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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Excursions

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.

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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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Excursions

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.

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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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