Choose Your Own Adventure

IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“You and you alone are in charge of what happens in this story. There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences. The wrong decision could end in disaster—even death. But, don’t despair. At anytime, you can go back and make another choice, alter the path of your story, and change its result.” – Choose Your Own Adventure

I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure books. They didn’t even have to be good; the concept alone drew my attention. As a reader, you were presented with options during the plot line. You made a decision, flipped to the appropriate page number, and the book played out the course of action… until the next conflict.

The Adventure books are popular with kids because the reader has an impact on the outcome of the book— the story changes to suit interests and best judgments. There’s something underlying here: youngsters like making decisions in a Choose Your Own Adventure book because it allows them to do something “older” and adult-like. It lets them have a say in things. Maybe this is because adults are always making decisions for children— what to wear, what to eat, where to go… even what to think. Much of life is plotted out for young people. And mostly for good reason, if we consider the health and safety of our youth. Still, this gives some insight into why small decisions are important in child development.

For me, I didn’t just make my chapter choices and move on. I would read every storyline. After choosing one direction of the story, I’d then go back and read through an alternative option— after that I would be compelled to go back again to make sure that I chose all directions from the first point before checking every option from the following point, etc., etc.

I liked knowing all possible outcomes of the story.

Choose Your Own Adventure books are aimed at young readers because, into our teen years, we realize that not knowing all potential outcomes can actually make a story more enjoyable. Not to mention the true plot of each Adventure book was only slightly adjusted by the perceived “choices” anyway.

In other words, the novels, movies, and television series we enjoy are most exciting when they are thought-provoking— and maybe even plot twisting— but we don’t need to have direct input to be entertained. In fact, sometimes it’s the new ideas, offered by other points of view, that compel us to think and to feel beyond our mind’s own limitations.

All of this considered, I still like complex plots. I still like multiple storylines. I still like parallel possibilities in movies and TV shows. Stories left up to interpretation can have me reeling and thinking for days. Often, what is interesting in a story isn’t just what happens from point A to point B, but also what might simultaneously happen from point A to point C, or point B to point D, or point E back to point A, or…. whatever. I’m confusing myself here, so I digress.

To the point: Choose Your Own Adventure is a direct metaphor for real life.

Reality is one big Adventure story. In any given instance, under any given circumstances, we wonder what might happen if we carry through with certain choices.

What will happen if I act on this decision? What will happen to my future? How will people treat me? Will I be happy and successful? What if I made a career move? What if I pursued a different hobby? What if I relocated… tried a new language… took night classes… entered a relationship…?

I get intrigued with the concept of time. (Funny, since I seem to be late everywhere I go.) Specifically, I am realizing more and more that the cliché is true: life is short. We are but a speck in the timeline of history. Smaller than that, if we look at the grandeur of the universe… or even multiple universes. We are no more than a comma on one page in a neverending novel. Actually, more like an infinite series of neverending novels.

Let that comma analogy give you pause. Pun intended.

When I get the rare chance to pause my own life— to just sit and think and reflect, I often find myself wondering what would happen if I could go back in time or if I could see the future. Would I still go through with my decisions, knowing the outcome? Would I take all that might transpire, each piece of information and conceivable occurrence, and compile it into my life story? Would that mean I try different approaches each year, each month, or each week?

Would that completely alter this thing called consciousness? And is that even living?

See, the options in life are almost endless as it is. Meaning is what we make of it. If we want a reason for living, we make it. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure to the Nth degree. The only issue is that we don’t get to see the storyline before it happens. Unlike the opening lines in the Adventure books, you can’t actually go back and make another choice, alter the path of your story, and change its result. But, instead, decisions occur daily to set forth the next chapter of our lives. And isn’t that enough?

We may not be able to flip back a few pages and try a different decision or take a redo on a previous course of action, but we can always start now and make the best possible ending.

Inside each of us is an adventure, and if we use what the children’s books call our “numerous talents” and “enormous intelligence,” it most certainly is an adventure worth living.

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When Push Comes to Shove: Beyond a Shadow of Self-Doubt

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“Fear is wisdom in the face of danger.” – Mark Gatiss via Sherlock Holmes

I remember being afraid of the dark as a kid. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the run-of-the-mill mind tricks that most children go through.

The unknown. Always the culprit of fear, isn’t it?

Basements seemed creepy, forests held hauntings, and every day items would be made into bedroom shadows. The five-year-old brain is no match for the unknowns hidden in the dark.

Some childhood nightmares still stand out, all these years later, but there is one in particular that cements itself in the shadows of my memory. And it came to me as an adult.

There was a time when I kept a pen and notebook on my bedside stand. The goal was to record all those midnight thoughts that seem so intensely important… and also to recall dreams and nightmares to relive the brain’s strangest moments.

I had a dream one night that took me into a jolting and enlightening encounter with a ghost. It was so realistic that it jarred me from deep sleep. Upon waking in the dark hours of the middle of that night, I quickly jotted down a couple lines of scratchy, half-complete thoughts. Configured into full sentence form in the morning, they left me with the beginning of what sounded like a future movie script right there in my journal:

You figured out why ghosts exist.
They come to us, not the dead, not strangers from the past, but as ourselves from the future.

Unreal. I had just unveiled a paranormal mystery the likes of which were awe-inspiring, to say the least. I decided not to tell anyone. Well, until now.

I replayed the nightmare in my mind. “That’s right,” I thought, “the staircase…”

Vividly replaying my dream, I sat on my bed, head in my hands.

I was in a spiral staircase and walking up towards a brightly lit and indiscernible scene. It was a stony room, cold and dark and musky and a bit like an old garage. While tentatively heading up the stairs, I was suddenly pushed by an unknown force, somehow pulled backwards as well, my arm a tug-of-war rope, me losing the battle. I swung around to face my monster and saw a faceless ghost in a willowy near-float.

Push came to shove. I punched hard and fast directly into the place where a face should be. In a flash, I was flung forward, chest first into a vision, like warp speed in some sci-fi flick. The vision was a scene from a different time, my mind knew, and I saw myself, there ahead of me, my own body lying curled up on the ground, beaten down by someone or something. Dead? Was I dead? I closed in for a better look.

But that was it. That was when I woke up.

Ghosts are just us, I recounted. We are warning ourselves of something. Something… in our own future.

It is this dream, this idea, that serves as the basis of the full-length novel I’m currently working on. Man, do I hope I do the original concept some justice.

• • •

The world is a scary place. Childhood fears have evolved, however, from unnecessary worries in the dark to an adult life full of potential violence and injury and disease and, well, more unnecessary worries.

Violence? Injury? Disease? Fear is wisdom in the face of true danger. But our self-doubts are no more than shadow puppets within the mind.

Case in point: this website.

With these words, I reach my two-year anniversary of writing for this here blog, prompted by random idiom topics that have garnished monthly interest.

Twenty-four pieces about various topics in life. The goal was always simple: to carry on writing, to gain experience in the craft of storytelling, and to overcome the fear of putting myself out there for the world to see. Writers write. So therefore, I wanted to do just that.

Besides other writing pursuits, namely poetry shorts, motivational memes, fitness articles, and the lofty goal of writing a novel, this blog has been a constant that, for the most part, was easy enough to drop some thoughts into each month. And then force myself to move on.

I never wanted to stress over a post or story. I wanted to get some words down on the page, reflect on the process, and look ahead.

Initially I invited a few other writers to join in the monthly challenge, and then at the one-year mark I included a bunch more. Many joined, but then many stopped. Okay… many = all. Understandable, since, well, 1) we aren’t getting paid to do this, and 2) life gets busy. With other priorities, other interests, and even other outlets for writing, it’s no wonder things like this take a back seat.

Meanwhile, I realized something existed in many other writers, and quite possibly much of the public for that matter, that I didn’t fully know was present in anyone besides myself: self-doubt. Sure, we all go through adolescence and high school cliques and questions of popularity and blah blah blah, but I guess I didn’t realize we are always a bit self-conscious. All of us. Even into adulthood. And even with our talents.

We are all still afraid of the dark.

Am I good enough? Is my writing even on topic? Will people relate to this story?

There are so many great pieces that have been put forth on this site. I’m proud to have hosted such a talented group of wordsmiths. These fellow writers have such amazing chops, and stories to boot, and if you have a chance you should backlog whatever posts you have the time to read. Oh, the writing is good enough, alright. It’s better than that. And the stories are relatable and insightful and downright inspirational. At least for me.

But life gets hectic, and in the meantime that nasty voice of self-doubt echoes in the dark corners of our minds. Oh, I dunno… I’m not really that good. Doubt pushes apprehension. What if people just think I’m stupid?

But that fear is okay, isn’t it? When push comes to shove, a little self-doubt doesn’t make or break the mental fight. It’s not as if we’re prohibited from being self-conscious. However— and this is big— if fear floods our daily thoughts, then we make our false perceptions into realities.

Success is about overcoming any feelings of self-doubt to make the most of our life skills.

Mental health is about facing whatever doubt exists, seeing negativity as self-damaging, and forging ahead towards our goals and successes with a heightened sense of self-worth. Even those who claim they don’t care what others think are just expressing an ability to look past judgement; people will always have fear in life, it’s about pushing past those doubts and seeing the cliché for its true worth: life is short. Definitely too short to wonder “what if?”

Besides, looking at our fears, it is obvious that we are most afraid of failure. And that worry is the most dangerous adversity of all because it exists within ourselves. A projection— nothing more than a shadow on the mental wall.

How will you know what’s possible if you never push your personal threshold?

So I start the new year of this blog back to square one: me, myself, and the empty page. Oh, and that dark figure of self-doubt that lets me know what I’m doing is worthwhile.

Knock on Wood: Stupid Superstition

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” – Groucho Marx

I’ve always been superstitious. Not the kind of superstitious where I truly believe horrible things will come my way if I don’t perform a certain task, but superstitious in the sense that… well… it’s kind of fun.

I mean, that’s sort of it, right? It’s all just for fun.

Many of our superstitions are negative, though, aren’t they?
Don’t open that umbrella inside. Don’t step on that crack in the sidewalk. Don’t walk under that ladder… don’t break a mirror… don’t spill the salt… don’t put shoes on the table…”

And hundreds of other innocent acts.

I’m more interested in the positive superstitions that are out there. For instance, find a penny, pick it up… or, star light, star bright… or even something as simple as fingers crossed!

Good vibes, you know?

In having these fun and harmless acts that purportedly bring us good luck, the positive superstitions simply give life some shine. Sure, it’s a tad ritualistic and unnecessary, but in the end, are people being harmed? If not, then have at it.

Growing up I had little tendencies and things that I liked to do for good luck. Particularly before big days at school or important games in whatever sport I was in for the season. Looking back now they are mostly laughable, some even downright obsessive-compulsive. Like when I’d have to play a song on the piano before Little League baseball. Or when I’d leave the strings of my shorts hanging out during high school basketball. Or, most recently, when I needed my favorite pen while coaching track meets. Yes, these are actually just routines and habits more than superstitions. Nonetheless, I like the feeling of creating good luck.

Some people find religion to fit this mental and emotional need for positivity. For me, superstitions do the trick just fine.

I don’t think spines will explode if I step on a crack. I don’t think years will be ruined if I break a mirror. And I don’t really think it was me who made it all happen because of the way I sat and watched a World Series game— but it’s fun anyway, right?

• • •

Prior to teaching, I had a bunch of odd jobs throughout life. Paper route, golf caddy, custodial work, pizza delivery, computer lab, lifeguard… just to name a few.

On a muggy summer day in 2001, I was stuck painting curbs for the local park district. Bright yellow, by hand, with nothing but a roller brush. The temporary position was more like a bunch of random jobs around the town parks; on this particular day I needed to designate the No Parking areas at the swimming pool. I also needed to paint the speed bumps at the park entrance.

It was all, literally, a pain in the ass— hunch, paint, stand, shuffle, repeat.

The old paint was chipping off from the concrete and would get stuck on the roller brush with each pass. I had to pick off the flecks of… what should we call them… freshly painted paint chips, and toss them to the side. Bare handed. No, I didn’t think to bring gloves.

I spilled paint here and there, which, at one point, gave me the idea to just pour directly from the can and mush the paint around with roller. Seemed smart, until it all started running down the sides of the speed bump onto the road. I’d chase after the yellow streams with a rag, jumping from spot to spot like a dog at a rainy window.

That was me, 22-years-old, trying to figure out what to do in life. Running around, unprepared, making a mess, and trying to paint over the speed bumps. The analogies are blaring.

On one speed bump, zoning out while listening to something on my newly-yellow headphones, a vibration shot up my already aching leg. My cell phone. It was ringing. Mind you, I didn’t get a cell phone until that very year, and, if memory serves, it was a brand new Nokia flip phone. Obviously. At the time I found it a bother to carry around.

I begrudgingly fished the phone out of my pocket, but simultaneously managed to tug at the string of my over-sized mesh shorts, immediately untying the front, dropping the waist below my butt. Instead of dropping the roller, I only had time to pin the shorts against my leg in a painted smoosh while I jumping-jacked my feet apart to stop gravity from doing its untimely job.

Strings out. For good luck.

I looked around for spectators. None. I huffed and finally zoned in on the phone.

The unknown number changed my tune. My stomach fluttered. I knew that it wouldn’t be a sales call, not on a cell phone. Not in 2001. I had interviewed for a couple teaching positions that summer, and had been called back for a few more meetings as well. But no offers. This call could be good, or it could be bad.

“Fingers crossed,” I thought.

Quickly, I pressed a yellow fingerprint onto my flip screen and popped it open. In my most professional of voices, I said, “Hello? This is Scooter.”

Idiot.

I had been working summer camps with kids for too long. The counselors always made goofy nicknames. Nervous mistake, I suppose— the damn shorts threw me off.

“Stupid superstition.”

I tried again. “This is Scott,” I said. Correctly.

Indeed, on the other end was the principal of a new middle school opening up, and not too far away either. I was offered a job over the phone. And I took it.

Score one for Scooter.

Now I don’t want to say it was good luck, but it was certainly fortunate. Education, social skills, and connections all play a part in life events. This was no different. I was eager to begin.

Although nervous before starting in the teaching field, I figured I’d learn. My previous work with young people gave me confidence, and all the odd jobs growing up provided some life experience and worldliness— what I’d need to handle the culture shock that is becoming a middle school educator.

A month later I started up, and have been teaching there ever since.

We will have to see what the future brings for career path and other life choices, but I’m thankful for where this has all taken me since the phone call that caught me yellow-handed in a parking lot with my pants down.

Knock on wood that I continue to have such luck.

Once in a Blue Moon: Cubs Win!

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“It’s been said that in Chicago there are two seasons, winter and construction. For Cubs fans, there is only one, and it always comes next year.” – Rick Talley

Tonight, I attend the first World Series game at Wrigley Field in 71 years.

I’ll be sitting next to my father, who has lived his entire life without seeing the Cubs make it to the World Series, and I’ll be filled with the memories of grandparents and other family members who lived through the last century but never saw a Series win.

I’ve written on the topic before, reflecting on the time I attended the first Cubs night game with my dad. I am fortunate to have witnessed a few historic moments at the park. Most recently, I watched in person as the Northsiders clinched their first berth as National League Champions since 1945, making tonight a possibility for my dad— his decade-plus of season tickets has led to this point, and I am proud to share in the experience. Actually, pride is just one of many internal emotions; others include excitement, relief, and maybe even some trepidation.

Lovable losers? No more. Next year is here.

I’m unsure how often this will occur in future years, what with the youth in the ballclub and the talent from the players on up to management. But I will revel in the Wrigleyville atmosphere, no matter what the national coverage may say about the team, its fans, the outrageous fees around the park, and of course any bandwagon jumping involved.

See, no matter what the team, no matter what the city, there’s something in passing down traditions, in grooming young sports fans, that connects friends and family. And in just seven short years, my oldest son has grown into a sports fan just like the younger version of his dad. He’s able to rattle off names and numbers and enjoys the excitement of this season’s ups and downs and all the TV coverage. He is too young to have paid his dues in watching gut-wrenchingly horrible teams struggle through Chicago summers. He never met his great-grandfather who eventually referred to the Cubs, simply, as the Pinheads. The Flubs was apparently too kind.

Obviously my son never witnessed the disappointment of ’84, ’89, or the heartbreaking crash of 2003. But when I put my arm around him and he snuggled in close on the couch to watch game one of the 2016 World Series, I think he could sense the mix of nostalgia and disbelief and hope stirring there under my fitted wool hat. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lump in my throat.

This is what unites family. This is the stuff of future recollection. These are the moments that stand out while recounting household memories. It’s more than just a game, it’s a chance to celebrate with friends, a time to highfive strangers, and an opportunity to share in the reverie with family.

And if that only happens as a rare occurrence, a once in a lifetime event, at least we can be thankful that it happened under a Cubbie-blue moon.

X Marks the Spot: Stories Within Stories

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“We’re all stories, in the end.” – Steven Moffat

I see stories in everything.

It is these stories that garner the most interest when visiting historical landmarks, museums, and memorials. The artifacts themselves are cool, of course, but they are all part of a bigger story. They serve to piece together a plot, whether minor or major; they help tell a tale. They connect people and periods of time. The stories matter because that’s exactly what history is: a map of the past, with a series of connect-the-dot steps leading to present day.

And X marks the spot.

If I travel, it is the stories I remember. Sometimes these are stories of the place I visited, other times it’s my own stories, created with friends and family, unveiled throughout the trip itself.

In addition, I like to believe that a place has energy. I like to think each location owns an existing aura because of human interaction throughout the years. For instance, any given location across the world has seen a certain number of human experiences. A number of events that shaped the “feel” of that place.

Uncovering the stories that contributed to this energy is like a treasure hunt, of sorts. And the right questions map the way.

What happened here?
What, throughout history, went down?
If the walls could talk, what would they say?
Was there struggle or even blood shed on this soil?
Are there horrors to be told, or maybe happiness instead?
Was there love spread in this building, on this block, in this city?
Is there a palpable energy of positivity, or a feel of dread and doom?

I also enjoy life stories that others have to offer. At times, a great storyteller is just as entertaining as a movie. Enigmatic and thought-provoking, captivating and life-changing. A good speaker can put forth an experience that uncovers emotions buried in the mind. A good story connects in a way that becomes ultimately personal for the listener; it unfurls in a glow like a treasure within.

As I’ve written previously, I’m a collector. I save things as mementos, as reminders of times in my past. But, again, it’s the stories that matter. It is in the stories that I lose myself, thinking about what has come and gone, contemplating what might be. I find myself daydreaming, wondering how I can become a better storyteller. I also get lost wondering what the stories will be of me. Friend or foe? Pirate or Patriot?

What will be my legacy?

• • •

I am closing in on the two year mark since I decided to write more— since I decided to put more words out on this here website.

At the time, I wanted to start the approaching new year by putting a monthly theme together in order to tell some stories. To simply write some personal narratives about anything on the mind, and to invite a few friends to do the same. In many ways, it has gained interest, and in other ways, it has lost momentum. But I’m proud to say, either way, I have posted each month just as I promised myself I would. It doesn’t mean my writing has been groundbreaking, but at least it has been challenging, creative, and fun.

In the meantime, I wanted to do additional short writing, and have done more and more poetry each week. The goal was to challenge my brain to write less, since I get long-winded in blog posts. So I’ve been attempting creative stories in shorter verse, often pushing that to be just a sentence or two in length.

Finally, it was nearly a year ago now that I began writing a novel. This has proven to be the biggest creative challenge, since a project of that size has proven to become a daunting task, particularly as I try to set an outline of the story I want to tell. Things are coming together, but slowly… and not without setbacks.

This is all part of the mystery of being a creative being. This is part of finding what stories exist and what stories are still being written. It is also a matter of finding the right words and using the correct analogies to fit any given scenario. Some work proves to be just a flash in the pan. Other pieces flow with the excitement of unearthing clues and hunting for more.

Not unlike a quest for jewels; not unlike a search for gold.

Now, onward, to ask the right questions, follow the right instincts, and connect the right dots in order to discover the treasures within.

ETSY PAGE: Etsy.com/Shop/ScottAmpersand

Worth a Thousand Words

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“Smile; it’s free therapy.” – Douglas Horton

Back to school. And back to the drawing board.

This marks the beginning of the 16th school year for me, teaching Health Education to today’s youth.

Some major life events have occurred in that time, the most recent of which is the birth of my youngest son, who is two weeks old today. Starting back up in the classroom is a definite change from time at home with family through the last few summer months. I always have my fitness business going, where I coach and plan workouts year round, but the break from full-time teaching allows a bit of a reset before each fall term.

It is during this time of return when I feel the rejuvenating energy from students, back and alive in the hallways and classrooms, and, somewhat surprisingly, hungry for new life lessons. Each “Hi!” and “Morning!” and “What are we doing today?” brings adolescent zeal that is sometimes exhausting, but I take this energy, this nervous and sometimes boisterous energy that spills in the door each period, to be a reflection of a genuine interest in learning.

Sure, much of middle school involves a social component as well as the mental balance of stress and self-esteem— but that’s why I teach Health. These are the very life lessons that pique my interest and it’s what I take pride in teaching. In reality, at this point I really don’t see myself taking a liking to any other subject area. Health allows me to use anything and everything that is pertinent throughout history and current events and weave it into the ever-evolving curriculum of life. You can’t put a limit on topics that carry potential impact, and that’s one of the best parts of teaching Health class. There is no one way to teach the topics of physical, mental, and social well-being, just like there is no one way to live life.

• • •

About a year ago I made a conscience effort to smile more.

I’m not talking about a creepy “Why is this guy smiling so much?” type of smile, but a genuine expression to show friendliness in conversation. Something simple, really, and it came about as I was reflecting on professional goals and personal life. I felt like a part of myself had gone missing. See, if I look back on the last decade, I’ve gone through a couple of tough times of stress and negativity. I realized that, particularly in recent teaching, I wasn’t smiling as much as I once had. I wanted that to change. I wanted to create and portray a better, more positive aura surrounding myself.

“Back to the drawing board,” I thought. “Time to whip up some smiles.”

Even if I didn’t feel especially upbeat at certain times throughout the week or throughout the day, I thought if I could still project happiness then I might be able to make someone else comfortable. I might be able to help a student feel encouragement through an otherwise dreadful day. Because, like my own life, ups and downs are inevitable. Adolescence certainly brings laughter, but it can also be a time of stress and struggle and even inexplicable withdrawal.

Now, it’s not like I’ve taken research data on the topic of smiling or the outcome of the last year. But I have to say, I think it’s made me feel better. I think it has honestly made a difference in my style of addressing a classroom of students, in speaking to a crowd of parents during curriculum night, or in presenting to a room full of fellow professionals. If I ever felt nervous or unsure of myself in the past, I would often rush to finish; I would speed up in order to “just get through it.”  Lately, I try to pause, take a breath, and give a smile before carrying on. Cliché? Yes, perhaps. But true.

In a world of haste and uncertainty, I have found that I can make a positive impact… starting with myself.

In the meantime, something happened that I didn’t necessarily foresee. Something that wasn’t on the radar until I looked back to reflect. There was a cause and effect that occurred: eventually, I didn’t need to force a smile. In fact, the smiles were occurring quite naturally in every day interactions. If I felt humor in what I was talking about, if I felt a connection occurring, if I felt happy or impressed in any way, I let myself express it.

In other words, I was just being human.

And I’ve noticed something else. I’ve noticed that, as a result, I’m receiving more smiles in return. More people immediately follow my expression with a smile of their own. I then experience more comfort, more human connection within myself.

Funny what a simple, conscious effort to project happiness can do.

Now, all of this might seem super cheesy, but I don’t care. What I am experiencing is positivity, so I don’t have time for anyone who might think that’s stupid or corny.

We create our own reality, and I want mine to be full of positive people.

I think I can do better, though. I think I can continue. And I challenge you all to do the same. Hit a rut? Back to the drawing board: add some smiles and see what results come around.

Let’s put out an expression that reflects the image we want to see in the world.