Friday, February 17, 2017

How much living in 54 years?

It was toward the end of the family birthday festivities when Josie, 16, observed that, man, 54, is getting up there.

Understand, she wasn’t being at all snarky or mean. She’s not that kind of kid.

I think it was more a reflection on mortality and the realization the number of years I have ahead of me are fewer than the number I have behind.

I thought about her comment and brought it up the next morning as I was driving her to school.

“You were right about 54 being old, but you were mistaken about one crucial point,” I said. “I’m not 54. I’m 100.”

Years are convenient, but poor ways to gauge life.

I’m 54 years old, but I’ve lived so much more.

It’s why I told my wife on our 20th anniversary it felt more like 40 years. Do not mistake that for a slam. Not at all. Our situations have bestowed us with more togetherness than many busy working couples can justify.

We share common interests and enjoy being together — just us or with the kids. For many, many years we had lunch together every day and dinner most nights. 

You can be married for 50 years but only be together for five.

My own parents for example were married, I think, for about 18 years, about half of them during the four years before Dad died when they were together a good bit and seemed to enjoy one another. Once they became empty nesters, they began sleeping in separate beds.

I sleep slammed up against Val all night, the sole exception being nights when our rat-like yip dog burrows in between us and leaves me sleeplessly fearful this’ll be the night he decides he wants to begin nibbling on my nuts.

As for being a Dad, geez, the only time I’m not there being their father is when they’re in school. We’re together all the time.

It’d be impossible to underestimate the years I’ve logged being buddies with so many friends on golf courses, in saloons and at ballgames. The memory catalogues are thick as old big city phone books. 

I’m at an age when many friends are contemplating retiring. And there in lies the rub.

They’ve worked — truly worked — many, many years.

I’ve worked about three.

It’s been unintentional, for sure. Who in their right mind would plan for their entire career to be one long sabbatical? It's utterly preposterous.

I feel in many ways like an intern with a promising future. Put me in coach.

It’s like if Roger Goodell suspended Tom Brady for four regular season games so the QB’s body would be rested and his vital game reactions wouldn’t peak until the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl.

Not that that would ever happen.

The only problem with feeling like a 54-year-old intern is if the failures continue to crest, there’s a very real chance I could wind up back living on the couch with Mom and, boy, will this blog take a dark turn if that ever happens.

So, you see, time is elastic and measuring your life in brute years is pure folly.

Really, the only time years are an accurate unit of life’s measure is when you’ve been convicted of a felony and the judge sentences you to a bunch of them without parole.

Fear not death.

Fear instead the death-bed realization that you never really lived.

Insinuate yourself into enough hearts and you won’t just live to be 100.

You’ll live forever.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

My half-stached birthday

On the new driver’s license, the photo looks like a wooly caterpillar is marching up  my left nostril to lay eggs in a cozy cavity.

It’s just one caterpillar.

Yesterday had the happy coincidence of being both my 54th birthday and the forecast-ordained — three consecutive days of plus-50 degrees — annual beard-shaving day. 

So it combined to make it one of the busiest days I’ve had in nearly 25 years. How busy was it?

I barely made it to my bar stool by 3 p.m.

It wasn’t just any birthday either. It was the quadrennial one where the commonwealth’s Department of Motor Vehicles requires I show up and renew my photo ID.

For those who don’t care about bureaucracy, this is routine. For those prone to vanity about their appearance, it stirs anxiety. For me, it’s like opening night on Broadway for a one-man show that’s destined to run for four years.

It’s performance art.

It’s been that way for 30 years ever since a friend lectured me about how stupid it was to grin for the driver’s license photo.

“Man, the only people who are going to see that are cops and you won’t be smiling next time a cop asks to see it.”

This was a surprising blast of wisdom from a guy who’d spend the next eight years mopping the floors at an Orlando strip joint.

It was a revelation and for my next photo I looked like a guy who’d just emerged from a knife fight with a roving band of soccer hooligans.

Blood-shot eyes, scraggly hair, rat's nest beard — my look had real menace. If I was stopped by the police they would no doubt been dumbfounded at the disparity between me and my picture. Because the real me would be polite, smiling, a model citizen, one who’s vehicle just happened to be weaving past midnight.

In theory, he or she would say, “Sir, I suspect you’ve been drinking, but you’ve so clearly turned your life around since this picture was taken I’m going to give you a break. Be careful driving home and thank you for being such a role model to America’s youth.”

That whimsical scenario never played out. Not once.

But over the years I have shown that and similarly roguish pictures to countless tellers, clerks and bored TSA agents. The story would give them a chuckle, a little mental break from their often dreary duties.

It was them I had in mind last month when I hatched the idea to go half-stached.

I waited ’til the girls had gone and I shaved off all but the left side. It’s the side that’s defiantly dark. It’s very odd. My beard and the right side of my stash are salt ’n’ pepper, but the right side looks like it just jumped off Burt Reynold’s “Smokey & The Bandit” face and time-traveled four decades to land on my lip.

It’s very peculiar and I hope it grows back looking like it belongs on the same team as  the rest of my whiskers.

The guy who took the picture wasn’t phased a bit by my stunt. I admire that. He was very pleasant and chatty, but he wasn’t going to play along. I was a bit disappointed because I had rehearsed a response if he asked why I had only half my mustache.

“Well,” I’d planned to say, “sometimes I have a mustache and sometimes I don’t, so I thought I’d strive for an accurate depiction.”

Val and I met at the Sun Dawg Cafe in Greensburg. She noticed right away and burst out laughing in such a delightful way it made me glad I married a woman who appreciates surprise jolts of goofiness.

Lunch — it was wonderful — went without event until the owner came by at the end and said, “I have to ask: what’s with the ‘stache?”

I explained and she laughed and laughed.

Boy, does it feel good to make a friendly stranger laugh like that.

I spent the rest of the afternoon traipsing me and my half-stache around various bars and enjoying just a great birthday with so many friends.

Shaved the whole thing today. It’s the first time I’ve been wholly clean-shaven in 25 years. 

A buddy said I should keep it through the weekend to let more people see it.

I decline. Some stunts are better like shooting stars. Here and gone.

Besides, keeping it any longer would seem like I’m craving attention.

And I wouldn’t ever want what’s on my face to get in yours.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lab-grown diamonds for Val Day

Lucy was about 6 when we found a pingpong ball-sized chunk of coal during a stroll along the train tracks.

“Here,” I said, “now if you take this and squeeze it really, really hard for a long, long time you can make a diamond.”

She squeezed so hard I feared she was going to make a turd.

I mention this because a story in today’s Washington Post reveals how secretive engineers in suburban DC have mastered a way to create authentic, lab-grown diamonds in just eight jiffy weeks.

The lab-grown diamonds can cost 40 percent less than the natural kind. It’s likely the prices of all diamonds will continue to spiral even more as the technology spreads.

This is good for two reasons.

One, the mining of real diamonds has a depraved history. Ruthless diamond companies have used child labor, untenable extraction methods, and “blood diamonds” have been used to finance wars.

The second and more selfish reason is, man, it’s likely the lab grown diamond trend will drastically deflate the cost of gems and I’ll one day be able to afford a Volkswagen-sized diamond that’ll show the world how much I love my wife.

I suspect I’m like a lot of husbands — wives, too — who especially on this day wish we had a social eloquence to let the world know how grateful we are to have the one we’re with.

So much of it seems so phony. It’s contradictory, but being heartfelt on a day symbolized by hearts ain’t all that easy.

Facebook flattery coming from someone so innately sarcastic as me would feel fraudulent in ways a humongous lab-grown diamond would not.

Ironically, big, gaudy diamonds somehow seem subtle.

I confess to feeling crass envy whenever I see wives of friends weighed down with lavish jewelry.

I wonder where I went wrong that I’m in no position to buy her nice things and, inevitably, I wonder if it was Val, not me, is the one who went wrong.

I remember the nervous excitement I felt taking my meager savings and driving to the Clark Building in Pittsburgh to buy her a humble engagement ring. I was working for peasant wages at the newspaper then and figured I’d one day be able to trade it in for something more dazzling.

Little did either of us realize then, but 20 years later I’d be in a position where peasant wages were aspirational.

She eschews materialism and I can’t afford to buy her nice stuff so I guess in that way at least we’re the perfect couple.

I wish I was the perfect husband, the perfect father … a white Barack Obama who, incidentally, hasn’t done a solid day’s work since January 20th either.

Maybe one day I’ll have the means to shower my wife with the things she deserves 

Having said that, I realize it’s going to take a lot of lab work for me to become that kind of husband.

More than I have time for today.

If you’re a husband feeling today like I do, sad that you can’t splurge on an eye-popping diamond, do your best and swear you’re trying to do better.

And take heart.

You can always, no matter how meager your means, offer a tender kiss, a gentle hug.

Dazzling things sometimes result when you start with a little squeeze.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Which could you live without? TV or people? Survey says...

It could have been any of one thousand small talk conversations I’ve had with my senile 84-year-old mother as we putzed around town. I asked her what she did the night before.

“I watched TV.”

Any plans for the rest of the day?

“I’ll watch TV.”

You really like watching TV, don’t you, Mom?

“Oh, I don’t know what I’d do without it. I have it on all the time.”

Her gushing affirmation made me decide to up the ante. I gave her what I thought was a softball question: 

What would she rather have: A life with no TV or a life with no people?

I guess I thought she’d immediately respond, oh, I couldn’t live without people, especially my family and you, my darling son, the one who sees to all my needs and brings so much warmth and joy to my days.


She actually paused and engaged in what for her was deep thought. I’d puzzled her. I wonder if in her dementia-addled mind she was thinking, “My son, Chris? Or Steve Harvey? Chris? Steve Harvey?”

Her consideration was long enough that it had the drama of a game show contestant playing chicken with the buzzer.

She finally said, “I need people in my life. I’d choose people over TV.”

She lies.

I know if push came to shove, she’d take TV.

Her dementia is such that she still lives independently, but with daily assists and visits from either Val or me. Yesterday at lunch she couldn’t recall she’d just an hour before been with me to church, but in at least one way her mind is sharp.

She’d be lost without TV and basic cable.

Who wouldn’t?

Be honest, at some point today someone you know is going to do or post on social media something that is going to make you absolutely hate people. And at some other point today you’re going to find yourself looking forward to watching something on TV.

It’s been that way since October 3, 1960.

I choose that obscure date after a conversation with a friend who was sharing with me his morning tread mill viewing habits. He said he watches the local news for sports and weather, maybe some stock updates.

No political bickering?

“I used to do that, but it was too upsetting. Now, I make sure I start every day off with a little visit to Mayberry.”

Ah, yes, “The Andy Griffith Show.” One of my all-time favorites. 
The offbeat characters are warm, engaging and in the end accepting of one another’s human short-comings.

I know, it’s so unrealistic.

Maybe that’s why it’s becoming so heirloom appealing. 

Who do you know who’s as kind and wise as Sheriff Taylor? He’s a real uplifting role model.

And when the scary headlines of each mounting hour come crashing into your brain, he’s right there on your DVR.

Just in the past few days, we enjoyed watching the “Walking Dead” season premier, “SNL,” “black-ish,” “Gravity Falls,” and various movies and sporting events. None of it was upsetting to my sunny disposition — and “Walking Dead” is about the zombie apocalypse!

Compare that to our daily dealings with our fellow man. Surly shoppers at the grocery store, rampant road ragers on the way home. Worse, the institutions designed to bring us together are tearing us apart. I’m looking right at you, Facebook.

Incivility, close-mindedness, petty hatreds — Facebook helps us mainline what reasonable humans used to keep at arm’s length.

Extended families offer little respite. They’re God’s way of proving we’re incapable of helping even the ones we love the very most.

Our oldest daughter has previously said she one day hopes to have a big family.

“What you really mean,” I corrected, “is you want to select who’s in your family.”

People or TV?

It’s a no-brainer — and please don’t take that as a subtle shot at beloved dementia patients.

TV is getting better and better while people are behaving worse and worse. That makes TV superior to people.

It’ll be like that until changing minds is as easy as changing channels.

Related …

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sentimental recollections of our home's 10-year anniversary

Ten years ago today there was an inch of ice glazing about a foot of snow, crunchy conditions the kids loved and I feared. I was concerned I’d slip on the ice and pulverize a liquor box of plates or heirloom sippy cups.

You might wonder just how I remember the conditions so clearly.

Ten years ago today was moving day.

After 15 years of living in a cozy little “starter” house — paid it off in 12 — our new baby meant we needed bigger digs. We weighed our options. Untethered occupationally, we could move our family any where we wanted.

New York was an option. I had recently been offered a senior editor position with Glamour magazine. It was very odd because the job description included three words — senior/editor/glamour — I never dreamed would apply to me.

I declined.

With the whole world at our feet, we found a place 1.1 miles away up the hill. We love Latrobe (Baggaley Elementary in particular)  and had no intention of straying.

Val found a little split level up in the woods. It had two acres and a roaring creek out back that even today always makes me wish I was 8 again. She asked me to take a look.

The homeowners were selling it themselves. The wife met me at the door and took me down to the basement to introduce me to her husband. He was sitting at a bar watching college football. There was a fire in the fireplace that equaled in warmth his friendly greeting. He asked if I liked beer.

I told him I did.

Two hours later, I hadn’t seen any more of the house and had momentarily forgotten the reason I was there.

Oh, yeah … 

We’ll take it!

I make a big deal out of the anniversaries and birthdays involving inanimate objects.

I started doing when the guy who installed our hot water heater wrote “3-3-11” on the front where I can see it every time I stroll past. Our water heater is a Pisces.

Tonight, I’ll bring out a cake and we’ll sing Happy Birthday to the house. And I’ll ask its occupants to list three things they’ll most remember about the house from the past 10 years, a sensible request they’ll viciously mock then ignore.

It’s a pity. It’d be a great tribute to a place so full of fun and happiness the girls express reluctance to go out on the weekends.

So I’ll share with you my list, but because I love the place so much and it’s my blog my list’ll be closer to three dozen.

I’ll remember sitting by the fire with family in winter, on the porch in summer and reading baby books in bed with the little cuddlers.

I’ll remember the times there were mice in the pantry, stinkbugs on the ceilings and bears in the trees. I’ll remember the cutthroat pingpong matches in the garage, the chaotic renovations and the night Val and I stayed up ’til 3 a.m. when we got instantly hooked on “Breaking Bad.”

I’ll forever treasure the crooked Sharpie lines on the basement door jamb that mark the growth spurts of the birthday girls. I’ll remember the hammock, the trampoline and the day I nearly fell out of the big oak when I was putting up the tire swing. I’ll remember waiting for the school bus and giggly dinner conversation around the cramped kitchen table. I’ll remember stringing popcorn for the Christmas trees, hiding Easter eggs, and the joyful Thanksgiving dinners where my thankfulness came from deep in my heart. I’ll remember the serene sound of Mommy practicing church hymns on the basement organ so she'd be flawless again for the Sunday services.

I’ll remember the sound the crib made when the girls started to rattle awake, all the music we played, and the movies we watched. I have happy memories of explaining baseball to the girls. I’ll remember the night the 140-foot poplar came crashing down and just missed taking out the living room.

The ’10 snowfall that was so massive it marooned us for nearly a week is something I won’t forget. I’ll remember a thousand little games and jokes we played on one another and years from now they’ll make me smile in traffic at the surprise recollection.

Houses are like hookers in that they don’t become yours simply because you pay for them.

These things take time. Given enough of it, combined with ample love and laughter, and the most humble home can become a memory mansion.

I’ll be 54 next week, an age when it’s fair to speculate where I’ll be when I croak. Will it be inside this house? 

I have no idea.

But I’m glad that 10 years ago today Val and I took steps that’ll ensure everyone will know where I truly lived.

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