Tag Archives: life

We’re not all that different from our bleating brethren 

petting a lambPeople are sheep.

That’s probably not the most groundbreaking of observations, but it’s a tough one to argue.

Despite our advanced critical-thinking skills (which unfortunately aren’t displayed in our political institutions), humans are like animals when it comes to following the herd.

Instead of engaging in self-reliance, we’ll seek out a shepherd.

Instead of employing our free will, we’ll join up with a flock.

We’ll gladly pursue the ideals of rugged individualism – but only as long as everyone else is, too.

As humans, we crave a sense of community. Community is healthy, but conformity is not. As individuals, our colors shine brightly, and if we were to let our individual lights shine, together we would make up a collage of color.

When it comes to our proclivity for conformity, at least some humans are self-aware. They know that our tendency is to follow, so they use their art to urge others to think for themselves.

George Orwell, for example, wrote an entire book likening human behavior to barnyard animals. Pink Floyd recorded a compilation of soundscapes to make the same point.

Even the Berenstain Bears got in on the action one time, with Farmer Ben advising Brother Bear that joining Too-Tall’s gang would make him just another sheep following the herd.

And if that isn’t enough evidence that humans (and apparently some bears) behave like sheep, then I’m not sure what is.

Although I do have personal experience.

A story I like to tell took place when I was about 10 or 11. My family and I were driving around Lake Tahoe, looking for a nice place to pull over and have a picnic.

Ahead, we spotted a snug little turnout shielded by trees and surrounded by thick manzanita. Not a soul was in sight.

We pulled over and carried our belongings to a cluster of nearby boulders. The rocks worked great for sitting and spreading our food.

Within 10 minutes, eight cars had joined ours in the turnout. People were wandering around with confused looks on their faces. It was like a George Romero film — except far more outrageous and terrifying.

One guy, a typical yuppie wearing brown shorts and matching loafers with no socks, approached our picnic area. (I’ve never understood the yuppie male’s aversion to socks, but apparently, their dress code prohibits them.)

The man’s face was red, and his nostrils were noticeably flared.

“There’s nothing here!” he blustered, spreading his arms wide and glaring at us.

I remember us just staring at him, blinking. I don’t think anyone could quite believe what they were witnessing, and none of us knew how to react.

This guy, like all the other open-mouthed, Romero zombies who were now invading our picnic, had seen our car pulled over and figured there has to be something worthwhile to stop and look at. It was the typical sheep mentality: Run to where the flock is without pausing to ask why.

It took a while, but most of the cars eventually sped away in disgust. Only a few other people stayed to have picnics of their own, prompting us to take our leave.

I’ll never forget that day or that particular guy. It made a big impression, and I gained some insight into human nature.

And it made me realize that, unfortunately, we still have a lot of evolving to do to become truly distinct from our bleating brethren.

This time, we’ll get it right

Bob Seger Roll Me Away quotePretty much every Bob Seger song is him reminiscing about his youth.

That’s not to knock Bob Seger. I’m a huge fan. But if you listen to his lyrics, you start to notice a pattern.

“Night Moves.” “Like a Rock.” “Main Street.” “Against the Wind.” Each song is about an older man looking back on his youthful self.

Seger’s all about nostalgia. That’s his thing.

And I suppose I’m a fan because nostalgia is my thing, too.

I think all of us reminisce about the past to some degree. We think back to bygone days – to roads not taken, missed opportunities, relationships never pursued.

It’s only natural to daydream about what could have been – to ponder what never was.

In a lifetime composed of divergent paths, we can’t help but muse about routes not traveled.

But at what point does nostalgia transform to living in the past? When does innocent remembrance turn into wistful reminiscence?

If I’m honest with myself, my glory days weren’t that glorious. That’s not to say they were unpleasant, but I don’t look back on them with sepia-colored lenses and bask in my youthful exuberance.

They were a time in my life that’s passed. They helped forge me into who I am, but I can’t go back to relive them.

Nor would I want to. I don’t want to be like Napoleon Dynamite’s uncle, buying a mail-order time machine to get back to 1982. (Quick aside: If you ever do buy a time machine, make sure it has at least a two-year warranty. And make sure you don’t travel more than two years into the future, because that will void the warranty. Trust me; I’ve thought this one through.)

Yet I have a definite penchant for the past. I love looking at photos and home movies. I often think back to 10 years before, wishing I could relive certain moments and do-over others.

But reminiscence can quickly take over your life. And every moment you spend reflecting on the past is a moment you’re missing in the present.

Now more than ever, I’m dedicated to embracing the present.

Instead of lamenting missed opportunities, I’m looking forward to new ones.

Rather than pondering what could have been, I’m dreaming more about what could be.

Instead of gazing backward, I’ll set my focus on the horizon.

It’s easier to grieve for the past than it is to live for the moment. Grieving for what never was gives you an excuse not to change what is.

Embracing the here and now means taking responsibility for your life – and that’s scary. There are so many options and innumerable ways to fail.

But the past isn’t coming back. And that’s OK. We don’t need to go back in time to turn it all around. Second chances aren’t exclusive to 1982.

We have this moment, today, to make our lives what we want. We can choose our own destinies. We can blaze our own trails.

Interestingly, my favorite Bob Seger song is “Roll Me Away.”

And unlike his other tunes, it has nothing to do with reminiscing about the past.

Instead, it’s all about embracing the now.

It’s about a guy who climbs on his motorcycle one day and takes off for adventures unknown.

He cherishes the moment. He savors life.

I can’t think of a better anthem to embody my newfound penchant for the present.

And like Seger says in the song: “This time, we’ll get it right.”

I still don’t have a clearly defined dream

Gravel pathwayEver since childhood, I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer.

I carried the idea with me through college. And although I was always writing short stories and even novels, I never gave much thought to how to develop my dream.

I think I just assumed that I’d become a novelist, or a newspaper columnist, or maybe an advertising copywriter. Some opportunity would magically manifest right when I needed it, and I’d end up with a high-paying and personally rewarding career.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen.

My lack of focus was frustrating in college. It seemed like everyone else was preparing for a dream career, while I was just writing funny stories and hoping for the best.

I always worked hard and performed well academically, but I never had a clear vision of the future – of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.

I think I hoped that when I got older, all the cards would simply fall into place. One day, I’d wake up with a clear idea of what to do with my life.

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t happened, either.

I’m in my thirties, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. My vision of the future is as fuzzy now as it was when I was a kid.

My goals are unfocused. My ambitions are murky. Looking toward the future is like peering through the bottom of a Coke bottle.

I know a couple of things, though. I know that I like to write, and I know that I like to make people laugh.

And … well, that’s sort of it.

That’s not a clearly defined objective; that’s a muddy quagmire.

What do I do with that?

Going through life, we all watch people succeed. Some get promotions. Others get book deals. Some figure out exactly what they want to do, and then they go out and do it.

I’ve always admired those people. They have determination, drive – focus. They got it together. They know exactly what they want.

And I’ve always lamented that I’m not like them. I don’t have that pristine vision – that clarity of thought.

I have no idea what I want or how to achieve it.

At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But now I’m not so sure.

Maybe you don’t need a clearly defined goal to be happy, or to succeed. Maybe the desire to succeed is enough.

That and the determination to actually try.

If you want something in life, you have to start somewhere. You have to choose a road, even if you don’t know where it leads.

That’s the beauty of life. There are so many options. It’s not just a linear path. It’s a labyrinth of corridors that branch off in all sorts of directions.

And oftentimes, where you end up is better than what you ever could have imagined.

So yes, my objectives are still vague. I like to write, and I like to make people laugh.

And for now, maybe that’s enough. You have to start somewhere. You have to take the first step.

If I pursue that goal — as obscure and vague as it is — I don’t have to have a clearly formed vision of the outcome. I just have to have a desire to succeed.

So I’m going to keep writing. It’s a step. It’s a start.

And brick by brick, it’s going to help pave my path to a successful future.

That much, at least, is clear.

Apparently, no one stole the cookies from the cookie jar

a cat stares menacinglyGrowing up, there was always that one petulant kid who’d throw inexplicable tantrums during class. He could be mellow one moment and transform into a Tasmanian devil the next.

(And just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about President Trump.)

You never knew what would set this kid off. Everyone would walk on eggshells in his presence, as if crossing a minefield. If you did something so benign as beat him to the pencil sharpener, he’d grab a couple of erasers and clap them against your face.

If you were lucky, you’d escape with only a couple of bruises and a head full of chalk dust.

In kindergarten, that kid’s name was Marcos. Although he barely could tie his shoes, he’d already developed a temper on par with Gordon Ramsay. If you so much as looked at him the wrong way, he’d sputter a stream of profanity that would make a construction supervisor blush.

I still remember one day when the teacher gathered the class in a circle on the floor. Sitting in a chair at the head of the group, she started us singing a rowdy rendition of “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” (Because how better to prepare us for the upcoming rigors of first grade?)

“Angela stole the cookies from the cookie jar!” we sang.

ANGELA: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

ANGELA: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

Angela pointed to me. “Allen.”

CLASS: “Allen stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

ALLEN: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

ALLEN: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

I pointed to Karen. “Karen.”

CLASS: “Karen stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

KAREN: “Who, me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

KAREN: “It couldn’t be!”

CLASS: “Then who?”

Out of that innate compassion that girls always seem to have (as opposed to us boys, who preferred to throw rocks at the girls), Karen pointed to Marcos. “Marcos.”

CLASS: “Marcos stole the cookies from the cookie jar!”

Marcos clenched his fists and threw back his head. “I don’t want to play!” he screamed.

The entire class froze with open mouths. This unexpected interruption to the routine was like bolt of lightning zigzagging through a tree, slicing it in half and leaving a smoldering stump. All of us were too afraid even to breathe.

“Um.” The teacher bit her lip. She looked around the room slowly, like a dazed boxer recovering from jab to the temple.

Blinking rapidly several times, she shook some sense into herself and pointed at a boy named Frankie. Waving her hand like a conductor starting  a symphony, she started singing “Frankie stole—”

The rest of us followed in, albeit hesitantly: “Frankie stole the cookies from the cookie jar.”

We all kept a wary eye on Marcos, who was sitting with his arms crossed and glaring manically at the floor.

Frankie swallowed, trembling. “Who … me?”

CLASS: “Yes, you!”

Frankie shot a glance at Marcos. Marcos was staring him down like a hawk eyeing a field mouse.

“Um,” Frankie said, swallowing. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling very well.”

“Maybe that’s enough singing for now,” the teacher said. “Everyone return to their seats, and we’ll read a story.”

“Way to go Marcos!” I said, pointing. “You ruined our Cookies in the Cookie Jar song!”

“Yeah, Marcos,” a couple of other kids chimed in.

“What?” Before I could react, Marcos lunged at me, knocking me to the floor. He grabbed two erasers from the blackboard and started clapping them against the sides of my head.

“Marcos! Marcos!” The teacher grabbed him around the middle and pried him off of me. “I’m taking you to the office this instant!”

“Fine!” Marcos stormed out of the room ahead of the teacher. With his sullen frown and furious stomping, he looked like a miniature version of Bender from The Breakfast Club.

On his way out, he knocked over a girl’s pencil case and shoved her notebooks onto the floor. The girl started crying.

“Shut up!” Marcos snapped, as he barged out of the room, letting the door slam closed on the teacher.

As for me, I sat up slowly, choking on my own words … as well as a thick cloud of chalk dust.

Deriving inspiration from everyday life

Juggling three balls

Me at age 18 practicing juggling. Note how the lamp is placed well out of harm’s way.

People often are amazed to learn I can juggle.

I’m not great at it. I can juggle three balls pretty well and even do a few tricks.

I’m competent with four, but I can’t do any tricks — only straight juggling. Every time I’ve attempted to toss a ball under my leg or behind my back, I’ve had to pay to replace a lamp.

Because I’m only a fair juggler, I don’t do it that often.

It’s not that I don’t like to perform. It’s more the logistical nightmare of hauling four tennis balls around. (“Is that a tennis ball in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”)

Also, I often end up dropping one of the balls and chasing it across the room. (Interestingly, people seem to be more entertained by me chasing the balls than actually juggling them.)

I taught myself to juggle at age 8. I started with two beanbags and threw them from one hand to the other, starting out slow, then getting faster and faster.

Later, I graduated to three beanbags and learned to juggle them in a circle. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I could juggle three balls in a typical cross pattern.

I can trace my love of juggling to one thing: an hourlong Jonathan Winters comedy special that aired on Showtime sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The special was composed of four acts, in between which Winters performed standup. The performers were Pat Hazell, a magician and comedian; the Raspyni Brothers, a pair of comedian jugglers; Johnny Fox, a sword swallower; and the Pendragons, a husband-and-wife magician team.

My family taped the special on VHS, and I remember watching the tape over and over. I loved it all: the magic, the comedy, the stunts — and especially the juggling.

Hazell’s act included a neat setup where he juggled three hats, with a different hat landing on his head with each toss. He also performed comedy and sleight-of-hand.

The Raspyni Brothers tossed juggling pins back and forth while bouncing a ball to each other using only their heads. I loved their self-deprecating comedy. They were preforming this amazing feat of juggling and telling each other things like “make it look hard” and “there are literally hundreds of variations you can do [with five clubs and a ball]. But unfortunately, they all look like this.”

I knew right away that I wanted to learn juggling and magic. (I figured I already had the comedy part down, because I was the class clown at school. I imagined that if I also could juggle and do card tricks, the realms of my popularity would know no bounds.)

There’s that magical time when we’re young when anything seems possible. The world is at our fingertips, just waiting for us to reach for it.

As a child watching that special, the idea of growing up to become a comedian/juggler seemed perfectly reasonable — indeed, the ideal career path. While some people were determined to grow up to become firefighters or doctors, I wanted to tell jokes while juggling chainsaws. (Although my mom always appreciated my humor, I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about chainsaws.)

The notion somehow lost its luster as I grew older, as such dreams tend to do.

But then again, maybe it didn’t. Maybe it’s more that I gave up on that dream, because it seemed so unlikely and unachievable. (After all, how many jobs are there on Craigslist for chainsaw-juggling? At last count, not many.)

As we age, we get the notion that we need to buckle down and get to work. We learn to let go of the impossible and embrace the conventional.

An everyday job pays the bills, whereas chasing a dream may not.

The everyday road means safety, while the path to a dream may be treacherous and full of potholes.

And that’s fine. Not all of us are cut out to be jugglers or sword-swallowers. (Besides, unlike my current job, I doubt sword-swallowing offers a comprehensive benefits package.)

But we never should let go of our dreams completely. Even if we’re ensconced in our everyday lives, we should try to grasp for the impossible — to improve ourselves and grow creatively.

We shouldn’t do what I did in my twenties — which was my leave my tennis balls in the closet to languish and collect dust.

I looked for them not long ago, after watching a Chris Bliss juggling video on YouTube. Seeing the video rekindled my interest in a hobby I’d long forgotten.

I dusted them off and started tossing them in the air. I was definitely rusty — as evidenced by the first ball knocking over my alarm clock — but after a few minutes, I started to get the hang of it. Old reflexes kicked to life, and soon I was up to my old tricks (well, all two of them, anyway).

That instance of juggling brought a little magic to my evening. For a while, anything seemed possible — just like it used to all those years ago, when I was a little kid juggling two beanbags in an endless circle.

And that’s the true magic of living. It’s not illusions or sleight-of-hand or even juggling chainsaws with their blades on fire.

It’s the idea of pursuing the impossible; of deriving inspiration from unexpected sources and living the life you want to live.

It’s never settling into a rut and letting the world pass you by. It’s reaching for the unachievable; grasping for the impractical — letting your mind and spirit soar as you figure out who you want to be and the kind of life you want to live.

I’ll probably never juggle professionally. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t juggle at all.

Learning to juggle two balls, three balls, four balls — and someday, maybe even five — I’m reaching out to achieve a goal; to grasp for the impossible.

And that’s what that magic and comedy special taught me so many years ago. More so than any card trick or sleight-of-hand illusion, the true magic of life is the ability we discover within ourselves, and the skills we develop through hard work and perseverance.

Nevada sunset

the sun setting over dark mountainsNothing punctuates a scorching desert day like a pristine Nevada sunset.

As the sun descends behind the distant mountains, the sky turns brilliant shades of orange, scarlet and violet. Rays of sun stream across the landscape like spidery, caressing fingers. Windswept clouds glow with radiant, almost heavenly hues. Like a fire, the collage of colors burns brightly, as if searing a brand into the sprawling canvas of the twilight sky.

This final burst of brilliance is like the last gasp of air from a dying day – a residual surge of luminescence before dusk devolves to darkness.

And just as quickly as it came, the sunset begins to fade, much like the dying embers of a once-blazing campfire. The rich, vivid hues smolder away to smoky blackness.

The gentle dissolving of day into night is much like the perpetual momentum of breathing: a constant, natural pattern deeply engrained in the fabric of existence.

There’s nothing quite so majestic as a Nevada sunset. They’re in bloom for only a few, fleeting moments before they dissipate into darkness, unveiling the stars.

Being curt doesn’t make you businesslike

two businessmen in officeI’m noticing a trend lately where people respond to e-mails with an abrupt, terse tone.

No greeting. No “please” and “thank you.” Just a curt, one-sentence response, with a sprinkling of condescension.

I imagine they’re trying to sound confident and authoritative. After all, real professionals don’t waste time with pleasantries or kindness. Real professionals are tough and domineering, and they command respect with their aloof detachment and emotionless demeanor.

But if goal is to sound cool and confident, I’d like to remind these people that they’re failing spectacularly.

Instead, they’re just proving themselves to be clueless jerks with no skills to back up the swagger.

In fact, there’s a direct correlation between a person’s curtness and their incompetence.

The more curt the e-mail, the more incompetent the worker. It’s a rule.

I’d also like to remind these people that real competence stems from patience and understanding and putting yourself in another person’s shoes.

True professionalism comes from listening to the needs of others and responding to the best of your ability.

Genuine respect is earned by appreciating others and recognizing their contributions.

Humor and warmth go a long way in cultivating relationships and building trust. A person who can laugh projects much more poise and confidence than a sleaze-ball who tries to control others through fear and intimidation.

Most people want to be perceived as competent and able. It’s understandable. And our professional correspondence speaks volumes about our personality and the image we’re trying to project — even more so than the way we dress.

But please don’t mistake aloofness for ability. Don’t confuse curtness for competence.

No matter how stiff your upper lip, being a prick will never make you a professional.

So let’s cut it out with the abrupt, terse e-mails, OK? Si “hi” in your greeting. Tell someone you “hope they’re doing well.” Respond with a “thank-you” when they fulfill your request.

After all, isn’t common human decency worth a slightly cluttered inbox? If someone doesn’t appreciate a “thank-you” e-mail, then they always can delete it.

I’ll never subscribe to the notion that civility and decorum have to be sacrificed for the sake of doing business.

Skill and proficiency may define a professional, but it’s kindness and compassion that constitute the soul.

Those days when you just can’t deal

two men sitting in an office conference roomSo I woke up the other morning to my alarm clock. Its relentless, piercing squawking pulled me out of a deep, restful sleep.

Groaning, I reached out and fumbled around my nightstand, grasping for the snooze button.

Instead of hitting it, I ended up knocking my wristwatch to the floor.

“Uh,” I groaned. “I’m too tired to pick it up. I can’t deal.”

So I yanked the alarm clock’s plug from the wall and left the watch lying on the floor.

Only the clock kept squawking, because I’d put backup batteries in it in case the power went out.

So I reached out and swiped the alarm clock off the nightstand. It hit the floor, the back hatch falling open and the batteries tumbling out.

The clock lay there next to the watch, its relentless squawking silenced.

Hours later, my phone rang. I reached out to pick up the receiver. “Hello?”

It was my boss. “Are you coming in to work today?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I can’t deal.”

“What do you mean you can’t deal?” he asked.

“Just what I said. It’s one of those days where I can’t deal. I don’t even have the energy to pick up my wristwatch.”

“Where’s your wristwatch?”

“It’s on the floor next to my alarm clock.”

“Why is your alarm clock on the floor?”

“Because it wouldn’t stop squawking.”

“Are you sick?” my boss asked. “Do you have a cold, or something?”

“No. I’m healthy. I just can’t deal.”

“What exactly can’t you deal with?”

“Today. I just can’t deal.”

“But that’s no excuse. You can’t stay home because you can’t deal. You have to deal.”

“I don’t want to deal.”

“But that’s not part of the deal. The deal is that to keep your job, you have to show up.”

“I’ll show up tomorrow,” I said.

“No — you’ll show up today. If you’re not sick, then you need to come in.”

“But I’m sleeping in,” I said.

“Colane, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“I don’t,” I said. “My wristwatch is on the floor.”

“Then look at your clock.”

“My clock is on the floor, too.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” my boss said. “Get dressed and get down to the office immediately! Either you show up in an hour or you’re fired. Deal?”

I sighed. “This sucks. I don’t want to get up.”

“That’s life,” my boss said. “Deal with it.”

Giving directions using long-ago landmarks

giving directions vacant lot.

Me giving directions to a newcomer in town.

I used to work as the receptionist for a small real-estate office. A guy walked in one morning.

“I’m new in town, and I just rented a house from you guys,” he said. “Do you by chance know where the FedEx pickup box is?”

“Sure,” I said. “Just go to the shopping center where the post office was twenty years ago. The box is in front of what used to be the veterinary clinic.”

The man frowned. “What are you saying? The box is next door to the post office?”

“No,” I said. “I’m saying it’s next door to where the post office used to be. The pickup box is in front of the old veterinary clinic.”

“So the vet isn’t there, either.”

“No. They moved away ages ago.”

“So there’s nothing there now?”

“I’m not sure what’s there now. All I know is it used to be the veterinary clinic.”

The man narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure I know where you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do,” I said. “There was a pizza place in the same shopping center. It’s not there now, though. It burned down in the late 1990s.”

“I’m not sure if I was clear earlier,” the man said. “Did I mention I’m new in town?”

I looked at him, blinking. “Oh.”

“So how would I get to this shopping center?” the man asked. “Do you know what stores are there now?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea what’s there now. I know the FedEx pickup box is there, but I don’t know about any stores.”

“Can you give me a landmark? Anything?” the man asked.

“Well,” I said, “it’s across the street from where the gas station used to be.”

The man sighed. “So the gas station’s not there now?”

“No. They tore it down fifteen years ago. I have no idea what’s there now.”

The man glared. “I can’t believe you get paid to work here. Do you really consider yourself useful?”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I used to. I’m not sure I do now.”

Where I was from

Dogs playing in river

My three dogs swimming in the Carson River, circa 1988. This photo was taken when I was about 6. The dog on the left, Timmy, lived until I was a freshman in college.

“I am always drawn back to the places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.” — Truman Capote

“There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” — Joan Didion

My childhood home is destroyed. Abandoned. Most of the back fence has blown down, and where a gazebo once stood sits a pile of garbage. A foreclosure notice is taped to the door, and peering through the grimy front window, I can see an array of junk lying on the ripped-up carpet. Where the couch should be is — quite inexplicably — a canoe left behind by the previous owners.

The surrounding homes are gorgeous, with fresh coats of paint and well-trimmed yards. The sad irony is that growing up, I always thought my house was the most beautiful. My parents landscaped both the front and back yards themselves, molding the tough clay dirt into our own little oasis in the desert.

Now that oasis has vanished, and the desert is reaching in through the loose fence boards to reclaim the yard. Weeds and sagebrush are scattered about, as if there was never a lush yard here — and, by extension, never a happy home, and never a young family.

I’ve always had a penchant for the past — a yearning for the way things used to be. I’m not sure if it’s healthy. For me, innocent nostalgia often transforms into wistful reminiscence, as I think about the way things were and how much simpler life seemed to be.

As I drive through my hometown, all I can see are the buildings that no longer stand, the boarded-up storefronts where nobody shops. The small town I grew up in is mutating into an impersonal hodgepodge of parking lots and gas stations — yet to the well-trained eye, it’s brimming with memories and the outlines of ghosts. Driving past a concrete pad in a vacant lot, I can still see the pizza place that burned down nearly 20 years ago. I used to play Paperboy in the arcade there, feeding quarters into the slot, the controllers slathered with grease.

child haunting Easter eggs.

Me hunting Easter eggs in 1988. Our house and yard were brand-new. My three puppies are in the background, along with the dog house my father built.

overgrown yard

The yard as it looks in 2016. The dog run is gone, and the dog house was dragged to a different corner. The lawn is dead, almost as if it never existed.

Seeing my childhood home in this condition, I wish I’d never come back. It’s hard to see past the dirt to the warm memories of my youth. The lawn where I kicked my soccer ball around is gone. The gazebo where I splashed in my wading pool is gone. The sign marking my pet turtle’s grave is gone; the combination swing set and slide that my grandparents bought me, gone.

It’s not as if another family has moved in to live their own lives and make their own memories. It’s worse. It’s as if all that warmth, joy and love never existed. Of course, I have my photographs and memories, where the warmth will forever remain alive, but seeing the trampled-on ground with the overgrown weeds and the gnarled sagebrush, it’s as if an aching emptiness is trying to gnaw away at the core of my being, grasping for my happiness the way the desert is reaching for — and reclaiming — the once-beautiful yard.

So many things are running through my mind as I step over a broken fence post, ambling through the litter-strewn lot. I think of that scene in Annie Hall, when Woody Allen takes Diane Keaton and Tony Robbins to his childhood apartment, and the present-day adults watch and comment on Allen’s long-ago family. In the same way, gazing past the dilapidated house, I can almost see my 8-year-old self bounding down the back stairs to try out the pogo stick Santa Claus brought him for Christmas.

A friend is with me, and through the weeds I point to the spot where one of my dogs is buried, and where the neighbor across the street once shot a firecracker over the house and set the sagebrush on fire. (Needless to say, he wasn’t the most responsible adult.)

Of course, my friend can’t see what I’m seeing in my head. I wish I could walk her through time — the way Woody Allen did with Diane Keaton — to take her beyond the trash and the dirt to the whimsical impressions unspooling in my mind. Every nook and cranny I look at brings back another memory.

To me, the yard is like one of those 3-D Magic Eye posters, where if you let your eyes unfocus, images from the past will come tumbling into shape. But once you shake yourself away, the past dissolves like a fleck of water evaporating off a hot sidewalk. It’s here one moment, and the next — just like that — it’s gone.

For the most part, I’m able to keep my composure. Sure, seeing the home in its present state roils up a list of emotions, but I’m not so nostalgic or connected to the past that I’m feeling overly sentimental. The past is the past, I remind myself. It was a part of my life that I enjoyed at the time, but now it’s time to leave the old behind and to embrace the new. You can never reclaim what you once had because life not only moves forward — it progresses and evolves. That’s why high-school reunions are always so awkward and disappointing (not that I’ve ever been to one). It was a time and a place that made sense at the time, but now it no longer does.

So, despite this trying trudge down memory lane, I’m not feeling wistful or overly emotional. Like I said, I’m keeping my composure … at least, that is, until I see the dog house my dad built tucked away in a corner, crammed against the front gate.

a brand-new dog house

My dad built this state-of-the-art dog house in 1988 for our three new puppies. I never imaged that it would still exist in 2016, nearly 30 years later.

A weather-beaten dog house

The dog house in 2016, stained by weather and time. I think that’s my old swing set in the foreground.

That’s what sets me off: the dog house. Although I don’t cry, an overwhelming sense of sadness drapes over my heart, and my intestines knot with a deep-seated aching for days gone by.

My dad built that dog house in the 1980s, and more than 25 years later it’s still here, though stained by weather and scarred by time. When I was a child, I wanted a dog so much. We took a camping trip in the hills, and out of nowhere seven puppies scampered into our camp, their little bellies concave from starvation. Someone had dumped them for dead, and we happened to be there to find them.

We kept three of the dogs and gave away the other four to happy families. One died at age 2 (it was the runt), another when I was in high school, and the third saw me through my freshman year at college. When they were puppies, my dad built them an insulated dog house with a window for ventilation and a doorway covered by a flap.

Seeing it here in the yard, abandoned with my childhood home, I’m flooded with memories of walking the dogs, rubbing their bellies, throwing sticks in the river for them to fetch. (Or not — sometimes the current carried the sticks away too quickly, so the dogs clambered onto shore and shook off next to me, so that I was flecked with dirt and smelled like wet fur.)

It occurs to me that unlike my family and I, that dog house has never left my childhood yard. When I graduated from high school, it was here. When I graduated from college, it was here. When I got my first professional job, it was here. While I grew up and carried on with my life, that dog house never left.

But what does it matter? I tell myself. It’s not a living thing. It doesn’t care. It’s not like the dog house misses me or was waiting with hope for me to return. It’s not The Brave Little Toaster. It’s a bunch of lumber hammered together with nails — that’s all.

Yet looking at it, I can’t see the wood or the shingles or the general structure. All I can see is the past in its water-color clarity, and all I can hear is the patter of paws clicking excitedly across the wooden floor.

“Come on,” someone says, tugging my sleeve. “It’s time to go.”

I look up, startled. It’s not my friend summoning me. Rather, it’s the present, with its harshly defined edges framing the dreary lot that used to be my backyard.

Used to be. It’s not anymore. I don’t belong here. Although I have many happy memories here, those moments can’t be rekindled into reality, no matter how tightly I close my eyes against the onslaught of tears.

I realize that I don’t want to forgo the present by living in the past. Life is a natural progression. Like a river carrying a stick, it flows toward unseen curves and bends. And although it’s murkier and choppy in some places, so many of the stretches are serene and beautiful, and the entire ride is worth taking.

So I take one last look at the dog house, as if saying a formal goodbye, and then I turn and leave, stepping over weeds and empty bottles of Crown Royal, to return to the car. I walk down the driveway where I used to ride my bike, stepping past the corner where the neighborhood kids once waited for the bus (perhaps they still do).

And I leave then, my chest feeling taut, my heart heavy and sad. Memories of my dogs replay in my mind, as well as birthdays parties gone by, and lazy summer days on the swing set.

I turn for one last glimpse, and looking past the torn-down fence and the brush-scattered sand, I can still see that oasis in the desert … as well as three exhausted dogs lying atop a lush carpet of lawn, resting and panting from their walk to the river.