yazhang Photography

Photo courtesy of Yazhang Photography

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The Phantom Pain

Are these fears healthy and prudent? Or are they irrational and holding us back?

Are these fears healthy and prudent? Or are they irrational and holding us back?

It was a typical winter day in Ohio.

Around 9 a.m.

Co-workers were milling around, getting coffee and chatting.

I work in a large, shiny office building with hundreds of people. Our building sits along an Interstate a few miles outside the city.

Me and five others have desks nestled in a corner of the second-floor corporate offices. Huge windows line the walls, giving us a view of a busy two-lane road outside.

A typical winter day in Ohio generally consists of snow-covered grass and below-freezing temperatures. Moisture on the roads can freeze into an invisible layer of ice. Black ice, it’s called.

Driving the speed limit is encouraged in such conditions.

On this particular morning earlier this year, one driver didn’t get the memo.

He was driving a plain white contractor’s minivan. Recklessly. More than 80 miles per hour in a 35 mile-per-hour zone, the police said.

He lost control.

Through the large bullet-proof glass windows of our office, we all heard the sound of screeching tires, then a series of loud bangs as the van barrel-rolled across the road, taking out one of our company’s medium-sized trees, and slamming into six cars in our parking spaces nearest the road.

The driver was ejected and thrown headfirst through the windshield of a green BMW that had just gotten out of the body repair shop the day before. It was the last thing he ever did.

Now, those parking spaces are called “Death Row,” here. There is a mulch circle where the tree used to be.

Those spaces used to fill up pretty early in the morning. Now, many people are hesitant to park there.

As if the van crashing into them, and that man dying, makes it more likely that something bad will happen again, when—weather aside—the statistical probability of car accidents happening right there are the same every day.

It’s a Human Thing

We knee jerk. It’s what we do.

Terrorists fly planes into buildings. Then we’re terrified to fly.

I lived in Toledo, Ohio in September 2001. They evacuated the tallest building downtown that day. It’s only 33 stories. New York City alone has well over 100 buildings taller than that.

Remember your first trip to a movie theater after all of those people were shot and killed watching The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo.? Mine was a few days later. To see that very movie. There were extra policemen in theaters everywhere. I did think more about rogue gunmen that night than I normally would.

Similarly, not long after the D.C. sniper situation, some asshole with a rifle in Ohio was shooting drivers on their morning commutes just outside of Columbus. People everywhere were thinking about getting shot just driving their cars after that.

Whenever I walk into rooms in my house where I’ve seen the biggest spiders, I always catch myself looking in those same spots for them as if they’re most likely to show up there.

There are countless examples of this completely illogical, yet ever-present mental and emotional reflex many of us have to traumatic news or unpleasant situations.

Which brings me to…

My Next Relationship

I talk a pretty big game about wanting to meet someone. To eliminate the loneliness. To share moments. To connect on the kind of level that brings people together in meaningful ways.

But, like those people shaken when stepping on airplanes those first days, weeks and months following the Sept. 11 attacks; like those people nervous about walking into movie theaters after the Aurora shooting; and like everyone at my office hesitant to park in “Death Row,” I have an almost-involuntary aversion to letting myself get too close to another human being again.

I want to. In my head.

I believe inner peace and happiness lie there.

I believe satisfying physically intimate relationships lie there.

I believe a balanced life lies there.

But it does something funny to my chest. To my insides.

This idea of letting someone in again.

I’ve written about the feelings of rejection from my short-lived online dating experiment.

And other incidents have popped up where I realize just how fragile I am now.

I feel angry when people I care about are mistreated by their partners.

I feel concerned when people I care about have doubts about their relationships.

I feel sad when people don’t like me as much as I like them.

And it hurts when someone pushes me away. Whatever their reason may be.

More specifically, I feel all of these things more acutely than I ever have before.

The anger burns hotter. The concern, more pronounced. The sadness, heavier.

The pain? It scares me now in ways I’ve never experienced.

People who shouldn’t be able to hurt me can hurt me now. Little things that might seem silly and meaningless evoke feelings similar to when my wife expunged me from her life.

It’s like a layer of mental and emotional toughness has been stripped away, leaving me frail and weak. Vulnerable. Easy to damage.

Does this type of wound heal? Will scar tissue form? Is it possible to reacquire the armor I once possessed?

I don’t know.

Maybe time will heal this wound. Making me healthier.

But in the meantime, I have to ask myself some hard questions about what I’m willing to endure. What I’m capable of enduring.

Am I going to let a relative stranger in enough to hurt me the way my ex-wife did?

Am I going to ruin potentially good things by keeping people at a distance?

Am I being illogically reflexive? Irrational? Am I avoiding perfectly adequate parking spaces due to fears that don’t make sense?

At some point, I’m going to have to be honest with myself and others about these questions and answers.

Because I don’t want to live recklessly.

I don’t want to lose control.

I don’t want to end up a victim of self-destructive behavior.

Dead, but on display. Like that man on the BMW.

Unable to remind those looking on in horror to keep on living.

And to do so unafraid.

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How to Succeed at Anything

Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" is more about Body, than Mind and Spirit. But it's still what I think of in my head when I think about this stuff. Stop looking at his penis.

Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” is more about Body, than Mind and Spirit. But it’s still what I think of in my head when I think about this stuff. Stop looking at his penis.

It’s not easy.

But it is simple.

If you want to succeed—in anything, whether it be love, or work, or sports, or academics, or building bridges, or telling jokes, or solving crossword puzzles—you need only do three things. Just three.

The three steps to success:

1. Attempt

2. Observe

3. Repeat

One of the world’s smartest content marketers wrote that in a blog post yesterday. I’ve spent the past 24 hours thinking about it when I wasn’t too busy thinking about football, or sex, or food, or how bad my iron shots were on the golf course yesterday.

Brian Clark is the author. He founded Copyblogger, and if writing is your thing, you may want to give them a visit even if you’re not looking to sell anything. There’s a lot of good writing and good-writing tips to be found there.

Clark writes: “Here’s the truth. You’ll never be truly ready, because the process doesn’t start until you start.

“Successful people start before they feel ready. And the only way to absolutely, positively know if your [whatever you’re working on] rocks is to put it out there.”

Attempt

He’s saying: Try.

Just try!

If you’re anything like me, there are a million things you never try. You’re scared. Not like little-kid-sees-monster-in-closet scared. But general human fear.

Of failure. Of rejection. Of humiliation.

I spent all 12 years with my ex wife avoiding snow skiing. I don’t particularly like snow.

Yeah, I live in Ohio. On purpose. (If you haven’t heard, I make bad decisions.)

But more importantly?

1. I’m afraid to try things in front of other people that I’m pretty sure I’m going to suck at.

I can’t begin to tell you how true AND debilitating this can be. I don’t do much dancing because of this insecurity. I know that when I go snow skiing, I’m going to fall getting off the ski lift at the top of the run. Everyone will laugh at me and I won’t be able to quickly ski away because I’ll just fall down again. And then they’ll all laugh some more.

2. I procrastinate.

My best friend from childhood is my son’s godfather. He handled all of the legal work for my recent marital dissolution. Free, of course. He’s the best. I think of him as family. I’ve known him since I was 6. Because one of the things I’m good at is writing website copy for businesses, I told him in April—in APRIL—that I would rewrite his law firm’s website copy and optimize it for search engines. I’m not even halfway done yet. Five months. I’m a bad person.

Don’t be like me.

Be brave. Seek adventure. Try new things.

Otherwise you’re just going to get old and sad and eat at the Golden Corral a lot and get diabetes and die after a doctor does a shitty job amputating the lower half of your fat leg you weren’t exercising. And then whoever’s left to collect the money from the medical malpractice suit will go on a bunch of adventures while worms eat your body.

The difference between true failure and just another leg on the journey to success are steps two and three.

Observe

Our lives are the sum of our choices.

How have these choices contributed to where I am now?

Mentally, I feel best when I’m reading regularly. When I’m getting decent sleep. When I’m mentally sharp at work, and on top of my chores at home, and when I’m thinking ahead as it pertains to my son’s and household’s needs.

Physically, I feel best when I’m eating well. When I’m exercising daily. When I’m connected physically, emotionally and spiritually with someone between the sheets.

Spiritually, I feel best when I’m doing things I think are right and when I’m avoiding things I think are wrong. I feel good when I volunteer. I feel bad when I don’t make time for prayer or church. I feel good when I’m giving. I feel bad when I’m taking.

Mind. Body. Spirit.

This begs the question:

Why would we make choices that make our lives worse?

I’m about halfway through my 35th year of being alive. I have a really nice data sample now of what the expected results of a particular action might be. And STILL I do retarded shit. Still.

One might conclude the human race is doomed. Or we can just limit it to me—a bad-decision-making self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think we need to think more about the choices we make that keep us from succeeding in whatever we set out to do. And make better choices today. Different choices. Then observe those results.

If you like what you see?…

Repeat

I understand what Brian Clark is saying here: Do shit. See what happens. If the results are good, repeat. If the results are bad, try something else. It’s the most rudimentary form of the scientific method.

Clark says it with a little more grace and professionalism. He writes: “The difference between true failure and just another leg on the journey to success are steps two and three.

“Pay careful attention to what happens when you try, figure out why, and carry on with a smarter perspective.”

I do believe in outside influences and extenuating circumstances.

But I also support the notion that we are often our own worst enemy. That our biggest roadblock to success in our various endeavors is something seemingly harmless.

Inertia.

History’s greatest minds taught us what inertia is. Newton. Aristotle. Copernicus. Galileo. Einstein.

But their focus was on the physical, observable world around us.

I believe inertia also affects us on a metaphysical level.

We get so comfortable with ourselves and our routines and our habits, that our fear and resistance to change overpowers the logical parts of our brains which tell us that change will improve things.

Two things tend to help you overcome inertia in your daily life.

1. Something awful happening.

2. Choosing yourself. Choosing to be the best version of you that you can possibly be.

Too often in my life, I’ve let something awful happening to me be the catalyst for positive change. Too often, I’ve had to learn lessons the hard way.

It’s the curse of procrastination. The consequence of self-doubt, fear and resistance to change.

And I’d like to do things the right way in this next chapter of my life. To choose myself. To do the right thing because it’s the right thing, then reap the many life rewards that come along with that.

A sharper mind. A harder body. A healthier soul.

It doesn’t take some cosmic or magical event to experience these things.

It just takes a little self-awareness.

And the courage to choose yourself.

To choose today to do one little thing differently. To do it better. To give just a little more.

To win. At everything.

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