Oh, how I miss my antagonists

I thought that I despised people … until now.

I’m a public relations practitioner by trade. My job is to help control the narrative. Our truth.

People are my number one enemy, with their doubt and dissension, despite that I provide our gospel. As a journalist-at-heart, I appreciate them. Still, they annoy me.

They ask questions that I’ve already answered. Often, they believe that I’m keeping something from them. Truth is, I’m the middle-man.

I craft the messages to be understandable by the masses. My messages are usually translated and disseminated within minutes. I’m not paid for.

Yet, they doubt. Disagree. Spew conspiracy theories of an improbable bigger picture at times.

I am a father, husband, friend and confidant. I lie only to myself … about things like my over-eating, over-drinking, and even my ability as a romancer. But it stops there.

People, as it turns out, are my number one enemy — and my priority.

I disagree with them and their popular opinions. I despise their lack of reasoning. I often think of them as lemmings jumping from a cliff.

But I also know that my opinion about them was way shortsighted. This pandemic and my lack of real contact have proven that to me.

I miss the quandaries they handed me. I lament their doubtful moments. The lack of questions from them has left me emptier than I would have ever expected.

I love them more than I realized and cannot wait for the dissension to commence once again.

Trapped in the COVID-19 thing?

Like billions of my earthly counterparts, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to staying at home these days. Our elected leaders are suggesting it, and my employer is requiring it. All considered, these are smart moves aimed at quelling a viral bloodbath.

Still, as a relatively healthy middle-aged guy, I must admit that grocery store lines and restaurant closings are … necessary inconveniences. Just today, for example, I stood in line to enter a regional grocery store; I was also forced to order my Saturday night Chinese food to go. If that’s not enough, I had to answer a handful of work emails, as we prepare to do our thing virtually.

Woe is me.

But there are so many positives that have arisen thus far during this imposed shelter-in-place. The following are my top ten.

No more dress code
Aside from about six years as the owner-operator of a tree nursery, my professional adult life has required button-downs, chinos, daily shaving, and the occasional tie. These days, I’m wearing flip-flops and athletic shorts. Oddly, I still abide by the daily shaving routine. I only wish our boy would submit to daily showering so easily.

Who knew my kid started puberty?
Admit it. Most of us are so committed to being pretty (and right) on social media, that real-life stuff tends to be put aside. I deleted my Facebook account months ago, but it took me a while to recover and rejoin the real world. It was not until the COVID-19 situation that I realized our son felt that water was merely for drinking. He’s a good — great — kid. Puberty though. It gets funky. To everyone at his school: I’m sorry that we didn’t insist on deodorant before this whole pandemic. Indeed, (Dad) spent his middle school years masking everything with Brut aerosol. My bad. Never again.

Baseball
First things first: I’m a lifelong fan of the Texas Rangers. My runner-up fave is the Philadelphia Phillies. As for you folks who have been calling out the Astros for cheating? Thank goodness you have something else to worry about. Truth is, COVID-19 is much more serious than a baseball team that banged trash cans to indicate pitches. Still, so many of you jumped on the bandwagon, as if your team didn’t attempt the same thing … and as if the player’s union didn’t arrange for immunity for those players who admitted the sketchy schemes.

Funky family tree branches
I’ve been an ancestry.com guy for a couple of years. I’m German. And I’m Jewish. During these weeks at home, my research has yielded some deep dark secrets about a couple of great-grandfathers. Nifty. Fun.

Television
Like so many other people, I’m catching up on some Netflix binges. Television is as good now as it has ever been, as far as production quality. Still, M*A*S*H, All in the Family and The Flintstones are among the best all-time shows for a variety of reasons. Thank goodness I can avoid The Bachelor and other so-called highly rated reality productions in my occasional escapes.

Finally, a clean freezer
By my count, we’ve already added more than $1,000 back to our budget because … drive-thru windows. Sure, I want to support local businesses. But it occurred to me the I have already supported many of them during a Saturday afternoon organization of my freezer. Just today, I went to slice a cured smoked pork belly for bean soup, before realizing that it was a brisket portion that I’d cured for pastrami. I bought all the ingredients locally. Because of my poor freezer organization, however, another $30 from our budget went into someone else’s pocketbook this weekend. We’ll organize before it’s all said and done, thanks to our recent purchase of freezer tape and a permanent marker. Thankfully, for our local restaurateurs, I have uncontrollable hankerings for hot & sour soup, chimichangas, and fried chicken.

Cleanliness … It’s about damn time
Barely three days into this situation, and I’m getting my ass jumped for leaving my coffee cup in the sink. I. Love. This. We are a dishwashing, clothes ironing, air conditioning filter-changing people. We also have a tendency to get sloppy. My bride has gone nuclear on keeping this place sterile. This dude will abide.

From the classroom
My wife is a second-career teacher. Back in the day, I heard all kinds of nursing stories. These days, I hear stories from the classroom. Though I’ve had my moments in politely maintaining (so many stories mirror the same stories from the day, week and year before), I found myself missing the daily sessions. Though the virtual sessions aren’t as personable, I think I’ll get my fill just the same. Particularly because we’re spending 24 hours a day together.

Honesty, at last
I’m an Eagle Scout. And, for those who don’t know, the first point of the Scout Law is honesty. So, being totally honest, I’ve lied for the better part of my life when I ask “How are you?” (C’mon. You’re just as guilty!) These days, though, my question is sincere. Some of us are suffering physically. Most of us are mentally fragile these days. I know that I am. So, when I ask, I really want to know. Perhaps we can help one another cope. Once this passes, however, I’ll be back to faking that question. (And so will you.)

Kissing the cook
I love to cook, and I have the tools to prove it. (Little known fact: My favorite lady married me because I owned a Kitchen Aid stand mixer.) I smoke, braise, fry, sous vide, and even reduce on a regular basis. Like many others, though, I’ve done more than my fair share of drive-thru windows. Admittedly, I’m a five-year Yelp elite member … with enough restaurant reviews to float a flotilla. Not these days, though. Just this afternoon, I made my own egg noodles. It’s not something I want to do every day, but they beat the hell out of the dried store version. Tomorrow — mainly because I don’t want to brave the store — I’ll be making my own chili con carne for Tex-Mex night. Fun.

It is my sincere hope that everyone can find 10 positives about being a shut-in and that they remain healthy — physically and emotionally — in the process.

Nature vs. Nurture — Part IV

October 2, 2019

Dear Child, 

You did it again, kid. My heart is broken.

It is the second time in as many weeks that your choices have widened the scars that already existed because of you.  You stole from me, and now you’re moving away.

If there were ever a person I wanted to hate, it is you.  It would be so much easier.

Your mother sent word of your imminent departure this afternoon, and I didn’t receive it until it was time to leave the office. My memories of you – us – nudged all other thoughts on the long drive home today. I cried through three cities.

Damn you for that. 

I entered your life when we were both much younger. Those early years were tough for both of us, and anyone who ever felt they needed to pick a side. But we grew. Together.

Remember our first Halloween together? We convinced your mother to dress you in a more traditional costume, versus the biblical characters that embarrassed you so much. I always thought young Moses, with the basket around your waist, was quite creative and fun. Still, I understood your desire to wear ruby slippers and braided pigtails.

Do you remember sitting in the backseat of the car and giving me directions to the store? They were nothing more than guesses on your part. Though that episode remains among my fondest memories, it was hauntingly telling.

You spin yarn.

The golden versions have happened here and there, such as the time you informed us that you were the only beginner clarinet player to make the All-Region Band, or when you more recently announced that you received a scholarship to attend a distinguished school for aspiring beauticians. Far more often than not, however, your yarns are hued yellow, which is the color of deceit.

I love you. I hurt for you. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for me.

I fear that you are beyond the grace of anyone who offers it. I hurt because you keep falling and don’t seem to care anymore about standing. I fear that you have only one more of these emotional blows in your arsenal … except, you won’t be here to recover.

I’m heartbroken, kid. Please don’t take you from me.

Love always,

Dad

Nature vs. Nurture — Part III

April 10, 2015

Dear Son,

You won’t remember today. You are seven. Your morning started as a disappointment because we told you that you’d have to buy lunch in the school cafeteria. I came to your rescue at 11:15, but it is you who should get the credit for rescuing someone.

When I ordered your turkey sandwich with lots of extra black olives and a side of oil & vinegar, I never realized that it would be the catalyst for one of my favorite memories. For once, I arrived at your school before your lunch period and made my way to the cafeteria with our lunches in tow. My timing rewarded me, much in the same way that Atlantic Coast beaches reward early risers.

Soon after I settled in and prepped our lunch spread, the first-grade classes began filing in. One by one I caught glimpses of the teachers leading their students into the room, each time feeling anxious and then disappointed. Until I spotted your teacher … and you.

By the time you read this I hope you will have experienced at least of few perfect moments in time, such as looking up at the sky at the exact point that a meteorite shoots across the horizon, or glancing out the car window just in time to see a whooping crane take flight from an obscure patch of grass. When you’ve experienced moments like these, you’ll know how I felt when I looked across that cafeteria today and made eye contact with you.

Your wide grin – with those two missing front teeth – was as cute as a litter of boxer puppies. When I waved to make sure we were actually looking at each other, you pointed then waved in response. When you broke from your line and headed in my direction your smile continued to grow. And so did mine. Most of the time it’s not so good to run out of sandwich bread in the middle of the week. But this week was different.

As a boy, my mom would sing to me ‘You are my sunshine,’ and I think I’ve finally realized why. I pray that you are able to find joy in the little things like I found today. I pray also that I realize more often that these really aren’t little things at all.

You won’t remember this day. But I’ll never forget it, Sunshine.

I love you.
Dad

Nature vs. Nurture – Part II

The author originally wrote and published this piece in March 2014. 

‘Mom, I’m glad I’m not adopted,’ the little boy said out of the blue.

‘Really,’ she responded. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because, if I was adopted you wouldn’t love me as much.’

It had been more than five years since the boy made the transition into his new family. He was about a year old when Child Protective Services placed him with his foster family.

He doesn’t remember the days of crawling around a small government-subsidized apartment as his biological mother and her guests — many of whom she didn’t know — lay sleeping on floors and couches. Though it was one of his earliest sensory experiences, he can’t identify marijuana smoke. Nor has he imagined that drinking straws are also used to inhale the poisonous vapors of scorched methamphetamine.

And he doesn’t recall the hours in court, where attorneys and social workers made their cases on his behalf.

‘Well, you know we love you more than anything,’ the mom said.

‘I know,’ the little boy responded, ‘because I’m not adopted.’

His young memory is instead crowded with Disney characters and Sunday dinners; a cruise ship that he refers to as the boat; a stuffed duck that was his Linus blanket; and pizza bites. Enough pizza bites to float a cruise ship.

The boy’s parents never considered having another child. In fact, they were done with diapers, well-baby doctor visits and school supply lists that included sleeping mats. All of their high-chairs and strollers had been given away or sold at a garage sale. They were ready for vacations and some weekends alone.

But they saw an injustice.

He deserved better than to be left alone or to witness his mother trade favors for drugs. Every child does. This boy, however, was one of the fortunate ones. For certain, his biological mother loved him. But her stronger bond was with her lifestyle. And he’d become a novelty.

‘You know, many people who put their children up for adoption love them very much,’ the mom explained. ‘And the people who adopt them really want them in their family.’

‘I’m just glad I’m not adopted,’ he responded. ‘And I’m glad you and dad love me more than an adopted son.’

In time, the boy will begin asking questions. His parents – my wife and I – will offer him answers. We will be forthcoming and matter-of-fact. That will include letting him know that life happens and that he is our grandson, but really our son.

We will also tell him that we love him with all of our hearts. Forever. And I suspect that he’ll believe us.

Nature vs. Nurture – Part I

The author wrote this post in 2013. It was originally published on March 24 of that year.

The good memories are fading. They were once plentiful.

I entered her life when she was six and witnessed plenty worth recollection. But, the production line one evening … just stopped.

Her beauty was natural — and a certainty, with striking deep brown eyes and onyx hued hair. She had proven herself on the stage, at the plate, and with her embouchure. But, she had dreams still in waiting.

As a little girl, she was much like any other. She talked about her birthday — months out; she eagerly awaited Santa’s arrival, and she preferred the over-salted gravy and fried chicken strips at Ponderosa Steakhouse to any homemade dish — except for her Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.

I can still smell the sweat of a young child who spent her day climbing fences, playing hopscotch and racing the little boy who lived two doors down. My memory needs no refreshing to see her blue-on-white saddle bucks peddling and pushing.

I can also hear her whining voice when she didn’t get her way.

‘So, what are you gonna be for Halloween?’ I remember asking that little six-year-old. ‘Power Rangers? Dora?’

‘Mom makes me dress up as a Bible character every year,’ she told me, frowning.

‘Like what?’ I quizzed her.

‘Last year, she cut a hole in a big basket and attached it to my waist. Then she dressed me up like a baby,’ she explained. ‘I was supposed to be Moses.’

‘Well, that actually sounds pretty cool,’ I responded, smiling at the sad pathetic look of a child who was disappointed. ‘What do you say we try to convince Mom to let you dress in a devil costume this year. You could scare every kid in the neighborhood.’

Her eyes briefly widened. An excited smile came to her face. Then both disappeared, as if she had a contradictory thought.

‘Even you won’t be able to talk her into that,’ she said.

‘We’ll see,’ I responded. ‘I mean, the devil is biblical. Yes?’

Though Mom didn’t offer her blessing on the whole devil costume idea, we managed to convince her to construct an ensemble in the likeness of Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz.

I was a young man who sprung himself into fatherhood after falling in love with a beautiful single mother. I was far from perfect — often expecting too much and other times not expecting enough. I deeply regret that in all the times I told that little girl how beautiful and intelligent she was, we never shared an embrace. We both needed it more than we knew. Yet, we subconsciously avoided it.

Still, she and I made an excellent team.

Once, not knowing my way around the neighborhood, she volunteered to navigate. Snug in her blue booster seat, she shouted directions from the back. Left. Another left. Go straight. Now go that way. We became lost, but we eventually found our way home, with a bagful of soda and candy.

‘I thought you knew where you were going,’ I said over my shoulder.

‘I figured I’d take you on the scenic route,’ she responded, just as seriously as she could.

She would get hers about seven years later.

‘Watch her pitches,’ I whispered through the chain-link dugout. ‘She’s fast and intimidating, but she’s not hitting the strike zone.’

‘Well, I’m swinging anyway Dad,’ she said ‘because I don’t want the coach to yell at me.’

‘Look,’ I responded, ‘you can’t score a run if you don’t get on base. You were swinging at air last inning. She’s all over the place — except where it matters. Let her put you on base. You can probably get a steal and then you’ll be in her head.’

In just about everything I’ve ever done, I’ve played with the odds. In competition, I’ve always tried to find my biggest strength and pit it against my opponent’s most glaring weakness. Sometimes, one’s strengths are lost against an opponent. That first at-bat was one of those times. She just needed to be patient.

‘If she throws one down the middle, by all means — take a swing,’ I pleaded. ‘But she hasn’t placed more than one pitch in the strike zone during any at-bat. Think about it.’

As she stepped from the on-deck circle and approached the batter’s box, I just stood at the corner of the backstop and stared. We made eye contact and I nodded.

Four pitches later, the umpire used both arms to make his loud animated call. She’d struck out. Looking. As she lumbered back toward her emotional coach, we exchanged glances. I could only shrug my shoulders. She had two more at-bats, and struck out swinging every time. She had a strong desire — then — to please.

Though I was trying to help her succeed, I still regret that moment. I’d pitted her against her real teacher. And she gained nothing … except a verbal lashing and some prolonged time sitting on the bench.

I remember sitting on a large towel beneath an umbrella on Long Beach Island, just minutes from our home. While her mom and I fought off gulls who wanted our sub sandwiches, she introduced herself to other little girls — and boys — and invited them to play. Like a good cold-calling salesman, she accepted ‘no’ with grace and quickly moved to the next potential customer. Within minutes, usually, she would be surrounded by the laughter of other children.

No matter how out of tune she might have been, she continued to sing. And sing. And sing. She was adorable in her perseverance. And innocent.

Somewhere along the way, the songs began to fade.

The beautiful outwardly friendly little girl began to withdraw and see herself in a negative light. She began to hunger for more esteem from her peers but seemed puzzled on how she would accomplish it. She began to want more along materialistic lines. Unrealistic yearnings such as living in the town’s most expensive neighborhood.

Those desires quickly turned to hard cravings.

Once a little girl who befriended inspiring counterparts, she had gradually become attracted to a different crowd. This new group could best be described as lost. Outsiders. Drawing flies. They were neither athletes nor musicians. And they were far removed from being academicians.

Despite that none of her new chosen peers had a single hobby or nary a desire to attend college in a few years, she attached herself. They accepted her, she explained to us, and made her complete. Had she lost sight of her wide acceptance during the previous 10 years of going to school? Would she go from colorful to drab? Why?

A couple of years passed us by, during which lies became more frequent than the truth. We tried to welcome her friends into our home, if for no other reason than to know who she was admiring and trying to emulate. Someone, we felt, had a stronghold on our daughter. But, she was careful and calculating. We met very few of her acquaintances.

Throughout that time of letdown and disappointment, one thing never waned — her work ethic.

I gave her my old Honda Civic. She could install her own stereo, decorate it with bumper stickers or even use those hideous strawberry-scented Christmas tree air fresheners. But, I made sure she knew that my name was still on the title of ownership, in case she thought about getting into trouble.

She used that car to take herself to school, and to two jobs. While her grades left a lot to be desired, she stepped from her newly updated comfort zone and acted in a school musical. The recently tapped group of friends were still kept mostly hidden from us, but we saw progress with our daughter.

As she looked into the mirror, she began to discover her beauty again. She ate well and worked feverishly. She seemed content and acted the part very well in much of her life. Her mother would get another chance at establishing a strong bond. Maybe I would too. Our little girl was coming home again.

Nature. Relentless nature.
It was a Saturday night. Our son was lying on his bed playing a handheld video game. Our youngest daughter slept soundly in a bed a few feet from her older sister’s. The dog was inside and it was time to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

‘Hey!’ My wife yelled down the hallway. I was in bed, relaxed and flipping through TV channels. ‘Come here!’

‘Jesus H.!’ I yelled back. ‘I’m in bed!’

‘I need you in here!’ she yelled back. I could hear the shakiness in her voice.

Frustrated that I had to climb back out of bed, I quickly threw on a T-shirt and made my way down the dark hallway, toward the light of the girls’ bedroom. What in the hell could she want with me? And why couldn’t she just come to our bedroom and ask for it?

As I rounded the corner, I saw our oldest sitting on the edge of her bed. Her eyes were wide open and dilated. Catherine stood beside her first child, her own eyes big. I could sense that she wanted to release some sort of primal scream.

Instead, she produced a lightbulb with the screw-cap broken off and filament removed. In her other hand was a short red straw and a cigarette lighter.

Our little girl had found contentment … in the form of pseudoephedrine, battery acid, and ammonia. Meth.

The little girl who became a protective big sister a few years before was now sucking the exhaust of boiling toxic chemicals — just feet from where her little sister dreamed of her own birthday parties.

The little girl who once played dress-up and looked like Dorothy on Halloween was now killing her heart and brain with stuff meant for clearing drains and stripping wax from dirty floors.

The little girl who had once memorized the books of the Bible — in order — was now meeting people in the church parking lot to make exchanges. Wadded up cash for poison.

Moving on
After three attempts at inpatient rehab facilities, a child taken away from her, a couple of jail stints and a life now with someone who has even less ambition than her, that little girl is still addicted. Her DOC (drug of choice, for those who are fortunate enough to have avoided such vernacular) has changed through the years.

Our little girl’s goal in life gradually changed from attending law school to acquiring prescription anti-anxiety pills, marijuana, K2, bath salts and crystal meth, when available.

Though her eyes don’t tell the story that they once did, we remember the little girl and beautiful young lady that she once was. We cannot help but to recall the laughter and fun. The blowing out of birthday candles and the sprint from the school bus to the front door. The beach.

Oh, how we long to be guided again along the scenic route.