Life

To My Facebook Friends: An Apology

facebook-556808_640Dear Facebook Friends,

I owe you an apology–all 899 of you.

You see, for the past year, I have not wished one friend a “Happy Birthday” on Facebook. I have not written on anyone’s wall, or posted an emoji in honor of another year passed, even though I would get several reminders from my news feed to do so. I can’t claim I didn’t know. I DID know, and still, I chose to do nothing. The reason? Guilt. I could not, in good conscience, wish certain people a happy birthday, while knowing I would miss other people’s birthdays during the days I did not go on Facebook–oh, yes, there are days I do not go on FB.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Facebook. I like feeling connected to the people who comprise my world. I like seeing what childhood friends are up to, even if I haven’t seen them since childhood. I like that the boy who was mean to my wife in grade school complimented her on a photo she was in recently. I like getting friend requests from people who would not invite me to a party in high school. I like seeing your children, your pets, your sunsets (I could do without the food shots, except for @phillyfooddude‘s). But I do not like the feeling I get when wishing some people a happy birthday while completely ignoring others. I do not like the pressure I feel when Facebook reminds me that Dutch and 4 other friends have birthdays today; that Leanne and Jennifer had birthdays two days ago; that I have 27 friends with birthdays this month; that I could send money or a gift to them–all 27 of them… I didn’t even like when Facebook would automatically type the birthday wish for me. All I had to do was click “send a message” and the words would magically appear in the comment box. Yet, the guilt remained.

It was too much. So, I decided to stop the madness. I woke up one day and thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t acknowledge one, or ten or 500, and NOT acknowledge all 899.” It had to be all or nothing. I chose nothing–and that has made all the difference.

I must admit, there were times I was tempted. And I did cheat once or twice by writing a comment underneath other comments that indicated well wishes to the birthday boy/girl. But I could not officially write on someone’s wall. Hell, I can’t manage to send cards– or even a text message– to those who are closest to me. My bar is set so low that I can only make sure I have cards and gifts for my wife, sons, and mother, and I will sign any card my wife sets in front of me. That’s it.

To those of you who have mastered this birthday wishing in our modern world, I salute you. To those of you who have wished me well in the past, I thank you. And to those who have forgotten or ignored my birthday, I understand. I truly do.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I humbly request that you not write on my wall. I won’t even mind if you write on the walls of the seven other people who share my birthday on your Facebook.  I just think it unfair.

Thanks for reading this. Thanks for being my friend. I hope that this year of your life is the best one ever (I used to write that on certain walls:). I’m looking forward to liking your next post, and commenting on occasion. Until then, take good care.

Your friend,

Michael

P.S. Laney and three other friends have birthdays today.

On Killing the Mockingbird

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known…

…I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictions: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.  –excerpted from my first blog post,                         August 18, 2012

So, here we are, on the literary cusp of a sad day for Finch fans. I’ve spent the last week reading reviews, interviews, and the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/postquel to TKAM. And like the rest of the world, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch advocated segregation. The headlines screamed: Atticus Finch was a bigot. “No!” I cried. “Not Atticus!”

Yet, after having some time to reflect, I must admit, I am a bit relieved. Atticus Finch is a literary hero, but he has turned into a paragon, a demigod. Decade after decade, he remained the ultimate father and citizen. And therein lies the problem. He was PERFECT. He lacked any flaws. Sure, one could admire him, and aspire to be like him, but, in the end, his persona was unattainable–even for Atticus himself. This does not sit well with the world: We like our heroes without flaw, beyond reproach. We seem to forget that heroes are human, and, therefore, fallible.

I am disheartened to learn that Atticus was not whole in his support for African Americans, but I am even more dismayed by society’s need to bring this book to the fore. The elusive and reclusive Harper Lee spent the better part of her life shielding it from public view. For more than half a century, Ms. Lee was content to let To Kill A Mockingbird remain her solitary novel. Speculation has even arisen as to Lee’s current mental and physical state. Thus, for me, the question remains: Was this really her intent? Why would a very private, humble woman finally agree to publish a work that will reshape her entire legacy?

Lee’s perplexing decision reminds me of the mockingbird referenced in her classic.

As Scout recalls:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'”(90).

I can’t help but think of Harper Lee’s voice as the mockingbird in question. For most of her adult life, her solitary novel served to6320407696_c23c605e65_n create music for generations of readers to enjoy. By breathing life into a young Scout and her father, Miss Lee sang her heart out for us.

Yet, we live in a world of insatiable appetites, one where greed trumps integrity, and our desire to know everything denies one’s request for privacy. In so doing, we have killed the mockingbird Lee tried to protect for over 50 years.

Sure, there is a chance that Lee knows exactly what she is doing. That by bringing Watchman to light, she is finally giving a complete, well-rounded perspective of the character. As many of you know, he was modeled after her father. Perhaps Lee wanted to pin down the wings that we have given St. Atticus, and make him more believable, fully developed–a truer reflection of a noble, but flawed, Southern white man of his time.

Now, you may be wondering if I plan on reading the book. I do. Yet, I will do so with a heavier heart. I am already mourning the loss of the man I have thought of often as I parent; the man I aspired to be. Truth is, like many, my sense of indulgence will get the better of me. Unfortunately, I am a product of my environment. I am human.

It turns out Atticus was, too.

(more…)

To Hayden on His Ninth Birthday

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First of all, I’m sorry. Sorry for the bangs. That clump of brown hair that thrusts itself against your forehead like a shellacked fortress. It took me years to train my bangs into the emblem of the 70’s: feathered wings– with the help of a comb that I carried in my back pocket from grades 6 through 8. Who knows, maybe you’ll bring back the trend.

And I’m sorry that you seem to have inherited the Grinch gene. You are a moody one, much like your Dadicus. You’ve mastered the art of frowning and sulking. From the beginning, you seemed to make your presence known by reminding us that the course of true love never did run smooth.

The day we brought you home from the hospital, you stopped breathing. You started turning blue in my arms. Thankfully, you jolted yourself back into the living world–with a little shaking from yours truly.

At your one week check-up, we relayed this to the pediatrician. He looked at Mom and me and said, “He stopped breathing and you didn’t bring him to the emergency room?” Feeling chastised, we both searched for some lame excuse. “Well, he started up again,” I offered.

And so it’s been for these nine years. You have been such a source of life in our hearts, but never typical in your approach. You are kind, sensitive, loving, and honest. And you can throw a fit like no other.

As you move into a new phase of your life, as your limbs no longer resemble those of a young boy, as you are on track to be taller than me by middle school, I thought it appropriate to give you a glimpse into some of your life thus far. There are so many stories–too many for a single blog post. And because it’s you, I can’t be all cutesy–all snips and snails and puppy dog tails. I want to embrace the many sides of you in words, which is quite challenging, but here goes.

DSC_0003As a baby and a toddler you were the conductor of many a freak-out. In infancy, you cried fiercely. As a toddler, you could throw a tantrum worthy of selling tickets. We consulted books (Brazelton’s Touchpoints/ The Super Nanny/ I’m Okay, You’re a Brat/ Magic 1,2,3); we asked fellow survivors  parents; we took any advice from your daycare teachers, neighbors, friends and strangers.

At around age four, the timeout in your room was no longer a viable option. It seemed like we had tried everything but duct tape. Ohh, we thought about it, but never tried it.

One day at work, a friend shared advice as to how they handled their son as a toddler:  her husband reversed the lock on the door knob to their son’s room. “So, instead of him being able to lock us out, we could lock him in!” Eureka! We had found our answer.

However, Mom was very much against Operation Alcatraz. “Well, I don’t know how to contain him when he throws a fit, and I don’t want to hurt him,” I pleaded.  “We’ve tried everything else-I’m giving it a go.”

The next day, I bought a brand new door knob set, and after school, I set about building your new cell. And as life would have it, you wandered into your room, curious as to what I was doing. I offered noDSC_0017 explanation, just asked you to hold a screw, hand me a tool. Soon, you ambled into your closet, where you started to play with various things. Then you discovered your memory drawer in an old dresser where I started storing memorabilia for each of us. For the next half hour, as I unscrewed and fastened, you paraded out of your closet with photos, and artwork, and blankies, and keepsakes. You wondered at your framed footprints, you squeezed your head into your old beach hat…  Before long, Owen joined in, and the two of you had more fun sorting through your lives.

As I finished replacing the knob–with the lock on the front of the door–you had created a pile of stuff around my tools. Looking down at the items, I was reminded of all the joy and love and hope your life had brought us. Mom came home to find you sitting in my lap, naming all your friends in a picture from pre-school, Owen in the background singing and sorting through his own memory draw. It was one of the tenderest moments of our lives.

But then, she spied the reason we were all gathered in your room. She shot me a look and tears sprung to her eyes. “I cannot believe you are really doing this!” she said angrily. “I’m at the end of my rope,” I replied. “And who knows, we may never even need to use it,” I mused.

The next day was a Friday. Mom had decided to pick you up from daycare so I could get moving on some landscaping projects. As I tilled in the garden on that late spring afternoon, I kept thinking back to the day before. I marvelled at all the experiences we had already created together. It was such a weirdly pleasant event, being in your room as both jailer and guide, and a reminder that we are all working hard at building this enigmatic thing called “a family.”

I was roused from my thoughts when I saw Mom’s car careen into the driveway. Right away, I knew something was wrong.

As she jumped out of the driver’s side, I could hear screaming cries from the back seat. “He’s going right up to his room! Right up!” she called to me from the driveway. You flailed, as mom wrestled you into her arms and inside the house.

Well,  I just had to laugh. How’s that for irony? Mom was the first one to use the new system, and the very next day, no less.

I walked in and stood at the bottom of the stairs. There was Mom sitting on the floor in the hallway outside your room. And you? You were safely in your room crying, yelling and throwing books. And the new door knob was securely locked from the outside.

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Thankfully, we didn’t have to use the lock often. It was more comforting just to know it was an option. Yet, as much as we have had to learn to adapt to your personality, we have reaped the benefits of your charm, your wit, your loving side. I honestly think that one of the reasons you’ve had to adjust your temper is because you feel things so deeply. You absorb the world in ways that others do not. You have a sense of empathy, an awareness of all that goes on around you.

I’ll give you an example. When you were a toddler, I taught in Ghana for part of the summer. I was gone quite awhile and you did the funniest thing. You found an old pair of  eyeglasses with the lenses popped out and you put them on. Mom said you wore them for much of the time I was away. It was as if a part of me was with you in my absence. When I returned, you slowly found no need to wear them. Your other pair of glasses was now safely home. That’s how deeply you care.

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Everything can’t fit in a drawer filled with memories, Hayden, but I wish you could remember so many aspects of your childhood. Here are just a few:

You are a lover of LEGOs.

At bed time, you rotate which stuffed animal to bring to bed with you.

You dance like no one’s watching.

You’ve proudly appointed yourself class clown.

You’ve earned the nickname “Hot Dog” in Little League, and had the thrill of hearing your teammates chant it as you hit a home run this season.

You insist that Mom and I both kiss you goodnight.

You love it when I snuggle you.

When I am about to leave your room at bedtime, I whisper in your ear: “I love you Stinky Face.” (From one of our favorite baby books)

Sometimes, when you and I get REALLY mad at each other, we just start cracking up laughing.

You are the luckiest one in the house–winning raffles and carnival games like it’s your job.

You’ve discovered Harry Potter. You proudly play your recorder for anyone who’ll listen. You’ve never met a carb you didn’t like. You’re loud–REALLY LOUD!

And we love you. Through it all, we love you.

Looking forward to sharing more of this ride with you.

Dadicus

hayden's b-day

Gary On My Wayward Son

It came in a text message so short it could have been a tweet. It read: I love you and mom. Gary. And there it was, my son’s first genuine attempt at saying he loves me, sent to us via his older brother’s iPod Touch.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you probably know that I have two sons, neither of whom is named Gary. The Gary in question would be my eight year old, Hayden. And if you keep reading, I promise you’ll find out why we call him Gary.

When it comes to Hayden, I struggle with finding the right words to describe him, probably because he is such a dichotomy. The second born, he can be loving and kind one minute, angry and cruel the next. He is moody, he is temperamental, he is high maintenance, he is–dare I say it–me.

Hayden and I are a lot alike, and that’s why we tend to butt heads. When we’re not fighting, we get along famously. He’s the one whose more inclined to run errands with me, to walk the dogs, to go watch a high school basketball game.

But, I have a saying I use on him sometimes when he has tried my patience. I say, “And one day, Hayden, you will have a son of your own. And he will do these things to you, and you will call me on the phone and say ‘Dad, do you believe what he just did? I was never like that, was I?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, Hayden, you have no idea. No idea!'”

Our love for each other manifests itself in small ways. He’ll hold my hand when we’re walking in a crowded parking lot or the quiet fields near our house. He’ll rest his head on my shoulder as we sit and watch TV. He lets me kiss him goodnight. He even wants me to lie with him til he falls asleep. Yet, in the eight and a half years I have known him, he has never been able to say “I love you.”

When he was a toddler, I forced a few mumbles out of him, but never a clear expression.

The lack of “I love you, toos” used to bother me. I told myself to just keep saying it, and it would sink in for him to respond. But sometimes, my annoyance with his silence made me petulant. One night last year, I remember putting him to bed. Like every night, I tucked him in, kissed him and said:

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And in return, I got this:

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To which I said in an annoyed tone:

gn.4

 

 

 

 

 

 

To which Hayden responded:

gn.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SORT OF!?” I shouted, echoing him.

“Yeah,” he replied, “it means a little.”

So I gave up. I no longer cajoled. I never begged. I just kept saying it and meaning it. And in the past year, I’ve noticed him get more thoughtful about it. I see the smile on his face when we say those words to him. I see his eyes beam when we tell him how much he means to us. The other night, I tucked him in and did my routine of tickling/stealing kisses from him. When our game ended, and I went to give him his “official” goodnight kiss, I heard him whisper “fifteen.” “Fifteen what?” I asked. “Kisses. You gave me fifteen kisses.” I had two thoughts–well three: One–that’s a bit excessive. Two–how cute that he counted. And three–how much longer will he let me kiss him goodnight?

I do not know the answer to that. What I do know is that this boy understands he is loved. And I know it is reciprocated. A week ago, Hayden became sullen (for the tenth time that day). “What’s wrong, sweetie?” my wife asked him. He shared with her how he does love us, but he is not comfortable saying it. “Do you want me to tell dad?” she asked. He nodded yes. She obliged.

“No problem, buddy,” I said.  “We know you do. People show their love through their actions.” (My little passive aggressive/reverse psychology attempt at getting him to be nicer).

Then a few days after sharing his hesitation with us, we get the text. From our son…Gary. Hayden’s nickname came about as a coping mechanism. As a toddler, when he would pitch a fit, I’d say, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” This seemed a little extreme. Besides, I didn’t want to be blamed for giving him the idea if he became one, so I had to change my approach. When we thought of Hayden’s temper, Pam and I would joke about the boy in the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin. Dianne Wiest’s character had a son named Gary (played by a young Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix). He was so angry and anti-social, yet she killed him with kindness. “Hi, Gaaaaaaarrrrrry,” she’d say with her sweet smile and kind voice. Gary was batshit crazy, but his mom was going to love him sane.

Pam and I took to saying “Hi, Gaaaarrrrrry” when Hayden became especially inconsolable.  As good parents, we tried to do it behind his back, or when he was out of earshot, and it was surprisingly therapeutic. “Hi, Gaaarrrrrrry” had the effect of a deep, relaxing breath. And as we slowly let our Gaaarrryyyy comments creep into our dealings with him, it became a way for us to try to kill Hayden with kindness. “What’s wrong, Gaaarrry?” “Awww, are you mad, Gaaarrry?” Our Gaaarrrrys would be extra long, an octave too high, and more sugary than a powdered donut.

As the years passed, the name found its way into more of our everyday lives. Now, it’s not uncommon to greet Hayden as Gary when he comes in the house from school or play. At first, Pam told me not to, but he piped in with, “No, I like it!” Oh, we still whip out our Gaaarrrry when he starts to act up, but Hayden has taken to the name–he has never seen Parenthood, although we did tell him about Dianne Wiest’s devil child.  Truth is, the more the name sticks, the less like Gary our Gary  Hayden is. How’s that for irony?

So, when I get a text from a kid named Gary who claims his love for me, I know I’m making progress. And when I get that phone call from him years from now about his own son’s behavior, I’ll say, “Put Gary on the phone, I want to talk to him.”

Cartoons by the talented artist Aidan Murphy.

The Crayola Factory Is Not Where Babies Come From

Last week, we took a day trip to the charming town of Easton, Pennsylvania to visit the Crayola Factory. Like most families, our kids have been holding Crayola crayons since they were babies. And, like most families, we took this one-hour car ride to the factory to talk to our boys about sex. Nothing says sex like…Wait. You don’t see the connection? (I’m relieved). The two are not connected, but that’s the thrill of parenting: you never know which direction your children will take you, even when you have Google Maps on your phone.

In the morning, as we are getting ready to leave, Owen (10) walks up to Pam and whispers something to her about sex. “Do you know what sex is?” she asks.

He shakes his head no. “Some kids at school were talking about it,” he says.

Hayden (8) chimes in: “And someone wrote it on the seat of the bus.”

We exchange a look. The time has come.

“Well, we have an hour in the car. We can tell you all about it,” I say. Owen looks nervous. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I say, “sex never takes a whole hour.” Pam shoots me a look that says behave, Michael. Behave.

And so our journey began. It was like Masters and Johnson by way of Binney and Smith.

Me: Guys, pause your video games. Mommy and I need your attention.

Pam: Are we really doing this now? We haven’t prepared what to say.

Me: It’ll be alright. We just have to start the conversation today. Boys, do you know anything about sex?

Boys: No.

Me: You have NO idea?

Boys: No.

Me: It’s okay if you have. We just want you to know the truth.

Both boys shake their heads. Sure, they giggle at the word “sexy” in songs. Sure, they wonder why Snow White and Prince Charming kiss so much in the TV show Once Upon a Time. They’ve heard talk, but they just weren’t putting two and two–or should I say X and Y–together.

Me: Well.. (deep breath) sex is something two people do when they are in love. It is a physical act. During sex, a man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina.

Both boys appear panic-stricken.

Me: A man and a woman have sex when they want to have a baby.

Both boys mouths drop.

Hayden: You’re freaking me out, dad.

Owen: Do we have to have sex?

Me and Pam in unison: No!

Owen: Do we have to have sex if we want to have kids?

Pam: Well, no, there are–

Me: Honey, let’s keep it simple. Yes, sex is where babies come from.

Owen: I’m not having kids.

Me: And, when a woman has a baby, it actually comes out of her vagina, not her belly.

Hayden: No way!

Me: Way.

Pam: It can come out her belly if…

Me: Keep it simple, hon.

Pam: Well, both of them did come out of my belly.  Mommy had what’s called a cesarean section with both of you.

More looks of fear.

Hayden: So, you guys had to have sex twice?

Pam: Mm-hmm.

Hayden: Oh, my gosh, Owen, could you imagine if you walked in on mom and dad when they were making me?

Owen: Stop, Hayden! That’s crazy. Can we stop talking about this now?

Me: Yes, we can. But I want you to know, you can ask us anything you want about sex. I’m sure you are going to hear things from other kids, and we just want you to know the facts. I’d rather you hear it from us then on the bus or from kids at school.

Hayden: Sex! Ew, that’s so weird. Why would anyone have sex?

Me: And don’t be those kids that go around telling everyone else what sex is now that you know.

Owen: Don’t worry. I don’t want to think about it. I’m NEVER having sex.

Hayden: Me neither!

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For the rest of the day, the word pops up every so often. The boys crack up and shake their heads in disgust and amazement, but overall. a fine first outing.

AS we explore the Crayola Factory, I am thankful for all of the wonder they still have in being kids. Coloring and creating, climbing the crayon shaped jungle gym; making figurines out of molding clay. This is what it’s like, I think. They are exposed to things, and then they go back to being kids. Like rubber bands, their minds’ stretch, but then return–almost–to the original shape–almost.

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A few days later, Hayden hands me a note from school. It’s announcing the return of his guidance counselor from maternity leave.

“How exciting!” I say. “Maybe she will bring in her baby for your class to meet.”

Hayden seems preoccupied by something. Finally, he says, “Her poor husband.”

“Poor husband?” I say, confused. “Why her poor husband?”

“Umm. I think you know.”

“No, I don’t buddy.”

“Ummm. S-E-X,” he spells.

“Sex!” Owen exclaims.

“Yeah, the poor guy had to have sex with her!” Hayden says.

“He’ll be alright,” I say. “He’ll be alright.”

And so will you, I think to myself.

 

Behold the boys latest creations, brought to you by Crayola markers. Can you spot any damage from our conversation?

"Skater Down a Manhole Cover" By: Hayden

“Skater Down a Manhole Cover” By: Hayden

"Rocky Roads" by: Owen

“Rocky Roads” by: Owen

Disney Loves Company

The family Grinch recently endured  survived  returned from a magical trip to Walt Disney World. Truth is, we had a wonderful time. Exhausting, but wonderful. One thing that I noticed was the fact that each day became less hellish. What was met with dread on day one (Yes, we have to take a car, then a tram, then a ferry to the Magic Kingdom…Yes, the wait time for this ride is 50 minutes…Yes, the line to greet Mickey is longer than the length of our home state) was, by day three, met with acceptance, even contentment (Wow, the monorail takes half the time as the ferry…Cool, the wait time for this ride is ONLY 45 minutes…Aww, look at those poor suckers waiting in line for a photo op with Mickey).

But not to worry. This post is not a park-by-park summary of our stay. Rather, it’s a reflection on my first trip to Disney, when I was just about my oldest son’s age–10. For some reason, every experience I have as a dad is reimagined through the lens of myself as a boy.  And as we sat on the plane, ready for takeoff from Philadelphia International, I watched my sons quietly working through the sticker books that their mom makes sure they have for each plane ride. I was impressed with how seasoned they’ve become as airplane passengers. Even though traveling today takes the patience of a saint, it has become somewhat enjoyable as the boys are getting older–maybe not enjoyable, but at least manageable. And it was with this observation that I hearkened back to my first time on a plane, traveling to Orlando, Florida–to visit Walt Disney World.

The year was 1980. A time of feathered hair and large combs peaking from the back pockets of Wrangler jeans. A time when my teenage siblings dabbled with Sun-in and Dexatrim. A time when the ominous face of the Ayatollah Kohmeni stared up at me from our doorstep every morning when our neighbor, Kevin, delivered The Bulletin. A time when a news anchor by the name of Ted Koppel informed the nation each night about America’s hostages. It was during this time of familial and political upheaval that my parents decided to bring us to Disney. ALL SEVEN OF US–nine including them.

Yes, we loaded up our duffel bags and set out for the Sunshine State.

Honestly, I don’t recall much of our actual visit to Disney World, except for the fact that so much that is there today was non-existent: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Universal…None of those existed yet. But, I do recall our plane trip down there, and  its abysmal aftermath.

I wore my Mickey Mouse shirt–not the t-shirt, but one with pearly buttons that snapped and had little vignettes of Mickey in pioneer gear. I loved that shirt, and felt like Disney royalty wearing it on the plane with my favorite pants, a pair of Toughskin kakhis. We were flying TWA (Trans World Airlines) and my mother assuaged any fears we might have by saying that we were sure to make it there safely since TWA stood for Traveling With Angels. “Do angels hold up the wings?” I asked, nervously. “Of course they do,” she assured me.

Once on the plane, I sat with my sister and brother who were closest in age. The rest of the family was scattered throughout the cabin. Freedom. Such freedom that it felt like I was flying first class. Freedom to order sodas and peanuts, and pretzels, and more soda.

Boy, was flying fun back then! My brother and sister and I just lounged around the seats chewing wads of gum to ward off ear popping. And we struck up a conversation with a girl across our row, who got out of her seat and chatted away with us, all while hanging in the aisle. Each time the stewardess walked by–yes, that’s what they were called back then, stewardesses–I would ask for another drink or snack. She must have liked us, because she obliged every time. I didn’t know what Disney was going to be like, but this plane ride was enough of a highlight for me. “Are you kids behaving?” my mom asked on her way to the bathroom, lit cigarette dangling in her hand. “Yes,” we all said in unison, including our new best friend from across the aisle.

As we approached Florida, the plane began to experience turbulence. The fun was over. Everyone to their seat, lap belts fastened. Once settled in my chair, I felt anything but. The ride turned bumpy and the half-dozen sodas percolated in my stomach with all the peanuts, chips, pretzels, and candy I had consumed in the past two hours.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said, looking at my sister.

“Well, use this!” she said, fetching me the barf bag from my seat pocket. As I struggled to open it, I could feel the bile in my throat. I had seconds to react. Finally, I pried the bag open, and as I pushed my mouth towards its opening, we hit a major air pocket. BUMP! The vomit missed the bag and spewed all over my shirt (Oh, Pioneers, Mickey!) and my favorite pants. I was covered in remnants of our junior happy hour.

“Mom, Michael threw up!” Erin yelled.

“What?” said my mom, a few rows up.

“MICHAEL THREW UP!!”

Thankfully, my mom came back to get me. She and the stewardess walked me to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet while my mom wiped my clothes. The stewardess–she really was an Angel–kept rinsing towels and handing them to my mom. The plane rocked its way to the runway, and I jumped from the tiny toilet seat crammed in the bathroom with my mother and another. “Welcome to Orlando,” a voice sang over the intercom. I stifled a moan.

I exited the plane, damp and smelling of a mixture of Coke, bile, and pretzel salt. I felt groggy. Hungry yet full. Excited and embarrassed. We were in Disney! I had to move on.

After getting the luggage, we made our way to the rental car company. My dad stood at the counter, and 16 eyeballs bore into his back. “What is taking so long?” someone finally whined.

“I’m sorry. There’s been a mix-up,” said the man behind the counter. “You rented a van, and vans are at our other facility. We’ll have to take you there.” He looked at the gaggle behind my father. “All of you.”

All of us AND our luggage. And so ten of us–TEN- squeezed in to a four door sedan. The nine of us and the rental car worker. As we tried to figure out seating, everyone was getting grumpy. My six siblings lapped it in the back seat. My mom sat between the driver and my dad in the front seat. And me? Where was I? I was crouched in the well of the passenger side, scrunched up against the glove compartment, sitting on my dad’s feet while whiffs of evaporating throw up stung my nostrils…

How many people can say they’ve ridden in a car looking up from the glove compartment?

My son’s voice brings me back to the present.”Dad, my ears hurt,” he says as we begin making our descent into Orlando.

“Okay, buddy, do you want some gum?” “I’m chewing gum!” he cries, showing me his mouth. Uh-oh, the meltdown is about to begin.

“Try to yawn…stretch your mouth…hold your breath AND your nose and then blow.” I look like I’m playing charades as I mimic each movement. Nothing is helping and he is inconsolable. He writhes in pain then attempts to kick the back of the chair in front of us, so now I have to hold down his legs. I try to bribe him. Give him candy. I know he’s in pain, but really? Really? This seems a little extreme.

Finally, when it appears he can take no more, we reach an altitude where his ears clear. Ahhh. I can see he’s still upset, and I want to try to make him feel better. I reach for his hand and squeeze it tight. “Did I ever tell you about my first time in an airplane?” I begin. “It was also to Walt Disney World”…

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There's my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

My oldest brother, Charlie, and I. There’s my Mickey shirt, pre-tragedy.

 

 

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All the kids with my dad before our flight to Disney. My glasses seem to be made out of the same plastic as my bangs.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know where I am sporting cleavage.

All smiles in the park. One of the only pictures I know of where I am sporting cleavage.

 

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

TWA boarding pass. Smoking? YES!

The ONLY picture of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera--you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

The ONLY shot of our family in front of The Magic Kingdom. The beauty of a Polaroid camera–you know how shitty the picture is instantly!

Elf You!

This post originally appeared on December 5, 2013.

elfIt happened again this morning–another reminder of how I am depriving my children, something that I’m sure will leave an emotional scar for decades to come. You see, our house is elfless. You read that right. We do not have an”Elf on the Shelf” (brought to you by Hasbro…batteries not included). Sorry, certain marketing gems bring me back to the commercials of my childhood.

Anyway, there we were, getting ready for school, the boys eating breakfast at the kitchen counter, when a neighbor dropped off her two kids for my wife to put on the bus. “Now, Adam, don’t forget to have a good day at school,”she calls out to him as he bounces through the kitchen. Then, she turns to us and says, “Blinky had to make a special trip to the North Pole to give Santa a report.” The boys and I exchange confused looks. Pam says, “Oh, you have an elf.” “Yep,” she says, smiling, although I can’t tell if her look is one of rejoicing or regret. “He’s helping Santa keep a close eye on them.” We all laugh nervously–my wife and I with the fear that our boys will ask why we don’t have an elf. Thankfully, they don’t. Yet, as we continue with the morning routine, I feel a bit sad for them. They are excluded from this new holiday tradition. We are completely disconnected from the elf craze. This is what it must be like for my Jewish friends who did not grow up with Santa, I think. Lucky them!

I am kind of a curmudgeon when it comes to Christmas. I hate all the hullabaloo about shopping and buying presents, of giving and getting gifts. “We have to get Soandso a gift because they get us one.” “Another pleather wallet! You shouldn’t have, Uncle Marty.” Really, you shouldn’t have. It’s worse with my own kids, who start making preliminary Christmas lists in June! I think they’ve made six this year (so far). I’m such a Grinch that I look forward to the day when they no longer believe in Mr. Claus. Then, I won’t feel bad about shooting down their wish lists. Now, we have to invent stories about why they couldn’t get a thousand dollars worth of Legos from Santa.

I enjoy family get togethers. I like the idea of decorating a tree and eating Christmas cookies, but the whole consumerism thing gives me a headache as thick as Target‘s Christmas catalogue–which arrived before Halloween. And that’s why I was actually glad when we dodged the snowball of Elf on the Shelf. It has gained popularity just as our sons’ belief in Santa is waning. They are seven and nine for Kringle‘s sake. My wife almost caved last year, but I begged her not to give in. Thankfully, she was strong. But it is awkward for us when others mention their elves. Anyone with younger kids, toddlers and such, HAS to have one, like my poor neighbor this morning, whose son is in kindergarten. If our kids were younger, we’d have an elf. And I’d be in HELF–Elf Hell.

I don’t think American culture needs any more encouragement when it comes to celebrating Christmas. As a matter of fact, I wish there was a little more coal handed out. Plus, I’m bothered by the whole “Watching You” concept. It’s bad enough to invent the omnipresent eyes of the invisible Santa, but now to have one of his minions looking in on you, well, in that case why not just call him Big Brother? Sorry to be such a downer, but you can’t convince me of the value of this. Parenting is just one idle threat after another–I don’t need a plastic pixy to do my dirty work. Just as I try to stay away from Black Friday sales–which are still going on a week later, I might add–I try to avoid all things elf.

elf2

But I did have fun on my way to work. I fantasized about what I would tell the boys if they do ask why we don’t have an Elf on the Shelf. “Mommy’s allergic.” No. “They cost too much money.” Nope, they know how much they cost because they’re on display in every toy and card store. “They will leave poop in the house.” Definitely not. Knowing my boys, that would make them want one even more. Finally, I fantasize about having a conversation with them where I explain how we can’t get an elf because we have two new dogs under the age of one. Huck and Rosie would attack the elf, and could possibly even kill it, I explain. Next, we would all imagine the elf torn to shreds–its pointy nose and impish smile chewed to bits. Then one of the boys would ask if elves bleed, and I would nod yes. Their eyes would widen, as they hug me and thank me for saving one of Santa’s helpers. Then they would go to their rooms, clean them without asking and see all the toys they already have. “Dad,” they would holler, “come here, quick!” I would run upstairs to find them finishing a note to Santa that reads: Christmas List–Revised (in my fantasy, they know what revised means). “Here,” they would say (in my fantasy, they would speak in unison). Then, they’d hand me the piece of paper, which would state: “All we want for Christmas is peace on Earth.”

My boys…I shake myself from the fantasy just as I am pulling into the parking lot at work. I feel good. I’m oddly proud of my sons for wanting world peace. I remind myself to enjoy Christmas with them this year–it’s probably Owen’s last year “believing”.

And then an image pops into my head that warms my heart: It’s of our two dogs lying by the fire Christmas morning, gnawing on the last remnants of an elf ear . Ahhhh. Don’t you just love the holidays?

Photo credits: Michael Kappel

 

Dying to tell you…

I spent Saturday night at my brother’s house with family and friends. His house is always lively, where anyone is welcome, where shouts of playing and laughter echo through the halls–and I’m just talking about the grown-ups. It was a great time, and always fun to catch up with friends new and old.

My mom was there, and also enjoys reminiscing with our friends– the people she watched grow from boys and girls into men and women. One of my brother’s friends, Dom, was regaling us with stories of my dad, and the years disappeared as he recounted spending weekends at our house as a teenager.

As we were leaving, my mom gave Dom a big kiss and said, “Be sure to come to my funeral, Dom?” “Mrs. Trainer!” he replied, shocked, “I’ll see you again.” “I’m only teasing,” she said.  He hugged her tightly. “Well, don’t talk like that!”

But talk like that she does. Daily.

I have been preparing for my mom’s death for as long as I can remember. My mother has always been fixated on death–hers and others. I know the reasons–a father dying in front of her at five; an only child due to her mother’s numerous still-borns.

Sure, I understand why. But that didn’t help my youthful angst. Angst that lie with me in bed each night after kissing my mother and saying, “I love you. See you in the morning.” And her reply: “God willing.” Angst that rode next to me in the passenger seat as I drove to places with my mother’s directions, explained in tragic landmarks: “Go up to the road where that little boy was killed on his bike, and then turn right at the funeral home where Uncle Jimmy was laid out…” Angst that stayed with me for decades–each day a body count from the news she watches, each week a report as to how many people we know–or I do not know, as is often the case–who are sick and dying.

Yet, in my later years, I do not meet her comments with anger or angst. I laugh. And I laughed when she said this to Dom in the kitchen. My mom, the Gram Reaper.

My wife was indoctrinated into my mother’s morbid ways early in our marriage. During that first year, my mom came to our house one Saturday afternoon with coffee and a garment bag. As she handed the bag to Pam, she announced,”This is my funeral dress, hon. I want you to be in charge of it.” Pam laughed and cried at the same moment. I just shook my head and smiled. Yet, that dress has hung in my wife’s closet for over 13 years–it has moved two times with us. Pam has her job.

At school, the teachers marvel when I mention the various paraphernalia I receive from my mom: a handful of “Living Wills” to distribute to my friends; the deed to her cemetery plot; her living will. And most recently, the letter announcing she can officially have her funeral mass at the Villa where she resides in an apartment building run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. “Here you go!” she announces one night while over for dinner, thrusting it towards me with the gusto of a high school senior who has just been accepted to college. “Now, I just need to make a copy for everyone else.” “Why?” I ask. “You didn’t even need to give me a copy. I’m sure Sister would tell me when the time comes.” “I just thought you should have it.” Translation–you may not have thought about my death in the past few days, and I didn’t want you to forget!

If there is one thing that is unforgettable about my mom, it is her passion for all things tragic. She has had her share, as have I, as have all of us. But the funny thing is, the more I have embraced my mom’s sense of the tragic, the more I have made it my job to emphasize the comic. “You’re going to outlive us all!” I say when she hands me the latest item for her funeral. And she just might. She’s beaten both breast and ovarian cancer. But I know that does not comfort her. There’s no fun in dying if no one’s there to mourn.

Last year, after reading the book This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper–a book about a dysfunctional family sitting Shiva–I had an epiphany. I called my mom the next day. “Mom, I have a great idea for your funeral.” “What is it?” she said, excited I had started to take a genuine interest. “Well, you know how Jewish people sit Shiva for seven nights?” “Yeah.” “Well, to eliminate any drama, why don’t each of us take a night–each of your seven kids could have a night where they get to sit with you, and their friends can come and pay their respects. And other relatives can come whenever they like.” “There’s a thought,”she said, but I got the feeling it allowed for too little drama and not nearly enough pageantry. It sounded like the right approach to me, though.

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In the car today, just the two of us, we chat about my brother’s party. “Isn’t Dom funny,” she says, “the way he remembers all those things about being at our house?” “He’s a riot,” I say. “It was good to see him.” Then the conversation quickly turns to death. She begins, “You know, we had a guy in this week from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery–a real young guy, handsome, to talk about planning our funeral costs.” “I know, you told me already. The one Sister had a crush on.” She laughs. “Guess how much less it is to get cremated than buried?” “How much?” “He said seven-hundred dollars.” (I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.) “Oh!” I say, “Are you going to be cremated?” “I don’t know.” Then she launches into a story about someone who buried a box of their relatives ashes on top of someone else’s grave. “Didn’t cost them a thing,” she says. I try to comprehend this logic. “What happens if they have to bury someone else in that grave?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, now wondering.

“So, if you get buried, who will you be with?” I ask, although I should know. The answer comes without pause: “Pop [her stepdad], Daddy, and Phil.” Phil is a neighbor who died in his thirties–long story on how he got to be in the family plot. “Oh, God!” I say. “You can’t be buried with those three–you’ll never rest in peace. That settles it–you’re being cremated.”

We laugh. My mom and I laugh. It may sound like a weird approach to others, but that’s what we do. It’s certainly what I do. And in a strange way it makes me feel closer to her. I don’t shut down when she brings up this sorrowful topic. I no longer yell at her out of fear and confusion. I just acknowledge it, and then try to see it from a lighter perspective. It helps.

As we drive, I feel this sense of satisfaction. My mom and I driving around on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November.

I try to change the subject so she’s not thinking of her impending demise too much. “So,” I say, “do you have any funerals this week?”

 

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Hardy, flickr.com

 

Wee the People

The voice of democracy rang through our house last week. Owen (9) came home to inform us that he was running for student council. “Only 4th and 5th graders can be classroom representatives,” he told me excitedly. “Each class elects one boy and one girl. A lot of boys are running, but I think I have a shot.”

As he walked out of the kitchen, I already felt like he had won. I was so proud of the fact that he decided to run on his own. As a parent, you’re often not sure if your kids are getting the message. We don’t keep a checklist on the fridge of all the things we do/do not want them to do. So, we try to lead by example. But, more than that, we hope. We hope a lot. Hope that they will understand all that we cannot put into words. That they err on the side of what’s right. That they just be nice, and kind, and president.

Over the next few days, Owen worked on his campaign. He sat in his room creating posters that highlighted his policies and platform. Posters that looked like this:

photo (51)

“Wow, Owen!” I said, impressed. “This looks awesome!”

“And I made him this one, Dad,” said his little brother, Hayden (8):

photo (50)

And just like that, I beheld the candidate and his campaign manager. For the next few days, it felt like I was in the presence of a young JFK and his brother, Bobby. The boys continued their work in earnest.

“Dad, did you notice on my signs where I ask everyone if they got their cards?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“See, you can’t give out candy or prizes, so I thought it would be neat to give each of them a card before they vote.” Cards. He made 28 little cards for his classmates. Cards that looked like this:

photo (52)

“Here’s the one he made for me,” piped in his manager, Hayden. And he showed me this:

photo (55)

“Now, Owen, you should put all of these in a folder so you don’t…” directed Hayden, and the two boys were off again. I saw them cutting and folding, and placing everything in what I am sure was the first file cabinet for many of us–underneath the couch.

The day before the election, the boys and I were driving in the car. “So, Owen, if you did win, what is something you think you might do for your fellow classmates?”

“Well,” he said, “every month we go to a meeting with the principal and some teachers and tell them of any problems.”

“What do you think might be a problem you would bring up?”

“Umm, like, let’s say the buses are too crowded. Then I would work to fix that.”

“Okay, how?” I implore.

“By telling them we need more buses!” he answers emphatically.

Would that it were that easier, my son. Would that it were, I think. Yet, I say, “Sounds good, buddy.”

That night, I watch him craft his speech. He doesn’t let me read it, but he allows me to show him how to write it in big letters on several indexphoto (56) cards. Since I will not see him in the morning, I wish him well before bed.

“Good luck tomorrow, O. And just remember, no matter what happens you can still be a leader.”

“Okay,” he says.

“You’re a leader just for wanting to run in the election. No matter what happens–you’ve already won in my book.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I first thought about writing this post before the election took place, and I thought it would be cool not to reveal if he won or not. I truly believe he is a winner just for trying to do this at such a young age. And not a “winner” in the sense that every kid gets a trophy at the end of the season regardless of their record, but a winner in the sense that he took a chance, he stood up, he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself.

But now that I know the outcome, I must inform you–and not for the reasons you might think.

Owen won. He did, and I am proud. But the victory was enlightening for other reasons.

For one, some of his “friends” said mean things about his winning–one even claimed they were no longer buds (the same boy who was playing with him at a birthday party two days later)–and therein lies a hard lesson for anyone. As the wise sage Taylor Swift once proclaimed, “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” An important lesson indeed: there will always be people who will try to dampen your spirits, who don’t want you to succeed. But I am happy to tell you that Owen seemed quite unphased by this.

The second insight from the election comes from the fact that two of Owen’s running mates wore oxfords with bow ties and delivered Power Point presentations. My son wore his usual shorts and sneaks, delivered a heartfelt speech and gave everyone a colorful voting card–looks like Owen’s on his way to being a Democrat.

Regardless of his political leanings–he’ll always have my vote.

God Bless America!

 

 

To the Man in the Black Hat

To the man in the black hat

walking the white dog

who passed me while I was taking a break

from running in the park,

my back to him as I stretched under the

canopy of green trees

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

whose gray hair hugged his tan neck

while I watched him walk away on the path

enjoying my freedom in the cool breeze

on this late day in spring

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

with the yellow letters that cradled the opening

on the back of his cap. Seven letters that seemed to call out to me,

as if to say: “This is what today is for. This man fought a war–maybe

two, maybe five. Maybe he is still fighting a war

–within–

so you can stand here and stretch in the afternoon sun

with all of your limbs, and no understanding of what it means to

stand on a battlefield–to risk your life for God and country.”

 

To the man in the black hat with the golden-yellow letters that spelled

V-E-T-E-R-A-N

“Thank you.” I wanted to say those words as I watched you walk by,

and I read the word on your cap. But I felt foolish, listening to my pop music

while I sought out hills to climb for the sake of climbing, and you walked down the path, perhaps off another battlefield in your mind.

 

“Thank you.”

 

I did not have the courage to say it then. But I say it now, to honor you, all of you

who so bravely served, and fought, and perhaps died, or lived to tell your tale, or to simply wear your

cap as you stroll through the park on THIS day, the day we call Memorial Day.

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