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?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bucket lists, Comfort Zones, and the Potential of a promise of a Plymouth Duster

Why do they call it a bucket list anyway?  I mean, who puts things of value in a bucket?  I’m sure there’s a logical explanation but I don’t feel like googling it just now.  I’m too excited and nervous.

So, here’s the backstory.  My older sister had a 1974 Blue Plymouth Duster that she drove through high school and beyond.  We called it “Monstro” after the giant whale in Pinocchio.  We were clever.  I loved that car and when she was ready to move on from it I bought it from her for $500-a tidy sum to me then as well as now.  I was sixteen and not even legal to drive yet, but I owned a car and the promise of freedom and excitement and, truth be told I was just in love with that thing and all it represented.  I still have the handwritten receipt that we wrote on an index card somewhere in a box.  I washed it and waxed it and treated it magnificently.  I saw such promise in it.  It wasn’t the BMW’s or Suzuki Sidekicks that some of my classmates were driving and it certainly wasn’t the convertible ’68 Mustang or Vintage Oldsmobiles that some of my friends drove-those were awesome!  I felt like my Duster fell somewhere in between all that-cool, but not head-turningly so.  I liked it.  It had character.  The car needed a few repairs and I was saving up for them in the months leading up to my seventeenth birthday.

It was during this time, however that my father developed the cancer that would take his life.  Needless to say the car and its needed repairs and pretty much everything else in my life got put on hold.  When my birthday came, my former girlfriend took me to take my road test in my mom’s old Nissan Sentra.  That one was nicknamed “Challenger” for a variety of reasons.  I received a new car stereo as a birthday gift from my parents and it was decided that I would have it installed in the Sentra, “…for now.  We can always put it in the Duster later.”  It was a difficult time and a lot of it blurs together now but the Nissan became my daily use car and my hope was to get the car up and running in time for the Senior Prom, at least in my mind.  

After Dad died a lot of things changed and a lot of priorities shifted and I’ve talked about that in previous columns here before so I won’t belabor it, but in general, life became very much about somehow muddling through the rest of High School and getting myself into a college.  The Duster didn’t make it to Senior Prom (my lovely date was probably ok with that ;) and my new plan had been to work towards saving up for repairs over the summer so that it would be ready to cruise the shore the following summer, after my freshman year of college.

When I left for college, I remember patting “Monstro’s” hood and thinking that it was getting to be time for us to fulfill the promise I had felt when I’d been allowed to test drive it in the elementary school parking lot at sixteen.  I had to pretend I’d never driven a car before but I think I pulled it off.  When I settled into my dorm room I remember hanging a few pictures of friends of mine, mostly in formal wear in front of the car-it had become kind of a thing for us-Proms and semi-formals, I’d usually do a picture with my date or friends in front of it.  And then I went about having a freshman year.  I didn’t think much about the Duster until I came home for Thanksgiving Break and noticed its absence from our driveway.

“Um, Mom, where’s my car?”
“Oh, I sold that to one of Mac’s friends.  He needed a car to drive to Texas.  The Sentra can be your car now.  It’s newer anyway and your stereo is already in it.”

She’d taken $200 for it.  It had been a hard year for all of us with Dad passing and the challenges that brought.  I don’t know how, but as I recall I don’t think I said anything to her about it at all.  I just said, “ok, mom.”  I never really told her how it made me feel to have that dream, that promise, so suddenly and irrevocably interrupted.  In the years before she passed we would kind of joke about it, but there was a small part of me that was deeply and profoundly disappointed.  It seems a silly or possibly even selfish thing for me to have felt, especially considering the year our family had had.  But the memory of that promise lingered.

Life moved on and “Challenger” gave way to a ’91 Mercury Tracer that we nicknamed “Bullseye” because people kept hitting it with their cars.  Then there were the Outback years, which ended when we sold my Green Outback before moving to Hawaii.   Our family has been a one car, Honda Odyssey family ever since.  

Over the years, I would peruse the old “Auto Trader” magazines and once the Internet became a thing I would check online for a ‘74 Duster now and then.  Craiglist and Ebay would occasionally present a temptation and then real life would pull me back in from those fantasies.  In my heart I always hoped I would get the chance to have one again but as the kids got older and our priorities shifted, fantasy was just about where I had to leave such thoughts.  

While I loved the car, I’m not a mechanic or even all that knowledgeable about classic cars, so I always felt intimidated by the prospect of even pursing one for real.   That said, every now and then I would see one on the road and it would all come back to me: that dream of freedom and driving down the shore with the windows open and just the promise of fun-it was about fun and being open to it that would make me start to search all over again.  If you’ve known me for any length of time it’s likely you’ve heard me talk about this a little or maybe I’ve talked your ear off,  (I can do that, I’m told) but while I would look occasionally, it never really went anywhere.  

That is until last week.  The wife’s Uncle, who is a big-time car guy and among my favorite people, has been keeping an eye out in his world for a Duster that would work for our family.  I told him last summer at a family wedding that all I really wanted was “A Duster that’s in good shape that we can actually use as a car for the family.”  I don’t need to be a Car Show guy or garage the thing and never use it.  We’ve managed as a one car family for almost eight years now, though we get a rental 4-5 times a year when we simply can’t get things done with the one vehicle or public transport.  As the kids’ lives and activities get more involved, it’s become increasingly difficult to manage.

So, Uncle calls me while we are on the concession line before we saw “The Shaun the Sheep Movie. (Excellent film)  He says that he’s found a possible car for me up in New England.  Says he’s talked to the guy and likes what he’s heard so far.  He gives me his number and says good luck and to keep him posted.

So I call the seller and I like what I heard too.  It’s very low original miles and that it’s been garaged pretty much for ever.  He sends photos and Uncle and I and anyone else whose opinion I could get pore over them.  Long story short, it looks promising.

But beyond that, something started to happen as I learned more about the car and the people involved.  The previous owner had bought it from the original owners’ family back in the late 1990’s.  He had a Duster in college and wanted to revisit that experience as an adult.  That certainly resonated with me. 

So I liked what I was seeing and liked what I was hearing but, I figured there’s no way I should really think about this right?  This isn’t the sort of thing people actually do, is it?  I started to get a little intimidated by the process and started looking for someone in my life to talk me out of this and off the ledge.  I asked my wife, my cousin, my sister, my friends, my in-laws, my financial advisor, total strangers, the kids, our fish, God and anyone else that was in ear shot.  “What do you think?” I asked.  Outside of a few logistical and safety related inquiries, in general almost to a person the response I got was “Go for it!”  My finance guy even asked for pictures.  

So, no one was going to take this cup away from me.  I was either going to have to drink it or pass on it all on my own.  And it still kind of scares the daylights out of my.  But I was reminded of something my pal said to me when we were debating whether or not to make the move to Hawaii back in ’07.  I was having real anxiety about leaving Jersey.  He said to me, “Dude, this would be a huge move out of your comfort zone, and you seriously need to be moved out of that-take a chance.”  And we did, anxiety and all, and it turned out to be a very good thing for our family.  So I’m reminded of that in this process as every potential roadblock to this coming together has miraculously worked out.  I wanted an “impartial car-guy” to look it over for me but didn’t know anyone up there…and a friend found one.  I didn’t think I’d be able to get the paperwork to drive it home and wasn’t going to ship it…and a friend found a way for me to take care of that.  I figured I was being selfish and didn’t deserve to even think about doing something like this and while I still don’t think I deserve it, I was told by the wife that, as long as she gets to drive it too, it’s something the family needs anyway.  

So, I’m going up to see it in person next week.  I don’t know for sure if I’ll be driving it home or flying home alone but, I only booked a one-way flight.  So I know what I’m hoping for but plan to be smart about it.  I’m nervous and anxious but only a little more than usual.  Realizing that is actually quite a bit of growth for someone who has struggled with anxiety in the past.  When I really look at the things I’m anxious about as this process pulls me further from my comfort zone, I find that it’s probably a good thing to be a little scared.  Buying anything from 1970 is likely a risk these days.  But I find my anxiety is tempered somewhat by my excitement.  I won’t know until I put my hands on it and sit behind the wheel whether or not I’m going to buy it, but I can’t wait to find out.  

Life is short.  The years I owned my old Duster, where our time together was over before I got to really enjoy it were turbulent and challenging.  This won’t be that car any more than I will be that seventeen year old kid and I’m glad for that.  It’s been over twenty years but I feel like I’m ready.  If this one doesn’t pan out I’ll be disappointed but, as a wise man told me recently, “there’s always another car.”  

I’ve been chasing this car for years and I feel like I’m pulling into the parking lot where it’s waiting for me.  The kids think it’s cool.  The wife thinks it’s cool.  Outside of that I’m not sure what else I need.  I’m not sure I did a particularly good job of explaining what this possibility means to me but I’m not sure I can articulate it.  I just know I’ve felt like I had a place in my heart and life for and old car.  I’ve always felt like it might bring full circle that feeling that anything is possible that I remember feeling before my dad got sick.  

Or maybe I just want to look like a badass in the Pickup line at school…I dunno, but I hope to find out.  Stay tuned.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Confessions of a Restaurant Lifer; or, Life Lessons from Leroy

I was asked today how many years I've worked in the restaurant industry and, as is quite appropriate at my age and never-stellar math skills, I had to use pen and paper to do math to come up with an answer.  There’s a few ways to answer that question and one of them is like this:

My first restaurant job was serving as the dishwasher in Cranbury, NJ; ironically at their Colonial-themed place, in 1988.  I was a dimply and pimply faced kid of fourteen and I found out I was going to be doing this job mere moments after I hopped off the bus the last day of my freshman year.  I was anxiously looking forward to a summer full of hanging with friends, swim meets, going to the shore and generally relaxing after a pretty intense year. 

I bounded into the house, tossing my bag on the floor and planning to veg out in my room and listen to Living Colour’s “Vivid” and read through my yearbook.  I’d been planning it all day-ever since a certain girl had signed my yearbook and I had, with great restraint, forced myself not to read what she’d written until I was home and could properly enjoy the moment in private.  Perhaps I’d even make some calls on my brand new rotary phone that I’d earned by spending the year on the Honor Roll…heady stuff, I know. (To my younger readers-a rotary phone is that old clonky unit with the dial thingy and no touch screen.)

As my bag plopped on the ground, my mother was already walking towards me, slinging her purse over her shoulder saying, “Turn around, you’re going to your new job.”  I was shocked and appalled at the sudden and immediate end to my summer and possibly childhood, but as usual I did as I was told and grumpily marched to the old Sentra, and off I was driven to learn the basics of my first real job.  I’d mowed lawns and shoveled snow and done other things to earn cash since I was like 8, like many of us from my generation, but I’d never worked in a business, until then.  The owners and managers of the Inn were very nice and they were very pleased to have me come on board (at minimum wage, which had been among the sticking points with Fred, my predecessor on the dish line.  I learned later that he moved on to a “lucrative” career in telemarketing).  Everything had been pre-arranged by my mother, who had packed my bike onto the back of the Sentra (which we had named “Challenger” years earlier) and told me to enjoy the ride home whenever they were done with my training.  We didn’t wear bike helmets back then, either.

I was shown around the “front of house” which is what we call the area where guests are present.  I was told I wouldn’t see much of the front of house as a dishwasher, but it was important to “know what’s what and where stuff is.”  They spent considerable time showing me the guest restroom facilities, as cleaning them was part of my new job description as well.  (Again-another point of contention with ‘ol Fred.)  When we finally made it to the “Back of House,” my head was swimming.  I was only 20 minutes into my new career, but you must recall, this had not been previously discussed in any way, shape, or form.  Usually, when I came home from school, I was the only one there for at least an hour before my dad came home, and then my mom.  To have her not only be there at all, but to then completely alter my world-view in the course of an hour was a record, even for us. 

They brought me back into the kitchen, which was very large and intimidating at the time.  As I walked in, I remember seeing the prep area and several ovens the size of which blew my mind.  It felt at the time like that scene in “Star Wars” where (spoiler alert) Obi-Wan chops that guys arm off in the Cantina at Mos Eisley, and everyone looks over for a silent and awkward moment.  There was music playing in the background, “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, actually.  I later learned that it was one of only three cassette tapes that the player would play without destroying, the others being a mix tape heavy on Iron Butterfly and Cheap Trick and an old Thin Lizzy tape that no one ever seemed to play.

(Again, for my younger readers, cassette tapes were plastic thingys that occasionally needed a pencil to make work properly, and they played music, kind of like your Ipods do, but not quite.  Ask your parents.) 

After what seemed like ten minutes but was probably five seconds, I heard a loud “ZAP” and turned to my immediate right where hung a bug zapper in a far corner.  I looked ahead of me and saw three huge stainless steel sinks filled with pots and pans and kitchen tools the like and size of which I found bewildering.  It was as though a giant had dropped off their dishes.  The sinks were overflowing with dirty dishes and I felt my heart sink immediately until my terrified internal dialogue was interrupted by, “so, this our new grunt?”

A man, who was probably only about ten years older than me but had a face lined with life walked towards me, wiping his hands on his apron before extending his hand to me.  “I’m Leroy, welcome to the Jungle,” he said with a wide grin and an appraising look.  Everyone else went back to their work and almost all of them either ignored me completely or looked at me warily out of the corner of their eyes.  I shook Leroy’s hand and he put his arm around me and showed me around, at first avoiding the “pit” aka, the dish area (or as I was soon to learn, areas, plural) and introducing me to the kitchen staff.  All of them were youngish males.  I wish I remembered more of their names.  After he’d sloughed me around and paraded me in front of everyone, who to a man could not have been less interested in my fourteen year-old ass, he explained my responsibilities. 

“We’ve got two dish stations-a kitchen station and a service station.”  The kitchen station was the one I’d seen before, which scared the hell out of me as it looked absolutely insurmountable.  The service station handled the dishes from the servers coming back from the front of house.  It was a very sleek-looking machine like a miniature car wash.  “Servers will bring the dishes here, clear and stack them, and you load them into the machine, and when they come out the other side, you stack ‘em there” he said, pointing at what felt like a cage of stainless steel shelving.  It actually felt a bit like being inside a very small fort made completely of silver.  I had a moment of “Fortress of Solitude” daydreaming before Leroy redirected my attention to an older server who had come by and just dumped their dishes without stacking or clearing them before running out of the kitchen.  He used a delightful four-syllable expletive, before he continued: “You better not let them do that to you even one time, or they will walk all over you.  Doesn’t matter that you’re a kid-in here, only that matters is: can you do the work?

That’s one piece of advice I’ve definitely held onto over the years, and it’s come in handy in a number of careers.  I seemed very much to excel at being the youngest guy in a number of jobs, particularly when I worked in educational administration.  It was pretty common for me over a number of years to be supervising teachers who had been teaching longer than I’d been alive.  That was always an adventure.

He had me jump onto the service line for a while and said to yell if I needed anything and to just “try it out, see how it feels,” he said and he headed back to his station on the other side of the kitchen.  He called out over his shoulder as he left, “Oh, and don’t be an asshole.  That helps too, kid.”  The salad station or “cold side” was directly across from the service dish station and was manned by an unbearably tall and lanky kid that couldn’t have been nineteen.  He didn’t say a lot, but I remember he looked right at me and said “he’s right about that” before returning to his task of slicing cucumbers. 

So there I was, 45 minutes into my restaurant career and I’d been shown the bathrooms I was to clean, a mountain of gigantic kitchen dishes and a machine that, when in operation, sounded much like one had stuck their head inside the Industrial Revolution.  I’d been told to not be an asshole and to hold adults accountable if they didn’t clean their plates before I put them on racks to go through the machine. 

Did I mention I was fourteen?  I was a freakin’ Choirboy!  I’d spent eight years in a parochial school!  Of course I wanted to yell at adults sometimes, but I never did it--I got my mouth washed out with Palmolive once because I almost said “hell.”  My mouth got me in a fair amount of trouble in those days but I was working on it. (Still am.)  To put it mildly, I was ever so slightly overwhelmed.  That said, I was also something else entirely: I was intrigued.  I liked the idea of being judged on my own merits regardless of age-it reminded me of the theater shows and music program I was involved in for years, where you were generally judged by what you could do and how well you could do it.  I also quite liked the idea of speaking my mind and standing up for myself.  I’d go so far as to say such things came rather too easily at times later on, but those are other stories.  The strangest thing for me was that I was almost immediately treated like an adult, as I perceived it at the time.  I wasn’t treated like a colleague yet as I hadn’t actually done anything, but I don’t think anyone in the kitchen looked at me and said, “he’s a kid-he can’t work.”  I think it’s more likely that they said, “ugh-I hope this dope can work.”

I finished out the shift, maybe two or three hours in entirety.  I cleared out the service dishes and put a dent into the kitchen dishes before the evening dishwasher came in and grunted at me.  That would remain the extent of our interactions all summer.  Leroy told me I did “alright” and that he’d see me tomorrow morning.  I was already wondering how I was going to ride my bike to swim practice and then to work and my head was spinning again, but as I looked around the kitchen, seeing everyone doing their job, handling their area of the larger puzzle, the kitchen suddenly became this very interesting world that I found myself looking forward to exploring.  I was part of the “Back of House” and I resolved that I’d man my station effectively, especially to those pesky servers who want to dump dishes and run, especially those pure evil servers that would try to drop the damned French Onion Soup Crocks without even a cursory attempt at a scrape.  Those things were hell.

About a week in, once I felt like I had my feet under me and had started to really feel and appreciate the rhythm and flow of a kitchen that was really working well together; I had to correct my first adult server.  Steven was an older fella and had been pretty dismissive of me, but after a week of mediocre cooperation he started just dumping trays into my station and saying stuff like “handle this for me would you, I’m in the weeds!”  Now, occasionally, that’s a request you can make, but for a whole shift on a Tuesday afternoon in July, I saw what he was doing, as did the salad station kid, who kept looking at me and shaking his head after Steven had done this twice in an hour. 

I felt like the whole kitchen was watching me, though it was likely only the salad kid, but I’d had it and I was in the weeds myself (meaning “behind-struggling to catch up”) and the girl I’d been dating and I had broken up and I was tired and there was another girl that I liked but wasn’t sure about and there was a big swim meet coming up and all of those things were stressors, but to be honest, I think this shift was the one where I really figured out that I could do this work.  That I liked the ebb and flow of the kitchen and that the lines between me, a kid, and Steven, an adult, had been clearly erased by the nature of the work.  He was making my job harder on purpose and I wasn’t going to allow it.

So, the next time he came to my station with dishes to dump and go, I pulled out the long sprayer that I used to clear off the dishes-that one with the uncomfortably hard water pressure and temperature and pointed it at his face as he said, “handle this for me….” And he paused as I pointed my other hand at him and said “No-you’ll clear your plates or you won’t only ‘be in the damned weeds,’ you’ll be soaking wet, damnit!  Do your damned job so I can do mine!”  I sprayed a warning shot from my sprayer at his feet and sent another rack through the machine as he, to my relief, cleared and stacked his plates nicely.  He never took advantage of me again and I felt like I kind of arrived in the kitchen fully that day.  It may be coincidence, but Leroy almost immediately turned off The Beatles and blasted “In-A-Gadda-da-Vida” on the boom box and the rest of shift seemed rather lively.  To this day, any time I hear that song, I hear Leroy’s voice saying, slowly and drawn out, “ I-ron-buuuuter-flyyy….”  The salad kid even came over and organized dishes in the big cage to help me out, though they were already kind of fine. 

I spent the rest of the summer there and really felt at the end like I had learned how to work hard, as it was truly harder work than I’d ever done.  I also learned that I liked the people and I’d liked the industry-I felt like I fit in.  I was invited to stay on during my sophomore year and while I worked a few shifts into the fall, I got too busy with school and activities. Later in the school year, when I was invited to the Senior Prom and was told by my parents that “if you’re going, you’re paying your own way,” I got a job at the Market down the street from the Inn.  Same family owned it and it was a better fit for my schedule then.  I earned enough to go to that Prom and actually have a picture of myself with my friends from work in my tux making change at the register before we drove over to my date’s house for pictures.  I had a good experience there, and at the Food Sampler down the road from the Market, and at the Summer Camps I helped run later on and mowing lawns for the state, working for the Postal Service, riding the garbage truck, parking cars at the fancy Princeton hotel, giving tours at Woo, and playing shows and all the other things I did to earn a either a buck or living until I became a career educator.

I always remembered that first job.  Not just because the salad kid and I used to sneak into the basement and explore the Revolutionary War tunnels they were excavating under the Inn and the house across the street.  Not just because they, as a “special treat” for me on my last shift that first summer gave me the “honor” of cleaning the grease trap.  I always held that summer in a sort of fascination that I couldn’t explain until, not long after we got married; the wife suggested I try to pick up something part-time during the summers off from teaching, while I was finishing my Masters.  We had an Irish place in our town in North Jersey at the time that we loved, and she, wise one that she is (and having been subjected to every story I’ve ever told about everything, multiple times) wondered if I might like to work there.  We were semi-regulars at the place and so the afternoon I popped in for a Guinness with Larry the bartender, it was not without precedent that I was there.

As we chatted, I asked Larry if they were hiring, and he said, “We’re always hiring.  What do you do?”  I’d done some freelance bartending at school functions and mentioned I’d washed dishes as a teen.”  He raised his eyebrow a bit and said, “How do you make a Half and Half?”  I took a sip of my beer and said, “How do you make it?”  He laughed and said, “I make it the right way” and called over one of the managers to talk to me.  I did my training the next week and spent the next three years working there in a variety of roles: I mainly served but also bartended and on occasion, served as the bouncer at the door.  There’s probably a whole column of both bar and door stories.   

It was a great time as I was young and full of energy, something I only appreciate now.  Teaching full time, Graduate program full time, restaurant part time, supporting the wife’s career, planning for the future-I still don’t know how there were enough hours to do all these things back then.  I set upon learning the restaurant business from a work perspective but as such, I also experienced my first real inklings that there was a special culture associated with the people I worked with.  I might only see some of them at work, but we mattered to one another.  There was a community there that was completely and totally supportive as long as, it seemed that you could both “Do the work” and “weren’t an asshole.”  People came and went, but I think it was even then that I was learning that there are a special cadre of people that make this industry move, and that I liked being around them.

This was during the time that I was teaching full time and going to SHU full time to earn my Masters so that I could be a Principal or a vice Principal or a Headmaster or something else other than what I was at the time, which in those days was a teacher and a server.  I was looking forward in my education career and at the time wanted to make myself qualified to be the boss.  I’d had some difficulty working for other people, with exceptions.  My mouth occasionally shared opnions that may have been overly honest, but in my career as an educator, now that I look back on it, I kept running into people that either couldn’t “do the work” or “were assholes.”  Sometimes both.  My plan was to get my Masters and state certifications and then get busy being that guy that made a difference. That was honestly who I wanted to be.  I believed in the power of education and in the ability of schools to get things right for kids.  I thought I was a good teacher and later thought I was a good administrator.

But even through those years, there was an undercurrent of the “restaurant lifer.”  I was a Vice Principal in a large South Jersey School district when we held our end of year administrator’s luncheon at a very nice formal bistro in Burlington.  I got to chatting with our server, an amazing man named George, about working in service and how I’d missed it, and he pulled me aside after we were done saying that if I wanted to try coming on board, he’d introduce me to the owner.  Next thing I know, I’m moonlighting in a tuxedo serving, among others, my Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent and their wives, both of whom I had lambasted to their faces in their offices a few weeks earlier when they had transferred me within district without notice.  I was completely in the right in my irritation with them, though it may not have been the most tactful move of my career. 

I remember the Assistant Supe’s wife seemed upset that I was serving them and she admonished her husband for not paying me enough, that “he has to do this?!”  He gave me a “Make this right immediately” look that still makes me smile.  I offered that “I love this work and the owners are friends of the family, who I help out when I can.”  His wife was placated and I later learned that the effort was appreciated. I remember ending that evening thinking that I had way more in common with the people at the Bistro than the people I had served at that table in particular.  I remember being really ok with that, but I guess I wasn’t there yet.

The kids arrived not long after and my desire to make a big splash in education increased.  I then left one troubled district, without a job, to seek another and found it in PG.  It was a great place for a time, but I was living the sort of hours that would have destroyed me long-term.  I was serving as an Assistant Principal and the AD as well.  At a minimum it was 12 hours days, six days a week and about 100 miles driven daily.  I loved a lot about that job and had so many great moments there with the kids, community and the faculty, but it was too much for me-I wasn’t seeing my children for days at a time.  I was overweight, over-caffeinated, falling asleep on the way home, and in the end, I was stretched thin.  When the wife was granted the opportunity to go to Hawaii, it was a Godsend.  We took it and went to Oahu to reboot ourselves way outside our comfort zone and it was good.  When it came time for me to work again, in addition to being the stay-at-home parent that I continue to aspire to be, I knew then it was time to go back to service.  Wife and I talked about it extensively, and I applied to pretty much every restaurant on Oahu, but I had schedule conflicts with some, wasn’t cute enough for some, wasn’t quite the proper demographic for others, but in the end, one gave me a shot.  And I spent over two years re-learning the industry and realizing that I actually do kind of fit in within it.  I was accepted in Waikele and once again found that the same maxim that Leroy said when I was fourteen continued to hold true: “Do the work.  Don’t be an asshole.”  I loved my time there and it rekindled in me an excitement and honesty that my career in education began to lack in later years.

I like to think I was a decent teacher and administrator.  I like to think that my students enjoyed my classes-I certainly hope that they did and that they got something out of them.  I know that I did for many years.  I loved teaching and I loved being a part of the life of the schools I was privileged enough to serve.  That said, there were reasons I walked away when I did.  I was tired of dealing with adults that couldn’t, or wouldn’t “do the work” when it came to caring for the kids and supporting teachers.  I was tired of dealing with people who were just assholes.  I was then and still remain to some extent, an idealist when it comes to education, but I find that experience much better managed through the spectrum of my own children and their lives. 

A while back a friend asked me why I couldn’t go back to being a school administrator, instead of “just being a server.”  I get asked that rather often actually, and the truth is that there’s nothing precluding me from attempting to return to that work.  I feel like it was work I did and could do again, but just because I ‘can’ do something does not mean that I ‘should.’  I made a lot more money in education.  But I spent almost no time with my family and time is the far more valuable commodity.  And I rather like hanging onto my idealism. 

If I’m honest, while I feel like I did my best and had some amazing moments and experiences with some fantastic students and adults, it’s not like anyone’s been knocking down my door to have me come back.  I think School life and I left on about the best terms we were likely to leave on.  There are days I really miss teaching.  I tell a lot of stories about the old days at SKS and PJ and remember the best moments of my teaching career as real moments of collaboration with students and like-minded teachers.

When we left Oahu five years ago the kids were still little and needed my constant attention.  We settled into our life here and when we’d gone through a few years of half-day kindergarten and preschool and then made it to the point that our youngest was in full-day school, the question once again arose, “So Kugs-whatcha gonna do now?”

And there was really no question.  I still want to be the guy that gets to go on a field trip; to help out in the library; to cook colonial hoecakes on colonial day; to be the one that has to pick them up early for a doctor appointment; to be that guy who knows their friends and gets that smile when I am at school and they see me.  I want to milk every minute of that joy they have when they see me at school and are excited to have me be a part of their life.  My family is my life and my love and I am very blessed that I am able to be available for these formative years in the way that I am, but I’m only able to be this guy, because both my wife and my job get me and allow me to be pretty much “this guy.” 

I tell people all the time that I drive past six places I could “do this work” in order to work where I do now, and it’s really true. I don’t know that I’m good at anything, but I know that now, at my advancing age, I’ve learned a number of things, none more important than this simple fact:  I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to.  Secondary to that is that dual facts that I like what I do, and maybe I don’t stink at it too bad.

It’s been 27 years since I started my first shift in the Back of House at the Inn.  I had to do that math-to date, I’ve not stayed in the same position in any place longer than four years.  That’s been my journey and I’m hopeful I will buck that trend with my work at MVI.  I’ve been a Stay-at-home-dad for going on eight years now and I love what I’m able to do in that role.  But I know now I would be an incomplete creature entirely if I didn’t have my place in the universe as a restaurant lifer.  It’s more than what Leroy said 27 years ago.  It’s far more.  And it’s also not.  It’s also very much exactly what Leroy said.

A lot of people have said a lot of things to me over the years.  In the end-I love my wife and I love my children.  I love my family.  While there’s a lot I can do to serve them and our needs as a family, I think that maybe---just maybe---my being a restaurant guy-a lifer-a person focused on service, might just be the best ‘me’ that’s available.  It’s a special thing being a restaurant lifer.  It only took me a few decades to figure out that it is where I’m supposed to be.  Who knows what I might have figured out when (or if) I really grow up?  Not sure that’s likely, but I can do the work.  I know that now and I can keep working on not being the other thing too.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Reflections on a new loss then, a year ago now

I wrote this on 3-28-2014.  It was my thoughts on the weeks following my mom's death and the process of writing her eulogy. 

To say that this is overdue would be an understatement under normal circumstances.  My life of late has not been overly populated with normal circumstances.  The last time I wrote in this space was August of last year and a great deal has changed since then.  So, let’s dive in.
My mother passed away recently.  While her health had not been overly good over the last few years, her passing was rather sudden and unexpected.  A lot has changed and it is a very new reality that our family now faces. 

We held a memorial service for her recently.  We chose music and readings that we feel represented her and her wishes and were very touched by the response we have received, for which we are very grateful.  At the start of the service, I presented a eulogy, much as I did for my father when he died when I was seventeen.  I’m forty now and I found the process of writing those remarks very different and I have found that to be something I wish to write about, so, that’s what I’m doing.

When I wrote for my dad, I had my mom’s help, which to be honest; I don’t know that I really appreciated until now.  I remember sitting in my room with my AmStud notebook and writing line after line of just nonsense.  I remember calling my friend in Colorado and talking with her and that helped.  But in the end I remember mom telling me essentially that ‘whatever it was I was going to say, much like the service itself, wasn’t really for the person who died-it was for everybody else.’  She also told me not to overthink it.  That helped, and as I recall I got through it relatively well.  I remember three main points that I made in dad’s Eulogy. 

The first was something she told me as he’d been sick, and I referenced this point in her speech and also, ironically enough, in my sister-in-laws wedding toast some years ago.  It was that “If you keep your relationships current and up to date with the people you love, then they never really go away.”  She told me this sitting outside the Princeton Shopping Center after we ordered Zepollis from the pizza place there while dad was at Princeton hospital.  We were having probably an overly frank conversation about my father’s chances for surviving his cancer, and she was very direct.  I asked her if she thought dad would live to see me graduate high school, which at that time was nine months away, assuming I passed Pre-Calculus.  She said she really didn’t know and that it was a real possibility that he wouldn’t.  I still respect the daylights out of that.  She went on to say that “Anything you feel you need to say to him, or to your friends as you go through this, make sure you say it.”  It’s a lesson I’ve tried my best to honor.

The second thing I said in dad’s service was that, in light of my mother’s wisdom, I was grateful that there were, as a result, “No things left unsaid, no questions left unanswered.”  We’ll get back to this one.

And finally, I ended with a line that meant a lot to me at the time and in the years after.  I said “from where I stand, the Sun is still shining.”  And it was that day-it was a beautiful day and while I’m really ok with it now, that line rings slightly hollow to me now, after all.  It strikes me now as something a seventeen-year-old kid who had no idea what he was in for might say.  Since that is exactly who I was and what I did.

The aspect of my words on my father that strike me now is not that there were “things left unsaid” as I did really take my mother’s advice to heart and said everything I could think of to say to my father before he died.  I said it all, repeatedly; at times when I know he probably couldn’t really even hear me.  I said it all and I’m grateful to have done so.  The line that strikes me now, and again, I only revisited this in light of preparing my words for mom’s service is, “no questions left unanswered.”  That sounded good at the time, but in retrospect, it seems a very childish thing to say.  I had more questions than I knew what to do with.  I spent the next few years handling those questions in an increasingly horrendous manner, wrote and performed a litany of mediocre songs, and damaged a fair amount of relationships with genuinely good people as a result.  I put on a good face at the time, so much so that I convinced myself that I was fine, but I was a mess for years, and if you knew me then, I don’t have to explain it to you.  I was a kid who had no idea what to do or think or feel, so I did what I tended to do in those days.  I played the role.  I acted my part and I think I did it well.  I fooled myself of course, that was easy, but not everyone.  There were some in my life that saw through me.  That complicated some relationships to be sure.  It ended some.  It strengthened others.  I was of course oblivious to most of this.

Dad’s eulogy took me a few hours to complete in the end.  My mother’s however took days to write and I think I understand why now: Dad and I had an incomplete relationship.  I was sixteen when he first got sick and he died six months later.  He and I were just starting to develop a real relationship when he was diagnosed and that got put on pause and never really had a chance to become an adult relationship in the end.  Mom and I had a lot more time to have a real relationship, both the good and the bad.  We had our challenges and they, as per her advice, never went unspoken about.  I do take some comfort in the fact that there really was to my reckoning, nothing left unsaid between us.  That means something different now than it did when dad died, as I’ve had more of a life and we’ve had far more to disagree on to this point.  The good, the bad, the difficult, it got dealt with, and I feel as though the last few years with her living here in Virginia, close to us, seeing her family more regularly than she did in Jersey, made a positive difference in her life and in ours.

And I think, unlike my relationship with my father, mom and I had a chance to have a complete relationship.  I was a child and an adult with her, and whatever else may come and go, I think the ability to speak to your parent as an adult is a positive thing, and I wish I’d had the chance to do that with my father.  That’s where the “no questions left unanswered” thing causes me a brief pause, as when I grew up a bit, I found I had a whole hell of a lot of questions for my father and nowhere to really send them.

So, where does that leave me?  I don’t really write or play songs anymore (no one has complained…and no one has asked for a re-issue of Kugs-Live at Mom’s Truckstop 1993…though I could make it happen…;) and I have clearly not been using this space as much as I used to, though I’d like to get back to it more.  What it leaves me with in my own mind is that I will remember and cherish both of my parents in their absence.  I’m grateful that my children had the chance to interact with my mother.  I wish they’d been able to meet my father as I think he would have gone bananas for them and I would very much have liked to have seen that.  I’m grateful for my family.

All things considered, I do feel very blessed in my life.  I have a family that both loves and tolerates me, which is likely better than it gets. 

When I ended my mother’s eulogy, I said, among other things, “A hui ho,” which is a Hawaiian phrase we learned on Oahu.  It means, “Until we meet again.”  In life, the last thing I said to her was “we love you” as we dropped her home after the Pancake Dinner at Church.  Among the final words I said to her, in the end, was “A hui ho,” and of course, “aloha.”  I was truly heartened by the fact that as I explained that aloha means both, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Hawaiian in the eulogy, my children spoke aloud right along with me, like we were doing a call and response.  It warmed my heart to no end that they felt called to speak out in the service and I was humbled by the number of our friends that came and brought their children to the service. 

I remember growing up in the aftermath of the death of  Patricia, my oldest sister.  We used to do a memorial service for her around the dining room table when I was a kid.  I don’t remember her as I was three months old when she died, but I remember conversations about life and death, and about honoring one’s life, and I remember conversations about the nature of life and death and the passage of time and about having children be a part of that process.  I know that for us, it was important that our children be a part of the service that honored my mother.  There were those that suggested that such a service was not a place for children, but I don’t agree and I’m grateful for our friends that not only came out in support of us but brought their children.  I didn’t want my kids to be the only children present in the service to honor their grandmother.  There are many reasons for that, but the most honest is that I wanted my kids to have their friends there, much as I did when my father died.

Death is a part of life.  In the end it is really the only alternative to getting older, so most of us choose it, when we can.

Dad died in October.  It was a breezy and unusually warm day in New Jersey.

Mom died in March.  It was a breezy and unusually warm day in Virginia. 

The sky looked pretty much the same on both days.  I don’t make these things fit the model, it’s just what happened.  None of this was what we wished.  None of this was based on choices we would make.  But we carry on.

“From where I stand, the Sun still shines.” 
I said that repeatedly in the old days; I sang it loudly in one of my less awful songs.  But in the end, there really is nothing left unsaid this time-I mean it, and my relationship with my mother was as current and up to date as it was likely to ever be.  There was peace.  There really aren’t serious questions left unanswered.  Not like there were with my dad. 

I will miss my mother.  Just this morning, I got an email from our church here, which I usually forwarded on to her, and I had to stop myself from doing so.  Things have happened in our life that I would normally have made a point to tell her, and I won’t now.  I know it is the way of things and I know that we did right by her, but it is an end.

While it is a different end that my father had it is no less final.  Neither he nor my mother wished for or wanted the end that they met—though they each had neither the choice nor the option to face it in the end.  I like to think they are both at peace.  I want to think they are at peace.

If nothing else, I pray that they are at peace and at rest.  It is for the rest of us to move on and carry on, and, if so driven, to see the sun still shining.