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Archive for June, 2011

The following camouflaged advice for grownups on how to deliver advice to teenagers without them knowing you’re giving them advice is intended solely for the eyes and ears of those among you who are not teenagers.

The young people in the audience — about whom we are not talking; honest — must have something more important to do than read the newspaper. I’m sure you must have a mixed martial arts tournament to join on the Xbox. Or to hold up to the side of your head the phone that is glued to the palm of your hand. Or to dangle white wires from your ears. Or to fall off of a skateboard. Or to go receive the diploma that is rightfully yours.

The conversation I have been rattling around in my head for the better part of a couple of decades and for which I believe today is as good a day as any to share may very well be why I will never be asked — nor will I ever accept the invitation — to address the graduating class of any high school anywhere on the planet ever.

Well, this and the fact that I probably wouldn’t fit in the gown.

I say this not because I don’t respect or understand the theory behind, practice of and necessity for the commencement ceremony. I get it all.

And not because I hate people. On the contrary. They taste like chicken.

I truly — contrary to the way it might sound in here — wish only the best to every young person who has completed this level of their education. You might all disagree and get mad. (Be thankful there are so few of you; if word of this got out, society might crumble.)

But instead of filling a bunch of wide-eyed, googly headed, hormone-enraged, hung-over, center-of-attention teenagers who want nothing more than to be anywhere other than upon an uncomfortable chair on or in a hot gymnasium/auditorium/cafeteria/cafetorium/performing arts center/church or football field and who have yet to complete two decades on this magnificent, complicated, rewarding, difficult, heart-breaking, awesome, disappointing, incredible, maddening, inspiring, surprising, eye-opening, ever-changing journey through life with a bunch of cliches and inspirational hoo-ha, I believe the truth is a more appropriate vessel upon which to set afloat the young visions in these over-stimulated brains.

Words of encouragement and advice are wasted on the young. As is Geritol.

And that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hear the advice. It means they don’t yet comprehend its true meaning. Even though they say they do. The things that have to happen in a person’s life that will eventually help make advice make sense simply haven’t happened yet.

If you pay out the words of advice now, don’t expect a return on your investment for at least a few decades. Young people think old people are filled with hot air and instructions (not unlike a bag of microwave popcorn). One day, they will find out we made perfect sense. And we smell like butter.

I can’t tell you who the featured speaker was at my high school graduation; don’t know what he or she said. Don’t even know who handed me my diploma. My memory of graduation is reflected in the handful of snapshots taken by my proud parents. I apparently wore a black (form-fitting) gown, sat for a time on the high school football field with my classmates, and then went home and ate potato salad with a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins. Oh. There was also a cake in the shape of a horseshoe. I saw a photo. That mom and her cakes; she was a clever one.

The way my thoughts are processed today is based on the polar opposite of how I remember feeling when I was 18. And it wasn’t until I started getting mad at today’s next generation who — incredulously — seem to act in the same manner as I once did that I realized how easy it is to allow the mindset of youth to overstay its welcome.

When I was 18, I was smart. I knew what to do, how to do it, how to react like a know-it-all in a crisis, how to mistreat, ignore or ridicule friends, acquaintances and strangers I had just met, how much liquid and solid I could — and should — ingest, how much I really didn’t need to do what I was told, how much money I would need to make it through another week of teenagering, how much I didn’t believe it was incumbent upon myself to perhaps go out and earn some of that spending money, how much studying vs. socializing I needed to do to earn (which I believed was rightfully mine anyway) a college diploma, how to speak when not spoken to, how to laugh at the pitiful, take advantage of the opportunities that best benefitted me first and everyone else second … ugh. I could go on, but I’d risk slapping myself in the back of the head. (You’re rooting for me to do it anyway. I can hear you.)

At one point well past when it should have hit me, it hit me like a freight train (like it will hit the young people we celebrate today): Don’t be an ass your whole life. People are watching. And they matter. It was like waking up in the middle of a really bad movie. Starring me.

High school graduates are not yet grownups. This monumental achievement for which they are lauded today is, in reality, the culmination of an exercise called fulfilling expectation. Parents have provided the guidance and support, the kids have gotten up every morning and done as they were told. After 13 or so years, they have earned diplomas.

It is now time for them to go stand in the next line and begin to tackle the next expectation.

They are not, today, for the first time ever, I believe, “heading out into the real world.”

This is the real world. Always has been. High school graduation is not the portal. The portal was under the bright lights in the delivery room.

I have stated in this very space in previous rants that it takes a good three or four decades to get it — living — all figured out. And even then it keeps changing. It just gets easier to manage.

All this excitement and pageantry has to be kept in perspective. Graduation is not the gateway to adulthood, to worldly knowledge, to privilege, to entitlement.

Graduation is a really cool thing and an exciting time because the young now have a whole bunch of new stuff to accomplish in wide-eyed wonder.

Responsibility does not end when the cap and gown are returned to the cafeteria. It never ends. There comes a point when it answers to a different master, who will demand of it the completion of different tasks. And that list of tasks will never grow lean.

Looking back on it now, this is what I would have wanted to hear from old people all those decades ago. This advice, I might have remembered.

On second thought, who am I fooling. I was a kid.

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Something struck me as odd the other day, with the TV, during a commercial break, prattling on in the background about “buy dad this particular expensive thing for Father’s Day,” while I searched for yet another peanut that missed my mouth and scampered off into the countless folds and flaps and cushions that describe me lounging my favorite chair.

Karen and I were in the midst of yet another marathon HGTV weekend, during which commercial breaks are most often mere opportunities to either add to or delete from a typical snack ingestion ritual. This time, however, we were in front of the TV when the commercial came on.

“This Father’s Day, buy dad a very expensive  wrench tool thing. Because when we all think of dad, tool is the first thing that comes to mind.”

Or something like that. The idea behind the commercial was the fact that tools and dad go together like peanut butter and everything. If dad has all the newest and coolest and most fun toys — I mean tools — then he can accomplish almost any household chore for which he is blessed to have the responsibility, and nothing but time and desire, to accomplish.

Be it a lawn mower, leaf blower, snow blower, weed whacker, pressure washer, shovel, rake, hoe, garden tractor, garden tiller, drill, grinder, paint gun, nail gun, hammer, screw driver, plunger, laser level, stud finder, ladder, wheelbarrow, plumb bob, tape measure, generator, hand saw, band saw, skill saw, table saw, jigsaw, chain saw, miter saw, tool box, tool bench, tool belt, suitcase filled with grilling utensils, telescoping paint roller extension handle, or WD40 — if it’s something that will get dad out of the house and fixing whatever’s broken or beginning to drive the wind beneath his wings crazy; or if it’s something he doesn’t have but the neighbor does; or if it’s a bright color and therefore enough of a distraction to keep him from slouching in front of the TV, dropping food into the abyss — buy it for him this Father’s Day.

Because Lord knows, we all — especially you little kids out there who have graduated past neckties and cherished homemade greeting cards with macaroni glued to the front and crayon doodles on the inside — have enough money just laying around to drop a couple hundred on a power wrench for dear ol’ dad.

Not only because he welcomes the opportunity to receive a present that means he has to get outside and use it, but because America’s retailers have to pay for all these fancy TV commercials.

While I was crawling on the floor, wondering if the cat had found the peanut first, Karen made an astute observation. And it was at that point that pride forced me to remember it so I could later share it with someone.

She said: You never see Mother’s Day commercials hawking household appliances.

She also asked me why I was stuck under the coffee table. But that’s not relevant.

The Mother’s Day comment has stuck with me. I cannot for the life of me imagine the storm of you-know-what that would rain down upon this land if a retailer ever for once thought it would be prudent to suggest that for this Mother’s Day, you should buy mom a new iron. Or vacuum. Or frying pan.

Oh, my heavens.

They’d be writing news stories about it.

“Does your little lady get mad, burn the toast and break your yolk every time she misses the rinse cycle? She won’t once you buy your adorable bundle of domesticity a new washing machine with the revolutionary Soften-ease fabric softener dispenser. Comes complete with a free rolling pin, just in time for Mother’s Day.”

And then they show mom in her June Cleaver dress, earrings, heels and apron, huge smile on her face, folding a batch of laundry as the kids sit at the kitchen table eating a plate of cookies fresh out of the oven. With dad in the background, crawling around on the floor.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom. Because it’s your job to do the laundry. Oh, and thanks for the cookies.

Don’t forget to vacuum the peanuts in the living room. What’s for dinner?

Not in this lifetime. Marketing suicide.

For Mother’s Day, most of the ads are about pampering. Flowers, breakfast in bed, spa getaways, certificates for free foot rubs, Breathe Rights, Scope; basically, things you won’t see advertised in advance of Father’s Day.

The household tools most often associated with guys have yet to be mass-marketed to gals on a regular basis. Even though the better looking gender uses them with increasing regularity. And, to be fair, in these modern times, the less intelligent, knuckle-dragging gender is, on a more regular basis, taking ahold of the domestic responsibilities and appliances (tearing them apart to see what makes them tick, losing important parts and pieces, and failing to put them back together correctly).

Nowadays, we share chores and tools. As is evidenced in living color on the home fix-up shows airing regularly on cable TV, where they take pains to show the ladies hammering and sawing and deconstructing and bossing; and they show the guys sewing and pillow-stuffing and furniture re-arranging (as well as hammering and tiling and attic-crawling).

Karen and I have always shared the chores. One reason being it only seems fair. Another being I like where I live (especially when I’m not in trouble). Also, she told me to.

And it really doesn’t take a lot of time and effort to watch dirty clothes spin around and around. Or to spell out suggestive comments in the carpet with the vacuum wand. Or to watch as she and her feline companion lounge on the screen porch while their lawn gets mowed. A marriage is all about fairness and sharing. Also, snacks.

Gender designation has rightfully been relegated to rest room door signs and very little else.

One day, if fairness continues its march toward the status quo, we’ll live in a world in which the Father’s Day commercials will feature the whole family down in the basement, using the brand new tools to rip out and renew the old laundry room and replace it with a family-oriented TV room complete with unisex washer and dryer. Dad’s making sure the laundry is still spinning while mom trowels 12 yards of concrete and the kids are pressing their palm prints and etching “We Like Mommy Best” into the wet cement. What fun.

And the Mother’s Day commercials will feature moms in tool belts and hard hats and old jeans and muscle shirts, with plumbers’ wrenches slung over their shoulders and a little perspiration beading up on their foreheads, and …

Hmmmm. … Hmm?

Hey. What’s fair is fair.

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My mind keeps going back to the turtle. I’m sure there’s a psychological connection here that I’m not trained (and by “trained” Imean “smart”) enough to figure out.

Because dear mother is spending her silver years in the capable hands of a skilled nursing facility and the personal belongings she needs to get through each day have been boiled down to clothes, a bed, a chair, a tv and a stand to put it on, much of what failed to make the final cut is either in a small storage unit in southern Pennsylvania or in the box containing her photographs and memories, which rests safely on my den closet floor. That box has gotten into my head.

During a typical week, the mind travels to all sorts of places — many are related to work things. The vast majority of the remainder are based on home things.

Then there’s the other places. The places the mind visits when it’s not needed anywhere else for a moment. Of late, my mind has come to rest on the leaves that have been left for me to rake.

And on the turtle.

It might have something to do with the photo of my dad.

In the collection of family photos over which I  have assumed stewardship — as dear mother and sister no longer have the space or the inclination — there is a photo of dad, taken in the mid-1970s, holding a giant turtle.

It was during a visit by his twin sisters that the whole clan decided to motor off to Rensselaer County for a family get-together. On a back road (which out-number front roads by a landslide in Rensselaer County), their vehicle came upon a giant turtle crossing the road.

Dad, being the kind-hearted animal lover that he was (I think he got it from me), pulled the car over, got out, and carried the turtle to the other side of the road so as to not worry about it becoming crushed by one of the next vehicles to amble along.

One of the twin sisters snapped the photo. Everyone had a great laugh about the entire incident. Especially the visiting family members, who were as impressed with their brother’s humanity as they were with the size of the turtle.

It’s cool when the city mouse returns to the country for a chance to witness how the country mouse does things.

Anyway, I think this is the reason I have always had a fondness for turtles. Everybody has their things: Some people like frogs, others like moose (mooses? meese?), still others like horses or cows.

Mine’s turtles. And I have a photo of dad saving one from certain peril to thank for it.

So there’s that.

Fast forward to today. On my way to work, I pass a pond between Galway and Hagaman. One recent morning I noticed something in the road, and those of you who have already skipped ahead to this line know it was a giant turtle. Cool, I said.

But scary. Because I didn’t want him to get smooshed. By the time my car neared him, he was just stepping from the road onto the shoulder, headed away from the pond for the day. Phew.

Probably had a hare appointment. Didn’t ask.

But it made my morning and it reminded me of the dad photo. So I got all warm and squishy inside, reliving the childhood memory. Been doing that a lot lately.

Next day, as Ipassed the same spot in the road, there he was again — this time waiting in the grass with his head sticking up, watching me pass before making his treacherous, time-consuming journey across the road.

For those of you skipping forward to this paragraph to find out if I saw him dead on the road the next day, the answer is no. But thanks for your impatience.

As of Friday morning, he was still alive, sitting in a similar location, getting ready to toddle off for yet another day’s adventure. Next time Isee him, I’m going to take his photo and carry him across the road. Give him a safe head start on his day. I’m certain he’ll thank me. Or urinate.

The sad part of the story is that on Friday I learned the hard way that there’s more than one turtle in this little commune and between Thursday and Friday, one of them didn’t make it. (I know it’s not my turtle because mine was in the same spot as always. The dead one was several feet down the road. In turtle perspective, this is considered miles and miles.)

It’s not something I see very often, but it aggravates me a great deal to see a smooshed turtle in the road. Seems a senseless death. It’s not like you don’t have time to react; it’s a turtle, for chrissake. (Unless you’re driving like a maniac; or worse, aiming for the poor thing. Better not be aiming for the poor thing.)

And this is where I find my brain has wandered off to. The health and well-being of the road-crossing turtle has become somewhat of a thing with me.

Because our lives are our lives and they seem larger than life — to us they are the thing around which all other life rotates — we don’t realize until we start raking them into a pile just how small they are in comparison to the entire picture.

I have been charged — actually, not charged, but rather assumed the responsibility of manager, roadie, custodian, ambassador and file clerk of the family footprint.

Handed the torch, as it were. Responsible for raking up our family chapters as they fall with greater regularity and purpose. The leaves that tell our little story from the microscopic dot upon which that story has been etched.

With mom in skilled nursing and dear sister now in assisted living, that leaves me with an increased feeling of responsibility for the care and feeding of their legacy — our footprint — no matter how miniscule such a thing is in the grand scheme. In the only scheme I know, it’s a big deal. To be taken seriously.

It is why I have commandeered the family photo collection and begun sorting through it, scanning it into the computer, and preserving the record of our life. Dear mother and sister will receive their own copies — some of the classic shots blown up and framed; the majority loaded into the digital photo frames that — thank you, technology — add warmth and color to faded and fading memories.

All of this, mind you, is what goes through my head as I reach for just one of these photographs from among the thousands in this box of family history. This one just happens to have a turtle in it.

Lord knows across what road the next photo will escort me.

At this pace — a turtle’s pace — sorting through and touching every memory in a life-sized life is sure to be a long, slow process.

But even more so, rewarding.

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On the occasion of my son Justin having announced to the world this past Thursday that he and his lovely girlfriend Heather have decided to make it legal, I find yet another excuse to share a wee fraction of my knowledge without having been asked.

First, pride and space requirements force me to share how the two love birds broke the news.

The way he announced it was kinda romantic. He gathered us — all four of his parents and step-parents — in the same place and told us all at the same time. Sweet kid.

He sent me a text message at work saying I should keep an eye on my e-mail in-box. Then he e-mailed to us all photos of the engagement ring — sans finger — saying he and Heather are getting married in the summer of 2012. Then he and Heather changed their relationship status on Facebook to “engaged.” After which we, as a family, joined together and clicked “Like.” Then we all posted it on our Facebook pages so we could watch as our “friends” clicked “Like” and then leave us messages of encouragement because it’s not only about the lovely bride and fortunate groom. It’s also about me me me me me and how many Facebook notifications I get from people paying attention to me me me me me.

The only decent photos I have of the happy couple are from last summer's thoroughbred meet in Saratoga. Here, Justin meets a professional athlete.

It’s refreshing to know that some wedding traditions have not yet been tossed out with the virtual bath water app. (It was also a relief to learn the wedding is more than nine months away. Whew.)

This wonderful news of impending, constant, infinite, suffocating, inescapable togetherness affords me not only an opportunity to spend the next 13 months, three weeks and a handful of days fretting about whether I’ll still fit into my prom dress, but also whether I’ll be invited to the bachelor party.

Haven’t jumped out of a cake in decades.

This is also a chance for me to break out my “Father’s Guide to Occasionally Tolerable Marriage,” which I’ve been compiling for decades and have never once reread to see if any of it really works. Or makes sense.

This, and genetics, I figure, should be considered my wedding gift to the not-yet-unhappy couple.

I offer to this relationship two professional marriages worth of advice. I base my wisdom on one youthful practice marriage during which I built a foundation of knowledge that I lugged with me to my current (and final) marriage, whereupon it was summarily sledgehammered to bits.

For the groom, I have a few do’s and don’ts.

Don’t flick a booger into her ear while you’re driving along the Mass Pike. You might think this is the funniest thing ever (and you would be right) but you will also be wrong — verrrry, verrrry wrong — and never be able to live it down.

Living it down is big in marriage. They don’t tell you that when you’re standing at the altar while old people you don’t remember meeting because you never thought you’d see them again are now all of a sudden sitting behind you, perspiring in uncomfortable clothing and staring at your butt, hoping beyond hope they won’t be forced into a Hokey Pokey re-enactment before the day is over. With any luck, they all bring you nice gifts. But don’t mention this when you are reintroduced to them.

You’ll never live it down.

While Heather is distracted, the pickpocket makes his move.

Don’t remind her of that great big argument you had that ended with her acknowledging that she indeed wound up apologizing because, as it turned out, that was the one and only time in her entire life she was ever wrong.

The dinner guests might be entertained by the discussion, but she won’t be.

Payback is another thing they leave out of the wedding day nuptials. An incident like this could lead to payback. The husband might occasionally win at cribbage and can most often cheat well enough to win at Uno, but the husband never wins at payback. Payback’s nickname is gender-specific. There’s a reason.

Do bring home flowers on occasion. They sell them for cheap in the grocery stores now. Instead of another 30-pack of Yuengling, grab a bouquet of flowers. And a 12-pack.

She might say she doesn’t mind that you never bring her flowers, but she’ll not mind a lot less if on occasion you do.

Also, the best time to buy flowers is for no reason whatsoever. Just cuz I love you, butter dimples.

(This way, where there IS a reason to bring home flowers, she won’t ask what you did this time. Butter dimples will just assume you love her. The fact that you accidentally did a stupid, typical husband thing won’t enter her mind.)

Do always tell her she looks perfect in that dress, hat, sweater, mitten, shoe, pair of jeans, squad car, position, whatever. No matter what it is, it looks perfect on her.

Do not, no matter how tempting, point out a wrinkle, stain, hole, bird dropping or any other undesirable fashion accoutrement until you are at least more than half way to your date night destination. This will keep you from having to run back home and wait longer than it took you to get her out of the house the first time while she tries on everything again and decides nothing fits, all of her clothes are stupid, you are the most evil, horrible person on the planet and you never understand anything ever.

While this storm cloud is overhead, say nothing. No words work here. Not even the ones that work in other circumstances. This storm will pass. Do not stand in its way; you will only make it rain harder and for a greater duration. Let it happen. You’ll know it’s over when the sun comes out and the earthworms start to cook on the driveway.

(A quick stop at the convenience store for one of those cash register roses is a good move here.)

Some professional wives like back rubs or scratches; others are into the foot rub thing. Some like the deep muscle neck squeeze. Best idea is to accommodate whenever possible. However, if you give foot rubs, don’t tickle. Unless it’s requested.

The surprise foot tickle can be funny as the  dickens, but an unanticipated response from a muscle group not expecting to be rudely jostled can result in a tickled foot sending the canned beverage in your other hand clear across the room. And you only brought home 12 tonight.

Finally, for now, rest assured more advice is forthcoming, as the fast-paced and ever-changing world of wedded bliss is a many-splintered — I mean splendored. Love is a many-splendored thing. There are always corrections and additions to the handbook. In fact, I am handed fresh pages for rewrites every day.

Now, however, I am off to buy flowers for the wind beneath my personal wings. Not because of something I did.

But rather for when she finishes reading this.

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