Righteous riffs

Murder, She Polled ….

(Season 3, Episode 6)

On Friday nights, we’ve taken to watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote. 

As one does. 

As an aside … happy belated 95th birthday to Dame Angela Lansbury. As an aside to the aside, I found Em the most awesome t-shirt in the universe to honor the occasion. 

To give you just a taste of our recent bliss, last week we dialed up Season 3 Episode 5, and watched the sublime “Corned Beef and Carnage,” [how there isn’t a statue built to the person who came up with that title is a crime that should have merited its own two-part episode ending with a part-one cliffhanger, but I digress…]

… featuring a cast that would rival any Love Boat episode … Charles from MASH, Larry from Three’s Company, “The Man” from Chico and the Man, Kenickie from Grease, and the lovely Susan Anton (insert purring cat sound here).

After last week’s carnage, our expectations were highest-level-before-infinity as we curled into our comfy living room chairs to fire up episode 6 last night. It guest-starred Leslie Nielsen, playing David, an old-high school crush of Jessica’s, who was returning to Cabot Cove as a four-time-divorced smooth-talking debonair shyster, having hired a quartet of young scuba divers to plumb the depths of Cabot Cove in search of forgotten, sunken Pirate treasure.

As one does.

Oh, how high the piles of cocaine must have been in their weekly writer’s room? 

Anyway, here’s where I need you to pay attention and weigh in …

… the episode opens with Angela chatting with Amos (Tom Bosley’s dim-witted sheriff character who Bosley inflects with the absolute worst Maine accent ever attempted) and good ole’ Seth (the town doctor whose relationship with Jessica always almost-but-never-quite teeters beyond the platonic), when David (Leslie Neilsen’s character) spies Angela, taps her on the shoulder, and … 

… gives her an impossibly-hard-to-watch full-mouth excruciatingly long kiss. 

Out of nowhere. With no context.  

For context (as if it even matters to the scene) …  Jessica is a widower, who turned to mystery writing only after the sudden, unexpected death of her dear husband, Frank.

Needless to say Em and I were as taken aback as Seth and Amos. 

In full disclosure, one of us may or may not have blurted out: “What the EFFFFFF is happening right now?” 

No lie, we exchanged at least two rounds of astonished rejoinders by the time those suddenly carnal 50-somethings pulled away from each other.

It was then that we realized that, evidently, we care more about the character (not to mention Frank, her widower, who is probably still spinning in his fictitious grave) NOW than the writers did THEN. This is where we welcome your perspective to balance ours.

Knowing what you now know about the scene (also, if you want to appreciate the following question in its full context, we wholeheartedly encourage you to dial up Season 3, Episode 6, watch it beginning to end, and then return to the polling question. Better yet, start at Season 1, Episode 1, and work your way through the massive pile of dead bodies that Jessica amasses leading up to her randy street encounter with Lt. Frank Drebin.) …

… please weigh in the following. Thanks (as always) for the gift of your time and attention.

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Excursions

To be continued ….

It was significant, though it was nothing fancy.  

Actually, she made just about every detail significant, though none of it was fancy. 

She let me take her to lunch today, just the two of us (since we went out to dinner as a family on Sunday). She got dressed up just a little bit. Wore the brown blouse that she knows I have always loved her in. Was ready a couple minutes early. She let me drive. Let me hold the door for her as she got in, and also as she got out. Took my arm as we negotiated the parking lot slush. Let me pick from the menu, even though she wasn’t interested in anything other than breadsticks and tea. 

Truth be told, she hates Pizza Hut. Has ever since she got the most violently ill after a visit years ago. As has been her custom consistently across the 26 years I’ve known her, she gives you one shot, and that’s pretty much it. 

But she has been known to make the occasional annual exception on or around February 14. When she lets me coax her into a victory lap over some breadsticks and tea. 

That was the precise fare on Feb. 14, 1991, when we spent our first ever Valentine’s Day together gazing out at some fat snowflakes from a booth at the Waynesburg Pizza Hut.  

She’d forgotten about the snow then, she confessed as I recalled the weather report from 26 years ago. 

We both fought the urge to take the full measure of this annual pencil-tick-on-the-doorjamb moment. 

But I made myself vulnerable before her … with the same ease that convinced me 26 years ago that she was The One and Only. I could always tell her anything. 

Confessed to her how embarrassed I was about forgetting how to surprise her. I’ve lost it … from lack of practice. Couldn’t come up with anything for Valentine’s Day for her. Not that we’re big V-Day people. We’re beyond the hype you might say. Still, though … I used to have game. Used to knock her socks off. When I couldn’t afford roses, I once made her a bouquet of roses I drew, told her they were better than the real thing because they would never wither. She kept them for years. Once saved up for a diamond necklace, though the biggest one I could afford was the tiniest one they had.

She wore it to lunch today. 

The waiter brought us our breadsticks and iced teas. 

We said Grace. Clinked our breadsticks. 

The ceremony reminded us of not just who we were, but who we still are, underneath the responsibilities and have-to’s of the 40-something versions of us that are still struggling to Figure It All Out.

When we pulled back in to the garage so I could resume my work day and she could share the leftovers with the kids, she paused before getting out. Leaned over and gave me a kiss.

It was nothing fancy. But it was significant. 

She’s still very much capable of surprising me.

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Righteous riffs

Reminiscing in tempo ….

I can’t remember when I found them, I just remember as soon as I saw them I had to get ’em.

For him.  

That was us for a good 14 years, from my first gig as a 14-year-old until I gave up my spot on the bandstand a couple years after getting married.   

I think I made them a Christmas present. And I was right. He treasured them. 

For years afterwards, whenever I’d visit, he’d always point ’em out from their privileged perch on the mantle in the living room. “I smile every time I look at them,” he’d say. “They make me think of all the good times we had.” 

And then we’d reminisce about those good times

I know exactly what he means.

I took them back when we cleaned out the old house four years ago. Gave them a privileged perch on the shelves leading upstairs, so I’d see them every time I came home. 

I smile every time I look at them. They make me think of all the good times we had. 

That’s what I’d tell him if I could call to wish him a happy birthday today. 

I can hear the sound of his voice pitching up the second he recognized it was me, as pure as the tone of his horn.  

“Peeeeeeete!” 

He was always genuinely glad to hear from me every time I’d call. What a gift that was.

That’s what I’m missing today.

I’d call him to wish him a happy birthday, and he’d be the one making me feel good.

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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. 

__

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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Postcards, Rearview Mirror, The Road Ahead

18,250 Sunrises ….

Not comprehensive, or in any particular order … just what comes to one’s mind upon being gifted approximately 18,250 sunrises ….

  • That, when I was a desperate for a date to a fraternity party, she said yes. And the subsequent circles we danced to Meat Loaf (if I recall), and the subsequent goodnight kiss, and the Johnny Walker Red that may or may not have been responsible for the courage behind that kiss, and, indirectly, the subsequent 29 years.
  • That I got to be on the same stage with my Dad when he’d close his eyes and shred Harry James’ opening solo on Two O’Clock Jump. The numbers of all the good charts we used to play (#95, #39, #124, #20, #209, #93, #117).
  • Gathering with my best childhood friends every Christmas to decorate a tree, sip some Old Crow, and bear witness.
  • A big sister who let me pick out my first rock n’ roll record at the National Record Mart.
  • A daughter who still says yes when I ask her to read with me, and who savors a good turn of phrase as much as her old man.
  • A sister who sends me a card, cartoon, or clipping every week to let me know she’s thinking of me.
  • A son who asks me to hit golf balls with him even though I am beyond redemption. And on the grander scale, a gracious soul who forgives me for having tried way too hard.
  • Running under all those perfectly aimed and timed fly balls Dad launched just within the waffle-pocket reach of the oversized, Reggie Jackson model Rawlings he bought with the best $25 he ever spent.
  • Em’s Saturday morning omelets with toast (oh, and while I’m there, her home made mac-n-cheese doused with Red Hot in the manner of holy water).
  • An older brother who, like the good offensive lineman he was, wore down my parents’ resistances to allow me a clean running lane through my teenage years.
  • Roger Khan, Roger Angell, John Updike, Myron Cope, Gene Collier, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr. and all the others who taught me that good sports writers were just good writers who happened to write sports.
  • The small graces … squeezing toothpaste on her toothbrush in the morning … walking down the driveway together after taking out the garbage … standing at the sink doing dishes …. blowing kisses to the window while leaving for work in the morning.
  • My favorite Sunday night Oldie’s DJ.
  • A sister who raised two beautiful souls on her own and now gets to enjoy her grandchildren, and the occasional glass of wine with her baby brother.
  • A neighborhood that knew the best recipe for growing adults was to let kids be kids.
  • Preserving the capacity to be awed.
  • A mom who saved everything, including the before-and-after-orthodontic molds of my teeth, the BEFORE sample prompting my daughter to re-coil, “That looks like it’s from a North American primate,” which is pretty much exactly what the girls in middle school thought, too.
  • That holding hands still makes everything OK.
  • Parents who gave me time and space to figure stuff out.
  • Chicken wings from Drovers, two with everything and fries with gravy from Shorty’s, a Poorboy without tomato, small fries and a Pabst draft from Potter’s.
  • Charlie Watts proving that eighth notes and a bemused smile are all one needs to build a pocket big enough to fit an entire world (translation: more is not always better).
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his arse off for an audience no bigger or smaller than God herself.
  • Laurel Highlands Class of ’88.
  • Jazz on a rainy day and blistering guitars ‘neath a starry sky.
  • Our only family vacation growing up … to Gettysburg and Valley Forge during the Bicentennial. The sound of pee hitting a coffee can in the backseat on our no-stop drive to the middle of the state.
  • The bewitching crackle of a campfire.
  • The 1-4-5 progression.
  • How the very specific scent and feel of crisp late summer Southwestern PA mornings always makes me think of high school band camp.
  • The old, tiny teacher’s desk from Areford that mom salvaged and refinished … that makes me think of where I came from every time I sit down to write at it.
  • The best days in my life, summed up in eight words. “I do / It’s a boy / It’s a girl”
  • Remembering to look up.
  • Making her laugh so hard she cries.
  • When they were small enough to carry.
  • Knowing it’s in as soon as it leaves your hand.
  • That little dip in our neighborhood that breezes you five degrees cooler like a kiss on the cheek when you’re running down its hill
  • Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful.
  • A dry Kettle One martini and/or listening to Paul Desmond (same thing)
  • Every letter I’ve received in the mail and kept.
  • Riding in Dad’s Sherwin Williams van on Sunday afternoons looking for a playground hoop with a good net.
  • Being Santa Claus. Until you’re not.
  • Winning the in-law lottery.
  • Peter’s brown-sugar, oven-baked, banana ‘recipe’ he fashioned when he was seven years old, that, when properly muddled with vanilla ice cream, is the key to the universe.
  • How the smell of second hand smoke always makes me think of Mom.
  • City Lights Bookstore.
  • The sound of rain on a metal awning.
  • Nieces and nephews who made great daughters and sons, better sisters and brothers, and even better mothers and fathers.
  • All the encouragers.
  • That I remembered to write most of the good stuff down, to remind me when I forget about the good stuff.
  • Chapters left to write.

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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, Postcards

The world just went away there for a few minutes ….

April 3, 2020, 11:07 p.m.

A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”

On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:

To: Peter

From: Dad

Christmas 2001

Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.

Buried treasure.

I have no recollection of doing this.

Which is exactly why I did it.

I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.

So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.

And evidently, letters to my baby.

I did this knowing that whatever I captured would be at best a fractional approximate to the real deal — a few grains of sand brought back from an infinite beach.

I just had a hunch that someday down the road, we might like to be reminded how beautiful things were.

I got that one right.

December 23, 2001

Dear Peter,

A couple days ago, it occurred to me that, when you’re older, you will have no recollection of how much joy you have brought to the lives of your mom (after eight months, still weird to write that) and me. You’ll have no idea how excited we are to be spending Christmas – your first – with you in our house. If anything, you’ll get sick and tired of hearing your old, un-hip parents remind you how cute you were, how anyone who saw you couldn’t stop from smiling. (I hope at least we’ll have the common sense not to show your naked bath time pictures to your teenage friends.) From personal experience, I know that these memories will forever be a part of your parent’s lives. Realizing this, I find the repetitive stories my father tells and re-tells at every family gathering (“I remember the first time Pete saw the Monongahela River …” “Pete could identify every car when he was two….” etc.) more tolerable. I smile, knowing now that the joy a child can bring is irrepressible, undaunted by time. Like me, you’ll just have to get used to it.

But to give you a more refined glimpse into Christmases (and memories) past, I’d like to start a tradition here today, two days before your first Christmas. Drafting a quick letter to record some of my thoughts while they are freshest, to at least help you distinguish between myth and reality when those embarrassing anecdotes come calling in the (hopefully) many holidays to come. Right now, you’re too busy trying out the newest consonant sounds (finally, “mamamamaama,” which Karry has been not-so-patiently waiting eight months for) to be bothered with taking stock of life as an eight month old. Hope this helps.


Last Saturday, your mom and I picked up some pictures at Giant Eagle before hitting the malls. We parked the car in the fire lane outside the entrance to the video store. When your mom returned to the car, we tore into the pictures like you’ll soon be tearing into your Christmas presents. There were pictures from your baptism (a Riddell family photo, us holding you, you with fingers full of icing), from Halloween (you sleeping on the couch in the pumpkin outfit Granny made you), you after returning from the Washington Christmas parade (totally sacked out in your crib dressed in your Santa suit), you totally enamored with the ornament boxes piled around you while your mom and dad decorated the Christmas tree.

After we reviewed the last one, your mom looked at me and said, “The world just went away there for a few minutes.” It’s hard to describe what we both felt at that moment any better than she did. Each picture we flipped through took us right back to that moment in time. For those few seconds, we weren’t in the parking lot at the Giant Eagle. We weren’t 30-year-olds trying to figure out life (and struggling mightily). We weren’t Christmas shoppers. We had no other care than marveling at the incredible gift you are to us. The power of those pictures will never wane, either. Twenty years from now, we will still completely lose ourselves in looking at you at your baptism, your first Halloween, your first Christmas.

Now, in the other room, your mom is changing your dirty diaper. I now thank you for holding off when I changed and fed you when you awoke earlier this morning. You had us cracking up at the crack of dawn, talking incessantly in your crib. Gurgling, ba-bahs, ga-gahs, and what sounded like a purring kitten, complementing the aforementioned mamamas. I tried giving you your binky and turning on your lullaby, in a vain attempt to coax another half-hour’s worth of sleep from you. To no avail.

….

The unquestioned highlight of every day is when I return from work. Your mom almost always has you propped up in the hallway to be the first thing I see when I come up the stairs. And, without fail, you greet me with the biggest smile, so happy to see me (almost as happy as Sadie, who manages to sit perfectly still for the only time all day while I pet her upon entering the garage). Your are 20 pounds of instant stress relief. In the time it takes for that smile to break across your chubby cheeks, all of my problems disappear. And the amazing thing is that you have no idea the power you have. You just like to play … to chew … and to slobber. And it’s more than enough to get us through the day. I hope as you read this, you can appreciate that. If not, wait until you become a dad.

….

So, what’s it like to be a new parent? Not easy. Your mom and me have less time to do more. It’s been a tough adjustment at times. For me, I’m learning to become less selfish. When you are not the center of your own universe anymore, it’s an adjustment.

Make no mistake, though, your mom keeps this house together. She keeps things (including you and me) in order. It’s amazing to watch how she’s become a mother. It’s not something you can really prepare for. To say it’s instinct doesn’t do justice to all the hard work and love she puts into it. But she’s good. She’s a natural at all the things that I have to think through, and usually screw up. Like bathing you (once I sat you in the tub with your diaper on), picking out your clothes (the last time I dressed you unsupervised was also the last time your socks haven’t matched), your breakfast (I fed you the two jars of food she set out, not knowing you were only to have half of each). She has put you at the center of her life. And you are lucky. Try and remember that when she gets on your nerves, or when you tells you no. There’s no one in this world who loves you more.

….

Okay, so what are you like at eight months? What are your likes and dislikes? A quick summary:

Likes:

  • food — which you define in broader terms than the average adult. Food to you is anything that will fit inside your mouth. We always crack up when you see us eating in front of you. You completely lose interest in everything except following the food from our plate to our mouth. And the look on your face of complete concentration … expressionless captivation …, which, believe me, is hilarious coming from an eight month old.
  • Granny — you beam every time you see Grandma Fordyce, and vice versa. She’s been a true Godsend for us. She’s come in and watched you while we’ve worked around the house. She’s watched you to allow us those precious but much needed dinners for two. She keeps us sane and keeps you happy. We are as lucky as you are.
  • having your teeth brushed — you get so excited when you see your mom or me brushing our teeth. Lately, we’ve been taking a wet tooth brush and asking if you want your two brushed as well. You immediately open your mouth and smile as we run it across your bottom lip. Such a big boy.
  • lights, fans (and anything you can get your hands on, really) — I love the way you marvel at the world around you. Your mouth gets as round as a snowball, and you gasp in wonder, “Oh” or “Ah” … as you take it all in. You have reminded us what it means to be awed.

Dislikes:

  • The Boogie Patrol — your mother is vigilant in making sure you don’t leave the house with visible boogers. So she is forever sticking Q-Tips in your nostrils to ensure an unobstructed air passage. This always pisses you off.
  • being on your belly — don’t know if it’s the struggle to elevate your beautiful head, but your patience always wears thin when flopped on your gut. My hypothesis is that you’ll eventually become so angry you’ll start rolling, but your mother usually intervenes to stop your impressively intense crying.

As you can see your likes outnumber your dislikes. But, with parents like us, what’s not to like?


Well, I apologize for the length of this letter. I only kept writing because I had time to do so (your mom has not asked me for anything the past hour). And I know that my bouts of inspiration are usually fleeting. This may be the last letter you ever get from me. But I hope it’s the first of many.

As you get older, and the real parenting kicks in, know that I’ll do my best. I’ll probably screw up, but you will, too. And at the end of the day, you’ll still be the most incredible gift I’ve ever been given.

We’re gonna have fun, you and me.

Love,

Dad

__

Our baby boy turns 19 today.

He’s home.

At the moment, Karry’s hanging Disney decorations in the dining room she worked hard to clean out … and Emma’s in beast mode preparing a by-big-brother-request dinner of fettuccini Alfredo. She made him a double-layer chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert. The presents will be humble, but enough.

I didn’t have the chance to get him a card.

It’s OK.

I think I owe him a letter.

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Fathers and Sons

The Quest for the Creek….

Note: found the below in an old journal, and it struck me as it did then … one of those moments that melts the world around you for a good, long moment … before it, itself melts. When we were kids we’d hold a snowball back and put it in the fridge to save it for summer time. Honoring that feeling by putting this old snowball right here ….

Saturday afternoon, after Peter snowblew the driveway, I shoveled the deck, and Em indulged neighbor kids who came for snow angels and “wheeeeeees” down the humble grade of our yard, the three of us donned our snowsuits, grabbed sleds and tube, and trudged through the woods behind our backyard.  Destination: the big hill that technically belongs to the American Legion but which we unofficially commandeer when there’s enough snow to test the wondrous law of gravity. 

We assessed the snow’s vintage —soft and puffy, in need of some packing. So, following Peter’s lead, we made investments with each run down the hill —and trudging walk back up —  kneading the snow like dough, a little longer, a little wider.

The tube, by far, was the conveyance of choice, offering the pure enchantment of spinning, friction-free descent. 

We spent a glorious hour outside, indulging in a good foot of soft powder and mid-20’s temperatures. There were tumbles, wipe outs, and even an inspired attempt to see if the blue sled would hold the three of us at once (um, it didn’t). 

But it was all mere prelude to the gifts of Sunday afternoon, when Peter and I returned for seconds. The intervening 24 hours had smoothed away the powder and added a thin crust of ice to the previous day’s paths. With our first couple runs, we glided farther, carving fresh prints into the untouched white. With each foray we pushed our ruts out a little farther still. 

After about 20 minutes I looked down from the top of the hill to where Peter had just tubed a new distance record and called out, “We should try for the creek”–pointing to the stream that separates the Legion’s field from the hill of houses on the other side. Even with his last run, we were probably a good 50-60 feet of untouched snow from the water.  

But now we had a quest.

And, where Sunday snow days are concerned, life goes much better with a quest. 

We took turns with the tube, while the other would run the light blue plastic H-2. Each time, a bit farther. We found ourselves feasting on the rarest and most fleeting of experiences —the kind that only get better the next time. Down I went, the gathering speed perfectly pairing with the tube’s gentle rotation. I broke the plane of brush and weeds that rimmed the creek. I lingered for a good moment, transfixed by the simple, timeless sermon all creeks whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

While I considered this victory, the 14-year-old deemed it ersatz. A purist, he would not be satisfied with anything short of sled touching water. Such are the lessons all children whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

So he made one more run, hugging the path we had carved into the hill over the past 24 hours …gliding …gliding, pushing through the brush and dumping himself —unceremoniously, or quite ceremoniously, depending on your perspective—into the water, his water-proofed steel-toes earning their keep. We hi-fived our chubby, waterlogged gloves (and promised to not mention the splashing in the creek part to Mom). 

We paused before beginning our final trudge. The waning Sunday sun peeked through the trees in a reverent bow….

What better image than a glistening hill and an afternoon spent carving it with our initials to serve as a reminder to treasure good moments that too soon melt?

We huffed up the hill and through the woods back home, spent but spurred on by the promise of Karry’s killer hot chocolate. 

As I add years, I treasure those experiences that equally captivate the young and those in need of being reminded of their youth. 

This. 

This is my quest. 

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Rearview Mirror

Of bad Christmas presents, super smart ladies, and hiding the marshmallow ….

Dedicated to my cousin, Dr. Jennifer Wallace.

I love how my mother loved to write letters. She’d buy those long yellow notebooks by the packet and kept stacks of reserves on top of the kitchen fridge. She burnt through them almost as fast as the cigarettes she smoked when she curled up at the kitchen table to write, pen in one hand, lit Salem in the other, one foot on the chair, knee to her chest. 

From what I recall, she mostly wrote to her sisters: her older sisters Ruth and Doris, and her younger sister Janet. (Mom was the sixth of seven kids … though the oldest baby died at childbirth). 

____

As a kid I always held a special expectation at Christmas for the packages we’d get from my mom’s sisters Janet and Doris.

Their contents never had anything to do with whatever I’d petitioned Santa for. As a result, the annual postmarks from Coopersburg, PA (Janet), and Dayton, Ohio (Doris) always heralded a surprise or two. 

ESPECIALLY Aunt Janet’s. Her boxes always contained the quirkiest, goofiest, orneriest stuff, which was very much in keeping with her personality. You never knew what you were going to get, and were never disappointed. It was stuff that always left you asking where on earth did she find that? The stuff that made you smile long after the Christmas glow had died to embers. Having to wait until Christmas morning to open Janet’s gifts was always excruciating. 

By contrast, Aunt Doris’ stuff was usually a lot more austere, reflecting her personality. Doris was a business school graduate. I never saw her much, but I perceived her as pretty serious, worldly, super smart, professional (in the days when that was not what society necessarily expected of its women). Her holiday packages were always distinguished by a large can of Planter’s peanuts for Dad. Every now and then Dad would get a tall can of cashews. My childhood self registered this as lavish. Although Dad (and I) loved peanuts, we never splurged on them, never had them in the house. In my childhood memory I perceived cashews to be an extravagance beyond our means. It’s funny to think about now, but I always ascribed a special ‘fanciness’ to Aunt Doris’ annual cans of Planter’s. Overall, though, her gifts were practical, not spectacular. While always welcome, the arrival of her Christmas packages never registered the same high level of anticipation as Aunt Janet’s.

Until 1987 and the Christmas of my senior year of high school. In the annual package from Aunt Doris there was a surprise – a special gift for me. Last Christmas before college, I remember allowing myself high expectations for what was inside. It was big. Felt heavy in my lap. Too heavy for peanuts. I unwrapped it in earnest … to discover … a red, hardcover Webster’s College Dictionary, along with a note wishing me well in college. Really? A dictionary? I remember at the time putting it in the same category as getting a pair of socks. I considered it about the worst Christmas gift my 17-year-old self could imagine. She didn’t get me the way that Aunt Janet did, I remember thinking at the time.  

____

Fast forward to my first fall in college. I’m totally freaked out. Completely untethered. Other than a friend I graduated with who commuted, I knew no one. Had no idea what I wanted to study. Wasn’t sure if I was even cut out for college. Fear can be a powerful motivator, though. I paid the fuck attention to everything. 

Though I hadn’t declared a major, my advisor was in the English department, and taught my freshman Honors English class. An intimidating presence. A mythic figure. A poet, rumored to have hung around with some of the Beats.

Towering. Thin. Tan. Bald. Salt and pepper beard.  Always a brown leather jacket. Dark glasses that hid eyes that had seen some things, and could see straight through you. Unrepentantly smoked like a stack in class. Would stand his butts upright like spent bullet shells in a line on the desk next to the lectern he loomed behind, often balancing on one leg while he drew the other up and rested it on the desk. Wielded silence like an unregistered weapon. Kept his resonant, New York seasoned voice mostly in a slow simmer save for when he’d unleash thunder on the unsuspecting, inattentive, unprepared. His eviscerations of lazy students, and sometimes the entire class, were soul-searing. If you weren’t the target, you’d avert your gaze (suppressing the urge to crawl under your desk), and imagine a pile of smoldering ashes by the time he was through. Since I was a scared shitless clueless freshman, his expectations imprinted me like tattoos I still bear to this day. 

He believed unequivocally that readers of good literature and poetry had responsibilities. One was to invest in connecting with the writer’s work. As such, when you came across a word you didn’t know or understand, you were expected to look it up so you could connect your experience and beliefs with the author’s to make meaning. In class, he’d call out a student and ask them the definition of a word in the text. If the student didn’t have it, he called down thunder. My keen sense of self-preservation had me turning to the dictionary with regularity to fill margins in case of emergency. All of a sudden I clung to Aunt Doris’ shitty Christmas present like a life preserver.

Midway through my first semester, some pranksters on our dormitory floor boarded up the entrance to the bathroom and turned on the showers. Returning on Sunday after a weekend home, I found that the dam had burst, flooding the entire floor. Our room was spared major damage, but everything on the floor got soaked. Among the casualties was my red Webster’s. I had to throw away the paper cover, but gave the book itself a chance to dry out, leaving some stiff, wrinkly pages. Otherwise, it was none the worse for wear. 

That dictionary served me well through my college years, and made it home with me when I graduated. 

As did Dr. Bower’s influence. 

When my daughter and I started reading books together, and stumbled across a word she (or we) didn’t know, I’d force us to stop. Tell her she owed it both to herself and the author, and make her look it up. The first book we ever read together was a paperback of the first Harry Potter installment. We read in my room on school nights, and whenever we’d hit an unfamiliar word, I made Em pull out my old red Webster’s with the crinkly pages from my nightstand. We’ve preserved the practice through the dozen or so books we’ve read since. 

____

Last night, while cooking some chicken on the grill (for Emma’s legendary oven-baked mac n’ cheese, which, when doused with Red Hot, I consider a religious experience), I pulled an old New Yorker from a laundry basket filled to overflowing with “to be thrown away” material that Karry is forcing me to deal with. I inherited from my mother a bad habit of keeping, you know, everything.  I stumbled upon a really neat review (which you owe it to yourself to read) of a book on how to form / break habits. In the article, they cite an old research study that evaluated will power in children by placing a marshmallow in front of a child and timing how long it took before she/he would reach for it. In one variation of the experiment, the marshmallow would be visible in front of the child; in another, the marshmallow would be placed in front of the child, but covered so it could not be seen. The study determined that ‘hiding the marshmallow’ had an impact on how long it took the child to cave to temptation. The article (and the book) posited that good and bad habits have more to do with environment than will power. Actually, the key to habit forming/breaking is to remove will power from the equation as much as possible. 

So, this morning, inspired by that, I found myself reading at the dining room table. Intentionally, I left my phone downstairs, to ‘hide the marshmallow’ – i.e. keep me from its distraction. While easy to Google a definition, I too often end up checking ESPN, or social media, or … or… or …..

I quickly found myself piling up a bunch of words whose meaning I didn’t know or couldn’t remember (protean, cozen, impresa, etc.). 

Rather than retrieving my phone from downstairs, I kept the marshmallow hidden. 

Instead, I went to my bedroom, and plucked the old red Webster’s from my night stand, looked up each word and wrote their definitions in the back of my journal. 

And thought of Aunt Doris.

I never took the opportunity to share with her how grateful I am that she sent me the worst Christmas present my 17-year-old self could have imagined. In that moment I wanted to write her a letter … maybe sitting at my kitchen table, a ceremonial cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, filling pages of one of those big yellow notebooks.

Aunt Doris passed last December from a version of the same dementia that took my Mom’s life in 2015. Aunt Janet passed away a year ago from a variation of the same. 

So, this morning, I did the next best thing I could think of — I wrote a long note to my cousin Jenny, just like our mothers used to do (the bones of which you are now reading). She wrote back immediately to tell me that no one made her mother laugh as hard as my mom. And that my note made her cry.

In retrospect … I think my childhood perceptions of my Aunt Doris were pretty spot on. She was definitely a super smart lady. She instinctively knew what it took the author and researchers cited in the New Yorker piece years and experiments to discover. 

Good habits have much more to do with environment than will power.

For 32 years (and counting), that old red Webster’s has never left my bed side or bookshelf. For 32 years (and counting) I’ve thought of Aunt Doris (and Dr. Bower) every time I’ve cracked open its crinkly pages. 

It has literally opened up worlds to me.

A dictionary was The Last Thing I ever wanted for Christmas. 

But it’s made every new word I’ve ever met feel like a gift. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

I have this indelible image in my head every time I think of the years (high school and through college) I was privileged to share a bandstand with my Dad when we were but two pieces (drums, first trumpet) of a 10-piece, big-band-style orchestra. Whenever Dad would take a ride solo, I’d steal a glance to my right, see him stand up from his chair a couple measures before, tip the mic up, draw the horn to his lips, bend his knees ever so slightly as he leaned back, close his eyes, and blow.

He always solo’d with his eyes closed, the music taking him somewhere else.

Unconsciously, I’d often close my eyes as well, and try to follow his horn like a compass to wherever it took him. He took great pride in never playing the same solo twice. Though they would rarely last more than a couple choruses, those solos were some of the best trips (of many) we ever took together.

Music has always had that bewitching effect on him (and me) … although it occasionally got him into trouble. He recalled one such instance for my sister Laurie and me when we visited with him on Christmas.

On their second date, Dad thought he would impress Maggie Johnson by taking her to see Les Brown (and his “Band of Renown”).

Best laid plans.

“She got so mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her,” he recalled. Technically speaking, he was totally ignoring her, such a slave his attention was to good music. Fortunately, she forgave him enough to entertain a third date, and the 60+ years of marriage that ensued.

With Dad confined mostly to his bed these days, it’s become more of a challenge to bring the kids with me for my weekly visits. Knowing how crazy the back-to-school schedule will be, Karry and I seized the opportunity Saturday to bring Emma with us to Uniontown.

I asked Em if she’d be up for taking her alto sax with her. I figured it would give her something to do (practice), and thought that Pap might appreciate it.

She’s only in her second year with the horn … but, much to our surprise, we don’t have to twist her arm to practice. She enjoys playing. Enjoys getting better. Seems to take a pride in it.

Dad was resting when we arrived, but a smile broke across his face when he saw Karry and Emma, two of his favorite faces. We weren’t but a few minutes into our visit when he asked Em, “Did you bring your sax?”

He’d never heard her play before.

I went downstairs to the basement and dug out his old music stand (it’s been only a few months since the 88-year-old put it away … for probably the last time), and Em pulled her horn from her case and set up in the next room since we didn’t know if she’d be too loud for him.

She started into some scales, and then some songs she’s been learning for her lessons.

Dad remarked what a good tone she had for a beginner (the brother knows from tone). We sat without speaking and just listened. She had played maybe a half dozen tunes … before she broke into Ode To Joy.

By the fifth note, Dad had closed his eyes, and another smile broke across his face. The music was again taking him someplace else. I closed my eyes too, and met him once again in that place.

After her last note, he opened his eyes, the smile still going strong, and said to the heavens … “This makes me feel good.”

His words were as much a gift to me as Emma’s notes were to him, and the lump in my throat I feel at the mere recollection of that moment bears testimony to those truths.

I find myself grateful for the lessons that still abound from the labored breaths of an 88-year-old sideman, who, though bedridden in failing health with a failing heart and a laundry list of maladies much too long to capture … still sifts the precious moments for joy yet and still.

Find myself grateful for music that can transcend the moment, the physical, the generations, and bring us that much closer together, and to the divine.

And find myself grateful that the old house on Mullen Street still has a few beautiful notes left in it.

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