Winter Camping

 
Early February. Nine inches of snow on the ground. Freezing temps. Slate gray skies with little or no sunlight breaking through.

Yet, our four-year-old granddaughter wanted to go camping.

Being a good Papa, I agreed.

Having gone camping for real with her mom, great aunt, and great grandparents last summer, Riley Jean has been on a “camping kick” the last few months. Which means, on our weekend visits, she drags every pillow and blanket and her toy grocery cart full of food into our downstairs powder room.

Our dog, Daize, follows us in, we close the door, turn off the lights, and sleep (one or both of us snoring very dramatically) until “morning” comes a few minutes later. We turn on the lights, throw open the door, and have “breakfast,” or ask the “coffee lady” (Nana Kellie, who tends to keep a safe distance from our shenanigans) to serve us.

That is, unless Riley hears a “monster” outside the tent. Then we must chase the monster away, naturally, to protect all the other campers.

Keep in mind, the “tent” is about three feet by three feet. I am a short adult male – 5 feet 6 inches tall on my best days. But I am also very claustrophobic, so camping in such a tiny, cramped space isn’t the most comfortable thing either physically or psychologically.

Then, on this particular Saturday, Riley switched it up.

We camped in the upstairs bathroom. “Yay! More room,” thought I, until she ordered me into our tent – more commonly known as the bathtub.

Later, she picked a new “tent” – the floor of Nana’s closet. Under all her clothes, squeezed in between the small dresser, dozens of shoes, a spare fan, and other closet accoutrement. But at least there we also had a small toy lantern to keep the monsters away.

We were still on monster patrol – who knew there were so many monsters in the woods? Yet now we also had to invite her “best friends,” Claire and Hannah, to camp with us.

Claire and Hannah are real people in real life, but only pretend for our winter camping purposes. Thank goodness!

After more than an hour of this, I struggled to de-pretzelize myself, every bone and muscle and sinew feeling every millisecond of my 56 years on earth. I rose from the closet floor, accompanied by my own crickling, crackling concert, and exited back to Reality.

Not for the first time since Riley has learned to walk and talk (which is to say, boss me around) – I thought, “this kid is going to be the death of me!”

But later, my tight back and bum knee having recovered, aided by a glass or two of Chianti, another thought occurred:

“This kid is the Life of me!”

You want the truth? With apologies to Jack Nicholson, you can’t handle the truth! But it’s my truth, and I don’t mind sharing.

Truth is, my spirit and brain and body have all felt extremely heavy lately.

The unbelievable, incalculable weight of two years of politicizing a pandemic and the resulting anger and ignorance, fear and frustration, disrespect and discord, have laid thick on my heart.

This, on top of the fact that I loathe winter anyway.

I struggled to keep above the fray. I relied on the lift of grace and wings of love from family and friends to convey me over the moats filled with crocodiles of stress and anxiety.

I mostly succeeded until recently when it all got to be too much. Like the proverbial albatross around my neck or, more appropriately, stones around my ankles, pulling me down into the muck.

Then, Saturday rolls around.

And my very favorite wacky-doodle visits.

And her four-year-old brain fires like a jet engine, creating and leading us through adventures real and imaginary.

Her growing vocabulary tumbles out of her mouth so fast that I sometimes need an interpreter to capture all the words and ideas.

Her energy and enthusiasm ignite the room with more fireworks than a KISS concert (and faithful readers know I know of which I speak!)

And suddenly, the weight on my chest lightens to a level I can handle and sometimes even ignore. Because I know, having been reminded yet again by a child, that there’s more goodness than we think or understand. We just must choose to see it.

So, go ahead World, give me your worst. Unleash every monster you’ve got. I don’t sweat you. No matter what you do, I am shielded by a four-year-old’s magic.

And I can always go camping.

In the powder room, or bathtub, or Nana’s closet.
 
 
 
 
 
 

The First Time…

“Oh my god,” Louie Jackson said. “I am so embarrassed, and so sorry, Mrs. Anderson!”

            Jackson’s head dropped, his chin nearly touching his neck which now blossomed in fiery, red-hot shame. He seemed to fold into himself as his chest and abdomen deflated like a popped balloon.

            “It’s Ms. Anderson. I am divorced. And no need to apologize, Mr. Jackson. It happens all the time.”

Louie lifted his eyes only high enough to see the look on the nurse’s face. Attractive in the mature, slightly wrinkled way of experienced, middle-aged women confident in their authority and knowledge, she smiled a toothy grin of reassurance.

“Ok, but…I mean…” Louie couldn’t control his stammer. “At his age? I mean…Jesus…he’s ninety-seven years old. I didn’t think those parts even work anymore.” He shifted in his chair, trying to relieve some of the ache now creeping up his lower back. “And with the dementia and all?”

Again, she smiled. Louie caught himself staring at her eyes which seemed to sparkle. They were violet, like…like Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes! Wow, he thought, if she weren’t taking care of my grandfather, I might just…Her honeyed voice, practiced in soothing confused patients and their anxious family members, snapped him out of his temporary fugue.

“Absolutely! Sexual urges and thoughts are usually one of the last things to go. But let’s be clear. Your grandpa didn’t actually try to have sex with anyone – although that has happened, too. ” She lowered her eyes and grinned, almost coy, and tittered. “Usually though, it’s the women who try to initiate sex. I know you wouldn’t think so, but it’s true. One time, I walked into a patient’s room only to find her on her knees between a male patient’s legs doing…well, let’s just say he may not have understood what was happening at that moment, but that’s a memory he won’t forget!”

Louie guffawed like a mule that’d been kicked in the hind quarters. “Really?”

“One hundred percent true,” she insisted. “But anyway, back to your grandfather. He wasn’t doing anything. Rather, he is telling stories about his sexual exploits to anyone who will listen. The nurses don’t mind so much. Like I said, we’ve all heard and seen it all before. But he’s upset some of the other staff – especially the dining room attendants who are mostly young girls,” Nurse Anderson said. “Funny thing is, these girls today, they think they know everything. But to see the looks in their eyes when your granddad gets going, it’s pretty clear that they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Now they both laughed, enjoying a joke as can only two AARP members who know that Youth is a flimsy house of cards in desperate need of a foundation that comes only with age.

“Well, I certainly appreciate your candor and understanding, Ms. Anderson. I will go talk to my grandpa right now.” He rose, extending his hand to the nurse, excited to feel the soft touch gloved in her firm grip. Louie offered a smile of his own. He strategically extended the handshake to hold her hand as long as possible. “I hope to see you again, but under less…risqué?…circumstances,” he said as he turned toward the hallway to the patients’ rooms.

Nurse Anderson gently pulled her hand back – subtly enough to not offend, yet slowly enough to still suggest she might like to hold hands again sometime. “Yes, that would be nice, Mr. Jackson,” she said.

**************************************

Louie checked each door as he passed until he came to the one bearing his grandfather’s name on a postcard-sized label hanging at eye level: “Ronald Gates.” He knocked, turned the knob, and announced himself in one swift motion.

“Pop-Pop, it’s Louie,” he called into the room. “Are you up?”

Ronald Gates emerged from the bathroom trailed by a toilet flush. “Of course, I’m up! It’s almost lunchtime, isn’t it?” He moved surprisingly fast and smoothly for a man three years shy of a century, a testament to his youthful love for any kind of athletic competition. Louie had watched his maternal grandfather play – and win – many a game of baseball, basketball, tennis, even paintball when Louie had taken up the then-trendy activity in the 1980s. Mr. Gates closed the gap quickly and wrapped his still-strong arms around his oldest grandchild.

“To what do I owe the pleasure today, Louis?” He’d always called Louie by his full name.

“Oh, nothing special.” Louie looked out the window, hoping his grandfather wouldn’t see the lie on his face. “Just thought I’d stop by, check in on you, make sure you’ve got everything you need.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Gates said. “Maybe that’s why you’re my favorite grandson!” He smiled and flicked a light jab into Louie’s ribs.

“I’m your only grandson, Pop-Pop!”

“Ok, but still, you should never refuse a compliment, young man. You never know if you’ll ever get any more.”

Or, if I might ever get a date with that hot nurse…the thought was incongruous, but Louie used it as a springboard to leap to the real purpose for his visit.

“Pop-Pop when I came in, I happened to see your nurse, Ms. Anderson –“

“Oh, she’s attractive, isn’t she? If I weren’t old enough to be her father…”

“Well, grandfather, actually, I think…” Louie said. “But in any case, yes, her. And she mentioned something that concerns me just a bit.” Louie shuffled over to the overstuffed, plush, Brady Bunch green couch along the wall facing the television. Ratty along the arms, the start of a tear in one cushion, it was nothing that he’d ever buy, but it came with the room. “Come sit down.”

The old man joined his fifty-two-year-old grandson on the couch. “What can I do you for, Louis?”

Louie chuckled. His grandfather’s witticisms anchored and defined an irrefutable charm that endeared him to nearly everyone.

“Well, to be honest, the nurse, Ms. Anderson, told me that you’ve been talking a lot recently about your sex life to the patients and staff, and it’s upsetting some of them.”

“Really?” Gates said. “I can honestly say I don’t remember doing that, but if you say so…what exactly have I been telling them?”

“Lots of things, but the one that came up the most, I guess, is about your first time making love – I assume with Grandma.”

Ronald’s right hand cupped his chin, rubbing the stubble of unshaven beard. “No, that can’t be right, because your grandmother wasn’t my first.”

Louie inhaled sharply at this revelation.

“Oh, Louis, don’t act so surprised,” Ronald tut-tutted. “Your generation didn’t invent pre-marital sex. I had two partners before your grandmother. The first, like most ‘Firsts’ of just about anything, wasn’t very good. I was no expert either if I’m honest. But the experience itself changed my world.”

Louie flopped back into the giant couch cushion. He felt like he would never stop sinking, so he grabbed the arm of the couch with his left hand to stabilize himself.

“You know what the best part was?” Ronald smiled at the memory forming where memories were now so very scarce.

“I don’t really want to…”

“It wasn’t the act itself. No, that went very quickly and didn’t do much for either of us, truth be told,” Ronald said. “No sir, it was when she raised her hips from her parent’s bed – they were out for the night and never thought twice about leaving her alone with me – she raised her hips and let me pull down her underwear. I mean to tell you, there is absolutely nothing more meaningful or sacred to a man as when the woman he loves, or at least, lusts for, willingly gives herself over. The intimacy of that act, the faith, the commitment, the trust, the confidence, the air of control, that’s what makes it so sexy and powerful.” Ronald paused, drew a deep breath. “And magical. I’ll remember that forever, dementia or not.”

Louie’s heart raced like a stallion out of the gate. The air crashed out of his lungs as if he’d just been hit with a medicine ball. “Pop-Pop!”

“What?” Ronald said, voicing a mixture of sincere exasperation and surprise. “You mean to tell me that’s never happened to you? I mean, I know you’ve been single your whole life, but I assume you’ve been with a woman or two?”

Of course, his grandfather was right. Louie’d never been especially lucky in the love department, but he’d been around the sexual block a few times. Enough to know the exact thrill of which his ninety-seven-year-old Pop-Pop spoke.

“Well, the first time for me was actually kind of similar,” he confessed. “I was a freshman in high school, on a band trip to Canada for a competition and sitting on the seat next to one of the flag girls. We’d been kinda-sorta flirting for a while, nothing too serious. But it was a long, long, loooonnngg drive. It was night. There was a blanket covering our laps. We were holding hands under the blanket when she suddenly guided my hand down the inside of the front of her pants which, somehow, she’d unbuttoned and unzipped. My fingers touched her, you know, down there. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough, and I did what I knew. She didn’t stop me from touching her, but she refused to touch me for some reason.”

Louie laughed at a sudden “Aha!” moment. “I guess I was just her love slave for that night!” He paused, eyes closed, savoring the movie running through his brain, then snapped back to attention. “But Pop-Pop, that’s not the point.”

“Oh? Pleasuring someone is not the point?”

“Well, I mean, it was the point at that time, but not right now. The point now, is, you can’t be sharing your memories and stories with people here. It’s shocking to hear that kind of stuff from a man of your…”

“My what? My age?”

“Well, yes.”

Ronald stood again and paced toward the television then back to the couch. He extended his right hand to his grandson. “Louis Jackson, I love you, but I am terribly disappointed in you.”

“What?” Louie was both confused and surprised. “Disappointed in me? What did I do?”

“It’s not what you did, but what you didn’t do. You didn’t defend me.”

“Pop-Pop, I don’t understand.”

“No, apparently not. So let me help.” Ronald said. He pulled his grandson close, rubbed his left cheek, then put both hands on either side of Louie’s head.

“I am here because I have dementia. I know this as well as anyone. I know that every day I have one less joke to tell, one less bit of wisdom to teach, one less story to share. I lose one more part of me.”

Louie raised his right hand to his face and wiped away the start of a tear. “I know that Pop-Pop, I know, but…”

“No but’s!” Ronald barked loudly. He released Louie’s face and waved his right hand in the air. “God forbid you should ever know this pain, but in the meantime, I need you to know about it, so you can at least explain. I don’t mean to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings. I am just trying to be Me as long as I can.”

Ronald grabbed his grandson again and kissed him on the cheek and forehead as if Louie was a baby. “Who I am, is who I was. And I am losing who I was. So, I am sharing whatever is left of me while I still can. If that happens to be a dirty story, well, I am truly sorry if I accidentally offend someone, but if I do, you just tell them: it could be worse.”

“How could it be worse, Pop-Pop?” Louie knew the second the question cleared his lips – and from the wide grin on Ronald’s face – that his grandfather, ever the jokester, ever the performer, had set him up, dementia be damned.

“I could have crapped in the potted plants, like Old Man Carbondale!”

Love In a Dog Bag

What does true love look like?

Not the new, immature, infatuation/hormone-infused, fleeting kind. That variety, you can see on television or the Internet (for better or worse) any time.

Rather, the veteran, settled, mature, self-sustaining kind.

Well…

On a recent weeknight, just before she headed up to bed, my wife of nearly 33 years, Kellie, told me to expect an Amazon delivery around 9 p.m. It was, she said, an early gift for my upcoming 56th birthday.

Sure enough, just after 9 p.m. the Amazon truck pulled into our cul-de-sac and parked in front of our house.

Being in my PJ’s, I waited a few minutes, then retrieved the package from our porch. The standard brown cardboard box gave no clue as to the contents. I shook it. Nothing sloshed or rattled, near as my middle-age ears could hear (over the constant tinnitus, that is.)

I carefully opened the box, removed the plastic balloon stuffing, and pulled out a medium-sized canvas bag containing two collapsible rubberized bowls and a plastic-covered mat about the size of the bottom of the bag.  

My brain teetered on the fine line between intrigue and confusion. I had no idea what this was and how it served as an early birthday gift.

The next morning around 5:30 a.m., Kellie was getting ready for work as I was feeding our dog, Daize.

“Did that package come last night?” She slipped on her shoes and coat.

A lightbulb flashed in my tired brain. “Yes!” I confirmed. “I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you.”

“Do you like it?” she asked, offering no clarification or explanation of the mystery gift.

This was one of those delicate moments that come with long-term relationships. Answer rightly, affirm the very foundation of the life we’ve built together. Answer wrongly, completely screw up everything for who knows how long.

“Yes,” I said plainly, as honest as my continuing bafflement would allow.

As a veteran mother and now grandmother, Kellie is immensely skilled at ferreting out nuggets of candor from piles of crap. “Do you know what it is?” She probably knew I had no idea what it was.

“Well…” I said, noncommittal.

“It’s a bag to carry all of Daize’s stuff when we go on our trips,” she explained. In our new Empty Nester stage of life, we like to go on what we call “adventures,” or short trips and vacations.

“Since we want to travel more, and you’re the one who takes care of her, I saw it online and figured it would be a perfect gift.”

Unspoken was the fact that we cannot leave our dumb dog with anyone because she has psychologically and spiritually attached herself to me.

Faithful readers know, I did not want this dog. We adopted her as an act of kindness (Kellie’s, not mine) from a man who was dying and had no one else to take her. We had another dog who was old, sick, and dying and I didn’t want to rob him of any time he had left in our world.

But Kellie and our girls tag-teamed me. Now, Daize is my shadow’s shadow. She is constantly (and sometimes literally) under foot. She gets me up at 4 a.m. every day to go potty (both of us), and stares at me with longing in her big, brown eyes.

She is further proof of God’s wicked sense of humor, mocking our human arrogance.

Twice we took short adventures and left her with our youngest daughter. Twice we had to come home early because she had worked herself into  psychosomatic sickness that magically disappeared when I appeared.

Suddenly, I got it.

“Oh, wow! That is so thoughtful!” Once again, I found myself bathed equally in sincere awe of Kellie’s intuitive thoughtfulness and Catholic shame and guilt for my lack thereof.

She had gone well beyond the obvious and easy options for an avid reader (more books that likely will never be read); and music and movie enthusiast (why buy anything when everything is on one stream or another, most of which we already subscribe to.)

She had dived deep, layers and layers beneath the surface, to think of me as only someone can who truly knows me. Truly cares about me. Truly understands where I am on Life’s Road.

All joking aside, I don’t really hate Daize.

Yes, it is irritating sometimes not being able to take a step or a bite of food without a furry, four-footed pal at my side. But it is also a blessing to have something (or someone) love you so much. So, she is mine whether I like it or not.

Kellie knows that (and reminds me of it constantly.) She also knows how much I do really enjoy our little adventures, which now must, of necessity, include Daize. So, she got me a gift reflecting the intimacy of a relationship 37 years old and counting.

More importantly, the dog bag truly embodies her loving heart, her generous spirit, and her sense of humor. All which still amaze me after more than three decades.

Some of that amazement comes from the fact – no hyperbole, no joke – that my brain doesn’t work that way. (This was not the first time she has given me such an unexpected gift, which only multiplied my astonishment and embarrassment.)

Now, don’t think I am some kind of emotional miser.

I give. However, my offerings usually come in more traditional forms: volunteering time, donating money, sending flowers for no reason, buying Girl Scout cookies I don’t want or need.

Kellie herself credits me for doing all the things she doesn’t like to do: ironing, cleaning, emptying the dishwasher, filling her bird feeders.

I do indeed do all those things.

However, truth be told, I do them partly to take them off my wife’s already overfull plate, and partly because I am a bit anal about such things and want them done a certain way. The right way. My way. So, don’t nominate me for sainthood just yet…

I could iron a million shirts, or put away dishes for eternity, or feed the birds until they’re too fat to fly away. 

But to my eyes, true love looks like a dog bag filled with new adventures with my soulmate.

Dark Light

We are mere sparks in the night sky

Our true light twisted

By pollution, philosophy, religion, politics, greed

Lies cloud, sliver, amplify

Until our fire is something

Unseen, unknown, fake

Smothered, choked into submission

Yielding only the picture

Expected by the world’s eyes,

Blinded by ambition, ignorance, arrogance

Deceived by the irony of dark light

So, we hide,

Understanding you don’t want to see us truly

But only through the certainty of your contempt

Rather, we gather

Collecting, creating flames

Invisible, but no less hot

Capable of burning all you don’t see

And everything only you see

When we radiate the universe’s glow

When your eyes blaze with our light

When your heart burns with our love

That’s when Us, you’ll know

That’s when Us, you’ll see

Dark, no more

Hard Times

War, Civil and Cold and World (both I and II)

Red ribboned black flesh

chained to trees

Spirits destroyed one step at a time

Along a never-ending trail of tears

A legacy of land stolen by

Loud guns and quiet disease

Death by religion

Begging a deaf god

Hiding in ghettos, unknown to all

but the gas

Ash-covered souls rising through the chimney

Accepting a bullet in trade for freedom

Long promised, hard earned

Only to wait

And wait,

And wait

Listening to Crow songs for another 100 years

Vomiting from the smell of Strange Fruit

Sex, the only currency of real value

Taken at the end of a fist

Purple bruises the lasting receipt

Nail-pierced skin

Bones smashed

For daring to proclaim peace

For trying to break through walls

For putting heaven at our fingertips

And love in our hearts

A want-to-be king

Who blames the wood he cut

The kindling he laid

The gas he poured

The match he struck

For the flames consuming the castle

But if you think that was bad,

Oh my God!

Try having to wear a thin, cloth mask

How’s Your Sandwich?

Alan gingerly lifted the lettuce leaf on his sandwich, moving beneath and around each layer of condiment between the bottom of the bun and the top of the sliced turkey.

            “Hmmm,” he muttered, his tone clearly voicing his disappointment.

            “What?” His best friend, David smiled and chuckled. The light laugh was equal parts amusement and irritation.

            “Oh, nothing…I guess.” Alan’s eyes continued to explore the plate as he slowly reassembled the sandwich. “It’s just that…I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but…” Alan bit and chewed a hunk of the sandwich without lifting his eyes.

            “C’mon dude, spit it out. No! I mean, don’t spit it out. Swallow that bite but then tell me what is wrong?” David said. “It can’t be that sandwich, it looks fantastic. Look at that thing. It’s a Thanksgiving dinner disguised as a panini. Turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes. I mean, really, what’s not to like?”

            Alan finally looked up and slurped a mouthful of coffee.

            “No, you’re right, of course. It’s delicious.”

            “Well then?”

            “I don’t know,” Alan stammered, another mouthful of turkey mixing with his words. “I guess I was just expecting more.”

            David sighed so loudly the people at a nearby table peered over. He waved at them and smiled to warn them off. The warning was fake, but the sigh – and the frustration behind it – was real.

“Look man, we’ve known each other, what, thirty years now? And every single time you eat something, or read something, or watch something, or listen to something, you act like this.”

Alan’s eyes opened wide with sincere confusion. “Like what?”

“Like you’re disappointed that this sandwich isn’t perfect. Or that movie moved too slow. Or that song wasn’t creative enough. Or the band was too loud. Or that book petered out before the end. Or, whatever. It’s like you can never just be happy with the way things are.”

“No, that’s not true,” Alan weakly protested.

“Yes, it is true!” David insisted, again loud enough to draw attention from nearby diners. “And honestly, it pisses me off. Most of the time you’re a terrific guy, funny, smart, thoughtful…”

“Thank you,” Alan started to reply. “I feel the…”

“I’m not finished!” David said firmly, but in a more controlled voice. He lowered his head, leaned in over the table towards the man with whom he’d grown up. The man who stood up at his wedding. The godfather to all three of his children.

“We’ve been friends long enough that I feel I can speak honestly, hopefully without hurting your feelings too much. So, I’m gonna just lay it all out there.”

“Well go ahead,” Alan said. “Who’s stopping you?”

Hearing the clear ring of defensiveness in Alan’s voice, David leaned back, sat up straight and took a deep breath. “The truth of the matter is, you act like nothing is ever good enough, no matter how good it is. Including people. You’re especially hard on people. And it is irritating as all get-out! I mean, really man, what are you looking for? What in the world are you expecting to find? A golden ticket?”

Alan sat up as still and straight as if duct taped to the back of his chair. Hands flat on the table, eyes wide as if propped open with toothpicks, not a single facial muscle twitched. If not for the fact that he wasn’t turning blue, it would have been hard to know if he was even breathing. Finally, his lips cracked. Words crept out slowly, like a dog that’d been called but afraid of being kicked.

“So…wow…I’m not quite sure…how to take…I mean…I didn’t know I…didn’t mean to…not complaining…just, wow.”

“Listen man, the same friend brave enough to speak truth from the heart also loves you enough to give grace from the heart,” David said. He spoke quietly across the table that now seemed to hold a slightly larger divide than it had only moments before.

“I tell you this only because I don’t want you to expect so much from life – or at least, from this life. It’s not that you can’t find perfection or joy, or whatever it is you think you’re looking for, it’s just that you set the bar so high that it’s impossible for anyone, or anything, to meet your standard. And it kills me to see your disappointment and the frustration and the anger,” David said, plaintively. “And over what? A sandwich?”

Alan leaned back, still clearly shellshocked by his best friend’s grenade of candor.

“If I had known I was coming off that way, I would have never…” Alan shook his head. “Have others seen it too? Please tell me I haven’t hurt anyone…”

Now, David leaned back over the table until he and Alan were nearly nose-to-nose. “Of course, others have noticed, but we all love you. We love you when you bitch about books. We love you when you complain about records. We love you when you criticize movies. The common thread here is, we love you. So, we look past your bad behavior!”

David’s right hand darted to Alan’s plate and quickly hoisted the turkey sandwich before Alan knew what was happening. David took a huge bite and chewed it only inches from Alan’s face like it was the first – or maybe the last – turkey sandwich of his life. He laid the remnants back on the plate, sat back, and made a show of licking his fingers. “Mmmm, that is one delicious sandwich!”

Now Alan could only laugh in relief, his guilt rushing out of him like air out of a balloon.

“This is my whole point,” David said. “It may not be the best sandwich ever – although this one is pretty darned tasty. And that, my friend, is the meaning of life.”

“Wait a minute,” Alan said, his face swapping out guilt for confusion. “You’re saying a ‘pretty darned tasty’ turkey sandwich is the meaning of life?”

“No. And yes!” David said.

“What I mean is, you waste all this time being disappointed about something that isn’t there instead of appreciating what’s right in front of you. The artistry, the effort, the vision, the passion, the music, the magic of everyday life. Even the sweet tang of turkey and mayonnaise and cranberry sauce, mixing together juuuuussst right!” He licked a few more imaginary crumbs from his index finger.

“Not everything is going to be perfect. In fact, most things aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or even great,” David said.

“Finding the good in the bad, the joy in the sorrow, the love in the hatred, the light in the darkness, the exceptional in the average,” he continued. “It’s hard, man. It takes a lot of dedication and faith and patience and time and courage and effort,” David said.

“That challenge, that’s what makes this life worth something,” he said. “Our work to seek and see and create ‘good’ in a world that doesn’t give up its ‘good’ easily. That’s the meaning of life.”

David’s fingers snuck toward Alan’s plate, closing in on what was now a sandwich in name only: a crust of bread, a sliver of turkey, a hint of tomato, and the tiniest green blanket of lettuce.

Alan smacked David’s hand. “Hey, that hurt!” David protested melodramatically, waving his hand in the air like he’d been shot. Another nosy diner turned toward them. David chuckled.   

“Leave that alone,” Alan said. He quickly reassembled the morsels and deposited them into his mouth. “That’s the best turkey sandwich I’ve had…well, today anyway!”

The Balcony

Michael Myers, the Living Dead, Evil Incarnate, “the Shape,” the soulless, faceless one (unless you knew that he was actually wearing a modified William Shatner mask), pawed at the slatted closet door.

Inside, his terrified, traumatized older sister Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) did her desperate best to disappear into the corner, having tied the sliding doors shut with a flimsy scarf or belt (yet Michael couldn’t just yank that door open…hmmm…maybe Evil Incarnate isn’t as smart or strong as we think.)

Finally, Michael gives up trying to open the door, smashes through the slats, turns on the lightbulb, reaches for Laurie. She somehow turns the light off while fashioning a poker out of a wire clothes hanger.

She stabs Michael in the eye. He drops his 12-inch butcher knife, in pain, maybe confused that someone, anyone, much less his sister, had somehow disabled him, even if for only a second. She picks it up and stabs Michael again in the chest or throat.

He backs away from the door.

Not hearing anything, Laurie exits the closet, sees her brother lying on the floor, and thinks he is dead. (Silly girl, have you never seen a horror movie?)

She turns away, the bedroom still dark. Michael stands. Laurie doesn’t hear him and starts to leave the bedroom, only for Michael to grab her from behind!

Suddenly, from the bottom of the stairs, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shoots Michael.

(Side Note: Dr. Loomis is perhaps the unluckiest psychiatrist ever, inheriting Michael as a patient just after the pre-teen had gone on a Satanic killing spree dressed as a clown on Halloween. Side-Side Note: really, have none of these people ever watched a flipping movie?!)

The undying hulk releases Laurie and stumbles back into the bedroom. Loomis chases Michael back into the room, firing five more shots into his one-time patient.

The doctor’s gun finally empty, Michael falls through a door onto the balcony, and tumbles over the balcony railing. He crashes to the ground, lying there in a twisted, lifeless, unmoving heap.

He is dead. He must be, right? I mean, how could anyone survive a stabbing, six gunshots, and a two-story fall to the hard ground below? Not to mention a nasty poke in the eyeball.

“Was it the Boogieman?” Laurie asks the doctor.

“As a matter of fact, it was,” he says, in a pathetic attempt to assure her that the living evil that was once her little brother, is now dead and cannot hurt her anymore (and a great bit of ironic foreshadowing of what would become a cinema franchise with a dozen entries as I write this.)

Then, he looks over the balcony railing at the ground below and sees…

Nothing.

Michael is gone.

I do not remember now, 43 years later, if my brother and/or I actually screamed, but it seems that we may have. And if we didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of cause.

We had just watched what would become one of the classic cornerstones of horror cinema, the original “Halloween.” I was 12, my brother 11.

Our dad had brought us with him to his part-time job as a projectionist at what was then the Mode Theater, hidden in the shadows of a dark, dilapidated corner of downtown Joliet. The downtown was a ghost town in the late 1970s, close to death itself thanks to the life-sucking draw of the vampiric new malls on the other side of town.

The theater had reached the point in its dwindling existence at which it usually showed R-rated, soft-core sex-type stuff. Stuff our mother wouldn’t let us see, like “Saturday Night Fever.” She was a bit of a prude. Ironically, now she just loves, loves, loves, John Travolta, for his dancing.

The Mode was dank, moldy, dirty, sticky, and empty most of the time. We could eat all the popcorn and soda we wanted, and we had free run of the theater so long as there weren’t too many people around.

Our dad wasn’t much of a movie buff. He liked Westerns – especially John Wayne to the point of adulation – and war movies. Loved silly comedies with the likes of Abbott and Costello and the Bowery Boys. And revered all the various James Bonds, especially Sean Connery.

But he really loved horror films of every kind.

We spent many a Saturday night curled up next to him in our parents’ bed watching the old “Creature Features” program.

In the dark, often peeking out from the sheets or hiding behind his arm, we learned to love all the Universal monsters. Vincent Price. The “modernized” Hammer Films versions of classics like Dracula. Even the weird, nuclear-era stuff from the 1950s and 1960s about giant lizards and killer bugs.

So, when this new movie called “Halloween” came out on Halloween weekend, there was no question, much less paternal debate, about him taking us to see it.

And see it, we did.

We sat in the balcony – the kind found in old movie houses and theaters like the Mode. It connected to the projection room where Dad waited for the fuzzy little dots to appear in the corner of the movie screen telling the projectionist when to manually change out the reels.

We watched this cheaply made film featuring unknown or barely known actors that would redefine and reinvigorate the horror genre.

It set a new cinematic standard by combining innovative, gory shock with the most essential, basic, time-worn element of all: suspense.

As with Hitchcock’s classics and modern masterpieces like “Jaws” and “Alien,” etc., “Halloween” reminded us that the scariest scares always come from the unknown. The biggest screams came not when Michael Myers killed someone in yet-another weird way. Frankly, that gets tiresome after the shock value wears off.

Rather, they came when the audience didn’t know where he was. Did someone just duck behind that hedge at the end of the sidewalk? Who is that stranger standing right behind Laurie?

So, we sat, cinematically stuck to our seats (and probably literally, too, considering all the pop and gum and candy and who knows what else had been spilled there.) Entranced. Enthralled. Too scared to look, too amazed to look away.

Then, Loomis emptied his pistol into Michael.

And we breathed again for the first time in what seemed a horror-filled eternity.

Then Loomis looked over the balcony railing, only to see Michael gone from the spot where he’d lain only minutes before.

We turned to each other. Eyes wide. Mouths gasping with the terror-infused, joyous squealing that surviving such an experience yields. In my blurred memory, one or both of us said, “Holy shit!” (whispering, of course, so Dad wouldn’t hear.)

Then, we inched up to the front of the theater balcony.

We carefully, cautiously peeked over the railing at the chairs and floor below, and saw…

Nothing.

The credits rolled.

The “Halloween” theme tinkle-tinkle-tinkled through the empty theater.

We waved to Dad in the booth, and smiled.

Let It Go!

You know the old saying:

“Don’t let the _____ get you down!” (insert your euphemism of choice based on your level of vexation.)

Whatever you call them, I’ve been surrounded lately by (euphemism of your choice.) And I’ve been letting them get me down.

 I’d love to say you can’t really blame me. After all, either by nature or nurture, design or default, these (euphemisms of your choice) say and do things purposely and strategically designed to flatten my psyche, injure my ego, and sap my spirit.

Some are misguided, some are confused. Many have been snowed under by an avalanche of anger triggered by a fat, orange Sasquatch. Still, whatever their motivation, they chew on my confidence like a rodent gnawing on a power line.

Yet, honestly, it’s not their fault.

How can that be, you ask with an abundance of (much appreciated) concern for my well-being (or well-earned uncertainty about the point of this entry into Tom’s Journal of Middle-Age Miasma.)

Well, upon some serious therapeutic self-examination, I realize that, as is usually the case, I am to blame.

The key word in the saying, “Don’t let the ____ get you down,” is, “Let.”

Are the (euphemisms of my choice) really doing all those things that lead to me feeling badly about myself? Absolutely! Although I am in my middle 50s, my approaching and imminent dementia isn’t so bad that I am imagining things yet – voices in my head be damned!

However, “letting” something happen is often our own choice.

I have long been a strong and vocal proponent of “personal accountability.”

For example, as a thinking – and, hopefully, thoughtful – human being, I am well aware of the evils we have, and continue to, commit against each other.

I am ashamed of and regret the resulting waves of repression, oppression, poverty, resentment, division, and societal decay that have rolled onto our historical beach. I try to understand and, whenever possible, speak out against the many things wrong with our world and help fix them in my own miniscule ways.

(Without getting too much into the weeds, these tiny actions of candor and conviction on my part are exactly what some of those (euphemisms of my choice) have criticized me for.)

Yet I also stand firmly on the conviction that, all things being equal, one must also be brave enough to take responsibility for the things one can control. Blaming others for problems of your own making only exacerbates the problem.

I cannot single-handedly control or change the world (although I will keep trying.)

But I can most certainly can control and change my world – which is to say, Me.

This nugget of wisdom came back to me recently from my two of my most trusted resources: my wife, and a children’s cartoon.

Sure, this behavior from others is often hurtful, and my frustration is real and significant. Yet, ironically, I give it weight, I assign its value, I make it real by how I respond.

Fight against it? Sure.

But let it darken my mental and emotional doorstep? No more.

Instead, I will re-commit myself (because I am often a slow learner with a spotty memory) to do what my wife and Elsa, from the Disney movie “Frozen,” recently reminded.

I will just “Let it go.”

Easier said than done? Yep.

Worth the effort? Most truly good things are.

All those (euphemisms of my choice) can keep right on stirring pots overflowing with a bitter soup of their own recipe. That is their right. But don’t expect me to taste it.

Not even a sip.

Sod in the Front, Seed in the Back

Four whitewashed walls. Attached garage. A modest 1,375 square feet of living space. Roof thrown in for free!

No basement, no attic, no central air. No fence. No lawn, only sod in the front, seed in the back.

It wasn’t much to look at. But for us – a pair of new parents, two small kids, and a 10-pound Shi Tzu – it was perfect.

It was our first house. We planned to move in three to five years when the kids got bigger. After all, 1,375 square feet doesn’t leave much room to grow, and 3-year-old and 1-year-old daughters are all about growth.

Twenty-six years later, we are more salt than pepper. More aches than energy. Lasting memories outweigh likely adventures. The babies are now thriving young adults with families of their own.

We have survived a recession, a pandemic, several job changes, major health issues, bereavements, estrangements, separations, and innumerable life upheavals. And worked our figurative fannies off to beautify, improve, maintain, protect and extend our little corner of the world. Tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours spent picking and pulling and painting and pounding vegetables and weeds and walls and nails.

We never did move. And now, our first house is our forever home.

Thoughts of “home” – literal and metaphoric – come to mind as we watch our youngest daughter and future son-in-law take on the many challenges of home ownership.

They bought their first little house about two years ago. Showing us pictures the first time, almost glowing with pride and excitement, they said it needed a bit of work. The previous owner had quickly fixed up and flipped the property.

I am now sure someone coined the term “fixer-upper” specifically for this house.

And that the previous owner was a liar, cheat, and thief. If there is any real justice in this greed-infested world, he’ll get his share someday in a moldy, leaky, dank corner of hell reserved specially for people who look to make a quick buck selling moldy, leaky, dank houses to young, eager, unaware couples.

Still, they persevered.

Using the unwelcome extra time (and some of the welcome extra money) the pandemic produced, they fixed what they could. Friends, family, and very kind contractors not hell bent on turning every dime into a dollar helped finish what they couldn’t do alone.

Now, as they plan their wedding in October 2022, their first house is also their first home. Not because of what they got when they signed on the bottom line, but because of what they have created together, since.

Then, there was the dead tree.

Two of our very closest friends who have become family, planted an autumn blaze maple sapling at their then-first home, also about 26 years ago.

The tree bloomed and grew. Its branches literally and symbolically intertwining with every aspect of their young marriage and family. They welcomed and provided perches for myriad birds and innumerable squirrels – including the several that their dog successfully chased down and sent on to whatever follows tree life for squirrels.

It offered shade and shelter, beauty and inspiration, its thickening trunk a tangible anchor for the spirits that drifted under and around and into its arms.

Then, a vicious storm broke off a limb. Time and Mother Nature said the tree was damaged beyond saving, forcing our friends to cut it down recently. The loss was palpable and heartbreaking, as much for the giant presence lost as for all that it represented. (Full disclosure: one of our friends wrote a candid, sad, and beautiful blog about this experience.)

Like those who’ve never owned pets and are confused by the love humans have for their animals, some will be surprised to know how very seriously our friends took this loss. Until you understand that the tree was not just a tree, but a living, breathing element of their life – their home.

In the same way, those who have never lifted a hammer or slung a paint brush or dirtied their knees, hoping against hope that the picture balances the room, or the color matches the vision in one’s mind or the flowers/grass/veggies eventually sprout and survive the ever-hungry critters in service to a mortgage payment, may have a hard time understanding the idea of a home as anything other than a dwelling.

The difference is as simple as the deceptively profound lesson learned as a very young journalist about word choice: a house is a collection of wood and glass and metal. A home is what you make of it. A building, versus what is built.

A house is filled with things. Transient. Impermanent. Replaceable. A home is filled with the stuff of Life seen by the soul. Joy and sorrow. Gain and loss. Laughs and tears. Most importantly, the love that exists between those who share its space for a purpose greater than themselves.

The saying “Home is where the heart is,” is a cliché for a good reason: because it is true.

Baby, I’m a Star!

I have always wanted to be a rock star. (Indeed, I have been for a long time, if only on my ego’s giant stage.)

Finally, I really am – and believe it or not, no thanks to my good friend, KISS lead singer Paul Stanley. (We met a few years ago at a book signing – his, not mine.)

Rather, my stardom came because of “Doc” McStuffins.

“Doc” is a seven-year-old African American girl who likes to fix toys, dolls, and stuffed animals. (Doc’s real name is Maisha, like that of Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an emergency medicine physician in Sunnyvale, Texas.)

Doc is the latest of the long line of Disney Junior’s megastars.

But much more important, she is our 3-year-old granddaughter Riley’s current favorite television character and role model.

For those unaware, Doc’s toys come to life through her imagination (and a “magic” stethoscope) and present all manner of toy traumas needing her medical expertise. Doc and her assistants – a hippo, dinosaur, stuffed lamb, and a paranoid snowman, among others – then treat them, dutifully recording their diagnoses in Doc’s “Big Book of Boo-Boos.”

Recently a coworker mentioned her 10-year-old daughter had outgrown her Doc McStuffins diagnosis table and cabinet and offered it to me.

As a proud, card-carrying Papa, I had only one choice.

I graciously accepted the gift and set it up in our family room. Kellie, my wife (and the best Nana, ever) and I couldn’t wait to see the look on Riley’s face on her next weekend visit when she walked into that room.

Needless to say, 3-year-old smiles don’t come much bigger or brighter.

What I didn’t know – and Riley soon discovered – is that the cabinet was filled with toy medical implements: a stethoscope, giant syringe, a blood pressure cuff with a needle that spins wildly every you pump the air pressure. Every kind of tool that a “doctor” would need.

Riley spent the rest of the day – and hours on subsequent visits – poking and prodding us. Pounding our knees and elbows. Peering into our eyes and ears. Listening to our hearts. Monitoring our blood pressure and pulse. I can’t swear, but I am almost sure that she checked my blood pressure more that first day than has been done in my entire 55 years on earth.

Heck, if my real doctors paid this much attention, I wouldn’t mind paying the deductible nearly as much.

After dropping Riley off that Saturday evening, Kellie and I were both elated and amazed at the incredible joy this used toy brought our sweet girl, from whom joy already overflows.

Then, Kellie said something that hit me like electroshock therapy (which Doc does not perform, thank goodness.)

“You were the rock star today.”

Her simple, easy smile bespoke her sincerity. Knowing the strength of her own special and strong bond with our granddaughter, I knew she wasn’t being in any way sarcastic or envious. There’s no competition between us (only one of my wife’s countless qualities.) Just stating the fact: on that day Papa had brought the roof down.

Like many things in my advancing middle age, those words meant more to me than maybe were intended or understood.

To paraphrase a cliché, if I’d have known that being a grandpa was so awesome, I might have tried it before being a dad.

Don’t get me wrong: I was a decent dad. Not perfect. Who is? Parenting – like most “adulting” – can be very hard work. Mentally, physically, spiritually, and financially draining. But even decent dads do some “un-decent” deeds, now and again.

I had (have) a short, impatient fuse and a long, flaring temper. I am reluctant (trust me, that’s the fairest, most accurate word I can use) about change. I do not tolerate fools or foolishness, and I am the sole judge of both in my world.

I am eternally embarrassed to admit our kids saw all of that, and more than once.

(For the record: I think I’ve improved a smidge since our girls reached young adulthood. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say I’m now a solid 7. I love this stage of our relationship, being able to talk about everything with two intelligent, thoughtful, caring young people. It expands and energizes my mind and soul.)

Yet, as a grandparent, I can be a better Me.

Absent the parental pressures of providing housing, financial support, clothing, etc. the focus shifts completely to the purest interests of the heart: blowing bubbles, swimming, exploring the garden, taking long walks down a new path, visiting museums and parks, napping, tickling, snuggling, singing songs we’ve sung a million times at the tops of our voices.

And of course, sharing a bowl of ice cream on a warm Saturday afternoon.

My good friend Paul Stanley may pack in 25,000 screaming KISS fans, their faces made up in white and black and red Kabuki makeup to look like his or the other band members.

He may have sold 100 million records and helped pioneer arena rock.

He may be a talented songwriter, singer, and performer worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

He can keep it all.

Because, in the eyes of my favorite 3-year-old, baby I’m a star!