Aging Gracefully

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I’m telling you, old age sucks.  I’m not old yet, I guess, in the strictest sense of the word.  I still get around okay.  My wife tells me I should dye my hair, maybe get rid of some of the gray.  I say, who do I have to impress?  I earned this gray hair.  Three exes, three teenage daughters, 24 years with the Postal Service–I tell the wife, if I’m having a nightmare, don’t wake me up.  I could be fighting off punk boyfriends with nose rings, grumpy supervisors, crabby lawyers, unsympathetic judges.  It could be anything.  I could start flailing around, who knows.  Maybe I should see somebody.

I may not be old, per se.  But things are happening.  Little pains crop up.  I got an ache in my knee last year.  After a 300 dollar MRI adventure, the doctor says, hey, you have a spot of arthritis in your knees–take some ibuprofen when it acts up.  Huh?  300 bucks for take two and call me in the morning?  So I have to resign myself to some aches and pains.  I have to do some self triage.  Can whatever stabbing pain I’m experiencing at the moment wait?  If I don’t break out, bleed out, or pass out, then chances are I will live and I don’t have to cough up a 400 dollar co-pay so I can get some Advil.

I have this inner dialogue going.  I started telling myself things.  Like when I do some heavy lifting at work that lasts maybe 20 seconds and I start breathing like I just ran 10 miles carrying a backpack full of rocks. Or when I swat at a fly and it feels like my shoulder popped out.  Or when I raise my arms over my head and things start creaking. I’m not old, I say to myself.  I’m just a little out of shape.  I need to walk more.

I saw a friend of mine at work the other day.  He’s about 70, 80 something.  He said when you get old, things just start breaking down.  One thing after another, every day it’s something else.  Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but lately I’ve been feeling some of that.  My knees, my back, even my ears are falling apart.  I know there are 90 year old guys who would read this and laugh out loud, if they had the wind.  Some of them are on walkers; they can’t tie their shoes without falling down.  Here I’m 47 and complaining about a little arthritis on my knee.  It gets below 60 degrees outside and I’m grabbing my leg at the bottom of the stairs crying to my wife about my arthritis kicking in.  It must be the drop in barometric pressure or something, I whine, and she says hurry up and get the garbage out before the rain starts.  No sympathy.

There’s an upside to all this.  Things are slower.  Real drama is reserved for things like death and…well, just death.  Everything else is negotiable and temporary.  I appreciate things, like the sun on my face, a freshly mowed lawn, even a clean pair of  socks warm from the dryer.  As I age, life becomes simpler.  And much more satisfying.

I’m getting older, but not old.  Not yet, anyway.  Besides, I hear the alternative  really  sucks.

Lessons and dreams

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I’ve learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Aging, death and dying. I seem to be preoccupied lately with these things. I’m not afraid of them; they happen. I know that I will get old and die. Right now, it’s not the passing that frightens me. I’m way past that. It’s what I’ll leave behind. If I died right now, what would happen to my kids? They have so much learning to do. While sometimes I think that there’s not much I can give them, I know deep down that I would leave an incredible void in their young lives if I were suddenly gone. It’s not arrogance that tells me this. I am old enough to have lost, and there is much more yet to lose. I know the ache of an empty space: that endless yearning for what was and will never be again.   It is my life’s work to prepare my girls for that moment. The moment when I am not here.

I have dreams, sometimes, of people who have left me. A few months ago, I remember lying in my bed in the black quiet of a predawn fall morning. I was in that magical state wherein reality and dreams juxtapose on a backdrop of warm blankets and fuzzy shadows: rabbits in topcoats glanced frantically at their pocket watches while the glowing green clock on my nightstand foretold a dire future of showers and coffee and bills to be paid. I sank deeper into my dreams, the clock be damned.

There I was, sitting at my mother’s old yellow Formica table. We were silently having coffee. Her hair was still impossibly curly and dark black where it wasn’t graying. She was wearing a tattered blue housecoat. She smiled and sipped, and I did the same. Why must the dead always be quiet? I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted Mom to tell me I needed a shave. I wanted her to tell me that she had driven by my house the other day and noticed my lawn needed a trim, and what would people think? Yes, Mom, I would say. I’ll get to it. But we just looked at each other and drank. It was pretty uneventful, as dreams go.  I was frustrated.

Then Mom looked at me over her coffee cup. Silently, and with more eloquence than mere words could achieve, her eyes told me that I was still her little boy and that I was loved, now and always. My frustration left me; peace settled over me like a warm quilt on a cold night.

The alarm rattled and the dream was over. Mom was gone again, for now, but her lesson for me remained: while a part of her was gone, the best part of her was still with me—the love that she had for me, and I for her. It is what I will leave for my children.  They will walk in the knowledge that they were loved, unconditionally, and forever. That will always be with them.

In the end, that may not be as good as a hug. But it sure beats a void.

Tech Support

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I have become the de facto computer guru in the family.   Did I complete years of specialized training?  Have I spent a lifetime putting together complicated mainframes, or networking computer systems in multinational corporations?   No.  What happened was, my brother asked me, “How do I turn this thing on?” and I replied, “Probably with that button right there.”

I’ll admit, at first it was flattering.  People sought me out, hanging on my every word.  It was great!  Great, until things evolved from casual conversations about batch files and hard drive overlays (I know, that’s old school stuff, but this was the ‘90’s) to full blown tech support marathons on the phone.  And let me tell you, there is probably nothing on this planet more exquisitely frustrating than attempting to walk a computer illiterate through a simple procedure over the phone.

A typical call went like this:

Caller, frantically:  “My computer’s broke!  Help me!”

Me:  “Okay, first click start.”

Caller:  “What?”

Me:  “It’s down there, on the left.”

Caller:  “Wait…I can’t see it…”

Me:  “Bottom left of your screen….”

Caller:  “I can’t…oh, there it is.”

Me:  “Good, now click it and go to programs.”

Caller: “Click what?”

Me:  “Start.  Move your cursor…”

Caller:  “What?”

Me:  “The little arrow.  Move it over there and click it.  With your mouse.”

Caller:  “Click the arrow?”

Me:  “Uh…”  Deep breath. “No, move the arrow, with your mouse, so it rests on the start button.  Then, with that little clicky thing on your mouse, click start.”

Caller: (after a long silence, peppered with intermittent heavy breathing) “Which clicky thing do I click again?”

Family computer experts are why the suicide hotline was invented.

Really…what is it with these things and otherwise intelligent people?  I know folks who can take  car engines apart and put them back together blindfolded, but who will swear to me on the phone that the F8 key doesn’t exist.  I know one guy who could probably MacGyver a wad of chewing gum and a lawn chair into a moped but turns into a blithering idiot at the mere mention of the words “control panel.”

It’s not brain surgery.  Or maybe it is.  Maybe somewhere there’s some poor schlep in an operating room stuck in the middle of a complicated procedure screaming for the phone:  “Get Finkelstein on the line, stat!  I’m lost here!”

And poor Finkelstein, who seconds ago was passed out face first on his keyboard, answers the phone groggily.  He listens for a moment, nods calmly, and says, “Slow down, man.  What we’re going to do is a little thing I like to call an endonasal approach to skull based surgery…”

Now I know formatting a hard drive is way easier than brain surgery.  But so is clicking the start button or opening the control panel, for God’s sake.  Open your minds, people!  Free yourselves!  Read a manual!

I decided to end the frustration of my little family tech service and hire an Indian guy to screen my calls–it was time to outsource.  I had just settled into my sofa for an uninterrupted night of the Science Channel, when my Indian friend, holding his hand discreetly over the mouthpiece of the phone, well, interrupted me.

“Where’s the start button?” he asked.

Grandpa's time machine

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I took a little trip the other day. It wasn’t in a car, or on a bike.  I didn’t even walk. It was a trip through time, you see, and to take it, I only had to sit comfortably on my Grandfather’s couch.  I’ve read that time travel really is possible, if only you could travel at the speed of light, or drop through a wormhole, or perhaps step into one of the innumerable parallel worlds that are said to populate the universe.  I didn’t have to do any of those things.  In fact, I didn’t even have to move.

Grandpa sat grinning at me from his easy chair.  His head bobbed slightly on his frail neck.  His sparse white hair spun like gossamer from above his ears.  He didn’t look like he commanded a time machine, but he was nevertheless in charge of this journey.

Grandpa spoke and off we went.  It was the early 60′s and we were seeing my Dad.  Darrell was his name.  He’s been looking at me from black and white photographs for as long as I can remember:  here he is in a plain white t-shirt and tough guy shades; there again, he’s banging a guitar like Elvis, wearing his jeans rolled up at the cuffs with that damn t-shirt.   My Mom’s in that one, on her knees next to him with her arms outstretched, acting like a weepy teenager with front row seats:  two dumb kids acting up without a care in the world.  But these were only  photos.  Me and Gramps were going back to see the real thing.

Here was Grandpa and my Dad, lingering at a car lot in Southern California.  Dad had his eye on a 40-something Chevy coupe.  He wanted it, but he didn’t have  the money.

“The guy said, take it anyway,” Grandpa said.  “I told your Dad, you won’t take it until you have the cash.”  Grandpa laughed at the memory.  Dad busted his ass for two more months, cleaning canvas bags in some factory, but he finally collected what he needed and bought the car.

“What’s he do when he gets the car?”  said Grandpa.  “He puts these huge mufflers on it, then lowers the front and raises the back.  Bounced all over the place.  Lord.”

“Gramps,” I said, “Didn’t you and Grandma take that thing to the store once and break the eggs on the way home?”

Grinning , Gramps said,  ”That’s what I told your Dad.”

Grandpa steers the time machine elsewhere…or else-when?  We’re in a courtroom.  Dad is standing dejectedly before the judge, Grandma by his side.

“Your Dad got a speeding ticket not a month after he jacked up his car,” says Gramps.  “When they went to court, I told your Grandma to tell the judge to throw the book at him.  The judge says, two months with no driving or 6 months only driving to work.  Your Dad took the two months.  He never got another ticket.”  Grandpa laughed again.  “He said, Dad, you go over 30 miles an hour on that street all the time.  I said, yes, but they can’t hear me a mile away.”

Grandpa was silent after that–our trip was over.  He sat in his chair with his eyes closed, a wistful smile on his lips, his face glowing with bittersweet memories of a son long dead.  Time eventually steals away all that we hold dear.  But sometimes, if we’re quiet (and we throw in with a good skipper), we can get back a little of what was lost.  When we do, we find we never really lost the most important thing of all: love, the essence of every bond that really matters and the one thing that time cannot diminish.  See, Dad may be dead and buried, but he is alive in the time machine that beats in Grandpa’s chest.

You have but to close your eyes and Grandpa’s heart will take you wherever you want to go.

Mom no matter what

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My mother has been dead for almost 10 years now.  I never thought I would miss her this much.

I know that sounds strange.  She was my mother, after all.  But while she was alive and going through her chemo and operations, I never really thought about the imminence of her death.  I never expected to miss her.  You could call it hope, I guess.  I wouldn’t.  I had an expectation that she would get through it.  I saw no need for hope.

For her part, Mom approached each day of her battle with dignity and resolve, and not a little humor.

“I thought people who had cancer were supposed to get skinny,” my Mom said to me one day.  “Why am I still fat?”

I looked at her, nonplussed, but only for a second.  She was laughing, and I joined her.  What else could I do?  If she wasn’t crying about it, I sure as hell wasn’t either–at least not in front of her.

Mom made her share of mistakes.  She grew up in a nest of pedophiles and alcoholics.  Her mother was a domineering woman who made it her life’s work to belittle her at every turn.  So it was no wonder that when my father died, she lost her mind.  We kids grew up with a succession of alcoholics.  It’s happened before to a million other kids, and it will surely happen again.  That doesn’t mean we gave her a free pass.  Not by a long shot.  I don’t know that the word forgiveness was ever uttered, but there came a time when Mom began to be the mother we always wanted and needed.  It’s hard to distinguish at what point acknowledgment and absolution coalesced to bandage the wounds of our collective childhoods.  Was it the arrival of her grandchildren?  Was it her final marriage to a good man who didn’t need to be saved?  The how or the why didn’t matter.  We finally had our Mom.

And then, because life is far from fair, Mom developed breast cancer.  She never asked, “Why me?”  She never wished her disease on anybody else.  She fought it, tooth and nail, for as long she could.  Through it all, she continued to make cookies and birthday cakes; she never stopped bouncing the grandkids on her knee; and she always had a smile and a hug ready when we walked through her door.  My Mom was no June Cleaver, but in the end she taught me two of life’s most important lessons:  how to live, and how to die.

I could have done better

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Too often people who have divorced blame the break up on some character flaw of their former partner. But the fact is, there are many reasons why people don’t stay together. Character flaws may be one of them, but like my dear departed mother used to say, it takes two to tango, buddy. I've been married and divorced three times. In each case, it was easy to cry in my beer and complain about how this one was too loud and needy, or this one cheated. Oh, I could generalize about my part in the breakups: I didn't communicate enough, or I didn't help enough with the kids, whatever. But when all is said and done, the fact is, I could have done better.

I remember when I rushed my first wife to the hospital because she was cramping horribly. It turns out that she was pregnant with our child. We had no idea. Imagine hearing, on the one hand, that you are pregnant, and then in the very next breath, being told that you lost your child. In the days following our hospital visit, she was incredibly sad. I didn't understand. Maybe it was because I never  had a chance to get used to the idea of my potential fatherhood: it just didn't seem real to me. I didn't experience the depth of pain and loss that she felt.  I was incredibly insensitive. Yes, my first wife was needy, loud and at times, abusive. But the one time I had a chance to be there for her when it counted, I wasn't: I could have done better.

I remember when my third wife came to me one day with some glamour shots that she had done. Money was tight at the time. I remember her saying to me, “We don’t have to get these.” I berated her for spending money we didn't have. Looking back, I realize that she wanted me to appreciate the fact that she had these photos done for me. She wanted me to appreciate her.  Sure, the marriage eventually fell apart. Yes, she eventually strayed. But you know what? My rejection of the photos was a rejection of her: I could have done better.

My first wife wanted me to mourn the loss of our child. My third wife merely wanted to be appreciated. These truths are painfully evident now. Painful, not because I wish things had turned out differently—painful because I was obtuse and unkind. No matter what my ex’s might have done or not done, it doesn't matter. When push came to shove, I simply did not know how to listen. And that’s on me.

So the next time you are crying in your beer about all the crap your ex put you through, take a moment and look at yourself—I mean with some honesty this time. Because if you can’t find at least one or two things you could have done differently, then maybe the character flaw lies not with your ex, but with the guy gripping that  mug.

Things that go bump in the night

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There has been a mildly entertaining  proliferation of ghost stories on TV lately: Ghost Hunters, A Haunting, Ghost Lab, and my personal looking-at-a-car wreck favorite, Celebrity Ghost Stories—because it’s final proof that there is an afterlife for aging celebrities who can’t find meaningful work (unless you count Lifetime Movies).

On Ghost Hunters, there are these guys who spend nights in supposedly haunted old buildings. They come prepared with night vision, tape recorders and various gadgets designed to catch elusive denizens of the afterlife in the act of being themselves. I enjoy the history of these places, but the actual nuts and bolts of ghost hunting is rather boring. They set up cameras here, recorders there. They have long strategy discussions– “Um, it’s kind of cold in here, so maybe we’ll set something up here,” or “The guy said he saw a shadow move here, so, um, we’ll put a camera on this table.”

Then the lights go out, and we get to watch a half an hour or so of greenish tinged people asking each other if they heard something. Invariably, somebody will play back their Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) recorder. They will swear they heard an evil entity tell them to “Get out!” No matter how much I strain my ears, I can’t hear anything that resembles a ghostly admonition. To me, it sounds more like “You guys are a bunch of idiots.” Helpfully, the subtitle that accompanies the EVP play back verifies our intrepid ghost hunter’s translation. Since the guys usually stay the night anyway, I stand by my own inexpert interpretation.

Remember Star Trek? There was always some hapless red shirted guy named Kowalski who was going to die within 5 or 6 frames of landing on a planet. On Ghost Hunters, there is always a guy in frumpy clothes who has to sleep by himself in some basement room where somebody supposedly died violently. This poor schlep doesn’t die, but at the first wheezy EVP, you can count on him running screaming up the stairs, his flash light beam bouncing frantically on the walls.

At some point, a ghost hunter will confront the entity, mano y plasma. There is a big build up to this, with lots of coming-up-next teasers. Man, you can’t wait for the commercials to get over with so you can see this guy show this ghost who’s boss. Then the moment arrives—and we get two minutes of a guy talking to himself. I waited for this? I can get that looking out my front window, without the commercials. Just once I’d like to see one of his buddies pop a balloon behind him while he’s calling out the ghost.

“Show yourself,” the guy says, eyes all big. “Face me! FACE ME, DAMN IT!” And then, POP!

Now that’s entertainment.

Of Greeks and spiders

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We know that all mythology stems at least in part from real world events.  Hercules, the greatest of all mythological heroes, probably had his genesis in that age old battle between man and wife and spider.  A few thousand years ago, a woman somewhere stands on a roughly hewn table that stands on an earthen floor in a house made of mud.  Her man, nervously holding a torch in one hand and a big rock in the other,  searches the darkest corners of their home, looking for the monstrous arachnid that his woman had just glimpsed running about in the shadows.

“There it is!” shrieks the woman.

“Where?” shrieks the man, his torchlight bouncing frantically around the room.  Then he spots it.  He hurls his rock, and the spider dies of extreme blunt force trauma.

Thus was born the legend of Hercules.  The spider later became the nine headed Hydra of said mythology.  Other parts of the Herculean legend, such as the cleaning of the Augean stables in a day, can most assuredly be traced back to some household project a wife somewhere had been nagging her husband to complete…but I digress.

I would be lying if I told you that any of this stuff crossed my mind when I recently saw a spider skittering across the floor in my bedroom.  It was barely visible in the bluish light of the TV.  Lacking a torch, I asked my wife Tonya to hit the lights.

“Why?” Tonya asked, instantly worried.  She had grown up on a farm, a place where you didn’t just shove your feet into your shoes without first giving them a good shake.  If your husband frowns at the floor and asks you to flip on the lights, it’s cause for alarm.  She flipped the switch.

I gulped.

“What?” asked Tonya nervously.

This thing was the size of a quarter, with hairy ass legs and malevolent eyes that pierced my soul and filled my heart with dread.  Okay so I made up the part about the eyes.  But if I could see them, I’m sure they would be red and pretty frightening.  The cynics among you might point to the fact that I am most assuredly bigger than any spider, and that it was probably more than likely afraid of me, too—hence, the skittering.  But did I mention the hairy legs?

I headed for the closet.

“Where are you going?  Don’t let it get away!” yelled Tonya.

“I have to get a shoe!” I yelled.

“It’s running!”  yelled Tonya, peeking over the edge of the bed.

“Why are we yelling?” I yelled.  “It’s only a spider!”

“Just kill it!”

The spider, probably wondering what all the yelling was about, had stopped skittering.  I hovered over it with my tennis shoe, expecting at any moment to have my throat torn out.

“What are you waiting for?” asked Tonya.

“You think I want to miss and piss it off?”

“The spiders where I grew up would have stolen your hubcaps by now,” said Tonya.

“Alright, alright!” I said, and I struck.

Physics is a wonderful thing.  The flexibility of my tennis shoe, coupled with the slight springiness of the carpet, caused the unfortunate spider to fly at least 2 feet into the air after I hit it.  And then it disappeared.

“I think I killed it,” I said.

“You think you killed it?”

“Well I can’t find the body,” I said.

It was a serious situation.  What if it had somehow survived my  attack and was even now lurking in some dark corner of the room with slavering mandibles,  planning its gory revenge?

We searched frantically.  I looked under the bed and behind the TV.  I shook out my shoes, then my jeans.  The spider fell out–I swear it thudded when it landed.  I gave it a triumphant burial at sea (with an extra flush just to be safe) and then climbed back into bed.

That spider was no Hydra, but even Hercules had to start somewhere.

Hey - there's a person in there

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Too often as a society we are enamored of the outer shell.  If you have a pretty face, well then, you must be a great person.  The less fortunate among us don’t get the same free pass.  If you have a big nose, crooked teeth, maybe a wart…you must be evil or at least lacking on some moral level.

Popular culture is no help.  All the good guys and gals are beautiful people.  If you are not Ken or Barbie, you are bad, unless your name is Shrek.

I remember as a young boy I used to laugh at “ugly” people in the mall.  My brother and I would spy who we considered the ugliest person, or the fattest, or whatever…and make fun of them.  We thought we were funny.  It’s horrifying, looking back on it now, that we could be so callous.  You would think that two young boys such as us, living with an alcoholic, abusive step-father, would have more empathy.

There’s that word, empathy.  I like it a lot.  It is the most important word in the English language.  More than love, it is the single driving force behind all positive human interaction.  Love encompasses a whole range of emotions, but before you can fall into it, you have to begin to feel what another person feels.

What is ugly?  What is beautiful?  I used to think all you had to do was look at somebody—they were one or the other.  Worse than that, after fitting that person into my narrow definition of what constitutes good looks, I would then decide what kind of person they were, purely on the basis of how they looked. But then a funny thing happened to me on the way to maturity.  I got a job washing dishes in a rest home.

It was overwhelming.  All kinds of people lived there.  Old people.  Young people.  Disabled people.  Mentally challenged people.  They came in all shapes and sizes.  They were in wheel chairs and walkers.

I was afraid to talk to them.  I didn’t see them as people.  I saw their infirmities.

One day an aide was feeding a young man by the name of Ronnie.  Ronnie was confined to a wheelchair.  His only means of communication were grunts and facial expressions.   I was making a quick pass just to grab some dishes from the table, when the aide left abruptly.

“Talk to Ronnie,” said Nancy, the aide.  “I’ll be right back.”

“Uh, wait…”  I stammered.  But she was already gone.

This guy was in a wheelchair.  His hands were claws.  He couldn’t speak.  Remnants of his strained peas dribbled out of the corner of his mouth.  How do I talk to him?

I decided to talk to him like a guy.

“Hey Ronnie,” I said, “What’s a good looking dude like you hanging out in a dump like this for?”

“Hey!” Nancy said from behind me.  “Watch your mouth!”

Ronnie threw his head back and laughed.  Tears rolled down his face.

“He’s a funny guy, right, Ronnie?” said Nancy, wiping his face.  Turning to me, she said, “He likes you.  Not many people make him laugh.”

I looked at Ronnie.  He looked back at me, a big sloppy grin on his face, and I couldn’t help but laugh.   At that instant, I felt what he felt—the simple joy of being in the moment, and sharing it with a new friend.

30 years ago I was a brash kid who thought character was skin deep…but a guy in a wheelchair showed me that the true beauty of the human soul emanates from the inside out.

The incredible disintegrating vase

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We were three brothers, large, lanky and bored

It was the winter of 1979 in Canon City, Colorado.   Snow was thick  on the ground, with more in the forecast.  Three snow days in, cabin fever was reaching its peak.

“This sucks,” said Garth.

“No doubt,” said Jerry.

“I wish I was at school,”  I said.

For a moment, they both looked at me as if I had grown another head.

“What?  It’s frigging boring around here!” I said.

“Anyway,” said Jerry, shaking his head as if to dispel the craziness, “What’s on TV?”

“Nothing we haven’t seen 12 times,” said Garth, tossing a  football in the air as we brainstormed.

Cable television was in its infancy and only a recent addition to our household.  After three days, endless reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Gilligan’s Island” were already provoking thoughts of suicide.

“How about Monopoly?” I said.

“Mom yelled at us last time we played,” said Garth.

Jerry’s loansharking and  Garth’s Trump-like propensity to stack hotels on Park Place had led to an impromptu wrestling free-for-all around the kitchen table.  Board games were out.

The football stopped.  Garth’s eyes lit up.

“Jerry,” said Garth.  “Go long!”

Going as long as the dining room allowed, Jerry caught Garth’s pass just short of the front door.  Turning, he fixed me with a hard stare that said there was a minute left and we were down by six and by God it was down to me and him to win this thing.

I ran into the living room where Jerry’s perfect game winning pass landed in my arms.

“Your turn, Garth!” I said.

Garth took off.  My perfect pass sailed through his outstretched hands and into our mother’s favorite vase.  Horrified, we watched as it fell off the table, landing in 3 pieces on the carpet.

“Idiot!”  I said.

“You’re in trouble,” said Garth.

“Your ass,” I said.  “We’re all in trouble.”

“What’d I do?” asked Jerry.

“Threw the ball in the house,” I said.  “Just like us.”

“Yeah, but you broke the vase,” said Jerry.

“I’ll just say you did it,” I said.

“Me too,” said Garth, grinning evilly.  He was good at that.

“Bastards,” said Jerry.  He stared at the vase; shoulders slumped, he realized how this was going to play out…how these things always played out.  There would be blood, maybe lots of it, but he knew I wasn’t going down alone.  Mom would see the broken vase, and the interrogation would begin.  We would screech our innocence in a jumble of accusations and denials, louder and louder, until Mom couldn’t take it anymore and kicked all three of our asses.   It was inescapable, and a week later, that’s exactly what happened.  Meanwhile….

“Hey, check this out,” Jerry said, picking up the remnants of the vase.  “We can put it back together!”  Sure enough,  the three pieces stacked together perfectly.  We marveled at the newly restored heirloom–we were saved!

The week that followed was hellish.  School resumed, but was little relief.  Each day the walk home got longer as we imagined Mom greeting us at the door with folded arms and crazy eyes.  Normally the highlight of the day, evenings around the TV became torture, with Mom invariably taking her accustomed position next to the vase.  Wide-eyed, our hearts lurched with every twitch of her hand or toss of her hair.

Finally, inevitably, her hand lightly brushed the vase as she reached for the TV guide.  We watched, almost with relief, as it crashed to the floor.

Once again we found ourselves staring at the broken vase.

“Mom,” yelled Garth triumphantly. “You broke it!”

“Horseshit,” said Mom.

And there was blood.  Lots of it.

A determined life

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Grandpa left us last week. Finally, after 94 years, he left us. It’s strange. There was a time (was it only last month?) when I couldn’t imagine a world without him. He was always a part of my life. I wake up to the sun, and sleep under the stars, and just like those celestial constants, Grandpa was always here. No matter where I was in the world, he was always with me, somewhere beneath the same sun and stars.

Every couple of weeks, I would call Grandpa to see how he was doing. He always answered like he was expecting your call, and greeted you cheerfully with the time of day, dragging it out— “Gooood morning!” or afternoon, or whatever—and no matter how your day had been going to that point, it was suddenly better. The phone call would usually lead to a shopping trip, and lunch at his favorite restaurant. I would walk beside him and his walker as we trundled slowly up and down grocery store aisles picking up vitamins and mouthwash and his favorite peanut butter cheese crackers. Then it was off to the Cozy Diner for a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

We would end the afternoon chatting quietly in his apartment. Grandpa would speak wistfully of days and people gone by. I would listen with eyes closed, comforted as always by the sound of his voice. As I walked out the door, he would send me off with a hearty “God bless you!” and an admonition to be careful.

Grandpa was in the twilight of his life. He had outlived two wives and his beloved son, yet he chose to remain cheerful and as full of life as his old body would allow. He had the uncanny ability to slough off pain like a worn overcoat and leave it where it fell, having no time for acrimony or regret. His life remained full because he willed it so.

The time came when Grandpa could no longer do simple things like shower, or even walk. He went to the hospital for the last time in early August. At first, he endured breathing treatments and exercise regimens. He realized early on, though, that things were not going to get better. Grandpa had always been the physical and emotional caretaker of our family, a true patriarch in every sense of the word. This new reality simply would not do. Grandpa refused to be a burden on anybody.

“I’m ready to go when the lord is ready to take me,” Grandpa said one day. With that, he refused breathing treatments and exercise of any kind. He wanted comfort care only—morphine and water and a pillow fluff every now and then.

The vigil began.  On the wall in front of his bed hung a picture of him and his first wife, my Grandmother, who passed in 1986. On another wall, there was a picture of him and his second wife, Miriam, who passed in 2005. When he wasn’t surrounded by family, I imagined him nodding off to sleep with thoughts of seeing them again.

Toward the middle of the second week, Grandpa fell asleep one day and never woke up. In the end, he died as he had lived, on his own terms and with minimal fuss. He lived as he wanted, as long as he wanted.

We should all be so lucky.

Don't cry for Grandpa

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Grandpa might be getting old.

He’s 93.  He’s getting up there, I guess.  I just never thought of him that way.

When I was little, he was huge: big, strong, hard working.  There was always the work.  I remember talking to him once about the time he had his heart attack in the 60’s.

“I got up and got ready for work,” he told me.  “I felt a little funny, but I always went to work.”  Grandpa said this, not with pride, but just as a statement of simple fact.  Grandpa has never been one to be prideful of doing things he feels he’s supposed to do.  Later that afternoon, he grudgingly went to the hospital.

I take him shopping now and then.  He hunches over his walker with stooped shoulders.  It took him a few falls to realize he just couldn’t bend over and pick up something.  It landed him in the emergency room the first time.  I had sat at his bedside as he awaited his turn.  He was stoic as usual.

What else could he be?  Married twice, his first wife, my Grandma, died of cancer in 1986.  His 2nd wife, Miriam, died of a heart attack in 2005.  And before all that, in 1965, his youngest son, my father, died of leukemia.

Never once did Grandpa feel sorry for himself.  I remember seeing him cry only once, as he said grace at dinner a week after Miriam died.  He has always considered himself the luckiest man in the world.  He mourned the loss of his precious wives, for sure, but more than that, he was grateful for the time he had with them.  He thinks of all of the wonderful grandchildren he is blessed with.  His friends, his family, his faith…the joy in his life has always burned bright, even in his darkest days.

I sit with him sometimes.  He talks about his childhood, when he ran and played in the Missouri countryside with his beloved cousin.  Or he might reminisce about his days in the Marines.  He speaks in his dry old man voice about the brother he lost in the war, or how he met Leva, my Grandma.  His faded blue eyes seem to look at nothing, and everything.  I’ve heard these stories before.  I never get tired of them.

As a child, I mourned the father I never knew.  As a man, I realized my father was with me all along.  Grandpa fulfilled that role.  He has always been the yardstick against which I measure my worth, not only as a man, but as a human being.

I kiss his grizzled cheek and hug him gently as I leave.

“Be careful, son,” Grandpa says.  He waves, grinning from his easy chair, as I close the door to his apartment.  He is tired.  He is frail.

But Grandpa will never be old.

Who's afraid of the dark?

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As a child, I remember summers at my Grandparent’s farm in Northern California.  I remember thudding sprinklers, insects at dusk, and the smell of newly baled hay.  It was a place of refuge for us kids.   I don’t remember thinking back then that I was safer there, but I knew I was happier.

Our days would be filled with war games with wooden guns.  The cows would chew their cud and watch us creep through the barn.  Somebody would yell “bang!” and somebody else would die a horrible, stomach clutching, writhing death, and the cows would continue to chew without a hint of interest or sympathy.  Sometimes we would play hide and seek, and sometimes we would test our bravery by jumping out of the hayloft into an old rusty trailer that sat just below.  Once in awhile we would roughhouse in the living room until Grandma told us to get back outside before something broke.

At night we would lose ourselves in sun dried sheets and heavy home made quilts.  Grandma Leva would kiss each one of us before tucking us in.

We would wake up late in the morning to the smell of buttermilk pancakes on the griddle, pancakes that didn’t come from a box.  Grandma made maple syrup from maple extract, boiling it on the stove.

“Come on down or I’m going to throw it out,” Grandma would say quietly at the foot of the stairs.  She never raised her voice, even when waking us.  We never thought she would actually throw breakfast to the chickens, but we never tested her either.

Loved ones were always in and out of Grandpa’s farm house.  Great aunts and uncles would oftentimes be seated around the big kitchen table, speaking quietly and drinking coffee.  They would laugh with the familiarity of years.  Uncle Wally would magically make coins appear from behind our ears, then regale us with the same ridiculous stories he had been telling since we were old enough to speak.  We listened raptly and laughed like we had never heard them before, and it was wonderful.

One summer night we kids were having a hard time going to sleep after the lights were turned out.  Earlier we had been sitting out in the living room in our jammies listening to the aunts and uncles talk.  Now we lay snug in our beds while Grandma stood at the door, her hand poised over the light switch.

“There’s nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the light,” said Grandma softly.

“But Grandma,” we cried.  “It’s scary in the dark.”

“Don’t be silly,” Grandma said, and out went the light.

She hadn’t gone 5 steps down the long hallway before our cries brought her back.  The light came on again.

“Now kids, this really is silly,” said Grandma through tight lips and furrowed brows.

Now at this point most of us were more than willing to take our chances with whatever creatures we imagined lurking in the dark than with a very real and irritated Granny.

“But Grandma,” said Garth, “Why can’t we just have the hall light on?”

Good old Garth, the middle child, the constant agitator up and down both levels of the sibling food chain.  He wasn’t two weeks removed from his now infamous cartwheel through Grandma’s prized china cabinet, and here he was back talking her.  That must have been one hell of a monster residing under his bed.

“I’m going to show you kids once and for all,” said Grandma, eyeballing Garth, “that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.”   Striding purposefully to the window, she peered out, her face practically touching the glass.  “See, nothing to be afraid….”   And then she screamed.

Outside, with his nose smashed up against the glass, was Uncle Wally, grinning evilly.  He had snuck away and had been crouching under the bedroom window, listening to the whole exchange.  His timing was perfect.

Grandma collected herself and stalked out of the bedroom, hitting the lights as she went.  We went to sleep without another peep because now we knew for sure what lurked in the shadows when the lights went out—Uncle Wally.

And who was afraid of Uncle Wally?

Vince

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My cousin died today.  It wasn't unexpected.  He had been suffering from cancer for the last few years.  We've all been through that cancer watch.  You get the news, the beginning of it, and then the watch begins.  Doctor visits.  Chemo.  Disbelief.  Hope.  Resignation.  Late night scares and unexpected trips to the hospital.  Is this it?  But this time it isn't, and the vigil begins anew.

I got a text from my brother.  We lost our cousin today, it said. This may sound silly, but I didn't want to cry.  I didn't feel like I deserved to because I wasn't there for him.   Vince’s brother Scott and the rest of our cousins went through this battle with him from the beginning.  Distance and obligations made it impossible for me to be in the trenches with them.  So I wasn't a part of all that.

When I was 13, we moved to Canon City, Colorado.  Vince was living there at the time.  He was a few years my senior–the older brother I never had.  We rode our bikes to school together.  We spent afternoons playing Gin with his Uncle Phil.  One day Vince and my brother and I were moving a couch into the house.  The couch fell on my foot and for some reason I blamed Vincent.  I chased him around the sofa trying to get him to fight with me.  He wouldn't, not because he was afraid.   He just thought fighting was silly.  We did a few laps before I gave up and sat heavily on the back porch steps, gasping for breath.

“Are you tired yet?” Vince had asked me, laughing.

“Yes,” I said, grinning back.  It was impossible to stay angry at Vince.

My cousins live 5 hours away these days.  We don’t see each other much.  In fact, I had only seen Vincent a few times in the last 30 years.  That’s horrible, isn’t it?  We were children together, my cousins and I.  I remember rainy Saturday afternoons where Susie, the oldest cousin, would put on American Bandstand and move the furniture out of the way, and make us dance.  I remember hanging like monkeys out of the gnarled tree that stood in the middle of their backyard.  You would think we would keep in touch.

I saw him once more, last summer.  He was the same Vince.  Except now he was dying.  I was emotional. I wanted to talk about it.

“How are things going?” I asked him.

“I’m alive,” he said.

We talked about old times.  We talked about the future—maybe we could hook up in Reno sometime, or Vegas.  We would drink beer and play Blackjack and stay up late.  We laughed.  There was no talk of this disease, or of death.

Death would get his due.  He always does.  But until proven irrevocably otherwise, as far as Vince was concerned the future was as rosy and full of possibility as always.  He wasted no time crying about what might be.  Here and now, was life.  And it would be lived.

My cousin died today.  I wasn't there for him, but I cried anyway.

Dumbing Down

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Are we a country of dumb asses?  This question seems familiar.  Maybe it’s generational.  My Grandpa might have been asking the same thing back in the 60’s.  Easy Rider and Woodstock and My Favorite Martian might have been too much for him to handle.  I mean, he might have been thinking, what kind of bull crap is this?  He used to have Sinatra and Benny Goodman, now he’s got Tiny Tim on the Tonight Show with a frigging ukulele.  What, he must have thought, is the world coming to?

When I turn on the TV these days, I experience the same kind of epiphany.  What the hell is going on?  I used to have the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Now I’ve got Mario Lopez on Extra.  I used to hear news about moon landings and assassinations and Viet   Nam—stories of substance about life and death, of triumph and loss, all delivered in serious tones that befitted their importance.  I get the same weighty tones on Entertainment Tonight, except now its some cookie cutter bobble head blathering breathlessly about Angelina Jolie’s baby bump—with a soundtrack.

It’s like a car wreck.  You happen on it; it’s not something you look for.  You’re thinking, holy crap, I don’t want to see this, but…you look anyway.  Invariably you see what you don’t want to see:  abused paparazzi, love and hate, beach bodies, star studded shopping trips, happiness, misery, stories of birth, death and betrayal, all told breathlessly with MTV quick cuts and danger music.  You are bombarded with an avalanche of trivial information that goes nowhere and ultimately means nothing.

Do I really need to know if Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt accidentally made eye contact at a car wash?  Is it imperative that rumors of celebrity romance be confirmed or denied?  Is it news that Tom Cruise was seen standing around in jogging pants with a coffee cup in his hand?  Why does the irrelevant minutia of the daily lives of pampered people warrant such importance?

Maybe we can’t help it, this fascination we have with celebrity.   You’re sitting there on your couch, your feet are tired, and you’re pissed off at your boss, whatever.  You’re flipping channels, and there’s Halle Berry fighting her ex for custody of their child, or Charlie Sheen getting drunk and acting like an idiot again.  You’re thinking, hey, I’ve been drunk a few times.  Or maybe your kids live with their mother.   These people have money, they have fame.  But for all that, they still have to deal with the same life crap that you do.

So maybe I’ve had it wrong.  Perhaps watching celebrities screw up does actually serve some greater purpose.  Maybe when we see two dimensional people experiencing three dimensional problems, it serves to reconnect us with our basic humanity:  that no matter who you are or where you are, life is the same for all of us.

Maybe……nah.

Being there

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My three girls need me to be present.  Not just there, not just in the vicinity, but present.  This may sound crazy, but it’s a truth that has taken me a long time to realize.  The mother of my two youngest ones left me almost 11 years ago, taking them with her.    It was a cataclysmic event for all concerned, to be sure, but the progression of time and lives has made any questions of right or wrong moot.  I only mention it because my exclusion from the day to day happenings of their lives has made it harder for me to be the kind of father I had always imagined I would be.

I thought I would always be there to change diapers and give baths.  I would read stories to them and tuck them into bed.  I would come home from work and they would bounce jubilantly around my legs, clamoring for hugs.  There would be school events and doctor visits and birthday parties.  It didn’t work out that way for us.

It’s not that the girls went far.  Their mother kept them in the same area.  Weekends and holidays were divvied up.  I became a part time Dad.  I missed getting them up for school and dressing them up for Halloween and shopping for clothes.  I missed just sitting on the couch with them and watching TV.  We would catch up with some of that on our weekends.  I made elaborate breakfasts.  We watched movies and ate popcorn.  When they were still little, I put them to bed at night with made up stories about mummies who wore tennis shoes and dogs that talked.  Then on Sunday afternoon they gathered their things and went home with their mother.

There came a time when I felt superfluous in their lives.  I mean, how much could they need me when they only saw me intermittently?  I began to feel like they came to my house because it was their duty.  Those are horrible things to say, I know.  My girls gave no indication they felt that way–my insecurities were my own fault.

My two little ones, Savanna and Madison, have been involved in cheerleading since Pop Warner.  They are in high school now, a freshman and a junior, cheering for the football team.  I had been meaning to go to one of their home games all season long.

It seemed every Friday I was just too tired.  There would be other games, right?  Worse, I told myself that it wasn’t really a big deal.  Could it really be that important for me to just go to a game and sit in the stands?  The big Homecoming game came and went.  The season was dwindling, and before I knew it, the last home game of the season was upon us.  Tonight was the night.

At the field, as I walked through the turnstile and made my way to the stands, I saw Madison’s cheer squad.  Madison saw me the same time I saw her.   It’s hard to imagine a human face exhibiting so many emotions at the same time. Elation and joy consumed her features in equal measure, but over riding all of it, and beaming out of her ear to ear grin, was pure, unconditional love.

For a second I was taken back to my own childhood.  I remembered my Grandfather’s strong arms hugging my little body, always accompanied by the faintest whiff of Old Spice and wood smoke.  I recalled the peace I felt, peace in the knowledge that he was just….there.

No matter how inadequate I felt, how could I deny that same peace to my own children?

I hugged my child and kissed her on top of her head.  I was present, in every sense of the word, and that’s all that mattered.

Warm at night

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was sitting around the house with my wife the other day, the beautiful Tonya. We had a TV show on, or football, or something. We laughed and talked. I had an epiphany, of sorts. It was like I was outside of myself for a second, watching the scene: me on the couch in my socks and sweats, her on the other couch in her jammies. I thought, here is a person that really is here. I mean, she’s in the moment, laughing and talking with me, and this is where she wants to be. And I’m thinking, man. This is what I’ve always wanted: a wife, a partner, a best friend.

Imagine for a moment your tumultuous twenties. Some of us, through sheer luck or early maturation, found the person we both wanted and needed at a much earlier age. It never happened for me. I was neither lucky or mature. A smile, a hip shake, and copious amounts of booze were more than enough to tumble me headlong into deep relationships filled with a love that no man or woman has ever known, relationships that lasted maybe 6 months at a time. You know, the kind of relationships filled with goo goo eyes and lots of pet names like pookie poo and sweetums. The kind of relationships that often ended with tears and squealing tires and a collection of embarrassing mix tapes.

I was dumber than most, I suppose, because a few of those transient relationships actually ended  in marriage. I was thinking, man, we’re getting along: she must be the one. I had a distorted view of what love was all about. On the one hand, I grew up watching my mother deal with head games and violence. On the other hand, when we stayed at Grandpa’s farm for three glorious months every summer, I got to see stability and caring. Slathered over all that was the Hollywood version of love and how to get into it: repulsion, attraction, conflict, stress, more goo goo eyes and BAM! Soul mates. Roll credits.

I wanted to be married like my grandparents. I wanted to hang out with somebody who knew me and loved me anyway. I wanted to fall in love and then sit on the sofa and talk like old friends as soon as we moved in together.

The trouble is, that kind of intimacy doesn’t happen over night. Therein lies the true fallacy of Hollywood, and the incomplete picture of my own observations. True intimacy, the kind that my grandparents had, is born of shared triumph, and pain. It is teethed on tears and raised on joy. Hardship and strife are its constant companions, lurking like wolves just outside the warmth of the fire.

So here we sit, my lover and I, talking intimately of hardships past and joys present, of bills to be paid and gifts to be bought, of back rubs and movies and the children we’ve raised, each casual word a quiet exultation in this love that we’ve earned. Eventually we walk up the stairs and turn out the lights. I snuggle up close and smell her hair and feel her next to me. Wolves howl in the distance, but we don’t care.

The fire is warm and it will keep them away.

Middle age - how will you know?

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There are many mental barometers of approaching middle age.   For instance, you may find yourself frequently launching into boring monologues on the deplorable state of popular music.  Or maybe the sight of a pair of saggy pants incites a rant on the irresponsibility of today’s youth.

Then there are the more insidious medical indicators of your inevitable downhill slide.  You go to the doctor with an ache here, a pain there.  Everything goes pretty much the way it always has:  the stethoscope is still cold, that funny little hammer still makes your leg jump.  But then he does something different.  Snapping on a glove, he tells you to drop your drawers.  You’re thinking, hell no.  It’s not happening.  But he’s done this kind of thing before, and he finds your prostate right where he expects it.  He’s telling you everything is good and you’re still standing there with your pants around your ankles wondering when he’s going to get to it.

And then, for awhile, you’ve noticed that the TV is looking a little blurry.  Football season is fast approaching, and this just won’t do.  You go to the optometrist.  He tells you to read the 7th line.  It’s a joke, you think, because who reads hieroglyphics these days?  After it’s all over, he gives you the bad news:  you need glasses.

“Really?” you ask.

“Yes,” the doctor says.  “You’re at that age.”

“What age?”

“Mid forties,” he says, smiling patiently.

“Will it get any better?”

“Nope,” he says.

In spite of your youthful delusions of immortality, you start thinking maybe you will actually die someday.  It’s a sobering realization, and you would think that the powers that be would consider you sufficiently enlightened.  Another event looms, however, that will erase any doubts of your approaching decline.  It involves bright lights and hazy recollections, coupled with an invasive probing that makes your prostate exam seem as benign as a tap on the knee.

Yes, I am talking about the dreaded colonoscopy.

You don’t just waltz into the doctor’s office and get a camera up your ass.  For obvious reasons, you have to fast the day before.  For one day you subsist on a liquid diet of colon blow and jello, with a little chicken broth for variety.  Eventually you’re lying on a table wearing a backless gown.  Someone is standing in front of strange blinking machinery.  A nurse hovers, moving an IV into place.

“This is an amnesia drug,” says the nurse.

“Amnesia?”

“So you don’t remember anything.”

“Ah,” you say.

You lie there trying to envision things you might not want to remember as the doctor walks in.  He works the room, hi how are ya, is everybody going to my barbecue this weekend?  The chit chat moves along these lines as you drift off.  The last thing you remember is the doctor getting comfortable in front of you.

“Let’s get started,” says the doctor.

“Everything looks great,” says the doctor.

You blink.  Huh?  Because it’s over, just like that.  Where’s the trauma?

So, to recap, popular music sucks, saggy pants irritate you, your prostate has been fondled, you are slowly going blind, and a complete stranger has explored your colon with a camera.

Wake up and smell the ben gay, cupcake.  You are officially middle aged.  And get the hell off of my lawn.