Arrayed in a plate blanket
Arrayed in a plate blanket
It hit me harder than I expected.
Kid Quick, I mean.
I was caught defenseless in his flurry, and before I could get a punch in, I was on the canvas, the ref counting me out, and Quick taunting me the way he used to when I was a kid, “Come on … stand up and fight!”
But, hey … first time in the ring in, what? Thirty years? I think a little rust is forgivable.
Sh*t … I was ready for the rematch before the ref was done counting.
When was the last time you bumped into someone you haven’t had any contact with in decades? I mean zero contact. No pictures. No social media. Nothin’.
Now, imagine that happening, like, 50 times in the same evening.
On a Saturday not long ago, I experienced the closest thing to the sensations of a pre-Internet high school reunion: the exhilaration of seeing old friends I used to spend hours at a time with … for the first time in decades; of matching faces with names I’d totally forgotten about; of trying to recall dance steps my younger version had mastered and memorized … surprising myself at how much came back, and forgiving myself for how much didn’t.
If I kept a leaderboard for most single-night “Oh My Gosh”-es, I’d have set a new personal record.
All while discovering just how good most of those old friends have held up. And, as with the best of reunions, totally forgiving the years for not being as kind to others.
The place: Pinball PA.
Think Field of Dreams for any child of the 80’s who wasted (read: invested) any portion of their youth dropping quarters in exchange for the temporary dopamine rush of blasting enemies and chasing high scores.
Aisle after aisle (after aisle) of exquisitely preserved pinball machines and arcade cabinets, perfectly nestled, non-descript, in a shopping center (where else?) in Hopewell, PA.
I owe the invitation to Andy, a friendship minted in the fourth grade, in whose company I logged many a mile biking across our hometown to temporarily tattoo our initials all over our its 8-bit cathedrals: the Station Arcade at the shopping center, Fun City at the mall, and the Electric Playground in downtown (across from where the Manos Theater used to be).
Andy lives a generous bike ride/short drive from Pinball PA. After a handful of “Dude, you need to see this place …” overtures, I found an open Saturday afternoon and made the pilgrimage. Pulled into a shopping center that could’ve been a Hollywood lot recreation from our teenage years.
Walked in and was greeted by the sweetest, beepy-est 8-bit symphony … and the nicest man in the universe: a middle-aged long-haired dude in black concert t-shirt whose 2017 closet bore an unapologetic resemblance to his (and, um, my) 80’s closet. He [1.] gave me a lay of the land, [2.] offered to give me a complimentary tour at any time — I think the place is technically considered a museum–, [3.] issued me a wrist band if I decided to leave and come back that day, [4.] gave me a red solo cup for the B.Y.O.B. bottle of wine I’d brought, and [5.] led me to the back tables, where he encouraged me to leave my stuff next to where a birthday party was going down.
“People are pretty cool here,” he said.
I took my time finding Andy. Spent a good 15 minutes just walking the aisles and involuntarily spasm-ing Oh-My-Gosh-es like they were hiccups.
I was totally Moonlight Graham stepping onto a field for the first time in years, calling the saints of my youth by name.
Galaga. (of course)
Gorgar. (which was like the badass bouncer of the pinball aisle at Fun City).
Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow).
I finally found Andy in one of the aisles, deeply engaged in battle. Waited for him to finish. He walked with me.
“So, what are you gonna play first?”
It was like being kickball captain on the playground with all your best friends standing, expectant, in front of you.
Andy had his guess: Stratovox, which we used to play at the Rec Center after swigging big-orange-container-Gatorade after summer basketball camp. Over the years, we’ve found many random excuses to quote the game’s signature monotone warning: “We’ll be-back!”
It would have made a fine choice (I made my way back to it later), but my first pick was a ceremonial one.
I paused in front of Laguna Racer, an old black and white, early generation cabinet from the Age of Pong. It caught some of my (Dad’s) first quarters at Fun City at the Uniontown Mall. I pressed play, hit the gas, and experienced the sweet simplicity of Accelerate, Avoid, Earn Extra Time … not through the lens of 2017, but through the eyes of my six- or –seven-year-old self experiencing the thrill of a steering wheel for the first time … moving my car avatar over the ramrod straight open road.
After a couple rounds, and adding my initials to its neglected leader board, I moved a couple cabinets down and stood in front of Punch Out.
Smiled when I saw Glass Joe staring at me from across the ring. Still the same old confidence builder he always was.
Made quick work of him to earn a bout with Piston Hurricane. When he teed up his, “Come on, Come on,” (“Ha! Bring it!” I may have said out loud), my subconscious blew the dust off my file cabinet of patterns, and I bobbed right to miss his big punch before unloading a flurry and uncorking a finishing uppercut to put him on his keister. Next: Bald Bull, from Istanbul, Turkey, all 298 pounds of him. He weathered a couple knockdowns before staying down for good.
Kid Quick, though, knocked me back to 2017, which coaxed an involuntary eff-bomb spasm that would’ve gotten me kicked out of Fun City. I quickly looked to my left and right, and exhaled NOT to find any small children within shouting distance.
The magical concept of free play meant I could jump right back in the ring (Punch Out allowed you one rematch to coax a couple more quarters from your pocket).
In the rematch, I went the distance, but couldn’t put the Kid down.
I was back on the street. Just a man and his will to survive.
I started all over, tore through the trio again … Joe, Hurricane, Bull … before returning to my unfinished business with the Kid.
Third time was a charm. I found the rhythm and settled into a pattern. Dodging and counterpunching, dodging and counterpunching. Hoping I’d wear him down before the timer expired. “Stay down!” I would’ve said in my head had I not been yelling it at the screen as the ref counted so effing methodically to 10.
Beads of sweat dotted my forehead as I paced around the cabinet waiting for my next victim, Pizza Pasta.
It was coming back to me. Stick and move, stick and move. Pizza went down like a slice with anchovies pulled from the warming oven of Pizza Town across the alley from the old Station Arcade. Easy pickins.
Then, Title Shot … the Champ: Mr. Sandman.
Thankfully no video documentation exists of my reaction after taking his title. All I’ll say is that it was an absolutely appropriate response for a nine-year-old, if a nine-year-old had the refined ornery adult vocabulary of a 47-year-old.
Guy Kawasaki wrote a book a few years ago in which he describes Enchantment (the name and subject of the book) as “the act of losing yourself in the moment.”
For the next three hours, I was enchanted.
One of the most resonant and unexpected parts of the experience was how the individual games conjured the locations that hosted them.
Time Pilot? Used to be at the movie theater at the Uniontown Mall. Such an exotic treat you either had your parents drop you off early, or added a time buffer after the movie was over before you had them pick you up.
Gorf? Winky’s. Gorf was an inspired mashup of Galaxian and Space Invaders. How good was it? Good enough to beg your Dad to take you to Winky’s (though not good enough to make you eat the food).
Spy Hunter? Uniontown Pizza Hut.
Scramble? Laurel Mall movie theater.
That Space-Invader-ish-knock-off-game-whose-name-I-can’t-remember that was my go to when others were shooting the duck at all those skating parties at the Wheels of 8 Roller Rink.
And the “foster games” that rotated in and out of our local Dairy Mart, and stayed only long enough to allow us to achieve mastery before being replaced (so we could begin our training anew, i.e. pouring quickly expiring quarters into a new machine): Asteroids, Donkey Kong Jr., Tron, Moon Patrol, Dig Dug, Star Trek. Though the facts are lost to history, I wish a record existed corresponding the tenures of machines with the tenure of some of our favorite Dairy Mart employees (Estelle, Mean Wilma, Elaine who Made the Awesome Microwavable Burritos, Dewey, Chuck, Bill, etc.).
Gyrus? Parked next to Dragon’s Lair (reverent bow) in the front row as you entered Fun City. Andy recalled that Greg Marmol used to kick ass at Gyrus (1,000 bonus points for remembering that).
If you would have given a genie lamp to the younger version of myself, it would’ve conjured Pinball, PA. The concept of free play after paying for your wrist band … total game-changer.
At the peak of my indulgence, I played myself two player on Galaga to double my chances of notching a perfect bonus round to earn the 10K bonus (an essential for anyone with high score ambitions). Managed to crack 200K, which was my benchmark when I was in my prime.
It was at this point I made the strategic decision to leave my wine bottle uncorked. Didn’t want to run the risk of dulling my reflexes. I was taking having so much fun that seriously.
After a while, it occurred to me just how much of my Dad’s modest disposable income must have gone to my video game addiction. That he never counted the cost is a lesson I’m still trying to fully put into practice. He lived his life by a different calculator, where time was the only currency that mattered. I couldn’t suppress a smile when I passed by the old Xs and Os football game. The one he and I’d play at Fun City (translation: one of the few he understood). I remember him still picking his play when the ball was snapped, and me taking it easy on him to keep things competitive. He was a good sport.
A couple hours in, Andy and I were joined by Wolfie, a friend I made in junior high and have kept since. I spent more teenage mall Fridays with Wolfie than anybody else, our parents graciously taking turns sharing the transportation burden until we got our licenses. I hadn’t seen him in awhile, but couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to catch up.
Though we would’ve loved a fourth player, Andy, Wolfie and I mustered up the courage to give Gauntlet a try. We chose our roles, wizard, warrior, elf … and charged into battle.
At first, the concept of free play was a reassuring novelty. We played aggressively, but respected the dangers in the game play, steering clear of risky situations. After a while, though, it became a bit absurd, as we’d just hit a button to refresh our player after getting offed. It got to the point where we were like hungry diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet of our favorite foods, eating ourselves beyond full. Probably a good ½ hour passed before we just walked away from our characters, since it was never going to end on its own.
For all the awesomeness inherent in an evening of ‘Free Play,’ there was a subtle, but important lesson in our Gauntlet experience.
The investment is what made the arcade.
A physical destination that required a pilgrimage.
A finite experience that lasted only as long as the quarters in your pockets multiplied by whatever skill you brought to the table.
Don’t get me wrong, we were beyond exhilarated when Atari (followed by Intellivision, then Coleco-Vision, the forefathers of today’s PS4 and X-Box) introduced console crack into our living rooms. But, looking over my shoulder, I can also say that empty pockets were their own gift, chasing us back into the daylight, where other adventures awaited, and leaving us eager for the next time.
I imagine that pre-Internet high school reunions regularly conjured a range of emotions that echoed the original feelings of one’s youth.
I’ll never know for sure. For all social media has given us in connectedness, its robbed us of the spasmodic Oh My Gosh-es that used to be the sole dominion of reunions and the random, chance encounter.
So it was nice to be reminded of my teenage feeling of anticipation pulling into an otherwise non-descript shopping center. Of spending a dopamine-drenched Saturday afternoon losing track of hours … of years. Of hanging out with some old friends.
And Andy and Wolfie, too.
As I walked to my car for the drive back home down I-79, I couldn’t help but think of a certain monotone refrain.
We’ll be back.
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.
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 …) …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
There are no routine plays.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So, Peter and I are wrapping our fifth day alone in the house together, while Karry and Emma are away doing a national dance thingy in New Orleans.
Conditions are relatively and surprisingly stable here on the home front.
Of course I trained hard for this. Translation: I listened to a podcast on the Donner Party on Saturday morning (true story). As a result I feel pretty prepped in the what-not-to-do-department if things go really sideways. Just in case, I think we have enough tiny cans of cat food to keep cannibalism from becoming a serious consideration until the girls return.
Among the many things I’ve learned this week is that tiny cans of cat food are ridiculously adorable. I’ve been using a tiny spoon to scoop their tiny food into their tiny bowls. And I’ve found that it’s impossible to resist talking to cats as if they are human babies when one is using a tiny spoon to scoop tiny food from tiny cans into tiny bowls. Is Mistow Viktow hungwee?
Incidentally (again), this week has marked the first time in the year-plus that they’ve been living with us that Viktor Kitty and Roman Kitty have acknowledged my presence in the house. Although technically speaking, they’ve really only acknowledged the tiny food I’ve placed in their tiny food bowls. The first full day the girls were away, Viktor slept for like 12 hours straight in my downstairs office chair. I think he was trying to hibernate until the girls returned.
But that’s just the tip of the freakish occurrence iceberg. A few other unprecedented highlights:
I will acknowledge that we’ve, um, ‘adjusted’ the standards that Karry typically holds the house accountable to … but so far, we’re keeping each other reasonably clean, fed and dressed.
Though we’re still not past the ½ point of Survival Week.
According to my training, as long as we don’t follow bad advice to take a non-existent shortcut across treacherous terrain in the middle of a horrendous winter, we should steer reasonably clear of having to ask Google how to tenderize human flesh.
Plus, we’ve got all that adorable tiny cat food.
Just to be safe, prayers por favor.
Behind these smiles are some stories, that, if you hold them close enough to your ear, you can still hear the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill Street in them.
That sacred address was responsible for us first colliding in our late teens, and, thus, gathering together last night at PNC Park, to celebrate one of our own NOT turning 50 (as the sign indicates).
That sacred address had a significant hand in at least four of us somehow convincing pretty college girls who totally should have known better to first dance with us, and eventually to marry us.
We solely owe last night’s gathering to an inspired idea from one of them (much love and thanks to Natalie).
Though it was intended as a gift to Popie, it was as much of one to the rest of us: a perfectly-timed reminder that no distance of time can diminish a good story’s ability to coax an on-demand laugh, head shake, hi-five, wince, or blush. And that we experienced each in equal and abundant measure in that golden (ZE) Chapter of our lives.
It was good to hear that my first college roommate’s high-pitched giggle is still in regular rotation (and still higher-pitched than my own). It was good to throw a hug around my last college roommate (and unapologetically go back for seconds). It was good to learn of (and meet) kids who are just blowing their parents away with the young men and women they are becoming, and also of children who are younger karma vessels for the ornerier among us.
It was good to see that Popie still lets his smile have the run of his face.
I think my new favorite game on the planet is to put the 19-year-old versions of us in the left column, and our, um, not-50 versions on the right, and to draw the connecting lines. I’ll let you figure out which column features at least one naked street bowler and which features at least one CDC-supporting, life-saving chemist.
Used to be Friday nights would not end until the clock was deep into single digits, or before our butts hit the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill for a communal rendition of the theme from Hawaii-5-0.
So it was telling that the majority of us were exchanging goodbye handshakes and hugs by 10:30 (and well before the post-game fireworks)… in deference to our drives home and long-week-depleted energy reserves.
But, as the above picture proves, the smiles will keep.
And as the years have proven, so will the stories … and the bond.