Postcards

“All is Not Lost.” — Scribbles in the margins (2009-14)

I will too soon miss the taste of Christmas cookies at 3 in the morning.

— Dec. 24, 2014

Pete: what’s that?

Peter (with his hand behind his back): Dad, I found something that I know you love.

Peter: Chicklets (placing two on the desk where I’m working).

Pete: (noticing that they were a little faded) Um, where did you find them?

Peter: In a drawer.

Pete (inspecting the Chicklets a little more closely): Um, how long do you think they’ve been there?

Peter: (thinking) Year, year and a half?

Pete: Thank you for thinking of me.

Peter: There’s still a yellow one up there.

Pete: Save that one for later.

–Oct. 20, 2012

Six words you don’t want to hear from a 10-year-old: “Boy, this carpet is super absorbent.”

–Oct. 18, 2012

My wife, to me, moments ago: “You have this … magnet of weirdness about you.”

–Aug 6, 2012

At the breakfast table this morning, my 10-year-old gives a complete weather forecast for the next five days, including temperature, and chance of rain. After a few seconds of me staring blankly at him, he says, “What? I’m crazy with the doppler.”

–July 24, 2012

My wife just came home and ordered my son to go grab the radio and join her on the patio to listen to the Pirate game outside. Savoring summer like a ripe plumb.

–June 9, 2011

Scientists researching hair growth should study our black lab, who has consistently shed 5-6 Luis Tiant mustaches a day for going on 12 years.

–May 20, 2011

So, passing by the living room, I hear my ten-year-old son say to his six-year-old sister over the TV, “Yes, I know you’ve been very patient … and for that I’m grateful.”

My first reaction was that my wife had laced dinner with LSD. I fought the urge to enter the living room for fear of seeing my son petting a rainbow-farting unicorn, which would’ve ruined the hallucination.

–April 6, 2011

So, midway through Valentine’s Day dinner last night (which the kids helped set the table for and prepare), my 9-year-old son rises from his chair, cups his hand over my ear and whispers, “Bust a move.” I pull back, and we stare at each other for about 4 seconds in silence … until he nods in Karry’s direction. The sad part is that I think he had a better sense of what he was talking about than I did.

–Feb 15, 2011

(Super Bowl) So, as the Packers lined up for the extra point, my six year old daughter asks, “So, how does a baby get inside a girl’s belly?”

I can’t handle this.

–Feb 6, 2011

Just watched my 5 year old conduct one of her “experiments.”
Step 1: unwrap 5 tootsie rolls
Step 2: put on plate & microwave on high while you go into the living room & watch a few minutes of iCarly.
Step 3: (my favorite) put on a rubber glove (right hand only)
Step 4: with glove hand, spoon the microwaved tootsie roll onto a piece of bread.
Step 5: place bread in plastic bag
Step 6: finish watching iCarly.

–Nov. 16, 2010

Over lunch ….

Dad: I’m a good dancer.

Peter: Let’s just say no one dances quite like you.

–Sept 6, 2010

Yard sale dialogue:
Pete: You really need to work on your positivity.
Karry: It’s difficult when you say dumb things.

–June 12, 2010

So, my son (9), home from school, fires up the Guitar Hero. I walk in, he’s just finished shredding Iron Maiden, and he’s sipping Mellow Yellow from a martini glass.

That’s more rock n’ roll than I’ve ever been in my life.

–June 3, 2010

After polishing off her mac n’ cheese, my daughter lets out a less-than-dainty burp at the dinner table. Seizing the opportunity, her older brother admonishes, “Emma! Do you see anyone laughing … other than me?”

–May 15, 2010

Five-year-old telling me about her visit to the park.

She: “Dad, I cut my foot,”  holding it out for me to see.

Me: “How’d you do that?”

She: “I’m not sure … I wasn’t there when it happened.”

–April 6, 2010

My wife’s last words, before she left for the airport for her four day girl’s weekend? “Don’t even think about putting anything in the washing machine.” Then she did that thing where she kept her eyes fixed on me for several seconds without saying anything, to allow me to imagine the potential consequences.

–Nov. 6, 2009

This morning, I put on School House Rock when the kids got up. When “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here” came on, my son actually said, “I gotta put down the PSP for this.”

All is not lost.

–August 21, 2009
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Postcards

Right on time ….

Dec 23, 2015

So it arrived, like clockwork, as it always does, the Friday after Thanksgiving, humble and nestled amidst the mailbox-clogging catalogs and circulars who are under the complete misapprehension that the responsibility of heralding the season to come belongs to them.

And the smile broke across my face, as it always does, before I even made it back to the front door.

I sat down at the table, and opened it expectantly (think kid at Christmas), and read Patty’s annual hand-written Christmas card, which for (gosh, I guess) over 20 years now, has served as the Official Harbinger of the Holiday Season (TM) of the Riddell household.

I met Patty through her husband John, whom I met when we were both invited to join a new (at that time) 10-piece group, the Brass Knuckles Band (‘Our Sound Will Knock You Out’ – still wince-worthy after lo these many years … ha.). John was the trumpet player in the group’s four-piece horn section (think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc. We also played a lot of cheesy wedding music, which is why I would prefer you think Wilson Pickett, Temps, etc.).

As perhaps THE most inconsequential-at-the-time footnote to the experience, I added each band member’s address to my Christmas card list. It was probably around 1993 or 1994 that I first received a holiday card from Patty, which immediately distinguished itself by (1.) arriving the day after Thanksgiving, (2.) being the only lonely Christmas card among an otherwise unread pile of capitalism, and (3.) her accompanying hand-written note.

And every day after Thanksgiving since, I’ve enjoyed a smiling walk back to the front door.

Over the past 20+ years, the cards have beautifully traced, at the 20,000-foot level afforded by the confining margins of a Christmas card, the noble arc of small-town American family — Patty’s proud update on another year serving as leader in her Weight Watcher’s group, her kids’ high school experience, college decisions, choices of major (music, both of ‘em), graduations, first teaching jobs, marriages, John’s work, retirement, his bout with cancer (which he’s beating), before closing with a band update. ALWAYS a band update.

I quit the band after a few years when we started our family (who I knew would someday need me to teach them about Wilson Pickett, the Temps, etc.), so I always treasured hearing that the band was still going, and John still blowing his horn. I have a soft spot for horn players, as some of you know.

This year’s card was distinguished by all the usual updates: Weight Watcher’s (check), John’s health (check and Amen), the band ….

Patty wrote that the band broke up earlier this year.

Made my heart sink and swell mere beats apart. I’m sure that it was a long time coming, but to learn of it in one sentence as if it was a thing that just suddenly went poof … rocked me. The evaporation of a thing that I felt such a fond connection to … that represented a former lifetime for me. Good, simpler times. Sweet, soul music.

It’s a monumental credit to Rich (the leader and arranger) that he held a sprawling, sweaty 10-piece band together through the noble arc of the small-town American family lives of its members, on the fringes of Pittsburgh for 20+ years — a span in which it only got easier, cheaper and more logical to digitally provide on-demand music to suit any tastes for any event.

In her update Patty made a point to say that John was still playing his horn in the VFW concert band, swing band and a community German band.

Can’t keep a good horn player down.

That wasn’t the only plot twist in Patty’s note. She also let me know that the card I was holding would likely be the last one I’d be receiving from her hand. She went into no great detail, but she didn’t need to.

Part of it might have to do with just the natural simplifying of lives who’ve more than earned the right to be choosy with precious time. Part of it might have to do with the yielding to society’s gravitational pulls … its impolite push-brooming to the curb the inefficient, wasteful notion of sending cards, let alone ones inclusive of thoughtful hand-written notes. Like everyone we receive fewer and fewer cards. Life everyone we send fewer, too.

But I think the ending of the band ultimately signaled the end of the connective card-writing thread that she had so faithfully tended.

I got up this morning, feeling the effects of what’s been another hectic holiday season, worn by work, responsibility, and feeling shamed by all the important things and even more important people I’ve not tended to. And for whatever reason, I found myself thinking of Patty’s card. Found myself reminded of the impact of such a simple, soulful act. Found myself thinking how we’ve just begun to trace the arc of our lives in Christmases the same way her annual cards have done. One kid in high school. The other, at 11, already on the other side of Christmas magic. How’d that happen?

Found myself appreciating the bookending of things.

So today, before work, I scribbled a hand-written note of appreciation to Patty and John … my horrible penmanship testifying to rust from disuse. Slipped it in the mail just under the wire at the end of this season of preparation. Shamefully, it was the first card I took the time to write this year.

I am confident that next year, and for many to come, I will still think fondly of Patty and John the day after Thanksgiving. Am confident that a smile will still break across my face as I walk back towards the front door. Such is the groove 20+years has worn in my heart.

And the takeaway for me is that there remains a power in the simple act of pen to paper to let another know that you are on their mind that cannot be touched by the immediacy of what passes for connectivity today.

Truth, that.

So my note to Patty, though my first this year, will not be my last. A few good souls with whom I’m well overdue will find themselves walking back from the mailbox (probably several) days after the holiday. If I can muster just enough legibility, maybe I’ll coax a smile across their face.

If you are so inclined, I would beg two favors of you as you seek joy and peace in the days ahead.

Raise a glass to 20+ years of encores, and a rotating roster of keepers of the flame who never quit their day jobs and, when the spirit moved, blew from their shoes.

And raise a pen to 20+ years of simple gifts received the day after Thanksgiving. If the spirit moves you, press a little of your heart into paper and let someone know you are on their mind.

I know from personal experience that the reminder would mean an awful lot.

I also know it will be perfectly timed.

Even if it’s not the day after Thanksgiving.

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Fathers and Sons

Boys and Their Dogs ….

Tuesday morning, I’m on no sleep, somewhere in Minnesota, being led by an affable procurement person through casino-resort sized corridors of a corporate HQ of a healthcare company employing 300,000 people globally, running foggy content through my groggy head for the 90 minutes we have to convince a longshot audience we’re worthy of their business.

When my phone dings an incoming text.

This close to Showtime, my cardinal rule is to never check texts or email for fear of distraction, but I see it’s from … our college freshman.

“I’m on deck for presentation 2 this week.” (fingers crossed emoji)

The fog clears. A smile breaks, right before I break my cardinal rule and text back.

Me: “So I’m walking into a presentation, too. Testing the new suit. Do your best. Be yourself. Kick ass.”

He: “Ha. I’ve got my shirt and tie on.”

In the dying light of his last high school summer, we made a pilgrimage to pick him out a new suit for college. In a weak moment, I ended up getting one for myself. Actually, I bought the same exact suit (my wife was not with us, at the risk of stating the obvious). Figured it’ll make for an epic boys pic down the road.

On the morning we break out a few of the pieces for the first time, we’re texting each other encouragement.

I float a life preserver out ahead of us.

Me: “Maybe a Shorty’s run for lunch on Saturday?”

He: “I’ll count on it.”

Separated by 884.1 miles on a cold and gray November morning, father and son turn off their phones, say their customary prayers, don their game faces, and walk into their respective arenas, focused on the task at hand …

… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.

__

Saturday morning, I’m running errands and get a text shortly after 11. “What U up to?”

I do a double-take.

The last time I remember my son being up this early on a Saturday morning he had a full diaper.

I tell him I’ll be home by noon to help Mom with the groceries and then we can go.

West Chestnut is one of the few car-lined streets in downtown Washington on a Saturday morning. We find a parking spot past the shop and walk back down the hill. The Guy In The Window is there, tending a couple dozen dogs on the grill.

Full disclosure: I’d pay a fee to live stream The Guy In The Window — mesmerizingly speed-forking dogs from the grill into buns lining the length of his forearm, followed by one-fluid-motion fulfillment of the yelled-by-the-waitress commands of customers’ Go-Tos, executed in Jedi-like-spoon-snatching and dolloping combos of finely diced onions, slathered ketchup, mustard, chili, and relish in perfect measure and placement on top of Shorty’s-specially-commissioned-secret-recipe-Albert’s dogs and placement one-two-three-at-a-time on the diner’s signature small plates.

We reverently pause at the window before crossing the threshold to behold a scene unchanged and perfected by time. The old wooden booths that ring the wall to the left and north were full. Fine by us.

Me: Counter?

He: Absolutely.

We grab a couple stools at the far end, leaving one open to my left.

The waitress, descendant of the original owner, welcomes us, grabs our drink order. The menu behind the counter at Shorty’s is as essential as the watch pocket in Levi’s jeans – pure decoration. The only change in decades was when they switched from Coke to Pepsi a few years back – a decision for which my wife has never forgiven them.

Speaking of decisions, my son and I are faced with the biggest one we’ll make this Saturday: whether to split a Large Fry with Gravy or get our own smalls. We agree to share, and shake on ordering a second plate if one of us commands more than his fair share. The rest is a foregone conclusion: Two with Everything for me. For him: One with Everything, and one just ketchup and onions.

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Without making the covenant aloud, we’d been holding conversation all morning until our orders were placed.

We catch up on our presentations from earlier in the week (arse was kicked), Kentucky basketball (his lower case ‘r’ religion these days), NBA (LeBron’s Lakers are rollin’), and just stuff.

As we’re waiting for our order, a guy grabs the open stool to my left. A little rumpled. Gray scraggly beard. I pick up a beer scent. Not fresh, maybe night before. Initiates a familiar patter with the waitress, and the behind-the-scenes fry guy in the back. The reciprocal requisite chop-busting of a Regular. Asks about the Wash High score … they were down 14 at the half. I mention they’ve been slow-starting all season, and before I know it, the guy’s joining our lunch conversation, much to my delight, and my son’s chagrin.

Waitress sets down a hot roast beef in front of our neighbor. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve ever sat next to who’s ordered anything other than a hot dog. Unbeknownst to me, I invite a long soliloquy on the subject.

It’s fantastic, he says. The waitress passing by who’s not in the conversation but is unofficially in EVERY conversation, joins the conversation. “It’s really good. You should try it.”

“But,” the guy tells me, waiting for the waitress to pass before executing a perfect Lean In.

Full Disclosure: I’m an unapologetic sucker for a well-executed Lean In – when, in order to signal the presumptive sharing of a Key to the Universe – one checks one’s surroundings, leans one’s head towards one’s subject, and lowers one’s voice to beg his subject’s full attention before confiding. When one is sitting next to The Leaner at a lunch counter, it somehow carries exponentially more gravitas.

“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”

In the movie version of this scene, The Guy would grab my arm for emphasis and hold my gaze for a couple extra beats, before eating the rest of his meal in total silence. The IRL version goes on about 45 seconds too long.

See, the guy tells me, if it’s a slow week, and it sits for few days, the, um, ‘quality,’ suffers (in so many words). His cousin works in The Back (the behind-the-scenes Fry Guy), and lets him know when it’s fresh. “I text him before I come in – hot dog or beef? If he tells me ‘hot dog,’ I know the beef’s been in circulation for a few days.”

Me: So the day rotates is what you’re saying.

He: Exactly. You never know.

This is at once essential and completely useless information.

And why this One will never deviate from Two with Everything.

We return to our comestibles.

When our Large Fry with Gravy comes, Peter squirts a little ketchup on the rim. This is an affront to the guy to our left.

Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.

Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.

Guy: You know where that comes from?

I’m thinking we’re still talking about gravy and ketchup.

Me: I have no idea (since neither Karry nor I ketchup our gravy).

Guy goes on to elucidate, in meticulous Wikipedia-grade detail, Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church from 1802, in between bites of his (very fresh) roast beef sandwich.

I find this delicious.

This is why you sit at The Counter.

We polish off our LFWG, and I coax Peter into another round.

And this one comes out PERFECT … the fries a crisp golden brown. For the record, they are always good (the gravy forgives all sins), but sometimes during a lunch rush the Fry Guy plucks them from the fryer a little too soon to get them on the plate, which was the case with our first batch.  But this time … we just stare at the plate for a hot minute.

The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.

“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”

I’m rendered speechless by the suggestion, though my face involuntarily reacts as if she’s just proposed a mustache for the Mona Lisa.

“I know, right?” she says in response to my recoil. “That’s what I thought. But it’s really, really good.”

The second waitress Amens her colleague. “Do you like Red Hot? You should try it.”

Yes is the answer, but that’s not the point. Just like I love Sinatra and Tom Petty, I have no desire to experience them together.

Before I can raise shields, the first waitress gives me a tiny plate so I can separate church from state.

I oblige. They wait, expectant, for me to sample and affirm.

It’s fine. I try not to disappoint them, but a perfect plate of fries with gravy needs nothing but the blessing of some pepper.

__

We nonetheless clean the plate, using the final few fries as gravy Zambonis. He drains his Orange Crush down to a dry slurp.

We drop our offering at the register, the tip back at the counter. He and I exchange a silent fist bump.

In this cold, gray, Saturday-morning-November moment, 884.1 miles in the making, summoned to the heart of a down downtown to sit as, and with, Regulars atop old stools to talk basketball and stuff over perfect plates of our Usuals, it’s hard not to count ourselves … Two with Everything.

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