Not Very Sporting

For this photo I borrowed an athletic person's desk.

For this photo I borrowed an athletic person’s desk.

A big deadline is looming, so I’m posting a reedited oldie but goodie. Do forgive me.

And enjoy!

***

I was not an athletic child. Not even close. I was clumsy, uncoordinated and disliked sweating. More significantly, I saw playing sports as a waste of time – and not a particularly good waste of time, either. I could come up with about a million ideas that were better, and many of them – such as building a fort in the woods behind my house – kept me physically active and gave me fresh air. Moms are obsessed with fresh air; my childhood air was fresher than most.

For quite a while, this system worked out just fine. I’d get fresh air and hammer things to trees, and my parents would mind their own business.

Things were about to change. One evening Mom sat me at the kitchen table for a talk. Talking during mealtimes was common in our house, lively and something to enjoy. A kitchen table without food, however, was often the setting for bad news.

The table was empty.

Mom delivered her message the same way she removed Band Aids: fast and blindingly painful. “You’re going to play a sport,” she told me. “I don’t care what sport you play, but you are playing something.”

I tried to protest. I was too busy for sports, I told her. I needed to doodle! I needed to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons! I needed to create elaborate kitchen sink dramas with my Star Wars figures! And all those trees weren’t going to hammer themselves!

But my pleas fell on deaf ears.

I knew that Dad was behind Mom’s edict. There was no mistaking that Dad had an idea of what a father/son bond should look like. And his idea of this father/son bond involved throwing, kicking, and/or running.

In my house, Mom was The Enforcer so it was up to her to make sure the throwing, kicking and/or running happened. She signed me up for stuff against my will. Then she told me to stop whining about the fact that she signed me up for stuff against my will. Though Mom was not an athlete, she was the architect of The Allegra Family Motto: Don’t Be a Candy Ass. Whining was definitely Candy Assy. “So knock it off,” she said. “You’re playing soccer.”

In soccer, I dazzled crowds with my slow running and crooked kicking. After that season came to a merciful end, I was shoved off to basketball camp, where I discovered that I was incapable of dribbling and running at the same time. Come the spring, it was time for little league, in which the only way I could get on base was to crowd the plate and get beaned. My on-base average was distressingly high.

To his credit, Dad was nothing but supportive through all of this. He helped me practice, attended every one of my games, and cheered with gusto from the stands when I did anything that was vaguely cheerworthy. I could only imagine what an ordeal this was for him. Yes, his ordeal was self-inflicted, but it was an ordeal nonetheless.

Dad was no fool, though. He could see how unhappy I was. He could see that the father/son bonding thing wasn’t going according to plan. He wanted the plan to work so badly, however, that he stayed the course. Week in and week out, I’d show my incompetence, and week in and week out Dad would cheer as if I was doing well.

Fencing broke this pattern.

Taking fencing was my idea. I figured that if my parents were going to force me to play a sport, I might as well play a sport where I could work through my hostilities by getting stabby.

Fencing, however, turned out to be the worst sport ever. Every week all we did was work on foot positions. Then we’d run laps around the gym. Dozens and dozens and dozens of laps. I chose fencing because I thought it was a sport where I wouldn’t have to run, and here I was, running more than I had ever run in my entire life.

After about a month; in the middle of what I imagined to be my four-thousandth lap; tired, frustrated, dripping with sweat, and repulsed by the BO hanging in the stale gym air; I asked my coach a question:

“When the hell do we get swords?”

I didn’t “ask” this question as much as yell it. I yelled it with all of my might. I yelled it so loudly my query echoed off the rafters and stopped all the lap-runners in their tracks. Everyone in that gym grasped my statement’s subtext: “Hey coach, when will I get the chance to stab you in the face?”

Mr. Fencing Coach was unperturbed. This was clearly not the first time he encountered a question that contained face-stabbing subtext. He explained that the things I called “swords” are actually “foils.” Then he told me to keep running.

Dad was in the bleachers. He saw all this go down. He heard my fourth grade self bark at an authority figure. He heard me say “hell.” Dad was not used to seeing me speak disrespectfully to adults, because, well, I never really had done so before.

But my rage had been brewing all year. It had been growing more concentrated with each passing sports season. Here I was, being forced to do something I didn’t care about – something I was bad at. And I had to show off my badness in front of crowds of parents who inwardly groaned at my every flub. And I had to sweat while doing it.

I was in trouble. I knew I was. How could I not be? I figured Dad would bring up my outburst on the car ride home.

But he didn’t.

But of course he didn’t, I thought. This was a matter for The Enforcer. When we got home, I clenched my teeth, clutched my stomach, and waited for the inevitable.

But he didn’t bring it up with Mom either. Not right away. He waited until after I had gone to bed.

They whispered about it in the kitchen. I picked up every fourth or fifth word through the heating vent next to my bed and fell asleep fretting about what was going to happen to me in the morning. Both of my parents were teachers; they did not, as a rule, tolerate mouthy children.

I waited for the matter to be brought up at the breakfast table. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t brought up at supper, either. It wasn’t discussed the next day or the day after that.

I wasn’t sure how, but I had dodged a bullet.

The following week, as I got ready for fencing practice, Dad announced that he and I were going someplace else.

“Where?” I asked with a groan. For all I knew, Mom had just signed me up for sumo wresting.

“Do you know who Mel Blanc is?” he asked.

Well, duh. Of course I knew who Mel Blanc was. Mel Blanc did the voices for the Warner Brothers cartoon characters I watched religiously every weekday afternoon – well, every weekday afternoon that wasn’t Wednesday, because that was the day I had to go to my damn fencing practice. Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Tweety, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam… Mel Blanc voiced them all.

“Well,” Dad said, doing a bad impression of acting casual, “Mel Blanc is making an appearance at William Paterson College and I got two tickets. Want to come?”

Oh. My. God.

Long story short, Blanc did his voices, told stories, and screened Knighty Knight Bugs and Birds Anonymous. Sure, I would have preferred to see Chuck Jones cartoons rather than Friz Freeling ones, but it was still one of the best nights of my life.

The father/son bond had never been stronger.

Although it was never formally discussed, Mom, Dad, and I understood that the grand sports experiment was over. I was free to return to the backyard and assault trees with hammers.

My sporting life was a difficult period, but it wasn’t in vain, really. For one thing, I got to see Mel Blanc. More importantly, I think my sweaty, angry adventures in the gym and on the playing field helped Dad to acknowledge and embrace the fact that he was the father of a weird kid. Dad and I never had much in common, but, from that day to this, we accept each other.

Now I’m a dad. My son has inherited my athletic ability. He hasn’t however, inherited my attitude. He finds joy in soccer. He gallops rather than runs. He kicks the ball in random directions. He pauses to watch dragonflies while the other players swirl around him. The smile never leaves his face.

Much like my dad did years ago, I cheer and clap. Not because I like sports – because I don’t  – but because I cherish and enjoy my boy’s eccentricities.

As I watch my little guy do his thing, I can feel the big, goofy smile on my face. I suspect that my expression is similar to the one worn by my dad on that fateful night at William Paterson College, when I caught him watching me just as Mel Blanc delivered a “That’s all folks!” in Porky Pig’s iconic stutter.

 

Seal of Approval

Last week, my son was given a homework assignment to create a family seal.

I couldn’t resist; I had to draw one, too.

Here's hoping this will be passed down for generations to come.

Here’s hoping this will be passed down for generations to come. (Click to enlarge.)

This begs a question, I think:

What would you put on your family seal?

A Short Fuse

Big? Yes. Wonderful? Not so much.

Big? Yes. Wonderful? Not so much.

Sometimes a person needs to blow something up.

At least that how I felt as I drove through a lonely stretch of Wyoming desert. I was on a journey to Utah, the goal of which was to get my head together, devise a plan for my future, and hope that Fate would give me some kind of a sign.

I had traveled more than 1,200 miles. Fate offered up no signs. In fact, the only signs I came across were billboards selling fireworks.

Fireworks are illegal in my home state of New Jersey, so I couldn’t help but marvel at just how many fireworks stores existed west of the Delaware River. Every one had its own colorful billboard, pleading with me to me try my hand at losing my fingers. At first these offers weren’t difficult to resist. I found fireworks stupid. Also, I was fond of my fingers and wanted to hang on to all ten.

As my car sputtered further from home, however, as the states got longer and more featureless and Fate continued to oversleep its alarm, the billboards became more persuasive. By the time I reached that Wyoming desert, I had decided that fireworks weren’t stupid at all. In fact, it seemed more and more stupid to not blow something up.

I’ll be careful, I told myself. If I’m careful, I probably won’t lose my fingers. In a worst case scenario I might blow off a pinkie, but who really needs a pinkie? And maybe a missing pinkie will impress girls. I’ll tell them I lost it in Desert Storm.

The matter was settled. I vowed to stop at the next fireworks store I could find.

Minutes later I was greeted by a billboard.

Fireworks! 1 Miles (sic) Ahead!

“Billboard” is too generous a term; it was a large, hand-painted sign tamped down along the side of the road. I decided it was charming. It’s probably a mom ‘n’ pop explosives store, I thought. I was always a big believer in patronizing independent businesses, so this suited me just fine.

I soon spotted the store near the horizon, standing out among the rock formations and wisps of brown scrub. It wasn’t a store as much as it was an aluminum Airstream trailer on a cinder block foundation. It glistened like a beacon in the midday desert sun. Parked next to the trailer and almost as luminous was a 1970-something sedan painted in a “Have A Nice Day” shade of yellow. They were the only man-made objects for as far as the eye could see.

I pulled alongside the yellow car, which was huge in a way only 1970-something American-made sedans can be. It was pristine and spotless, as if it just came off the factory line with a fresh coat of Turtle Wax. The only thing interrupting the perfect, ding-free surface was an 18-inch-long, metal American flag bolted to the rear fender. (I had discovered that the further west I traveled the more often people used American flags in their decorating. The events of 9/11 would amp up the East Coast’s level of patriotism, but in the 1990s, flags in New Jersey were about as rare as a street corner in Perth Amboy that didn’t smell like feet.)

After admiring the sedan a moment more (it was quite a contrast to my filthy, exhausted Plymouth Duster) I clomped up the two steps into the trailer.

Inside the setup was simple and efficient. Running the length of the trailer was a long glass counter displaying explosives arranged with the studied, loving care one might use to show off Tiffany watches. Behind the counter, from floor to ceiling, were open shelves showing off cheaper, more utilitarian, weaponry. An entire shelf was dedicated to the types of explosives that I thought only existed in Roadrunner cartoons.

In stock.

In stock.

This was my very first visit to a fireworks shop and I was kind of in love.

The trailer was empty, so I loitered for a long moment taking it all in. In the glass cabinet, I spotted something black and menacing, a softball-sized sphere with a not-quite-long-enough fuse.

‘Woah,” I said aloud and leaned on the counter to get a better look.

Upon touching the glass, a flash of movement shot up from behind the counter and sent me slamming backward into the wall.

The source of my alarm was the largest German shepherd on earth. He stood on his hind legs and pressed his front paws on the counter as if he was there to wait on me. In that pose he was as tall as I was.

The dog stared at me. He wasn’t angry – I could see that much – but he wasn’t happy either. I sensed he could emotionally go either way. His stare told me that his mood depended entirely on what I decided to do next.

So I did nothing. Both of us were as still as a Natural History Museum diorama.

To my relief, I heard a chipper yell from outside. “Coming! Coming!”

The door flew open and in strode a dusty man with the hungry, lean muscular build of someone accustomed to a life of hard work. In one graceful move, he propped his butt up on the counter top, swung his legs over it, and spun to face me from the other side. He pressed his enormous hands against the counter, mimicking the pose of the dog standing to his left.

He projected a broad smile. “Saw your plates!” he said with undisguised awe. “You’re from New Jersey!”

“Yup.” I said, smiling back.

The man gave the German shepherd’s head a little scratch.

“Beautiful dog you have there,” I said as a pried myself off the far wall.

“Sure is,” his smile grew wider as he scratched the dog again. “Bud is my friend and protector.”

The dog nuzzled the man’s hand and opened his mouth in a slight, doggy grin. Despite his contentment, Bud never took his scrutinizing eyes off me. Bud was indeed a protector.

“Why are you all the way out here?” he asked.

“To buy fireworks!” I said, and we both shared a chuckle.

“They’re illegal where I’m from,” I went on. “So I decided to get some in Wyoming.”

This time the man did not share my chuckle. He only nodded as if he understood the situation all too well.

“Fireworks are a symbol of our freedom,” he said. “You know that, right?”

His question caught me off guard.

“Sure,” I replied.

“When someone denies you the symbol of your freedom, they are denying you freedom.” His tone was harsh, accusatory, as if I might be the one responsible for New Jersey’s fireworks law.

Then he added, “You know that, right?”

A little chill zipped up my spine. In that moment I noticed that I was talking to a man who was larger and stronger than I was. I then noticed that this man had a dog named after a beer that was also larger and stronger than I was.

“Sure,” I replied. My words made me sound as weak as I felt, so I cleared my throat and kept talking. “Sure,” I repeated. My voice still wavered a little, but at least it was louder. “Of course I know that. That’s why I’m here.”

He studied me for a long, excruciating moment. He nodded.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

When I was alone in the trailer, I had all but settled on those softball bomb things, but now, with my heart hammering in my chest, I said the first firework that sprang to mind.

“Bricks.”

For those not in the know, bricks are a set of tiny firecrackers with interlaced fuses. When lit, the firecrackers explode in a machine gun series of rat-a-rat-tats. By fireworks standards they are probably the wussiest things you can ever possibly buy. They’re not even as dangerous as sparklers.

Intimidating, no?

Intimidating, no?

To his credit, the man didn’t flinch. A sale was a sale I suppose. “Black Cat?” he asked.

“Black Cat?” I repeated. I didn’t know what Black Cat meant.

“Black Cat’s the best.”

It dawned on me that Black Cat was the manufacturer. “OK.” I said, starting to recover from our earlier conversation. The angry storm seemed to have passed.

“Large or small?”

“What does the large look like?” I asked. He pulled out a package of bricks the size of a queen mattress.

“Small, I think.”

The small was the size of a twin mattress.

He took my money and stuffed it into a cash box.

As he stared down into the wad of money inside, I saw his jaw clench.

Once. Twice. Three times.

Still staring at the box’s contents, he shook his head — slowly at first, but, then, with greater and greater intensity.

He was revving himself up. I was faced with the realization that the storm hadn’t passed at all; I had just been standing in the eerie calm of the eye.

“Um. I really like you car!” I said.

He flicked my comment away. “Freedom is our most valuable resource and they’re taking it from us. All of us! You know that, right?”

“Uh. Sure.”

“Janet Reno is the one doing it. She’s a Communist. Now, me? I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?”

“Yes,” I said.

Bud began to take cues from his owner’s mood. The dog’s stare seemed more intense than ever.

“Well, Reno’s no Christian! Christians don’t rob people of their freedom!

“No,” I said. My eyes flickered to the shelves behind the counter. I didn’t notice before, but hanging above the fireworks shelves, a shotgun was on display.

Sweet Jesus.

Then, like the merchandise he sold, the man exploded. I was assailed by a ferocious life philosophy. His hatred of Janet Reno segued into his hatred of President Clinton, which led to the IRS, which led to The Bankers, which led to how he refuses to get a license or insurance for that car I liked so much because no one had any damn business meddling in his affairs.

But the cornerstone of his sermon, the apex of his rage was reserved for the Phony Wars America had fought in the past – and the Real War that we’d all have to fight in the future.

Because that Real War was coming.

It was coming soon and no one was gonna be able to sit it out.

Everybody was going to have to take a side.

I didn’t understand much of what the guy was talking about. This was months before the Oklahoma City bombing; the militia man philosophy was not yet on anyone’s radar. What I did understand was that I had blindly wandered into something ominous. Something far worse than blowing off a pinkie.

My brain took stock of the situation:

You are more than a thousand miles from home.

You are in the middle of a desert.

There is no one for miles around.

No one knows where you are.

And where are you? my brain asked, rhetorically. You are in a trailer. With an angry, crazy man. A muscular German shepherd. A shotgun. And about four tons of explosives.

Take my advice, my brain said. Whatever this man says, you agree.

I don’t know how long he spoke, but it seemed interminable. I don’t remember him winding down, either; one moment he was raving, jabbing his finger and waving his fists, the next moment the trailer was silent.

He stared at me, seething.

He handed me my wussy brick purchase. I took it, but couldn’t move — not with him staring like that. I could see that there was far too much unspent rage still inside him to do anything rash — like leave.

So I cleared my throat. Then I spoke.

“I never thought of it that way before,” I heard myself say. “You are absolutely right.”

His eyebrows furrowed for a moment, but then I caught one corner of his mouth flicker. Was it the beginning of a smile?

Keep going, my brain said.

“Thank you.” I went on. I held out my hand. He stared at it a moment, then took it and shook it with bone-crunching firmness. He was a missionary; I was his convert.

“What’s you’re name?” I asked.

His charming smile returned. “Name’s Luke.”

“I’m glad I met you, Luke. Very glad.”

I took my bricks and strode with great purpose through the trailer door.

“Glad I met you, too!” Luke called after me.

I hopped into my car and turned the key. Luke followed me outside.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“My name’s Bob,” I said. I then slammed my gas pedal to the floor and left Luke behind in a cloud of dust.

Am I Enthusiastic? Apparently So!

heylookawriterfellow:

The lovely and talented Britt Skrabanek recently accused me of being enthusiastic about life. I wasn’t sure if she was correct in this assessment. (My morning coffee hadn’t quite kicked in.)

Then she invited me to write a post for her popular monthly blog feature, “The Life Enthusiast Chronicles.” Suddenly I discovered that I was enthusiastic! By golly, Britt was right!

So that’s where I’m hanging out this week. Come on over and leave a comment or three. I’ll bring scones.

Originally posted on Britt Skrabanek:

Last month Zen from Zen Scribbles reminded us never to lose sight of the child in ourselves, to enjoy things that makes us happy—no matter what they are, no matter hold old we are. In my monthly series, The Life Enthusiast Chronicles, magnificent human beings from all over talk about what makes them excited to be alive.

Today I’m stoked to bring you guys a New Jersey native, Mike Allegra from heylookawriterfellow. Hands down, Mike’s blog is one of the funniest and most entertaining blogs I read on a regular basis. He puts a humorous spin on day-to-day experiences that will make you laugh your ass off. Seriously, I’ve spit out my coffee in the mornings on numerous occasions. 

Beyond that, Mike is just a great family guy with a great talent for writing (and doodling). I’m so glad that he took me up on the Life Enthusiast offer. Enjoy.

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More Resolved Solved!

Resolutions be tricky.

Resolutions be tricky.

At the start of 2015, I posted six resolutions that I planned to accomplish over the coming year. By the first week of February, I had nailed two of them:

Resolved: I will do something bold, yet well-planned.

Resolved: I will get rid of my golf ball collection in a manner that is – at the very least – mildly amusing.

Needless to say, I was feeling rather good about myself. In fact, I was smug. “Ha ha!” I chuckled. “I have 11 months to accomplish four more measly resolutions. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy!”

The  remaining resolutions didn’t seem all that tricky, either:

Resolved: I shall neither form opinions nor comment on the opinions of others until I have finished at least one big mug of morning coffee.

Resolved: I will meet more blog buddies in person.

Resolved: I will become a Laundry Master.

Resolved: I shall write early and often.

But, then, resolution-wise, I kind of hit a wall. February became March and March became April. During that time I was unable to put anything in the done pile.

That is, until last week. My lovely wife, Ellen, with great ceremony, presented me with the following two documents (suitable for framing).

Woo!

Woo! (Click to see larger.)

Double woo! (Click to see larger.)

Double woo! (Click to see larger.)

Thank you, my love! I am honored and touched. And I can now see the light at the end of the resolution tunnel.

Onward!

Card, Catalogued

postcard of factoryI loathe clutter. I am always the person in my house to say, “Time to clean out! Throw it away or give it away! I don’t care what you do with it, as long as it’s gone!”

My family accuses me of taking this to extremes – and maybe I do. I have been caught trying to donate toys that my son is currently playing with and clothes my wife is currently wearing.

But I can get sentimental, too. Once in a while I’ll look at one of my possessions and think, “I will never, ever, in a million-jillion years, give this up.”

Shortly after my grandpa passed away, Mom gave me a stack of his old postcards. I was faintly familiar with them. I remembered seeing them in the bottom of his desk drawer during one of my semi-regular childhood snooping sessions. I never paid the postcards much mind, however, as they were stuffed underneath a distracting stack of ancient men’s magazines that featured models who looked like Ethel Mertz.

But now that the postcards had my undivided attention, I was in love.

My favorite is the card at the top of this post, a depiction of The Draper Company Works, a weaving loom factory in Hopedale, Massachusetts. In terms of architectural ugliness only parking garages are more of an eyesore than factories, yet the illustrator did a stellar job in making the facility look crisp, clean, and pristine. I especially love the faint wisp of smoke apologetically creeping into the brilliant azure sky. It is industrialization at its most Utopian, as seen through beer goggles and a generous slathering of Vaseline.

As much as I love the picture, it is what’s written on the back that makes the postcard a beloved keepsake. Most of the postcards in grandpa’s desk were blank, but this one is a window into my family’s history.

Dated July 21, 1926, it is a letter from my great-grandmother, who was visiting her mother in Upton, Massachusetts, to my great-grandfather, who remained home in Little Falls, New Jersey.

I never knew either one of my great-grandparents. My great-grandpa was long dead by the time I came on the scene. Great-grandma was alive, but my family never visited her. This led me to believe that she was either nasty or bonkers or both.

But that’s neither here nor there; this postcard, written almost 90 years ago and only a few lines long, opens a window into my great-grandma’s mind and soul. I never met her, but I feel I know her.

It reads as follows:

Dear James,

Just a few lines to let you know I feel terrible this morning. My whole body shakes. I scared Mr. Felton and Mama. They thought I was dying. Oh, the gas is killing me. Lastly, that’s all I care to write this morning.

With love from me and the children,

Emily

This card tells me many things. First of all, it explains why great-grandpa didn’t go on vacations with great-grandma. I can just picture him reading this card from the comfort of his home in Little Falls thinking, “Thank God I’m here!”

The card also shows that great-grandma wasn’t one to suffer in silence. When she had gas (and, boy, did she!), she was going to make sure everyone knew about it – not only Mama and Mr. Felton (whoever he is), but also her mailman. That was just the way she rolled.

But the most remarkable thing about the card is this: No one ever threw it out. My great-grandpa kept the card and passed it down to his son. And then my grandpa, in his infinite wisdom, held onto it for his entire life.

And now I have it. And you can bet your butt that I’m keeping it for the rest of my life, too. Mom gave me this postcard for a reason, I think; she knew I was the only one in the family who would appreciate its importance. Only I would make sure it was properly archived and kept safe.

And when I die, I will bequeath it to my grandchildren, for I feel it is my duty to let them know that, on one fateful summer day in 1926, their great-great-great-grandmother had a terrible – almost lethal – case of the farts.

postcard back

Salt Solution

UtahI awoke with stinging eyes, a pounding headache, and a whiff of stale smoke burning in my nostrils. It was all the effects of a hangover with none of the boozy fun of the night before.

Boozy fun didn’t happen in a Salt Lake City Holiday Inn — especially this one. The only vacancy was a smoking room with a lumpy king-size mattress that groaned every time I rolled over. It groaned often. I groaned, too, as I searched in vain for a comfortable sleeping position.

But it wasn’t all bad. I had reached my goal. I had made it to Utah. That was something, wasn’t it?

I was in my mid-twenties. College was over. I was living with my parents. I had no girlfriend or any prospect of finding one. Most of my friends had moved away. The only reason I had to get out of bed in the morning was my job at a bed and breakfast trade magazine situated out of a suite of dingy offices in South Orange. I didn’t like the work, but it was all I had.

Then I got laid off. In one fell swoop, I had lost what was left of my identity.

I still had money, though — and I didn’t want to spend what little cash I had left living my boring life in the same boring way. I wanted to spend it on something else – on gas and motels and heavy meals like fried steaks slathered in thick, speckled gravy the consistency of joint compound.

I wanted to see things. I wanted to travel.

“Where are you going?” my friend, Bill, asked through masticated bites of cheeseburger. Like me, Bill still lived at home. Unlike me, he had a job, a girlfriend, and an exit strategy out of his parents’ basement.

I didn’t have an answer. A destination had never occurred to me, so I said the first silly location that sprang to mind.

“Utah.”

“Ah!” Bill nodded. “You could use a couple of wives.”

We chuckled as we slurped our diner coffee, wordlessly mocking a place neither one of us had ever been.

In that very moment, however, a less cynical part of my personality took over.

Well, why not?, I thought. Maybe I would find my future wife on this trip. Maybe I’d stumble into a job – a good one that paid well. Maybe I’d find a little town so perfect that I’d never want to leave. Maybe the hours of quiet contemplation behind the wheel of my Plymouth Duster would help me make sense of my life. Who knew what was out there a thousand miles west of New Jersey? Anything could be out there. Maybe it was wonderful. Maybe it was waiting for me.

My stomach trembled with giddiness. For the first time in a year or more I fell in love with possibility.

I began my journey on a crisp, March morning with a bulging wallet, two bulging suitcases and little fanfare.

I first drove to Baltimore to meet up with an old friend. But our relationship wasn’t the same as I had remembered it.

Then I drove to Pittsburgh – where I went to college – to see if I could recapture something from that point in my life. I couldn’t.

Then I drove to places unknown. Ohio. Indiana. Iowa. Illinois. Nebraska.

I met a few people along the way, but not really. I didn’t want to meet people, so I mostly kept to myself. Part of me knew that I was sabotaging the entire point of my trip – the desire to find something to turn my life around – but I stayed the course. I drove a few hours. I set up in a motel. I watched Dragnet on Nick at Nite. Then I repeated the process, day after day after day, until Wyoming bled into Utah.

Because Utah was my destination, I had convinced myself that the answer to my problems would be found there. But all I could see was a vanilla town filled with fit, chipper people. When you’re depressed, the last place you want to be is in a town filled with fit, chipper people.

That night, in my stinky motel room, I counted what was left of my cash. More than half of it was gone. Logic told me that I had to head for home right away if I didn’t want to get stranded.

But I resisted. Everything was still unresolved. Everything was so very much the same as it was before that I couldn’t bring myself to turn around.

So the next morning I skipped breakfast and drove further west.

Shortly after Salt Lake City disappeared in my rear view mirror, I came upon the Great Salt Flats. The idea of such a lonely place so near a city startled me. I had driven across many desolate patches on my journey, but nothing quite like this. Before I knew what I was doing, I pulled over to the shoulder.

I got out of the car. The wind slapped me in the face as my sneakers crunched against the gray silt. The land was flat and featureless in every direction. I imagined Purgatory to be like this.

“My life in a nutshell,” I announced into a gust of wind. “Nothing worthwhile in any direction.”

But as I took it all in, I reconsidered my assessment.

If I continued west long enough, I’d hit San Francisco.

If I turned around, I’d be back in Salt Lake City and on my way home.

And who knew what I’d find if I went north or south? Something else besides this, surely.

There was something worthwhile in every direction, I just couldn’t see it yet. Like Purgatory, this situation was temporary.

Maybe this was my life in a nutshell. Maybe Utah did have something to tell me.

I let the wind smack me around for a minute or two more before I slid back into the driver’s seat. With a lighter heart, I pointed my car toward home and looked forward to what might appear on the horizon.