Letters

I miss letters.

During my first year at college, going to the mailbox was often the best part of my day. Mail arrive twice each weekday at ten and three. People swarmed the campus post office like addicted gamblers fighting to place last-minute bets at the track. I knew it was foolish to join them. Why not wait fifteen minutes until the crowd evaporated? I plunged in anyway. I had to see what awaited.

In my first quarter, the girlfriend I’d left behind wrote to me almost daily. Even after we broke up, though, I could count on something being there more often than not. A letter from my parents (if I was lucky, with a check). A packet from my sister containing a week’s worth of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips cut from the Orlando Sentinel. (The local paper didn’t carry it.) Postcards and letters from friends at other schools.

Letters were treasure.

After I transferred schools, I kept up steady correspondences with the friends I’d made in my freshman year. It kept me connected to a world I missed with all the longing of an unwilling expatriate. I wrote letters in big batches every Sunday night. I looked forward to the responses throughout the week.

It didn’t last, of course. Someone would forget to write back. Or I would. The flow of letters slowed to a trickle. By the time I got my first email account, I was only getting regular letters from one person. Then she got an email account, too, and we shifted our correspondence online. It didn’t last much longer after that. Email lacked the warmth, personality, and permanence of letters. I still have many of her letters. I don’t have any of the emails.

If you miss letters, too, write to me at the address below. I promise that I’ll write back.

Sam Falco
PO Box 11052
Saint Petersburg, FL 33733

Ten accomplishments I’m really proud of

  1. Earning my Professional Scrum Trainer license.
  2. Learning to be resilient in the face of emotional turmoil.
  3. Finishing the first draft of my current novel.
  4. Swapping out the engine on a ’68 VW Beetle for a new one.
  5. I haven’t carried a balance on my credit cards for over five years.
  6. I once needed 68 points to win a game of 501. On the first dart, I hit a double 17. On the second throw, aiming for another double 17, I stuck that dart in the flight of the first one, Robin Hood style.
  7. Earning a Masters Degree in English.
  8. Being a speaker at Agile 2018.
  9. Making my pool ready for this summer after it had gotten grotesquely green over the winter.
  10. The book I wrote for Steve Jackson Games.

Freak

I have suffered from depression for most of my life. After my ex-wife and I divorced, it was so profound that I began taking an anti-depressant medication. I stayed on it for about three years. I still have episodes, but they are rarer and I’ve learned how to handle them. Cognitive therapy techniques keep them short and moderate. Recently, I wondered when depression started for me.

I often say that “puberty did a number on me,” but I remember experiencing profound depression in grade school. On the other hand, I remember being very happy as a pre-schooler. When depression began to dominate me?

My earliest memory is of my mother telling me she and Dad had bought a house in a town called Hazlet. Our new neighbors’ last name was Kruger. I laughed and said, “That name cracks me up.” When I asked my father about it, he said we moved to that house soon after my sister was born, so I would have been three years old.

I remember a lot about the next five years. Friends, parties, trick-or-treating, my first day at kindergarten, digging snow tunnels. Almost every memory is happy. (The exception: I remember my sister breaking one of my toys on purpose when I was about six.)

We moved to Florida the month after I turned eight. I had good memories of that time, too, right up until I started second grade. The teacher gave us a test to determine our reading level.

I aced the sixth grade level. Later, another test revealed that I was actually reading at an eighth-grade level. The first test hadn’t had material that advanced. That was when my mood began to shift. I was in the most advanced reading group and I was still years ahead of the others. They were reading chapter books that bored me. I was reading history, science, and literature appropriate for junior high school kids. I felt out of place.

I was proud of my knowledge but also embarrassed at being so different from everyone else. It got worse the next year, because I had advanced even farther. I remember crying often, which didn’t make me very popular. By junior high school, I felt like a freak, and I was depressed most of the time.

For sale. Acoustic guitar. Rarely played.

Seven years ago, I bought a new 2012 Taylor 114CE Grand Acoustic/Electric guitar, with every intention of playing it a lot. My other guitar at the time was Aria acoustic that I’d bought from a friend in 1987. I had a notion that I might like to start playing in public again, as I had done in my twenties, so I wanted something with an electric pickup. I wasn’t willing to modify the Aria for fear of changing its beautiful tone. My boss at the time was a guitarist, and he helped me pick out the Taylor. For a couple of years, I used it off and on. I still preferred the sound of the Aria, and I never got around to playing in public again.

After I was laid off in 2015 and went to work in Tampa, I had less free time. Over the next couple of years, I gradually stopped playing. I haven’t opened the case of either guitar since before I took my current job. That was two years ago this month. When I thought about it, I realized that I don’t miss it. Playing guitar is something I used to do, and that’s OK.

The Aria is still precious to me. I have so many pleasant memories associated with it. I’m not ready to give it up, even though I’m unlikely to play it again.

The Taylor, on the other hand, is for sale. It’s in nearly perfect condition and sounds great. So if you or someone you know lives in the Tampa Bay area and is in the market for a very nice guitar, check out the ad on Craigslist.

Pick a card

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When I was a child, I was really into magic. Birthday cash always went to new magic books, gimmicks, and card decks. I performed for friends and family. For the sixth grade talent show, I did a ten minute set of card tricks, coin magic, and vanishing objects. I capped it with an escape from a set of chains that drew gasps and a standing ovation.

And then I just… stopped.

I stopped learning new tricks. I stopped performing. I gradually got rid of all my magical paraphernalia or sold it off at garage sales.

Fast forward four decades.

About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to learn one good card trick. YouTube has tons of them. I found one I liked that didn’t require advanced sleight-of-hand and practiced it every night while I was traveling on business. When I thought I had it down, I performed it for a coworker. It drew exactly the reaction I’d hoped for. Wide-eyes, a gasp. “How did you do that?”

There’s no reaction more gratifying.

I learned a few more and performed them at a party. Fun for everyone. I asked myself, Why did I ever stop doing this? A few nights later, I got my answer.

I was watching another instructional video on YouTube. The trick requires a technique I’d never done. As I watched it for the third or fourth time at reduced speed, a thought surfaced:

I’ll never be able to do this.

And just like that, I was twelve years old, and I was hearing someone tell me all the flaws in my routine. I never really thought about why I stopped, but this gets to the heart of it.

Success hadn’t mattered, applause hadn’t mattered. What mattered was an adult, who should have known better, telling me, You’ll never be good at magic. That stuck. That wedged itself into my mind, and I quit doing something I loved.

That happened a lot. Regardless of the endeavor–guitar, singing, acting, even mathematics–I easily became convinced that I wasn’t any good at it, and that I never would be. I’d get only so far before I’d become discouraged and quit.

I’ve had enough of that.

I purchased videos on a few fundamental techniques of card tricks: false cuts and shuffles, palming methods. I’m watching them, practicing, and learning. Most of all, I’m paying attention to what happens in my mind. Not only am I renewing my love of magic, I’m using it to reprogram those old mental tapes.

Next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I ask you to pick a card.

Photo by Alfred Twj on Unsplash

Banal. Lacking Insight.

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In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.

“Banal.”

“Lacking insight.”

Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.

I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.

Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings.  Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:

Sunset

Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes

With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.

“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.

In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.

My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.

I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.

And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have:  A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.

What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?

It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.

 

How may I be of service?

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I have always had an impulse to help people. As a child, I would always volunteer to help, whether it was around the house, or at school helping the teacher, or at school helping my classmates when they struggled with their studies. It didn’t even matter whether or not I liked the person who needed help.

I’d sometimes volunteer even at the expense of getting my own chores or tasks done. I remember helping a boy in my neighborhood finish up yard chores so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his father. Later, I was grounded for not mowing my own yard. Because of course he didn’t come over and help me with my chores.

I learned never to do anything for him again, but I still overextended myself time and again with others. I was the guy who would volunteer to help run your thing, get your stuff, or collaborate on your project. Often, I volunteered to do things that, on second thought, I really didn’t want to do at all. One example was my service on the board of the local chapter of the American Society for Quality.

Early in my Quality Assurance career, my boss encouraged me to get involved in a professional organization that would help my career, and I attended an ASQ meeting to check it out. During the meeting, they mentioned that they needed someone to serve as Historian for the chapter. After the meeting, I volunteered.

I was not even a member yet.

I joined the next day, and served as Historian for the chapter for about a year. After a few months, it became clear that I’d made a mistake. The organization, both local and national, was heavily geared toward quality in manufacturing. Software was an afterthought. I didn’t gain much in the way of professional development, and as a board member, I felt obligated to attend every meeting whether I wanted to or not.

Fortunately, I had the sense to decline the offer to step into the Secretary position when it became available. I resigned from the board, and stopped going to meetings that I wasn’t getting any value out of.

My impulse to help was one of the reasons I was so strongly drawn to the Scrum Master role when my company adopted Scrum. Being a “servant leader” is all about helping and empowering others.

Being a Scrum Master ultimately made me realize the folly of being too generous with my support. I recognized that the “leader” portion of servant-leader meant helping people to learn to solve their own problems.

 

Image by Fran Priestly.