Writing

Valentine for Ernest Mann

Although Valentine’s Day is not one of my favorite holidays (find out why here), this piece by Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poems. I would like to share it with you because I think it speaks to us no matter where we fall on the relationship spectrum. Please take a moment to read it–you will never look at skunks the same way again.

Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

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THE BEST THING I LEARNED IN 2013

This is my first ALL CAPS title. I’m that excited. It’s THAT important. I want to share with you the best piece of advice I received this past year. It’s actually part of a philosophy called Stoicism.

Still here? Good. Don’t be scared. Like many people, I want to be wise. I seek knowledge. I crave understanding and acceptance. Every year, I try new things to fulfill these goals. This year, I tried to meditate, but found that I would only fall asleep. It was like taking a ten minute nap sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even my butt fell asleep. Meditation was not going to get me there.

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I bought some books in September. I thought I’d begin everyday of the school year with an inspirational poem or thought-provoking essay–short, to the point. I bought A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, by Coleman Barks. My friend Michele over at The Everyday Strange and Sacred (check out her awesome blog here) peaked my interest in Rumi. Very cool poet. He died in 1273, but his words are of all time. As I was finding the right book of Rumi, Amazon led me to the People who bought Rumi also bought…which led me to A Guide to the Good Life {the ancient art of stoic joy}, by William B. Irvine. I was looking for the good life–I knew I needed a guide. Yet, I was intimidated by the word “stoic”. Stoic seemed cold, steely, detached. But once I checked out the inside jacket cover, I was hooked. It read:

One of the great fears that many of us face is that, despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life…William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most successful and popular schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives…Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a road map for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us.

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The two books arrived together, and I spent the first few months of the school year trying to begin each day with Rumi and the Stoics (sounds like a cool band name). Like most things, my morning routine faltered, and my reading was replaced with hitting snooze seven more times, or making lunches for the boys, or–you get the gist. But as I look back on 2013, and I take stock in the year that was, I keep returning to the greatest insight I have gained this year, in fact in the past few years. It’s that good.

One autumn morning, as the sun turned our kitchen a golden orange, I was reading about stoic joy–I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I came across the following: “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people  that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability…One wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE.

WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE. My mind was blown. It seemed as if all of the words on the page darkened save for those six. I felt the glow of those words shine of the page a la Indiana Jones when he found the Holy Grail (maybe that was the sun coming in, but I swear the pages were glowing). Want the things I already have. Could it be so simple? Yes. Yes, it could.

I immediately thought of the gas fireplace I had been pining away for these past few years. “It’d be so nice to just flick a switch and have a roaring fire,” I’d say. (Damn you, HGTV) But wait. I have a fireplace. So many people wish they had a fireplace in their home, and I already do. I am lucky. What if I simply enjoyed the fireplace I already have? What if I made a point of having more fires this year? I could enjoy the sounds of crackling flames, the sweet smell of smoky wood, the natural warmth and ambient glow. Want the things I already have.

As I got dressed for work, I looked at my wardrobe. “How many plaid shirts from the GAP does one man need?” I thought. Not as many as I own, I’ll tell you that. Yet, I’d find myself buying another shirt or pair of pants every other month or so because of a sale that was too good to pass up. “Why do I even need to go shopping as often as I do?” I thought. I don’t, if I just learn to want the things I already have.

I drove to work that day and thought of all the things I covet that didn’t matter. I live in a nice house. I drive a nice car. Yet, there’s always something more on the list that I thought I needed–and when one thing was acquired, more was added to the list. It never seemed to shorten, just grow.

All that week, I applied this philosophy to my thought process. Looking around at the gym, I’d see the bodies of people more fit than I. “Wish I had that guy’s muscles,” I’d lament. But then I’d catch myself–Hey, want what you already have. You have powerful legs that allow you to run, and healthy lungs that let you breath. You are lucky.

And I am, terribly lucky. I have all the ingredients for happiness, yet I allow myself to become distracted by all the insignificant desires that consume us. We are consumers. And that’s the tragedy of it all.

But I found as the weeks passed, I continued to think about this phrase, and it released me from some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be, to do, to buy, to desire. I looked around me at the people in my life, and I thought how happier we’d all be if we just learned to want what we already have.

To the writer who just started a blog–don’t worry about when you will get your next follower–want the ones you have today.

To the person who keeps checking Facebook for more likes on her photo–appreciate the Likes you’ve already received.

To the folks who dream of one day getting the corner office–want the job you have right now.

To the couple trying to conceive their second child–appreciate the miracle that is already in your life–want the child you already have.

To the friend who can’t wait to move to a bigger house–talk a walk through your house now and remind yourself what you loved about it when you first bought it. Want the house you already live in.

To the people who look at their significant other and think how they might be able to do better–how much better would your relationship be if you desired your present partner more? Want the person whose hand you hold today.

To those who are searching for THE ONE–want the life you have right now, the freedom, and enjoy this time to discover more about you.

To all of us who’ve lost people, be it this year, last, or long ago–what if we loved those still in our lives more deeply, rather than allow our energy to be consumed mourning those who are resting in peace?

Yes, I found that this phrase became a mantra for me. I applied it to things, to situations, to people.

This Christmas, I thought of these words when spending time with family and friends. Too often in the past, I would fixate on the people who were not there, on the loved ones from whom I am estranged. But this year, rather than think about the people I didn’t spend the holidays with, I looked around the room at those who did come to my house, or I to theirs, and I appreciated them more. I was thankful to have so many kind, caring people show up in my life. I refused to waste my time and energy worrying about those who do not. Yes, I wanted the people I already have in my life.

Such thoughts were with me as I heard the laughter of my boys and their cousins as they chased one another through the house. I did not care about the furniture, or the mess, only the people who were there to share this special time with us. These thoughts made me feel more alive.

Someone came up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Beautiful fire,” she said, admiring the dancing orange flames in the hearth. “Thanks!” I said.

Beautiful fire, indeed.

Happy New Year, Everyone. I hope 2014 is filled with many moments of joy and wonder. May you see the amazing things that surround you in the present. May you find more value in what you already have.

I leave you with a few of my favorite poems by Rumi, which complement this phrase that has become my guidepost.

Out Beyond

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense

Hoping to be More Alive

You are an ocean in a drop of dew,
all the universes in a thin sack of blood.

What are these pleasures then,
these joys, these worlds
that you keep reaching for,
hoping they will make you more alive?

“Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, my son’s gonna need therapy!”

Halloween season is finally over! If you are of a certain age, you remember when Halloween lasted a day. Just one day. Now it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a hayride to climb or a pumpkin to carve. When we were young, there weren’t aisles and aisles of candy and costumes and decorations in every store on every other corner. I swear, Target‘s Halloween section was as big as the entire A&P of my youth.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween, and we had fun this year, but I am pumpkined out.

The weekend before trick-or-treating we took the boys on a moonlight hayride at a local farm. There were rolling fields and 300 year-old oak trees, and a beautiful creek–Prophecy Creek. The hayride led us to a roaring bonfire, where we drank hot chocolate and cider, painted pumpkins, and listened to a storyteller regale the crowd with stories that were just this side of spooky. It was a crisp night, and the clear sky dazzled with stars. It was a perfect way to get us into the Halloween spirit. But, of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone.

There is a house right up the road from us that has a huge old barn on its property. For the past three years, they have created a “haunted” barn and people have raved about it. I couldn’t get a read on if it was too scary/gory/hellish from people’s comments, and the kids at the boys’ school were talking it up this year. As with many things, the people who were willing to be spooked surprised me. Like the little girl in Owen’s class who went through the barn last year, in second grade, while her two brothers, one several years older, backed out. I don’t say “chickened out” because I am a recovering chicken, and frightening images can do a number on someone–I know they did a number on me. (Note: I still can’t even watch the preview for the Carrie remake as I am still scarred from the original).

We drive by this barn multiple times a day, and this year we toyed with the idea of going. Owen, our older son, seemed game from the start, his brother Hayden seemed less so. Perhaps emboldened from our time spent out in the night, we decided we would try the scary barn after the hayride. We met some friends there –a father and son. The son had attempted to go through the barn two previous years. This was the year he would make it.

In the end, Owen backed out (could have inherited my chicken gene), so Pam stayed with him while Hayden and I went in with the other father and son. BIG MISTAKE. WE’RE TALKING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SCARRING. It’s a barn. I thought we would just walk from one end to the other and see various scenes partitioned off. No! This thing had scaffolding, winding staircases, three floors of bizarre terror, hidden doors, narrow paths, and black curtains that clung to our bodies. I felt like I was in every teen slasher movie from the eighties with a dash of Apocalypse Now thrown in for further damage–and all the while I had my seven-year-old buried in the pit of my arm. I tried to shield him from so many things–but he saw more than enough. Here’s a bright idea: perhaps I should have gone through on my own first to judge the fear factor. Had that epiphany two days after the fact. Sometimes, I am amazed at my thick head. “Oh, right, I’m the adult in charge!”

Hayden was very brave. He even guided us through one of the rooms when I was confused. And he held it together until the very end, when we spied the exit and he ran toward it and cried. Hard. Like he was auditioning for the role of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz : “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do…”

Before we even got home, I gave Hayden five bucks for making it all the way through, for there was no turning back once we were in there. Then at home I gave him cookies AND ice cream–trying to wash away his fear-soaked tears with some sugar. And I stayed with him in his bed that night, upon his request. Surprisingly, he slept soundly through the night. The next day he was even bragging a little about it to our neighbors, but I could see he was still freaked out by what he saw. By the end of the weekend it seemed like a distant memory, much to my relief.

The next day, he came running up the driveway from the bus, waving a notebook in his hands. It was his journal from school. “I snuck it home ’cause I wasn’t finished writing my story.”  “Oh, what is your story about?” I asked. “It’s called ‘The Barn of Terror’!” he proclaimed with the pride of a survivor. That made it official. The night of frights left an indelible mark. I felt like a bad parent. I know that many bizarre sights await my sons, I just wished I hadn’t been responsible for my youngest one’s worst scare in his life. Here, you read it and tell me if the scars will linger, as I fear they will.

Now, without further adieu, I give you Hayden’s story: (Note his use of eery onomatopoeia–DON DON DON!!!!)

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Chapter 1 The Terrifying Barn

I was at Prophecy Creek then I went to the DON DON DON terrifying barn.

I waited in line with my friend Thomas then it was my turn DON DON DON.

I went in and there was blood dripping down the wall. My dad didn’t see it.

There were fake skeletons hiding behind

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a fake potion. Oh, and we had a line it went

my dad, me, Thomas, and his dad. We saw a person chained

to something with fake blood on him and he was

yelling, “Help me!” I was like “Get me out of here!”

There was a goblin shaking jail bars that scared the

heck out of me. I almost fainted!It was so scary that

when I came out I started to cry.

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Chapter 2 Can’t Sleep

I said, “There is no favorite part for me.”

I got $5 for doing it, then I had $16.

My dad said, “You can have whatever you want.”

It ends there. He ran out of steam, I guess. It’s been a week

and he appears to be unscathed from the whole thing.

I just wonder what he will be like next year, when the sign appears outside the barn. Perhaps he and Owen will walk up to it in a few years with their friends. They’ll probably go repeatedly like the kids next door do. Whatever happens, I know one thing for sure. There’s no way in hell I’m going back in. Once is enough for me.

“I do not speak the minds of others…

…except to speak my own mind better.”

I am a lover of quotations. The brevity. The clarity. So much contained in so little. During the school year, I begin every day by sharing a quotation with my students. It allows me to impart wisdom to these young people that would take me years to articulate. And I can draw on the observations and lessons from men and women who lived thousands of years ago, or are a part of the morning headlines. Such is the power of words.

Take this quote above by the great thinker and essayist Michel de Montaigne from the 16th Century. A simple Google search about quotations led me to the mind of this popular statesman from the French Renaissance. And once I was captured by his words on quotations, I became immersed in many more of his observations about life, love, marriage, human nature…all topics that are timeless and hard to describe succinctly.

My family and I are on vacation this week. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity over the next few days to share with you some observations from what I’ve been reading. These words from others help me speak my own mind better. Indeed.

The first is from a woman whose name I do not even know. Her words appeared in the advice column “Tell Me About It”, by: Carolyn Hax. I have been reading Ms. Hax’s column for over fifteen years now, and I always find her advice spot on–I also have a little crush on her:) The beauty of an advice column is that one can glimpse wisdom and stupidity in the predicaments of others. Take these words from a woman reflecting on a slight that occurred fifty years ago when she was a teenager. Her thoughts half-a-century later:

“Parents need to understand that it is their job to foster love and understanding, not bitterness and hate within their children. Children who find love in the world grow up with self-esteem and self-worth. Those who do not, spend their lives looking for slights wherever they go.”

These words flooded my mind with images of people I know who are always feeling slighted–looking for people to blame for their unhappiness in the world. It only took two sentences to remind me of my mission as a father: to create an environment for my sons where they are able to grow up with self-esteem and self-worth.  It is my job to allow them to find love in the world. That love starts with me. Thank you for the reminder.

Check out more wisdom from Carolyn Hax and her readers at http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/page/carolyn-hax .

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

In a recent post titled Of Cigarettes and Swing Sets, I recalled a time when I got in trouble for picking up my Dad’s lit cigarette. Many people commented on the post, and what struck me was how many readers reacted to the smoking culture of the ’70’s.  Numerous people reminisced about  how “everyone smoked back then.”  Everyone might be a slight exaggeration, but those who didn’t, certainly spent their time breathing in a cloud of second-hand smoke.

140174607122264705_ElBkToIf_cMy mother, who quit smoking 17 years ago, was a champion smoker back in the day. This mother of 7 defied the medical theory that smoking during pregnancy lowers birth weight. All of her children were in the seven to nine  pound weight range–I was her biggest at 9.9 pounds. Plus, she had the largest twins on record at our local hospital–8.5 and 8.2 pounds! That’s over 16 pounds of baby in her belly, folks. Yet, the stories she has shared about the smoking culture back then would make you choke on your venti, decaf, no whip, no foam, Chai latte.

When my mom delivered her first child in 1963, it was during a snow storm. The labor and delivery nurse called her midnight relief to pick up smokes for my mom and another lady Microsoft PowerPoint - Post as jpegwho was delivering her baby that night. The two expectant mothers were worried they were going to run out of cigarettes and the snow would prevent family members from replenishing their supply. Such accommodating nurses. They were even happy to assist their patients in lighting the cigarettes since IV lines were affixed to a flat board on the patient’s arm. Nurses lighting patient’s cigarettes. Can you imagine?

Flash forward ten years. My mother is pregnant for the last time, with twins. After examining her, the doctor meets her in his office. He lights a cigarette for her, and then one for himself, and says, “You’ve done this enough times, Joanne. So tell me, when’s your due date?” Ahhh, nothing like a smoke break with your OB-GYN.

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Cigarettes were a fixture in my childhood. I often remember running in to the drug store or up to the window of the gas station to buy my mom’s cigarettes: “Two packs of Newport Light 100s, please.” When on a field trip or at the boardwalk, someone was always buying a new ashtray for mom or a lighter for dad. My favorite souvenir was a glass test tube that held a single cigarette and a match. In bright red letters, the outside print read: “In case of emergency break glass!” Oh, how I always hoped I would be there to witness one of my parents breaking it in a time of great need.

One week at Sunday School, I learned that smoking could kill you. I think the lady who ran the church school had recently lost a loved one– a smoker. I remember walking home with my brother and sister determined to make our parents quit. We made “No Smoking” signs and hung them up throughout the house. We told our parents we didn’t want them to die, and proceeded to break their cigarettes in half or run them under water. That didn’t last long. They promised they would try and stop. Yet, our campaign was not successful, so I turned my efforts outward. In first grade, I entered a poster contest during Fire Safety Week. My compelling slogan: “Use your head! Don’t smoke in bed!” above a drawing of a man falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette in his lap. I won third place.

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The first time I smoked was third grade. I was eight years old. A bunch of boys in the neighborhood and I found ourselves in the woods one day with a whole pack someone had stolen from his parents. We each took one, lit it, and “smoked”–I learned later that I didn’t do it right. I blew out rather than sucked in, but the red end still glowed with fire, so I believed I was smoking. We visited the woods everyday that week to have a smoke. By midweek, someone had also brought a Playboy magazine they stole from an older brother. There I was, receiving quite an education. Of course, as a Catholic, I could not enjoy one moment of this. Between the cigarettes and the naked women, I was wracked with guilt. I peered into the future and saw, just a few short years later, my eighth grade self dying of lung cancer and being sent to Hell for looking at dirty magazines. The smoking visits died down in the woods, but someone shoved pages of the Playboy up in the hollow of a tree.  We trekked back to the woods often to stare at them, until they were so weathered and worn the images were unrecognizable.

I went from breaking my parents’ cigarettes in half during  my early elementary school days, to swiping a few from the pack to smoke with friends as I reached later grade school. I would sneak drags off my mom’s lit cigarettes that she left burning in ashtrays while she went to change a load of laundry, or to answer the phone–which was attached to the wall back then.  By eighth grade, I was a full-fledged smoker. I walked around at night with my friends (thank God for the dog–it was the most exercise our beagle ever got). We cupped our cigarettes whenever a car would pass; we carried pocket warmers in the winter to use as a ruse in case we ever got caught. Ever paranoid, my friends would tease me, “Hey Mike, there’s an airplane! Better hide your cigarette.” Indeed, every car that passed I swore was my dad, until one time it actually was. As I approached his car, I was so nervous, I put the butt out in my hand (it was raining that night, so it didn’t hurt too much). “You guys need a ride anywhere?” “No,” I said, heart beating, “we’re fine.” In hindsight, I think he  probably knew what we were up to, but could certainly relate– a lifelong smoker himself.

I went on to smoke through high school, college, and my roaring twenties. Luckily, I discovered running. And I ran long enough to realize I couldn’t be both a runner and a smoker. I am happy with my choice.

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I don’t miss smoking. I DO miss the camaraderie, though. The excitement of meeting someone for a break in the routine. A chance to get away from it all for a few minutes. Also, smokers are a friendly bunch–my favorite people growing up were the smokers. It took me a while, but I learned that one still needs to take time out to enjoy a few minutes to himself, or catch up with a friend.  The trick is to find ways to do that that won’t kill you.

I don’t really miss the good old days, either. As Billy Joel once sang, “the good old days weren’t always good…” So often we long for yesterday. We think perhaps times were simpler; we assume our life was less complicated. I never know how to react when someone laments for the childhood of  a bygone era like the ’70’s: “When I was young, we didn’t have ‘play dates’, we ran around outside from morning ’til night. I only came in for dinner…” As a parent now, though, I think  I might choose a play date over letting my kids roam free all hours of the day. I might suggest we all go for a walk in the woods, rather than let my eight-year-old  wander there with kids of all ages. I do consider it a small victory that my son, who is the same age I was when I lit my first smoke, has never even held a cigarette–has never even seen one in this house. Plus, he has yet to look at porn. I’d say those are some small victories. And I hope to maintain them at least til he gets into the double digits:)  As the great Virginia Slims campaign used to say, “We’ve come a long way baby!” We sure have.

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It’s All My Teacher’s Fault

Good news! My first book was picked up! Okay, it was picked up by me–a couple weeks ago. I found it buried in a box of memorabilia while I was looking for Christmas decorations–you know how one box leads you to another, then another, and then you’re looking at crap from forty years ago that has nothing to do with decorating a Christmas tree? Yeah, me neither. Anyhow…I found this book I wrote in third grade–1978!! During that year, my dad had a massive heart attack and my grandmother on my mother’s side died of cancer. It was a very dark year in the Trainer household. And, as I recall, my teacher, Mrs. Deturo, had me meet with the guidance counselor, Mrs. Brent, who encouraged me to write about the experience–express my feelings through writing. The result is the masterpiece that has been digitally remastered for your viewing pleasure below on this very website. So, without further ado, I present to you Nine is Enough.

photo (13)photo (12)photo (11)photo (10)photo (9)photo (8)photo (7)photo (6)photo (5)photo (4)photo (3)photo (2)photoFirst, let me say that this particular brick contact paper used to cover the book was limited edition–sold exclusively at Grants before their closing in ’76. And, don’t worry, I may be trying my hand at writing, but I promise I will never publish my own illustrated book–my gosh–look at those scenes from the story (I find the “Schools” one particularly compelling).

Yet, as I read over this story, I realize that perhaps the seeds were planted in me at a very young age to write about my experiences–to process my thoughts and feelings through writing. A teacher took the time to care about me and have me talk about my issues with another educational professional. I am lucky to have had these people in my life. And, in some respects, I feel I have been drafting the second book in my head ever since.