Life & Other Lessons



If you forget to pay an exorcist any outstanding arrears, are you then liable to get repossessed? If there really are six million ways to die, why is it only permitted to choose one? And if I scare you half to death and then repeat the process, how many years do you think I’m looking at? I once heard it remarked that there is no such thing as a stupid question and I’m bloody glad I took that little wisdom nugget on board as I make it my business to ask as many as humanly possible, just to look like the dumbest person in the room. It’s easier that way. Everyone knows their role and any light ribbing that comes my way, I can handle.

There’s a method to my madness as I would hate to be the guy that thinks he knows everything. I mean, where do you go from there? Dementia never looked so appealing if you ask me. Fuck all that pomp, my mind is right here for the molding, regardless of whether or not it is operating at capacity. If you can’t find space, make space. That’s my motto. Just cram it behind the old hippocampus and I’ll file it later. But please don’t assume I know it all.

As a baby, I knew nothing at all. That may sound like I’m being a little harsh on one of such tender years but, when you think about it, all I did was lie on my back, wail, burp, and soil myself. What a loser. However, just as I was attempting to master the art of punching my own face, something unprecedented occurred. That thumb looks nice, I thought. And I learned something new that day. Now I could lie on my back, wail, burp, soil myself and suck a mean opposable digit. Things were suddenly looking up for this pint-sized data sponge and I made an oath with myself that evening as I laid on my back to acquire more of this ambrosial knowledge the very next day.

Admittedly crawling took a tad longer to get licked, indeed, I only truly mastered it much later in life, thanks to copious amounts of alcohol and one poorly timed kebab. But I was sure to practise daily, charting my progress at the end of each session, and could make it across the living room floor with only minor carpet burns in no time. Do you wish to know what I did the very first time I completed my pilgrimage? Damn right I sucked my thumb and will be double damned if I didn’t deserve it.

The whole quadrupedal deal soon lost its appeal as I grew weary of the lowly vantage. Shit just looks scary from way down in the trenches; even something totally innocuous like a coochie coo raised my DefCon to 5 and most of my time seemed to be spent shivering with terror. An infant knows not how to man up but, with a dash of perseverance, they can learn how to stand on our own two feet. Once I finally assumed position above the low-level mist, I must concede to coming over all victorious. But did the thought ever enter my malleable little mind that I knew it all? Never to the ever and on the contrary; I was just getting started and the greatest adventures were the ones lying in wait for when I’d levelled up a bit. Vague mobility or no vague mobility, I evidently still had a lot to learn. Not shitting my diaper without prior heads-up would be a start. Anything to build that momentum.

I needed a font of wisdom to quench from and, wouldn’t you know it, a magical box promptly came to my rescue. While I’m not ordinarily one to throw the word “magic” around willy-nilly, I am willing to toss it out there for this particular cube of enlightenment as its mystical powers enchanted my very soul. Indeed I believe it was around this time that I discovered my cheek dimples. Guess I should give old man Disney a nod for that one. Cheers Walt. Later in life I’d learn how to say that through gritted teeth. First I had to get rid of the milk duds. Anyhoots, where was I? Oh, that’s right. Fucking Disney!

What’s not to love right? I mean, what kid isn’t spellbound by that good old-fashioned Disney magic? Admittedly their cartoons were bright and colorful but they were also just a bunch of outrageous fabrications designed solely to prey on the impressionable minds of gullible young children. In Disneyland elephants can fly, hippos can dance, mice can navigate steamboats, birds never once defecate on you and instead chirp merrily, dwarves can find work, silver slippers fit, sleeping for a century doesn’t lave you with bed head, cocker spaniels have table manners, beasts get laid, and little wooden boys hang out with crickets. What a crock of shit. Granted, these fables were mildly diverting, but every last lesson they taught was grossly inaccurate.

It was time to tune into another channel before brain rot could commence and, little did I know, that I was now about to witness the strength of Sesame Street knowledge. This was far more my bag; gritty urban settings and characters I could relate to far more freely. Take Oscar the Grouch for example – he lived in a trashcan and spent the whole time pissed off and combative. That’s how shit goes down on the street. Cookie Monster may not have possessed a throat, but his boundless enthusiasm, can-do attitude and gloriously googly eyes couldn’t help but win you over; Big Bird wasn’t equipped to fly south for the winter every time his rent was due; and I’m reasonably certain Mr. Snuffleupagus had a crystal meth problem. This is where I received my first dose of realism and, as an additional sweetener, they even taught me how to spell and count.

However, still I felt unsatisfied, like there was something out there I was missing out on. The magic box presented more than enough mild peril to hold my attention for a few minutes each day; but none of the best stuff aired until I’d been trooped off to bed. Desperate to find out just what I was missing out on; I learned the art of watching inappropriate television through a tiny crack in the living room door unbeknownst to my parents and what an eye-opener this proved to be. This introduced me to the likes of Hammer House of Horror and all manner of other macabre delights but required me to be decidedly light on my feet and alert to the constant threat of capture. As well as mastering the knack of stealthy movement, I’d also sussed that I was a rather sick little puppy and clearly not cut out for the kind of drivel I’d been force-fed to this point.

Next up, I had to grasp how to wrap my parents round my little finger and, while my mother was unwilling to endorse my new-found fascination for all things grisly, pops was soon rendered powerless to my gentle persuasion. By six-years-old, I was watching Jaws and, by ten, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Naturally, my school teacher had some concerns about the kind of bloodthirsty fiction I was conjuring up and called my parents in to inquire how happy my home life was. But it soon became clear that I was no less content than any other kid in class; just a smidgen more wired for terror. I still knew the difference between right and wrong; it’s just that my televisual tastes veered more towards the latter.

One thing I hadn’t banked on was adolescence as I don’t recall the topic being breached during my studies until the initial trauma had passed. I was blissfully unaware of my biological countdown timer and the first pubic growth was an absolute mystery to me. The thing about hair is that it tends to stick together and, within a few weeks, my downstairs follicles had gone into hyperdrive to the tune of a fully formed bush. Even more disconcertingly, my voice box was beginning to undergo significant transformation, with the pitch alternating wildly between falsetto and baritone, at the most inappropriate moments. It was around this time that young ladies started showing up on my radar but do you think I could approach them sounding like a cross between Barry White and Gilbert Gottfried? They weren’t interested in what I was peddling and I was left no choice but to navigate the thorny path of puberty on my lonesome.

Practise makes perfect right? I certainly put the hours in when it came to self-defilation and amassed quite the stockpile of glossy pornographic literature beneath my bunk. Mom continued to probe me on the whereabouts of my left sock and also the speed with which her hand lotion was depleting. Meanwhile, every time I heard her slipper hit the bottom stair, I had one hand down my jockies and every intention to thrash out some terms with “the guv’nor”. It was he who called the shots, took them too, and I was happy just to be included in the transaction. I believe they call it teamwork and I guess that’s what I took from the whole teenage pains debacle.

Eventually I stumbled aimlessly into my twenties and it was here that things started to hot up considerably. The opposite sex no longer found me physically repulsive and I celebrated this by punching well above my weight and bagging myself a trophy wife. We settled down, bought a house together, exchanged nuptials and settled into a cosy routine that I assumed was going to see us good until we grew old together. How wrong I was as, a month before our first anniversary, she subjected me to the old “I love you but I’m not in love with you” routine and I took it on the chin like a randy dwarf, surrendering defeat with nary a whimper. Oddly enough, my primary emotion after the pain of the initial kidney punch had subsided was relief as I knew damn well it wasn’t working but figured that was simply married life.

That said, things got pretty dark there for a while, as one of the numerous stages of grief is losing all faith in the idea of romantic love and I had no intention of putting myself through the emotional ringer a second time. It seemed cruel that it had taken twenty years to assume some kind of vague identity and, one crushing rejection later, I was left without a clue who I was once more. Had I been I.D.-jacked? Perhaps there weren’t sufficient identities to go around and I’d been the victim of an elaborate smash and grab? It’s no easy feat reinventing yourself while under considerable duress and so it proved as I purchased my first and last skateboard (even though I possess the balance of a newborn fawn), decorated my personage by way of spiked chokers and bicycle chains, and feigned interest in Blink 182 as it felt like the done thing for a skater boi.

That was until I was forcibly ejected from my deck at a speed approaching 20 mph during a suicidal downhill run and wound up with a badly swollen elbow that curiously resembled the beak of a pterodactyl. I wouldn’t have minded if the other elbow was the same as it had always been an ambition of mine to take flight someday and I’m reasonably assured I could’ve achieved altitude had the damage been dealt symmetrically but this whole sorry debacle taught me something mighty important – life isn’t always fair. To be frank, I suspect it had been trying to teach me that for some time now, but there’s nothing like lopsided wingspan to shift it into sharper focus.

The real question was – was I going to lie down and take life’s best shots until succumbing to internal bleeding or dying of old age, whatever came first? Or was I going to dust myself down, puff out my chest like a privileged pigeon, wait for the swelling to go down so that passers-by didn’t label me “Terrence Dactyl”, take life by the scruff of its neck and hock a loogie in its eyeball? Better yet, perhaps I could grab its testicles and twist them 1080, yank down sharply and feel them implode in the palm of my hand. One thing was for sure – while life had dealt me a bitter blow that day and likely would again before long, I wasn’t prepared to let it bully me out of existence or give it the satisfaction of thinking it had won. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger right? While I’d argue that my near-death experience made me a darn sight weaker, I was double damned if it wasn’t going to make me wiser. The very next day I hung up my Korn hoodie and stopped trying to be something that I quite clearly wasn’t.

That said, I still didn’t possess anything like a bona fide identity of my own. Even more disconcertingly, I was careering towards thirty with all the grace and poise of an ice-skating stork with shin splints and the imminent collision was way too mortifying a prospect to entertain. With precious few options forthcoming and my newfound fear of anything even vaguely death-defying weighing down hard, there seemed little choice but to accept the inevitable and surrender any individuality I had stored up once-and-for-all. From this point forward, I expected folk to address me by the appropriate title, and that title was “Everyday Joe”.

Attempting to keep up with the Joneses had grown tiresome back in high school; whereas your average “Everyday Joe” moves at a far more leisurely pace. Better yet, any organization looking to bolster their workforce would need a handful of Everyday Joes to keep things ticking along nicely, so I’d never be out of work. It’s not like I couldn’t survive on an Everyday Joe wage, find myself a nice plain Everyday Joan and move into our Everyday Home. Hell, we could even pop out a couple of Everyday Kids and invest in some Everyday Goldfish to tie the place together. Every other Thursday before bedtime, I would take off my Everyday Pyjamas, fold them neatly, turn off the lights, and perform Everyday Missionary on my wife. Then, once I inquired how it was for her, she could reply in Everyday Monotone, “about the same as last time”, giving me a sense of bloated pride over being nothing if not consistent.

The key here was in keeping the bar of expectation nice and low, never doing a solitary thing more than was expected of me, and appearing dead behind the eyes at all times, as though under some sort of perpetual trance. I swiftly changed vocation and opted for a job which didn’t challenge me intellectually, where I could blend into the backdrop and not be required to excel in any way, shape or form. Life may not have been terribly exhilarating but at least I knew where I stood at all times and familiarity certainly had its upsides. The way I figured it, if I’d have been intended for greater things, then something would have happened already. With my thirties almost upon me, I’d learned to accept my lot in life, and it felt like a shrewd decision on my part to embrace my normality. However, something inside me died a little more each day and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow selling myself short.

In my early thirties, I learned the toughest of all life lessons, as my father died suddenly from complications from diabetes. He’d actually been unwell for practically my whole life after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was barely eight-years-old and I’d had a sneaking suspicion that this tragic news was inbound, long before that fateful evening. While the rest of my family mourned in the customary healthy way, I learned how not to deal and compartmentalized this unspeakable data in a dusty archive so far back in my subconscious that I had no idea how to access it. The thing about grief is that it won’t remain low-key forever and inevitably the penny dropped a couple of years later when I was least expecting it. Naturally this tardy reminder left me devastated and I felt more lost than I ever had in my life up until that point. You see, pops was my personal hero, a man who smiled right up to the end despite being dealt a stinking hand and for whom life and all its harsh realities simply couldn’t break.

Of all the gifts he had always yearned for, nothing could ever hope to match up to the prospect of becoming a grandfather. To be fair, he already was, multiple times no less but I had three older sisters and the one thing they couldn’t provide him was a natural heir, a young boy to keep the family name going. I’d already missed the boat here with regards to coming good during his lifetime but hadn’t given up on finally granting his wish posthumously. Of course, I’d learned at a young age that I didn’t possess a uterus and knew just enough about the birds and bees to be aware that this wasn’t a pilgrimage I could undertake solo. Nowadays, you could probably enter “Rent-a-Womb” into your Google search engine and be changing diapers in the time it takes UPS to send out their guaranteed next-day stork. Back then it meant putting in the legwork. What I hadn’t considered was that this would prove a deeply pleasurable experience.

When I first met my second wife, everything simply clicked right into place. We flat-out adored one another and started constructing a scrapbook of memories that was filling faster than we could make them. Within a year we had moved in together and were planning to become first-time parents so all appeared to be tickety boo on keeping my word to pops. Granted, her mother was the most vile and hateful woman I’d ever had the misfortune of rubbing shoulders with but they do say you can’t pick your family and you sure as shit can’t select your in-laws. She was actually far more like her father and, in stark contrast, he was one of the nicest guys I’d ever met and mercifully the only role-model my significant other ever aspired to. He died suddenly when we were six months through term and the perfect reality we’d built instantly began to wear and tear.

Buying a house, popping out a sproglet, exchanging vows – a trio of challenges that, when combined, will test the foundations of even the most sturdy relationships. However, the true issue was that mommie dearest now had her talons in and I’d already been warned by a reliable source that she’d try her level best to come between us. I stubbornly refused her the opportunity and thought that would be the last of it, although the one thing I would die before doing was to turn a daughter against her own flesh and blood when she’d just had her supplies halved. Instead I stood firm, played this horrid hag’s despicable game on her terms, and didn’t let on that I secretly desired to plunge a hatchet between her eyebrows and stuff the gaping gash with cactus thorns. I guess you could say that I’d finally learned how to play the game. Or so I thought.

It all started with work-related stress and I was promptly signed off from work while attempting to realign myself. However, for all my best efforts to get “well”, everything seemed to be growing more wonky and, while an all too brief stint in therapy helped no end with tooling me up for self-rewiring, I still had to figure out which flex plugged in where. Meanwhile, the virus-in-law was aware, turning the psychological screws at every available opportunity and driving a wedge between us that neither one of us were equipped to dislodge. Stress gradually developed into full-blown depression, antidepressants were tossed into the mix, and eventually I reached my breaking point. Walking away from the woman I loved, not to mention my beloved son when he needed his daddy most is unquestionably the hardest thing I have ever had to do but I was spiralling into such a dark place by that point that it felt like the only option left.

For the next three years, I learned my least favorite lesson, and one I have since sussed out how to totally disregard. I learned how to hate myself for what I’d done and needless to say it wasn’t exactly soul enriching. On the contrary, my soul was taking an absolute battering and I’d just about given up when something truly unprecedented occurred. I recalled my father’s unshakable courage and how he had battled against one of the cruelest muscle wasting diseases for most of my life, without once throwing in the towel. If there was one thing I wasn’t going to be held culpable for then it was letting him down after all he and my dear mother had done to make me the man I was then, and still now. The blunt-force emotional trauma was agonizing but coincided with my acceptance that I was never cut out to be an Everyday Joe in the first place. For my entire adult life I’d worn a mask and had finally learned that it didn’t offer any true representation of my underlying spirit. It was time to step out of the shadows once-and-for-all.

When I concocted the pseudonym, Keeper of the Crimson Quill, I effectively crafted a new mask to cower behind, should that have been my intention. As Keeper I could mention the unmentionable, create a persona that I had full ownership of, and reinvent myself to the peak of my creative prowess. Every day I spent blogging, from the moment I arose to way beyond last light, and the fact that it struck a chord with so many suggested that every second was well spent. Should I be feeling particularly forlorn one day, then my purpose would be to spread a little cheer, not to bring everyone else down to my lowly level just for the company. Within no time, I commenced the rewiring process, and it soon become clear to me that I didn’t need an alter ego to define me. Let’s not twist the truth none, I loved the name Keeper and still wear it like a crest of honor to this very day. But my name is Richard Charles Stevens and I’ve now learned the importance of both.

Look deep into those baby blues and tell me they lack sincerity. There isn’t a single word scribed that doesn’t reek authenticity and, the very moment that changes, I request you inform the emergency services as I once pledged not to waste a living breath on dishonesty and plan on taking that one directly to my urn. Certain inconvenient truths will always haunt me but my conscience is now clean and I’m done with beating myself up over shit I simply cannot change without a DeLorean and a ton of banana skins. Alas I’m still working on not treating my physical shell with utter contempt but I no longer punish my mind for occasionally providing the odd bum steer. You want to know what the last couple of years has taught me? That life is what you make it. Sure, there are certain inescapable eventualities that influence our experience, but ultimately it’s all down to user. The early forties have been quite the eye-opener for me and, while I’ll never spurn the opportunity to learn more about myself, I know more than ample already to be at ease with.

It appears I have all main bases covered. I smile far often than I grimace, wish no hardship whatsoever on anyone who has wronged me, never feel happier than when paying joy forward to others, and should there be something I struggle to comprehend, then I’d like to think I’m able to apply the necessary perspective not to come across as an enormous ass. It may seem like self-tuition doesn’t interest me any longer, but in fact, I’m always learning in some capacity. The difference now is that I have labelled all of my demons, keep a vigilant eye over the little rascals at all times, and they no longer have any say over curriculum. I’ve lived in my skin now for almost forty-three years, albeit in passenger capacity for a fair wedge of the journey time, and never before has it fit so snugly. Am I a flawed individual? Without a shadow of doubt and I thank my lucky stars for every last imperfection. But I have never stopped learning one way or another and that’s one trend I’m not looking to buck any time soon.

Life may not always play by the rules, people are bound to disappoint me from time to time as I’m sure I will them, and I’ll no doubt continue to make mistakes, although seldom the same ones twice. Should I be required to take a leap of faith, then I’ll be swan-diving to my imminent death before the other party can shake on it, safe in the knowledge that I’ll be placed down gently at the other end. And do you know what? Even if that doesn’t happen and I shatter all 206 bones in my skeleton on impact, I’m more than happy to make it best out of three. You see, I once learned that our past shouldn’t define us, when our future is far better poised to do so and it always stuck with me. Call me teacher’s pet and I’ll offer you a bite of my shiny red apple, but learning can be fun if you take the right classes. Speaking of which, we’d better wrap things up about there as I think I just earned myself detention for deviating from the lesson plan. Who wants to be a straight-A student anyhoots?

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