Category Archives: Success

Coughing Up Salt

I told Joe that the most important thing I learned at the Fire Academy was to never be too proud to call a MayDay. He looked at me and smiled. “Yeah, always accept help…”he said. Joe said he held the record as the oldest guy to join the Atlantic City Beach Patrol (at age 46) and he was eager to see if I would beat his record. He asked me if I was a confident swimmer. I replied, “Sure!”

Today I did a strange thing. I can’t call it courageous. I can’t call it reckless either. At 47.8 years old, I tried out to be a lifeguard. It was spur of the moment. But my excursion to the New Jersey shore was more of a research project. A colleague of mine posted the ad for lifeguards on her social media two days ago. I saw it and thought “hmmm?” It was time for a new adventure. When I saw the the minimum age requirement was 16, I should have used my God-given wisdom to consider nothing more.

But I’m not built like that normally. So unless there was a VERY good reason not to, I figured it was prudent to take a closer look.

The drive to Atlantic City (at 6am) was spiritual in itself. No one on the road, the sun peering through the overcast sky, and a YouTube sermon that a friend sent me a month ago were all guiding me. Not for one moment did I think that today might be my last.

But as I reflect on those moments that I have been truly at rest with my entire being, I’ve always reached out to my brother to show him that I love him and admire him. The last time something like this occurred was nearly 20 years ago when I passed out while riding my brand new motorcycle. For the record, I went into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting. Alas, that is a story for another day.

Troy and Me

I arrived in the city early. The outlets had not yet opened. The boardwalk still had morning wellness jockeys jogging and cycling. Roll call was 9am sharp! I had time. So I scooted over to my brothers condo which is a few blocks off of the beach. We rapped about current events and the daily grind. But no talk of mom. We wanted to keep the conversation light.

I told him that I was coming down to watch the candidates try out. I assured him that it was a young man’s game. I needed to hear myself say it. I learned today that even I don’t believe the words coming out of my mouth sometimes. But after a hug, I was out the door. Couldn’t be late.

I put money in the meter to allow me a good hour. That would be time enough to witness, ask a few questions, and be on my way. My tenacity changed when I reached the beach patrol headquarters.

“Is this where candidates sign up?” I asked. I was greeted cordially and offered an application which merely asked for my vital information. I noticed that there was no question about an emergency contact. That should have been my second clue not to do this.

They tattooed a 16 on my right shoulder with a red sharpie. This for sure would be how they would identify my body. I was committed now (or I should say I should have been committed)!

A bunch of teenagers, mostly boys, were chatting it up. Some were sporting ripped T-shirt’s from their high school crew team. They weren’t muscular. Mostly streamlined. I figured that my extra mass would either help me stay afloat or contribute to my self-inflicted demise.

There was only one other adult trying out. His name was Mike too and he couldn’t stop pacing. He was bald and had grey stubbles protruding from his chin.

As we walked toward the beach I trailed all of the others. I toted my duffel bag so that I could stow my phone, my keys, and my glasses. The other fellows were stretching and bouncing. A few ran out to the surf to condition their bodies for the cold water. I didn’t need to do ANY of those things. I figured that in a real emergency, there will be no time for warmups.

The lead evaluator briefly explained what will be expected for round one. Everyone will run from the starting line to the water, swim through the waves out to a red flag nearly 175 meters away. Then we would swim another 175 meters north against the current to arrive at a green flag. Crews will be in the surf to direct us and guide us back to the beach. We then needed to sprint to a finish line that was a makeshift goalpost. Candidates will be placed according to their achievement, with consideration given to efficiency and speed.

THIS is when I should have stopped. Instead I paused. I set my bag down at the starting line. I bent down to place my shirt, bandanna, and glasses in the bag. Without my glasses, I couldn’t even see the first red flag. Read that again. I ignored all of the red flags.

He blew the whistle. All of the cadets (because we were more than candidates at this point) jolted towards the surf. I would simply follow them. If I could keep up with a few of them, I wouldn’t come in last. At this point it was just about doing someTHING.

My confidence wavered as I tripped in the shallow water 30 paces in. The others were diving into the cresting waves. Some waded over the surf. The achievers were already into a full on breaststroke. And I was choking on the salt water.

As I write this, my feet are buried in the sand. I’m watching from beneath the beach patrol porch as the cadets continue their quest. Round two is rowing. I was looking forward to that part too. I’ll watch for now.

I had a chance to grab my bag and walk back to my car without being noticed. Instead I’m grinning from ear to ear. I think the veteran staff was either embarrassed for me or disgusted with me. They were certain that this old man would wash out. I didn’t disappoint.

I’m enjoying the breeze though. I’ll stop up at the surf shop in a few minutes to get myself an “official ACBP” tank top. I’ve got time. There’s still 45 minutes left on the meter.

The Other Side of Hope

As the new year begins to reveal the playbook for the coming months, I’m pondering my lesson plans. The possibility of another stint of virtual instruction looms as the actual storm clouds cloak us with snow.

We are never more than a few hours away from tomorrow. With holidays come a time of reflection and redemption. But more importantly we develop hopes that the future will be brighter. Brighter than…what?

To anticipate something greater than something else is to have at least an experience or exposure to something less great, right?

Whether you’ve thought about it or not, hope is an acknowledgment that we’ve already come through something unpleasant. Life is the acknowledgment that death has not occurred yet. Good is the proof that evil has not prevailed.

Therefore, we can suppose that on the other side of demise, there is hope. Hope is what keeps us going. In the presence of despair, hope looms in the darkness. Hope is the cousin of faith. But with faith comes denominational choice. With faith comes organized religion or the opinion to shun spirituality. You have a choice.

These are constructs that can be debated, embraced, or debunked. So in the spirit of either, let’s consider, for a moment, that hope is a drug. In the eyes of a pessimist or someone who lives amongst habitual chaos, hope is an intangible that is just beyond their reach. Hope is both a noun and a verb, where as faith is just a noun. Hope is cheap and accessible to anyone. Faith requires effort, and it’s expensive and exclusive. Hope is pedaled by politicians and producers. It’s offered to excite and motivate, manipulate and mutilate pessimism and hopelessness.

So in the next few (days) of the new year, my resolution shall be to mix and match. For every two negative situations, I will mix in one serving of hope. It will spice it up! It will taste great. It will reduce the acidity (sort of like mixing sugar in with the spaghetti sauce). I will match the energy I’m presented with with a force equal to (or completely opposite of) whatever I am faced. I will challenge adversity with possibility. I will look evil square in the eye; and offer it a hit of hope.

Money For Nothing

Forty years ago a little-known group called Dire Straits released a song that mocked MTV and most pop culture connected to the iconic creation. But they weren’t wrong. Long before Brandons or Karens, there were innovators engineering new ways to glean a penny from a dime.

It’s the “trust” for me. For most of our lives, we unwittingly spent money without considering where the extra goes. We bought things at the suggested retail price, grew tired of it before we even considered the depreciated value, and discard it even sooner.

Interestingly, those who refuse to get rid of their pop gadgets and fashions are ridiculed as hoarders. Strangely, they see a value in things that others do not. Intrinsic value is still value. As is sentimental value. But the psychologists call this an ailment best classified in the DSM-IV. The rest of us are “normal” because we buy overpriced things and throw them away.

I think value hits differently when we can actually afford something.

In reality, we often overlook the actual cost of our purchases and/or investments:

Purchase price
Practicality
Durability/reliability
Cost of financing
Satisfaction with the product/service
Availability
Replacement costs
Maintenance
Serviceability
Supply/demand
How long it will be fashionable
Long term value
Trade-in value/depreciation

How will you apply this theory? Does it only apply to goods and services? Could it apply to “other” things?

When we pay for something, we don’t ask about the profit margin. We don’t consider the innovation, research, or development. At best we might imply that we’d like to see the fortunes we spend result in responsible benefits for the employees or charitable contributions to a non-profit. But if those perks translate into inflated prices, then all deals are off!

We want transparency but we don’t want to invest energy. For the purposes of this idea, money is energy.

We might engage if we thought we have something to gain.

How much would you pay for trust? What would you invest? Should you invest even a penny? Or how about a dime? Are you willing to play a game? Would you be more willing to engage in an experiment? Let’s develop a compromise and call it an experience.

We can not buy trust. But we can lease it.

Here’s how it will work. Without knowing for certain where your money will go, transfer one penny. By doing so, you invest some time by learning where your money is going. Once you have more information, lend me a dime. By offering me the opportunity to send it back, you are leasing trust.

But if you like the prospect, and you trust the process, donate a dollar. You won’t get the dollar back, but I’ll appreciate the cup of coffee you’d be buying me.

Intrigued yet? Give it a try!

Now let’s recap:

(1) transfer a penny. It will not be returned, but you’ve learned something about yourself.

(2) lend a dime. I’ll send it right back, and you’ve practiced the art of trust.

(3) donate a dollar. I’ll accept your contribution for my coffee and add you to my subscription list.

I look forward to seeing what you decide.

Oil and Water (TikTok Challenge)

In light of the recent bomb threats in one of the biggest small towns in New Jersey, the new superintendent left messages for the parents of each student enrolled in the district. Every building in the school district will reopen after an emergency closure resulted from a threat that went viral on social media. This was not the first threat the district has endured. But this time, the adversity has directed the energy where it may be best felt—a conversation between parents and students.

As I listened to the plea for help, I prepared my mind as both an educator of ten year olds and a parent of a seventeen year old. I considered my students who confide in me how messy the bathroom has become (as a result of TikTok inspired vandalism). Their little hearts conflicted as they exchange their thrill of the chaos for their need to be exonerated. They don’t want to get in trouble for something that another student did.

I considered my son who is on the cusp of getting his driver’s license and applying for jobs and preparing for graduation. I also think about how smart he is, his potential, and his likeliness to stay out of trouble. It’s his affiliations that bring me pause.

The superintendent’s message was a call to action for parents to have a meaningful conversation with their children. There’s a need not only to prevent future occurrences, but to discuss the implications of this kind of behavior.

We must be cautious to label these acts frivolous or thoughtless! There could be nothing more contrary. A LOT of effort went into concocting these challenges. The social media mileage that it’s been getting is not accidental. Somewhere there is a proud troll. The impact ripples throughout communities across the nation. How long have we been telling our youngsters to think globally? We had no idea how that might manifest.

When I picked my son up today, I greeted him with the love that comes from missing him for a few days. I asked him his thoughts of the “day off from school” as a result of the recent threat. He was appreciative that it wasn’t a “remote instruction” day. Beyond that, it all seemed to be outside of his purview.

I replayed the superintendent’s message for my son. I cautiously approached the need to have this conversation in a way that he could “buy” into the the resolve. I watched my son’s expression fade from disinterest into something that resembled “are we done here?”

I began by reminding him of the various occasions that he thought he had things under control only to realize that situations can be cumbersome or overwhelming. I then affirmed how smart he was and how much trust I have in his decisions.

THEN…

I reminded him of my role to guide him rather than restrict him or hover over him. What happened next surprised even me. My son picked up a fruit and began to toss it into the air rhythmically. Up and down, over and over. Seemingly not paying attention, it wasn’t until I hit upon a nerve that he missed his mark and dropped the fruit.

He couldn’t focus on his toss and grasp the points at the same time. He offered little as a rebuttal as the conversation morphed more so into a lecture. Sure enough, each time I hit upon a valid point, he dropped the fruit.

Despite the easy analogy that could be made between regretful decisions and this pummeled fruit, I narrowed the talk to three points.

1) Students have some knowledge of what is happening here and may not have fully considered the consequences. Nonetheless, it does not require hard evidence to charge another student with vandalism. It merely requires a witness or mitigating circumstances to transform an investigation into formal charges.

2) Someone will speak up to either put an end to the destructive behavior or they will direct that negative energy from themselves (to ensure that they are not blamed).

3) If even half the parents had this “meaningful” talk with their child, the kids would likely steer clear of the kids that they KNOW are engaging in this activity.

I call this “oil and water.” Both are powerful, but neither wants anything to do with the other. Students who desire to be on the path to success want nothing to do with behavior that will create obstacles. For other students, misdirection will continue until they experience a consequence for themselves or until they witness someone else get caught.

I’ve asked my son to consider “oil and water” as he witnesses these TikTok challenges unfurl. From this point on, he can no longer claim that he doesn’t know any better. And as his parent, I can no longer say that I didn’t at least start the conversation.

Defining Wealth

Wealth is not exclusive to an accumulation of resources. It can be a state of mind. To be rich in health or opportunity; to have strong relationships; or to have rich dreams.

How can wealth be a goal and an asset? We can aspire to have materials or piece of mind, but ultimately what we attain is a manifestation of our efforts. It’s our ownership that inspires appreciation.

No one can give us peace. Nor can peace be earned. This state of mind is ethereal. It is the result of accepting circumstances that are beyond our control. Those who claim to have found some semblance of peace may be wealthier than others.

Much like strength, our physical and emotional health both attribute to our overall wealth. Health is heavily reliant on exercising our bodies and minds. We endure obstacles and overcome challenges. We celebrate those accomplishments. We achieve a wealthier lifestyle through our achievements. It’s not the announcements, however, of our growth. It’s the actual improvement of and/or our resilience to our circumstances that signifies our wealth.

When asked what they’d do if they gained a million dollars, a group of ten year olds revealed some interesting desires. Several students confirmed that they’d spend it on fancy cars, bigger homes, or luxurious accessories. Another group of students collaborated and conveyed that they’d give some of their new-found wealth away to charity or save it for college. But one proclaimed he’d go to his fathers job and complicate things for him so that his father would no longer work there.

This last revelation spoke volumes and warranted a deeper understanding. This student confided that this new wealth would change circumstances. With wealth, he could control the world around him. He wanted his father home. He wanted his father’s troubles at work to disappear. He wanted to contribute to his father’s happiness. Our children exude charity and noble traits. Their paths towards adulthood offer them the tools needed to attain their goals. Will this one day evolve into a healthier or wealthier life?

Wealth is ambiguous. Desire’s subjectivity is fluid and changeable. Regardless of how we attain it, how we transmit it to our loved ones in life (and in death) speaks to its inherent value. We decide what wealth is. We decide how to build it. We decide how to apply it. One might conclude that wealth is not a thing at all, but a state of mind.

Daddy Issues!

Too often we hear about the sadness that results from dads falling short on their responsibilities. We blame absenteeism on dads. We blame inadequacies on unpaid child support. We blame dads (who’ve moved on and started new families) for those ill-feelings that the oldest kids experience. These are amongst the many things that cause their sons and specifically their daughters to have “daddy issues.”

Pardon me for a moment as I stand up for myself and the many fathers who have been upholding their responsibilities. It goes without saying that there are moms who will disagree. They may claim that these dads do not match the narratives that the moms have been feeding their kids. Well so be it!

The most important lesson that I’ve tried to teach my kids is that there are three sides to every story. There’s her side. There’s his side. And there’s the truth!

My kids got her side every time their mom was angry with me. Every time she observed that I was living my best life, my kids heard her side. Every time my kids told me why their mom was upset, they got to hear my side. And although I believed that I was going damage control, I was contributing to their confusion. I created a situation that forced them to decide for themselves what the truth was. And to be completely honest, they may never be built tough enough to handle the truths that either of their parents are capable of telling.

It’s story time! And the best stories are told about someone else’s drama. When it’s personal, it’s not drama. It’s trauma!

Comedian Chris Rock reminds dads that they have but one job. “Keep your daughters off the pole!” He goes on to joke that a daughter that didn’t get enough love may find herself getting even with dad by becoming an exotic dancer. It’s cringe worthy, and no less than horrifying. “Daddy issues,” he calls it.

The reality is that children who have had great dads develop daddy issues too. Kids who don’t get their way, kids who have alternatives to a caring dad, and kids who cling to moms who disparage their dad all risk developing “daddy issues.”

It’s sad that dads may be blamed for their children’s disappointments. As a dad who has fulfilled his responsibilities, I can point out that responsibility falls on parents AND children. Adulthood spans beyond blaming someone else. Raising children properly is not about giving them what they want. It’s about developing the tools necessary for our kids to get what they need.

Kids who have developed a sense of integrity are fully aware of their ability to choose their path. Our job as parents is to identify the obstacles and encourage our children to overcome them.

I want my children to achieve success with dignity. But sometimes it’s easier to blame dear ol’ dad. I suppose I could have fallen short in some ways, but I am not sure who gets to decide what the standards are (or whether a shortfall has occurred). Not mom. Not dad. And certainly not the kids. Who can be objective enough?

Daddy issues are unlike any other condition. Assigning accountability to anyone else doesn’t ring true quite the same way. One thing is certain. Thanksgiving dinners that don’t yield the biggest piece of meat for dad are very revealing.

Guilty confessions vol. x

We must read between the lines. Indignant fools will not confess. Wise men will let us figure it out. Most of us wont ask the right questions. Some will not admit their doubt.

But if we could have more conversations, and talk it through, the life quality enhanced could belong to you. Rhymes and puns are clever. Analogies are fun and games. Unasked questions are answered never…kicking ass and taking names.

We can learn from other’s mistakes, but often we choose our own. The lessons don’t count unless we improve. The safest place is our home.

Alright! Enough of the wit. It’s down to brass tacks. Let’s discuss something real. Let’s avoid the character attacks.

The nineteen was dropped from COVID because the year is now 2021. The variant is called Delta to avoid another messy one. No more talk of the region of origin because it would confirm the problem we have with racism…

capitalism…

age-ism…

The fact that the world already exploits Southeast Asia; the reality that those in the west who created the vaccine don’t have access to it, can’t afford it, can’t get away from it–so we call it Delta, symbolic of the shape.

What happened to contact tracing? It was all the rage in 2020. But now? We just show color coded maps that coincide hotspots with political affiliations. But masks aren’t political! Diseases need cures, not vaccinations. But there’s no money in the cure.

There’s money in low wage-earners who need to get back to work; to serve the people who work for higher wages (who are able to work from home). If there was any chance that the cast system could be broken, a pandemic is as good a time as any.

Minimum wages increase as the poor hear the cries of the wealthy, “Get back to work!” An individual recognition of how organized labor maximizes income, the masses show the rich that they can either EAT them or join them. The wealthy, too, reorganize.

To be still affords us the opportunity to see things for how they are. After nearly 18 months of near-stillness, why are we surprised that things would change? Lessons were learned–just not the lessons that we planned.

The manipulation takes a more aggressive tone. The oppressed push back. For the first time the entitled feel victimize and scream bloody murder as they eat their own cake.

Education IS political for the simple fact that some get it for free, some pay for it, some don’t get it at all–and those are the ones that we elect to lead us. For anything that has value will be fought for. For anything that others need, there will be war. For anything that we can’t have more, there will be battles in store.

So today’s guilty confession is simple and secure. The liars will not stop lying. The wealthy won’t stop clinching their pearls. The poor wont stop fighting for more. The perverts wont stop groping girls. The mask-less won’t stop breathing. The cops wont stop beating. The disenfranchised won’t stop marching. The virus wont stop mutating. The END.

Raised Eyebrows

What does the term bamboozled mean to you? How much do you believe when you watch (or read) the news? How long will you ingest information before you become skeptical?

For someone to present something completely ludicrous as a benefit to a broken system raises eyebrows. It’s ludicrous when the solution to a problem is extreme—either far too easy or incredibly difficult. Here’s what happened.

For the first time in 18 months, I attended a training. This annual training was for one of the many volunteer boards I’ve been asked to sit on. In my community, non-profit boards are not as diverse as they could be. My role is not so much to represent the needs of the community, but to fulfill a commitment these non-profits are attempting to make to our community. In many cases, I sit and listen. The other veteran members of these boards don’t pay much attention to me as long as I don’t disrupt the flow of their procedures.

I can’t be certain of how they view me. They don’t ask me questions. As far as I know, they don’t much care about me. They might think that I have no idea of what’s going on. Occasionally, I remove the doubt. I’ll ask a question. They’ll politely engage me. My questions are rarely answered with commitment. Instead the responses are rushed. I feel stifled. I resist the urge to feel slighted, and I never walk away until the meeting is done.

On this day, something was different. A man who has nothing in common with me pulled me aside. He asked me discretely if I wanted to know how all this works. I raised an eyebrow. I looked at my wrist where I used to wear a watch (a bad habit of mine) and sighed.

He pulled me closer. He said, “spending.”

He gestured to his fingers that he rubbed together. “Money, my boy!”

As if he were crisping invisible dollar bills in one hand, he declared that he spends money on paper, but rarely has cash in hand.

“I buy cars. I’ve always loved cars. When I was in college, I took out student loans to buy project cars that I couldn’t afford. Even though I lived at home with my parents, I had a half dozen “oldies” scattered around town. Two on campus, one at my girlfriend’s apartment, one at a buddies house, and one that I drove. My parents resented that I had access to loan money as a student they they could not access as homeowners. I had no credit, no collateral, and a minimum wage job. But my earnings were enough to pay for my college classes. To this day, I still owe on student loans that I used as walk around money thirty years ago. It wasn’t smart, but it will never be repaid.”

“That’s interesting,” I whispered, pulling away from this man.

He asserted, “there’s more! Before I graduated from college, I volunteered as an intern for a non-profit community action agency. I witnessed the CEO live lavishly while his staff earned salaries below the poverty level. He bragged that the services that the agency provided were heavily relied upon by his staff. ‘As long as there is a need, the agency will remain in business.’”

“Spending, my boy! But that’s not all. When I graduated, that man gave me a job and paid me a little bit more. I stayed for a year. I noticed how discontent his staff was. Sadly, their discontent was not enough to motivate them to do much about their own circumstance. Instead, they processed the aid applications that will financially support others in their community. This agency was run by the people FOR the people. I left after a year for a better job.

“My subsequent jobs evolved into careers. Each one serving marginal populations. The managers lived well, but the workers managed a life barely above their means.

“Everyone either had high rent or a higher mortgage. They drove expensive cars that they leased or second-hand luxury cars that they owned. So I mimicked what I witnessed and I fit in just fine.”

“What’s this got to do with me?” I said.

“High overhead!” he mumbled

“Spend money that’s not yours! Run deficits. Live beyond your means.

“Here’s what I do: I apply for high interest loans and pay every month on time. I default on the low balance loans to keep my credit score low enough that no one will benefit. This way no one will steal my identity. Because my default judgements will never be more than 10% over my gross, and my salary rarely competes with the cost-of-living, my income is never fixed. I occasionally work a job on the side (that is off the books), so my head is above water. But I drive a nice car, I eat out on credit, and no one can see my empty pockets.

“I tip well and treat my friends better than they treat me. I keep their secrets but I don’t share my own. I give to charity, as long as it’s a charity that I’m fond of. You never know when things will go sour. Only burn the bridges where adversaries antagonize you. Forget about keeping your enemies close, because your life will be too boring for them to hang around.”

“Are you done?” I asked

He said, “No. I’m just getting started…”

Unsolicited Advice

There are few things more uncomfortable than advice that you didn’t ask for. It has no value until you’ve experienced something so uncomfortable that you wished you had actually considered that unsolicited advice.

So instead of listing a bunch of “do’s & don’ts” let’s instead list a few things to consider. It’s less intrusive and more…considerate.

Value other people’s time. This should be a “no-brainer” and yet…. This lends itself to the next piece of unsolicited advice:

The Golden Rule, yes… BUT even though you may not be moved by how others treat you, you must recognize that treating others with respect spans farther than “self”. Consider Karma. The universe is paying close attention. The good that we exercise today will find its way back into our lives later and expand into the lives of people that we may never meet. Proceed accordingly.

Consider timeliness. Prepare in advance to arrive on time. Running late this time is merely setting a precedent for next time. Like anything else, if it works out this time, you’ll make it a habit. Successes are habit-forming and contagious. When you’re successful being late, others will mimic that behavior.

The next morsel of unsolicited advice is…BUILD RELATIONSHIPS. Because we can only predict (and not foresee) the future, cautiously maintain current relationships. Be willing to develop new relationships, and recognize that people are in your life for either a reason or a season. We can’t control these seasons, but we can draw from our wardrobe in case of a chilly day.

Dress appropriately and ADDress your adversaries with full consideration. When we underestimate others, we make fools of ourselves. There are plenty of proverbs we could apply, but your own experiences should drive you and not inhibit you. Confidence is attractive, but arrogance can be a repellant. No one can take your education from you, so learn as much as you can. Intelligence looks good on you.

Humility looks good too, but wear it like an accessory rather than a suit. When you look good, you feel good. Consider how you look when you step outside of your comfort zones. Consider how you look at the end of the day. A successful experience is as informative as a defeat. Both develop growth.

Grow! “Either get busy living or get busy dying” This Shawshank Redemption quote suggests that we can extract advice from books, films, or even your favorite childhood cartoon. Bugs Bunny taught us to be clever, but Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam exposed us the dangers of guns in the wrong hands.

“Know when to hold ‘Em, know when to fold ‘Em; know when to walk away…know when to run!” Kenny Rogers sang it best. The world is our classroom. Any good teacher would glean real-world experiences to use in a lesson. You can do the same. There are clues in every song, every commercial, and nuisances abound.

So take this unsolicited advice or discard it entirely. After all, you’ve read nothing new. But now you have something to consider.

Formidable Film

When I was nine years old, my mother sent me away for the summer. I stayed with my aunt and cousins who lived in South Carolina. All I knew then was that they had something called air conditioning and that their snakes were called water moccasins. I have long since lost contact with my three girl cousins, but my one little boy cousin is a friend on Facebook.

The more I think back, it was like I was spending the summer with the Huxtables accept their was no Cliff. I mean, their was a man in the house, but he was my aunts second (or third) husband. In my later years, my mom explained that every time my aunt divorced, she made enough money to earn another college degree. When she passed away, she had long-since earned her PhD.

My littlest boy cousin was about five years old that summer. He was named after my aunts second husband who was no longer around. My mom once showed me a photograph of the family posing in front his dad’s brand new black 78 Ford F-150 step side (with a camper top) that they’d driven all the way from Charleston to Atlantic City. Four kids in the back with no seatbelts—heck, no seats!—and no cares in the world. After all, that was in the 70’s!

My four girl cousins were full of character; and each one very different. My oldest cousin had already gone off to college that sumner and later in life would become the first openly gay council woman in suburban Atlanta. She left behind her younger sisters who had yet to develop their identities.

The second oldest was an adolescent princess who hadn’t yet discovered boys, but remained especially shy around her step father. I didn’t understand why she behaved the way she did that Summer. That was our first and last summer together. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her. We grew up and apart. I had heard that she barely survived 9/11. As fate would have it, she called out sick from her job in one of the towers the day they came crashing down. Fate, she is a strange mistress.

The third oldest was a little older than me. She was a little sassy and often the victim of her mother’s wrath. She wasn’t as pretty as the others and was reminded of it frequently. I was an outsider and unfamiliar with the family dynamic. So when I arrived, I was kind to each of my hosts. I was especially empathetic to this cousin. As a result, we got along well.

And then there was the fourth youngest. She was a little younger than me. Only older than her younger brother, the only authority she had was over him. She teased him relentlessly. She would find disgusting ways to upset him. Most memorable was when she took his anatomically-correct cabbage patch doll and threatened to perform perverted acts on it. My aunt was horrified and embarrassed by these accusations, and the beatings would be horrendous.

My aunt would yell, “where did you learn that?!” as she beat her within inches of her life. But at night, when the rest of us were supposed to be sleep, all of the preadolescents in that Carolina home in the caul de sac got quite an education.

The days were filled by either playing with the many Barbie Dream Homes in the sweltering attic or drinking Kool aid in the finished basement watching Home Box Office, Cinemax, and Showtime. We had no supervision while my aunt and her husband were off at work. She never asked how our day was when she got home. She never asked what we had for lunch or whether we went outside to get fresh air.

Only once did she ask what new movies had we seen. One of my cousins told her that we’d watched Risky Business. She was unmoved. My other cousin exclaimed that we watched Purple Rain. Still no reaction. My littlest cousin yelled out, “…and Octopussy too!” To this, my aunts scolded all five of us!

“We don’t say THAT word!” She exclaimed. Based on what I had previously witnessed, one of them was sure to catch a beating. I had just hoped it wasn’t me. I didn’t know any better. I mean, I’d been whipped by my mom for repeating “adult words” at home, but my aunties usually spoiled me with peppermints at church. I didn’t know what to expect here.

She restrained herself as she gazed over to me. She politely explained that she’d not heard of these movies, but from now on we shall pronounce the title “Octopi.” As I recall, it was right about then that her husband smacked her on the behind and said, “what’s for dinner?”

I was NINE years old! I didn’t understand what was happening in that household. I barely understand now! My memories fade. There’s only a few formidable things that I remember.

I remember my mom sending me a harmonica for my birthday that summer. I remember my aunt giving me a five dollar bill that I immediately spend at the Woolworth 5 & 10 which was situated at the end of the mall. I remember silhouettes in the early morning hours. And I remember the HBO theme music each time a new movie was about to come on.

I remember the warning at the beginning of each film. The PG, PG-13 (which was a relatively new distinction) and the illustrious R rating. There was nothing rated G in that house that summer. Interestingly enough, our beloved “Octopi” was only rated PG.

With no real supervision we watched Risky Business repeatedly. I was too young to understand the nuisances of Tom Cruise loosing his virginity on screen to Rebecca De Mornay. I didn’t realize what it meant to convert a suburban home into a brothel. Nor did I know the significance of college-bound teens cashing in their savings bonds to jump-start their “right-of-passage.” All I knew was that I wanted a Porsche 928 when I grew up. All I recalled was the slogan, “Porsche, there is no substitute.”

It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that this ground-breaking film was a perverse reckoning of teenage angst at the hands of a female molester. I was recently reminded that cancel culture would have had a field-day with this film. If for no other reason, the killer pimp Guido played by Joe Pantoliano, exploited young Tom Cruise. But it was ok because the teenager solved his own predicament before his parents got home from vacation. And his victory provided the kindling for a lifetime of success. Lessons were learned—not just by the characters in the film—but by the youngsters watching those characters. In that poorly-lit basement, lessons were learned. We knew this film was taboo, but we watched anyway. As long as we didn’t mention Octopussy, no harm would befall us.

Don’t even get me started on Purple Rain! As soon as my cousins saw that it was listed in the coming attractions, all other planned activities lost their importance. I suppose Tom Cruise in his tighty whities had nothing on Prince in his purple pleather pants. For me, it was Apollonia baptizing herself in what she thought was Lake Minnetonka. Even my littlest cousin knew not to let my aunt know that he saw boobies.

We didn’t know Purple Rain was about domestic violence and spousal abuse. We were unmoved by the blatant mental health symbolism. We overlooked similarities to what may have been occurring in that very home. Or maybe for my cousins, these films brought about a semblance of familiarity or normalcy. For my preadolescent cousins, it was the music and the performance that was enchanting. It was the purple motorcycle that could mysteriously transverse both bridges and the muddy meadows below that captured my attention. It was the sex appeal for my oldest cousins.

In that basement, that sumner, I learned too much. I was exposed to things that, to this day, bring me joy. The soundtracks and the vividness, the dialogue and the cliches all bring me a childhood familiarity that most likely explains my adult perverted mind. There were other things going on in that house that I was probably sheltered from. If not for the cinematic distractions, I too could have fallen victim to the perversions playing out upstairs.