2022: In Review

I can’t write about 2022 without mentioning the deaths of Brad Veleker and Judith Houston, one of my best friends of all-time and my grandmother, respectively, with one being untimely and coming out of nowhere and the other being a blessing of some sort.

Brad passed away in March and it was so sudden that I at first didn’t think it was true and at second didn’t want to believe it was true. I had just arrived to work that day and went through my morning routine of using the facility, and opened up my Facebook app on my phone just as I have a million other times. In dozens of instances in the past I had scrolled through and seen people I had gone to high school with, or people I had been to class with, or people I actually considered “friends” pass away, but Brad was by far the most surprising and tragic and closest member of my life’s small fraternity.

It saddened me deeply and saddened the rest of my family, not just for how much we loved Brad but for the fact that it was within months that Brad’s younger brother Trent passed away. My mom and I went to Trent’s funeral and saw my estranged best friend, Trey, for the first time in years, and it was just a tough day. Trent and I were always cool with one another and we did things occasionally from my once-close relationship with Trey. But Brad was a different cat.

He was someone I spent countless nights with, whether it was during Trey and I’s friendship, after Trey and I took a hiatus for a year and a half back in 2009-’10, and afterwards. I wrote a blog titled Brad Was Always There, and that’s the best way I can describe it. He had the decency to spend a completely unnecessary amount of time with the kid who was beefing with his younger brother at a forgettable fork in the road when I had absolutely nobody to hear my cries out into the wilderness.

I used to play my little violin all the time. Whether I was talking to my mom or writing silly blogs on Xanga, the world was going to know that wedged between the darkness and confusion of being a 19 year-old, I had lost my first love, my best friend, and dropped out of my dream school all within a span of about three weeks. Having experienced an easy childhood where everything came easy and conflict-free I was confronted by the realities of a cold world and I was in no shape to deal with any of them. My spoiled upbringing signed sealed and delivered the most delicious of humble pies to a child who only knew one way: to get his way, all the time.

Brad was my lifeline, and in retrospect there’s a nonzero chance that he literally saved my life. Of course I had my mom there to listen, night after night, about how I lost my love and my best friend. I had my brothers, too, but that was at a time where I wasn’t close to either of them and they hadn’t dealt with anything close to the same heartbreak or loss. And my dad could only offer platitudes to the tune of “you’ll get over [your ex] when you meet someone new” and blah blah blah. Thanks for that, pops.

I was all alone, but Brad made me feel a lot less alone. Each night for several months the two of us occupied a table outside at the nearby Starbucks off of University in San Bernardino and he would drink his hot chocolate and I would drink my large black coffee and we would people watch and I would bitch and moan and we would spend very little time talking about Trey. It didn’t need to be said. It’s funny, because the two of us would rarely get “deep,” or however you call it. That wasn’t really our bag. We were just present. He was there. I was there. And we had a certain routine that we got in.

As the years went on our relationship evolved. We smoked a lot of weed together and did mushrooms together and eventually Trey came back into my life and Brad treated it like that’s the way it was always supposed to be. I was one of the best men at Brad’s wedding in October of 2011. We were both part of the wedding party when Trey got married. And we always had this thing when we saw each other that we shook hands and gave each other a big ass bear hug. Because that’s what we did. I don’t know how it started or why we kept doing it. But I loved it, and I loved him.

When Trey and I broke up with what feels like more officially, about five years ago, I didn’t see Brad much after that. The last time I remember seeing him was a couple years ago at the barber shop where we all used to get our hairs cut, and I had with me my now-ex-girlfriend so he got to meet her and he told me he had a new woman in his life. And it was nice. It was the same-old Brad. I could always rely on him to be consistent.

I thought long and hard about attending his funeral but I didn’t have the heart. I contributed money, as did my mom, but I just figured at the end of the day it was something that didn’t need to involve me. I know that sounds fucked up, because I truly loved Brad and still love Trey and I didn’t want to take anything away from the process by being there. I used to wish for Trey and I to resolve our issues, or issue, but it just hurts me too much to think about seeing him. Brad deserved that day to be one hundred percent about him.

The year moved on, as life does. I got Covid over July 4th weekend and missed three days of work. My symptoms were mild, not even worth talking about. But I got that shit. Ever since I have felt like my memory has not been firing at full capacity, but at the same time I am 32 now and when I walk into the kitchen and forget what I went there for I just blame it on Covid rather than the truth, which is that sometimes I just get high and forget things. It’s whatever.

Work was good this year. I stopped signing the Early Out list as often as I used to, which probably doesn’t mean anything to you but in the casino industry it’s like a disease. For the last eight years I have more or less signed every single day and worked only six of a possible eight hours more than fifty percent of the time. In turn, chopping a couple hours off every day for 52 weeks out of the year has probably cost me, on average, about $10,000 per year (if not much more), and it wasn’t until this year that I realized how much better I feel after working a full shift.

But these are the natural responses of a man with no wife, no kids, and very few responsibilities. I was always cool making my $80,000 or $90,000 a year and not worrying about the rest. This season of my life has been a Moment Of Clarity to some degree. I’ve been working more than I ever have. I’ve been saving more money than I ever have. And in a weird way it’s resulted in a lot more happiness and fulfillment.

As a millennial I tend to be more focused on things that are good for the soul more than making money, because money has never been totally real to me. I mean, it is. It has to be. I do love money. But I’ve always had enough to get the things I want to get and do the things I want to do. As a matter of competition I like making money. But I have generally thought of it as something that is always there, as something that always will be there, and if it isn’t then I’ll just do something else.

My end game for the last few years has been to move out and get my own place and eventually have my dad move in with me so he can save money and live sustainably through the rest of his retirement years. I know I don’t have to do that. If truth be told it’s not something I want to do. But I know it’s necessary. I know if I’m not the one who helps him then no one else will. And with my back up against the wall, through that lens, it feels a lot less like a choice than something that has to happen.

More than anything I’m just a lot smarter now. That might not be the best way to put it. A better way to put it is that I’m a lot less dumb. I have spent so much of my life trying to hit home runs in every situation when the best course of action, I have realized, is to not strikeout. Limiting mistakes has just as much, if not more, utility than going for glory all the time.

I suppose these are the lessons I have learned having done almost everything the wrong way for so much of my life. Striving for perfection is a fool’s game and I gave that up a long time ago. I’m just saying the drugs, the gambling, chasing the transient highs, got me nowhere. In fact they got me worse than nowhere. They got me into a figure of debt larger than I ever could have imagined. It was only three or four years ago that I began the battle of getting out of it. And once I made it back to the level where I was treading water I kind of liked the feeling. I liked it so much that I have done everything in my power to get above and stay above and start the process of moving forward in a grownup way.

I’ve had to do it, as I have done so much else, on my own. I didn’t have parents or siblings who had been there before and knew the ropes and had the advice for me on how to save money or invest in the future. I kind of stumbled upon it, partly thanks to my own curiosity and partly because I work with a lot of people who have done things the right way well before I was at the point to be receptive to the knowledge. When I was 27 it was such a drab, boring thought to start a Roth IRA or a 401K, because the pennies earned on every paycheck just didn’t seem worth it at the time.

Now that I’m here, I’m beginning to understand. I mean sure, I have pissed away money gambling in the stock market no differently than if I was at a blackjack or craps table. But the twenty or thirty thousand dollars that I’ve been able to save otherwise wouldn’t have been there. I have some 50 and 60-somethings I work with to thank for that. Let’s not get bored with the minor details that that number could have been a lot bigger if I’d not decided to invest in Canadian pot stocks or South American mining companies. That’s for the birds.

Running has also changed my outlook. Running, and cutting soda out of my diet. I used to drink multiple cans per day, then a year or two ago I reduced it to one in the morning and one when I ate dinner at 11 or 12 every night. It was a compromise that made sense, because I’ve always loved my soda as a morning pick-me-up and the caffeine never affected me before falling asleep.

That all changed when I saw I wasn’t making the types of gains I was expecting after all the running I was doing. As I’ve outlined on a couple blogs this year, running has been an extremely gradual process for me. It started in small intervals, then the intervals got longer and faster and before I knew it was able to run for 15 or 20 minutes at a time without taking a break. I recently ran my first 5K, which at 32 minutes was hardly a backbreaking pace but certainly still felt like an accomplishment.

I used to dread each workout, and to some degree I still do. Every night when I get home from work it remains something that I have to tell myself I have to do, but whether I like it or not I always feel better afterwards and on the nights that it doesn’t happen, once or twice a week, I feel like I cheated myself and don’t deserve anything that comes after. Running is a mindset. The focus was once to complete each workout. Then it turned into completing each interval. Then it became finishing each minute.

The reality is it’s all about each step. One at a time. Right. Left. Just keep going. When you train your mind not to give up, to just believe, regardless of how tired you are or how you can’t wait to get in the shower and crack open a beer and eventually make a nice dinner worthy of being devoured, it’s impossible to lose. I always thought cardiovascular training was about my heart and my leg muscles and reducing the movement my body makes such that I can go as far as I can. I’ve found the truth comes from training the mind. And once you go through it enough times you understand that you are a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for.

I love that I’m in better shape now than I have been in for most, if not all, of my adult life. But I’ve also found it applicable to my day-to-day struggle. As someone who still experiences a fair amount of anxiety, when on occasion my mind tells me that I can’t, and that it’s time to give up, running has strengthened my will for survival. That may sound dramatic and I don’t really care. It’s just… life ain’t that easy. I once tricked myself into believing it was. And that blissful ignorance carried me for a long time.

But I deal in what’s real and what’s true. The choice I made as a sad teenager with what I thought was very little to live for was simple: I would rather know the truth, and seek the truth, all the time, than be part of an ever-growing herd who rejects it and is happy more often than not. I don’t think I am built to be happy if I must take things on faith. As jealous as I sometimes am of the people who don’t see life the same way I do, I wouldn’t trade places with them for anything.

This is important to note, I think, when it comes to my grandmother’s passing on October 22nd, 2022. She was a very religious woman. Most of my relatives are very religious people. And the funeral was incredibly religious, bordering on an over-the-top nature. I kind of expected it as did my brothers. I wasn’t upset about it. I just think it’s such a weird way to go about life, pretending that there is some magic man in the sky and having the arrogance to think He gives a single shit about any of us all the while couched in it being a humble thing to live for a higher power. I guess none of us know until it happens to us. But there is literally zero evidence of that being the case and I have no intention of wasting my time on Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. That’s for another blog, though.

I owe a lot to my grandmother not just that she literally birthed my mom and without her I wouldn’t be here, but because she established a kind of culture that lives within all of us in my family. She was a good person. She did things the right way. She did the best she could. She moved away to Washington state when I was a junior in high school so I had a tough time appreciating her in all the years that led up to that point, but there were enough moments I shared with her in my twenties to let her know how I really felt and for the two of us to share common ground.

The last few years weren’t kind to her. One of her greatest strengths was how she wanted, and tried, to help all of us whenever and however she could. From my own experience, in 2014 I crashed my gorgeous black Subaru STi that I had only owned for a few weeks and was so proud of on the freeway one early morning around 3:00 AM on my drive home from work. The freeway was littered with air conditioner piping that must have fallen off a truck within 30 seconds or a minute ahead of me and I didn’t have the time to get out of the way, so I jerked the wheel while traveling at probably somewhere close to 90 miles an hour and the all wheel drive couldn’t stop me from doing like three full rotations in the middle of the freeway before I crashed into both the right and center barriers. I’ll never forget the feeling while it was happening, knowing there was a good chance I could die, doing whatever I could to brace myself for the inevitable impact, and thinking all the while how quickly it was all happening and how truly helpless I was. I still take that freeway after getting my haircut on my way to my dad’s apartment, and every time I realize that the barrier doesn’t go on forever. Had it occurred just a hundred feet later on down the road, I would have careened off the right shoulder of the freeway and my car would have nosedived a few hundred feet downward into some of Redlands’s finest pine trees and I wouldn’t be here anymore.

I say that to say this: after such a traumatic episode my grandma sent me a $1,000 check in the mail to be used as a down payment for my next car (which a few months later I used on a white STi that I owned for a few years), and so I called her to tell her thank you thank you thank you and you didn’t have to do that. She was happy to. She told me everything happens for a reason. She told me there was a reason I didn’t die that night. It wasn’t the type of language or worldview I was accustomed to and I let her know about it, but she was such a sweet and innocent woman and who was I to tell the person that was doing something out of the kindness of her heart that she was wrong and that I, super duper smart 24 year-old guy that put himself in such a situation, was right.

But not all of her good-hearted practices were rewarded. Like I said, her helpful nature was her greatest strength, but it was also her greatest weakness. She spent so much time towards the end, before dementia captured her mind and faculties and motor abilities, trying to help rehabilitate my cousin who has spent most of his adult life in and out of jail and addicted to drugs. He stole from his own parents to buy drugs, and when they ultimately cut him off he ended up stealing from my grandma. She let him live with her. She allowed him to pull the wool over her eyes and he made up stories about things that needed to be fixed around the house, or that her car needed this or the other fixed, and when all that was done he literally sold her personal items, including her wedding dress and jewelry and basically anything else he could.

He is a con-man, but more than anything he is an addict. I think he’s gotten his life straightened out to some degree; he met a girl and whatever whatever whatever. But the damage was done. My family and I are convinced that all the stress he put on her, what with the cops arriving and finding needles all over my grandma’s house, and all the money he embezzled from her while she still tried to help him, went a long way into catalyzing the process of her brain and her memory failing her.

For that, I can’t forgive my cousin. My grandma wasn’t in the best shape and I don’t know how long she had to live, anyway, but the least any of us could have asked for was for her to get a fair shake. For her to go out on her own terms, with her mind still intact. Life is usually a story of sadness and tragedy, at least at the end, but it’s a goddamn shame that she lived out her end days barely remembering who her own daughters were.

I’ve become a very patient man. I think having made the hour-plus drive from where I live in the Inland Empire to where I work in the California Desert for the last nine years has given me that. Patience. I’m used to getting cut off on the freeway and having people in such a goddamn hurry not use their blinkers and myself driving without a license for like a year and getting rear-ended and more and more and more, that I find myself just chillin’ — as the kids used to say. I enjoy driving and listening to my music or my podcasts. I have nothing but time.

Now more than ever I am trying to course-correct my life’s behaviors, most of which were made when I didn’t possess patience and chose to YOLO as many situations as possible. Where once every little thing felt like the end of the world, right now I feel like I have the opportunity to atone for it. There is no need to blow my wad at the first sign of struggle or insecurity. We have time. When you are 18 or 19 you don’t have the type of perspective to understand that some things are sweeter when they have a little air to breathe.

If 2022 has taught me anything it’s a reminder of the fact that I’m still here and it’s good to be alive. It’s good to still have the capacity to feel things. I don’t believe in magic, but there is a certain kind of magic out there. Magic happens when you make eye contact. Magic is the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Magic is knowing better, and thinking clearly and logically, and throwing all of that out the window and believing for the sake of belief. It’s not religion. It’s not faith. It’s an intuition that is very difficult to explain and runs counter to most everything I ever talk about.

But that magic makes me feel alive. I feel. I still feel. I think I am more surprised than anyone at that. I swear for so many years I thought I was going to be okay going through the motions of waking up and going to work and making money and going to sleep and lather rinse repeat okay here we are time to live happily ever after in my own cocoon that I forgot what it was like. I used to feel anxious when I had a hard time sleeping and had to operate my day to day life on four or five hours of sleep. I used to care about not eating enough or eating way too much and how that made me feel. Somewhere along the line I forgot that all I had to do was keep waking up, keep making choices, keep getting excited about things I shouldn’t be excited about and keep getting down about things I have no business being down about. I forgot a lot.

And I was cool with it, because I figured if being numb to life was as bad as it could be — or if my life as it was was indeed as good as it gets — then I had a pretty solid baseline for the future. Of course I still want all the things I’ve always wanted. I just figured I wouldn’t have to go through with the business of having to actually care how the dominoes fell. Line them up, knock them over, but either way I wouldn’t have to worry about it. It’ll all work itself out in the end.

Right now I do care about how I line them up. I do care about which direction gravity allows them to fall in. I have seen a glimpse of the top of the mountain again, way, way off, over the horizon, far beyond anything I could have seen or imagined at any point after I turned 21 or 22. These things weren’t supposed to be real. They weren’t supposed to be possible. They weren’t supposed to be presented to me, the most humble cocky person or the cockiest humble person you could ever come in contact with.

And yet, I am here. I am present. I am where my feet are. I am alive. In 2022. The person I am at work and in public and towards my family has more or less always been consistently enthusiastic; I like to bring the energy; I like to make them happy and seeing them happy has made me happy. And with that said, I may have lost myself along the way in a Fake It Till You Make It fashion. For all the handwringing my whole life about being self-centered and fucking arrogant, I swear to god my main focus has been to make everyone else feel just a little bit better all the time.

Then there are moments like this when I realize the character I so often play is there for a reason. It’s a character I’ve known, and have known very well, and it’s a character I play because it’s the character I am when I’m at my best. It’s not the recalibration of someone from a book I once read or a movie I’ve seen countless times who I wanted to imitate; it’s not a hero I’ve worshipped or a famous person I’m a fan of. All I’ve ever wanted was to be the best version of myself I could possibly be, because that person is and forever has been the hero of all the stories and all the movies that have played through my head for the entirety of my existence.

There’s a good chance all of this sounds like a bunch of fucking bullshit, and that’s cool. My 2022 year in review is a lot like my life in review. Brad’s death forced me to confront everything that he was and everything that he meant to me, and there is no other way to remember him other than to remember what he represented at undeniably the most crucial stage of my life. To me, that matters. It matters greatly and deeply and all at the same time.

It also coincides with one of the great awakenings of my time. To go forward I sometimes have to go back. I must deal with what got me to this point. I’ve rejected it long enough and made myself so immune to the noise and the unfeeling and the necessary nature of getting on with my life that I’m not sure if I ever truly admired the struggle. For so long I resigned myself to the fact that I was stupid and I made bad choices and I treated people the wrong way so on and so forth — and all of that is true — but there is a certain power in being able to relive it and reimagine it and come to grips with the idea that all I have ever done is make the decision I thought was best with the information I had at the time.

I can’t be mad at myself for that. I have to accept it, and deal with it. I have to acknowledge that I am not perfect and never have been (even though I once thought that I was). And I have to forgive. I can’t just keep telling myself the same story in my head about love and loss and being young and not knowing any better. That isn’t something I should knock myself for anymore. I have to be okay with that.

I once wrote a very longwinded story, an autobiography of sorts, back in 2015 or 2016. It was about how my life didn’t really start until I was 18, a few months before I graduated high school, a handful of months before I began my journey to Virginia Tech, roughly a year before I returned home, and in the end it was about everything I was and everything I am and everything that got me to that point in my life. It was as real and as honest as I have ever been as a writer.

But my cornerstone — what I preached in that autobiographical story and what I have referenced here — is a tired one. It’s a story I had to tell myself to make me make sense of who I am as a person, and to justify my actions. I’m now 32 and I don’t know if I believe it anymore. I mean, I believe it happened. I believe it was a factual depiction of a series of events. I’m just saying I could leave it at that without using it as some kind of crutch to explain myself and how I got here.

It’s Christmas as I write this, and I can’t deny that this is as happy as I’ve been in a long time. This has been the best professional year of my life. I am in the best physical condition of my life (which isn’t saying a whole lot but still). I would argue that my mind and my mindset is as good and as strong as it’s ever been. It’s been a helluva long time since I have been able to say that I am truly happy, but that’s kind of what this feels like. 2022 was far from perfect and it involved losses and people coming and going and everything in between. It was an experience. But it’s experiences that I live for, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.

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