Monday, December 16, 2013

May Your Days Be Merry and... FFFTZZZT!

I love outside Christmas lights.

I have always loved outside Christmas lights.

When we were kids, the inside of the house was never decorated before Christmas itself; our tradition was that Santa brought everything! Tree. Trains. Gee-gaws and trinkets. And presents.

So when we went to bed Christmas Eve, the only signs of the season inside the house were our stockings, hung on the railing going upstairs.

But outside!!

Outside were colored lights on the bushes; they were the big, fat bulbs that heated up in your hand, much to the chagrin of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And a large spotlight on the front lawn that illuminated a handmade DellaRobbia wreath on the front door. And orange-bulbed candles in every window.

So when it came time for our own holiday traditions, I made a big deal out of outside Christmas lights. We have a series of bushes at the far end of our property. They are just a few feet from a main thoroughfare that goes northward through our community, and for years, I've stretched an extension cord from the house to these bushes and strung lights on them.

As well as draping lights on the flora on the front lawn. And the porch. And on the garage overhang.

But this year...

Well, suffice to say that 2013 is the year of Epic Fail Christmas Lights.

First, the string that goes on a lamppost at the end of the driveway must have some sort of plug issue because its performance this December has been very spotty. For reasons unknown to me, I'll arrive home in the dark and find them brightly and colorfully lit. And on other nights... Nada.

And the lights out back have had a seemingly endless variety of plug/timer/cord issues. One of my favorite sights this time of year is to round the bend after a hard day's work and find those trees gleaming. This year? Mostly a home run, but they've needed constant care and re-configuration along the way.

I cannot seem to settle on a once-and-done solution.

And then there's Santa. On north side of our property, out front, is a blow-up Santa. He frankly needs replacing, as he's got a rather nasty rip in his shoes that has been duct taped. Between his leak and the heavy weather we've had, most evenings he's been face-planted in the snow, looking like a frat boy the day after a killer party. I'm going to go shopping either just before or just after the holiday for a new blow-up, in hopes of catching something appealing on sale.

And as of right now, we're dark. I lost one timer/plug combo and jury-rigged a solution using my one remaining workable one. And just last night, that one now seems to also have given up the ghost.

In an act of possible defiance, though, the lamppost lights decided last night to take up the slack and light themselves.

About the only party to all this who is consistently satisfied is the electric company.

Burn on, lights. Burn on.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Century Plus Two

My aunt called Thanksgiving night to deliver the news that my grandmother -- Nana, to her seven grandchildren and howevermany great-grands -- had passed away.

She was 102.

It is sad but not overly so. She had declined significantly in the past handful of years. We made a large to-do over her 100th birthday, understandably, but since then, her awareness and clarity were on a steady decline.

I visited her, although not as often as I probably should have, which will now follow me around for a while as a cloud of guilt. I usually took Parker with me, just to brighten up her day. But he seemed to do more for the other more cognizant residents of her assisted living facility than for her.

Conversation was tough, especially the last time I saw her. She was bent over her lunch plate, hair in wisps over her face, slowly lifting food to her mouth to gum at it. Her watery blue eyes, usually so fiery with verve, were unfocused and gray.

I'm not even 100% sure she knew who I was. The past few times I went to see here, there was always a muddle about the distinction between her husband George and her son George, my dad. The stories of both their passing would cross over one another as she blended the details. 

Not that it mattered. Both events were hugely painful for her.

But the Nana I'll remember far longer and with greater affection than the Nana she became is the Nana that had spunk and vigor. The one who would break into song while washing the dishes after a huge birthday dinner party at her house

 "Peg o' my heart! I love you; Don't let us part; I love you..."

I'll remember the Nana who came absolutely laden with gifts at Christmas, both when we were kids and when my kids were kids.

I'll remember the Nana who hosted my brothers and me for overnights. The weekends were always full of fun. I remember trips to the Philadelphia Zoo and Dorney Park. Skating and merry-go-round rides in Fairmont Park. And rides on trolley cars, something three burby boys had never done.

I'll remember the Nana who used to have me for dinner one evening each December, when we'd haul out her tiny artificial tree, decorate it together and raise a glass to sweet memories.

I'll remember the Nana who was there for Easter eggs, pumpkin carvings, July Fourth fireworks, graduations, Christenings, engagements, weddings and cookouts. I'll remember the creamy cucumber salad she used to make. And the birthday cakes that were several stories high. The Christmas poppers. The "kids" table. The Sundays we would go for dinner and then gather around the TV set for The Wonderful World of Disney before heading home. Tupperwares of Pepperpot Soup for Dad, with never enough doughballs. The vacations at the shore, when steamy pre-airconditioned nights were wiled away playing Uno. Whiskey sours and Manhattans. Playing the foil for Pop-pop, who used to giggle with us kids by shorting out the doorbell with a screwdriver in the basement, making her think someone was at the front. Candy-glass taffies. Circus peanuts. Bags of Halloween candies. Chocolate-covered coconut Easter eggs with our names inscribed on them in scripted icing. The time she came to visit us in Limerick and got snowed in for almost a week, leading us all to get a touch of cabin fever.

At 102, there was so much life she had seen first-hand: She would tell stories of old Philadelphia, when snow in the streets would cause residents to haul out sleighs and commute via horsepower. And when a trip to the shore was an arduous adventure that began and ended with long waits for ferries to the Jersey side (no bridges). She saw two World Wars. And tough times during the Depression, when she and her husband and two young children experienced a household budget stretched almost to the breaking point, forcing the reliance on the generosity of the extended family to get by. Civil rights. Kennedy assassination. Space exploration. Construction and destruction of the Berlin Wall. 9/11. All witnessed first-hand.

She was a great-grandmother.

And a great grandmother.

Rest well, Nana. We love you.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pavlovian Phrases

Our household runs on catchphrases.

At the mention of a specific word -- or set of words -- one of us is bound to respond in a manner that is 100% predictable, based on some inside joke that a visitor would find utterly confusing.

Or downright weird.

For example:
  • During a meal in our home, if you accidentally bite your lip and produce a droplet of blood and then comment on it, you'll get in response: "My mouth's bleeding Bert! My mouth's bleeding!" The quote is from the climax to It's a Wonderful Life, my favorite film of all time.
  • From the same movie, a greeting in our home of "Merry Christmas" might well prompt a full-bore Jimmy Stewart-accented cheer: "Merry Christmas, emporium! Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!" Again, as George Bailey, Stewart bellows these phrases while trotting down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, reveling in his resurrection.
  • Ask "Are we having soup?" You'll get a question back: "Soupy soup?" This exchange isn't exactly traceable, but we suspect it took hold when the girls were younger. When in the grips of a cold, Eileen or I would prescribe soup for either lunch or dinner later in the day. But of course, parental patience ebbs when kids are sick, so when the toddler question was tossed back -- "What kind of soup?" -- out of frustration, one of us (probably me) came back with "Soupy soup." The delivery of this catchphrase is now always a question, with an upward rising pitch. Probably mimicking the response we got when naming that particular flavor: "Soupy soup????"
  • Let the word "people" fall from your lips. You may very well get a squeaky quote from Singin' in the Rain. In the film, when prissy platinum blonde Lena Lamont is chastised, "People just don't do that," she responds: "People?!?! I ain't people! I am a 'shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament!"
  • Same film. Express disdain for someone and one of us will chime in: "...and I kan't stan'em." Response: "Cahn't." Second response: "kan't." Third response: "Caaaaahn't." Forth response: "kaaaaaaan't." 
  • If a story told around the dinner table involves someone's exclusion from something, my voice will rise to its upper wobbly register and make the Misfit Toy observation: "Nobody wants to play with a Charlie-in-the-Box!" 
  • Also Christmas related: "Calendar book with the name of my insurance man." That's here. Love Allan Sherman.
  • A casual mention of snow elicits the response, in a stilted accent: "I do not believe in snow!" This is from The King and I, where the children of Siam, having never heard of this frozen precipitation, express doubt that it even exists. Not sure how this has caught on in our home -- my doing for sure -- but it's a guaranteed response.
  • "Ouch, Charlie!" Internet meme. This will probably fizzle out in our house soon, but for now, it's getting plenty of air-time. Charlie Bit Me! 
  •  Elf: "Bye, Mr. Narwhal." "Bye, Buddy. Good luck finding your dad!" In a deep Narwhally voice. Weird. But we say it.
Some of our notable quotables are short-lived and die off after over-use. I was in a rut of quoting Despicable Me's lead character Gru, using Steve Carrell's unidentified western-European accent: "Dat's how I roll!"

We also got a good run out of the Minions from the same movies: The incredulous "WHAAA?" from DM1 and the alarmist "Bee-do, Bee-do, Bee-do" from DM2. From the same franchise, we were also known to observe, in a southern twang: "Somebody's got a frowny face!" and with kid-like glee "It's so fluffy, I'm going to die!" And high-pitched excitement: "Oooh! Stuffed crust!"

But none of these have reached classic status.

They've played out.

Leaving none of us saying: "Play it again, Sam."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Literary Lachrymose

I've written before about crying in the movies.

Rarer, I think is crying while reading a book.

There's something about the enveloping scope of film that, at least for me, encompasses my emotions to the extent that I can give myself over to tears.

It's imagery, yes, but also music and tone and performances and color and movement.

Words on a page are captivating, make no mistake. And I've certainly been taken to another place and time while in the pages of a book.

But there's something about reading that makes me less likely to cry while doing it.

Now laughter, that seems to come easier. I remember receiving a copy of David Sedaris book Holiday on Ice at a work-related Pollyanna one Christmas. I opened it down in the bowels of the SEPTA train station on my way home that evening and dove into The Santaland Diaries. And before I had turned even a half-dozen pages, I was stifling a smile.

And then a short chuckle.

And before long, I was stuffing my fist in my mouth, trying not to appear like a lunatic in public.

It was a tough battle, I can tell you.

But when it comes to shedding tears, I can honestly think of exactly two books that have sent me over.

The first one might seem strange considering the author is horror-meister Stephen King.

But that one was The Green Mile.

For those of you who don't recall its literary beginnings, The Green Mile was a serial novel, in the style of Charles Dickens, who wrote and released chapters in tandem, over time. The Green Mile came out in a chain of short books, as King doled out his story piecemeal.

The conclusion came out while we were on a family beach vacation, and I can remember dashing to a bookstore on the boardwalk to snag a copy and find out the fate of hulking inmate John Coffey and sympathetic warden Paul Edgecomb.

And when I placed my hand once again in King's and read where he took me... my eyes just overflowed.

In a setting that could not have been less conducive to crying: At a crowded New Jersey beach with hundreds of sunbathers, swimmers, families, ice cream hawkers, walkers, talkers and gawkers.

The other book to push me to tears was, not surprisingly, Marley and Me. John Grogan's account of his goofy and loveable Lab was a must-read for someone with his own goofy and loveable Lab. But the ending was gut-wrenching.

That's it. Over a lifetime of reading, exactly two books have caused me to cry with emotion.

Now if we want to talk books that bored me to tears, that's another conversation...

Friday, October 11, 2013


The day began with an alarm at 4:15 a.m.

I was due in Broomall at 6:30, and although the commute in the early morning murk would have taken no more than 40 minutes or so, there was a dog to walk first.

So I popped out of bed as quietly as possible, dressed for the pre-dawn chill, grabbed the leash and collar, and set forth with Parker.

I didn't want to cheat him, even though I knew that an expenditure of physical capital in the morning might come back to haunt me later in the day. But what the heck, I thought. It's a good warmup.

So we walked one of our usual two-mile treks.

Back home, I filled his kibble bowl and his water bowl, changed, and hopped into the car.

It was ride day.

For the second year in a row, I was attempting the MS City-to-Shore Ride to benefit MS. This fundraiser is a 70+ mile ride (not a race, thankfully) between Cherry Hill and Ocean City, NJ. Last year, as a rookie rider, I successfully completed the course with my team, the Spoke Busters, blogging about the incredible experience here. 

But this year was different.

During the prep for City-to-Shore 2012, I was unfortunately unemployed. One of the only upsides to that disaster was the opportunity to train more rigorously. I could basically get out on two wheels every day of the week, which I did, for the most part, weather permitting. After my morning chores and scrub of online job hunting sites, I'd mount my metal steed and roll through a dozen miles or so.

This year, being gainfully employed (thank God), I had a tougher time prepping.

My rides would be limited to weekend, and even they were tough to get out, taken up with projects like this one. 

By early September, however, my weekend calendar started to clear and I found myself with more time to prep.

There was also one big upside to this year's ride.

I'd be sharing the road with one of my oldest, closest friends. JT had, almost by accident, been at the finish line last year and made a commitment to himself that he'd join the Spoke Busters for 2013.

We trained together, riding both in NJ and PA to acclimate to longer mileage. And had a lot of silliness along the way. Added benefit.

The other challenge that emerged this year came in the form of a notice from NJDOT, which determined that a pothole along the way would require a detour. 

So what was a 78-mile ride.

Became an almost-80 one.

Bring it!

And so as the sun crept above the horizon on that early morning of the ride, JT and I -- along with our team -- set out.

It turned into a brilliantly beautiful day, making the roadwork an enjoyable time in the late-summer temps.

John and I paced ourselves together, catching and passing other SB members; allowing them to pass as they chose. As happened last year, we all connected at the five rest stops along the way.

We talked as we rode, JT and me. Laughed ourselves silly. Spurred each other on. At a stoplight, as the cyclists clustered behind a police officer and waited for the go-ahead, we noticed a biker with a sign above her rider number: Today Is My Birthday.

It didn't take much of a mischievous look between us before we launched into a top-of-the-lungs rendition of "Happy Birthday."

The fact that we didn't know her name didn't stop us at all: "Happy Birthday, Dear Ridergirl, Happy Birthday to Youuuuuu!"

We also giggled at the cyclist who seemed intent on nothing more than selling his riding partner financial products en-route. Mile after mile, he prattled on about household income and college planning and cashflow interruptions.

The cycling salesman.

The up-hill huckster.

I reminded JT of the scene in the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, where Virgil Starkwell is put into solitary confinement, where his punishment is made all the worse when he's locked up with an insurance salesman.

Much of the same goodwill that carried me along last year was also an inspiration this year: Signs along the way. The occasional neighbor at the end of the driveway, clapping and cheering.

When John and I ran out of conversation (shocking, I know), we merely dug in and churned through the miles.

The finale, as was the case last year, consisted of the double-hump bridges to the north of Ocean City. By then, a stiff wind had kicked up, requiring a real dig-dig-dig of effort to get over, especially the first.

The second, however, turns toward the island itself, which thankfully put the wind squarely at our backs. We ascended and waited for our teammates at the pre-arranged stop.

Snapped photos.

Congratulated each other.

When the Spoke Busters were again united, we whooshed down the far side of the incline and into Ocean City proper.

A few twisty blocks later, we had made it.

Last year, this ride was a matter of: Can I make it?

This year, this ride was a matter of: Can I make it again?

But as before, considering where the dollars go and who they benefit, this much remains unchanged.

Crossing that finish line may have been fun.

But it really wasn't the point at all.


Monday, September 23, 2013

The Keys to Musicianship

I'm asked a lot if my musical talent spills over into other instruments.

And with a dose of regret, I've got to say, No.

It's not for a lack of trying, though.

My grandfather played violin in a String Band as part of the New Year's Day Mummer's Parade, a Philadelphia tradition. Or at least that's what I've been told.

Sadly, I never heard him play.

On the occasional birthday party celebration at my grandparents' house, "the fiddle" would occasionally make an appearance.

But he had 103 different reasons why he could never scratch out a tune: No rosin. No A string. Bow was bent. Horsehairs had dried out. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When he passed away in the mid-1980s, my grandmother decided "the fiddle" should come to me (despite having a cousin who played viola, as I recall).

But hey, it wasn't my decision to whom this musical treasure would go.

And I tried valiantly to learn how to play it. Had it restored. Found a teacher. Took lessons.

Was terrible.

I managed to get through "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and that was about it.

So, yes, I've played Mozart on a violin.

My teacher knew the story of how I came to own a violin. And after reaching a point where it was pretty fruitless for me to continue, she had a heart-to-heart about my hands.

My big, beefy hands.

The ones I discussed here.

She told me how unsuited they were to the tiny spaces on a violin. Suggested a better fit for me would be either the cello or the string bass.

Given the size of my hands, maybe one of those washtubs with a broomstick handle tied to it would have been best.

So my violin career was snuffed a'borning.

For years, I also struggled with the piano. Having honed skills on the organ, I found them totally nontransferrable to piano, for some reason.

I couldn't master the touch; I had trouble maintaining consistent intervals when running up or down the keys; and I needed something to do with my feet that involved more than just three pedals.

Over the years, I got passable at piano. Faked and fluffed my way through as needed. 

I carry around exactly one tune on piano that I can riff through at a party or whatever, when asked: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in E-flat.

Don't ask for it in another key.

I have always wanted to play something like "The Maple Leaf Rag" on piano.

But haven't climbed that particular Everest yet.

Recently, however, I've been challenging myself to get better at the piano. Our church had a baby grand donated (!), and in an effort to keep it from merely gathering dust, I'm forcing myself to play the thing.

I'm still baffled by a lot of the technique, but I'm at least able to capably lead some singing sitting behind the 88s.

And if all else fails, our congregation may find itself singing a rousing chorus of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

In E-flat.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Ticket to Cried

I cry at the movies.

There, I said it.

I've cried in the movies for a long time, too.

I remember seeing Dumbo in its 1972 big screen re-release (I would have been nine then) and, of course, crying over the"Baby Mine" sequence, where the li'l pachyderm, unjustly separated from his mommy, finds solace the only way he can, nestled in the trunk that she's stretching from behind her jail cell.

And Bambi (1975 re-issue), searching for his mother.

And Old Yeller, on one of its revivals, too, because I wasn't born when it premiered in 1957.

And Brian's Song (1971), which, for some bizarre reason, our Catholic elementary school -- Sacred Heart Manoa -- decided to show us as a class (!), bringing us into the gym, where we sat on rickety metal chairs and tried to use the clatter of an ancient 16mm projector to hide our sniffles and snuffles.

Especially the guys.

I remember being so swept away in the story of The Elephant Man (1980) that, blubbering tearfully at the scene where he is tormented by cruel Londoners who don't see the beautiful soul beneath the deformities, I actually stood up in the theater and yelled at the screen, "You leave him alone!"

Not my proudest moment in a theater house.

Even Gone with the Wind (1939), which I've had the good fortune to see on the big screen a handful of times, gets me. If Clark Gable, the rough and tumble man's-man of the movies, gets washed out as Rhett Butler at the death of his daughter, how can I do less?

Let's see. Terms of Endearment (1983) reduced me to jelly. Titanic (1997), despite being overblown, knocked me over emotionally at the sight of the elderly couple holding each other as the water washes underneath the bed in their cabin. And the Irish mother trying to soothe her children in their bunk.

And I stupidly took our middle-kid, Claire, to see My Dog Skip (2000), unaware that it was a heart-breaker. So she and I reduced a pile of napkins, obtained for blotting popcorn grease, to a sodden mess.

Marley and Me (2008) was another toughie. Yes, being a dog lover makes me particularly susceptible to being affected by canine calamity pictures.

Which also came to light in recently watching Quill (2004), a Japanese docu-drama about a seeing-eye dog.

Not that I don't recommend these movies; I can honestly say I've enjoyed each and every one of them. 

They're just likely to send me reaching for a Kleenex.

It's not even like I can get over it by watching them repeatedly. No matter how many times I watch Travis Coates man-up and face the awful fate that has befallen his "ugly yeller dog," I am moved.

If I could shuck this emotionalism off by repeated viewings, surely I would have stopped reacting decades ago to It's a Wonderful Life (1946), a movie I have seen probably hundreds of times.

Matters not. When brother Harry toasts brother George as "the richest man in town"...


...suffice to say I may have to discreetly wipe away a mote of dust that has unfortunately landed in my eye around that point in the film.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Repair Dispair

As a church musician for the past 30+ years, I've developed  heightened dexterity.

My mother, an RN who would know these things, would often look at my beefy hands and comment that they reminded her of "surgeon's hands," given the extreme muscularity that developed over years of practicing scales, hymns, choral accompaniments and Bach toccatas.

Not to mention typing. Writing for a living has also made me fleet of finger.

Why, then, am I such a doofus when it comes to tools?

I have exactly 0 ability with a pliers, wrench, socket set, hand saw, drill or screwdriver.

This deficiency is a major obstacle as the only male in a house of women. Well, there's Parker, but he doesn't even have the opposable thumbs needed to pour his own kibble (which may be a good thing!).

I am, therefore, the go-to guy when things go awry in the house.

Which was exactly the case when our front-load washer went on the fritz last night. Of course, this happens at 10 p.m., with a load of sopping clothes inside and an energy and patience reservoir on low, considering my workday and the late hour.

I never quite grew up with the fix-it mentality. Dad was incredibly adept at this kind of thing; the engineer in him loved puzzling out a problem and working through a solution: a washer here, a shim there, a spritz of 3-in-1 oil for good measure. And voila!

Unlike a lot of sons who hover at their dad's side offering to help -- or a least watch -- I was #3 in a line of three brothers. Any view of what was going on was routinely blocked by two other heads and four other hands (more capable from being older) ready to assist.

I've picked up a lot of things on my own, though. I've managed some low-level plumbing repairs around our house, deconstructing and replacing the float-lever on the toilet, for example. Electrical projects scare me just a bit, but I've replaced outlets and switches without frying my hair.

Car fixes? Not so much. I can change a flat, re-fill the windshield washer reservoir and work jumper cables. That's about it. Early on, I remember changing the oil myself, but I now leave that task to the professionals -- it's messy and inconvenient and disposing of the used oil is a pain.

Tech? Eek. I've kept our computers running thus far but currently am having network issues associated with a new router.

Fortunately, I have resources.

One of our longest of long-term friends is a help-desk guy for a major, local financial institution. He's terrific for diagnosing over the phone and walking me through to-dos.

And I've gotten a lot of help along the way from YouTube, which, if you can weed through the useless but funny cat videos, does have good home-repair info, all demonstrated for we who are truly hapless handymen. I fixed a door that wouldn't 100% catch by watching some Bob Vila-type go at the misaligned trim with a drill held sideways, widening the receiving notch until it successfully grabbed the latch.

But this front-load washer train-wreck is proving to be a major hurdle.

YouTube had a few suggestions, like cleaning out the drain pump, a task I successfully managed last night, despite my reduced mental state and a continual challenge of sloppy, smelly water. Plus the fun of working wet with a plugged-in appliance.

And I thought I had it.

Until it became clear that I didn't.

Luckily, I can continue to use my manual dexterity.

Dialing a repair-dude does take a bit of finesse with the fingers.

Monday, August 19, 2013


I'm looking forward to the beginning of football season.

It wasn't always the case.

I used to hate football on television.

Part of that is because I grew up in a football-addicted household. Both my parents were fervent and hopeful fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, which meant they spent many Sunday afternoons watching horrible players do inexcusable things.

Not one to hold back, they often yelled at the screen, coaching plays from home. My strongest memories of this are from high school and college, when I'd be heads-down into a textbook in my room -- directly aside the master bedroom where the TV was -- while they reacted to what was going on:

"get-em, get-em, Get-Em, Get-Em, GET HIM!"

Always this escalation of cheering that seemed to cause the plaster on the walls to crack and flake.

These were the years of Leonard Tose ownership, Dick Vermiel leadership, Ron Jaworski stardom and Bill Bergey muscle. But Mom and Dad stayed devoted fans, through the years of Norman Braman, Buddy Ryan, Rich Kotite, Randall Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb.

He never went to the The Vet, the stadium where these battles unfolded. We would talk yearly of season tickets as a gift to him, but it never worked out. After a trip to an Eagles game at Franklin Field with the Boy Scouts, where his good coat was ruined by a hotdog tossed by someone who had drunk too much "antifreeze" as a guard against the chill, Dad was content to watch from the comfort of his own home.

He dreamed of their reception of a set of Super Bowl rings. And at the close of each disappointing season, he'd sigh: "Well, there's always next year..."

Dad was never one to authorize meals in front of the television; he wanted them at the table and away from the distraction of the tube. But on afternoons of Sunday Eagles football, he was okay with lunch in front of the game. So midway through the anguish, Mom & Dad would pass by my door, check in to see how things were going, and return after a trip to the kitchen, carrying bowls of soup or stacks of peanut butter crackers.

I hated it. Not sure if I hated the noise or just the thoughts of football on TV itself, but I was never quite a fan.

And I stayed distant from TV football for years and years. Graduated college and didn't watch. Dated Eileen and didn't watch. Married and didn't watch. Had kids and didn't watch.


Sometime in the early 2000s, I flicked on a game. And I got caught.

There was something about the battle -- the long struggle of one side against another for turf and time -- that appealed to me. Other teams bored me, as I didn't know (or didn't care) who the stars were. But the Iggles had their claws in me and I became anchored in front of the set each Sunday afternoon.

I was happy to share my new-found interest with Dad, who was eager to explain shotgun formations and onside kicks to his football novice son. We cheered together at their appearance at the 2004 Super Bowl, taking the occasion to involve even Amanda, Claire, Kristin, and Wesley.

But sadly, it was too little too late.

Dad passed away in 2006, just as my Eagles fandom was taking deeper and deeper root.

I fumbled. I fumbled on those years when we may have shared just one more thing.

I think of him often on Sunday afternoons.

And raise a spoon of lunch-soup as a toast, as I'm sitting in front of the set.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Driving Force

It seems like each summer we grab a project that occupies a lot of our time during the June, July, August period.

Last year, it was the pursuit of full-time employment for me.

This year, it's getting Claire, our middle daughter, her driver's license.

According to the driving laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, learner's permit drivers must log a certain number of hours behind the wheel with a licensed adult over the age of 21. When Amanda, our eldest, went for her license four years ago, my memory tells me that her requirement was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 hours.

Not sure why, but in the interval between then and now, that bar has been set higher.

It's now a whopping 65 hours!

And what's more, they've got to be in-state. Student drivers cannot be behind the wheel and cross state lines.

So to amass that time in the driver's seat, at the onset of this project, Claire needed to steer her way the equivalent of the distance of about six round trips between home and Pittsburgh.

Knowing that that was infeasible, revved her engine on shorter jaunts.

The biggest issue has been fitting those trips into an already packed schedule. Weekends have been prime, but Eileen is often working at the bank Saturday mornings, and I'm often tied up Saturday afternoons during the summer accompanying weddings. We've tried as much as possible to have her drive us on various errands, but c'mon. The dry cleaners and back is probably 20 minutes, tops. 65 hours worth of that is 195 trips! Nobody's got that much dry cleaning.

We've pieced together a schedule that has had us out a lot of summer evenings, practicing highway travel, parallel parking, merging and yielding after dinner.

After some initial (expected) bumps in the road, Claire has developed into a good driver. She's still got a ways to go (15 hours or so), but she has progressed very nicely.

She's come far from her fledgling steps, circling the empty parking lot of a local outlet mall. Claire is a very lineal thinker: A is followed by B, which is followed by C, D, E, and F.

Unfortunately, driving doesn't unfold that way, so she struggled at first with the requisite multitasking:

  • "Yes, Claire, you must turn and accelerate at the same time."
  • "Yes, Claire, you need to pull up to the stop sign and put your turn signal on at the same time."
  • "Yes, Claire, you must stay in your merge lane and look for traffic on your left at the same time."

She has made a lot of progress, though.

And in all honesty, our time shared in the car has turned into a good chance to chat, share, bond.

Soon, she'll have her license and the wings of freedom to fly.

And I'll be very proud of her accomplishment.

But I think I'll miss our time together, too.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

It's been about four months since I've been shaving my head.

And I can honestly say I don't miss my hair at all.

The decision was one I thought about for a long time before taking the plunge. I knew several things about my hair:

  • It was thinning at an alarming rate.
  • It had grayed to the point of almost being white
  • It made me look old.
The girls have heard this story ad nauseum (like most of my stories), but this episode had a lot to do with the realization that I needed to do something about my look.

While in a deli line, I had Kristin in my arms (she was a toddler, maybe two or three, so this was probably 10 years ago). The deli counter lady smiled at Kristin and asked me, "Would you like a sample of American cheese for your granddaughter?"



That one stung.

But the mistake was understandable. What with the gray hair and its gradual exit from my scalp, I did look like someone old enough to have a grandchild.

It seems as if my hair has been in a transitional phase my entire life. As a kid, it was thin and blond, and I wore a bowl-cut ala Dennis the Menace.

As a teen, it darkened and thickened. A lot. Around the temples in the summers, it would get bushier and bushier until I couldn't stand it anymore and would beg the barber to thin it out.

In my 20s, I began going gray. Yes, 20s. 

By my 30s, it was salt-and-peppery, sort of like my Dad's. But he was in his 60s at that phase.

In my 40s, I had more gray than black. And just recently, the hairline began the backward crawl from my forehead back toward my ears.

I actually considered coloring it. More than once. But the fact that it was thinning at an alarming rate stopped me. There wasn't even enough to hold color, should I be interested in the bother and expense (and discomfort) of dye.

Not wanting the Friar Tuck look (hair only around my ears and the back of my scalp), I took matters into my own hands.

And shaved it off.

And really? I'm okay with it. 

There are advantages:

  • I can step from the shower and be dry and ready to dress in seconds.
  • I can drive with the windows down in the car and not emerge looking like a cast member of the Hair Bear Bunch.
  • I'm more streamlined in the pool. Swimming underwater is really neat.
  • I'm saving time and cash on haircuts, which, with tip, were stretching toward $30.
  • I'm ready to go should Broadway issue the casting call for a revival of The King and I.
 The bald truth.

Monday, July 8, 2013


I habitually wear two rings. One is my wedding band, nestled on my left hand for the past quarter century, nudged there by Eileen and left in place so long that the skin has crimped around it.

It's been dinged over the years, smudged with diaper ointment along the way, glooped with barbecue sauce, coated with cookie dough, and had a few dog hairs caught in it.

But it remains what it started out to be: an unbroken symbol of the promise we made to each other 25 years ago and that we work diligently to keep day after day, year after year.

The one on my right hand has not been as steady.

Initially, the right-hand ring was from the Class of 1981 Cardinal O'Hara High School. The rectangular red stone was immediately identifiable -- even at a distance -- and unlike other graduates who lose interest in their class rings after a number of years, I wore mine proudly into college.

It was replaced in 1984 with the class ring of St. Joseph's University, a rounded blue stone that sat high on a gold mound encrusted with dates and seals and Latin... and, of course, a Hawk that will Never Die.

In 2006, that SJU ring was replaced on my right hand with the ring I'm wearing now. Taking that action -- ditching my school ring(s) -- was not something I took lightly. I worked hard for them and enjoyed the badge of honor they represented.

But the replacement meant even more to me.

The replacement was my father's ring, a 1950s-era gold band with a solitary diamond nested in a square setting.

I wear it as much to honor him as the story behind it.

Dad entered the U.S. Navy at age 17, diverting his college attendance several years while he served his country. Because he did not receive a ring from a university in his early 20s (as many of his friends did), his parents bought him a ring, tiding him over until he earned one himself.

He did eventually attend LaSalle University and wore its ring. But that piece of jewelry was lost at a baseball practice, when Dad slipped his hand out of a mitt and accidentally slid the ring off with the glove, losing it in the tall grass of the field. Despite a hands-and-knees search in the waning sunlight (this was well before hobbyist metal detectors), it was gone forever.

So he went back to wearing the ring his parents gave him. Usually it was on special occasions -- weddings, funerals, Christmas -- when he was all dressed up, suit-and-tie style. I remember distinctly that if Dad was wearing cufflinks, he was also wearing his diamond ring.

I also remember him tapping it in rhythm to the tunes on the AM radio in his car, creating a cheery pinging counterpoint on the horn ring. Back when cars had horn rings!

I always admired that piece of jewelry.

When Dad passed away in 2006, Mom asked my brother and me if there were anything of his that we particularly wanted.

I wanted the ring.

And with very few exceptions, it has remained on my hand ever since. Glancing at it while I'm driving or playing the organ or cooking or typing at the compute -- as I'm doing now -- seeing it glint in the light... it all works to keep him close in my memory.

Which is why it has supplanted all other rings on that right hand.

And probably always will.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Traveled but Unraveled

I think I need the official restoration of the Catholic Church's veneration of St. Christopher.

Especially as patron saint of travelers.

St. Christopher's feast day was apparently rescinded -- as far as my 10 minutes' research has been able to find -- because there was some question about his martyrdom. 

 Regardless, I may be investing in a St. Christopher medal, especially given my travel schedule lately.

I've been away from business travel for the past 10 years or so. Earlier in my career, I did a fair amount of it, zipping to Washington D.C. or New York when I was handling communications related to the banking industry. (D.C. for the regulatory front; NY for the money-center front.)

Now that I'm in travel and tourism, I'm on the road a little more.

Business travel hasn't changed all that much. Post-9/11 security measures make things a little more inconvenient, but I'm okay with the trade-off of slipping out of my shoes in exchange for the assurance that nobody's packing napalm in their Nunn Bushes.

My luck with travel started getting sketchy when I flew to Detroit to bring Parker home from his Michigan breeder. It was supposed to be a quick in-and-out trip; I wasn't even going to leave the airport, with the breeder bringing the eight-week-old guy to me, handing him off, and enabling me to zip right back home.

Didn't work out that way.

The transfer went fine. I had borrowed a carry-bag to enable Parker to ride in the cabin with me, rather than in the luggage compartment, something I was insistent on.

But then the flight got delayed. A lot. And I spent about five hours in the Detroit airport with a little puppy.

We played. He napped. And his bathroom needs were met with inventiveness and creativity (luckily, we only had to deal with the liquid end), thanks to some potty-pads I had brought for the lining of the borrowed bag.

And luckier still, I had brought some kibble and some dog cookies for good measure.

We were told the delay was attributable to the flight crew, who couldn't quite be found. The aircraft was right outside the window, but there was nobody to drive!

The real kicker came when said crew arrived (hey, Mr. Co-Pilot, what'd you do, oversleep?), and we finally got on the plane. And then weather in Philadelphia delayed us on the tarmac.

So then Parker became that whining baby on a plane, except instead of caterwauling, he barked and whimpered along the way. Thank you, fellow passengers, for your patience as we sat there an additional two hours waiting to take off.

Eileen texted me mid-wait: "How are you? How is Parker?"

I responded: "Parker is fine; I'm fraying at the edges!"

Thankfully, we made it home. Once I got him off the plane, I rushed Parker to the first available patch of green grass that Philadelphia International Airport had to offer.

He was very glad to see it.

This past May, I was sent to Memphis for a business conference.

I was originally supposed to fly through Atlanta, but at the last minute, my flight was re-routed through Detroit.

Ummm, yeah.

And so it was no surprise when, two years later and on a different carrier, I was again delayed.

Because the flight crew wasn't there.

Okay, so last week I was sent to Washington D.C. No planes this time! I was Amtrak-ing it.

Ride down: No problem.

Ride home: Delayed. First we were set back an hour because our passenger train had gotten stuck behind a slow-moving freight train. Then the delay stretched to 90 minutes.

Finally boarded. Whew.

And there was one more setback along the way when an exiting passenger couldn't find her bag.

St. Christopher! Where are you when I need you?