Hearty birthday wishes

Matthew, four years ago, I wrote a piece for my Midtown column, ruminating on the emotions I felt about your brother turning ten. I vowed to do the same thing for you, but the scope of my column changed this year, and I regret that I couldn’t share this with a broader audience. But share it, I must.

You came into our lives ten years ago this morning, and while I was overjoyed that you were here, I was also afraid. I had no idea how we were going to afford a second baby, and I was scared for you. I’m sorry if I ever showed that fear to you; please don’t think for a moment that it’s tinged with even a tiny bit of regret, because there’s never been any. And it would seem there’s never been any fear on your part – that’s been a hallmark of your personality.

Mom and I have always been amazed at the strong way you embrace whatever’s next. From one stage to another, adopting one skill and the next, you’ve been an ever-onward type of child. This usually manifests itself in sports, where coaches and spectators have repeatedly told us, “He’s absolutely fearless.”

I don’t know where you get that – maybe from your mother. And I’m certain you don’t get your athletic abilities from either of us. But I like to think maybe you get your corresponding attitude from us, as you’re not the type of fearless that often turns heartless. You’re never a jerk when you play, and you don’t get so competitive as to put winning above all else. Somehow, your courage is tempered in grace, and I’m proud to see that every time.

Need a lift?

“Need a lift?”

That grace doesn’t stop in the sports arena; ever since you were an infant, you exuded – and shared – happiness. You were (and still are) joy incarnate, and I’m thankful for that joy every day. I’ve dreaded this day, because I’ve worried that your bliss is going to slough away with your childhood – but I’ve been wrong. It’s part of you, and I’m proud when I catch glimpses of the man you’re going to become. You’re always quick with a kind word and a snuggle, and there’s great maturity in both of those.

You’re the most loving, caring, helpful, uplifting person I know, and sometimes there’s so much gratitude in my heart for that, it feels like it could burst. It’s no wonder you were born with an “angel kiss” – a hemangioma – on the bridge of your nose, in the shape of a heart. You have blessed us and the rest of the world with profuse love in every encounter since then.

That mark is what you are, Matthew – all heart. Your courage, your grace, your love – all of them show heart. I’d like to keep you young, but I can’t, and it wouldn’t be fair, anyway. A heart like yours must be shared with the world, so eventually we’ll need to send you out into it. But I’m going to enjoy our time together until then.

Welcome to your second decade, and Happy Birthday to you – always.

Posted in Bain's Beat, Family, Parenting, The Kids | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Slammed unc

Psst. Hey, you – the allegedly grown man at the kids’ basketball game tonight. You know who you are – you were sharing your very candid opinions with the refs, the coaches, the players, and the parents all night, as loudly as possible. I have some advice for you. Shut. The hell. Up.

Seriously, dude. Nobody wants to hear your nonsense. That’s why the scorekeepers eventually sent the ref over to ask you to stop. That’s why there’s a policy in the parents’ handouts, forbidding the type of behavior you were showing tonight. And that’s why you should have been ejected during the first quarter.

But you didn’t see it that way. Instead, you become indignant and belligerent. Which is why the community center director eventually had to leave his office, come into the gym, and sit down where he could keep an eye on you. He gave you way too much leeway; by then you’d already insulted the refs, our coaches, our head coach’s wife, and several nine- and ten-year-old boys. Don’t you feel proud?

This was our eighth game, and I’d never seen you at one before, so I naturally assumed you were with the other team. I just couldn’t figure out why you kept yelling at our coaches to “have some confidence in your players!” This was strange, because you seemed hateful enough to enjoy seeing the opposing team not have confidence. But no, to my horror, you were with us. The head coach told me afterward, when I was talking to him about how you’d picked a fight with his wife.

I can only hope the reason you’re not a regular is, you’re not closely related to one of our players. Surely you’re not a dad; if you are, woe be to your son. I’m hoping you’re just a crazy uncle who only comes to town once a year, and whose existence the family spends the rest of the year denying.

It would probably be best for all of us if this were the case, and therefore we’ll never see you at another game. Because after what Matthew told me on the way home, you don’t ever want to see me again. It seems when he was called for travelling, you yelled out something to the effect of, “Stop playing football.”

Dude. Not cool. For so many reasons. First, the travelling infraction was slight. He wasn’t carrying the ball like a football. The refs in this league are super-prone to calling travelling. Everyone knows that; it’s just the way it is, and that’s fine. Yes, he travelled. No, it wasn’t a huge infraction. Second, the call didn’t impact the game at all. Third, it wouldn’t matter if it had. This is a children’s league. No one’s going to lose their life savings or their career over one of these games. Fourth, you’re not the coach. Fifth, you’re not his dad. Sixth, it would be a rude thing to say even if you were his coach or dad. Seventh, he’s NINE, you jerk.

I was pretty mad when he told me about this. He didn’t seem upset so much as annoyed, but he did ask me why you would say something like that. I told him there’s no good reason, that you’re just a horrible example of an adult – and of a human being, for that matter. Then I told him you don’t matter in the least bit, and your opinions shouldn’t, either. I told him you’re probably a frustrated person, more worthy of pity than of scorn.

But I told myself I would remember this. Trust me – you don’t want to address my son that way again.

So, if I’m wrong, and you end up at another of our four remaining games, you really should reign in that unacceptable behavior. I’m far from the only one who noticed, there are less forgiving parents than I, and there’s likely to be a reckoning. Quit hurting people.

You seem to love the game, but trust me – that sort of behavior doesn’t come from being an avid fan. It comes from being an asshat.

Posted in Family, Hassles, Life and How to Live It, Parenting, Sports, The Kids | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The moppet show

Today when we took the boys out for lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, I experienced a spark of genuine Christmas magic.

I had just gotten my umpteenth buffet refill and was heading back to the table when I had to stop and wait for an exiting family to cross in front of me at a sort of intersection between aisles. They reminded me of a family of ducks – one adult at the front of the line, one at the rear, and the kids between the two, in perfect descending order by size. The mom had already passed, and I could have made a quick dash before the first son came through the intersection, but that would have violated several of my own rules.

The first is a law of nature – never come between a parent and their child. It’s just common sense. The second is my own personal “Yield” law; I always defer to the other party when there’s a question of right-of-way. The third is kind of tricky, and at least one person has raked me over the coals about it, although it didn’t affect him at all – I try to avoid accidental contact with other people’s children. Maybe my critic thought there’s something wrong with me. There’s not, apart from a sad sort of paranoia.

It’s partially due to having been a Cub Scout leader for more than six years and having had the training ingrained; partially due to the accusatory nature of society; partially due to fear of false accusation; and partially due to me knowing I’m a big, ugly dude who probably looks pretty threatening to a small child. Comedian Bill Burr explains it in a less awkward way than I can; take a look. That’s how I feel sometimes.

Whatever the reason, I stood pat and let the ducklings pass by at a safe distance. There must have been about five of them, but I was more patient than I normally am about getting my food back to the table and into my belly. Had it been my first trip to the buffet, I might have been chomping at the bit, but as it was, I was content to stand back and watch the parade.

Then I noticed the last child – a tiny moppet of a girl, one I would have assumed to be about five if she hadn’t been the obvious victim of some developmental challenges. There was a bit of her mother in her face, but the look was offset by other factors that made her resemble a sort of wizened old elf. Her face was angular and gaunt, except for her wide-set eyes, which gave the illusion that her head was larger under her long, stringy brown hair. Those eyes had a distant gaze as she walked along with a shuffled gait, barely able to keep up with the sibling in front of her, but grasping the concept that she was expected to try.

The girl appeared to have some sort of chromosomal disorder, although it wasn’t Down syndrome. I’m not as familiar with others, and I’m not a developmental specialist, but chromosomal seemed like a reasonable guess. Also, I’m not trying to be judgmental, to make fun, nor to show any sort of derision/contempt. People who react like that, can rot.

Anyway, something interesting happened as she approached our intersection. Her seemingly blank gaze fell on me, and she reacted in a subtle way – she briefly raised her arm, then let it fall again. She didn’t exactly wave; her small, mittened hand never moved. But it appeared to be an attempt to be friendly, the way some men do that little head nod, minimizing their emotional investment in a greeting, but getting across the essential requirement. From her, though, it seemed huge.

Taken aback, I instinctively looked over my shoulder, to see if maybe she recognized someone behind me. But nobody was there. And as I turned my head back to face her, she did it again – just a brief lift of the arm toward me, with no change in her facial expression and no other motion save her shuffle. Still, the second attempt made it clear – she was definitely trying to wave to me. Furthermore, she seemed to have understood the need to confirm that; she recognized that I wasn’t sure she’d been waving to me, so she did it again, just to clue me in. I like to think maybe she’d even felt pity at my inability to understand her distinct communication, the way countless people have probably felt pity toward her throughout her young life.

Of course I immediately reciprocated, lifting my hand, wiggling the fingers in a childish wave, and flashing her a big grin. I hoped to get a smile out of her, but nothing doing. She kept on shuffling, returning her gaze to the distance in front of her instead of on this goofy guy to her left, and her facial expression continued to stay steadfastly blank. Her dad brought up the rear, but I wasn’t able to make eye contact with him to acknowledge what his sweet daughter had just done.

For all I know, it was the only means of non-verbal communication she’s able to use. She might not understand the concept of smiling at a stranger, or waving her hand. If that’s the case, I feel even more honored by her straight-armed acknowledgement. After all, there were other people around, but she chose me. Apart from that moment of two arm motions toward me, she hadn’t broken the formation that was surely a rote comfort to her. And I am touched that she made the effort for me, not once, but twice.

I’ll probably never see that family again, but if I could, I’d thank them for letting their daughter’s light shine. That forever-innocent little girl had a chance encounter with a cynical old curmudgeon – one who was sick and tired of the past week’s cold rain, and feeling more than a bit of post-holiday letdown – and as a result, she gave him an extreme case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

That was, and will remain, the best gift of the entire holiday season.

Posted in Christmas, Family, Life and How to Live It, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The seven-year gift

Said good-bye to an old friend last Thursday night, a steadfast and loyal friend I’ve had available to lift my spirits every holiday season for the past eight of them. It was the annual Christmas Pageant at my sons’ school. Matthew finished his last performance for this season, and will age out when he moves up to fifth grade next year.

Fourth grade was the highest grade in the school for nearly fifty years, so the tradition is that only first- through fourth-graders have a role. Kindergarteners get to watch and anticipate. That’s what Matthew did four years ago, when Christopher was a fourth-grader and getting ready to age out himself. I think that’s when Matthew’s obsession with the wise men started. Even before kindergarten, he loved We Three Kings, and would sing his toddler’s take on the lyrics: “We three kings of oriental. Barren gifts, we travel so far.” My favorite part was the first king: “Bored a king on Bethlehem Day….”

In the School Pageant, those solos (albeit with the proper lyrics) and others (Joseph, Mary, and Gabriel) go to fourth-graders who pass an audition. Other fourth-graders get to read the Gospel interludes; play tone chimes, bells, or triangles; sing in a special small choir; carry torches, the processional cross, the Bible, or the flags; or play the Star. Third-graders are the main choir, singing the bulk of the songs. Second-graders play “little children” (more about that in a bit). First-grade boys play shepherds, and first-grade girls play angels.

Thus has it ever been (more precisely, thus has it been for all 57 years), and thus is it 99 percent likely to ever be. As the rector says when introducing the Pageant, it’s the same Pageant they’ve been performing every year (although to be honest, there have been two small changes that I know of). Even his intro is mostly unchanged; every year, at the Wednesday dress rehearsal and Thursday’s two performances (for most years, anyway), he stands up and says something along the lines of, “We’re proud to present this year’s Christmas Pageant; the children have been working hard since November to make this an extra-special pageant.” (Every year, it’s extra-special; I’ve never seen an ordinary one. “Extra-special” has become the norm, and for that, I’m glad.)

Then he continues, “This is your children’s gift to you. It is also considered a worship service, so we ask that you refrain from the use of all electronic devices, including cameras. You’ll have a chance to take photos afterward, and we will make a professional recording of the Pageant.” (I guess it’s okay for professionals to sin during our services.)

It truly is a gift to us; it’s one of the most uplifting, joyous occasions I know. That’s why I’m going to miss it. I went to both of this year’s performances, as well as the dress rehearsal. But how could I not? Matthew overcame a bad cold at audition time, realized his four-year dream of playing one of the kings, and continued to fight off laryngitis to nail his solos; no parent could have missed such a thing. So my final gift was a doozie.

It’s an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. The children’s joy is contagious. It’s just too bad they usually perform it to a packed church, and the audience has to be limited to two parents per child – approximately 400 people, give or take a few. But this year, they had a simulcast in the dining hall, plus a live web stream, so others could watch. (Guess that makes three small changes in 57 years.)

Regardless, it’s a moving experience for anyone watching. After the rector’s introduction, a group of fourth-graders in black cassocks and white cottas solemnly and silently enter the chancel from side doors, process to the stairs leading down to the nave, and play a beautiful version of “Silent Night” on tone chimes. It used to be instrumental, but they added vocals this year – more fourth-graders in a sort of mini-choir, singing both traditional and alternate lyrics to the song. At one point, that choir is split into two groups, simultaneously singing different parts of the song in what I believe is called a polyphony. Whatever it’s called, it sounds fantastic.

For a moment after it’s done, the night really is silent while the kids exit as solemnly as they entered, then the huge pipe organ blares out the opening chords of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” At the front of the nave, to the left of the chancel, the door to a hallway is flung open, and the opening procession begins in song. Fourth graders pour in, carrying the processional cross, the torches, the Bible, and a host of flags. Every one of them is singing at the top of his/her lungs as they process down the left aisle. Behind them come the tone chime players and mini-choir, followed by the third-grade full choir in red cassocks and white cottas. About the time the first red robe appears at the front of the nave, the crucifer and other black-clad fourth-grade acolytes start up the center aisle, having processed into the narthex and reversed direction. Once they reach the front of the nave, they turn right and right again, and continue their procession down the right aisle.

By this time, the volume is rising, and the red-clad third-graders are still processing in through the left door up front. The procession continues to wind through the nave and the narthex, with the fourth-graders coming up the center aisle again. Meanwhile, the third-graders start up the stairs from the narthex to the choir loft, where their voices continue to fill the church with volume and joy. Once the entire third-grade choir is seated in the loft, they’re packed wall-to-wall up there, and it sounds like their only way to make more space is to blow the walls open with song. Then the fourth-graders reach the chancel and the front pews, and the song finishes. The faithful have come; the fideles have adested.

Once the echoes die down, a fourth-grader steps up into the pulpit to give the first reading, from Isaiah 9:2 and 9:6, I think. Allowing for different versions of the Bible, sloppy note-taking, and sloppier memory, I’ll paraphrase it here: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The third-grade choir then sings “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as Mary and Gabriel enter the chancel from the sacristy to the right – Mary in simple garb and barefoot, and Gabriel (always played by a girl) resplendent in huge, feathery wings.

Mary sits in front of the altar and Gabriel stands just behind her as the next reader takes a deep breath for a lot of words from Luke 1:26-28 – “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said…”

At this point, they go a little artistic, and have Gabriel deliver the line, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” The reading continues with Mary expressing her doubt and Gabriel reassuring her that the Holy Spirit will get it done, and that of her son’s kingdom, there will be no end. It’s kind of a neat lesson, with the reader stopping to let Mary and Gabriel deliver their own lines. This is the only lesson in which any character has spoken dialogue in our Pageant.

Then Gabriel faces the toughest job of the night – singing the first solo. She sets the tone, as no one has proven to her that it’s possible to sing to 400 people without dying; nope, she has to prove it to all of the other soloists, so she screws up her courage and belts out, “From Heaven High.” You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the remaining soloists, even though they’re still nervous. And Gabriel’s relief is palpable.

The next reader presents passages from Luke 2:1 and 2:3-5 – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Gabriel and Mary exit into the sacristy, and some of the fourth-graders rush to the altar to set up two-dimensional cut-outs of a mule, a cow, and a sheep, while the third-grade choir sings, “Once in Royal David’s City.” The animals have been there all along, leaning with their backs against the railing around the altar, yet somehow this is the first time the audience notices them.

The next reading is from Luke 2:6-7 – “And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Joseph and Mary enter from the sacristy with a baby doll, which they place lovingly in the manger. The third-grade choir sings, “Away in a Manger” and Joseph and Mary alternate solos in, “Joseph, Dearest” while the choir sings the refrain.

Next comes Luke 2:8-14, or as I like to think of it, the Linus passage: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Now is when the Pageant ramps up the cuteness factor by about 100 percent, as the heavenly host enters from the narthex, and every head turns to see. It’s the first-grade girls in white dresses, white tights, and white shoes, with white wings and silver halos, and it’s adorable. They glide up the center aisle two-by-two, eventually coming to rest on the chancel stairs. It’s impossible not to smile as they walk by to the choir’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” accompanied by the sound of bells being shaken in time by the fourth-graders. It’s one of the many sweet moments of our Pageant, and as tough as it is not to smile, it’s even tougher not to cry.

Luke 2:15 gives everyone a chance to dab their eyes, with a chuckle coming fast on the reading’s heels: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, ‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.’” A playful organ intro precedes the choir singing, “Shepherds Come A-Running” – and run they do. Two by two, the first-grade boys scurry up the aisle from the narthex to the chancel, stopping just in front of the angels, with the last two – the two shortest boys in the grade – getting the honor of carrying stuffed lambs and placing them gently at their feet (although occasionally one will forget, and will simply drop the lamb once he realizes he should no longer be holding it). You know all of the boys love this part, because it’s bound to be the only time a teacher has instructed them to run in Chapel.

The JCP specialThis segment also marks the last change that I’m aware of. The shepherds used to wear their own outfits, as prescribed by the school – a simple cotton bathrobe with a safety-pinned bath towel for a headpiece. It was always comical to see the cacophony of plaid from whatever JCPenney had in its fall offerings each year, but two years ago, two generous first-grade moms sewed matching tan linen robes and headpieces for the entire grade. The next year, there were more first-graders than the previous year, so a dad stepped up to sew the additional brown robes and headpieces. The tan and brown robes are a definite improvement, but I have to admit the anarchist in me also loved the gaudy sale items from Penney. There’s a goofy element to the song, and the goofy costumes complemented it. But we’ll take any help we can get, so in with the new robes, and let the goofy trot up the aisle be the complement to the tune.

The next reading, from Luke 2:16, is a perfect follow-up to the shepherds’ run: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” Now the first-graders get to sing, as the shepherds and angels combine for “The Friendly Beasts.”

He brought the heck out of that frankincense.Next come the kings – the part Matthew always wanted, and got. The reading is even from the Gospel for which he was named, Matthew 2:1-2 – “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’”

This version of “We Three Kings” has a sort of whimsical, to-and-fro organ intro, which is also the interlude between each verse. It starts out, and the star enters the center aisle. No, that’s not me being cocky about Matthew; no one kid was a star, but one played THE star – a fourth-grader dressed all in black, holding a big, golden, glittery star overhead, mounted on a long black pole. The star walks about five pews into the nave, then stops. At last Thursday night’s performance, we were sitting in the fifth pew, so this year’s star stopped right next to us, and we got a close view of the ENORMOUS grin on her face – I swear, no other child could possibly have been that happy to be playing their role that night, and her happiness was infectious. She stood and grinned while the kings began the opening verse as a trio – “We three kings of Orient are…” from the door to the narthex, then started happily up the aisle to her destination – right behind the manger, holding that star up high and bright.

Each king then steps forward to the same spot, gut-checking himself for his solo. The first one carries gold up the aisle, singing as he walks. Then there’s the musical interlude and the sung refrain, “Oh, oh, star of wonder…” while the next king steps into place. This year, it was Matthew, and he sang his heart out as he carried that frankincense up the aisle. Then the interlude and refrain, followed by the third and final king – Mr. Myrrh. Each king stops in front of the manger, kneels to present his gift, and remains there until the end, kneeling with his back to the audience – a physically difficult differentiator for the royal fourth-graders.

a_IMG_1365We then skip the readings for another two songs, and the next segment is a little different from most pageants. If you’re not familiar with our particular canon, you might wonder why there are a bunch of oddly dressed children walking up the aisle as the choir sings, “O Come, Little Children.” This is the collective role relegated to the second-graders, and they represent the children of the world. No, they weren’t mentioned in Scripture, but they’re an interesting way to handle the challenge of having an entire grade otherwise not involved in the Pageant.

Each child chooses a foreign country, and is granted leave to dress as a citizen of that country would dress. Representing a contingency of children of the world, they walk up the aisle two-by-two, and take their place on the chancel steps. I’m happy to report there was no overt racism in this year’s costume selections.

Nothing says Christmas like a boomerang....It’s always exciting to see how the children dress; we typically see kimonos, ponchos, berets, kilts, martial arts gis, furry-hooded coats, and lots of soccer jerseys. It’s all good. When Christopher was in second grade, he wanted to go as a Guatemalan child, which required a little Googling on our part. Matthew went as an Australian child. Again, all good, and all fun. The children of the world take their place, then sing, “What Shall I Give?” before the final reader steps into the pulpit.

The last segment comes from John 1:14 – “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” You can feel the excitement mounting as every child from every grade joins in, nearly blasting the roof off as they sing their final number, “He Is Born/Il Est Ne.” Yes, they sing it in English and French, and no, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard about 200 southern kids slaughtering the French dialect: “Eel ay nay, luh duhveen awnfawnt.” At once cringe-worthy and beautiful.

The final note rings out, and everything is silent for a split second before the rector steps forward, turns to face the congregation, and says, “I think they deserve a round of applause, don’t you?” That’s when the place just explodes with proud, happy parents, standing to show their appreciation for another great gift from their kids. There’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, but the rector somehow manages to get control again, and asks everyone to bow their heads for a brief prayer before performers and audience alike sing the recessional. I’m sure you know what it is. We get through all four verses – twice – before the final performer has exited via the narthex doors at the back. That’s a lot of joy to the world.

So there you have it. This is what I’ve been thinking about for seven years/eight seasons. This Pageant has impressed me from the first time I saw it. It tells a terrific version of a wonderful story, and I think it can be uplifting to those who believe and disbelieve that story alike. To have it told by a large group of enthusiastic kids, only intensifies the feeling of awe. I challenge anyone to watch such a Pageant and not be moved. If you want, you can join me next year – I’m sure to be watching the livestream.

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Christmas, Family, Holidays, Parenting, The Kids | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Living the dream

This weekend, we drove up to Culpeper, Virginia, to see someone who wasn’t there. She’s rarely there, even though she can barely move, and although others insist they’ve seen her, I believe she hasn’t been there in quite a while.

I’m talking about my mother, who’s in late Parkinson’s and in the throes of dementia. She and my dad still live in their own house, but they have around-the-clock in-home care for her. And I’m not sure she even knows where she is. She’s confined to a wheelchair, and can barely hold onto a fork or cup to feed herself, but in her mind, she goes everywhere and does everything. That’s probably a mercy. When she speaks, she tells us of going places – from walking out onto their deck, to driving to work, to going to see an old friend – or she asks Dad to take her home from whatever event she thinks she’s attending.

The hallucinations can be uplifting or heartbreaking. She might look at an empty spot on the floor, smile, and say, “Hi, Kitty!” Or she might get agitated because she thinks her mother – who passed away 31 years ago – just walked down the hall, and is calling for her. She has imagined a Frenchman living in a bathtub in their yard, a white dog that walks in through a hole in the wall where she’s certain the contractors forgot to put the last piece of plywood when they built the house, and a strange woman she’s certain is there to have an affair with my dad.

In some ways, the world is her oyster – she can go anywhere and do anything – but in other ways, she’s a prisoner to whatever strange whims or chemical reactions take place inside her brain, and outside her control. But wherever she is, she’s clearly not there with us. We can’t tell if this is Parkinson’s dementia or the side effect of her Sinemet, which is the double-edged sword of this disease – could be the disease causing a problem, or it could be the medication she has to take for the disease.

Then again, it could be a natural progression of old age and senility. It happened to my grandmother, who spent her later years staring out the living room window and telling us “those men” were back, digging up the trees at the end of our lot. She used to send me out into the front yard, yelling toward the road to leave those trees alone, dammit. That used to do the trick, too – Nanny would be satisfied, and the hallucination would be over. (As would my reputation with the neighbors.)

With Mom, there’s no such solution. Nothing will pull her back, whether we play along or try to tell her the truth. That can make things tough when the hallucination is that Dad is cheating on her, or that Kim and I are getting a divorce – no amount of arguing can convince her otherwise. So I’m in favor of letting her stay in whatever reality she’s created. On a recent visit, she asked me if I’d seen my parents lately. I have no idea who she thought I was, but what would have been the point of correcting her? That would only embarrass her or make her confrontational. I still remember my older brother George sitting next to her when she asked me that – he looked at me, grinned, and said, “Yeah, Dan, have you?” All I could say was, “No, I haven’t seen my mom in a long time.”

Others might think that’s cruel, or that we’re having a laugh at her expense, but they would be wrong. George wasn’t grinning at Mom, he was grinning at my discomfort, damn him. And I wasn’t trying to be smarmy with an ironic answer, I was trying simply to placate her. Just like Saturday night, when she asked me, “Where’s Nanny?” What good would it do to tell her Nanny’d been dead for 31 years? I just said she’d been gone for a while. When Mom asked me where she went, I answered honestly when I told her I don’t know. Of course, if she had continued to press, I’m not sure what would have happened, but she didn’t. She was off on another journey, and like her, I was wondering where my mother had gone.

There’s one exception to this rule – I want to identify myself. When we arrived Saturday, I walked up to her and said, “Hi, Mom!” She looked at me in confusion and answered, “Hi…George.” Years ago, it would have meant nothing for her to get the wrong name; she had eight kids, and was constantly calling us by each others’ names. But she knew who we were, regardless. Not so this time; I could see in her eyes that she didn’t know me, and resorted to giving me an identity she’s familiar with. But I wanted her to know who I was, especially if we were going to have any shot at conversation that night, so I told her, “Actually, it’s Dan. George will be here tomorrow.”

Not that it mattered, because other than asking me where Nanny was, we had no other conversation. I talked to my dad and sister a little, but Mom sat and stared at me, trying to work out why this guy was sitting there in front of her, talking about God knows what. She made a couple attempts to converse with my dad and sister, but only gibberish came out – that’s the newest symptom, and so far the hardest one to witness. She’ll try to say something, but will only babble, having no idea herself what she’s trying to say.

A couple of good things happened while we were there, though. We’d brought our new shih tzu puppy along for the trip, and finally showed him to Mom on Sunday. (I was concerned Saturday evening that his sudden appearance might confuse her.) I brought him into the house in his carrier, and held it up for her to see. She peered inside, but I couldn’t tell if she recognized anything in that fluffy Rorschach test. I asked her if she wanted to pet him, and she croaked out a barely legible, “Yeah.” So I took him out of the carrier and held him up in front of her face. She reached up tentatively, and stroked his soft long hair. During that moment, Rocky was as still as I’ve ever seen him – normally, he’s a wiggly bundle of energy, squirming, licking, and nipping playfully. But while she did her best to pet him, he stayed still and let her grip his leg. I think he could sense that she’s ill, and it was a touching connection to see. She clearly enjoyed holding his leg and stroking his fur, and he was fine with it.

On Sunday, George was picking on Matthew and Christopher for being so engulfed in their electronics. My parents’ basement is a treasure trove of old, broken toys, and George told Matthew he’d found something down there for Matthew to look at. It was my younger brother Bryan’s old Mr. Machine toy, barely functional after 40 years. George had fun showing it to Matthew and telling him that’s what kids used to have to play with instead of electronics. Matthew’s too old for a wind-up toy like that, but he was fascinated with the idea that it was once fun for somebody. I explained to him that it once ran faster, and whistled an actual tune instead of giving out the pathetic toots it was producing in its old age. He devoted a few minutes to trying to make it work again, winding the key and giving it a push to see if a forced start was all it needed.

While he was doing that, I happened to glance at Mom, and saw something wonderful – a beatific smile on her face as she watched Matthew “playing with” Mr. Machine. I realized he looks a lot like Bryan did when he was a little boy, and figured in her mind, she was back in her youth, watching Bryan play with his favorite toy. And it made her happy. I haven’t seen true happiness on her face in at least five years – only pain, fear, confusion, and/or discouragement. But in that moment, she was in the happiest place on earth, watching her little boy again. George’s prank had brought serendipity.

A little while later, we collected our things to go, and I gave her a hug and kiss and wished her a Merry Christmas. She gurgled out the words “Merry Christmas” and looked at me as if I were the contractor who’d left a hole in her wall. We finished our good-byes with everyone else, and as we walked out the door, I was overcome with the feeling that I’d just seen her for the last time. That thought just descended on me with sudden clarity.

It may well be wrong; I’ve had morbid thoughts like that before, and they didn’t come true. But this one felt different. And if it’s right, it’s okay. She deserves to continue her journey, and to be whole again. Who knows? Maybe she’ll finally find Nanny.

Posted in Family | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel

You struck during last year’s holiday season. This year, you probably don’t even remember me. But I will remember you forever.

Maybe that’s too dramatic, in light of what you did. No one here was physically harmed. In fact, there were additional silver linings, but you don’t get to comfort yourself in that knowledge. I doubt you could, anyway, because I doubt you’ve felt any discomfort about it to begin with.

My discomfort began right after I pulled into the garage that night, and looked up to notice the mudroom door ajar. I had to start second-guessing myself at that moment, and in some ways, I haven’t stopped. The specific topic changes constantly, but not the doubts. And as I got out of the car, my hands shaking just a little, the first doubt was whether I had closed and locked the door after I’d walked out into the garage earlier that day.

I thought about it as I walked back out into the driveway, and up the incline to the curb, where I retrieved my garbage bin. I was still mulling it over as I rolled the bin into the garage, and up to its spot at the foot of the stairs leading out from the mudroom. I was about three feet from the door, wondering if maybe I was just spooking myself.

Surely no one had been in my house. Nor was someone hiding behind that slightly open door at that very moment, waiting in my mudroom to shoot me as I dared to walk into my own house. That couldn’t be. I must have been in a hurry when I’d left, and forgotten to lock the door – and, for that matter, to close it.

I was reaching to push the door further open when I remembered having left that morning and gotten a block or two away before turning around and coming back to make sure I had locked up the house. And I had. That door had been closed and locked tight. The thought hadn’t left my head before I was out of the garage and standing in the driveway, dialing 911 on my mobile phone as I stood in the strangely non-comforting glow of the Christmas lights strung over the garage door.

I’ll never know if you and your partners were still in the house at that point. We later found evidence that you vacated before you’d finished the job – as if something panicked you – but I have no idea if I was the one whose arrival caused the panic. It could have been the mail carrier pulling up, a salesperson ringing the doorbell, a dog barking in the neighborhood, or anything at all, really. Breaking and Entering is risky business, and I’m sure you weren’t willing to risk being caught inside. But the more I think about it, the more sure I become that you were here when I pulled in, and you simply ran out the back door you had kicked in earlier.

Regardless, I found myself in the driveway, texting my wife as I awaited the police. She had the boys at a lesson across town, and I needed to know if she’d been home that afternoon. She hadn’t, and of course she wanted to know why I had asked. She later confided that her gut just fell when she saw my question, and knew it meant something was wrong. I answered and let her know the door had been open, and we’d likely been robbed. Now all four of us were on pins and needles as I awaited the police.

Even after the police arrived and discovered the damaged door in back, I had to wait outside in the cold, answering awkward questions from passers-by and just wishing I had used the bathroom before driving home. The cops went storming in, but of course you were long gone, along with around $8000 worth of electronics, jewelry, and cash. I still had to wait outside until their CSI person arrived; she was busy that night with the other three homes you hit.

Once she arrived, she invited me into the house, but only if I promised to put my hands in my pockets, to keep myself from touching anything and accidentally removing fingerprints. I felt like I was the criminal. She asked me to look carefully and indicate what had been had been disrupted. That was a ridiculous question, because just about everything had. I walked through the mudroom into the living room, and my face must have fallen – the floor was littered with files, papers, and other flotsam from your mad dash to find anything valuable. The only present that had been under our tree – a $5 gift from one of our sons to the other – lay on the floor in front of the tree, a strip of its wrapping paper ripped off so you could make sure it hadn’t been valuable enough to steal.

All of the kitchen drawers were open, their contents strewn about. The sunroom was a mess of splinters from where you’d kicked the deadbolt between the two French doors. The cats were nowhere to be seen, probably cowering underneath the recliner in the office, which was another mess of papers and various items deemed worthless. But the worst was the master bedroom, where you’d emptied the drawers and absolutely ransacked the place. This included the walk-in closet, where you’d pulled every box and container off the shelves, including the one preserving my wife’s wedding veil. Her jewelry box was gone, but you’d thoughtfully left behind some of the worthless costume jewelry that had sat on top of the gold. Gone with it were our class rings, her pendant with the boys’ baby pictures, several family heirlooms, and two ribbons with the parent pins we’d received every time one of the boys had earned a new Scout rank.

Gone from the other rooms were handheld game systems, laptops, Kindles, a tablet, a camera, an iPod, the boys’ XBOX, multiple game cartridges, lots of other crap, and every vestige of security we’d ever felt. It came out in the final hearing that you’d done this for drug money; you violated us for a high. I didn’t know this yet as I returned outside to wait while the CSI cop dusted for prints; all I knew is we’d been violated.

You didn’t just rifle through my wife’s underwear, you rifled through her self-esteem.
You didn’t just throw her wedding veil on the floor, you threw her sense of well-being in the dirt.
You didn’t just take my sons’ favorite games, you took their feeling of being safe in their own home.

A judge eventually ordered you to pay restitution, but that means nothing. There are some things you’ll never be able to repay or restore. Every time we leave our house, we worry. When my wife is alone here, she’s nervous. That will probably never end. And of course, we’ll never recover the sentimental value of the things you took. Nor will we recover the cost of adopting a high-maintenance dog who barks at every little thing – exactly why we needed him, but annoying, nonetheless. You cost us far more than those restitution figures indicate. You violated and hurt us, and you will never know, damn you.

Damn you for thinking you had the right to enter our home uninvited, and to take what was ours.
Damn you for making my family sad.
Damn you for making my family scared.
Damn you for putting us on display.
Damn my neighbors who wandered over to check on us, then stayed in our driveway and cut up like they were at a party.
Damn the neighbor who thought she saw suspicious activity that day, but didn’t call the cops.
Damn the German shepherd in the K-9 car, who barked viciously at me and my wife as I tried to comfort her after she pulled up.
Damn you for damaging our house.
Damn you for marring our holidays.
Damn you for skipping two hearings.
Damn your attorney for postponing one.
Damn me for continuing to show up, taking time off from work and paying parking fees just to look like a fool.
Damn the second judge for praising your grandfather for doing a good job raising you.
Damn the DA for giving you a plea bargain without insisting you name your accomplices.
Damn the third judge for agreeing to the plea bargain, and giving you a suspended sentence.
Damn him for showing more pity toward your grandparents than toward your victims.
Damn him for not giving me a chance to address you.
Damn him for ordering you to have no contact with your victims, forcing me to write this for closure.
Damn you for not paying any restitution so far.
Damn you for not paying in any way, other than the five nights you spent in jail waiting for that final hearing – and those, only because you’d already skipped bail once.

Damn you for being free, while we’re trapped inside our home and our heads, and will probably never feel free again.

Posted in Christmas, Family, Hassles, Politics, The Kids, The Wife | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Cold words, warm hearts

It’s official. My sons are more successful than I am. Three weeks ago, they made a song parody, and it’s had more than 49,000 views on YouTube. Granted, most of those have been me, clicking on it to see the latest count, but still…

I’m even more proud of them because it’s a parody of a song from the movie Frozen; a project like that took a significant amount of effort from them because, well, it’s from the movie Frozen.

Their mother forced all of us to watch it – something she probably regrets to this day. We weren’t very receptive to doing so, and we made our feelings known the whole time she was trying to enjoy the movie.

Also, we still use the songs to torture each other. Whenever someone says a phrase that matches one of the song titles from that movie, the others immediately break into that song. You might think that wouldn’t happen very often, but you’d be surprised how common the phrase “Let it go” is. It’s especially common in a house filled with grudge-holders – like ours…

“Remember that time you ate the last bit of Lucky Charms and put the box back in the pantry, you jerk?”

“That was five years ago; let it go….”

“Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore! Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door!”

I have to admit, with respect to that last quote, the singer rarely gets that far before having something thrown at him. Bonus points, though, if he can get all the way through, “The cold never bothered me, anyway!” before someone forcefully shuts his mouth.

So yeah, that one’s pretty common. Less common, however, is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” – it’s just not a phrase you hear uttered around here, so we have to take liberties with that one, and sing it anytime anyone asks anything that sounds like it: “Do you want to _____?”

That’s what happened when Chris was working a storefront popcorn booth with his Boy Scout troop, and one of them half-heartedly asked a potential customer, “Do you wanna buy some popcorn?” Inspiration hit, and he brought it home with him. Matthew jumped onboard, being a Cub Scout who also needs to sell popcorn.

They work well together.

They work well together.

For one thing, the question was worthy of parody, because they’re not supposed to ask it to begin with. Selling popcorn is a fundraiser, and they’re supposed to express it as such. They know their popcorn is pricey, and can’t compete as popcorn alone. What they are selling, is the opportunity to help Scouts pay for the cool things they do. The popcorn should be considered incidental, a gift the donor gets in return for their support. It’s like selling someone a $20,000 key chain, then giving them a small car as a gift.

So the question is supposed to be, “Would you like to support Scouts by buying some popcorn?” Not that that isn’t a particularly loaded question, but it’s more accurate in its representation of the transaction.

For that reason, “Do you wanna buy some popcorn?” was a funny question to them. Plus, it fit the meter of the song. So they got to thinking about other lyrics, and it wasn’t long before they had pulled in a certain columnist who lives under the same roof, to act as a consultant on their parody. Soon, we had a full verse of lyrics, and I told them I’d like to record the song for uploading.

That’s when Chris remembered he doesn’t like to sing in public. He’s more of a comedian, so we gave him a punchline to deliver in his own inimitable style, after Matthew had sung the parody in his. And a 52-second fundraising parody video was born. I uploaded it to YouTube, included the URLs for people to support them by ordering popcorn, and shared the link on Facebook, generating a couple hundred hits and a couple of sales.

The next day, I sent the link to Bryan Wendell, a nationally known Scouting blogger, and he asked if he could share it on his blog, Bryan on Scouting. I told him that would be fine, then watched as the hit count grew. That evening, the boys were thrilled to watch the count increase every time we refreshed the page.

Bryan’s blog has about 5000 subscribers, so I expected the views to get to maybe 3000 or so. The next morning, it had surpassed 20,000 – and the boys were ecstatic. Of course, most of the people watching it were involved in Scouting, so they already had bought popcorn from their own sons.

By the time the video reached 48,000 views, the number of orders had increased by a whopping three, ensuring the boys would learn something I already knew from experience – someone can do something creative and/or funny, and people might like it, but it doesn’t mean people will buy whatever that someone is selling. Still they’ve managed to sell more popcorn than I have books. But the boys enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, and I managed to shield them from the other downside of receiving a lot of attention online – haters.

Because the trolls came out in force. That second day, I was shocked to read the comments and see that some viewers had posted hateful comments about the boys. I tried to remember the Scout Law – a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent – but it’s hard to maintain that level of civility when someone has written vile things about your young sons. Fortunately, despite my lack of YouTube posting and moderating experience, I figured out how to delete readers’ comments.

One thing that can’t be deleted, is the “Dislike” counter. Why is it even there? Does it serve any practical purpose? Why should anyone care if some random troll out there claims to dislike a video? One commenter alluded to this – and to the mean voice behind the door in the video, telling the Cub Scout to go away – with this show of solidarity: “The people clicking Dislike are the same ones who would chase them away.”

"Take that, kid!"

“Take that, kid!”

An indignant troll saw that and said, “No, I clicked Dislke because I didn’t like it.” Fine, then. Don’t like it; nobody’s forbidding you from feeling that way. But don’t actively Dislike it! These are kids; if you really don’t like something they’ve done, the best way to provide feedback without causing undue hurt feelings, is to focus on something constructive. Don’t feel like going to that trouble? Then just. Move. On.

Look, I know the option is there to rate something, but that doesn’t mean we have to do so. Some opinions simply aren’t vital. If someone doesn’t like my kids’ video, that’s fine, but why tell them that? Why not just ignore it, move along, and forget it? If that person were facing my kids in person, you know they wouldn’t dare say to their faces, “Hey, I don’t like your video.”

Or would they? Surely they wouldn’t tell a kid in person that they dislike something the kid just worked hard to create, would they? If they would, I hope they stay off social media, and instead focus on the search for their lost heart.

Obviously, no Bain Waves reader would do such a thing. In fact, let’s be honest – after eight months of silence, any given Bain Waves reader is probably thinking, “Do I know this guy, let alone his kids?”

But if you remember me, and you’re up for it, then here’s your chance to further my shame. Make my sons even more successful than I’ve been, and order some popcorn! Please?

[Warning: Here’s where I get solicitous; there is no more fun to be had, but I’ll be grateful if you keep reading.]

Most of the money goes toward the boys’ activities, so their Pack and Troop can do fun things like taking them to Charleston, SC to spend a weekend onboard the USS Yorktown; providing them with Pinewood Derby kits, so they can carve and paint a car to race against their friends’ cars; paying for them to go to summer camp and work on merit badges that translate into lifelong skills; or even helping them earn scholarships (Matthew is about $200 shy of triggering one that will earn more money each year for the next nine years).

I’m not one to ignore the elephant in the blog; yes, I know there are some politics at play in any transaction with Scouts. I think everyone knows where I stand, but if not, I’m happy to answer any questions or discuss this in an entry that isn’t focused on my kids. Tomorrow, maybe?

If you’ve read this far, thanks. If you want to help out, you can buy from Chris, the co-creator with a pop-up cameo at the end, by going to his page, or you can buy from Matthew, the singer, by going to his page, or heck, you can buy one item from each!

If you buy something, please let me know, and I’ll add your name to a drawing for one of my books.

And if you don’t buy something, that’s fine, too. Thanks for reading, and for watching their video. But if you don’t like it please just don’t tell them….

Posted in Family, Music, Parenting, The Kids, The Wife | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments