I Think I’m Normal

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Last week I posted about having been checked out. I convinced myself that being isolated for the past six months while writing my book had changed me. The chemical composition of my brain must have reworked itself. There’s no way I’m equipped for social interaction any longer. I can’t feel real people emotions. I didn’t actually think these things, but it was clear that I needed to do something. Sitting by yourself in a room, jabbing away at a keyboard for hours on end isn’t ‘normal.’ Getting out into the world around other people would refuel my brain and recharge my creativity.

What I did to convince myself that I’m still capable of feeling emotion probably sounds crazy to most people. I spent a total of fourteen hours – ten hours on three greyhound buses and four hours in terminals – to travel a distance greater than 450 miles from my hometown in southern West Virginia to Morgantown, just across the Pennsylvania border from Pittsburgh. A trip that would have taken less than three hours on a straight shot took me around to Columbus and up to Pittsburgh before finally arriving at my destination. I could write a three book horror series on the bus ride alone, but that’s a blog for another day. The point is that I got to tell stories, laugh, eat, and drink with a group of some of my best friends.

I’d already planned on taking the trip up to the WVU Spring Game a couple weeks ago, but gave up on making it when all of my potential rides let me know they were committed to work. “Whatever… I’ll hitchhike,” I said. “It’ll be an adventure.” I had my bag packed on Thursday and was ready to hit the road Friday morning until I saw the weather forecast – sixty percent chance of rain most of Friday. I’ve never hitchhiked, but I have been stuck in rain and I can tell you that you don’t want to hitchhike in rain. You don’t want to do anything in rain besides take a nap under a tin roof, and even then you’re not actually in it.

I was really disappointed that I couldn’t make it. I was also somewhat relieved, because who actually wants to hitchhike? You may be asking who wants to ride on a bus for fourteen hours to a location that could be reached in two hours and thirty minutes by car. I didn’t want to, let me remind you – I had to. At least I thought I did. The Spring Game tailgate was most likely the last time I would see this many of my college friends together. The seniors are graduating next month and (most of) the graduates have jobs. This, combined with the realization that I’ve been in emotional hibernation for the last half-year, was enough reason to buy a ticket at 5:00 PM on Thursday and jump on the bus five hours later. I made it to Morgantown just before 1:00 PM on Friday and after a one hour nap got started on the best weekend I’ve had since before graduation.

Fast forward to right now – I spent the week with my mom, sister, and stepdad in order to drive back to my grandmother’s today for Easter weekend. What you need to understand about this situation is that my mom works 9 to 5, my sister goes to school, and my stepdad is retired. Essentially I sat around on the couch listening to this guy speak just to hear his own voice. No matter how focused I tried to make myself look, I couldn’t read a book or watch an episode of Seinfeld without him trying to tell me about the tankless water heater he put in or how many hundreds of pounds of meat he has in the freezer. I can’t take a single thing he says seriously after he told me he heard on the news that there was “talk about Parkersburg getting an NFL stadium.” You don’t have to know anything about Parkersburg or much about West Virginia to understand that the NFL is never coming here.

Bashing this man isn’t solely due to him being an annoying lunatic – some of it’s about me. On my quest to reassure myself that I’m a normal, social creature I spent fourteen hours with my knees rubbing against course Greyhound seat fabric, slept two nights on three futon couch cushions, drank more beer and laughed longer than I have in ages, and spent five days with my crazed stepfather to come to this realization: I need to be alone. I don’t need to see my family and friends all the time. In fact I don’t want to. I don’t need to go out and do something every night of the week to try to feel ‘normal,’ like I’m not a hermit. I’ve realized that I love being a hermit. That’s ‘normal’ to me.

As for my ‘emotional hibernation’ and the reason for my quest – I don’t need to be out in the world, around other people in order to feel emotion. My writing is emotion. What I feel is transferred to page, not the other way around. I thought my writing was controlling me by fooling me into thinking I had everything under control. The only thing I have under control is what I write. I’m not going to use this as an excuse to sit in isolation for the rest of my life, but rather as a reminder that I’m no different than anyone else – we all have the same problems. We all question ourselves and deal with the same doubt. It’s up to you to get past this and figure out who you are. This is me.

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.” – Stephen Fry

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Barbie Bulldozer

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Boredom is the root of all evil. They say that it’s money, but I’ve never had much of that, I wouldn’t know. I can say for sure that boredom is what does it for me. Growing up in rural North Florida can be great, but for a twelve year old kid it can be pure torture. No license, no car, and no friends for miles. Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed a little Cartoon Network and playing some video games, but I was never one to sit in front of a TV for very long. You have to make your own fun as a kid in this type of environment. My idea of fun under these circumstances was mischievousness. By mischievousness I mostly mean getting my little sister into trouble.

There’s a specific detail I should mention in order to understand this story. My grandparents lived in a house in the corner of our four acre piece of property, opposite of my family’s home. My grandpa fancied himself a farmer and was still going strong in his late 80’s and early 90’s, plowing, sowing, and doing whatever else farmers did. We grew a lot of different things like corn, green beans, cabbage, okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. I say “we” because I was his little helper. I did a lot of the work he couldn’t get around to doing. I didn’t mind planting the tomatoes. I didn’t mind plowing for the corn. I didn’t mind weeding the cabbage. I sure didn’t mind eating the fried okra. I found that I enjoyed most of these activities. The one thing I did mind was this plant that they called “mustard greens.” Scientific name: Brassica Juncea. I hated everything about them – the way they tasted, the way they smelled, the way I was asked at every family dinner, “Dylan, would you like some mustard greens?” No, I don’t want any of your nasty mustard greens. Never have, never will.

Another critical detail in this story of mine, and many others I might tell, is that my sister is eight years younger than me. At this time she had just turned four. Contrary to what some might think, it is actually pretty tough to get a small child like this in trouble. At times I had to work extra hard to achieve my goal, do some digging, scrounge around for ideas. Occasionally opportunities were placed in front of me as if the Devil himself had selected the scenario directly from a manila folder in the back of a rusty filing cabinet on the fourth level of hell. My hatred for this leafy green along with the penchant to get my little sister in trouble converged to a point that I considered at the time to be a stroke of pure genius. When it hit me it was a beautiful thing.

So it begins. It was a hot mid-summer’s day. I had gotten my fix of Banjo-Kazooie and Ed, Edd and Eddy and needed to find something to do outside. I walked around for a few minutes, got a couple chores out of the way, then went back inside for a glass of sweet tea and to ponder my next move. I was just about to step back into the humid oven that is Florida during summer when my mom stopped me. She told me that my sister was riding her Barbie Jeep and that she wanted me to watch her for a while. I definitely didn’t have an excuse not to, so I obliged. I took my glass of tea out on the back steps and sat down, scanning the yard for the purple wheeled monster. My sister noticed me, made a lap around the huge oak tree at the back of the property and sped over to the steps as fast as the little 12 volt battery would let her. We exchanged pleasantries and she took off. I watched her go around the oak tree again and then over behind the shed. As she passed by the patch of mustard greens on the back fence of the property a light bulb came on in my head.

There was a small climb in elevation at the end of the garden – a hill leading up to a strip of pavement that ran down the middle of the property, an early predecessor of the highway that ran parallel about two hundred feet away. I immediately knew what to do, but it took everything in me to just sit back and let this thing play out. A little impatience spoils great plans.

I took a sip of my tea and waited for her to rev back over. I had to do this before the battery gave in, which I estimated to be about ten minutes. She pulled up and almost like she was reading my mind asked where she should drive next. Perfect. I looked over to the old highway and said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if you went down that hill straight through those plants? No you probably shouldn’t do that.”

She glanced over at the hill and back at me with a smile. “Yeah, I shouldn’t do that.” She looked back to the hill once more. “Should I?” she said with her head tilted like a curious pup.

After taking a sip of tea I wiped the sweat from my forehead and spoke the words that would be remembered in my family for years to come, “It’s up to you.”

I stood up on the bottom step as she drove past the shed. She hit the hill at full speed. It took at least a minute for her to climb the eight feet. She stopped at the top to look over at me and I nodded like a mute general signaling his cavalry to charge. She looked ahead and waited, as if pondering whether or not to actually go through with it. After a few moments she mustered the courage to press the pedal to the plastic and take off down the hill. “Moment of truth,” I thought to myself.

She made the approach at full speed and like a good soldier, never once wavered – straight through the mustard greens all the way to the end of the patch. I watched as plant after plant buckled under the plastic bumper of that Power Wheels Barbie Jeep and a feeling of relief came over me. I never had to see or smell another pot of mustard greens in my life! No one would ever again ask, “Dylan, would you like some mustard greens? They’re good… Are you sure?”

No thank you. Not today. Pass the cornbread, please.

I took one more sip of sweet tea and walked back inside.

Four hours later I was sitting on my bedroom floor with a PS2 controller in my hand. I heard a knock on the open door. It was my mother. “Yes ma’am?” I said in acknowledgment.

“Did you tell your sister that it was up to her if she wanted to drive through the mustard greens?” I had been betrayed. “You’re grounded,” she said with a shake of her head as she walked away.

Falling back on the floor I mumbled, “At least I don’t have to eat any more of that nasty shit.”

“What was that?!”

“Nothing, mom!”

“The opportunity for doing mischief is found a hundred times a day, and of doing good once in a year.” – Voltaire

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Confession

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I have a confession to make.

This has been on my mind for quite some time. Last spring I was with some friends, enjoying a beautiful day at Blue Hole, a secluded swimming spot on the river not far from the university. We had a few adult beverages and a hotdog or two. Nothing beats a cold beer and a dog on a nice day. Condiments were hard to come by on this day so I took it upon myself to squirt enough ketchup on my beef frank for three people – selfishness doesn’t apply when it comes to hotdog toppings… Or so I thought. Karma would catch up with me.

Imagine what I say next in slow motion. I’m laughing at something to my right, not noticing the ketchup sliding to the end of the hotdog in my hand. I look down through my Kroger aviators at the glob on the very end of the wiener. I had to act quickly – now this may have been the most selfless thing I’ve ever done, if that ketchup had hit the rock below someone would have slipped and bashed their head, ruining everyone’s good time – I used my tongue. I dipped my head level with the hotdog and swiped up with a flicking motion, catching the red sauce right before it plummeted to the rock from the tip of the wiener. As you might expect I felt quite the hero, but as it has been said many times, pride comes before the fall.

I made contact with the hotdog without actually taking a bite. Very taboo. A friend of a friend saw it and immediately burst out in laughter, quickly catching himself not knowing if I was looking at him – he couldn’t tell because of the mirror coat on my Kroger’s. I tried to pretend it didn’t happen, but it couldn’t be undone. I watched as he relayed the story to each his friends who all seemed to get a good laugh. For the next few minutes I just faced the water, watching them out of the corner of my eye, cradling my hotdog, afraid to take a bite.

I eventually ate the hotdog and for whatever reason can’t recall most of the rest of the afternoon, but I keep going back to that moment. I regret not saying something like, “Oh, you like that, huh?” or maybe giving him a wink – something to acknowledge this mistake and maybe get a laugh or two, fooling everyone into thinking it was just a joke. I’m not a compulsive hotdog licker.

Needless to say I haven’t been able to use ketchup since this traumatic experience. I’m not one to deal in absolutes, but this is certain: when I eventually do pick up another bottle of ketchup I promise to squirt only one serving and vow to keep my back turned whenever I have a wiener in my hand.

“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” – Elbert Hubbard