The Road Ahead

The Miles Between

Where the 16-year-old sees decay, I see … character.

And that’s just one of the dashboard instruments presently measuring the miles between us.

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Exhibit A: my one working speaker. Back seat, driver’s side. Omits the right channel from the mix of every song. To me, this is feature, not flaw, as it delivers fresh, unconventional listens to even the dustiest, old songs spun by the saints-cum-DJ’s of WJPA, our national treasure of a local radio station. Oh, and if I hit a pothole just right, sometimes it jogs the wiring to temporarily give me back my front speakers.

And when you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

Then, there’s (Science) Exhibit B: my backseat bug collection. I’m irrationally proud that such a diverse mix of insects have chosen my rear window as their final resting place; their quest for either warmth or escape ending, sadly, if exquisitely, in greenhouse-effect irradiation, but with a pretty kickass view. In a purely coincidental symmetry, a pair of perfectly preserved 17-year locusts serve as bookends, framing an inspired collection that also includes spiders, flies, bees, a stinkbug, and a motley crew of as-yet-unidentifieds. As impressive as the current exhibit is, it pales in comparison to its predecessor, which was lovingly curated over a decade, until my disgusted family could take it no more and, while I was out of town, wiped away 10 years of, um, pure science with one long suck from a shop vac … under the guise of “surprising me” by thoughtfully cleaning my car inside and out. Still pissed about that one.

But, my capacity for, um, character is not without its limits. After enduring three consecutive sweaty, global-warming-induced southwestern PA summers with a busted air conditioner, I finally broke down last fall and fished one off the internet for my mechanic to install, realizing that my strategy of bringing Ziplocs full of ice cubes to work to nurse me through the ride home was kinda’ weird, and TOTALLY not conducive to carpooling. But let me tell you, when I pulled into traffic for the first time with every vent trained on me and the knobs wide open, feeling that frosty Freon breath smack me in the face for the first time in years, you better believe, I found my ass some WJPA, cranked my single speaker up to 11 and rattled THE SH*T out of my rear-window bug collection.

But, the 16-year-old? He’s got plans. A vision.

New sound system.

New wheels.

But what he doesn’t have at present is a clue (i.e. a funding strategy for said vision).

Which buys me a little more time.

When you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

197,013 miles…

… and counting.

We’ve been through a lot together. Rear-ended twice at stop lights (oddly, both times I was on the phone talking to the same person in our Chicago office), hit by a loping deer, crunched by a Cub Scout parent leaving a pack meeting, and, most recently, ‘kissed’ by a charming British woman in a rented RV, who crumpled my driver’s side while I was inside my favorite coffee shop and she was overestimating her parking abilities.

As a result of the resulting cosmetic surgeries over the years by the good folks at Budd Baer Collision, she doesn’t look all that bad despite having plowed through her13th Pennsylvania winter. Makes me think of all the crap Mom used to give Dad for his wrinkle-free face into his 80s, which was the sole product of the countless skin cancer procedures he’d endured.

Truthfully, what upset me most about my recent run-in with the rented RV is that the parking-challenged British lady didn’t aim a little south, as the old girl could use a facelift near the rear door and fender on the driver’s side, where rust is starting to get the upper hand.

I’ve nursed her through a few invasive surgeries as well. New exhaust around 100,000. Replaced the head gasket at 150,000 miles. New struts just last week.

But of all the miles, the ones I remain most grateful for are the 6,000 I inherited when I bought it sorta, but not really new in 2004. It was part of the dealership’s loaner program, but they still gave me the original warranty despite the miles already on it.

It allowed me to rationalize the purchase in my head as a used car, which was and remains kind of a big deal to me.

Used is all I can remember us ever owning growing up.

After our family’s flames of passion for Ford Pintos finally died down1, we made more than due with run-til-they-die old reliables like our 1980 Mercury Monarch (the tank I learned to drive on), followed by a 1988 Ford Taurus that Dad somehow managed to coax into the next millennium. We drove what Dad could afford, and were grateful to get where we wanted to go. The concept of vehicle as status symbol was relegated to my lovingly curated (and epic) Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection.2

So cars have always been practical conveyances between A and B to me. But that’s never kept me from developing an emotional (read: irrational) attachment to them.

I remember the day when the old Monarch died of natural causes outside our house. I went outside to pay my final respects. Sat in the driver’s seat one last time. Turned the ignition. Just an empty soft click. But rather than pulling the key out, I twisted it halfway back and tried the knob on the old AM radio3 to hear what, if anything, The Universe might have to say to me.

It did not disappoint.

Through the sweet crackle of static came the opening strains of the Beach Boys, “Don’t Worry, Baby.”

Good thing I’m not a sentimental dude.

Because I would’ve openly wept, rather than, um, just misted up.

1Laurie’s brown hatchback, Missy’s blue version of the same that sported an unironic racing stripe, and the 1974 brown station wagon we literally rocked with an aftermarket 8-track tape player that is responsible for more of my musical education than I care to admit.
2Which my middle-aged self may or may not steal the occasional glance at.
3 Whose pre-set buttons I had lovingly curated: 3WS (oldies), WJAS (big band), KDKA (Pirates in the summertime), WMBS (the Uniontown station you can always count on to this day for true, indescribably epic, local color).

Unrelated-but-related, I remember The Universe speaking clearly to me once before through the Monarch’s AM radio. It was the day of my senior prom, after I picked up my rented tux from Ptak’s. I remember sitting at the light at Five Corners in downtown Uniontown, when I turned the knob to hear the opening strains of “Everybody Plays The Fool.”

Though it’s a small sample size, I’ve found The Universe to be pretty consoling when speaking through AM radio.

I carried on my parents’ legacy of buying what I could afford, when I procured my first car, a low-mileage used 1991 red Mercury Tracer station wagon, which I chose primarily to haul my drums to gigs. I remember test driving it to my house to make sure all my cases would fit before I signed the papers.

The Tracer was part of my, um, wedding dowry, when Karry and I got hitched in ’96.

By the time I got rid of her, pretty much everything was either falling off or had stopped working.4 I remember taking a measure of solace from the fact that every other Mercury Tracer I’d see on the road was visibly disintegrating in the same fashion mine was (faded door handles, bare metal around the windows where the rubber molding had fallen off, hub caps missing like teeth). I felt part of a fraternity …. of people-who-wished-they-could-afford-tinted-windows-so-no-one-would-see-them-driving-a-piece-of-sh*t-Mercury.

My people.

Which made my next purchase absolutely delightful … an even lower-mileage used 1994 red Mercury Tracer station wagon. Everything that was failing on my old car was in fine fettle on the new one. I’m pretty confident that no one in the history of ever was more giddy about purchasing a second used Mercury Tracer than this guy. I remember inviting Karry’s mother over to see my new car, which looked exactly like my old car.

My brother would be laughing right now because when I was growing up, I insisted on having two of everything so I could keep one in reserve. I think I’ve just always wanted the things I loved to last forever.

4 The car, I mean … not Karry.

Big Red #2 lasted until January of 2005, when it earned me a whopping $700 on trade-in for the 2004 Subaru Legacy and its 6,000 miles, which secretly allowed me to honor Mom and Dad’s legacy of buying used cars. Knowing how hard Dad worked, logging 35+years with Sherwin Williams, I’m not sure I considered myself worthy of a new car in my mid-30’s. It’s weird to write that, but it’s true. Maybe a better way to put it is, if a used car was good enough for my Dad, then it was just fine for me, too.

I don’t expect Peter to feel the same way I do on the subject, but I’m also not giving him the choice, either.

He’s inheriting my Legacy, figuratively and literally.

Spoiler Alert

 

FullSizeRender-3On an otherwise forgettable Sunday evening during Steeler season this past winter, Karry looked at the burning clock and realized that our still-daunting to do list was not going to allow for any type of meal prep, so she gave Peter and me a green light to grab a bite out. I let him pick the place on one condition: that he refrain from plugging his ears with his headphones in the car, which is (a.) among my biggest pet peeves and (b.) pure survival instinct on his part, shielding him from my single-speaker oldie’s soundtrack … that I may or may not also chronically sing along to. But, respecting my leverage in the negotiation, he abided, and we hopped in the old Subaru, setting Max and Erma’s as our destination. As a courtesy to him, I resisted the urge to turn on the radio. We just chatted … about the Steelers, about basketball. Just stuff. And as we drove, and out of nowhere, it hit me. That, in a few months, this … me coaxing him into an impromptu boys bite to eat, and my being instrumental in his decision, as his sole means of escape slash transport … would cease to be a thing. This 16-years-in-the-making ritual would essentially go poof in the passing of a test, and the handing over of keys.

I read an article a few years ago that has always stuck with me. The author wrote that we’re seldom aware when we’re doing a familiar something for the last time. The last time a mother rocks her baby to sleep in her arms. The last time a father and son pass baseball. The last time a family gets together to celebrate a birthday.

The last time a Dad coaxes a son into an impromptu, Sunday-night, hop-in-the-Subaru, you-pick-the-place-bite-to-eat.

And before I knew it on that nondescript Sunday evening, I found myself sitting at a stop light with tears welling in my eyes … grateful for the cover of darkness and reaching, in desperation, for the radio dial.

We ordered cheeseburgers (he went bacon). Loaded fries. Don’t-tell-Mom refills on root beer. Ice cream. Stole glances at the Sunday night NFL game. Cowboys, I think. The conversation was easy, like it always is when we’re out, just the two of us.

And by the time we found ourselves walking our full bellies across the parking lot to get back in the old Subaru — he in the passenger side, me in the driver’s side — this otherwise forgettable Sunday evening had suddenly became unforgettable.

Because when you know something’s not gonna last, you appreciate it a whole lot more.

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Backseat Driving

T.S.D.T.M.T.D.U. #117: The Dishes

Spent most of Easter Sunday afternoon in the kitchen. The majority of it at the sink.

In the 46 years I’ve logged so far on the planet, I’ve never lived in a  house with a dishwasher.

So, on the other side of every meal prepared at home, has been some version of this:

dishes

One would think that, with all those years of practice under my belt,1 I’d be good at it.

My wife, in particular, is one such one.

However, the dishes are just another item among the T.S.D.T.M.T.D.U.

(Things She Doesn’t Trust Me To Do Unsupervised.)

The list is, um, robust.

The reason why The Dishes has its mail sent to the T.S.D.T.M.T.D.U. is that my wife and I have different strategies for how to do them.

My strategy can be summed up as follows:

Wash the dishes.

When I went to deploy the above strategy Sunday afternoon, Karry actually said, “I can’t let you do that. It’ll make me sick to my stomach.”

1under my belt? Does that even make any sense? Seriously, what’s under my belt? My too big pants. “With all those years of practice beneath my too big pants.” What the hell? Stop saying that. All of you.

Her strategy, by contrast, is more nuanced. I’ll do my best to explain it here, but, in full disclosure, if I truly understood it, then I could probably lobby the listing agent for the chore’s removal from the T.S.D.T.M.T.D.U.

Near as I can tell, her approach relies heavily on pre-production. An awful lot of pre-production. I think there’s a lot of pre-rinsing and stacking involved. I can hear what sounds like water running and plates bumping before I’m summoned (read: allowed) back to the kitchen to behold the evening’s dirties perfectly aligned in an order apparently harmonized with the cosmos.

I would contend2  that her meticulous organization is unnecessarily time consuming. And, let’s face it, I’m a busy dude. The more time I spend doing dishes, the less time left for arguing with the teen ager, yelling over top the teenager as he argues with his 12-year-old sister, or fulfilling my true calling, getting on my wife’s last nerve.

That said … even though I know that the rational side of my brain will find the eventual owning of a dishwasher as delicious as any Amish family would … I can honestly say that, even after all these years, the perfunctory chore is not without its juice. Once she has properly prepped them, and I’m left to do them by myself if it’s a divide-and-conquer evening, I curate an accompanying soundtrack. And it speaks well to the timeless transcendence of what poured from the horns of Paul Desmond, Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins that their sounds can elevate even my ritual cleansing to the sublime. I would be the most content ditch digger the world has known as long as long as I could listen to good music. I inherited this trait from my Dad, who logged even more years than me at the sink (a single sink, no less), drying and putting away after Mom washed and rinsed.

2 If I chose to use the limited capital in my possession for arguing this point … which I am smart enough not to, recognizing that there are dozens of offenses I will be committing very shortly that I will only become aware of after the fact, and even then, will most likely not fully comprehend their precise nature.

But the point above notwithstanding, jazz is not the best company I’ve found. Karry is. Even though she usually has to burn off a couple exhales at the mere prospect of my accompanying presence.

Don’t get me wrong … we complain just about after every home cooked meal, and sometimes (read: more often than we care to admit) find ourselves deterred from home-cooking a meal by pre-calculating the dish tax.

But here’s the thing. I’ve realized over time that the mundane act is a bit of a Trojan horse.  Held hostage by the sink, we ask each other about our days, remind each other of schedules, share family updates. And since she is not a morning person (or, um, technically speaking, an evening person), it’s our best, and sometimes only, window to just catch up. Further, no matter how jacked she is at me or how frustrated she might be with what the day has thrown at us … the splash and clank of a sinkfull reminds us of our basic contract: that there remains work to be done (always work to be done) … that we’ve chosen each other to share the work (for better or worse) … and that things (for the most part) go better when we’re tackling them together.

At the end of the day, no matter what the world has thrown at us, or what remains of our daily climb up Have-To Mountain, she knows that if she organizes and washes, I’ll rinse, dry and put away.

And there’s something in that. Not a big something. But an important something.

And I’ve learned (and am still learning) that over the course of a long friendship, it’s the little somethings that provide the steadier fuel after life gracelessly burns off the tinder of youth.

I’m confident that when/if our home finally does make room for a dish washer, she won’t miss it one single bit.

For the record, I totally will.

Even though a dishwasher would give me my best chance yet in 20 years of marriage to successfully lobby for the removal of an item from the T.S.D.T.M.T.D.U.

Yep … peeking at the list, everything else is pretty much carved in stone.

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Postcards

In retrospect …

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Son turned 16 last week. Drove home this afternoon after passing the written portion of his driving test.

Which compels me to write the past 5,843 days a mother*ucker of a speeding ticket.

In the involuntary peek in the rear-view such rite of passages induce, let’s just say that the boy’s relationship with locomotion over the years has been, um, colorful.

From sled, to tricycle, to training wheels both on and off … there’s been a common denominator to each and every mile marker… a refrain (sometimes spoken, more often, not) that begins with the parental mea culpa, “In retrospect ….”

Unfortunately, if precisely, that’s how Karry and I have learned the majority of our lessons in our 16 years in parental driving school.

Sled

There was the first time Karry took him sled riding at grandma’s house in Amity… he was maybe, what, three? The experience fell into that magical category of things we cherished from our childhood and could not wait to share with our kids (one of the coolest things about the parenting gig, by far). That winter, she waited patiently until the snow finally fell deep enough in her old back yard to complete its transformation from pain-in-the-ass-summer-grass cut to perfect-sled-riding terrain.

Twelve+ years ago and she can still picture it like it was yesterday:

How adorable he looked stuffed in his snowsuit and toboggan, the signature red of his irresistible full cheeks accentuated by the chill.

Putting him on the plastic sled for the first time and reminding him to hold on as she sent him down the slope.

How he took off like a shot.

How her exhilaration evaporated to helplessness in the nanosecond he veered hard left, off-course. When she realized where he was headed how she screamed in vain at him to Turn! Turn! Turn! Remembering and cursing in the same breath the fact that the dumb plastic sled had no steering mechanism. (“In retrospect ….”)

How everything melted into slow motion for her as he hit a bump in the ground and launched himself (and her heart with it) into the air, Dukes-of-Hazard-style, until both he and sled disappeared deep into the massive brush pile her Dad had built over years from fallen branches.

How this may have been the first recorded instance of her Mom adrenalin kicking in as she took off after him, screaming his name, plunging herself into the pile, thorn-and-thistles be damned, tearing her way through to her baby. Until she found him in the dead center of the pile, still atop his sled …

… as he answered the question before she could even ask it.

“Mom … I was CANON-BALLING!” his red cheeks about to swallow his eyes, his smile was so big.

How her relief brought forth a laugh that collided hard with the tears that had already started beading and freezing down her cheeks.

Tricycle

How I learned my version of the very same lesson the following summer during an after dinner pilgrimage to Canonsburg Park. When we brought his Amish-made, industrial-grade blue tricycle we’d picked up in Lancaster that spring. Those massive, treaded bicycle-pump-required tires. Too badass to call a tricycle, really.

How it was an exquisite summer evening to be outside … until … he decided to do some off-roading, leaving the safe confines of the sidewalk for the grass, where he quickly encountered the slope of the park’s massive hill.

How, as he gathered momentum my heart leapt to my throat at the remembrance that … Tricycles. Have. No. Brakes.

How I broke into a helpless full sprint that was completely in vain, as he was already going faster than my (then-) late 30-s legs were capable of. How his course took him across the parks paved roads (featuring live traffic).  How his feet were forced off the pedals as they spun out of control, with a couple hundred feet of descent still in front of him.

I’ve never been so scared in my life. Before or since.

How the volatile cocktail of gravity, grade, trike, boy, and terrain could’ve produced any number of possible outcomes. And my curiosity stopping short of wanting to know the precise odds of the actual one … when, about 60 feet or so into his free fall, the bike peeled off harmlessly in a gentle left curve before gradually coming to a peaceful rest … with me much less gracefully catching up a couple seconds later and ripping him off the bike and into my arms and squeezing him … just squeezing him, he every bit as blissfully oblivious as I was viscerally aware of just how closely he’d danced with danger.

And him pushing himself away from my chest, kicking at me to put him down so he could hop right back on that fucking blue death machine.

Training Wheels On

The first time he was responsible for his own wheeled locomotion on an adult highway. Had to be around four. Summer getaway to Virginia Beach. How we let ourselves be seduced by the vacation-induced loosening of parental controls, and let him rent his own bike (with training wheels) on the boardwalk. It was the first time we forsook the Dad rickshaw arrangement where I’d happily haul him in his pull-behind chariot with the vented windows. How we gave him very simple instructions to keep his eye on the road in front of him. Sandwiched him between me (with Emma in a baby seat at my back) and Karry, caravan style.

Free from his pull-behind bubble, the world suddenly became huge, and he was determined not to miss a single detail. The memory is still wince-inducing as I think about all the adult bikers and families in both directions he chased from the path, incurring a steady stream of bike bells, and cursings of both under- and over-the-breath varieties, which my sheepish apologies failed to ameliorate.

Can’t remember exactly how far we made it, other than the number of times I implored him to pay attention exponentially eclipsed the number of blocks we’d made before he went baja-ing into some finely manicured shrubbery.

Total nightmare.

Training Wheels Off

I still remember that exhilarating rite-of-parental passage when my hand first pulled away from his bike in the driveway behind our house, and, like magic, he was on his own, doing it himself. How his exhilaration matched mine. He was a natural.

And it wasn’t long before he grew tired of the short back-and-forths in our driveway and craved the adventure of the road in front of our house.

He was but moments into his graduating maiden voyage, when he clipped our neighbor’s mailbox with his head, leaving a big old dent (in the box, not his melon). This time the tears were his, as was the strawberry above his eye, as well as the apology I made him deliver to Mr. Don, our neighbor.

For the record, it was his last mail-box casualty, and he much-too-soon matriculated to riding no-hands no-breaks down the super steep hill outside of our house, equal parts fearless and oblivious, while I followed responsibly behind, overcompensatingly pumping my breaks and squeezing my own handlebars tighter with two hands sweaty at the sight of his ever smaller outline farther and farther ahead of me.

In Retrospect …

… the signs were always there along the path.

In retrospect … the fullness of each of the above episodes blinded us to the fact that each was pregnant with everything there was to know about being a parent.

The illusion of control. The helplessness to meaningfully influence a real-time outcome. The message-in-a-bottle-at-best odds that our unsolicited advice has found soft ground to take root. And the realization that where our control ends is where harrowing faith begins.

And, when you add up all those miles, an epiphany – that for the past 16 years, maybe he’s not the one who should’ve been paying more attention to the road ahead.

Maybe seeing what could happen is the preferable alternative to fearing what might.

Maybe he’s not been the stubborn student.

Maybe he’s been the one with the lessons worth teaching.

And on our 16th anniversary of becoming parents, maybe those are the keys he’s handing us.

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