Graduation Day – 2022

Greetings to you, parents, teachers, friends, and – most importantly – graduates.

As you sit here on this most joyous of days, relishing your success and the end of your high school chapter, I know it’s tempting to focus only on the future ahead of you. I hope you’ll take a moment, however, to reflect on your past and on the road that led you to this point.

For some of you, the road to graduation was paved with success after success. You made straight A’s, stole the show as the lead in every school musical, and broke athletic records. Be nice to your younger siblings from here on out because you’ve just added a whole lot of pressure to their high school experience (younger siblings in the room, take heart – your parents will soon tire and let you have an iPhone and a Facebook profile long before they said they would).

Others of you followed a more arduous route to graduation, weighed down by baggage in the form of family drama, mental health struggles, and bigotry.

Still others of you traveled a road full of the potholes of a system that is ill-equipped to accommodate your learning style/abilities and that refuses to acknowledge your identity. (Administrators out there, see me after the ceremony and explain to me why we require kindergarteners to say the Pledge of Allegiance before they know what “pledge,” “allegiance,” “republic,” or “indivisible” mean, but we can’t say the word “gay” in their presence.)

Regardless of the path you took to get here, you should be proud to be sitting before me today in your overly expensive nightgown and funny hat (impress your friends – it’s called a mortarboard). Many of you, not to mention your parents, truly never thought this day would come.

And it did.

This day did come, and for that you are fortunate.

There are many for whom this day didn’t come. It didn’t come for the twenty children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It didn’t come for the fourteen students who were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. It won’t come for the nineteen Robb Elementary School students whose lives were stolen from them just last week in the twenty-seventh school shooting of 2022.

People took guns – machines whose only purpose is to kill – and made sure this day wouldn’t come for those students.

And so, as we use this time to honor the lives you are about to live, we must also honor the lives those children lost.

Before you, the lucky ones, go off and take the world by storm, I want to highlight a few of the most important lessons you’ve learned during your schooling.

1. Read between the lines.

Your English and Language Arts teachers have probably beaten this into you for the past twelve years. Don’t take things at face value. Read for subtext! For example, if lawmakers push through legislation that forbids teachers from mentioning sexuality and gender expression in the name of “protecting children” but balk at the idea of gun legislation, you can infer that they do not, in fact, want to protect children. If someone tramples over a woman’s reproductive rights while extolling the sanctity of life but is quicker to defend their second amendment rights than they are to defend schoolchildren, you can make an educated guess that life is not what is most sacred to them. In short, people will try to feed you a lot of bullshit to justify themselves and their actions (or inaction), but you don’t have to eat it.

2. Be wary about which sources you trust.

We all know the drill. You can’t cite Wikipedia in your research paper. You’ve tried. I’ve tried. We’ve all tried, and you just can’t. At this point, most of us accept this because, unlike Boomers and Gen X’ers, we went to school with the internet. We’ve been taught that anyone can post anything they want online, so you have to be judicious about which sources are trustworthy. Our teachers have preached the dangers of bias, misinformation, and misrepresentation of facts to us since day one. For instance, politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association are what I would call biased sources and cannot be trusted to contribute to discussions around gun reform in any meaningful – or moral, for that matter – way. And lest you ever think I wouldn’t cite a source, you can find a list of those politicians here (that information comes from OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that explains its methodology and promotes research tools).

3. Question the status quo.

You definitely heard this one from your teachers when you learned about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or really any part of history at all. Throughout the history of the human species, innovation, discovery, and change have come from one question: Is this the way things need to be? And here’s the kicker: the answer is usually “No!” Do we have to keep electing corrupt politicians who will watch as countless schoolchildren die so they can appeal to their voters and get their blood money from the NRA? No. Do we have to allow people to buy assault rifles even when the framers who wrote the second amendment couldn’t possibly have imagined them? No. Do we have to accept the murder of schoolchildren as a routine part of the American way? Absolutely not.

Graduates, I’m sorry I’ve made your graduation day speech kind of a downer. The death of innocent children is cause for grief. The failure of a corrupt system should make us angry. The idolatry of guns is infuriating.

But, my dear graduates, the good part of the story is you.

You are the generation with the largest voice. You have at least five apps on your phone with which you can make your convictions heard by hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people. You literally carry a computer in your pocket, and you can use it to champion accurate information, organize protests, contact politicians (again and again and again – be a thorn in their sides), and register to vote. That’s something past generations could only dream of.

You won’t go unopposed, because unfortunately there will always be selfish people in the world. People may go for the low-hanging – and truly unoriginal – fruit and rattle off the old line about your generation’s relationship to technology, machines on which you mindlessly waste time. Kindly remind them pet rocks were a thing and then go prove them wrong. You may even have a few people question your *gasp* Americanism. I really can understand how they get that (I don’t see many other countries prioritizing murder weapons over children, so it does sort of seem like an American tradition), but when that happens, remind those people – those so-called “patriots” – what my dear friend Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said: “The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.”

Class of 2022, congratulations on this milestone. I’m not alone in being proud of the people you are, the things you have done, and the feats you will accomplish in the future. You’ve definitely got your work cut out for you, but you are a generation of great power and, fortunately, great compassion. And you certainly aren’t alone.

As you go forth from this place, remember those who will never experience what you’re feeling now; who won’t flip their tassels or throw their mortarboards; who won’t ever know what it feels like to wake up on their first morning as a high school graduate.

By all means, celebrate your success today. Let your family take you to the restaurant of your choice. Open each card and envelope with relish. Have fun at the parties. Sign the yearbooks. Kiss your sweetheart.

Parents, take all the pictures you want. Cry over your precious graduates. Give the gifts you’ve been thinking about for eighteen years.

Teachers, take a well-deserved break. Burn your syllabi. Wear sweatpants and sleep until noon.

And tomorrow, let’s all get to work.


If you are as disturbed as I am by the continued idolization of guns that prevents any meaningful steps toward creating a safer America for our children, and if you are looking for actionable ways you can help effect change, here are two good places to start:

Everytown for Gun Safety – Everytown for Gun Safety is the largest gun violence prevention organization in America. It is dedicated to introducing evidence-based solutions to gun violence in communities all across the United States. Visit their website to learn how you can get involved in your community or how you can make a tax-deductible donation to their cause.

Contacting U.S. Senators – Now is the time to put pressure on our elected officials to advocate for the best interest of their constituents. Phone calls (while a little more intimidating) will always take more manpower to field than emails, but every little bit helps. Make your voice heard.

In memoriam

Halloween is just around the corner. In the spirit of the season, I’m going to tell you about my brief spell as a gravedigger.

By “brief spell,” I mean I have dug exactly one grave in my entire life. But it was a mass grave, if that counts for anything.

If you have been following my blog for a while (hello to all four of you!), you know that my brother and I sometimes look after our friend’s farm while he is traveling. While each of our farm-sitting adventures has had its fair share of challenges, we must not be so terrible at it that he vowed never to enlist us again. Our friend, here called N, recently traveled to Paris where I can only assume he spent every waking moment looking out over the Seine as he feasted on baguettes, fondue, and pastries. It’s a rough life, but I guess someone’s got to do it.

My brother and I felt pretty confident walking into the gig this time. We thought we were farm-sitting pros. We’d dealt with rain. We’d dealt with snow. You name it. This was going to be a piece of cake.

 Getting away from our apartment was great. After over a year of remote work from my kitchen table/desk/storage space, it was nice to work from the most Instagramable place I’ve ever seen. Work emails don’t seem so obnoxious when read from a quaint farmhouse while listening to goats and chickens through the open window and the snores of a dozing bulldog at your feet. Our first day on the farm passed in a haze of #cottagecore bliss.

Chill vibes all around.

Then came the night.

When the day was coming to an end and it was time to begin the evening chores, I started out to the farmyard by myself because my brother had a call he needed to take (of course he did). At first, everything was business as usual. I got the goats to stop headbutting one another and climbing things they shouldn’t by bribing them with treats. I pulled out my inner prom chaperone and stopped all the ducks from getting frisky with one another. I observed the geese being generally terrifying. Everything was normal.

Everything was normal, that is, until I saw the dead chicken by the fence. It was lying face-down in the mud with it’s wings spread out looking like a white, feathery pancake. My first thought was, “Now how in the world did someone else’s dead chicken get into our farmyard?” Once the initial shock wore off, I conceded that this poor bird was probably ours and that it…fell? Ran into a tree? Died of old age halfway across the yard?

I wasn’t ready to confront the awful truth.

To protect the other chickens from this traumatic sight (you know how easily rumors can get out of hand when folks see a tragedy and don’t have all the information), I decided to round them up and put them in their coop for the night. Only when I began exploring the rest of the farmyard did I realize something was very wrong.

While there were several healthy chickens running here and there, there were many other chickens about that were…less healthy. A few were lying stiffly with their feet in the air. They stared at me with unblinking eyes that said, “We trusted you to protect us, but all you wanted was to use us in your Instagram story.” All that remained of most of them, however, were simply piles of feathers.

I’ve seen enough horror movies in my time to know that it’s not a good sign when your farm animals start disappearing, and the general atmosphere around me was definitely horror movie-esque. At this point the sun had completely vanished and it had started to drizzle ever so slightly. Every shadow seemed threatening. With every dead chicken I saw, my mind concocted even worse stories. I’m sure you can imagine my foreboding as I walked through the twilit yard knowing that whatever killed fourteen chickens (I capped the body count at fourteen when I found the last mangled chicken corpse by the far fence at the edge of the woods) was near, possibly prowling just outside the range of my iPhone flashlight. I mulled each different possibility over in my mind.

Best-case scenario: A bloodthirsty fox.

Worst-case scenario: A demigorgon from the Upside Down.

As I closed the door to the chicken coop on twelve living chickens who would undoubtedly need to see a therapist for the rest of their lives, my heart sank. To call a trusted friend and tell him we’d let one of his pets die was a nightmare. To call a trusted friend and tell him we’d let fourteen of his pets die was unthinkable.

Fortunately for my brother and me, N kept his cool and was nothing but kind. He assured us that these things happen (I didn’t ask him when he’d ever let fourteen animals die on his watch) and suggested the culprit might be a coyote. He did, however, ask us if we would be willing to bury the dead chickens. I felt so guilty about the murder of his pets that I’d have given over my firstborn child if he’d asked. Of course I agreed to bury the chickens.

Now, it may come as a shock to you that chicken burial was not charted territory for me at this point. Not once in nineteen years of school did a teacher or professor ever begin a sentence with, “Ok, class, if you ever need to dispose of the bodies of four and a half chickens…” This was very much off the syllabus.

Nevertheless, my brother and I trooped out to the farmyard first thing the following morning, shovels slung over our shoulders. When we’d selected a burial site, we simply looked at each other for a moment before acknowledging the elephant – or chicken, I guess – in the room. How deep was a chicken grave supposed to be? After Siri failed to be of any use whatsoever, I did a little mental math. If a six-foot-tall man would be laid to rest six feet underground, it stood to reason that some one-and-a-half-foot-tall chickens should be buried under one and a half feet of earth. With the logistics out of the way, we got to work.

I’m sure some of you will need proof to believe this happened, so here is this very large photo of me digging out an eternal resting place for our dear chickens.

It was quiet as we dug. Perhaps grief had silenced the other animals. Maybe they were paying their respects. It could be that they were all still traumatized from the massacre they’d witnessed.

When we deemed the grave deep enough, I let my brother put on the finishing touches while I set about collecting the dead. There was no way in chicken Hell I was picking up these birds with my hands, so I used my shovel to scoop each corpse into a wheelbarrow (which is much easier said than done). Just think of that guy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail who goes around with a cart screaming, “BRING OUT YOUR DEAD!” That was me. After I’d collected them all, I dumped them into the hole. They were a jumble of wings and legs and gobbly things. After a final sad look at our poor poultry, my brother and I filled the grave. We even piled some rocks on top the grave as a marker (and as a precaution in case coyotes can smell dead chickens below the earth).

Finally we stepped back, examining our handiwork.

“Should we say something?” I asked quietly.

My brother just looked at me.

“Don’t you think we should say something to send them off?” I persisted.

“What did you have in mind?” he asked.

I didn’t.

Finally, after my brother and I had recapped every funeral we’d ever attended, I decided it would be fitting to read the twenty-third Psalm. Shepherds and pastures seemed appropriate for a farmyard funeral.

We ended up rounding out the service with an improvised duet of Amazing Grace. Despite a few extended fits of the church giggles, it was likely the nicest send off any chickens ever had. It may have been overkill, I know, but it was important to me that we do this right. Considering my current vocational trajectory, it’s entirely possible I’ll play a key role in many funerals to come.

And no, I haven’t decided to become a professional gravedigger.

With any luck, funerals will only be a small minority of the community-oriented ceremonies I take part in. You see, I’ve decided to go to divinity school.


My decision to attend divinity school may come as a surprise to some of you. In a way, it came as a surprise to me too. In other ways, however, this decision has been a long time coming; tapping on my shoulder long before I paid it any mind.

“Sully, what are you hoping to do with a degree from divinity school?” you may ask.

Well friends, that’s a fabulous question. For the first time in my life, I am without any clear end goal. And we aren’t panicking! *Breathes frantically into paper bag*

There are many ways in which one can put a divinity school degree to use. Rather than focusing on a single one just yet, I’m choosing to keep an open mind until I’ve gathered more information. Like, a lot more. Enough to guide me organically down a path that feels authentic to me; one that leads me to “the place where the world’s greatest need and [my] greatest joy meet.” (Thanks for that lovely phrase, Frederick Buechner.)

Some of you are likely wondering what this means for my musical career. I choose to see this as an addition to my life, rather than a replacement for music. I will always be a musician, and I will continue to sing professionally and will keep working to make music at the highest attainable level. Divinity school is a separate endeavor, but it isn’t unconnected. In many ways, this path is a natural extension of my musical journey. Of all the things I love about being a musician, community, ritual, human connection, and active empathy are the greatest.

And after all, what is music if not the human attempt to capture something divine?

Unbelievable

If you would deny a gay man’s right to marry the love of his life or a woman’s autonomy over her own body, I cannot believe you when you say you care about personal freedom.

If you refused to listen to infectious disease experts and take their advised precautions during a pandemic in which thousands of Americans have died, I cannot believe you when you say you are “pro-life.”

If you would turn a blind eye while the very people elected to represent you attempt to overturn a democratic election, I cannot believe you when you call yourself a patriot.

If you denounced Black Lives Matter protestors for “rioting” but remain silent while domestic terrorists storm the Capitol, I cannot believe you when you say you believe all lives matter.

If you do not denounce hate, white supremacy, bigotry, and the 45th President of the United States until your lungs give out, I cannot believe you when you say you wanted to make America great.

Say what you will, but for Heaven’s sake, stop lying.

Bon Appétit?

When the rampant spread of COVID-19 forced the country to shut down in March, I had big plans for myself.

While we can all agree that global pandemics suck, I’m an optimist and was determined to use life’s proverbial lemons to make not only lemonade, but lemon bars, lemon poppy seed muffins, and limoncello. My quarantine goals included a physical transformation rivaling that of Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie, complete mastery of the piano despite years of haphazard practice habits, and a publishing deal for the next great American novel, the earnings of which would pay off my student debt. Simply put, this period of anxiety and despair would be my own metamorphosis; a phase I would enter as a perfectly average caterpillar and exit as an utterly remarkable butterfly whose humble roots in obscurity kept him grounded.

To boost my street cred in a post-COVID world, I also vowed to improve my skills in the kitchen. I have never successfully produced a grilled cheese sandwich and I still follow a recipe to boil eggs. That should give you some ideas of what I was working with.

I have long fostered a love-hate relationship with cooking. I love eating food, but I hate making it.

I guess “hate” is a strong word. It’s probably more accurate to say I’m just not good at cooking. It confuses me to no end. If I’m looking at a pot of bubbling water, how in the world am I supposed to know if it’s boiling or simmering? And honestly, what’s the difference if the water is hot enough to bubble?

While we’re talking about heat, terms like “cook over low heat” seem pretty subjective. If I correctly answer six out of ten questions on a test, I need to ask the teacher about extra credit opportunities after class because my test score is objectively low. If a politician gets six out of every ten votes, however, her numbers are high, and she’s got the election in the bag. If my stove has heat levels ranging from one to ten, who’s to say what’s considered “low heat?”

Then there’s the vocabulary of cooking. Someone please explain to me how the words “diced,” “chopped,” and “minced,” mean different things. Or “dash” and “pinch.” I guess it’s a start that I at least know these terms are vaguely related to cooking. I was twenty-five when I learned the word “julienne” could be anything other than some French girl’s name. And don’t even ask me what it means. Call me crazy, but I shouldn’t have to do thirty minutes of background research to fulfill the basic human need of sustenance.

Cooking is also terrifying.

My mom once gave me a cookbook called Anyone Can Cook (the title alone tells you how desperate the situation was). Before listing any recipes, the book enumerated the many safety hazards associated with cooking. It scared me so badly I wouldn’t go into the kitchen for days.

My world turned around when, after a lifetime of believing water puts out fires, I learned that kitchen fires are different and can be made worse if you pour water on them. According to the book, using a fire extinguisher is the best way to deal with a kitchen fire. That makes sense, but I’ve always grouped fire extinguishers with things like throw pillows, coffee table books, and mixers; items owned only by people who totally have their lives together – real adults, in other words.

When I’m not worried about burning my home to the ground, I’m terrified of killing myself and those I love with salmonella. In my book, these hazards – combined with the constant risk of chopping my finger off with a knife – make cooking one of the most dangerous activities one can do. I can’t think of another day-to-day task where the stakes are literally death or loss of limb. It’s enough to have me ordering takeout for the rest of my life.

Since my name isn’t Bill Gates, however, that’s not an option.

Every time I visit my parents in North Carolina, they do their best to impart some culinary wisdom. They’re both good cooks and decent teachers, but when I return to Boston and am forced to cook for myself, everything they’ve taught me leaves and I’m left staring blankly at my stove as if it’s an extra-terrestrial object that’s just crashed to Earth.

I’ve gotten pretty good at coming up with excuses not to cook: My roommates love cooking, so who am I to deprive them of their hobby? This bread will go bad by the end of the week, so why shouldn’t I make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches each day? I’ve got no time to prepare a meal tonight, so I’ll just heat up this frozen dinner.

When the pandemic struck and we were all suddenly faced with more free time than we’d ever dreamed of, however, I really had no excuse not to give cooking the old college try once and for all.

I decided quesadillas were the perfect first step for my culinary journey. With enough vegetables, I could get by without adding any meat, so at least salmonella wasn’t a risk here. Author’s note: I found out during the editing process that apparently salmonella can come from fruits, vegetables, and other non-meats. Continue reading. I’ll just be in some corner breathing into a paper bag. Even if I botched them, it’s hard to ruin any dish whose main ingredients are bread and cheese. I even felt confident enough to offer a quesadilla to my brother.

With the help of some YouTube videos and a call to my mom, I chopped (Diced? Minced? I honestly have no idea) the mushrooms and zucchini without any problems.

Then came the onions.

Friends, I cried chopping those onions as I have not cried since the first time I watched the final episode of Schitt’s Creek. Anyone who entered the kitchen at that moment would have seen me and immediately assumed someone dear to me had died in a terrible way. Chopping the onions took more time than I expected, mainly because I wept throughout the entire process and had to keep blowing my nose for fear of producing snotty quesadillas.

Once I’d chopped and sautéed all the vegetables (and recovered from the emotional trauma caused by the onions), I was ready to assemble my quesadillas. I’d heard people say that the trick to making quesadillas hold together is to add a lot of cheese. I may have overcompensated by filling the tortillas with so much cheese that they would hardly fold over. After I ate maybe a fourth of the cheese and refolded the tortillas, I had two respectable-looking quesadillas.

At this point, I got a little too big for my britches. I looked at my circular skillet and my two semi-circular quesadillas and saw no reason I shouldn’t pop them both into the pan at the same time. When the time came to flip the quesadillas, I realized I’d flown too close to the sun. With no empty room in the skillet, simply flipping them over in the pan wasn’t an option. I had no choice but to remove them from the pan, flip them over, and lay them back in the same position.

This was much easier said than done.

During its removal from the skillet, the first quesadilla promptly fell apart, cheese and vegetables flowing all over the pan while the half-cooked tortilla lay limply across them like a lone sail floating in the ocean after a devastating shipwreck.

“It’s not a problem,” I thought to myself. “I’ll eat this one and save the other one for Corey.”

After a disastrous attempt to flip the second quesadilla, it was clear that neither of the Hart brothers would be eating a structural quesadilla that night.

I scooped what wasn’t stuck to the pan into bowls and walked into the living room to show my brother what I’d done. We morosely looked down at our quesadillas, which were essentially bowls of sautéed vegetables mixed with a few ribbons of mangled tortillas and crisps of burnt cheese. I’ve seen less depressing meals at funerals.

I felt the need to apologize to my brother, telling him I wouldn’t be offended if he didn’t eat what I’d made. He took pity on me and said, “It’s fine. I know you tried. You did your best.”

His words were likely obligatory, but they made me feel a little better. He was right. I’d done my best. Granted, my best was an unrecognizable quesadilla that looked like someone had already chewed it up and spit it out, but I was proud of myself just the same.

I’d taken a chance, I’d tried something new, and I’d learned from my mistakes.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that the next time I want a quesadilla, I’m better off ordering take-out from the Mexican restaurant down the street.

***

Laughs aside, there are many people for whom food insecurity is a very real problem. If you are able, I encourage you to explore efforts to feed the hungry in your neighborhood and in the global community and to find ways in which you can contribute. If you need suggestions, I’d start with one of the organizations below.

Feeding America – US Hunger Relief Organization: This national organization works with a network of food pantries to provide meals to people in need. It also partners with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, food service companies, and farmers to gather food before it goes to waste.  https://www.feedingamerica.org/ 

World Central Kitchen – The World Central Kitchen provides relief from disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic through the provision of meals to those in need. They also partner with local chefs, restaurants, and food providers, aiding them in their struggles and educating them on the best ways to support the hungry in their communities. https://wck.org/programs 

Sofa Saga

I thought I’d faced the worst 2020 could throw at me, but that was before my brother and I tried to buy a couch together. “Tried” is the operative word here.

Back in July, after three years of living with two beloved roommates in an old, drafty, Addams-Family-esque house, my brother and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment. Moving is always fun, especially during a global pandemic. It was a real bundle of laughs. Since you can’t see my face or hear my voice, that was sarcasm.

While our apartment was a definite upgrade – I forgot what it was like to live in a building where you don’t constantly hear squirrels running in the attic or where the outside and inside temperatures are different – the move gave us many reasons to grumble. The lava lamp I’ve had since 2004 didn’t survive the trip. Say what you want, but this was a tragedy. Then there’s the fact that my brother and I own more books than two people should; heavy books that take up way more space in boxes and moving trucks than is wholly necessary.

The biggest headache by far, however, was purchasing a couch for the apartment. I’m a little old-fashioned, so I was ready to go to a furniture store and plop down on all the sofas until we found one we liked…that was available…and would fit in the space…and was in our price range. My brother, however, is hip and cool and took it upon himself to find the perfect couch online. Never one to embrace conflict, I let him do his thing and moved on with my life.

A week later, my brother had ordered a sofa. I don’t believe in badmouthing, so I won’t tell you the name of the company, but it starts with a “w” and rhymes with “Mayfair.”

The couch arrived while I was visiting family in North Carolina, so my brother was the only one around to welcome it into our home. Once he put it together, however, he realized the frame was broken. He called the company, who apologetically promised to send a new couch. Due to the pandemic, however, they couldn’t take the broken couch back. While waiting for the new sofa, my brother was able to give the broken couch to one of our old roommates, clearing up the living room to prepare for the advent of its new fixture.

Fast-forward a few weeks and the second sofa arrives. I was visiting family in North Carolina, so my brother was the only one around to welcome it into our home. Once he put it together, however, he realized the frame – wait a second. Haven’t we done this before?

Why, yes. We certainly have.

That’s right: the second couch was also broken.

Now, it’s important that you understand something about my brother and me. We are two of the most conflict avoidant people you will ever meet. My brother is an avid coffee drinker, but he likes his coffee black. No cream, no sugar. If the barista hands him a cup of cream with some coffee mixed in for good measure, however, my brother will smile, say “thank you,” and wait until he’s left the coffee shop to gag and dump the drink in a trash can. I am a vegetarian, but if my Pad Thai comes with chicken rather than tofu, I will simply eat the meal and leave a pile of chicken on the side of my plate, so as not to hassle the waiter, chef, or manager. For us to call a company twice to request a new product, therefore, is a big deal and a testament to just how broken the couches were.

In the ultimate déjà vu moment, my brother called Wayfa the company again and explained that the second couch was broken. They were deeply sorry (or so they said) and agreed to send another couch. As before, we were responsible for getting rid of the broken one.

Now, under normal circumstances there are only so many friends you can con into taking a free-but-sort-of-broken couch off your hands. During a pandemic when many of your friends have fled the city, your prospects are even worse. Two school friends were kind enough to take the second couch, patient enough to sit on it for a week, and practical enough to get rid of it and buy their own unbroken sofa.

Skipping ahead another few weeks: couch three arrives. I was back in Boston at this point, so with lots of sweating, improper lifting technique, and yelling “PIVOT,” my brother and I got it into our apartment. Ready for the whole saga to be over, we got to work putting it together right then and there. Everything was peachy until it was time to screw the big pieces together.

In most cases, the expression “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole” does not, in fact, refer to literal pegs or holes. Rather, it’s a way of saying someone is trying futilely to make something happen despite the natural limitations of the parts at play. For example, if I suited up and joined the football team, I’d be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If I entered my dog, who refuses to follow basic commands like “sit,” “stay,” or “fetch,” in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, I’d be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you appointed Betsy DeVos as your Secretary of Education in hopes of making positive and meaningful changes for American schoolchildren, you’d be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

Sometimes, however, the expression “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole” actually refers to literal pegs and literal holes. For example, one could say, “When the Hart brothers used the hardware pack sent with their third couch to put it together, they were trying to fit square pegs into round holes.” That’s right. The parts included to construct the couch were not the parts necessary to construct the couch.

My brother once more called the company, who I’m assuming was on speed dial at this point. He explained that the parts we’d received with the sofa were incorrect, at which point the customer service individual (who was absolutely not to blame for any of this and who was very polite) responded, “And you probably don’t have the hardware from either of the previous couches, correct?”

When my brother hung up the phone, he did so with the promise that we’d receive a new hardware pack in the mail as soon as possible. In the meantime, the half-constructed couch sat in the living room like an open casket at a funeral. There was nothing comforting about it and looking at it just made me even more upset.

My brother had to take a quick trip the next week, so as he left, I told him he could count on me to put the couch together once the proper hardware arrived. A few days later, he called me and said, “Okay, I need you to do me a huge favor.”

“Alright, what’s up?” I asked with no small amount of trepidation.

“There’s another couch on the porch.” Rather than delivering a hardware pack, the company had delivered a fourth couch.

My brother was out of town, so I sort of stared at the couch in dismay for a while before calling a friend to help me get it into the apartment. There were now two couches sitting in the living room, which didn’t leave a lot of room for living. Neither of them was fully constructed, so they didn’t provide a lot of seating either.

My brother ended up calling the company yet again. I don’t know what was said this time, but he must have found his inner Karen because we got our money back and two company representatives came and took both couches. A happy ending, right?

Wrong. We still had no couch.

For several weeks we put off any further couch shopping, instead taking turns using the single armchair in our living room. Whenever we’d watch a movie, one of us would take the chair while the other would sit in a nest of blankets on the floor like a common dog. It was very bohemian.

The time finally came to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and find a couch for real. We thought we’d start with IKEA. I’d taken a Friday off work so we wouldn’t have to face the weekend crowds.

Now, I fully believe the early bird gets the worm. A quick online search told me IKEA opened at 10:00. I told my brother we needed to leave the apartment at 8:00, my thought process being that this would give us plenty of time to pick up breakfast somewhere and make the drive to the burbs without being held up by morning traffic. Knowing my brother would balk at the idea of budgeting two hours to drive about ten miles, I kept my plan to myself. In my head, we’d get there about fifteen minutes before they opened, and he’d be grateful for my forethought and planning.

The real world very rarely matches what’s in my head.

We left our apartment at eight and made it to our usual breakfast joint in record time. For a city known for agonizing traffic, Boston sure was low-key that day. By the time we’d driven to breakfast, ordered, and eaten in the car, it was 8:35. My brother then pulled out of the parking lot to head to IKEA, which was only about ten minutes down the road.

“I have to tell you something, but you have to promise not to be angry,” I said to my brother.

“I cannot make any promises, but I will do my best to curb my anger.”

“IKEA opens at 10:00.”

After several seconds of silence, my brother told me we were “done” – I’m still unsure what he meant by that – and punished me by making me listen to every track of his new Christmas album that had dropped that day while he loudly sang along. An hour and twenty minutes never felt so long.

We were at IKEA when it opened, and instead of recounting every detail to you, I’ll simply give you some quotes from our journey through the showrooms:

*Driving through the parking garage*

“Where is the door?”

“It’s probably near that enormous red neon sign that says ‘ENTRANCE.’”

“No more talking for the rest of the trip.” 

***

“People could die in here and no one would ever know.”

***

“We could go with beige, navy, or grey.”

“Not beige.”

“Why not.”

“The walls are tan, and the carpet is light grey. We need variety. It’s just like eating: if we get beige, it’ll look like a plate with all carbs and no vegetables.” 

***

“How do people furnish whole houses?”

“They have money, or they buy cheap couches.” 

***

“You have a master’s degree and I have a doctorate, so what I say goes.” *

*I feel it’s important to point out that my brother does not have his doctorate yet and that he cannot legally use this argument until he walks across that stage with his diploma in hand.

***

An hour later, my brother and I left IKEA empty-handed. Well, I guess that’s not totally true. We did have a potato masher and a set of wine glasses.

Our next stop was Jordan’s Furniture, the flashy next-door neighbor of IKEA. We walked into the store and immediately realized that simply looking at the furniture in this store was stretching our budget to the breaking point. While I was racking my brain to remember if there are laws against broke millennials walking into furniture stores where they can’t buy anything, my brother found a sign pointing the way to the clearance section. That was the place for us.

We followed the sign through an automatic door, at which point the wood-paneled walls and plush rugs from the rest of the store vanished. The aesthetic of this room was a little more…warehousey? Peasantish? Simply put, that sliding glass door was the furniture store equivalent of the curtain that separates first class from coach on airplanes.

Alas, even the clearance items were a little over our budget, so it was with heavy hearts that we skulked out of the store.

Resigned to our fate of sitting on the floor until the end of time, my brother and I drove off in search of milkshakes over which we could commiserate. Just as I was wondering if bean bag chairs were still a thing and whether they also cost a zillion dollars, a building caught my eye. The sign on the front read “BOB’S DISCOUNT FURNITURE.”

I hadn’t the faintest idea who Bob was, but I knew in my heart that we needed to pull over. It was the same feeling I assume one would have if he found an oasis after staggering around the Sahara Desert for days. We pulled into the parking lot and entered the store with our hearts pounding, hardly daring to hope that we may find the right sofa.

We needn’t have worried.

With the help of a pushy but very nice gentleman named David – I was able to overlook his hovering by creating a backstory for him in which he was basically Bob Cratchit in a modern-day version of A Christmas Carol – we found an affordable sofa that perfectly suited our apartment.

Our new furniture will be delivered in one week. That’s right, I am writing this blog post sitting cross-legged on the floor.

I’m an optimist, so I’m choosing to believe that there will be no other problems in the great sofa saga of 2020. If there are, however, I have already planned to leave the continent and spend the rest of my days in a monastery where creature comforts like couches will have no place in my life. You’ve been forewarned. 

Bob’s Discount Furniture, there’s a lot hinging on this delivery.  

***

I hope you enjoyed reading this story more than I enjoyed living it. While I’m so glad we finally found our couch, I would’ve been fine without one. I wouldn’t have gone hungry. I wouldn’t have been without warmth or shelter. I wouldn’t have been denied access to physical and mental health resources. Many families are not so fortunate, especially in the midst of this global pandemic. If you are able, I hope you’ll look through the links below, find a cause that resonates with you, and support it in whatever way you can. Happy Thanksgiving.

Feeding America – US Hunger Relief Organization: This national organization works with a network of food pantries to provide meals to people in need. It also partners with manufacturers, distributors, retailers, food service companies, and farmers to gather food before it goes to waste.  https://www.feedingamerica.org/ 

World Central Kitchen – The World Central Kitchen provides relief from disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic through the provision of meals to those in need. They also partner with local chefs, restaurants, and food providers, aiding them in their struggles and educating them on the best ways to support the hungry in their communities. https://wck.org/programs 

One Warm Coat – This organization looks to provide warmth to those in need who are otherwise unable to protect themselves from the cold. The need for a warm coat is more critical than ever when so many are unemployed due to the pandemic. https://www.onewarmcoat.org/ 

National Institute of Mental Health – The National Institute of Mental Health is the leading federal agency for research on mental disorders, many of which are stigmatized and undertreated. Through outreach, the NIMH works with other mental health organizations to share information and education about ongoing research and future initiatives. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/connect-with-nimh/donate-to-mental-health-research.shtml 

National Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI “is one of the largest grassroots mental health organizations dedicated to creating better lives for Americans affected by mental illness.” Through education, advocacy, and public outreach NAMI works to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and provide aid for those facing mental health struggles. https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/Donate-to-NAMI

Let’s Talk About Teenage Angst

Sometimes I think I’m a normal 25-year-old adult, but then my teenage angst kicks in. 

I know that kind of thing should be out of my system by now, but you have to understand that it came to me pretty late in the game. I remember exactly where I was sitting when it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was December of my sophomore year of college, a week or so before my twentieth birthday. I was in my music theory class, and somehow amid the discussions of Italian, German, and French augmented sixth chords, I got to thinking that I would only be a teenager for one more week. 

Empowered. Mature. Prepared. Relieved. Excited.

These are all emotions one could reasonably associate with this realization. Ever the analyst, however, I entered one of the more existential periods of my life. 

You see, I sort of skipped the “crazy teenager” chapter in my coming of age story. I’ve seen enough teen movies and shows to know that much of being a teenager is having all the fun, making all the dumb decisions, and having all the adults constantly on your back about stepping out of line. People can’t even hold a teen’s dumb behavior against them for long because everyone sort of accepts that teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed and that acting crazy, reckless, and wild just comes with the territory. 

I know I missed this step because I never acted like that in the slightest. If my teenage years were a movie, I can say with 100% certainty that I would have been a supporting character whose few scenes get skipped by audience members so they can get to the action. While the protagonist would be living his best teenage life skipping school and dancing in the city parade or attending parties that sooner or later get shut down by the cops, I would be…studying, I guess? At band practice? Going to bed at 9:00pm? 

To say I was a goody two-shoes is a huge understatement. It’s also an insult to interesting shoes everywhere. 

I never got busted for driving recklessly. I never ventured to places I wasn’t supposed to go. I can’t think of a single time I missed my curfew (I’m not even sure my parents felt the need to give me one). Instead, I was busy being the most vanilla, white bread, boring poster child of good behavior you’ve ever seen. I showed up to school thirty minutes before the tardy bell rang. I spent every Friday night of each fall semester in a marching band uniform. I sang in the school musicals, captained the Battle of the Books team, and dammit dang it, if there had been a speech and debate team, I’d have done that too. The only time a teacher ever admonished me was when I had my hands in my pockets while I was singing in choir. After telling me to take them out, my teacher turned to the whole class, a wide, disbelieving grin on her face, and said proudly, “I got to yell at Sully!” Shout out to you, Mrs. B!

I was such a goody-goody that on a church youth retreat, the minister literally kicked off unstructured free time by saying to the group, “And remember, WWSD: What would Sully do?”

When trying to think of the most rebellious thing I did between the ages of twelve and twenty, I keep coming back to a time in high school when I forged my dad’s signature on a report card. When a report card is full of teachers’ notes gushing about what a pleasure you are to teach, however, it really isn’t that exciting or rebellious never to show it to your parents before returning it to the school.

I remember when a friend once told me he couldn’t hang out on the weekend because he was grounded. My respect for him immediately skyrocketed. He’d done something cool enough to get in trouble? I honestly considered asking one of my parents if they’d do that to me just for the street cred. 

Anyway, fast-forward to my sophomore music theory class in undergrad and the moment I realized my teenage years were all but spent. I knew in that instant that I had one week to make up for all the teenage antics I’d never experienced. I needed to sneak out one night and go to a party. I needed to get a speeding ticket. I needed to go swimming in the fountains around campus and run before campus police could apprehend me (or maybe even let them catch me for the story). 

The only problem was that when you’re already in college, you sort of make your own rules anyway. There’s no curfew to miss. There’s no need to sneak out your dorm room window to go to a party because there’s no one stopping you from simply walking out the front door. Besides, the week before my birthday coincided with exams. Everyone was studying, and there were no parties to be found. 

I could walk from one end of my college campus to the other in ten minutes, so reckless driving for the sake of notoriety seemed like a waste of gas. 

But there were still the fountains. 

In the dead of night on the eve of my twentieth birthday, I crept through the dark to the large fountain in the middle of the traffic circle at the center of campus. Even though I could see my breath and was only halfway certain I wouldn’t catch hypothermia, I was fully prepared to jump in the fountain and at least splash around for a bit. Swimming in the fountains was strictly prohibited and was rumored to result in a $400 fine. In other words, it was an activity that had teenage rebellion written all over it.

I handed my phone to a friend who was there to get a good picture of my misdeed – proof that I really had experienced a rebellious phase – and approached the fountain with a sense of grandeur and deference rarely seen outside a throne room, cathedral, or cult. I wanted to test the water temperature, so I lowered my sneakered foot down past the fountain’s stone edge until…it hit solid ice. 

In South Carolina of all places, the weather had gotten cold enough for the fountain to freeze. I could no sooner have waded in this fountain than walked through a stone wall. 

As the school’s distant bell tower rang out twelve chimes for midnight, I realized my plan had failed. I was no longer a teenager and my opportunity to live it up with the likes of Ferris Bueller, Peter Parker, Danny Zuko, and the Breakfast Club had vanished. 

In almost every English class I’ve ever taken, the theme of loss of innocence has come up. It usually appears in some coming of age novel and marks the beginning of the protagonist’s journey toward adulthood. What was I to do, therefore, when here I was flinging my innocence away from me with all my might and it just kept coming back? It was like a ghost who can’t leave the house in which it died or a piece of tape you can’t throw away because it keeps sticking to your fingers. 

Since I was too busy being an angel, I never rebelled or exhausted any of my teenage angst. It’s all still there, and it threatens to pour out of me at any moment. When I get a work email asking me to complete a task that is totally within my job description, I must resist the urge to say something like, “None of the other bosses make their employees do this!” or “This is so unfair!” because if I were a normal adult, I would have gotten that attitude out of my system a decade ago. When my roommates mention a dirty dish in the sink, I have to squash my instinct to complain, “Why are you making such a big deal about this!?” or “I’ll get it later, I’m texting.”

Being an angsty teen trapped in a goody two-shoes’ body makes for an interesting headspace. I feel like I’m straddling two different personas, and I do a lot of looking back and wondering if I really missed out on the legit teenage experience or if I’m just insecure that my path didn’t match the paths of the cool kids in the movies. 

I’ve sometimes wished I could have just a taste of the teenage life I didn’t lead. 

The moral of this story is that you really should be careful what you wish for, because after I wished this, a pandemic came along and grounded me for seven months.

M’aider! Mayday!

Most teachers and professors spend the first day of school combing over the syllabus with their new students. They talk about different class projects and (more importantly) how much they will impact the students’ final grades. They discuss academic integrity and the penalties for cheating or plagiarism while everyone self-righteously looks around, wondering who will be the one to get a zero because they pulled their term paper from Wikipedia. They rattle off their absence policies as their students calculate how many classes they can miss without fear of retribution.

As thorough as these syllabi may be, however, they always fail to address a critical issue. In all my time as a student – including my years in college and grad school – I’ve never once had a teacher explain the protocol for the dreaded instance in which you run into them outside of class. 

Anyone who’s ever seen their teacher at the grocery store or their favorite coffee shop knows the feeling. Seeing a professor outside of class is like seeing your pet at school or walking into your bedroom to find a jazz combo rehearsing.

It’s like seeing a clown in the oval office.

Alright, I guess that’s not so outlandish, so just forget I said anything.

Simply put, seeing a teacher anywhere other than the front of the classroom is awkward. It’s jarring. It forces you to recognize the fact that teachers are people too; people with hobbies, coffee cravings, and personal lives.

And I’m here to tell you that any situation in which you end up thinking about your professors’ personal lives is a bad situation.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to get used to the immediate shock of seeing your teacher outside their natural habitat. At this point, I simply smile, ask how they are, and make some remark on the weather before gracefully excusing myself and running in the opposite direction.

The only professors with whom this strategy fails are those who teach foreign languages.

I’ll give you some background information about my track record with foreign language classes.

It all started in high school when I took two semesters of Spanish online. Some people may tell you virtual language classes work just as well as in-person lessons. Those people are liars. I don’t remember two sentences in Spanish, though I do remember taking advantage of the computer-filled room designated for online coursework in my high school and pretending I was on the Starship Enterprise (shout out to Commander Rosemary, my classmate at the next computer who was forced to play along with my games and help me destroy the alien fleet).

In college, I took three semesters of German, which was great, but didn’t help prepare me for my semester abroad in Italy. I therefore spent another semester studying Italian with a teacher from the Tuscan town in which I was living. To satisfy the graduate language requirement during my master’s program, I took two semesters of French in which I got more mileage out of the phrases “Sacré bleu!” and “Bon appétit” than anyone ever has.

All these language classes gave me ample opportunity to run into my teachers outside of class.

I want to be clear: my foreign language professors have all been great teachers and interesting people. They are all polite and would undoubtedly greet their students warmly and cordially in any situation. Language teachers have a way, however, of greeting their students in the language they teach.

On the surface, this may just seem like a friendly nod to their role in your life. But a language professor greeting you in the language they teach is the equivalent of your math teacher forcing you to recite the quadratic formula if they run into you outside of class. It’s like your history teacher seeing you at Starbucks and, instead of saying “Hello,” asking something like “How about that Battle of Hastings in 1066, huh?” It just isn’t good form. When you leave that classroom, you’re off the clock.

But for some reason, foreign language professors insist on trapping you in this perverse improv exercise; a series of “yes, and” – excuse me, “ja, und” or “sí, y” – statements until the teacher takes pity on your soul and releases you to think about what you’ve done.

I would say I’ve always been pretty good at talking to adults. I don’t mean grad students, I mean real adults. The kind who host Thanksgiving dinner or own a meat thermometer or have their own cell phone plan. I was always sure to make a good first impression with my teachers on the first day of school. I speak up when talking with senior citizens. None of my friends or significant others have ever had to worry when introducing me to their parents or grandparents. Whether by pulling out a reusable witty comment, pointing out the most interesting aspects of the weather on any given day, or throwing in phrases like “Well, with the way the economy is going,” I can reliably navigate a conversation with an authority figure.

The last time I ran into my graduate French professor on the sidewalk, therefore, I was faced with a unique dilemma. It was as if I had the proverbial angel on one shoulder, who represented my deep-seated need to please others, and a cartoon demon on the other, who lobbied for me to extract myself from the conversation at any cost.

“Hi, Sully,” said my professor politely.

It was English. We all – angel, demon, and me – heard it. The demon wiped his hands together at the easiest situation he’d ever cheated his way out of.

And then the angel pounced.

“Bonjour, monsieur. Comment ça va?” I blurted as the angel repeatedly stabbed the demon with his own pitch fork.

My French professor and I both stared at each other in horror over the choice I’d just made. My teacher, ever the gentleman, was first to recover and ploughed on valiantly (probably making a mental note that he was now destined to be late for any upcoming obligation he had). “Ça va bien, et toi?”

It would have been enough for me to respond, “Ça va bien, merci,” and move on with my life knowing I’d taken care of the niceties. But the angel on my shoulder was a sadist and was now peeling off the demon’s fingernails one by one as he screamed in agony. Before I knew it, I’d followed up with a shaky “Que fais-tu pour le week-end?”

The teacher responded that he planned to use the weekend to cook, go on a walk, visit with friends, and read. Then, as if his own imaginary demon on his left shoulder was taking charge, he said the two fatal words: “Et toi?”

My mind went blank. I could not remember the French phrase for something simple like “I will sing this weekend,” much less a more honest “I will spend the next two days cringing every time I think of this moment.”

Practicing. Jogging. Eating. Grocery Shopping. These were all things I planned to do over Saturday and Sunday, but for how much I could recall from class in that moment, these activities might as well have been so rare in France that no one had ever thought to name them. While the angel on my shoulder – who at this point had realized he was out of his element – frantically gave the demon CPR, I thought back on the textbook chapter most recently covered in our lessons: les sports.

“Je vais faire du sport,” I signed.

My teacher raised an eyebrow. “Quel sport?” he asked politely?

Running. Baseball. Basketball. Literally anything would do if I could only think of the word. As I cast around in my memory, one term from the sports chapter forced its way to the front of my mind. Without thinking, I blurted it out.

“Le football américain.”

The angel and demon froze and stared open-mouthed. Neither of them could have predicted this.

My French teacher looked down at my 5’6’’ frame and nonathletic build and, perhaps remembering a remark I’d made earlier that week that I didn’t really play sports, seemed to decide things had gone too far.

“Très bien, Sully. Bon week-end. À bientôt.” Without another word, he hurried off before I could cause either of us any more pain.

This all happened about a year ago. Since then I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten better at French and have made a concerted effort to brush up on my German, Italian, and Spanish. Most importantly, I’ve made a game plan for the next time I see one of my foreign language professors outside of class. I’ve got one phrase in my back pocket which, if spoken in a convincing croak, will save me from any future humiliation.

Laryngite.

Laringitis.

Laryngitis.

Siri, what was that?

There are some things about being an adult that are scary.

Luckily for all of us living in 2020, however, you can Google almost anything to make it less terrifying (minus strange symptoms – I’m looking at you, WebMD). Folding a fitted sheet, for instance, seems less impossible when you turn to the internet to discover the proper technique (it’s not an exact science, but at least you tried before you wadded it up). Likewise, tying a bow tie is almost easy after watching and rewatching YouTube videos whose target audience includes 50% college professors and 50% fraternity pledges. You can keep the tears to a minimum when cutting an onion if you consult some WikiHow article or Instagram food blog before hacking away aimlessly.

I know what you’re thinking. There are some terrors in the adult world that Google can’t explain away. That’s when you simply resort to plan B and call your parents. Most dads will be just as patient as a Google page when you’re looking for answers about a light that’s come on in your car – though whether it’s Google or your dad, I highly recommend running your “it’ll go off eventually” plan by someone. You can similarly call your mom with questions like “If I bought this last Tuesday and I’ve kept it refrigerated since then, is it still ok to eat” or “It smelled ok, but I remember the color being a little different. Should I be worried?”

In my time masquerading as an adult, however, I’ve come across one terrifying occurrence that can’t be Googled or solved by my parents. What in the world am I supposed to do if I hear something in the night?

It sounds dumb, I know, but think about it. What do I Google in that scenario? Home invasion statistics? Rapid installment security systems? Viciously barking dog YouTube videos?

There’s no app that can see through my bedroom door or walls to show me what horrors lurk beyond, there’s no podcast to provide step-by-step instructions on how to defeat murderers, and there is (as far as I know) no Buzzfeed quiz to tell you which qualities you likely possess to defend your apartment against monsters.

There was a time when I could have texted my dad that I’d heard something and asked him to report back if he found anything of note when he searched the house. Now that we are separated by nine states, however, there could be a symphony of bumps in the night outside my door, and calling my dad would do about as much good as hiding under my covers and hoping the home invaders don’t notice me when they come in.

Obviously, if there is undoubtedly a predator prowling your home under cover of darkness, you should call 911. I’ve got a feeling, though, that the dispatcher on the other end might need more to go off than a simple “I think I heard something.”

Simply put, you can’t fake your way through this one. There is no phone call or Reddit thread that can make this problem go away.

I’ve seen enough movies to know that if there’s no one around to save me from potential danger outside my bedroom, I’m supposed to grab a baseball bat and go slinking around in the dark to make sure all is well. I suppose there was a time about two decades ago when I owned a baseball bat. After a year or so of watching baseballs hit me in the face, however, I think my parents probably took pity on me and decided to save space by giving the bat away – along with the balls, mitts, and racquets.

Looking around my bedroom, I guess there are some alternatives for defending the apartment from home invaders. I’ve got some heavy books I could chuck at my assailant’s head (the complete works of William Shakespeare or the fifth Harry Potter book could do some damage), but just like I was never good at hitting baseballs with a bat, I’m a pretty hopeless case when it came to throwing objects at a desired target. I suppose I could crash my lava lamp over a burglar’s head – I could even heat it up for maximum effect if the perpetrator hangs out in the living room for about an hour – but lava lamps are getting harder and harder to find these days so I’m not sure it’s worth it. I always sleep with a glass of water beside my bed, so if I suspect the intruder is a wicked witch or an alien, I could throw it in his or her face. You’ve got to admit, though, that none of these options has the same ring to it as your standard baseball bat.

If it ever comes to unarmed combat, my previous experiences haven’t given me much to offer. One could argue, I suppose, that after majoring in music as a vocalist, I am prepared to scream extra loud as the burglar sinks his knife into my flesh. My piano lessons have at least ensured that if it comes to punching or scratching, I can make sure I do so without creating excess tension in my wrists, hands, or fingers.

That’s all I’ve got, so if the home invader has even an ounce of ill will, it looks pretty grim for me.

It’s not even an option for me to hide. The obvious choice would be to squeeze under the bed, but the amount of quarantine weight I’ve gained since March means that if I press myself under the bed to avoid being murdered, I’ll likely suffocate instead. Jumping in the closet is also out because – let’s be honest – who actually keeps their closet clean enough to fit inside?

I guess the takeaway from all this is that adulting is terrifying sometimes. Whether it’s a job interview, a busted pipe, an ache or pain you’ve never before experienced, or even a global pandemic that derails your entire plan, scary things are bound to come around. And sometimes there’s no one who can banish your fear except you.

Just as you probably won’t have a lot of warning if a monster is lurking in the dark shadows of your home, you may not foresee life getting in the way. You likely won’t have your proverbial baseball bat right by your bed to beat the problem away either. Sometimes you’ve got to make do with what you have.

As someone who regularly interprets nighttime noises as cause to send a quick text to my family dictating what to do with my possessions after I’m gone, I am here to tell you you’ve got this.

You are brave.

You can face those scary parts of life and kick their butts. You’ve got no choice.

Staying under the covers isn’t an option.

Unless you realize it’s just the icemaker being loud. In that case, roll over and go back to sleep. You’re good.

Confessions of a Disappointed Optimist

My life over the past few weeks has been fraught with existential despair. Seriously. Picture someone jogging in a drab grey sweat suit through a gentle rain, running from their current doubts and worries as a sad Adele song plays over some invisible loudspeaker.

That’s been me over the past few weeks.

Except that I’m actually walking because I haven’t jogged in quite some time. And I have never exercised regularly enough to justify owning a sweat suit. And I don’t go outside if it’s raining. And my go-to sad music is a combination of Baroque opera arias and songs from a very specific point in Britney Spears’ career. But you get the picture. Existential discomfort has been assaulting me from all sides. And all because I decided long ago that I wanted to be an optimist.

Let me give you some context: When I was five years old, my mother showed me The Sound of Music. I don’t care what anyone says. This is one of the best movies ever made. It’s got everything: Julie Andrews (a.k.a. a goddess on this earth), sweeping vistas of the most beautiful alpine landscapes, rousing musical numbers, nuns. Nuns! To put it simply, five-year-old me was enthralled from the downbeat of the overture.

For me, the most influential scene in this whole movie was the one in which Julie Andrews and the kids sing “My Favorite Things.” You know the scene I’m talking about. After a long first day on the job, Julie can’t just go to bed because all the kids are afraid of the thunderstorm (even the teenagers in the group, apparently). To cheer up the children – and presumably to get them out of her bed – she sings them a cheery song about all the wonderful things in life. You know, copper kettles and that sort of thing. By the end, all the kids know the words and, together with Julie, they sing, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad!”

It was in this moment that I knew I had to be an optimist. A beautiful future unfolded before my five-year-old eyes. Was it really so simple? Whenever something was wrong, I could simply sing about it to feel better? Whenever I came across a problem in life, I could drive it out of my mind with visions of nice things like doorbells, sleigh bells, and schnitzel with noodles? That was the life for me. 

Since then, I’ve waltzed through life with an optimism rivaling that of Pollyanna (before the tree catastrophe), Charlie Brown (only an optimist would keep going for that football), or even Maria von Trapp herself (how else could she wake up each morning to chaperone seven loudly singing children). Along the way, I’ve met my fair share of realists, who always respectfully point out that if you only ever look at the world through a lens of naïve optimism, you will inevitably find disappointment somewhere on your journey. I always smile, laugh, tell them why singing about silver white winters that melt into springs will take care of that, and then move on.

Lately, though, I’m finding that the realists are right. And I’m disappointed.

I’m disappointed that the legitimacy of the CDC, which funds 26 academic institutions researching disease prevention with over $25,000 annually, is being questioned by those who simply can’t be bothered to put on a mask in public places; that the coronavirus pandemic is seen as a political issue, rather than a serious public health crisis with earth-shattering implications for marginalized factions of our society.

I’m disappointed that for many, the removal of statues honoring men who committed treason against the United States of America and made a profit by monetizing human lives is more incendiary than the murder of Black citizens at the hands of those sworn to protect all U.S. citizens.

I’m disappointed that after centuries of institutional violence against Black Americans, there are still some people who would respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the trope “All lives matter;” who don’t understand that’s like a teacher saying, “Actually, sweetie, all of my students matter” to the child in the class who’s been bullied since day one and is begging for anyone to see her suffering and acknowledge her worth.

I’m disappointed that, as far as I can remember, my North Carolina public school curriculum taught me a Disney-esque origin story for Thanksgiving, while I only learned about Juneteenth this year. I was twenty-five years old.

These are problems I can’t ignore by thinking about nice things like cream-colored ponies or crisp apple strudel. And that’s disappointing.

Most of all, I’m disappointed in myself for never truly taking the time to acknowledge the ways in which I – in a place of unquestionable privilege – have benefited from a system built on systemic injustice.

One of my good friends has spent her quarantine diving into genealogy and drawing up family trees for me and others in our circle of friends. I know what you’re thinking. In a world where one can rewatch Netflix favorites in a never-ending cycle (I’m looking at you, Schitt’s Creek), make bread (to be honest, I’m still not sure what a sourdough starter is), or pretend to be a rock god singing along with the cast of Hamilton, who wants to do research? Well, she’s simply a nerd that way and we love her for it.

But I digress.

After this friend shared my family tree with me, I learned that my family has lived in the U.S. for quite some time. My ancestors must have been made of sterner stuff than me because they lived through the crazy old-timey winters and I have to pretend I’m in Game of Thrones just to summon up the courage to walk to the train on a typical morning in January. For generations, my family has been around to accumulate property, middle-class wealth, and (unfortunately) hair loss. Apart from the hair loss, this accumulation set me up to live a relatively comfortable life. I never had to worry about going to bed hungry. I knew my Christmases would usually result in some exciting new acquisitions. I never even doubted that I’d have the means to get a college education. In short, I was privileged.

Conversely, lending discrimination was still legal in the United States in the early 70’s (that’s right, I mean the 1970’s; the time of ABBA, the Brady Bunch, and Jaws). That means some Black families had no access to credit, home or business ownership, or legal protection from lending discrimination or redlining until about 45 years ago.

My parents were alive in the 70’s (and never fail to remind me of it when given the chance to sing along to terribly retro music on the radio), as were the parents of most of my peers. When you compare my family’s thirteen-ish generations of middle-class wealth, property, and credit accumulation with many Black Americans’ two generations of the same, it’s ludicrous even to suggest an equal playing ground.

And I’m disappointed that I couldn’t have told you any of that this time three months ago.

My inherent privilege aside, I’m disappointed in the moments in which my unconscious racism has shown (which wasn’t cute). Though I would always have said I wasn’t racist and held no tolerance for racism in any form, my sixteen-year-old self didn’t realize why saying to my oldest friend (in spite of the color of her skin), “We all know you’re really white like the rest of us” was problematic until she bravely called me out. I didn’t realize at the time that in saying this, I was pointing out many of her most admirable qualities – her intelligence, her professionalism, her eloquence – and labeling them in my head as “white characteristics.” Unintentionally racist, but racist just the same. Every time my first instinct leads me to respond to racism by pointing the finger of blame toward others, I must remember this moment; the embarrassment and shame I felt at being called out, and the incredible grace and dignity of my friend who took the time to educate me.

It isn’t always easy to recognize your own privilege.

It’s uncomfortable.

It is, dare I say, disappointing.

But it isn’t more disappointing than realizing that, in a country which was founded on the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (I could go on because it’s all relevant), nothing could be farther from the truth. We have not treated, nor do we treat, all citizens as if they are created equal. We live in a society that has unquestionably placed emphasis on white lives, white contributions, and white opportunities.

That is disappointing. And heinous. And cruel.

Despite all this disappointment, however, I must remain optimistic. I have to believe that we will someday have justice for Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. I have to believe that we can stop using “color blindness” as a shield, sit with the discomfort of white privilege, and begin to open the doors for change. I have to believe that the Black Lives Matter movement will cause others to examine their own privilege and complicity in a flawed system, just as they did for me.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people are capable of large-scale change. One only has to look at the environmental impact of our attempts to stop the spread of the virus. Greenhouse gas emissions fell. Air traffic-related pollutants decreased drastically. Come on, y’all. Swans and dolphins returned to the Venice canals.

Okay, that part was fake news, but it’s poetic and a nice image, so just go with me. 

I should note that I’m talking about the communal response to the pandemic before people decided that mask mandates are somehow an infringement on their rights (once racial minorities, indigenous people, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and immigrants have fundamental rights, then I’ll listen to your complaints about your mask).

Anyway, we’ve seen that our society is capable of large-scale behavioral change. I remain optimistic, therefore, that if we listen to our marginalized brothers and sisters, acknowledge our own privilege, and push for justice on every level, we can create a world in which the statement “All lives matter” just may carry some truth.

It’s an optimistic view for sure, but it’s necessary. It will be hard work, but what work is more important than this? We must put in the effort. If we do, we won’t be disappointed.

Step aside, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

Compassion, equity, freedom, and justice are a few of my favorite things.  

Dirty Little Secret

If you read my last post, you know that I came to my hometown in North Carolina for what was supposed to be a three-day weekend. During that weekend, my job went remote and all my other engagements in Boston were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To top things off, Boston (my second home) was a bit of a petri dish for a while. Six weeks later, therefore, I’m still in North Carolina.

I don’t have gym access and I’ve combined both sides of the “three large meals vs. six small snacks per day” debate by eating large quantities of food approximately six times a day. In order to fit into something other than pajama pants when this is all over, I’m trying to spend a good bit of time exercising outdoors.

I must admit, however, that walking the same route in my childhood neighborhood over and over is getting old. For starters, children who were in kindergarten when I was a senior in high school are out and about, and I don’t think they necessarily see me as a hip young adult (I’m pretty certain they can smell my fear and know exactly how unhip I really am). There’s also my “I haven’t left the house in weeks” aesthetic, which – combined with the fact that I no longer live here – likely has homeowners rushing to the telephone to call the police and report the vagrant stalking their streets.

Today I decided, therefore, to drive out to my middle school and exercise on its campus. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why would anyone ever voluntarily go back to middle school?” Trust me. I get it. I was as awkward as they come in middle school. When everyone is gone, however, the campus is quite pleasant. There’s a lot of open space and natural beauty (it’s literally surrounded on all sides by cow pastures).

Try taking your end of year tests with these guys staring at you through the window.

At first, I had a good time strolling down memory lane. I saw the gym where all the school dances were held (I was much too scared of making a fool of myself to actually attend the dances, but the idea is nice in hindsight). I passed the band room where I learned to persevere despite my very limited skill on the saxophone (it took some doing, but I came along in the end). I peered through the window of the cafetorium and looked upon the stage where I performed in three musicals (ask me sometime about the best performance of Oklahoma! there ever was).

And then I saw the track. Chills ran up my spine. My stomach twisted itself into knots and the sun seemed to dim slightly as one of the darkest memories of my life came flooding back to me.

It all started in the fall semester of seventh grade. This was the first year my classmates and I could play school sports. “But Sully,” you’re thinking, “you hate sports.” I know. But I couldn’t be the only one sitting on the sidelines. I’d also heard a lot about how colleges like extracurricular involvement and I was certain that they would know if I had decided not to go out for a sport when I was thirteen.

I decided I’d join the cross-country team. A lot of my friends were doing it and (most importantly) it was the only team you didn’t have to audition try out for. Once practices began, I realized it didn’t matter that any of my friends were on the team because you can’t hold a conversation while you’re gasping for oxygen. Besides, I never had anyone to talk to while I ran because I was always a good fifty yards behind even the slowest team members. Regular attendees of our meets quickly learned that when I came within sight of the finish line, they could go ahead and call the restaurant to get their name on the list.

Thank goodness these things weren’t involved. Why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to this is beyond me.

Unfortunately for me, my parents are big into integrity. It was always a rule in our house that once you started a commitment, you had to stick with it through the end of the season. That meant I had to get used to torturing myself between 3:00 and 5:00 every afternoon, sometimes with hundreds of people watching.

I slowly plowed my way through the season. I never did graduate from last place, but my times improved marginally from race to race. My family – ever the stalwart bunch – cheered loudly for me every time I crossed the finish line, rather than yelling, “Who’s kid is that? He added an extra ten minutes to this meet!” to the other parents.

As cheesy as it sounds, I felt a tiny spark of pride in myself because I was not giving up. Cross country was hard, but I kept showing up day after day. With each passing meet, the spark of pride turned into a small flame.

If I had been smart, I would have extinguished that flame without remorse.

The final week of the cross-country season, I was out of school for four days with a nasty stomach bug. I’ll spare you the gritty details, but I can assure you it was not pretty. Our cross-country conference meet, which included teams from every school in our county, took place on a Friday. I announced to my family on Thursday night that I would be going to school the next day and that I would be running in the race. After months of suffering, nothing – not even a stomach bug – could keep me from running in this meet.

The day of the conference race finally came. Girded with a courage I had never before experienced, I marched into the school, ready to tackle the day. I promptly vomited in the bathroom outside my first period class, but I convinced myself it was just my body ridding itself of negative energy before the big meet. Throughout the day, the contents of my belly danced an incessant conga. What I dismissed at the time as nerves was very clearly a stomach bug that had not yet stepped onto the stage for its eleven o’clock number.

I’m devastated to tell you that I soldiered on.

I must admit I had my doubts in the moments leading up to the race. But Harry Potter had his doubts before walking into the Forbidden Forest to meet Voldemort. George Washington had his doubts before he sailed across the Delaware into battle. Rosa Parks had her doubts before she defended her seat on the bus. They were heroes and, dang it, so was I.

That two-mile race may have been the most miserable half-hour of my life. With every step I took, I could feel the contents of my stomach fighting to escape. Sweat that had nothing to do with heat streamed down my face, and my skin was a shade of green never seen on any Crayola product. When I crossed the finish line, I knew I was in trouble. I had kept everything together through the entire race, but my emotional and physical resolve were weaker than ever.

Of course I was the last one to finish the race, so I could at least take comfort in the fact that I didn’t have to wait around. I could simply find my parents and leave without speaking to anyone.

Then the awards started.

A seventh grader without a lot of street cred, I couldn’t very well take the microphone from the presenter and say, “Everyone knows the scores. They tallied them up while they were waiting for me to finish this dumb race. What you are about to say is not news to us. Meanwhile, my body is a ticking time bomb and I need to get out of here before I humiliate myself, my family, and my team!” So I sat down with my classmates on the grass and tried to stay as still as possible.

My plan worked for a while, and my stomach even seemed to calm down slightly while they were reading the results of the race. Just as I breathed a sigh of relief because I might actually get through this without too much damage to my reputation, the commentator announced that my team had won the entire conference meet (no thanks to me). As my team cheered, our coach (a man who never really took “no” for an answer) leapt up and roared for us all to take one last victory lap around the track.

I have never wished for anything more than I wished to be struck by lightning at that moment.

Needless to say, no lightning came. With teams from seven other schools and hundreds of parents watching, my cross-country team began to run around the track. I did my best to keep up while every cell in my body revolted against me.

Three hundred meters to go.

Two hundred meters to go.

One hundred meters to go.

What happened next is all a blur. Time seemed to slow down, and I felt a sharp pain. Suddenly everything I had been fighting to keep inside all day escaped with a fury one could associate with a hurricane.  

I know what you’re thinking: “Sully, you threw up at the race. It’s no big deal and it’s certainly happened before.”

But the sad, sad truth is that I didn’t throw up at that cross country meet.

I stopped running. My eyes grew wide. My mouth fell open in horror. Every ounce of bravery I had collected throughout the day – throughout the entire season, really – left me as quickly as my school lunch of rectangular pizza.

In the eyes of middle schoolers, something as innocent as having acne is a punishable sin. This scenario, therefore, was worse than anything I could have conjured up in my darkest nightmares. In the time when I needed a toilet most, cruel fate stepped in and made sure the only thing going down the drain would be my dignity.

I had a pretty good middle school education. I learned a lot about math, science, English, history, and art. What I didn’t learn, however, was what to do when you’re surrounded by hundreds of people and the unthinkable happens. That was most certainly off the syllabus.

In a matter of seconds I found my parents in the stands. There is something to be said for parental intuition because I could tell from fifty yards away that they knew exactly what had happened. Even my brother, whose favorite hobbies at the time included making jabs at me, looked ready to set fire to the building as a distraction while I got away.

It was at that moment that I ran faster than I had the entire season. While my teammates plowed ahead toward the finish line with victorious tears of happiness in their eyes, I dashed out the side gate toward the parking lot, my eyes streaming with tears that had nothing to do with happiness. My family met me at the car, and as my mother spread an “in case of emergencies” (this definitely qualified) blanket across the back seat, I mentally composed the epitaph I wanted my dad to read at my funeral when I finally gave in and died of shame.

Fast-forward 12 years in which I grew and matured (sort of).

It was strange to revisit this memory – my dirty little secret – today. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve blessed with this story in over a decade. When I revisited my middle school’s track, however, I did so with a new perspective. How often do we look back on events that seemed earth-shattering when they happened only for them to pale in comparison to more recent scenarios? The boredom that drove me to my middle school today is the result of a quarantine imposed to fight a global pandemic. That’s truly earth-shattering. In this context, reliving my darkest day as a middle school runner didn’t seem quite so bad after all.

At least back then one could rely on stores to be well-stocked with toilet paper.