The Table

November 15, 2017

“This old table has got to go,” my wife declared today

Old, indeed

And, admittedly, not very attractive

Well, really not at all

A hand me down from my wife’s father when we were married long ago

It bows a little in the middle

And wobbles a little more

The leaves slowly push themselves apart

Aging lovers tiring of each other’s charm

I sit silently in my weary, matching chair

Looking hard

Looking deep

The maple has darkened over time

The protective shine has worn away in many places

Allowing exposed grain to suck life in

Dust

Dirt

Greasy fingerprints of childhood ghosts

Flecks of cheap paint used for rainy-day art projects

And tiny, crushed-in cake crumbs from birthdays long forgotten

This is where we were

When life seemed like it would last forever

Of course we’ve since learned it doesn’t

This wooden slab served best friends

Close family

Neighborhood children

But, most days, just us

That was probably our preference

We ate big country breakfasts

Strange casseroles that were barely touched

Great-grandma’s homemade spaghetti recipe

Hotdogs and beans when times were tough

Grilled steak on summer Sundays

And carry out pizza for Friday fun

God, Fridays were fun

Game night

We just played Risk, I swear

Eating meals around the board for three days straight

So cautious not to disturb our patient armies

My wife was pissed, until she ended up winning

This is where we did homework together

Wrote letters to far-away people

Assembled toys on Christmas morning

Paid bills, and bills, and bills

Pieced together jigsaw puzzles in the dead of winter

And made important family decisions

I drank coffee here every Saturday morning

While loved ones faintly snored upstairs

The feeling of true contentment

This is where my babies sat

Being fed with little spoons

As they grew we only cut their food

Made them eat their vegetables

And finish their milk

When it wasn’t spilt

No use crying, but we sometimes shed a tear

Still, laughter was heard daily

And even an occasional prayer

Looking back now I realize many prayers were answered

Right here in our favorite spot.

The kids still come by every now and then

Though not too often, these days

Missed sorely, but never forgotten

“Suppose you’re right,” I finally reply

Running my wrinkled hand across our kitchen table.

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A Note to Graduates 

May 13, 2017


Dear Graduates,

The month of May is possibly my favorite. I love the weather — summer is trying to shove its way in with welcomed warm breezes, yet spring is holding its own, providing crisp mornings and pleasant evenings. Birds chirp outside my open window at dawn, and a late-inning baseball game glows on my television screen at dusk. There is a freshness in the air that makes me feel renewed. Life is grand.

Perhaps the best part of May, however, is school letting out for the summer. I think back to my own school days and can vividly remember the feeling of sheer excitement and joy as that final bell rang each year. Having kids of my own and working in a school now, I must admit I still feel it — maybe for different reasons — but there is still that sense of adventure that lurks at the start of each summer.

For you, this year truly is the final bell. It’s the endless summer. Social media is filled with photos of you in your caps and gowns. Smiles are plastered across your faces and invincibility twinkles in your eyes. Many of you are heading off to college, while some will opt to go find jobs. You will become our next generation of doctors, teachers, farmers, politicians, steelworkers, lawyers, carpenters, and accountants. The world needs all of these and one is no better than another — remember that. You “kids” will be taking care of the rest of us just a few years down the road. And believe me, kids, the years will go fast. So fast.

I don’t know much, but I’ve managed to figure out a few things along the way. I’d like to offer you some simple advice. I’ll keep it short, as I know you have better things to do:

1. Advance your education beyond high school. Whether it’s a certificate from a trade school or an advanced degree from a university, education gives you power and promotes the freedom to change jobs and careers. Do it now, because going back to school when you have a wife, kids, a job, and other responsibilities is really hard (trust me). Take your education seriously.

2. Happiness isn’t expensive. Yes, you need to make some money to reach a certain level of happiness and to give you and your family some opportunities. But be very aware there is much more to life than striving to “be rich” and possessing material things.

3. Despite everyone telling you who and what to be, please do what makes you happy. You may not even have a clue yet what you want to do with your life. That’s okay. You may think you’ve figured it out, then change your mind. That’s okay, too. Whatever you end up being, be a great one. Trying to be your best self will make your life better in many ways.

Look, kids, I know you’re not really paying attention. I’m trying to give advice to 18 year olds who already know everything. I used to be as smart as you all are… If nothing else, remember that regardless of our age, we are all writing our own stories. My generation has already written many chapters, and you may be searching for the right words to get started, but none of our stories are complete. No matter how much or how little we have written, no matter how many failures, hardships, and disappointments we face along the way — and there will be many — as long as we are alive, we get to keep writing. So make your stories long, fill them with love and kindness, include many crazy and wonderful adventures, and — most of all — make sure you keep writing until you are happy with the ending. It’s never too late for any of us to change our tale.

Now get out there and make a difference. Each one of you can alter the world in at least some tiny yet amazing way. We are counting on you. 

Sincerely,

A Friend


There is something about fathers, sons, and baseball. It’s a strange relationship that is probably overly romanticized in many ways. Most dads dream of having a son who can either follow in their cleated footsteps or be the player they never were. Either way, dads’ baseball dreams often lead to unnecessary demands and burnout for our youth. 

My son is one of the many baseball casualties. While he wasn’t a superstar, he was a talented and important member of his team for five seasons. He was a solid pitcher, very reliable first baseman, and had very good range in center field. He also hit his team’s first out of the park homerun — a memory I’ll never forget. But, as often happens, kids get older and interests change. A couple years back, my son decided he’d had enough of baseball. This decision was bittersweet for me. I love the game and loved watching him play, but baseball was also becoming a way of life. I could see that it was more work and less fun for my son. Politics, practices, and pressure had turned a beautiful game into an ugly chore. I think moving on was the right decision for him. 

I must admit that I haven’t really missed the many hours spent under the beating sun, the dust blowing in my eyes, or the screaming coaches (and, occasionally, parents). There is one thing I have missed greatly over the last couple of years, however. Playing catch and talking about life with my son. We did this almost daily during every baseball season since my boy could barely catch a ball. At first we’d mostly talk about the fundamentals of the game. We would discuss and work on grounders, pop-ups, getting into position to make plays, and making good throws. 

As he got older, though, we started talking about Major League Baseball, our Kansas City Royals, school, girls, and other “guy stuff.” When we were throwing that seamed ball back and forth we weren’t so much father and son, but instead were just a couple of buddies hanging out. My wife used to insist that I didn’t need to feel like I had to play catch every day, but she didn’t quite understand that I wanted to do it. I needed this time — maybe more than my kid did. 

Last night, out of the blue, my now teenage son asked me to play catch. I couldn’t believe my ears, and blurted out an overly emphatic “YES!” We picked up right where we had left off. I delivered not only grounders and pop-ups, but “divers” and “jumpers.” We talked about guy stuff and threw the ball hard. I felt the sting and heard the smack of the ball hitting my old glove. I smelled the leather, took in the glowing green grass of spring, and watched my son’s shadow grow in the setting sun. I’m not always mindful about being “in the moment,” but I was very present for this. I wanted to remember it. 

We laughed as the sun hid and we had trouble picking up the ball in the growing darkness. “One more,” we took turns yelling — many times. Finally, when it was just too black, I yelled, “last one.” My little boy — who isn’t little anymore — caught the ball and walked it back to me, setting it softly in my mitt. I hope this isn’t really the last one, but I suppose at some point it will be. If this is it, I’m going to remember it well. 

When I was a young man, I worked as a carpenter. I learned an old saying that you never make a mistake until you have run out of lumber. I’ve modified this as I race at what feels like an increasing pace through middle age — there are no mistakes as long as you have time. I make many mistakes. I’m far from a perfect parent, and I don’t generally give advice. But to both future and current parents, I would say this: if your child asks you to tell a story, shoot hoops, have a tea party, play a board game, help with homework, or have a catch…say yes. Because at some point they will stop asking. 

Today my shoulder aches and my arm is weak, but my heart is full and my memory is strong. 

  
It’s a very cold and rainy spring break morning in my neck of the woods. Regardless, I’m still feeling very fortunate to be able to be home with my kids (well, mostly), and the weather provides a perfect day to make some popcorn, cuddle up under blankets, and watch movies. We have cable and Netflix, and movies are just a couple clicks of the remote control away, yet I would love to be able to take my son and daughter to the local video store to pick out some old classics. Something they have never had the pleasure of doing.

While technology certainly has its upside, our kids are missing out on some things that my generation took for granted. Long gone is the excitement of perusing the new releases at the pre-Blockbuster corner video store (don’t forget to check the recently returned cart — and try to sneak a peek into the Adult section), the joy of getting dropped off by our parents at the mall (my mom can take if yours can pick up?) and slowly flipping through records at Musicland (either before or after slurping an Orange Julius), or even just playing board (bored) games like Life, Monopoly, and Clue.

Perhaps I’m suffering from a worsening case of silly nostalgia as I get older, but it seems like it was just a simpler, better time when we were kids — despite being more difficult to do some things. I’m aware of course that every older generation thinks such things about the current “troubled” youth of society, but maybe the old geezers are on to something. I mean think about it…we rode our bikes everywhere (my kids literally dislike bicycles), we played outside from sun up to sun down in the summer (my kids would rather lie in bed doing “stuff” on their electronic devices), we got severe, tissue damaging sunburns (my kids wear sunscreen if they happen to enter sunlight), we played actual sports (my kids excel at virtual bowling). This is messed up, man.

Who am I kidding, my kids would probably freak out if they had to go to an actual video store. Part of how they act is on me for not being a better parent, and I suppose part of it is just the way things are today. That being said, my children do great in school, are generally very kind to others, are not complete spoiled brats (despite how I describe them), and my wife and I love the hell out of them (and that love is definitely reciprocated). They also recycle sometimes. The world may be going to hell in a hand-basket, but things could be much worse. As the old saying goes, the kids are alright (they just aren’t as good as when we were young).

Here’s to a happy spring break for all and some true quality time with your damn children (oh, and better weather than we have). Cheers. 

 

 

 

“Vacation Bible School is pretty cool.  First, we get to sing songs on a stage, then we play games, then we have a boring class about Jesus, then we have another boring class about Jesus, then we have drinks and snacks.  I can’t wait to go back this summer!” ~ Recent quote from my five year old daughter

Although I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of organized religion, I’m a big believer in the good values that Vacation Bible School can teach kids.  I grew up going to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening.  I didn’t always (or maybe ever, really) look forward to church, but I always enjoyed that one week of VBS each summer.  It didn’t feel like going to church, but instead was just fun.  Like my daughter does now, we too played games, sang songs, and ended each day with drinks and snacks.  Along with the fun, I remember one recurring theme year in and year out: to love and be nice to each other.

Despite not being big on religion, I definitely think there are positive messages in the Bible, just as there are in the Tanakh, Qur’an, Vedas, Tripitaka, and every other sacred text.  I’m far from a religious scholar, but I know one message consistent throughout almost every religion is the ethic of reciprocity, or what Christians commonly refer to as the “Golden Rule.”  Paraphrased, this means to treat others as you would like to be treated.  Regardless of your brand of faith (or lack thereof), it’s hard to argue with this ideology.

Growing up in a Protestant Christian church (Nazarene, to be specific), I remember numerous sermons focusing on hellfire and damnation.  I’m not saying that this was always the subject, but there was plenty of fear and guilt to go around.  Sure, there were times when the pastor spoke about something funny or lighthearted.  I don’t recall the topics, but there were certainly occasions when the nave was full of laughter.  Even on those days, though, our orator would usually end his speech by asking everyone to accept Jesus into their heart, and therefore avoid spending the rest of eternity in a bottomless pit of fire.  Fear and guilt…  Luckily, however, this has not been my experience with Vacation Bible School.

Paraphrasing the Golden Rule a bit more, you could say it simply means to be kind.  This is what I remember being taught when I was at VBS, and it has been the gist of what my kids seem to be learning as well.  I’ve seen firsthand that, although my daughter describes it as a “boring class about Jesus,” she is actually learning about being nice to others, making new friends, and playing (and praying) together.  My kids are being taught about kindness and compassion.  I can only hope that the majority of churches run their summer youth programs this way.

It’s odd, considering every religion stresses the importance of the ethic of reciprocity, that there is still so much hate in the world.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that being kind to others is very rewarding, and no rational person is going to say they don’t enjoy receiving acts of kindness.  Why, then, does it seem to be so hard for people to be nice to one another?

One of the songs we sang back when I was a kid was “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  Jesus loves the little children, all of the children in the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…, the song insisted.  I think Jesus would still love the children when they grow up, right?  Maybe we need VBS for adults, or should at least shift the focus of church services away from scaring congregations or causing them to feel bad about their actions, and instead concentrate more on human relations.  That means (good) relations with all humans, not just those who view the world the way we do.  Some will disagree, but I personally can do without any extra fear and guilt in my life.

I think the Dalai Lama puts it best when he says, “My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness.”  Because at the end of the day, isn’t being treated kindly about as good as it gets?  I know it’s what I want.  Oh, and drinks and snacks, of course.

Remembering Road Trips

May 25, 2015

  
Few things in life are simultaneously as rewarding and annoying for a family as a long road trip.  While preparing (both physically and mentally) recently to hit the open road with my family, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood experiences on American interstates.  Although I probably wouldn’t have said I enjoyed these trips at the time, I have very fond memories.

When I was a kid my family never flew, but rather always opted for the (extremely) close companionship that a road trip in a Japanese compact sedan offered.  Although he held no official certification or title, my dad was a MRTD (Master Road Trip Driver).  It has taken me over forty years, along with many trips where I was at the helm with my own wife and kids, to fully understand the awesome abilities my dad possessed.  He could eat a cheeseburger, hold a coke between his legs, read the map in his lap, and blindly spank me and my sister’s legs, while barreling down the highway at nine mph over the speed limit (because ten over gets you ticketed), using only his left knee to steer.  Or at least this is how I remember it – something tells me my mom was assisting. 

Despite being an incredibly multitasking driver, my old man was typically grumpy on the road, at least for the first hundred miles or so.  My mom, our co-pilot, would do her best to keep me and my sister calm, quiet and patient.  This, however, was not an easy task with two youngsters who were extremely excited about reaching a destination that was many hours, if not days, away.  This was in the early 1980s when kids didn’t have a phone, tablet, or laptop to keep them occupied.  We couldn’t text our friends, watch epic fails on YouTube, or use an app to make fart noises.  Hell, in the early days, we didn’t even have a Walkman to listen to.  My sister and I were crammed in the backseat of a 1979 Honda Accord (or something very similar, but newer, as the years passed), and many times the most entertaining thing to do was competing to see who could annoy the other one more.  Unfortunately, the most annoyed person usually ended up being my dad…

“No more talking, period,” my dad would declare about seven minutes into most trips.

This didn’t phase my sister, who would then proceed to find a way to make me laugh – and make sure I got a blind spanking.  I never minded the spankings, though.  My dad could never get an effective angle from the driver’s seat, and he wasn’t really trying to make it hurt, anyway.  If he wanted it to hurt, the car would have been pulled over.

Our road trip meals were usually something from a drive-through, to make sure we maximized time.  My sister and I would each get a burger, but often shared fries and a drink, to maximize money.  We may have wanted a little more to eat (and we probably got an earful for dropping crumbs), but I recall these cheap meals in the car always tasting great and being much more fun than eating inside the restaurant.  After some food and an hour or so on the road, my dad would loosen up and repeal the silence mandate.  This is when we started having some fun.

We loved when it rained, because my dad could make it stop!  My sister is three years younger than me, and for years my dad had her convinced that he could briefly stop the rain by snapping his fingers.  What she didn’t realize, of course, is that he snapped just as we went under overpasses.  It was truly magic to my sister, though.  This trick worked great years later on my own kids.

We played the alphabet game, where we raced to find each letter of the alphabet (in order) in the words on signs and billboards we passed.  This was really a game for my parents, but my sister and I always thought we had a chance to win.  Sadly, no one wants to play this game these days.  It sure seemed fun back then.

My sister and I played “slug bug,” looked for license plates from far away states (it was so cool to spot Alaska plates), and sometimes just took in our surroundings.  Kids don’t appreciate it at the time, but road trips allow you to really see and experience America.  We witnessed mirages in the desert, were gripped with fear driving through mountains, rolled through areas of extreme poverty in the South, and saw incredible mansions on the West Coast.  We stayed in very nice hotels and rather dirty motels.  We drove through tiny college towns and the largest cities in the country.

We listened to oldies on cassette tapes, which today would truly be “golden oldies.”  Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to CCR to The Kingsman.  One of my favorite childhood memories is the four of us belting out every word to all eight and a half minutes of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”  We sang along to this on every trip.  I think about this whenever I hear the song now, and it makes me both happy and a little sad.

Eventually we would all grow tired and agree that some peace and quiet would be nice.  I remember my sister and I lying in opposite directions in the back seat (the importance of seat belts wasn’t stressed quite so much then), as we watched clouds move across the windows.  The hum of the engine and the occasional thumping of the tires slowly lulled us to sleep.

In retrospect, I understand the significance of these road trips.  It was a small slice of my life, covering a span of only seven years or so, but it was a time when my family was together, which I don’t remember happening a whole lot in my childhood.  My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and suddenly there would be no more family trips.

My dad, sister, and I did go on one more road trip after the divorce.  Oddly, I don’t recall our final destination on that trip, but I remember many things that happened while on the road.  I was certain for miles that we were being followed by a biker gang (I had flipped off one of the bikers, but I don’t think he actually saw me), my dad left us in the car when he stopped at a liquor store in East St. Louis (it was the only place he could find Coors Light, and we were only alone in the car for a minute or two), and, as usual, we listened to great music (my dad bought me my first Led Zeppelin album on that trip).  It was a great time, but it wasn’t the same without my mom.

That was the last road trip I took with my family.  Shortly after, I hit that age where I thought I was too old and cool to go on a family vacation.  My dad remarried and started flying for most of his trips, anyway.  Things were never really the same, as they never are at some point in all of our lives.  Funny how that happens.

If your family is squeezing into a car to travel, consider yourself lucky.  Not only because you are able to take a trip, but because you are getting to spend valuable time together.  Ask your kids to turn off their devices (or at least remove their earbuds) for a while.  Try to take it all in and remember the details.  The time together may seem like a chore now, but it has the potential to mean a lot…somewhere down the “road.”