My close personal friend Jessica has two sons. She decided at one point that what she needed more than anything was a third son. And so Billy was born, post-mortem.

One of her living sons complains about dinner? “That’s what Billy used to say,” she would respond thoughtfully. “Just before he died.”

Child stays up past bedtime? “Billy used to that,” his mom informs him. “But he’s dead now.”

Backtalk? “Billy used to give me attitude. Tragic what happened to him.”

I discovered Billy’s late existence during a visit several years ago. I could tell I was in the presence of someone who had mastered parenting.

“We had to stop, though,” my friend explained. “He complained that the Billy stories were making him uncomfortable.”

I nodded, understanding. It was a fair request.

“Isn’t that what Susie used to say?”

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Joey and the cell phone

Something on the order of 14 years ago, my close personal friend Jessica had her second son.

To keep him from feeling overshadowed by his little brother, someone gave her first son, Joey, a toy cell phone to play with. And play with it he did. Joey would make the phone ring, answer it and then have a brief discussion with whoever he pretended was on the other end.

And then one time he made a tactical error: He answered the phone, and then handed it to me. “Here, it’s for you,” he said.

“Hello?” I said, and listened for a moment. “OK, I’ll tell him.” I handed the toy phone back to Joe and said seriously, “Joey, that was your dad. He says you’re in big trouble for what you just did, and you have to sit in time out for the next four hours.”

It’s been ages. I still don’t know which was funnier: the poor boy’s gullibility or the utter dismay as he first sat down and then started running to his father, “Dad! Dad why am I in time out? What did I do?”

What I can say is that it only got funnier as he fell for the routine again and again. It was one of the best afternoons I’ve ever had.

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Hell is not other people

Jean Paul Sartre famously said “Hell is other people.”

All respect to Sartre, the man was full of shit. Hell isn’t other people; it’s no other people. It’s having as much space as you could want, even more, and no one to share it with. Count yourself king of infinite space, gaze upon the desolate void you inhabit, and feel the desolate void that inhabits you.

Why do you think the cruelest and most inhuman prisons put inmates in solitary? It’s because we’re not given our own soul, we’re given a piece of one big soul, and in hell our piece withers and blanches and takes all life, all hope, all joy with it as it dies.

Watch the shadows move on the wall of your cave, pilgrim. We live in hell, and the only one with the key is the person in the cell next to you.


Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Finding the ice cream connection

UntitledNow that there are three of them and the oldest is about to leave for college, this summer we instituted a tradition of one-on-one ice cream nights.

Every Friday my wife and I take turns taking one of the girls out for ice cream and a time to talk about whatever they want to. The trips may take an hour, they often take more. They’re a great way to build on the connections we have with one another, and all it takes is a little ice cream.

The Milltown Ice Cream Depot is just 3 miles from our house, and uphill from Borough Hall. This is where the Police Department is located, and because Milltown could be mistaken for Riverdale in old issues of Archie Comics, it’s not uncommon to see a police car sitting in the driveway, lights out, waiting for someone to drive past. Someone like me.

No one enjoys seeing a police car while they’re out driving, but it gets even worse when there’s one directly behind you. You run through an inventory of every possible offense you may have committed, may be committing, or even may accidentally commit while the police are directly behind you.

Is one of my taillights out? you may ask. Are my turn signals working? Did I fasten the lug nuts on the right rear tire? Is my radio playing too loudly? My radio is off; should I have it on? You think of everything you can do to minimize the chance of doing something wrong and getting pulled over. You try turning the headlights on, even though they’re already on. You run the wipers in case there’s bird doo-doo on the windshield. You tune in to an easy listening station in case the cop likes Kenny Loggins.

Now there’s a light where Washington Avenue runs into Main Street, and that creates problems of its own. Can you turn right on red? If you didn’t see a sign, does that mean it’s not there, or did you just miss it? Do you make the right turn and risk running a red light, or do you wait the extra 10 seconds for the green light?

Better safe than sorry, I figured, and I waited. Somewhere in the back of my head I remembered an incident where Plainsboro police charged a motorist with failing to turn right on red, but Plainsboro police are an aggressive lot when it comes to collecting ticket revenue, almost as bad as Green Brook, where they will find a way to charge a driver seventeen different ways for the same offense.

The light turned green. I turned right. Patrolman Milltown followed me.

Main Street is lined with signs. I saw signs for Dunkin Donuts, for Hair After, for Wells Fargo and for Hanna’s Florist, but nothing about the speed limit. A co-worker of mine once was pulled over for driving 22 mph in a 20 mph zone. (He got out of the ticket because he couldn’t stop laughing long enough to give the office his license and registration.)

It’s a residential stretch. I stuck to 20.

A half-mile up the road, a sign declared the limit to be 30. I sped up — and saw the telltale lights in the mirror.

“I’ll need to see your license and registration,” Patrolman Milltown said when he reached my window. Then: “Sir, you were driving very slowly. Is anything wrong?”

We have an idiot running the country, I thought. I’m haunted by a profound sense of ennui and of loneliness, I can’t focus on my writing and thus have dozens of stories that I would like to sell but can’t seem to finish. I have serious doubts about the validity of my faith, and I feel like our nation is lost in the grip of an existential crisis.

“No,” I lied. “I’m fine.”

“You didn’t turn at the traffic light, and then you were driving 10 miles under the speed limit,” he said, and our eyes met. There, on that empty stretch of Main Street, our souls connected and we understood one another.

You think you have problems? he thought. My girlfriend left me when I took a pay cut to get this job, and she took our Netflix subscription with her, so now I’ll never see the rest of “Luke Cage.” My dog won’t stop pooping recreationally, and I’m afraid if the guys at work find out about my rash, they’ll start calling me “Bongo” again.

He handed me back my license and papers and walked back to his car. A moment later we each drove off into a night that was at once both literal and metaphorical, the road before us brightened by the street lamps of our chance encounter.

Life can be a lonely journey as we travel from birth to death, but if we take a little time and make a little effort, we can lessen the burden for one another along the way.

All it takes is a little ice cream.

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Attention whore

I have a confession to make to everyone: I am an attention whore. Please look at me.

I love to be noticed. It’s the remedy for what ails me. You see, as New Jerseyans, we live like ships at sea, warmed by the same sun, cooled by the same breeze and lashed by the same storm as our fellows, but so absorbed in our day-to-day that we rarely notice the others on the same voyage with us.

Sometimes the heartache and the isolation are too much, and I risk running the ships together. I get up on stage in front of dozens of strangers and pretend I belong there. I meet a friend for coffee, or invite people to celebrate my birthday with me. I even spend time with my kids.

Nine years ago, my daughter and I took her sister to school and then walked home in broad daylight. We sang. We laughed. Look at me! I fairly shouted. Someone please pay attention! And someone did. We weren’t even halfway home before a police car pulled up beside me and an officer demanded to see my ID.

Someone had called the police in a panic to report that a brown-haired man in his late 30s was luring away a young blond preschooler.

I had been noticed.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

(I told this one before.)

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The saga continues

This morning I checked the calendar on my iPhone to see what activities I have to take care of today. There was a scheduled event which I was invited to, for checking into the resort hotel in Montreal that Idiot David Learn was going to.

I figured this had to be an old thing, since I had been assured last night by two separate hotel people that they finally understood the problem and had removed my email address from Idiot David Learn’s account. So I declined the invitation.

An hour later, I received an email acknowledging that his reservation had been canceled, with hopes that I would consider staying there in the future.

I hope Idiot David Learn enjoys his stay at the Holiday Inn.

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Meet the idiot

Meet Idiot David Learn. Idiot David Learn lives in Canada and recently spent $2,946.44 Canadian to take a companion to a posh resort hotel in Montreal, beginning tomorrow and continuing through Monday.

Idiot David Learn does not know his own email address, so he gave the resort hotel my email address instead. The hotel accordingly sent me an email to confirm the reservation. Once I was assured there was no fraud afoot, it was all I could do to keep from going online and canceling his reservation.

(Believe me, the thought of the receptionist telling Idiot David Learn, “I’m sorry, that reservation was canceled and the room is now booked. We can put you up at the Holiday Inn downtown, though” was a powerful incentive to have some mean fun.)

I contacted the company to let them know of the error so they could stop compromising their guest’s information. An hour later, they sent me Idiot David Learn’s membership number and PIN so I could download an app to use while he stays at their hotel. Shortly after that they sent me an email to let me know that Idiot David Learn had updated his profile with a new phone number.
I think these two deserve each other.

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No love today

Not feeling the love for Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools this week. Not feeling the love.

My daughter hopes to compete in cross country again this year, which requires a routine physical to make sure she can handle it. As a courtesy, the school provided a doctor from 9 to 10:30 Thursday morning.

I took her sister to circus camp at 9 a.m., rushed home, and got to the high school just after 10. The doctor had decided to leave at 9:45, despite being told that someone was coming. So now I’m trying to get the form completed by our family doctor (for a fee) when I did everything on my end to have it done already.

I’ve written to the school about the unprofessionalism, but haven’t heard back. At a minimum I hope (but do not expect) that they dock at least a portion of his pay for failing to complete his duties. And next year I hope they hire someone else.

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Your mom joke revisited

The girls were in the back seat, hitting each other with one “your mom” joke after another, when their mother objected. Such humor is rude, puerile and not what we expect from them, she reminded them.

The 7-year-old didn’t miss a bit.

She turned to her sister and said, “Your dad is SO UGLY–“

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Racial reconciliation is not what we need

Racial reconciliation is a misnomer, as reconciliation suggests equal fault. What is needed is racial repentance, and racial justice. Blacks in America are not to blame for the state of race relations in this country; whites are. It was white Christians who enslaved blacks from the 1600s and for the following two centuries. It was white Christians like George Whitefield who saw blacks as worthy of the gospel but not of their freedom, and it was white Christians who stole the labor, the health and the safety of blacks throughout the South, and who fought a bloody war in defense of their right to own black people. It was white Christians who replaced slavery with Jim Crow, prison camps and segregation following the war; and when the courts and the federal government finally demanded an end to those things, it was white Christians like you and me who fled public schools and closed public resources rather than share them with blacks,and often defended it from the pulpit. Every bit of progress our nation has made toward racial equality and justice the past 150 years has been fought at every step by white people, often self-identified Christians. Blacks in AMerica can’t even protest a justice system that targets them more frequently and sentences them more harshly and kills them more frequently than it does whites without being scolded that All Lives Matter.

It’s not reconciliation that’s needed. It’s repentance. We need to own up to what we’ve done, and what we’ve inherited; and we need to correct the fault that we have inherited. Statements disavowing the racist history of the past are not enough.For any denomination, for the church as a whole in our country, or for our nation itself to rise above our legacy of racism, we need to correct the fault that we have inherited.

We can begin by elevating black America: its art, its poetry, its literature, its leaders, its history, and its economy. Faced with prejudice against Grecian Jews, the Jerusalem church handed over the welfare programs of the church entirely to those suffering the prejudice.

Can we study church history from the perspective of black America? Can we learn how the enslaved church flourished amid slavery and the abuses of the empowered church?

Can we learn to see the heroism of Nat Turner, and remember the deep moral flaws of white leaders who saw white supremacy and black subjugation as the ordained way of things, or who never gave it a thought? Can we demand black chancellors and presidents at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, and black-majority boards?

Will we throw our moral authority, weakned though it is, behind the efforts to stop honoring the Confederate veterans who defended slavery with their lives, and instead shame them and everyone in the North and South who benefited from slavery?

Will we speak out against the policies and actions of President Trump and Jeff Sessions that threaten the well-being of the African American community?

The Southern Baptist Convention has made steps in the right direction. But what is needed are seven-league boots.

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