My Peak as an Athlete

I’m going to put up here at the top that this may be one of those better-in-person stories to recount, but ah well, let’s give it a go.

I’ve mentioned recently that I got up to a lot of stuff when I was twelve. Don’t know why, but I guess that tiny age in particular was one for trying new things and getting into the unexpected. One of those things happened to be joining my tiny Lutheran middle school’s basketball team, despite having next to absolute zero interest in doing so. But heck, it gave me a shot at some street cred, so I went for it. Said street cred, much like my level of interest, amounted to zilch, but I got a good story or two out of it.

A thing to note: our basketball team sucked. Not that we didn’t try, not that we didn’t win a game or two, but we sincerely weren’t very good. To put it another way, Disney wasn’t about to use us for any inspirational children’s sport movies. We were so not-good, that when we won, I usually felt that it wasn’t exactly because of skill on our part, but that the opposing team was either having an off day or somehow shockingly worse than us.

But even a broken clock gets it right twice a day.

We were having a scrimmage match against another school and we were doing surprisingly well up to that point. My moment of glory came after they managed a basket on us, I had the ball out of bounds and was passing into our point guard, a fast wiry kid named James, when he suddenly passes it back to me. I was shocked, because I never run the ball up the court. As the tallest (and fattest- ahem “big boned”) kid on the team, and in fact the entire tiny school, I played center. That meant I was responsible for defense, rebounds, and not much else; definitely nothing that involved actually handling the ball. So I reacted accordingly.

“What the heck are you doing, dude?” I ask James loudly, flabbergasted.

“You take it up this time,” he replies calmly before continuing up the court. I follow him, dribbling the ball with clear uncertainty.

Dude,” I stress to emphasize my point, “I never do this though.” I don’t know if our coach privately asked him to do this so that I can practice, if it’s a setup for a prank or mean joke, or what, but I’m continuing this dialogue in the whole open air of the court, in front of him, the parents who are watching, the other team, everybody. “I’m no good at dribbling!”

“Don’t worry, you got this,” he says as we approach the half-court line, then separates. The opposing team was running a man-on-man defense, and I can see the kid who’s going to guard me, having listened to my whole bunch of complaining about how much I suck, closing in on me like a shark that’s smelled blood.

“James, man,” I continue to call after him as the kid closes to within a couple paces, “I can’t! I don’t know how to-” I cut myself off, pump-faking a one-handed pass to the right, which draws a lunging reaction from the kid guarding me. My teammates are positioned wide around the three-point line, so the key was wide open. I cut to my left then up the center for an easy layup, then I start back peddling down the court like the whole thing was an easy planned con, rather than a completely, artfully seized accident of opportunity.

But what makes it my peak, what really makes it an unforgettable moment, was the look on my classmate Kylie’s mom’s face in the audience: eyes wide, jaw on the freaking floor. Because all the yammering I was doing beforehand was completely legitimate – I NEVER run the ball, I never handle it, dribble defensively, none of it, and I’d been a pretty terrible player long as anyone had seen me in action. So no matter how surprised I might have been, it didn’t hold a candle to the upturned expectations of those watching.

I guess, looking back now, that it also seared into my mind the value of the “Fake it til you make it” school of doing things.

Who’da thunk it?

Another Tragic Cookie Tale

What’s up, everybody?
Not that long ago, I briefly alluded to having a terrible cookie-related story to share. (I’d argue “terrible” in the sense of the tragedy it represents, rather than the quality of the story, but really that’s up to you to determine, I guess.) And before I begin, I’ll admit a disclaimer up at the top here that I understand perfectly well how, from the outside, it looks like I’m totally full of it and making something up. I’m not. But besides asking for your trust, I don’t have much evidence to offer by way of earning it.

Anyway, let’s have a larf…

It was holiday season, the year is 2012, and there’s a plate of cookies in the break room at work. Chocolate chip, everyone’s favorite. Next to the little white plate is a short stack of papers with the deliciously simple recipe printed out on them. As it turns out, the secret to the recipe is a sprinkle of sea salt on the top. <Mmm’waaa! Chef’s kiss>

Now, at this point, Amanda’s already known for being the genius behind the baked goods that I bring in, so I see this as a wonderful opportunity to show everybody that Evan here’s got some chops with an oven, too. So I swing by the store on my way home, throw on some music, and whip up a batch of cookies. Next morning when I bring them in, everyone is telling me to pass along their thanks to Amanda for the tray of treats. I rebut and tell them that, actually, I made them to share.

That got it’s fair share of laughs.

That attitude spreads itself around the office for the better part of the morning until finally, around midday, I snap and begin countering with, “Okay, f**kers, this time I’ll film it!” So I do. I grab any stray ingredients I might need from the store again that day after work, kick off another kickass montage, set my camera up on its little tripod atop the refrigerator, and get to work.

Y’all, I was in the zone. Every movement is second nature, my measurements are precise, my area is pristine (always clean as you go), and the cookies came out even better than before. I was even throwing in some swag and showmanship, posing for the camera as I went. When I’m done, I set the cookies on a cooling rack, turn the oven off, and retrieve the camera from its perch…

And find that I never hit the record button.

After my heart re-inflated after dropping out of my ass, I packed up the cookies and figured, what the heck, I can always just get Amanda to act as my witness later. Besides, these cookies are bomb.

Naturally, the next day at work, got all the same rounds of, “Oh, tell Amanda thanks!” and “Whoa, two days in a row, huh?” And when I told them everything I’ve just shared with you, of COURSE nobody bought it. And when, weeks or months later, I had the opportunity to have my fiance admit to everyone that the cookies were my doing and not hers, to her credit, she did…

Which nobody believed. And it continues to haunt me to this day.

But f**k it. I know. God knows. You do now too. That’s good enough for me.

I guess just remember: Check the temperature. Check your time. Check your batteries, and I guess check that you hit the damn record button.

The Snoopy Cookie Disaster of ’99

I meant to put this out before Christmas, but the holiday season being what it is, it – like my practiced habit of delayed shopping trips – comes now at least a couple of weeks after I planned on doing it. And if I’m being honest, even this is too much preamble for the story that follows; but heck, I’m like an enthusiastic gravedigger for leash cemeteries: I love burying the lead.

Tortured similes aside, HI EVERYBODY. Here’s to hoping your respective holiday celebrations were everything you hoped for and more, whether that was caroling, gift giving, traveling to see family, or baking cookies. Speaking of baking cookies – haHA! I told you I’d get to the point eventually! – I’m not very good at it. (Well, actually, I’m not bad, but that’s a story for another time. One story at a time, Evan! Focus!)

This time in particular, I was about six or seven years old, it was Christmas time, and my Mama Bear was having me help her bake a batch of cookies out of a tube. I remember distinctly that they were cookies with Snoopy placing a star atop a little Christmas tree, and while I’m not, I should be really good at baking because even at that age, I’m very good at following instructions. My critics might counter that by saying I can be an overly literal drone, but I prefer to think of myself as an adherent listener. (God, as I write this, there’s another story that comes to mind, too. Okay, more to come, I guess.)

On this particular occasion, we were all huddled on the couch watching a movie while the cookies baked and my mom says to me, “Evan, would you go grab the cookies and take them out of the oven?” I smile cheerfully, pop up, and skip into the kitchen to do what she says like a good little boy.

precisely what she says.

It may not have occurred to you, being a normal person and without all my tortured leadup, that Mom left out the seemingly bloody obvious yet crucial step of donning oven mitts to her instructions. So I dawdle up to the oven, open the door, take out the cookie sheet, and it isn’t even until I’m going to place them on the stove top that my bare hands finally inform my brain that they’re holding a slab of aluminum that’s above 350 degrees Farenheit. My brain receives the message and runs the appropriate protocol: I drop the sheet, scream, and cry.

What followed may have been a memory of my mom asking me what the hell I was thinking and why the heck I didn’t put on oven mitts or at least a dish towel, but my brain must have blocked that part out too.

A developing young mind, and all that.

Anyway, (belated) happy holidays and a merry New Year and stuff.

Getting Laughs

“Heh heh, I’m funny.”

I don’t think it’s a wild assumption to think most of us have uttered those words at one point or another while spending time with friends or family. And if you think you are, you are. There will be different styles, different audiences our humors are best suited for, different approaches, but most folks have a good sense of humor.

And there’s a reason people pursue comedy as a way to make a living. When a joke hits, when it really hits, it can make you feel like SUCH a SORCEROR.

The first time that comparison really settled on me was at a live performance. My fiance Amanda had scored tickets to the Oddball Comedy Festival down in Mountain View, CA in the Fall of 2016. One of the performers that night was Demetri Martin, and if you don’t know him, he’s almost more of a comedic-one-man-show performer. He uses props, posters, instruments, and one-liners a lot, but this night he delivered a pure stand-up set.

What draws out the sorcerer comparison was his posture. He stood on stage without any props, any music, or much energy at all. He had on a pull-over hoodie, jeans, Vans, and hung out with his hands in his pockets. Straight up, I don’t remember his jokes, but I remember their impact. Whatever he said was so f***ing funny that my body contorted in on itself. You know what a spider looks like when it dies, the way it just withers and its limbs curl in towards the center? My abdomen hurt so much from laughing that I looked like that, only spasming with laughs, too.

I have no interest in being a stand-up performer. Not really much interest in the being The Funny Guy in the group, either. But I enjoy having a sense of humor. And like Mr. Martin demonstrated to me five years ago, when properly sculpted, words have power. Like Friggin’ Magic levels of power. And while I get a good, solid joke to land from time to time that starts a chuckle fit, I recall two moments where it made a palpable difference. On the outside looking in, the moments may not have appeared to be much if anything, and maybe their significance didn’t extend beyond my own perception of them, but…

Well, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

The first time was at an office job I held a few years ago. There was a woman who worked at the company who for the purposes of this we’ll call Olga. Only way I’ve ever found myself able to describe Olga was that she was just…Winter. It sounds overly poetic, and it might be, but it’s fitting, trust me. She was beautiful, for one thing. Her complexion was fair, but light, which isn’t to say “pale.” More like someone with fair skin who’s just come in from the cold. Her nose had a gentle point and was a shade or two more pink than her cheeks, really lending to the cold weather look, and her eyes were a deep, lapis blue that shone against her brunette hair the color of wood bark.

More to the point was her demeanor. She was a quiet person, muted and soft like fallen snow, but there was an icy…hardness to her expression at the same time. She didn’t look mean in that way or unfeeling, in fact it was a bit serene, actually; just a little cold and unreachable from the outside. Like a layer of frost, keeping with the theme here. And reading all this as I lay it out, it almost sounds like I’m making up a person or something. But you have to believe me that a lesser description wouldn’t do Olga justice.

Anyway, already-long-story-shorter, she was walking around the office trying to find something or someone I don’t remember now. I happened to be nearby and mentioned I had recently seen who or whatever she was looking for and offered to lead her to the person or place in question. I’m not always great with silence between myself and a stranger, so I took to small talk. Again, it needs to be noted that to this point we haven’t shared more than a tiny handful of words between us and I’ve never seen her expression break from a gentle neutrality.

Then, I made some joke. I don’t remember what it was about at all, but I remember the impact: Olga chuckled aloud. And not the polite, spare-your-feelings chuckle. It was genuine. (Believe me, I’ve bombed enough attempts at humor to smell the difference a mile away). It was brief, and her expression relaxed into neutrality again some seconds later, but for a moment winter had grown warm.

Like I said, magic.

The next was with a contractor I met while working on my mom’s house a couple years back. For this, we’ll say his name was Richter, because it sounds cool. In short, we had a few items around the house that needed seeing to so that it would clear a pest inspection, dry rot removal, mostly, then some stairs to build and a couple of doors to hang. Richter was similar to Olga in that his neither his expression nor the tenor of his voice rarely broke from a neutral mask. If Olga was Winter, then Richter was Stone: eternal, unmoving, silent.

And to boot, he wore reflective sunglasses.

All. The. Time.

Between his unflinching manner and his literally unreadable eyes, it was a nigh impossible task trying to relate to the guy. And in fairness, I understand. He wants to get in, detail the job, do it, and leave. The bummer is that he ran into me, and if we’re talking, I’m gonna glean a bit of humanity off you, goddammit.

And boy, did I try. Any hobbies? Nope, doesn’t have any. Interest in sports? Doesn’t touch ’em. Been doing construction long? Yeah. Period. What’d he do before this? “Nothing interesting.” Jesus Christ, travel much? Townie, born and raised. I threw jokes at him, and could watch my words glide past or bounce off him with as much impact as a ribbon on damn boulder.

But like the river carves away rock, or like the seasons will sunder stone, one of my jokes got through.

Again, I don’t remember what it was I said, who I ribbed, or the subject matter, but I got him. It wasn’t an out loud chuckle like I’d pulled from Olga, but one of those sharp exhalations through the nose followed by a lasting smile all in lieu of a proper laugh.

With words alone, I had cracked stone.

So there we have it at the end of the day, by the use of Words of Power now long forgotten, I achieved the impossible tasks of bringing warmth to winter and sundering solid rock…just if it didn’t look quite like that from the outside. The borderline between making a genuine human connection through humor however brief and being an annoying asshole can be perilously thin at times, but if the prize for managing that razor’s edge is legitimate magic like the acts heretofore described…

Worth it.

Little Red Rock

One of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, is to handle the crippling loneliness that constantly threatens to drown you like the black waters of a high tide you don’t notice until their chill is constricting your chest and-

Ahem.

What I meant was, one of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, it to do just that: Write. Finding a place to start. Staring at a blank page. Making the dream theater in the your brain real on the page. Like, it doesn’t seem that hard, but there’s some strange paralytic element to the act of…just doing. It’s a skill that takes time to cultivate, and the bummer is that there’s no real trick to it. The way to do it is to just friggin’ do it; and the more you do it, the more momentum you build and the easier it gets.

A byproduct of that is you wind up writing a lot of crap. And not in the sense of how much content you create, though that’s true to. I mean a lot of the ideas you have, flesh out, and bring to life through effort and time will inevitably suck. But what’s cool is that the more you do it, the more crap you generate, the more gems in the rough you come across, and the more stuff you have to look back on and go, “Hahaha, wow. Once upon a time, I thought that was a good idea. Geez.”

Like this one.

Technically, the story that follows was the result of a drunken New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago. There was a deadline approaching for a magazine that held a call for cheesey, sci-fi/horror taking place in space. This totally fit the bill, but…it’s…just not real good. I’ve kept it in my folder for manuscripts I’ll pitch to open calls for stories and sling it at anyone asking for something like that: cheap horror set in space, but I definitely recognize that I rushed the story to a conclusion I thought was funny and then have never since bothered to edit it or fix.

So, if you have ten minutes you’re looking to burn on a piece of bad sci-fi/horror fiction that ends in a badly told “Tell me about the rabbits, Lenny” joke, I present…

Little Red Rock

Mars.

A tiny, copper light among the stars that inspired priests, storytellers, and astronomers for millennia. Does it have water? Did it have water? Or little green men with ray guns, flying saucers, and big heads?

The first Mars rovers and probes sent back images of bare rocky expanses. They were boring but at the same time so exciting because they reminded us that Mars was a place, a very real and reachable place. These boring pictures were lauded as an awesome expanse of the frontier. They kept news cycles around the globe busy for about two weeks before the latest and greatest political scandal stole back the headlines. The pictures almost fell into comfortable obscurity when the rover sent back new images, interesting ones, the ones the world was really waiting for. December 18th, 2021, the Mars rover sent back images of a large, angular structure, embedded into one of the planet’s innumerable rocky, red cliffs.

Right on time for Christmas.

In a brand new, cooperative Space Race, efforts mounted to get boots on the red planet and, just four incredibly short years later, the Ares mission launched. On board was a team of six international specialists. Head of Linguistics and Communications Anthony Gomez, Chief Technical Officer Tanisha Roberts, and Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Thompson made up the team’s military arm. Chief Geologist Makoto Tanaka, Chief Medical Officer Victor Andrade, and Chief Biologist Sonya Manesh comprised its civilian science wing. Together, they represented both the world’s best and brightest as well as Earth’s attempt at a potential diplomatic contact with an extraterrestrial.

Initial reports from the Ares mission began as they would go on: short and usually upsetting.

Six months into space flight, Officer Andrade succumbed to an illness, allegedly resulting from a previously undisclosed or unknown serious food allergy to peanuts. Then, stemming from a course deviation and near miss with Phobos, a miscalculation put the shuttle’s landing off its mark by some forty-eight kilometers. To follow, a hard landing left Officer Gomez with injuries to his leg and spine. He was stable, but after it was deemed necessary to take the shuttle’s Ranger to the site of the structure, it was voted among the crew that Gomez was to stay behind.

The Ranger departed the shuttle January 23rd, 2027, at 16:00 Earth’s time. Its last transmission was received at 17:43 of the same day as it approached the structure. The crew described a mountainous, angular facility with strange runic markings about much of the face of its walls and thick cables which were woven into the rock like roots from a tree. The transmission was broadcast live on Earth to a global audience which hung greedily on every detail and set thousands of historians immediately to work on their dissertations. The excitement peaked as the transmission described an even stranger sight.

“There’s…what, it looks like a door,” said Officer Roberts’ voice over the radio. “It’s opening! The door to the facility is opening and- what in the? It looks…there’s someone there. Two legs, arms, my God! It looks human- well, humanoid. But blue, like it’s made of light. A hologram of some kind maybe? It looks like it’s…waving to us? Yes! It’s greeting us! Contact, I repeat, we have made contact! Holy crap, this is incredible! Approaching the door now!”

With no word since then, Officer Gomez and the rest of the world were left to wonder what it was the rest of the crew of the Ares mission had discovered inside.

*

“Duck! Duck goddammit!” Thompson slammed his hands against the viewing glass. “Above you!”

“Now on your left, Sonya!” Tanaka shouted. “Fuck, Roberts, can’t you shut this thing down?”

“I’m trying! He’s locked me out!” Tanisha pushed a button and her voice rang out of a speaker in the chamber they were all watching. “You have one more wave, Sonya. Get ready.”

Things were not going well.

On the other side of the glass where the three crew member stood, Sonya Manesh gave a weak thumb’s up. She was in a blank room with featureless chrome walls. She was dressed in an orange and white jumpsuit, drawing heavy, gasping breaths, and her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. She had a deep cut on her left arm and various singe marks on her other arm and legs.

“Final commencement agility testing,” came a voice with a thick Russian accent over the speaker. “Will now begin. I am wishing you good luck.”

“Fuck, come on Kestrel! That’s enough!” Thompson shouted.

“But the testing must be beginning soon. These are rules.”

“Can’t you just rip out the wires or something?” Tanaka whispered to Roberts, who was frantically searching the console in front of them.

“You want me to just start ripping things out?” she hoarsely whispered back. “We barely understand what this place is, let alone how it was built. I do that, who knows what would happen?”

“I do,” came the Russian voice over the speaker again. “Also because I am hearing you. Your whisper is very bad.”

“How about instead of these tests, you just let us-”

“Anyway, testing starts now!”

A red light on the wall beside them turned green. Inside the room, dozens of small nodes began to emerge from hidden creases in the walls. A light hum filled the chamber as beams of light shot across the room and connected between the nodes, forming something of a fractured grid of lasers. Sonya spun around, wildly taking note of the several new deadly lines of burning plasma. She began to panic.

“Guys? Guys, there are way too many! This is so many more than last time!” she cried.

“Keep your head on straight,” Thompson shouted into the microphone on the console. “That’s an order!”

“You can do this, Sonya. Just stay focused,” Tanaka followed.

The nodes began to move slowly across the walls, shifting the lines of light with them. Sonya ducked out of the way of one, dove off to the side of another, and flattened herself against the ground to avoid a net of more. Seeing another line descending on her, she rolled out of the way, and then narrowly missed another beam that slid under her with a quick hop.

“She’s doing okay,” Roberts breathed to herself, her thumb off the microphone’s button

“She isn’t out of this yet,” warned Thompson. “But she’s doing alright.”

“See?” A blue figure statically phased into being behind them. It appeared to wear a jumpsuit and an ushanka hat with a hammer and sickle symbol just above the forehead. Its arms were crossed and it wore an exaggerated smirk on its flickering face. “It would not be test if there was no winning. You were all worried.”

“It shouldn’t be a test at all, you son-of-a-bitch,” Tanaka shouted.

Sonya rolled out of the way of another beam, but caught her foot on yet another. It cleanly sliced off a portion of her shoe and she howled, fell to the ground, and held her foot. In her moment of stillness, a third beam twisted in her direction. She threw herself out of its way, but too slowly. It passed through the peak of her bent knee and after a stunned moment she let out an agonizing scream.

“Turn this off, now!” Thompson shouted at Kestrel. “Do it or I swear to God I will tear this place apart. Discoveries and exploration be damned, I will hunt your Commie-ass down if you don’t let her go!”

With an unnerving precision of movement and suddenly grave expression, Kestrel’s head turned towards Lt. Colonel Thompson. “It sounds to me like someone is volunteering to be going next.” The two held a hard gaze for a long moment, before Kestrel suddenly smiled again. “But! You are correct,” he said, facing Tanaka. “It is no longer test. With leg like that, test is failed. I will proceed with the deactivating of the testing equipments.”

Kestrel’s blue form flickered and then dissipated entirely. The crew members turned around and saw that, one by one, the nodes in the testing chamber were deactivating. When they were all again recessed into the walls, a door on the far end noiselessly slid open. A door in their own viewing room also opened and Roberts held her thumb to the microphone’s button.

“You’re done here. Kestrel’s letting you out, you won. We’re coming to get you, hon. I know it’s gotta be hard as hell, but get yourself out of that room. Crawl if you have to and we’ll meet you back in the anteroom. Okay?”

Sonya Manesh just lied on her back and cried for a long moment, but with heaving sobs managed to get herself to her feet and began walking with support from the wall towards the newly opened door.

“Alright, she’s moving. Let’s do the same,” said Thompson.

They made their way out of the room, but as Roberts was about to step through, something caught her eye. She turned and saw a small dot appearing on one of the walls. A shock pulsed in her heart as she realized what it was and ran back to the console. She jammed on the microphone’s button as the beam shot from the node whirred across the room towards the limping scientist.

“Sonya!” she screamed.

“Oops,” the speaker crackled.

*

The remaining crew members of the Ares mission were gathered into a small, dark room, lit only by four small light emanating from the floor’s corners. Roberts was slumped against one walls with her arms around her knees, Tanaka leaned against another with his hands in his pockets, and Thompson paced back and forth like a boar.

“Okay,” Kestrel said, slapping his spectral hands together. “You are having questions?”

“You’re goddamn right we do!” steamed the Lt. Colonel. “She passed your test, why in the hell did you kill her anyway?”

“Whoa, whoa. It was technical malfunction. Facility is old. These things have bad luck of happening.”

“Why?” Tanaka asked softly.

“Why, what, comrade?”

“Any of this? We still don’t know who you are, what you are, or why any of this is necessary.” He slumped his shoulders defeatedly. Thompson and Roberts both looked to the Russian ghost.

“Ah, well, that is long story. But is short also, because most of it I am not remember. I was, long time ago, cosmonaut, part of Red Eagle mission, 1967.”

“Wait, what?” asked Roberts, rising to her feet. “You were part of the Space Race of the sixties? But that was to the moon.”

“Ah,” shook Kestrel. “You Americans wanted moon. When you Americans got moon, U.S.S.R. figured hey, what is better? Moon or Red Planet? Red planet made better symbol for win over you western capitalists. Figured, eh, ‘go ahead and keep moon, we have Red Planet. Fuck your moon.’”

The crew members of the Ares looked to one another with what was either astonishment or utter disbelief. Tanaka was now the one pacing and Thompson was leaning against one of the walls.

“Wait,” said Tanaka. “Then what are these tests for? And how did you guys build all of this?”

“Well, two are sort of same,” replied Kestrel. “Firstly, big head boom discovery-” the hologram made an exaggerated motion with his hands of his head being blown up, complete with a cartoonish face expression, “-is that this was already here. Whole building. We wanted to radio back and tell of discovery, but landing was bad.”

“So then what did you do?” asked Roberts.

“We did what could do. We explored, saw what station building could be use for, what Kremlin would want station be use for. Training. Mining. All things to win next big war. Then, we found strange room, I fell asleep in strange bed and when I woke up, comrades were dead and I was like this…blue. Bleh. Blue.” The image shuddered as if in disgust.

“You wanted,” began the Lt. Colonel slowly, “to start up a war base on Mars?”

The spectral Russian nodded proudly.

“That’s about the stupidest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever heard!” The barrel-chested military man began howling. Roberts and Tanaka looked at each other uncomfortably, and Kestrel faced Thompson with a stern look on his holographic face.

“Sir, I wouldn’t egg him on.”

The Lt. Colonel continued to laugh. “And what’s he gonna do, huh? He wrapped us up into one of those death gizmos already. He ain’t nothing’ but pixels, anyway.” Thompson moved to walk through the projection that was Kestrel but stumbled back, finding the man of light to be surprisingly solid. “What the hell?” was all he could utter before he was lifted up by the throat.

“Sir!” Tanaka shouted.

“Leonard!” followed Roberts.

“Wait.” Kestrel stopped suddenly and set Thompson back on his feet, whereupon he immediately fell to the ground gasping and coughing. “You are named Leonard?”

“Yeah, what of it?” he coughed.

The ghost that was Kestrel giddily jumped and pranced around the room. Singing incomprehensibly to himself as the three others shared unnerved glances. When he finally stopped, he walked up to Thompson, stopping just short of the man’s nose. “Your turn, Lennie,” he laughed. The wall behind the Lt. Colonel slid swiftly open and closed behind him again as Kestrel kicked him through.

“Hey, what the hell is this?” they heard the military man’s voice faintly through the wall.

“It is last test,” replied Kestrel, his back against the wall Leonard had just been pushed through, facing the others. “Tell us what you are seeing.”

“I ain’t tellin’ you shit!”

“What do you see?” Kestrel’s voice boomed and they could hear a whirring on the other side of the wall.

“Is this really necessary?” Tanaka asked, almost pleadingly. Roberts just shuddered quietly. The two looked at one another. Without words, the glance they shared said all that needed saying. Whatever mind was trapped inside the projection they called ‘Kestrel’, whether it was from time in isolation or from frayed wires elsewhere in the facility, it was a mind that was cracked and broken.

They weren’t leaving this place.

“Eiyah! Okay, okay. Jesus, put that thing down,” came Thompson’s voice again. “It looks…ah, it looks like there’s a screen in here?”

“Yes? And?” Kestrel appeared to be silently chuckling to himself. “What else is there, comrade?”

“Ah, hell. Um, looks like there’s a farm house, maybe? A lake too, or a pond? What the hell is this supposed to be about, anyways?”

“What else? Is part of visual acuity testing and for communication skills. Very important.” Kestrel leaned forward, whispering over the others’ shoulders. “You know,” he said quietly, “I never actually hated you Americans. In fact, I was always big fan of proud American work ethic, grit much like Russia, and your American literature. I was big fan particular of your ‘Of Mice and Men’.” He winked at the two remaining crew members of the Ares and back to the wall he called, “What about the rabbits, Lennie?”

“Yeah, looks like some fuckin’ bunnies too. What of-”

There was a muted bang and dull thud on the other side of the wall. Kestrel chuckled silently into his hands, but then suddenly stopped as though his ears had just pricked.

“I’m sorry comrades, but that is all for the testing. Thank you for time and the participating, but now is time I go. Wish well and things.”

Just like that, the blue figure of Kestrel flickered once, twice, and then ceased to be. Tanaka and Roberts both silently looked at one another, each shaking, as one by one, the lights in the corner of the room they were in slowly dimmed and went black.

*

Communications Officer Anthony Gomez lied on his cot feeling the medication he’d found in Andrade’s station. The unbearably sharp pains in his back and leg, a slipped disc and fractured femur he was certain, had been reduced to dull aches for the time being. He stared out of the shuttle’s port window at the setting martian sun. It was funny, he thought, that this was truly the most lonely he had ever been, but he was alright with it. Whether it was the morphine talking or not, he couldn’t help but find the last rays of sunlight that splayed out over the canyons of that barren waste to be the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Where the hell are you guys?” he whispered to the ceiling.

Just then, a light flared to life at his station. He groaned, but slowly rolled off of his cot and limped over to the console. Fortunately, at little over one-third Earth’s gravity, he only stopped at a spasm in his back once on his way there. He slumped lightly into the seat, grimaced, and answered the hail.

“Finally, you guys. I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

Silence.

“Hey, you there?” Gomez ventured again, more nervously this time.

“Evening, comrade.”

END

PS – Holy crap, I just realized I set the date for news of a structure discovered on Mars for a few months from now. Let this also, officially, count as me friggin’ calling it, if that happens. Because I wrote this almost two years ago before the rover touched down, for the record; and yes I do expect to be hailed as a damned prophet for my abilities…if it pans out. Otherwise, ahem, y’know, I’m just kidding.

Skyrim-itis: Fighting Addiction

If you’re reading this, then the odds are good that you have a pulse. If you have a pulse, then the odds are weirdly even better that you’ve at least heard of Skyrim. In that way, Skyrim is a lot like the TV show The Office – almost everyone on the planet has at least some kind of run-in with it, and to say you like it nowadays is like admitting you have the intellectual palate of a goat. An especially dumb goat. It isn’t that the game is bad at all, but it’s aged a fair bit and its fans are pretty ardent ones that have a hard time shutting up about it, which is a rough recipe for newcomers or the indifferent.

Skyrim also has the irresistible force of a whirpool, sink hole, sand trap, or any other kind of thing that pulls you in and won’t let go.

Black holes! Like a black hole! Way better example.

Anyway.

I guess all of that means I’m mostly speaking to fellow Skyrim fans with what follows. Because what I’m going to describe is a problem that plagues those of us exclusively, it seems. There was a point where I sunk so many hours into that game, I walked by a fern and had the reflex to reach out and try to harvest it for Spikey Grass pods for my alchemy. I did the same thing when passing an agapanthas and thinking it was Death Bell (I have poisons of ‘Slow’ to brew, after all).

I’ve played through that game, 100%, at least a dozen times. There isn’t a quest of any tier that I haven’t played through multiple times, any NPC’s I haven’t met, any random encounters I haven’t encountered randomly, or any new dialogue I can’t recite alongside the one who says it.

So why the F*CK do I feel a compulsion to fire it up again?

In an interactive medium like video games, the whole point is for emergent storytelling. In other words, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. But in this case, I know exactly what’s going to happen. In fact, I know I’m barely going to make it through Helgen before I start wondering why the hell I’m burning my minutes on this earth with this again. I’ll counter myself by brewing excitement over trying a new build, but then that will fall flat when I remind myself that I’ve done every possible build fives times over.

There will be nothing new.

But I still kinda want to be a Bosmer archer, communing with mammoths and shooting bandits in the eye with my trusty bow. I want to ignore the Dovakiin story line entirely and roleplay as a hunter that takes down elk and sells the skins in the Hold capitals for petty coin. I want to “fall in with” the Thieves’ Guild of Riftin and ignore the sh*t out of the Stones of Barenziah because finding all twenty-four of them is duuuuumb. I want to complete dungeons, sidestep traps, ambush draugr, and collect treasure.

But I KNOW I’ll get bored thirty minutes into all of that, and rightly so.

So, really, in the end, maybe this is just a lesson, the Great Lesson that Todd Howard has been trying to impress upon us all for the last ten goddamn years in his refusal to progress The Elder Scrolls series into its sixth installment. Maybe the wisdom here is to learn to let go, to recognize the futility in hanging onto what’s normal, what’s comfortable and familiar. To learn to grow beyond those familiar things and seek betterment and change. To accept that good things in life are meant to be savored and then release to the flow of time…

Or it could be that Skyrim can be ported to a refrigerator and still print butt-tons of money, and I’m drastically overthinking it. Maybe I just need to move on and try something new rather than re-playing all the same stuff. Either way, I think it should meet the criteria for some kind of official condition.

Skyrim-itis?

Tamriel Syndrome?

‘You Cannot Run, You Are Overburdened’ Disord-

Actually, wow. That last one hits. Life…might just be a bit busy, and we seek refuge from its obligations in a realm of fantasy, and what we really need to do is some house-keeping of our priorities rather than blaming the…video games…we…distract ourselves with…

Gosh. Look at us. Learning. On the fly and in the moment.

Heh. And they say video games don’t have anything to teach us.

I’m gonna go clean the living room.

Never Challenge an Exhausted Nurse to a Duel: A Childhood Lesson

A friend of mine is going to school for nursing, and part of her college path was a sociology course. One of her assignments was to survey some people she knew with a little questionnaire they’d given her. It was a list of nineteen items, each describing some sort of transgressible action; stealing money from an old woman’s purse, for example. They ranged in severity from cheating on a math quiz to blowing up a hospital for religious reasons. The goal of the exercise was to have those surveyed rank the items on the list from Least Severe to Most Severe, One being nothing and Nineteen being top of the chart, and then give their reasons for their rankings.

It was really insightful.

The gist of the results seemed pretty much what you might guess: We ranked things higher on the list depending on the amount of impact the action had and/or how negligent the action was. For example, we pretty much all put ‘blowing up a hospital for religious reasons’ high up on the list, but her father had it lower than us, and when we asked why, he cited the religious motivation as the factor for lenience. Similarly, when we compared our rankings of ‘murder for hire,’ her mother ranked it a little lower than us because “at least it was just a job, y’know, it wasn’t personal.”

The item that jumped all over the map between us was ‘hitting a child.’ The friend who was enrolled in the course had it somewhere floating around Fourteen, its peers being things like ‘stealing medication’ and ‘committing a hit-and-run.’ I gawked and asked her to justify it, and she did so by explaining the way violence against one so young can have very far-reaching consequences. Then she asked me how I’d ranked it.

Like, Three.

Then came the million dollar question. “Did your parents ever hit you?” I asked. To which I remember her scoffing and saying something to the effect of “Of course not. You?” I laughed an nodded emphatically. I had two such occasions to share, specifically.

The first, no matter how you slice it, was funny as hell. My mom was a lifetime Labor & Delivery nurse that worked nights. That meant that she was in the room where babies popped out into the world. It wouldn’t be until I’d become an adult that I was even halfway able to appreciate how bone-achingly difficult and exhausting that must have been to do while also raising a child and caring for an abusive husband. Yikes.

But I was an energetic little brat at times, an only child, and had very few friends growing up. So in the summer time, I mostly lived in an empty house by myself that had to remain quiet so my nocturnal mother could sleep. That didn’t keep me from craving attention and play time when I was about ten, though, and so one morning in particular she comes home and collapses in the living room recliner (like you’d do), and I start bugging her to hang out. I have a couple plastic lightsabers, the kind you hold a button and flick out with your wrist, and keep tapping her foot to have a duel with me.

Again and again, she waves me off, saying “Not right now” and such, but I just keep tapping her foot, asking, aggravating her, and saying “C’mooooon.”

Eventually, she springs to her feet, and I excitedly toss her the blue one. After all, I was about to have a duel, and I’d been practicing. We were about to have an awesome fight like there were in the movies: striking, parrying, fancy footwork, dodges, all the the rest. I guess somewhere in my excitement, I forgot that jedi have to be careful in their duels because their swords are actual plasma whereas mine were plastic.

Exhausted, cranky nurses don’t give a shit about your plastic swords or your fancy footwork. She walked me down, just raising and lowering her lightsaber in vicious blows with all the grace of a Bionicle action figure, until I was in a corner calling mercy. She dropped her lightsaber to the ground and walked off to bed saying, “There, I win.”

To this day, it was one of the biggest G moments I’ve seen out of another human being.

The second (which was actually the first – I’m telling them out of order, sue me) was a bit more serious, but is a story I tell more often. This time, I was nine, and my father had just passed away. It was maybe a few weeks to a month or so after his death, and we were still working out the dynamic in the house. She was no doubt totally spent, and I was a bit frayed, too. We were having an argument about something assuredly stupid, but what was important was how and where we were. She was sitting on the living room couch by the left arm rest, and as I think on it, I think she might have been crying. I was standing right beside her on the other side of the arm rest, and I was screaming over whatever the fight was about. I was throwing a tantrum, in short. Of course, I don’t remember at all what was being said, but I finally hit the right note, struck the right nerve, and her hand suddenly snapped back with all the quickness and automatic un-intention of a mouse trap being triggered.

She hit me right across my face, and there was just a stunned silence for a good five-count. Tears welled up and worked their way down my face, and I ran off to my room. Later, I came back out and apologized and we’ve been terrific friends ever since.

So, am I advocating for that kind of thing? Hell no, of course not. BUT I’m simply sharing that in my particular case, a lot of good came out of it.

I’ve also had this idea for getting middle school teachers to learn muy thai to settle unruly students, but so far it hasn’t really caught on more than getting me weird looks.

Maybe one day…

You Should Run

As much as that sounds like an ominous line out of a horror story, I mean it literally.

(Oh, and up at the top, we should acknowledge that the following is going to continue a recent trend of involving a fair amount of crass, poo-based humorous anecdotes. So if you’re too sophisticated for that, I understand. No hard feelings.)

If you’ll remember, the first rule of Zombieland is “Cardio.” Followed swiftly by “Double Tap” and “Limber Up,” but rightly put first in the list. You can be clever, well-stocked, and prepared, but if you can’t run or swing a bat when the time comes, the zombies are going to win. (Also, if you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and do it. It’s a great time.)

I’m not necessarily saying everyone should run a marathon each week, either. I go through seasons of putting in road work, interrupted by equally long seasons of being a couch potato. But I was just confronted with an experience that showed having at least a fair cardio base is truly invaluable.

This isn’t a life-and-death story, but it comes close. Listen up…

A few weeks ago, my fiance and I took a trip out to Austin, Texas to visit her family for the Fourth of July. We had a great time! The day of The Fourth, we began by taking it relatively easy, then went to a place called The Longhorn Saloon to play “Chicken-Shit Bingo.”

Yeah, you read that right.

You might be thinking, as I was told it would be, it was a goofy name wherein you played regular Bingo, except a chicken was responsible for choosing the ball. Could NOT have been more different. Players would be called to line up at a table at the beginning of each new round where they could buy essentially a raffle ticket. You’d pay either $1 or $3 for your ticket, affecting the pay-out if you won, then sit back and hope. After all players had their tickets or the tickets had run out, they game-runners would go over to a coop of chickens that had been chowing down. They’d take one of those birds, and bring it over to another oversized cage with a floor that had a checkered pattern with numbers on it corresponding to the numbers on the tickets given out. The chicken would eventually take a squirty poo (sorry for the imagery, but it’s true) on one of the numbers, and if it was yours you won.

After that truly bizarre but hilarious new experience, we went back to the house for BBQ. Through that BBQ, I learned two lessons, one in the moment and another that would hit me later. The first was that unless you live in Texas or Tennessee, apparently, the BBQ you might think is good is actually total bullshit. Y’all, on that trip, I tasted the flavor equivalent to seeing the face of God. That brisket, the cream corn, the mac n’ cheese, the coleslaw – it was all out of this world. I ate so much I was in physical agony but could NOT be happier for the sacrifice my stomach was making for the sake of my soul.

Which brings me to Lesson #2. (<– lol Get it? Ah, you will.)

After a delightfully painful dinner, we walked down the way about a 3/4 mile or so to a spot to watch a fireworks show. We reach our grassy destination, set out our lawn chairs, and get ready for the show; whereupon my tummy grumbles. And not in that kind of nonsense way where it’s telling you your hungry despite having just stuffed yourself. It was the, “Hey, because you just added a bunch of inventory, we need to move some stuff along to make room” kind of grumble.

Like a gentleman, I measured whether I could endure an hour or so sitting with the discomfort, whereupon my body delivered my brain a report stating “You can try, but they’re your shorts.” So, with a resolved sigh, I asked where the nearest restroom was. Now, I was hoping her folks might toss me the house key that I might back track to their house and use a private bathroom. Instead, my mother-in-law laughs and points the other way down the road, saying, “You see that traffic light intersection?”

I look and see waaaaaaay down the road is the traffic light, so I nod.

“Cool,” she says. “Go to the OTHER one just down the road from that one, and go left. There’s a park and they’re bound to have facilities.”

If it wasn’t so full, my stomach would drop at how far of a walk it was going to be, but rather than waste time, I nod and start power-walking in that direction.

Lesson #1.5 proved to be that unless you’re SURE of a shortcut, just go the way you know, especially if you’re in a hurry. I made it to the first traffic light and saw a pizza place across the street. Thinking I might save some time rather than make the full journey, I hop across the street to ask if they have a restroom the public can use. And just so you’re aware of the severity at play here, I was ready to bribe the guy with a $20 bill I had in my wallet. Alas, he wasn’t in any kind of mood to sneak me in the back, and recommended instead I try Domino’s across the street and down the way.

I start crying internally, I head back out the door and down the way. I risk another short cut, and hike up to the Domino’s. This time, before I can even get my hopes up, I can see their bathroom is still boarded up from public use due to Covid restrictions. So I try cutting across from the parking lot to where I can see the field of the park that I was originally supposed to go to. Bear in mind, it’s getting dark and the show is supposed to start soon, but I can see I’d have to climb a tall, chain-link fence if I wanted to cut across, and I didn’t want to risk adding a twisted ankle to my current list of problems. So I add yet MORE minutes to the time the journey’s taken by going back around and getting on the main road I was supposed to be following this whole time.

I make it to the second light and turn left into the park. It’s dark, it’s crowded as HELL with campers flooding into the park for the coming show, and I realize I left my phone behind. So along with balancing internal control of my bowels, I had memorizing street signs and turns I’m taking to the list so I don’t get lost too. Cause, you know, THAT’D be awkward.

I make my way through bustling crowds and finally, like spotting a beautiful oasis amid a desert, I see the bathrooms a short hop away. I make my way inside the brick building, find one of the many open stalls, and take my place upon the thrown.

I should note here that earlier in the evening, the question arose from my fiance’s little sister as to why we celebrate the Fourth with fireworks. The answer, rightly, had been that they were meant to simulate bombs going off, explosions in a time of war, given it was celebrating a fight for independence. I’d always found that a little funny since, always seeing the show from outside, it never felt quick like I’d imagine experiencing a bomb blast to be.

It sounds like the timing of a hokey joke in a cheap comedy, but I swear to God that the moment I <ahem> “placed myself upon the throne” and immediately <ahem> “got to work,” the fireworks show started DIRECTLY above the restroom facilities.

It REALLY added to the moment. And I can say with certainty now, that the simulation feels accurate. From inside that little brick building, it felt like I was taking cover from a shelling. The walls rattled, my guts shook (for a number of reasons), and the cacophonous booms soaked the earth beneath me.

That new experience under my belt, I collected myself and headed back towards the rest of the group to watch the show. Knowing I had already burned up part of the show with my <ahem> “business” <ahem> I decided to run back to the group rather than walk in order to save time.

Now, I’m in the middle of one of those aforementioned couch potato seasons, but was pleased to find that my cardio base could handle a little one-mile run despite the trauma I’d just gone through and being loaded to the brim on Texas BBQ. I made good time, only had a minor stitch, and was able to enjoy the rest of the show with family.

So, I hope you in no way got lost in the <ahem> details here and absorbed the true point of how important some baseline measure of personal fitness can be in the face of true emergencies.

Take care, everybody.

My Fiance’s a Potter Nerd

Nobody’s perfect, am I right? But I love her despite her imperfections, which is the whole power of love in the first place.

Kidding, of course. I get that I’m on the outside looking in when it comes to the Harry Potter empire. And it’s not like I don’t see why it’s great, just…well…two things. First, I’m a contrarian at heart. Have been since I was a kid, and have just come to accept that it’s a part of my nature in this life. I’m not sure why or where it started, but alas, The Dude abides. I see a massive crowd all headed west, my first inclination is to look east to see what we might be missing.

And secondly – this is the one that’s likely to get me in trouble, but – have you ever had a work of art, well, ruined by an overzealous fandom? Like, the show, movie, book, or whatever else might be perfectly fine, but being surrounded by fans, opinions, theories, toys, t-shirts, bags, Pop! vinyls, tattoos, baby names and everything else ALL dedicated to a particular franchise it just becomes a bit…much.

So like I said, I realize that I’m on the outside looking in on this one; but I try not to beat myself up too much. I’ve seen the movies, read the first couple of books (mostly), and feel like I get it. It’s just that the hype by hardcore fans haven’t just set the bar high, they’ve set the bar through the stratosphere.

Now, all that being said, I had a Harry Potter-themed dream last night, and really, I’m left feeling justified in that I know enough about the series, given how informed my dream was.

Something like this…

I’m standing in a dark, damp space. I realize after a few moments, not knowing how I came to be there, that I’m with two others who are in a panic and we’re not standing but running through a traffic tunnel. It’s late at night, but there are dim lights just above the sidewalks on either side and street lamps at either end.

I don’t recognize one of my companions, but I know the other to be Professor Lupin, fresh into his role as master of Defense Against the Dark Arts. He’s hurriedly covering and escorting our faceless companion as ominous organ music swells. Behind them I see fast approaching is a ghostly, horrifying Dementor. I get myself between the Dementor and my friends, draw out a wand I didn’t realize I apparently carried with me, and with a powerful breath and burst of will shout, “Expelliarmus!”

My Patronus doesn’t materialize, but the Dementor gets stunned a bit like it just got a cobweb stuck on its face. So I cry again, “Expelliarmus!” The same thing happens, the Dementor doesn’t quit its pursuit but reacts like it just got gently th’whacked. Frustration mounting at my failure to conjure a Patronus, I continue to call out, “Expelliarmus! Expelliarmus!” And while I fail to banish the Dementor, I harass it enough until Lupine and our friend have made fair escape to safety. Once I see they’ve made it clear, I throw my hands down at my sides to try something new.

“Okay, hey!” I shout. “What the hell? Can we talk about this?”

And like I’m sure it NEVER happened in the books or movies, the Dementor stops. In a voice somewhere between Nick Cage and Paul Giamatti says, “Uh, sure. The heck was all that?” It stops to flail and pantomime my wand-waving.

“You know, I’m not really all that sure. I just thought it was what I was supposed to do.”

“Well it was weird, and a bit rude.”

“Sorry, kind of. Can…can I go now? Or are you going to follow us?”

With what I think was a sort of shrug and a sigh, it waves me off.

When I woke up, I went into the kitchen to tell my fiance about the dream, which got a bit of a chuckle, especially when I mentioned that I couldn’t summon my damned Patronus. But now conscious, I realized my mistake: I wasn’t fueling the spell with a happy memory like you’re supposed to. Instead, I was just pumping the effort full of as much unbridled optimism as I could muster. I told her my mistake, and she just kept chuckling, which is when I realized the second part to my mistake – I was using the whole wrong damn spell in the first place. “Expecto Patronum” is for pushing away Dementors, “Expelliarmus” is for disarming fellow wizards.

What a doof.

Really though, I’m proud of my subconscious Potter knowledge for filling in the gaps despite my mistake. The way I figure it, I WAS disarming the Dementor of its usual weapon: that soul-sucky breath thing. Every time I hit it with Expelliarmus, I was making it cough, technically.

I grant free license to any ambitious Potter nerd out there that wants to use this as an element in their fan fiction.

Just send me a copy, cause that sh*t’s funny.

Ciao for now, y’all.

Why You Should Tip Big

I once heard somebody say, “Everyone needs to work a season of retail during the holidays so they know not to be disrespectful,” and I respectfully say, “F*ck that.”

Not because I don’t think people need better manners on the whole, mind. In fact, most definitely the opposite – all too common nowadays is it for people to feel insanely entitled – I just really don’t want to work a season of retail. Rather, I don’t want to work any retail, if I can help it, precisely for the above reason.

But that’s one of two occupations that experience a ton of entitled crap from a largely unforgiving public. The other, of course, being restaurant staff. (And yes, yes, before we go any farther, clearly there are other jobs that have to endure this too, but let’s focus here for today.) From complaints, to demands, to unreasonable privilege-seeking, Martha who grooms dogs or Bruce that manages a car lot seem to suddenly find a gem-crusted crown atop their domes the moment someone shows them to a booth at an Applebee’s.

And even setting those cultural, societal, (dumb) norms aside for the moment, working for damn-near free/”grovel wages” would be reason enough for the title. So yes, tip big if you find yourself able.

I tip between 20%-30% on average regardless of the bill for a number of reasons that will soon make painfully clear that those figures are in no way some sort of ‘humble brag.’ The first being that I can never remember what’s proper: Is it 15%? 18%? Is that with gratuity, or without? Was there a gratuity this time? I don’t want to leave 15% when 18% is the norm, and now that person thinks I’m stiffing, them or making a negative comment about their help, or something. So, if for other reason than laziness, err on the side of a touch more than a touch less.

Another shade to that reason too, actually, is embarrassment. Not at my powers of retention regarding customs, but at…hmm, expectation? Let me put it this way, if it’s Valentine’s Day and your classmate (pretend for a moment we’re in grade school, it makes the mental exercise work) gives you a Valentine’s Day card that states simply “Will you be my Valentine?” is that a sincere gesture, or just witnessing the fulfillment of a perceived obligation? Right? So if you’re given that card, it doesn’t say anything special and isn’t really even for you, it was just done out of tradition, but now you have to thank them or you’re the turd; but if you aren’t given a card, oof, well now you’ve been snubbed. Ouch.

But if you get a card from a classmate that goes a little above a beyond…? Oooo, that’s kind of sweet. That card has some hand-drawn glitter art? Got a little chocolate that comes with it? A personalized note? Oh, lawd, well now it’s kind of touching.

I don’t see how tipping is really all that different in form from the above situation with Valentine’s Day cards. It’s a win-win, too. If the service was great, the bonus tip sends the message, “Hey, you there, for real, thanks for taking care of me today.” And even if the service was awful and the person was kind of a butthole about the whole thing, you leave with the satisfaction that that person is probably going, “Aw, jeez. Well now don’t I feel like a rube…”

Moral victory secured.

But really, even all of that is just because I enjoy crafting a torturously long wind-up to my real point. And what I really draw from when I press this, is the following experience.

There was a time I went out to lunch with a friend (shocking, I know – I have FRIENDS), and I covered the bill. My memory’s a little fuzzy on who it was with, I don’t quite remember where we went, what we ate, or even clearly how many years ago this was, but I do very clearly remember what happened as we were leaving. I left a pretty sizable tip for all the above reasons (maybe closer to 30-35% this time; I was doing alright), and did so in cash just because it was what I had on me. As we were walking to the door, the fellow who’d served us ran interception and asked me if I’d made a mistake. Honestly perplexed, I just raised an eyebrow, smiled, and said, “No. No mistake, that’s yours.”

Now, there were no tears. No heart-pouring tales of hard times. But there was an indescribable look in his eyes that I didn’t know at the time I would one day understand intimately well. On the surface, he was just really grateful, and a bit surprised, so I took it that way. It was nice. Put a pep in my step, and I got to be That Guy (the good kind, not the bad kind) to somebody that day.

Fast forward a few years to Fall 2019, life’s gotten pretty hard. I’d left my job somewhat ambitiously only to wind up pouring most of myself and my worldly goods into a family emergency (Don’t regret it, do it again in a heartbeat only smarter), dropped classes I’d promised myself I’d finish that semester, had maxed out credit cards, and had $1.63 in my checking account…

It was rough.

I had a job lined up, but it didn’t start for another week. So I was taking a walk to a local deli, and I was going to put that last dollar and sixty-three cents to work (technically, I also had a paper dollar and two quarters in my pocket, as there’s a debit card minimum set above $1.63 at most places) on a cheap roll and a mini cup of salad dressing, which I knew to be a $1.25 in total. I get to the counter, and I guess prices had gone up, because the register rings me in at $1.89.

I stare at the numbers. My stomach drops out, anxiety and embarrassment prickle my scalp in turns, and I start muttering to myself about how it’s okay, I’ll just put the cup of dressing back. The fellow behind the counter waves it off after a moment with a smile. “You’re in here all the time,” he jokes. “Let me cover this one.” He presses a button on the machine and the balance goes to $0.00. I don’t know precisely how I must have looked to him, but in that moment it occurred to me with a painful lucidity that I must be giving him the same stare that waiter had given me years back. I choked out the same, whispered “Thank you.”

I barely made it to the door before I was bawling my eyes out.

So there you have it. You never know where someone’s at, and there’s no risk in being kind. Not just nice, but kind. Really, it’s a “There but for the grace of God go I” type of tale, a reminder to be kind in all those ways that can help even if you aren’t around to see it and it costs you next to nothing, because you could very well at some point wind up desperately grateful to be on the receiving end of a token like that.

Throw in that extra two bucks, Money Bags. You could make someone’s day, or leave an impact so deep and meaningful someone will preach about it online years later.

Ciao, everybody.