Vacationing With Jasper

table

By Mark E. Smith

I’m not a formal vacation kind of guy. My career in complex rehab technology and serving my peers is a ’round-the-clock lifestyle that I’m more passionate than ever about after 15 years – and true vacations get in the way of that. In fact, I sold my boat because it was taking up too much time on the weekends during the summer. I just don’t have the desire to be off the grid long enough to truly disconnect in the way that others do, footloose and fancy free. When you come from nothing, work your way up the hard way, and know that you can go back to where you came from at any time, there’s an instinctive drive and work ethic that keeps you focused and dedicated, possibly to an obsessive degree.

However, in my latter years, especially with my daughter now 16, and wanting to give her life experiences that we all should be blessed enough to provide our children, I’ve done a fair amount of recreational travel in recent years. Even that, though, often ties into my career. I love Vegas, and, fortunately, my company has a manufacturing facility there, so on my own dime and time, I can spend, say, three days in Vegas, but still get to see colleagues as wished. Or, I was recently in Washington D.C. for a day relating to my daughter, and was able to drop by a disability-related conference, and visit with close peers. And, with an iPhone and iPad, I’m connected virtually anywhere, any time, so accessibility to work is always there.

Again, though, I do try to balance life a bit, so my one “vacation” this summer was a three-day stay at a self-proclaimed “luxury resort” in the Poconos, an hour from my house, focused on “world-class products and service that exceed expectations of the most experienced traveler.” My plan was peace and quiet, the ability to sleep, eat, check my online communications, and do it all over again – and based on the resort’s marketing, it seemed like the perfect place to do that. But, alas, not so.

See, it turns out that very wealthy people do a great job at making money, and a terrible job at picking where to take their completely ill-behaved kids on vacation. I hate to sound like a crotchety, old man, but my 16-year-old handles herself with the poise and grace of a socialite – and we live in a ranch house and drive a seven-year-old van. How come when your family flies into a resort via helicopter, you have everything but appropriately-behaved children? Heck, I’ve seen the TV show, Super Nanny, and reckon that if you can afford a helicopter, you can afford to hire someone to teach your kids discipline. Mom brought her collection of Prada purses, but apparently there wasn’t room to pack the kids’ manners!

So, I ended up at the so-called prestigious resort, with a quaint room and, in the dining room, a beautifully-reserved table for my included five-star meals – all the while surrounded by screaming, running kids, who had no parental guidance and nothing to do but bother me and others looking for tranquil elegance in a vacation.

Jasper was my favorite, and when I say favorite, I mean the kid that I most wanted to see trip and get rug burns on his knees. I only knew his name because his mom – who was admittedly smoking hot in her tennis skirts – constantly badgered him in an annoyingly-passive voice. Jasper, honey, please come sit with mommy and daddy, and eat your dinner, she said as Jasper played freakin’ airplane around the formal dinning room.

“Whatcha eatin’?” Jasper asked me, his head barely taller than my table.

“It’s deep-fried kid,” I replied. “And if you don’t get away from my table, you’ll be my desert.”

But, Jasper didn’t care what I said, or what his mom said, or what anyone said. It was his world, and we were just living in it.

And, so, there I was, at among supposedly the most exclusive resorts in the country, just wanting peace and quiet, and I ended up in the middle of dozens of preschoolers in Ralph Lauren polos – lead by Mommy’s little Jasper – acting like perpetual-motion pogo sticks, bouncing around the lodge like it was a barrel of monkeys.

So, I went to the one place that the terrible tykes couldn’t go: the bar. However, within minutes, there’s five-year-old Jasper starring at me again.

“Whatcha drinkin’?” he asked, his hands gripping the edge of my table.

“Boar’s blood,” I said.

“What’s that?” he asked, bouncing up and down on his invisible pogo stick.

“Why are you wearing girl’s shoes?” I asked, and he stopped bouncing, looking down at his Docksiders. “See that lady over there – she has the same shoes on. Girl shoes, just like you.”

I’m very observant, and just happen to notice that Jasper and a woman from Italy I’d met earlier wore identical boat shoes.

“These aren’t girl shoes,” he says, crossing his arms. “They’re boy shoes.”

“Now you’re crossing your arms like a girl,” I say. “First you dress like a girl, and now you gesture like one. I see a pattern here.”

Jasper just stared at me, stumped.

“Cat got your tongue?” I asked.

“I’m going to tell my mom on you,” Jasper retorted, pouting.

“Dude, you’re the one wearing girl’s shoes and crossing your arms,” I shouted as Jasper ran away.

Ultimately, Jasper and I became really good friends. I even laughed when he fell running across the lodge one afternoon, burning the tip of his nose as his face slid across an area rug.

Flying High

By Mark E. Smith

I smiled – as always – when I rolled up to the airline ticket counter, and offered a friendly good morning to the ticket agent, placing my companion’s identification card and mine on the counter. The agent took our I.D.s, pulled up our tickets, and said, “You’re going to have to check your bag – that’ll be $25.”

“It’s a carry-on,” I replied, glancing at my bag.

“No, it’s too big to be a carry-on,” she replied. “You have to check it.”

“It’s a certified carry-on, and I’ve flown with it countless times as a carry-on, never checking it,” I explained.

“Do you want to fly today or not?” she asked. “”If so, I need that bag and $25.”

I suppose I could have asked to set the bag on the measuring board, or asked to speak to a manager, but I didn’t want to make the agent any angrier than she was, I didn’t want to add any fuel to whatever was burning her up inside that morning. So, I simply checked the bag as she insisted.

As my travel companion and I headed toward security screening, my companion was outraged, not understanding why the agent was so rude? “I don’t know why she was so rude,” I answered. “People are rude all the time. I just hope her day gets better.”

I was heading home from a successful business trip; I was blessed that $25 wasn’t an issue for me to afford; and, I was excited to be going home to my daughter. Really, I was happy to just be on my way – no worries at all.

The fact is, not everyone is going to like you or be kind to you – often for no reason at all. From your own family members to complete strangers, people are going to be rude, unkind, possibly downright mean. However, we have the choice of buying into their misery, or just letting it roll off us like water on glass – not letting it stick. If we know we are living kind, loving lives that give to others, it’s doing ourselves an injustice to let others bring us down. Be yourself – celebrated, not degraded or just tolerated.

I had a nice flight home, ultimately reaching the arms of my welcoming daughter. And, I truly hope that ticket agent’s day turned out just as well.

Wanna be a Rock Star?

By Mark E. Smith

At some point, one must get smarter about these things – I must get smarter about these things. At some point, unlike Peter Pan, we should all grow up.

I’m heading out on the road, with a jam-packed schedule – first Detroit, then Atlanta for Medtrade. They’re back-to-back trips, with one whole day home in-between, just enough to repack and catch-up with my daughter. It’s a nine-day stint in total.

After well over a decade of these types of trip, I’ve seen it all and done it all, and while it’s been a blast – and made for some great writing and tales to be told – at some point one has to put the work above all else, and dial down the after hours shenanigans for healthier pursuits like sleep. The goal isn’t to pride yourself on rock-starring it all night, then showing up for your gig on time the next day, but to prioritize your actual job at hand – and that means forgoing the whole rock-star part. It’s almost like there has to be humility to it all, where you just do your job, find something to eat, and go back to your hotel room for some reading and a full night’s sleep. No boozing, no parties, no chasing chicks – just a call home, shower, and eight hours of sleep. Is that the life of over-the-top stories and rock-star fantasies come true? No, but it’s a heck of a wise way to live if your career is a priority and you want to live by example for those around you – in my case, my teen daughter.

In Detroit, one day, I have an 8:00am corporate talk, then an 8:00pm keynote, more of a ruckus, rousing one-man show, introduced by one of Detroit’s top news anchors. I have to be up by 5:00am, knock the ball out of the park during the morning talk, then shift gears for a totally different gig that evening, where my energy level is through the roof. And, Medtrade is far more demanding yet, in that it’s a grueling schedule day after day, all week. Work like that, to the levels that I wish to perform, just can’t be done without a good night’s rest and sobriety.

I’ve written and talked about the highs and lows on the road, where the self-imposed chaos could take me from among the most glamorous scenes to the darkest of depression, the type of emotional roller-coaster that contributed to Vic Chestnut’s suicide. And, what I’ve realized is that it’s not the travel, or the work, or the scenes that cause such extremes, but the way we handle them – a loss of perspective and humility.

Sure, most want to be a rock star on the road, living clips of the lifestyle. But, the fact is, I’m no musician with throngs of fans, fueled by booze and chicks. Rather, I’m just a full-time single dad, trying to make a living while making a difference, where good work and clean living is a boring truth. My goal is to do my jobs, move on to the next city, and get home to just being Dad and cleaning my bathroom.

Just Jump!

By Mark E. Smith

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Mark’s back in Vegas again? Publicly, I guess it does seem like I’m in Vegas a lot, but really it’s only a few weekends per year. …OK, so, yes, I’m in Vegas again – but I love this place! And, this time is different, namely because I’m with my girlfriend and our two daughters – sort of like the Brady Bunch, minus four kids, Alice, Sam the Butcher, and Cousin Oliver. But, really, we’re in Vegas for a three-day weekend on a much more serious note: Personal growth as individuals and as a group.

Our daughters are moving toward 14 and 16, mine being the older. It’s a pivotal time in their lives, where we want them to be empowered, to know their amazing potentials as strong, poised, confident young ladies. In this messed-up culture that sends airbrushed, cosmetically-enhanced messages that no woman is ever good enough, we say, nonsense – every woman is more than enough, perfect as-is, capable of whatever she dreams. And, this is why we’re in Vegas, encouraging our daughters to step of the 108th floor of the Stratosphere, plummeting 855 feet to the ground.

…Well, maybe I should clarify the jumping off of the building part. See, the Stratosphere, on the outreach of the Vegas strip, is a replica of Seattle’s Space Needle. The only real difference is that if you jump off the Space Needle, you die; whereas, with the Stratosphere, you’re perched on a ledge, wearing a harness, and as you leap, control cables guide you safely to the ground, slowing you to your feet at the end. Yet, despite the safety factors, stepping off of that ledge on the 108th floor, 855 feet off of the ground, and virtually free falling, takes a huge amount of courage and confidence. And, I explain this to our girls at dinner the night before:

At points in our lives, we each find ourselves perched on a ledge. If we have the courage to jump – maybe it’s a career step, or starting or ending a relationship, or any aspect of life that requires us to stretch our comfort zone – we grow. However, if we don’t have the courage to make those leaps, our lives stagnate, we go nowhere. Both of you girls are doing an amazing job in school, with huge life potential ahead of you. But, you’ll need to take leaps of courage along the way to do it. Let the literal Stratosphere SkyJump be a lesson in life, where you’ll carry it with you, knowing that you have the courage and strength to take big leaps in life whenever needed….

After the jump, I tell the girls how proud of them I am, and they share how the scariest part was preparing for the jump, that once they summoned the courage to step off of the ledge, the liberation of flying through the air was amazing.

Really, for all us, no matter our backgrounds or challenges, there’s a lesson to be learned here, isn’t there? Success in all areas of life is all but guaranteed, as long as we have the courage to take initial leaps out of our comfort zones. A lot of times challenges are easy, but stepping off of the ledge, into a seemingly new territory is the hard part. Yet, when we summon the courage to simply step off of the ledge, our lives always move to the next level. As I told the girls, just jump!

The Jackass Chronicle

By Mark E. Smith

The first and only time that I met Jacki, I ate a cigarette. Everyone else in the group knew me, but Jacki and I didn’t know each other, and I immediately recognized that the impression that I made upon her was the wrong one. See, I performed a vaudeville trick, where if the weather is just the right temperature, you can eat a cigarette, take a deep, warm breath, and blow smoke. But, of course, it’s not really smoke, just breathing “frost.” Everyone who knew me understood that it was me goofing off, that there are mostly serious sides to my life, depth to my character, but I can be hilariously over-the-top when appropriate. However, not discounting Jacki’s own gracious character, I got the impression that she only saw me as a cigarette-eating jackass – which in the moment, I was. And, that soon troubled me.

Firstly, for me, “legacy” is a life-driver, where if I can have even a small, positive impact on a stranger’s life, it’s really important to me. And, every time I thought about Jacki for months, I cringed, realizing that I was nothing more than the jackass who ate the cigarette – not very impacting.

And, secondly, I was admittedly smitten with Jacki, where her eloquence struck me – the way she carried herself, you might say. Have you ever met someone in passing, and just thought, wow. Well, that was my moment seeing Jacki – only I was eating a cigarette like a total jackass.

So, for some time, when it came to my one and only encounter with Jacki, I saw myself as the underdog in every teen movie: I was the goofy guy who the really attractive, popular girl only saw as a dork. But, life went on, and I reckoned that, at least to Jacki, I’d forever just be a jackass.

However, I recently ran into Jacki again while working a trade show, and I immediately had to ask her out to dinner with friends. In fact, I openly prefaced the whole conversation with the fact that I wasn’t the jackass who I may have seemed before, that I was a far more serious guy. It wasn’t that I had anything to prove, per se, but I just wanted the chance to be me – the real me, not some jackass eating a cigarette – and I wanted the chance to likewise get to know her on a genuine level. I mean, maybe after spending an evening with me and friends, she’d still see me as a jackass, but at least she’d see the real jackass in me.

Now that you know the back story, let’s fast forward into present tense….

So, we meet for dinner in Los Angeles, and become fast friends, chatting each other up with a lot in common. And, Jacki is an amazing woman – smart, funny, successful, compassionate, and beautiful – and, at some point, it comes out that she has a boyfriend. But, I’m OK that she has a boyfriend because I’m a grown-up, and I’m pleased to be getting to know an amazing person on a totally sincere level. We have a great seafood dinner, and Jacki is kind enough to feed me raw oysters, which are forever challenging to balance on a fork. We learn a ton about each other – admittedly ignoring our friends to some degree throughout the eve – and end the evening with a hug. And, I, the once-jackass, feel like I was able to be my true self, not a seeming jackass after all. And, Jacki was, of course, a remarkable person to get to know.

As I fall asleep in my white-comforter, king-size hotel room bed, I feel like I’ve done right by all, and slip off into a sound sleep.

However, around 1:30am, I awake with my stomach boiling over – and it’s too late. Even if I was the world’s fastest sprinter, I couldn’t have made it to the bathroom. In the pitch black, I vomit toward the side of the bed – and it just keeps coming. I’m praying that I’m targeting the dirty clothes between the nightstand and my wheelchair, that I’m not hitting the bed, the nightstand, or my wheelchair – but likewise knowing that I’m probably nailing all three at once.

Finally, through the dry heaves, I turn on the lamp, scared to see what I find. I glance at the night stand: clean. I glance at my wheelchair: clean. I glance at side of the bed: covered in vomit. Damn, I missed everything but the all-white bed!

Now, I’m kind of panicked because I’ve vomited seafood all over a white hotel bed, and it’s a horrible situation. I begin racing through solutions on cleaning this up: a wash rag and soap; I’ll strip the bed and take the sheets and comforter to the cleaners down the street; or, I’ll just live with it till check-out another day, and skip-out of town. But, none of these strike me as valid solutions.

However, I have being a bachelor on my side. See, if a woman was with me, it would require immediate action. I’d have to act embarrassed, strip the bed, brush my teeth, and fawn being sicker than I was. But, I’m alone, where the only action required is scooting across the bed, to the clean side, and promptly going back to sleep. This is where being single on the road totally rocks. No, I’m not getting drunk or laid, but the fact that I can vomit on my hotel bed in the middle of the night, and do nothing about it till morning, going right back to sleep, makes being single the best lifestyle ever. And, so, I just go back to sleep – winning.

In the morning, I shower and dress – and know that I have to do the inevitable. I have to march up to the front desk and declare, “I’m Mark E. Smith, in room 318, and I’ve vomited on my bed….”

However, I realize that I’m only partly to blame. See, Jacki has to have some responsibility in all of this. And, so with little more than shame, I roll up to April, the woman at the front desk, and spill out my heart:

So, last year, I ate a cigarette as a prank, and made myself look like a jackass in front of this amazing woman. And, so to show her that I’m not a jackass, I took her and friends out for seafood last night. And, the woman is totally smart, funny, and caring – but, she has a boyfriend, and I respect that. So, long story, short, I made a new platonic friend, but the seafood, not so much, and I vomited all over my bed. …I mean, all over – the comforter the sheets, running down the sides….

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Mr. Smith – we’ll get that changed for you,” the desk clerk said. “At least you were sleeping alone last night, from what it sounds like.”

“Trust me, April, when it comes to women and me these days, I’m glad to be sleeping alone every night,” I replied, and headed off to start my day.

Hot Mess

By Mark E. Smith

So, I’m drinking at Tao in Las Vegas, parked in my power chair sideways against the bar, so I can sip my vodka and Red Bull through a straw. Whoopi Goldberg and Rod Stewart are with me – no, not the real Whoopi and Rod, but impersonators.

Prior to several hours ago, none of us knew each other. My plan was to go to Vegas alone as an adventure, but then my buddy was to meet me there. However, as the world is meant to be I suppose, my buddy opted not to meet me after all, leaving me on my own in Vegas for four days. So, after checking into my hotel, I headed to Tao – a top Vegas club that’s hard to get into unless you’re a hot chick, a dude with a hot chick, or a celeb – and I was ushered right in, skirting the line of smoking hot chicks and their steroid-strutting dudes, not even a cover charge for me.

What I’ve learned is that as a guy with a disability, using a power chair, in a suit and tie, with a big smile and gregarious personality, I can go into virtually any scene and immediately find great conversation – or have it find me. A lone guy at a bar is typically seen as creepy, where if he says hi to people walking by, they’re probably going to keep on walking – and, they certainly won’t approach him. However, I find that the novelty of my disability and inherently nonthreatening nature – along with a super-outgoing personality – really attracts people, where I can very quickly build rapport, becoming immediately engaged in great conversations, making fast friends, where even if I just park somewhere, someone will ultimately come up and start a conversation. In these ways, I get by very well, able to get into any club, quickly fitting into the scene. So, I end up in Tao within hours of landing in Vegas, surrounded by barely-dressed super-model type chicks and buffed bozos – rock-starring it on my own, one might say.

Now, vodka and Red Bull isn’t my drink of choice – that would be Southern Comfort, straight, by the double-shot. However, unbeknown to me when booking the trip, I picked spring break week, when all of the mid- and southwest college kids flock to Vegas. And, in a brilliant – and deviant – marketing ploy, Red Bull is the official sponsor, where at virtually any bar or club for the week, one can get a house vodka and Red Bull mixer for $6, whereas a double shot of Southern Comfort averages $15, so I opted to drink on the cheap (plus, being alone and looking to meet people, I had no interest in getting hammered drunk, but remaining sober while socially sipping a single drink much of the night).

So, I’m sipping my cheap drink at Tao, checking out the countless chicks who, on average, must be 19 years younger than me, when Whoopi Goldberg walks up and joins me at the bar. I immediately comment that she’s the striking image of Oprah, and she laughs – and we get to chatting. It turns out that she is, of course, Berndottea, a Whoopi Goldberg impersonator, complete with SAG card and all. However, the drunk college kids don’t know any better, so I’m in theory sitting at the bar with Whoopi Goldberg, with everyone wanting to take pictures with Whoopi.

And, then in walks Rod Stewart. No, not the real Rod Stewart, but Clyde, a chef who’s been in Vegas for seven months, and just so happens to be an exact image of a younger Rod Stewart, ’80s vintage, dressing the part and teasing his hair, no less. He immediately joins Bernodettae and me, likely because we’re a fitting lot, a bit of character and age to us compared to the young, hot bodies who fill the club with alcohol-fueled hormones running wild.

Sipping my vodka and Red Bull, I swap life stories with Bernodettae and Clyde, who are among the sincerest, kindest folks I’ve met, and we’re constantly interrupted by party-seekers who only see Whoopi, Rod, and a guy in a wheelchair at the bar – a spectacle that draws a non-stop crowd.

With the night in full swing, I end up with a drunk chick next to me, who knocks my drink off of the bar, spilling it all over my power chair, and she immediately apologizes, telling me that she’ll make it up to me. With all watching, she kisses me on the cheek, takes my hand, and gently slides it up her top, placing it on her bare breast. This, however, is little consolation to me, as having to clean vodka and Red Bull out of every crack of my power chair and losing my $6 drink is no price to pay to feel a chick’s boob – been there, done that, don’t care, over it – so while the surrealism of having my hand up a chick’s top with Whoopie Goldberg and Rod Stewart watching me isn’t lost in the moment, I’m really just perturbed that this drunk chick spilled my drink all over my power chair. Boobs are just boobs – they’re everywhere. It’s my custom-finished, carbon fiber power chair that I care about!

With my hand still on her breast, I look up and realize that she’s wearing a tiara that says, Bachelorette. I pull my hand out of her top, and ask loudly, “Can I get your fiancé’s phone number?”

“Why?” she asks.

“I want to tell him not to marry a hot mess like you,” I say.

Without hesitation or even a blink, she hauls off and slaps me across the face – hard. And, people grab her, pulling her into the crowd, away from me.

I turn to the bartender like, Did you see that?, and the bartender has already served me up a fresh drink, on the house.

Rod Stewart walks around and puts his arm around me.

“You know, Mark,” Rod says, “I’ve put my hands on women’s breasts and been slapped, but never have I had a woman place my hand on her own breast, then slap me for it. You’re a champ in my book.”

“Welcome to Vegas, Marko!” Whoopi says, holding up her drink.