I got up at the usual time, before the alarm which I didn’t set, because routine, because … Saturday.
Kicked on the light, read in bed for a bit. Around seven stumbled out to the living room, mumbled a good morning to Karry.
She: Goin’ to Joe’s?
Night before, eyes end-of-long-week-heavy, I queried the Universe in general, Karry in particular — Saturday morning donuts?
Both said yes.
Karry’s living room reminder did the work of my future coffee, shaking me awake like my recurring dream where I’m wandering the halls of an unfamiliar school late for a final I didn’t study for. I threw shoes on my bare feet, ball cap atop my disheveled mop, grabbed my keys, and hit the pedal and (bonus) all the green lights in a beeline up North Main Street that was also still very much waking up on Saturday morning.
Seven o’clock is a brazen act of tempting fate if one holds out any hope of Joe’s Donuts, especially on a Saturday.
I braced myself for empty trays and zero sympathy.
“Get yer ass here early!” — is all you will get from Joe, and all you deserve. If you ask me, it’s also what should be scrawled (in maple icing) on the sign on the side of the building beneath “Best Donuts in Town.”
Pulled into a spot across the street as a couple walked in ahead of me. I took comfort in not being the morning’s only straggler as I ducked inside.
Couple Friday nights ago, it’s just the two of us for dinner. Emma working, Peter out with the boys. On my commute home Karry calls, suggests picking up fish sandwiches at one of the Catholic Churches in town. Lenten fish fries in these parts are a religious experience in every sense of the word. I trust her with the order – the menus have no wrong answers – and we coordinate timing for pick-up on my way through town. She calls me back after placing the order, tells me what she got, mentions that she gave the person on the phone license to pick us out two good desserts.
I arrive a few minutes early, a gift, as I get to bask in the aura of a busy, old, church basement. The several-decades-ago tile floor same as the one from my Trinity Church childhood. Young kids, tired of sitting still, are jumping on the stage, seeing how high they can reach on the curtain. The timeless, singular scent, baked in from generations of serving flocks.
The joy of purpose radiant in every person in their role. The olders in the chairs taking orders. The grandmas, moms, dads, sons and daughters in the kitchen, prepping and packing. When it’s time, the expectation in watching the young person bringing you your order. The warmth on your hand under the bottom of the bag as you take the steps back out of the building and back to your car.
Home, we unpack, transfer to plates, liberally baptize our fish, fries and hushpuppies with the requisite Heinz, and claim our usual spots in the living room, she in her dad’s old recliner, me sitting on the couch, closer to the TV.
A perfect recipe for a Friday night.
I’m the first to finish, per usual, and on my way to the kitchen to retrieve my slice of pie (apple for me, peach for her), ask Karry if she’s ready for hers. She opts to wait.
As an aside … while not the biggest dessert person, I am a pie guy. Love the idea of pie. Every slice I’ve ever encountered has brought me some measure of joy. The kind or type doesn’t matter to me, though I do love apple best. By contrast, when it comes to pie, Karry’s much more selective with her affections. Peach, though, checks her boxes.
In the kitchen I liberate the carton of vanilla ice cream from the freezer, add a couple scoops to my plastic container alongside my slice, bring it back to the couch.
Savor the couple seconds of expectation between cutting off the tip of the triangle with my fork and scooping it into my mouth.
Hmmm, I think, as the flavor registers. Not a pure apple taste. Somethin’ else happenin’ here.
Hmmm. Good, for sure, but, yeah … somethin’s a little off. I’m chewing, tryna pick out what it is. Thinking to myself … maybe a special recipe from one of the church grandmas? Or maybe it’s still my lingering post-Covid taste buds, which were rewired along with my sense of smell, making things as disparate as coffee, peanut butter and celery very, very weird. Though most, if not all of it, seems to have finally returned.
Oh well, hey, it’s pie. With vanilla ice cream. It’s good, just … strange.
I roll with it. Take another bite.
I’m about halfway through, when it hits me.
“Oh, this is the peach,” I say aloud.
Me: I think I’m eating your pie.
She: What do you mean?
Me: Yeah … (as my tongue takes a confirming swipe across the piece currently rolling around my mouth) … this is totally peach.
She: (stunned disbelief) Wait, how much have you eaten?
Me: (looks down at the plastic container, sheepishly looks across the room, to where she’s sitting) ‘Bout … half?
She: (scrunches up her face as she stares at me, remains speechless for several seconds, trying to comprehend the vague mystery of my existence and presence on the planet)
Me: Well, I thought it was like cinnamon or something.
Me: Lighting’s not great in here, either.
She calls B.S. on the latter point. I recognize it’s not in my best interest to try to argue.
Although … lighting wasn’t great.
Me: (seconds pass in contemplative silence) Here … (offering my plastic container of Vanilla Ice Cream and Peach Pie Remnant Soup)
She: I can’t believe you ate my peach pie.
Me: (yeah, I totally can’t believe it either … not sure what I was thinkin’ there.) Yeah, I know. You can have my apple.
She: I don’t want apple.
She’s not exactly pissed at me. More like confused and disappointed, as any normal human being would be, I suppose.
Admittedly, across our years together, she is no stranger to these feelings.
In such moments I’ve learned sometimes it’s best not to talk.
I finish off the piece while we’re watching whatever is on. A few minutes later, I go back to the kitchen, toss the empty container.
Open the fridge and grab the slice of apple and return to the couch.
It’s … delicious.
She (glancing in my direction): You’re eating the other slice of pie … now?
She: That’s a lot of pie for you.
Me: Didn’t want it to go to waste.
She: Yeah, wouldn’t want that .…
Me: (experiences tinge of shame while enjoying slice of delicious apple pie)
It’s taken me a long time to write this. I started it because … I had to? Not sure I had a choice in the matter. Just went about the thing. Bit by bit. A strand at a time. Undoing and redoing along the way as needed, as necessary. Trying to use only what was needed for the task at hand. Trying to put everything to its good use. Staying close to it to keep an eye on things. Shooing away distractions as if they were thieves. I guess I just felt that a certain Momma R needed a nest of her own. How did I know when it was done? Not perfect, mind you, but done? Just knew ….
For the past month my favorite follow has been a momma robin in residency in our backyard.
Over days, I spent my first morning cup staring out the window. From my downstairs desk I watched as she foraged the decaying woods for nest material, making dozens of return trips from her Home Depot back to a little nook underneath our deck. Not sure she could’ve found a cozier piece of property if she scouted the entire neighborhood. Tucked away, under cover, safe from the elements.
While I couldn’t find five minutes to replace the light bulb in my daughter’s room that she mentioned a couple weeks ago, this momma built a goddamn castle from thin air right in front of me.
Bit by bit. Day by day. Working by herself, constructing it from the inside out.
The slower-than-slow-motion progress was mesmerizing. This wasn’t your shoddy construction with a Target sheen to make some quick Air BnB bank. A meticulous craftswoman, Momma R used only what she needed, putting everything to its good use. At the end of her work day … very little clean up. As one who can’t make grilled cheese sandwiches without creating a Hazmat-grade tanker spill, I found the whole production inspiring.
Awe-inspiring, to be honest.
Karry and I marked Momma R’s daily progress as she fashioned her findings into a substantial abode. The finished product seemed cavernous to my denatured eyes. She went way past ‘good enough,’ continuing to fortify it into something the Three Little Pigs could get behind.
Nature only wants the best for its children, too.
The nest sat empty for a week or so, which gave anyone who cared to notice (me and Karry, pretty much) the chance to just marvel at its engineering.
We wondered how long it would be before she laid her eggs.
Nature is no procrastinator.
And one day, there she was … perchin’.
Then the next.
And the next ….
As magical as the nest-building part was, this was … the complete opposite.
Her just sitting there, I mean. Probably not boring for her. Probably appreciated the chance to sit a spell after workin’ her ass off. But as a spectator event? Worse than golf.
I wondered how long she would sit at a time. I didn’t care enough to actually clock it. After all, I had things to do. Bulbs not to change, you know. All I knew was she sat there longer than it took for me to drain my morning cup and return upstairs to finish getting ready for work.
As one who lacks the patience to hard-boil eggs, I considered Momma R’s sticktuitiveness Olympic-grade.
She spent so many days atop her nest, I started to wonder if something was amiss. Maybe she laid blanks or something? What I don’t know about nature could fill a lifetime of morning coffee mugs.
Then, all of a sudden …
“Wait, listen ….” Karry shushed me as we were sitting outside.
“You can hear ‘em.”
And, only when I craned my ear, stilled myself, leaned in, could I pick out the tiny squeaks coming from under the deck. Couldn’t see the top of their heads, so deep the bowl of their abode.
Not sure I’ve ever heard so much life at such low decibel.
We were giddy witnesses.
“Oh my gosh!” I whisper-shouted.
It’s the kind of thing that brings your Friday morning to its knees.
From there the enterprise became a family affair.
“They’re up early finding worms,” Karry reported the next morning, and right on cue, Momma R Door-Dashed from the yard to the nest with a mouthful. This is also the part of the proceedings where the baby daddy (finally) makes his appearance, chirping in on the care and feeding.
By their second breakfast on the planet, the babies no longer required one to crane one’s head to pick up the sounds. Hungry babies are not quiet babies.
Looking it up Karry discovered that the newborns’ parental worm delivery subscription would last about 13 days.
When she wasn’t feeding, Momma R. stayed close to keep an eye on things, sitting on the edge of the birdbath in our backyard. Whenever any of her neighbors came too close to her brood, she flew in to shoe them the fuck away. Whenever we popped out the back door, she squawked holy hell in our direction.
“We know, Momma, we know,” we’d say, hands up to show we meant no harm.
For the next couple days I took my coffee not at my desk, but outside on the old vacuum-formed plastic bench we keep around back (it’s not front porch material), so I could be as close to the morning headlines as possible.
Such was my fanboying, last Monday morning before work I sat outside and wrote my sister a long overdue letter. Spent the first couple paragraphs geeking out to Missy over how much breakfast energy Momma R expended flying up and under the deck, one worm at a time, on repeat. Robbins aren’t hummingbirds, so the controlled hovering and landing is a much less elegant act for them. Lots of noisy flappin’. This part I could relate to. I’m winded by my third trip up the steps carrying in groceries.
Sometimes we take for granted what it takes to put food on the table.
After finishing Missy’s letter I closed my laptop and went upstairs to brush my teeth. By the time I finished my rinse and spit, I marked that, over the past few weeks, my morning buzzes had less to do with how full I filled my coffee mug, and more to do with the few minutes spent bearing witness to a queen’s labor.
But by the time I returned to my downstairs desk and instinctively looked out my window — a span of less than five minutes — it was all gone.
“Oh, no … ” I said aloud.
The nest was destroyed … ravaged and resting on the wall. The beam bare except for a few pieces of straw.
A single smear of red blood on the white wall.
Instead of going directly outside, I instinctively ran back upstairs to tell Karry.
“Something happened. Something got the nest. They’re … all gone.”
We ran out the door and over to the wall. Inspecting, Momma R’s engineering masterpiece was picked clean. No signs of life … anywhere. Remnants of straw strewn on the ground.
It’s the kind of thing that brings your Monday to its knees.
The night before while taking the garbage out, I noticed a black cat I’d never seen before, prowling up the driveway. Didn’t think twice of it at the time. Had to be the culprit.
What I’d considered a perfect location was only perfect for a predator, who likely just shinnied up the vertical post directly beneath the ledge and knocked the nest to the wall in one swipe.
There was simply nothing to say.
I mean, everyone in this production was simply doing what they were programmed to do. Momma robin. Her mate. The noisy babies. The cat.
Still, I couldn’t shake the thought all day. Having watched how hard she’d labored, how much time she’d invested, how impeccably she’d performed each and every one of her duties ….
It made me genuinely sad.
I suppose it’s a human flaw, to care about such things. To invest so emotionally in something so small.
The minute we start caring about something outside ourselves … is the minute we sign up for loss.
And still ….
I’m not sure I’d ever found the natural acts of so small a creature so … venerable.
Just never took the time to notice before, I guess.
I wondered what she would do next, with no more mouths to feed.
I wondered what I’d do with my mornings.
For a while she just went back to work.
But this time it was different.
Where she had been a master carpenter, this time she was all over the place, haphazardly throwing stuff up on the beam, seemingly not caring if or how much fell to the ground. Where she had hand-picked a single nook as her fixer-upper, now she made piles in several places. There seemed no focus to her efforts. Momma R was now building the way I make grilled cheese sandwiches.
At the end of the day, there were piles on the ground running almost the length of our patio, which Karry cleaned up (much as she does with me). Eventually, Karry felt compelled to hold a mom-to-mom intervention, moving the pile above the post where she’d built before and shifting it one nook over. She couldn’t bear the thought of nature repeating itself. Even if it meant forcing Momma R to end her spring residency with us.
I wondered if momma’s programming was insufficient to the circumstances. Like she knew what she was supposed to do for her babies, but didn’t know what to do when her babies were gone.
To my quite flawed human brain, Momma R’s behavior read as an act of mourning … the way we might lay flowers at the scene of a car accident.
Maybe she was still using only what she needed, putting everything to its good use.
What I don’t know about nature could fill a lifetime of morning coffee mugs.
But watching her, in her mess, making such a mess, gave my lingering bird-sized grief a place to … nest. At least for a little bit.
The other day she was standing on the wall beneath her work-in-progress, next to where we’d wiped away her babies’ blood. Couple of sparrows were coming around, trying to scavenge some straw for their own nests. She, though, was having none of it. Chased ’em the fuck away.
And still ….
A mother’s instincts. Standing her post. Regal as fuck.
A final, proud act.
We know, Momma, we know.
As I type this, progress has been halted on her new constructions. Seems she finally abandoned the enterprise. Maybe the sparrows, or Karry’s nudge, convinced her of what she already instinctively knew. It wasn’t a good place to raise babies after all.
I hope she finds a better location. Hard as she works, she deserves it.
While watering last night, Karry noticed that two of her front porch ferns have been commandeered. Nests built way down in. The sparrows, she thinks. Three eggs already in the one.
Things that got me through the week, in no particular order, and mostly in spite of myself ….
Dialing up an episode of 99% Invisible, which turned out to be Roman Mars’ recent appearance on another podcast — Dear Hank and John, whose John is John Green, who I can say without an ounce of irony nor hyperbole I super love, whose Anthropocene Reviewed podcast was among the many, many, little, golden things that got me through the Pandemic, literally and persistently whispering into my ears on my walks and slow jogs that there is still yet much in this world to fall in love with.
Discovering that John and his brother, Hank, have done like 370 episodes of Dear Hank and John, whose premise is answering reader’s questions with dubious advice, which, for me, is the equivalent of that recurring dream I have where I’m in a house I’ve been living in for some time, and I go downstairs, where I discover (or am reminded, I’m not sure which) that there are many additional, large, unused rooms in it, and I’m like, whoa, more rooms … awesome.
Roman Mars’ laugh, when he is coaxed into a giggle, which, I swear, is one of the best sounds in the world.
Noticing that hot coffee in the morning sometimes makes me sweat. Anyone else? Should I be concerned?
Making time in the mornings, before diving into the day’s work pile, to step outside into the driveway and listen to the birds. Noticing one I’d never heard before, whose song is three notes, the second and third lower than the one before. Grateful that she decided to sit in with the band and take a few choruses.
The sound of the wood pecker off to the left in the woods behind our house, going to town on what sounds like a perfect piece of dead tree (which, I swear, is one of the best sounds in the world), probably the woodpecker equivalent of discovering the all-you-can-eat-peel-and-eat shrimp station on the buffet.
Thinking of a friend whom I hadn’t corresponded with in a couple weeks, and taking a couple early Tuesday morning minutes to send a message in a bottle email, sharing something I thought he’d appreciate while confessing the week had the upper hand on me, and his reply, in essence, conveying, “I’m here for you.” The many lessons of the simple that.
How, for some reason, the meaty sound of Mr. Woodpecker reminding me of exactly how it felt to barrel a Wilson Comet rubber-coated baseball (worth the $2 at Dice’s Sporting Goods) with my 28” wooden Adirondack bat that one time we played the long field (home plate near the swing sets) on the asphalt on Areford Playground during my 9-year-old summer, which went for a ground-rule double, the closest I ever got to a home run that summer. To this day, nothing like finding the sweet spot.
Receiving a letter in the mail Tuesday from my friend, Jim. Deciding on the spot to wait until Saturday to open it to give me something to look forward to, which I plan to do right after this.
Getting to the track Tuesday night right when a high school meet was letting out, and about 20 minutes before the Tuesday night youth program convenes, allowing me some quiet moments of lugging myself around the loop. Emma making the two of us breaded pork chops for dinner that night, upon which we drained our bottle of Red Hot dry. Both events could not have been more perfectly timed.
Having new variations of my ongoing, recurring series of “unprepared” dreams, one of which involved what I think was a violent lobster that had gotten loose, and me grabbing ahold of it while it ‘bit’ (they don’t bite with their claws, I know, but ‘pinched’ doesn’t sound violent enough) me so hard and often my hands were pouring out blood, and (the next night) me wandering into a dream version of one of the newspapers I used to work for, and having one of the editors remind me of that evening’s shift (which I was not expecting or prepared for), and being unable to find the ‘second’ newsroom where my desk was, and also freaking out because I no longer remembered how to format stories or do layout. Grateful, I suppose, for the unambiguity of my dream life.
Trudging downstairs after getting outta bed every morning and finding Viktor (one of the cats who live in our house), sitting in the dark, ‘meditating’ (as I refer to it), patiently waiting until I sat down at my desk, so he could hop up for our morning conversations while shedding seemingly inexhaustible plumes of fur all over me and my desk, which I receive as my morning armor.
Giving Karry her hardest laugh of the week, when my son, who is on a mission to trade in his car for something, um, up-leveled, texts me his discovery that “the bank won’t finance cars more than 10 years old” … and me, waiting a beat before replying, “oh … we have something in common, then.” Being reminded that Karry’s laugh is the best sound in the world.
Sipping a single adult beverage with my wife and our oldest on an ‘almost there, not sure we’re gonna make it’ Thursday night while trying out a new-for-us pizza place. Spoiler alert: we made it.
Upon discovering “Dear Hank and John,” discovering that John Green is also a prolific You Tuber, and stumbling upon this, which pretty much sums up all of the above, and is worth four, glorious, minutes of your precious time. There is still so very much in the world worth falling in love with.
I remember the place goin’ absolutely nuts. I’d been covering sports for a few years by then, and had not experienced anything like it up to that point. Probably wasn’t going to last, but the 17,000 strong in the Civic Arena on March 14, 1997, especially the two newlyweds sitting back left of the visitor’s basket, halfway up the bowl, were going to ride it for as long as they possibly could.
A #15 seed who had never won an NCAA tournament game, was going absolutely toe-to-toe with the #2, among the favorites that year to win the whole thing.
The emotional experience of it is remarkable, when you think about it. The only strong feeling I could claim when we took our seats for tipoff was for my nachos, and the small mountain of jalapenos I had gratuitously spooned between the two sidecars of melted cheese.
Allegiance, emotion, that must be earned. Like steaming hot nacho cheese, it is not to be squandered.
The process is both a methodical and fragile one.
You go from mere detached observing, not really caring, to an objective acknowledging — “… ooh, nice pass …,” “… good D.”
Stack enough of those together “… ooh, he’s feelin’ it ….” … then the pilot light kicks on.
You start to lean in.
“All right, let’s go ….”
It is at this point you formally place your wager … in the form of your heart.
It’s not that you necessarily believe … yet. That’s not the point. You know going in that the odds are not in your favor.
But now you got somethin’ to root for.
And isn’t that really what you show up for in the first place?
Karry and I were absolutely caught up in it. Sitting in seats I’d won — for a term paper I’d written for my Sports Marketing class at Duquesne University, which just happened to be hosting the opening rounds of March Madness, a first for the city in 1997.
For us it was a rare outing. About six months removed from our I-Dos, she was working full-time while I was taking a full load of graduate classes on top of research assistantship while also working part-time evenings at the newspaper in Washington. We’d sandwiched our attendance into an afternoon before my Friday evening shift at the paper. I remember feeling like a big shot using my Duquesne parking pass at the school’s garage to avoid the insane prices around the arena, yielding me a little extra nacho money in the process.
I don’t remember much about the early games themselves, which (refreshing my memory with a quick Googling) largely went according to script. Sixth-seeded Louisville held serve over #11 UMass, #3 New Mexico eeked out a win over #14 Old Dominion, while #10 Texas scored a modest upset over #7 Wisconsin.
What I do remember is delighting in how much Karry was into it. She wasn’t much of a basketball fan before we met, but had started to pick up some of the game’s nuances through osmosis. I remember we had barely settled into our seats for the first game when she commented, “That’s one of those rolling pick … things.”
I remember hi-fiving my co-pilot.
We calculated we could stay until about midway through the first half of the night cap, which would give me enough time to drop her off at our tiny apartment before heading in to work. Remember thinking we may not even want to stay that long.
Coppin State, a 15-seed, took the court as a 30-point underdog to #2-seeded South Carolina, which would’ve been a #1 seed had it not lost in the SEC Championship game that year. Not only had the Eagles never won an NCAA tournament game, their conference – the MEAC – had never won a game in the history of the tournament.
We knew nothing about Coppin State.
First thing that caught our attention, during the team introductions, was that their coach was named “Fang.”
And in the first couple minutes, that they came to play some defense.
And, while their offense was cool early, their guard Danny Singletary was stacking enough shots to keep ‘em close. You could tell he was feelin’ it.
Midway through the first half, at the point where we should’ve been getting up to leave, the pilot light kicked on.
We started to lean in.
“Stay ’til halftime?”
While the Eagles continued to ignore the spread, Coach Fang grew more impossible to ignore on the sidelines, his animated antics casting spells over his team, and, slowly, over the portion of the 17,000 of us not from South Carolina.
It’s a singular experience to be amongst thousands of strangers without a rooting interest as they find common ground behind an underdog, and slowly swell into a unified crescendo.
To go from not caring to caring deeply.
We placed our wager.
At the half, the score was knotted at 34.
“All right, let’s go ….”
Getting up from our seats I remember telling Karry that a #15 never beats a #2, that we’d already seen the best part. South Carolina was too good to get beat by an unknown.
Whistling in the graveyard I was.
She gave me a wary look. She did not want to leave. In retrospect, she probably would’ve called my ass an Uber if such had been around at the time.
We were running late by this point, so I remember she just dropped me off at work.
The rest is history.
Coppin State became only the third #15 to upset a #2 in the tournament’s history, and the first to win by double-digits (78-65). I just read that they just released a new documentary on that game this week, such has their legend remained.
And we missed it.
Karry was pissed.
I remember I did get a decent column out of it … likening my pride in growing Karry into a genuine basketball fanatic to that of Dr. Frankenstein creating life itself. Still remember my closing line, “Although I bet Dr. Frankenstein didn’t have to sleep on the couch.”
Shoulda called in sick.
Last Monday my son texts me, “Opening Round in Columbus Friday?”
Me: This has bad decision written all over it. You should totally look into it.
I sanity check with Karry. She gives us the green light.
I search Air BnB for Friday night in Columbus. Find a spot a few miles from the arena. In the meantime, he scores us tickets for both Friday sessions.
Monday night I come home from work and report a tickle in my throat.
“Heck, I’ll go if Dad can’t make it,” Karry chimes in without anyone having to ask.
By Wednesday my head is pouring from both my eyes and my nose. Wednesday night I spend in chills under multiple blankets. Thursday morning I can’t get out of bed. Manage a shower at noon, and lug myself to Med Express, where they confirm me positive for flu.
This time I had no choice but to call in sick. I was too ill to even complete my brackets.
I break the news to my son, ask him to confirm if Karry is still up for being his wing man.
I inform our Air BnB host of the substitution to our starting lineup.
They leave for Columbus Friday morning, while I am still flat on my back.
Games started at 12:15.
I sent a couple of texts around noon.
Things were not going well.
After a 10-minute walk in the rain from the parking lot to the entrance, Karry was forced back to the car by security, who wouldn’t let her carry her purse-backpack into the arena. After getting soaked trudging back and forth, she had to make the near vertical climb to the top bowl at Nationwide Arena, where she pledged to remain firmly bolted through the entire first session, such is her fear of heights.
The early games played out mostly as expected, #7 Michigan State holding serve over #10 USC, #2 Marquette dispatching #15 Vermont.
I traded texts with Karry as they settled into their seats for the second session.
She: This is a lot for me, in case you did not know that.
Me: Yes, I knew it would be.
She: Mentally and physically exhausting.
Me: And you will never forget it.
From my bed I found the live stream of the game. It had the makings of a blowout. #1 seed Purdue was favored by 23.5 points.
I knew nothing about Farleigh Dickinson. During the intros the announcers mentioned that they were the smallest men’s team in the entire tournament. I concluded that the Knights, and therefore my co-pilot and wing man, were in for a long night.
FDU knocked down a couple shots early on.
And watching their swarming defense, it was obvious they had a definite game plan, such as it was, for Purdue and their 7-4 center Zach Edey.
Every time Purdue sank a basket, the pesky Knights seemed to have an answer. They kept things close through most of the first half. I refrained from texting my wife and son. Didn’t want to jinx things.
Pilot light kicked on, though.
During halftime I switched channels to watch Kentucky play, and kept an eye along the top of the screen while the scores of all the other games updated. Saw that Purdue quickly pulled ahead by five at the start of the second half. This is where the #1 team reminds the #16 team who’s #1, I figured.
Couple minutes later FDU had tied it up, though. They weren’t going away. You allow an underdog to hang around long enough and they start to believe.
I switched back to watch. Made my wager.
I had somethin’ to root for … specifically, my co-pilot and my wing man.
Kept waiting for Purdue to remember who they were, but the Knights didn’t give ‘em the chance. They were too busy reminding themselves who they were. With under a minute and a half left, Sean Moore, playing the game of his life in his hometown, hit a dagger three-pointer from the top of the key to put FDU up five and I finally text my co-pilot.
Me: How we doin’ …?
The rest is history.
This time, I didn’t miss it.
Best of all, Karry was there to see it live.
I celebrated with a shot of Nyquill, and wished my home team a goodnight.
Karry and Peter still had one more game to go, the nightcap between Memphis and Florida Atlantic.
In the morning I asked Karry if they stayed until the end.
“You think your son would leave early?”
I always think about Coppin State this time of year. Coach Mitchell stalking the sidelines, casting spells.
Think about earning tickets for us to the Big Dance, tickets we couldn’t otherwise afford.
Think about the whirlwind of getting married … going back to school … carving out a life from our tiny apartment.
Formally placing our wager, I guess you could say.
It wasn’t that we necessarily believed … yet. We knew going in that the odds were not in our favor. But we were going to ride it for as long as we possibly could.
When you’re underdogs, you don’t take things for granted.
I think about how good those nachos tasted.
Think about having to leave when it was just getting good … because there was work to be done.
Was thinking about all that Friday night … lying in bed and feeling like crap, my co-pilot sitting next to our oldest high above it all.
Twenty-six years later and counting, and still an unapologetic sucker for a good Cinderella ending.
There is a lot to be said for having somethin’ to root for.
In no particular order … an incomplete, un-edited, accounting of the stuff that got me through the week:
Monday afternoon, inviting some student leaders from BYU’s Experience Design program to our team’s weekly meeting. Co-creating the agenda with Michaela, a senior in the program. Her showing up prepared with some custom slides to guide the menu we’d discussed (she, a badass). Their team giving us a prompt for our Story Circle, “How did you get here?” Every answer a window into each other’s Story. Me, choosing not to overthink it, confessing how I am here in spite of myself, and (still) basking in awe at that fact.
Not getting back to sleep Monday night and instead of the obligatory trying in vain to doze, getting outta bed and going downstairs to write, finishing something for Karry to read on her late morning work break.
Getting a hand-written letter in the mail from my niece on Monday, and saving it until Wednesday morning, when I knew I would need it most. Walking outside to tear the envelope so I could savor it while listening to the chattering birds whispering their reminders that today matters.
That letter filling my cup full, and me needing every ounce of it on a Wednesday that drained it to the dregs.
Leaving the office late, depleted, for home and Peter texting me asking about dinner. Said I was thinking pasta since I assumed I’d be solo. Five minutes later, he shooting me a recipe he found and a shortlist of ingredients to pick up on my way home.
Getting home a few minutes before him, filling the pasta pot, getting out the cutting board, peeling the garlic, making us salads. He coming home from his Wednesday classes and commencing to chef up the new recipe. Calling new tunes for me to hear (he’s digging Ghost these days). While he worked and I sipped from a freshly cracked Malbec, our easy conversation the best Wednesday medicine. Filling our plates full and watching Duquesne in the A-10 tourney. While the Dukes lost, Peter’s delicious dish earning an automatic bid to our future family dinner bracket. Coming this close to crushing an entire box of pasta between us. Sun-dried tomatoes … who knew?
In my Friday morning feed, a jet-lagged Patti Smith, from her tender room, her cat Cairo in her lap, honoring John Cale, her late-husband Fred Smith, and her kindred spirit Robert, on the anniversary of the latter’s day of passing, reading just the most beautiful passage from their story, Just Kids, the product of a promise kept, nine years in the making.
Staying up late Thursday night putting slides together for a Friday client meeting that I really wanted to slay. Rising early Friday morning on little sleep but with an epiphany. Scrap my slides. Tell a story. On my 45-mile commute into work, randomly tuning in a random episode of a podcast I’d only dipped toes in, and the episode the perfect pre-presentation pump up, had me literally clapping and shouting affirmations at the stop light into the industrial park, drawing the most curious stares from the car next to me. Clicking into my client meeting shot out of a cannon and fully caffeinated, naked of slides, armed only with a (glorious) story. Me OK with whatever the outcome, knowing I served their curiosity and attention as best I could, and gave them the best possible window into my humble offering. Authenticity over polish.
My Friday work week ending on the highest of notes with my monthly connection with my P.S.F. (Professional Serendipity Friend), and listening to her gloriously effervescing hours after returning home with her husband from a sacred return pilgrimage to New Orleans. Us feverishly making notes of treasures to share with the other. Our conversational jazz making time melt (like all good jazz does).
Karry calling me on my way home, confessing the weather too gray and cold to go back out in (me agreeing), and she calling in a takeout order from the Catholic Church Lenten fish fry across town, me picking it up, and us sitting lights out in the living room in the glow of Friday night whatever’s on, communing over church kitchen cole slaw, fries, hushpuppies and Heinz-baptized cod.
Saturday morning, listening to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, steaming coffee in my favorite Saturday mug, my antenna still up … and typin’.
Going through mail late Wednesday night after a long week of long travel, I noticed a letter from a friend, a single rose amongst all the junk mail. Rather than opening it on the spot, I made plans to save it until Saturday morning, where I might savor it at the coffee shop down the road, where our friendship was born a handful of years ago. Lately, I’ve tried to make a point of giving myself things to look forward to. When it works well, my Saturday mornings become sacred spaces, a chance to replenish some measure of all the week’s taxes.
Yesterday, though, had a few plot twists that kept me from filling my cup, both figuratively and literally. It was well past 1 p.m. and I found myself driving around after running a couple errands. Robbed of my ritual, my head was not in the best of spaces. The coffee shop closes at 1:30 on Saturdays, so I’d missed my window.
I was about to return home, where I’d probably grumpily wallow through the rest of a ruined Saturday, when I remembered I still had the unopened letter in my bag. On a whim I navigated to the Eat n’ Park off Oak Springs Road, which I hadn’t visited in years, but which was in heavy rotation when the kids were younger. Pulling into an open parking spot triggered a memory of an Eat n’ Park Saturday long past, when Peter, maybe 9 at the time, attempted to order a Boys’ Day-Out lunch consisting of mashed potatoes, a baked potato, french fries and potato chips. I remember telling him at that time that if his mother was with us, she would stab him in the eye with a fork.
I wasn’t really hungry, and I’d already had the morning’s coffee, but the idea of a big table and a comfy booth sounded … comforting for some reason.
The hostess seated me near the front.
So, hours late, off schedule and way off course, I exhaled from my comfy booth and fished the letter from my bag.
Though deep into his 80’s, my friend Jim writes his letters with a calligrapher’s hand (though he saves his best penmanship for his poems).
As one whose handwriting has degraded so much that I have long resorted to typing my letters (though I try salvaging a measure of dignity by choosing a typewriter font … lame, I know), I delight in reading the hand of others. Tearing open the letter, I pluck just a brief note from my friend. Letting me know that the timing of my last letter to him was of great encouragement, as he received it on the day of his wife Mary’s passing. He had only months ago placed her in a personal care facility, after caring for her for years and through the Pandemic as she slipped further into dementia. In his last letter to me he wrote unflinchingly, achingly but beautifully about being physically separated from his wife for the first time in their 66 years of marriage. A minister and former Army chaplain during his long full life, Jim always writes mindful of God’s audience, which begs an even greater reverence from his fortunate reader.
He closed his short note by sharing that his final Valentine’s gift to Mary was a new book of poems he’d written over the past three years, finished several days before she passed. The title: The Road Bends Upwards (those four words a poem unto themselves).
He wrote in my letter that Mary chuckled when he read the collection’s dedication to her over the phone …
Duck your head
Close your eyes
Take my hand
And we will walk this road
One more time
My eyes filled as I read his words.
The ineffability of the inevitable disassembling of a long love on this earth. And still the poet reaches for the only tool he knows to claim the shaky ground beneath him. Knowing the effort will come nowhere close to its mark. Just as any long love misses as much as it aims at. Grief rendered in all its aching beauty.
Yes to that.
I still held Jim’s note in my hand when the server stopped by my table to take my order. I somehow managed to mumble an order without my voice catching and then just sat there.
A few minutes later my server brought me my sandwich. I began mindlessly picking at it.
From my booth near the front, I faced the hostess station, so got to see everyone who came in.
I was maybe midway through my sandwich when I looked up and saw an older couple being led to their table. They had to be in their 70s, maybe older (I’ve never tried to be good at guessing such things). They cut quite a contrasting presence. He was bald, tall and broad. She was his diminutive opposite, short, petite with a shock of straight gray. Candidly, though, I may not have given them a second thought, still so deep and lost in my figurative and literal sitting with the contents of Jim’s letter … if it wasn’t for one thing that caught my eye.
They held hands.
And took their good time in no great hurry. Heads high, looking forward, not saying a word as they followed the hostess in front of them.
The way they held each other’s hand, in their mismatched nylon coats, I swear to God they walked the worn carpet of our old Eat n’ Park like they were walking down the aisle of a church.
As if they hadn’t lost a step in probably the 50 years that passed since their I dos.
It was like, in each other’s hand, they were reaching for the only tool they knew to claim the shaky ground beneath them.
Yes to that.
Thanks to Jim’s friendship, his letter, his example, I found myself mindful of God’s audience. How else could I account for choosing to wait to open his letter until Saturday? My careful Saturday morning plans blowing up? Finding myself at an Eat n’ Park I hadn’t visited in years to crack open his beautiful letter? Looking up from my front row seat to catch the fleeting glimpse of an old love still standing the test of time?
And in the process … giving me something to look forward to … well beyond the end of any week.
So, in between bites of my turkey club, I claimed the shaky ground beneath me, to honor my friend and his beloved.
To stab at the ineffable, knowing going in that the effort would come nowhere close to its mark.
Love misses as much as it aims at.
And, before I gathered my things and myself to return to whatever was left of my Saturday, I asked for the check of the happy old couple seated at their wedding table near the salad bar.
For Mary and Jim
Sun finds me sitting alone at a big booth near the front
On a Saturday morning last September, I went across the street to the high school track for a run.
It was my birthday.
“Run” is a generous term for the act. I prefer the more accurate “periodic reminder of how out of shape I am.”
I enjoy going to the track at the high school, its rubberized surface forgiving on the knees. I’ve been periodically reminding myself for years now, long enough to recognize some of the track’s recurring characters. There’s Gray-Bearded Yellow Hoodie Guy, who runs leaning forward with just the smoothest gait … and just smokes me. There’s Power-Walking Curly Headed Lady (very intense), who, over months, seemed to be re-habbing a hip injury and now bears little trace of favoring her one side. There’s Elite High School Cross Country Star, who’s always there with her Dad. She flat out fuh-lies. I’ve literally jumped when she passes me because she comes up so fast. Last winter when the track was snow covered, I saw her running laps around the school’s parking lot, which had been plowed clear. Inspired by her example, I took a few of those laps myself instead of returning home.
I am not religious about the days and times that I visit. But when I go on Saturday mornings, there is often an older gentleman already there when I arrive. I’m awful at guessing ages, but I assumed he had a good 5-10 years on me (he shaves his head, so there are fewer clues). He takes his time doing laps, his gait slow but knowing. I figure he paces himself only because that’s just part of his workout. After he does his laps, he moves to the infield, where he does a separate regimen of squats, push-ups and stretches. His approach is disciplined, methodical. It’s all I can do to lug my keister around the loop a few times, so I steal a glance occasionally when my tank is running low. Makes me want to push a little harder.
On the Saturday morning of my birthday he was there when I arrived, doing his thing. Had just wrapped his laps and was doing push ups on the side. He finished as I was slow-lapping around the track. Even though I’d seen him numerous times, we’d never spoken. But, for some reason I couldn’t resist calling out to him. Call it birthday courage.
“Sir … excuse me…,” I called out. I never talk to anybody, so am not sure of proper track etiquette.
He paused and turned around.
“I just wanted to say … you inspire me.”
He couldn’t resist a smile as he replied, “Well, I’m 82 years old.”
Stopped me cold in my tracks.
Note: it wasn’t like it broke me out of a full sprint or anything. Rather, imagine a bumper car easing to a stop after they turn the juice off.
“Your are kidding me.” Again, I thought the guy had, like, 10 years at the MOST on me.
“Yep, had my birthday in April.”
OK, I said. Thirty years his junior and having to play mind tricks to coax my keister another half lap around the track, I had questions.
“So, what’s your secret?”
His smile was as knowing as his routine.
“Well, I’ve always just tried to take care of myself,” he began.
“I’ve worked out all my life. Was an athlete when I was younger. Try to get plenty of sleep. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink …”
“ … except for a beer on Sundays if I’m watching the Steelers.”
Understandable. The Steelers will make a person drink, I said.
He laughed, then continued….
“You watch the NFL, huh? My grandson plays for the Colts.”
“Yeah, Rodney Thomas.”
Told me he was a second year player, working his way up the depth chart. I asked him where his grandson went to college.
“Yale,” he said.
“Number 25,” he said. “Keep an eye on him.”
We exchanged names, shook hands.
I thanked him for the conversation. Told him it was my birthday and that he’d already made it memorable.
Couple months later. Another Saturday morning. Forecast called for rain. I checked my phone, which indicated that the weather was only gonna get worse as the day wore on. So I pulled on my hoodie and lugged myself over to the track. Mr. Thomas was already there, getting after it. We waved to each other as I broke into my slow jog. After a couple miles I opted to walk and stretch a bit. Whenever I do this I turn around and go the opposite direction of the one I’m running. As I passed Mr. Thomas he asked me how I was doing. I stopped so we could chat for a minute. It was raining by this point.
He couldn’t resist sharing the big news.
“My grandson’s making his first start this Sunday night … against the Steelers.”
Me: “No way.”
“Yeah, the starting cornerback is a Pro-Bowler. My grandson was fifth on the depth chart as a rookie. He made second string this year. And this week in practice, the starter had an ankle injury.
“Rodney called me this week and said, ‘Pops, make sure you tune in, I’m starting.’ I’m so proud of him.”
I’d been meaning to ask Mr. Thomas about another Thomas I remember covering years ago when I worked for the local newspaper — Travis Thomas, who I remember went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship. Any relation?
Mr. Thomas said he and Travis’ dad are first cousins. Travis got injured at Notre Dame, which slowed down his football career, but is doing well in Indiana these days. Talked to him just last month. Said Travis was just so proud of Rodney, remembering when Rodney was little and running all over the fields at the Brownson House (a venerable sports facility here in Washington, PA). How, even at that young age, he had his sights on the NFL.
“Travis said he was just so proud of how hard Rodney’s worked his whole life.”
“The key is just getting after it,” I say to the 82-year-old taking Saturday morning December laps in the rain.
Mr. Thomas smiled. “Doesn’t matter what it is. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
I wished him well. Thanked him for the conversation. Thanked him again for the inspiring example. Told him I’ll be watching.
“Keep an eye on him,” he said to me again, as he had in our first encounter.
Monday morning I scanned the box score of the game, saw a couple tackles next to Rodney’s name.
I couldn’t help but imagine how good Proud Grandfather beer must taste.
Couple weeks ago, my wife sends me a text, along with a link. “You see this?”
Rodney Thomas driving 100 miles in the middle of the night to be at the side of his good friend.
“I had a goal,” Thomas said Jan. 4, via Colts.com. “I knew where I was going, so I just got on the road and I just went. Laser-focused.”
Rodney Thomas working hard at his craft, and working harder to make sure it counts.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well.
“Keep an eye on him,” his grandfather said to me in the birthday gift of our first conversation.
I now realize he wasn’t referring to any stat line in a box score.
I’ve learned a lot over the years lugging my keister over to the track.
Primarily, I’ve learned the importance of stealing a glance around us for inspiration when our tanks are running low. Doesn’t matter what shape you’re in.
And that inspiration is everywhere and can come from anywhere.
From those faster than us … who give us something to chase.
From those slower than us … who remind us that the important thing, if not the only thing, is just getting out there and putting one foot in front of the other.
From those younger than us … who remind us that time is precious and sneaks up on you fast when you’re not paying attention.
And from those older than us … who have logged miles and miles (and miles) of experience and wisdom. And who carry stories that none of us can even begin to imagine…
… unless we take the occasional breath … muster up a little birthday courage when needed … thank them for their example … and periodically remind ourselves that we’re all just momentarily sharing the same track.
For the first 95% of my time to date wandering, mostly lost, around my very teensy patch of this planet, I’ve abided an unwavering animosity towards cats.
For the most recent 5%, which I’ve spent in a complicated reexamination of my lifelong animosity, I’ve exercised a monk-like restraint to not be The Guy Who Talks About His Cats … at least while I’m in, you know, complicated reexamination mode.
While I can’t say I’m on the other side of that process, I am here, this day, to be The Guy Who Talks About His Cats.
This is Viktor.
Viktor is my dude.
Even though he can be a major a-hole. Even though I’m not entirely convinced he’s not secretly plotting my demise, although I can’t technically prove it in a court of law … yet. (Sorry for all the negatives there … an unfortunate side effect of the complicated reexamination process).
And by “my Dude,” I, of course, mean that he deems me his dim-witted, servile underling barely worthy of the honor of catering to his every whim.
Viktor along with his brother Roman are the ‘cats who live in our house.’ While I’ve done almost a complete 180 on my cat stance (let’s call it a ‘178’), I still stop short of calling them ‘my cats,’ … since I was not involved, or, technically speaking, consulted, in the circumstances that resulted in them taking up residency in my house. And since my own residency here is, shall we say, vaguely tenuous, I abide a general strategy of not rocking the boat wherever possible.
I’ve come to appreciate Viktor over the course of our cohabitation because he’s the only member of the household who will indulge me in long conversation.
Everyone else seems to be, you know, pretty busy.
But Viktor and I … we are kindred spirts. Cut from the same cloth. We’re what the historians call ’deep thinkers.’ We feel the weight of the world, sense the shifting of the cosmic sands. We know what the Powers That Be are up to. We call out the bullshit when we see it. We know when the forecast calls for melancholy. We like it when human beings scratch our heads.
I’ll often find Viktor sitting in the dining room, staring out into the backyard, and can sense his mood.
A typical exchange:
Me: How’s it going, Viktor?
Viktor: (continuing to look straight ahead) Reeeeuhhhhrrrr! (“The universe is a meaningless void.”)
Me: Yeah, I know. Things are f*cked.
Viktor: (turning to address me directly) Reeeeeeeeeahhhhhrrrrrrrr! (“We must find those responsible and make them pay.”)
Me: Yeah, what can you do, though?
Viktor: Reeauh! (“Exercise my plan for world domination and reign in power with The Queen Who Gives Me The Special Snacks.”)
Me: Oh, there is that, I suppose.
Viktor: (turning back to the window) Urrrrrreeeeeeuhhh! (“Make no mistake, you will be the first to be eliminated, Sparkle Fart. Leave my sight for now Viktor must scratch things and nap.”
Me: OK, sounds like a plan. Good talk.
I’m the only one he talks to like this. We chat all the time. Actually makes Karry jealous.
That said, our relationship is not all unicorns and world domination.
Viktor can be a real a-hole.
Case in point. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he shows zero interest in physical exertion.
Until I’m working from home and he knows I’m on a call.
Then, he’ll bat the tinkly ball down the steps and work on his ball handling. Smacks it off the walls, chases it down, launches it back across the room, whacks it into the corner. Whines incessantly when it goes under the shelves just out of his reach. Until I hit the mute button, and be like, “Viktor, what the f*ck?”
He pretends he doesn’t hear me.
And when he knows I’m on a video call? It’s like he’s training for the goddamn Tinkly Ball Olympics. Speed drills and sh*t.
Oh, and there’s this other thing. Despite the fact that Karry has placed multiple cat accommodations of every type (blankets, pillows, beds, etc.) in front of virtually every window in every room in the house, Viktor insists on sleeping in my chair.
Because he is a passive aggressive motherf*cker.
When I call him out on it, sometimes he’ll open only one eye for a couple seconds, then close it again while I’m still yelling. I’m convinced that sometimes he hops in the chair when he hears me coming, and only pretends to sleep. I swear I can see him chuckling to himself. Karry tells me, oh no, he’s just ‘dreaming’ and to leave him be.
Eventually, though, his conscience gets to him, and he’ll apologize later … bowing his head and rubbing it against my shoulder. (translation: he gets hungry and knows he needs my opposable thumbs to open his adorably tiny can of cat food).
Of course, I forgive him, which is probably due to his mind control over inferior beings, but in my head is due to my unwavering support of his career aspirations. It’s Viktor’s dream (right after the World Domination thing) to become a calendar model. He puts in the work, has logged the 1,000 hours, practices his poses all the time. He’s a natural. Like the all-time greats, when he’s on his game, the captions just write themselves.
All he needs is representation. But in the cutthroat, big business world of cat calendars, it’s all who you know, evidently.
And Viktor’s not one to kiss anyone’s ass to climb the ladder of success. Not interested in playing The Game. He does not truck with The Machine. He is a master of the long game. I think he knows that once he subjects the universe to his will and reigns supreme over time, space and dimension, he can, you know, get some head shots taken … shop ‘em around, etc.
That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned from him.