The Girls

Pluck

The girls are out for errands after going to church. Peter’s still sleeping. I’m alone at the dining room table, looking out through the screen door on a rainy Sunday morning. The poblano plant is finally starting to sprout. “Look at them … they are mutants!” Emma gushed when she went out to inspect earlier this morning. Until she said it, I hadn’t noticed. But they’re now the size of chubby toes, and have finally caught up to the jalapenos we’ve been enjoying the past couple weeks. 

The porch garden was foremost among Emma and Karry’s experiments this summer. My wife suppressed her pessimism born of past failed backyard garden attempts sabotaged by the gluttonous cemetery deer who, for years, have roamed and ravaged our neighborhood as expectant as tourists with lobster bibs. Her youth nourished by lush family gardens in the country, Karry fully indulged Emma’s initiative. As my wife is a resigned realist, I found her sanguine act significant. 

So they rimmed the perimeter of our porch with seeded planters of tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, jalapenos, poblanos and onions. Neighbored them with basil, oregano, spearmint, and cilantro. For months, Emma dutifully tended her little green village daily. The monitoring of progress has elicited from the girls consistent spasms of giddiness. I know this not from direct participation, but through the evening glee that wafts through the screen door back into the house. Admittedly, some subjects have fared better than others. But even the humblest of harvests have brought small joys.

Before succumbing to the pounding, parching sun, Em’s lettuce planter yielded just enough for one fleeting dinner table appearance, spread amongst three tiny ramekins, fishes-and-loaves style. I can’t remember what the main course was that evening. I just remember that the smaller-than-side-salad portion coaxed from everyone an unspoken, careful curating of their favorite salad garnishes to honor the humble, 15-feet, porch-to-table provision. Em, a purist, added but a few croutons without dressing, as is her custom.  Peter — decidedly anti-vegetable, but onion-tolerant – went Vidalia, sprinkle cheese and crouton dressed with Olive Garden Italian. Me, onion, cucumber, carrot, green pepper, crouton and a little bleu cheese dressing. We chewed slowly, savored. For maybe the first time in my life, my taste buds listened for what the lettuce had to say. Our eyes widened involuntarily the way they sometimes do when you experience something surprising and singular. 

While the pluck-able portions have been consistently small in size and amount, they have been consistent. We’ve regularly dressed and seasoned dishes with tiny onions and tomatoes, basil and oregano. Minted tea. And Em has dried and jarred herbs for the fall. 

If one evaluated Emma’s investment of time against the output, profits would be deemed meager by the objective measure. 

But there are many subjective lenses to such measures. 

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Family was prepping dinner the other night. Emma, as she’s been for the past few months, was in complete command. She suggested I make guacamole, and offered to coach. Not that I don’t know how to make guacamole, but Emma has so elevated our eating the past few months, I readily accepted the internship. She ordered me to go pluck a jalapeno from the porch. My eyes got wide. I had not previously been issued security clearance for porch harvesting, though I’d been tantalized on many occasions through the screen door. Sliding the screen open I found vines full of jalapenos. So Pete picked a pepper, and went about crushing the garlic, squeezing the lime, chopping the onion, mashing the avocados. “Lumps are OK,” Em counseled. Ceremonially, I saved the jalapeno for last. 

In doing so I learned that, what our tiny porch jalapenos may lack in size, they more than made up for with absurdly violent heat. After putting the finishing touches on the guac, and setting it down on the table to enjoy with the sublime buffalo chicken taquitos that Emma and Karry prepared, I noticed that, of all things, my eyebrows were burning. I’m not sure how, when or why, but at some point in the proceedings,  apparently I used my jalapeno hands to deep tissue massage my entire forehead. Given that my brother has long pointed out that Riddell men don’t have foreheads – we have fiveheads – that’s a lot of real estate. 

I eat guacamole like I eat popcorn, with a constant — what some in my family refer to as a “primal” — shoveling motion. In the process, the jalapeno that was laying waste to the countryside north of my nose and south of my hairline was now fully carpet bombing the inside of my mouth.

My family’s unanimous affection for my guacamole was also intense, but not as intense as the pleasure they took from my suffering. 

Peter: Padre, you OK over there?

Karry: Look! His forehead is beading sweat. 

Emma: Why is Dad making those sounds? 

So, evidently, I was making involuntary grunting sounds as an autonomic response to the pepper’s spice. This happened to me only once before, when I did the Philly Cheesesteak tour and over-served myself from the drums of cherry peppers adorning the condiment bars at Pat’s and Geno’s. My companions at that time also found my guttural sounds unsettling. To get you in the ballpark, imagine the early stages of one transforming into a werewolf … if the werewolf had also accidentally set himself on fire. 

My impromptu, one-man dinner-theater performance aside, my pain wasn’t the price of the jalapeno. It was its payoff.

 Aliveness

The purpose of the entire experiment … of Em’s daily tending, pruning, watering, plucking, preparing. 

Aliveness

That’s been the most precious and elusive commodity for me over these past five months. Pummeled, numbed, distracted by the weight of all the chaos, uncertainty and insanity of the present moment at work, at home and in the world.  

In my search for medicine for this moment, which has taken me to destinations both darker and lighter, I’ve been finding light in the Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green’s incandescent, exquisitely crafted podcast (where he dryly and wryly reviews elements of the human-centered world on a five-star scale). On the recent episode where he announced he’s placing the project on temporary hiatus, he shared what the podcast has meant to him over the past few months. “Maybe the most important thing (the podcast) has given me is quiet,” he wrote. “My life has become so unbearably loud, and so oriented around being loud.” The exercise of the podcast has “helped me pay attention to what I pay attention to.” 

That’s what I feel I have lost these past five months … the ability or capacity or inclination to ‘pay attention to what I pay attention to.’

So, in looking out my window on a quiet, small rainy Sunday morning at a poblano plant with toe-sized peppers persistently, insistently, waving gently in the rain, I discovered … a harvest. 

In the act of carving out a small space, putting a stake in the ground, planting seeds, and tending it to see what might grow.

Planting a garden where no soil exists is an act of optimism. An act of persistence. An act of defiance.

A reminder that these days, real truth often exists in inverse proportion to volume… 

… in the whispers of small things blooming beautiful in small spaces.

 In the reminder to pay attention to the things you pay attention to. 

To listen to what the lettuce has to say. 

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The Girls

Picture Day

So normally at this time of year, my wife and daughter spend a long, excruciating Saturday at the dance studio for Picture Day.  Typically — and gratefully — I orbit beyond the gravity of this black hole. From a distance I appreciate it to be a 10-hour, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, costume changes, drama, yelling, teen angst, pasted smiles, and despair. 

Saturday morning, my wife made a vague reference to “Picture Day,” and “Dad helping,” which I took in stride as my wife, the kidder, exercising her playful side. 

Had I thought deeply in the moment, I would’ve remembered that my wife (a.) is not a kidder, and (b.) has no appreciable playful side. 

Since the studio is shut down due to the pandemic, all photos have to be DIY.

So around noon, Karry informs me of the executional guardrails: all white background, no visible wall outlets, good lighting. 

 Our house is old, tiny, and meets NONE of the aforementioned criteria. As such, it offers few places for me to hide. So, before I know it, I’m push-pinning a sheet to the wall, moving the dining room table, and gazing through my son’s I-phone (best camera in the house) to see if we can frame a scene that approximates the guardrails while excluding the ‘tender clutter’ of our dining room. 

Full disclosure: I am in no way qualified for the task. The only reason I’m holding the camera is that (a.) Karry has to iron and steam 12 costumes, (b.) it’s the early afternoon, therefore my son is still in bed, and (c.) Emma has to be in the pictures. 

My daughter has been dancing for 11 years, during which I’ve watched from afar, apart. I’m a seat in a theater, participating only in a support role, loading bags and luggage, occasionally dropping off, picking up. I’ve watched every single one of her dances with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach … wanting her to kill it, recognizing I have no bearing on the outcome. It is she, alone, on stage, buoyed only by her genuine love for the craft, her discipline, countless hours of practice, a full heart, and her desire to simply do her very best. While I would love to believe that she’s My Girl on that stage, she is not. It’s hard for me to admit that, when I see the game face, the make-up, the costumes. She is herself. Strong. Confident. Prepared. And while I’m sure fear is somewhere in the equation, she’s never afraid. With hundreds of hours of practice under her belt, it’s merely a question of execution. 

Awes me every time. 

So, with the camera in my hand I establish three goals for myself, two obvious, one surreptitious. 

  1. Try not to displease my wife (the goal I roll out of bed every day with, and usually blow before exiting the breakfast table). 
  2. Keep a steady hand. 

My third goal is humble, and, admittedly, purely selfish. I just want to crack her game face. I want to see through the make-up, the costumes, the stage smile and catch a glimpse of … My Girl, the one I never get to see from my seat in the theater. 

As with most things I am not good at, I compensate with enthusiasm. I ask myself, ‘How would a professional photographer, with no studio, shitty lighting, and a postage stamp for a scene, approach the challenge?’

I have no idea, but am confident it wasn’t the path I chose.

“Show me the feisty kitty cat.” 

Within minutes, I had her nearly peeing her pants, while I fell completely afoul of Goal #1. 

But I got my shot. 

From there I operated for the next six hours more or less within acceptable tolerances. I waited patiently between costume changes, and, where possible, tried to coax a smile beyond the practiced, painted on variety. Emma was a trooper. We both were working from a severely limited repertoire – she, restricted by the parameters of our dining room; me, restricted by my meager skills. 

And while it was still an all-day, concentrated amalgam of hair, make-up, and costume changes … the circumstances left little room (figuratively and literally) for the drama, yelling, teen angst and despair that normally mark the proceedings. Aside from the quality of the pictures, I didn’t make things worse. And I got to participate in a ritual that, for 11 years, has been exclusively a mother-daughter affair.  

I have no idea if what we were able to capture will meet the studio’s executional guardrails. The brown paneled floor peeked through the white runner, casting it a different shade than the sheet hanging on the wall. Our lighting was slipshod, casting shadows. We could only take so many poses, given the cozy confines. 

But there were a few shots, that, even if they don’t make it into the program, I will treasure. A few that maybe didn’t show off the costume or the make-up, but did justice to the beautiful smile that I’ve watched from the best seat — not in the theater, but in our house — for 15 years and counting… watching it grow from gracing the most adorable chubby cheeks in the universe to gracing the most beautiful soul this side of her mother. 

That’s My Girl.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

New Year’s Eve, in particular, was always special. It was the best gigging night of the year. “The only night you make a little money,” Dad would say. From the time I was 14 ‘til I was almost 30, I never saw a single ball drop on New Year’s Eve. For many of those years, Karry didn’t either, though, admittedly, she had exponentially less fun listening to me play music than I had playing it. 

On New Year’s Eve, there was a sense of expectation that started in the early afternoon when I’d start getting ready, packing my drums in their cases, carrying them outside and setting them on the wall in our front yard, donning my tux. Around 5:30 or so Mac would swing by and we’d load my drums in his van, always in the same order and placement, and climb aboard. My Dad and the older guys would spend the better parts of those rides to the gigs telling stories and reminiscing about all the musicians they played with in high school, in the Army, in other combos and big bands. They’d laugh remembering the characters. Speak in reverent tones about the Players (capitol ‘P’). Lament the passing of colleagues with whom they once shared a stage. Since I was anywhere between 20 and 40-plus years younger than most of the guys in the band, I said very little on those long rides. Was more than content soaking up every word.  

When we’d arrive at whatever hall we were playing at, we’d unload Mac’s and Sam’s vans. I deemed it my honor to try and haul as much as I could up and down the steps to spare the legs of the older guys. Once everything was hauled in, everyone wordlessly knew their roles in the un-packing and set-up … the speakers, the books, the sound board, etc. Dad helped set up the music stands and their accompanying lights before I’d hear the clasps on his trumpet case spring open (one of my favorite-est sounds of all time). After tuning and warming up to his satisfaction, he’d fetch us both a can of Pepsi, always placing mine on the riser next to my bass drum.  

I never played for more appreciative audiences than the older crowds who came to hear the Great American Songbook, whether we were at Linden Hall near Perryopolis, the Palisades in McKeesport, or the Palace Inn in Monroeville. I can still summon at will the inimitable sound — the shuffle-y swoosh — of a dance floor full of fox-trotters tracing ballroom circles back to their youth, our humble renditions their sonic roadmap.

Owing to everyone’s good mood, the playing seemed more relaxed on New Year’s Eve. As we’d near midnight, the sense of expectation in whatever hall we were playing grew more palpable. Sam would do an unscientific countdown close to midnight and we’d break into Auld Lang Syne. One of my most vivid memories is when we’d finish, and I’d stand up from my drums to exchange hand shakes and Happy New Years with the rest of the guys. To be a teenager shaking hands with my Dad and his peers atop a bandstand on New Year’s Eve signified my membership in a larger, sacred fraternity. 

After Auld Lang Syne came the best part of the evening for me. Before the applause and cheering for the New Year died down, Sam would pick out and count off a couple of our better jump tunes, the ones that swung just a little harder. Maybe Woodchopper’s Ball or Two O’Clock Jump (Dad had solos on both). Sometimes, when the spirit moved, he’d pay respects to his idol, Harry James, with a note-for-note rendition of James’ famous trumpet intro over the piano solo in our arrangement of Two O’Clock.  

New Year’s Eve was also one of the rare nights where we might also get fed. Though it was sometimes nothing fancier than hot dogs and sauerkraut, it made us feel part of the celebration in addition to supplying the evening’s entertainment. 

When the actual two o-clock came (which came a lot earlier to my younger self than my present remembering self) and we’d close the night, as we always did, with “C’est Si Bon,” and then Sam’s theme, “I Still Get a Thrill,” part of me always (always) wished we could play some more. Dad often said that playing music made time stand still. I remain grateful that he passed that gene on to his son. 

While we were tearing down (incidentally, you can tell the professional grade of a band by the speed and efficiency with which they tear down), Sam would come around and pay us. I still remember how giddy I felt my first New Year’s Eve when Sam put $75 in my 14-year-old hands. Over the years, we’d sometimes break triple digits, which, when considering we were a 10-piece orchestra, was nothing to sneeze at back in a day. Truth is, Dad and I would have played for free. 

Even after I quit Sam’s band and Dad continued on … and even after the grind of the travel finally forced him, in his early 80’s, to give up playing out, I’d always call Dad on New Year’s Eve, and we’d spend a few minutes recalling those days when we shared stages, and what great times we had. We didn’t have to be in the same room to hear the smiles on each other’s faces.  

This was our first New Year’s Eve since Dad’s passing. I consider it fitting that New Year’s Eve marks the last of “The Firsts.” Can’t believe it’ll already be a year January 29. 

I find myself In a Sentimental Mood. 

Thinking about those good times the past couple days has been like taking a last van ride to one of those old gigs, where I find myself the one reminiscing about all the guys I played with. Laughing at the characters. Reverently remembering the Players (capital “P”). Lamenting those who’ve passed. 

So here’s to Dad. And to Diz. Roger. Joe and Joe. Shifty. Pete. John. Wally. Jess. And all those who piled into vans on New Year’s Eves to make time stand still for themselves, and to give the people a reason to come out and dance. 

For Auld Lang Syne. 

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