The Canning Jar Pine Cone Museum

“Look! Look!” she screamed, eyes wide, smiling from ear to hear.

Each time we arrived at the spot on the side walk on our block, she said the same thing with the same excitement as she had the first time she saw them.

“Pine cones!” Arya would point and exclaim, as if she had just unwrapped the perfect gift for her birthday. Or Christmas. Or both.

“PINE CONES!”

We would then spend what seemed like hours beneath the mature pine trees, as we searched for the latest cone or two to be added to the growing collection.  Throughout the years of navigating our block with Arya, the exact standards that made for an acceptable pine cone have always been kind of a mystery, but that’s been part of the enjoyment of it all.

We had started gathering pine cones, a few here and there, in her stroller. As time went along, we would store a few in her little wagon. Then it was her tricycle basket, and most recently it has been her bicycle basket. After a while, it seemed that they were everywhere.

In an effort to try to keep them all in one place, and after making a promise that I would keep them safe, I found an old canning jar on a shelf in the garage.  I figured that the old jar was as good a place as any to temporarily keep her treasure.  Besides, soon enough, she would grow out of it and forget about the cones.  But, for the time being, I had a promise to keep.

After a walk during her most recent visit,  six (and a half…) year-old Arya awarded the last two pine cones their rightful places in the now-filled canning jar. 

After she had gone home, I picked up the jar from the dining room table and looked at the cones through the glass. It needed a place to sit for now, but the dining table was not that place.

At first I thought I’d take it down to the spare room, where the grandkids play and sleep when they stay with us. Upon reaching the doorway of the room, I played out all the scenarios in my head where a big glass jar, pine cones and grandkids might end badly.  So, I decided to put the jar down in my little den on a bookshelf with some other artifacts.  It wouldn’t be there long, I thought to myself. Soon enough, I would be able to throw the whole works away.

I always thought it was kind of silly that we would stop the world to look at something as random and plentiful as pine cones. They aren’t what one would associate with being rare, beautiful or valuable. It would seem that they are none of those things, at least in the world of items to collect, anyway.  I was humoring her, I thought, engaging in play time and exploring the neighborhood. It was simple as that. That is, until recently.

A funny thing started to happen whenever I returned to my den.  Each time I’d go in there, my eyes would be drawn to the jar.  In a small room filled with thousands of my own exhibits of things and stuff, I found myself spending time gazing at the jar.  It seemed odd that the one thing in the room I almost couldn’t wait to get rid of had become quite interesting.

Then it hit me.  How could I have missed it?  It was right there, right in front of me. 

Why was I so ready to discount what we had taken so much time to collect?  Why did I not see the magic in it all?  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t immediately see the possibilities, and grateful that I finally came around to them.

What I have on my bookshelf today, indeed, is an old canning jar filled with little pine cones.  No one would argue that.  However, thanks to the foresight and imagination of our six (and a half…) year-old grand child, it is also a time capsule, a museum, a record of events.  It is a magical vessel containing pieces that tell a story, the epic four-year tale of a little girl and her adventures.

Each pine cone is a separate entry in a journal filled with an unforgettable journey.  This cone was from the time she saved the pet horses and dogs from dragons and other imaginary villains.  Another cone was from the day she shared with our neighbor the details of the day’s adventure.  A larger cone was from the day we solved the mystery of time travel with sidewalk chalk.  One cone was from the time we crossed a bridge above lava alligators to get to the princess in time to take her to the dance to meet the prince; the one next to it was from the day she took her stuffed animal friends on a trip to explore space in the red wagon rocket ship.  Another cone is from a sidewalk grocery shopping expedition because, after all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat. 

For every cone, there is a story, and a memory that will be with me until the end of time.  As for the jar and its contents, it has found a permanent place within the walls of my den, enshrined with other relics from days gone by.

In the end, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from the old jar of pine cones, and from the experiences contained within.  When I deny my ability to see things not only as they are, but as they could be, I am blind to otherwise endless possibilities.  Likewise, when I deny myself creativity or play, I also deny a large part of who I am.  To be able to see the magic in something so simple is a priceless gift.  And those priceless gifts, it seems, are everywhere, if I remain open to seeing them.  Lastly, I have learned to be aware that almost anyone or anything, at any time,  can be a portal to the priceless.

There will always be adulting to do.  Bills must be paid, lawns must be mowed, and oil must be changed.  But in between laundry days and pay days, between commitments and errands, requirements and standards, there must be time to play. 

So, I encourage you to set the weight of adulting down.  Turn off the news and leave your phone in a drawer somewhere.  It will all be there when you get back. 

Hunt for your very own pine cones.  Put a few here, and a few there, as a reminder.  Explore space.  Save horses and pet dogs, or vice versa.  Find a princess or prince.  Share with a neighbor.  Cross bridges.  Grab some chalk and travel through time.  Experience the thrill of seeing lava alligators in their natural habitat.  And don’t forget to set aside time for a grocery shopping expedition.  After all, even a time-traveling adventurer needs to eat.

The Beauty of War, Barber Chairs, and Missing Buster

I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal.  My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock.  Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down.  I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it.  I hoped I could make it there on time.

I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning.  I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there.  I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front.  As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push.  The door didn’t budge.  As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.”  There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.

As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open.  Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile. 

As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.

**

To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat.  I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited.  Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave.  It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect.  Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent.  Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door.  Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs.  To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.

This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use.  The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art.  White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself.  These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned.  Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift.  Swivel.  Style and grace. The perfect chair.

I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop.  He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943.  Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information.  As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way.  As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific.   He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do.  He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds.  He described trees in colors and shapes and textures.  Experiences with the food and drink, even candies.  Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint.  Wartime in the South Pacific.  Beautiful.  And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.  

I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street.  Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years. 

Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway.  And it was authentic.  Genuine.  A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community.  The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver.  The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.

The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile. 

There was always chatter, at the very least.  No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War.  From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies.  All sorts of sports were discussed.  From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored.  Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by.  From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.

But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments.  I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there.  People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter.  The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something.  In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong.  After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver.  We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.

**

Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth.  Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there.  In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc.  I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse.  I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once.  Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.

In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase

Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson

Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

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I grabbed the jersey display case from its perch on the bookcase in the den. I tucked it under my arm as I walked through the house and out the door. When I got to the middle of the driveway, I took it in both hands, raised it above my head and threw it down at my feet as hard as I could throw it. Glass exploded and flew in every direction as the crash echoed through the neighborhood. Perfectly fabricated wood joints shattered and seemed to chase the glass. As the echoing subsided, the pieces came to rest in different parts of the driveway, while the jersey laid crumpled at my feet. I stood in the driveway in the middle of it all with my hands on my hips, cursing the wreckage, fuming over the death of a friend a year and a half earlier. And I felt enraged by what I saw as the absolute futility of life. I called out God, Higher Powers and every other spirit I’d ever heard of for their collective inaction. I cursed the Universe. I begged them all for a sign or a signal, and I dared them all to give me their best shot. Oddly enough, the fact that there was no response from anywhere in the living world nor the world beyond only served to fuel the rage that had finally come out. “F*** YOU,” I said, pointing down at the mess at my feet, “AND F*** YOU, TOO,” I said, raising my arms to notify the rest of the world. It was at that moment that I had in fact, had it.

This was the culmination of over a year and a half of seething, festering guilt and frustration, over acting “as-if” and of playing the part. It was pretending to make temporary sense of a permanent loss. I tried to act as if, I tried to go along and get along. I tried to pretend all was well and that what I was really feeling was sadness, and it was a natural part of the process of grief, especially when someone young dies unexpectedly. But the truth was that I wasn’t sad. I was sick of getting along, and I was tired of acting as if. I was angry because Dave’s passing devasted his family. I saw the faces of his old friends and neighbors at the funeral. I was angry because I remember calling Jimmy to give him the news, and I remember his reaction. I was angry because the three of us finally had stuff figured out, together, and now it was gone. I was angry because he had his whole life ahead of him. I was angry because he didn’t reach out and I was angry because I didn’t do enough to stop it. I was angry because the three of us had come so far. And that day, in one feeble, violent, misguided moment, I took it out on a carefully crafted display case which held an old jersey in memory of my friend. Now that was ruined, too.

To know Jimmy and Dave was to know life itself. They both had tons of friends growing up, they were charismatic, they were popular and they were each blessed with a great sense of humor. They were both talented athletes. Jimmy was built like a linebacker, a position he played with an enviable efficiency. He had a square jaw and a smile that could make you feel both at ease and yet still wonder what he had just gotten away with. Dave was a quick, smaller bundle of energy, an energy that you could actually feel. He and I had our lockers next door throughout school because of our last names. He had an infectious laugh and was a walking, talking social event. His family owned the bakery in town and I will never forget the beautiful sights, smells and tastes we were blessed with on a regular basis from that magical little place. The two of them were a memorable part of the cast of characters in our small hometown.

We were always teammates and classmates, although it seems that the three of us were never really all that close back then. After graduation, and the school years which contained both highlights and scrapes with authority, along with the prerequisite growing pains, we each went our own directions out into the world. One of us would enter and exit the military, one of us would scale water towers, and one of us would fail miserably at two colleges, before reuniting in our small town, to begin rebuilding our lives.

********

I literally ran into Jimmy not quite ten years later at the bank in town. I was begrudgingly going to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement that night at the urging of my family, when I swung open the door and ran into my old friend, who was on his way to his car. Jimmy had been in recovery for a year and had a good job with a big construction outfit in the area. We spent some time after the meeting catching up and after some convincing, I agreed to go to meetings regularly. He became my mentor and my babysitter. The drinking hobbies we began in high school as “boys will be boys” -type behavior had become full blown addictions in almost no time, only to somehow lead us back home to try to sort it all out. After the reunion that night, we were pretty much inseparable, and it seemed we had almost come full circle.

A few months after our meeting in the doorway of the bank in town, Jimmy and I received word that Dave was back in the area, too. He had run into some trouble, and we went to visit him to see how we could help. Then there were three.

We began working on clearing the wreckage of the past and getting busy with the work of getting our lives back a little at a time. We were sober, clean, recovering and kicking all kinds of ass at it. Meetings, conferences, more meetings, making amends, helping others, sharing our stories at schools in the area. We even returned to the church we had spent so much time in growing up, which we thought to be kind of poetic. We talked about the glory days of football and basketball. We talked about college and owning businesses and houses and whatever else came to mind. We had dreams again and we weren’t shackled to our addictions, waiting to die. We were alive. We held each other up, we held each other accountable and we walked through it all together. You didn’t miss a meeting or someone would be there, banging on your door. You answered your phone even if you were busy or didn’t feel like it, because it was what you were supposed to do when someone reached out. If one of us had a court date, we all had a court date. We high-fived and trashed talked each other. We were at once humbled by what we had survived and confident and proud of our new lease on life. We were, in so many ways, back.

********

But as time wore on in our new lives, maybe we started to become complacent. Maybe we took some things for granted. Maybe there were some underlying things we didn’t or couldn’t fix within us or between us. I’ve never been completely sure, and that’s always been part of my problem with the whole thing. Maybe the high fives weren’t shared as often. Maybe the conferences, meetings and speaking opportunities became easier to brush off in favor of new things. Or old things. Maybe we stopped being grateful. Maybe we stopped telling each other the truth. But in the middle of it all, we had lost our way, and I didn’t know exactly how much until we couldn’t get ahold of Dave.

Jimmy didn’t seem too bothered by not being able to get in touch with Dave, at first. There were all kinds of possible reasons, and they didn’t have to be bad ones, he thought. I was frustrated, but in the end, we both figured he’d come around. There had been a few things that had happened recently that may have accounted for it. Maybe he got a job. Maybe he was pissed at us. Maybe he was burnt out on recovery and the pace at which we were going. We decided, fatefully, to give him space. For two weeks we went on with life – work, meetings, family- waiting for him to come back to the fold.

********

The alarm went off that Friday just like it did every other morning, the beep-beep-beep pulling me out of slumber to be replaced by a clicking sound and the local radio news morning update. I sat up in the dark, eyes still shut, when I heard, “A one car crash over night leaves…. County Road A….David…..”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned and I had to rewind and play again in my head what I thought I had just heard. Confused and still half awake, I grabbed the radio and tried to tune in other stations on the chance that I might hear it again, but I got nothing. Turning the radio off, I called work and told them that I wouldn’t be in, that a friend had been in an accident. I dressed on the way to the door and put my shoes on as I hopped down the sidewalk toward the car. It can’t be, I thought.

I drove and thought. Thought and drove. My mind raced and feared the worst, and then a wave of reassurance due to being half asleep and the belief that I simply had not heard it correctly. But I still felt I had to drive down there and check. It couldn’t be. The farther I drove and the closer I was to the approaching town, the better I felt. Stupid dream.

Then, rounding the last curve in the road on County A, the last corner before town, I saw the tire tracks. I saw the car. I saw the police cars. I saw the tape. I saw the tow truck parked off to the side. I pulled over and got out. I leaned up against the car with my arms folded. I didn’t know what else to do. After some time, an older deputy approached me. We talked for a few minutes about what details he could give, he shared his condolences and went back to work. It was surreal. It was bullshit. It was over. On the way back to town, I wondered what his family must have been going through at that moment. I wondered how they were ever going to make it through the loss of a son and brother. I wondered how Jimmy would take it, and I wondered how I was going to tell him. And I wondered why. Then there were two.

********

We were never the same after Dave’s passing. Jimmy couldn’t even bring himself to go to the funeral and I went mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to not go. We talked a lot, Jimmy and I, but it was never the real, teammate, crunch-time, got-your-back, kind of stuff that we had grown accustomed to. There was no banging on the door if one of us missed a meeting. There was no car in the driveway if we didn’t answer the phone. Little by little, Dave’s passing, and our assumed responsibility for not preventing it, slowly pulled us into the swamp of relapse. Eventually we just stopped calling and contacting each other because we each believed we were a little more at fault than the other for what had happened somehow. We carried the burden as quietly as we could for as long as we could.

While I don’t believe Jimmy ever touched another drink, I know that he fought demons that rarely let him rest. For my part, I stayed clean for another eight or nine months before I went back to using, and only a few months after that came the day I spiked the case on the driveway and challenged the world to a fist fight.

********

It was twelve years after Dave passed, that I learned Jimmy had died suddenly. That was in 2006. Over that twelve-year span, I had to work to recover from addiction and fight mental health issues, and to deal with the memory hoarder’s paradise that is survivor’s guilt. Counselors, therapists, other addicts, family, friends, enemies -you name it- I had help. It wasn’t an exercise in valor or the yearning for a higher level of existence, it was an exercise in survival. And then there was one.

It was during the time of my Dad’s passing, in between Dave’s and Jimmy’s, that a pastor put a hand on my shoulder and suggested that maybe the best we can do is take them with us on our journey until we meet again. I’ve never forgotten that, and that little act of kindness and empathy forged a gigantic shift in my view and perspective on the finite of life, and the infinite universe, but that’s a story for another time.

That shift, that little spark, was part of a lengthy process moving from fixating on something I could never change and riding it to hell and back, to coming to the belief that there is a different way. Who wins a war with the Universe? Who calls out spirits and challenges a God or gods he isn’t even sure he believes are real? Who seeks closure through rage? I did, and it didn’t work. When you get your ass kicked that badly, sometimes it’s best to accept it and regroup. There is no science to it, and it may not even make sense. All I know is that it seems to work day to day, and I am not imprisoned by guilt anymore about something I could never control in the first place.

********

Today, I am where I am in no small part because of Dave and Jimmy. And although I don’t carry the baggage I used to, I love them like brothers. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, even in the eye of the storm. There is no doubt that they helped people achieve lasting recovery while they were here, and I owe it to them to keep walking, come what may. Without our paths crossing back then, I’m sure there would have been an early end to my own story.

Today, I use the suggestion I received and I take them with me, and we get to do the things said we would. After I’d been in recovery for quite a few years, I went back and finished school and earned a counseling degree. Behind the curtain that graduation night, I met with Dave and Jimmy. We made it, gentlemen. Each time I reach another year in recovery from addiction, I call on them. We made It, Fellas. Before playing football for the first time in twenty-one years, I walked over to the corner of the end zone during pregame and met with Dave, Jimmy and Dad. We made it, gentlemen. When our granddaughters were born, I made it, Guys… When it’s quiet and there is that fleeting moment of clarity and peace, however brief, that we once worked together for…. We made it, gentlemen.

And it isn’t just them. Others who have passed, I’ve learned to take along the best I can. That is something I carry without fatigue. I am still part of this world, don’t get me wrong. But I am grateful today to be able to do it until we meet again, however and wherever that is. That is of course, if God or the spirits don’t hold grudges and if the Universe isn’t sore for my tantrum in the driveway all those years ago.

We made it, gentlemen.

In memory of

Dave Mickelson

and

Jim Torpen

Old Coaches, Depression and Warrior Mentality

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It was during the fifth day of my third inpatient treatment, fresh off a four day detox, when my newly appointed counselor looked up from her assessment notes, and asked,  “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?”

We had been sitting in her office for what seemed like days. She asked me questions about everything from my friends and family to my drug of choice to thoughts and feelings.  I didn’t really give much thought to the answers until she asked the one about depression.  Up until then I had never been screened or diagnosed with anything.  I was in a treatment facility for alcohol and drug addiction after all, and not for depression.  I had no idea at that time that depression was real and that addiction and depression could be related.

The only time I’d ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist up until that time was after I wound up in my first detox stay and weekend hold, and that was only to assess whether or not I was a danger to myself.  The night I ended up in that detox, I had been out with some friends one evening and, as was the norm, I drank too much.  What wasn’t the norm -at least at that time- was that during a blackout I threatened people’s lives (including my own), and I was apparently unhinged enough that my Dad had to hold me face down in the yard, after one of the times I fell, until the policeman in town and the ambulance arrived.  I still remember, many years later, Mom crying and Dad apologizing to me as he held me down to protect me from myself.  It turns out that a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit agreed neither with my mind nor my body, and it didn’t do much for the people around me, either.

Back to my counselor and the assessment.  In hindsight, that question, and her insight and willingness to ask after it had been missed in previous interventions, probably did a lot to save my life.  She connected me with a doctor in the area who had a lot of experience with patients with co-occurring disorders, patients with two different issues going on at the same time.  In my case they were addiction (substance use disorder) and a suspected depression.  The result of our meeting was that I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I learned as we continued to meet that it is something that I had lived with as far back into my childhood as I could remember.

 

When I was diagnosed with depression, I felt two completely different emotions at once, or within  seconds.  When the doctor described the diagnosis and some of the symptoms and how they may explain some of the deep, dark things I was going through at that time, I felt an enormous amount of relief.  There was a name for it.  It was something I didn’t have to (if I so chose) hide anymore.  There was help.  There was treatment.  There was hope.  Then, an instant later, a feeling of dread washed in like a wave on a beach, ruining the neat little sand castle of hope that my mind had built on the shore during that few seconds of relief.  Dread, of course, due to the realization that now not only would I have to fight a drug and alcohol addiction that was raising hell in every facet of my life, while I seemed almost eager to aid in the destruction any way I could, there was another enemy to fight in depression.  However, what I learned over time was that the dread was unnecessary.  It wasn’t really a new opponent.  It was a new label.  I used to describe it with words like “empty” or “dark.”  From that point on, it just had a new name.

All this happened many years ago now, around the time of the big antidepressant boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and over the years I was prescribed everything under the sun which was thought to ease depression, rewire the brain or to help balance brain chemicals, with varying success.  Back then, antidepressant medications were everywhere and were thought to be real life savers for people with mental health issues, issues that up until that time were often not spoken about, even between family members, close friends or spouses.  Depression, anxiety and the like were often seen as weaknesses, and they could be fixed much like addiction, with new routines, added diligence and more will power.  There was a long-standing stigma to mental health issues, and sadly, some of that still exists.

That day in treatment was many years ago now, and although it marked a turning point for me in my battle with addiction and depression, I wasn’t able to achieve long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs for some time after this.  At that time, I counted it a failure, my not staying clean after that treatment experience.  But I’ve learned in the almost 18 years of recovery since that it wasn’t a failure, and I didn’t lose the war.  I lost a battle.  There is a huge difference.

There is a question often posed in treatment and recovery circles, and for people with co-occurring disorders, about which disorder came first, a chicken or egg thing, I guess.  Some people claim their depressive disorder or anxiety disorders are brought on by addiction.  Some say trauma makes one or both likely, in either order.  In my case it is clear cut.  I’ve never wondered about it.  Depression, the “empty,” was a tenant in my head long before addiction was, but they seemed to feed off each other once I found alcohol and then drugs.  I look back at some of the people who were unfortunate enough to be in my life at that time, and I wonder, among other things, how some of them didn’t lose their sense of reality in what must have been a heavy storm for them, or lash out at me in fear or frustration, which they did not. In the end people in my life at that time had two choices: they could stay and eventually become pulled into the ongoing chaos, or they could save themselves and leave.  Sometimes I left because even early on, the alcohol and drug use had become a full time job, which didn’t leave much room for anything else.  I was continually trying to kill the depression and fill the empty with chemicals, and I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore, but that’s another story for another time.

“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but  vitality.”   -Andrew Solomon

Today, I still battle depression and it is all a part of daily recovery.  It hasn’t gone away, and I don’t kid myself thinking that it ever will.  There are days when I am pretty sure I can take on the world and come out of it okay, while there are still days that are quite the opposite.  There are days when I cope well and there are days when I act like a pissed off four year old in the midst of a sugar crash.  I’ve seen people tougher than me die from addiction and depression, and I’ve seen people overcome odds that seem impossible.

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to adopt and adapt my mindset as my journey continues, and I learn from a lot of inspiring, motivating people who battle their opponents daily.  Even words, terms and my perspectives on things have changed along the way.  Words have meaning, and I don’t share the following to upset anyone else on their journey with addiction recovery or mental health recovery.  I share it because it is important to me, and it has been important in my recovery from both.  Earlier I said I battle depression, and that is what I mean. I used to struggle with addiction.  I used to suffer from depression.  Today, I battle it, and that simple change in terms and perspective has been invaluable in the way I approach recovery.  I don’t suffer from it.  I don’t struggle with it.  I don’t bow down to it.  I don’t use it as a crutch.  I battle it, and I prepare, not as a victim or prisoner, but as a warrior.

 

When I was growing up, my classmates and I had the privilege of playing different sports at a small school for three coaches who would later end up in their respective coaching halls of fame.  Each of the three had vastly different coaching styles, huge knowledge bases and experience, and unique ways of communicating their knowledge and developing skill.   There was also the belief that we were never out of a game, no matter the score, if there was still time left on the clock.  I recall arriving at film studies and chalk talks and being met at the door with scouting reports that were so thorough and film that was so dissected that we knew more about the teams we were going to play than they knew about themselves.  Although I have borrowed a lot from their teachings and applied them to my life over the years, the one thing that stands out above all else was their preparation and attention to detail, and they were masters at both.

Perspective and preparation have gone hand in hand in my battle with depression and journey through recovery. As someone who suffered or struggled, I spent a lot of time reacting, playing defense, and waiting for my opponent’s next attack.  I was always tired, and it seemed I could never really plan or enjoy anything because I could never really be sure when the next wave would hit, and I didn’t do a good job preparing for it either way.  That isn’t to say that thinking about an obstacle differently somehow changes the obstacle.  In my experience, it doesn’t.  It changes me.

Today I have a scouting report on my opponent and I use it.  Today I better understand my skills and abilities as they pertain to battling depression and continuing the journey of recovery.  I have family and friends, I have hope and the gift of today.  I can share my experience in hopes of helping others, when for years I kept it all hidden.  Adopting a kind of warrior mentality and having the mindset that my opponent is beatable has truly made all the difference.