Category: Personal Stories

Since I’ve started this blog, I have had many personal experiences that have been rewarding, eye-opening, or inspiring. Some have been heartbreaking. Here I’ll share those personal essays.

Things from the 90s: Memories from School Lunch | Gushers and more

Recently, General Mills announced they’re bringing back one of my all-time favorite snacks: Dunkaroos. As a kid in school in the 90s, I remember peeling back the film on the plastic container of the Dunkaroos, licking the frosting off the film, then dunking the cookies into the frosting with as much drama as possible to ensure that the kids at my table might be jealous enough to consider a trade next time.

Once I read about Dunkaroos, memories blossomed in my mind the same way Anton Ego, the critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille, is instantly transported to a memory of his mother when he eats the Ratatouille made by a rat named Remy. Just from the mere mention of the word Dunkaroos, school lunch, my friends, the classes, the teachers, it was all so vivid in my mind suddenly.

Continue reading “Things from the 90s: Memories from School Lunch | Gushers and more”

A Saturday Night Lyft with a Madman

Yesterday I called a Lyft to take me from The Holding Company in Ocean Beach to my home in South Park, and what I expected to be just an ordinary ride home on a Saturday night turned out to be a trip chauffeured by a madman.

When the Ford Expedition — Lyft decided to upgrade me for no apparent reason — picked me up in front of THC, I opened the door to see a man wearing clothes that caused me to second guess my decision to step into his SUV. The Lyft driver had red hair that looked the texture of shoelaces, and it was bursting out of a stovetop hat. He had on white makeup, which made him look like a ghost, and rouge around his eyes. Around his neck, he was wearing a ridiculous bow tie that would have been appropriately sized for Yao Ming, not a man that appeared just under six feet tall.

It took me a moment to realize that it was Halloween weekend, and, no, I shouldn’t turn down the free luxury Lyft. And that the man was, indeed, playing a character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He was Johnny Depp’s version of the Mad Hatter.

Ironically, I had recently finished reading Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, and I was thinking about how this one character had transformed from the book to the Disney cartoon to Johnny Depp and now to the driver of my Lyft. It has been a long time for this character to exist, and what I found ironic was that in the original Alice’s Adventures in WonderLand that Lewis Carroll gave as a gift to the real Alice, the Mad Hatter wasn’t even in the original text, according to the BBC. The Mad Hatter was only added later when Carroll — a man steeped in mystery over his mathematical mind meets psychedelic journeyman meets potential pedophile — when he decided to take the book and try and publish it.

The Mad Hatter is someone who is a bit of a holy fool — someone who appears mad but actually has wisdom. It’s an archetype that has existed from Shakespeare to Rick and Morty.

I love these types of characters. Individuals who seem lost in the world, investing in passions and visions of life that others don’t find appropriate, conventional, or sane. These types of people are creative, imaginative, and, sometimes, dangerous. They are my type of people.

The Lyft driver certainly appeared to be revealing a lot of about his inner character, his inner madness, with his costume, and when he began to talk, I continued to be surprised.

For some reason, he started telling me about how his expedition was custom built, and he said that he needed the expedition to be climate controlled, comfortable for long hauls, and big. It turned out he needed these specs because he collects reptiles, especially snakes. At the mere mention of the word snakes, I looked down at my ankles and anticipated a new version of Snakes on the Plane, except the title would obviously have to change, to begin with me as the protagonist, and from the vents and the floorboards, I would suddenly be swimming in reptiles. Perhaps a cobra would snap into my achilles tendon.

Of course, I know this wasn’t going to happen, but we all have an irrational fear of snakes, and here was a man who collected them and was driving me home on a Saturday. He said that he owned about 300 different snakes, and they were in his house.

My immediate thought was about the reaction a date would have when the lyft driver brought her or him home to his house of serpents. I had so many questions: Did he warn them about the snakes before entering the house? Are some of the non-venomous 🐍s simply slithering around the floors? Does he ever have someone stay the night?

Honestly, it would take a very specific person to be able to handle a one-night stand with this man. Imagine a couple, a night out drinking, ripping off each other’s clothes before they entered an apartment. The door opens, the man fumbles for the light switch, the couples pants are almost off: Then the hissing begins. The rattling. The inaudible yet intense sound of slithering.

That’s when the date, I imagine, would end.

So, instead of asking all the prying questions that I wanted to ask, I simply said: “Do people get nervous when you bring them over?” To my dissapointment, he had an apartment next door to where he kept the snakes, and he owned a separate apartment to sleep. It’s not great for my blog, but it’s good for his personal life.

Of course, when someone tells you they specialize in reptiles, you’re going to ask questions. A couple things I learned that were interesting was that he gets bit all the time by snakes, but he compared them to dog bites. He said, some dogs are more aggresive than others, and some dogs are smaller, so their bites hurt less. That’s just like snakes.

But what I found also interesting was that he had a tortoise. In fact, over the years he’s sold many tortoises. Somewhere, I heard tortoises live a long life, and it turns out that his great great great great (not sure how many greats honestly) grandfather received a 🐢, and they had been handing it down in their family ever since. The Lyft driver still has the tortoise, and it’s 180 years old.

When I did the math, I realized that the 🐢 was alive when slavery was still legal and before Lincoln was president or assasinated. Part of me wonders if this is bullshit, but I’ll never know. Slate has an article that backs up that tortoises can live a long time.

Really, at the end of the day, I have no idea if what this man told me was accurate, but I enjoyed my Saturday night ride with the mad hatter.

How Not to Write for Money

It’s 10:17 p.m., and I just returned from a walk, where I tried to ignore several meetings in the morning and the conundrum of finding a way to be present in those meetings while balancing projects that need significant brain power to complete. Work takes up a significant amount of space in my mind, and I am grateful that I can use my craft to help in my profession. I tell stories at work, and I have incredibly clear outcomes: Grow our business, please our clients, and pay my bills. There is a sense of satisfaction in that clarity.

On the other hand, my creative work doesn’t have as clear outcomes. I don’t have deadlines; I don’t get paid (at least very much); and I don’t have any true metrics to evaluate performance outside of the arbitrary ones I set for myself. After I returned from the walk, where I wondered how many days after Christmas it would take some of the neighbors to remove their holiday lights, I saw my desk calling to me: Hey, Joe. You can get a couple hours of writing in before bed. You don’t need those 30 extra minutes of sleep. At this time of night, I find myself negotiating with the desk: But I can get the work done in the morning. How about this: 10 minutes on the story and 20 minutes continuing to build the framework for the novel after I make coffee? That should satisfy you, right? The desk is cold: Shut your mouth when you’re talking to me and sit your ass down. 

The desk always wins, however. It looks at me with those black eyes and coffee-stained freckles that look like constellations, a road map to the creative journey I build in my mind, and it guilts me into submission. Whether I engage or I don’t, the desk is on my mind, taking me out of whatever moment I’m trying to exist within…And I catch myself wondering: Why the hell am I doing this? Why am I negotiating with a desk? 

Many years ago, I would have been able to tell you clearly why I write creatively. I would have said: When I was in college, I read George Orwell’s Why I Write, and I felt a duty to speak truth, to say something meaningful, to throw a cog in the endless machine of soothsayers and reality-shapers. In high school, I would have said I write because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five during a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, and when I finished, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I would have said that I write because I feel that the only way my life has meaning is if I’m remembered after I’m dead, and leaving a legacy of writing can help. I would have said because nobody thinks a kid from Clinton, Mass, can grow up and write novels. I would have said anything that I thought I needed to hear me say.

But why do I do it now? Why Do I spend the time after a hard day’s work to write stories and novels that I’m not sure anyone will ever read? Why do I take hours out of my day to think about sentences, paragraphs, characters, verisimilitude, the authenticity of act two?

I don’t get paid for this work. I don’t get recognized every day when I come home. I don’t have a boss that can provide a performance evaluation and tell me that I’m doing a great job…here is a raise. I don’t have clients to please.

It’s 10:31 now, and my wife wants to go to bed. I have a copy of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey on my nightstand that I can’t wait to read. I hear the sink in the bathroom turning on. I hear the traffic on the highway several streets over. But still, why do I do this? Why do I spend the time to brave rejections and acceptances, to fail and succeed (mostly fail), to wait for other people’s evaluations of my work, to publish blogs that I’m never positive people will read or ignore?

These questions have been running through my head over the last month, and I realized that I was struggling to answer them. That was until it hit me: I write because I want to connect with people. I want to build a conversation. I want to hear people tell me about their stories that, perhaps, my story inspired. I want to speak to the people who don’t feel like anyone is willing to talk. I want to write stories that force people to think twice about how they perceive mental illness. I want to write stories that illuminate the power of the imagination and how sometimes our realities are not as objective as we believe.

I want to communicate. It’s as simple as that. That’s such a basic want, and somewhere along the line, I forgot the power of that, and I began to force my work to fit expectations, marketplaces, genres that might not have been me. But I have to learn in 2018 to accept that I do not have control over creative work. I can’t bend it into the shape I want. I can’t force the genre of my work to reflect the perception I want others to have of me.

I write now because I want to connect with people, and the only way I believe I can  connect with them is to find a way to bleed on these pages, to use them as a mirror to the self, to share something authentic and true. That is my goal. That is why I write. To share and know the authentic self.

Graduation Advice: 17 Things I Wish I Could Have Said to My Seventeen-Year-Old Self

In May of last year, my former principal at my high school in Clinton, Massachusetts, asked if I would give the speech at the 2017 baccalaureate and give graduation advice. It was an honor to have been asked, and I gladly accepted. The offer was extended, perhaps, in November the year prior, and I had plenty of time to think about what I was going to say. I racked my brain for creative ways to inspire high schoolers, but I really didn’t know what it was like to be a high schooler in 2017. I only knew what it was like to be a high schooler in 1999 to 2003. So, I imagined what I would say to a seventeen-year-old version of myself, and I simply pretended I was in the audience, with the hopes of inspiring others. Watch the video below and let me know what you would say to your 17-year-old self.

10 Things to Do in Jackson Hole with Your Wife

Over the last few years, my wife and I have been interested in vacations that combined stress-destroying nature set in culturally rich places where adventure and great food were as common as the wide-open spaces, and Jackson Hole (we recently discovered) is clearly one of those places. I’ve been interested in visiting Jackson Hole since I saw a photo of the Grand Tetons, and every day we had in the Hole was an absolute pleasure. Below, you will see 10 things to do in Jackson Hole with Your Wife.

1. Be Beary Aware

bear

All throughout Grand Teton National Park, Teton Village, and Jackson Hole, it’s impossible to ignore the signs that read: “Be Bear Aware.” The signs are pretty self explanatory, but they want you to be on the look-out for bears. Well, Heron and I were terrified of bears yet incredibly intrigued by the prospect of seeing one. (We actually preferred the slogan “Be Beary Aware.”) So, when we were hiking to Amphitheater Lake, we actually saw a bear as we were coming around the corner of a switchback. He was young and ravaging through the huckleberry patches. It’s quite a sight to see, especially if they’re not about to eat you.

2. Buy Bear Spray

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When I was hiking and we approached switchbacks, I always reached down for my bear spray, just in case some hungry Grizzly wanted to have a French and Irish snack. I really recommend buying the bear spray at the supermarket — or asking your hotel to borrow some — but it does feel essential, considering I talked to a couple that needed to use it.

Ask people in the hotel you’re staying at if they have a good bear spray story. The best one I heard is that some people commonly interpret bear spray as a bug spray. One of the hotel employees told me the story of a father lining his entire family up against a wall, the bear spray in his hand, and dousing his entire family. From what I hear, the pain of mace to bear spray is like comparing the heat of a campfire to the sun. This poor family must have lost all faith in their father.

3. Huckleberries

Thistle bison

Huckleberries are a treat for bears…and humans. (Not pictured above.) It’s not right to let all the bears get all the good stuff. I recommend finding a huckleberry patch and searching for the delectable berry. Make sure that the plant has alternating leaves on the stem. If you have time, then try and find some huckleberry dessert at a local restaurant. I recommend Westbank Grill or Gather.

4. Morning Sunset on the Grand Teton

Grand Teton 2

Get up early in the morning and try and find the alpenglow.

5. Take a Safari

Pronghorn

For some reason, I never imagined I could take a legitimate safari in America, but in The Grand Teton National Park, you certainly can hop in an SUV and see incredible wildlife that truly make you understand “where the buffalo roam.” Heron and I took Eco Tours, and we were lucky enough to have Laura “the Legend” as our tour guide. I call her the legend because every other tour guide that met her along the way had a story about her. Here are two of my favorite:

  • Stalked a bison for 20 days
  • Killed a deer in the middle of winter with a bow and arrow and carried out the carcass on her back

Overall, EcoTours was fantastic. We drove around in an SUV, drank fresh coffee, and saw incredible wildlife and parts of the park we would never have found on our own. For instance, we saw bison, elk, a coyote, a badger, pronghorn, and more.

6. Dance Like a Cowboy at the Silver Dollar Saloon at the Wort Hotel

Buffalo Two Trip

I grew up in Massachusetts, and I wish I could actually say that I was close to being a real-life cowboy. I can’t, however….mostly because I tend to glamp instead of camp. But I can claim to dance like one. I recommend heading over to the Silver Dollar Saloon in Jackson when the live band is playing and figuring out how to cut a rug like you know how to herd cattle.

7. Peresphone Bakery

Bison with birds

When I first decided to book a vacation in Jackson, I never expected to find such incredible food. We ate at several great restaurants, but my favorite spot was Persephone bakery. They had great coffee, a peaceful outdoor patio, and spoons on the wall. Go there for great breakfast and Intelligentsia Coffee.

8. Hike to Amphitheater Lake and see the Elephant eye

Elephant Eye Amphitheater Lake

Heron and I love to hike, and before you die, you need to make sure you get as close to the Grand Teton as possible. I recommend hiking to Amphitheater Lake. It’s a difficult hike, but the views are intense, and the sense of accomplishment is even better. When you get to the top, you can wade in glacier water so refreshing, cool, and clean, you’ll almost want to go swimming. But then you’ll remember the cold part. Plus, you’ll get to see the rock that looks like an elephant eye. (At least that’s how I see it.)

9. Walk with the wildflowers

Hiking in the Wyoming Flowers

In Wyoming, the state flag is a bison, but I would argue that it should be the wildflower patch. Take some time to walk through a meadow and appreciate these colorful planets buzzing around your feet.

10. Fly Fish Down the Snake River

Snake River Jackson Hole

With all of the above said, it’s easy to say what our favorite part of the trip was in Jackson Hole: Fly fishing down the Snake River. I don’t claim to be a master fisherman, and neither does my wife. In fact, I have never been fly fishing before in my life, but we couldn’t miss the opportunity to try something new. We booked “Fish the Fly” with Tristan, our guide, and he took us down the Snake River in his boat, prepared all the rods, and hosted us down a river that was as large and glorious as the West. My wife was the only one to catch a fish, but it was worth it just to float down the river and catch site of the Grand Teton Mountains behind us and watch bald eagles and osprey zoom over head. Plus, we saw two golden eagles that stood taller than I could ever imagine. Being able to float down the Snake River in Wyoming, well, it gave us a reason to always return.