The Careening, Kaleidoscopic Adventure of Being an Extrovert

When I feel like myself, I can’t help but strike up a buoyant conversation with the guy who just sold me a slice of pizza. Or a random guy at the Turkey Trot. Or the woman sitting behind me and my kids in the IMAX theater.

(And these are just examples from the last 72 hours.)

On the spectrum of extroverted to introverted, I’m so far to the left side that I’m dangling off the edge, hanging onto the cliff with one hand — while asking anyone within earshot if they’ve seen any good movies lately.

I know, and admire, and greatly love, many introverts. I’m married to one of them. I’m best friends with another. Some of my most beloved musicians are introverts. In fact, I think my 4 favorite bands in the world all have introverted frontmen. I must be drawn to my inverse in some way.

I greatly respect people who can refrain from saying everything they’re thinking. I admire anyone who is quietly self-possessed and doesn’t worry about what others think. And I’m relieved that everyone in the world is not an extrovert. I would not enjoy living on a planet that was primarily populated by people with my penchant for prattling on and on. (Or for that matter, my annoying affinity for alliteration.)

But restraint and introversion are not where my soul usually leads me. I see the world as a staging ground for impromptu adventures, including the cheapest and most unpredictable adventure you can embark on — spontaneous conversation with friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

I get this trait from the DNA of both my dad (who chats up strangers with ease) and my mom (not an idle chit-chatter, but an avid wordsmith and sterling conversationalist). I combine my dear dad’s love of jovial small talk and my dear mom’s love of in-depth discussion.

When you’re willing to look any stranger in the eye and strike up a random conversation, the entire world opens up. No mundane transaction will ever be either mundane or transactional again. Every cashier payment, every bank deposit, every library checkout becomes a chance to learn a little more about your fellow nomads on an earth full of wanderers.

The first exchange I ever had with someone I knew was gay took place when I was 22 when I chatted up an 18-year-old woman named Sharelle in a New Mexico visitor’s center. Because I threw myself into the conversation like the extrovert I was, Sharelle opened up about being recently excommunicated from her family when she came out to them. Totally cut off by her parents. Unthinkable. And, I can only imagine, unbearable to experience.

It was a seminal encounter for me, hearing about the wrenching trauma that defined Sharelle’s young life. It moved me. It opened up my small world. I was changed.

Ever since I ventured out on my own after high school, when I have been awake and myself (which I periodically am not), I have savored being born an extrovert. A large majority of the formative experiences of my adult life would not have happened if I had been unwilling to leap off the ledge of myself into the arms of a new exchange or a new experience.

Extroversion, for me, is a wild adventure. It makes every day a kaleidoscope of color and light, refracted through the prism of a thousand different interactions with a thousand different fellow pilgrims on this planetary pilgrimage.

I want a chance to know as many people as I can with my one little life. All the introverts (if they’re willing to let me chat them up). All the extroverts (who are usually happy to chat).

People are, by nature, fascinating.

And I am, by nature, fascinated.

Sugar and Spice, Snips and Snails, and Other Silly Stuff

Gender norms are wildly overrated and fairly useless. You heard it here first! (Unless you heard it somewhere else first. In which case, dang it. I really wanted to be the one to break the story.)

Two experiences have led me to this ardent belief, or unbelief, about gender: Raising 2 kids, and existing in this world as myself.

I’m a guy who likes some so-called “guy things” — football! hard rock! scary movies! And in other ways, I’m the exact opposite of the traditional sitcom male — unsentimental as a husband and ineffectual as a dad — dull traits I wouldn’t want to have in a dozen lifetimes. I like talking about emotions and feeling emotions and listening to others’ emotions. Let’s just say that Ray Barone and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor baffle me.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about parenting.

My son is 6 and my daughter is 4. My wife and I have raised them with no gender-based constraints on who they are or how they act. They can like what they want to like. They can play with what they want to play with. And eventually, they can love who they want to love.

They can have Type A personalities, although they can’t be bossy. They can have Type B personalities, although they can’t be lazy. Their boy parts or their girl parts don’t dictate anything except how they go to the bathroom, and eventually, how they will procreate (if they decide that’s what they want to do).

So with the guard rails of traditional expectations removed, how are my kids living up to society’s “natural” gender templates thus far? How is “nature” doing?

Well, many would say that boys are supposed to be good at sports, love cars and trucks, act physically aggressive, and be emotionally stoic.

Meet our 6-year-old boy, Greyson. He doesn’t care about sports and has very little sporting agility, sweetly loves birds (though he did love cars and trucks back when he was 2), carries zero physical aggression in his tall, wiry body, and is sweet and sensitive, often even hypersensitive. He is also smart and wonderfully creative and asks great questions and laughs easily and is filled with wild, weird wonder. He’s positively delightful.

Meanwhile, some would say girls are supposed to be more ambivalent about sports, less interested in cars and trucks, more physically passive, very sensitive and nurturing, and be happy to defer or submit or follow the leader.

Meet our 4-year-old girl, Violet Skye. She loves soccer (and is naturally athletic), likes cars and trucks more than her brother, doesn’t have a passive bone in her tiny active body, is very sweet and nurturing with our cats but also 10 times more emotionally stoic and resilient than her brother, and has the budding leadership skills to make her a top candidate for the 2056 presidential election. She is also smart and wonderfully creative and hyper-observant and funny and is filled with bright, beaming, buoyant wonder. She’s positively delightful.

We’re 0 for 2, I guess! Nature has clearly failed us miserably.

But seriously. Why did we ever think that boys are all one broadly defined thing and girls are another broadly defined, entirely different thing? There are very notable biological differences, sure. And there are overall sociological trends that are well worth noting, although some of those are societally derived.

But the gender templates that we have created as a society are both weirdly binary and wildly unimaginative. Not to mention constricting to both little girls (who should be encouraged to lead just as much as boys) and to little boys (who should be encouraged to emote just as much as girls).

If I pushed my 6-year-old boy to act “boyish,” I would be doing him a disservice. Why should I insist that he take an interest in cars or dinosaurs or guns or mechanical engineering that, at this early age, I have no reason to believe he is inclined to enjoy or at which he seems to excel? I would be suppressing his natural, God-given Greyson-ness.

My boy loves birds, and other animals, and nature, and creating stream-of-consciousness stories and free-form poems. That is what he likes. And I love every scrap of that. Every scrap of him.

Similarly, if I pushed my 4-year-old girl to act “girly,” it would be a false move that I would regret. I would be insisting that she take an interest in — what exactly? — I’m not even clear in 2022 what the gender norm-ers think girls are supposed to act like.

I know what I was raised to think were Biblical gender roles. Do people still think that all girls should grow into women who, without exception, want to be mothers and never pursue a career outside the home? Even girls who would like to do both? Or even girls who would rather not be a mother?

And if I insisted that the fiery, exploding Roman candle that is my 4-year-old girl be meek, emotionally delicate, physically passive, embody “sugar and spice,” or have no specific career aspirations beyond motherhood (which yes, is absolutely noble too!), I would be squashing her natural, God-given, Violet-ness.

My girl adores soccer and books and building things and coloring things and Caspian (the cat) and Caspian (the band). She maintains a wild array of interests. And I love every scrap of that. Every scrap of her.

That girl is going places. And her brother is too, albeit to a very different destination.

I’m thrilled to watch them on their journeys. The sky’s the limit for both of them.

Although on second thought, Violet Skye often wears a NASA shirt and both she and her brother are interested in outer space.

So who knows? Maybe not even the sky is the limit.

Dreaming of Tigers and Piano Teeth (or, Long Live Live Music)

To watch reverently as a riveting under-the-radar rock band rattles the rafters of an offbeat small venue is one of the exquisite joys associated with being human.

It’s also a little costly, when you treat it as a destination hobby. And my wife Dani and I happen to be quite frugal, by choice and by necessity. We keep a close, watchful eye on every dollar we spend.

But when it comes to concerts, we blindfold ourselves. Some things are worth the money.

Take last weekend, for instance. We drove 7 hours round-trip to see 2 great bands. We spent $46 on tickets, $36 on gas, and $21 on tolls to enjoy 3½ hours in the basement of an old church with 75 people we didn’t know.

And it was worth every penny because of 2 great (and greatly underrated) bands named Dreamtigers (the blue-tinged pic below) and Pianos Become the Teeth (the red-tinged pic), who will henceforth be referred to as DT and PBTT.

The evening was a dizzying cocktail of joys and jams. Rather than a chronological retelling of events, here is a scattered pile of joy leaves that I’ve raked together for both pleasure and posterity. So huck yourself into the leaves like a kid in the backyard in early November!

  • The venue, Preserving Underground, was a charming old building. A Presbyterian-church-turned-Salvation-Army-turned-combination-record-store-and-basement-music-mecca. The edifice itself reminded me of every drafty old church building I ever visited in my youth… but with noticeably more hardcore and death metal albums for sale.
  • The man who owns the venue is A.J. Rassau, and since the record store was open all evening I went up and grilled him about its inception. He explained that he had started the music-store-slash-venue in a large garage when he was a teenager (!). Then years later, he bought the former church for $85,000, get this, one week before Covid arrived. Such ghastly timing. A.J. said that it got so bad during lockdown that his savings dwindled to $120 at one point. But now, from all appearances, the place is thriving. I also talked to A.J.’s amiably buoyant mother, Kathy, who sells concessions during each show, right downstairs from her son’s record store. She was thrilled at how thrilled I was to be at such a thrilling venue. Best. Family. Business. Ever.
  • Phil, the frontman of Caspian (my favorite band of all time, as well as my wife Dani’s) plays bass for DT on the side. He’s the biggest reason we know about that band, and the Caspian guys are friends with PBTT too. So both bands exist in the Caspian Cinematic Universe (or CCU), which I’d take over the MCU or the DCU any day of the week, and twice on this particular Friday.
  • The entirety of DT’s lineup are good people, to put it mildly. I chatted extensively with Jake (lead vocals, guitars, head songwriter) and gushed praise in the direction of both Aisha (stellar violin and backing vocals) and Joe (insane drums). I didn’t get a chance to talk to Andy (the other superb guitar). Which leaves Phil (towering bass). More on Phil later. Man is it thrilling to find out that a band you love consists of nothing but compelling people. Talent is cool, but being cool is even cooler. (And if you want to know what’s cooler than being cool, please consult Outkast.)
  • We bought a $20 T-shirt from the merch table to support DT. Because even more than buying concert tickets, buying merch is how you support low-to-mid-tier bands. Touring is not profitable anymore for bands like this, sadly, but it’s slightly more profitable if everyone buys a shirt or a vinyl. Heck, even a $5 coozie helps.
  • As mentioned earlier, the venue is a hardcore music palace and a former church. But it also happens to be an all-ages venue that ends every gig at 10pm, offers Beyond veggie burgers as it’s only non-snack option, and serves zero alcohol. Have you ever hard of an old church building that honors veganism, hardcore music, and sobriety? Yeah, me neither.
  • The lead singer of PBTT, Kyle Durfey, gave off Conor Oberst vibes at first. His stage presence was mesmerizing. It looked like he couldn’t decide between passionately kissing the mic or strangling it with the cord he had wrapped around his arms. And he sounds like… someone famous. I couldn’t put my finger on who. I mentioned this to someone and they leaned over and uttered a single word in my ear: Morrissey. And now I can’t un-hear it. Kyle Durfey is a new Morrissey for people who are tired of the real Morrissey. Or just for people who think the world needs 2 of ‘em.

But all of that wonderfulness — the venue, the live music, the merch table hobnobbing — doesn’t even measure up to the best part of the night. And that’s rubbing shoulders with Phil, the aforementioned side bassist for DT and the front man for the one and only Caspian. Throughout the night, I (and Dani) chatted with Phil numerous times, at the merch table and on the venue floor while watching the opening bands and running into each other near the bathroom-adjacent green room.

And at the end of the night, we stuck around long enough to swap notes for 20 minutes with Phil on a mostly quiet street in a steady drizzle, while band equipment was being packed into vans before the show hit the road for Chicago.

There’s a lot I could say about that chat, and my connection to Phil and all the Caspian guys. But I’ll save it for another day. Phil Jamieson is the kind of guy who deserves his own post.

So there you have a kaleidoscopic view of our epic Friday night in Pittsburgh. Yet another night for the ages, just like Dani’s night in Toronto, and my nights in Detroit and Philadelphia, and our 3 nights (on 2 separate trips) in Boston.

All of which were nights in the last 13 months.

All of which leaves only one thing to say.

Long live live music.

Cypress Trees, Spanish Moss, and A Big Blue Poop Bucket

To canoe through a bayou is to float into another world.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bayou up close; only on screen in movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Waterboy — which incidentally might be the two most divergent films ever made.

I always assumed the bayou only existed in the LA/MS/AL/FL corridor. The Deep South. But was it known (*cough*) by you (*LOUDER COUGH*) that there’s bayou all the way up in North Carolina?

I can verify it exists. Because that’s the watery portal, the mystic river if you will, that my college buddies and I canoed into last weekend.

For our annual autumnal alumni adventure this year, the 5 of us camped for 3 nights and canoed for 2 days down Roanoke River in northeast NC, near the Albemarle Sound. The first day of sun-saturated, 75-degree (!) November canoeing felt fairly traditional, similar to the PA and WV and VA rivers we’ve canoed in the past.

But the second day of canoeing found us floating into uncharted bayou-esque waters. (Uncharted for us; I’m pretty confident that the cartographers who designed our map had fully charted it. Otherwise we might still be trying to find our way out of the cypress maze described below.)

What made this landscape — no, waterscape — a visual singularity was the preponderance of cypress trees along the river banks. Trees with knobby “knees” poking up out of the water like gnarled witches’ fingers. Trees with wispy shocks of Spanish moss hanging loosely from their branches like funereal shawls. Trees that, with their oddly structured trunks, appeared to be wearing bellbottoms.

If you unexpectedly teleported and ended up next to a cypress tree, not otherwise knowing where you were, you would immediately feel in your bones that you’re not in a Union state. The Southernness of the place drips (or dangles) from its tree branches like, well, the aforementioned moss of the Spaniards.

Especially on the 2nd day when we floated into a legit bayou. Dry land gradually disappeared. There was nothing but cypress trees surrounded by low-lying swamp water.

Nowhere to hike.

Nowhere to build a campfire.

Nowhere to set up a tent.

But thanks to human ingenuity, there are well-crafted wooden “platform campsites” you can rent for the night. So the 5 of us paddled up The Devil’s Gut — possibly the most nefarious river name ever — up into the guts of the bayou.

That night, the 5 of us chowed down on steak [or in my case, black-bean burger] fajitas. We listened to Chris strum his carbon fiber guitar while crooning Americana songs with George. We chatted about everything from our kids (14 between us, but almost half belong to Matt) to our jobs (5 between us, spread much more evenly) to our college memories to a little history, with only a dash of politics, to the narrative complexities of Game of Thrones.

And we fell asleep, half under a just-in-case tarp roof and half under gleaming stars, while the 10,000-watt moon was reflected in the swamp like a pearl, submerged right in plain sight. Being good citizens, we opted to leave the pearl there rather than diving for it, so that others could continue to enjoy its brightness.

I had taken a brisk, better-than-caffeine dip in the Roanoke River the night before, when the water was deeper and we weren’t yet in the bayou. But I opted not to huck myself off the camping platform into the shallow waters of the swamp. For multiple reasons, really, including that I’m pretty sure that hundreds of people this year have peed off the edge of the platform. (And the 11-inch water seemed slightly less than ideal for diving too.)

And speaking of relieving oneself, I should finally get around to that poop bucket I keep teasing.

Since the wooden platform where we slept had zero dry land surrounding it, plumbing becomes a bit, uh, tricky. There was a small wooden outhouse of sorts on the corner of the square platform, complete with a toilet seat sitting loosely atop a white bucket.

But (1) it’s just a bucket, with a regular bucket bottom, and no room for stuff to go down further below, and (2) that “stuff” has to be packed out. And not in the white bucket, which has to stay in place for the next campers.

So what must be done is that each group of campers must bring their own bucket (preferably one with a very tightly-sealing lid!) in order to leave no trace. So we brought a big blue bucket from Lowe’s. And in the morning, Rodney and Matt, God bless their brave souls, took care of transferring the aforementioned stuff from the white bucket to the blue bucket, sealing it with a lid, and packing it into their canoe to head home.

(How they disposed of it from that point? That’s between them and God.)

And with that anticlimax, which may have turned a few stomachs, we reach the end of our annual canoeing saga. Another weekend for the ages.

So thanks, fellas.

Thanks for the sterling conversation.

Thanks for the bayou adventure.

Thanks for yet another epic convergence.

And to Chris, who planned the trip, as well as Rodney and Matt, for the other reasons mentioned above:

Thanks for taking care of shit.

A Wild, Watery Wilderness Rite of Passage

Halloween and Thanksgiving are fun, but my favorite autumn ritual takes place deep in the foliage-strewn wilderness.

It involves just as much good food (and snacks), but decidedly less indoor plumbing. No costumes are worn, and football games are not watched due to the conspicuous lack of cable television.

It includes no family, and neither of my brothers, but it does boast an abundance of brotherly camaraderie. Some years the ritual is carried out in my home state of Pennsylvania, other years it is staged in West Virginia, and this year it took place down in North Carolina.

Usually it involves 7 bearded fellows, 6 of whom hail from Messiah University (née College) — Nate, Josh, Chris, Rodney, Matt, George, and me. But this year the first 2 of those whiskery dudes were unavailable. One of them missed out because of the ongoing scourge of Covid, which can apparently be contracted even through a manly nest of facial hair.

So there were 5 of us in North Carolina for the annual ritual, along with 6 pounds of shrimp, 4 steaks, 2 canoes, 1 kayak, and 1 poop bucket. (More on that later.)

The ritual usually involves traversing from point A to point B in a remote rural watery wonderland, via non-motorized aquatic vehicles with names like “The S.S. POS” and “Delaware’s Revenge,” along with the notably less imposing “The Pea Pod.”

Now and then we build the ritual around hiking instead, including once when we camped at the top of Spruce Knob in West Virginia and on our first night were buffeted at 1:00am by crusty snow and wraith-sounding winds that threatened to rip the tops off our tents.

This year, on the other hand? Sunny and 75 degrees, despite the trip being later in the calendar than we’ve ever scheduled it. No snow, no wind, no wraiths, and very minimal hiking. Just 17 leisurely miles over 2+ days of paddling down the Roanoke River in my new favorite non-Union eastern state, North Carolina.

The fellas in our group hail from New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Our full slate of guys, this year’s absentees included, are fathers with 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 4, and 6 kids, respectively. Along with 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, and 1 spouse, respectively. (No polygamists in our ranks, at least for the time being.)

We came (to the Tar Heel State).

We saw (tons of cypress trees and speedboats).

We conquered (an easy, zero-rapids river).

And we conversed. Every waking hour included stimulating conversation about a wide array of subjects, all while canoeing and campfire-ing and eating like golden camping gods. Because when it comes to camp cuisine, even with our usual Michelin-rated chef missing in action this year, these guys don’t mess around. Chris and Rodney kept us nicely sated.

It was a river ride to remember. And 60 hours of college-buddy bonding that further fortified my recently resuscitated soul.

Camping is zen.

Friendship is life.

Ritual is important.

And nature is, without question, the best place on earth.

(Part 2 of 2, with more granular details including the aforementioned poop bucket, coming later this week.)

Ad-Free Kids in an Ad-Addled World

Advertisers, beware. You are not welcome in our living room.

Product placement, please dump your products in the basement.

Because here’s the thing, you gargantuan monolithic companies. In a world defined by commerce and commercialism, I have trained my kids to avoid your commercials at any cost. (Which incidentally reduces cost.)

As soon as an ad starts, Greyson and Violet either cover their eyes or turn around while I hit mute on the remote. Sometimes they even playfully “hide” between the couch and the recliner. And every time they do I am as proud as a peacock, whose peachicks happily resist consumerism with their un-faded and un-jaded plumage held high.

We don’t have cable, just streaming platforms, so very few commercials cross our eyeline in the first place. But when we started watching YouTube videos, I trained the kids to do the “see no evil” hands (without putting it into those words). This was back when they were 4 and 2, and two years later they’re still doing it like champs.

Sometimes I ask them, “What are commercials trying to do?” And they say, “Get us to buy stuff!” To which I say “Yep… but we already have plenty of stuff!”

And they totally get it. They’re our mini-me-minimalists.

One benefit of this anti-ad regimen is that the kids have absolutely no idea what toys are out there beyond the animals and puzzles and animals and Legos and animals and markers and animals and other toys, most of which are animal-based, that we have given them. (Oh, and did I mention they like… animals?)

Every new expensive plastic toy that is created by a toy company is a toy that my kids are blissfully unaware exists.

Another benefit of avoiding commercials is that I don’t have to worry about questionable content. If you don’t let your kids watch ads, you don’t have to worry about them seeing the latest ruthless political attack ad, or the trailer for the latest ruthless Halloween movie. (And I’m not entirely sure which is ruthless-er.)

I like resting in the knowledge that my kids will only watch Puffin Rock, or Bluey, or Tumble Leaf, or bird videos and musical instrument videos on YouTube. Only what we have selected for them (or in the case of Peppa Pig, what they have insisted on selecting).

Not what gigantic corporations have selected for their consumption, to solicit their consumption.

There’s not much that’s ad-free, for free, in this world of money-mad men.

But my unbranded children are. And thus they remain free.

So I’m sorry, empire of capitalism.

But my kids are not for sale.