Saturday, October 6, 2018

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

My grandfather Thomas Kirk passed away at 95 years old last Sunday. I started writing a blog after he died, but I got interrupted so many times I never finished prior to traveling to New York for his services.

At the wake, a binder full of tributes that Grandpa’s children and grandchildren wrote for his 80th birthday was among the photos and personal effects present. Curious, I perused what I wrote. Turns out, my note was eerily reminiscent of the rough draft blog I intended to post. Strange how the brain operates.

Also, I should add that I found inspiration from my uncle’s wonderful eulogy and my father’s lovely toast at the reception.


As an homage to my grandfather, I would like to tell you a story. He loved telling lawyer war stories. A story involving lawyers and judges and courthouse personalities and peculiar cases. The tale would be a very long story. One that goes on and on. And on. A story that would seemingly have no end in sight (for those not sure by my sarcasm, I write this with absolute affection) until - thankfully - my grandmother would interrupt and gently guide her husband to sit down and tell her how beautiful she looked that night.

But bittersweet for me and anyone who knew them, both Grandma and Grandpa Kirk are in the midst of a long awaited reunion in the cosmos. So you will have to settle out of court (sorry I couldn’t resist) for my own version of a love story. Or perhaps better stated as a love letter.

It was certain to me as a child, beyond any reasonable doubt, that my grandfather was an extremely important person. The evidence was clear based on the volume of mail that he received on a daily basis. Piles upon piles. It was as if he received a tangible piece of paper mail for every message that any one of us receives on any given day in our spam folders.

From a corner in the dining room, I watched in awe as Grandpa methodically opened piles of envelopes while seated at the head of his table. He deftly sliced and diced envelopes with his letter opener, like a master craftsman whittling a sculpture, then squinted through his glasses to skim through a myriad of correspondence. I don’t know if my memory is incorrect, but I like to believe that a WNEW broadcast, Sinatra, or Irish folk tunes would be playing in the background.

One of the counselor’s favorite pieces of mail back in the day were his sweepstakes applications. I don’t know the details but he somehow won a maroon Cadillac Seville that he drove proudly around the streets of West Hempstead and Garden City. The plush leather interior, automatic windows, and fancy dashboard full of lights and buttons, impressed me immensely. Before our trips to and from the post office and bagel shop, he relayed a pre-flight checklist to an imaginary control tower on Mayfair Avenue to confirm that Air Teravainen was ready for takeoff. As his co-captain for the trip, I beamed with delight that we were pretending together.

Years later while attending college, I received a letter from Grandpa announcing that he was initiating a cruise initiative vastly different from the joyrides we had in the Caddy. “Kirkfest” became a tradition whereby Grandpa purchased a cruise vacation for all of his children and grandchildren. We traveled the Caribbean together as a family at least six or seven times. Grandma and Grandpa watched in delight as my cousins and I reinforced our bonds teasing one another incessantly. Framed formal portraits of our sunburned relatives posing awkwardly while straining against varying levels of impatience abound the walls of my parents, aunts, and uncles. THE WIFE even made it into the last Kirkfest I was able to attend, which is a special memory for me.

My grandfather’s quiet generosity impresses me not just because I can’t even fathom having enough savings to ever retire without reverse mortgaging our house, but because he didn’t need to flaunt his success to anyone. Grandpa could have paid to have his name emblazoned on a wall somewhere at St. John’s. Instead, he modestly established college funds for his great grandchildren. And, in addition to his family whom he spoiled with support and assistance when needed or not, Grandpa patronized many other charitable causes that were important to him. His obituary asked that in lieu of flowers, donations issue to one of many different charities he loved, or the one of your choice. He supported many worthy causes, not because they are a tax deduction, but because he truly believed in the purpose of living charitably. He was a devout Catholic in all the right ways.

Grandpa’s charity was not limited to just financial contributions and gifts. Tom Kirk not only received lots of mail: he was also legendary for the frequency of correspondence that he sent to those he loved. Religious themed cards were a staple for almost all holidays and birthdays. Even better was when he enclosed a news clipping that pertained to politics (the historical nadir of presidential administrations currently may have expedited his death,) an article about the importance of mammograms, a how-to on applying for dual citizenship from Ireland, or anything in between. I loved seeing an envelope from Grandpa in his handwriting.

To be fair, my grandfather was not perfect. He pushed all of our buttons in different ways, which need not be rehashed. But the love he had for his family was perfection. It was unconditional. It was abundant. It was selfless.

See. I told you this was going to be a long story. But you won’t get an apology from me because I can’t succinctly express how much my family and I are going to miss this man.

Grandpa, I said goodbye to you already but I’ll say it again. I love you so much. You were the only grandfather I was ever able to know, and you set the bar very high. I hope I make you proud as a man, a husband, and a father. I will do my best to follow the example that you set. Please tell Grandma that I love her and miss her so much, too. I am comforted to know that you can rest in peace together.

I will finally stop writing my story now and tell my wife how beautiful she looks. Or maybe I’ll send her a love letter instead.

~~~~~

Because the newspaper that published Grandpa’s obituary somehow mangled it with various typographical and grammatical errors that would have likely tortured my grandfather into writing a letter to the editor, I took the liberty of revising it in a manner that would hopefully be an acceptable version to the scrutinous eye of Thomas S. Kirk:

Tom Kirk was a graduate of Brooklyn College and St. John's University Law School. Tom served in the U.S. Army and was recalled in 1950 when he changed branches of service to the U.S. Air Force. He represented the Air Force in claims made against it by local individuals. Tom served in various bases until he was transferred to Mildenhall Air Force Base in England, where he met and married the love of his life, Pauline Cullen, in September of 1952. After admittance to the New York State Bar, Tom's career was associated with various insurance companies throughout his career. He became a Senior Trial Attorney in 1962 and ultimately a resident attorney for 19 years with Liberty Mutual Insurance Company as in-house counsel.

Tom was married to Pauline Rita Cullen Kirk for 59 years until her death in 2009. He is survived by his children, Margaret Teravainen (Dennis Teravainen), Deborah Mendoza (William Mendoza), Lorraine Domitz (Howard Domitz), Terrence Kirk (Gabby Kirk), Timothy Kirk (Bruce Martinelli), and Thomas J.F. Kirk (Claudia Kirk). He also has seven grandchildren- Dennis, Thomas, Megan, Kate Lyn, Lauren, Brian, and Katherine, in addition to 11 great-grandchildren.

A wake will be held on Wednesday, October 3, from 2- 4:30 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. at Barnes and Sorrentino, located at 539 Hempstead Avenue; a Mass of remembrance will be held at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, at 10 a.m., 24 Westminster Rd., West Hempstead. A celebration of Tom's life will be held immediately following the Mass. It is also Tom's request that in lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the Edmundite Fathers in Selma, Alabama, Doctors Without Borders, Feed the Children, Save Our Aging Religious: SOAR, The Smile Train, or the charity of your choice.



Friday, August 17, 2018

Obstructed View

Every time I look back at any of the baseball games I’ve ever attended, a consistent theme emerged. Most of the people who were there with me are peeps who are special to me. My immediate and extended family. Buddies from home, college, and Boston. Mostly dudes, but not exclusively. Most of the games have been at Fenway, but Yankee and Shea stadiums too. One Philly game. One Baltimore game.

I think THE WIFE and I have gone to only one Sox game together. It was early on in our courting stage. At some point, the jumbotron panned a view in our vicinity in the highest level on the first base side. Just as the camera was about to capture my image, THE WIFE jumped across me with her arms outstretched waving wildly, mouth and eyes wide open, whooping it up. We laughed and high fived. 

The only time anyone in my party ever got a ball was the first time I went to Fenway with my sister. We were in the right field seats in the front row. Wakefield rolled a ball on top of the bullpen roof. Mega snatched it up real quick.

My buddy Scott and I chatted it up with Bernie Williams under the center field bleachers at Fenway during a rain delay. My nephew and I took in a Patriot’s Day Marathon Monday game together. 

Living near Fenway after college definitely helped. In the late 90’s and early 00’s, I averaged maybe four to eight games a year. In recent history, though, I honestly can’t recall the last time I went. 

Usually the tickets came about as pass offs or hand me downs. So and so can’t make it, do you want to take them? Hey, my employer has season’s tickets but no one claimed them tonight - are you in? Standing room only okay for you? Yes, yes, and yes. In.

The seats I’ve experienced run the full gamut. Nose bleeds? Check. Craning my neck around some kind of obstruction to see? Check. Drunken idiots around me heckling players and fans alike? Check. 

So this week, the e-mail inbox showed a new message from an old ultimate frisbee friend. Something about baseball tickets. He and I bonded as Yankee fans in the minority of our crew full of Sox fans. I clicked open, curious. THE WIFE is away this weekend after all.

After a quick scan through the message and registering the key words “free” and “tickets” plural, I furiously punched out a reply trying not to fat finger my response. Not long thereafter, I got the confirmation that we’re good to go. The freeloading T family are at it again!

Although Greta has blatantly declared her allegiance to the Patriots much to my chagrin, the door has been left open on getting her into the Yankee camp. Gus and Tilly have yet to declare any allegiance. Naturally, my “Operation Hearts and Minds” was launched and continues in full blast. We’re headed to the Bronx and the House that Ruth Built tomorrow morning.

My understanding is that our seats are pretty sweet. I won’t believe it until we get there so I’m not going to jinx us. Not sure how many innings will capture the full attention of my three kiddos, but we’ll find out soon enough. If the location of our spot turns out as good as I expect, I’m (only a little bit) hesitant.

Shouldn’t the first MLB experience be in a place very far away from the field where a fight or two might break out and everyone cheers when security drags out some idiot with a ripped and beer-soaked shirt? Shouldn’t the kids be subjected to some very uncomfortable seats and maybe a pipe awkwardly extending above our heads so we can’t quite stand up all the way? Shouldn’t Tilly look at me sheepishly after someone sitting near us drops an F-bomb when the Yanks leave the bases loaded and squander an opportunity to score?

The short answer is - no. Whatever it takes to get the kids on board with my Yankees, I’m in. All I know is if the jumbotron pans over our way, I’ll summon all the old man strength I have left and hoist all three of them into view to make their mama proud.

Let’s play ball!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Pep's Pond

As I sipped a beer in the parking lot of Storyland yesterday, I … wait, hold on. No, I didn’t hit rock bottom. I wasn’t doing my best Cousin Greg in Succession when he smokes a joint before wearing a mascot costume at a family park - and then voms through the eyeballs of the creature in front of horrified kids and parents. (It is an instant classic scene, I promise you.)

No, I was celebrating my first trip to the Glen Beverage Company. Since our first family vacation in the North Conway area in 2011, I have driven by this store advertising 500 different kinds of beer about 500 times and always wondered what kind of operation was in there. Because we were always on some kind of a schedule, I never stopped in.

This year marks the last time that we will be staying at the Madison, NH vacation home owned by my step-father-in-law Leo - better known in our circle by his grandfatherly alias Pep. (In our version of Modern Family, my kids have been extremely fortunate to have three grandfathers in their life who love them abundantly - the kids’ bond to each grandfather is oblivious to whether the connection is based on blood or marriage.) The house, dubbed by the kids as “Pep’s Pond,” is under agreement to be sold next month. We are very happy for Leo, but the occasion is bittersweet for us freeloading Teravainens.

In the last seven years, Pep has graciously allowed us to crash at his vacation home without accepting a dime. His generosity freed us up to be more flexible on finances so that we were able to afford way more adventures than if we were renting out a vacation home, be they meals at restaurants or excursions to destinations that charge a premium for fun. When we first started finding our bearings in vacation mode as a family of four in 2011, (forgive the self-promotion, but these posts have held up over the years: http://waitingforbabyt.blogspot.com/2011/08/what-news-from-north.html) we were almost paralyzed by the enormity of all the crap we had to carry whenever we left the house! It is honestly a miracle that we even left Easton.

But at the same time, when you have a family with children who are little, the challenge to find fun is proportionally small. We could have pulled beach days at Pep’s Pond for seven consecutive days, and three year-old Greta was in Nirvana. I distinctly recall walking around a Christmas-themed store in North Conway for an hour when Greta and Gus were young. They had an absolute blast. And that was literally the only main attraction of our entire day. As the kids grew, we adapted our daily trips through the area to suit their capacities.

Before our trips up in this section of the 603, I had never spent any significant amount of time in the White Mountain Valley. As a native Granite Stater, though, our trips gave me extra satisfaction to become more familiar with the place I most consider to be my home state.

If you polled the kids, I would guess that their favorite activities have been Story Land, Santa’s Village, Whale’s Tale, and any of the several ice cream establishments we’ve visited anywhere between Ossipee to Jackson.

If you ask me, my favorites have been any of the excursions into the woods or water: Sabbaday Falls, Lower Falls, Cathedral Ledge, Diana’s Baths, tubing on the Saco River, Middle Pea Porridge Pond, and random stops along the Kanc.

Reflecting on the last few summers, I realize that we started off here still knee deep in bottles, diapers, naps, water wings, and strollers. Now, the kids can make their own breakfast if we neglect them long enough, we are potty trained (most of the time at least - a post for another time,) they swim out to the dock on their own, and the Bob stroller is collecting dust in our garage. One caveat: I usually piggy-back Gus and Tilly here and there when their little legs are fatigued. Next summer, I can only imagine the kids will be that much more independent - in whatever location becomes our new destination.

As for Story Land, I am happy to never return. Or at least, not for the next 20 years or so. The first time that I ever went to the place, Greta puked before we even pulled into the parking lot. Talk about an introduction!

The park is totally fine and I’m not here to rip it apart. I am just done with it. We have logged weeks worth of time in this amusement park. We have been participants in or a witness to hundreds of sun exposure/sugar crash-induced melt downs. We have been on every single ride dozens of times. We have engaged in endless debates with the kids about whether they are allowed to get face paint, ice cream dipping dots, colored hair extensions, play games, et cetera, et cetera. THE WIFE has treated me as the invisible man - the point in the day when I am literally dying to leave but she pretends to not see the exasperation in my face - more times than I can count. If I hear the clang of that effing bell or that freaking song playing in the Old Mother’s Shoe area again, I might require institutionalization.

So, getting back to that beer in the parking lot. I made my first visit to Glen Beverage and picked up some Granite State IPAs. I selected one to enjoy by myself in the shade of the lot across the street away from any cars, like a creepy weirdo. When I got THE WIFE’s text message asking if my field trip was complete, I took a deep breath and finished what was left in the can. Then I went inside for one last stroll among hysterical children being dragged by the arm with tears smearing their rainbow butterflies or Spiderman faces.

~~~~~ 

This morning, we are packing up for our trip back home. I’m putting the finishing touches on my last blog post ever from Pep’s Pond. I will miss this place. However, I am also excited at the prospect of a change in the routine next summer.

Most sincerely, Pep, we thank you very, very much for enabling us to make such a special connection as a family to the White Mountains - and your pond - these last seven years! It has been a blast.


Saying goodbye to Madison, NH yesterday.


The maiden voyage to Storyland - Bartlett, NH.  Greta is not pleased.




Greta and Gus at Remmick Farm in Tamworth, NH 2012 (?) - two of my favorite pictures of them.  And Tilly marked her arrival at Pep's Pond that year in a fashionable two piece.


My absolute favorite picture of Gus from Storyland - Bartlett, NH.  2015.  Priceless.


Tilly outside the covered bridge over the Swift River.  Conway, NH.  2015.


A shot from the base path to Diana's Baths - North Conway, NH.  August 2018.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Don't Breathe On Me

With the vast majority of our relatives living in New York, my parents piloted many a family road trip in the 1980’s to Long Island and Brooklyn when I was a kid. Depending upon whether our destination was an old standby or a new location, the driver and navigator relied upon memory, a road atlas, hastily written directions scrawled on a napkin while calling from a pay phone at Denny’s, or simply the kindness of strangers steering us back to the interstate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu1yUazrUSw

Instead of Google Maps or Waze offering alternative routes due to a traffic back-up, we suffered through many painful constipated treks along the Mass. Pike, I-95 in New Haven, or attempting to access Long Island via the Throgs Neck Bridge. For some reason, it seemed as though road construction was always taking place during the peak of traffic volume throughout a holiday weekend.

Neither our four-door Chevy Impala in the early 80’s nor the Chevy Celebrity station wagon in the later 80’s contained television screens for the passengers’ viewing pleasure. (As an aside, I would love to be a fly on the wall of the General Motors R+D department when they decided to name a vehicle “Celebrity.” How the hell that ever got approved is beyond any comprehension.)

Meanwhile, a passenger’s Walkman might be a temporary escape, but Murphy’s Law correctly predicted that I either 1) forgot to load fresh batteries or 2) only remembered the Men at Work and Huey Lewis & The News cassettes. Usually, I would read until I felt like I was going to puke and closed my eyes to catch some shut eye.

The indentation of hard plastic from my sister’s car seat impaling itself into the skin of my cheek may or may not still be visible: a curvy longitudinal trace from eyebrow to chin, giving me the temporary appearance of a juvenile (and slightly paler) Chalky White/Omar Little. Speaking of which, I need this for my next phone: https://www.redbubble.com/people/obillwon/works/21053435-omar-little-the-wire-famous-people?p=iphone-case

A/C was not an option for our family to consider, because that is a privilege only people who drove Volvos or Saabs enjoyed, i.e. the rich folk who were tan and had beautifully feathered hair. How can I ever forget the thrill of victory when breaking the nearly unbreakable fusion between the sweaty underside of my pvc-sized, clammy quads and the glistening vinyl of my seat during a Fourth of July excursion to West Hempstead?

Fast forward to 2018. My family and I are traveling in a Chevy (naturally) through the White Mountain National Forest - one of the most beautiful places in New England. Our air conditioning capacity incites debates amongst the passengers about whether one should wear a sweatshirt - all while exterior temperatures are in excess of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. (To our European readers, multiply by 1.8 and add 32.)

We can drive confidently to any destination relying upon directions calmly spoken to me through the dashboard by any celebrity or accent of my choosing.

As a last resort for entertainment, in utter disregard for the natural beauty everywhere around us, we can queue up any song or video that our heart desires onto a hand-held television screen with the click of a button - at the price of a small fortune as we inevitably spill over on our allowable data.

And yet, notwithstanding all of the technological advancements of the last 30 years creating what would seem like an oasis for family interior driving environments that was conceivable only during a Stark Trek episode or the World of Tomorrow exhibit at Epcot Center, there is still room for discord in the environs at least among my Party of Five.

“Dad, tell her to stop humming!” “Your chewing is so loud - shut up!” “Get your head off my shoulder!” “Ahhhhhhhh - [he/she] just poked me in the eye/punched me in the face/pinched my arm.”

Yes. I could have used the mini-van instead of the Malibu. The individual seats for each child would have ensured at least a small buffer of space virtually eliminating inadvertent physical contact/breathing into perceived personal boundaries. We also wouldn’t have to play Tetris in the trunk rearranging luggage around my various lawn sports paraphernalia.

But why incur lease miles and pay for gas that would otherwise be better burned by the company car? Especially considering that in the past few days of shuttling around from our savings-depleting adventure locations (I think Whale’s Tale water park tickets cost $28 apiece for anyone between the ages of 6 months and 85 years - or maybe it’s 90?) we are spending a small fortune (Live Free or Die baby!) across the great Granite State. Well, I’ll give you two good reasons for the forced family fun.

Reason 1: Sunday. Due to the absence of any cell connection, devices were useless. The family was forced to [gasp] talk. As we crested that apex point between Conway and Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway, the radio connection to the Portland Maine pop station got kinda fuzzy. So we turned off the music and began our coast downhill somewhere around the Kancamagus Pass, I guess? Don’t know why, but I decided to put the windows down. As the air whooshed around us, the girls started busting out a roller coaster song I’ve never heard in my life but is apparently old hat if anyone who uses Youtube kids knows anything: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSDxhF6GIUU. Next thing you know, all three kids start holding their hands in the air and chanting all the words with extreme enthusiasm, up to and including through the hairpin turn and finally past the entrance of Loon. Their silliness set the tone for the rest of the day.

Reason 2: Butt cheeks. Or perhaps chocolate butt cheeks. Although I can’t recall specifically which, I’ll go with the latter.

Monday was approximately 120 degrees so I was craving a meal in a restaurant with air conditioning and a full bar. We went to a place we’ve enjoyed in the past that the Google said was open. Unfortunately, it was closed. (Technology be damned!) THE WIFE and I were forced to improvise and argue through clenched teeth and feigned smiles about locations and directions. Meanwhile, all open restaurants in a 25-mile radius were rapidly booking up to the point that we might have to wait 45 minutes or more! I know. The horror. (Yes, we are on the highest echelon of high maintenance and zero patience when it comes to our restaurant habits.)

After 12 miles of driving unknown roads while feverishly tripadvisoring and yelping with spotty cell connections, I executively decided on a previously unknown Mexican restaurant in Moultonborough. I should’ve left as soon as I realized the A/C only worked near the entrance of the restaurant. After a margarita first served with a fly inside and later re-served (no discount) sans the fly, plus a rubbery steak fajita for THE WIFE, we burned rubber back towards home. I remembered an ice cream place passed previously en route, which turned out to be abandoned and condemned - further alienating the trust and love of my family. I needed a shot of caffeine to sharpen my senses in the hopes of any redemption.

As I pulled up to an Aroma Joe’s drive-thru in Tamworth, a little voice from the back seat that was barely audible poked out through the back seat window before I could order my cup of coffee.

GUS: I’ll have two chocolate butt cheeks please.

Hilarity ensued throughout the car. I was so proud and blown away by my son’s bathroom humor, I even waited two minutes longer than I normally would before driving away because the drive thru employee was taking too long to take my order.

By the time we arrived at Dunkins in Albany and ditched THE WIFE in the bathroom as a prank enjoyed by all except my beautiful bride, we finally arrived at the general store for ice cream at a place we haven’t tried yet. Naturally, they were out of chocolate (Gus was PISSED) but he came around after settling on the Mocchiato ice cream shake. Granted he didn’t fall asleep until around midnight, but that’s neither here nor there. Long story short, we made it.

Bottom line, I love forced family fun. Special thanks to my parents for putting up with my brother and I rubbing keytars on our heads after that Christmas at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. I think you were on the verge of infanticide by the time we got to Sturbridge so thanks for letting us off the hook. And big shout out to THE WIFE for being my co-captain on Air Malibu this summer and always. Love you and our little bugs, bug!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Michael Strahan & The Triumvirate

Part One: Michael Strahan

I almost titled this as “Of Gaps in Teeth and Blogs” but then I realized it was stupid and chalked it up to being rusty on the writing front. Went back to the drawing board. Eventually, former Kelly Ripa co-host/current GMA employee Michael Strahan jumped to mind because that is my buddy’s go-to codeword for a solid gap due to the legendary Giants defensive end’s phenomenal diastema.

[Pssst:

]

And:

(If I can somehow cut and paste a glorious zoom-in of Michael Strahan’s gap tooth, so let it be in this exact spot Baby Jesus:)



Notice the resemblance?



And finally … notice the analogy to the gap in time between the current blog and this one?



Oy. That is just horrendous. Way too much time between posts. I take full responsibility.

Without digging too deep, I have more of an explanation than an excuse about why I haven’t written. Basically, the inertia of my different daily commitments (family, work, friends) have taken priority and left little room for anything else. Somewhere along the way, that opportunity every week to reflect quietly in peace at the laptop disappeared from my routine. When the rare moment of spare time occurs, I usually drain the brain by watching a show or reading something followed by sleep a half hour later. I’m 99% certain that you, most beautiful reader, are in the same boat whether you have a kid, spouse, career, and/or a modest social life. I’m not unique in that sense, nor am I complaining.

However, the urge to write sneak attacks me all the time. The ideas strike inevitably when it is most inconvenient at work or driving. I jot down some notes and plan to revisit some other time. And then the other time never happens. Repeat again. And again. Next thing you know, it’s been 15 months and a stale old blog post is still sitting up there like a dusty relic sitting on the shelf of a musty library.

The other day, I was speaking with a colleague (God I hate that word so much but I can’t think of an appropriate synonym) and we started chatting books. He told me about a study of Marcel Proust. Later that day, I opened an account on audible.com and took a stab. I was so struck by this quote:

“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just 
think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it–our life–hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
‘But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
‘The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”


What a phenomenal concept - “where negligence deadens desire.” That is so spot on, I can’t even handle it. So in other words, at least as I translate the above, once we stop trying to fight the momentum of daily routine - the initiative to pursue our true inner passions will gradually erode until it exists no more. Good call, Marcel. Brilliant. (The irony that my day job literally is an endless exercise in arguments as to whether negligence has occurred or not - one billable hour at a time - is just another reason for me to chuckle.)

Proust’s comments caused a bit of an epiphany. It honestly kind of scared me. I’m not done writing. I’ve just been on a Ross and Rachel break. I don’t want to write something that’s going to be half-assed and not well polished. The inner perfectionist standard is a blessing and a curse. But at the same time, I realize it is possible to take so long that I may never end up finishing anything. And let’s be honest - I’m not going for a Pulitzer. I just hope that someone is reading this for a laugh while they sip on some coffee or sit on the bowl.

Long story short, I’m back baby. I may be rusty. I may be long-winded. The writing may be a bit clunky. But c’est la vie. (That one’s for you Monsieur Proust.) Time to pretend again that the apocalypse is near. Anyway, mind the gap. Let’s go.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Part Two: The Triumvirate

Unlike yours truly and THE WIFE (of course,) my kids are far from perfect. Each one of them can be a stubborn pain in the ass, whiny brats, or high maintenance little shits at any given time. I blatantly open with this caveat at the outset because now I’m going to brag.

Gigi

Outside the presence of someone familiar, Greta is almost always quiet on the surface. Possibly shy, or even bashful - particularly in large group scenarios. But don’t let that poker face trick you. Her antennae are up and her wheels are spinning at all times. She hears and sees - everything. Her instincts about people are pretty keen. And I fucking love that quality about her. She has incredible depth and sensitivity. She also has an extremely playful and goofy side that she reserves only for those in her comfort zone.

Let me put it this way. I miss G so much when I haven’t seen her for a while. I don’t “tolerate” when we spend time together. I genuinely desire to be around her so we can talk and laugh and dance and goof around and get philosophical. My brain explodes when I think about us in the years to come having a chat about politics or religion or zombie movies over a glass of wine.

When I reach to hold her hand as we cross the street these days, and she contorts her arm so that my fingers can’t make contact, I understand and accept that this is just my 9 year old telling me without saying so that she isn’t a little kid anymore. But that doesn’t mean a microscopic piece of my heart hasn’t just shriveled up and died somewhere deep inside my core.

Gussy

Insert any occasion in any location at any time. Shopping at the mall? Eating at a table in a restaurant? Waiting in line at a supermarket? Getting cash at the ATM? Sunbathers laying on blankets at the beach? Sure you name it. No one is safe from Gus-man’s potential approach.

GUS: Hi, I’m Gus. (extending his hand) What’s your name?

Whether the other person understood what he said or not, the aspiring Mayor of the World breaks the ice for everyone else in his party.

GUS: This is Den. This is Shell. That’s Greta. That’s Tilly.

Reactions run the full gamut. Polite smiles. Awkward nods and waves. Hand shakes and follow up questions. Full blown conversations where said stranger eventually explains to us that he has a relative with special needs, or she works as a paraprofessional at such and such school, or he volunteers at Special Olympics. It’s uncanny. I would say the positive vibe reaction and connection rate from Gus simply introducing himself is somewhere around 80%-85%.

My little man has more quirks and eccentricities that could merit a blog unto itself. So I’ll hold off on that for the time being.

But let me say this - in his 8 brief years on this Earth, my son has been the conduit between our family and (conservatively) hundreds of amazing, wonderful, warm, and solid people in this world. For anyone who knows him, I needn’t say another word. You get him. You know what I mean.

The Force Awakens

My little Matilly Till Till. When she laughs, she cackles uncontrollably with an infectious mischief. When she hugs, she takes a running leap and launches Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka-style into my arms. When she yells, she doesn’t just raise her voice. She screeches like a banshee.

When Tilly approaches an activity, there is rarely a middle ground. There is either zero. Or a Spinal Tap amplifier eleven.

If Greta’s outward displays of affection toward me have waned in the last few years, Tilly’s demonstrations of love are steadily superlative. I love that she puts my face between her hands and smooches me on the lips with an audible smack. Every so often, I’ll be halfway through my dinner and engrossed in convo with THE WIFE when suddenly a little spider monkey has scurried her way like a mini-ninja into my lap.

Some may say that my youngest is, ahem, strong willed. Or even fiery. At this juncture in her life, THE WIFE and I simply do our best to avoid the epic marathon standoffs that occur a little less frequently every day. The tantrums involve doors slamming, feet stomping, arms alternating between animated gesticulations or crossed over her chest, and teary monologues citing long-held grievances.

(I know. I know. This is supposed to be a humble brag. Just keeping it real for a second.)

Honestly, the signs of Tilly’s more mature self are beginning to poke through. She is a deep and intense thinker. She gravitates to helping people - particularly peers - who need an extra hand. She is very sweet and giving. (She rubs lotion on my feet for me and gives me massages!) And again, I am so in love with all of her - even the parts that drive me crazy. I am going to sob like a baby when I drop her off at college.

Fini

Hoping I’m not one and done this week. C’mon back and visit. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

The first time I wrote for reasons unrelated to a school assignment was during my freshman and sophomore years of college.  The name of this very enlightening opus?  "Life."  (Even just the first word of my maiden literary voyage is nauseatingly embarrassing due to the pompous self-importance.)  The entire story was an autobiography from the perspective of my experiences with soccer.  I thought my writing was super edgy because it contained lots of swears.  The piece was also environmentally conscious because it had a font size of 10, plus it was single spaced and double sided.  The last time I read it was probably ten years ago and I wanted to barf because it was cringeworthy on so many levels.  Thank the lucky stars I was unaware of blog sites at that time.

If "Life" had a thumbnail overview on Goodreads (which would never happen because it was so atrocious,) it would read something like this: in this poignant novella, nineteen year-old Dennis describes the resurrection of his love for soccer when he became a junior high school coach following the devastating agony of being cut as a player from his college team.  The young man reflects upon the contrast between his triumphant high school experience and the abysmal failure of his short-lived collegiate career.  Again, I fully recognize how melodramatic this sounds and I want to hide as if I've just discovered at 5 p.m. that my zipper has been down for an entire work day.

Long story short on the soccer front, I had a high school coach who believed in me more than I believed in myself.  He brought out the best in a good athlete who happened to play soccer.  I was never a skilled or polished player.  But I was so hungry with hustle, it was enough to get me some recognition.

When I went to college, my lack of skill was exposed quickly by the higher quality of players all around me.  And I had a coach who just plain disliked me at first, then ultimately hated me.

Getting cut turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because an opportunity arose to coach a junior high boys team.  The experience operated as a personal renaissance of sorts because it reinvigorated my love for soccer.  Teaching the guys about the game turned out to be really fun and rewarding for me.  And after multiple seasons with the same core group of kids, I became emotionally attached to them.  Soccer was suddenly fun again even though I wasn't playing.

Fast forward 20 years later to Easton.  Greta started playing rec soccer in kindergarten.  I agreed to coach because honestly she wouldn't take the field without me there.  But at the same time, of course I was going to coach.  C'mon man, it's my sport!  Plus, I got to participate in an activity with my big girl while getting to know Greta's peers and their parents better. There was nothing but upside.

A few seasons went by and Greta joined an impromptu indoor team for girls her age this past winter.  I was surprised she was interested enough to play because I thought she was starting to lean more towards dance and gymnastics over soccer.  So when she said she was up for it, I jumped in to coach with two other parents.

As the weeks went on with the indoor season, I became smitten with Greta and her teammates.  Seeing them gibe as a group and improve so significantly from beginning to end was about one million times more satisfying and fulfilling than anything I have done in the last 15 years of my day job.  I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I would actually start pacing with anxious anticipation during the hour before our games.  During car rides, my mind would wander for practice ideas.

This is a strange but explanatory question.  Have you ever given a compliment to a 7 or 8 year-old girl?  They are not yet mysterious and complicated teenage enigmas who demonstrate feelings like professional poker players, so when the positive message of approval is received and resonates in their pony-tailed heads - they beam with personal pride!  Their emotional states are still so transparent, you can almost see the sudden bounce in their step from even something so simple as a heartfelt "Great job!"  I tell my wife over and over again how just one smile from one girl in one practice or game is just, well, everything.  That moment is precisely why I love coaching so much.  If I can make Greta or her teammate feel good about herself for even just a brief moment because she made a nice play of any sort, then we are doing something right together.

At this moment, Greta is at an interesting crossroads for her soccer odyssey.  She has her first tryout next week to determine which travel team she will play on next fall and spring!  (Maybe another time we can lament whether this level of competition and stratification at such an early age is good or bad, but not now.)   It is so pathetic, I know, but I am literally tossing and turning about what is to come.  I signed up to coach whatever team Greta lands on but the coaches are not consulted (and I whole heartedly agree this is the right way to do it) about selecting the third grade teams' players.

Now before you assume I am some kind of a dad like the one Emilio Estevez' character tearfully describes in The Breakfast Club, I don't care whether Greta makes the A team or the Z team.  I honestly do not.  The only thing that bums me out is the very high likelihood that she will not be grouped with all of the same girls who were on her indoor team over the winter.  (The numbers just don't work out due to roster sizes as compared to the total number of kids trying out.)  She has a comfort and familiarity with all of them that brings out the best in her.  And selfishly, I am already connected emotionally to these girls whom I am so excited to see continue with their growth and development.

Honestly, I think I'm going through some kind of emotional trigger because I had such a bitter exit from the game as a player and I never want G to ever experience anything like that in any aspect of sports.  In order to explain it effectively, I have to give you some of the nitty gritty details.  (Hey if you've made it this far, you might as well get the full story.)

In the fall of my freshman year at UVM, I played on the B team for a coach (not the varsity coach) whom I'll call Dick.  In the second to last game of our season, we played Dartmouth.  A varsity player rehabbing from injury played with us, which was part of the B team's purpose.  We were getting absolutely waxed like 5 to nothing or maybe even worse.  The varsity player (who sucked) started reaming us all out when the ship started sinking, basically placing blame on everyone but himself with every goal scored against us.  Dick also joined in and started hammering away at me.  By that point in the season, I was a basket case.  My confidence was shot.  I hated soccer.  I hated Dick.  I hated that my coach didn't see anything good in me.  Something inside me just snapped.  I walked off the field because I couldn't take it anymore.

I sat on the bench.  Dick asked me if I was hurt.  I said no.  He literally never spoke to me again after that moment.  The next game, I didn't play.  The season ended.

In the winter and spring, all of the B-teamers played with varsity as part of a tryout to see if we would be invited to camp that summer.  The varsity coach, Ron, was our only coach for that season.  Dick was gone.  I suddenly had hope again.  I played as hard as I could.  When the spring season ended, we had exit interviews with Ron when he would tell us if we were coming to camp.

During our talk, Ron told me he loved my toughness and hustle.  But my skills were weak.  I wasn't being invited to camp.  He was right.  And I appreciated his honesty.  I was bummed but I was at peace.  We shook hands and I thanked him.  I got up and started to walk out.

But here is the part of my exit interview that still haunts me to this day.  As I was leaving the room, Ron said "And for someone who walked out on his team ..."  I didn't hear anything else that he said after that sentence.  My mind went totally black.  In that moment, I realized that I had been labeled as a quitter.  I had been fighting an uphill battle to change his perception of me the entire winter and spring.  I don't think I ever had a realistic shot at making the team.  And he couldn't have been more wrong about me.  Not one person had ever asked about my side of the story at Dartmouth.  If Ron or Dick had known the real me at all, they would have realized that I would have given absolutely anything to be on that team.

When I coach Greta and her teammates, that final conversation always lingers somewhere in the back of my head and my heart.  I remind myself constantly to keep an open mind and avoid labeling at all times.  I will always give a player every opportunity to prove herself, especially after a mistake.  More to the point, I only strive to bolster a player's confidence to bring out the best in her ability - never to tear her down.  And let's not forget, we're talking about 8 year olds here!  Make it fun for them as much as possible.

Next Tuesday, I hope every girl at the tryout has a fantastic day.  I hope they make it really hard for the evaluators to rank them all.  Of course, I'll be rooting for one little girl in particular to show what she's made of.

If anyone sees a nervous looking forty-one year old man pacing in the parking lot frantically chewing  gum, don't mind him.  He's just working through some issues.

Good luck G!  Just be yourself.  You've made your father very proud already.


Monday, April 10, 2017

No. Thank you!

It sounds counterintuitive to say thank you for making my wife cry.  So let me explain it in a much longer way.

Michelle was inspired to start the “Random Acts of Kindness” exercise every March 21 after she read about a similar idea practiced by a family who lost a loved one to leukemia.  The timing was just before World Down Syndrome Day, so she just took the ball and ran with it on a whim.  

After witnessing this annual event the last few years, two overarching themes seem to be going on here.  The first theme is really just a simple exercise in altruism.  The second theme, obviously, is spreading awareness for those impacted by Down Syndrome.  

When Michelle first spearheaded her movement within our immediate family of five, the adults and kids alike were all so struck by how fun it was to see the reaction of strangers or friends on the receiving end of a kind gesture.  It just felt so good to give for the sake of giving - whether it be homemade cookies or buying a cup of coffee.  We are not religious people but this was an excellent example for our kids to witness and learn from, which probably speaks to any spiritual affiliation.  

The experiment caught on quickly among our own relatives and close friends.  Everyone was more than eager to get in on the act.  A lifelong friend of Michelle’s graciously contributed her artistic talents to create the 3/21 cards featuring our little Gus man - and has continued to do so every year since.  As my family became more entrenched within our own community over the years, our neighbors and friends joined in on the fun too.  Eventually, families connected to our kids’ schools got involved.  Ridiculously generous and creative gestures came out of the woodwork - some shared on the Facebook page or word of mouth, and some performed quietly and anonymously.  

Emboldened by the enthusiasm showed by others, Michelle solicited and received overwhelming support from many many business in and around our town.  Examples include but are not limited to Staples, Village Toy Store, Stone Forge, Hilliards, Ultimate Pizza, Back Bay Bagel, White’s Bakery, and Mario’s Trattoria donating gift cards, merchandise, or other generous gifts with very little convincing needed.  

The momentum just seems every year to spread further and further as our network spreads even well beyond outside our familiar circle to other peoples’ own friends and families.  We are always pleasantly surprised to learn of random acts by total strangers using our Gus cards - especially in places far outside the 02356 zip code or 508 area code!  

I am not exaggerating when I say that a kind of tipping point occurred in this event once our local educators became involved.  Honestly, is it any surprise that elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals for kids with or without special needs turn out to be the greatest advocates and facilitators of the Random Acts of Kindness?  Without question, our family was touched most profoundly by the overwhelming enthusiasm demonstrated throughout the schools of our town and especially Gus’ school, Parkview.  

To be honest, the attention almost embarrassed me at times.  We are friends with lots of families who have a loved one with DS.  I didn’t want any of them to think we were claiming some kind of exclusive right to World DS Day.  At the same time, I know all of us celebrate 3/21 in different ways.  Some are low key.  Others go kind of crazy (ahem, my wife) and hope that a local news channel or reality TV star will help spread the word next year.  

This brings me to the most important - and sobering - theme of spreading awareness.  As unbearably painful as it is to fathom, I know that someday, somewhere, somehow - Gus will be taunted or ignored by another kid.  Probably many times.  He will not be invited to a birthday party.  An adult will assume based on his appearance that Gus is less competent than he truly is.  Someday, I will have to explain what the word “retard” means.  My heart is in my throat and tears are welling in my eyes as I type these words.

Unfortunately, the offender will have absolutely no idea how hard Gus and his community of family, friends, educators, and therapists work every single day on the most banal activities that we take for granted.  Pronouncing words clearly.  Writing his name.  Ditching pull-ups forever.  Just engaging another kid his age in a prolonged conversation.  These are all milestones we are pursuing at the moment.  And we are going to get there eventually.  

Fortunately, we will have the strength to encounter any rotten apple moments because we know people like you and your children are all out there who can step in if we aren’t there to protect our son.  The parents who teach their kids to embrace differences without judgment.   The friends and neighbors who are unafraid to speak up for Gus to protect him when necessary.  The educators who teach and lead by example with their messages of support and inclusion.  You all are our saving grace.  

Last month, our family received many wonderful gifts both big and small from a bunch of you people.  We are so blown away by your thoughtfulness and generosity.  It was heartwarming to say the least.

Over anything else, though, what we sincerely appreciate the most is knowing that you have Gus’ back and the backs of any homie with an extra chromie.  Your support is the greatest gift.  A most sincere thank you to everyone who paid it forward - even if you made Michelle cry.