Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day: Remembering Pat Roy, United States Navy

I’ve never written about this before. To be honest, I think about it almost every day, though it’s never something I’ve written about, and being Memorial Day, I think that it’s time.

October 12, 2000. The United States Navy Destroyer USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers while in port at the Port of Aden, in Yemen. It was a Thursday.

When I first heard that the attack had happened on the news, I was of course sad to hear about it. But something bothered me, on the very edges of my mind that I had no explanation for until the wife and I got home from a night out.

I had left the boarding school, (SKS) and was now teaching at a day school (PJHS) and going to Graduate School at Seton Hall, so I had fallen out of the loop a bit, but I remember the last time I had talked to Pat. He visited SKS in his uniform and to me, didn’t look much different, except for the uniform. I already thought he was a pretty solid young man by that point. I had been the Dean of Students for his graduating class, and remember really taking pride in that.

There are days that I wish I had stayed on in that role. But I didn’t. I remember shaking his hand as he prepared to leave, and telling him to take care, and to keep in touch.

The wife and I came home on that Friday evening from dinner at the Dublin Pub in Morristown, NJ, and a movie that I don’t recall, to find a message on our machine from Billy. I remember it like it happened this evening…

I was just walking into the room scratching the ears of our dog, Gracie, as the wife hit the message button after having seen the blinking light.

“Kugs…I don’t know if you’ve heard, but, that ship that got hit out there, well, I don’t know how to say this, but Pat was on it. It looks like they can’t find him…call me.”

I remember leaning forward and just catching the edge of our bed, and managing to find a way to be seated. Gracie came up and laid her head on my lap, and I scratched her head. I remember saying “I just knew…” and then I cried a lot.

Pat Roy was the kind of student that makes me miss teaching. He was not a spectacular student, but a good one, truth be told. He worked very hard, and he gave me some of the best teaching moments I’ve ever had.

He was also the kind of athlete that makes me miss coaching. He was not an amazing athlete, truth be told, but he worked hard there too, and he loved lacrosse and did things on the field that to me were personally amazing. He was a coaches kind of player. I remember hearing the Head coach remark once: “Man, Kugs…give me a team full of kids like Pat. That would be a fun team.”

Pat became a student of the game, throwing himself into Lacrosse. I remember well the times that he simply willed our team on to victory or times when simply had a better idea than everyone else. There were also times that he simply threw himself in front of the ball as it was shot towards the goaltender. I remember he asked me early in one season to track that sort of thing for him, as I kept the game stats. I did, though I remember telling him he could easily track it himself with the bruises on his legs…but he grooved on making the play, so I tracked his blocked shots for him. I was glad to, since Pat had asked.

Pat made some mistakes early in his time with us, including an incident where my car was shaving-creamed and the air was let out of all the tires.

I was much younger and less mature then, and I was pissed off at what had been done to my car.

I was living in the dorm then, which lends itself to hard feelings and small worlds in which to express them.

I was wicked pissed off. No one else from the offending group stepped up, except Pat. He was sorry, and he made that clear. So, as a result, I was able to write the whole thing off as a goof.

Because of Pat. He looked me in the eye, and as no real damage had been done, we all moved on.

There were other times during his time at school where I saw him stand up in a manner that was way beyond his years…but they are not stories for this space. Those are stories that belong to those who lived them.

But there are some others I can share: I was trying to teach Hamlet to a group of seniors that had little interest and less motivation to study Shakespeare. Pat was in the class, as we were trying to read aloud the “Folger Library’s” excellent translation.

It was not going well. At all.

After a tremendously unsuccessful class, Pat happened to stay behind a moment, I believe because the young lady he was dating was in my next class, but as I was the assistant Lacrosse coach, and he was our Coaches Captain, he seemed quite comfortable telling me:

“Kugs…this reading aloud thing is not gonna work for everybody.”

He was right. I was trying to teach a play in a dead and overly artistic language to students who came from such disparate academic backgrounds, that everyone was so uncomfortable, that it was a waste of time to show up and read.

So I asked him, as I too knew it wasn’t working, “Well, you got any ideas?”

And he did. He always seemed to.

He thought that the class would be able to get it if they were able to follow along in their Folger editions as they watched it onscreen. I remember his saying: “If everyone can see what’s happening, I think they’d get it.”

And he was right. I never taught Shakespeare the same way again.

Pat forced me to think differently as a teacher, and I did for the rest of my career. Remembering the way his class changed after I took his advice makes me miss teaching, as it was among the most satisfying experiences I ever had as a teacher. That was a fun group.

I think my favorite memory of Pat might be the words he spoke at halftime of the Championship match of his senior year, which was held at the Harvey School. The team was not playing well, and was starting to get down on itself as it was losing somewhat dramatically for the first time all year.

It was a crisp and clear day, and I can still see Pat in my mind, leaning on his longstick, as the Coach asked him if he had anything to add. I remember it much like this, as he said “Guys, I’m going to be on a ship somewhere in a year, and I don’t think they’ll let me bring my stick, so this is like my last game ever, and I’d rather remember going out there with my friends and having fun playing lacrosse, and leaving it all out there on the field.”

And they did. I think we lost that game, but I know I remember the second half being genuinely satisfying. And I remember Pat smiling at least a little on the way home on the bus.

There was another time when a group of students had pulled some kind of prank on me, which again was not uncommon in those days. I reacted badly, which I’m embarrassed now to say was also not that uncommon in those days. I was younger then. Anyway, I decided who was at fault, and pretty much lashed out at the group. They lashed back, and it was an uncomfortable few days as these were young men in my classes, and in my dorm, and some on my team. It was Pat that sought me out, and told me, “Kugs-I’m not going to tell you who pulled that on you, but I will tell you that it wasn’t the guys you flipped out on.”

And I believed him, because it was Pat. I found those guys and apologized. They were less than enthusiastic about my efforts and actually got kind of snarfy about my even approaching them. It was Pat, again, who said, “Let it go guys-he stepped up and said he was wrong. Let it go.”

And we all kind of let it go. Because of Pat.

Yes, I may have been the adult here, but those lines get very blurred in a boarding school environment like SKS was. I was young and impulsive and so were most of the kids I dealt with. It made for some interesting times and interesting relationships.

When Pat was killed, I remember feeling that my life as a teacher had just grown less magical. I’d never lost a student before, much less one that I thought as highly of as Pat Roy. I remember showing up at PJ that next Monday, and I had missed a morning department meeting. My boss at the time found me just before classes started, and voiced her displeasure at my absence. I had only been there a few months, and didn’t really know anyone that well, but I remember standing in the hall just outside my classroom, thinking, there was no way I was going to get through the day, and told her so. I said, “I just lost one of the best I ever taught…”

They held a memorial service for Pat sometime in the next few weeks, and I went up and spent the weekend on campus. It was a very strange weekend, as I was definitely an outsider returning. The staff had changed, and the kids had changed too. The weekend went by in a bit of a blur, but I remember standing on the field where they planted a Tree for him. This was the field that Pat had roamed as a defenseman and even run balls for me when I coached the soccer team. It was a beautiful day, and a lot of the old crew returned to campus to honor him. Pat’s family was there and I recall being genuinely moved by their grace and humility.

I took a picture that day of the tree they planted, which looked out on the field and the Hudson Valley. I kept it in my classroom, and then my office, and when I left education, I brought it home, where it sits on my desk today.

Now and then, I would look at that picture, seeing that little yellow tree, and it would be just the right message at just the right time. Perhaps I was dealing with a really tough discipline problem, and seeing Pat’s tree would remind me to be fair and hear the whole story.

I remember other times when the students were driving me out of my mind, and looking at that tree would remind me that whatever my current crop of students were doing, it would pale in comparison to some of the stuff Pat and his pals pulled, and that would make me laugh every time.

And other times, I would see it, and it would make me sad for the loss of a beautiful young life, so full of promise and talent and humor, to such a senseless act of violence. No parent should have to bury their child. And I am sad to think of his family, his younger brother in particular, that lost far more than I did, having to move on without him. I still have an image of Pat coming into my office at the end of his Senior year with his little brother on his shoulders, saying, “Kugs-this is my little brother,” and flashing a proud smile. It was one of the happiest I’d ever seen him. And it makes my heart hurt.

And then, I think of Pat, and something he said to me as I, in one of my heavier stages, running laps with the team. I’m sure I looked somewhat winded, and I can still hear him laugh, and call out, “Suck it up, Kugs!”

And that makes me smile, and even now, nearly eight years later, I think of Pat Roy. So, on Memorial Day, I’m remembering Pat and all of those who have died in service to our country, and those they have left behind.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Love is Never Uncertain: The Magical World of Toys and Play.

When I was a kid, I was convinced that everything had meaning and was not only worth saving, but it was imperative to do so. Every test, every card ever letter or note from a girl. Every wrapping paper from a special gift. Every magazine, every comic book, every comic strip that my Grandmother sent me. Every T-shirt, tie, shoe, picture, notebook, textbook, blanket, safety pin, nail, coin and every toy.

I could not let go of any of it, regardless of anyone else’s perceived triviality, and regardless of the fact that my room, then basement, then apartment, then house became stuffed with matter- that for some reason had to matter. I believed that discarding it, whatever it was, would be the end, the termination of whatever it was that had made that item unique or special. I felt responsible for its survival. While on the surface, that might sound like an endearing concept, in reality it became somewhat ridiculous.

I remember going out to the trash late one Christmas day, when I was like 9, to retrieve a sample of gold wrapping paper that had been used at every Christmas I could remember.

Someone had commented while we were opening gifts that, “Well, that’s the end of that roll…”
I remember feeling terrified that something could be lost forever if discarded. So, I took some of the goldenrod paper which for some reason celebrated the 49ers of San Francisco: folded it up tight, and slid it into my piggy bank, where, to be honest, I think they remain to this day. I may have to check on that. That would mark the only time something from San Francisco held any such sway in our house.

I’ve grown older since then, and I’d like to think that I’ve made some strides in handling such things as I’ve aged. I had to trim down my property after several moves, in particular the move to Oahu. It was not until we were planning to move here that I really was able to take stock of the sheer volume of matter I had accumulated since childhood, but also the ludicrousness of some of the things to which I had assigned value.

Please know that I am not disputing the fact that the things that we possess have true value. I am just illustrating that it took me years to embrace the difference between “Cherished-ness” of the blanket my Great Aunt made me as a baby and the pieces of wrapping paper I snuck out to get so it would not be “lost forever.” As a child, I never wanted to let go of things and truth be told, I have trouble with it as a “grown-up” at times.

As it happens, I have a soft spot for toys, especially these days. I am grateful that my mother saved some of the toys and things that I enjoyed as a child to share with my children. My son, and his little sister both love the bright yellow vintage Tonka dump truck. Their older sister loves sitting at her little table that was once both mine and my sisters and having tea parties, or reading her books, or just playing with her animals. Actually, as of late, the kids have taken to using that table and its chairs to climb into the upper reaches of their closets to generate messes of enormous proportion. But that is another tale. The Little Bear enjoys the kitchen set that was my sisters, and the dishes that came along with it. These things all get used and are played with well.

My soft spot for toys has been very much brought to the surface as I spend the majority of my days with my children and the worlds they create almost spontaneously in their imaginations.
I see on a daily basis the magical and absolutely pure pleasure they derive from their toys. The worlds they create out of genuine imagination and fun are both breathtaking and melancholy to me. Having two 4-four year olds and a 2-year old, all in the house at once together has essentially turned my home into a perpetual world of play, and everything is a toy. Everything.

This is not to say that they don’t have moments of conflict. If we make it to lunch without a “he pushed me” or “she pinched me” it would call for a press release. But they are quicker to forgive and move on then anyone I’ve ever known and they tend to do it better if I’m not involved.

My children are comfortable doing thing together while at other times they very much want to play by themselves. The Little Bear in particular has relished some of the days that the twins were at school and she could play in their rooms, with their stuff, with impunity. She likes to run from room to room with “Baby Ruff-Ruff” playing with her brothers trains and her sisters “Pinky Dog” and not have anyone bother her for doing so. Just this morning, after she and I got home from dropping the twins off at school, as soon as we walked into the house, she took off like a shot upstairs. I heard about 21 thuds as she bounded up the stairs and then sprinted the distance from the top of the stairs to her brothers’ room, where I then heard the door slam. I checked on her a bit later, and she looked at me with a huge smile, holding up a train, saying, “It’s Gordon, daddy!” And I also noted that “Baby Ruff-Ruff” was serving as the driver for Gordon’s friend Thomas the Tank Engine.

I should explain that, much like the characters in “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and “Toy Story,” there is of course, a hierarchy of the toys in the pantheon of our home life. There is a family of Doggies that live in my home. The Boys’ most treasured is his “Blue Doggie.” His Daddy is “Daddy Blue Doggie” who is a larger version of Blue. “Blue Doggie’s” sister is “Pinky Dog,” who is the Girls’ most treasured. Somehow, it was decided that Pinky’s mother was “Pink Dinosaur.” “Baby Ruff-Ruff” is a smaller version of Pinky and is the most treasured of the Little Bear, and as far as I can tell, plays the role of younger sister to the other Doggies.

The adventures that these Doggies have, with their supporting cast of characters: Buck the Tiger, Puppet Buck (the other Tiger), Mama Tubby and Baby Tubby (they are hippos), Panda Bear, Koala Bear, Cow-ey, Bear-ey, Giraffey, and of course, both “Pink Dinosaur” and “Red Dinosaur” are beyond belief at times. The intricate worlds that my kids create with their menagerie are genuinely beyond my ability to describe, but they make my heart ache with how amazing they are.

It makes me sad to think that there will ever come a time when they will want for more than to play with their toys. It makes me sad to think there might ever be a time when my son won’t want his Blue Doggie around, or his sisters won’t want theirs. I don’t know that that will ever occur but the thought of it makes me feel heavy in the heart.

I know that there is still a place for the treasures of my childhood in the life I lead now. I still have a great many things that have meaning. I may not have that bottle of Raspberry Soho from that date in April of 1989 anymore, but it was recycled. Look at me going green 18 years later. I still have some toys that mattered to me, some of which the kids are enjoying, and others that are for the moment “off display” in my personal collection. I still have a lot of Boardwalk-related memorabilia, most from Wildwood, but some from Seaside, and some from Atlantic City.

I suppose it comes back to what the “Velveteen Rabbit” has to teach us about the magic of toys, which is that only when they have basically been loved into submission do they become real, and only then are they as magical as a child’s imagination. It’s as though that moment levels the playing field, and maybe that’s a part of what it means to grow.

But I know that I for one, don’t plan to ever live in a world without those Doggies. They’ve earned a spot in the permanent collection.

But beyond that, I suppose I see the joy that they get from their treasured toys as a parallel to the joy that they give me. Being a stay-at-home parent is hard at times, and sometimes it is really, really hard, but in the end, when I can remember it, all I have to do to make them laugh is puff out my cheeks and make a fart noise. Or I lay on the floor and become a jungle gym. Or I give them a “Honu-ride” (Hawaiian for turtle). Or we read a book. Or, we’ll do one of our songs. The Girl is all about Sam Cooke, and her sister grooves on Bon Joni and Bruce. I am proud to say I once got her to sleep on a tough night by giving her the entire first side of “New Jersey.” Acoustically of course, but I know Jon would be cool with that. My son can name the entire E-Street Band, and knows that Sinatra was from Hoboken.

Alright-I’m done showing off.

Sometimes it feels like work to tuck them back into bed for the fourth or fifth time. I wish I could say that I cheerfully perform all these things regardless of the lateness of the hour. But I try to, as I am realizing that the days are not far away when I just might not be able to make it all right by reading the “Cars” book one more time, or by making up a story about the Bear and Ruff-Ruff’s adventures looking for Honus.

In the end, I’ve been trying very hard to embrace the fact that it is not things that we cling to but the value we assign to them. I continue to be amazed by the magic that my kids create on their own. I am proud of myself for keeping myself to a lesson that I learned hard-way soon after we moved here. Regular readers of this space might remember the column I wrote some time ago about how I had over-programmed the kids, and we all went a bit batty as a result. I learned then that the kids, and the wife and I for that matter, needed time to just play. No boundaries. No lessons. Just play.

As the late George Carlin once said during a delightful rant about the rearing of children, “Just leave ‘em alone…”

So I’ve tried to do that. We have activities and school and other things but I’ve been really trying at times to just let them go play. And they do.

They play with their toys, and their books, and their furniture, and my kitchen tools, the couch cushions, the laundry, in the sink and on more than one occasion things that I’d rather they not play with, but they play. Although there are times I’m tempted to pull them away from their play to teach them more advanced skills such as how to read or to say turtle in Spanish, I’ve really done well with refraining as there will be time for that.

As a recovering pack-rat, I am a memory/moment collector of uber-proportions. I still have things I won’t discard though I am learning that it is moments as opposed to things that is essential. You can’t believe some of the stuff I held onto before the move. Really, you can’t.

The moments take up less space in a shipping container anyway, and in the end, it’s the moments I remember. Even with that scrap of wrapping paper. It was the moment shared with my parents and sister that was important, and though the paper was a reminder of that, I don’t know that the moment needed it. I remembered anyway.

I know that the laughter that all three of my children shared as they wrestled with me this afternoon is something I will hold onto. Before I left education, I worked almost exclusively with teenagers, so I know something about what they may face as they grow older and how they may change.

My hope is that, like the moments, like the cherished treasures, and like the joy of just playing, my children are able to hold on to the love that is here in our home, as it is never uncertain. It is never, ever uncertain.

I know I need to spend as much time in their world now as I can.

As a stay-at-home-full-time-parent, I don’t get a bi-annual evaluation, and my kids don’t get the same from me. My success or failure as their primary caregiver will be years in the determining.

In the end, I know that I cannot wish happiness on my children nor can I wish success on them. While I want those things for them, and pray for such, I can only provide them with the tools with which to become Good people. And I hope that they will be.

So, as the days sprint by faster than I want them to, I grow more and more assured that my children will be good people, based on the way they play, and the way that they love and by the magic that they instill in nearly everything they touch; especially their toys.

They are magic.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It’s Time To Play Catch Up

I was halfway through writing a hard copy of what I thought was going to be my next column in this space, dealing with, as recently promised, the “Life of toys,” in which I was going to talk about the amazing way my kids relate to their toys, and other things.

I’m certain it may be an interesting read should I revisit it.

But, the morning after I had started the column, Harry Kalas died.

As such, my most recent column dealt with Harry, and with my thoughts on his impact on me and the world that is Philadelphia sports. My column that day was somewhat impromptu and was an emotional one for me to write. I just re-read it, and even now several weeks later, I feel genuine emotion listening to Harry’s voice and connecting with my own thoughts at the time.

I very much appreciate that thunderclap of a response I have received both in this space, through Facebook, and through the magic of email. As it turns out, the column I wrote about Harry is the most read column in this space to date, edging out the “Stegosaurus,” the “Albums” and the “Big Island” columns.

Thank you for that. I am both humbled and motivated by your responses.

So, before I move on, I thought it would be worthwhile to wrap up some questions that I have received over the past few months, in preparation for moving forward with other topics. I thank you as always for your reply’s and even more so for your questions. The following are the three most asked questions from either on site reply’s, emails responses, or messages via the magic of Facebook. Enjoy.

1) What is the state of the kids potty training?

Although I’ve not written about this topic in a while, I get a lot of questions on it. As it stands, I have bought my last pull-up. They are doing great overall. The twins are in general going all night, though we get them up on occasion to go at night. The little bear is doing way better than her brother and sister did at her age, (2) and while we put her in a re-usable cloth pant at night, she does very well during the day. I am really proud of the kids, and while I will admit to cleaning up the occasional accident, I know we have turned the corner.

But in short, dealing with the Potty training process sucks. It’s no fun. But, then it was over. Kinda. I still say “John and Kate Plus 8” are full of crap.
2) Who won the music poll?

The recent album/music poll, that was somewhat interrupted on site by the death of Harry Kalas proved a resounding win for Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” In what amounted to a surprise to me, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came in second, over Bruce Springsteen. I received perhaps my most detailed responses to date over email to that column, and ironically enough, much of it dealt with my writing about U2, who received no votes in our little poll, but generated the most enthusiastic email reply’s.

It was an interesting topic, and it is one that I will revisit. That one was fun to write.

What was even cooler though was that I got a ton of recommendations of new music to listen to. A lot of it I liked. Weeks before this column, my friend Kathy and I started a music exchange, which has been awesome to do, and I think is really important as I get older. I read “Rolling Stone” every other week, but I love the fact that friends like Kathy and my cousin Kel can recommend a band that they love that I’ve never heard of, and then I hear them, and then I know what they were talking about all along.

To me, that is the real power of music, and the joy of shared art. I used to be really good at the “Mix tape” back in the day, and I think there is room for that spirit in the MP3 world of today. But, thanks to Kathy and Kel, I am now totally grooving on The Fratellis, Colbie Callat, and Brett Dennen, and I know that I have turned others onto New Jersey’s own The Gaslight Anthem, TV on the Radio, Vienna Teng, and Gilkicker.

The album column was a really satisfying one to write, and I got a lot out of it, so thanks. Keep it coming.

3) You’re writing a novel?

This has come mostly as a question on Facebook, but, yes I am. And I’m making a lot of progress on it. If I’m absent from the blog in the coming months, that is why. I am hoping to have the first full draft completed before the end of the year. With three little kids, it is always hard to find the time, but my wife, who is doing exceptionally well in her career, has been truly helping me find both the motivation and time to plug out the work. I don’t know if it will ever amount to anything, but I think it’s a good project.

I have been genuinely touched by the positive feedback I’ve gotten from many of you. You should know that such things matter, a whole lot.

I can tell you all quite sincerely that there was a night this year when I was up late, trying to work on a chapter, and grew genuinely discouraged. I checked my email and had just received one in response to one of the columns I had posted here, and it really motivated me.

That email got me back on track, and that chapter got done. Thank you, for that, and you know exactly who you are.
With that, I bid you aloha for now.