Investing in Memories

By Mark E. Smith

Everyone in our town knew John Sparacino. Even though Martinez was part of the sprawling San Francisco Bay Area, it was a world away from big-city life when I was growing up there. It was small-town America at its best, with John as mayor of Main Street – literally.

I first met John when I was eight, strolling Main Street in my power chair. I made my rounds among the Valco Drugstore, Al’s Paint & Hobby, and DiMaggio’s Restaurant, run by the family of the hometown hero baseball player. I often parked myself at the fountain in the middle of it all, and watched Main Street abuzz with pedestrians.

John wasn’t just Mayor, but Vice President of Eureka Federal Savings Bank on Main Street. He was a short Italian, with a thick mustache, hair that looked like a toupee but wasn’t, with glasses too big for his face. And, he was always in a suit – that’s how bankers of his era dressed regardless of the day or occasion. The San Francisco Chronicle once described him as a “small dapper man,” and that he was, less than five feet tall.

John often stopped and sat with me at the fountain. I’m sure he had more important business to tend. But, it was my luck because he introduced me to everyone in town and I went from the kid in the wheelchair to Mark E. Smith. John was adamant that there were lots of Mark Smiths in the world, but only one Mark E. Smith, and so that’s how he introduced me.

As I grew up, John remained a fixture, both in Martinez and in my life. My parents knew him and he always kept tabs on me, even once I was a teenager, too cool to hang with old men by the fountain.

Upon my 18th birthday, I went to see John at his bank, to get my first checking account. He sat with me at his desk in the lobby – that’s how they did it then – and he helped me fill out the paperwork.

“You know, Mr. Smith, I’m a banker,” he said. “I know a lot about money and investing. I’m going to tell you the best investment you can make during your lifetime with your money: memories. Materialistic things come and go, never lasting forever. But, nothing can take your memories away. If you want the most joyful life, use your money wisely to create memories.”
His words were so genuine and heartfelt, they sank into me, not lost on a know-it-all young man. And, off I went into life, checkbook and John’s advice in hand.

I lost touch with John in my early 20s, trading small-town Martinez for the draw of big-city San Francisco. However, John’s wisdom followed me wherever I went. In fact, in my formal training as a writer at San Francisco State University, the importance of creating and sharing memories was even deeper instilled within me. “Memories are the bones of our craft,” a writing professor once told me.

Of course, the birth of my first daughter cemented the power of creating memories as a centerpiece of life. With her now 21, I fondly base much of my life’s joys on experiences long ago shared with her: holding her at birth, her first steps to me, our first shared airplane ride, her dance recitals, vacations together, and on and on. The same with my wife and younger daughter – it’s the memories of amazing experiences that matter most to me, life’s moments shared. Often my wife and I talk about shared memories on long drives as we head toward creating new ones, and delight fills our hearts. Indeed, John was so very right – memories are the best investment we can make in life.

Still, I’ve always wondered about one aspect of John’s words. Is it true that nothing can take our memories away? After all, I’ve had those around me with Alzheimer’s and dementia, where memory loss is prevalent. However, I’ve learned that even then some memories are retained. While the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for day-to-day memory – is compromised, long-term memories often remain. In this way, for some of us, memories truly are all we’re left with.

I recently learned that John Sparacino died at age 92. The impact that he made on that one small town went on for generations and will continue – in the memories that he helped create for many of us.

The Kids Already Have it Right

By Mark E. Smith

I recently presented a disability awareness program in front of 50 or so children. They were young, between the ages of five and 10. It was a Boys and Girls Club summer camp, and in between all of the fun activities that kids typically do at summer camp, the director sought to enlighten them with lessons in diversity. In my case, the diversity that is a disability.

As adults, we can presume the dynamic. Able-bodied children unsure what to make of someone like me: my power wheelchair, muscle spasms, slurred speech, all emblematic of a term they’ve never heard, cerebral palsy. We could also speculate that the children may be initially put off, unsure, maybe even fearful upon meeting me. After all, formal psychology teaches that we naturally fear the unknown, those who are different from us. In fact, I once read a fascinating study that asserted that the reason why strangers may speak to an able-bodied companion instead of directly to one with a disability – a situation my wife and I sometimes experience – is because most gravitate instinctively to the known, avoiding the unknown. So, it would be understandable for the children interacting with me for the first time to have all of these very real emotions.

Yet, this presentation went exactly as the many I’ve given over almost three decades. That is, the children were totally comfortable and accepting of me, of my differences, from the first moment. I mean, surely there must have been a few apprehensive kids, as within any group. However, in whole, I’ve seen children respond to the unknowns of my diversity in a way different from some adults: they immediately embrace it, unencumbered by preconceived notions, seeing people as… well… people.

During my presentations, I give the kids the opportunity to ask me anything. Virtually everyone raises a hand. As I call upon children, one-by-one, the questions are so genuine, it’s a life lesson for all of us. See, while I receive the occasional practical question – how do I sleep or shower? – the majority are ones of commonality seen by the children. What’s my favorite color? What’s my favorite flavor of cupcake? Do I like dinosaurs? They’re not dwelling on differences, but focusing on similarities.

It’s long made me think, where did we, as adults, turn the corner away from such genuine acceptance of others who are seemingly different? When and why did many of us lose such an innate trait as seeing only the commonalities in others, not differences? I’m guilty of it. I, too, note differences when I see them in others, and while I strive to be accepting and open-minded, I can fall into that trap of preconceived notions projected unjustly onto others. Yet, when I think back to my childhood, I didn’t have them then, and I remember being perplexed at times as to why some adults had them toward me as a child with a disability?

According to a Harvard study, while our brain is hardwired to recognize differences, seeing differences in others aren’t heavily engrained in us until around age 10. At that point, we become highly impressionable by societal views and this is how our “prejudices” form. The good news is that we are also capable of receiving positive impressions, as well as unlearn negative ones. It’s ultimately up to us whether we retain the open heart of a child.

For me, I’ve come to understand that my disability awareness talks to children aren’t about them at all – they already see people correctly, where diversity isn’t yet a word that they need to know. Rather, the real lesson is for some of us adults in the room: there’s truly no diversity among us, just our common humanity.

Nights Like the Minetta Tavern

By Mark E. Smith

When I was a child, my stepfather could do no wrong in my eyes. I idolized him, not just as a father figure, but as who a man should be.

Yet, as I overlooked then but realized as I grew older, he was deeply flawed. He was an alcoholic and his relationship with my mother was as mutually as unhealthy as it gets – constant drinking, domestic violence, suicide threats and attempts, drunk driving, and on and on.

However, much as when I was a child, I now, in mid-life, deeply value who he was in the best ways, what he gave me, and most of all, what he taught me.

I recently had dinner at the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. It opened in the 1930s and has since been where men like Paul have gone for decades to celebrate life. The mahogany bar, white tablecloths, and red upholstered booths are timeless. It’s easy to imagine its famous past patrons hanging out there – Earnest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings, to name a few – drinking, smoking, and eating, boisterous.

As I sat with my family and friends at a table in the middle of the Tavern, I drifted off from our own decadent meal and storytelling to thinking of Paul. I gazed at the signed, black-and-white pictures of old-time prizefighters on the walls, and was reminded of growing up watching boxing with Paul. Then, there was the Hemingway connection, who, in many ways, Paul embodied – bearded, smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes, playing dice at bars, drinking straight whiskey by the glass full, while discussing larger-than-life adventures.

Paul raised me in that spirit, creating larger-than-life memories. He took me to a bullfight in Mexico, offshore fishing in California, game hunting in Nevada. Then there were our trips to Hawaii and Spain. It was all spectacular and, in looking back, always hinged on the cusp of disaster, often fueled by alcohol – that’s how men like Hemingway and Paul lived. And, I, as a boy with severe cerebral palsy, was along for the wild ride.

I was infatuated with it all – not just in the adventurous life, but in Paul embracing me fully as his son, profoundly affecting me after having been all but abandoned by my biological father.

But, there still was that dark side. When you grow up with a Hemingway or a Paul as a father, you witness that which no child should witness: the insanity of a drunk. As I grew into my 20s and 30s, this juxtaposition became increasingly evident. Is a great man who’s deeply flawed truly great? I struggled with this question into early adulthood.

Eventually, Paul lost virtually everything, and he moved into my house, sleeping on our couch. He came home drunk night after night, and I was torn between him, as the father I’d always loved, and the health of my young family being negatively impacted by his behavior. I saw the amazing man I’d grown up with also be that man with my toddler daughter – that is, an amazing grandfather. But, the drinking was then beyond unacceptable to me.

The dilemma was seemingly solved when I moved across the country and we agreed to let Paul remain in our old house for at least a year, till I sold it, my brother watching over him to a degree. That distance gave me time and space to understand Paul’s complexities and the complexities of my emotions.

Paul later visited us annually, and although he still drank and his potential was forever faded, he never stopped loving me or gushing with pride in who I’d become, right till his death. And, my love for him likewise never wavered. There’s no better gift a father can give his son than acceptance, and that remains life-inspiring for me.

I returned to the conversation at our table, looking at my wife and youngest daughter – both of whom radiated the energy of the room – and I realized that what Paul taught me was that we don’t need to be perfect to make a profound difference in the lives of those we love. We just need to love, and that can be enough.

I finished my single glass of wine, admitting that I can’t hold my liquor like Paul, but in other ways, I’m every bit the man he raised me to be: I, with my family, making memories at the Minetta Tavern.

Allowing Time for the Seasons of Life

Mark E. Smith

We all know the merits of time management in our daily lives. But, what about in our emotional lives? How skilled are we at managing that time?

If you’re like me, you’ve been impatient at points in your life, where you’ve wanted what you’ve wished, now! Yet, life rarely unfolds at the speed we wish. After all, most of us have an idealized version for our lives in our mind, but it never comes together fast enough, does it? At best, it can seem like all takes forever to come to fruition, and at worst, it seems like nothing will ever happen for us.

What I’ve learned is to give ourselves the time it takes for life to reveal its paths. I’ve been there at different points, wanting career, love, happiness, health, and on and on – to happen immediately. I never wanted to wait for it; I wanted it now!

However, I’ve realized that life has its way of delivering the right opportunity at the right time. It’s not to be forced. This isn’t to say that we should just sit and wait. We must pursue what we wish through action. Nothing worthwhile ever simply appears. However, it’s important not to put a time frame on many of our hopes and dreams, as it will merely frustrate us. Farmers don’t merely harvest. Rather, they plant seeds, tend their crops, and trust in Mother Nature’s delivery.

Life has its own timing, and if we strive toward what we want, with faith that life will deliver it when we’re truly ready, that’s a far easier road than dwelling in the doubt or frustration that’s fueled by impatience.

To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose….

At other points in life, we may even feel lost, especially during or after a major life change, wondering, When will life feel normal again? It’s vital that we allow ourselves the time needed to find our way again. Feeling this way is normal and time does heal most. But, we must recognize that time is needed to learn, grow, or heal.

In these ways, when it comes to emotional time management, the only managing we should do is allow ourselves time – no matter how much time that takes.

Stopping the Spiral

By Mark E. Smith

It’s that murky area, the one where a bad day turns into a bad week, maybe a bad month, and we can’t find our way out. These are the scary, dangerous times for many.

I recently had one of those weeks, all emotionally spiraling out of control. A series of deaths around me triggered my own anxiety around mortality – fears of leaving my wife and daughters behind upon my passing – created by a not-so-long-ago health crisis. The anxiety and fear piled on and I felt a confusion, a disassociation, a fear that my life, too, was destined to end sooner than later.

As the week went on, I found myself feeling more and more isolated, even though my everyday life didn’t change. I was surrounded by people – my work, my family, my community – but still felt alone. My wife recognized my behavior, wondering if I was “back there” again? It’s something she’s seen come and go, especially since my health crisis.

I remember sitting alone at our kitchen table one eve, irrationally thinking that all around me was temporary, that this might be the last time that I looked out the windows at the early-summer, green-carpeted hills that surround our home. Just as this lush season will fade, might life, itself?

I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text to my lifelong best friend, asking if he could talk? I knew he could, as whenever either of us reach out, the other understands the importance of answering. And, so for an hour, we talked about what I was feeling, and when I hung up the phone, the spiral was neutralized.

If we are thinking, feeling, introspective individuals, we’re going to experience difficult times in life. At those moments, it’s crucial that we’re self-aware enough to reach out to someone for support, clarity, validation of feelings. We need to be self-aware enough to say, I need help stopping this emotional merry-go-round I’m stuck on.

For some of us, a partner, family member, or friend can offer the grounding perspective we need. For others, where the issues are more clinically based, professional help is needed. In either case, our reaching out is key to our survival.

Now, I know that reaching out is hard and scary. It’s difficult to share that we’re struggling, if not impossible for some. At the very least, by reaching out, we’re exposing our deepest vulnerabilities and extending trust. It can seem harrowing.

However, no one can help us if they’re unaware that we’re struggling. So often we wait for others to come to us out of concern. But, if we’re not showing signs, they can’t be expected to. This can be compounded by the fact that many who are struggling master the art of hiding it — again, showing vulnerabilities is extremely difficult for many. Therefore, it’s vital that we, ourselves, reach out, that we push past our apprehension and fear in our own best interests.

I’ve learned that in my toughest times, reaching out has never failed me. When I’ve reached out, I’ve found the most profound human experience: an embrace.

We all struggle at some point in life, the causes of which are unique to each of us. When we find ourselves there, let us not be ashamed or question ourselves or, worst of all, isolate and hide our struggles. Rather, let us serve ourselves by reaching out to those around us – and experience the power of common human experience. We never need to be alone, nor are we.

Shifting Our Lives From (R) To (D)

By Mark E. Smith

My oldest daughter recently returned from Israel, where she waded into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is amazing for many reasons, from the biblical to the scientific. Among them is the fact that it’s the lowest geographical point on Earth. As such, many travel to the Dead Sea to “leave their lowest points in life at the lowest point on Earth.” The Dead Sea, then, is a place of healing our emotional wounds, those that, unlike the physical, may linger for years or a lifetime.

All of this raised a question for me: Must we travel all the way to Israel, immersing ourselves in the water of the Dead Sea, to heal from the past? Or do we simply each possess the capacity to let go of our emotional wounds and move forward, regardless of geography or lore?

Now, I want to make it very clear that I’m not speaking of PTSD or such clinical conditions, as they must be professionally addressed. But, how many of us are simply holding so tightly to emotional wounds from the past that the air can’t reach them for healing? How many of us are allowing emotional wounds to dictate who we are – or, aren’t – today?

I’m not a smart man, nor wise. However, what I’ve learned is that we can’t steer our lives in two directions at once. Our lives, you might say, have two gears – forward and reverse. If we concentrate too heavily on what’s happened to us, it’s impossible to move forward. It’s like trying to drive a car forward while the shifter is in reverse – it doesn’t work, period. Again, this isn’t an astounding revelation; it’s simply the way the physics of life work. If we want to move forward, we can’t be living in reverse. If we want to reach our highest points, we can’t let our lowest points keep holding us back.

The key to all of this is identifying when we need to shift gears. I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life, much that could have held me back, and I’m sure there’s more to come. However, what I’ve found are a few simple practices that I deliberately draw upon that help me shift my life from (R) to (D) in real time.

Firstly, we must realize that experiencing pain is a normal part of life, but so is letting it go. Therefore, while I process pain, I know it won’t last forever – because I know there’s an intrinsic time to release it.

Secondly, I strive to be real with myself about who I want to be. Holding on to pain stifles us. I don’t want to be angry or bitter or jaded or emotionally shut off, so I identify what’s holding me back and let go of it.

Thirdly, I work toward learning from my mistakes rather than forever shaming myself. Along the way in life, I’ve been a jerk of a husband, father, friend, and person at times. Getting stuck in my shame from those times wouldn’t improve my behavior or create restitution for others; learning from my behavior does. In this way, moving from shame to accountability allows me to release destructive shame by applying the experience toward growth.

Lastly, I’m adamant in my life that I’m not a victim. Bad things may happen to me beyond my control, but I’m ultimately the one in control. I refuse to let bad circumstances define me. We may be victimized, but we need not be a victim.

When putting all of this together, a clear pattern emerges: Mark is responsible for Mark. That empowerment means that I control the effect that circumstances have on me. I’ve done well with being decisive toward moving beyond the past, but I’m still cognizant of my falling into unconstructive patterns from time to time – practice makes perfect, I hope. What I know is that letting go of negativity surrounding our past is among the best gifts that we can give ourselves, so I continue evolving that gift.

The fact is, holding on to emotional wounds ultimately only hurts us, preventing us from being who we can be. Fortunately, we need not travel to the ends of the Earth to release it. Indeed, we need not look any farther than ourselves, where we have extraordinary control over our lives and emotions. I say, let us take a firm grip of the shift knob and ensure that our lives are in Drive, emotional wounds behind us, healed.

Arguing Against Arguing

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever argued with your spouse or partner, maybe someone not so close, maybe even a stranger in public? Did you ever stop to truly consider what the arguments became about?

I have done all of the above, and while there’s no argument I’m proud of – they all left me feeling ashamed of my own behavior – I deeply value what I’ve learned from such taxing experiences.

See, while arguments always start out with a causation, even if it’s unwarranted or irrational, they quickly spiral to the singular intention of both people trying to simply prove that they are right and the other is wrong. You’re likely thinking, Mark, that’s the very definition of an argument – duh!

Actually, no. The definition of an argument is persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong. What we tend to do, however, is devolve that intention away from the original topic and it becomes I’m right, you’re wrong, period, by both people and the original topic is lost. Put simply, arguments typically shift from that to you.

A lot of us can relate to this by thinking back to an argument where we genuinely forgot what started the argument – but we were furious at the other person, no less. We may chuckle about it later in realizing the absurdity, but it’s hard to stop the slippery slope when we’re on it – in an argument, that is.

The key is to recognize the nature of it all – and strive to avoid the pitfalls. The fact is, if we follow the course of a typical argument, both people are simply wrong in the end. No one wins; everyone loses. A solution becomes impossible, destruction assured.

This isn’t saying that there’s no place for disagreement or that relationships and interactions with others are always harmonious. Of course disagreements arise in our lives. However, let us address them in constructive ways rather than engaging in the destructive. Let us solve problems rather than escalating them. Let us not fall into the trap of arguing, but into the humility of discussing.

If we know this universal truth – that there’s an intrinsic nature of arguments devolving to a damaging degree, and avoiding it – we’re not just closer to actually solving the true issue at hand, but, more importantly, preserving the dignity of all. Maybe we all should argue against arguing.