Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Trepidation vs. Blubbering Revisited.   Or, then, there was middle school-how did this happen?

Back in my day we didn’t call it middle school.  Most people called it Junior High or, if you went to SPS like me, you just called it seventh and eighth grade.  I had the unique experience of being in the same building with many of the same kids from grades 1-8.  That’s pretty rare these days and I’m not certain that’s a good thing.  I did some papers on that model during my graduate work years ago and still stand by many of my assertions and conclusions.  But, that’s not what this column is about.

It seems like mere moments ago that I was sitting on the edge of the bed in our home in Ewa Beach on the eve of the twins starting kindergarten.  I wrote about that in this space then and just re-read that one now.  I won’t reiterate the whole things, but, as we approached the moment where the twins began their career as full-time students, I, um, well, I kind lost it.

I got emotional about it to a degree that probably should have been embarrassing to me (I know it was for the wife), but as I look on it now, I realize that I was reacting to the first time they made that inevitable move away from what has been, towards what will be.  It’s the way life works and I think I’m a little more mature and experienced as a parent now, right?

The things I was worried about then had as much to do with me and my comfort zone as they did about anything else.  I had worries that the twin’s relationship with one another would change, that their relationship with their younger sister would change, that everything would change and it would never be the same.  I worried that they wouldn’t want to play together anymore and they wouldn’t want to be around me anymore, either. 

Keep in mind, they were only 4.  They started kindergarten in Hawaii and would later do another kinder year once we moved in NoVA.  But, at the time, I was terrified of these things.  We were in a good place, I thought, and I worried that that one first step away would be the end of everything we’d tried to create together.

I left my career in education for a number of reasons, all of them valid.  Paramount among them, however was a desire to connect with my family in a manner that I’d never had the opportunity to before.  I wanted to be home with the kids and by the time they were heading to Kindergarten, I’d been doing it for two years.  We had a groove… It wasn’t always easy.  Actually, I don’t know that any of it was easy but by that point, two years in, we had a pretty fair amount of mojo going on.  Change scared me.

“They can’t stay little forever.”

The wife said that to me, late at night on the eve of their first day of full-day, five days a week school, as I sat on the edge of the bed blubbering like a…well, I’m sorry that I can’t think of a good reference here.  Feel free to message me one-I’m sure there’s one there, but I was emotionally overloaded at the thought of them moving out into the world.  I nearly hyperventilated with anxiety at the time.  I’ve gotten better at handling that since then, so, bonus, but I was really upset about it all and they were only four!  It was Hawaiian “junior” kindergarten!

This week, half a world away from where their school journey started, they will complete Elementary school and will begin seventh grade in the fall. 

So, how’d that happen?  They did what kids do.  They grow and they develop and they change.  I find myself, at least for the moment, feeling less full of trepidation than I was back in the day.  That may change between now and Thursday/Friday when the twins have their “transition ceremonies,” but I think it’s a little different this time.  I’ve seen them transition through so many things, without the benefit of a ceremony even.  They moved from Hawaii to Virginia.  They started at new school.  They started Scouts and played Soccer and Rugby and Volleyball.  The Boyo started a new school in third grade.  They’ve done choir and Sunday School and played in the school band.  They’ve done All County Chorus and Area Honor Band.  They’ve made friends and had friends move away.  They’ve taken tests and run races and created art.  Boyo is closing in on his Black Belt.  J-Bird has become a fixture at the Pyramid Art show.  Boyo is an amazingly thoughtful gift giver.  J is more empathetic than anyone I’ve ever known besides her mother.  They still, along with their younger sister, like to play together.  And as a family, we do an awful lot together.  That’s remained important.

I still read to them all, every night.  The last few years I’ve managed to find books/series that all three kids are into, so that’s out routine.  I’ll do it with them forever if they let me.  I’m getting pretty good at voices.

Now, none of this is to suggest that we haven’t faced a pile of bricks worth of challenges.  If you know me at all or have read in this space at all, you likely know what they are.  I’m not going into all of that right now as I don’t want to and don’t have to.  There have been a lot of days that I wasn’t sure how we’d make it through.  Hell, there’ve been hours that I wasn’t sure how we’d get through. 

Somehow, we did.  We got through those moments where I didn’t know what to do or what to say.  Those times where nothing made sense until we learned how it did.  Those moments where it became clear that I didn’t know enough-didn’t know the right things to do about the challenges we were facing.  So, we learned-all of us together and we continue to do so.  I’m a different parent than I was when they were four and two.  I’m a different man.  I hope a better one, but I’d settle for marginally adequate/meets expectations.

All of us are a work in progress.  I think that is perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned since I sat on the edge of the bed and blubbered my eyes out because I was worried that the kids wouldn’t want to play with me or each other anymore after going to school and that my whole comfort zone was once again set to implode.  It didn’t then, it just changed, much like it will again soon. 

I know every step they take into that larger world is a step away from the life we have today but it’s also a step towards the life that they will build for themselves.  I hope we’ve laid a good foundation, and I’m officially and openly asking for advice on navigating middle school as a parent.  I’m not certain my experience in grades seven and eight have prepared me for this any better than being a high school vice principal/athletic director prepared me for being a stay-at-home dad in Hawaii.

I’m feeling less trepidation today then I did back then.  Perhaps that’s growth.  Maybe it’s confidence in the twins and their own personal brand of awesome.  Maybe it’s trust that the wife won’t let us screw this up.  I suppose it could be surety that the friends the kids have made and skills they’ve learned will serve them well as they move into a whole new middle-schooly world.  Could be faith.  I’ve gotten better about seeing that and the grace it entails. 

Or, perhaps when the twins actually do their transitions, maybe in that moment I’ll completely lose it.  It’s possible.  I’m a human male of complex emotions, so that’s certainly a possibility. But if I do, it won’t be because I am worried about the future.  It won’t be because I am afraid about who they will become. 

It will be because I am so amazingly overwhelmed by the distance that our whole family has traveled, both physical and otherwise, to arrive at the moment we now have the privilege to inhabit.  It will be because I am so outrageously proud of the things all my children can do.  It will be because I am impressed with the way they both connect and challenge their siblings.  And their parents.  And their friends and themselves.

It will be because I know that this moment that now approaches is one I could not see when they were little.  It wasn’t in my mind back then, as our future at that time was more in flux than we realized.  But here we are.

So how did we get here? 

We worked.  We loved.  We struggled.  We fought.  We made up.  We celebrated.  We cried.  We said hello.  We said goodbye.  We said Aloha.  We ate.  We drank.  We slept. We drew.  We painted.  We played.  We walked.  We prayed.  We planted.  We moved.  We grew.  We sang.  We went to church.  We played records.  We listened to the radio.  We went to garage sales.  We created.  We read.  We drew.  We folded paper.  We visited family.  We made new friends.  We kept the old ones.  We said goodbye to some friends.  We did genealogy.  We learned.  We learned a lot, about a lot of things.  We watched sports.  We got a dog.  We found a place.

I’m not going to say comfort zone.  That’s become hack for me at this point, but I like very much where we are.  Where I am now.  The space we inhabit.

It is simply amazing for me to revisit the things I wrote in this space back when they were little.  I’m so glad I wrote them.  I don’t think anyone else is, but I know I like the fact that I can look back on my own ridiculousness.  It’s therapeutic and there’s no copay for it, so score one more for me.

I don’t know how I’ll react this week when they transition out of elementary.  I’m cool with that.  It’s nice to look at myself and not find a foregone conclusion.  I like who I am now.  That’s not something I’ve been able to say with impunity throughout my life.

However it all goes, I’m amazed and astounded and deeply humbled to have the privilege to be a part of the life of my family.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite Hawaiian sayings: “Kulia I Ka Nu’u.”  It means, “strive to reach the summit.”  I like it because it’s never depended on actually reaching the summit.  Just that you strive for it. 

I think let’s leave it at that for now.  If I blubber at their ceremonies, perhaps I’ll have another column.  As always, thanks for reading. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Just say thank you. Previewing the Acknowlegments of my as yet unpublished novel


I have been working diligently on some revisions and edits to my partial submission requests since my recent trip to Philadelphia.  While I feel like I’m making progress, I need a brief break and had the idea to just write something silly today.  That and I’ve been reminded recently that it’s important to thank the people in your life whenever possible.  As always, as we’ve discussed in this space before, I never like leaving things unsaid.   We always feel like we have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

I can’t be the only one who has pretended to hit the game winning shot, given an Oscar speech to the mirror, or fantasize the seminal interview with NPR’s Terry Gross from “Fresh Air.”  I know in the privacy of our own minds, we all probably do the same silly stuff.  If I’m honest, I’ve done some of those things more recently than is likely “cool” to admit, but there it is.  I’m a dreamer, you could say.

As such, I’ve decided to write the acknowledgements for my novel.  It’s not yet published, but I don’t see that as any reason to avoid putting it out there.  I suppose it could change by the time it does all come together, but this is pretty much how it would look if I were asked to write it today for its impending publication. 


Writing this book has been a genuinely interesting journey.  Calling it “a long, strange trip” seemed hack, so I went with something else.  These characters have inhabited my mind for a very long time and I am humbled by and grateful for the chance to finally share them with the world.

Along the way, people have asked, “Are these characters and events based on real people or are they completely made up?”  In answer to that question, I will say simply, “yes.”  Beyond that, it is my hope that everyone will find something to connect with in Avery and Angela and their adventure.  A professor of mine at Wooster used to say, “once you create something and put it out there, it no longer belongs to you.  Set it free and see what happens.”  I think there’s something to that so that is what I’m going to do.

It’s taken over six years to get to this point, and I have to start by thanking my amazing team of Beta Readers.  Outside of a free copy and that drink I owe them all, it’s a job that’s only perk is getting to read the versions of my stuff that are really not ready for the world.  To a person they’ve been positive, helpful, critical, and the book would simply not exist without them.  Well, it might, but it would really stink.  Their comments and ideas helped shape the book you now hold in your hands and my gratitude is simply immeasurable.  So, to my good friends, ATG, SY, JHE, GPK, HSK, and ACJ, I say thank you, thank you, thank you.  And drinks are on me.

I want to thank my children.  Between their patience with me when I had to finish one more paragraph, their interest along the way, and the amazing way they look at what I’ve been trying to do and see a creative way forward for themselves, I am so proud and grateful to be their father.  Each of them have worked on book projects of their own and seem to really enjoy it.  When they talk about their future, they say “when I publish” and not “if I publish.”  I like their approach there and more than once their encouragement has been the thing that made me keep plugging along when, I felt like every word I was writing was utter garbage.  They gave me the confidence to silence my inner critic.  As the late John Updike once said on NPR’s Fresh Air (I’m kind of a fan) “Any sentence could be stifled by the critic in one, if you allow him to get the upper hand,” and I’m notoriously bad at letting that critic run loose at times.  I like thinking that I’ve modeled something positive for them, but in truth, their honest and thoughtful support has been a model for me more than they probably know. 

Both of my parents are gone now, but I think they would have really enjoyed my publishing a book, this story in particular.  Wildwood is where they met and it’s been a vital part of my family’s life ever since.  To this day, there’s a stone at the Lighthouse Avery and Angela visit that my sister and I had made for them.  It says, quoting Bruce by way of Tom Waits, “’Down the shore, everything’s all right.”  I see Wildwood not merely as a setting in this story, but as a supporting character.  I know that my parents would have enjoyed that.  I also don’t think it’s the last time I’ll visit it as a setting for a book…

My wife served as a Beta Reader, so I guess I’ve thanked her already. 

But, I really haven’t.  I think it’s safe to say that without the support of my wife, who I’ve known and loved now for going on 25 years, I’m certain I wouldn’t be sharing this or anything else with you.  From the day we met she’s been my biggest supporter, biggest cheerleader and loved me unconditionally, which, knowing myself as I do, really could not have been easy.  She never laughed at my dreams of writing.  All she did was say, “go do it.”  Life in any family is occasionally complicated and schedules and obligations abound, but she never gave me grief for staying up to late writing, never complained about discussing scene after scene and always brought me back from the brink of my own sometimes crippling self-doubt. 

If this book, this story, these characters have an angel who’s been looking out for them, it is most assuredly my wife.  She never gave up on me and never let me give up on them, or my dreams.  So, as Gram would have said, I’ll “just say thank you.”

All the people above have made this a better book which I hope you enjoyed.  They also made me a better person, to which Avery might say “that’s not nothing…” 

It really isn’t.  Thank you for reading.  Stay tuned…

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Kugs says Aloha to Philly.  Also, looking for a writers group.

I love Philadelphia.  As a South Jersey guy I’ve long considered myself having grown up, “Just outside of Philly” which is not exactly accurate but people say it.  Technically, I grew up just outside of Princeton, which again is not exactly accurate either, but we said it all the time growing up.  That or, “Exit 8.” 

But I spent yesterday at the Philadelphia Writers Workshop in Rittenhouse Square.  It was a nice event: well-run and organized and lower-key than the huge Writer’s Digest Conferences, which is really what I needed as I once again dip my toes back into the world of books and publishing.

The classes were fun, covering style and revision, publishing options, how to work with agents, and a fun but slightly nerve-wracking anonymous one-page “Writers Got Talent” session.  My one-page did not get randomly selected and I’m kind of glad.  The book is done but on reflection I think it needs a further fine tuning and possibly a major structural change.  My pitches went well and I earned five requests for partials which is awesome.  Now it’s time to get everything tight before formally submitting the work, but I’m pretty excited. 

I was asked by a number of people in my life that the process of pitching is like so I thought I’d discuss that a bit.  It can be a little intimidating at first but I find it pretty fun once I get comfortable with my pitch.  It’s especially enjoyable if the person you’re pitching to likes what you’re talking about and engages you about your work. 

Essentially, you’re given ten minutes of time with an agent or editor.  It’s suggested you do your research and choose those who work in your genre.  Also a good idea to know something about them so you can chat briefly, personalizing your conversation with them.  After pleasantries, you basically deliver your pitch covering your characters, the plot and setting, what the conflict is, where the choices get made and how things change for the character over the course of the book.  It’s a little bit like presenting your written query in person, but the goal is to inspire interest in the book and in you as someone to work with. 

If it’s a yes, they ask for a partial read.  Each agent/editor asks for something different.  Some want the first ten pages, some want thirty.  Some want a synopsis with spoilers and others want a bio and formal query.  If it’s a no, thanks for your time and shake hands. 

So, over the coming weeks I will likely do some revisions based on some advice and some of the things I gleaned from the workshops.  And then I’ll send them what they asked for and wait.

So, we’ll see how it goes.  I didn’t get as much time as I’d hoped for to network with other writers.  I’m really interested in that and thinking of exploring some of the writers groups here in NoVA, or starting one if I can’t find one that works.  That was a point a number of presenters made yesterday was finding a community to help shape your work and to expose you to the work of peers.  I think that’s been missing for me so I’m motivated to see what’s out there. 

So it went very well and I have a solid path forward.  There’s more work to do, but I was really encouraged by the response to my story.  Now to make sure it’s completely ready as I’ll have one shot with these five professionals. 

And I’m not throwin’ away my shot…  (see what I did there?)

Aloha for now-I’m going to try to post here more regularly so stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

So, my kid is reading my novel....

So, there’s this novel I’ve written and will be trying to sell this weekend.  If you know me at all, this is not news.  That said, if this is your first time here, ALOHA!  Welcome aboard!

My oldest daughter is now enthusiastically reading my novel, The Last Good Day.  I didn’t force her to or anything but I’m glad she was interested to try it as she’s smack in the middle of the target audience.  I’m also more glad, relieved in fact that now that she’s plowed through ¼ of it, she likes it and is engaged in the story. 

She’s finding more typos than I would like, but at this point, I’m still too close to it to even see them.  And it’s been really encouraging to talk to her about what she likes and what she thinks about the characters.  She knows that there are some conglomerations of real people and events in the story and she keeps inquiring about who people are and if certain things actually happened.  No spoilers, but there was one anecdote told in the protagonists’ backstory that actually happened to me in sixth grade which she found confusing based on knowing me now, but we talked it out. 

While it’s been really fun and reassuring to have her respond positively to the story, I find it equally if not more exciting that on some level, whether or not this book ever gets released, I feel like I’m modeling something positive for her and her siblings.  “Bird” as we sometimes call her loves to write and is working on her own book.  When she talks about her publishing future it’s, “When I publish my books” and not, like I tend to think most of the time, “If I can convince someone to read the whole thing then maybe…”  Her head is in the right place and she writes for the joy of it.  I needed that reminder this week as regardless of what happens in Philadelphia, I wrote this book not only out of a need to tell the story but because it was fun to do.  There were times that the characters really surprised me and others where they made me laugh out loud.  One way or another it will soon be time for me to move on from these characters and work on something else.  I’ve been wrapped up in this narrative for over six years now and it is definitely time for them to get out into the world.  I hope I’ll have the opportunity to share their story with you formally.

Whatever happens with my pitches this weekend, there’s a reason they call it the writing process.  This part is obviously very different from the heady days when those first thirty pages come flying out faster than you can type and those amazing moments when your Beta Readers tell you they like it and give concrete feedback and suggestions to make it better, and then it does!  This part is where I have the chance to advocate not only for my book but for the characters themselves.  They’ve done their part and now, it’s my turn.  I hope I don’t let them down.

I’m pretty sure my daughter is proud of me and that’s very important to me, and so far she likes it.  If my writing never amounts to much at the very least, it’s given me a chance to connect with her creatively.  If it never gets published, I’ll still have been a model of trying something difficult.  I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get a chance to find an audience beyond my household and friends as, I really believe in it.  But, should the industry pass and I joins other projects back on the shelf, then I’ll get to model to my children what a mature person (not something I’m often accused of being) does when something doesn’t go their way. 

I’ll get to work on the next thing.  And that’s not a bad thing either.  I know my good friend Freddy Pinkerton is waiting for me to get back to his story…

Thanks for reading.  Please feel free to peruse the other columns here-they aren’t all about writing.  Many of them cover our years in Hawaii, Craft Beer, my family, Sports, and of course there are “The Duster Chronicles” from a few years ago.  Feel free to contact me through the comments as well.  Mahalo for now! 

Monday, April 3, 2017

So, I've got these new business cards...

If we’re friends on social media, chances are you already know that I wrote a novel.  You may even have participated in one of my “Help name a minor Character” thingys I did along the way.  Those were a lot of fun and genuinely helped me out a ton.  Between all that and my intrepid team of Beta Readers, there has been a lot of crowdsourcing on this project and I am grateful for it all. 

So, it is written and whether or not it’s any good is up to the readers, but it is written.  Such things become increasingly subjective the closer one gets to the world of publication, but I did in fact once again create something that can certainly be categorized as a novel.

This new project is very different from the first novel I wrote, years ao, which is currently well and truly situated in a box in the guest room closet.  That book was about a number of things, including but not limited to answering the question, “can I write a novel?”  It turns out that I could and I did.  That one did what it needed to do and is safely shielded from you all, much like my live performance at the Wooster Spotlight Showcase at Mom’s Truckstop in 1992 where, despite my moving cover of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” all anyone recalls is how I forgot the words to “American Pie” after the 67th verse.  (Too many damned words in that song, Don.)

There are parts of the first novel, The Geography of Home that I still really like.  There are a few chapters and some dialog that I think hold up, but it’s not ready for the world and I’m not interested in revisiting it.  I processed a lot of personal in that one and it’s served its purpose.  It was a good project to learn from and the experience of writing it, editing it, and trying to get it out were valuable to me both then and now.  Writing has always been an outlet for me.  I have piles of notebooks that attest to that fact.  Like everyone else, I’ve faced challenges, adversity, and moments both high and low.  I’ve always felt when facing any such moments that I handled them best after putting pen to paper to process them.

The current book, The Last Good Day, is a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a very long time.  It’s loaded with people and places and events that really pop for me, and having a good portion of the action take place in Wildwood is a bonus.  Write what you know, they say…

So, I have a group of pitch meetings scheduled this weekend.  As I review my notebooks to prepare for the selling of myself and the story in Philadelphia, where I’ll try to convince people way smarter than me about publishing that my book is worthy, I’m struck by the fact that this story kept poking me.  The first words I wrote for this one were written on March 2, 2011.  “It’s only 8am and I just made the train.”  Honestly, the story had been germinating for longer than that, probably years really, for a variety of reasons.  Let’s just say again, we write what we know.  Or knew.  I have currently about four different books living in my head, vying for attention and time.  It’s hard to focus on more than one at a time but The Last Good Day just kept calling me and I know why now. 

Whether or not anyone ever reads it, and whether or not any of my pitches hit their mark and lead to anything this weekend or beyond, this was a story that I simply had to write down.  There’s a truth in it that I only see now as I look back on the process of writing it and, if I’m honest, the moments and characters that ring true in both the world of the book and the world of my actual past.  It’s a fine line.

About a month after I started writing the first pages-all handwritten, as the book is a journal-style narrative-I found myself on a bench outside of Coit Tower in San Fransisco.  I tagged along with the wife on a work trip and had several days to explore the city and write, read, and explore the city.  I also must admit that I got into a loop watching a marathon of the old “Coming Home” series on Lifetime where they helped soldiers returning from overseas surprise their families in a variety of complicated ways.  I blubbered at them all. 

But I remembered writing at Coit, and in Union Square Park, and at the Irish Bank and the Buena Vista CafĂ©.  I wrote a lot and ended up with more questions than I started with but I remember leaving San Francisco in 2011 with a basic plan and an outline and some excitement. 

But then, life happened.  I’ve chronicled much of that life here in earlier posts so I won’t reiterate, but short version is that family life got complicated.  But these characters still kept on growing in my head.  And other projects got my attention.  I have both The Petulant Son, and The Strange Case of Freddy Pinkerton, competing for my time and attention.  I went back and forth with all of them but in the end Avery and Angela, the protagonists of The Last Good Day wouldn’t let me go.

For fictional characters, they are quite bossy and there have been far too many nights where I didn’t get to sleep or I got to sleep way too late because they made it clear that they weren’t done with me for the day.  Or, more irritatingly, that they weren’t going to do or say the things I had planned for them.  We worked it out but it is truly something to be dictated to by a fictional character. 

So, the book is done and my beta team was awesome and it’s been edited and re-edited and will likely be edited more if all goes well.  The business of getting it published is a whole different animal than writing it has been and I look forward to diving back into that world as I believe in this story.  I think there’s an audience for it.

I think I’ll write more about this process and about the book in the coming days but it’s been interesting to consider the fact that I’ve been actively writing this story for over six years and living with it for far longer.  Time to see what kind of legs it actually has.  It’s a nervous thing though, getting ready to sell yourself and something you’ve put such time and energy into.  The people I’ll be pitching are looking for something they can sell and believe in.  It won’t be personal if it’s a pass and if no one wants it, I know that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or a chance to grab an audience.  This will be an interesting week as I prepare. 

I ordered 100 business cards.  It’ll be either way too many or way too few.  Stay tuned as there is more to come this week, I hope.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Heart of the Matter: Don Henley, Impeccable timing, and the first week of September

As you may have heard, I bought a car recently.  Not just a car…an adventure.  This isn’t about the car but was inspired by it circuitously and kinda sorta, so if you haven’t yet, please feel free to read the two most recent columns and catch up.  And then read the rest and share them with friends.  I don’t make any money off of this thing but it makes me feel good to have my clicks up and it’s my birthday…

Ok, enough about that.  I’m supposed to be talking about the things in my chronically overlong title.  So, let’s do that.  As most of my stories go, it starts with some backstory…

It was the first week of September, 1990.  I’m certain there was something of note going on in the world but I had just turned 17, had my license, had a car, and my world was falling apart.  I’ve covered my father’s illness and death here in this space a great deal, but if you’re new here, my father was dying of cancer.  He would pass in October of that year.  I was starting my senior year of high school and handling it and a number of other emotional and personal challenges with varying degrees of success.

What does this have to do with Don Henley?  Well, not a ton, actually.  He’s the guy that co-wrote and sang a really great song, “Heart of the Matter.”  That in and of itself is not noteworthy here, though it’s a great song and all you Eagles haters should just settle down and hang in there.  A good song is a good song.

This is all about timing.

Dad was in the hospital and Mom was with him most days.  My sister had just graduated college and was out in the world creating her own personal brand of awesome so, I had a lot of time to myself.  I was at the hospital a lot too but school had just started and it was decided among my parents that I should try to have as normal a senior year as possible. So I tried.  It was amazing how quickly going to Princeton Hospital became a daily occurrence.

Among other things that should be mentioned as this backstory gets longer, is that I had just had a rather long-term relationship end, honestly as nicely as was possible, so that was on my mind too in the first week of September, 1990.  It had just been my birthday.  I got as a gift for my 17th birthday a car stereo of my choosing (within limits of course) to be installed in the Nissan, not the old Duster, as for the time being, I was going to using that car more often than not.  So, I went and picked one out and it got installed and it was as a wise man once said, “most excellent.”  AM radio AND FM, plus a sweet cassette deck with AMS, digital display, and METAL to non-metal cassette distinction options.  Later on I even got an adapter to plug my giant portable CD player into it…but enough about how old I am. (42 is as special number!)  It was really cool and I had an extensive cassette collection (still do) and I was really happy with it. 

When I picked up the car after the installation I started it up and the radio was all static as none of the stations had been set yet so, I set about fixing that before I pulled out of the parking lot.  I started with everyone’s favorite station in those days in Mercer County, NJ: 97.5 WPST, right out of Princeton.  The moment I tuned it in I heard the opening chords of Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter” and I just sat there listening to it.  It wasn’t a new song really-the album it was on was over a year old, so I know I’d heard it before, but never in that time and that place. 

But have you ever had that moment where someone said exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment?  Or just happened to be in the right place at the right time for something significant to happen to you?

This was that in every possible way.  The first song on the stereo that would be the last gift I would receive from both of my parent’s plays this song at that moment, when pretty much every lyric in the song speaks to something that had significance to what I was not only experiencing, but also the things I was avoiding.  I was avoiding the idea that I might have to learn to live without my father.  I was avoiding the idea that everything changes and that life goes on.  I was definitely “Carrying that anger” despite the fact that “it’ll eat you up inside.”  I did that for a lot of years afterwards too. 

I know the song is, on the surface a song about learning that a former girlfriend had found someone else, and there was that too, but in that moment, the song felt like some kind of dispatch, what some call a “God Moment,” where it seems like you’re being sent a message.  I sat there and listened to the whole song in the parking lot of that car place out on Route 1 between the Market Fair and the Mercer Mall and when it was over I turned off the radio and drove off into Princeton, towards the hospital to see my dad, but I stopped and parked somewhere first-I don’t remember where.  It may have been our church, it may have been my old school, it may have been right on Nassau Street, I honestly don’t recall.  I parked the car and for the first time since all the changes had happened-since my dad was diagnosed, since my relationship ended, since my world changed, since I’d been on emotional cruise control for months, I really thought about what it all meant: what “learning to live without you now, but I miss you sometimes” and “life goes on” and “I lost me and you lost you” and “Forgiveness” means. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics of that song, and so I thought about that and rather quickly, I completely and totally lost it tremendously and cathartically. 

It was a good thing.  Cleansing to be sure, but it was the first time I’d kind of let myself feel any of it to that point.  I don’t think I’d been as honest and direct with my friends about what was going on and I think I tried to remedy that in the coming weeks.  I remember feeling much more at peace, if such a thing were possible after that I and I drove on to see dad and had a good visit with him and mom was there too and we talked with his doctor and later mom and I had our first real talk about what was going on and how serious it was and what it meant to the family and what we needed to do over zeppolis at the Pizza place at the old Princeton Shopping Center.  I wish I could remember the name, but it was a good conversation and I remember driving home with my new stereo-I had switched to the Jazz show on 103.3 WPRB as I didn’t want music with words right then as I wanted to process what I’d just come to understand: my father was dying and it wouldn’t be long.  I was going to have to find a way to live with that and become a real person on my own.  I was going to have to talk to my friends and I did to some.  I wish I’d been more direct and honest with more of them.  They were there for me after it happened in droves and to this day I love them all for it, but I wish I’d shared more as it was happening.   Some of my closest friends didn’t know my dad was that sick.  It was a lesson well learned.  I barely shut up about anything these days.  You all have Don Henley to thank for that I suppose…

So, that stereo I got for my 17th birthday went from the Nissan aka “Challenger” into the Tracer aka “Bullseye” before I had it removed when I bought the first outback.  I kept it in a box.  It’s gone through several moves within Jersey to Oahu to Virginia. It stayed boxed up in our laundry room here and then into a box in the old shed that leaked and into the new pretty shed that’s awesome, until I gave it to my new mechanic pals who installed it in the Duster.  I was worried it wouldn’t play, but it works just like it did back in the day.  This morning, I took the kids for their first ride in the Duster (I still don’t have a name for her yet-working on it) and connected my old cassette adapter to my IPod and we were rocking out to Bruce and Jimi, until it played “Heart of the Matter” as we drove down the local Parkway. 

It was cool and a little breezy this morning, and since the AC hasn’t been re-installed in the Duster we had the windows open and the air was cool and a little damp.  It reminded me of a morning back in early October of 1990 a little actually, when I knew before I was told that my father had died.  Hearing that song with the kids, in the car I’ve been dreaming about since before dad got sick, with all of the significance that car turned out to have for me (as discussed in the earlier columns;) was really a nifty moment.  I had a few memories that popped:

I remembered sitting in that parking lot listening to that song and how it had helped me come to grips with the relationships that were ending in my life and the fact that I was going to have to figure out how to live my life in a very new way. 

I remembered standing on the high altar at church with my friend D. who arrived early to Dad’s funeral and gave me a hug and held my hand for a long time and didn’t let me go until I was ready.

I remembered talking to my friend A. before the service about how I could possibly write a eulogy and how she helped me through it.

I remembered hugging my Godparents in the room for families, so grateful they were there.  I saw them recently so I wasn’t surprised to have them in mind.

I remembered how my sister’s friends had driven all day to come to the service and then had to go right back to take the GRE’s the next day.

I remembered the young woman who held my hand through the very awkward reception afterwards, even though we weren’t a couple anymore.  She didn’t let go until I was ready either. 

I remembered other things too but to be honest I only swam in that for a moment.  They were all nice memories that I treasure and have written about before if not here, then elsewhere.

But then I took a breath and exhaled, and draped my arm across the front bench and put my palm out towards the Bear, and she grabbed my hand from the backseat and held it and then I thought about how fracking cool it was that I was driving my new old car with my kids listening to that song.  I felt again, as I talked about last column, like something had changed.  I felt calmer and a lot more at peace.  I liked the moment I was in with the kids, and I like very much the way it feels now in my memory-at peace sounds and feels pretty sweet. 

I told the Boyo, who enjoys specific facts about songs, “Hey-you hear this song?  This was the first song this stereo played back in 1990 when I had it installed in Grammy’s old Sentra.”

And he said, “That’s cool.” 

And it was. The next song that popped up on shuffle was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to which Boyo said, “YES!”

It’ll be 25 years since that all happened soon and, while I wish I could say everything went smoothly after September 1990, that would be untrue and generally uninteresting.  There were a lot of years I still carried anger and it definitely ate me up inside.  But I learned to live.

Now, as a delightful postscript, the first week of September 1992 was a real winner.  There was this really pretty blonde that kissed me in the stairwell of her dorm on the night before classes started.  That worked out pretty well for me.  Impeccable timing once again… 

If you’d told me while listening to “Heart of the Matter” in 1990 that I was only two years away from the love of my life well, I don’t know what I would have done with that. Probably would have written an awful song or an even worse poem.  Be grateful you only have to read me in this form…

Today I am unequivocally exactly where I want to be.  My family is healthy and happy, despite of and because of some of the challenges we face.  I read to my children every night and it is a source of enormous joy for me.  They are funny and fun and brilliant and artistic and thoughtful and amazing in ways I can’t ever imagine having been as a child.  My wife is the greatest ever.  I am who I am because of my relationship with them and the rest of you fine people.  And I know that Don’s song, which he said took “42 years to write and about 4 minutes to sing,” said among other things that “Everything changes,” and that’s true, but sometimes it’s not.  I still love my parents although they are both gone now.  I love my wife and my children and my sisters and all of our family; even the ones who like Michigan.  That doesn’t change but I think we do-well, I won’t speak for all of you, but I think I have changed at least a little. 

The song also says, “All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.”  I used to feel that line very differently than I do now.  I used to take it as “I screwed up and am re-learning stuff I should know.”  I took it that way because that was absolutely my experience.  I screwed up a lot and had to re-learn it a lot until I didn’t.  I like the line now though, as I feel like it’s possible to look back on old lessons learned and learn them again in a new way.  Like reading an old favorite book-one always catches something new on a re-read. 

Or maybe I just like the song.  Could be that.  Could be that Don was writing the song at 42, like I just turned while writing this.  Whatever it is, the song, the stereo, the car, the first week of September, whatever it is, in the end, I think the Heart of the Matter has never made more sense to me than it does just now.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Something has changed. The Duster Chronicles Concluded: Closing the door on the past.

So I bought the Duster.  I’ve kinda made a thing about it over Facebook and in real life too, so it’s not likely new information for you if you’ve clicked on my link to check this out.  That said, there’s a story to tell.

So I flew up to Hartford, CT this Monday where my dear sister met me and we ventured deep into the wilds of Worcester County, Massachusetts.  It was an area of New England that I’ve never been to and was very picturesque.  It reminded me of parts of Salem County in South Jersey, and other parts of that area on the way to shore.  The people I worked with when I was at PG used to call it “God’s Country” and I can see what they meant: beautiful and quiet and peaceful and full of promise.  It was nice.  We drove to the seller’s house and got the grand tour of the property and met his three-legged dog.  He showed us the garage where his cars are-he had some other amazing cars too, including a mid-fifties De Soto that seems to be his passion.  All the other cars were awesome, but my eyes were looking for the unassuming hunter green number I’d seen in the pictures.  When I saw it, in person for the first time, I was equal parts excited and nervous as, while it was pretty serious when I booked a plane ticket and equally serious when I went to the bank, standing in front of the actual car was pretty much “go time” as Mandelbaum might have said.  It was time to make a choice, but of course, it’s never simple.

I had consulted friends and family and experts far and wide.  I had the support of all of these people.  I was standing in front of a really gorgeous classic car in amazing condition and while I could feel the excitement in my gut, I found myself, for a moment, falling back into a pattern I don’t like.  In the course of several minutes I vacillated between “This is a great car” and “Kugs, are you out of your mind?” and “Look dude, it’s hunter green which is like your favorite color and not that far off of the Eagles color” and “Is this a responsible thing to do?” and “Why not model making a fun choice for your kids in a way that is meaningful” and then “Where are the seatbelts?  Will anyone be able to help me with doing the work it needs? Why doesn’t the AC or Radio work?” but then, I thought, “It’s really a nicer looking car than the one I had back in the day…”

I went back and forth like this in my head for a minute, but then, I had a moment of clear and cogent anxiety where I wondered, and not for the first time, “what if buying this car is a life-alteringly bad choice and I still make it and I choose to invest time and money in it and the car blows up on the way home and I die and everyone wonders what the hell you were thinking?”

And in that moment, being an experienced person with occasional outrageously silly yet powerful anxiety, in knew that I was seeking a reason to walk away instead of really looking at the situation, measuring that facts and making a rational decision.  I was building to a panic to give myself an excuse to run away.  It’s something I did a lot of after Dad got sick and later died.  Anytime someone got close to me, either as a friend or as more than that, I got overwhelmed and ran away or pushed them away.  I was unkind to a lot of very kind people in those days until the Wife essentially smacked me upside the metaphorical (and actual) head and said “enough” and helped me heal from that stuff.  I’ve talked about those days here before, but I found it interesting that that same sort of impulse crept up in me with this situation.  It hadn’t when we bought the Beach House and it hadn’t in other difficult times since.  So, why did it happen here and how did I deal with it?

The “why” is not that difficult to understand now that I have had a few days to think about it.  Despite my penchant for taking the family out or making a special meal at home or embracing the awesome power of YES in Wildwood with the kids, I generally don’t spend money in a big way, ever.  So, I’m not used to doing it when it’s not related to real estate and my wife’s not telling me where to sign.  So, it was a lot of money to part with.  I wondered if I was being selfish, frivolous, insane, mid-life-crisis-laden…all of that.

More than that, I think there was some aspect of standing in front of that car that brought me back in time to 1990.   To that time before Dad was sick and when all I had to worry about was my girlfriend, my friends, my grades, and that I couldn’t wait to turn seventeen and get my license and drive my Duster all over Mercer County, maybe even take it down the shore when my folks thought we were just going to the movies because they didn’t want us driving that dark crazy road to Seaside.  Those spring months before Dad was diagnosed were so full of promise, that’s really the only word.  I was sixteen and junior year had had its moments that I won’t get into here, but as spring came around, Dad and I had started to really understand one another and have some things in common.  We’d gone to the driving range and planned to golf together.  He’d helped me develop a workout program and we did some things together at a local gym.  The big thing was that we made a plan to build a deck off the back porch over the summer.  We’d done some sketches of how it would look.  He was going to put part of his summer painting money with Mr. D, and I was going to chip in some of my summer job money too.  I didn’t know how to build anything that wasn’t a theater set, so I was looking forward to learning and doing something “Manish” with my dad.  As the spring moved on, I had a steady girlfriend of over a year who was away at school, I had good friends, I was doing well in some of my classes, I was in a really cool musical that was winning awards, I went to Prom with a good friend, I went to my sisters college graduation and most of the family (21 people) came and no one fought at all, not even a little!  Everyone got along-that was pretty awesome.  I remember driving home from that graduation feeling really positive about our family-everyone, all the Uncles and cousins and Gram had come and everyone had seemed to have a good time.  I think Mom and Dad even let me drive a little on the trip since I had my permit.  Everything seemed so positive coming out of that weekend and I remember getting home and seeing my original Duster in the driveway and feeling like it was only a matter of weeks until I’d get my license and we’d be free to be.  Pretty sure I washed and waxed ‘ol Monstro that weekend after we got home. 

What I didn’t know was that Dad hadn’t been feeling well for some weeks.  He faked it good but finally Mom dragged him into the old MET place up on 130, our version of the “Minute Clinic” I suppose.  Soon after pretty much everything changed.  My life went from trying to get off of work to see my friend off to the Prom or to hang out with my girlfriend all the time, or performing at theater competitions to navigating the parking garage at Princeton Hospital and having my smart friends explain to me what the hell platelets were. 

I reviewed my old journals for this section and it is glaringly clear when the change occurs.  It goes from an entry on the Surflight Theater Festival “It was such a beautiful day-we went to the beach-I love the beach!  There is always a special place in my life for the beach.  I practically grew up there.  I think I will always need that in my life” to “Ohhhh-well, I knew it seemed funny when my dad was so tired…” in the course of days.  Most of the entries after that deal with hospital visits.  Some mention of All State Chorus and a breakup and friends and stuff.  There are several entries I’m embarrassed by, but I was a kid going through a difficult time.  I forgive myself.  Some relationships ended and others were strained and it was a difficult time, as we’ve discussed.  It was a shit time.

So why was I ever so slightly brought back towards this mindset and these memories as I looked at the Duster?  Probably because I have always been a person that attaches meaning to things-to people-to places-to events.  My friends used to call me “overly sentimental” but I think it’s not that exactly.  I think it’s more that my mind connects things when emotions are involved and for better or worse, when things happen I have not only the feelings and the memories, but also things to connect them to, people and writings and music and the like.  Connections. 

Earlier this week when I stood in front of the Duster, there was clearly a moment where I flashed back in time and it was not the sixteen year old kid looking at an exciting future, but rather the seventeen year old kid who was watching his world fall apart inhabiting my headspace.  Neither of them were particularly welcome, but less so that seventeen year old dope.

I was grateful in that moment that my sister was there as the cars’ owner seemed quite content to chat with her while I asked for a minute to “make a call.”  (What did we do before smartphones?)  I took out my phone and just walked out towards the tree line.  It was a very pretty area and I only needed to go fifty yards or so to be out of earshot which was where I wanted to be. 

As I look back on it now, I know that I was scared.  I was afraid to buy the car because I wasn’t sure it would be able to drive me home.  I wasn’t sure it was in as good condition as it seemed.  I worried that I’d have an accident.  I worried that it was too much work or that it was selfish of me or that it was narcissistic to even want something like this.  I was approaching panic attack levels of stress.  I messaged with Uncle C and my wife and talked with a Classic Car repair place down here in NoVA and everyone had great answers for all of my concerns.  Everyone said that it’s ok.  Go for it.

But I was still anxious.  My sister made a great point saying “Don’t think about the money.  That’s not the issue.  Is this the car that’s going to fulfill that dream you have?”  It was a great question.  I wasn’t sure.  Then I took it for a drive.

I drove down the street in Oakham, past their library and an old cemetery and some nice houses on a long road before turning back and returning the same way.  I liked the way the car felt and sounded.  The radio didn’t work and I didn’t put something on my phone as I just wanted to drive.  It was quiet.  The lack of power steering and brakes made me have to work harder and pay attention differently than when I drive the Odyssey.  I liked the quiet and it reminded me of the first time I had driven my old Duster at sixteen, around the school parking lot, the deep and sonorous sound of the engine and the feeling of magnificent control that the lack of power steering provided-I felt like a ship captain. 

By the time I parked the car back at the sellers’ house I knew I was going to take it home.  I had some negotiations to make but I felt like some sort of change had already occurred on that short test drive.  We made a deal and I drove it away for the short ride back to Connecticut. 

The next day I woke up early to drive it to Virginia.  With no working radio and wanting to preserve my phone battery, I drove in silence quite a bit.  With no AC and the windows open, I had plenty of noise but found a great deal of pleasure in the silence, the natural audio haze of the road.  It gave me ample time to think and reflect and pray and sometimes I did those things. 

Sometimes I didn’t and it was in those moments that I felt something like an exhale happen within me.  Something like a release-like letting something go and it all being ok.  I don’t know that I’m certain exactly what that is just yet but I know that it would not have happened without going through this process and being forced out of my comfort zone once again.  None of this happens without the advice of friends all over the world nor does it happen without the kindness of friends of friends who are willing to help just because the friend of a friend asked.  It never happens if one is stuck in the past.  It doesn’t happen without the support and enthusiasm of one’s household, to be certain, but it most assuredly doesn’t happen if I didn’t really want it to and finally got out of my own way to do so.

Whatever becomes of this Duster, (still working on a name) it was a choice to be made and I made it.  Those moments of silence on the road bringing her home were transcendent in a way.  I won’t go so far as Thoreau about it, but I felt very early on in my 360 mile drive home that something had changed.  I was peaceful.  I felt like things were going to be alright and that I needed to continue to have faith and work hard.  It made me feel like I had moved on from something to something even better and that everything was going to be fine.

Whether that’s the case of course remains to be seen.  I like how I feel owning this car now though and I think I’ve grown into not only the man I am now, for better and worse, but have grown into the guy that owns this car.  I hope it’s a good car and that I’m a good man.  I feel like bringing this car into my life is giving me the opportunity to bring some level of closure to the past.  I think I like thinking of it that way, though I’m tempted to wonder, “What would have become of me had my dad not gotten sick and my life were different and I never got stuck on a 1970’s Duster?”

I don’t know the answer to that any more than the other “What if” scenarios I used to torture myself with all the time as a kid and young adult and adult and maybe last week.  I don’t know anything about that but I do know that I love this new car.  I know that I love and appreciate my family.  I know that I’ve been very blessed in my life.  I know that my past has often held more weight over my present and future than I would like at times, but I also know that that fact may have just changed for me.  There’s a calmness here that works for me and I hope it’s not fleeting.

I know that something changed on the ride home.  I hope that whatever it is helps me be a better father, a better husband, a better brother, a better son, and better friend, and better man, a better person.  I hope that very much. 

Can a dream fulfilled do all that?  Can a car?  I don’t know honestly, but in the end, I think the image of the kids running out to see the Duster and sit in it and taking pictures of themselves, and the image of picking up the wife at the bus stop and driving her home the other night are amazing starts. 

I was told to step out on faith during this process.  I did.  The promise that my original car held is very much part of the past.  I’m ok with that.  Letting go of that might have been a vital part of all this as now I find myself looking more to the future and at our present. 

Perhaps that’s the most important change.  Perhaps it is time to look forward instead of backwards.  What could be better for that process than a 1970’s Duster?