The Pit Stops of Life

The Pit Stop

The destination is the destination of our planned vacation. We pack up the belongings, the kid, and the dog with an ultimate destination in mind. When someone suggests that we take a pit stop, we say, “Why? We’re making good time here. At this rate, we should arrive at our destination by four p.m., with plenty of time to do much of what we planned.” The fun and frivolity we dreamed up, when we dreamed up this vacation, all took place at the final destination. Pit stops seem like a waste of the precious time we could spend having fun. The dilemma arrives when we arrive at our destination, and we have nothing to do for the first couple of hours.

“[He] never made pit stops,” a woman said of her now deceased husband. “He thought pit stops were a waste of time. He wanted to get there.” 

Well, he’s there now, I thought of joking. He’s at his final destination. It would’ve been an awful, cruel joke. No one would’ve laughed, of course. No one would’ve so much as smiled. How many pit stops did he make to his final destination? Did he go quickly? He wasn’t the type to stop at a lakeside pit stop. “He wanted to get there.”

I didn’t say any of that, but in the midst of my scheme to drop that room-silencing, reputation damaging joke, I realized that I’m a no-pit-stops destination traveler too. I don’t stop to smell the flowers, look at a lake, or carpe diem the moment. I want to get there, wherever there is. I want to have fun, and I don’t want something like a pit stop to get in the way of it. 

When we map out our vacation, it often involves lengthy travel times. Even on paper, we know we’re signing up for a long journey, even when they’re all interstate miles. It doesn’t get any better when we’re doing it. As the miles click by, it begins to feel like a Sisyphean trial of humanity to sit in a small car for that many hours in a row, and it doesn’t matter how large the interior of an automobile is, they all feel small after eight hours. The family might want to smell the flowers and look at a lake, but I’m the “Let’s just get there for all that’s holy. Let’s get this drive over” type of traveler. 

The volume of the consensus breaks us down, however, and we take a pit stop. Their primary goal, after such long car ride, was to get out and stretch the legs a little, go to the bathroom, get the kid out of the car for a while, and let the dog pee. We’re not for it, but we strike a deal with those who are dying to get out of the car. We decide we won’t stay long. We’ll look at stuff, we’ll walk down to the lake and throw some stones in it. We’ll talk to some of the other people who made a similar pit stop, we’ll let the dog run around with whatever joy he always runs around in, and the kid can have some spontaneous kid fun. Then we’ll take that almost cinematic portrait with that crystal blue lake in our background, and we’ll all get back in the car for another three hours. 

I don’t know if I needed the break more than I knew, but I was peaking at this particular pit stop. Some of the times, we have mental peaks, some of the times, we have physical ones, but every once in a great while they come together. Before we turn 25, our whole life is one peak after another. The only stories we tell involve those moments when we weren’t peaking. After 40, we are so impressed with our peaks that we tell everyone we know. Everything in between involves noticing peaks after the fact. I was peaking at that little pit stop. I was in the moment, the moment I stepped out of the car. I wasn’t thinking about the car ride ahead of us, how this pit stop might hamper our pre-planned schedule, or anything else for that matter. Once I stepped out of the car, I wanted to make this stupid, little pit stop as fun as it could possibly be. 

We had so much fun at that little pit stop that it proved one of the best we have ever experienced on vacation. When we finally arrived at our proposed destination, we had all the fun we planned to have, and I remember that vacation as one of the better ones we’ve had. We may have spent four days at our proposed destination, and we only spent 30 minutes at that non-commercial pit stop, but the time we spent there will forever stick out in my memory.

City on a Hill

I love a great line. A great line can make a movie (90 minutes long, on average) or a series (roughly 47 minutes per episode, with ten episodes on average) seem worth it. Anyone who reads this will probably say that it says a lot about me, but my favorite lines are the obnoxiously offensive and repugnant lines of vulgar cruelty. Some heart-warming, positive lines, reach me, but nothing causes me to pause and rewind more than an awful line from an awful character. 

I also prefer shows and movies that depict people doing and saying awful things to one another. There are exceptions, of course, as some shows are awful for the sole purpose of being awful. The great shows, about awful people doing awful things to one another, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men always managed to preserve some relatable integrity in their characters while doing and saying awful things to other characters. We learn to cheer the main characters on, and when they did awful things to other characters, we cheer that on too. 

The Showtime series City on a Hill is not as great as those shows, of course, but it did have one great, repugnant, moment of vulgar cruelty. 

“I can hear it now. The eulogies, the hymns, the bagpipes, everyone forgetting what a lousy piece of [dung] you’ve been your entire life,” the Jackie Rohr character says to his rival J.R. Minogue, on an episode of the TV show City on a Hill. The Minogue character lies in the ambulance, and we know he’s not going to live long enough to see the hospital. We know Rohr’s cruel sendoff will be the final thing the Minogue character hears. “Your wife’s going to be upset [after you die] for about five minutes, and I will … eventually, but this should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell. There’s only this life, right here, right now, and the last thing that you’re going to see in your lousy life is my ugly face.”

Seconds before this scene, Rohr eagerly leapt into the ambulance that carried J.R. Minogue, before the EMTs could close the door. We know this scene. We’ve seen it all before. The main character, a law enforcement official, leaps into the ambulance to hold a fellow cop’s hand, as the man succumbs to death. Even though they’re bitter rivals, Minogue’s a fellow cop, and that goes along way to forming some solidarity between the two. That’s the typical scene, in the typical cop movie, but the writers of City on a Hill had other plans for Rohr. They have him mock his rival on his deathbed, and he lays into Minogue with vulgar cruelty.

Ever since Sopranos, and perhaps beyond, viewers have come to accept the idea that their favorite main characters on their favorite productions can be morally ambiguous, if not downright awful people. Through a dizzying array of scenes, we accept the idea that Jackie Rohr is one such character. Yet, what motivates this character to be this spiteful? We’re to read into it. We’re to wonder if we could ever be that spiteful. We’ve all had people we dislike in a competitive manner, and we dislike others in a more personal manner, but have we ever hated someone so much that we wanted to taunt them into death? Most of us haven’t. I obviously considered this scene an interesting nugget to chew on, and I wanted a more thorough psychological exploration of why, or how, even a Jackie Rohr could be that spiteful and that hateful. Scenes like these remind me why I prefer books to movies.

We understand that when Rohr says, “This should be a comfort to both of us. There’s no hell,” he does so to inform the viewers that he knows that he’s as awful as J.R. Minogue is. That line sets up the next line well, but after I paused the series at that point and rewound it a number of times, I thought up a better line. 

“There is no heaven, and there is no hell. There’s no such thing as an afterlife.” If the writers seek spite, this might be an altogether different level of spite, because as awful as J.R. Minogue apparently was, he likely tried to counter those evil deeds with some good ones throughout his life. It might be even more spiteful to inform him that those good deeds he performed, and any other attempts Minogue made at good and honest living, were a waste of time, because “there is no heaven.”

Rohr then alluded to the idea that his main point for jumping in the ambulance was to make sure that Minogue’s loved ones weren’t the faces he remembered. Rohr wanted his face, Minogue’s most hated rival, to be the last face he saw. I see the writer(s) working here. I know that they’re vying for one of the more spiteful moments in TV history, but if there is no afterlife, and J.R. Minogue turns to dust, there will be no way for Minogue to remember the final moments that Rohr hoped to ruin. He’ll turn to non-existence, and Rohr’s awful sentiments will die as soon as Minogue does. A better line might have been, “There is an afterlife, and we don’t know where you’re going yet, but if they somehow determine in their mysterious ways, that a piece of [dung] like you is worthy of eternal paradise, I’m here to ruin all that for you by providing you your own personal definition of hell, knowing that my ugly face was the last thing you saw in your time spent on Earth.”

I read an interesting complaint regarding individuals who follow religious philosophies. The complainant suggested that religious people fail to appreciate their lives on earth as much as they should, because they place inordinate focus on achieving eternal paradise in the next life. Whether there is an afterlife or not, even if it involves a level of paradise beyond our wildest imagination, something tells me that we’ll look back on our lives on earth with some regret if we don’t make more time to enjoy the pit stops in life, en route to our final destination.

Mr. Fehrley was not Just a Dog

“It’s just a dog,” they said. “We can’t help but grow so attached to dogs that we end up loving them, but in the end, they’re just dogs.”

Just a dog? Just a dog?!” we say. “Do you have any idea how much I loved that dog?” In their reaction to our defensiveness, we see that while we all grieve in own ways, some of us console in our own ways too.  

Years prior, I took a vacation. I had another dog that I had to kennel for that time. “What if he comes back different?” I asked in a rhetorical manner. “I’ve heard it happens. I’ve heard that some dogs don’t want to play as much when they come back from a kennel stay. What if my dog is different when I pick him up?”

“Get a different dog,” they said. When I argued, they added, “What is a dog’s job? Their job is to play with you, let you pet them, and provide some companionship. If you pick up your dog, and he’s not doing his job anymore, get another one.” This unemotional, almost mathematical response did not come from Siri or Alexa, but from a living, breathing human.

“When your child begins to turn on you, in all of the rebellious ways our offspring will, are you going to get another child?”

“A child is a complicated human being,” Alexa and Siri, disguised as a human, said, “but a dog is just a dog.”  

In science, a dog is just a dog, and it shouldn’t matter as much as a human does in our pack. In mathematical principles, a dog would have a lesser denominator. When they remind us of the equations involved, it should console us to know that math and science offer more permanent and indestructible solutions that contain order and eliminate the random matters that are so difficult to control, and chasing an emotion like happiness is a messy, chaotic proposition that never ends well.  

Contrary to his anthropomorphic name, Mr. Fehrley was nothing more than a dog who managed to carve out a prominent role in our lives, our family, and a prominent and permanent place on my list of best friends of all time. As painful as the shock and awe of his demise was to us, we all knew we would have to move on in life. As Franz Kafka once wrote, “Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will come back in another way.”

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance are the traditional stages of grief. Everyone grieves in their own way, and some of us go through reeling, feeling, dealing, and healing. In the dealing stage, we accept the idea that “Everything [we] love will probably be lost,” and that it’s the nature of existence for survivors to be left behind, but for some reason the math doesn’t make it any easier to sort through all of the messy emotions involved in trying to achieve the healing stage.  

We’ve all experienced loss of loved ones, and as painful as the reeling stage is of it is, we know we’ll recover. We’ll never forget, but we will move on. When we make some strides to move through the reeling and dealing stages, the pain of routine takes its place. The immediate memories strike us during the reeling period, but when we encounter the little moments of routine, they can prove just as emotionally crippling in the healing stage.

We had a morning routine with Mr. Fehrley, a treats routine, the routine of the “bye-bye” car rides, the long walks to the fence, and the night routine. When that first morning after arrived, it dawned on us that there was a gap in our being that we never knew existed until he filled it by resting between our legs on the ottoman. When the time for the other routines arrive, and the new dog doesn’t respond with puppy-like glee, we realize that we made those routines so exciting. When the wound is still fresh, our routines of life feel just a little more empty, and boring. If we explain this to anyone outside our home, they might smile politely, and they might recognize the power of routine through those they have with their own dog, but they’ll never understand how important these little routines were to us.  

Mr. Fehrley was just a dog, but I never realized how affectionate he was. I never realized what a luxury it was to have a dog who always wanted to be around me, leaning on me, and touching me. I sit on the couch now, and no one leaps into my lap anymore. I go out to the backyard, and no one wants to join me, and no one even notices that I’m gone. I return home, and no one is overjoyed to see me. These are but examples of what a dog can add to a person’s life, and if the reader has a dog who is so affectionate that it can be annoying at times, I ask you to appreciate it for what it is. It doesn’t last forever, as we all know, but we should all take a moment to create a memory we’ll wish we created when they’re gone. 

We had a basketball routine. Every time we went to played basketball at the park, we almost always brought Mr. Fehrley along. Mr. Fehrley stayed on the outskirts of court, sniffing everything available to him, running in circles for no apparent reason, peeing, pooping, and playing with imaginary friends.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll run away?” an observer asked when he noticed that Mr. Fehrley wasn’t leashed, and that he stayed within certain parameters. There was no accusation or condemnation in the man’s voice. He was in awe of the discipline Mr. Fehrley displayed by not running off. 

“He ran off before, numerous times, and we had a number of reactions. One of them was to leash him up. Another was to take him home and not take him on such outings again for a while. After a number of these incidents, he learned that if he wanted to go along with us and remain unleashed he would stay within certain defined parameters.”

It might seem far-fetched to say that a dog can learn lessons in this sense. Most people don’t think a dog can associate not going out with us as a punishment for a momentary, small transgression. Most people don’t think a dog could make that type of connection, especially when an amount of time between outings occurs, but I’m telling you, as I did the observer that day, Mr. Fehrley did make those connections.

A friend of mine once said, “A dog spends their whole life trying to make us happy.” Based on the actions and behavior of my dog at the time, I disagreed with her. Mr. Fehrley taught me that he learned when we’re happy, he’s happy. Mr. Fehrley was a bright dog who learned his lessons well. He was, by far, the best dog I’ve ever owned.

“My dog would never stay like that,” this observer added. “You give him an inch of freedom, and he strives to take a mile.”

The initial instinct is to regard that comment as a compliment to the manner in which I raised and trained Mr. Fehrley to stay within imposed limits. If I didn’t train him to learn those imposed limits, through repetition, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things I did with him. I would’ve had to leave him at home in the manner everyone else leaves their dogs at home when they go out to do such things. Yet, when a dog passes away, and the cavalcade of emotions penetrates all of our vulnerable nerves, we think back on these conversations, and we wonder if we trained him so well that we trained him too well. Did we deprive him of some initiative, and did we inhibit some of what it means to be a dog?   

I initially thought the reeling stage would be the most painful part, but as with the progression of a physical injury, the healing stage proved almost as painful as the reeling stage. The realization that all of the routines we built up for ten and a half years were over proved to be one of the more painful elements. 

We had our little fella for a glorious ten and a half years, so it would prove difficult to appreciate him to the level I wish I would have every day for that long, but I regret some of the moments when I could’ve appreciated him more. Weather permitting we took this little 33lb, Puggle everywhere we went. Friends laughed at us for feeling guilty on those occasions when we had to leave him at home alone. Someone once said, “When I die, I want to come back as your dog.”

As happy as Mr. Fehrley was, and we provided him a fun, full life, I wasn’t spared the road of regret I feel that I took him for granted in some ways.

*** suggests that there are approximately 68 million domesticated dogs fulfilling families in the U.S. alone. Even if we wonder how they arrived at such a figure, we all know that the figure is very high. What role do these dogs play in all of these households? Visit a home without children, and the dogs’ roles tend to play a more prominent role in that household. Even in homes with children, however, dogs play a prominent role. As kids love their dogs as much as adults do. Most of us love our dogs almost as much as we love our children, but we might never know the prominence they have in our lives until they’re gone.

If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you do when you enter someone’s home is seek out their dog. If you love dogs that much, you’re bound to encounter a dog you don’t enjoy. Some say they’ve never met a dog they didn’t like. I’ve met two. I thought their owners, guardians, or whatever people prefer to call human companions were relatively nice people. I later found out I was wrong, and I realized that our relationships with dogs tend to be symbiotic in that a dog can define a person in some ways, and a person can define a dog in some ways. Our personalities rub off on dogs, and their personalities rub off on us.

How much time do we spend around our dogs? How much time do we spend playing with them, talking to them, petting them, take them to parks for walks, and everything else to shape and mold them? Dogs notice things. They pick up on behavioral cues, patterns, and routines, and they learn how to behave to get along with us better. If we say hello to everyone we encounter in a park, for example, they will too. If we’re confrontational people, our dogs might be more confrontational. How often do our neighbors have to raise and develop crazy dogs before they realize they’re the problem? 

Have you ever met a neighbor you initially considered relatively stable and friendly, only to find out their dog was out of control? Did it shape how we viewed that person? There’s usually a reason a dog is so out of control, and when we find out that that neighbor has another side to him, a nutty, out of control side, when he isn’t leaning over the fence for a chat, we learn to read our tea leaves better. We learn to pay more attention to their dogs. Our personalities help define our dogs, and they define us, and everything in between.

As we often say of those who pass, Mr. Fehrley died doing what he loved best. He died chasing a squirrel across a street. If you were lucky enough to know Mr. Fehrley, you knew that chasing squirrels was his joie de vivre (exuberant enjoyment of life), and he loved it so much that it became his raison d’être (the most important reason or purpose for existence). To deprive him of that would’ve been the more responsible thing for me to do, and I was warned, but I didn’t want to deprive him of that joy. 

Years prior, I saw a junkyard dog check both ways before crossing the street. The junkyard dog was everything you’d imagine. It had various sores, patches of hair, combined with some spots of mange and bald spots, and it also walked with a noticeable limp. I never saw a dog check both ways before crossing a street before, and I considered hilarious at the time. The more I thought about it, however, the more I considered it a little sad. This dog, obviously, had no one to protect it from harm. It obviously had to learn, from firsthand experience, how painful cars can be when they hit. The key to the junkyard dog’s survival involved checking both ways before walking across the streets cars drive on. Mr. Fehrley never checked both ways of course, because he didn’t know any better, because he never had to develop that survival skill. I did that for him. So, I could wallow in the misery that I forgot watch for him that one, fateful moment, or I could think about all the times I prevented him getting hit. Developing coping mechanisms such as this one help, as does having a family with which to share the pain, but when incidents like these happen, we all go through them alone. 

The Voluntary Visit to the Dentist

“As nice as you are, I’ve come to realize that you are not my friend,” I told a dental hygienist named Ms. Mary after she provided me a deep cleaning procedure that involved the sights and sounds of my worst nightmares.

Ms. Mary is a very nice, professional woman. Some might even go so far to say that she’s a sweet woman who engages her clients in pleasant conversation. Ms. Mary also has such an unusual, almost melodic laugh that we can’t help but smile and laugh with her. In a place many of us consider one of the scariest places in the world, Ms. Mary’s bedside manner (or in this case chairside) sets us completely at ease. At some point, however, and we both know that this moment is inevitable, Ms. Mary will be putting that chairside manner aside to get to business. Her business is not kind, sweet, and endearing. Her business involves something called a Sickle probe, a Scaler, and the most feared of all dental tools the drill. She doesn’t cackle when she picks that drill up, and no one cues up harrowing music to inform us that the setting is changing. She just quietly turns around to gather her tools, perhaps while we’re answering her last question, and she returns to us in a manner that allows the worst elements of our imagination to take over. 

Some of Ms. Mary’s tools make the most awful sounds, and some of the other ones help her chip away at the plaque and other buildup her patients have so recklessly acquired over the years. They’re all painful. At some point in her process, we inform Ms. Mary that we obviously don’t have enough painkiller, and at another point in the process we realize there never will be enough. Ms. Mary appears to do her best to accommodate us, but we know, somewhere deep in our heart, that Ms. Mary is an awful person who enjoys this far too much. 

When I tried to assure Ms. Mary that I was just joking when I said ’you are not my friend,’ she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I love my job.” That convinced me that she knew I was just joking, but it also led me to wonder if she might be something of a psychopath. She loves doing this to me? She loves doing this to kind, well-meaning people like me so much that she’s been doing it for over ten years? Ms. Mary appeared to be such a pleasant, well-centered, and happy person that I’m sure I’ll feel different about her next week, so I have to write this now.

I know this is Ms. Mary’s job, and I know someone has to do this job, and I know that neglectful clients like me need someone to do this to me, but I can’t help but suspect that if Ms. Mary enjoys doing such awful things to otherwise pleasant men and women like me, who never do anything to harm anyone, she might have some psychopathic tendencies. If as says, “[Psychopaths] can pretend to be charming and loving, so those around them can’t always detect their lack of empathy,” I think Ms. Mary might have some tendencies that remind us of psychopaths. Before we dismiss this idea, I think we should look up the job history of some of our country’s worst psychopathic serial killers to see if we can find some corollaries. My bet is we find one who says:

“I was a dental hygienist for a couple years, and I found it absolutely thrilling, but I realized I needed to inflict more pain after a while. There was a reason that I was attracted to the profession in the first place though.”

No one portrayed the sadistic tendencies of a dentist better than Laurence Olivier in the movie Marathon Man. There was one relatively horrific scene in this otherwise boring movie in which Olivier threatens to pull a healthy tooth from his patient without painkillers, unless the patient gives him the information he needs. The reason I consider the horror in this scene relative is that when I’m nowhere near a dentist’s chair, I don’t understand why anyone would consider having a healthy tooth pulled without painkillers so frightening that they would give up state secrets. When Ms. Mary and the dentist liberated me from their office, after a couple hours of a level of torture most of us know, however, I remember that movie scene with a shudder.

The entire scene of lying supine, mouth open, awaiting whatever they have planned, is such a vulnerable one. I know I would’ve talked if Laurence Olivier prodded some sensitive nerves, telling me, “You need to take better care of your teeth.” If he hit those sensitive nerves with the high-pitched sounds of his drill, and I had no painkillers, I suspect I might give up every state secret I knew.

Some talk about the high-pitched sounds of a drill with abject horror. This conversation is so common and the need to address the fear is so prevalent that most dentist office’s now provide their clients headphones to drown the sounds out. Clients and prospective clients also talk about how much they hate the pain involved, so they take all of the painkillers the dentist has to offer, plus the nitrous oxide. Some potential clients seek dentists who have all of painkillers the state will allow. 

Prior to this particular dentist office visit, I informed these people that I turned down all but the basic painkiller, because I just want to hurry up and end whatever procedures they proscribe for the horrors going on in my mouth. I preferred to endure the pain to expedite the process. I did not want to wait for the nitrous to take hold. I just wanted them to start, so they could end sooner. Something changed for me this time. I don’t know if I psyched myself into a frenzy or what, but when they started drilling, I raised a hand and asked for more painkiller and more time for the nitrous to take hold. I took all the painkillers they had at their disposal this time and the headphones.


I’ve heard about the Stockholm syndrome in which the captive begins to develop unusual feelings of trust and affection for their captors. Some of the captives, used in various case examples, developed an emotional attachment to the captors who tortured them, and they did so because they became reliant on their captors for survival. At some point in the torture, they slipped from being a hostile captive to a cooperative one, and finally to one who unwittingly began to side with their captors’ cause. Everyone develops coping mechanisms for stressful moments, and while we understand that sitting in a dentists’ chair is not in the same league with all of the various forms of torture, it does give those of us who know nothing of real torture some insight into what we might do if our captors knew the right nerves to hit to get us to talk. 

My coping mechanism for dealing with this low-level stress was writing the article you’re reading right now. I wrote most of this article, in my mind of course, while Ms. Mary chipped away at my plaque, and I completed it when the dentist did what he did. When Ms. Mary tapped a sensitive nerve, I laughed. I did not laugh because I’m impervious to pain. I laughed because I thought of a great line that I hoped to add right here … but I lost it after my drug-induced state wore off. I remembered thinking that it was such a great line that I should hurry up and do something before I forgot it, and I knew that it would get lost in the ether, or to the ether, and I probably should hurry up and write it down. I didn’t write it down, or even say it to Ms. Mary to make it more memorable, because as much as I live for great sentences, I didn’t want to prolong the process for even a minute more.    

I experienced a small window into how I might fare under torture when Ms. Mary drilled into a nerve that was not sufficiently dulled with painkillers. She responded in the manner I hoped she would, but I couldn’t help but think of what I might do if my captors not only didn’t stop when they hit that nerve, but they continued to explore the extent of my pain to get me to do whatever they wanted. We’d all love to think we would be that heroic captive who never talked, but receiving a drill to a tender, exposed nerve reminds us why we revere those who endured what we cannot even imagine. I thought about how much I might hate the people doing this to me while they were it, and I thought about how glorious it would be for me when they decided to stop. 

When the dentist finally decided I had enough, I appreciated his mercy so much that I felt grateful. It’s over, I survived, and I appreciated his contributions to my survival. The Stockholm syndrome suggests that the captive might appreciate their captors mercy for stopping. Those who study this effect say it doesn’t always happen to captives, but it’s obviously happened so often that we’ve developed a term for it. For those who want to understand how this anomaly might happen, try going ten years between dentist visits. When the scraping, grinding, and drilling finding stops, it feels like they’re being merciful, kind, and sympathetic, and the euphoria you feel might lead you to inexplicable feelings of affection that you don’t have for people who have never drilled anything into your face for a couple hours.


The thing about going to the dentist is that it’s voluntary. If we want to keep our teeth, and keep them in such good shape so that they might last for most of our lives, we must visit the dentist biannually. Yet, it’s still voluntary. When we don’t visit the dentist’s office, no one will think less of us, because no one will ever know. They might see the destruction of our teeth, over time, but no one suspects that it has anything to do with the fact that we haven’t visited a dentist’s office in a while. They just cringe when we smile, and they think less of us, but they don’t associate it with how often we visit the dentist.

My dad had a miracle cure, milk. He thought the calcium in milk helped preserved his teeth so well that he didn’t have to brush, and he didn’t visit a dentist’s office for most of his life. He thought milk, and the calcium therein, were the miracle cures to maintaining oral health to the point of having his natural teeth into his old age. A high school friend of mine never brushed his teeth, and he never visited the dentist’s office. His miracle cure was Listerine. Both men found the error of their line of thinking in “the most painful experience I’ve ever had” when they eventually found their teeth so painful that a visit to the dentist proved to be the lesser of two evils. 

If they hadn’t volunteered this information, we would’ve never known, because no one lauds a responsible person for responsibly visiting a dentist biannually, and no one talks about a person who doesn’t. “There goes Bud, he hasn’t visited a dentist’s office in ten years.” I’ve never heard anyone say this, or anything else, about a person and the regularity of their dentist visits. There’s no peer pressure, parental pressure, or any form of pressure, other than internal, to routinely address what could be a problem if we don’t.

“It’s voluntary? You mean I don’t have to subject myself to pain if I don’t want to do so? I have to be self-motivated to subject myself to the pain involved? Even those who regularly visit the dentist responsibly experience some pain in every visit? Who, in their right mind, would do this on a biannual basis?”

“The longer you wait the more painful it will be.”

“So, the only motivation to endure regular visits, and the resultant pain involved, is to stave off the prospect of more pain?”

Most of the rewards for enduring everything Ms. Mary has at her disposal on a biannual basis, to maintain a healthy mouth, are not short-term. If we maintain that regular schedule, it’s possible that we might never experience a toothache. Yet, if we never have a toothache, how much do we appreciate it? If there are so few tangible, short-term rewards, what are the long term ones? Well, if we’re lucky enough to live to our 70’s, 80’s, and beyond, we might be able to luxuriate in the idea that we’re one of the few who still have most, if not all, of our natural teeth, but we’ll have to wait decades to lord that over our peers. How will they respond to that? What will be our lifelong reward for having the various dentists and their Ms Marys drill into our face for a couple of hours two times a year for decades? If we’re lucky enough to live that long, we might one day receive nothing more than an unceremonious shrug from that guy who is now forced to wear dentures.

The Fear of Getting Punched in the Face

“I just hit that guy as hard as he’ll ever be hit,” a professional boxer said of his opponent, “but I don’t see at as cruel or mean to do so. I see it as a liberating that guy from the fear of being punched in the face, because no one else will ever punch him that hard as long as he lives. He’s free now, as I see it, and I hope he uses it.”

Wow, that guy had to be joking. That was just so over-the-top that it was almost funny. Once we’re done laughing, we chew on this unusual, unorthodox philosophy, and we realize that it makes some sort of twisted sense. We think about how much we did to avoid a fight in junior high and high school, and we think about how liberating it might have been if we had no fear of getting punched in the face so hard that no one will ever be able to duplicate it. Aside from the pain involved, there is something shocking about getting punched in the face. If the same person delivered a similar blow to our stomach, it might hurt just as bad, but it wouldn’t feel quite as shocking or personal. 

If we didn’t receive such a blow by the time we graduated from high school, it’s likely we never will. When we were younger, however, the perceived threat of being punched often led to a fear of the unknown. Most of us didn’t have an older brother, a neighborhood kid, friends, or enemies to diminish this fear of fighting, or getting punched, so no one ever liberated us from this fear in the manner the boxer proposed.

I never heard this theory when I was young, but I can tell you that this fear of getting punched did not influence my reaction to Sean throwing a wadded up ball of piece of paper at my face, and it wasn’t a feat of bravery either. By the time Sean threw that at me, to impress Dave, I’d simply had enough.

Dave was the superstar defensive tackle, in our high school, who would go onto play college ball. Dave never had anything to prove to anyone in high school. Sean, however, was a medium-sized guy who was always on the lookout to prove himself. Those who were near him, on the hierarchical totem pole of teenagers, often received his proverbial boot to their face, so Sean could define himself worthy of the respect and friendship of someone like Dave. The proverbial boot to the face, in my case, was a wadded up ball of paper that landed so flush that Sean and Dave found it hilarious.

I didn’t waste a second. I grabbed that ball of paper, threw it in Sean’s face, and loomed over his desk.

“Knock it off!” the scariest teacher in our school yelled. “Return to your seat!” he said yelling my name. It took me about fifteen seconds to cool down, and I did after the scary teacher screamed at me again at the top of his lungs. I sat back down, and I tried to cool off. “You two, see me after class,” the teacher yelled, calling out our names, in his baritone voice.

“You think you’re a tough guy don’t you?” the football star, Dave, whispered to me when class was over.

“I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t, but I’m not going to put up with that.”

What Sean and Dave didn’t understand was that I put up with such incidents for years, and I never did anything about it, because I feared I might not fare well in the final confrontation. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a strategy, until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s true, but how many failed strategies do we employ to avoid getting punched in the mouth? How many bullies proceeded unimpeded with the implicit threat of a punch to the mouth? “We both know you’re not going to do anything about it, because you don’t want to get punched in the mouth.”  

Getting punched in the mouth hurts, and losing fights is so embarrassing that we do whatever we can to avoid it. In the cushy world our parents provided us, by sending us to good, quality schools, we never had to fight before, and we feared that the guy, challenging our manhood, might expose that.

We’ve witnessed all of the non-confrontational tactics our fellow nerds used to try to end their torment. We’ve witnessed some try laughing with their bullies, as if that might convince their bully that they’re in on the joke. It’s as if the nerd is saying, “That shot at my character not only failed to hurt my feelings, I thought it was actually pretty funny.” Most of us never tried this tactic, because we never saw it work. We’ve also witnessed some nerds laugh when their bully picks on another nerd in a desperate quest to form some level of solidarity with their tormentors. This calls to mind another Tyson quote, “A man that’s a friend of everyone is an enemy to himself.” We empathize with the nerds’ efforts of course, as they desperately try anything to end their torment, but those of us who survived high school know that nothing works better than finding a way to prove that we don’t fear the final confrontation. Nerds cannot overdo it either, for that exposes the effort for what it is. We nerds need to muster up the courage to look the bully in the eye (and that’s essential) and say something that suggests we don’t fear being punched in the mouth. I wish I could give my fellow nerds a great line to end to it all, but the best lines are usually situational.

After Sean and I received our tongue-lashing from the teacher, Sean turned to me, as we walked away from the teacher’s desk, “Why did you do that? Why did you get us in trouble?” The disdain in his voice, and face, made it clear that Sean wasn’t trying to double-talk me into accepting blame for what happened. His attempt to deflect blame did not dumbfound me either, for I knew a number of kids who genuinely didn’t understand the role they played in such incidents. Kids, and young adults, aren’t equipped with rational or objective thinking, but some of us were forced to acknowledge our roles in such incidents so often that we knew better. Others, particularly only children, only boys in the family, and the youngest child, often luxuriate in a golden child syndrome without consciously knowing it. Sean obviously thought he was just being silly, and he thought the act of hitting someone flush in the face with a ball of paper is funny. Doesn’t everyone think that’s funny? I probably shouldn’t try to psychoanalyze Sean’s reaction too much, but it was obvious that he thought my reaction to it was so over the top that if I wasn’t going to apologize for it, I should at least accept most of the blame for us getting in trouble.

Thus, I knew saying, “You started it” was a complete waste of everyone’s time, because he would’ve said the same back, and we would’ve engaged in that stupid, little dance. “I’ll tell you what,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “You stay in your little corner of the world, and I’ll stay in mine. As far as I’m concerned you don’t exist from this day forward, and if you are able treat me the same way, then we’ll get along just fine.” That wasn’t a line I dreamed up, or some sort of nerd tactic. I meant every word of it.

Sean did not abide by that resolution. He tested my resolve in the ensuing days, by walking uncomfortably close to me, looking me in the eye, saying things like, “Hey, what up dude?” in a deep, baritone voice. These greetings were as confrontational as any non-confrontational greeting can be. He was testing our boundaries for some reason, but I ignored him as if he were on another planet, as I said I would.  

This continued for a couple days, until he said “What up?” in a non-confrontational tone that lacked confrontation. I ignored him as if he were from another planet, but I did notice that his tone was no longer sarcastic. In the following days, this kid wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time Sean saw me, he hello’d me in all the variations a teen hellos another teen. Was he violating my dictum? He was, but in some peculiar ways he wasn’t. Sean obviously developed some odd form of respect for me in the course of that week.

“I meant what I said,” I told him after about the third such greeting.

“Ok,” he said, and he said nothing more.

“Then, what are you doing?”

“Just saying hi.”

I was suspicious, skeptical and cynical, but I replied, “Hi!” back in a deep, baritone voice that mocked his earlier one. After doing that once or twice, I began saying hi back to him on occasion, and begrudgingly, because I felt some bizarre need to be polite. Other than those few occasions when I acknowledged another human being, being polite, I maintained the suspicious, skeptical and cynical nature combined with whatever distance I established a week prior.      

Before turning polite, I think Sean believed that my desire to get him to like me and/or respect me fueled my reaction to him. As much as I hate to write this, girls adored that kid. They considered him good-looking, well dressed, and cool, and they considered me the antithesis of all that. I can only guess that that in Sean’s world order, he thought I spent the time we shared in school involved me looking up at him with some form of child-like adoration. We’ve all seen that movie where the nerd eventually manages to find some unique ways to gain respect from the cool kids. We leave those movies thinking that’s every nerd’s goal in life. This was not one of those stories. I’m not going to write that I didn’t envy him, or that I would’ve loved to change places with him, but I did not like him, and I didn’t respect him. 

I didn’t know what he was up to when he started saying hello to me in a polite, nice manner, and I was so suspicious that I figured it was only a matter of time before I found out what the master ploy of his congenial manner was. I figured it might result in some cinematic scene of the cool kid exacting some revenge for getting him in trouble, but it never did.

We nerds try a number of tactics. We try telling the teacher, and we try out smarting our bullies. I can only guess that the tactic I used in this case worked, because it wasn’t a tactic. I also proved, over the course of the next week that it wasn’t a tactic, and that I didn’t care if my reaction to his wadded up ball of paper led to a final confrontation.

By the time Sean tested my boundaries, I’d had enough. I didn’t care, at that point. Even if it was the 6’5”, 250 lb., defensive tackle who threw that ball of paper at me, I would’ve risked a hospital stay, and a month spent in traction just to send a message that I was done with it all. I was done with fearing a punch in the face. I was done, with figuratively and literally, taking it on the chin, because I feared that the other guy might have older brothers who taught him how to punch and how to fight. This whole idea that I feared the unknown world of fighting just didn’t have the mystique it once did for me, when the alternative involved me allowing them to do whatever they wanted to do to me.

I’m smaller than average male now, but I was a little one back then, and I wasn’t one of those scrappy little guys who knew how to fight. In the few scrapes that came my way, I proved that I don’t know what I’m doing. There is, however, that flirtation we all have that if driven to the extreme, we might surprise them all with a sweeping haymaker that would be a shot heard ‘round our world. The truth, if we ever found out, is that our most “devastating” punch will probably come off as uninformed and untrained as we fear, BUT, more often than not, so will the other guy’s.

How many of us wish we could go back in this world and redress the wrongs done to us? I changed the course of one incident, and as you can probably tell I’m quite proud of it, but it was the result of silently putting up with so many others. I also thought that if I did this to one person, word might spread, and I might not have to put up with others bullying me. Life doesn’t work that way, especially in high school. I also thought that if I displayed the temerity necessary to prove myself one day, I might be better prepared to do it again later. Again, life doesn’t work that way. Each confrontation is its own separate entity, and each high school student has to deal with it accordingly.

How many of us so feared the thought of being punched in the face that we allowed far too many confrontational teases to go unchallenged? How many of us would love to go back to that world and say, “I honestly don’t give a crap if you punch me anymore. Punch me! Do it! Let’s just get this whole thing over with. I should warn you, however, that I’m going to help you christen this moment by bleeding and crying all over you.”

That probably wouldn’t diffuse any situation, but I thought of the unusual rebuttal one night, thinking of another incident that occurred so long ago that it is laughable that it still bothers me. When I found out that my sister-in-law does the same thing, I didn’t feel so alone. Her confession did lead me to wonder how many of us remember these character-defining, yet decades-old incidents at three in the morning? How many of us get so tense over these moments that we might as well climb out of bed, pour ourselves a bowl of cereal and watch a sitcom to try to erase that 5th grade memory from our mind. Did we dream about it? We don’t know, but we know we won’t be able to get back to sleep until we rewrite the whole memory in such a way that we end up whipping them with Indiana Jones’ bullwhip for some reason. 

The best advice I can give someone facing a similar incident is that your liberation from fear will probably occur a short time after you’ve exhausted every tactic you can think up and every resource available. It probably won’t arrive in the midst of your desperation either. The moment of liberation, in my experience, occurs shortly after you stop giving a fig what might happen. If we do it to get the Seans of our life to respect and like us, we probably won’t be able to muster up the conviction necessary to stop it. Similarly, if we use tactics, we probably won’t believe in them half as much as we should. What it took for me to get one of the most hated bullies in our school to leave me alone was being done with all that to the point that I no longer feared the punch to the face, the fight that followed, or whatever the final confrontation entailed. What it took for me was to approach this matter in a relatively fearless perspective, and I only reached that point after years of abuse.

The point of this article is that for nerdy dads who fear that their nerdy sons are headed down the same road, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible that all of these modern anti-bullying programs have made great strides in ending what I had to endure throughout my youth, but I don’t know how statisticians would go about quantifying their success. I’m also not so confident in them that I’m going to trust that my son won’t have to find some place beyond desperation to end his torment. I also know that with the modern dictum against masculinity, I’m not supposed to encourage my son to do anything more masculine that might help him in the jungle-like climate on the playground. My guess is that even the most modern boy on the most modern playground still exhibit some of the most primal elements on the playground, when the teacher isn’t looking, and he’s going to zero in on the boy who’s afraid to fight. I know most early aged kids don’t fight each other, and most of them don’t punch each other either, and most of them probably don’t even think in such terms. My personal experience in the jungle-like atmosphere on the playground taught me that this changes much quicker than most people know.

We can try to be there for our kids, but we know there is a frustrating extent to that. We also know that we can alert the authority figures in our kid’s school, and we can write emails to school district leaders if their more immediate authority figures don’t respond to our satisfaction. We can become that satellite parent ensures the safety and well-being of our kid, but there is a frustrating extent to that too. There’s a frustrating extent to any tactics that we, as parents, can employ. The best tactic available to us is to teach them how to defend themselves in the “best defense is a good offense” mindset. The tactic might teach them what it means to take a punch to the face in some relatively safe, controlled environment. If the unorthodox philosophy of the boxer in the intro of this article holds any weight, one of the elements that impede development is the fear of getting punched, will our kids be any different if they receive those shocking blows young? If we enroll them in boxing schools or one of the various martial arts schools that house heavily cushioned gloves to soften the impact of the blow so that our young kids can experience getting hit in the face without experiencing too much pain or damage, is it possible that we might be able to erase some of the stages we went through to defeat our bullies? It probably won’t have the same impact as a bare-knuckled punch, but if we want our children to lead better lives, it could liberate them from the fear that we experienced in our youth, and it might turn out to be the best money we’ve ever spent.  

I Hated Myself, and I Wanted to Dye

If you thought you “unliked” me before, wait till you get a load of this? I thought after dying my hair as a freshman in college. It worked for me before, I thought, in grade school. I sent a shot heard ’round my world, in grade school, with one of the weirdest, wildest hairdos anyone had ever seen. They probably thought I forgot to comb my hair the first day, until I walked into school with that hairdo so often that they could no longer characterize it as an accident. By some measures, it was a total failure in that those who didn’t ostracize me prior to the hairdo did after I walked into school with it for six straight days. If they hated that hairdo that much what will these people think of this, I thought of my dye job? If this experiment was a total failure, in grade school, and I hoped to do it again in college. 

My first experiment with shock and failure began when I spotted an older kid on the playground with what I considered a weird and wild hairdo, and I consider it an experiment now, for lack of a better way to describe it. I did not consider it an experiment back then. I thought this was the new me, and I silently forced everyone around me to accept and acknowledge this new me. I loved all of the shock and awe I saw, and I secretly and subconsciously loved the failure. I know that sounds odd, but even in my immature, unformed brain, I found failure more interesting. So, when I look back on it now, I label it my first experiment with self-imposed failure.

When I first spotted that other kid with a shocking hairdo, I thought he was sending a message to us. I didn’t know what that message was, but as I tried to understand it and help him define it, I realized it wasn’t all that important to me what his message was. I thought I might be able to send my own message to those who recently declared me “unliked”, and I considered his hairdo the perfect vehicle. Thus, when I later realized that this kid wasn’t sending a message to anyone, and that he just had a bad case of hathair the day I spotted him, it didn’t take me off course. 

How does he get away with that? was the first thought I had staring at the kid. Doesn’t he realize how difficult it is to escape the impressions others have of us once we do something like that? In my underdeveloped brain, I thought this kid was at the forefront of a movement, an “I don’t care what you think” movement, that I wanted to take part in. I thought the message he was sending us was meticulous and carefully orchestrated. I thought it was so outlandish to have such a hairdo that I considered it a little dangerous, and I knew I had to get me some of that. 

My other reaction to his hairdo was one of anger. You can’t just wear your hair anyway you want. We have conventions and rules, and you’re shattering them. Look at this guy. He’s flaunting and taunting our accepted way of life. I don’t know if I modified my thinking on the playground, on the ride home from school that day, or at home, but somewhere between that day and the next, I decided I wanted people to react to me the way I reacted to him. I wanted my peers to dislike me for my hair the way I disliked him for his. In some deep, dark recesses of my immature subconscious I thought if I gave them a reason to dislike me, it might clear up some of the confusion I had for why they did. I wanted to say they don’t like me, because they don’t understand me. The truth for me, at the time, was that they knew everything about me, and they understood me. They spent five years with me, so their decision to “unlike” me was an informed one, and it stung so bad that I wanted to do something to suggest that I had some control of it.

I romanticized that kid’s shocking hairdo so much that I showed up for school the next day with my own, individual version of it. The difference between my version and his was that he had what I now know to be a typical hathair crimp that pushed the bottom reaches of the hair out a tad. I enhanced that crimp by pushing my hair all the way up and out, until it was pointing out at 90-degree angles. My classmates didn’t understand it, and they weren’t shy about telling me that I needed to fix it. My teacher went so far as to pull me out of class for a private session loaded with pertinent and professional questions about my well-being. 

If some characterize this hairdo as going punk rock, I didn’t even know what punk rock was at the time, and I showed it. Going full-fledged, Sid Vicious punk rock requires one to have all their hair standing up and at attention. Sid Vicious punk rockers wouldn’t have understood my decision to maintain sensible hair down the middle. It was my individual, uninformed version of a mullet, except my business was in the middle, and my party was on the sides. 

So, my statement wouldn’t have fared well in punk rock circles either, and if I knew that I probably would’ve found that delicious in some odd way that I still find a little unsettling and thrilling. I don’t know what it said about my psychological well-being at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that those who didn’t dislike me before were now uncomfortable being around me or associating their reputations with mine. I also knew they now had a justifiable reason for unliking me.

I’ve never been a punk rock fan, but I understand its ethos, and its greater appeal. To be punk rock is to never try to understand your appeal or lack thereof, and any attempt its purveyors make to understand it is something punk rockers regard as selling out. My personal definition of the punk rock ethos involved shouting out confusion in some primal form of therapy that asks everyone else to question their values and social mores in reaction to you, and it also staves off personal introspection and interpersonal answers that can prove painful.  

I also know the origins of the ‘what do you want me to do?’, punk rock confusion. The ‘What do I have to do to get you to like me again?’ war is unwinnable, because if we were to ask them, both parties know their answers would be self-incriminating. So, they wouldn’t want to give us an answer if they had one. How many otherwise insecure pre-teens would answer, “I don’t like you anymore, because I think you’re an …” They don’t answer because most of them are relatively nice people who don’t want to do or say anything awful to people that might come back to characterize them as awful. It’s a no-win situation for them. The idea that they just don’t like us anymore is an unspoken pact that they hope we learn to abide by without further questions. They just don’t like us anymore, one day, because no one else does.

The “unlike” Facebook corollary to my grade school years is apt, if one considers having a Facebook page that everyone follows for years, and then, all of a sudden, for no stated reason, everyone starts to unlike. What do we do in the face of such rejection? An insecure, preteen, assumes their peers have justifiable reasons, or a group rationale, for why, but they don’t want to open that can of worms by asking them. An insecure preteen just assumes this is their new world.

Anyone who has ever been ostracized understands the confusion that starts with people who know us, sitting “together” at different lunch tables. We can’t sit next to them one day, because there are “saved” seats open to everyone but us. When it happens a third and a fourth time, we begin to realize it’s not a coincidence. Our classmates are, for no stated reason, making open declarations that we are “the unliked”. As painful as these declarations are, we can’t say they’re uninformed, because they know everything about us. As much as we say we don’t care what others think of us, the effect of others ostracizing us has some effects on us. We can’t go back in a time machine to ask them what happened. If we ask them why now, they’d say, “That happened so long ago.” We were so confused back then, and we couldn’t understand any of it. We understand some of it now, but it doesn’t diminish the effect.

How many awful things do the they have to say to our best friends, before the foundation of our friendship starts to crack? We thought they were so cool, and that they were the leaders of the thought movement in our world. We thought our friendship was so strong that it should’ve fortified their resolve, but even the greatest arches, built by the most talented civil engineers and architects, have a threshold. We thought everyone wanted to like him, and that he didn’t have to do anything to have others like him, but even the coolest of cool thought leaders eventually have to cut weight if they want others to continue to like them.

In the space of all that confusion, we go punk rock. I don’t know what going punk rock means to anyone else, but I sought out the weirdest and wildest hairdo, and I later dyed my hair, because I couldn’t understand why everyone “unliked” me when I needed them most. As I’m sure the perceptive reader understands, there were many other things going on with this pre-teen to teenage version of me that dwarfed my need for friendship, but I chose to focus on what I thought I might be able to somewhat, sort of control. There were bona fide reasons why they chose to “unlike” me, and it had little to do my personality. If they even flirted with the notion of helping me in anyway, they didn’t know how to go about doing it, so they did what any overwhelmed kid does in such a situation. They tried to avoid the situation by staying away, and as an equally confused teen I didn’t do anything to ease their confusion. I tried to push them further away by physically saying, I don’t need you, and I don’t want to be around you either, and I don’t like you, and I’m going to manifest this shout out with the weirdest, wildest hairdo you’ve ever seen, so we can all fill in these blanks together.