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.

Almost a year later: My Eulogy for my Mother, March 2014

My Mother passed away March 10 of last year.  I wrote and delivered this Eulogy for her that week.  As I go through my notes on the year and the things I've written, I feel like it's time I shared this. My next column will be a reflection on having written this, so it felt like a good thing to get out there. 

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you’ll understand why it is rare that anyone offers me a microphone.  That said, one of my mother’s favorite things to say at church was, “If you can’t say it well AND under ten minutes, you probably shouldn’t be up there talking.”  So, I’ll do my best to honor that today.

I remember as I was writing the eulogy for my father when he passed away in 1990 and was having trouble getting started.  Mom told me 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 too. 

Mom faced a lot of challenges in her life.  She faced challenges in her youth, then later dealing with the loss of her first child, our sister Patricia, at a very young age.  Losing our father very young as well and being left alone as a parent to deal with my sister and I-as a parent and a spouse myself, I cannot imagine the reserves it took to endure any of that.  But, she did it.

Mom was not one for leaving things unsaid.  If she had an opinion, and she always did, it’s likely she would share it with you early, often, and whether or not you had asked for it.  At the heart of that though is one of the things she taught me.  As dad was dying, she encouraged me to be honest and direct with my friends and my family about what I was feeling and needing and to say whatever it was I needed to say to my father, whenever I could.  She said, “If you keep your relationships current and up to date with the people you love, then they never really go away.”  I recall that I used that exact line in my sister-in-laws wedding toast, which I was given a grand total of 42 seconds to prepare for… I know that the last thing I said to her was that we loved her and she said the same.  I’m grateful for that lesson as it helped me leave nothing unsaid with my father and I’m pleased to say that the same is true with my mother.  I’m glad we had these last few years with her here in Virginia where she had the chance to spend time with her grandchildren and made new friends here at St. Andrews and at Heatherwood. 

Mom was a complex person, and I can appreciate so much more now the intensity that she brought to the table when dealing with the challenges that we faced as kids.  Losing our sister so young was a tremendous loss, but life in our parents’ home was rarely dull.  We were encouraged to try everything and mom and dad were frequently shuttling us around to choir, play practice, swimming, baseball, horseback riding, basketball, youth group, and anything else we wanted to try.  There were the brief experiments with soccer, rowing crew and drum lessons too, but by the end, even my mom was making me walk to the Drum lessons…I wasn’t real good.  Listening to Friday’s with Frank (Sinatra…) on the radio and Family dinners with the radio on-occasional dance breaks if the Platters or Dion and the Belmonts or Sam Cooke came on.  Our home was permeated with music and I like the way that sits in my memory.

Mom was genuinely tough and she expected a lot of us as kids and expected as much if not more from the people who were our teachers and leaders.  I remember vividly in 7th grade I was assigned a Comparative biography project.  I had to pick two historical figures and do a biography on both and a comparative study.  Social studies was my best subject at the time, and probably the only one I wasn’t getting phone calls from teachers about, so I was really excited.  As dad and I had just watched the PBS “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series about the Civil Rights Movement, he suggested that I compare Malcolm X, whose autobiography mom had me reading, and slave revolt leader Nat Turner.  I excitedly presented my idea to my teacher, who was appalled-promptly forbidding me from doing such an inflammatory project and sent me to the Principals office.  I knew the way…Sister Karina explained that my choices were not appropriate due to their “violent and controversial predilections.”  Having already discussed historical bias with my father, I said something rather snarky to my Principal which of course resulted in a call to mom, and as I recall, Sister did not need to look up the number.

After Sister explained her position on my paper and that she expected my mom and dad to support the school point of view, I could hear, across the desk, through the giant old style rotary handheld phone, my mom essentially lose her mind on Sister Karina.  “Are you kidding me with this?!  That’s IT!  You have gone too far this time, Sister.  You are absolutely NOT going to tell my child what he can or cannot read and learn about, especially in the one class he does well in!”  Sister tried to explain her opinion again, but I knew it was all over for her on this one.  I’d been on the other end of a few of mom’s ‘bestowing of opinions’ and I knew Sister didn’t have a chance.  I heard her through the receiver across the room, as Sister pulled it from her ear, “MY son is doing this report, and he’s going to nail it.  Maybe you’ll even learn something or so help me God, I will have the ACLU picketing your convent faster than you can blink!” 

I’d never heard anyone talk to a nun that way and it was by far my favorite trip to the principal’s office, though not my last.  I think on that every time I advocate for my kids.  She made sure I did a good job on that report too, and the teacher later even said that she was sorry about the whole thing.  Said she learned something.  I probably would have just done something else like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, but I remember that mom stood up for me and academic freedom that day, and I learned something too.  The ACLU was never called though.  But she would’ve.  Mom didn’t bluff. 

No story of my mother is complete without talking about Wildwood.  The Jersey Shore.  She and dad met and fell in love there and that beach has remained at the center of our family life.  Despite her Midwestern roots I think she definitely became a Jersey gal.  Dad was a lifeguard in The Crest and mom was a college freshman on her first summer away from Ohio.  She and her friend didn’t know that early May is not the usual weather to run to the water in one’s bikini, and Dad and his pal noticed them while working on the patrol jeep up at the guard house.  So, seeing, as he described, “two crazy girls sprinting to the freezing water…” he and his buddy jumped into action and drove the jeep down to warn them of the cold temperatures…and of course get their numbers.  Wildwood was our summer for pretty much every summer of my life and it remains a very large part of our present and future.  If you’ve ever seen the lines out the door at Lobster House, where she and Aunt Karla used to be servers, much as I am now, you might be amazed to know that we never once waited on line there.  She’d go to the host stand, drop a name or two as a former waitress, and we’d be seated immediately.  That was as VIP as we got but it worked.  And she made that happen every time.  I’m pleased we had the chance to take her and the whole family last summer.  It’s truly a magical place and will remain so for us.

Mom was very proud of my sisters accomplishments.  She really enjoyed telling her friends to tune into the network when my sister had a new piece running.  She was particularly proud of her work with the Saratoga War Horse project.  Enjoyed bragging about her Emmy award winning daughter.

Heidi reminded me of a story from her bridal shower where Mom, who had fallen in love with the “Froggy Boots” from Restoration Hardware, had blurted out, during the shower that Heidi and I needed to “Get going on bringing me some grandkids-I need to buy Froggy boots!”  She adored her grandchildren and I know that she was never more pleased than when showing them off to friends or bragging about their accomplishments:  Boyo promotion to Red Belt in Tae Kwon Do; J-Bird being twice selected to be in the Pyramid Art show; The Bear also making the Pyramid show and performing with her scout troop at Heatherwood.  These are just a few of the things that she really enjoyed and I’m glad we had the chance to share the amazing people that our children are with my mother.

Trimming the tree for Christmas and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  Nights when she’d feel inspired to talk about the old days, and people she’d loved-my father, her mother and brothers, Daddy Pop and my Grandpa Kugs.  Patricia.  When mom got in a story groove it was fun to experience.

When I ended the eulogy to my father, I said, “From where I stand, the sun is still shining.”  I’d like to think that one still applies, but I was 17 at the time.  As I end here today, hopefully a little wiser and maybe just a little older, I have two lines that are sticking with me.  They are both ones I learned when we lived in Hawaii.  The first is: Kulia i ka nu'u.  It means, “strive for the summit.”

Every time I have been faced with a challenge over the last several years, regardless of what arena of my life that challenge came from, I think of that.  Strive for it.  Even if you fall short, I think, you’ve strived…and I think that really matters. 

And the other is far simpler. And it is “A Hui Ho” and it means “until we meet again.”  Whatever else my mother is, was and may be, she has left this life, and she will be missed.  So, I say Aloha, which my children know means both Hello and goodbye, and to their grandmother, and our mother, I say Aloha, and A Hui Ho. 

Cleaning out the queue: Things I didn’t know at 20, but know now, sorta

I started this column last July.  I’m cleaning house today, so I’m going to finish it and post it and then move on to the other ones I’ve not finished. 
July 17, 2014: I’m getting awfully close to another birthday.  That, and the kind of year that we’ve had has me feeling reflective again.  It’s not a rare occurrence mind you, but it’s been difficult to find both the time and the motivation to write.  But, my pal over at the “Moving Girl” blog ( ) has inspired me to get back on the horse so to speak.  Not that I have a horse or anything. 
Sorry-I have a very, VERY, literal child in my house.  I’ve been working on keeping things rather direct.  I fail a lot.  That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about change and how it constantly affects our lives-sometimes because we wish it-say, making a change to leave a job that’s rapidly destroying you to become a stay at home parent.  Other times when we face change we didn’t wish to entertain such as the loss of a loved one: we’ve faced that one a few times in the last year both to death and to other modes of choice and adjustment.  But the change keeps coming and we deal with it.  Change requires flexibility and being open to new possibilities or sometimes just simply being forced to accept what it.  That is a challenge for everyone in my house, as I imagine it is in yours, and the nature of that challenge is rather unique to certain members of our family.  That said, I feel like we are in a good place now and learning a lot about how to navigate the world around us and the particular challenges that we face.
And yet, I find my thoughts reaching back into the past-for some reason 20 years seems to be popping into my head.  That would put me back at COW, about to enter my senior year.  My future wife graduated that May and was off to BU for grad school.  I had completed my Junior year Independent Study Project and was hoping to ride it’s coattails into my Senior year project.  I spent the Spring celebrating those successes and Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as President of South Africa.  I spent the summer working at the post office and glued to the radio and TV following the circus that was the OJ Simpson Trial.  I was irritated that baseball had a strike that ended the season just a year after the 1993 Phillies had been such a fun season to experience, despite its awful end.  I still hate Joe Carter.  I forgive Mitch though.  I probably seemed a pretty normal 20-year old, though we all know now, well, at least I do, that I was still processing some serious issues that would continue to be a challenge for years to come, but I was working hard in school and earning money over the summer and in a stable relationship with the girl I would marry.   
But, I thought very differently about things than I do now.  How so?  Let’s explore that…
1)      I’m a way different parent than I thought I would be at 20. 
I knew I wanted to be a parent back then, but I knew very much that I was not ready to do it anytime soon.  I don’t know how I knew that, but being a parent now, I get it.  I was way too self-involved in those days.  I was a mess too and probably at least partially a complete asshole at times, but I was very much into being the “singer-songwriter guy” on campus and in clubs in New Hope, Philly, and Princeton over the summers.  I was very much about that dream at the time and played a lot of shows, not all of them awful I’d like to think.  If you asked me then about the kind of parent I thought I’d be, it would have been “I would want to relate to them and be their friend-obviously I’d be way cooler than all their friends parents.”
*Picking up now on 3-8-15:
Now I realize that type of parenting is not for me.  I never would have imagined being a stay at home dad back then.  I was too busy planning my speeches for the Grammy Awards and figuring until then I’d try to be Mr. Keating from “Dead Poet’s Society.”  Yes, I did in fact once try the “Oh Captain, my Captain” thing with a class.  They had the politeness to look at me like a complete dork too, for which I now applaud them. 
I like to think I’m a good parent, but I most certainly not the sort I thought I would have been at 20. 
I think we’ll have a speed round here, as I’ve left myself a few piles of things to finish and the kids are at Kohls with the wife, so here goes-other things I know now that I didn’t know at the age of 20: 
2)      If you let the laundry pile up for a day, you end up with 5 loads to fold 2 days later.
3)      My parents probably knew about some of the dumb stuff I did as I kid and they just let it go out of both embarrassment for me and an desire to avoid awkward conversations.
4)      It matters more that I actually learned to do something at school than what my grades actually were.
5)      Making #4’s realization was the key to rocking graduate school.
6)      It’s easier to have one uncomfortable conversation with someone who’s wronged you than it is to carry that angst, even a little bit of it, within you for years.
7)      The Eagles still haven’t won a Super Bowl.
8)      I don’t need to hold onto every single notebook, note, letter, and other such bric-a-brac from 1st through 12th grade in order to have real memories of the time.  Had to downsize a few years ago…
9)      I’m glad that we did not have smartphones in Junior High and High School.  I’m sure we would’ve enjoyed them but yikes…what might have been caught on camera.  I’d still be grounded.
10)  It’s going to be ok.  I was full of anxiety and angst in those days, despite the pleasant musical styling's of Hootie and the Blowfish. 
If I could tell my 20-year-old-self that one thing, I think it would have been interesting.  But, the journey from there to there has been engaging and has made me who I am now, so I’ll take it, as, I’m pretty ok with it.