Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What DO I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

A friend emailed me, asking about how the hunt was going and asking about what my ideal position would be.

That's a toughie, actually.

I thought long and hard about it and responded thusly:

Gah, to be almost 50 and still grappling with "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

What a long, strange trip this is turning out to be (thank you, Grateful Dead).

Well, I'll tell you that I was happiest professionally when I was:
  • Challenged. Let me be comfortable in some of my tasks, but also let me stretch. Let me figure things out on my own. Let's try something new and different, even just for a while, even if we abandon it later for the tried-and-true method. 
  • Valued/engaged. And not just monetarily. My voice needs to mean something. My opinions need to be valued and considered as worthwhile input and not just useless commentary. 
  • Excited/enthused about what I'm doing. Sure, there are going to be pockets of less-than-desirable tasks, but the overall picture has to charge me up. I need to know that in the great scheme of things, what I'm writing about or researching or reporting has to matter. It's got to make some kind of difference. And that's some of where my last employer completely jumped the tracks for me. We were being charged with the mantra of "growth and prosperity," but the only growth and prosperity I seemed to be contributing to were the senior officers'. That's not enough for me. The satisfaction that I'm seeking needs to go way beyond what comes in a direct deposit slip 52 times a year. 
  • Kept busy. I've developed a lot of skill at a lot of different styles of communications, and I seemed to be happiest when I was juggling all of them. Short-term projects. Long-term projects. Bring it on! I have learned this about myself over the years: I seem to have a very short attention span, and when I'm bored, I just die inside. Any enthusiasm just dries up and I become a shambling drone. 
  • Creative. I enjoy finding more than one way up a mountain. I may not even choose the easiest way if it turns out to be the more interesting way. 
  • Artistic. Yes I can write. But I've also got talents and interests in music and photography and art and literature and teaching and learning and interacting. And a job that can encompass more of those facets stands a better chance of keeping me tuned in.
  • Balanced. Dad of three. Husband of 24 years (just May 21st). Owner/handler of a faithful dog. Church musician and composer. There are lots of me wrapped up in this me. I need that balance. I don't want to log 80 hours a week behind the desk or travel weekly to Zimbabwe, even if I sometimes feel I would enjoy the cash that would go along with it. 
  • Surrounded by smartness. Wit. Intelligence. Insight. I also have learned this about myself: I do not seem to suffer fools gladly. Put me in a situation where I'm told to do something -- without any real explanation why -- and I'm going to wither on the vine if I see no value in it (other than "because I said so" or "because I'm paying you to do so"). I like an environment where I bring skills A,B, and C to the table, and the colleague to my left brings skills 5, 6, and 7, and the colleague to my right brings skills Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. I do well what they cannot, and vice-versa. And we all learn from each other. 
  • The beneficiary of loyalty and the builder of trust. This is something I lost along the way at my last employer's, and I believe it was a huge contributor to my downfall there 
  • In an environment of useful, helpful, insightful feedback. The response to my work at toward the end was all negative and not conducive at all to improvement: "I don't like this. It's off-message." "Well, how is it off-message?" "I don't know, but it's not what we want to say or how we want to say it." It's too long. It's too short. It's too negative. It's not what this piece is designed to do (despite the fact that beforehand, they had no idea what the piece was supposed to do). I was zapped for using the word slog. As in: "Personal investment choices will be guided by whether you think the overall economy is on the upswing or that it will continue to slog along." My direct superior was convinced -- because she didn't know the meaning of the word -- that nobody else would, either. See note above about my inability to suffer fools gladly. This also happened with the words converge and demonstrable, which was mangled in its pronunciation into "deh-mon-STRAIGHT-a-bull." But then again, this was from a person who blithely and repeatedly mispronounced especially as "exspecially." 
  • Able to interact 1:1 with folks. One of my most favorite tasks was interviewing staff for the features in the various company newsletters I've headed. Tell me your story. Everybody has one. Everybody loves a good one. Tell me yours, that I may faithfully bring it to everyone else. I've enjoyed this over the course of my career all the way from interviewing the most basic entry-level employee all the way up to CEOs and COOs and even a few celebs along the way (I had a newspaper internship back in college where I got to interview the actress who, as a child, played Bonnie Blue Butler in Gone with the Wind. Talk about being jazzed up by an assignment!). 
I'm not sure if all of the above is possible in a job. Or if even any of the above is possible in a job. I did touch it once. At a life insurance company. I was given a ton of leeway and freedom and had a ball. My colleagues were bright and smart. My director gave us enormously long leashes -- in fact, to put it in dog parlance, he installed an invisible fence and let us freely wander all over the yard. He also backed us to senior management 100%, even if we had to have a come-to-Jesus meeting privately later. He cheered our successes, helped us post-mortem our failures, and became a trusted friend along the way.

If I could find that best of all possible worlds (thank you, Dr. Pangloss) again, I would be tempted to work there for no compensation at all.

Of course, Eileen and the girls (and even the dog) might have something to say about that, but you know what I mean.

They say that if you find a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life. I've been living the exact converse of that: Endure a job you despise, and you'll slog your way to the grave. I can define /slog/ if you need me to! I will say that this blog is proving to be a fun exercise in some/all of the above. It is no work at all, the stories just flow effortlessly, which must prove that it represents aspects of a job I could love.

But professional bloggers that aren't writing someone else's best-practice this or trusted-advisor that are as scarce as hen's teeth, arent' they?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Non-Fast Fingers (Or How I Blew My Chances to Be a Millionaire at 38)

When it debuted on ABC television in August 1999, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became an almost instant hit, gaining a following of almost 30 million viewers per night on a three-night-per-week basis.

It also hooked my imagination. The concept was deceptively simple: Answer a tower of increasingly difficult multiple choice questions, using some well-placed assistance along the way, and pocket the earnings. No humiliating stunts. No goofy costumes. And best of all, no need to travel to the West Coast to participate; being New York-based, Millionaire was readily accessible.

Plus, I had had some game show experience. Some ten years' prior, I had earned my way on a long-forgotten show called Trump Card, which was televised from nearby Atlantic City. Trump Card was Donald Trump's attempt to muscle in on the Merv Griffin concept of entertainment entrepreneur-cum-game show mogul.

Trump Card was a bingo-like game where answering questions enabled players to light up squares on an electronic card and, once filled, they would advance to the "big board" and win a significantly higher amount. I remember attending a number of local auditions and interviews and finally being accepted for the show.

To make a long story short, I didn't win the jackpot, but I did win the game and walked away with $5,000. Which Uncle Sam was delighted to tax later that year at a nice %6.

Anyway, that taste of fame--coupled with the chance to up the stakes and play for a million--made me determined to get on Millionaire.

The hurdles to jump toward contestant-hood were many and fickle.

Level One was a phone version of the game. But the secret there was getting through on the line. Countless busy signals greeted me as I dialed furiously, increasingly frustrated that the limitations of the telecommunications industry back then were snuffing my dreams.

Level Two hinged on successfully getting through Level One. Wanna-be millionaires who got through on the contestant line then answered a series of "Fastest Finger" questions. Fastest Finger was eventually dropped from the WWBAM gameplay, but in essence, it went something like this:

Q: Put these Stephen King novels in order as to their date of publication, starting with the earliest:
  1. Pet Sematary
  2. The Shining
  3. Carrie
  4. Cujo
The correct answer--3, 2, 4, 1--was hurriedly punched into your phone keypad and the game went on.

I believe three FF questions were asked. If you got all three correct, you were sent onto Level Three.

Level Three was a random pull of the thousands of people who successfully answered the questions in Level Two. These lucky qualifiers were then sent through the Fastest Finger regimen yet again, this time, as I recall, where success meant not only accurate but fast!

Now here is where my memory starts to get sketchy on the process, because although I went through Levels One, Two, and Three dozens and dozens of times, I only proceeded from Level Three once.

I know there was another random draw in there somewhere, where lady luck was employed yet again to cull the contestants down to a more manageable number. And I know we were interviewed on the phone for personality, human interest stories, and audience appeal.

But once someone successfully navigated all of the above and was still left standing, he/she was invited on the show. And that's exactly what happened to me on September 25, 2000. 

The logistics were many--after all, ABC was flying in contestants from all over the country to compete--and there were a number of faxes (heh -- does anyone fax anything anymore?) and phone calls to verify each detail.

I was allowed to bring one guest, so Eileen and I packed our bags for the Big Apple. Oh, and I forgot to mention this little tidbit: Eileen was five months pregnant!

ABC insisted on flying us in, which was just plain odd because we could have driven there in under two hours.

But protocol is protocol, and after hustling into the departure gate at the airport, we were ushered onto a tiny plane that barely took off before starting on its landing procedures. 

ABC provided transportation between the airport and the hotel, and I couldn't wait to enjoy this little perk. All my life I had watched limo drivers standing at baggage pickup with their cardboard placards: Mr. Phillips, Ms. Henderson, Mr. McCauley. I could only fantasize about being that rich or powerful or influential to warrant a limo driver with a placard with my name on it.

And now, it was coming true!

Except that it didn't.

At the last minute, ABC changed our flight. Instead of bringing us in at JFK, they flew us into LaGuardia. But they never told the transportation company. So our limo--and our driver, and his sign--were at the wrong airport.

Dejectedly, we cabbed it to the hotel.

We stayed at the Empire Hotel on W. 63rd Street, where all contestants from all over the country would be lodging. The accommodations were comfortable, but not nearly as opulent as we had imagined. In what could serve as a scene from a Neil Simon comedy, our window overlooked the rooftop of one of the lower levels of the hotel, complete with whining air conditioner units that were splattered with pigeon droppings.

The night before the taping, Eileen and I went out to dinner, eating at a cute sidewalk bistro nearby. ABC provided us with a stipend while we were there, and although I can't remember the amount, I do know that for our evening out, it barely covered our iced teas.

New York prices and all.

We attended a preshow meeting the following day. More forms to sign. More ID checks. More rules and regs. We had to show the wardrobe we intended to wear on the air (two outfits, in case our show ran over into the next episode), and there was some problem with my shirt. So Eileen and I hustled over to a Gap and bought a replacement.

We also snuck off to a matinee of Kiss Me Kate that had been revived on Broadway.

The morning of the taping, we all reported to the studio, and it all started to become very real. 

I. Was. Going. To. Be. On. Who. Wants. To. Be. A. Millionaire!!!

More signatures. More ID checks. Briefings. Instructions.


We were brought onto the empty set and checked out not only the Fastest Finger chairs that ringed it but the coveted Hot Seat as well.

We were all assigned seats along the perimeter of the set and went through a practice version of the show.

"Be animated. Have fun! Ignore the lights and the cameras," we were told. I didn't find it hard to ignore the cameras, as they were more or less obliterated by the lights!

A production assistant filled in for host Regis Philbin. We went through a handful of Fastest Finger questions, just to get the feel of the button pushing involved. And I prematurely thought that perhaps I had a chance of doing well on the show, as I was quick and clear-thinking enough to managed a correct answer in the fastest time!

Q: Put these parts of a bird in order from front to back.
  1. Wings
  2. Tail
  3. Beak
  4. Neck
Although the answer seems incredibly easy here and now, it was a challenge. After all, in the off-the-charts excitement, I wouldn't have surprised myself to get the answer incorrect when asked my name!

So I landed in the Hot Seat and chatted with the stand-in for Reege. The crew found Eileen in the audience and gave her some camera time, asking about the baby. And I then faced a few questions. 

Every contestant got a chance in the chair during rehearsal, whether he/she earned a way in or not, just to make us as comfortable as possible.

Once we had completed the run-through, it was time for final prep. We went into make-up, dressed in our show clothes, and met backstage. 

A small, wiry man worked his way down the line of 12 of us, shaking each hand and offering a warm welcome. It was Regis Philbin. Boy, is he short!

Audience! Applause! Music! Lights! Camera! Action! We were on!

Our episode began with a contestant hold-over from the prior show. He finished out his turn, and it was time to find out which one of us was ready to embark on the road to financial freedom.

Q: Put these Presidents in alphabetical order by middle name
  1. Richard Nixon
  2. Lyndon Johnson
  3. Gerald Ford
  4. Jimmy Carter
What? Huh? Middle name? Er. Milhouse. Um... I pushed four buttons in random order.

And was wrong.

So we sat and watched one of our own try. And again, I don't remember how far he made it, but I know it was not for a million.

So we were up again! C'mon... I can DO this!!!

The second FF question escapes me, but I do know that once again, I was incorrect.

And not long after, the time was up.

Handshakes. Thanks. A commemorative tee shirt. Back into street clothes. Back to the hotel. Back to our normal lives.

I didn't win a million. In fact, I didn't win anything at all.

But on ABC's nickle, we did go to NYC on a beautiful September weekend. And I received a keepsake "check" for a million dollars, which makes a nice souvenir.

We came home. And I remember walking the dog after we had unpacked. Several neighbors stopped me along the way and asked how I did. ABC asked that we not reveal the outcome, so as to not dilute the anticipation of the audience.

But in response to the question, "Did you win a million dollars?" I smiled and offered this: "If I had just won a million, what are the chances that I would be walking my dog right now?"

The show aired that October. Friends and family gathered at our house and watched, and it was quite a thrill (we still have it on a VHS tape somewhere, if it hasn't disintegrated by now). Funny enough, that episode occasionally was repeated on The Game Show Network, and after its re-airing, my phone would ring with a neighbor or friend commenting that they had seen me.

The following January, Eileen's pregnancy came to fruition with the birth of our youngest, Kristin.

So all in all, it was a fantastic experience, one that I'll treasure for a long time.

And yes. That is my final answer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ice Cream Guy

It is a cold and damp day here.

And I am looking out the window at a sky that has been slate-gray since last evening. Spitting rain. Raw. A breeze that belies the May designation on the calendar. Not very spring-like at all.

And a moment or two ago, my ears caught a the sound of a slightly off-key calypso tune. A bouncy marimba. And the tinny melody of a steel drum.

From around the bend in front of our property came a brightly colored truck emblazoned with pictures of frozen delights and sugary goodness.

The Ice Cream Guy.

What an anachronism. It is, at present, 68 degrees and cloudy with an unfriendly wind coming in from the east, according to weather.com. And I don't think the thermometer has budged from its clammy position all day.

And yet, the Ice Cream Guy, being the eternal optimist, is wending his way through our neighborhood.

The Caribbean soundtrack to which he is selling his wares has now shifted; it is now "Jesus Loves the Little Children," played with a swinging beat more appropriate to something accompanying a Spongebob cartoon.

Many delivery services from my childhood have faded away. I do remember my parents having milk delivered by a milkman. The company was Sealtest, which is now owned by the multinational firm Parmalat. But back then, it was embodied by a guy in a white coat and hat who brought glass bottles to our back door on a regular basis, right out of a black and white episode of Hazel on TV.

I also remember what scotched our participation in this service: One morning, my mother found a rock that had accidentally sunk to the bottom of one of the bottles and, citing sanitary concerns, she started buying all our milk from the supermarket.

I'm fairly sure we weren't the sole cause, but it does seem that soon after that incident, the Sealtest delivery service as a whole faded into the history books.

And of course, in the realm of home deliveries there were also paperboys.

I was a paperboy, for the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (RIP). It actually wasn't my route per se. It belonged to my best friend Joe, but when he vacated our neighborhood each summer for the Jersey Shore, I took it over. In September when he returned, we then split the route and shared the profits.

I had a large canvass bag that had the Bulletin logo stamped on it, and that bag was iron-tough. It withstood summers hot and winters cold and even the anvil weight of each of the Thanksgiving Day editions of the paper, traditionally the year's largest (stuffed with Christmas ads).

I rode my trusty Schwinn on these deliveries and can only dream now of the rock-solid muscles I had back then. Thighs that were drum tight from the miles of pedaling. And forearms like Popeye's from heaving those papers to each front porch, sometimes in rapid-fire succession. The end of my route was a series of row homes and they required laser precision to hit each stoop: Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! To have to stop and retrieve a misplaced paper was the mark of a rank amateur, and I made sure to learn my craft with skill and agility to prevent having to u-turn my way in total humiliation and rescue a paper from a bush or hedge.

In trying to keep profits at a maximum, we would try to keep expenses at a minimum, meaning that if the weather were dry and the breeze was gentle, a paperboy could get by just tucking one end of the paper into the other (the "open" end into the "finished" end) and skip using a rubber band, thereby saving a few pennies on each paper. But multiplied by the dozens of papers on each route, over the course of a week, it could put some serious cash into the pocket of a 14 year-old.

But the tuck-in technique was fraught with peril, as a paper that shimmied loose in mid-flight meant a veritable explosion of newsprint, as the sections scattered onto a front lawn like an unfortunate ticker-tape parade.

Always the gamble: Tuck or bands?

Rain meant plastic bags. Which not only meant more expenses but also more time, as each paper had to be folded and then nestled inside its protective cover.

I learned some fundamental business concepts through that route. Mostly by osmosis. The weekly charge for The Evening Bulletin was a whopping $1.40. And that meant rapping on doors to collect the fee. But it also meant tips, and a $2 payment on a $1.40 bill represented good earnings back then.

Part of the route involved a nearby apartment building, and on collection day, it was extremely common to find an elderly resident at home--alone--answering the door with a game show or talk program blaring in the living room. It didn't take much insight to realize that quite often, I was the only human being this person had interacted with 1:1 that entire day.

And so I'd be invited in for idle chit-chat (when I think of the safety issues now, I shudder; but as I've said here before, it was a different time and place than we currently reside). And the reward for just providing a few moments of an open ear to hear about a grandchild or a recent trip to the grocery store was often a big, fat tip. So I learned to smile a lot, be polite, and listen.

But back to our Ice Cream Guy. 

I suppose there's something to be said for his optimism, even on such a dismal day.

In rounding his last bend through our neighborhood, he was stopped by a group of kids with dollar bills clenched in their fists, ready for a pre-summer treat, even if the calendar and the thermometer declared them premature.

Hope does indeed spring eternal!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Confessions of a Professional Bench Warmer, Part 2

So this organ thing for me. How did it all start?

Again, it's another gift from my Dad, who had music talent embedded genetically. He had piano lessons as a child, and our family history loves the tale of he and his brother placing thumb tacks on all the hammers of his mother's spinet, to change the sound to something more 'rinky tink' than the classic mellow tones. His mother blanched over that stunt, and, as we've heard tell, the piano was never quite the same, either.

Dad also sang. He had a fine tenor voice and during his late-teen years in the Navy was part of its Chorale. Later, he held an anchor position in our church choir, and that opened the door for my own odyssey.

Dad also had a life-long interest in theater organs, those massive collections of pipes and bellows, augmented with literal bells and whistles, that provided soundtracks for the silents back in the early days of movie-going. Not that he was old enough to remember those days, but he did enjoy the singalongs, kept in time by the bouncy rhythms of a jolly theater organ, a perk that remained part of the matinee experience well into the 1940s.

He eventually decided he wanted to rekindle the keyboard skills that had long ago gone stale (he would occasionally play my uncle's piano, sans thumb tacks, at parties, but it was always the same tune, "The Wandering Donkey," or something like that).

Marrying the two interests, he bought a second-hand spinet organ for the home.

Yes, gee Dad, it was a Wurlitzer.

I don't even quite remember where he got it (I was only 11). But I do know I took to it like the proverbial duck to the proverbial water.

The model we had featured a cassette player built-in, and using tapes and some cardboard note-indicators for the keys, it was possible to work through a few lessons to get the budding organist making music ASAP.

All three of us kids played with the thing, but like tumblers in a combination lock that align properly and click open, the concepts and techniques just gelled for me instantly. It was like being exposed to a second language that I somehow already knew how to read.

Dad came home from work that evening and heard music from the basement where the organ was kept.

"Is that the cassette player?" he asked Mom, citing the demo recordings that came with the model.

"No," she said. "It's Dan."

I still remember the piece, too: "The Carnival of Venice." Comprising about 10 different notes and a whopping three chords. But I had mastered it with seemingly no effort at all.

I don't remember how long it took me to chew through the freebie lessons that came with the cassette player on that Wurlitzer spinet, but I do know that before long, my parents were seeking formal lessons for me.

Dad asked the choir director at church if he knew anyone who taught. As luck would have it, this director taught organ himself, and I had found a tutor.

I studied privately for about 10 years or so, and my teacher was excellent. He was also, at that time, the very definition of the starving artist, as he had just recently graduated with a degree in music and was having a tough time surviving on the salary that the church was paying him as a choir director. I remember well those lessons where he would come to our house in the late afternoon and, at the insistence of Mom, be asked to stay for dinner as well.

He believed that a good organist also has a full understanding of singing, especially if he/she expects to make a living working for a church. So a spot was opened for me in the church choir, singing tenor next to my father.

Those years with him were not only educational (I learned about harmonies and countermelodies, about breath control and phrasing, about blend and voicing, and also about liturgy and planning), they were also the source of some of the warmest memories I have about my dad. Standing next to him and belting out Christmas carols thrilled me to no end, and when I think back on him now, I would give anything to stand beside him once more, with a yellowed copy of The Saint Gregory Hymnal opened in front of us, wending our way through the rich tones of Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus."

I accompanied Mass back then. During school liturgies, kids who took piano at school were often shoved over (by necessity) to the organ for Mass purposes. Although I was an outsider who didn't take lessons through the school, I was tossed into the mix.

It was one-song-per-accompanist back then, and we'd swap around the bench frantically to avoid large gaps between songs.

But over time, the interests of the other pianists-cum-organists started to wane, and I was playing all the tunes for school Mass myself. As I improved, I was given the responsibility for a Sunday Mass (9:00 a.m.) by myself, and I stayed in that spot throughout my high school years.

And the education continued. I was now responsible for picking songs and hymns, and I gained a deep understanding of appropriateness. I once thought it would be fun to end a Mass on March 17 with a rousing rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Early that afternoon, I received a call from my teacher who had, in turn, gotten quite an irate call from the rectory about the unauthorized selection. I didn't need a second warning to ensure that liturgical music is exactly that... liturgical!

I am somewhat unique as an organist. Most of my colleagues do begin by studying the piano and, after mastering the fingering and technique, migrate over to the organ and translate the skills. I began with the organ and have had to "back-fill" my way to piano, an instrument that, despite its similarity, is vastly different. I never seem to have quite mastered what to do with my feet!

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and although I think the genes for music were implanted by my father, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that they were definitely fed, watered, mulched, weeded, and protected by my mother. It was she who managed to find the wiggle room in an often-tight household budget to pay for my lessons, music, and other supplies over the years. It was she who arranged for transportation, once the lessons shifted from our home to my teacher's. 

So thank you, Dad, for the musical chops. And thank you, Mom, for setting and maintaining the environment for them to thrive.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Going to the Dogs, Part 3

With Dusky and Kenya gone from my life, my dog-less status stayed pretty much status quo for probably the next decade. During that time, I finished college, started a job, decided to get married, embarked on wedded life, and bought a home. So those early years for my bride and me -- owing to our steady work hours and our concentration on each other rather than a pet -- kept my yen for a dog at bay.

But Eileen knew that someday, a dog would be a permanent part of our household.

Again (as was the case with Ken), I would find myself in a dog-by-proxy situation, this time, thanks to my parents.

Dad had always loved basset hounds. When he and Mom were in their first home as newlyweds, they had a neighbor with a basset, and Dad immediately became enamored with the breed. This floppy friend, Elmer, was apparently quite the social butterfly. He also, the stories say, fully fit the hound stereotype of being extremely food-driven. Dad used to tell the tale that Elmer would habitually visit the neighbors and beg for treats. Well, "beg" is not exactly the correct description: Dad used to say that Elmer would sit on their stoop and bay at the door until it was opened, at which time he would happily pad to the kitchen, plop down in front of the refrigerator, and bay once more, until a snack was dispensed.

Whether this story is true or not remains a mystery, but knowing what I know about basset hounds, it seems to me to be altogether plausible.

So thanks to Elmer, Dad always wanted a basset.

In the late 1980s, Dad retired from working for the U.S. Navy, owing mostly to his health. By that time in his life he had suffered and recovered from two heart attacks, and he felt it was time to bid his working years goodbye.

To soften the blow and give him a "project" to work on at home, Mom decided to present him with a surprise gift for his first post-retirement birthday. She and my eldest brother searched the newspaper ads (and again, this was a different time and place, and the risks presented by backyard breeders weren't nearly as publicized then as now) and came up with a litter whose delivery time coincided closely with Dad's day.

Getting Dad out of the house that morning was not really a challenge: Eileen and I were working on a rather involved and large DIY effort in our nest, rehabbing our basement into a family room space. So the plan was pulled off flawlessly: Dad left home for our place, armed with tools and lumber; Mom and my brother zipped to the breeder to pick up the pup; they then all met up at our house to surprise the pants off him.

And it worked. Dad was absolutely flabbergasted as Mom placed into his arms this totally out of proportion, slinky-like collection of big paws, droopy ears, and slobber. 

"Well, look at this little Murphy here," Dad said, not knowing at that instant that he'd named the dog.

Murphy entered his life. And his heart. And he managed to sweep us all under his spell as well.

The slobbery part of the description of Baby Murph was partly due to his teething. But it was also partly due to a horrid bout of carsickness, a malady Murphy would suffer from for the remainder of his life. Dad took to travelling with him in the car with a small cardboard box and a supply of old bath towels close at hand, and he often reported the challenge of trying to safely navigate a 55 mph highway while catching Murphy's ejected breakfast. 

Murphy was cute as a button. He was also as challenging as hell.

Looking back on it now, I can identify several lapses in judgment Dad made in raising this dog. First, he decided against a crate.

A crate, for those of you who think is something to ship your bad dog off to Australia in, is a mesh-wire or cloth-covered "box" (for lack of a better word) in which a dog can be safely put to be kept out of trouble.

A crate is also a prime ingredient in successful and efficient potty training, based on the theory that a dog will not let loose where he/she sleeps. And since a crate, when properly introduced, becomes a convenient and comfortable sleeping spot during the day, it also becomes a spot not to pee/poop in. So a common potty routine is this: First thing in the morning, whisk the dog to the lawn; let him do his business; praise him like he has just found the cure to the common cold; and move on with your day. Eventually, the canine catches on about where and when to relieve him/herself, and life is good.

In deciding against the crate -- especially for a scent hound (which a basset is, as driven 100% by the information that comes into that electric nose on a steady basis) -- Dad sentenced himself to round-the-clock trips to the lawn to encourage elimination. And a veritable ocean of inside accidents.

Eventually, Murphy got the idea, but it was a very long time in coming.

The other mistake Dad made was indulging Murphy's every whim. Murphy's schedule was rock-solid, meaning that once set, there was very little wiggle room. If he was accustomed to a walk each day at 6:00 a.m., then that walk was expected at 6:00 a.m., feast or famine.

In the blistering summers and the frigid winters, Dad and Murphy could be spotted making their appointed rounds at their appointed times.

One result of this rigidness is that Mom and Dad often brought Murphy with them when they went visiting, owing to the stress involved in leaving him home.

The first time my soon-to-be sister-in-law hosted a dinner at her house for my parents, they brought along Murph. He was reasonably well behaved until, in the post-dinner cleanup, he bumped an entire pound of butter off a nearby counter top and promptly devoured it in a few muzzle-licking chomps. Quite the introduction to the in-laws, huh?

Their commute home in the car that evening was doubly challenging, as Murphy was ejecting content from both ends.

Dad often took Murphy with him on various errands. A local hardware store was a favorite haunt, where the thick-accented German owner fawned over Murph shamelessly. She would pat the bony structure on the top of his head and coo, "Das ist your schtubbern loomp. All basset houndz haff a good schtubbern loomp, and you'ff gotz a beauty, dere!!"

For years thereafter, we commented often on Murphy and his "...stubborn lump."

My daughters came one by one. And Murphy had mellowed considerably by then. As babies and then toddlers, the would lay on him or yank his ears innocently, and, perhaps understanding that these human "puppies" deserved the slack, he bore the transgressions with patience and gentility.

Murphy lived to be 13 years old. He slowed considerably, as all good dogs seem to. And over the course of a few months, his health began to slide. Eventually, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and that is what took him from us.

We all grieved the loss of this friendly, unique dog. But how my father cried.

The afternoon that Murphy was let go was one of two occasions I ever remember my father shedding actual tears. And the first was at the loss of his father.

I remember struggling to tell our kids. And there were more tears.

Murphy was a challenge, but he was a great dog.

He also planted a seed. Once which grew within the soil of my own marriage and my own children.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Confessions of a Professional Bench Warmer, Part 1

I played accompaniment for a wedding this weekend. It was good for me to be busy. And the fee came in handy, what with our present financial situation becoming increasingly tight.

At one point in my organ career, the prospect of playing the organ at such an important liturgy as a Nuptial Mass filled me with fear. But the ensuing years have knocked that edge off considerably. Since I can't even tally how many weddings I have accompanied, they no longer hold the terror they once did.

In fact, I'm often blind to a lot of the details occurring during the day. When I was younger and playing weddings, I would arrive home and my mother would excitedly ask a ton of questions: "What did the bride wear? What were the flowers like? How many bridesmaids were there? Were they pretty?"

"Uh... Mom... I really don't know. I didn't actually notice."

Weddings are interesting liturgies, especially within the Catholic traditions in which I currently ply my trade. In the context of a formal liturgy, meaning the Sacrifice of the Mass, there are a number of rules and guidelines that must be followed. But these frequently conflict with the wishes of a bride, who has had her heart set on some detail of her wedding day since the age of four.

Take, for instance, "The Wedding March" by Felix Mendelssohn; yes, that slice of music that opened each episode of The Newlywed Game.

In short, it's not allowed in Catholic wedding liturgies.

The reason has to do with the provision that liturgical music must be, well, liturgical. In essence, written expressly for liturgy. And as Wikipedia points out, "The Wedding March" was written for an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. We can thank Queen Victoria for introducing it into wedding tradition.

So when a bride requests it, I'm placed in the position of the musical "policeman" who must unfortunately tell her that she can't have it.

And the same goes for the "Bridal Chorus" ("Here comes the bride!"), which was written by Richard Wagner for an opera (Lohengren). 

And the march that Julie Andrews effortlessly glided down the aisle to in The Sound of Music, and before you ask, yes, I've had it requested and yes, I've turned it down.

But as trends come and go, the call for these pieces waxes and wanes, and as it seems, they are more or less on the outs in today's wedding music literature. I frankly haven't been asked to play anything of this type for quite some time.

Likewise, "The Wedding Song," by Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) has seemingly dropped from bridal consciousness, probably due to its age (copyright is 1971). I never felt as old as I did when I had to explain to a bride who Peter, Paul, and Mary were in the first place. Insert crickets chirping and blank stare here.

Being exposed to that many weddings over that many years brings to mind mishaps that can occur. I guess it's natural that things jump the tracks at weddings:

  • people are out of their elements
  • emotions are high
  • clarity and logic get swept away by excitement and anticipation
  • the bride and groom are forced to navigate a sea of well-meaning family and friends through an event lasting several hours (wedding + reception), wearing uniforms that are wholly unsuited to being comfortable and at ease.

So among the moments that were made for America's Funniest Home Videos, wedding edition, I've seen guests plop into the aisle while leaning out to take a picture.

And I've seen guests trip over runners, those rolled sheets of white plastic that were traditionally brought down a church's center aisle. These were originally used to keep long dresses from being mussed by the dirt floors of drafty cathedrals, back when drafty cathedrals had dirt floors. Thankfully, runners are also a thing of the past in today's wedding lexicon.

Musically, I've had singers that were both brilliant, and less so. Three of the most dreaded words I can be presented to by a bride are: "My cousin sings." Often this means the cousin in question warbles in the shower, not on a regular basis in a Catholic liturgical setting. So although he/she may be perfectly suited to belting out "Some Enchanted Evening" at the neighborhood community theater, that talent does not always translate to appropriate singing at a Mass.

My technique with these "artists" has been to soldier on as best I can and try to save the musical day for the sake of the couple. Often this means pounding out the song's melody as obviously as possible in hopes that the diva can latch on and make it through.

But I do remember being presented with a relative/friend-of-the-family singer who turned out to be absolutely breathtaking. She was, as I learned from the second she opened her mouth, a vocal student with the pipes of an angel. A pleasant surprise for sure!

Fainting? Yup. I've seen it. I remember a groom who dropped to the floor three separate times during his wedding. He was bustled into the sacristy (small room off to the side of the main altar), put back on his feet, and returned to service. Each time, his worried spouse-to-be followed him offstage, except for the last drop, when she sat stock-still in her chair and her body language broadcast: He's on his own!

Miscues. Missed steps. Mis-directions. Mumbled vows. Tears. Tossed cookies. Broken heels. Forgotten flowers. Shredded stockings. Bloodshed as boutonneires are attached to lapels. I've seen a lot.

While sitting and listening to a sermon, I was once witness to a helpful cantor who noticed that the bride was being pestered by a bee. Worried that she was running the risk of being stung (and, God forbid, if she happened to be allergic), the cantor, as discreetly as possible, approached the bride from behind and tried to sweep the buzzing bug away. Which only made the situation worse because it became apparent that the bee was under the bride's veil. The risk of stinging had just jumped considerably.

The cantor tried to gingerly lift the veil to release the bee... when the entire contraption of tulle and flowers came off the bride's head, unleashing several folds of hair along with it.

By this time, the bride finally noticed that someone was behind her and that she was facing some sort of hairpiece malfunction. She turned and looked and to her utter shock, saw a total stranger standing behind her, holding her headpiece in her hands and frantically trying to reattach it. The cantor was left crimson-faced and at a loss to quietly explain what the hell she was doing.

Fortunately, afterward, it was all explained and met with giggles and good humor.

One of my standard speeches to a brides-to-be is this: Something will go wrong with your day. Despite your plans, preparation, and prayers, there will be a glitch somewhere along the day.

The secret is to not let it ruin the entire experience and the blessings inherent in it.

I try to calm their fears by telling them: "The point of the day is that by sunset, you and your husband will be blessed by God as united forever. So as long as that happens -- and it will -- the rest is just stories for your grandkids."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Going to the Dogs, Part 2

Dusky's short residence with us and his rather hasty exit left my life dog-less once again.

But over the next few years, my love for dogs deepened, particularly in relation to the Labrador Retriever.

Until one entered my extended life, I'm not even sure I knew what a Labrador Retriever was.

I do remember vying for an Old English Sheepdog, in conjunction with a contest tied to the release of Walt Disney Picture's The Shaggy D.A. (1976). Our local newspaper was giving away an OES (a practice I now recognize as being fraught with potential problems, but hey, times were different back then) at random, chosen from entry forms that were completed and mailed.

I must have scrawled my name and address on dozens of those entry forms. Ah, to no avail. I didn't win.

But shortly thereafter, I did connect deeply with a dog, a Labrador Retriever named Kenya.

Kenya belonged to Joe, my then-best friend in grammar school.

And as with Dusky, some of these canine details are sketchy, but here is how I remember them: Joe's older brother Jeff was in the Peace Corps and was assigned to a humanitarian effort in Africa. In the village in which Jeff worked--perhaps left by some other American?--was a black Lab. Thinking that Joe would appreciate the dog, Jeff had him shipped to the States and delivered to his younger sibling.

The dog's name was Kenya. And he and Joe became inseparable. And considering how close Joe and I were, it was natural that we became The Three Musketeers, spending hours together and bonding very closely, two kids and a dog. To hell with the Sheepdogs; we could have sparked our own Disney movie.

When we played, Kenya played. When we ran pell-mell through the neighborhood, Kenya ran. When we collapsed under a shade tree to escape the summer heat, Kenya rested as well. When we flew down the steep inclines of a nearby sledding hill, Ken was right there with us, ready to snatch a wool cap or errant mitten and beg to be chased.

Each Sunday, we would go to a nearby state park and explore the trails for hours on end. Arriving home, we'd be exhausted and filthy and end the afternoon by giving Ken a bath.

Ken was a tried-and-true Lab, meaning he loved the water. I remember more than once having to retrieve him from a neighbor's koi pond, when Ken would break free from the leash and plop himself down among the expensive fish, resulting in an irate call to Joe's parents to complain.

Ken had an aversion to really one one thing, as I recall: Frisbees. One afternoon when we were playing with him in the backyard, one of us tossed a Frisbee his way, and he scrambled after it. But it dropped sharply and unexpectedly and caught Kenya right on the bridge of his nose. He yelped painfully and slunk away, and from that day onward, all Frisbees were evil and to be avoided at all costs.

Joe's father worked as a Fiberglas representative (I think) and was closely tied to the marine industry. So he maintained a second residence at the Jersey Shore, where the recreational boat trade was brisk. Joe and Kenya therefore lived by the beach for the bulk of the summer months. I would be permitted to visit from time to time, and the Musketeers were reunited for surf-and-sand adventures.

Kenya was a natural swimmer and loved the rolling tides. He was also an attentive lifeguard, and I well remember him "retrieving" us if he thought we had ventured too far from the shoreline. He would gently grab a forearm and swim us powerfully back to the shallow water.

I also remember a Saturday morning at the Shore when we made an overabundance of pancakes for breakfast and fed the extras to Kenya, who, being a Lab, was happy to gobble them up. All went well until his stomach lurched audibly and he opened his mouth in a wide yawn. From the depths of his gut came a rolling ball of undigested pancakes, looking much like the boulder that would later chase Indiana Jones in the movies. Kenya was fine afterward, but we were saddled with the cleanup.

Kenya was the dog that caused me to fall in love with the Labrador Retriever. Even at that young age, I quickly came to appreciate how smart they were, how gregarious, how unflappable, how reliable, how even-tempered. I loved their expressiveness, their loyalty, their sociability, their patience, and their demeanor. They were comfortable romping around and playing hard. And also finding a patch of sunshine to nestle in and nap. They were low-maintenance, owing to a coat that didn't require primping and fussing, and smart.

Kenya made up my mind: I would not only someday own a dog. I would someday own a black Labrador Retriever.

Joe and I unfortunately drifted apart in high school. I lost touch with him altogether in the ensuing years. And by proxy, Kenya faded from my life as well, much to my regret.

I do remember this: Ken would "smile" when he greeted me; he had this odd way of coming at me, lowering his head, and curling back his upper lip, exposing his teeth while his back-end was busy with a full-body wag. 

It was one of his most distinguished traits and yet one more thing that I loved about him.

Many many years later, my brother and I were driving through the same Shore town that Joe, Ken, and I used to romp. And just by chance, I was looking out the passenger window and spied a young man, about my age, walking a very gray, very old, dog.

I did a double-take. A triple-take. Could it be? Was it possible?

It was. I directed my brother to stop--NOW!--and got out and approached.

And the dog lowered his head, curled back his lip, smiled broadly, and came at me with a familiar wag. It was definitely subdued, owing to his age, but it was unmistakable. 

I regret that among all the memorabilia from that period in my life (heck, I've still got my Boy Scouts of America membership card from May 1972), I don't have one picture of Kenya.

I do, however, still have this picture of Joe and me. Just imagine a blocky black head with caramel-colored eyes positioned between us.

The Three Musketeers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sting of the COBRA

Its official name is the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, acronymed as COBRA. Enacted April 07, 1986 (thank you, Wikipedia), the theory behind its existence is sound: It enables people who are separated from their employment positions--and thereby separated from the associated benefits--to continue healthcare coverage.

The problem is, all the expense shifts to the newly separated.

We just got our determination in the mail yesterday, which is our healthcare provider's calculation of what it will cost us to continue the medical, vision, and dental bennies I once had.

Are you sitting down?

For our family of five, it is a whopping $2,018.20 per month.

Good God.

Where is someone on unemployment benefits supposed to muster $2018.20 a month?

Thankfully, we will be "purchasing" insurance coverage from my wife's employer for the time being. And then deciding when I return to full-time employment whether to stick with that plan or move to my own, depending on what represents the better value for our money.

But holy hannah!

No wonder there are so many Americans going without health insurance these days.