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.

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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 ….

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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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