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Pining for Christmas

Christmas Tree 1This year we wanted to start a new Christmas tradition with my kids, something we could enjoy together during this special season as we give thanks for our blessings and celebrate the birth of our Lord.

So we decided to go out and kill a perfectly good tree.

I grew up with one of those fake plastic trees and, honestly, I was fine with it. You really couldn’t see the tree anyway, buried beneath the ton of tinsel that my mother would meticulously place, piece by piece, on every single fake branch.

I used to love to gaze up at that shimmering plastic pine and bask in the glow of those big old-fashioned lights that would bathe the room in a soft, multi-color glow, and that would actually last more than one year, unlike today’s cheapy, made-to-self-destruct-after-one-use lights.

My wife and I have had fake tree ever since we were married 10 years ago, and it has served us well. I actually keep it set up year-round in the basement so that I can just carry it upstairs – scraping the paint from the walls as I go – and plop it in the corner of the living room. That way I avoid spending hours trying to figure out how to assemble it.

This year we thought it would be a little more fun to go out and get a real tree. Not only would it give our home that wonderful pine-fresh smell, but after Christmas, instead of hauling it back down to the basement, I could just drag it out to the curb and let the Borough deal with it. And what’s more American than a disposable tree!

So on a recent wintry morning, we packed into the car and headed out to a local Christmas tree farm. The kids were buzzing with excitement when we arrived, and I knew right away that this was going to be a cherished new annual tradition. Then, five seconds out of the car, my son reached down to the ground to grab some snow to eat and ended up with a mouthful of dirt and pine needles. Let the memory-making begin!

Riding on the cartWe had heard that the best type of tree to get is a Frasier Fir because supposedly it sheds the least amount of needles. So we asked one of the employees to point us in the right direction. “We can’t grow them Frasiers up ‘ere,” said the kind young man, a wad of tobacco tucked firmly in cheek. “What you want is a Douglas Fir. Just head down that-a-way. Can’t miss’em.”

So I grabbed a tree cart, the kids hopped on, and we headed off into the manmade forest.

Halfway down the trail my son fell off the cart, and I dragged him in the snow for a bit before my daughter alerted me to the situation. Luckily, the little guy was fine. A little dirt in his mouth, but that was nothing new.

Before the killingAfter about 15 minutes of comparing the virtues of various trees, we finally found the perfect specimen—a majestic, 8-foot Douglas Fir with a nice full shape and, more important, no signs of bird nests or stink bugs. Next I did my best lumberjack impersonation as the kiddos went off looking for more dirty snow to eat. Then we towed the tree back up the hill, where the Carhartt crew bundled it up as I went inside to buy a stand that cost nearly as much as the tree itself.

Although I still feel a little remorseful about chopping it down, I really do like the way the decorated tree corpse looks in the corner of our living room. Sure, maybe we have to pick up the occasional pine needle and remember to water it every so often, but there’s just something so special about a real tree.

Dead and lifeless, though it may be.

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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Christmas

 

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Surviving Family Time

The Demolition Crew

Back in the old days, extended families would live together under the same roof. Grandparents, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins would all shack up in one house, sharing resources and, more important, the adventures and blessings of everyday life.

Which explains why the average life expectancy was so much shorter back then.

Over the past two weeks, we shared our home with my younger sister, her husband, and their three adorable daughters – ages 3, 18 months, and 6 months – while they were in town for a visit. Add in my two little ones, and that makes five little munchkins who were running rampant throughout my home from dusk to dawn.

I don’t know how I made it out alive.

My house is large, square-footage-wise, but the extra space is mostly vertical, thanks to the high ceilings. This would be helpful if we were housing, say…an NBA team. It is of no benefit, however, when your roomers are less than 3 feet tall.

Words can’t describe the amount of devastation five young children can inflict on one’s home. Imagine coating every surface on the inside of your house with a layer of honey – your furniture, your walls, your television, etc. – and then inviting a family of ravenous black bear in to have at it. When it’s all said and done, everything is sticky, broken, and in complete disarray.

It’s sorta like that.

Oh, com’on, you say. They’re just children! And little ones at that. How destructive could they be? Believe me, they can do some damage. Don’t let their size fool you. Have you ever seen what a colony of army ants can do when they get organized? I rest my case.

I have to be fair to my 6-month-old niece, though. The sweet little angel’s not even crawling yet and, therefore, didn’t really contribute much to the craziness. Then again, she didn’t help much, either.

My dining room table is under there. Somewhere.

Dinnertime and bedtime, of course, were the most challenging. I’ve documented in the past just how difficult it can be to get just my two children to eat dinner. Throw another three into the mix and it’s absolute mayhem. Every evening I inhaled my meal as fast as possible, just to get out of the way of the flying food and spilt milk. My poor wife and sister, on the other hand, would go days without eating. They were too busy cooking, cutting, spooning, cleaning, wiping, and refilling.

Nighttime was a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Fortunately my children have reached the age where bedtime is reasonably routine. My sister’s kids, however, are still at that age where bedtime can be a precarious situation.

Each night while my sister fed the baby, my brother-in-law focused on getting the other two girls to bed. Taking one of his daughters, he’d ascend the stairs to the bedroom, only to return an hour or so later, frustrated and visibly spent. Then he’d take the other one up for round two. Some nights he’d come back; others he’d mysteriously disappear, only to resurface the next morning.

This chaotic atmosphere left little time for cleaning, as you can imagine. Not that we didn’t try. In the past two weeks we did 30 loads of dishes, 18 loads of laundry, swept the dining room floor 47 times, cleaned up 23 spills, and picked up the same toys over and over again continuously for 252 hours straight, just to keep from being buried alive.

O.K., maybe I’m being a little melodramatic. I have to admit that, despite the mess and the madness, it was really wonderful to spend so much time with family. After all, the mess is temporary, but the memories will last forever. I guess I just need to learn to relax and to enjoy it.

Only next time they come for a visit, I think we’ll all enjoy it together over in their suite at the Holiday Inn.

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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An Open Letter to Future Me

Dear Future Me,

Future Me

Today Me

I hope all is well with you.

Things are just dandy here. But, of course, you already knew that.

I know you’re busy with book-signing tours, television interviews, and counting your piles of money, so I won’t take up too much of your time. But I wanted to talk to you about something…

Now that the kids are all grown up and the nest is empty, so to speak, you may be thinking wistfully of the past. You’ve probably even been longing for the days when the kids were much younger. After all, like you keep telling yourself, those were the best days of your life.

Heck, I bet you’ve even turned into one of those people who go around telling parents of young children how “It all goes so fast!” and to “Enjoy this time because, before you know it they’ll be all grown up.”

Since your then is my now, and since your memory has been clouded by years of drinking too much cheap Cabernet, let me clarify something about the past: It wasn’t as great as you remember.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love my (your) kids more than anything in the world, as we both know, and I think that they are so incredibly cute and fun at this age. Get this: They actually enjoy being around me, and they still think I know everything. Ha! Remember those days? Probably not. Again, the Cabernet.

But over the years your aging brain has played a trick on you. It has allowed you to forget just how mentally and physically exhausted you were during this time of your life. Believe me—you’re pooped.

Oh, com’on, you say, I wasn’t that tired.

Yes, Future Me. Yes you were.

Unless I’m at the office or asleep or asleep at the office, every second of my (your) life revolves around those little buggers. I’m constantly dressing them, undressing them, bathing them, feeding them, begging them to eat something—anything, putting them in Timeout every five seconds; picking toys off the floor in the living room, the dining room, the bathroom, the kitchen, the laundry room, the bedroom, the front yard, the back yard, the neighbor’s yard; packing a bag of toys to keep them busy at the restaurant, picking toys up off of the floor at the restaurant, cleaning up the mess on the floor at the restaurant, telling him not to eat that piece of food on the floor at the restaurant, buckling them into their car seats, taking them out of their car seats, telling her to stop teasing him, telling him to stop hitting her, brushing her hair, brushing his teeth, wiping their noses, wiping their…well, you know, reading them a book, reading them another book, putting them to bed, taking them out of bed to go to the potty, putting them back in bed, coming back upstairs to get them a drink of water…and so many other things that I can’t think of right now because, frankly, I’m just too tired.

And lest you forget, Future Me, your only real free time was after they finally went to bed. By that time you were so beat that it was a struggle just to stay up past 9 o’clock. And “free” is a misnomer, because you were actually trapped in the house until you left for work the next morning, when it all started over again.

But I bet you don’t remember any of that, do you? You only remember the really good parts, like playing tents or hide-and-seek in the living room, secretly listening to her play school with her stuffed animals, watching him play with your old Matchbox cars, giving them horsey rides around the living room, pushing him on the swing at the park, pretending to eat the pretend cake she made you in the sandbox, hearing them say “DADDY!” as they raced to hug you when you got home from work, holding hands with her as you skipped down the sidewalk, pushing him in his stroller as he pointed out the squirrels, hearing them laugh as you tickled them in their car seats, listening to them sing along to the radio in the back of the car, bouncing him on your shoulders as you walked up-street for ice cream, reading them bedtime stories as they clutched their blankies, holding him close before placing him in his crib for the night, kissing her goodnight as you tucked her in to bed…

You know what, Future Me? Maybe you’re right after all. This really is a wonderful time. Maybe the best.

Forget all that stuff I said about how hard things were. (Oh, that’s right…you already did.)

I’ll check back in when they’re teenagers. Hopefully we made it through alive.

Take care,

Past You

PS: College wasn’t that great either. (Yeah it was.)

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Kielbasa, Beans, and Tomatoes

“Mom just took Dad to the E.R.” said my sister. “He’s having trouble remembering anything. He doesn’t even remember going to work today.”

I hung up the phone. Numb. Cass would be at yoga for another hour or so, her cell phone off. I was at home with the kids, right in the middle of bedtime madness. I couldn’t leave, but I didn’t want to stay either. I thought about calling the neighbor to come over to stay with the kids, but I just couldn’t subject them to the wrath of Hurricane Isaac.

I sent out an A.P.B. prayer request to my tight-with-Jesus friends. One of whom, George, is a pastor, and I was hoping he might have a little extra oomph in his petition.

When Cass got home I debriefed her on the situation. She immediately called the neighbor and asked her to stay with our sleeping and now harmless children while we dashed to the hospital.

When we got there, Dad seemed relatively fine. Mom, my sister Nicole, and my friend George were already there. Mom seemed weary, and I was about to find out why.

For hours now Dad had been repeating the same line of questions every 2 minutes, in almost the exact same order:

Dad: Did I go to work today? And I rode the bus home? Then what?

Mom: We had dinner.

Dad: What did we eat?

Mom: Kielbasa, beans, and tomatoes.

Dad: And then what?

Mom: You went out and cut the grass.

Dad: I cut the grass? The back or front?

Mom: The front. With the push mower. Then you put water in the pool.

Dad: I put water in the pool?! And then what?

Mom: We talked to the neighbors and then you came in and took a shower.

Dad: So I guess I must have been incoherent, that’s why you brought me here?

Mom: No, not incoherent. You were just having memory issues.

Dad: Yeah, no shit. I cut the front yard and put water in the pool?

Mom: Yep.

Dad: Wow. I don’t remember any of that. Now I’m scared.

Then tears would well up in his eyes, both out of fear and frustration, and seconds later it would start all over again:

Dad: So I went to work today?

Mom: Yes.

Dad: And then I rode the bus home?…

And so it went, hour after hour. He was like a record that would skip at the same spot and then jump back to the beginning. Just as we’d explain everything to him, he’d suddenly forget it all and we’d be right back at the beginning. We tried to keep a straight face, but after you say “Keilbasa, beans, and tomatoes” for the umpteenth time, you can’t help but laugh.

“What are you laughing at?”

“Don’t worry about it, Dad. You won’t remember in a minute anyway.”

The doctors weren’t sure what was going on. They had done a cat scan and an EKG as soon as he arrived and everything looked clear. No signs of a stroke, bleeding on the brain, or anything serious like that. The funny thing is…I knew what was going on almost immediately.

About a month ago I was out on a long run, listening to a podcast called Radiolab. The particular episode I was listening to was about different kinds of loops. One of these “loops” was the story of a young woman whose mother had called her one day and was having trouble remembering things. The woman immediately took her mother to the hospital, thinking it was a stroke. Then, over the next several hours, the mother repeated the same set of questions every 90 seconds or so (Sound familiar?). Eventually, as the hours passed, the mother’s short-term memory slowly began to expand and she began to remember more and more until she had made a complete recovery. They determined it was a rare and relatively harmless malady known as Transient Global Amnesia (TGA).

When I got to the hospital and observed my dad, TGA immediately came to mind. All the signs were there: the repeating questions, the lack of any other symptoms, and the fact that he had probably overexerted himself mowing the lawn in the 90-degree heat.

“I think I know what this is!” I told my mom. “Transient Global Amnesia!”

About an hour later the doctor came in and gave us her expert opinion. “We think it may be something known as Transient Global Amnesia.”

Way ahead of you, Doc. I locked eyes with my mom and smiled.

Hearing this gave me some peace, but it was still exhausting — and somewhat freaky – to answer the same questions over and over again for someone who seemed otherwise normal. At one point Dad didn’t remember that I had a son or the fact that we had moved to a new house almost three years ago. Another time he asked if his parents were still alive; they passed away more than a decade ago.

Around midnight we all agreed that it would be best if we just went home and let Dad try to get some sleep. Thing is, it was hard picking a good moment to leave. As soon as you’d get up to go, the line of questioning would begin again. So I went out and asked the nurse for a pen and paper and I wrote Dad a note explaining everything, should he get confused in the middle of the night.

Or two minutes after we left.

It was difficult falling asleep that night. As I lay there, I thought to myself, What if it never stops? What if he just keeps asking the questions over and over…forever? (“For the millionth time, Dad—KIELBASA, BEANS, AND TOMATOES!!!”)

But eventually morning came and I headed back up to the hospital to see how he was doing. When I walked in his room, he was sitting up, hands folded on his lap, a confused look on his face.

“How you doin’?” I asked.

“You tell me.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“Well, I know I’m here for a reason. I just can’t remember how I got here. I know I went to work yesterday, but after that it’s all fuzzy.”

He remembered he had gone to work! He remembered! Thank God.

I began to fill him in on what had happened, totally expecting him to turn into a broken record again. But he never did. He just stared at me, amazed and bewildered. For him, the previous day never existed.

Soon my other family members (and George, too) showed up, and they were all thrilled that Dad was doing so well. We spent the morning laughing and joking about the previous day, as Dad wiped away the tears—this time from laughter rather than fear.

Was it a coincidence that I had heard that podcast just weeks earlier? I don’t think so. Some things are just too coincidental to be a coincidence.

Welcome back, Dad! We love you very, very much. To celebrate, Mom’s making us all dinner!

Guess what we’re having?

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Weenies From Heaven

I’ve always had this vision in my mind of what it would be like the first time I took my kids to a Pittsburgh Pirates game. There’d be oohs and aahs as we emerged from the corridor out into the open to see PNC Park spread out before us in all its splendor. There’d be plenty of nachos and hot dogs and cotton candy (and beer for Daddy). We’d root, root, root for the home team, and maybe I’d even snag a foul ball to the amazement of my adoring offspring.

This past Sunday I hoped this vision would become a reality. In my grand vision, however, I forgot to include the part about carrying Isaac on my shoulders several blocks from our bargain ($12) parking space to the stadium and then all the way up the never-ending ramp to the nose-bleed section. By the time we got to our seats, I was ready for a nap. Coincidentally, so was Isaac, which made keeping him in his seat for more than three pitches a near impossibility.

Meanwhile, as the scent of nachos and hot dogs and other ballpark delectables filled the air, Cassie took out her Tupperware container of spinach and feta salad and passed me my almond butter and real-fruit spread sandwich on whole wheat bread. You see, not only was this my kids’ first Major League Baseball game, it was also our first day of the 100 Days of Real Food Challenge—an health and wellness program based on self-inflicted torture and food deprivation, into which my wife had so graciously enrolled the entire family. So, as my friends around me feasted on melted cheddar, French fries, ice cream, beer, and other normal desirable foodstuffs, I choked down my dry sandwich and sipped on bottled water.

But then a miracle happened. Somewhere far below, one of those crazy people who try to keep you entertained between innings, took out her hot-dog bazooka and fired a frankfurter high into air. As the wiener projectile screamed across the blue September sky, I could see that the wind was blowing it in my direction. Then, as the meaty meteor fell back to earth, I reached over the guy next to me and snagged it right out of mid-air! Willie Mays would have been proud.

I held the hot dog triumphantly above my head as the crowd cheered in approval. It was like my entire life had led up to this one glorious moment.

Ah, but glory is fleeting.

Apparently hot dogs – especially hot dogs blasted out of a cannon – do not qualify as “real food”, and therefore I was not permitted to consume my coveted prize. My friend Don tried to convince me to eat it, saying that it was most certainly a sign from God, much like the manna that fell from heaven to the Israelites. But alas, my wife was not swayed by this obvious act of Divine intervention and instead offered me some carrots and humus.

I don’t remember much of the game after that, partly because I was delirious from starvation and partly because we missed several innings as we watched my kids navigate the chaos that was the ballpark’s indoor playground. We could’ve saved some money on gas and tickets if we’d just stayed home and played in the park across the street from my house. But then again, I never would have caught that airborne weenie.

And what would my legacy be then?

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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A Bad Case of the Runs

Don’t ever let me do this again—ever!

That’s what I said to my wife back in 2007 after slogging my way through the supposedly flat and simple Outer Banks Half Marathon.

After spending months training along every street and alley in my little town and feeling confident that I could breeze through 13.1 miles, I struggled most of the way, especially up the steep, mile-long Washington-Baum Bridge, which they had strategically placed three miles before the finish. In the end, I stumbled across the finish line a good half an hour slower than I had planned.

Whatever you do, I told my wife afterward, never let me forget what a painful, exhausting, miserable experience this was. I never want to run again!

This past Sunday I ran 17 miles as part of my training for the Columbus Marathon in October. It was the farthest distance I had ever run. I guess time really does heal all wounds. Either that or all the red wine I’ve imbibed over the years has broken the part of my memory that remembers pain.

To be fair, the OBX half marathon shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. I’m not one to make excuses…but if I were, I’d tell you that I had been sick for the two weeks leading up to the race and therefore never completed my training. That I was woefully uneducated about proper running nutrition. That it was really windy that day. And cold. And that I had a side stitch. And, oh yeah, my nipples were raw. But like I said, I don’t like to make excuses.

Anyway, immediately after the race I announced that I was officially retiring from running, at least the long-distance variety. I had no desire to run that far ever again in my life. I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, albeit barely, and that was good enough for me. From then on I’d stick to the occasional jog around town. Or better yet, watching TV.

But as the years passed I gradually forgot about the pain and began to go farther and farther on my regular runs around town. Then, this past spring, I ran 10 miles, just to see if I could do it. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It actually felt great. Pretty soon I was getting up at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, just so I could have the quiet, peaceful avenues of my still-sleeping town all to myself.

Then one day it hit me: I want to run a marathon! The big 26.2! Never mind that half that distance had almost killed me years before, when I was younger. This was something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do. Maybe it’s because I’m approaching middle age and I feel a need to prove that I’m not over the hill just yet. Maybe I like the idea of challenging myself and shooting for something that scares the bajeezus out of me. Then again, maybe I’m just nuts.

But hey, literally thousands of people run marathons every year. People of all ages and of all shapes and sizes. I mean, if Oprah can complete a marathon, surely little old me can do it too, right? I guess we’ll see.

My kids have no idea what Daddy is doing. All they know is they wake up to find me sprawled out on the living room floor, way too tired, sweaty, and smelly to play horsey just yet. Of course they’ll probably run a marathon themselves throughout the course of the day, just in their normal running, jumping, and bouncing around the house. And then they’ll put up a fight when it’s finally time for bed. The little jerks.

So if you happen to be out about town in the early morning hours and you see me lumbering by, please beep your horn and say a little prayer that I’ll actually follow through with this thing. Either way, when it’s all over with, I’m going back into retirement.

At least until next time.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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A Family Tradition

“Com’on, honey…you can do it! I know you can. We’re almost there…just one more push…”

“I caaaan’t…I’m too tired!”

“Yes you can! You’re being so brave! Com’on…just one more big push—I promise!”

There are moments in your life that you’ll never forget; ones that are so dramatic, so emotional, that they become permanently embedded in your memory. Like when your children are born.

Or that time when you spent an hour and a half in the bathroom with your bawling four-year-old, as you coached her through a successful and freakishly large bowel movement.

Unfortunately, the latter has become a commonplace occurrence in our house. I’m not sure if it’s hereditary or a lack of adequate fiber in her diet, but my daughter is on a once-every-five-days schedule. As a result, I’ve had to hone my plumbing abilities over the past couple of years.

If the plunger was a musical instrument, I’d be a virtuoso.

It was during this most recent bathroom marathon that I was reminded of this one time when I was around six or seven years old. My grandparents were babysitting my sisters and me, when I was struck with a terrible stomachache. Such abdominal pains were common with me, since I’d do everything in my power to put off going Number 2 for as long as possible. Of course, after about a week of squinching, I’d be more backed up than the DMV on a Saturday morning.

My grandmother, however, was a firm believer in maintaining a healthy bowel, and she was determined to end my suffering. She immediately took me to the bathroom and sat me on the “commode”, as she called it. Then, the devoted Catholic that she was, she knelt before me and began to pray the Rosary, beseeching the Almighty to help me “move my bowels.”

Despite my grandmother’s earnest pleas, an hour or so went by with no progress. Apparently the Good Lord had more pressing matters to attend to. But Grandma was resolute. While continuing to pray, she resorted to Plan B: the dreaded enema. I have no words to describe what happened next, so I’ll just leave it to your imagination. (You’re welcome.)

Another hour or so went by with more Rosaries and more enemas. By this time I was exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. But Grandma was steadfast in her mission. She said we were going to stay there as long as it took, no matter if we had to say a thousand Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

Finally, about three hours into the ordeal, Grandma’s prayers were answered. Sweaty and completely pooped, so to speak, I stumbled off to my bed. Although it was only 7 p.m., I slept straight through ’til 10 o’clock the next morning.

I didn’t say the Rosary or resort to Plan B with my daughter. But I did say a few prayers during the process. I even asked Grandma, wherever she was, to use her good standing with the Almighty and ask him to give my baby girl some assistance, as long as He wasn’t off saving some shipwrecked sailors, smiting the wicked, or helping Tim Tebow throw a touchdown.

It must have worked because not long afterward my little angel was relieved of her burden and bouncing around the house like a normal 4-year-old again.

Meanwhile I was back at work with the plunger, working my magic.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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