May We All Get To Heaven Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead

St. Patricks Day Parade, Springfield, Mo. 2014

St. Patricks Day Parade, Springfield, Mo. 2014

This story ends with children in a bar on a school night. It begins in a much more benign fashion, though. Also, bagpipes play a central role. Outside of a grizzly crime involving lottery scams, one armed pimps and an illegal chinchilla fighting ring, it really has it all.

St. Patricks Day isn’t one of rich tradition around the Ozarks. If it were possible to have a national holiday centered around stock car racing, fishing and hunting and methamphetamine production, we would be the epicenter of it all. Sadly enough, no such thing exists. With this glaringly bold lack of cultural history, a couple of firefighters I work with got together and decided that Southwest Missouri was in need of a service pipe and drum corps to not only recognize and be a part of firefighter AND Celtic tradition, but to be available for use at local and regional funeral services for veteran and service members of the area. So two talented musicians and two of us who like to play without much talent formed a pipe and drum corps over beers one night. The lack of interest from our department administration led us to inquire with our local union if they’d like us to play under their banner. They enthusiastically gave us the thumbs up and some financial support. A local Irish-themed bar got on board with us as well, and thus Firefighters Local 152 Pipe & Drum Corps was born. And three guys who never played a note of bagpipe music in their life began to try to learn a foreign, beautiful and horrific instrument, while the already-trained drummer just looked on in bemused terror.

For the better part of the next year, our group mostly got together at events where men in kilts seemed to make sense, drank some beer and raised minor hell, while not engaging TOO much in the actual art of practicing, save for one guy who took it seriously. Fast forward to this year. At some point, we were going to have to actually PLAY bagpipes as the pipe and drum corps entries in parades. This brings us to the point we are today. We’re getting better, slowly, adding and losing members here and there. The one guy who practiced is pretty damn good, my other buddy and I are actually learning what we need to learn and the drummer still laughs at us. But as we marched two miles in the St. Patrick’s Day parade this year, I felt a change. A real change. People were cheering. It turns out that they LIKE this tradition. And, like all things new, you have no idea if there will be acceptance, or more often, a rejection of the unknown. Rejection is so much easier, really.

I looked back at the fire engine following us in the parade, my kids riding up top and throwing candy at the crowd and felt something I’ve not felt in a long, long time. A brief surge of pride took me by surprise as I caught them watching us. A half dozen of us wannabe musicians out there, wailing away in kilts and the people were loving every minute of it. As we rounded the corner of the city square, the noise drowned out even our pipes, and I let myself get high on the adrenaline of the rush. To see something grow out of an idea four guys had over some lofty beer-fueled ambitions all the way into strangers roaring for more gave me the spark that’s been missing for so long. We walked that last quarter mile high as kites on the energy, all of us beaming with childish joy, my kids seeing their dad as happy as I hope they remember he was capable of being at one time.

The next day, the boys still at my house, it was decided we would play at the local pub that has sponsored us from the get-go. I was skeptical since it was a school night, and after all, the pub derives it’s business primarily as a bar, if we’re being perfectly honest. But again, it was the actual St. Patrick’s Day, and if you’re going to help create tradition, why not involve your children in the process, let them see that which Dad holds near and dear? I rationalized that I’d bring them for one set, then we’d head home as the rest of the band hit downtown for a night of spontaneous piping and drumming at local establishments.

As I was unpacking the pipes at the downtown venue, still debating on whether or not I would be getting a Dad of the Year award for dragging my kids out to a pub to, again, hear their old man attempting to indulge a musical passion that was bringing life back into my life, my youngest unknowingly tipped the scales with this simple statement:

“Hey, Dad….when I grow up, can I play too?”

Don’t wait that long, son. How about we start a new tradition in this family right now?

We might do it at home, though. I don’t think I can justify bringing you to a bar on a school night more than once.

The future of our chaotic endeavor?

The future of our chaotic endeavor?

Vaarwel Mijn Geliefde Vader

My Father As A Young Man

My Father As A Young Man

I should be happy that you’ve been released from the demons of this life that haunted you for so long. I should feel a burden lifted from my shoulders that your long and arduous journey is done. In my mind you left this world, my world, years ago, one of your medical conditions prompting a journey home for me to prepare our goodbyes. But you held on, stubbornly for several more years. My earliest memories of us involve feeling so bonded and loyal to you, that the slightest disapproving glance or brush off would send me into a tailspin of guilt and shame. I wanted nothing more than your loving approval, and when granted, it was cherished more than the affection of anyone else in my world. And that approval hung in the balance of a lifetime of uncertainty. Your love was one of condition, and it came at a high cost. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized the price you’d paid for a tragic childhood. A casualty of World War II, you were trapped in a cycle of pain and arrested development, losing your own father at such a young age, cast about in post-war Indonesia with no ties to bind you to anyone save your siblings. You survived, and for the briefest glimpses of time, you even thrived. Flashes of who you truly were, the hilarious man behind the mustache who smelled of gin, Merit cigarettes and Brut cologne, gave me hope that someday we’d transcend all of the chaos to have an honest relationship with one another. I spent a lifetime longing for it.

But if anyone in this life typified a beautiful mess, it was you, Father. You gave me the capability to live a passionate life, and for that I am eternally grateful. We have to touch the stove before we’ll trust that it’ll burn us, and this, too, comes at great cost. You lived a life characterized by survival against the odds, and you were capable of so much. You gave me a love for steam locomotives, a curiosity to tear things apart to see what makes them tick, a sense of humor to make others laugh when I was crying on the inside. But mostly, I just wanted my dad. I wanted the Dad who built Legos with me, who, as a referee, red-carded me in one of my early soccer games, who insisted on taking me on his motorcycle to hit the open road, who refused to put on pants when we had company, who told me that he didn’t care if I wanted to be a garbage man in this life, but if that was going to be the case that I better be the best damn garbage man I could be. I loved, feared and loathed you, sometimes in equal measure. Your stories were legendary bullshit, getting furious with us when we questioned whether or not Pink Floyd was really a Dutch band, or whether or not you hung out with Haile Selassie or were a tank commander at one time. It didn’t matter, you were the teller of tales, often times half-nude and half-crocked, but always full to the brim with passion and vigor. You were a dog-whisperer long before some guy made that sort of thing famous on television; children and animals of all types were calmed by your demeanor, even as adults found you charming and baffling all at once. Your temper was fueled with glorious, righteous rage, and all of your children feared it, not because of any sort of physical manifestation, but a deep seated fear of disappointing you and earning your infamous cold shoulder.

Your children are now scattered around this country, with a brother and sister I’ve never even met, and knowing only some of your seven wives. You were a family man in the sense that no matter the situation, you boldly declared that blood was thicker than all else in this world. Each of your boys has this ingrained upon us, imprinted for a lifetime, allowing us to be bound to one another in ways that can never be undone. Damn the torpedoes of society’s thoughts, you lived life on your own uncompromising terms, pissing off who it may. And, dammit, through it all I have loved you as only a son can for his father. No matter the hurts we visited upon one another, the ties that bound us were set from the moment you brought me into this life. You will never know how much I’ve truly loved you, Father, and now that you’ve gone, I’ll never again hear your gravelly voice, accent still so thick after half a century in this country, telling me that you, too love me.

I can’t say your leaving has come too shockingly; a lifetime love affair with life’s vices cannot be unaccounted for, and in the end, the toll was great upon your body, as it would be for any of us. But unshockingly or not, I was not prepared properly. Are we ever? Our last conversation ended with telling one another that we loved each other, and I cannot ask for more than that. I can only hope that whatever peace you spent a lifetime chasing has finally come to you, Father. Please rest well. And rest knowing that throughout this life your son has loved you more than I could ever express. Know that I will love you for the rest of my years, that I will tell your tale faithfully if not a little embellished for effect, but it will be told with laughter so that the very best of you is remembered. I already miss you so very much, but I’m comforted with the knowledge that your struggles have come to an end at last.

Farewell, mijn geliefde vader. I love you.

Across Generations: My Father with my oldest son

Across Generations: My Father with my oldest son

Farewell, Sir.

The Poster That Adorned Their Trailer

Farmer Humor

When the phone call arrives from my mother on a weekday morning, the news is seldom good.

“Uli, it’s Mom….” her voice trailing off, with a muted sob.

“What is it Ma? What’s going on?” 

“Well, the news is bad; Grandpa died this morning.” 

At the firehouse, after all that has transpired this year, it seems that the final straw comes days before Christmas arrives, and two years to the week after my Grandmother herself took leave of this world. I wrote an essay about my time with Grandpa in the car on the way to her service (read it here), and in truth half expected to return to California shortly after her passing to attend a service for him; I just couldn’t imagine my Grandfather without the company of his soul mate.

But persist he did, and in a character that was purely his, full of stubborn will and the inability to give up on anything. For 96 years, Paul Enns left his mark on this earth, and he left on his own terms. He would have it no other way. His was a generation of work; it was a trait he passed on to my stepfather, that all of the world’s ills could be solved if they would just add a few more hours to the day to get more work done. As a boy of thirteen, I wanted to join my friends out on the water when the surf was right, but Grandpa had employed me to remove the ice plant from his hillside at the rate of $3.75/hr. and he told me he wasn’t interested in the surf conditions in the least, he’d hired me, and if I wanted his respect, I’d finish the job. I grumbled under my breath, and he monitored me from inside the house, but I finished, not because I wanted to but because he made me earn it. I was angry at him for it, but feared his disapproval AND the cane he wielded like some sort of samurai senior citizen, so I held my tongue.

Later that week on an evening at my grandparents home, my stepdad was coming down on me for some sort of teenage stupidity, when, from his recliner my Grandfather’s voice boomed out “THAT’S ENOUGH, ROBERT. LEAVE THE BOY ALONE.” It was one of the few times I would ever witness my stepdad back down from anything, and in that moment, Grandpa won the loyalty and heart of a sullen and cocky teenager. I looked over at him, and he winked. Earn his respect by pulling ice plant, and he’d defend you if you needed it. My stepdad sat back down, dumbfounded and transported back to his own youth, no doubt, his own father in full control of the situation.

In later years, as time took it’s unrelenting toll on the body, his voice softened, his back stooped and confusion seemed to become a constant companion. But his mind was still sharp in so many ways. He still loved watching the L.A. Lakers play, a bizarre pastime for a family of farmers out in Bakersfield, but if he liked it, then he had his reasons. He didn’t need to share them with you. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, and each of his seven children grew up to be thoughtful and reflective in their own right, all fired with the will and nerve of both my Grandmother and Grandfather. They weren’t flashy, and they weren’t prone to bouts of hilarity, but they were SOLID. Like the tide, like the heat of a San Joaquin Valley summer, like their undying devotion to Ronald Reagan, they had a metered and consistent way about them that assured me in my most troubled of times. They loved and accepted me as family, a debt for which I will never be able to repay, but one that binds me to the Enns family for eternity.

I could use his strength now. My world has come unwound in a few short years. A co-worker gets diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer and I worry about losing my friend. A close friend and coworker lost his father unexpectedly, and as he casts about for answers, my heart aches for the sorrow he endures daily. Another man now takes my children and ex-wife to see the Christmas lights in Branson, and two years after our separation, it still hurts, and badly. A bout with some minor flesh eating bacteria kicks me off the fire truck on Thanksgiving Day and I’m sent home, alone, to think about all of it and it’s not good. Drinking with the dog hardly makes up for the ache in my soul. I miss my family, scattered around this country, close but not so close that we spend the holidays together. At nearly forty years old, little seems to make sense in the grand scheme when it takes all I have emotionally, financially and mentally to get up in the morning and face reality. Self loathing comes easy, and I have to stare long and hard at my children as they sleep in their beds in order to muster up the courage and will to plow forward with one of my chins held up. I wish Grandpa could dispense some of his advice from his recliner to me right about now, because it would bring calm.

I know what he would say; it wouldn’t be much, but he’d likely point to a shovel and some ice plant on his hillside and tell me to get to work. He knew the value of hard work and the sense of self-esteem it could render. He knew what the soul needs can often be found in the sweat of toil and the callouses on your hands.

Farewell, Grandpa. Your work is done. I know it irks you that there weren’t just a few more hours to pull that damn ice plant, but your lessons did not fall on deaf ears. When I need your counsel, it will be found in work, it will be found in family and it will be found in a job done right. I’m grateful for your love and acceptance into your family, and I’m proud to be your grandson. Rest well, sir…..you’ve earned it.

A Note Of Thanks

Do you know what a soldier is, young man? He’s the chap who makes it possible for civilised folk to despise war.- Allan Massie

The Best Boys

The Brothers Best

Since the concept was introduced by President Wilson in 1919 and made official in 1938, November 11th has held a sacred place in our national hearts as a date to honor our military veterans. Armistice Day has gone through it’s share of political shape-shifting over the years, but the intent has remained true, and whatever your ideology, the notion of gratitude is one that should lie at the heart of the day, and here’s why:

To volunteer in the armed forces (or to have been conscripted, once upon a time), is to willingly give up control of your life to Uncle Sam so that people like me can go about our ordinary struggles, ignorant of the threats that those who would wish us harm for whatever reason. We take for granted that foreign invasion on our soil won’t be tolerated lightly, that our fellow Americans will be protected by those who are armed, trained and put directly into harm’s way, and we don’t give it a thought. These men and women, often too young to enjoy a cold beer in a tavern, will be shipped away to a distant and hostile land, and often put their own lives on the line for reasons that are unknown to even them. What an amazing thing to answer such a demand.

I realize it’s simplistic to believe that each member of our armed forces has signed up for selfless sacrifice and duty to country. The reasons for joining are as varied as the people who do and, like the fire service, I’m reasonably sure there are a fair share of dirtbags who are in the system for whatever reason, but it really doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to single out one particular branch of the military, I’m not trying to delve into any politics, I’m just trying to say thank you.

So, thank you, all the of the military people in my life I’ve had the honor of knowing, from my brothers Davis, Alan & Mat (pictured above), to the numerous members of my fire department family with a military background to the friends I’ve made all along the way. I can say this for each and every one of them: they’ve made a choice at some point in their life to surrender their own freedoms and dreams for the greater good, sometimes at such personal cost that they never got to come home to enjoy their own freedom. Those that do are affected in ways that I’ll never fully understand, for I haven’t seen the things they’ve had to; I know that the fire service opens your eyes to things that you wish you could un-see, but unfortunately, that’s the nature of this life. What some of our vets have had to endure is beyond my comprehension (read an article by my brother Mat on dealing with PTSD here), but at the end of this very important day, I hope he and his fellow soldiers know that in our little corner of this world, my boys and I are so very grateful for their service. Our thanks as a nation needs to go beyond a day, without a doubt, but on this day set aside to honor you, please accept the respect and gratitude from those who you’ve served and continue to protect.

Thank you.

Rust & Redemption

Hot chocolate, cold hockey fans and time well spent

Hot chocolate, cold hockey fans and time well spent

Another in a long line of disappointments made this a Monday worthy of any number of cliches about Mondays. When we have troubles, they seem to compound rapidly and that uncomfortable sense of dancing in quicksand quickly tightens it’s grip with each misstep made. That these missteps take place on Mondays with an alarming frequency makes me worry that my life is somehow imitating a Garfield comic strip; fitting and depressing all at once.

I opened the toolbox, the last of the remnants of my life before, where I kept what tools I could salvage from my old shop. The shop had had 2000′ square feet of space, a veritable man’s cave of men’s caves, a place where welding and woodwork and shenanigans centered around a woodburning stove occurred. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mine, a place of refuge and creativity and clutter. Now, outside of a pallet’s worth of tablesaws and various tools stuffed into the moonshine plant where I work a little, all that I had left was crammed into this Toyota pickup toolbox, a few power tools and straps and wrenches, anything I might need in a pinch. As the toolbox opened, the smell was too familiar, the musty stench of some grandmother’s basement assaulting the senses. Humidity and unusual rainstorms over the summer had wreaked havoc on my little collection. A patina of rust settled on the tools and broke my heart in one swift motion. The moonshine boss was at a loss as to why I was so upset, but he couldn’t relate to the fact that these were the tools I had had for over a decade, long before my marriage and its collapse, a connection I had to self-reliance and a former family life, before chaos ruled. And now, that, too, was rusting away before me.

When I glanced down after bashing my head into the hood of my truck out of frustration, I noticed that my vehicle inspection tags were overdue, which led me to look at the license plate, which told on me as well. I was out of compliance, by many months. More blood would have to be pulled from the stone. I began to feel that old tension, anger and sadness well up in me, all too familiar companions. Payday was two days away, and our toilet paper supply was getting perilously low, and insurance agencies wanted their payments and the boys want books from the book fair, and the number of directions in which we get yanked seems endless, limited only by the number of people who want a share of your hide.

It reminds me of that far off look that the homeless junkies give us when we arrive to provide medical attention; I get that. Their eyes are wandering off to a place with less pain or need or insanity, and we’re all a lot closer to them than we think. I muttered to myself through another round of laundry and dishes and homework checking, wondering when the day would be done with me. I hear a tearing noise and look up to see that my youngest Heathen has ripped the dog’s play toy, accidentally, in a classic game of tug-of-war with the hound. This brings my mind to the brink of war with itself. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal. The boy then trundles up to his bed to await the inevitable lecture about how wasteful we’re all being. While waiting, his foot kicks the blinds next to the window off their perch and he loses his mind.

I come boiling into his room, the steam valves of my mind long popped. I can’t take this, another hit to what little order is left in my world. He’s bawling, I’m biting my lip I’m so upset, not wanting to let the torrent of colorful phrasing escape past my jaws. He’s quivering and crying under his comforter, sure that he’s committed the gravest of sins in our household. I tell him, softly, to come join me in the living room. This only freaks him out more.

I can’t do this anymore today. I’m upset and broken down and he’s convinced he’s probably going to prison after being grounded for life. He sits on the couch and I wave him over to my lap and I sense the fear in his eyes. He knows he’s into terrifying territory and is unsure of what’s coming next. He proceeds to lay down on my lap, face down, puzzling me.

“What are you doing, son?”

“Getting ready to take a spanking, Dad. I deserve one.”

Tears well up in both of our eyes. I had had no intention of going down that route, I had decided much earlier that what we both needed more than anything was to hug this one out. I told him as much and he exploded in sobs, apologizing like he’d murdered a drifter, arms around my neck, relief washing over him to the point he was gripping me tighter than I’d experienced in a long time. He had no idea that I needed that hug from my boy every bit as much as he needed to know that I was still there for him, still on his team, no matter the trouble on his plate. He didn’t need lectures or discipline or disappointment; he needed the kind of unconditional love that comes from deep within the soul of a parent, the kind that never gives up. It’s so easy to want to give up on so many facets of our lives, and when we’re overwhelmed it often seems like the only choice, but our kids? That love never ends, there are truly no boundaries. More overwhelming than the burden of our own choices is the capacity for love that we have for our children, and, given the chance, that they will have for us. What a precious, beautiful gift, and one for which we hardly qualify. This is my redemption, the quiet example of grace wrapped in the presence of my own children. Tears of my own gratitude escape me and mingle freely with his as the scared son is comforted back to a safe haven in my arms. No matter how many times I tell them, he can’t truly fathom that he and his brother are the single greatest aspect of my life, gifts for which I can never be thankful enough.

He faced me to face the consequences of his actions, an act that required more courage than most of us, myself included, can do with any measure of comfort. His ability to do this, at age 8, gives me hope that perhaps the right things are getting passed on to him. I stumble, my license plates expire and my tools rust due to weather and thoughtless neglect, but I’m given a generous helping of what’s still right in my world every time my boys and I face this world together. How very priceless, their presence in my life and in this world. I can only hope they never are at a loss to know in their hearts the boundless love a father has for his sons.

 

Monotypes In A Time Of Stereo

"I'll be your pilot." -Manliest Pilot Ever

“I’ll be your pilot.”
-Manliest Pilot Ever

When the mood strikes, there is little more appealing to me than a basket full of garlic chicken wings; it’s a decision once made that I regret well into the next day, when vampires and humans alike keep a minimum six foot radius away, the thrill of the parmesan long gone and replaced by hair curling halitosis. A tall cold beer and the company of a good friend are the perfect side dishes to this culinary delight, and once my curiosity is piqued, nothing will do until I start a savage gastro-affair with these drumsticks.

So it was that I got ahold of the Outlaw Trucker and we convened upon one of our towns more renowned wingeries, which happens to be located between a health food store and a “classy” strip club housed in a giant pink building. Such is the urban planning here in a mid-size, midwestern town; what we lack in form, we celebrate in function. I’ve never seen strippers in the wing place, and I’ve never been into the health food store, so clearly the players are respecting the boundaries of class and station.

Because I’m friends with people who clearly have impeccable taste, it came as no surprise that upon entering said establishment, I found another fireman and his wife, a  nurse, sharing a large table with other nursing staff getting off duty and all with a hankering for wings while wearing scrubs. An impromptu gathering got going, and as is my habit, I began an inquisition of my newfound friends: who are you? how do you feel about bagpipe music? do you have any stickers in the back window of your vehicle, and what are they representing? what’s your name? As a small puddle of anticipatory drool hit the table after placing my order of a dozen delights in whiskey sauce and honey mustard, I hid the inner Pavlov’s dog and sipped a tall frosty glass of mental relaxant, and turned my gaze across the table. The poor soul occupying that seat was, apparently, the husband of one of this band of nurses, and I say “poor” because he had the misfortune of crossing my radar. He had a large bushy beard, a trucker-style ball cap and was relatively quiet. I played a little game in my mind, “what does THAT guy do for a living?” The usual stereotypes came to bear: a delivery driver for a lumber yard; an IT guy for a local coffee & bike store/hipster repository; night manager of the frozen foods section at Sam’s Club; heir to a tire and wheel shop legacy; fly fishing gear vendor or floatation device sales rep at Bass Pro. The list goes on and on, and it’s a favorite game of mine to play at airports. I devise entire intricate and complicated backstories for people I’ll never meet, trying to parse out what it is they’re running to and from, and in all likelihood I’m probably never even close to accurate. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone has a story, and if I’m too shy to ask them about it, I’ll just make it up in my mind.

Like many people are wont to do, I tend to pigeonhole people based on appearance and first impressions. Years ago, while working at a quarry, I was convinced the furious mechanic couldn’t speak a lick of English since his name was Len Bjornson and his preferred method of communication was flying the middle finger at everyone he met. He went on to become one of my closest friends, with amazing insight into the human condition and a capacity for thoughtful conversation about a wide range of topics; he also just happened to have a zen-like mechanical aptitude and a low tolerance for ignorant co-workers.

SO I asked my bearded dinner companion, who was answering to the name “Buddy”, what his story was, what HE did for a living, eager to prove my assumptions wrong. And wrong I was. Turns out, the guy is a helicopter pilot, and when he told me this, my first instinct was to say “yeah, and I’m just an astronaut with an affinity for delicious wings.” I’m glad I didn’t. Although he looked too young to be flying medical patients from field to hospital, and he certainly didn’t have the military look I usually associate with Med-Evac pilots, it turns out he wasn’t bullshitting me in the least. He had approached the long and taxing path towards this career as one might a college degree, building hours and working off the Gulf to eventually return close to home, doing what it was he loves. I’ve always harbored a fantasy of becoming a pilot, having taken ground school and logging some hours after pissing away any chances of flying in the military in my younger years. He had my attention. He had also triggered my rarely-employed laser beam of focus that I reserve for subjects of great interest.

By the time my wings were mere bones piling up on the plate, I’d peppered this poor bastard with every sort of question relating to his field I could think of; he claimed to be glad to talk about it. As he put it: “you know how you can tell if a pilot is in the room? He’ll tell you.” He was gracious and informative and he set my mind reeling with possibilities for life after the fire service. He ignited the curious, wandering spirit in me that has too long been dormant as a career and fatherhood have taken priority. And take priority they should, but we can all fixate a little on life’s next chapters, for that is what keeps us curious, wonderful people. I can’t fathom a life post-fire service that hinges on sitting still any longer. There are places to explore, people to meet and adventures to experience, both with my boys and on my own. Buddy had unwittingly kicked over my pail of complacence with this life, and got me to wonder about spending time in the skies in a later segment of this crazy go-round. Maybe I could do it. Why not? The boys will be grown, there are no ties to this town at that point, so why not explore new avenues? Flight school in mid-life. I can’t stop thinking about it. When I first decided to become a career firefighter, I was told by everyone that the obstacles to achieving that kind of job were such that I should forget it. I refused to listen. I wanted to be a full time fireman and I’ve never been able to stare at life’s hurdles and just quit the race. Too dumb to take the advice of the masses, I forged a path into the greatest career I could have imagined, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. The only one who says with any authority that you can’t is you. Maybe I should say I can, again. I can live another dream. I can eat garlic parmesan wings if I want to, dammit.

All that, unfurled over a dinner with a relative stranger.

You never know when or where your own personal well of excitement can be stirred again, like kids on the playground. Some of us never grow up and we decide to drive fire trucks or become unemployed bluegrass musicians or anti-social bulldozer mechanics, tinkering with human souls. I’m not really sure what happened back there; all that I’m sure of is that something made me cast my eyes beyond the horizon again and smile like that for the first time in such a very long time. I’d like to think that the wings had something to do with it. In fact, I’m almost sure of it.

Something Strange Afoot

ShamSHAME! POW!

ShamSHAME! POW!

Like most people in these clinically depressed economic times, I’m willing to do pretty much anything for a buck, as long as I get to keep 78% of my clothes on and there is nothing illegal about it. Shame? Shame has no place when you’re managing a double-digit bank account and kids with a fancy-macaroni-and-cheese habit to support. As a consequence, I work not only for the fire department, I work in a (very legal, thankyouverymuch) moonshine and spirits plant, I pick up handyman gigs despite not being THAT handy and other assorted odd jobs.

One such gig I came across as a result of filming PSA’s for breast cancer awareness was more odd than most. I was asked if I wanted to be a “fire service professional” in locally produced infomercials on occasion. Seemed less than freaky, albeit cheesy, but hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and it’s not as if I’m exactly threatening my non-existent brand by doing some low-rent acting. So, last summer we made a spot out in the middle of nowhere, trying to convince people that a certain kitchen safety device would, indeed, be a useful tool, since according to the National Fire Protection Association, “cooking is the leading cause of home structure fires and home fire injuries.” Trying so hard NOT to look like a Will Ferrell spoof, I did what they asked me and got a handy little check for a few hours work.

This is probably how hookers feel, at first.

Fast forward to now, where the specter of my “acting work” is limited to late night viewings in Germany, where I like to picture I am kind of like the Hasselhoff of early morning infomercials. Without hearing from the production company for a while, it seemed like that may have been a one-time thing; that’s probably for the best. If my co-workers get wind of this, I’ll never hear the end of it. And then, I get a random call informing me that there is another need for a firefighter in an infomercial, it’s easy work, are you interested? Of course I am, I respond, as I run the coffee maker through the beans a second time to economically wring out another cup.

“Ok”, they say, “this one is going to get a little weird.”

And THIS is is how it must feel when hookers make the transition from streetwalking to making porn.

“Yeah, I’m not into weird stuff”, I reply, leery of what that might entail.

“No, no, nothing like that. This is a foot care product that we’re shooting and we need someone like a firefighter who works on their feet to endorse the product. It’s simple. We’ll just take some video of you cleaning your feet, we’ll send you off to get a professional pedicure and then take some after-shots as well as some B-roll of you in uniform and a testimonial.”

And THIS is how it must feel when porn stars are told they’re going to be in foot-fetish movies.

I glance at my utility bill, then to my bare feet, and then to my bank statement and take all of 3.5 seconds to reply, with an an ever-increasing lack of shame…

“Sure. When do you want to do this thing?”

And THAT is how I found the lengths to which I’ll go for fancy macaroni and cheese for my kids.

 

 

Hello. It’s Not Me You’re Looking Fo’.

what could possibly go wrong? (photo courtesy someone on Tumblr)

what could possibly go wrong?
(photo courtesy someone on Tumblr)

Hi. I’ve missed you. I’ve been gone a while. And, I’ve missed me, too. Not in the vapid narcissistic ways you’ve come to expect, but in that I’ve been sort of wandering and sort of lost. In that time of being lost, I’ve neglected you. And, I’ve neglected me. Not in the scraggly beard and overall lack of personal hygiene kind of neglect you normally associate with the smell of cat urine but, neglect nonetheless.

Like you, I’m trying. I’m trying to be a good dad. Trying to be a good citizen and employee and friend and neighbor.  Trying to kickstart my reasons for getting up in the morning. Trying to hurt less, both mentally and in terms of those back pains, when the alarm clock goes off in the morning for another round in the grinder. I want to face the day with a smile, not a grimace. I want to see the beauty again in the things I used to, like steam locomotives and musicians playing in unison in a dive-bar, their notes in perfect time. I see the crags and lines in my face in the mirror in the morning and realize, again, no one is ever going to refer to me as a young man with potential ahead of me. The prime has past, dammit. We gag on our morning breath, then contribute to the hurricane of halitosis with the simple act of pressing the “brew” button each morning, cursing the Lego piece that has lodged itself in our foot.

If insanity is defined, loosely, on doing the same thing over and again while expecting different results, then, yes, I guess we’re all a little insane. When the prospect of change in our lives is faced, though, the unknown of it all can nudge us into making the same, insane, decisions rather jumping off the rocks and hoping the water is deep enough. And so, grown-assed men let fear rule their lives, worried that change may kill them, worried what people are saying about them, worried that they’re just not doing it right.

I’m one of those men. I stand at the precipice of great opportunity in my life, and yet I find myself clinging to the ledge, looking over my shoulder and wondering how I could have ended up where I have. I have boys that need my attention, a career that demands my time and bills that refuse neglect, and these are all excuses for me to meekly grasp onto wisps of my past, hoping that one day I wake up and it all makes sense again. It is only going to make sense, though, if I define what sense I accept into my life. I’m not married. I’m likely not going to marry any time soon. I’m a single dad. I barely earn enough scratch to keep the wolves at bay, and it has cost me a lot to live within my means….but I’m lucky.

I’m lucky I have a job and one of which I can be proud.  I’m lucky I have two boys who need their dad, still. I’m lucky I have my (albeit, aging) health. So lucky. I’m fortunate my ex-wife hasn’t firebombed my car. Time to acknowledge these good, so good, aspects of my life and then……and this is important…..forge forward.

To borrow from the cliche that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, I need to stop living in fear of change and rejection. True to human nature across the span of time, the haters are fully dedicated to hating others in this world, their vitriol coming from a place of their own worries and sorrows. I know….I tend to engage in the fine art of hateful snark more often than I’d like to admit. It’s a crappy behavior, really, and I need to knock it off; the bitter old crank is the one trapped within their own prison, and it’s a lonely place there.

So let’s get back together, you and I. I’ll take some steps to write to you, about us, about this crazy life, and about new adventures we can take. I’ll get back to nurturing the small, good things in my life, and I hope you are around for it. Just don’t try and catch a glimpse of me in the morning mirror, I promise you, you’ll regret the sight.

Damn You, Miserable Calendar

Pickin' the birthday blues at age 3. Hard times, indeed

Pickin’ the birthday blues at age 3. Hard times, indeed

Remember when your birthday was so cherished? When the cake and ice cream and Coca Cola flowed from the cornucopia of the kitchen, and clowns and mimes and magic shows were what it took to satisfy your soul? Okay, those last three sound creepy and offensive and they were, and that’s okay, because we were so hopped up, we just wanted to PARTY and smear icing on our faces and never let this day end and ohmygod you crashed on the living room floor in a diabetic coma, and all was right in the world.

Then we became teens and we were surly and zitty and counting down the days till we could drive and escape the horrible oppression of our parents. We wondered if we were too old to be virgins, if we were too old to smile when our parents took the time to think of us and give us a gift, if we were were going to finally get OUT of this miserable town. We weren’t comfortable in our own skins and then we let it show and birthdays became merely tolerated, not celebrated.

Our roaring 20′s arrived and we were on the cusp of drinking legally with the passing of a birthday, and then in one of life’s most anticlimactic moments we lost considerable interest when we turned 21 and one day old. We soberly realized ALL that was left to celebrate with a birthday was auto insurance costing a little less. So we got back to drinking, heavily, year round. We got jobs, got married, got kids, still got carded and that’s what convinced us that we had life by the short ones.

The third decade approached and with each passing birthday we noticed a few more wrinkles, and maybe your hands started looking like your old man’s from the passage of time and hard work and many mistakes with wrenches. Rather than discuss the party the night before, we became more apt to discuss the ravages of the hangover with our co-workers, and wondered why, O Lord, we keep doing this to ourselves? We begin to really appreciate the kids’ birthdays more, outside of waiting in the Jumpy-Inflatable Place, catching communicable diseases from kids with parents who don’t bathe them regularly. We cherish their joy at tearing into Lego boxes and we hover over Coca Cola consumption, worried that they’ll be hopped up too soon and interfere with our own 10pm bedtimes.

And then we get kinda angry at the passage of time. I don’t want to be this old. I am, in the immortal words of that heartthrob Rod Stewart, Forever Young. I can’t be 38, 39, whatever, I’m around 26. I’m almost sure of it. Then comes the resignation when you add the years up, trying to figure out if 1974 really WAS that long ago. It was. You’re old. So you sit at home on your birthday and you realize that your parents aren’t ordering up an ice cream cake for you, and if a clown showed up at your door, you’d probably stab him. You play the blues on your acoustic guitar to an audience consisting of the dog and you eat some cheese, probably too much and then decide that yes, you WILL go for a run today, because NO ONE wants to drop dead from artery blockage on their birthday.

You find yourself wishing for your birthday that your kids didn’t forget it. You wish for a nice dinner with them, where they aren’t trying to choke one another, and you’re not trying to choke them both, simultaneously. You hope they don’t grow up too fast, but you know they’re counting down the birthdays till that elusive concept of “freedom” will become crystal clear, even if it isn’t yet to you at age 39. You wish for time to play Legos with them, while they still find your company good, and you find yourself ordering up an ice cream cake for no other reason than you’d like to smear a little across your faces and run around the house with them, no rules, no curfew and, for the briefest of moments, no worries. And that alone is a cause for celebration, no matter how old the calendar says you are today.

With Love

Mother Dearest & I headed to Portland via train. It derailed.

Mother Dearest & I headed to Portland via train. It derailed.

There’s not a person in this world who has your back more than she does, or should. When no one else believes in you, it is her voice on the end of the phone that reassures you that yes, you CAN do this. When your father kicks you out of the house, your mom is the one who puts all of your stuff up in her place, no questions asked.

When I broke my arm, it was up your driveway I ran crying, and it was you who drove me to the ER breaking every applicable traffic law in existence in the year 1984. When I broke a heart, and when my heart was broken, it was you who I called in the middle of the night to seek assurance that I wasn’t at my core, a bad person. Your hesitance at addressing that point notwithstanding, I felt your heart aching with mine. When I ignited and torched my hand and arm while trying to light the pilot in my shitty little single wide trailer at 1am, it was you, the nurse, I called, to which you responded “Are you drunk? Ok, next question, are you okay?”, then took me, again, to the hospital.

When Dad left, and it was you and me and a cat versus the world, it was you who never stopped working to try and make our lives better. You cooked delicate meals, endlessly, in your kitchen, one leg hiked up against the other, ever present cigarette in your free hand, leaving me so tempted to yank those apron strings with each pass I made through the kitchen. You ran your own business, you were a pioneer as the first female president of the America Society of Travel Agents, you interviewed Air Force Brass for Chamber of Commerce positions (or something like that), you taught me what fork goes where, you drove too fast in your French car, and you tolerated my questionable taste in music stations. When you met the man who would become the more stable father figure in my life, you took me along on your dates, because in your eyes, if the guy didn’t get along with me, or I didn’t like him, there was no point. I was first in your eyes, and in your heart, and no kid could ask for more than that from their mother.

While my actual father may have been the crazy character in my life, you were my rock. You spent most of my childhood rolling your eyes at my antics, but you never stopped loving me. We went on your business trips together, which forged me into the wandering, independent soul I would become as a man. They were OUR adventures, and I cherish the memories so very much. I always wanted to make you laugh, and you’ve always been so damn appropriate, I made it my personal goal to make you spit your wine out onto the, naturally, freshly pressed white linen table cloth that graced our table. You didn’t fire me when, as a kid, I ate the entire skin of your Thanksgiving turkey off the plate while you and your guests were kibitzing in the living room. You were disgusted with me when you found out that, at the age of 10, I placed a room service request of 17 side orders of bacon on  a business trip, just to see if I could eat that much bacon in one setting, but yet you didn’t stop loving me. When I wanted to work on an island in the West Indies at age 12, you encouraged me to take that job with your business partner in Antigua for a summer. When I needed to venture out to boarding school, to fly from your nest, at age 13, it was you and my stepfather who figured out HOW to make it happen, while simultaneously fending off threats of a lawsuit from my father. I was astonished when I got my acceptance letter and showed you and you cried, both tears of joy and tears derived from the knowledge that I’d be leaving, for good, too soon. Now, as a parent, I find myself weeping on a semi-regular basis when my children do those things that children do to establish their own identities, and I understand where yours came from.

We have 2000 miles between us now, and although you’ve raised me to be independent, I still need you, Mom. I’m trying to raise my boys to be the kind of young men you would be proud to love. They have a good mom, one who loves them the same way in which you love me, and I’m grateful for that, too. As we grow older and I no longer feel the urge to constantly declare my independence in this world, I hope you know that the ties that bind are as strong as ever. I still call you when no other would listen to my rants and raves. I still long for your fried chicken dinners and our banter around the dinner table.

I love you, Mom.

I couldn’t ask for one better, and I hope you know how much you mean to me, to my boys, to our world. And I hope you know that the next time I’m in your kitchen, I’ll still be amused to yank your apron strings, hoping to hear the words “You’re such a creep, young man”, just one more time.