Letters for Maggie

The Picture of Kindness ….

Got to chat with my oldest sister yesterday morning … something we’ve been making more time for on our Saturdays the past few months. We’re not religious about it, but it’s something I think we’ve both grown to appreciate a lot (I know I have). We catch up on each other’s worlds and weeks, compare notes on what we’re both reading or watching, stuff that’s caught our attention, recent updates on our other siblings, our occasional health dust-ups, our erratic sleep habits, etc. Yesterday she mentioned looking into a volunteer program (she’s done a ton of volunteering over the past several years) that visits with veterans, just to listen and chat, and, if they’re up for it, to have them share their stories. I told her she’d be perfect for that program. She’s a veteran herself, having joined the marines out of high school, which to this day makes me so proud and in awe of her. And she’s always had a heart for spending time with older people. This past week she visited daily with the mom of one of her oldest friends to help with eye drops for cataracts. As has become part of our conversational ritual, I had a smile on my face by the time we said our good byes and I Love Yous. 

I was running errands when she called me, and as we wrapped our conversation I pulled into a parking spot outside the tiny little coffee shop off North Main Street. I’ve been dropping in Saturday mornings for a here’s-to-the-weekend espresso, and the accompanying smile and kind word from whoever’s working behind the counter. When I walked in, an older gentleman with a Hemmingway beard was warming himself by the fire with a tall to-go cup of coffee. A shopping cart with his belongs sat next to him. After placing my order I sat down at the table across from where he was, taking the chair near the wall, putting the table and its other chair between us. 

He let me know I could move his cart if it was in my way. 

“Totally fine,” I said. 

“I refer to it as my portable RV,” he said, with a soft laugh. 

After a couple seconds, he added, “Sometimes in life it’s important to know how to improvise,” and, after a few more seconds, “One thing I’ve always believed is that you never stop learning, no matter how old you get.” 

For the record I am awkward and awful at small talk in all its forms, and generally avoid it at all costs. So much so that in my prior visits to the coffee shop I’ve carried a book with me to fill the few minutes it takes for the barista to make my to go order. Yet ….

It’s a good morning to be in front of a fire, I said, and, without giving myself a second to think twice about it, stood up and walked ’round the table to claim its other chair, removing the barrier between us. Making small talk, I asked him how he liked his coffee, and he said black, adding that that is THE ONLY way to drink good coffee. I concurred, but mentioned that my wife would disagree with the both us. He asked me if I had any kids, and I shared the ages of my son and daughter. He had two daughters, one 42 and one 19. I did the math in my head. 

Me: That’s a big gap.

He: That’s, um, a long story.

Me: They live around here?  

He: They live down south, near Donald and Mickey.

He said he’d lived in Florida for a while. Had lived a lot of places. 

I asked him if he’d seen any snow flurries yet, which the forecast had called for. He said he’d encountered some big flakes about 3:30-4 in the morning. As I imagined him and his cart in our dark downtown streets, I dipped my eyes back down to my coffee.

But before I gave myself the chance to think twice, I asked if he had a favorite place among all the places he lived. He mentioned small towns I’d never heard of. In addition to his having spent a lot of time down south, I learned he’d gone to school in Connecticut and New Jersey, driven limos for a living in Jersey and New York, where he met some, um, characters … worked here and there up north … and, along the way, had experienced both grace and violence at the hands of law enforcement … the latter resulting in a broken back, and a long scar from the ensuing back surgery. “I refer to (the long scar) as where the batteries go,” and, again, offered his soft laugh. “I always try to look for the positive in life where I can.” 

But he was born here, grew up in Laboratory, worked here, too, mentioning the local high school where my daughter goes.

Life’s a rollercoaster, he said, making up and down motions with his coffee-free hand.

We made small talk for a few more minutes, until he’d finished his tall cup. Then he stood up, and wrapped himself up for the cold awaiting him outside. Told me it was good talking. 

Before I gave myself the chance to think twice, the words stumbled out of my mouth. 

My name’s Pete, I said.

What is it? He asked, wanting to make sure he’d heard it right.

Pete, I repeated. 

Don, he said, and extended me his hand. 

Nice to meet you, Don, as I accepted it. 

Nice to meet you, Pete.   

He then walked over to his cart, and did a most remarkable thing. Turning back to the counter, he yelled a thank you for the coffee. Standing beside the cart containing all his belongings, he was nothing more or less than himself, and in full possession of all the experiences, stories and dignity that came with that.

He then turned his back to the door, and backed himself and his portable RV outside, and with both hands tight on the bar, began walking against the cold towards Main Street in his home town, looking for the next climb of his roller coaster. 

__

So, aside from the kind person behind the counter, I’m not sure I had ever previously spoken a single word to anyone else in the now handful of times I’ve visited the tiny coffee shop. 

Had not Don let me know I could move his shopping cart if it was in my way, I’m not so sure I would have broken my streak yesterday. He went out of his way to put me at ease. Though he carried all of his belongings, and all the stories and scars of what sounded like a full life fully lived, he opened the door for our conversation just as easily as the one he backed his cart through when it was time for him to keep moving. 

I’m also not sure I would’ve broken my streak had not my sister inspired me with her heart for sharing company with older folk before I walked in for my Saturday morning coffee. 

Hell, I’m also not sure I would’ve broken my streak had not John Prine’s Hello in There brought me to tears the night before as I climbed into my warm bed … on the same cold night through which Don pushed his edited earthly belongings. 

So on what was National Kindness day, I just wanted to say thank you to all of ‘em. 

To the people who work behind the counter. 

To Don.

To my big sister Kim.

To the late John Prine. 

For keeping me such good company in their kindness. 

I look forward to getting to know each of them just a little bit better.

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Postcards

Whispers and Remembering

Spent the past seven days in isolation after realizing, embarrassingly after the fact, that my taste and smell had abandoned me.  I was sitting around a fire in our backyard when it occurred to me I couldn’t smell the fire. Was really taken aback that it took me that long to notice. Then it occurred to me in retrospect that I couldn’t remember tasting my dinner. I think I was tricked by my stuffed nose to believe congestion was the culprit. A positive test the next morning sobered me to the reality. 

__

I spent most of the day after my positive test sitting alone in one half of our garage, isolating. I’d backed out my car for space so I could sit and catch some fresh air from the gray rainy Sunday. Set up a little white folding table and the red camp chair the kids had gotten me for Father’s Day.  Lawn equipment and our overstuffed garage pressing in on either side of me. Couldn’t help but think what a sad spectacle I made. I could see through to the woods between our parked cars in the driveway. Spent the entire afternoon in the garage, first listening to the rain, then when it got dark, the crickets. I was listening contentedly to their Sunday night chorus when I caught a glimpse of the damndest thing — a lone lightning bug dancing in front of the woods. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Here it was October, and there he was. Still had some business to tend to, yet and still. Both of us all by our lonesome. One of us oblivious to the other. The other suddenly caring about nothing else in the world.

Made me remember the time I dragged Emma to a theater performance of a Sherlock Holmes play being hosted on Pitt’s campus. I remember little about the production itself (it was pretty awful). What I recall is Emma, in her theater best, spending the entire intermission chasing lightning bugs across the lawn outside the hall as the fireflies danced among the old oak trees. We were both so enchanted I remember us cursing the building’s flashing lights that beckoned us back to our seats when it was time for the second act. 

All alone in my red camp chair peeking out from our overstuffed garage, all I had was time. 

So as long as the season’s last lightning bug wanted to dance to the crickets, I was staying for the entire encore. 

__

While sitting at the campfire not smelling anything I found myself captivated by a skinny young flame dancing a corkscrew in a narrow channel just to the right of where the main business of the fire was being conducted. It was spinning itself through a little passageway … presumably reaching for a bit more oxygen on the other side.  It looked like it was having just the best time. In my convalescing state, I tried to remember that feeling. Took me to the tall slippery slide on the playground two streets up from the old house on Mullen Street. The slide was part of the ‘new’ playground that was installed at our neighborhood grade school before third grade. And although our school would be closed for good after that year (my Mom saved a newspaper picture of a bunch of us neighborhood kids with signs ‘protesting’ in vain to keep it open), the playground was salvaged, and the fastest slide on the planet still stands, timeless as fire. It’s a just-enough steep, two-hands-on-the-rails vertical climb to whet your expectation, placing you high enough to want to pause for a couple beats and survey the world from above before descending. By the time you reach the bottom you’re still picking up speed, and if you pull your legs up, it gifts you a bonus little launch into the air, requiring a running start as you land. (Heck yeah to that.) Must’ve watched that tiny, twisting flame a good couple of minutes as my mind climbed to the top of that slide just one more time … ’til a cough broke my reverie.…

__

My favorite sound of the week ….

It’s the season of falling nuts in the woods. When the acorns decide it’s time to geronimo, they smack the branches and leaves on their way down, which, if you’re lucky, gives you a split second fair warning to train your gaze towards the sound and catch a glimpse just before they plunk the ground. They land with this hollow wooden, earthy thump, and maybe bounce once before coming to a rest in the grass. If you close your eyes it sounds like this happy little firework, the falling through the trees a quick fuse that resolves into the gentlest of pops upon impact. It’s the most satisfying sound, even more so if you are a squirrel or chipmunk I imagine.

__

On second thought THIS is my favorite sound of the week ….

In the mornings after lugging myself up from my mostly expired air mattress, getting a shower and putting on the clothes stacked for me atop the shelves in the bathroom, I sit outside in my red camp chair sipping the morning’s coffee (for ritual, not for taste or smell). Around 7:30 I pick up the sound of a bouncing basketball a few houses down to the right. The trees and bend of houses around the corner prevent me from spying the source, but the music travels. Kids waiting for the bus, out early so they can steal a few shots. Bounce, bounce, pause, heave, dull, vibrating thud off the backboard, carom, chasedown, bouncebounce, repeat. I know that sound well from the countless evenings Peter and I would take aim at our backyard hoop til way past dark on school nights. Sounds like one maybe two are shooting, while a couple schoolmates or younger siblings chatter nearby. They are all properly loud —  the way children squeezing the last drops of play before the school bus should be. It’s better you can’t see them. Their shouts and bounces make the visual richer in your conjuring. THIS is how to greet a morning I sip and think to myself. You know as soon as the school bus swallows them, they are already thinking about the first shot they’re going to take the moment they step off later that afternoon.

Heck yeah to that. 

__

There are things this life has to whisper to you. I’m not sure if it cares if you listen or not. But in order to do so, it’s on you to quiet the things buzzing around you long enough to hear them. And when you do, it’s like you’ve been let in on little secrets. You can’t help but feel privileged that you listened, and you heard. Sometimes so much so you have no choice but to share. The bigger secret is that the world is always whispering. The shame is that sometimes we need cajoling to remember to pay attention. 

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Letters for Maggie, The Girls

Speed Dating 25 ….

I figured we had about an hour’s drive to make our 7:15 reservations. 

I had the car out of the garage and air-condition-cooling by 6 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, she knows how much I hate to be late. 

I hold the car door and she lowers herself into her seat … at promptly 6:35 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, I know she’s never ready on time. 

She: Wait a minute. Forgot my cheaters. Can’t read the menu without ‘em. 

I get back out to hold the door a second time, and give the bridge of my nose a deep tissue massage until she returns and floats once again into her seat. 

As we pull out of the driveway, we Google Map our drive to check traffic. 

ETA: 7:37 p.m. 

My chest tightens. 

“Don’t drive like a maniac or you’ll make me sick.” 

Ah, the sweet nothings of anniversary date night. 

Speaking of sweet nothings …. 

Earlier in the week while ordering roses to be delivered to Karry at work, the young girl on the other line asked me several times to spell my name for the card. 

“P as in Paul, E ….” 

At least three times she made me repeat it. I was genuinely impressed with her thoroughness. 

That afternoon Karry texts me the sweetest thank you. 

But mentions that the accompanying card was signed, 

“Love, Teet.” 

My mother (on whose birthday we got married and who would’ve turned 90 this year) would have found this hilarious. Probably would’ve addressed future anniversary cards to “Teet and Karry.”  

Point is, you don’t make it this far without rolling with some punches. 

As we hop on the interstate, she tries to soften my clenched jaw. 

She: The restaurant has a 20-minute grace period. 

Me: I thought it said 15 when we made the reservation. 

She: We’ll be fine. 

Me (in my head): We’re totally fucked. 

Because of the dark bile now coursing through my extremities, I choose silence as my coping strategy as I try to navigate us as gingerly and swiftly as possible towards the city. 

Google breaks the silence by informing us of upcoming congestion on the Parkway causing an additional nine-minute delay. Google assures us we’re still on the “fastest” route, though. I reach for my cel phone to call the restaurant. Karry stops me.

She disagrees with the Googles. 

“We’re not going that way.” 

She hates sitting in traffic almost as much as she hates being a passenger, but not quite as much as she hates relying on Google or Waze to tell her how to get somewhere. 

So, now I’m faced with whether to listen to my wife who never leaves on time, or Google and the 20 billion petabytes of data it processes daily.

I’m pretty sure Google has a thorough read on the situation.

I’m also pretty sure that the thin odds of Teet making a 26th anniversary may rely less on our time of arrivals and more on knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. 

I disengage the auto pilot. She dons her cheaters and begins to bark out the audible. 

Game on. 

She has me exit the Parkway at Greentree, snake down the hill, make the right at the bottom, followed by a left to climb the backside of Mt. Washington. 

On our ascent it occurs to me that it was 25 years almost to the day when this exact scene first played out. Me driving into the city, Karry navigating from the passenger seat. Two days after our wedding day, in the place where the honeymoon was supposed to go, Karry insisting on riding along with me on my first day of grad school at Duquesne to make sure I arrived – and returned — safely. She was my Google Maps before there was a Google Maps. Better, actually. She held my hand along the way.  

My jaw starts to unclench. 

As we finish the roller-coaster climb up the big hill, Karry matter-of-factly points out that we just shaved three minutes off our arrival time. 

From there, she proceeds to carve the city like a Thanksgiving turkey. 

We cruise through Mt. Washington, climb back down and hang a left onto and over the Liberty Bridge, then follow 579 North. 

Bigelow, Baum, then, boom — onto Centre Avenue. 

We pass in front of the restaurant. 

I check the time. 

7:14. 

One minute early

Not only did she erase the nine-minutes we’d have lost sitting on the Parkway, she beat Google’s original guesstimate by over 20 effing minutes. 

Takes off her cheaters, stares at me as she slow folds them and drops them into her purse like a mic.

Think gun-slinger re-holstering after dispatching the black hat purported to be the fastest on the planet.

I pull us into the garage and find an open spot on the first floor. 

I hold the door as she gets out. 

She makes a point of taking her sweet time. Checks her hair in the mirror. Steps out from the car, smoothes her sleeveless dress, straightens her thin sweater. 

Now, she is ready. 

And for the first time since she emerged late from the house, I let myself register the sight of her. 

Am reminded, yet again, that she’s more than worth any wait. 

She holds out her hand. We interlock fingers. As it has since our first college dance, the warmth makes me forget everything else. 

She, on the other hand, ensures I don’t.

“I don’t know what you were all freaked out about. You forget who you’re riding with here?” 

On the 25th anniversary of the first time she guided me safely into this city, I think to myself: not for a second. 

Still, she spends the entire walk from the garage to the restaurant’s back entrance giving me the shit I deserve for ever doubting her skills. 

Ah, the sweet nothings of anniversary date night.

I’m grateful it’s a short walk to the entrance. 

I hold the door for my co-pilot. 

The gentleman asks if we have reservations. 

Yes.

Two for Teet.

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Fathers and Sons, Righteous riffs

Wing Man

He’s always the initiator, as I’m reluctant to impose on the 20-year-old’s social calendar. 

Over Friday lunch he asks … “Drover’s tomorrow night?”

Me: You work? 

He: ‘Till seven. 

Me: (calculating drive-time) Might make us a little late. Proly crowded on a Saturday night. 

He: I could see if I could move my shift up an hour. Leave at six? 

Me: You can do that? 

He: I can ask. 

Me: I’m game. Just let me know. 

For the uninitiated, Drover’s is a most sacred place. 

The one constant on our family’s annual summer to-do list — its bona fides spoken of in unequivocal and reverent tones. 

Best Wings on the planet.

There is no debate. There is Drover’s. And there is everyone else.  

Consistently fried to crispy perfection. Every time. Never under- or overdone.  Sauces sublime.

 And part of a larger ritual born of, and bursting with, expectation. 

Located just across the West Virginia border in Wellsburg, Drover’s requires about a 30 minute pilgrimage, give or take, depending on whether or not you get behind a slowpoke on two-lane 844. A 20-mile drive out in the country, subjectively glorious, up and down deliberate hills. Through sprawling wide open spaces, farms and fields on either side. The slow down squeeze through the occasional tiny town.  I say subjectively glorious because Karry detests the drive. Not for the scenery. For the misery of driving it home in the dark, and the persistent prospect of hidden critters wandering across the road. 

Since she never lets me drive (she equally hates being a passenger, and my driving), I am free to savor every aspect, encouraging windows down both ways in hopes of catching a concentrated blast of freshly mowed field, and the occasional tinge of equally fresh cow manure that signals the city you have just left behind. 

At precisely 3:49 p.m. Friday, I get the confirming text …

Schedule change. Leaving at 6. Drover’s o’clock tomorrow. 

Flag planted. Pilgrimage on. Preparations begin in earnest. 

Saturday morning, the boy packs a salad for work. 

Me, I precisely calibrate my entire Saturday to be showered and ready by 5:45 p.m.  — morning omelet by Emma, a humbling 10K at the track, lunchtime fast, backyard mow.

Peter pulls in from his shift at 6:15, leaves the car running, changes out of his work clothes and into t-shirt and shorts. 

I climb in the passenger side, totally content with being his wing man on a boys Saturday night. 

He cues the soundtrack …. 

___

Among the things I love about my son: when he gets interested in something, he goes rabbit-hole deep. While I’ve always encouraged, his tastes have always been his own. Always, he shares and I appreciate, though his interests have never included anything we could particularly bond over: hunting, lawn equipment, car mod-ding, golf (egads), etc. 

Until now. 

His current addiction: classic guitar rock and heavy metal. 

He’s over-the-moon for all things Van Halen, AC/DC and all their contemporaries. Came upon it by himself. And as with his past dalliances, he ain’t no skimmer.

He’s YouTube dumpster-dived interviews, histories, backstories. Stuffed his Spotify playlists full of power chords. Plays tunes for me. Pumps me with questions. Asks me if I’ve heard …. prompts me to rank things. Favorite this … Top that. Over lunch the other day he threw out, “Worst songs of all time?” 

Delicious. And for the record, a toss-up between Every Rose Has Its Thorn, GNR’s cover of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, and all those shitty Aerosmith ballads.

In March, he put together a full 64-entry bracket (replete with play-in games) of the greatest guitar songs of all-time.  We painstakingly agonized and argued over who to advance the way the passionate nerds do over the most trivial things.  

His ears are wide open. 

Swears that Van Halen I is by far the hardest and the best in the canon (hard to argue that). Appreciates both what Dave and Sammy brought to their respective tables, but also calls both of them out for their shortcomings (Dave not really a singer, Sammy way too poppy at times, etc.).

As an aside, my work as a parent here? Pretty much done.  

He’s teaching me things I never knew. Exhibit A: that Panama was Eddie Van Halen’s attempt to write an AC-DC song. Give it a listen. You’ll totally hear it.  And never hear it the same again.  

About a month ago, he bought himself a cheap electric guitar and a tiny amp. Has been spending hours in the garage picking out riffs. When he was a kid, I was convinced he had perfect pitch, and always wished he had a heart for music to match his ear. In conversation, he’s now peppering his effusions with observations on tunings and such. And he’s not interested in flying his fingers over the frets. His heart is for pure thunder … more Malcolm than Angus. 

___

He pulls us out of the driveway. 

Windows down. Volume up.  Conversation easy. 

We make our way out of town like bandits in a getaway car. 

Shoot to Thrill (live). 

Confessed to him that I was gassed after about 40 minutes at the track this afternoon. Then, Shoot to Thrill came on my playlist, and coaxed another 20 minutes I didn’t know I had in me.

Ever since I was a teenager, it’s seldom taken more than three chords to convince me I am invincible whenever I need to fool myself.

 We dissect the breakdown. Malcolm’s sinister pickup notes as it kicks back in. 

Peter shares the backstory of Phil Rudd’s ‘trouble with the law,’ a few years back. 

Fresh cut fields blow through our open windows. The fullness of late spring in the country.

He: You ever heard of Steve Vai?

Me: Heck yeah. You know he played guitar in the DLR band?

Peter had not yet made it to that chapter in his Van Halen history book. Made a mental note. 

Runaround (Van Hagar) comes on.    

I’d forgotten about that one. Rocks hard until Sammy gets a little too poppy before the chorus (Sammy being Sammy). 

He takes the hills fast but knows to slow when we come upon a tiny town. 

Not a teenager anymore. I make a mental note.

We cross the West Virginia border. 

Holy Diver.

Peter gushes. I nod knowingly and affirm Dio’s place on the Mt. Rushmore of lead singers.

Within minutes, we pull into the lot. I survey the scene and exhale. Busy, but not teeming ….

___

If you look up Drover’s online, you’ll see it’s a refurbished 1848 tavern, originally opened as an inn to travelers and ‘drovers’ who were moving their goods along the toll pike.  It was converted into a restaurant in 1967 and, as the website says, reinvigorated by its current owner in 1986. The website also mentions its three period, antiqued, fireplaced rooms inside. You’ll have to check out the website to learn more about those. 

We’ve never eaten inside. 

We never make it past the picnic tables under the outdoor pavilion right off the gravel parking lot. 

Warm weather. Cold beer. Crispy wings baptized in buttery sauce. Far as I’m concerned, picnic tables under an outdoor pavilion is about as good as it can possibly get. To quote Kurt Vonnegut quoting jazz pianist Fats Waller: “Somebody shoot me while I’m happy.” 

Another reason to love the picnic tables is that they are first-come, first-served. Seldom a wait. True to form, while the line’s out the door for indoor dining, we find a spot at one end of an outside table just vacated, and grab our benches.

Kerrie, the waitress who always tends the pavilion, stops by after a bit and asks for our order so she can get it in before bussing the table. 

We had ours ready at 3:49 p.m. the day before.

He: large buffalo garlic, ranch for dipping, waffle fries with cheese. 

Me: large hot (simple perfection), bleu cheese on the side. 

Shared order of bottle caps (fried jalapenos) for an appetizer.

Sweet tea for him. Sam Adam’s Summer on draft for me. 

Drinks come. Food’ll be a little while. Fine by us. We’re in no great hurry. It’s worth any wait.

He pulls out his phone. Holds it to my ear. He recorded himself practicing the night before. Slow takes on the opening of “For Those About to Rock.” The changes kinda’ sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention he tells me. Each attempt a little smoother than the previous. By the end he’s got it pretty much figured out. I can totally hear it.

Told him if he keeps going, he might make me break out my old drums this summer, which have sat in storage since he came along 20 years ago. I wouldn’t expect much, but am reasonably confident I could properly channel Phil Rudd enough to pound out four on the fucking floor.

As I said it, it occurred to me that it was my Dad who brought me to the drums in the first place, through the lens of his music. The big bands. Jazz. The Great American Songbook. He let me find my own way to it at my own pace. As I was learning, I’d pepper him with questions. You ever hear of….? Who do you like better ….? And once my ears were wide open I’d play him tunes that I dug for his approval. He’d just smile and nod knowingly, affirming Coleman Hawkins’ and Lester Young’s place on the Mt. Rushmore of tenor players.

Twenty years later and here we all are again. 

A son. A father. Cue the music ….

___

We say a quick, post-appetizer-apologetic Grace and dive in.

The wings, as always, are mic-drop transcendent. Done to perfection. He asks for extra sauce (pro move). We reverently baptize in our respective ranch (he) and bleu (me).

We savor. Take our time picking the bones clean. Talk more music. 

In between bites, I suggest he check out DLR’s Damn Good Times. Steve Vai’s background is otherworldly, though I know it’ll be way too slow for Peter’s tastes.

We slowly deplete the fat stack of thin napkins to police our hands and faces as we work our way through. 

After the ritual wet-nap cleansing, he extends his right hand. We pound fists. Arise from our picnic table. Walk across the gravel lot back to the car. 

He puts the windows down. Turns the volume up. 

Van Halen. 

Dave. 

Everybody Wants Some.  

He extends his right arm for an encore fist pound.

Drives us off into the dark Saturday night, the country road filling our lungs as full as our bellies.

Before Peter came along, I remember driving with my dad to and from gigs on Saturday nights just like this. 

The changes can sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.

And unless you hit record on occasion, you can’t appreciate how truly far you’ve come.

Damn good times.  

          

 

 

  

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Letters for Maggie

Remembrance: Mom in relief ….

(Mother’s Day, 2021)

Ever since Mom’s passing, whenever I find myself missing her, I walk my memory back to being nine years old and standing in our kitchen.

I was sad as hell. 

The way you get when you’re nine and you have no one to play with on a school’s out, full summer sun, Mullen Street morning. The kind that, when you’re a kid, is just too good to let go to waste.

No Danny. No Jeff. No Jerry. No Amy. No Billy. 

Not a single soul to pass ball with. 

If you were nine in our neighborhood, this was a crime against humanity. 

Standing in the kitchen, I made no secret of my discontent, moping around in all my misery. 

Mom finally asked what was wrong, and I told her. She ran down the full roster of my friends. I shot down each one with a “Not home … not answering the phone … car’s not there ….”

Moved by equal parts not wanting to see me sad and finding me annoying AF, she disappeared into the dining room, opened the closet, and reappeared wearing a ball cap and holding Dad’s baseball glove. 

“I’ll pass with you.” 

This was not a solution to my problem. 

For starters, she looked absurd. 

This is the lamest idea ever, I remember thinking. I’d never seen Mom throw anything other than fits at my Dad. 

That’s all right, I said. 

“Come on, let’s go,” she persisted, popping the ball from her right hand into her gloved left. 

No, really, I deflected. 

This went on for a good couple minutes. 

In recorded history, though, no one ever won a test of will against Maggie Riddell. 

So I ended up grabbing my glove and, still in full mope, begrudgingly followed her out to the street in front of our house. 

As we spaced ourselves just a few feet apart, I remember thinking: this is going to be awful. 

And it was. 

She lobbed one that bounced in front of me and came to rest harmlessly at my feet. I tried to aim at her glove so she wouldn’t have to move to try and catch it. 

She ended up having to chase the ball down the street anyway. 

She was atrocious. Couldn’t throw or catch to save her life.

But she got the biggest kick out of the whole thing. 

When I was about to toss one to her, she’d screw her cap on, pound her fist in Dad’s glove, bend her knees, and say something baseball-ish, like, “Put ‘er in there.” The fact that she had herself giggling by the time my throw was on its way didn’t help her fielding percentage. 

Never one to take herself too seriously, she was totally in her element in spite of her incompetency. 

She’d attempt a pitcher’s windup and laugh like hell when the ball sailed opposite of her aim. 

We soon settled on throwing easy grounders to each other, and eventually lost ourselves in trying to make it as easy for the other as possible. 

I have no idea how long we were out there. 

Probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes. 

The only thing I remember is that, by the end, I wasn’t sad anymore. 

__

It was the first and only time we ever threw ball.  

Maybe because she was so awful. Maybe because we never needed to again. Maybe because having no one to play with was a blessed rarity in our neighborhood. 

Or maybe because once was enough. 

Because on rare occasions, I still find myself sad as hell. The way you get when you’re 50 and know the person you wish you could call isn’t home anymore.

So I walk my memory back to the old kitchen. Watch her disappear into the dining room, and reappear in her ball cap, looking ridiculous. 

And I follow her, still in full mope, out to the street in front of our house. 

I see her wind-up. Pound Dad’s glove. How she laughed. 

And we lose ourselves in trying to make it as easy on the other as possible. 

I stay for only as long as I need to. 

Until I’m not sad anymore. 

Always and forever … Mom to the rescue.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

Picture Day Redux – No Strings Attached

Mercifully (for me), this year, proceedings returned to their normal rhythms. Held at the respective studios. A two-day affair. Saturday = Waynesburg. Sunday = Washington. 

Last year quarantine forced the stay-at-home edition of Picture Day, whose gravity I was unable to escape. 

This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst. 

Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint. 

“Don’t ask,” was all she said. 

My Karry radar began ringing in my head. 

Me: You’re taking precautions, yes? 

She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking. 

Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes. 

Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector. 

In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster. 

Not nearly as much of a disaster as I am. Not even in the same disaster zip code. 

But, back to the driveway …. 

Many a time have I run afoul of Karry’s ‘exacting standards’ by unintentionally besmirching the driveway with various … effluvium (oil, grill drippings, etc.)

Me: Um-hmm. 

When I went out the following morning to fetch the paper, I saw neon pink paint stains where the driveway meets the edge of the grass. 

I gave Emma a heads up. 

To give her at least a head start on packing her bags, grabbing a couple cans of tuna and hiding out in the woods for a couple days until I can screw up bad enough to put Karry’s scent back on my trail. 

Kidding. 

Told her it was fine and that we’d pressure wash it away during spring cleaning in a couple weeks. 

“It’s not OK. Mom’s going to kill me.” 

I assured her such was not the case and that it was fine. 

Sometimes it’s acceptable to lie to your children.

However, I took preemptive measures. Texted Karry at work. “There’s some paint in the driveway from Emma spray-painting. I told her it was no big deal and that you wouldn’t get mad. So don’t freak out on her.” 

In short, I used up my small stores of investment capitol. 

“Thanks for letting me know.” 

DEFCON Level 1 – restored.

__

Preparations continued throughout the following weeks. Costumes steamed. Arranged. Racks assembled. Additional provisions procured. Multiple coats of spray paint added to the shoes and driveway, etc. 

The long runway left me ample time to fashion my personal escape plan for The Saturday. 

They didn’t have to leave until 1:15 p.m. 

Since I don’t sleep much, sleeping in until 1:16 p.m. was not an option. 

In the morning, Emma and I went for a drive. She has her permit and we’ve been using the weekends to log her requisite hours behind the wheel. Weeks into this, I give very few instructions. We chart our destination. She pulls us onto Main Street and drives out of town. 

She: Am I going the right way?
Me: I have no idea where you’re going. 

We then take a meandering route to 136, cutting through the Wal-Mart plaza. She peels off and starts to make a right, pausing at a merge point. 

She: What do I do here? 

Me: Well, there’s no yield sign or anything, so it’s a little ambiguous. As long as there aren’t any yo-hums making a left turn in front of you, you can go. 

My favorite part of being Emma’s passenger is that, with her hands at 10 and 2, she gets chatty (i.e. she can’t disappear into her ear buds, or her phone). I asked her about Karry’s mood heading into Picture Day. 

Emma reported Situation Normal. 

The conversation then turned to the many complexities that make our family’s matriarch a revered badass. 

Me: There’s no B.S. about your Mom whatsoever. She has clear expectations, and clearly communicates those expectations. She doesn’t have to yell. She doesn’t waste words. That gives her a natural gravity. People look to her for guidance and direction. 

Emma: Mom is not an ambiguous stop sign in the Wal-Mart parking lot. 

In our 30 years together, I’m not sure Karry’s essence has ever been more exquisitely distilled. 

My daughter. 

We’re home from our drive around 11. I knock on Peter’s door. 

He was in the midst of perfectly executing his Dance Picture Day strategy: sleeping until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. 

Me: Get up. Get dressed. We gotta go. 

He: Whaaaaaat?

Me: Gotta renew your license. Get your picture taken. 

He: (miscellaneous unintelligible grunting) 

Around 11:25 he’s staggering to the dining rom where I’ve summoned him. 

Me: Sign here and here. Your car? 

He: Nah. You drive. 

Made sure he had the registration form, his W-2, his social security card, and his passport.

Translation: Karry assembled everything. 

He gets in the passenger side and I follow the exact route we took four years ago when he first got his license. I pull us into the nearly empty lot. 

Me: You have your license? 

He: No. 

Me: What do you mean, you don’t have your license.

He: It’s in my car. 

Me: You are renewing your license. Why would you not bring your license?

(silence) 

He: I’m going to try anyway. 

Me: Let me know how that works out. 

He: You aren’t coming in? 

Me: No. 

He: Why are you even here? 

Me: (waiting for him to connect the obvious dots) Because your mom and Emma are getting ready for dance pictures. We’re going to lunch after this. If we eat like Vikings they should be gone by the time we return. 

He’s back five minutes later. 

He: I need my license. 

Me: Peeved. 

He: Sorry. 

I responded with the Head Shake/Exhale combo perfected over the 18 years we were officially responsible for my oldest’s day-to-day survival, during which variations of this exact scene played out hundreds of times. 

Now that he’s 20, I allowed myself a small smile that some things are forever. 

We retraced our steps, he retrieved his license, turned in the requisite forms, got his photo taken, returned to the car, picked our lunch spot, found a reasonably empty parking lot, grabbed a booth, and nourished ourselves over March Madness conversations. 

Sitting across a table sharing baskets of Cheddar Bay Biscuits with Peter affords the same rare and precious elastic conversational space as Emma’s hands on 10 and 2. He gets chatty. 

He mentioned that one of his favorite high school teachers recently left teaching for a job in his field of study. He was that special kind of teacher who lit fires in their students. Peter not only loved his classes, but respected him so much he sought his counsel when he was considering colleges and courses of study. 

He said he reached out to his old teacher when he heard the news he’d left the school. Peter told me his teacher had written him back …  and handed his phone across the table for me to read. 

In his note, Peter recounted the time he’d asked the teacher for a letter of recommendation for a college application. 

And his favorite teacher, the one he looked up to so much, the one whose classes he sought out … told him No. 

I never knew this. 

In his note, Peter recounted how crushed he was that his favorite teacher refused him. 

But he was writing to thank him for doing that. How it made him realize he needed to work harder. He wrote to let him know that he’s been applying himself in college and was doing well in his second semester of his sophomore year. He wrote to tell him that he made the Dean’s List last semester. 

The teacher wrote back to thank Peter. Confessed to him that him saying no was one of the two or three toughest decisions he’d ever made as a teacher. But he knew that if he had just written the letter, Peter would likely have kept himself in cruise control. He genuinely thanked Peter for his note, and for lifting a burden that he still carried. 

By the end, I was trying not to weep in my Cheddar Bay Biscuits. 

My son. 

We finished our main courses in a leisurely trot, and I had him back home by 2, more than enough time for him to get ready for his 2:30 shift. 

But as we pulled into the driveway, something was wrong.

Very, very wrong. 

Karry’s car was still there. 

An issue with The Shoes. The ones that Emma and Karry have been spray painting for a couple weeks now. 

Evidently, after the multiple coats of neon, the holes for the laces were painted shut.  They’d spent the last hour trying in vain to lace the shoes. And the harder they tried to muscle it, the more the paint cracked and chipped. 

DEFCON 5.

Also known as EFFBOMBCON.    

To paint the neon pink picture driveway here, mother and daughter an hour late dealing with chipped paint and un-laceble shoes is like that scene in the original Avengers where Black Widow is trying to keep Bruce Banner from hulking out while Loki is simultaneously stealing the Tesseract. 

This only ends one way. 

Hulk’s gonna Hulk. 

Except in this instance, there are two Hulks. 

I made the obligatory, sacrificial offer to help, which I knew could have just as easily been received as Flame Thrower Target  Practice.

“No,” they both said in a huff. 

Colossal exhale. 

So I grabbed the nearest parachute. 

Went to retrieve the grocery order. 

Grocery order = seamless. Remembering to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy so as to extend my trip by a few extra moments = seamless. 

Pulled back into the driveway. 

Still there.  

I equated my odds at surviving a second re-entry to running back into a burning building to retrieve my favorite box of matches. 

Carrying in the groceries, I enacted security protocol Eggshell Swaddling Baby Blanket Minefield Tiptoe Alpha.  

They were working in the laundry room, which is where the downstairs fridge is. Before entering I listened for any rustling around the corner before stealthily darting in, ninja-style. I gingerly placed the ½ gallon of 2% on its shelf and two-handed the silent closing of the fridge like I was diffusing a bomb on countdown. 

I was safely upstairs when I heard the car doors slam and Karry pull out of the driveway with an impatient engine rev. 

My wife. 

I sympathy stress ate the two Cheddar Bays Peter intended for later.

Another one in the books.

Say Cheese. 

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Excursions

Treasure Hunting ….

I’ve spent exactly one day in London in my life.  It’s been a couple decades now. I was part of a group at my company attending a conference in Amsterdam (a story for another time).  We had to connect through London so ended up taking a day there before continuing on. I believe it was a Saturday. We spent the entire afternoon walking the city, and at some point happened upon an outside street fair.

I only remember two things from that afternoon.

One, an older man playing violin in the square. His hair long, gray and wild, his beard shaggy. Wore a white, long sleeved buttoned shirt, open at the chest and a little grimy, deep burgandy pants that billowed and made his long legs seem longer. He played with passion, his eyes wide when they weren’t closed in communion with his instrument. I took him for a regular, if uninvited, character of the grounds. He was both oblivious and superior to the townspeople and tourists milling about. He danced as he played, in essence commandeering the entire square as his performance space. I was bewitched by his power and presence. He said not a word, yet the square was his.

The only other thing I recall from the street fair was a vendor standing behind a few really long tables of used books. Being a provincial kid from Uniontown on my first trip abroad, I remember being drawn to something familiar in this otherwise exotic place. While my colleagues explored elsewhere, I lost myself rooting through the tables. After a bit, my eye caught something by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t recognize the title. It looked to be some sort of television screenplay. I immediately thought of my friend, Bill, who was absolutely mad for all things Kurt. I forked over a couple pounds, put the treasure in my coat pocket, and went to find my colleagues. 

When I got home, I wrapped up the book and sent it to Bill, along with a note of how I’d happened upon it. 

A week or so later, he wrote me back. Evidently, he’d heard of the screenplay, but it had long been out of circulation. It was the one piece of Vonnegut he’d never been able to track down. He was absolutely over the moon and profuse in his gratitude. 

Reading his thank you note was just the best feeling.  To this day, I count it among the best gifts I’ve ever given, everything about it pure serendipity.

I was reminded of this decades-old exchange recently while watching Booksellers, a documentary streaming on Amazon Prime. 

It’s a love letter to the characters still perpetuating the antiquarian bookseller trade in New York City, and the city’s shrinking ice floe of independent booksellers. The rare book profession is a relic of a pre-Internet time. One of the booksellers in the documentary mentions that in the 1950s, there were 368 bookstores in New York. At the time of the interview (a couple years ago), the number had shrunk to 79. The story touches hearts (or at least, mine) as it spotlights a motley collection of mostly irrational – though some quite rational – romantics.

Treasure hunters, they are. 

As are their customers. 

Though independent, they exist in a gritted-teeth relationship with the beast most responsible for the demise of their kind — the Internet. For all the Internet has done to efficiently and expediently connect rare book sellers with their buyers (the irony that I only discovered the documentary from an in-box recommendation from the friendly robots at Amazon Prime is not lost on me), it has, in the process, mostly extinguished the terribly inefficient and gloriously analog process of the treasure hunt. 

The act of finding things you are not even looking for. 

The investment of time for an uncertain and unexpected return. 

Of rooting through stacks, boxes, losing yourself amongst shelves. Of being quite content with long odds. Of perfecting a fisherman’s patience. Of defining treasure on your terms, like a forgotten out-of-print screenplay on a London table, or an obscure 1961 album by the Belmonts, which my friend Doug unearthed during a recent pilgrimage to George’s Song Shop in Johnstown. My heart sings like the Belmonts when Doug tells me of his regular foragings and finds.

Yet I must confess to having long ago been easily and cheaply seduced by Amazon convenience. It shames me to say it, but, on occasion, I’ve actually snapped pictures of book covers in bookshops to potentially Amazon later. Not that this absolves me in any way, but I do it in part to curb my otherwise uncurb-able impulse-buying instincts whenever I find myself around book stacks. (I have a book problem.) 

But it’s hard to watch Booksellers and not be moved. 

Just as it’s impossible to listen to my friend Doug and not be stirred – whether in casual conversation or sitting in his congregation from 6-to midnight every Sunday night on WANB radio, where he’s been sharing treasure from his lovingly curated stacks of Rock and Roll for 27 years and counting. 

But it’s taken a sweet bit of good-old-fashioned serendipity to inspire me to truly turn a page. 

Out of the blue I received a package in the mail from my good friend, Jeff.

Accompanying it, this note: 

 

But THE BEST part? On the back ….

At that, I felt what my friend Bill must’ve felt 20+ years ago holding that Vonnegut screenplay in his hands. The true gift as much in the thought that inspired it as between its pages.

I hope that Jeff is feeling at least a measure of what I felt when Bill received his treasure. And I hope that feeling stays with him as long as mine has. 

I’ve been blessed to be on both sides of those feelings. To stumble upon something that makes you think of someone else. And to let the other person know. 

The lesson? Never miss a chance to let someone know you’re thinking about them. Your timing will never not be perfect.

__

Driving home a few weeks ago from the grocery store I swung past the small college campus here in town. The remnants of winter’s last snow had finally melted, and the grassy hill in front of Old Main was a sight for my sore eyes. 

In the middle of the lawn I spied an older man in a jacket and ballcap. Slowing down, I noticed he was waving a metal detector back and forth.  He moved methodically in small steps, listening for small possibility in that sea of sprawling, soggy green. Involuntarily I was smiling thinking of the summers growing up when all the neighborhood Moms (mine included) procured metal detectors and conducted routine scavenging expeditions all over the neighborhood. And how we kids couldn’t wait to see what treasure they unearthed with their trusty trowels. By objective measure, their hauls were as paltry as you might expect. But, to us, a resurrected wheat penny was a gold bar.  

I’ve seen him a couple times lately, most recently lonely strolling across the lawn of the high school. 

I tipped my ballcap towards his oblivious, head-bowed meditation. To his investment of time for an uncertain return. To optimism and expectation. To the search for things you are not even looking for. 

__

A few days ago I was writing a note to accompany a book I was returning to a good friend. Doing so made me think of a favorite read that he and his daughter might appreciate. Made my first penitent purchase from White Whale. I ordered it online, but am going to pick it up in the store.

So I can spend a few moments rooting through the stacks.

Still that provincial kid from Uniontown on his first trip abroad, drawn to something familiar and comforting in this otherwise exotic place.

“And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Elliot

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Rearview Mirror

The Colonoscopy Chronicles

(Don’t worry, nothin’ oogie ….)

Around St. Patrick’s Day, someone at work mentioned that the odds of finding a four-leaf clover are something like 1 in 10,000. I have no idea if that’s accurate. I just know two things. 

1.) I don’t think I’ve ever found one in my life.

2.) My mother-in-law Betty found them all the time.

Before every one of Karry’s nephew’s baseball games, Betty would arrive at the ball field early and, pluck a four-leaf clover from the grass and give it to Justin before warm-ups. He tucked ‘em in the inside ring of his ballcap. By the end of the season, his cap was lined with four-leaf-clovers like Stargell Stars. Though I never asked him, I bet he felt invincible taking the field.

That story encapsulates everything you need to know about Betty Fordyce. She made everyone she met feel lucky for knowing her. 

Our hearts broke when she passed from colon cancer in 2006. 

When I went for my annual physical this year, my family doctor informed me it was time for a colonoscopy. Wasn’t psyched about the prospect, but I thought of Betty when I scheduled it. Since her Mom’s passing, Karry’s been begrudgingly vigilant with her screenings since she’s deemed higher risk.

March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. As the CCA reminds, about 150,000 will be diagnosed this year with this highly preventable disease. In 2018 a large study found that “colonoscopy was associated with a 61% reduction in colorectal mortality.”

Those are much better odds than finding a four-leaf clover. And, statistically speaking, much better protection, too.

Many of my friends have either turned or are approaching a big, round birthday milestone this year. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to get your screening. FWIW, the wake-up music is spectacular.

They say you always remember your first time. Just in case, I figured I’d capture a few things for, you know, posterity ….

__

Karry kicked into planning mode. She’d been through the prep a couple times before. She stocked me up with lime Jell-o, chicken broth, Italian Ice (lemon), apple juice, lemon-lime Gatorade. Made sure I knew my schedule. Made sure I’d heard from the surgery center. 

It seems a crime to me that poems don’t get written about the un-asked for Grace of such small and selfless gestures. It’s the true stuff.

She was so genuinely compassionate. 

My daughter, on the other hand ….

The day before, Emma texts Karry and me that she did really well on her PJAS entry. I assume this is a good thing. Evidently not, as it means she has to now do more work on it for the next round, which she was hoping to avoid.  

I attempt consolation, figuring Shakespeare might offer some ennobling perspective. 

Me: Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

She: Eat your Jell-O, Diarrhea Don. 

Ah, my delicate flower. 

__

Since the screening was the result of my odometer turning over, I reached out to my peer group for some expectation management. 

My friend Don texts back: Ah, it’s not so bad. You get to drop a pound or two and get in a nice nap. Also, this is one of those occasions where I’d rather be the receiver than the giver. 

This is why Don was elected class president our senior year.

__

Karry gave me a heads up that the stuff they make you drink is awful. Fortunately, I was able to leverage one of my two legitimate super powers. I can close off my nose to keep from smelling or tasting anything. When the kids were young this came in wicked handy. Changing diapers?  No problem.  Someone puke? Projectile vomit? Lemme at it. 

So, when the moment came to ingest the prep, I chugged it like a cheap beer in the TKE house basement, slammed the plastic cup on the counter and yelled, “Bam!” … causing Karry to run to the kitchen to make sure I hadn’t accidently injured myself. 

Again, poems should be written about such sweetness. 

Oh, my second super power? I have a really loud clap. Like, piercing, ear-splittingly annoying to anyone in a 100-yard radius. 

I’ve yet to find any redeemable value for it. 

__

Speaking of the stuff they make you drink, it came in two 6 oz. bottles labeled, “Bowel Prep.” 

I think they should partner with Trader Joe’s on the packaging. 

Something like this: 

Lucy Schtules’ Colon Tickler. 

I’ve already written like 10 taglines.

__

By 3:30 a.m. the second dose of Lucy’s magic elixir was working serious overtime. I was a good 15 minutes into the ‘completely-sh*tting-my-brains-out’ phase of the prep when I ran out of things to read in the bathroom. Desperate, I finally took notice of the brand name of the baby wipes that Karry had bought me special for the occasion.

“Li’l Journey.” 

Without question, this is the funniest f*cking thing I’ve ever encountered at 3:30 in the morning.  

__

Out of mercy I won’t bore you with my 10 taglines for “Lucy Schtules’ Colon Tickler.” 

Just the top three. 

3.) “I’ll give yer bowels what fer.” 

2.)  “Evacuate your premises.” 

1.) “Goochie goochie goo.“

__

Day of, they take me back, I slip into my Uniform, and then wait for an hour as the doctor’s running, um, behind.

In pre-op, it’s a bunch of open-air beds separated only by pull curtains, so there’s some visual privacy but zero audio privacy. Therefore, I’m part of every patient’s conversation being checked in. In addition to colonoscopies, they evidently do other procedures that I want to know as little about as possible. 

Nurse: So, Mary, have you had a hysterectomy? You’re not having periods anymore are you?

Mary: I’ve not had a hysterectomy, just my tubes tied. But I’m pre-menopausal, so my periods are mild. 

Me: (in my head) LaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa! 

__ 

The anesthesiologist lets me know they’ll be starting the sedative and tells me to pick out a good dream. Next thing I know I wake up in exactly the same position I passed out in, but in a different room. Within 15 seconds, I’m stirring. My tongue inspects the inside of my mouth and finds a desert.

Nurse Liz comes over, and asks me if I’d like something to drink. She runs down the choices. 

Me: Oooh, Pepsi. 

I’m a Coke person, but Pepsi holds a special place in my heart at moments of great thirst. Always takes me back to elementary school basketball Saturday mornings at the Junior High, after which, Dad would whisk us to the Dairy Mart on Dixon Boulevard, where I’d pluck a tall 16-oz ice-cold returnable bottle from the cooler, and use the bottle opener that was fixed to the checkout counter to crack it open. For my money, ain’t nothing better than Pepsi on a thirst. 

As I sipped, I take note of the music playing in post-op. It’s The Cars. “Who’s gonna drive you home ….?”

Perfection. 

Followed by, “Hungry Like the Wolf.” 

In my post-anesthesia haze, I think to myself, “Man, I’d like to pay my respects to the DJ here ….”

A different nurse comes over and reviews the procedure’s outcome with me. I’m still a little foggy, but the general gist is that I have an ‘-osis,’ not an ‘-itis,’ which is the lesser of two evils, I gather. Though I have some ‘outpockets,’ that will need to be eyeballed moving forward. 

Once I qualify that it’s nothing serious, ‘Outpockets,’ strikes me as the funniest thing I’ve heard since “Li’l Journey.” 

Liz comes over to check on me. 

Me (slightly euphoric from the anesthesia): Liz, did you curate a Wake Up playlist for me?

Nurse Liz: Um, what?  

Me: Liz, can I ask you a question?

Nurse Liz: (unsuccessfully hiding a wince) Yes? 

Me: So, I assume, the anesthesia, it’s pretty potent stuff, yes? 

Nurse Liz: Yeah. Why? 

Me: I don’t sleep well at all. The anesthesia … was wonderful.  

Nurse Liz: It’s the stuff that killed Michael Jackson. 

Me: No way!

Nurse Liz: Yeah. Propofol. His doctor left him alone, and his heart stopped. 

Me: (processing foggily) So, it’s so potent you can only take it only so often? 

Nurse Liz: Michael Jackson was taking it every night.

Me: (piecing the plan together in my head) No sh*t? So, what you’re saying is … if I had a gajillion dollars, I could hire my own anesthesiologist … but to your good point, the vetting process would be key to make sure my doc wasn’t a ham-and-egger…. 

Nurse Liz: (speeding up my discharge, ripping out my IV [ouch!]) You can put your pants on now.

As I get dressed I begin weighing the pros and cons of putting the kids’ college savings towards hiring a personal anesthesiologist.  

Me: (by the time I’m dressed, the anesthesia has pretty much worn off, and I become aware that my window with Nurse Liz is closing) Liz, so, aside from my “outpockets,” … I essentially have the colon of a 50-year-old man? 

Nurse Liz: You have a rock star colon.

That’s maybe the nicest thing any medical professional has ever said to me. 

See, it’s not so bad. 

Listen to Lucy: Go get screened.

Goochie goochie goo. 

 

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Fathers and Sons

Angels and the Outfield

He just brought it home one day after work and presented it to me. No set up. Not born of a previous request or conversation.

The Glove. 

Reggie Jackson model, waffle-pocket Rawlings. The Finest In the Field. 

Said he’d bought it from an acquaintance. Some guy he knew from the store. Paid $25 for it, used.  I remember him feeling shrewd about the deal.

It was huge. The finger holes were like catacombs. My 10-year-old digits barely reached.

And, oh, it was really used. The traditional method of breaking in a glove is to place a baseball in the pocket and tightly tie the glove closed with string so that you preserve a sweet spot for the ball. The Glove must’ve been given a Swedish Massage and then placed, empty, under the tire of a dump truck. Its pocket folded over its fingers like pages in a book. Its leather soft and pliant. It was so broken in I could clap with it. What padding it had was massaged into sweet surrender (presumably by the Swedes). But given that my fingers barely filled 25% of its real estate, padding wasn’t really relevant to the equation. 

Dad’s timing was impeccable. The summer after sixth grade our township was admitted into the recreational baseball league across town, and all the neighborhood dads couldn’t resist signing us up. 

Not to over-romanticize, but it was the 10-year-old-boy equivalent of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Up until then kids in the neighborhood had spent summers on the asphalt of Areford playground — just kids, no adults (and therefore – blissfully – no coaches). Self-procured rubber-coated baseballs, shared bats, slow-pitch. Every afternoon. Every day of the week. If we were short players, we’d improvise – opposite field automatic outs, pitcher’s hand, ghost runners, all-time catchers (mostly reserved for little brothers). The biggest argument always over which of the two teams got to be the Pirates, the other usually picking the Reds (who were great) or the Mets (who were awful, but whose lineup we’d memorized courtesy of WWOR Channel 12).  We’d play all afternoon either until dinner time, or — as was more often the case — we’d run out of baseballs. Balls usually met one of two fates – either they carried over or rolled under the barbed-wire fence of the football field in deep right, or, if they were the cheap, $.99 K-Mart specials, they were beaten into unplayable, lopsided submission.

However, in the summer of 1981 we traded all that for grass fields, uniforms, coaches, organized practices and pitchers who tried to get you out themselves, and helmets, for when their attempts missed high and tight. My friend Andy and I got drafted by the Angels (sponsored by Parks Moving and Storage). After a couple of practices, I remember the head coach instructing his son, one of the stars on the team, to show me the basics of playing first base: how to reach for a throw while keeping a foot on the bag, where to stand with a runner on first and when no one’s on base, and how to hop into position once the pitcher goes into his windup.

Pretty sure I earned the audition for one reason only: The Glove. 

I was a scrawny 10-year-old, which made my Rawlings seem even bigger. When I stood straight The Glove comically hung below my knee, almost to my calf. But it shortened my learning curve at first base, compensating for my lack of stature by extending my reach for errant tosses by several inches. And it swallowed – absolutely swallowed – the invariable short hops from third or deep in the hole from short.

I fell in love with scoops. Secretly hoped throws would bounce in front of me so I could stretch and rescue them from the dirt. My favorite moment was between innings, throwing grounders to the infielders while the pitcher warmed up. I especially liked when Bobby Madison played shortstop. He’d throw big looping curve balls back to me, and I loved tracing their glorious arcs into short hops that I’d sweep up in a plume of infield dirt. 

In full disclosure, fielding was pretty much my only appreciable skill. I had a rag arm, and owing to my stature, zero pop at the plate. Without The Glove, I was pretty much Bruce Wayne. 

The Glove, though? A veritable vacuum cleaner. I held on to everything

At Hutchison Park, first base was close to a set of bleachers where all the dads would sit. They got a kick out of the skinny kid with the big glove. I remember one of them yelling, “Hold on to your cigarettes, or that glove’ll suck ‘em right outta your hand.” 

Ah, the days when bleacher dads sat and smoked under summer suns, watching their sons re-enact the Greek Tragedies of their own youths.

___

My Dad’s investment in my Little League career didn’t end with forking over $25. 

Unquestionably, my best times with The Glove were shared with him, after work during the week. We’d drive up to the junior high so he could arch fly balls over my head, and far to my right and left for me to chase down. I’d catch my breath from the last one and yell for another. “Make me run, Dad.” He had this knack for perfectly timing and aiming his launches to allow me just enough time in full sprint to snatch ’em from the air or just before they’d hit the ground. I can still hear his voice pitching up into an exuberant, “HeyyyyyYYY!” when I’d pluck one from my shoetops or snow-cone one destined for beyond. 

He got as much joy as I did from what The Glove held on to. 

We’d always outlast the sun – “Last one….” — and then celebrate with ice-cold, glass-bottled Pepsis in the darkened Dairy Mart parking lot off Dixon Boulevard.

___

As far as Little League went, the Angels were a pretty decent team. We had two bona fide stars — Doug and Mike — who took turns pitching and playing shortstop, and a bunch of really solid players. Our head coach was fair and a pretty nice man. If I remember correctly, we finished in first place during the regular season. We beat the only undefeated team — the hated Red Sox — in dramatic fashion when the coach’s son launched a game-winning homer into the pond behind the outfield in the last inning. That set up a rematch between our two teams in the playoffs for the league championship. 

The Red Sox were like the Yankees of Little League. They were stacked, and they took things very seriously I remember. My 10-year-old-self recalls their coaches yelling a lot, and their players mostly sneering (except for my friend Jerry, who, like me was a stature-challenged Areford asphalt alum), where I remember a lot more smiles and laughs coming from our dugout. In retrospect, I’m sure the Red Sox had as much fun as we did, but that’s how 10-year-olds see the world.

Anyway, I distinctly remember an added gravitas to our pre-championship practices. We knew who the Red Sox were going to pitch – their ace. He was that kid from central casting who was literally a head taller than the rest of us, and whose early-maturing frame could launch puberty-grade home runs. On the mound, he fired fastballs that popped like thunder when they hit the catcher’s mitt, missing often enough to put the foot in the bucket of, and fear of God into, lower-in-the order hitters like me. 

As a result, our coaches came with their middle-age velocity during batting practice. Discussed where and how to play in the field when certain Red Sox came to the plate. Went over the signs again and again. I was told to keep an eye out for the bunt sign, since (a.) it was assumed that base runners would be precious, (b.) I was left-handed, and (c.) otherwise unlikely to do much damage against The Puberty Express. The coaches even discussed some situational strategy with some of us, me included. 

The game itself played out as expected, tight and low-scoring. We were tied going into the top of the seventh and last inning. The Red Sox managed to get a guy on third with the potential go-ahead run and only one out.

As fate would have it, the kid from central casting strode to the plate.

Our coach called time out and huddled the infield at the mound. He made a defensive switch. 

He ordered me to centerfield. 

This was one of the situational strategies that came up during our pre-game practices. I was ready for this moment. I had The Glove. I’d logged countless hours under fading suns chasing balls in every direction and rescuing them before they found the ground. 

Game on. 

Our star pitcher went into his windup. Central Casting swung with all his might and made good contact.

A roar swelled up from the Red Sox fans as the ball rocketed into the sky…. 

__

For literally decades after that, Dad would delight in bringing up the story, with David and Goliath relish, of Central Casting launching that ball — Central Casting, the team who thought they were so great, who treated Little League with such Major League fervor – and me tracking it down and silencing the Red Sox faithful in a heartbeat. The Glove — the best $25 he ever spent in his life – coming through when it mattered the most. 

He got that part right. 

I held onto the ball.

But, in truth, I held onto it a couple heartbeats too long. 

In the ensuing micro-moment, I registered the right-to-left soundtrack swell of the Red Sox faithful going silent and the Angels’ smoking Greek Chorus section erupting in euphoria when The Glove swallowed the ball in its waffle pocket. I’d never been responsible for a cheering crowd like that before, and it promptly filled my 10-year-old heart full. For a moment I basked in it …  just long enough for the opportunistic Red Sox third base coach to send his runner home. When I finally broke from my reverie and launched the ball with my rag arm to the plate, it was too late. The runner scored standing up with the go-ahead run. 

We failed to score in the bottom of the inning and ended up losing the game and thus, the league championship.

The winning run scored because I held on to the ball too long. 

In his re-tellings over the years, Dad never remembered how the story actually ended.

I cringed every time he brought it up. 

Never had the heart to correct him. 

____

What you find has an awful lot to do with what you’re looking for. 

That was my Dad, though. Without fail he always looked for the best part of the story.  He raised his son to do the same. 

I just wish it hadn’t taken me all these years to realize that I had it all wrong. 

Me holding on to the ball was how the game ended. How the season ended.

Not the story. 

The best part of the story is a Dad who remembered that I caught the ball. 

To the end, he got as much joy from what The Glove held on to as I did.

 

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The Road Ahead

Saving Time

Springing forward always makes me think of Sad Sam Jones, who pitched in the major leagues from 1914-1935. 

In Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times,” Sam tells of how he never threw over to first base to chase back a runner.  He once went five years without even attempting a pickoff move. “I once heard Eddie Plank say, ‘There are only so many pitches in this old arm, and I don’t believe in wasting them throwing to first base.’”

That’s how I feel about the clock in my car, the one clock I have dominion over. I never turn it forward and back. Although I don’t have the extension of my major league career to think about, I dedicate the occasional stray thought to the preservation of one of my few useful services to my family: I’m really good at opening jars. “Dad?” Karry will call from the kitchen. “Help.” 

Given that the vast majority of my contributions to the house fall under a loose category I like to call, “Intangibles,” I’m mindful of getting the most from my meager talents.  This is why I never complained all those years we went without a dishwasher. Any excuse to stand next to Karry.

So, for going on 25 years, I’ve saved myself two turns a year (fifty jars if you’re keepin’ score). My car clock’s in permanent Spring Forward Mode, so it’ll now be accurate for the next six months.  For the rest of the year, it’s always an hour earlier than my car says it is. During the winter, every time I turn the ignition I experience a small satisfaction realizing it’s not that late. Always makes me feel a little ahead of the game. Though it mostly has the opposite effect on my passengers, each of whom tends to experience an ‘Oh sh*t, what time is it?’ momentary freak-out. 

Like most of my idiosyncrasies, it drives my family nuts. But I like having an excuse to think about Sam Jones when I think about spring. I’d like to think that Sam would appreciate that, too.

There are only so many twists in this old wrist.

Can’t wait until Opening Day. 

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