Excursions

Deja vu ….

I can remember as a kid, returning home after summer afternoons playing in the dirt at my friend Danny’s house (he had some of THE FINEST dirt in the neighborhood), Mom would stop me at the front porch, order me back down the steps to the garage door, and make me take off my clothes before allowing me to enter through the basement.

This was not an infrequent occurrence.

Last night I got together with some of my best friends from my hometown to pick out a Christmas tree for our old high school hangout, a tradition now in its 23rd year.

Karry’s last words before I hit Route 40 for Uniontown: leave your clothes outside when you come home.

Even though the admonition was to prevent the smell of smoke, not the mess of mud, from entering the house, it made me realize how truly fortunate I am.

First, to have grown up with friends who have proven just as awesome to raise a glass with, as to play ball with, hang out at the arcade with, and destroy Tonkas with.

Secondly, to have known the love of strong women who’ve made sure I don’t make too much of a mess of things. IMG_0742

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Rearview Mirror

Here’s (to) That Rainy Day (#215 in the books)

I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.

That happened about 32 years ago.

I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.

I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.

It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.

On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.

As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.

I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.

Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.

That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.

This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.

So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.

No big deal.

Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.

He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.

“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.

Now, this was suddenly a big deal.

So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.

I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.

I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.

My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.

But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.

The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.

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I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.

The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.

When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”

Not the encouragement I was looking for.

When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.

A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”

By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.

To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.

For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.

I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.

When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.

Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.

Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.

I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.

In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.

But that paled in comparison to what he did next.

He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.

Excuse me?

He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.

I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.

But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.

And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.

And loving every single minute of it.

The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.

Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.

Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.

Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.

And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.

All of it.

And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.

And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)

A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.

My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.

Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.

I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.

So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …

I am thankful.

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The Road Ahead

Light and Debts ….

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

— Leonard Cohen / Anthem

One of the few things we all have in common is that we’re not content with the way things are.

The most important action within each of our grasp is to continue to ask the question, What if?

That’s how we imagine possibilities. That’s how we rise above present circumstance. That’s how we honor those who have died tragically. Those who are suffering yet and still.

As long as we keep the candle of our curiosity lit and fed … fear, hopelessness and helplessness don’t have a chance.

Share your truth. Your story(-ies). No matter how cracked and broken. It just may be somebody else’s bread.

_____

Had someone recommend Anne Lamott’s delightful Ted talk, which I will also commend to your care (https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing).

One of her comments in particular stopped me cold. She referred to the act of writing as “a debt of honor.”

I discovered this truth a couple years ago as my Mom slipped deeper into dementia.

I’ve had no greater encourager in my life than my mother. She always believed in me. Told me time and time again that you can do anything if you set your mind to it.

The shame of it is that for years, I didn’t believe her. Dismissed her praise. Her encouragement. Never thought much of myself. Or my writing. Have always struggled with any sense of self-worth. For most of my life, I’ve been really bad at receiving compliments. Never trusted or believed them.

Until my Mom stopped being my mom.

It was only then that I saw things differently. That it had nothing to do with me. And had everything to do with her.

And, without exaggeration, it was an epiphany.

I stopped worrying about whether I was any good (at anything) or not.

I was Anna Margaret’s son. And she believed in me.

So, my debt of honor is to bear her light to the world. Her beautiful light of encouragement.

So I write to honor her.

To honor her wit. Her orneriness. And her keen eye for bullshit.

What a gift it is to forget your perfect offering. To accept our cracks, and realize that it’s only because of them that light shines through.

Whatever your gifts may be, ring the bells that can still ring.

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Postcards

Bookmarking 47 ….

 

Facebook reminded me of the post below from two years ago, and it brought the requisite smile (it’s one of my favorite scribbles).

Sept. 13, 2015

A RANDOM ACT OF MAGIC — Was kinda’ a rough school/work week for my daughter and me. So we made plans after we finished our Friday to go for tea in the morning at our favorite place down the road.

Got up to a beautifully gray, autumn-crisp, drizzly, no-hurry Saturday (the BEST kind). She changed her mind about eating breakfast at home (so we could leave earlier) and was dressed and ready by 8:45. She had her Harry Potter shirt on, and after seeing me grab my Star Trek tee off the floor, informed me that that just would not do. She walked over to my closet and handed me my Potter shirt, the one she bought for me a few months back.

I’ve learned not to argue with any woman bent on dressing me.

Me: I need a hat.

She: Yes. Yes you do.

Earlier in the week the teenager decided to appropriate the purple hand chair from the game room to his pending-manhood cave. The purple fingers had served as the downstairs hat rack. Fumbling, I couldn’t find where he’d parked the displaced hats.

Not wanting to keep my girl waiting, I was forced to leave the house with my ‘fro unkempt.

I’ve also learned not to keep the lady waiting.

Me: Got the book?

She: Check.

Halfway there …

Me: Didn’t bring the cups?

She: (nonchalantly): Not this time.

The full ritual consists of her bringing the truly awesome set of Alice in Wonderland tea cups and saucers that her former baby sitter gave us in the spring, into which we pour the hot tea the young baristas serve us.

As an aside, I always wanted to be the guy who brought his own pool cue into the bar.

I turn as many heads, though, being the Dad who brings his own teacups into the coffee shop.

There were a couple people in line when we got there, giving us ample time to peruse the case displaying the rows of fresh cookies and muffins.

Iced green tea for Em. Toasted bagel. She laid claim to their last two pumpkin cookies (one each to bring back for her mom and brother. She’s the family’s thoughtful one.). Small coffee for me, and a breakfast sandwich that they panini press with love.

She asked me to read while she sipped and snacked.

We’re just past halfway into the fourth book in the H.P. series (The Goblet of Fire). A good number of the pages have been joyously read aloud Saturday mornings (and perhaps more than a few with our ever-improving British accents) at the tea shop’s tall table. It’s a common enough occurrence that when I recently popped into the shop solo, Emily, one of the regular baristas, asked me where the “little muggle” was.

As far as the book goes, the 44-year-old and 10-year-old unanimously agree it’s the best entry so far.

It’s the one where the main characters start to notice that they are boys and girls, and Rowling does a really nice job of re-creating the first awakenings of all those awkward and exhilarating moments (for which I unapologetically remain a complete sucker).

Em and I are so into it that when Hermione appears at the ball for the Tri-Wizard tournament, revealing the date that she had so suspense-fully kept a secret from Ron and Harry, I turn from the book to say the name directly to Em. “No way!” she says. And we gossip for a good minute before returning to the pages.

We finish the chapter and Em decides it’s time for us to sample the pumpkin gelato. We share a taste off the tiny plastic white spoon and Em decrees that, while good, it can’t hold a candle to the salted caramel.

I’ve learned not to get in the way of the lady when it comes to sweet things.

We resume reading, and are so sucked back in to the story that we barely notice Emily (the barista) leaving the counter and crossing in front of us to climb on top of the shelf behind the more comfy recliners in the back of the shop to adjust the sound system.

I’ve been at the shop in the past where the satellite radio craps out and the girl or woman at the counter has to literally scale the wall to adjust the receiver, which is a good 12-14 feet of the ground. Just adds to the local shop’s character as far as I’m concerned.

It’s a regular enough occurrence that Em and I didn’t think twice about it.

Until a couple pages later, when Emma looks up from her pages, her eyes wide as our ceremonial saucers. She turns to me with just the biggest grin on her face.

“Listen!” pointing into the air.

“You know what that is?”

I’m my typical two steps behind her.

“That’s the music that they play at the beginning of every Harry Potter movie!”

Sure enough, my ears register the epic score.

We about fell off our broomsticks.

I’m not sure I can conceive of a more thoughtful gesture than Emily climbing the wall to add to what I had been convinced was an already perfect ritual.

I walked up to the counter, and exchanged knuckle touches with our new favorite barista.

Emma was still over the moon. “How did you do that?”

Emily: “It’s a playlist on Pandora. I went with Chamber of Secrets. A little more upbeat than the Deathly Hollows.”

To have a waiter or waitress know your order when you walk in is one thing. To have one curate a soundtrack for you?

Returning to our chairs, the music made the next couple chapters pass by in cinematic fashion. We lost ourselves in the pages.

In a word, it was magical.

One of those moments that I knew on the spot that I will never forget.

Just to be safe, though, I napkin-sketched it for posterity.

It’ll make for a pretty decent bookmark.

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But I didn’t need the reminder, because two years hence, the hasty Pen-Sketch spell I cast that day that transformed a napkin into our bookmark is holding strong.

Each and every time we’ve cracked open the sacred text since, we’ve been reminded of ‘Emily’s Righteous Move’ marking our place. As an aside my daughter and I are proudly pursuing the Guinness World Record for the slowest progression ever through the Harry Potter series. We are presently savoring our way through the final installment, The Deathly Hallows. Knowing the end is approaching, we are treating it (in advance) like a victory lap. We read aloud to each other mostly in small doses these days. A few pages here. A chapter there. On rare occasions, she’ll beg for a stretch beyond a chapter when we catch a groove. She doesn’t have to twist my arm.

I’ve grown to love scarcity. Finite amounts. Beginnings and endings. As a counterweight to my deep desire for things I love to last forever, I’m learning to look forward to things, to appreciate things in the moment, to enjoy them as long as possible, and to kindle and cherish their memories.

There is only beauty because of death, the poet wrote.

Knowing the clock is (always) ticking intensifies and focuses our emotions, ensuring we invest them preciously, intentionally.

Kids, anyone?

That’s why I love the seasons. Even though I lament their passing from one into another.

So, on the occasion of my birthday, I find myself thinking about bookmarks.

I love the work of a bookmark … marking the place where you left off … so you’ll know where to pick up and move forward.

But I’ve also been known to use a bookmark to mark a place I know I’ll want to return to. I recently violently edited my bookshelf downstairs, during which I came across the various journals I’ve kept from different points in my life. Looking back, I see those journals as bookmarks … places where I’ve left off along the journey.

So, it is in that spirit that I hereby bookmark 47 … with 47 things that I find myself in love with on Sept. 17, 2017, in no particular order.

  • The little nook in the back yard where we never find enough time to build a fire and just listen to the night and what the world has to say to us.
  • Making Karry laugh spontaneously.
  • The friends I’ve had since elementary and middle school that I don’t see often enough, but, when I do, instantly close the gap of the years and distance between us. The folks who love you both because of, and in spite of, where you came from.
  • Speaking of, I found myself (out of nowhere) yesterday, thinking of one of the best mix tapes a friend ever gave me, and downloaded the tunes to a playlist that I made the official soundtrack of my weekend.
  • My oldest sister Kim, who just called and sang Happy Birthday to me, like my Mom and Dad used to. We both could hear Dad’s harmony in her rendition.
  • Sending and receiving hand-written cards or notes in the mail (hint).
  • A Poorboy without tomato with a side of fries washed down with a Pabst draft at Potter’s.
  • Meloni’s bleu cheese dressing drenching a salad with unapologetic beets and anchovies while Sinatra and Dean croon in a crackle overhead.
  • Drover’s fried-to-perfection hot wings enjoyed at one of their outdoor picnic tables in the cool sundown cricket-crisp of late summer.
  • Two with everything at Shorty’s, and a large shared large fry with gravy while sitting at the table in the back where the floor slants under the dripping air conditioner.
  • Falling under the spell of Emma’s killer British accent when we read at the coffee shop or before bed.
  • Holding hands with Karry down the driveway after we put the garbage cans out on Thursday nights.
  • The poetry rendered in calligraphy by my friend Jim Little.
  • When I stumble across a word whose meaning I don’t know, and, out of respect for Dr. Bower, my old college professor, I write it down in the margin or a journal and look up its meaning.
  • When my neighbor up the street, Mr. Engel greets me with a wave, an encouragement, or an appropriately snarky comment when he sees me huffing my way around the block.
  • Knowing I can ask Karry anything and that she will shoot straight, regardless of whether it’s what I want to hear.
  • Being my son’s passenger in the old Subaru. Without headphones on his ears or a screen in front of his face, it’s about the only place where we just talk. And it’s awesome. I will miss the heck out of this when he gets his license.
  • Any time and every moment I get to spend with my brother.
  • The motley crew of sweet souls I’ve met over coffee and our love for good writing at the coffee shop.
  • Friends and co-workers who inspire me towards my better self.
  • The exhale of eating weekday dinner at the dining room table with the family.
  • The view from my seat at the dining room table of one of my framed favorite photographs, which sits over Karry’s left shoulder when we’re having dinner. It’s a photo I took years ago of the windowsill of Karry’s mom’s dining room, where Mam used to place a new Hot Wheels car for Peter every time he’d visit. Once he finished the top of the steps, he’d run over to the window expectantly to see what she had left for him. The picture captures a blast of sunshine pouring through the window. It symbolizes everything I want to remember about Betty’s house.
  • When a member of the family seizes a moment to quote one of my Mom’s old sayings. Like when we’re enjoying a meal and one of the kids describes it as “luscious.” Or, when someone explains a mistake they made by saying, “I thought ….” which triggers, in response, my favorite all-time saying of my Mom’s. “You know what ‘thought’ did? ‘Thought’ shit his pants.”
  • Listening to Pirates games on the radio outside, regardless of the score, for the sheer pleasure of listening to Bob Walk or Steve Blass (Greg Brown, too).
  • Saturday mornings.
  • Drives out to Amity or along old Route 40.
  • The back-and-forth conversations I have with our cat Victor, who I am confident is thinking to himself during the exchanges: “He thinks I’m really communicating with him right now, when in fact, I’m plotting your ultimate conquest, and really the only thing left to decide is whether there will be room for you in the new world order as a servant or not.”
  • How cute Karry is when she brushes her teeth, and how much it pisses her off when I remind her of this.
  • Reading what my daughter writes.
  • Listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony on WQED-FM Sunday nights as a balm to the prospects of Monday.
  • The t-shirts hanging in my closet that are older than my kids.
  • The humbling and appreciated proactive phone calls and letters from each of my three sisters, who make time in their busy lives to let me know they are thinking of me.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night thinking it’s 5:30 when it’s only really 3.
  • Sitting in the driveway with the car running, or driving an extra lap around the block, so the song can finish.
  • When Karry puts on a color that is her color and it just stops me in my tracks.
  • The empty journals that I’ve collected over the years patiently waiting for me on the bookshelf.
  • My son doing better and going farther than I did.
  • The Podcast portion of my current commuting-survival-guide, featuring The Moth, This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Rolling Stone Now and Revisionist History.
  • Hard guitars paired with a sloshy hi-hat. Currently in love with “Monster” by Soraia from their soon-to-be-released album.
  • Walks around the block with my daughter when she wants to tell me about a book she’s reading or just finished. She gushes. I listen. Sometimes when she’s really fired up, we take an extra lap.
  • When Karry and I divide and conquer a Sunday and go to bed exhausted, but ready to face the next week.
  • My Vitamix blender.
  • All the songs that make me think of my Dad.
  • Pie. (Karry got me an Apple one for my birthday). I love pie.
  • Dating different books until I find one that keeps me looking forward to our next date. Currently in a relationship with The Great American Novel by Phillip Roth. His wielding of the vocabulary and ear for dialogue is delicious and absolutely unfair.
  • The fearless and undaunted among us who remind that This too shall pass.
  • Whenever folks remind me how awesome it is when you reserve a kind thought in the day for someone else.

Thanks, guys.

 

 

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Postcards

Postcard …

Felt like sitting down and writing a postcard from 21 years down the road to the two 20-somethings in the enclosed pic, on the anniversary of their exchanging I Dos inside beautiful Trinity Church on a sweltering hot August Saturday afternoon ….

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I don’t want to freak you out, but you’re betting yourselves against a big world, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t have many chips in your pocket.

I also don’t want to spoil it for you, but it will only get better.

Not easier. Just better.

Pete … Karry will do everything in her power to make sure you don’t get lost. She’ll even ride with you to make sure of it. I’m speaking literally and metaphorically, here. She’ll make sure you survive grad school. She will give you confidence when your supplies run dry. And, she’ll make a mean fish stick and mac-and-cheese dinner, and sit with you on the floor of the world’s tiniest apartment and watch the Six Million Dollar Man with you. Trust me, it will be awesome.

Karry … marrying a guy without a full-time job is a big leap of faith … but your patience will pay off in ways you could never predict. In the meantime, you’ll be great at what you do, and you’ll do just fine for the both of you.

Pete … don’t worry that you don’t quite know what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t worry that you may never know that answer. You’ll do OK in the searching.

Though you may think that right now, in each other, you have everything you will ever need in the world, you are totally wrong.

Kids will change everything.

Moments after a screaming baby boy enters the picture, you will realize that you haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s about to come.

But you won’t be alone. Your parents have been waiting for this moment all their lives. Karry, your Mom will reveal her true superhero identity. She will blow your mind. She will paint your living room when you are not home. You’ll grow more close than you ever thought possible. You’ll survive the sleepless nights. You’ll survive going back to work.

And your son will bring you so much joy you won’t be able to resist giving him a sibling, though it will take him a good 16 years (minimum) to warm up to that idea.

You will learn early and often that your hearts have the capacity and resiliency to both explode and break with love.

You’ll have front row seats to the two most beautiful babies you have ever seen. Then you’ll blink and they’ll be young adults.

You’ll read them The Kissing Hand on the first day of elementary school. And every first day of school after that. You’ll make them pose against their will in the driveway, then you will cry when the yellow bus takes them away to kill summer after summer.

You’ll get to be Santa Claus. Then you won’t.

Karry, Pete will consistently drive you speechless by doing the same damn things over and over. He will also  pioneer new and surprising ways. On the other hand, he’ll occasionally make you laugh until tears stream down your face. And, Pete, you will never grow tired of being responsible for making Karry smile.

You’ll get on each other’s nerves like you can’t imagine. Then you’ll wake to a new day and realize that, whatever it was, it wasn’t such a big deal.

Karry, you will learn that there are far more important things in life than work. And that it will still be there whenever you decide to return. Pete, you’ll have a chance to reward Karry’s patience and sacrifices.

Your parents will stay with you only for as long as you need them, though you will wish it was so much longer.

You’ll see the years start to take their toll.

You’ll give thanks every day, and curse time with the same breath.

You will remain each other’s biggest fans.

And when everything else fails, you’ll bang on God’s door in the middle of the night demanding him to open up, that you know he’s in there.

Twenty one years later, you’ll find yourselves still betting against a big world without many chips in your pocket.

And you will realize that you still haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s to come.

And though you’ll long for the days when you didn’t know what you didn’t know, if you knew all of the above while you were standing at the altar of Trinity Church on a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon ….

You’d do it all again.

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Of Bloopers, Bladders, and Bad Hops ….

Marriage and parenting are a lot like … (I have this strong suspicion right this very second that, of the million ways I could finish this sentence, your expectations will be slightly higher than what I deliver … which, ironically, is pretty how my wife has spent the past 20 years, so, yeah …) …

…baseball.

No matter how hard you work at it, no matter how much time you put in the cage, no matter how much you repeat the basic fundamentals day in and day out, no matter that you’ve enjoyed days where the ball’s looked as big as a beach ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, no matter that the game has not significantly changed in the decades you’ve been playing it … yesterday’s success does not guarantee success today. You can’t take your eye off the ball. Sometimes it’s got a weird spin on it. Sometimes, it catches a rock. Sometimes you guess wrong.

Sometimes the best one can do is to drop to one’s knees and do one’s best to protect one’s privates in the act of trying to keep the ball in front of, um, one.

Metaphorically speaking.

Until I muster up the courage to marshal the wisdom that I’ve harvested from 20+ years of taking the field into a how-to-manual (that will make your eyes literally bleed Truth Gravy), let me just condense everything that I’ve learned into the following epitaph, er … sentence:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

One is so much wiser after one royally screws up in ways that take one completely by surprise even though one should, in retrospect, have TOTALLY known better.

I almost single-handedly and absent-mindedly sabotaged the family’s back-to-school-prep this week.

As I write this, I’m still rubbing the bridge of my nose with my eyes closed while shaking my head and muttering to myself on my long walk of shame back to the dugout. Still involuntarily wincing when I play the tape back in my head.

Note: the indiscretion in question wasn’t Buckner-botching-Mookie’s-grounder-in-the-World-Series-grade (i.e. no animals, children, or relationships were irreparably harmed by my gaffe). I’ll just say that it’s a play that I’ve had some trouble with in the past, but have also spent a lot of time in the cage working on.

Suffice it to say that the wound is still too fresh to speak its name in our house, let alone on the page. Hopefully, months down the road, sufficient scar tissue will have formed to allow the family’s forensic experts to pull back the bandage so that the episode can be dissected for the good of science.

Fortunately, though, the statute of limitations has passed on a veritable treasure trove of some of my past bloopers. So, today, in a gesture of self-effacing penance, I present some excerpts from my personal highlight reel epic Dad/Husband errors … that, over the years, my family has taken a perverse pleasure in replaying with a frequency that, candidly, teeters on the excessive. In the gift of my retelling, I will point out the part that my family chronically and conveniently excludes: my unwaveringly good intentions. Not as an excuse … merely as explanation. I plead guilty to all charges that follow.

Anchovy Creep

You always remember your first time … ordering pizza online.

I remember how giddy I was over the novelty of surgically customizing my digital pie, playing with the combinations, adding a little of this, some extra that. I presented options to the team, and secured consensus on half with extra cheese for the kids, half with sausage and banana peppers for the adults.

But I wasn’t content with the win-win.

I love anchovies on my pizza. The family hates that I love anchovies on my pizza.

This is where I took matters into my own hands.

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Incidentally, history has proven that the above variable is a common denominator across my many unintended detours to the Toasty Abyss of The Damned.

Before leaving to pick-up the pizza, I opened a can of anchovies, laid them out like little fish mustaches on a piece of tin foil, and put them in the oven to warm. Not only would they be pizza-oven temperature upon my return, allowing me to meticulously place them, with a surgeon’s precision, in the precise measure and location to ensure warm, salty goodness in my every bite … I would spare my family, whom, I will remind you, I love more than life itself, the invariable ‘anchovy creep’ that occurs when the little critters ooze their awesomeness onto nearby slices.

Yes, drunk with the dopamine-rush-afterglow of my first Internet Pizza Tryst, I went for the unprecedented win-win-win.

What could go wrong?

I had my answer within seconds of returning to the house to hear the smoke alarms blaring, see the smoke billowing down the steps, and smell the evidence that my master plan was literally going up in flames.

I met my wife’s gaze at the top of the steps (translation: her nuclear-grade stink eye seared a hole through the middle of my forehead).

Breaking down the tape, what I failed to take into consideration in my otherwise reasonably thought out and unquestionably well-intentioned plan, was that anchovies come drenched in olive oil, which, when laid on a piece of foil and placed in a hot oven, begin to, um, fry like sumbitches, and, ultimately — after the 13 or so minutes it takes for one to retrieve one’s first Internet-ordered-pizza from one’s Papa John — explode like little fish firecrackers. And smolder. And set off smoke alarms. And make the oven, and by extension, the kitchen, and eventually the rest of the house smell exactly like burnt anchovies.

For days.

In the act of trying to spare the family whom I love more than life itself a little anchovy creep … I became the family’s Anchovy Creep.

I still wince at the memory of silently eating cold cheese pizza alone at the dining room table after cleaning and scrubbing the interior of the oven (pretty much in vain) for the first and only time in that poor oven’s history.

Lesson learned: no amount of sorry or scrubbing can erase the stench tattoo of exploding anchovies.

I’ve since learned to be quite content with room temperature fish mustaches.

God, I love anchovies.

Donut Fail: Episode One

The family’s pilgrimages to Pittsburgh’s Strip District have become near religious experiences over the years, in terms of their ritual and ceremony.

We always park in the lot across from St. Stanislaus Church, gladly paying the however many dollars to The Happiest Lot Attendant In the World (who belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of true Pittsburgh characters, as far as we’re concerned), the bearded barrel of a guy who’s always chomping a huge unlit cigar, flirting with the females, and genuinely wishing everyone a great time. As we pass him a second time on foot after parking our car and exiting the lot, I invariably pause for a pre-pilgrimage-pee in the porta-potty next to his little shack (as is not uncommon for men of a certain age after long car rides), while my family engages the attendant in making fun of my tiny bladder, which, for the record, I find a bit excessive.

Our first stop is never a question. We make a beeline to join the line spilling outside of Peace, Love and Little Donuts. The line affords us a few moments of deliberation (and me a chance for me to burn off the residual angst towards my family for cracking wise about my tiny bladder to the parking lot attendant), which typically consists of how many maple bacons we’ll select with our picks (the over/under is 2). When it’s the four of us, everyone gets three choices to make the dozen. After paying we barely make it outside before we flip open the box and officially christen our Strip District arrival. For the ensuing 90 seconds, we suspend speaking in favor of involuntarily low moans of delight as we each methodically savor our single sublime first-round selection. Mine is invariably a maple, as the icing is usually still gooey warm right out of the box.

FFD1CCFC-5528-445F-AF65-FAC828767B4F (1)

Sh*t will make you take back things you’ve never even stolen.

Then, in the afternoon’s first and only exercise of restraint, we close the box to save the remaining eight for the next day’s breakfast (which allows us to relive the pilgrimage at the morning table).

A couple years ago, we were putting the finishing touches on another epic Saturday afternoon in the Strip, loading our haul into the back of Karry’s car, transferring the perishable stuff (the Hunter’s kielbasa and homemade sauerkraut from the Polish deli, fish from Whole’s, the array of cheeses from Penn Mac, the sodas from the Japanese market, the cinnamon bread from Mancini’s, etc.) into the coolers on ice we bring special for the occasion. Our souls and bellies nourished, I pulled us out of the parking lot, and onto Smallman. I remember we were passing the Hyatt Hotel on the right when I heard this feint jostling sound coming from the roof of the car. I looked in the mirror just as the kids looked out the back window to see the cardboard donut box drop across the back windshield, bounce off the tail gate, and crack open on the pavement, releasing four maple bacons, two maples, one cookie dough, one ginger sugar and one regular sugar donut to dance like tiny, sad, rolling spare tires in our wake.

I remember donating to the Official Family Swear Jar.

It took the rest of the car a couple seconds to process the surreal scene.

“Dad!?!”

Evidently, I temporarily put the box of donuts on the roof while we were loading, and, um, untemporarily forgot to retrieve it.

I acted quickly. Turned to the backseat … “Five-second rule?”

The donut shop had long since closed for the day, which bought me a full-car ride of silent treatment back to Washington, which carried over into an angst-ridden breakfast table, where my feeble offer to pick up some Krispy Kremes was met with, um, more donations to the Family’s Official Swear Jar.

It’s not that my family loves those donuts more than they love me …  but my family sorta loves those donuts more than they love me.

I have since been reminded of this indiscretion every visit since, precisely as we’re passing the Hyatt on Smallman.

Lesson Learned: Depends on who you ask. My take — to ensure safe transport of precious, next-day-breakfast-cargo, always bring a special backpack reserved for said cargo to mitigate unintentional misplacement. My family’s take — I’m not to be entrusted with things that, if unintentionally ruined in the process of attempting to do good, would be upsetting to other members of the family.

On the bright side, when it comes to selecting the Most-Tragic-Donut-Related-Dad-Fail, I’ve given my family a choice.

E.g. ….

 

Donut Fail: Episode Two — The Pee Tax

The winter following Episode One, I saw and seized an opportunity for redemption.

I volunteered to chaperone my daughter’s school field trip to the Heinz History Center (located in the Strip). It was scheduled for the early morning, and timed to wrap just after lunch to allow the van to make it back to school for afternoon dismissal. I’d arranged to give my daughter a ride home, so, once the field trip broke around 1, I popped the question ….

“Up for some donuts?”

Her eyes got as big as two maple bacons as she vigorously nodded in the affirmative.

Turns out … popping the question was the extent of my pre-planning, the consequences of which we would slowly suffer the rest of the excursion.

Just like my marriage (rimshot).

Although it was a brisk winter afternoon, I suggested we walk to the donut shop, rather than retrieving my car from the nearby parking lot and re-depositing it at the one with the affable, barrel-chested, cigar-chomping flirter.

Among my many endearing qualities whose novelty has long since worn off with my loved ones: I have no sense of direction and no concept of geography.

I would also like to point out that, for a guy with no sense of direction, I apparently can find the road to Hell with my eyes closed.

Turns out, it’s a helluva long walk from the History Center to the Donut Shop.

And indescribably miserable in the winter time when one is trekking into a stiff, sunless wind.

The challenge would only make the donuts that much sweeter, I told Emma, who was buying exactly none of that bullsh*t,  as she irradiated my forehead with her surprisingly mature nuclear-grade stink eye, which, apparently, is hereditary.

By the time we were ready to make the left off Smallman, I had to pee pretty bad (which, I feel compelled to point out, is not uncommon for men of a certain age after a really long walk), and suggested we duck into Pamela’s Diner, which is literally right around the corner from Peace, Love and Little Donuts.

She: Really, Dad?

Me: I’ll make it quick … promise.

We walked in, and I sat down at a table and took off my coat.

She: Wait. What are you doing?

Me: I feel guilty using the restroom without ordering anything. Want something?

She: Donuts.

A waitress came, I ordered an iced tea, then got up to use the restroom.

The iced tea was on the table when I returned.

She: So, your iced tea is kind of a ‘pee tax.’

“Exactly,” I said. My daughter gets me, I thought to myself. I offered her up a high-five, which she refused to uncross her arms for.

As an aside … while I abide a similar code for other transit-inspired bodily urges, the code allows for some, um, situational nuance. Once, while taking my son to a scouting service project over the mountain, I pulled into the parking lot of a coffee shop in deference to Mother Nature’s ‘other’ call. I walked into the cafe and quickly ducked into the restroom. Exiting a few minutes later, the line for coffee was excessively long … so I ducked out without buying anything, rather than keeping my son waiting in the car.

“Where’s your coffee?” my son asked, when I got back in the car.

Me: Line was too long.

He: So you didn’t pay The Tax?

Me: Um, no. I didn’t want us to be late.

He: So, in essence, you just did a ‘Poop n’ Scoot.’

“Exactly!” I replied. My son gets me, I thought to myself. I served up a freshly washed hand for another unrequited high-five.

“Wanna sip?” I said to Emma, pushing my iced tea towards her side of the table.

“I want donuts,” she reiterated.

“Patience,” I said.

I quickly drained my tea, settled up, and we loped out of the restaurant and around the corner…

… to find a closed sign on the locked door of the donut shop, which, evidently, closed at 2 p.m. on this Tuesday in the wintertime.

I looked at my watch: 2:05.

“You and your old-man bladder!” she spat at me.

I contend that my conscience, rather than my normal-for-a-man-of-my-age bladder, had cost us donuts, and me, redemption, but that’s splitting hairs, I suppose.

I can’t describe how soul-crushing it was staring at that mocking closed sign on the door.

On the bright side, we had the long walk back to the parking lot to broaden her angst from just Donut Blunder towards my general logistical ineptness, upon which I tied a ribbon and placed a bow by, somehow in the process, losing my parking voucher, which then had us traipsing through the hundred-car-plus parking lot (a valet had parked it for us) looking for my old Subaru, which gave us a good 15 bonus minutes in the freezing cold to cool off.

Not only did I endure a car-ride home dosage of silent treatment that extended until Emma turned in for the night, she made me swear that the episode would never be spoken of again in each other’s company.

Lesson Learned: the line between best-adult-chaperone-ever, and tiny-bladder-cursed, geography-challenged, donut-depriver is apparently a fine one.

 

Summing Up

While my family has grown much more careful with regards to the specific game situations in which they will let me take the field, I am grateful they still let me put the uniform on every day. And they know that what I lack in skill, I will occasionally make up for in hustle. And if I’ve proven anything, I’m not afraid to get my uniform dirty for the good of the team.

I’ll even volunteer to wash and dry my own jersey.

Though, after this week’s events, I’m no longer allowed anywhere near the rest of the teams’ uniforms.

Ahem.

There are no routine plays.

 

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The Shape of Things ….

The greatest lesson my parents taught me is that, when all is said and done, time is the only currency that truly matters.

Despite that knowledge, I am often shamed by how poorly I choose to invest it. Maybe you can relate to that.

When I’m at my worst, I choose escape. When I’m my better self, I hunt.

Escape is the more seductive and available choice, especially in this Age of Distraction.

Compounding my many (many) issues, is that I’ve never been great about finding work’s off switch. The issue is me, not my work (which is actually pretty cool). As my family will tell you, I often let it into the house, sit at our table, steal my attention. “You’re not here,” they’ll tell me. Even though I recognize it as it’s happening, I still allow myself to be led further and further away from the present moment, from what’s right in front of me. Only to then find myself having to hitch a ride back to the simple, fleeting moments that secretly matter the most when all is said and done.

I’m better than I used to be, but not as good as I know I should be.

A couple months ago while fumbling for the off switch, I decided to go for a walk around the block. I was escaping, not hunting. I left the duration ambiguous, and just started up the hill outside our house. What’s great about the hill (or greatly humbling, on the rare, ill-advised occasions when one attempts to go jog it) is that its steepness demands to be reckoned with. It shakes you by the shoulders and snatches your wind until it has your full, undivided attention. Put another way, it’s a great escape. So I leaned into it, head down … and got all of maybe 50 yards before I found my attention arrested … not by my wind, but what the wind had wrought.

Hundreds of fallen samaras — ‘helicopters’ as we called them as kids — littering the ground at my feet.

It says much about my general obliviousness that in my 17+ years matriculating up and down the hill, I’d never noticed that the neighbor’s tree was a maple. Though, as an aside, I’ve probably asked Karry a dozen times over the years to identify the two trees in our front yard. (I think one’s a dogwood?).

It says even more about my particular mental state that day that I cut my walk short to collect a few in my hands, and return Home.

Not the home I’d just left.

My home on Mullen Street, where probably a (mostly) good four decades had lapsed since I last found my attention captivated by these irresistibles.

The old maple in our front yard would just shower our steps and sidewalk with them growing up.   How many contented interludes I spent gathering them by the handful, dropping squadrons as I bent over our porch’s paint-chipped black railing. Mesmerized, I’d just watch them gently spin … bigger … smaller … some spinning faster, some slower. Some carried left or right by the breeze. Some, damaged, dropping like rocks.

For the record, nature did not design samaras for the sole purpose of amusing children. The shape of the fruit enables the wind to carry the seed farther away than regular seeds from the parent tree. It’s purposeful. The process is called anemochory (wind dispersal). I only know that because I looked it up. Nature always has its reasons.

The seven-year-old version of myself wasn’t aware of any of that. He just found helicopters captivating as heck.

And it was the seven-year-old version of myself that whispered to me from the old front porch on Mullen Street to the hill where I had paused my walk. And, for once, I listened to him. Decided that the hill had more than served its medicinal purpose, so I left the majority of its ascent for another day, another escape.

But not before picking up my prescription. I scooped up a handful of the samaras and returned to my present home, specifically to the deck that sits above our modest back yard. And I spent a contented interlude dropping a squadron of biggers and smallers, captivated by the mystery of those that spun faster, those that spun slower, those carried by the breeze to the left and right, and those that fell like rocks.

TOS_Samaras

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The Saturday after the above episode, I had to drop my son off at an all-day service project at the Boy Scout Camp in Farmington. On my way down the mountain, I texted my brother, who lives in Hopwood, to see if he’d be up for a visit. Wasn’t sure if he’d be up on a precious sleep-in Saturday morning.

He responded immediately: “Anytime. Watching a Tarzan movie on AMC.”

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting next to him on the couch in his living room, lights out, morning sun peeking through the windows. On his big screen, a Johnny Weissmuller classic, circa 1930’s.

In between marveling at how well Cheetah took stage direction, we caught each other up on our respective family fronts. He, his not-so-little girl’s inspired plans for her October wedding. She’s having her brother perform the ceremony (he’s getting internet-certified this summer), having her reception at the Aquarium at the zoo, and serving pie instead of cake at the reception, which pre-qualifies it as my favorite wedding reception ever. Me, the agonies and ecstasies of a not-so-young 16-year-old with his learner’s permit.

We laughed that, in both instances, we’re just along for the ride. My brother reminded me how he let me drive his immaculate, sky-blue mid-70’s Buick home from Areford playground when I was barely into my teenage years. I had totally forgotten about that, but his mention of it triggered the memory like a firework, breaking a big smile across my face.

We went out for a local diner breakfast (one of Uniontown’s best kept breakfast secrets is the diner that operates in the old K-Mart). My brother knew just about everyone in the place. In between bites of his big omelet, he shook hands, traded family updates even up, talked local sports. As I progressed through my well-done home fries and griddled sausage drenched in maple syrup, it reminded me of tagging along with Dad when he’d take me on errands growing up. Dad couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone, which is what he loved most about errand-running. My brother isn’t quite as garrulous as our Dad was, but seeing that he inherited the trait, and finding myself once again a quiet, contented sidekick, somehow felt just right.

After we finished Kenny had the inspired decision to stop by our sister Missy’s. I need to pause here and point out the magnitude of his suggestion. It was probably the first instance in recorded history of my brother and me staging an impromptu pop-in … anywhere. Yet, somehow it just felt right. She’d just gotten back from accompanying the family she nannies for to, of all places, a wedding in the Bahamas. (She didn’t want to go at all, but they begged her to tag along and watch their two-year-old during the trip). She was so tickled to see us. Had lots to tell us. She described the surreal experience with an anthropologists’ eye for detail. As I sat with my brother and sister in her living room, time melted. We probably could’ve exhausted hours had I not had to break things up to retrieve Peter from the mountain.

__

37.9 miles.

That’s how far Google Maps says is between my house and where the old maple tree used to stand on Mullen Street. But I knew I’d allowed myself to drift much farther than that.

Sitting in the passenger seat while Peter drove us back to Washington along Route 40, I realized that I may have mis-diagnosed my problem from earlier that week.

Not work.

Anemochory.

The way we shape our lives determines how far nature carries us from the parent tree.

Lately, I’d been falling like a rock to the ground.

How mesmerizing it was to spin a little slower on a simple, Saturday morning. To allow myself to be carried by the breeze back to a couple fellow helicopters who once called the same maple home.

Not long after our visit, my brother invited me to join him and his sons for a Bucco game.

Weeks after our visit Missy was still texting me how great it was to catch up.

You know, the simple, fleeting moments that secretly matter the most when all is said and done.

There’s much to be said for a seven-year-old’s understanding of nature … and contented interludes.

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