smoking

Lego Minifigures: The Funeral Series?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boys and I have been spending a lot of time in the fields behind our house. The weather has been picture perfect, and our two new dogs, Huck and Rosie, are frolicking like young pups should. There are moments of pure joy–like when I watch the boys smiling as they race the dogs in the tall grass–and there are moments of pure annoyance–like when the boys want to play Simon Says. There’s so much I love about being a dad, but I really can’t stand children’s games: “Simon says, leave me alone!”

The highlight of these walks involves  little pockets of conversation we have between picking up dog poop and wiping away tears because someone got attacked by a thorny branch. Take this conversation from earlier in the week:

Owen (8): Dad, when I grow up, maybe I’ll work for the LEGO company and I’ll design LEGO lands and stuff.

Me (43 for one more day): That would be so cool, O.

Owen: Yeah, and, and like maybe I’ll be in charge of making LEGO minifigures, and I’ll make one of you.

My heart swells with pride. My boy wants to make a LEGO figure out of me! This is the epitome of love and respect coming from a third-grader.

Owen: And I’ll make him have glasses, and bald on top with a patch of hair under his chin like you have, and he’ll be holding a cup of coffee.

MY BOY. I can see the figure now, sitting on my desk, inspiring me as I write another one of my best-selling books. But wait, what’s this? I’m awakened from my daydream as I hear Hayden calling out something a few feet behind.

Hayden (7): Yeah, and we’ll bury the minifigure with you because you’ll be dead by then. Lego-Spooky-knight-

Me: NOOO!

I envision my gravesite, on a similarly beautiful afternoon, with mourners tossing in LEGO figures the way others would flowers.

Hayden: Yeah, you’ll be dead by then, right? Well, wait, when do people die again? Seventy? Eighty?

Me: Well, it depends. You have to take care of yourself so you can live longer. That’s why you shouldn’t smoke, or lecture-lecture-lecture, blah-blah-blah…

Owen: Yeah, Hayden, look at Pop‘s dad. He’s still alive and he’s 98! That means he took care of himself.

At this point I make some lame attempt to explain to the boys the theory of “everything in moderation.” I tell them how too much of anything is bad for them, and then I give some terrible analogy about ice cream. How they eat ice cream most nights, but if they ate an entire container every night, they’d probably be unhealthy. I mean this from a cholesterol standpoint, but I miss the mark.

Owen: Then you’d be so fat, you wouldn’t be able to leave the house.

Me: Well…here I try to defend overweight people but the moment is lost…

Owen: Dad, how DOES Santa get down the chimney? I mean, he’s fat. Really fat, right? How does he do it?

Lego_SantaAnd hear we go again–Santa! Everything comes back to Santa Claus.

Me: I think he uses a magic dust made out of snowflakes (Oh, God. am I encouraging drug use for them down the road? I wonder.)

Owen: I KNOW Santa’s real, because we get gifts on Christmas that are signed From: Santa.

He reaches out to hold my hand, wanting me to reassure him that Santa does exist. I think, yeah, third grade, that’s when the doubt reaches its highpoint. I hold his hand firmly. I watch his little brother bounce ahead of us with the dogs. I breathe in the fresh air and then it dawns on me that there are three topics my sons never tire of: LEGOS, Death, and Santa.

This conversation has become the most exhausting thing about my day. I go from being immortalized as a LEGO, to my untimely death, topped off by the reminder that Santa’s days are numbered, too.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll walk the dogs after bedtime. Alone.

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Image 1,2,and 4 courtesy of Johnson Cameraman

Image 3 courtesy of Lego-wiki

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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.

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.

smoke_in_bed

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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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.