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You’ll never know: A Father’s Day Tribute

1975. I am six years old and I am riding with my dad in his Buick Skylark. Maybe it’s a Chevy Malibu. Whatever the car, it’s the size of a small tank with an endless front hood, Batman-like tail lights, and bench seats that are equal parts cushion and spring, and 100% bounce.

It is a moment that is forever etched in my mind.

carseatMy dad and I are riding in the car. It is a Saturday morning. I know this because the mood is light–the weekend is here and the day holds much promise and possibility. It is summer because I am wearing shorts and the windows are cranked all the way down. I don’t remember where we are headed. I don’t care. I am riding with my dad–alone. ALONE. Not one of my 6 brothers and sisters to bother me. No one to share the front seat with. Yes, the front seat.  I sit across from my dad in the front seat, my legs dangling over the edge of the embroidered nylon bench. No seat belt to trap me in. Just me and my dad cruising on a weekend morning.

The car glides around a bend and I fly across the seat, toward him. I stay there. My bony leg next to his. My elbow resting on his lap. I watch his hand dance along the steering wheel, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He’s so cool. He’s my dad.

As I bask in this time alone, he starts to sing:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you

You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you

You ought to know, for haven’t I told you so–a million or more times

You went away and my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer

If there is some other way, to prove that I love you, I swear I don’t know how

You’ll never know if you don’t know now

I am awestruck. “Again!” I cry. “Sing it again!”

He protests, realizing he is vulnerable now.

“Please?” I beg.

He obliges. You’ll never know…

We drive on. A dad serenading his son. I feel like the most important kid in the universe.

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For a while after that, on the rare occasions when my dad and I would be driving alone, I would ask him to sing that song. It turned into our little duet, as I would echo the last part of each line. HOW MUCH I CARE…MY EVERY PRAYER. It always made me happy, and could serve to draw him out of a mood if he was a little brooding that day.

And then, like too many things in childhood, it just stopped. One day, I stopped asking and he stopped feeling comfortable singing it to me. There were many times when we would be driving in the awkward silence of my teenage years, where I would think about that song, where I would wonder what would happen if I requested it, where I would laugh in my mind at the absurdity of my dad singing to his son, now almost an adult. I never asked, though, and as the song implies, now I’ll never know.

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About nine years ago, I heard that song in, of all places, Disney World–the happiest place on Earth. The land of make believe? I was walking down Main Street by myself. It was nighttime and the crowd was thin. I had never heard the song performed by anyone but my dad, yet here I was, being serenaded by the lilting voice of Alice Faye–I checked. My dad had long since passed away, and now I had an infant of my own. I looked up in the night’s sky from the streets of the Magic Kingdom. You went away and my heart went with you…

Yes, a piece of it did. But larger pieces remain behind. Embedded in my first-born son, and soon thereafter, his brother. There are many car rides for us now–smoke free with them tethered safely in the back seat. But I try to remember the glory that can transpire between a father and his son in the more subtle moments of life, on an insignificant car ride, on a random weekend morning.

Car rides that may, in fact, last a lifetime.

 

 

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The Road to Hell

There is so much more to this parenting thing than anyone expects, and so often I feel inferior at the job.

Something horrible happened this week that made my world shift. In the end, it was of little consequence, but it has had a profound effect on me. The experience made me sad–I feel powerless and afraid. And I almost didn’t write about it. Yet, after thinking some more, I realized that I can’t just write about things that are safe, or that I can poke fun of, or that happened a long time ago. If I did not write about this, I would feel like a phony. I remember reading something from the early stages of blogging about true writers write about stuff that is hard to face. I knew I needed to process this in writing. I can’t help it. I’m a writer.

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It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was lying in the grass after a run, waiting for the boys’ bus to pull up. I gazed into the sky and contemplated the possibilities of this world. As a kid, I loved to look at clouds, and as an adult I try to do so from time to time. I heard the bus at the street corner, and the boys found me on the lawn.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” asked Owen (8).

“Just looking at the clouds,” I said, as if I did it everyday.

They both made motions to go inside, so I pleaded, “Sit here with me a minute. Relax. It’s a beautiful day.” They dropped their back packs and lied down next to me. Hayden (7) placed his head on my chest, and we all took in the view. It felt grand.

“Guys, I need to ask you a favor?” I said.

“What?” they replied in unison.

“I want us to go up the street and visit my friend’s husband.”

I explained to them that someone I knew was staying at the assisted living home up the street. He needed to be under medical care while his wife was travelling.  I knew she would appreciate us checking in on him. Besides, I want my sons to know what it’s like to be of service to others.

“So, we’ll have a snack and then head up there, okay?” I asked.

“Okay,” they each said. I was impressed because there was no whining or sulking. Plus, they each obliged me with a drawing for Mr. Jim.  Pictures of some leaves and trees with “Happy Fall” in their best penmanship. I placed their pictures beside a package of frosted cookies I had for him.

“Who are they for?” asked Hayden.

“Mr. Jim,” I said.

“I want one,” he asked–a whine creeping in to his tone.

“Buddy, these are for our friend. We have lots of treats, but I bought these special for him. You can have something else–here how about these cookies?” I offered him some others from the pantry.

Hayden began his moan-and-dance, “Uhnnnnnn. I WANT ONE OF THOSE!”

“Well, sorry, you can’t have one.”

I placed the pictures and cookies in a bag and put them in the car. As I went back inside for the boys, I noticed they had helped themselves to the other cookies from the pantry. Playfully, I asked, “Did you guys eat these?”

“Yeah,” said Hayden. “We each had two!”

“Fine with me. You deserve two for being so good about coming with me. Now get in the car, we’re leaving.”

I put the dogs in the house and started to lock up. Owen was in the driveway. He looked nervous. “Hayden ate one of the special cookies, Dad.”

I swung the car door open, and there he was, shoving a cookie in his mouth, with crumbs and icing all over my brand new car. I had just gotten a pre-owned Acura a week ago. It’s a 2013 and the nicest car I’ve ever had. I was incensed. “Hayden!” I grabbed him by the arm.  “I can’t believe you! You knew these cookies were…and all over my…get out…and up to your room…no dessert for a week…” I was so angry. Why couldn’t he leave well enough alone? Why weren’t the other cookies enough? Why was it so hard to do something nice for someone else? Why do I care so much about everything?

I calmed down pretty quickly, but the edge was still there. I made him come down, repeated most of my rant in a quieter tone, and we drove to Sunrise Assisted Living. “Wow guys, this is so close to our house. If there were sidewalks on this road, we could’ve walked,” I said lamely, trying to act cheery even though everyone was quite miserable now. Sunrise is a pretty building complex. It strives for a Southern Gothic charm– rocking chairs adorn wide porches around the front of the building, and white carved moldings decorate the railings. The boys had never been to an “Old folks” home–and it had been quite some time for me, too. When we got out, Hayden was still fuming at me, and I was trying to ignore him. He walked at a snail’s pace and wore his big frown like it was his job–sometimes, I think it is. “Hayden, you better be nice when we get in there. Do not make this worse on yourself.”

I walked slowly so he could catch up, and he did. We stepped inside the grand entrance way. There was a great deal of activity. Apparently, it was BINGO hour, and groups of residents seemed to populate every corner of the place. It was lively and chaotic, and depressing. I could tell the boys were a bit nervous. A woman with a matted wig marched back and forth nervously, as if she were trying to wear out the carpet. Another woman at the counter was complaining to the receptionist about how they hide her lighter from her. “I feel like a sixteen year old girl again. Every time I want a damn cigarette, I have to ask permission.” The boys were wide-eyed. So much for “smoking kills”, I thought, looking at this woman who was in her eighties. Then, a kind lady in a wheel chair stole our attention. She had a gentle smile with a few thin strands of hair on her forehead, and she was without legs. I was proud of the boys for being so brave. Hayden reached for my hand, and tucked his safely into my palm. Good, I thought, he’s not mad at me now.

Owen looked at me and said, “Dad, there are so many more women here than men!” I decided not to explain to him the mortality rates of men versus women.

So, it’s true what they say about the road to Hell–it is paved with good intentions.  The gentleman we were trying to visit was not there. He was taken to the hospital the night before due to a fall. His wife did not know yet, as she was on her trip. I was glad she was able to continue her vacation, and her children were there to stay with her husband. The boys and I said goodbye to no one in particular, and made our way back outside. I tried to pawn off the cookies on the staff, but they refused them politely. I wanted the damn reminder of my anger out of sight. The stupid cookies were pointless now.

Back outside, we lingered. This had been quite an odyssey for us all, and so close to our house. The autumn breeze seemed to blow away some of our uneasiness. I didn’t feel mad anymore, just sad. Sad for the people in the home–they, too, were once young, many, I’m sure, with children of their own at their sides. Now, they all seemed lost, scared, confused. And sad for the boys. I used to hate it when my parents would make me interact with strangers, especially the sick and the elderly. It’s such a difficult lesson to teach children about. And sad for me–I just wanted to do something nice for somebody, and instead I felt angry and annoyed.

“We are really close to this place,” said Owen.

“I know,” said Hayden.

I welcomed the conversation. I wanted to get out of the doldrums and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day.

“You’re right, guys. It’s a shame this road is so busy. Maybe in a few years, you could walk up here.”

“Like when we’re twelve,” asked Owen.

“We’ll see,” I said.

“I’m going to walk home, now,” said Hayden.

Owen and I laughed. “Yeah, right,” I said. “You know that’s way too dangerous. Adults don’t even walk on this road.”

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Our street is busy. It’s not a freeway, but it IS a throughway, where cars and trucks zip down as they hurry up to get where they need to go. There is barely a shoulder, there are no sidewalks–and it scares the shit out of me. Our house sits far enough back off the road, and our development is a dead-end. Yet Penllyn Pike is treacherous, and we have been instilling a fear in our boys about the deadly consequences of this road since they could crawl. To top it off, the only part of the street that offers a buffer from the road is an old cemetery that abuts a small church. Indeed, this road could have been the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, Pet Cemetery.

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We were half way to the car when Hayden announced this. “Come on, Hayd, don’t be silly,” I said, trying to stifle my annoyance with him from before. Now, if you’re a parent, you might try this move at times. The one where you just keep walking, not giving your child the satisfaction of taking them seriously. I do it with my dogs, too. If I walk in a particular direction, the dogs–and the kids–will usually follow. Usually. Now if you’re a kid, like my kids, you might play an annoying game where you think it’s cute (or funny, or evil) to “hide” on your parents. My boys are constantly hiding from us, daring us to find them, so they can “surprise” us. We shriek in fake astonishment, and they crack up. The end. Except, I’ve told the boys I don’t like this game when we’re out. We don’t hide in a parking lot, or near a road, or at the mall… I hate this hiding game. And that’s what I thought Hayden was doing when he began walking in the other direction. Hiding on me.

“Not funny, Hayden,” I said. But oddly, he had already disappeared. We’re talking seconds. He didn’t run. He simply creeped away–behind the building? On one of the porches? Back inside? He was just here. We were ten steps from the car, and now he’s gone. I saw not even a glimpse of his bright orange shirt and shorts.

“Come on, Hayden, lets go home.” I know how stubborn he can be, but if I wait him out, usually he flinches and shows me where he’s hiding. Usually.

“Dad, where is he?” Owen asked.

I could hear the panic rise in his voice. I tried to quell my own. “I don’t know, Owen. I DON’T KNOW!”

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: The Death of Vanity

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For those of you new to my blog (welcome:). This is part of a series that I do, chronicling the doodles that my sons draw of me.

I hate to admit it, but I’m vain. I want to be good looking. Sure, I look like every other white, bald, middle-aged man with glasses, but I do not imagine myself to be as frightening as–well, as my son’s latest rendition of me. Now, you may not believe it, but I do not solicit these drawings–I’m not trying to pile on the pain that has already occurred via my sons’ pencils. Yet, each time the boys draw me, I am hopeful. Not anymore. This picture is ghastly.

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The other day, I asked Owen to take a break from TV. He thought of his options, and then said “Oh, I know. I’ll draw you ‘Owen style.'” I fell for it. I actually thought this meant “cool”. When he ran in to show me the picture, I threw up a little in my mouth. The egg head. The weird tufts of hair. A frigging bow tie–he’s never seen me in a tie, let alone a bow tie. And the mouth. I looked like the saddest, most pathetic person on the planet. (I looked like the person who just found out that they look like this!!)

“Here you go, Dad!”

“Whoa!” Swallow throw up. “This is Owen style, huh? That’s interesting, buddy.” I guess Owen style means draw a caricature of my dad where his inner fears are all manifested on the outside. I have to say, I did like that he gave me some muscles–even if they were bulging out of a green blazer that wouldn’t have fit me when I was his age.

But, this picture served as another reminder–my concern for my looks is futile. My vanity is in vain.

The death knell of vanity rang again a few days after Owen’s latest masterpiece. One of my new freshman classes was starting to feel comfortable with me–maybe too comfortable. During a break in the lesson, one of the girls says, “You look like someone…” Whenever I hear these words, I cringe. It is NEVER good. She continues. “You look like the guy from the movie UP,” she blurts out. “The boy scout?” I ask, willing to take the insult if it makes me appear thirty years younger. “No, the old man–like, a younger version of the old man,” she clarifies, as if it will Pixar-Disney-Company-Up-moviemake a difference to me. Oh, I look like the senior citizen, the grumpy septuagenarian. I just smile, nod, and stagger towards the podium, trying to remain composed and continue with the lesson. “No!” a shout is heard from the other side of the room–this time a boy. “I finally realize who you look like.” He points at me, not in a mean way, but in a way that emphasizes his satisfaction of solving the mystery. “You look like. . .THE GRINCH.” I kid you not readers. The Grinch. “Yeah, I do look like the Grinch,” I say. Dadicus Grinch.

RIP Vanity.

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Special Father’s Day Edition

Happy Father’s Day to all those out there who signed up for this wild ride known as parenthood. Here are some highlights from my sons’ greetings.

This is a cut out that Hayden (7) made for me. Perhaps he found a picture of me from the eighties wearing my parachute pants. That’s a microphone in my hand–the kid knows I have a big mouth and love being the center of attention.

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In his card to me, he wrote how my favorite thing to do in the world is “play with him,” and my favorite place to eat is McDonald’s (btw, I haven’t eaten fast food in years, but I know someone who loves to go there:).

And here is a picture Owen (8) made for me. I think it is the most frightening rendition I’ve ever seen of myself. I look part chicken, part zombie, and 100% creeper.

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It is part of a school scene he drew, since I am a teacher. The drawing looks like it could be a public service announcement for stranger danger.

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Owen’s card for me featured a series of fill-in statements (his responses are in italics). My favorites include: My dad can do many things! I think he’s best at…laughing, because he sounds like the Joker from Batman when he laughs, and My dad is as handsome as a…monkey, because he has so [many] hair but none on his head.

So, to all of you dads, grand dads, dads-to-be, and anyone who is a father figure, I hope you find some time to reflect on the difference you make in the life of others. I know this monkey enjoyed the time spent with his boys.

 

Car Talk

Car_toyI love the conversations that occur in the car with my sons. They can be so profound, enlightening and unpredictable. Here is a transcript of today’s car ride on the way to visit their grandmom, my mom.

Owen (8): This is a weird question, but how old were you when your dad died?

Me: That’s not a weird question at all. It’s a very good question, actually. Let’s see…I was twenty-four. (I am now 43).

Owen: How did he die?

Me: He had a disease called cancer. Some people die when they get cancer, and some people are able to get better. Grandmom had cancer.

Owen: And she beat it.

Me: And Pop had cancer.

Owen: Beat it.

Me: Even Aunt Lori had it.

Owen: And she beat it.

Hayden (6): But not your dad.

Me: No, he didn’t beat it.

There is silence for a minute. We pass a cemetery.

Hayden: Maybe your dad’s buried in there.

Me: No, I know where he’s buried. But I don’t visit cemeteries, I think.

Me: You know, some people believe that when you die, you come back to life again in another form. It’s called reincarnation.

Both boys: Cool/Awesome.

Owen: I want that to happen to me.

Me: You do, huh? Well, some believe that you come back as a being that you need to learn from. Like, if you were mean to a cat all the time, then you might come back to life as a cat.

Owen: I can’t wait til you come back as a cat, Hayden.

Me: No! You have to be REALLY mean, not just annoying. (But I was thinking the same thing, Owen:)

Hayden: Like, you have to throw heavy things at it.

Me: Yeah. And you don’t only come back in a negative way. You can come back as something different from you are now, like a girl, or a person who lives in another country, or a dog.

Hayden: I do NOT want to come back as a girl! (Suddenly) Oh! Oh! I want to come back as a banjo player.

Laughter. Lots of laughter.

Me: A banjo player, huh?

Hayden: Or a baby.

Owen: Maybe your dad has already come back as something.

Me: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Like maybe he’s one of the birds that visits the bird feeder attached to our window, and he likes to come to the window and look in on us.

Owen: Or maybe he’s a tree. Dad, wouldn’t that be cool if we planted a tree and it was actually your dad?

Me: Whoa!

Hayden: But no grave stone! It wouldn’t be cool to have grave stone underneath the tree in our yard.

Owen: Yeah, if people have a grave stone in their yard, everyone will think they are weird.

We drive some more in silence.

Hayden: What if he came back as a building?

Owen: No, he can’t be a building.

Me: Buildings aren’t alive.

We pass a Dunkin Donuts where a man is pulling out of the lot smoking a cigarette.

Hayden: See that man smoking? That man’s coming back as a cigarette.

Owen: Yeah, so he can feel what it’s like to be set on fire.

Hayden: Yeah!

Me: Okay. We’re almost there, boys.

Oedipus Rex is in the house.

This is my son Hayden’s worksheet for Top Frog of the Week. He has been counting down the days to this since September. He wanted to fill out the form as soon as he came home from school today, even though his frog title is not official for another two weeks. As I went over to the table to view his hard work, I was somewhat bothered by his misspelling of my name–the only one he struggled with, apparently. Do you think six is too young for me to explain a Freudian Slip?

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You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

In a recent post titled Of Cigarettes and Swing Sets, I recalled a time when I got in trouble for picking up my Dad’s lit cigarette. Many people commented on the post, and what struck me was how many readers reacted to the smoking culture of the ’70’s.  Numerous people reminisced about  how “everyone smoked back then.”  Everyone might be a slight exaggeration, but those who didn’t, certainly spent their time breathing in a cloud of second-hand smoke.

140174607122264705_ElBkToIf_cMy mother, who quit smoking 17 years ago, was a champion smoker back in the day. This mother of 7 defied the medical theory that smoking during pregnancy lowers birth weight. All of her children were in the seven to nine  pound weight range–I was her biggest at 9.9 pounds. Plus, she had the largest twins on record at our local hospital–8.5 and 8.2 pounds! That’s over 16 pounds of baby in her belly, folks. Yet, the stories she has shared about the smoking culture back then would make you choke on your venti, decaf, no whip, no foam, Chai latte.

When my mom delivered her first child in 1963, it was during a snow storm. The labor and delivery nurse called her midnight relief to pick up smokes for my mom and another lady Microsoft PowerPoint - Post as jpegwho was delivering her baby that night. The two expectant mothers were worried they were going to run out of cigarettes and the snow would prevent family members from replenishing their supply. Such accommodating nurses. They were even happy to assist their patients in lighting the cigarettes since IV lines were affixed to a flat board on the patient’s arm. Nurses lighting patient’s cigarettes. Can you imagine?

Flash forward ten years. My mother is pregnant for the last time, with twins. After examining her, the doctor meets her in his office. He lights a cigarette for her, and then one for himself, and says, “You’ve done this enough times, Joanne. So tell me, when’s your due date?” Ahhh, nothing like a smoke break with your OB-GYN.

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Cigarettes were a fixture in my childhood. I often remember running in to the drug store or up to the window of the gas station to buy my mom’s cigarettes: “Two packs of Newport Light 100s, please.” When on a field trip or at the boardwalk, someone was always buying a new ashtray for mom or a lighter for dad. My favorite souvenir was a glass test tube that held a single cigarette and a match. In bright red letters, the outside print read: “In case of emergency break glass!” Oh, how I always hoped I would be there to witness one of my parents breaking it in a time of great need.

One week at Sunday School, I learned that smoking could kill you. I think the lady who ran the church school had recently lost a loved one– a smoker. I remember walking home with my brother and sister determined to make our parents quit. We made “No Smoking” signs and hung them up throughout the house. We told our parents we didn’t want them to die, and proceeded to break their cigarettes in half or run them under water. That didn’t last long. They promised they would try and stop. Yet, our campaign was not successful, so I turned my efforts outward. In first grade, I entered a poster contest during Fire Safety Week. My compelling slogan: “Use your head! Don’t smoke in bed!” above a drawing of a man falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette in his lap. I won third place.

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The first time I smoked was third grade. I was eight years old. A bunch of boys in the neighborhood and I found ourselves in the woods one day with a whole pack someone had stolen from his parents. We each took one, lit it, and “smoked”–I learned later that I didn’t do it right. I blew out rather than sucked in, but the red end still glowed with fire, so I believed I was smoking. We visited the woods everyday that week to have a smoke. By midweek, someone had also brought a Playboy magazine they stole from an older brother. There I was, receiving quite an education. Of course, as a Catholic, I could not enjoy one moment of this. Between the cigarettes and the naked women, I was wracked with guilt. I peered into the future and saw, just a few short years later, my eighth grade self dying of lung cancer and being sent to Hell for looking at dirty magazines. The smoking visits died down in the woods, but someone shoved pages of the Playboy up in the hollow of a tree.  We trekked back to the woods often to stare at them, until they were so weathered and worn the images were unrecognizable.

I went from breaking my parents’ cigarettes in half during  my early elementary school days, to swiping a few from the pack to smoke with friends as I reached later grade school. I would sneak drags off my mom’s lit cigarettes that she left burning in ashtrays while she went to change a load of laundry, or to answer the phone–which was attached to the wall back then.  By eighth grade, I was a full-fledged smoker. I walked around at night with my friends (thank God for the dog–it was the most exercise our beagle ever got). We cupped our cigarettes whenever a car would pass; we carried pocket warmers in the winter to use as a ruse in case we ever got caught. Ever paranoid, my friends would tease me, “Hey Mike, there’s an airplane! Better hide your cigarette.” Indeed, every car that passed I swore was my dad, until one time it actually was. As I approached his car, I was so nervous, I put the butt out in my hand (it was raining that night, so it didn’t hurt too much). “You guys need a ride anywhere?” “No,” I said, heart beating, “we’re fine.” In hindsight, I think he  probably knew what we were up to, but could certainly relate– a lifelong smoker himself.

I went on to smoke through high school, college, and my roaring twenties. Luckily, I discovered running. And I ran long enough to realize I couldn’t be both a runner and a smoker. I am happy with my choice.

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I don’t miss smoking. I DO miss the camaraderie, though. The excitement of meeting someone for a break in the routine. A chance to get away from it all for a few minutes. Also, smokers are a friendly bunch–my favorite people growing up were the smokers. It took me a while, but I learned that one still needs to take time out to enjoy a few minutes to himself, or catch up with a friend.  The trick is to find ways to do that that won’t kill you.

I don’t really miss the good old days, either. As Billy Joel once sang, “the good old days weren’t always good…” So often we long for yesterday. We think perhaps times were simpler; we assume our life was less complicated. I never know how to react when someone laments for the childhood of  a bygone era like the ’70’s: “When I was young, we didn’t have ‘play dates’, we ran around outside from morning ’til night. I only came in for dinner…” As a parent now, though, I think  I might choose a play date over letting my kids roam free all hours of the day. I might suggest we all go for a walk in the woods, rather than let my eight-year-old  wander there with kids of all ages. I do consider it a small victory that my son, who is the same age I was when I lit my first smoke, has never even held a cigarette–has never even seen one in this house. Plus, he has yet to look at porn. I’d say those are some small victories. And I hope to maintain them at least til he gets into the double digits:)  As the great Virginia Slims campaign used to say, “We’ve come a long way baby!” We sure have.

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