Archive for the 'Personal' Category

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (and Other Thoughts on Religion and Vampires) Part II

(The first part of this blog post, written a mere 11 months ago, discussed why I no longer feel connected to my childhood religion of Judaism. Now I wish to explain why it’s unlikely my spirit will be swayed by any other organized religion).

People say faith is hard.

I think it’s easy, at least compared to the alternative.

In a world filled with senseless tragedies, in a life filled with incredible emotional and physical challenges, in which nothing is guaranteed except its end, how comforting would it be to believe in a higher power, to align myself with a community of like-minded individuals, to accept the teachings of a holy document, a genuine life instruction book.

How I envy the faithful. It’d be so nice to believe.

How could anyone, really, not want to believe??

A true, abiding faith is a security blanket, and those that hold tight to it have little need to question why the innocent suffer, to fear what lies beyond, or to agonize over the devastating possibility that all is nothing.

Faith provides meaning, protection, comfort, love, immortality.

But the one thing I believe faith – at least a faith in any particular doctrine – does not provide, is the truth. It’s the missing ingredient, and without it, I must remain faithless.

That’s not to say I’m an atheist. Not in the least. Atheism requires a faith as well, and one that truly is hard as it provides few of the benefits of a religious faith. If it’s a security blanket, it’s made of cold steel (or perhaps, more appropriately, a titanium-tungsten alloy).

And worshiping at the altar of science to the point where one cannot fathom that after all the questions we can ask have been answered, that on the other side of that, something mystical and grand and forever unknowable might yet remain, strikes me at least as foolhardy as having faith in the foolhardiest of religions.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been keenly aware of the ‘splendour in the grass, and glory in the flower’, and felt that a larger purpose could be out there, waiting to be found – and if not found then at least waiting to be sought out –  and now that I have watched my two daughters be born, I can’t help but hope even more that this is so. I’m afraid I could buy into the story of Xenu before I could ever wholly embrace we are nothing but cosmic accidents.

No, it is not the leap into the realm of the mysterious and illogical that faith requires which bothers me; it is the specificity of the endeavor. To believe that the mysterious and illogical things you believe, about matters of almost immeasurable importance and complexity, are, in fact, the correct ones, seems so utterly presumptuous and outlandish to me.

Most people, after all, just end up having faith in whatever it was their parents believed (and presumably taught during those most impressionable years). We’re not just talking here about adopting your folks’ political leanings or taste in literature; these are the Big Questions, and I think the fact that our search for spiritual truth begins with such ingrained biases makes success rather unlikely.

I know that personally, even though I have questioned or rejected much of the Jewish laws and tradition I was taught and surrounded by as a young person, it would be nearly impossible for me to completely overcome my childhood indoctrination. Even if Jesus Christ himself knocked on my door one night and told me he was indeed the Messiah, offered up some proof of the fact (say, the water into wine trick), and implored me to get my ass in gear in order to avoid damnation, I would still have a very tough time actually becoming a Christian. A conversion would devastate my parents. It would isolate me from my community. In some ways, I’d have to learn a whole new way of life. Such costs may seem small compared to the gifts implicit in finding eternal salvation, but it just serves to illustrate how difficult stumbling upon the truth can be with all the obstacles placed in our way.

That said, at least I know something about Christianity. Not enough to rock a New Testament category in Jeopardy, perhaps, but a decent amount. But what if Allah or Shiva or Biame knocked on my door? Heck, I wouldn’t even recognize them if I looked through the peephole (I’d probably just not answer and pretend I wasn’t home).*

The religions I’m familiar with are far eclipsed by those I have little knowledge of, and likely surpassed by those religions I haven’t heard of or know absolutely nothing about. I can’t imagine I’m alone in my ignorance, either; I would think that even those that dedicate their lives to the study of religion have yawning gaps in their knowledge base.

Yet the faithful dare to presume that somehow they have found The Answer. It’s like how my 2-year-old daughter Macy thinks I’m the funniest person in the universe (her vocabulary hasn’t quite allowed her to express that sentiment exactly, but you should see the way she laughs when I bounce balls on my head). Still, she hasn’t even seen a Louis C.K. stand-up special or one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, so, really, what the heck does she know??

Now, I could go on and on about what I perceive are the deficiencies of religion and the problems with faith, but sometimes, I wonder if all of my hand-wringing is beside the point, even counter-productive.

After all, the search for meaning in life is one of the key attributes that separates us as a species.

For many years, I was devastated I didn’t know my purpose on this Earth. On more than one night in my youth and young adulthood, I would look out the window in my bedroom at the magnificent, awesome world I was trying to navigate to the best of my ability, and beg for some sort of insight to hit me, so that all would be illuminated, and that I, too, could feel the comfort and peace of a strongly held faith. The yearning was so intense that tears were not uncommon.

Lately, though, I’ve grown so skeptical, and so burdened by the pressures and minutiae of day-to-day living that I’ve just resigned myself to the idea of a faithless life … and death.

When I realize I’ve reached this point, I feel even more devastated, for one thing I do believe is this:

To lack The Faith is understandable; to stop The Search is unforgivable.

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*Interesting side note: My best bud from college once thought the gods of all religions were like the players on the same team in an NBA All-Star Game. And that each god has his strengths – Jesus can nail the trey, Buddha’s a beast in the post, Yahweh dribbles and drives like nobody’s business, etc. – but the goal was the same for them all: Getting the ball in the basket. And that the only real problems occur when fans demand their guy get voted Most Valuable Player.

I’m not an NBA fan, but I like that stupid analogy. It makes about as much sense as anything I’ve heard.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (And Other Thoughts On Religion and Vampires) – Part I

I was once engaged to a vampire.

Well, at a minimum, I was once engaged to a Catholic woman heavily involved in the New York City underground vampire community (which to her credit, took place before the most recent pop culture vampire explosion – ie Twilight, True Blood, Being Human, etc. etc.).

Chuckle/snicker/mock/scoff all you want – I certainly did a little bit of all of that when I first learned of my ex’s intention to get involved with this particular coven.

But then I met some of her vampire friends and started to read the ‘Intro to Vampirism’ literature which her sponsor/priest had given her, and here’s the kicker: Modern vampirism is certainly no sillier, and maybe less silly, than most of the dozens of other religions I’ve stumbled across during my life, including the one I was raised in (and still consider a part of my identity), Judaism.

Now this realization struck me as particularly relevant because it just so happened that at the same time my ex-fiancee was immersing herself in all things vampire, she was also taking Judaism conversion classes with me, as it was my hope that she would convert to my tribe before our wedding.

I had plenty of reasons why I wanted her to convert, or at least take the class – some OK, most awful: to please my parents, to make sure any kids we had were considered Jewish, to make things easier (at least for me), to have her prove her commitment to me, etc, etc.

But what I instead soon realized was how little Judaism mattered to me anymore. After being raised in a fairly observant Conservative Jewish household, I had many years ago begun to extract myself from the religion, slowly but surely to the point where I was mostly a Jew in name only. And while the conversion class was actually a quite pleasant experience, offering up reminders of some of Judaism’s positive attributes, it also served to reassert how irrational and irrelevant many of the laws and rituals seemed to me. 

The breaking point came during one particular conversion class, when the rabbi was teaching us how to put on tefillin. Tefillin are these black boxes, filled with Hebrew prayer scrolls, attached to leather bindings that a Jewish person ties around his arms and head before he prays. You won’t find them in many reform synagogues but for the observant, they are absolutely critical accoutrements. They also look unbelievably silly and quite primeval, frankly (see pic – and this soldier is actually pulling the look off quite nicely).

At this class, I couldn’t help but think of some of the things I had seen at my ex’s vampire parties and wonder how I could possibly mock her or her new friends. I mean, which is sillier – some old guy with a beanie on his head, a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders and bindings with boxes tied around his head and arms, or a woman wearing custom-made fangs and an ankh around her neck, dressed in some long, revealing black dress. I’m not sure which way I’d vote on the ‘sillier’ question, but I sure as hell know which is more fun (Note: That’s not a pic of my ex).

And then I began to think about the rationale/philosophy behind both respective movements. Sure, some of what I was reading in my ex’s vampire book was fairly loony, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the lunacy in the Old Testament, with its parting seas, and burning bushes, and animal arks, and fertile nonagenarians, and a long, long, laundry list of other tawdry, violent, unbelievable happenings.

To be sure, the Torah imparts some important and valuable lessons as well, and it’s also true that most modern-day Jews don’t apply the worst parts of the Bible in a literal sense (Few, for instance, are in favor of stoning cursers, as it is called for in Leviticus). Like vegans at a Vegas buffet, Reform Jews in particular use only a soupcon of Torah within their daily lives. But still, this nutty document is studied, pored over and mined constantly by observant Jews, forming the primary basis for how they are supposed to live, eat, pray, love, mourn and work.

Look, if you’re willing and able to accept even some of the crazy things that happen in the Torah and the lessons that follow, is it really so difficult to believe in the vampire archetype, a select group of powerful individuals who prefer the night and ‘feed’ off the energy of other people? (Actual blood drinking, either from willing donors or between vampires, is discouraged in most, but not all, houses)**.

And if you start going down that route, then why not believe in the New Testament as well? I’ve heard plenty of my Jewish friends dismiss Christianity because they find the whole story of the virgin birth/resurrection outrageous … as if the story of Adam and Eve just rings so true.

And then what about Mormonism? There’s a ton of really wacky stuff there, but can you really just dismiss it out of hand? Heck, even Scientology may make some… no, that shit is still way too crazy.

I want to discuss my thoughts on religion in more detail, so I’ve decided to write another part to this blog, but it’s that dissonance that I can’t accept. I am proud to be Jewish – it is a culture as much as it a religion, and I appreciate the history of the people too much to dismiss it completely as part of my identity. But for me the source material rings not much truer than Greek mythology, and sadly, less so than modern-day vampirism, so how can I ever fully embrace it?

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**I apologize for simplifying the essence of vampirism, as the community, perhaps not unlike that of Judaism and Christianity, is fairly well splintered, with wildly divergent preachings and practices, at least some of which are kept secret from non-members.

What’s funny is that from researching this piece I’ve found that vampires and Judaism actually share some common bonds – in fact, some 12th century Jewish folk writings may be among the first mentions of vampires (the bloodsucking demons were called ‘estries’); and there are some people who believe that the revival of the 19th-century vampire, most notably Dracula, was intended to be a metaphor for the insidious, other Jew, to this day still on occasion falsely accused by anti-Semites of sucking the blood from non-Jewish children during Passover rituals.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Inertia

Observing the mistakes and silliness of others is a perfectly useful way to learn how to live the well-lived life.

For instance, my mother’s mother, may her soul rest in peace, was a tremendously loving and caring grandmother, but I probably learned at least as much about life from her flaws as from her positive attributes. In particular, I was able to see the damage my Bobba wrought (to herself as well as others) as she bitterly held onto grudges and regrets as if they alone could sustain her, and often retaliated to perceived insults with petty nastiness.

I realized such behavior had to be terribly unsatisfying, and ultimately unproductive, and believe I have embraced a much healthier way to deal with people and events that disappoint me (I forgive easily. I focus on the positives. I take my share of the blame. I think before responding, and try to consider the long-term implications of my actions).

Alas, I’m beginning to realize that a fair amount of my A-Z Guide to Living will also end up serving as a cautionary tale, full of advice which I believe to be critically important but am not following for whatever reason.

Give charity generously, unlike me.

Avoid distractions, unlike me.

Overcome your fears, unlike me.

And now, for my latest lesson, I want you to fight inertia, unlike me.

In physics, inertia is the resistance of any object to a change in its state of motion. When you throw in the additional effects of friction and gravity one encounters here on Earth, inertia basically means that things have a tendency to be still and tethered to the ground.

Or specifically: My ass has a tendency to be tethered to the couch, watching TV.

My college roommate and I used to comment all the time about how our lives were basically ruled by inertia. Recognizing we were powerless to stop it, we embraced its presence, bowing to the ever-looming God of Inertia and offering it regular sacrifices, which of course meant continuing to sit on our asses and watch TV.

It’s no surprise that the root for inertia comes from the Latin iners, meaning lazy.

Unfortunately, with the passing years, inertia tends to exert an even more powerful hold. Energy levels deplete as responsibilities build, so sitting on your ass during those precious moments of free time almost always seems the most appealing option. Indeed, nowadays when I find myself stymied by inertia, it often takes a tremendous amount of unexpected force – such as the passing odor of freshly baked M&M/fluff cookies – to get my ass to move.

I probably don’t need to tell you the problems that will develop as you let inertia work its voodoo, but like those scary stop-smoking commercials, I’m going to anyway: Atrophied muscles, weight gain, poor vision, loss of brainpower, diminished creativity, decreased sex drive, general ennui, a disturbing accumulation of knowledge of lame reality TV shows.

And inertia will increasingly sneak its way into other parts of your life, as well. It will keep you in unhealthy relationships and unfulfilling jobs. It will make the prospect of change seem like the most frightening thing in the world. Its primary goal is to turn your life into one big rut.

Seriously, you must fight inertia with all of your might.

Go to the gym. Play a sport. Find a fun new hobby, like say, blogging. Make love to your wife. Cook dinner. Meet up with friends (but not my college roommate, especially if there is a couch involved). Always be moving. Always be changing.

Yes, it is tiring to battle the God of Inertia, but the most appropriate place to sit your ass down is the coffin, not the couch.

I won’t join you in your fight, of course … but if they make it into a reality TV show, I’ll likely watch.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Half-Hearted Humility

Arrogant people suck. I personally find them so off-putting that I enjoy an unhealthy amount of pleasure when I realize they are unable to back up their constant boasting and bleating, as is often the case.

Let’s face it: Being arrogant is not only almost always unjustified, it also happens to be one of the most annoying possible traits found in a human being. If you are overconfident, you will not seek the necessary self-improvement when you fall short of goals. You will not be able to recruit others whose help you may need to succeed, nor will you be able to recognize the need for such assistance in any case. (In fact, you are likely to even encourage folks to conspire to bring you down a couple of notches). And frankly, whatever success you are able to achieve will assuredly come at a very heavy price – few true friends and supporters.

However, I also realize that without self-esteem and confidence, you will not go far in life. If you do not believe in your abilities, you will not push yourself. You will not try new things. You will not sufficiently promote your accomplishments. With the game on the line, I’d rather have the .260 hitter at the plate who relishes the pressure and believes he is destined to be great than the .320 hitter who shrinks when eyes are on him and worries constantly he will be found out as a fraud and a failure.

The key, then, is to strike a balance between arrogance and meekness. Those alliteratively inclined like me could call it conditional confidence, but I prefer to refer to it as half-hearted humility.

You see, being humble is important. It allows you to accept constructive criticism, to acknowledge and credit others, to demonstrate curiosity and learn from your mistakes. As another bonus, a humble individual is more likely to pleasantly surprise people than disappoint them. As long as it’s sincere, humility is a most endearing trait, and especially so when it’s not entirely warranted.

That’s the tricky part, of course: How to be sincerely humble when you actually have some talent and deep down may even house a cocky little bastard wanting to jump out and express itself.

But the truth is, humility is one of the easiest virtues to embrace as no matter what skill or ability you think you excel at, there is almost always someone, and most likely lots of someones, better than you.

When I was a young kid in elementary school, we used to take these standardized aptitude tests and the results would come back with a percentile where your overall score ranked. One time I landed in the 99% percentile and was so proud of myself until I soon realized that a couple of others in my fairly small class also achieved the same percentile ranking while bettering my actual score. Even with my tiny, developing mind, I could easily extrapolate that thousands and thousands of students across the country likely outperformed me. It was a humbling thought.

The fact is, truly being the best or No. 1 at anything in this world is very rare, indeed. Even people who may be at the very top of their game should understand that others will likely surpass their accomplishments at some point. And those who are universally recognized as the greatest of the great, whose impressive records and feats have stood the test of time and perhaps even changed the world, should still realize that, in the words of the immortal Kansas, ‘all we are is dust in the wind.’

So be humble. And believe in your humility enough so that others believe in it.

But in the privacy of your own home, when no one is watching, feel free to let your little cocky bastard sneak out for a bit. Just watch as he preens in front of the mirror, dances to an unheard beat, flexes for unseen cameras and gleefully reminds you how talented you are … He’s annoying, but he’s not all bad.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Fear

I mulled over a lot of options while thinking about what to write about for the letter ‘F’. Faith, friends, family, fun, freedom, forgiveness, fatherhood are all topics I want to expand on at some point during this process, but in the end I chose ‘Fear’ because overcoming one’s fears is probably the single most important thing one must do to live the fullest, most productive life possible.

In small, rational amounts, fears are generally fine things, and certainly serve their evolutionary purpose, alerting us to possible threats and dangers, and preventing us from attempting feats which could prematurely end our lives.

Alas, fears don’t often come in modest doses; they prefer to go big, to expand into paralytic phobias, wiggling their way deep into our psyches, crippling us from doing things that could dramatically enrich our lives.

It’s fear that will prevent you from asking your high-school crush to the prom.

It’s fear that will keep you from majoring in theater.

Fear will have you settle for the first job offer thrown your way. Keep you stuck in your hometown.

It is why you won’t buy that stock, start that business, kiss that girl, write that novel, visit that city, join that group, forgive that enemy, fight that battle, take that leap.

It’ll convince you to avoid a confrontation and refuse a challenge, to shirk commitments and shrink from changes.

Fear is the bitter-tasting wellspring for jealousy and hate and cynicism and regret.

In the end, fear will only leave you wondering what might have been.

Overcoming one’s fears, however, is no simple task; I certainly have few answers. This is strictly a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece.

I mean, I know how silly most of my fears are, how freeing it would be to rid myself of them, yet they still cast a very strong shadow in my life.

I may have outgrown or pushed aside out of necessity certain of my fears, but mostly I have failed thus far to do something which I know is of utmost importance.

It’s all quite sad, and I’m sure you’ll find more useful assistance within modern psychiatry or on the shelves of your local bookstore’s self-help section. Or perhaps conquering one’s fears merely requires accessing a reservoir of inner fortitude I don’t have or haven’t yet been able to reach. I only hope you will be more successful.

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Now for your amusement and education, I’ll quickly rundown a small sampling some of my more prominent fears – rating them on their intensity, rationality and impactivity (not a word I don’t think but should be) – and hopefully you’ll be able to see how destructive fears can be. Remember, this is merely a small taste of my fears, plenty more where these came from.

FEAR OF SNAKES, SPIDERS and OTHER CREEPY CRAWLY THINGS

Intensity – Low. So ever since I can remember, I’ve always hated bugs. Could never watch nature shows about creepy things, certainly couldn’t stomach it when such creatures dared enter my childhood home, dismantling its aura of safety and security in one fell crawl. If I would see in my room a spider (they were the most prevalent threat in suburban St. Louis living), my plan was always the same: Immediately flee the scene in search of my mother or father to have them get rid of the offending creature. If neither parent were home, I would not return to the scene of the crime for many hours, at which point I would just pray that the bug had the decency to crawl to my brother’s adjoining room.

Thankfully, over time, this particular fear has dissipated. Granted, I still get the chills and make that crinkled-up face when I encounter a bug. And I still strongly believe that civilized man and creepy crawly things should keep to their own natural habitats (thus my aversion to almost all outdoorsy activities, most notably camping).

But I now have a wife of my own, who is at least as averse to creepy, crawly things as I am, and removal of such creatures now justifiably falls to me, the supposed man of the house. I generally succeed in the task, with only minimal shrieking.

Rationality – Medium. True, those creepy, crawly creatures generally mean no harm, and most couldn’t do harm even if they had the desire, but a small number can be poisonous and/or spread disease. And let’s face it, all of them are rather unhygienic.

Impact – Low. Even at the height of this fear, it was never particularly paralyzing. It did perhaps prevent me from pursuing my dreams of becoming an exterminator.

FEAR OF FLYING

Intensity – Medium. I am still not convinced man should ever leave terra firma. I’m not a fan of the ocean, spooked out by its sheer vastness and by all the unknown, unseen things living in the blackness below (the fact I am not a strong swimmer doesn’t help), but my fear of the water pales in comparison to my fear of flying.

This fear has actually intensified over the years – I never enjoyed flying, but now I dread the days I must travel the friendly skies. For me, the worst part is takeoff, as the process of fighting gravity and achieving flight just seems totally unnatural and full of hubris to me, like it’s doomed to fail because we’re somehow disturbing nature’s laws or god’s will.

I think I’ve just seen one too many disaster flicks, but I just cannot fathom a more dreadful way of dying: Being trapped for several minutes in a plummeting, shaking vessel with nothing but the sound of screams and chaos to keep you company as you wait for the inevitable crash and the horror that will surely follow. (Well, perhaps drowning would be worse, but with some flights you have the chance of a water crash landing, making it a 2-for-1 special in worst ways to die).

Rationality – Medium. Now I know the stats that say flying is by far the safest mode of transportation, but I still believe the absolute horrific nature of what goes down in a plane crash justifies my fears on some level.

Impact – Low. So far, I’ve been able to just bear down and deal with the white knuckles. I’ve pretty much gone everywhere I’ve needed to go, including a couple of long trips to Europe and China. But with a new daughter, I sure do wish at least one set of grandparents lived within train distance!

FEAR OF DYING

Intensity – High. I’m pretty sure I was like most kids, completely unconcerned with my mortality. But ever since my maternal grandfather got sick some 20+ years ago, I began to be consumed by thoughts of death. Despite the fact that my paternal grandfather was the only close relative who died relatively early (mid-5os), I was convinced that I was going to die young. I think what I fear the most is the process – I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to die, but I assume there is going to be a lot of pain and suffering involved (I imagine it being like the worst flu you’ve ever had and you just don’t get better – though obviously a sudden death would be much different). I saw both my grandmothers die and it was an awful process, one that I think as a modern, evolved society we could handle a lot better. Many nights I keep myself up with thoughts of death and dying, often with me as the main subject. Unpleasant stuff, to say the least.

Rationality – Medium. You would think that this would be one of the more rational fears to have. Everyone does, in fact, die at some point. It’s likely to be quite painful. You don’t know the where or when, so there’s a disconcerting lack of control over the matter. And unless you’re a person of deep faith (in religion or science), what happens afterward is more than a little frightening to ponder. But actually, and partly because of all these reasons, death is a highly irrational thing to be afraid of – and certainly not worth wasting the precious minutes of living worrying about death often involves. It’s going to happen – you don’t know when or how but it’s likely going to suck – and you won’t know what comes next until it does, so why not appreciate your life and good health while you have them.

Impact – Medium.  Here’s the crazy thing – while the pain of death is certainly a major reason for my fear of it, at least a part of what I fear is that I will die with unfinished business and view my life as a waste of time and energy. But it’s my fear of dying, along with all of my other fears, that often prevents me from fully living. How utterly asinine.

The solution isn’t to ignore our mortality, either, which is what I find myself – and a lot of other people – doing, maybe as a kind of survival tactic (I know it’s somewhat contradictory for a person who fears death as much as I do, but even today, when I read about someone near my age who dies – an alarmingly more frequent occurrence – I feel oddly detached from the news, as if death was this surreal concept that won’t ever affect me or those closest to me). Instead, I need to respect death, come to grips with its finality, its inevitability, and its ultimate meaning, and use that understanding to better take advantage of the finite, glorious blessing that is life. Respice finem.

FEAR OF REJECTION/FEAR OF FAILURE

Intensity – High. These are actually two different fears but they’re closely related enough (and this blog is way too long already) that I’m lumping them together. Being rejected means being dismissed out of hand, without even being given the shot to prove yourself – think of the woman at the bar looking for the escape route, or the potential employer tossing the cover letter in the trash. Failing is even worse; It means you are given a chance but fall short of people’s expectations. Think of the woman several months later dumping you, or the boss firing you. In the former case, you fear people think you’re a fraud. In the latter, you know people think you’re a fraud. And in my life, both fears are omnipresent, and hugely paralyzing.

Rationality – Low. The worst part is these fears make little sense. First of all, only the rejected can give rejection its power. Who cares what other people think of us, our looks, our personality, our talents? You will never please everyone so you shouldn’t take rejection personally. Dismiss it. Scoff at it. Reject rejection. And as far as failure is concerned, it’s virtually a prerequisite for success. I defy you to find a successful person who hasn’t been waylaid by a significant failure at one point in their lives. The only trick is not letting failure stop you, which is, of course, a trick much easier said than done.

Impact – High. No fears have done more damage to me than these two. And while I won’t ever know the full extent of the opportunities that I may have lost because I was too afraid of rejection and/or failure, I do strongly believe I never reached my full potential because of these fears. In the words of the Rev. Sydney Smith: “A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage.”

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Distractions

The ability to focus.

In this modern world of tweeting and texting, channel surfing and Web browsing, instant messaging and status updating, that may just be the most vital skill necessary for success.

It is also, alas, something I entirely lack.

For instance, the astute reader of this blog (yes, I understand there should be readers first before I attempt to categorize them) will notice that this post is being written several months after my last post, a pace that is quite shameful.

Let’s just use very round numbers and say it’s been 80 days since my last blog posting. That’s 1900 hours. Let’s assume that 17 of them every day (less on the weekends, more on the weekdays) are consumed by necessary activities (e.g. child care, working, housework – no snickering, mrs. deadman - sleeping, showering, eating, etc.), which leaves about 560 hours of free time. Here’s how I believe a reasonable breakdown of that time was spent:

  • Facebook games – 100 hours.
  • Other Facebook activities – 20 hours
  • Fantasy Football/Watching Football (or other sports) – 240 hours
  • Other non-Facebook, non-fantasy football Internet activities – 100 hours (and only some of that porn!)
  • Dumb, mindless TV – 70 hours

Ok, maybe i kid a bit, but even if I’m in the ballpark, that leaves less than an hour a day for what I would consider productive use of my free time: exercising and playing sports, reading, thinking/meditating, going out with friends, doing crossword puzzles, watching intelligent TV, chatting with the Mrs., having sex, chatting with the Mrs. while having sex, etc. Totally pathetic and certainly not enough time for me to devote to maintaining an interesting and regularly updated blog, let alone to getting me anywhere closer to achieving my long-held dreams of being a successful fiction writer.

When I was in high school, I had this classmate and baseball teammate who wasn’t the most intelligent, or the most athletic, the most intellectually curious, or even the hardest working, but he seemed to excel at most everything he did because he could be extremely focused when he needed to be. I mean, how’s this for focus: In a math class during our senior year, he showed me his dayplanner, which really was more like a lifeplanner because in it he had mapped out a great deal of what he expected the rest of his early years would look like. Among the predicted highlights: President of the United States in 2020.

Now so far, the guy hasn’t been elected to any public office, but given Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, there’s still time. And his resume sure is an ideal one for the job. Here’s just a brief, incomplete synopsis of what he has accomplished so far:

  • Graduated from Duke University as an Angier B. Duke scholar
  • Worked as an undergrad helping war refugees in Croatia and Rwanda
  • Became a Rhodes Scholar and got his master’s and Ph.D. from Oxford
  • Won numerous amateur boxing medals (and has run a sub-3 hr marathon)
  • Joined the Navy as an officer in 2001 and became a SEAL in 2002
  • Deployed four times as Lt Cmdr, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Earned numerous military awards, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
  • Started and still serves as CEO of a charity/mentorship program for returning veterans.
  • Has written a couple of books, including a NY Times Bestseller on his experiences as a SEAL and humanitarian.

Clearly, focus doesn’t have to mean just being engaged in one activity. You can still have – and be successful within – a broad array of interests, but I guarantee you this guy wasn’t spending much time watching reality TV or playing Farmville when he was writing his thesis, or training for his boxing tournaments, or fighting in Iraq.

Now I’m sure the ability to focus has always been an important skill to have, but advances in technology have without question made it even more necessary. We’re now always connected. Distractions are everywhere. Hundreds of TV channels to watch, thousands of emails to read, millions of Web sites to visit (and now the ability to watch, read and visit them at nearly any time on nearly any device from nearly anywhere).

Perhaps the economists are right that technology has made us more productive at work – certainly it has allowed me as an investor to do tons of research much faster than was ever before possible – but I believe it has also eroded our ability to focus, especially over longer periods of times. I actually sometimes feel like modern technology is this actively negative force, maliciously keeping us from focusing on the things in life that truly matter. Technology perhaps helps us engage more fully with the world around us, but it also keeps us from engaging more meaningfully, making us like addicts who now crave – indeed, cannot function without – the quick cuts, the flashing lights, the 140-word summaries, the instant gratification.

I think at times about pulling the plug, going somewhere far away (at least a metaphorical move if not an actual physical one) and getting back to the basics: Reading, writing, raising a family, and just trying to find more productive ways to spend the precious days which remain. I think about that at times, but then I think about how much I’ll miss all the diversions, even if they’re fleeting, and all the connections, even if they’re only surface deep. And then I think … and then I think … now where was I?

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Charity

I basically do everything ass-backwards when it comes to charity.

They say you should give generously. I don’t give nearly enough. I’m not religious, but there is a laudable Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, which means giving up 10 percent of one’s income to charity (Well, the original intent of the tithe meant giving 10% of one’s income/production to God via the temple – and still means that for many Christians – but has now evolved to encompass charitable giving more broadly). I have no clue if the tithing is meant to be before or after taxes (I’m thinking post-tax), though I often fall well short of that 10 percent goal in either scenario. Heck, many years, I probably don’t tithe my tithing obligations (1 percent, for those not good at math).

They say you should give eagerly. With joy, even. I almost always give reluctantly, feeling a lot like Oda Mae Brown in Ghost when she is forced to give up that million-dollar check to the nuns on the street. I also get more than a little annoyed when people call my house to ask for donations. I try to be polite and respectful as I know these people are just doing their jobs (or even volunteering) and following their scripts, but I find the intrusion terribly annoying. It’s particularly galling the way they keep badgering you when you tell them ‘No, thanks,’ and they just keep moving their requested donation down in increments, to the point where you feel like the cheapest schmuck in the world when you tell them, ‘No I cannot give you $5. Now, please leave me alone.’

The truth is, though, these telemarketing calls are usually quite successful – I am a sucker who has trouble saying no, and usually wear down and give up something just so I can get off the phone. But this surrendering makes me even madder because I feel like I’ve been beaten at a game somehow, and I just know these yeses will only lead to more calls in the future. Which it does – barely a week goes by where I don’t get somebody calling me up asking for money. I now try to avoid answering any number which isn’t recognizable on caller ID, as these bastards always know to block or disguise their names, but once these guys have your number, they will NEVER stop calling until you pick up the phone.

They say you should give anonymously. This makes a ton of sense, as publicizing one’s charitable contributions is more than a bit gauche and tawdry. If the sole purpose of charity is to help others and do good in the world, then you should have little need of attaching your name to donations. But me, I always want to make sure people know when I have given and if at all possible (and impressive a figure), how much. When friends or family ask me to give to a cause, I have never once checked the ‘Donate Anonymously’ box that often accompanies the online forms. And when there is a donation number that will get my name in some sort of stupid brochure, I try and make sure to hit it.

Giving anonymously also prevents the recipient from feeling indebted or humiliated upon receiving aid. A noble idea, and yet one of my favorite ways of giving charity is giving dollars (or worse, pocket change) directly to panhandlers on the street. Why? Because it gives me an immediate sense of satisfaction, hearing their ‘God Bless Yous’ and seeing their genuine looks of appreciation. But do I stop and think about what little good those dollar bills or quarters are actually going to do and how low and beaten down these people must feel that they’ve been forced to beg for my meager assistance in the first place. Yeah, perhaps they are just happy to have the money to find their next meal (or their next score – I make no judgments about how a homeless person finds whatever small happiness he can get in his life), but surely they must also at times feel a tremendous loss of dignity at what they are being forced to do, and the fact that I am getting self-satisfaction out of the small gesture basically negates any of its inherent goodness.

They say you should give more than money. Money definitely helps, but donating one’s time and effort often provides a much more meaningful impact. I fail miserably here as well. One time about a decade ago, I sponsored an inner-city student to help him attend a well-run Catholic school. My brother provided the majority of the financial assistance while it was my main job to help guide him and his family through the process, and make sure the kid was adjusting and succeeding in the new environment. But I was a single guy living it up in Manhattan, and here too, I gave the minimum amount necessary. I made little effort to help him improve his faltering grades, or to give him advice on how to get into college, or to make any kind of lasting impact that could have affected his life beyond his graduating high school. It was yet another example of good intentions gone bad, and I have regrettably lost touch with the student and his family. I also have rarely volunteered my free time for charity since then.

Yet, despite my numerous shortcomings in charitable giving – my poor track record, my questionable motives, my begrudging attitude – I just don’t feel you can do charity wrong. You can do it in better or worse ways, and I resolve hereby to try and keep improving my technique with each passing year – to give bigger and smarter and eagerer.

On the other hand, I am not embarrassed to acknowledge that giving charity also makes me feel good.  The desire to give of oneself to help others is one of the things that separates and elevates us as a species. Whether it’s done because the Bible says doing it will get us into heaven or because natural selection has made empathy a defining human trait, charity is a key ingredient of a successful and well-lived life.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Ben ‘Boozie’ Zlepper

Ben ‘Boozie’ Zlepper was my grandfather. That’s the only way I knew him, which is to say, I knew hardly nothing of the man and absolutely all I needed to know.

He had a life before I entered it, of course, but only the barest bits and pieces have made their way to me through the years. An immigrant from Russia who came to the US in 1922 at the age of 8. A solid athlete who boxed and played baseball. A working-class man, impoverished for much of his life, family hit hard by the Great Depression. Ran a neighborhood clothing store while my mom and her brother were young, barely making ends meet. Enjoyed some modest success as an insurance salesman later in life, pushing product in some of the poorest sections of St. Louis City. Stuck in a volatile, love-hate marriage.

The Young Boozie

Those are the facts I know. Mere fragments of a long and active life. Insufficient. Unrevealing. A poor snapshot unworthy of the dashing young man you see to the right. The full story worthy, I’m sure, of a more complete telling, but that is not the one I have to tell.

I can only talk about the man who was my grandfather, my Zeyda, and hope that will be enough.

In my last post, I talked about aging, and discussed at length the kind of old man I hope to become. It would have been much simpler to have just written, ‘I’d like to be my grandfather.’

For I remember my Zeyda (the only one I ever knew – my dad’s dad died before I was born) as a supremely gentle, fun-loving man, who rarely spoke ill of others, hardly complained about anything, and loved most of all to dote on his kids and grandkids.

I remember the way he would shuffle slowly into our house. I remember kissing him on the cheek, enjoying the feeling of his stubble on my skin.

I remember his clothes, the classic older man getups – the polyester plaid pants, the velour shirts, the white shoes, the thick heavy coats, and always the smooth brown packer hat.

I remember his laugh, a melodic tone that alluded to a bit of mischievousness and had just a touch of the gravel that comes from a lifetime of smoking.

And boy, do I remember his smell. A musty, masculine odor, like the smell of clothes that have been hanging in the closet too long, mixed with a tinge of the stale cigar smoke that coated his clothing long after he gave up the habit (well, he gave up the smoking but never stopped chomping on those unlit cigars).  Tough to describe, his smell is probably the memory that lingers most strongly, seems to rise up out of nowhere whenever I try to conjure up those days.

I remember the way he would always immediately try to sneak me a $20 bill when my Bobba wasn’t looking. Twenty dollars was a windfall for a young kid, especially back in those days, and I always felt guilty about taking the money (though never guilty enough to refuse).

I remember the way he would either go sit on the La-Z-Boy recliner in our den, often eventually falling asleep while Wheel of Fortune or the ballgame played on the TV, or he would go downstairs and ask mom to put on the Kenny Rogers album while he sat on the couch and there, too, inevitably end up asleep (‘The Gambler’ was his favorite song and I can’t hear it today without thinking of him).

He was there for me whenever I needed him, offering advice – but only when asked – encouraging me at every turn, so obviously filled with nothing but love and pride for me and his other two grandchildren. I remember a lot about him, but I wish I remembered so much more.

At my Bar Mitzvah, the cameraman passed a microphone around my family’s table, offering everyone the chance to speak. But my Zeyda was a shy man, of few words, and on the video you can only see the back of his bald head shaking as he declines the opportunity. I wish I could go back in time and force him to say something, anything. Maybe I’d even get a laugh.

One day when I was a freshman in high school, I came home on the verge of tears because I had found out I had been cut trying out for the baseball team. Zeyda called and we chatted for a bit. He told me my coaches ‘don’t know shit,’ which made me laugh despite myself. We didn’t talk long; he never was one to overstay his welcome.

But something also seemed off on that call – his sentences were often incomplete, his thoughts scattered. I didn’t think much of it until later that night when my parents called to tell me Zeyda had had a bad stroke.

I didn’t know what that meant, having a stroke, so I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I went to visit him. That certainly wasn’t my grandfather lying there in his bed, wrapped up in wires and tubes, staring blankly into space as my family gathered around. He barely moved or made a sound, except to offer up the occasional grimace, arising from some mysterious source of pain or discomfort. I sat near his bedside, unsure of what to do or say. Should I touch him? Did he recognize me?

Near the end of the visit, my dad started giving a rah-rah speech, telling Zeyda that he was OK, that he’d get better if he was willing to work at it. I know he meant well, but the optimism seemed out of place and made me even sadder. I looked at my grandfather, who displayed zero response to what my dad was saying. I understood on some level that for the first time in my life I was staring at death and all of its implications, and it was too much for me. I started bawling. Not just a few tears, but total waterworks, to the point where I couldn’t see anything out of my eyes.

And then all of a sudden, in the midst of this, I felt a rough finger brush against my eyes. It was my grandfather, reaching across his body, over the bed, futilely trying to wipe away my tears. The gesture, of course, made the tears flow even harder, and I felt – but couldn’t see – my grandfather take my hand, bring it to his lips and kiss it. By this time, everyone in the room was crying.

The gestures, his first meaningful acts of recognition since the stroke, gave us a sense of hope that things would one day return to normal.

They never did.

Through the sheer persistence and devotion of his wife, who seemed to prefer the silent, compliant and needier version of my grandfather, he lived for about another 10 years, shuffled off from one dreadful nursing home to the next.

I know it’s totally selfish, but I feel those last ten years blurred and irrevocably damaged the images and memories I have of my Zeyda, at least of the one I preferred to remember.

It is true that occasionally and especially early on, there were moments of relative lucidity, when he would remember our names and seem happy to have his family around. Even later, near the end, there’d be rare glimpses of the old Zeyda, like the time he tried to grab the gams of a particularly attractive waitress at a St. Louis Bread Co. restaurant.

Mostly, though, he would sit uncomfortably in his wheelchair, his face scrunched up in a perpetual scowl, and displaying a temper I had never seen before with his nurses.

He no longer wore his hats. He no longer had that smell. And the laugh, of course, was gone for good, in its place only an echo of happier times, growing fainter and fainter with each passing year.

I can still hear it sometimes, but only barely.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Aging

It’s funny how easy it is to go through life and barely take note of the fact that you are getting older.

And that you will one day be old.

Obviously, as a society, we are obsessed with aging. We are encouraged to fight the scourge of old age at literally any cost (despite the unattractiveness of what, alas, remains the only other option). We revel in stories of 94-year-old marathoners, we ingest the pills and slather on the creams that promise even brief sips at the fountain of youth, and we continually push back the timeline that once heralded Old Age’s onset (i.e. “60 is the new 50″).

Still, the aging process happens slowly, and even for someone like me who is unhealthily preoccupied with matters of mortality, imagining oneself as actually being old is an impossible task. I look in the mirror, and despite the thinning hairline, graying beard and emerging wrinkles, I just cannot see a version of myself which resembles the images I see when I think of my now-deceased grandparents.

But while I can’t picture an old-age me, I sure think about it a lot more now that I have a daughter.  Just calling myself a dad makes me feel about ten years older. I often daydream about what I’ll be like when my little baby girl has her bat mitzvah, or graduates college, or gets married – ‘events that may be closer than they appear in the mirror’. I put actual, scary numbers on the ages that correlate with the milestones (50, 60, and hopefully not much older than 80 in the above examples) and what was once an abstract and nebulous concept feels much more concrete.

And this gets me thinking about what kind of old person I want to be. I’ve obviously seen and dealt with all types of old people in my life. Hollywood may want to convince us otherwise, but look around, they’re everywhere. And frankly, a lot of them suck. Disrespectful, I know, but for a group of people who are supposed to have accumulated all this wisdom, so many of them seem mean, short-tempered, full of regret – canes in one hand and supremely bad attitudes in the other. (And by the way, I’m talking about the old people I see out and about on the street, not the ones who may be in hospitals or nursing homes with legitimate reasons to be so cranky.)

Maybe they’re upset because they no longer ever have a moment when they’re not in actual physical anguish or maybe it’s just they feel life has passed them by, that most of their friends have died and no one cares about them (except for the politicians who count on them as the one motivated bloc of voters who consistently make decisions at the ballot box based almost entirely on self-interest).

I know I shouldn’t judge given I haven’t walked a step in their orthopedic shoes, but whatever the reasons, being so bloody unlikeable seems a poor way to live life. True at any age, but especially so when a visit from the Grim Reaper is likely ‘nigh. To try and combat what may just be a natural inclination to turn nastier and less patient as the years go by, I have come up with a few rules that I hope to follow if and when I officially become an old man.

1) Move to a warmer place.

At one time not long ago, I scoffed at the tendency of old people to migrate en masse to someplace like Florida, believing it something akin to waving the white flag on life. Seasons needed to be experienced to be appreciated. How can you truly enjoy spring if your winter is nothing but a rainy, slightly less hot summer? Just as the inevitable harsh setbacks of life must be endured and overcome, so too, I reasoned, must the harsh winter.

But as I turn the page on one of the most miserable New York City winters ever, I am thinking such a migration may be in the best interests of all involved. Cold weather just sucks, and I’m sure it sucks worse when the blood flow weakens and the bones turn brittle. Kids should know seasons, but for the old, it’s just not necessary. Hell, even autumn, once my favorite season, now seems little more than a particularly apt metaphor for the death that is rapidly approaching.

Plus, being someplace warm and comfortable should make it easier to follow the rest of my rules.

2) Join a senior living center.

The time will likely come when you no longer can or want to handle the aggravations and responsibilities of maintaining your own house. And as long as you’re going to migrate someplace warm with the rest of your old fogey peers, you might as well join one of those senior living communities.

Don’t get me wrong, nursing homes are still atrocious, foul-smelling waiting rooms for the Other World that are to be avoided at all costs, but there’s plenty to appreciate about a well-maintained assisted senior living center. My dad’s mom lived and thrived for many years in one of those places when she was older.

I mean, what’s not to like? You get most of your needs taken care of, and even if you’re lucky enough to still have a living spouse or some other family members in the area, it’s nice to have folks you can count on for support or social activities. They’re like fancy dorm rooms for the aged, minus the rampant sex and drugs (though I understand the male-female ratios are pretty favorable at these places for the men who manage to make it that far).

3) Act young.

I’m not talking about being in denial about being old – that’s lame – but there’s no reason why you can’t do most of the same things you liked doing when you were younger. For me, that will mean doing stuff like playing video games, eating Lucky Charms and going to the batting cages.

Granted, you won’t have the same energy level, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. For instance, take the simple evening stroll, a relaxing and healthy bit of exercise perfect for the older set. But why not spice it up a bit and put some pep in that step? Listen to some music and break out some random dance moves, pet passing dogs, high-five passing neighbors, take a ride on an unoccupied swing in a playground (as long as there aren’t any little girls around cuz that’s just creepy).

BTW, as a related aside, never, ever say ‘Goddamn kids these days”. Oh, you’ll think it often, I’m sure (I do even now), but try to refrain from expressing it (even if in jest). Instead, why not try and keep up with what the younger folks are doing, what technologies they’re using, what shows they’re watching, what music they’re listening to. You might not learn anything, you might not like what you see or hear, but then again, you just might. And either way, it probably won’t hurt you.

4) Take a class.

Pottery or poetry, I don’t care, but don’t stop learning. I probably will take a photography or screenwriting course. So many incredible things to learn in this world, and by the time you’re old, you’ll have forgotten much of the stuff you once knew anyway. You could take a class at an organization that caters to older folks but I’ve always thought it’d be fun to sit in on like a community college class, stimulated by all the young minds (and young bodies – oh yes, I will be a dirty old man).

5) Don’t complain, especially about your health.

This will be the toughest rule for me to follow as I love to complain, especially about my health. But really, no one wants to hear it. It’s depressing, and unless you’re very sick, not worth lingering on.

Even if you are in pain, focus instead on inquiring about others and appreciating the blessings you do have.

6) Vote (selflessly) or Die!

Unless we’re talking about choosing your senior living center’s board president, never make a decision at the ballot box based on self-interest. I’ve always found it ugly how politicians feel they must cater to the aging electorate (and its powerful AARP lobby) and believe it’s one of the main reasons why this country never seems to solve its pressing financial issues. Have faith that the younger generations will respect their elders and take care of you, but when it comes time to vote, just ask your child or grandchild who they’re voting for and do likewise.

7) Treasure your memories while you make new ones.

Alzheimer’s is perhaps the most evil of all diseases as before it kills, it takes away the things that make us who we are. So if you’re lucky enough to be old and have most of your memory intact, treasure it. Take a moment often to think about the past – pore over yearbooks or photo albums, watch some old videos, read long-packed cards and love letters. On lonely nights, really try to relive a pleasant memory you once had – the night of your prom, the birth of your first child, etc. – and embrace the pictures and voices that come flooding back to you.

Of course, don’t dwell on the past to the point where you forget that you are still living, that new memories can still be made, if not so much for you then for the ones who still love you and will remain after you’re gone.

8) Be grateful for help.

Older people are certainly deserving of respect and entitled to a fair amount of assistance, but they should never forget to be thankful for the extra help received from loved ones and/or strangers. Gratitude is probably something folks of all ages could use a bit more of, but I feel I’ve too often seen a stunning lack of manners and appreciation from older people, who should obviously know better.

9) Avoid hospitals at all costs.

I know I’ve already ripped on nursing homes, but hospitals aren’t much better. Obviously they serve a purpose and sometimes can’t be avoided, but I’ve heard and experienced so many stories of people going into a hospital for a simple or routine procedure and getting stuck in an never-ending string of unfortunate – and often unrelated – complications. Perhaps it’s just to be expected that sickness leads to more sickness, but certain things about hospitals trouble me greatly. They are overcrowded and understaffed, fertile environments for infections and bacteria, often limited by severe financial strain and an overworked, sometimes incompetent, usually arrogant team of medical professionals. If at all possible, stay away … unless you’re visiting a sick friend or having a new grandchild (and even then, leave quickly).

10) Know when to call it quits.

Granted, a lot of what I’ve written so far is more than a bit flippant. It’s easy to say I will move someplace warm, act young, be thankful, avoid hospitals, treasure my memories, etc. but the sad, hard truth of aging is that if you live long enough, you will likely lose control over much of what transpires in your life. Bad things will happen and a proper attitude will only go so far in making things bearable.

I remember my grandfather once watching one of his peers move around a shopping mall with a walker and swearing he would never use such an undignified contraption. A few years later, he had a massive stroke and never walked without assistance again. I was devastated when he had a difficult time remembering my name, but though it seemed a small, silly thing in comparison, I hoped at least that the stroke’s utter brutality had the decency to also take away his ability to remember his resistance to walkers.

Personally, I hope I will have enough control over my life that when the time comes when I can no longer recognize or appreciate the joy that life can bring those who are open to it, when pain or sadness overwhelms all that is good, that I will have the ability – and the courage – to call it quits (and also someone in my life who will love me enough to respect that wish and help me move on).

This may sound grim or even barbaric, but I think it is quite the opposite … To end one’s life with a small measure of dignity is in some ways the best we can hope for. I have written about this before, but I believe it is ludicrous the way our society views death and end-of-life issues.

Of course, right now the only states that acknowledge the right to die and let humans give each other the same amount of respect and dignity we give our pets are Oregon, Washington and Montana, not exactly warm-weather climates. Guess I may have to rethink rule #1 …

The Alphabet Game: The Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living

When Mrs. Deadman and I want to amuse ourselves while whittling away some time, we often play the alphabet game. It’s quite a simple affair. Most of you are probably familiar with it, but for the rest of you, this is how it works:

Someone picks a random category or topic (say, ‘Clothing Store Chains’ or ‘Diseases’). Then, the other person (you can play with more than two, but surely you can find better ways to pass the time if you’re in a group) thinks of an answer belonging in that category and starting with the letter ‘A’ (say ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ or ‘Alzheimer’s’). Then you continue down the alphabet, alternating answers as you go (Typically, you skip ‘Q’ and ‘X’ because those are virtually impossible unless your topic is medical TV dramas or lame musical instruments). If one of you can’t think of an answer that fits, the other one gives it a shot. You don’t really keep score or anything, you just know when you’re not pulling your weight and then get mad at the other person for being so smug and clever.

The Mrs. and I have played The Alphabet Game riding trains, walking the dog, lying in bed, and most impressively, while dancing our first dance at our wedding (neither one of us was at all comfortable with all those sets of eyes upon us, and playing the game ended up being a great way to speed up those awkward few minutes. And as a bonus, on our wedding video it just looks like we were having a fun, thoughtful conversation. BTW, the topic was ‘Our Wedding Guests, by First Name’).

In any case, I’ve had trouble for some time staying dedicated to this blogging thing. Ok, that’s putting it mildly, and having a 5-month-old daughter has only made it worse (Plenty more to write about, of course, just not the time). So in a desperate, Hail-Mary attempt to get back into the writing habit, I figured why not play my own little version of the alphabet game. Maybe it will give this blog some structure and keep me motivated.

Every week or so, I plan on writing a post on a subject that begins with a different letter, methodically going down the alphabet (and probably skipping Q and X).  Sometimes the blog will be about a nebulous concept, sometimes a specific issue or person. Sometimes it will be a short piece, other times long. Sometimes serious, other times not so much. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy and there’s a timeless topic that fits, I may just reprint one of my earlier blog posts (not like anyone’s read them … or, sadly, will be reading this). That’s the plan, anyway.

Now when I finish (not ‘if’ dammit, but ‘when’), I’m not sure what I’ll have, aside from hopefully 24-26 blog posts that are somewhat interesting, at least to members of my immediate family. I’ve always assumed my life would be a short one and I’m oddly obsessed with issues of death and mortality, so especially now that I have a daughter, I guess mostly I hope as a finished whole, the series will stand as some sort of silly personal legacy, helping to define who I am, what I care about, and why I rock (and if never finished, it will stand as an even more appropriate legacy of why I don’t rock).

Whatever this ends up being, it sure as hell won’t amount to a Guide to Living, since that is like Tony Robbins-pompous and can’t really exist … and if it could, I certainly wouldn’t be the one to compose such a thing. I can’t imagine anyone more clueless on the topic of proper living as me. Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living just sounded good to me.

So let’s get it started … sometime soon, of course.

Lucky Dog: A Lesson on Living, Loving and Loss

My brother put his 18-year-old dog to sleep yesterday.

My sadness today is profound, almost overwhelming, and I am trying to figure out why.

Obviously, the dog himself, a terribly sweet, ridiculously cute cocker-beagle mix, is the primary reason. He was my brother’s dog -  there’s no denying that – but he was really my first pet as well, my roommate and companion for the eight-plus years I lived with my brother after college.

When I came home from my first real job, he would greet me with that wagging stub of a tail and the butt jerking uncontrollably from side to side. I would lie on the floor, and he would pin me down, licking my face til I could stand it no longer.

I took him for walks every day. I taught him roll over – a trick we had to retire several years ago when it became too demanding for his aging frame – and play dead – which he did pretty well, except for that dang wagging tail, which couldn’t help but anticipate the forthcoming treat.

Lucky gave my life joy and meaning, structure and responsibility.

However, I moved out on my own five years ago, and while I saw Lucky at least once a week and would occasionally watch him when my brother left town, I was no longer much of a caretaker for the dog.

It was my brother who really had to put up with Lucky’s growing eccentricities – like the way he would whimper for hours on end and his increasingly picky appetite (a sure sign of sickness as this was a dog, after all, that would once eat the grossest things the New York City streets had to offer) – and who near the end had to give him the daily injections of IV fluid and clean up all the household accidents as his kidneys started failing more rapidly.

So while some of my connection to Lucky might have been lost over the years, I’m sure some of my sadness also stems from how intensely I feel my brother’s loss. I was there with my brother as he made the correct but horribly final and painful decision to give Lucky a peaceful end, and as he held the dog’s body in his lap one last time. And at least some of my pain and sadness must stem from knowing how badly my brother is hurting right now.

And I think there is something else that is making me sad. Something a bit more esoteric, a bit more selfish, and yet just as deeply felt: Lucky’s death in a certain way marks the passage of an era for me. I first met that dog when my brother, who had adopted Lucky a few months earlier, picked me up at the San Francisco airport when I moved there after college, armed with nothing more than a suitcase full of clothing and a journalism degree from Northwestern University. It was such an exciting time. My life and all its wonderful possibilities seemed ahead of me.

And for the next decade and then some, from one coast to another, from one job to another, Lucky was a part of that growing-up experience. It’s been fascinating to see all the people who’ve been part of my life the past 14 years – high school and college friends who came to visit, new friends, co-workers and colleagues, family members I got to know for the first time – who met Lucky and felt compelled to express their own connection to him on Facebook.

All those people who have been in and out of my life, and all those days, it seems to have flown by in an instant, and I wonder sometimes if I’ve made the right decisions in my life, if I’ve taken full advantage of the opportunities given me, and whether i am happy with where I’ve ended up.

Yes, I am married with a great wife, have my own awesome dog and am expecting a baby daughter in the fall, and I know that challenging and exciting moments are ahead of me. But that special post-college time – when my life and its direction seemed a complete mystery, even to me – feels like it now has passed forever along with Lucky.

Yesterday, my brother, his girlfriend, her sister and I took Lucky to the park where he had spent so many happy moments. It was such a beautiful day, with a bright sun and mostly cloudless sky giving off the gentle warmth of early spring. Lucky seemed very happy, taking in the familiar smells, feeling the soft grass beneath his paws, enjoying all the extra attention he was getting (though I’m sure all of the petting was a bit uncomfortable on his sore body, he took it like a champ, there for others until the end.)

Keenly aware of how easily we can take time, and loved ones, for granted, I told myself repeatedly to appreciate these moments, absorb them fully, take it all in, the beauty of the day, the pain of the impending loss. We would never have it back. Not the dog, not the day, not the emotions. None of it.

Now, as I sit here less than 24 hours later trying to recapture those moments, the memories are already fading. Pictures are blurred, hazy, insufficient.

And if that isn’t a reason for profound sadness, I’m not sure what is.

2009 MOFT of the Year: Mrs. Deadman (of course!)

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these, but it’s that time of year when I must bestow the coveted My One Favorite Thing award of 2009. Last year, you may recall, Cottonelle Wet Wipes Toilet Paper won the 2008 MOFT, just edging out Barack Obama.

This year, there are so many worthy candidates. Certainly Obama was in the running again, as his January inauguration provided one of the more stirring moments of the year. But while infinitely better than what we had at this time last year, the Prez has been just a bit disappointing to me, so he’ll have to settle with his consolation Nobel.

Other early notable contenders for the 2009 MOFT included Reddi-Wip, the Oster Electric Wine Opener, Scramble (a perennial favorite), Phil Ivey, the St. Louis Cardinals, Dexter, our housekeeper Gloria, and Ingrid Michaelson. Meanwhile, a number of late dark-horse candidates in recent months have emerged, including the Wii (finally got one and it rocks), Modern Family, fantasy football, and even in the last couple of days, this hilarious, mind-fu** of a video.

But in the end, to be honest, it really was no contest. By far, My One Favorite Thing of 2009 is my brand shiny new wife! (She may in fact be even better than the Wet Wipes!)

For those of you don’t know, I married the now Mrs. Deadman on Halloween in Saratoga Springs, NY. It was quite a lovely and fun event if I do say so myself, with almost all of our closest family and friends in attendance.

While I so far am very glad I took the plunge, overcoming the commitment phobia that’s plagued me my entire life, i do have a couple regrets from that weekend. One is the DJ, who sucked so hard I am surprised there was any air left in the reception hall (she will certainly be a top contender if I get around to doing My One Least Favorite Thing of 2009 sometime next week).

Another thing I regret was not taking the time sometime during the night to give this little speech about my new wife. It was something I planned on doing, just like the Mrs. and I both planned on taking a brief moment to thank a bunch of people, but we wanted to try and spread out the speeches and toasts and let people eat and have fun, and then it just never seemed like the right time.

It really is amazing how crazy weddings are when you’re one of the key participants. The night just flies by, and you really feel like you have no control over anything. (Apparently, it wasn’t just the wedding night that didn’t go exactly as planned – Sorry Genghis!). No matter how many people warn you to try and appreciate the moment and be truly present, it’s basically impossible. You feel more like a character in a movie than a real live human being making perhaps the most important decision of your life.

But the truth is, we just should have done what we had planned. It was our wedding and our party, and we just should have found time to thank the people who helped make it all happen, and I should have delivered my little ode to Mrs. Deadman (which to be fair I had thrown together very quickly the week before.)

I guess instead, I will have to settle with posting it here and hoping people read it. So without further ado, here it is:

I just want to say a few words about my beautiful, brand-spanking new wife. Keri and I had our first date 2 years, 2 months, and 2 weeks ago from this very day. And I knew very early on, I had stumbled upon something special.

In fact, I remember one day, no more than a couple of months into our relationship, getting ready with Keri to go out and I found myself just staring at her for a few moments before eventually blurting out ‘How in the world did I get so lucky to have found you?”

“No seriously,” I asked, “how in the world have you stayed single long enough so that I could find you?!?”

I mean, here was this incredibly smart, extremely sexy and cool girl. Sensitive and sweet – with just enough spice and even a touch of the occasional vinegar to keep things interesting. Pretty and funny – not only appreciating my own sense of humor, which is tough enough, but also constantly making me laugh. And it all came bundled in this one little enticing skinny package!

So of course i thought there had to be a catch.

Now it turns out there was no catch, but as I said, this was very early on, so my question might have been a bit naive.

Because the truth is, it’s just that relationships are hard, very hard – and I think people in general – and especially as we get older – are too quick to throw our hands up in the air and throw in the towel when things get a little tough and the inevitable concerns arise. It’s so easy to just give up and move on.

But I think it’s OK when two people in a relationship sometimes have differences of opinions, competing philosophies. It’s healthy. Would be boring otherwise. It’s when we accept and maybe even embrace the differences that we grow as people and couples.

And there is no doubt I have learned so much from Keri over the past two years, especially about how to live a good life and be a better person. And honestly, it would have been impossible to move on because even during tougher times, there were certain things about Keri that stuck with me.

Like how genuinely scared and concerned she looked when she came to visit me in the ER after I had a little heart scare, tears welling in her eyes as I was hooked up with all these wires (probably worrying what the hell she was getting into).

Or like how she is with our dog, Oliver, the love and affection she showers on him – and this was most certainly not a dog person when we first met.

Or how she makes me laugh by breaking out into one of her silly godawful dances, such as the infamous one-legged south-facing boogie (which perhaps if you’re lucky enough, she’ll share with you tonight).

Or how warm she is with all of my family and friends, who will invariably come up to me after meeting her and warn me, “Don’t you dare F this up, Darren!!”

It was just always so easy to envision Keri as my wife because she is exactly what i’ve always pictured when I thought about my life in this stage.

And the more I think about my original question – “How in the world did you stay single long enough so that I could find you? – the more I wonder if the answer is not just that relationships are hard, but that perhaps, this is the only way it could have possibly been.

That it, and us, and today were always going to be. Had to be.

And I am just so happy and thankful right now, so excited about our future … and I love you very, very much!

Ennui’s a bitch … and then you blog

With a couple of exceptions, I’ve been gone from blogging for several months. I’ve rarely posted. I’ve barely commented. Heck, I’ve even stopped visiting the site on a regular basis.

I have a number of legitimate excuses – and some not-so legitimate excuses – for my time away. I did a lot of wedding planning. I picked up online poker again. I broke a wrist. I got married and had a minimoon. I fell behind work at my paying day job. Fantasy football started.

But mainly, my prolonged absence boils down to something much simpler, and in many ways, much more disturbing: I stopped caring.

I don’t know if it’s a case of issue fatigue or too much self-absorption, but I found myself getting increasingly uninterested with the world at large. Iranian election fraud? Hmm … Health care reform and town hall madness? Whatever. New Palin book? Of course. 10% unemployment? Them’s the breaks.

Lots of things going on right now that should have my hackles raised, my blood boiling, and my fingers typing in a mad blogger’s rage. But instead, all I feel is complacency and blahness. It’s not just dagblog.com I’m avoiding – it’s basically all news. The one event I got most excited about this week was Adam Lambert’s blatant display of homosexuality on the American Music Awards.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. My best guess is that the biggest news items of the day seem so familiar. The issues may be new – health care reform and Afghanistan strategizing, for instance – but the underlying themes – nasty partisanship and silly wars – seem so depressingly repetitive. I guess in some ways I feel cheated out of that change I thought I had voted for last year.

I’m not blaming Obama, of course, for my hacklelessness. I’m blaming myself for getting seduced by high and ultimately unreasonable expectations. Believing in change is a fool’s game. We are who we are – as people, and as a society.

It may not sound like it, but believe it or not, I’m pretty content personally. Sure, I wish I was doing something more fulfilling in my life (and is it cool for me to cop to both a healthy amount of excitement over Genghis’ new book deal and also a wee bit of envy??) but still, its Thanksgiving weekend, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Good friends, a decent-paying gig and a cool boss, lots of loving family members, a nice apartment, a winning fantasy football team, two new video game machines (wedding gifts that we still haven’t played yet – talk about complacency!) and especially a lovely brand-shiny-new wife.

So I figure this is as good as time as any to try and get back in the blogging groove. My Muse isn’t back yet really, but sometimes I guess you gotta force it. After all, being productive in life is mostly about establishing – or re-establishing – habits.

Now how about that Dubai debt crisis? That’s some crazy shit, huh? … Sigh, this will take some time. Ennui’s a bitch.

MOFT: Episode 18 (Monk)

I have to apologize for my prolonged posting absence, but things have been getting hectic. And with several trips upcoming, including two jaunts to Vegas (one my bachelor party!!), a pre-wedding party in my hometown St. Louis, a wedding (with still a millions things that need to be done), a minimoon, and various other things happening all in the next couple of months, I have a feeling it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

One thing I still amazingly always find time for, however, is television. Fortunately, it’s the summer so the Tivo is rather sparse, but one of my favorite shows – Monk – recently started airing new episodes. Alas, it is the final season for the underappreciated comedic detective series on USA Network, which wins the latest My One Favorite Thing of the Week award. I encourage everyone to check out the last few shows on Friday night 9/8c

The strong character ensemble team is easily the best thing about Monk. Tony Shalhoub has received well-deserved accolades, including a couple of Emmys I believe, for his performance as the title character – the lovable, OCD-afflicted, genius detective Adrian Monk. Monk, who was kicked off the San Francisco police force after suffering from mental illness when his wife was killed in a car bomb, is afraid of just about everything. And somehow Shalhoub has managed to keep all of Monk’s numerous tics and neuroses from getting stale and annoying over the years. Along with Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House, Shalhoub has created one of the two most memorable TV personalities of the past decade.

But truthfully, the rest of the Monk cast is just as strong, each of the main actors creating endearing, funny characters who play off of Monk’s oddities extremely well. The only other performer you’ll probably recognize is Ted Levine, Monk’s former boss Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, as he was Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. He’s terrific, gruff and perpetually exasperated with the antics of Monk and his own hilariously inept underling Lieutenant Randy Disher.

But my favorite non-Monk actor is probably Traylor Howard, who plays Monk’s assistant Natalie Teeger. She is tough but caring, patient but strong-willed, and she gives as good as she takes. And even more impressively, I honestly first hated her when she came on the show because she replaced a character I thought was awesome, Monk’s original assistant Sharona.

Now I don’t want to oversell the show. The writing is pretty good, but the plots usually aren’t much to speak of, and you’ll probably figure out most of the ‘mysteries’ (many of them taken from recent headlines) long before Monk finally solves the case near the end of the show. I’m sure fans of shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote will often feel a strong case of deja vu.

But still, it’s top-notch entertainment, and I’m sure going to miss Monk and the gang when they disappear from the airwaves for good next month.

Questions: The Wedding Edition

Oh man. I used to love weddings. I really did. I thought they were fun affairs where you got to see family and friends, drink and dance, and just have a good ole time. Plus, when I was single, I almost always got lucky at weddings – something in the air lends itself to sex and romance I guess.

So i always thought I wanted a big wedding because then it’s all the good things about weddings but you’re the center of attention and getting all the gifts!! What’s not to love?

Of course, now that I’m knee deep in planning my own wedding, I understand. They are awful, awful things. My family and my family-to-be are doing more than fair share in helping to plan and pay for the wedding (big shout-out to the parent-in-laws to be here!) and still the list of things to do and pay for is just about endless. Is it too late now to elope???

Anyway, in the spirit of wedding frustration, I present this edition of questions. Now in some of these, I’m appealing for advice, so please help a brother out.

As always, for a more active discussion, visit this post over at dagblog.com

1) What’s the one song you think should be played at every wedding? What one song should never be played? help us build the ultimate wedding playlist!

2) Think back to the weddings you enjoyed most. What did they have in common? What about the ones you enjoyed the least?

3) What number of people is the ideal size for a wedding?

4) What’s your ideal wedding: A) Small destination wedding b) Big, lavish affair c) Elope to nearest City Hall or Vegas d) Does not exist

5) If you’ve gone through your own wedding, what one piece of advice would you give someone about to plan/have their own?

6) What is one wedding tradition you would like to see obliterated forever?

7) Best part about the typical wedding meal: a) Cocktail food, b) main course, c) dessert, d) just the cocktails?

8) Ethnic weddings: Which ones are the best and why?

9) What’s a good groomsmen gift? (Do not say a fully loaded Mercedes, Genghis!)

10) Pick one: a) Band or DJ? b) Sit-down meal or buffet c) Chicken Dance or Electric Slide d) Pigs in a Blanket or Sushi? e) White or Chocolate Wedding Cake f) Templated or Individualized Vows g) Tux or Suit for Groom h) Prenup or not i) Complete Set of China or Big-Screen TV j) Menu choices on invitation or no?


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