The Stoic Approach To Broken

“And then I felt sad because I realized that once people are broken in certain ways, they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one. You wonder when your turn is going to be, or if it’s already happened. “–Douglas Coupland

Everyone has a pivotal moment, a retrospective stand-still, in which growing becomes hard; innocence lost.  It’s like being punched for the first time, doubled-over in perplexing pain, trying to catch your breath.  After that–the first time–it becomes easier to take a beating.  Maybe you self-protect or maybe you’re scared or maybe you’re stronger, but you’re never where you were before.  Moments of truth awaken reflexes within you that were either conditioned or innate, but either way the reaction defines you.

Everyone also has an ostensibly innocuous moment, a seemingly irrelevant event, in which a choice or decision is entered into the dynamic mindstream of another; karma.   Sending and banishing another into Samsara–cyclic suffering–until noble virtue, noble concentration, noble discernment, and noble release is understood.  Sounds like a disproportionate amount of spirit work for one versus the other, right?  Not really, it’s all in the give and take.

One midday Saturday in the early 80’s, I watched out the screen door as a trio of teenagers walked down our mostly desolate road in Divide Community.  No rock was left unturned by my family in our Podunk community and it was the first and perhaps only time strangers afoot passed through.  The details between my curiosity as a screen lurker and why those orphans or hippies or serial killers were devouring the Hamburger Helper at our dinner table may have been misplaced.  Nevertheless, the youngest of the ambiguous sibling tribe became a squatter in our hamlet.  Squatters get all the benefits of home without the responsibility, and by their very nature live in survival mode so everything is a threat.  He was the first broken person I knew, and a catalyst for the demise of  my family unit.

Several months after my parent’s divorce, we were in the grocery store when a familiar but faceless lady mentioned seeing my father buying beer.  This information would have been a fairly normal adult activity, however my father spent my whole life up to that point judging and preaching about the sins of the sinner.

“You must have meant my Uncle Donnie,” I interjected.  “People think they’re twins, but they aren’t. MY dad doesn’t drink.  Drinking beer is a sin.”

Ironically, I will never forget her expression.  She quickly withdrew her tongue from idle talk and looked down.

“Oh.”  She glanced at my mom and then back to me.  “Maybe you’re right.”

I placed my hands on my hips and curtly replied, “I am.”

I was afraid of what it meant; my father drinking.   Was this how stoic people did things?

I didn’t have a penchant for bad things during my teenage years like my friends did during their era of rebellion.  I coughed and  complained too much for my friends to truly get me addicted to cigarettes (like most of them eventually did).  Not a smoker.  It wasn’t an easy feat, either, to get me drinking alcohol.  I hated the taste of liquor, wine, and beer.  One particularly weighty morning, I snatched a beer from my stepfather’s refrigerated stash and took it with me to school.  I got in my car and pushed in the single cassette tape of TLC’s “Waterfalls” and drove toward school–beer between legs and sobbing.


7:30am, football field parking lot, sobbing and gagging as I forced down my first beer, alone.  After all, this is how stoic people do it.

Muffin Top Allure

When I was a lanky little kid, a thinly teenager, and a twiggy twenty-something, I thought a muffin top was literally a muffin that had spilled over the paper casing.   In fact, the muffin top was my favorite part of the whole muffin.  It was firm, slightly crunchier, and it wasn’t soft like the middle so it stayed in your hand, therefore easier to eat.

In junior high, I would spend the night with my friend KB most often because at ten o’clock at night her mom would bring us blueberry muffins.  Nothing said love like a late night snack fresh out of the oven, and back then calories and sugar grams were only counted by fat people.  We were not fat and did little counting in those days, and quite honestly in those days I needed a little more love.

Once I hit college, I noticed people ate muffins in the morning.  Strange, the last thing I wanted in the morning was sugar but I tried it – not entirely impressed.  If I wanted something sugary in the morning, I wanted it to have a big hole in the middle and to be enigmatically named doughnut.  There was a sophisticated allure with a morning muffin in those days,  and much like beer I acquired a taste for it.

Now that I’m in my thirties I’ve learned that you can’t eat until you’re loved or get rid of acquired habits (like eating or drinking) so easily, and muffin tops are not just reserved for baked goods.

Gentle Loneliness

Stumbling into a bar, midday, alone and without any sense of urgency, albeit aimless.  The male bartenders in anytown, USA, pretty much look the same, but it’s their distinguished dialect that differentiates between the regions.  I remember a handful of bars because of their bar speciality, like the Greek tavern by Port Authority in New York City where the owner makes his own stout red wine and generously keeps my glass full without a bill.  I remember other bars for different reasons like Bar of America in Truckee, California, due to embedded nuanceslike the assymetically placed clock beside a large hole in the wall that could easily be covered up by that damn clock.    It’s not really about the bar, itself, that captures the aesthetically pleasing side of my loneliness.  No, it’s the ambiance of life’s vibrations and the romanticized connection to all those sentences I’ve read about characters that have sat on the same type of stool, in the same type of bar, experiencing the same synapses of mood, that connect me to these places. 

It doesn’t end at bars.  There are a series of places that come to mind like some scene of a coming-of-age movie where the shadow of loneliness envelopes the main character causing them to reflect and move forth in life, back on track.  Right off the interstate in Dallas, Texas, there is a grassy knoll hidden by an overpass that is across the street from a well-known hospital.  It was there that I would sit for hours just looking into the vastly lit wide open Texas sky at night, waiting for an epiphany.  I’ve used the term ‘epiphany’ so much that it’s often spouted out from my mom’s mouth in reference to wise stories from a strong-lived life as what my mom calls, “what’s your term?  I had an EPIPHANY.” 

I counted it up once and I had moved 32 times give or take a couple houses during my parent’s divorce, 5 different states, 20 different zip codes, 7 of those were in a NYC burrough, and 3 different towns in New Jersey.  That’s a lot of unsettledment in one lifetime.  I wasn’t running from anything per se as much as I was running toward this idea of a life that I only knew from books and movies. 

Nowdays I can’t really concentrate in bars due some latent A.D.D. that has me more interested in people watching than sitting with my gentle loneliness that brought forth much of my writing.  Other than my pickiness of not sitting by a kitchen or facing the crowd in a restaurant, I don’t really notice symmetrically conflicting items like oddly placed decorative ornaments.  I also just bought a house so there’s no need to go anywhere but home to find myself anymore. 


From The Archives (circa 2003): Good Whatevers


My brother, Jeffrey Lee Ben, turns 21 this August 23rd.  We made a pact some time ago that we would ring in the occasion by drinking his first legal beer together.  It has been two years and seven months, give or take a couple weeks, since I have physically been in the same room as my brother.  This August 23rd I will keep our promise to drink his first legal beer together despite the absence of his physicality.


I get chills, in my car, more so in the winter months of the year.  Initially, it’s frightening and I want the feeling to go away.  Later, it feels like the homecoming warmth of all my favorite feelings in one split-second before I feel the chill.  My brother is sitting, relaxed, in the backseat of my car listening to the whirlwind of thoughts in my head.  We are having conversations of silence for hours before it is time for him to go, wherever he goes. 


Before he goes, we share a moment; that moment binds lifetimes of images that I cannot see as clearly when he leaves.  I never want to open my eyes and return to the continuous world around me, reveling in circular bliss and breathing in love all around me; I open my eyes.


Trying to make sense of who my brother was to me and who he is to me now, I think about the infinitesimal memories that make the life-size memories seem so much more immeasurable. 


The curvature of his slim feet, I remember that.  His nostrils flaring from excitement, I remember that.  The tiny scar above his eye; the imperfections that made him so beautiful, I remember that.  His chest slowly moving up and down while he snored during his sleep, I remember that.  The illumination of his face in reds and greens during an excited Christmas Eve night, I could never forget that.  The textures of his long, thin fingers that would carve out his life, I can see them clearly.  His deep dark expressive eyes that could give him away so easily, crystal clear. 


Good whatevers that move us along seem to be life’s way of holding onto the best parts of change.  Easily enough, I could fall down the spiral of anguish to feel the thick ridges in my side.  I keep climbing, though, hearing the voices of my childhood that will never evolve into adulthood.  I am swimming in the sounds of wishful imagery and his voice grows, deepens and makes those would-be words. 


He sings for me, he writes for me, he paints for me and I grow without him still yet with him soaring in and out of my being.  I am truly lucky, to have spent eighteen years without an epiphany of how overwhelming a person could be.  Had the epiphany of his amazing existence hit me, long ago, I do not think my heart could stand another life-luster beat. 


While I sit, in any bar in any town, waiting for my brother to show up for our drink on August 23rd, I briefly wonder what I would say or do if he walked through the door to meet me for our drink.  As his bottle of beer sits across from me, I will raise mine and send him a toast when the clock hits midnight.  “Happy 21st Birthday my little brother, here’s to ‘good whatevers’ and many more.”

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