Tag Archives: Personal

Maybe you should try decluttering your house before listing it for sale

man in office talking on phone

Perhaps not so surprisingly, my career as a real-estate photographer was short-lived.

Years ago, I worked in a small real-estate office. One of the agents got a new listing, so she asked me to drop in and take photos.

As I dropped in, my jaw dropped. Random junk sat atop every conceivable surface. It looked as if a tornado had struck a knickknack shop.

There were dog toys on the couch, antique dishes on the coffee table, torn-open mail on the kitchen counter. If House Hunters and Hoarders got drunk and made a baby, this house would be it.

I would have wiped my feet on the mat, but I didn’t want to dirty my shoes.

However, I was there to take photos, so take photos I did. Being the professional I am, I used creative angles to portray the garbage as artistically as possible. Natural sunlight flowed through the open curtains, adding a heavenly glow to the pristine piles of rubbish.

We posted the photos and listed the home. A few days later, the homeowner called.

“Can you tell me who took the photos of my house?” he asked.

I told him that the creative genius in question was me.

“OK,” he said, “then riddle me this: Would it have occurred to you not to take photos of all the clutter?”

Now here’s my problem: I have a smart-aleck switch. When it’s switched on, I start spewing a stream of passive-aggressive prattle that can’t be stopped. Once I get going, I’m not able to turn the switch off, even if I try. I just have to keep going until I run out of steam.

It’s sort of like Planes Trains and Automobiles, when Steve Martin accuses John Candy of being a Chatty Cathy doll who pulls his own string — except the reverse. I have a switch over which I have no control. Only other people can flick it on for me.

And this homeowner, unfortunately, had succeeded in flicking my switch.

“Well,” I said, “riddle me this: Would it have occurred to you to clean your house when you know full well a photographer’s coming?”

Silence.

“You see,” I continued, “a photographer’s palette is the whimsical world he frames with his lens. While a painter suggests reality with brushstrokes and splatters, a photographer captures the essence of a moment and coaxes it to its fullest expression. The environment in which he composes his masterpieces sets the mood for the photos that emerge. So when he finds himself in a repulsive midst of messiness and disarray, his thoughts, emotions, and photos reflect the untidy shambles of his surroundings. What develops – quite literally – are photographic representations of the egregious eyesore, complete with all the filth and clutter that litter the landscape.”

“Are you finished?” the man asked.

“Not quite,” I said. “The horrific conditions of your abysmal abode not only undermined my artistic endeavors, but they endangered my life, as well. When I stepped backward to frame a shot of the dining room, I tripped on what I assume was a poodle — or maybe an overgrown rat. Either way, it wasn’t moving, so I imagine it had sucked its last breath as it desperately clawed through the clutter, seeking the freedom it could never find in the midst of the suffocating chaos.”

A heavy sigh came from the phone. “Is that all?”

“Your trashcan was also overflowing and left sitting in the middle of the kitchen,” I added. “I would have moved it, but I couldn’t swat my way through the thick swarm of flies. They pushed me backward and pinned me to the wall. I’m sure I could have taken them individually, but as a team, they proved to be an unstoppable force.”

“OK — I believe you’ve made your point,” the man said. “Are we done now?”

“I think so,” I said. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“Good. If I clean up the clutter, could you come back to retake the photos?”

“Of course,” I said. “I live for my art. I exist to achieve excellence. I cherish the creative satisfaction that comes from replicating the beauty of nature. Why, my camera –”

The phone clicked in my ear.

“Hmm.” I hung up the phone. “Well, not everyone appreciates my creative genius.”

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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.

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.

That wicked-smart takedown from ‘Good Will Hunting’

Good Will Hunting mathematical equation

Clearly, a working-class genius was here.

I’ve always wanted to have a Good Will Hunting moment.

See, there’s a scene in the movie where Ben Affleck tries talking to Minnie Driver in a bar, and a Harvard creep interrupts and starts spouting intellectual gibberish to make Affleck look stupid. (Which shouldn’t have been too hard, given that Affleck would go on to make Gigli.)

And Matt Damon, who plays working-class genius Will Hunting, jumps in and outwits the guy, spouting back even higher-level intellectual gibberish and proving that the creep is memorizing and plagiarizing quotes from obscure texts.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you should watch it just for that one scene. It’s a takedown of epic proportions, and it ends with Damon getting Driver’s number.

Later on, Damon sees the creep and his pals in a diner, so he stands at the window and asks, “Do you like apples?”

“Sure, yeah,” the guy says, rolling his eyes.

Damon slams a piece of paper on the window and says, “Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?”

Yeah. I’d love to have a moment like that.

Of course, where I live, Harvard creeps are hard to come by — but that’s probably because Harvard is on the other side of the country. The kind of creeps you run into here don’t really try to outsmart you — they just knock your teeth out.

Also, I’m not exactly a working-class genius like Will Hunting. I don’t beat up punks in my off-hours or solve complex equations on my bathroom mirror.

So if I were to outsmart somebody on such an epic level, it’d have to be about something nerdy and off-the-wall — something that only a total geek like me would know.

So here’s my fantasy. The way I envision it, my friend is in a bar talking to a girl, and a creep emerges from the shadows and interrupts.

“What’s your deal, buddy?” my friend asks.

“No deal,” the creep says. “I’m just reminded of the Martin Scorsese film Bandits, in which Billy Bob Thornton is talking to Scarlett Johansson in a bar, and he’s nervous and mumbling and having a panic attack, because he has OCD.”

My friend’s face falls, as he realizes that he’s intellectually outmatched.

“See,” the creep continues, grinning, “my contention is that you’re like Billy Bob Thornton, and you’re too nervous and weird to know how to talk to a woman properly.”

So that’s when I jump between the creep and my friend and say, “Of course that’s your contention. You’re a second-year grad student majoring in film, and you’re studying romantic comedies from the early 2000s. Only Barry Levinson directed Bandits, not Martin Scorsese, and you’re thinking of Cate Blanchett in the lead role, not Scarlett Johansson. And Billy Bob Thornton’s character was a hypochondriac, so he only thought he had OCD in that particular scene. In another part of the movie, he was convinced he had a  brain tumor. One of the jokes running throughout the film was that in each scene, he thought he had a different disease.”

The creep frowns. “Well, you might be a lot younger and stronger, but you’re about —”

I cut him off: “‘You might be a lot younger and stronger, but you’re about to get your ass kicked across the state line, and I’m wearing the boots that can do it.’ You got that quote from the 1985 film Murphy’s Romance, didn’t you? Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sally Field and James Garner? Yeah, I saw that one, too. What, are you going to plagiarize the entire script for us? Don’t you have any thoughts on your own on the matter?”

The creep’s face falls when it’s clear that I’ve outwitted him.

“See,” I say, “the problem with someone like you is that you’re going to come to a realization someday. One, don’t do that. And two, you’ll have dropped a quarter-million on an education you could have gotten for a buck-fifty in late charges from your local Blockbuster.”

And of course, I’d get the girl’s number, and all my friends would think I was awesome. And people would talk about how smart I was, and how when it came to movies, I was a veritable encyclopedia of useless knowledge.

Sigh. I’m not sure I see it playing out in real life, but a person can always dream.

But if I were to get a girl’s number after such an epic takedown, I can guarantee you, I would like them apples.

Toilet stall poetry

toilet stall with graffitiHave you ever used a public restroom,
Been seated inside a stall?
And have you noticed the words of wisdom,
That are scrawled across the wall?

Curses and verses and wisecracks.
Hints and tips not taught in school.
Insightful quotes by anonymous authors.
Sketches of women in the nude.

If you must answer the call of nature,
There’s no better way to spend your time.
Than to perch yourself upon a toilet,
And to read these rhyming lines.

Collectively, they’re a mural of knowledge.
A canvas of dazzling wisdom.
A monument of philosophy and convictions.
Art you can find only within a restroom.

As you’re taking care of business,
You admire this artistic masterpiece.
And you wonder how many have added to it,
As they sat here on this seat.

All of the many virtuosos,
Who contributed to this monument.
Are the ones responsible for its beauty,
And for all the graffiti written on it.

You think about your unheard voice,
Just before you flush.
And how those who have nothing to say,
Are the ones who say too much.

But in the restroom, things are different,
Where a wise man can say his piece.
In only one or two insightful verses,
Advice that’s always free.

So you clutch your trusty pen,
And find an empty space.
To write what’s on your mind,
In your very own sacred place.

And so with one conclusive scribble,
You admire what you’ve composed.
It fits in so nicely with this mural,
Made up on drawings, poems, and prose.

So you flush and leave with satisfaction,
Because you are now a bathroom poet.
You’ve had the ability to create artistic beauty,
And yet you didn’t even know it.

And so every poem and quote,
And even the sketches that are obscene.
Will remain as art for many centuries,
Or until the janitor wipes them clean.

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.

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.”

A party of one isn’t much of a party

man eating alone at restaurantIt’s inadvisable to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day if you don’t have a date.

Common sense, you say? A nugget of knowledge so blatantly obvious that it need not be spoken?

Perhaps. But unfortunately, I speak from experience.

Unattached and dateless — and working at a new job in a new town — I decided one evening to check out the local dining scene. I’d been living on my own cooking for nearly three weeks, so I was undernourished and ravenous for edible fare.

The inspiration struck on a Tuesday in February. After work I went home, spruced up, and wandered across the highway to a Mexican restaurant in a neighboring shopping center.

A waitress greeted me with a large smile. “Are you meeting someone, sir?”

“No,” I said. “Just me.”

“Oh.” Her face fell, and her upper lip started quivering. “Yes, well … I’m so sorry. Please, follow me.”

She grabbed a single menu and scurried through the restaurant, keeping her gaze on the floor. I followed, feeling perplexed. I’d eaten here alone twice before. Why was the waitress acting so squeamish?

As we wormed through the restaurant, I noticed candlelights on all the tables. And there were no families or children; only couples sitting across from each other, some holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes.

I passed one booth, and I noticed a man fastening a silver bracelet around his date’s wrist. She was smiling as the diamonds sparkled orange from the dim dining-room light.

Now, I’m not the most observant person. I don’t connect the dots in a given situation as easily as, say, Columbo or Matlock.

But walking past the patrons, I started to piece together a series of what should have been obvious clues:

Happy couples. Candlelit dinners. Glittering jewelry. A Tuesday evening in early February.

Oh no, I thought, as the realization struck. It’s Valentine’s Day. 

I’d completely forgotten. As a freewheeling bachelor subsisting on Swanson TV dinners and Grey Goose vodka, Valentine’s Day wasn’t exactly a holiday I had circled on my calendar.

My cheeks flushed as the waitress continued to guide me to my table. She led me to a booth in the middle of the restaurant, in full sight of all the other patrons — which is exactly where you want to be when you’re eating out alone on Valentine’s Day.

I swore she sniffed as she set down the menu. “I’ll be back for you drink order, sir.”

“Please,” I said. “And I suspect you’ll be making a few return trips. Keep them coming.”

I glanced around the restaurant, then gazed down at the table. A candle flickered before me. I resisted the temptation to blow it out.

For the first fifteen minutes, my aloneness wasn’t so obvious. I imagine the other diners suspected my date was running late. In my head, I could hear the unsolicited advice of a nonexistent bystander:

“Oh, you know how women can be, son. They have to doll themselves up before a big date. Romantic evenings like these are very special to them. I wouldn’t worry — I’m sure she’ll be here in no time.” 

But once twenty minutes came and went — and my aloneness became more apparent — the surreptitious stares started coming. Discrete glimpses pierced me like pinpricks. Sideways gazes stabbed me like lightsabers.

One woman even stared at me with a hand held to her mouth, as if I were a two-legged dog dragging its haunches across the floor.

I read and re-read the menu. It was as if I was lounging on the beach with a page-turning novel. It’s amazing how fascinating entree descriptions can become when you’re awkward and uncomfortable, and you have no one else to talk to.

But then when the waitress took my order and whisked the menu away, I was left with nothing but the saltshaker to capture my attention. Individual grains beaded from the lid.

So I took out my iPhone and set it on the table. I scrolled through the headlines on Google, but didn’t really read them. I’d look up every now and then just in time to catch another patron looking away.

And when my dinner came and I started picking at my food — still sitting there, alone — I could almost hear a collective shudder escape from the crowd. It was like the live audience on a sitcom when the main character experiences a moment of anguish.

On this most joyful and romantic of holidays, everyone’s heart was breaking — and it was all my fault.

I swallowed some refried beans, but couldn’t taste them. It was like gnawing on a mouthful of mush.

I was tempted to rise, clink my fork against a glass, and make a quick speech:

“Can I get your attention, please? Folks, I know how this must look. But I assure you, I’m not a hapless loser who’s been stood up — or worse, didn’t have a date to begin with. I genuinely forgot about the holiday. I swear. See, I just moved to town and started a new job, so my entire focus has been on settling in and adjusting. It’s not like I couldn’t get a date if I tried. I mean, once I’m settled and get everything unpacked, I intend to renew my eHarmony subscription and hit the local dating scene hard. Aside from the untrimmed goatee and hair that needs cutting, I have a lot of desirable traits. I’m passionate. I like long walks on the beach. My ideal Friday evening would be cuddling on the couch with my lover, watching a romantic comedy. So please, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just as much dedicated to the pursuit of soulful intimacy as the rest of you. My quixotic yearnings run just as deep. My heart, too, burns for the passionate embrace of a loving kindred spirit, with whom I’d promise to share the rest of my life.”

Instead, I flagged the waitress. “Excuse me. Can I get a box?”

“A box, sir?” she asked.

“Yes — and the check. As quickly as possible, please.”

I scooped up my dinner and scurried out of the restaurant like a mouse running along a wall. Returning home, my one-bedroom hovel never looked so cozy and inviting.

I turned on the latest episode of Top Chef and finished the remains of my Valentine’s Day dinner. In the privacy of my apartment, it tasted delicious — especially when washed down with a generous glassful of Grey Goose.

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.

I didn’t buy a dishwasher to wash dishes by hand 

Expensive kitchen knives with wood handles

Because if they’re not, then they’re useless to me. Sorry.

My friend, Hannah, bought me a set of wooden-handled kitchen knives for my birthday. (This is the same friend who bought me a brick-sized bar of soap for my last birthday.)

“Oh, wow,” I said, unwrapping the box.

“What do you think?” she asked. “They’re wooden-handled kitchen knives.”

“I can see that,” I said. “They’re very nice. Thank you.”

“The wood’s a very high quality, and it has a nice finish.”

“Very nice, yes. Thank you.”

“They’re much better than the cheesy plastic-handled knives you currently use.”

“I’m sure they are,” I said. “Again, thank you.”

Hannah frowned. “You don’t like them, do you?”

“I didn’t say that,” I said, studying the box. “I said I liked them very much.”

“You never said you liked them very much. You didn’t say anything. That’s why I’m wondering if you like them.”

“I do like them,” I said. “I thought I said that I liked them.”

“No. You never said that you liked them.”

“Well, I’m sorry about that. I do like them. I do.”

Hannah frowned. “You don’t like them. I can tell.” Keep reading…