Month: October 2012

Siri can you hear me?

My wife got a new Iphone this weekend, and it’s the first time we have Siri. The boys have been so enthralled with her, and they keep wanting to chat her up. Hayden (6) has been especially taken by this modern-day muse. Poor guy can’t really say his “r’s” yet, so he and Siri get a little frustrated as there are quite a few failed attempts. But it has provided us with some comic relief as we bunker down for Hurricane Sandy. The following are Hayden’s top 5 inquiries for Siri:

1. When is my birthday?

2. Where are all of the McDonald’s in the world?

3. Where is Easter Island?*

4. Why are my mom and dad such Kooks?

5. How did God come to life? **

*When I asked Hayden how he knew there was a place called Easter Island, his brother Owen piped in, “Dad, you don’t know everything about us.” Point taken, smart alec.

**From the time he was three, Hayden has been somewhat obsessed with this last question. He wants to know how everything comes to life. When we tried the old stand-by answer, “God”, we thought we were in the clear. Not so. Now, he insists on asking us how God came to life.  God, a little help here. Siri’s response: “I eschew theological disquisition.” Smart cookie to stay away from that one!

Siri, how cute is this little guy?

Morning Glories

My heart and mind have been heavy this past week or so, with all of the horrible atrocities that seem to plague children. The Boy Scouts of America are the latest to join the ranks of those leaders who harbored pedophiles and knowingly covered it up.  A young Palestinian girl named Malala Yousufzai is gunned down on her way home from school by the Taliban. Her crime: wanting an education. And just yesterday, much closer to home, news of a twelve-year-old girl from New Jersey abducted and killed at the hands of two teenage boys—brothers. I am sickened and saddened by these situations.  As I commiserate with the rest of society over these despicable events, I am also reminded how we must cherish each day and embrace those we love. Especially our children.

Anyone who has children is used to hearing others remark “how fast it all goes.” And it does!!  That is why I try to be present–every single day–in their world. I want to remember these moments and recall all of the time we spend together. Then, this morning, it happens—I am greeted with a perfect morning. Each encounter was incredible, reaffirming, lyrical, and sweet. It was as if the universe knew that I needed a pick me up. Don’t get the wrong idea, most mornings are not like this. Usually, someone is annoyed. And those in a good mood can instantly turn ugly. But today, today was perfect! Allow me to explain:

6 a.m.   I slam the snooze button. As I try to fall back asleep, I hear Owen (7 ) humming a song in his room while he builds with his Legos.

6: 15     After feeding the cats and dog, I sit in the dark downstairs enjoying my first cup of coffee. Owen comes down the steps, rushes over to me and gives me a big hug and kiss. Kisses from this guy are getting rarer than Haley’s Comet, so I was pleasantly surprised. “Wow, what a way to start my day!” I tell him. He goes bee-bopping down into the basement to play with more Legos.

6:20    Hayden (6) awakens in what seems to be a relatively good mood–it’s a crap shoot with this one. I direct him downstairs to Owen.

6:21    The boys begin to play nicely, and this lasts, uninterrupted, for a good half-hour.

7:00    While I am upstairs shaving, Owen sneaks in to scare me with his Halloween mask–a freaky silver skeleton mask. I feign fright. He then reveals that he has on ANOTHER scary mask underneath his skeleton mask–so people think he’s really scary.

7:05    I catch a glimpse of my wife, Pam, on the steps with Hayden. She is removing an eye lash from his cheek, after which she tells him to “make a wish”. I see him contemplate this task, mouth the words of his wish to himself, then blow away the eyelash with all his might. He runs downstairs. “I made a wish! I made a wish!”

7:07    Owen comes into my room and asks, “Is this how you whistle?” I attempt to instruct him on this once again. “Pucker your lips…Try to loosen your lips…Relax your mouth…Wait, put your top lip over your bottom lip…You’ll get it, buddy.” He scampers away “whistling”.

7:20    Hayden reads off the names of the boys invited to Owen’s birthday party. Pam remarks, “Boy, you seem more excited than Owen!” Owen looks at me and smiles. “He is,” he agrees.

7: 25    As I pour their cereal, Owen asks if he can go to sleep on his own tonight. We have been trying to wean him of some of the bedtime routine for over a year now. He usually insists we stay until he falls asleep. “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m ready.” The heavens open up. I hear angels sing from on high. I think to myself, So maybe I can say goodnight like they do on TV? Just tuck you in and leave? Yahoo!

7:30    While the boys eat their cereal and I pack my lunch, I wish Hayden good luck on his Show-and-Tell. “What if everyone hates it?” he asks. (IT, by the way, is a Halloween mouse decoration I bought two years ago after a mouse chased us around the house). “First of all,” I say, “it’s awesome.” “What’s second of all?” he asks. “Second of all, I love it,” I say. “What’s third of all?” he continues.  “Third of all, it’s a funny story.” “What’s fourth of all?” “Fourth of all, your friends are nice.” “What’s fifth of all?” Enter Mommy. “Ask Mommy.” “Ask Mommy what?” she says. I hightail it out of the kitchen.

7:35    As I leave for work, I give Pam a kiss and enter the TV room where both boys are now dressed and ready for school. They are not into kisses these days, so I usually just tousle their hair and remind them to be good for their teachers. Owen says, “Wait!” then runs over, jumps in my arms and plants another kiss on me. “Wow, two kisses today. I am one lucky guy. How about you, Hayd? Can I get a kiss from you?” He just looks at me and shakes his head no. Owen comes running back to me. “I’ll give you one from him, Dad.” And he does. That makes more kisses from Owen this morning than the last 3 weeks combined!

7:40    I drive to work on this autumn morning in a lighter mood. I can’t help but smile as I reflect on all of the small joys that made up this mundane Wednesday morning.

There is a great quote by Robert Brault. It reads: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you will look back and they will be the big things.” I try to remember this often. Today, it was easier to do than other days. And for that I a most grateful.

Poetry and Parents–for anyone who is one or ever had one!

The following excerpt is from the  poem Children Chapter IV by Khalil Gibran. My friend, Kirk, shared this with me after a recent post. Thanks, Kirk.  I liked it so much, I had it tattooed to my back– just kidding. But I do love it and want to commit it to memory. It truly captures so much about the ironic nature of parenting.  Enjoy!

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow…”

Be a good sport

Growing up, I hated sports. I wasn’t sure if I sucked because I hated them, or if I hated them because I sucked. All I know is that I was forced to play organized sports until high school.

My dad loved sports. Like many men of his era, it was the best way he could communicate with his kids. If I could throw a decent spiral or a curve ball (different balls-I know), he would have had a catch with me. I watched him do this with my other siblings. My three older brothers and sister were very good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs.  My younger brother and sister were also good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. Me, not so much. Both girls in my family could throw a baseball better than I (although none of my siblings would know to use “I” in that last bit):)  No, I’m not jealous. Not at all, he lied.  Anyway, out of seven children, I was the least athletic. Last in line for athletic prowess. Seventh of seven.

My father tried to be patient with me, but I would have none of it.  My dad played full-equipment, contact football until he was thirty, in a men’s league in Northeast Philadelphia. He coached pee wee football, baseball and  basketball at the elementary level, and softball at the high school level. My father was an athletic director for a private elementary school in our area. He breathed sports. He tried to practice with me, to teach me the basics, but I rebelled. In hindsight, I realize what I was doing. It’s taken me thirty years to figure it out, but I know that part of it was the notion of being lumped in with the rest. I wanted to stand out, be treated as an individual, not just be included in the roster, part of the line-up. And if the others were going to be better at it, then that was no way to get my family’s attention.

Most of my siblings played sports in high school – two brothers received football scholarships to a prestigious private high school, both played in college and one has coached at the college level ever since he graduated. Luckily, I was next in line from the household’s best athlete—right behind the all-star, the golden boy, the coaches’ favorite player. Me, I was third string. A bench warmer. A virtual non-participant. From my earliest athletic experiences, I was an embarrassment. I was the oldest kid on the t-ball team (I actually got demoted after my first year of Little League) This was the era of The Bad News Bears movies—a team of misfits I would have been perfectly suited for. In fifth grade, I was on St. John of the Cross’ JV football team. They called me “The Professor”—I think I was the only kid with glasses under my helmet. In seventh grade, while “playing” varsity football, I was lumped in with a crowd of overweight slow pokes. We loafed around the field and waddled our laps around the school. The coaches nicknamed us “The Country Clubbers” since we behaved like a bunch of middle-aged men out there (which reminds me:  my 8th grade teacher, Sister Albert, announced to my class as I rounded the bases during a game of kick ball one day that I had the body of a 40-year-old man. How charitable of you, Sister.)

Thankfully, by eighth grade I was a full-time smoker. This gave me a reason to join the track team. My friends and I signed up to run in the long distance events. We would practice at the local high school. By practice, I mean we would disappear into the woods, then hide behind a wall and smoke a couple cigarettes. We watched the other runners do one mile laps around the school property. On their last lap (we always asked) we would come in for the end of practice after splashing water on our heads to look sweaty, and pretend to be winded. We lost every meet we ran in.

High school and college were athletics-free. A couple stints of intramurals, but nothing to brag about, believe me. Then, in my twenties, I was looking for a reason to quit smoking. I was a guilty smoker—always was—and it started to wear on me. I kept imagining myself pulling an oxygen tank to my future kid’s school play or pee wee football game (ha). My brother Joe suggested I start running. Do it gradually and build up. I took his advice. I ran a few times a week at a local trail. I signed up for a 5k when I was 25 (which I completed still drunk from a night out in Philly). But slowly, I began to change. I started to run more and smoke less. I would see the cross country teams from the school where I taught running on the same trails in the late afternoon. Jim, the girls’ coach, asked me about coaching the boys’ squad. “Jim, I’m not a runner, really.” “I see you here every time we practice.” “Yeah, but I’m not a coach.” “They need a running coach and you run—you’re qualified.” And so, I coached cross country for about six years. I learned about speed drills and pacing, and I gave them all I could. They were more than grateful. During that time, I even managed to kick the smoking habit for good!

When I switched schools, I no longer coached cross country. Ironically, I found it helped me get in better shape. Since I was not coaching, I had more time to actually run.  Now, I was signing up for more races: 10 milers, half marathons. Eventually, I didn’t feel foolish when I labeled myself as a runner, or talked about an upcoming race. Today, I am still running. I discovered trail running a few years ago, and now I can do ten mile races in the mountains. I do not say this to brag. I say this to remind myself, and you, that we do not have to let our past define our future. We can become whomever we want if we put our minds to it.

In the past few years, I have begun the athletic journey with my own sons. I was even a coach for both of their t-ball teams (brought back some of my glory days). I was able to mask my lack of skills enough to assist coaching their Little League teams (I was the line-up guy), but I can’t see that lasting into the next phase of their baseball careers. I still worry that I won’t be able to be the guy they have a catch with on the front lawn.  But someday, sooner than later I hope, I will take them to the trails that hug the river into Philadelphia, a serene place called Valley Green, and I will teach them the art of running. I will run along side them, I will let them beat me in the beginning, and I will share everything I know about how to be a runner. And if they decide they do not want to run, or they find their passions elsewhere, so be it. But they will know where to find me if they ever want to explore that world.

Recently, my mom was remarking about all of the races I run these days. “You know, out of all my kids, who would have thought you’d end up being the most athletic adult?” Thanks, mom (I think). But she did get me thinking. I am the most active today of my seven siblings. I do not mean to sound boastful, but it’s true. And if I had a choice of either playing sports through high school or college or being active for life, I think I’d choose the latter. I love where I am today. I feel fit. I feel alive. I get to participate in many exciting races and see many amazing landscapes. Now, if someone could just teach me how to throw a damn ball!

Painting by Veronika Nagy

Photographs of Valley Green by Ellie Seif

Click on pictures to visit these artists’ sites.

The Plan

I stumbled upon this drawing a few days ago in Owen’s room, underneath his bed.

It is a map of the plan he devised with his younger brother, Hayden, during the summer. The two boys wanted to spend the night in a fort I made them in Owen’s walk-in closet. They assumed we’d say “No” to such an adventure. Unfortunately, they kept falling asleep too early to actually execute their plot, so, eventually, they broke down and just asked us if they could do it. To which we agreed–that’s what summer is all about.

I love this drawing. I love the simplicity of the scheme that these two were cooking up: Sneak out of our beds and into the fort. That’s it. It’s that simple. And for children, it is that simple–go from Point A to Point B. They do not complicate their world with all of the subtext that we allow to erode our plans. They do not get bogged down with all of the doubts and insecurities that we allow to undermine our goals and aspirations: This is stupid. It’s not worth it. Why bother, it won’t work out. They just want to get from Point A to Point B.

Now, I know some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, but they don’t live in the REAL world. They haven’t been disappointed enough yet. Time will fix them.” True, it just might. But I would rather flip that. What if we, the grown ups, tried to live in their world a little more? What if we set our sights on a goal and simply went for it? No complicating it with all of our what ifs and buts.  Maybe, just maybe, if we focused on the end result of our goals, we’d surround ourselves with more openings than obstacles. Give it a try. You might surprise yourself.  In fact, you might find yourself at Point B.


About a year ago, a friend of mine at work was telling me how he had an appointment with an acupuncturist after school to see if this would help his breathing issue. Bill suffers from a lung disease, and the acupuncturist may be the answer he needed to assist him in breathing better. I thought, Cool. It’s amazing what different areas of medicine can do to heal a person—even something as unconventional as acupuncture. As I left school that day, I recalled Bill’s casual mention of seeing a non-traditional practitioner of medicine.  See, I was on my way to therapy after school, yet I would never have mentioned this in the work room to one of my colleagues. In fact, I’d say fewer than five people knew I was in therapy back then. That day, I fantasized about how refreshing it would be to talk about seeing a psychologist as casually as mentioning the dentist or the chiropractor. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where any mention of therapy is often met with fear and ignorance. Even those bold enough to mention it in discussion do so warily and with trepidation. And even then, these professionals are looked at with speculation: My shrink tells me that… To this day, on the rare occasion where someone does mention going to counseling in public, even I tend to think he/she is making a joke.

Yet, if you’ve been following my blog, you have heard me mention that I have been in therapy. I have seen a total of four counselors over the past ten years, and I am a changed man as a result. However, until now, only a handful of people knew I was in counseling. And, I must say, it feels amazing to just put it out there. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, yet I have lied on many occasions about my fifty minute hour with said therapists: I have to stay late after school, My son has a doctor’s appointment, I have to get a cavity filled—it seems I am happy with any other type of obligation except for Mental Health. Think about that expression: MENTAL HEALTH. Why are we so afraid of talking about the other form of health that inhabits our body? Is it because we can’t see it? We can’t see air, but none of us doubts its imperative nature in our lives. So why back away from health of the mind? If your ankle was swollen, you would see a podiatrist. If you had a skin outbreak, you would go to a dermatologist. If your cholesterol test came back high, you might start to take a supplement.  But I would guess that the majority of us would not be quick to make that call to fix our mindset.  This saddens me.

My counselors were as varied as the hang-ups living inside my mind. Therapist number one, Dr. Bob, was a warm, grandfatherly type. He was in his sixties and had an affable demeanor. At my first appointment, I was so stifled emotionally that I left the part of the questionnaire that said “Why have you sought counseling?” blank. I was too embarrassed, too ashamed to write anything. As we sat there that first visit, he immediately went to that unanswered question. Calmly, he inquired, “You are here for a reason. I cannot help you if I don’t know why.” I looked at him for a long time, realized I hadn’t been breathing, exhaled, and began to speak. By the end of our first session, I had shared more intimate things about my life with him then I did with any other person in my life, including my spouse.

I was with Bob for about two years. It was a time of self-discovery. I began to tear down a lot of the walls I had built up emotionally. It all seems so hokey until you put it into practice. Before therapy, I would often joke about loving oneself, or someone having daddy issues. But once under a doctor’s care, I began to see all of the cheap defenses we hide behind—laughter being a huge one for me.  He and I talked about the importance of loving oneself (I know, stupid, right?). Yet, how many of us do check in with ourselves? How many of us do look out for our own well-being? One of the coolest things he and I discussed was the importance of being self-CENTERED. Previously, in my world, if you were trying to do what was best for you (but not necessarily those around you) you were accused of being selfish. “What does selfish mean?” he would implore. “You know, like, self-centered.” “And shouldn’t one be centered? Centered in the self? Shouldn’t one be balanced, and aware of one’s limitations?” LIGHTBULB! It was as if I was seeing for the first time. “So, it’s good to be self-centered?” I asked, hesitantly.  “How can you be available to others if you are not available to yourself?” WHOA! It was a turning point in my life. How often do we ignore our own needs, give to the other people in our lives, and then end up resenting them for what we chose to give? For the past ten years, I have become much more selfish, and it has allowed me to have more meaningful experiences with all those I am lucky to surround myself with.

After my time with Dr. Bob, I took about a year off. In the meantime, Pam and I had our first child, and then a lot of my resentment of the past started to rear its ugly head. I went to a female therapist, Carol. She and I did not mesh well. I often found her aloof, sort of phoning it in during our sessions. Instead of paying her, I should have just stood in front of a mirror and repeated my statements as questions.  Me: I’m not sure I should say anything about this to my sister? Carol: Do you want to say anything about this to your sister?  Me: I’m not sure I want to have more than one child. Carol: Do you think it’s a good idea to have more than one child? I think Carol went to the Goddess of Echo School of Psychiatry.  One night, I ended up leaving Carol’s office, somewhat heatedly, and I never returned.

Next, there was Marie. Marie was well read, had a lot of education, and a lot of hang-ups of her own.  I felt sorry for Marie, and as a result, I never wanted to burden her with my problems. Aside from a few good parenting books, Marie offered little in the way of therapeutic assistance.

My final therapist was a man.  I do think in my case, because a lot of my issues are with my dad, that a man suits me better in therapy. This guy was relentless. He never talked about his own life (married or single, father or childless, Catholic or Jew, gay or straight, I’ll never know). Beyond that, he was very analytical in the Freudian sense. And he was very good at deciphering dreams and finding connections in my life that I was unaware of. I recall one time, I was telling him how I had started to feel panicky whenever running races. I have run long distances since my mid-twenties, and had recently become more competitive with trail races. “Why now? Why would I have anxiety when I’ve been racing for years?” “Because now you care more about being competitive and you don’t want to look like a loser. Because now you feel like a man.” Ouch. That hurt. But I was glad to know the reason, and I believe he was right. Such discoveries opened my eyes in ways I would have never seen without therapy.

But the most fascinating thing about seeing Dr. Doug was his assessment that I had a lot of anger issues. “I’m not angry,” I protested. He stared straight into my eyes, unyielding. “I’m not,” I mustered up in response. “Am I?” I whimpered.  When I got home that night, I told Pam about my session: “The doctor thinks I have a lot of anger.” I have never seen Pam’s eyes grow wider. It was if her eyeballs were nodding emphatically. “You think so, too?” I asked. “Yes!” she said resoundingly. And here I was, eight years of on and off therapy, four therapists, and finally the crux of my issues—I was angry and I needed to work on it. And I did. I saw Dr. Doug weekly—that’s once a week!!!—for over a year.  I was with him for over two years.  And now I finally have some perspective on my past, I am aware of my anger, and I have spent a lot of time healing.

I have been out of therapy for over a year, and I feel great—for the most part. I still get angry. The point is to not avoid anger, but be aware of its presence and your triggers.  I can tell you this, though, most of the time, when I do get angry, it has very little to do with the thing I yell about.  But I realize that this is all a process, that I continue to grow as a person—a husband, a father, a teacher, a friend…  Looking back on the past ten years, I can tell you this about my experiences:

Therapy is like dating cancer. You go to meet this entity (your psyche) each week; you bare your soul and are more intimate with this being which represents all of these issues that could have destroyed you. You are the host to this vile, caustic thing, and you need to spend time with IT—whatever issue you are confronting—and recognize how potent it is in your life. If you ignore it, it will continue to feed on you until it has consumed you. Okay, maybe this isn’t dating, maybe it’s stalking. But you get the gist. She is a bitch, but you will keep seeing her until you break up on YOUR terms. Who is stalking whom?

Breaking up is hard to do. When you commit to seeing a therapist, the two of you establish a rapport, and it is hard to know when to say goodbye. I was with the same person for several years, but how long should one stay? It’s an individual choice, but a necessary one.  I have the utmost respect for my last therapist (Doug), but he was not getting the hint when I kept telling him I needed a break—I was tired, I felt drained, and I needed to apply some of this knowledge to my daily life. Finally, I resorted to writing him a Dear John letter while he was on vacation—it’s not you, it’s me, I just need my space. He wrote me a very caustic reply, saying he would not be able to see me again if and when I ever decided to come back. So long, Doug… As for the others, the first ended when he moved away, the second in a nasty fight, and the third I just never called back when she reached out to get back together again. Such is the life of dating—I mean therapy.

Everyone could benefit from therapy! Everyone. Think of how cool it would be to confide in a person in the strictest of confidences? Who could not benefit from understanding why they react the way they do, from a non-judgmental professional who has an adept understanding of the way humans behave? Not sure why you can’t stand your sister-in-law? Wondering why you can’t relax in museums? Noticing a pattern with your unsuccessful dating life? Resentful of your kids for no good reason? Your answers are closer than you imagine. (The above scenarios are all hypotheticals, of course.)

There are affordable options.  Laws are changing to ensure that mental health coverage is commensurate to other health care coverage (Parity Law). Moreover, under the Affordable Care Act, more people have access to mental health treatment than ever before. If I did not have insurance, I could not have afforded to see a therapist weekly. But the co-pay was money well spent, even if it was a considerable expense in my weekly budget. When money was tighter, I went less often, but I still had access. There are also services through churches and synagogues (many of which are non-denominational), and many therapists will work on a sliding scale.

Don’t stay in a bad relationship. Finding the right therapist is work. Most health care websites have a database of practitioners in your area. It may take a few different ones before you feel the right fit. I did not have luck in this area. I knew I did not feel right with either female therapist, yet I stayed because I felt bad. That’s my issue. But if you are brave enough to seek counseling, do yourself a favor and find a good match.

Be open to the idea that you may find yourself in therapy again. I have been in and out of treatment several times. Right now, I am applying what I’ve learned in how I live my life. But I know that someday, I will probably need to seek help from a therapist again. And I hope I am aware enough now to know when that day arrives. Who knows, maybe, as I continue to grow, I won’t be ashamed to tell a friend where I am going after school?

Finally, the words of the song “What Do You Hear in These Sounds”, by Dar Williams, always resonate with me when I think about my tumultuous ride with therapy:

I don’t go to therapy to find out if I’m a freak
I go and I find the one and only answer every week
And it’s just me and all the memories to follow
Down any course that fits within a fifty minute hour …

And when I talk about therapy, I know what people think
That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink
But oh how I loved everybody else
When I finally got to talk so much about myself…

Her words sum up so much about my experience. I am no more a freak than you—okay, I did just laugh—but we’re all freaks in our own way. And, when you are given the right, the encouragement to talk about all of the things
that may be blocking you on life’s path, you find you are so much more open to others outside of therapy because you have dealt with your own issues in such a meaningful way.

The Booker Award {for those who refuse to live in the real world} Take Two

My apologies–a draft of this post went out unfinished and unedited. I meant to hit “save” and I hit “publish”. Uggh!

A big thank you to my fellow blogger, Michele Seminara, who nominated me for this blog award. The award is in the spirit of those who love books and find themselves lost in the world of books. I just wish that someone else nominated me, because Michele would be the first person whose blog I would nominate! She has an amazing, lyrical quality in her writing, and she also has a talent for poetry. If you read one poem this year, it should be Michele’s “Perchance to Dream“, it is hauntingly beautiful. Check out her work at The Everyday Strange and Sacred.

When it comes to books, I am all about the author’s voice. Plot is important, but there are only so many stories humans can tell. It is the way they are told, the voice that an author brings to a work, that is important to me. So, rather than give my five favorite books of all time, I will share with you the particular books where I felt captivated by the author, as if the story were only being told to me.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The way this book confronts racism, hatred, shame, loneliness and the triumph of the human spirit is just stellar. I read this book on a train while travelling through Europe, and it was as if an adult Scout Finch sat next to me and shared her life story. I could while away with this book for all eternity.

2. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have taught this book to sophomores in high school, and I always ask them to promise me that they will reread it when they are thirty. By then they will have had plenty of experiences with the downside of partying and loved some of the wrong people. By then they will feel like they’ve known a Jay Gatsby or two ( and he may be the one staring back at them in the mirror some mornings).

3. The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer. The beginning pages of The Tender Bar are so sad, as the young J.R. listens to his absentee father’s voice on the radio (his father was a notable disc jockey). This book exemplifies how one can overcome such a hardscrabble youth, the power of a mother’s love, and the belief that one’s role models can range in age and social status. After finding this book, I introduced it to my high school juniors. They were blown away by the candid voice Moehringer brings to the memoir–and the colorful characters he meets along his journey. It is the book they remember years later.  The narrative is beautifully told. It inspired me to try my hand at writing.

4. The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. I LOVE THIS BOOK! What I find most shocking about The Rules of Civility is that the writer is not a full-time author but a businessman. His characters have such depth–each one could be the protagonist of his/her own novel. I loved reading this book, because it harkened back to the days of Gatsby, but had female characters that were more three-dimensional and authentic, not your stereotypical waifs-in-waiting.

5. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace. I am not intelligent enough to fully comprehend DFW. He was a literary genius–right down to his tormented life and tragic death. But I have read his work, and this one was so refreshing in its scope and approach. The essays do not include the questions, just the answers from those who sat for each fictional interview. My favorite is the one about the bathroom attendant. I had never even considered such a character–in real life or books. After reading this, I consider these everyday people more than those we expect to see in our world–doctors, lawyers, teachers…

And the blogs that I would nominate for this award:

Cristian Mihai: This blogger is a published author and has a vast array of writing features on his site. His posts  about writing are so insightful and captivating. He makes me want to be a better writer. This blog is great for anyone who wants to reflect on the writing process and how it relates to us all.

One Thousand Single Days: Vanessa Katsoolis’ blog chronicles her challenge to be celibate and date free for 1,000 days. It is a fascinating look at the priorities one has–and what happens when they shift–in our modern world. Vanessa is a spirited, enlightened young woman. Her blog will not disappoint.

Mind of Andy: This blog, by a sixteen year old from Denmark, is such a pleasure to explore. Andy is beginning a book, and these are some musings he has about life. Despite his age, Andy has wisdom beyond his years. He hasn’t posted in over a month, and I miss his youthful take on this wacky world we live in. Come back, Andy!

Talkin’ Shit: From the title alone, you can tell this blog is a bit irreverent, but I love this guy’s honesty, his rants, and the fact that he has a lot of heart. He is a hater, but he hates a lot of the right things (ignorant people, hypocrites…) He has received a great deal of attention, but what I want to know is who are his reading influences? I hope he accepts the award. This blog is not for everyone, but it is for anyone who doesn’t mind Talkin’ Shit once in a while–or blogging about it.

Bubble Wrapped Blog: Caitlin McCann is a young woman who is in the know of all things literary. Her passion for reading, her love of authors, and her relationship with characters makes me jealous, for I will never read all the amazing books she has–and she is half my age!

Each of these bloggers serves as a reminder of how connected we can be in this modern technological age. I feel lucky to have found them. Do yourself a favor, and visit their sites.

Froggy Went a Corpsin’

The tragedy occurred around bedtime. Pam called me from upstairs, in an  I’m trying not to sound panicked tone. “Honey, come up here please.” “Okay,” I said from the computer with the hope that my response bought me five more minutes. “NOW!” she repeated urgently.

I rushed up the stairs. “What? What is it?” Pam and the boys were all standing outside of Hayden’s room. “It’s the frogs,” she said. The frogs were technically Hayden’s, a gift from his godmother three years ago. Fred and Shaggy, named after THAT Fred and Shaggy. Pam didn’t need to say anything else. I could see Caterina, one of our two cats, licking her paws and her chops. “Caterina ate the frogs,” Hayden wailed. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry, Hayd.” He had buried himself in Pam’s arms. “Why doesn’t everyone go brush their teeth, and I’ll clean up the mess,” I offered.

I surveyed the crime scene. The lid to the frog tank had been knocked off. Puddles of water and red pebbles were strewn across the top of the dresser. There was Owen, hot on my heels. “Do you think they’re dead, Dad? Do you think she ate them?” “I’m not sure, O, but you should be brushing your teeth.” Then, a discovery. “Look! There’s one on the floor,” he said. And indeed there was one of the frogs, dead in the center of the room. But Hayden’s cries had just subsided, and I didn’t want this to start another round of sobbing. “That’s frog poop, Owen. Now get out of here and let me clean up.” At this point, Pam was in the doorway looking at me. As Owen passed by her he said, “Well, that poop has arms and legs.” Dammit, I hate when kids are right.

I scooped the frog up in some tissues and flushed it down the toilet when the boys were finished in the bathroom. I ran the frogless tank down to the laundry room in the basement, where I emptied the remaining murky water into the laundry tub. Well, this is one way to get me to clean the tank, I thought. Then, I bagged the tank and threw it away in the outside garbage.

Back upstairs, Hayden railed against Caterina. “Stupid cat! I hate you!” “She didn’t mean it, Hayd. That’s what cats do.” Little consolation for a six year old. “Get out of my room!” he yelled to her. And that was the funny thing–she wouldn’t leave his room. She remained under the bureau on the damp rug, licking the walls. “Do you think the other one’s under there?” Pam asked. “No, she ate it,” I said. “Now let’s get these guys to bed. It’s late.”

About an hour later, we both emerged from the boys’ rooms, having fallen asleep with them once again. We had been looking forward to watching the season premiere of HOMELAND on Showtime all day, and we weren’t going to let a few deaths spoil our evening. These days, we don’t watch a lot of TV, so when we find a show that we must see, it’s a big deal. I insist we watch it on the big screen in the basement. So, we get our snacks, turn out the lights, and curl up on the couch for some nice suburban escapism.

HOMELAND is a show about terrorism and a turned U.S. Marine. It is edge-of-your-seat viewing, and the season opener did not disappoint: chase scenes, new villains, and more secret alliances. As we sat there engrossed, Pam shot up in her seat. “Holy shit! I think I just saw a frog out of the corner of my eye.” “Shut up!” I say. “A frog or a grasshopper,” she says. “Are you messing with me?” “NO!” We pause the show and stand up. And then. And…then… “OH MY GOD! IT’S THE FROG!” she yells.

Screams. Loud screams. Loud, curse-filled screams from both of us. Have you ever been involved with the death of a small creature, but it totally wreaks havoc on your mental state? Back from the dead images, from all the horror movies of my youth, flood my warped brain: Night of the Living Dead, Creepshow, Pet Cemetery. Fred or Shaggy “hops” lamely in our direction and Pam bolts up the stairs. “I can’t do this,” she hollers. “Come on,” I say. “Don’t leave me here.” From the other side of the door, she exclaims, “I don’t do animals.” “Oh, really, but what, if it was a human you’d pick up the body?” I say in disgust.

“We should put it out of its misery, right?” I ask from the bottom of the steps, where I am now alone (sort of). “I guess,” she says. “Well, get me some tissues and I’ll take care of it.” She finally gives in, but by then I’ve lost sight of him. We spend the next 10 minutes moving furniture, blankets and toys, and still no Fredshaggy. “I guess the cats will get him,” I say, hopefully. “What if the boys find him first?” Pam wonders. We are at a loss on what to do, so we decide to at least finish HOMELAND–standing up, of course. There was literally one minute left. As we turn off the TV, Pam yells, “There he is!” “Where?” “Right next to the Bat Cave.” Sure enough, there he was. His one leg clearly maimed and his froggy skin covered in lint from the carpet. “Sorry about this, buddy,” I say.

After I finish flushing my second frog of the evening, Pam and I try to piece together the events. CSI we ain’t. Theory 1: Caterina used him as her springy plaything, and eventually brought him down to the basement while we were watching the show; Theory 2: I accidentally dumped him out in the laundry tub when I was pouring out the gross frog water. Whatever the scenario, we are exhausted.

“Oh, no,” Pam cries from the dining room. “What now?” I ask. “Rufus (our yellow Lab) just ate an entire bag of Milano cookies.” “Oh, well, he’ll be fine.” “Honey, they have chocolate in them. Dogs can die from chocolate.” “He’s not going to die,” I say, on no particular authority. “But, if we wake up, and he is dead, then it’s your turn to pick up the body.” I turn into a petulant child. I begin my rant about the manliest job expected out of a husband and father–taking out the dead. “I had to do the frogs tonight, that dead deer on the lawn this summer, and every damn spider that comes in this house!” As I list my corpses, Pam looks at me with that look that says, Yep, and I married him folks.

It’s been two days since the event, and not one word from the boys about the frogs. I thought for sure I would have to run out the next day with them for the replacements, Velma and Daphne to be sure. But neither one has said a thing. Which is fine by us. We were outnumbered by the pets in our house since getting the kittens last summer. This puts the human/animal ratio back in our favor at 4:3. And that suits us just fine. For now.

Of Birthday cards, and cake, and cake, and cake…

Just had a birthday on September 29th–43. Enjoyed a relaxing weekend with my family. It’s funny how birthdays become such a non-event as you get older; the less fanfare the better. However, it’s nice to get presents and cards. I have to say, though, I’m a sucker for the homemade card. I am so cheap, and cannot bring myself to spend more than 2 bucks on a card. My wife, on the other hand, loves cards and stationery. I don’t think she even looks at the price on the back. If she likes it, she buys it. I wish I could be that way, sometimes. But, you cannot put a price tag on the stuff your kids make you. And now that they are at an age where it is legitimately their creation, it’s even more heartfelt. Take this year’s crop:

This is from Owen. It is the top of the box my birthday cake came in! He has been into drawing these new noses–more like carrots–definitely gives me a more Mr. Smithers look from The Simpsons.

This is from Hayden. It is important to note that we are both smiling. Pictures of us smiling are good. In our house, if Hayden is happy, EVERYONE’S happy.

And this is from Owen,too. Owen can never stop at one. He usually makes about 5 cards for whatever occasion. I think it’s an oldest child thing. I love this card. The front said “Choose your own Light Saber” and had three choices. Here is the inside. Allow me to translate: Darth Maul said he wants to duel you. But I would not let him. So I’m dueling him instead. But I scared him off. Happy Birthday.  (Please note: misspelled words were changed by a certified English teacher). How cool is that? My son, all of seven years old, was willing to stand up to Darth Maul for me. Pretty brave, huh?

And, finally, cake. What birthday would be complete without it? Not mine. I love cake. Actually, I’m a cake freak. Once, at a wedding, there was a cake shortage. I was caught by the staff skulking around the head table eyeing up the bride’s piece. The women shooed me from the table and quickly whisked away the bride’s cake for safe keeping. Anyhow, for me, a birthday is all about cake.

Two years ago, my birthday sucked. It was really just not a good day. It involved lost keys at work, being late for Owen’s bus home from school…I was not happy. And my cake sucked! It was some freezer burned, stale log from Baskin Robbins. Nothing edible should come in log form. Pam apologized, “It was all they really had.” At that point, I just wanted the day to end.

Last year, as my birthday approached, I had an epiphany: We spend all this time and money on the boys’ birthdays, and they always have these awesome theme cakes. That’s great. I’m glad we are giving them these happy memories. But why are our cakes usually an afterthought? Some last minute thing from a bakery or–yikes–the super market. Well, no more! “I want my birthday cake from the cake lady,” I declared that night at dinner. I know, I know, who has a cake lady? (It’s part of this functional family thing, I think). “Wow, okay,” Pam said excitedly.

Thus, a tradition was started. Not only did I get my cake from this woman who creates these amazing works of art out of her home–for less than one would spend at a bakery–but I decided my whole birthday would be about cake. I would only eat cake on my birthday. I started the day with my mother’s grandmother’s homemade pound cake–which she dropped off warm that morning. For lunch, I had Pam’s  coconut cake, a delicious dessert we discovered while on vacation one year in St. John. And for dinner, I had this:

I let the boys pick the theme. They chose Phineas and Ferb, their favorite cartoon.

It was such a great day. This cake thing made it more of an event, but in a simple way. I had quality time with my mom in the morning. She actually thanked me for asking her to make the cake. Then she shared some baking memories about the women in her family. Pam and I were able to reminisce about our time in St. John, where we got engaged and fell in love…with the coconut cake (which was delivered on a photocopy of the recipe from its feature in Bon Appetit magazine). Then, the boys and I were excited all day about having the cartoon cake for dinner. “I get to eat Phineas,” Owen said. “No, I called Phineas,” cried Hayden. “Boys, no fighting on Daddy’s birthday.” Laughter.

In the spring, as Pam’s birthday approached, she announced one day: “I’m getting my cake from the cake lady this year!” Woot, woot! Again, the excitement over cake reinvigorated us. Pam’s birthday is always around Memorial Day, and we spend it at her parents’ house on the shore. So, she went for a (more adult) beach theme:

And so, this past weekend, as I began my 44th year on this earth, I celebrated my second anniversary of cake day. The same three were featured throughout the day (the entire weekend, actually). The boys chose an Avengers cake this year–they are currently obsessed with all things Avengers, and that’s fine with me, as long as I get the last piece.

So, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too? I disagree.  And, by the way, that has to be one of the dumbest expressions I’ve ever heard. I’ve always wondered: Why would someone have cake and not be able to eat it? Fool! Please don’t explain the origin of this if you know it.  I’d rather wallow in my annoyance while I continue to disprove this idiotic idiom—I will have my cake (S) and eat them all!