Tag Archives: punishment

The man with all the answers . . .

I am going to warn you in advance . . . this will be a bit of an angry post.

I’m going to start by saying the headline up there again . . . I’m not the man with all the answers, even though Tennessee Tuxedo may have said so.

It’s best to start with what was the original intent of my coming to the interwebs to write a blog and put thoughts to screen on a daily basis.  The only things I knew for sure were that I would try to be honest – or as honest as the information brewing in my brain – and that I’d take Saturday and Sunday off so that the weekends are reserved for my family.  My family – the new version of which I was thoroughly unprepared to face and angry to address.

I say unprepared.  Not unwilling.  Not Unable.  Unprepared.

In the last two weeks I’ve gotten a number of comments and emails about what I’ve written.  I’ll admit, with full honesty, that I’ve not always gotten it right.  I’ll admit, with horror and sincere apology if I’ve gotten my interpretation of facts incorrect.

Never, in the nigh on a year I’ve been writing, here, though, have I pretended to have all the answers.  On top of all that, I have never, ever, asked anyone to feel sorry for me.  Telling you that raising my four children is a privilege and an honor would be falling far short of the mark by hundreds of yards.

In the last couple weeks I’ve been criticized by others – most women, but some men – with the mistaken impression that I’m bemoaning my situation.  There’s two things wrong with that.  My situation, no matter how hard, is actually better than it was when my late wife was around.  While that’s a truth it’s a hard truth to face.  The other is that it really doesn’t do any good to bemoan my situation.  It happened.  My wife, the beautiful woman who I spent more than half my life, is gone and there’s no bringing her back.

The funny thing is, the very things I thought would make people angry elicited no remarks.  When I say grief is unique to the individual; when I’ve say unless you’ve lost you don’t know so don’t say so; when I say a Dad can love and care and cook; when I say that I’m nota single parent but sole parent and that the phrase “single parent” has been commandeered by others implying there’s some sort of choice in the matter . . . none of those things seemed to rankle many people.  But the most random things did, like I was calling into question their ability to be a single parent.

There’s a contingent that seems to say parenting alone is fine.  You don’t need both parents, stop complaining.

I’m not, for the love of God.

But I’m going to upset all of you even more when I say . . . it is better to have both parents.  There’s a reason you have them.  Face it: you got to Mom for some things.  You go to Dad for others.  Can I do it?  Sure.  Is it easy?  NO!  The ones saying it is are kidding themselves or have never had a spouse for help.  It’s tremendously beneficial to have that other person – that calming personality – that you can bounce ideas off.  When my son had behavioral problems I would talk to my wife and she’d have ideas.  She’d talk to me and I’d have ideas.  That’s what it’s about, the give and take.  When you’re facing this alone you have to be the sole authority.

You have to act, even if you don’t know, like you know the answers.  Your kids want you to be calm and supportive and – let’s face it – immortal.  You shake off that mantle of immortality when they have their own kids and they begin to realize that you didn’t have all the answers.  It’s like Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.  Really, you’re making it up as you go, because like every family, every kid and every situation is different.

I applaud the single parents who make it look easy.  I try to make it look easy but admit that it’s not.

I started writing because after the events of the day: breakfast and getting the kids to school; work for 8-9 hours; home and dinner, bedtime, planning tomorrow, making lunches and breakfast . . . I sit on the couch and it’s deadly quiet.  The time of the night when I talked to my wife is now silent.  I look at the bed when I go up and it’s a lengthy expanse.  There’s a contingent that thinks I need anybody to be there to fill the void.  They’re wrong.  My kids had my wife for too short a time, but they had her for awhile.  That’s a good thing.  I write about our love story, our problems, and it makes me happy to remember her.

But I don’t write about it being easy.  This is about why it’s hard . . . for me.  If it helps others, I’m thrilled.  If it offends you, it shouldn’t.  It’s not about your ability to parent.  It’s about mine.

Sugary Sweetness is Sour

The three culprits

Standing On Higher Ground by the Alan Parsons Project from the LP: Gaudi

I got home tonight in a fairly decent mood.  I was rushing a bit, picking up a guitar from the shop that had needed some fret work done.  All the years of playing “Dot,” a bright 7-Up green Clapton Stratocaster on stage took a physical toll on its frets and it was having issues.  The music store down the road has a great shop and they did the work and it wasn’t too expensive, so I was happy.

Happy, that is, until I got home.

It started before I even entered the house.  The garage door wasn’t even open all the way and I saw the inside door, leading into the dining room hallway, opening.  Noah’s small frame was peeking between the crack.  He’s begun doing only this because, driving an SUV, you can’t see the little guy once you get a certain distance into the garage.  On more than one occasion I have slammed on the brakes worried I might hit him.  Many times I see this as his happy, contented greeting that his Dad’s finally home.  Not today.

If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about next: There’s a look, a sort of pallor that your kids seem to take on when they are struggling with telling you something.  In this case, it was really just the beginning.

He started with tattling on his brother.  Now, as shy and abashedly quiet as I was as a kid, you’d think this wouldn’t bother me, but my older brother taught me that at a certain point in your life you stop tattling and act with some honor.  I’ve been working with Noah on this for some time; knowing when you should tell – to help or save someone from injury, what have you – and when you should just keep quiet as it’s none of your business.  This time it was one of the latter.
“Sam’s up in his room, he’s in trouble,” was the greeting I got.  I hadn’t even pulled my laptop case out of the car.
“He said a bad word.”

At this point I saw Abbi’s hand reach around the door and slap him in the back of the head.
“I took care of this, Noah.  It’s not any of your business!”
Abbi saw the query on my face and simply said “they’ve all been absolutely NUTS today.  I want to kill them all!”

Bear in mind, that I have to force myself not to chuckle or smile when she says these things because at the point I get home, at most, she’s spent 3 hours with the kids.  Not all day, 3 hours.  Even Monday, Memorial Day, when she was supposed to watch them, she ended up after 3-4 hours at her aunt’s house and didn’t have to really care for them.  So to hear this after just a couple hours I have to bite my lip.  Just a little.

But getting inside, it was clear: they’d gone absolutely bonkers.  In just a couple short hours, every empty storage bin, every blanket, and 90% of their video game boxes were scattered all over the upper landing and open hallway to their bedroom.  Sam had lost his  mind, he really had.  He said some bad word, which must have been particularly atrocious because Abbi wouldn’t even tell me what it was.  He was talking at 1,000 miles an hour, which makes his very slight stutter become a pronounced stutter.  When Noah tried to say what he’d done, he reached over, while I’m trying to get out of everyone what  happened, and punches his brother, with a large amount of force, in the arm.  The tears start, the screaming begins, Abbi goes into her room . . . and it’s welcome home, Dad.

“What the hell is wrong with you guys?!
Hannah volunteered the problem: “At EDP today they gave us all lemonade.”
“It was the sort of packaged lemonade.”
“And cookies,” added Noah.  I groaned.
“And a blueberry Muffin!” added Sam, seemingly proud of the massive crack-like reaction he’d had to the corn syrup and preservatives.

Bear in mind, by this point, I haven’t even boiled the noodles for dinner.  Given my trip to the music store (which I now sincerely regretted) I had bought the pre-packaged tortellini and pesto and was about to boil them.  In the middle of finally riding the back end of the wave of insanity Noah comes up and says “I should probably tell you about recess today, Dad.”

I literally dropped the package of ravioli on the counter.

“This other kid cut in front of me in line and I told him he shouldn’t.  It was his fault and it just got out of control then.”

I couldn’t help it.  I’m not sure if the other stuff hadn’t happened if I’d have reacted any better, but I lost it.  I really did, and I’m not proud of it, but I did.
Now what did you do?!”
“I have a slip you have to sign.  It’s not a yellow slip, though!  It’s just a note to the teacher.”
“Do you not get what’s going on here?!  Do you really not understand that every . . . single . . . slip is just leading to your ultimate goal of being suspended or kicked out?!  Did having this kid in front of you really slow down your getting onto the playground?!”
“In fact, you ended up staying out of recess, didn’t you?!  For the love of God, Noah, is it really worth it?!  Because I don’t get it.  Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s OK just to let the guy in front of you.  It’s not worth it.  Swallow your damn pride, eat the words, and once . . . just once . . . let the other kid be the freaking idiot instead of you huh?!”

It’s hard.  The school keeps pushing that Noah’s in trouble because of his Mom dying.  The doctors tell me it’s not.  In fact, he’s had problems with his temper since kindergarten.  I’ve said it before: Andrea had the same problems controlling temper and impulses.  She somehow mastered them, but never told me what the hell she did.  She doesn’t have to face the legacy of her genetics, I do.  And I have no idea what I’m doing, not with this.

I told Noah we’d have to get him back into counselling and he may even have to go to another school, while his sister and brother go to this one.  He started to cry.

After I got the noodles out and started to drain them, I sat at the table and went through the mail.  Noah sat next to me and looked up at me:
“Dad . . . will those counselors be like the one I had to see at the school?”

I could see his eyes a little watery.  I knew why he was worried.  In March, after the anniversary of Andrea’s death, the school had “grief counselors” on-hand because another school Mom had passed away.  Without asking or permission from me, they sent Noah and Sam to the counselor who, upon recounting by the boys, made them recall, over and over again, how their Mom died, when she died, what they went through, why the felt that way . . . even today they’re nowhere near as recovered as they had been before the so-called counseling.  Noah was fearful I was going to put him through all that again.

“No, buddy.  Those counselors didn’t do this right.  None of this is about your Mom, I know that.”
It’s not, either.  Every time someone talks to Noah they ask him if he misses his Mom . . . then asks if he’s upset and that’s why he acted out.  What’s he going to say?  “No, I don’t miss her, yes I like acting out?”

Hannah kept trying through the rest of the night to say silly or goofy things.  I was short, snappy, and suddenly exhausted from it all.  We made it to the regular nightly routine, but I’m not sure I really did them much good for the night.  The sugar and sweetners and corn syrup made Sam absolutely insane.  Hannah snapped and continued to yell at both her brothers, and Abbi couldn’t handle it and was getting shorter with them than I was – she is her mother’s daughter.

So often we project what we think is or should be happening or being felt by kids.  They’re smarter than we give them credit for, they really are.  Noah has a temper he wants to control but needs the tools.  But rather than helping him with them, so many want simple answers.  He’s sad and grieving, so that must be it.  And the others, I just don’t think the rest of the world gets it.  99% of people are able to eat all this stuff with no problems.  They just don’t see that mine can’t.  Give it to them . . . and then you get the evening I just had.

It may be sugary sweetness, but it just turns the whole day sour.

A Question of Balance

It’s been stormy in my house.  No, it’s not the rain outside, though that was there, but the events of the last couple weeks have weighed on me and just beat me down.  I’m not hitting my stride and falling off balance.

I have been very big in talking about discipline and stating for the record that I have to have follow-through on my demands.  I don’t just say these things, I believe and try to practice them.  Like most normal parents, though, I understand that the frustration, patience and emotional steel needed to endure the punishments is more necessary from the parent than from the child.  My kids are particularly difficult examples.

Our home situation isn’t the only reason.  I’m not big on letting myself or the kids use the example of losing my wife, Andrea, as the reason for misbehavior or acting out.  Still, the fact remains that as hard as it is for me to care for four kids on my own I can only imagine what it must be to be one of those four children with one less parent.  Whatever faults Andrea may have had, she absolutely loved and adored our kids.  Sometimes it was to my detriment.  Andrea didn’t like disciplining them, in fact she was horrible at it until the last few years of her life.  I grew to be a bit resentful of her, this amazing and beautiful woman, because she’d get frustrated with their behavior, call me at work – where I could do absolutely NO good – and have me be the heavy.  When that didn’t work I had to mete out the punishments when I walked in the door.  The kids grew to flinch and dread my walking in the door.  I never thought it was fair that she was able to have fun and get frustrated yet I had to be the one to dole out those criticisms, usher them to the dinner table, get them showered and cleaned, then force bedtime while their Mom would say “can’t they stay up just a little?  We haven’t had more than an hour or two together as a family” and she becomes the white knight while I’m the black.

Let me reiterate – I hated that scenario.  I saw my children, whom I loved so much, avoiding spending time with me and literally asking “so, Dad, when do you go to work?”  Not as a question but a hope that they get rid of me for the rest of the day.  I finally had to have a talk with Andrea that it wasn’t healthy that she got to be so loved and they were starting to despise me.  Finally, she agreed and started taking the punishments into her hands and I got to come home without being the punisher.  I tucked them in, said prayers, and read to them, like every other night, and we started to finally hit our stride.

So when they lost their Mom I lost the balance all over again.  As a result, I have to look at punishments and what’s egregious and what’s simply worth letting slide.

With my middle daughter, Hannah, it’s hard.  The boys I can take away privileges, games, TV, etc., and they respond.  Noah has a harder time, but stay home all day and do nothing but read the books you have, not new ones or library books, and you get bored very fast and don’t want to visit that world again.  When he got suspended for a day after kicking another boy I wanted to make sure the punishment sunk in.  He loves being helpful, so when they suggested it be in-school kind of suspension it made no sense.  Noah likes to clean up and help the teachers and be the class’ helper.  I understand how it feels to be a bit of an outsider, the one who doesn’t fit the grain of the wood.  he’s the knot in the pine desk, not the smooth grain that tries to go around it.  So when he was suspended, he had to stay home and we scheduled his sister’s oral surgery so he’d have no attention, no help, no focus.  Just books and a couch cushion to sit on.  Not sure if it worked, but it’s all I can muster.

Hannah, to continue the point, doesn’t respond to it.  When she hadn’t done her chores and I took away the privileges she was good for about 3 days and then went back.  Take them away again and she could care less.  She gets up, puts away 2 plates, then slinks off upstairs to her room or hides in the office so I can’t see her.  As I’m doing laundry or making lunches I can’t tell if she’s doing her homework . . . until I get the reports showing she hasn’t turned it in again.  Her latest stint is because I took them out of school for the anniversary of Andrea’s death – at leas that’s her explanation.  In case you haven’t seen, we’re not past a month beyond that anniversary.  Even I would have a hard time justifying changing the grades back if we’re now a month beyond.  Hannah claims the assignments were changed while we were gone and didn’t know, which may be, but then she never tried to find out.  I gave her a deadline and told her the one thing she desperately wanted – to see the Black Keys in concert with her sister and I next Friday – was the goal.  No missed assignments; no zeros and she goes, spends the night with us, and then all is right with the world.

Last night was it.  I even – violating my own credo – gave her a 1-day extension.  She’s joined a school play, had a lot on her plate, and told her that she had to talk to the teacher today.  
“She scares me,” was the excuse.
“No she doesn’t, if she was mean she wouldn’t care and wouldn’t be working with you to fix this.  She’d just give you and “F”, which you very well might deserve!”
“But she scares me.”
“You’re not scared, you’re embarrassed and don’t want to admit to her or me you don’t want to face this.  Bigger issues, Hannah, you cannot fail 7th grade!”

That’s the deal we made.  Fix it, concert’s a go.  Not fix it you’re staying with your Aunt along with your brothers.  On top of that, if she fails 7th grade, she’s moving to the public school.  I informed her already that I won’t pay for the same grade twice.

Tonight after picking her and Sam up from play practice her mouth ran a million miles an hour.
I didn’t have time to talk with her and the class was busy and we didn’t have study time and the next bell had rung and I didn’t see her and I don’t know if she was still there and the whole thing was hard and there’s no possible way I could have talked with her during class and we had a quiz and . . . ”
“. . . I had to memorize my lines for the play.”

That’s  when I lost it.
“The play!!!  You should have blown off the play.  You should have been late for rehearsal.  You should have been late to your next class or stayed outside her classroom before going to rehearsal so you could fix this.  That was the deal.  The play isn’t what’s important, Hannah.  You need to see your priorities here!”

I knew what was coming next: “so I can’t go to the concert??”
“What do you think?!”

She started to get huffy on the car ride home.
“Don’t get mad at me, Hannah, I didn’t do this.  I gave you a day more than I should have!”
“I know,” was her answer, “I know.  I did this, it’s my fault.”

I reminded her that taking 3rd grade again probably wouldn’t have affected her, but if she fails 7th . . . she may not even get into college.  I stared at her with my mouth agape.

Her sister was depressed.  She was secretly happy she might get a night with her Dad – the night before the prom – but she also wanted Hannah to come.  They had this connection together and they could relate.  Like sisters, not like older sister caring for her siblings.

But nothing was getting through.  I had spoken with Hannah’s aunt and said “she’s got a hail Mary I’m allowing her today to try and fix it.”  My response when I got home was to text her saying “well . . . Hannah fumbled.”

I wanted this.  I wanted the night with my girls.  I wanted to see a show – maybe not my favorite, but who cares? – and eat dinner, go to the hotel, then come home and watch my little girl transform into a grown up for prom.  I wanted to see my little girls together again and then one of them had to ruin it.

The balance was broken again.  It’s so far off-kilter at this point I’m not sure I can bring it back, but this is the only way.  I cave in now nothing will ever sink in.

Like I said, punishment is often harder on the parents.

In From the Storm

In from the Storm by Jimi Hendrix from the LP First Rays of the New Rising Sun

The projects, near completion, that blew in the storm
I was a storm of fury this evening.  It wasn’t work stress.  I use my computer to write during my train ride to and from work.  I had a script that my boss made much better after his review.

But getting home started the lightning and thunder swirling.  The boys, the two masters of mayhem that they are, had procrastinated in a form that would make even their middle sister proud.  The twins had a project that they’d needed to finish for more than a couple weeks.  Now, I understand, I’m the Dad, they’re 9, just as much blame to lie on my shoulders.  That’s what makes me even angrier.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been constantly reminding them of the fact that they had to do the project, telling them where to get the information, allowing them to use my computer (a cardinal sin, usually) and informing them that yes, we do have poster boards here in the house!  In spite of all that, today, knee deep in it all, they inform me that they still have most of their project to complete.  They haven’t printed their pictures.  They did an awful job of writing their fact sheets so that you couldn’t read them.  Nothing was the way it should have been.  The clouds were rolling in.

At 2:30 in the afternoon the school calls and says Noah has a slight temperature: 99 degrees.  Nothing horrific, and if he’d been running crazy around the school quad – which I’ll lay odds happened – he would be that warm.  He complained his throat was scratchy, which wouldn’t have happened if he’d taken his allergy medicine in the morning.To make matters worse, when I got home from work, after taking the light rail train, they were all sitting on the couch, watching some God-awful Nickelodeon show.  Not even a good Nickelodeon, which is like finding a needle in a stack of needles anyway.  This after the insanity of trying to get them into their projects.  I had pushed their older sister to help them because I didn’t want to just come home and spend all night working on these things.  But all they’d managed was the fact sheet and their sister, Abbi, was on the computer looking for more pictures of the things they needed.  They’d all abandoned her to doing the work for them.  I could see the fingers of lightning licking across the clouds in my head.

I immediately asked what in God’s name they were doing, as I put frozen pizzas – yes, I didn’t even have time to make my homemade pizza – in the oven.  It’s funny how you can watch all three heads, even their sister who wasn’t working on a project, jump in unison.
“Abbi’s helping us” was the response.
“No, you’ve conned her into doing it for you.  You can type and spell and know the computer better than most adults.  Get your butt in there and look for this crap yourself!”

As the pizzas cooked, I changed clothes.  As I opened the laundry room door to start a load of clothes I noticed the gigantic pile of clean clothes still in the room, spilling out of the baskets.  The boys’ chore is folding and putting away the laundry.  Hannah’s is the dishes.  Abbi has to watch them.  This entire week, though, has been laden with my coming home to find Abbi in her room on the computer or listening to music while her siblings run the house; the kitchen a gigantic mess; and Mount Saint Laundry growing by the foot each day.  It didn’t sit well with me.

I came downstairs and the one bright spot while the clouds began to rotate around into a funnel was that my middle child had actually unloaded and loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the kitchen counters.  She and I have a deal.  Any more missed assignments and: first, she doesn’t do her chores and gets another “zero” on an assignment she doesn’t get to go with her sister and I to see her favorite band “The Black Keys” a day before Abbi’s prom; second, if she  doesn’t pass her school work and get through 7th grade she’s not going back to the school.  None of her friends, no choir, no band, nothing.  She’s got to pass or she doesn’t get the crazy, expensive Catholic School education.

We ate dinner, admittedly late, and the boys had to keep working on their projects.  I spent, literally, 3 and a half minutes in Abbi’s room showing her something on the computer and the boys were screaming, Noah bawling, Sam standing looking like Sheriff Matt Dillon after shooting a gun-toting thief.

Here’s where the storm hit in earnest.  I blew, and I mean loud, screaming, hoarse voice afterwards – blew.  Instead of working the projects they’d started playing with Legos.  They were throwing them at each other, hard, angry at the other and making marks and angry bruises on each others’ arms.  My tirade was long enough that I watched Sam’s eyes get wider and wider as every angry word came out of my mouth.  It wasn’t pretty, nor nice, nor even right I suppose, but they started moving.  Quick.  Glue sticks were flying and I was furiously screaming at them to get moving and directing their work, like Leopold cranking the best out of a mediocre orchestra.

In the middle of this all, as I started to come down from the top of the funnel cloud, Hannah, the middle child, comes into the room in a panicked, shouting, crying mess; howling about the tests she has to make up and how she’s going to fail.  I’m not proud of this, but I looked at her and shouted:
“Really?  Right now, this is when you choose to make a ‘look at me’ scene about something you’ve never even told me?!”
Hannah looked at me incredulously, her eye lashes matted down with tears.
“I just . . . I know I didn’t get them and I’m going to fail and I’m not going to get to finish in my school and I don’t have the information and none of the teachers gave me anything and . . . ”
I stopped her mid-ramble.
“Have you taken the tests?”
“Have you missed the tests and gotten zeros?”
“No, but the teachers didn’t tell me about them because we were gone and . . . ”
STOP!  Have you taken them and have to re-take these now?”
“No, they’re the tests I have to make up for when we were gone and.  .  .”
“Then do you think now, in the middle of an angry tirade when your brothers did not complete their work and I’m in one of my worst moods ever, is the appropriate time to come to me with a panicked whining “look at me I don’t get any attention” moment?!”
“What does panicking about something you haven’t even done yet do?  Does it help the situation?!”
“When you’re standing here complaining about your tests – what did I see you doing when I got home?”
“Watching TV.”
“Reading “The Hunger Games.””
“So if you should have been studying so you don’t panic, why were you doing that?!”

Hannah left, her tirade backfiring on her and realizing that sympathy was not forthcoming when I was in the middle of a stormy mood.

The projects were completed.  The boys looked up to ask for Midnight Snack and stopped, knowing better.  They asked if I’d read Harry Potter and I just looked at them.
“Sorry.  No, it’s too late.”
“Beyond too late.  Almost two hours past your bedtime.”

I went into Hannah’s room and apologized for yelling at her.  I was coming in from the storm.  But I reinforced that her panic wasn’t doing anything but . . . well, making her panic.  Then she handed me her math chapter check and there were 3 blank spaces.
“Where are these assignments?!”
“I don’t know.  I looked for them.”
“You know our deal, right?  I mean, we haven’t been looking through your planner every moment because your grades had improved.  But ever since you started reading “Hunger Games” you’ve done nothing else.  If you can’t find these and get your grades, passing, I’m sure I can find a person to go to the Black Keys with us.”

I had troubles with all four prior to losing my wife, sure.  But then we were a united front.  I never raised my voice to the degree I did last night, but now I’ve done it for a second time.  I’m not trying to be my kids’ friend, I’m trying desperately to be their Dad.  I am trying to make sure they don’t fail.  I want them to be able to trace back to March 26th, 2011, and realize they lost something special, but they didn’t fail.  But nights like this make me think I’m slowly slipping off the stones; like I’m getting blown by the wind without a shelter from the tornado.

I hadn’t let up but a bit and they did an end-run around me anyway.  I wanted so desperately to come in from the storm, but it looks like I still need to get a little wet.

The Madman Across the…er River

Alright, it’s a stretch when trying to pry a title to fit a song, but hey.  I’m musical and more often than not the titles and lyrics give inspiration to what I am writing.  I say “madman” because I think sometimes my children see me that way, not as some crazed character out of a Jethro Tull record but as the guy who cannot control his flustered disarray when his kids come to him with more than a little insanity.

It doesnt’ help that in avoiding the crush of others’ grief around Andrea’s passing I took the kids out of town just two weeks before their Spring Break.  Now I have to find ways to get them watched as their school is a week off from everyone else’s.  On top of that, the school decides to spring half-days and inservice and “monthly minimum day” on me and I’m bouncing around spending more time looking for ways to get them picked up and cared for than actually making dinner or doing laundry.  Then there’s the insanity of home on top of it all.

The start of the latest bout of madness started when we got back.  I have already chronicled the need for others to reflect their grief onto me and the kids.  I won’t bore you with that again, if you want go back a couple days and you can read about it.  But this is the normal minutia of life that needles me and crawls under my skin like a splinter.  Hannah, my middle child, who I have a good relationship with, confounds me at times.  I am a middle child.  I know the trials and tribulations.  I try very hard not to favor one child over another.  It appears at times I give Abbi a wider berth, but it’s not true.  I just have to rely on her age and driver’s license more than the others.  If Hannah was 16 my life would be inordinately easier, but she’s also a different kid and a lot different personality.

Let me explain: Abbi has much of her mother’s personality.  That’s good on many fronts.  That’s bad on others.  Abbi, my oldest, is insanely responsible.  She likes the responsibility and has always been close to me.  She sits next to me on the couch, hugs me when she’s feeling bad and chastises me when I’m sick and refusing to go to the doctor.  But that same reliance breeds a bit of over-confidence.  Telling her sister to avoid some homework that is likely not getting turned in on time or saying she’ll watch the kids but leaving them to their own devices and going into her room to video chat or play “words with friends”.  The consequences lead to other things, like Hannah coming to my car in the middle of her homeroom in tears.

“I don’t have my math homework!  Abbi said not to bring it!”
“Didn’t you finish it?”
“Well, most of it.”
“What did I tell you to do?!”
“Finish my homework.”
“And what did you do?”
“What Abbi said.”
“So…who is your father in this house?  Who’s the parent.”
“You are.”
“And . . . who was right?”
“You, Dad.”

I had watched her do most of her homework, and she had a deal with me.  One more missed assignment and she’s not getting to go to a concert with her sister and I.  It’s the deal she made.  The one before: no basketball, soccer, nothing because she was failing classes due to the fact she wasn’t turning in homework.  Now, some of it she just didn’t do.  Others?  She’d done the work and wouldn’t turn it in!  I was flabbergasted.  How could you do the homework and not turn it in for the points?  I mean . . . sure, you may get some wrong, but some points are better than no points right?! 

Add Noah and Sam into the mix, having to see a “grief counselor” when they didn’t want or need one and I was starting to pull out my hair  (Which, with the short haircut I have is no small feat, let me tell you!)  Then there’s Abbi . . . my amazing oldest child still has issues that stem from the pieces of her mother that reside in her.  The need for perfection burns inside her to her detriment.  If she gets less than an “A” she’s upset.  Yet, the desire to procrastinate often overwhelms the desire to get that grade.  So when it all comes to a head and she cannot get it done she comes to me in a panic.  The thing is, I am doing the best I can, really I am, but I’m a guy.  I’m not a girl.  There’s not much estrogen pulsing around in my veins, at least I don’t think there is.   (OK, I have some pounds to lose, but I don’t think I’ve gained enough I have man boobs or anything, so let’s leave the mental imagery there, OK?)  So the balance I have to strike between the need to just listen and be comforting – what a girl her age needs quite often in her hormonal and confused state – is often fighting with my male tendency to want to fix things.  I want to pick her up, tell her what she needs to do and show her where the fault in her system lies.

Some days, though, I get that wrong.  It drives me . . . well . . . MAD!  I will tell her what I think her options are and she gets mad and frustrated.  She starts – much like her mother – to push my buttons in a way only Andrea could, yelling at me and saying the things that she knows full well make my blood boil.  The difference here, and the advantage I have, I suppose, is I’m not her equal.  I’m her Dad, and I can force my experience on her when it’s for her own good.  I often mistakenly tell her “If you’d taken the last two days to do this work you wouldn’t be in this predicament, would you?!”  That’s the absolute wrong thing to say when she’s hysterical and needing to calm down.

It’s the 2×4 method.  That’s what I call it: “tell me when you want ideas to help you” is what I tell her and her sister.  “If you don’t I’ll just assume you need me to be there and I will be.  Always.”

It works.  Last time she was in a panic.  I forced her, under duress (Oh, lots of duress) to go to sleep.  “You’re exhausted and you won’t do anything right.  You’ll read or write the same line over and over and over again and not understand what you’re doing.  Take a breath, sleep right now for 4 or 5 hours and then get up really early, drink some coffee, and finish.”

While she disagreed with the method, when I got up not long after her to cook breakfast she’d finished all the work.  it wasn’t perfect, and that’s what was bugging her.  That’s her mother in her. 

But sometimes you cannot be perfect, the message that all four of them are getting from me.  Sometimes you’re not even close to the border of sanity.  Sometimes you’re the madman across the water, but that’s OK.  Because perfection is overrated.  It’s the mistakes, the little things, the sharp and flat notes in the song that give it emotion and humanity.  If all your life you know perfection you never know reality.  And sometimes, there’s a method in the madness.

Leave the World a Bit Better…

Lonely Boy by The Black Keys from their LP El Camino

Those Damn Cookies I Had to Make!

I was in a mad dash scramble tonight from the moment I entered the door. It also came after a day when one interview cancelled and I was running around crazy, so my mood had not been particularly pleasant. I hadn’t even taken my coat off and standing above me, looking through the banister, was Sam hollering “can we go to the school’s International Passport night? We get a free dress pass tomorrow if we do!”

If I hadn’t needed to eliminate a load of wash for the evening I wouldn’t have even considered it. On top of scrambling to fry a bunch of burgers and cook fries for dinner, I had to head to the grocery store to get the ingredients for a recipe of Persian cookies that I’d volunteered to make for “International Meal” at Hannah’s class tomorrow. I stood there, wool P-coat still around my shoulders, looking into the kitchen, out the front door, and still hadn’t put my briefcase down from the work day. You know what happened next, I was doomed.

But the stress didn’t end. First, Hannah informs me that there are more than 30 kids in her class alone, therefore I have to make 3 dozen cookies. I’m running around realizing I don’t have hamburger buns. The kids are all shouting that they want to go because it starts at 6:30 and I haven’t even half finished with the dinner yet . . . and I suddenly realize the “lesson” I’ve been trying to teach Hannah about not doing her chores has backfired. Not only is there no room at the table, the entire kitchen is a mess. The more I clean the angrier I get, and I was already angry.

Little did I know that the dreaded and well-known Manoucheri curse was going to rear its ugly head soon.

We all went to the evening, running into parents I hadn’t seen and walking through the chaos of the gymnasium filled with maps, games, foods, all of it from around the world. It was a little bit of pride that took me when the kids had to put dots on where they were born and we had two separate states, neither of them California, and the people around looked like we’d just landed here in our shuttle craft from the Martian mother ship. (not the parent running the booth or the teachers, but there is a contingent and pervasive mentality that if you’re here in California why would you ever want to leave?) But seeing the map, the little dots on Keller/Ft. Worth, Texas and then Omaha, Nebraska, I didn’t just think about the fact they were born there, there’s a flash of memories that rush through your brain. You get overwhelmed with memories.

Noah is still processing the latest string of emotions that hit all of us, I think. He didn’t want to go to the International Night because he was worried he’d get lost in the mass of people and not be able to find me, a fear that he’s gotten in just the last couple months. A fear that I can only help him to face, but he’ll have to tackle it at some point and I can only help him get the tools, I can’t face it for him.
“Will you stay with me when we go to the tables?” he asked more pleading than anything else.
“Of course, Monkey, I’ll be right next to you. Don’t worry.”

It wasn’t painful, it was fairly easy and we saw friends who make us smile. I loaded everyone up, now hopped up on lemonade and sugar cookies and went to Safeway. I went in to get cookie ingredients and Noah got out and came along with me, leaving the other 3 kids in the car. He reached up, put his hand in mine, and quietly said “I love you, Daddy.”

It melted some of the stress.
“Love you too, Monkey. Very much.”

It was the drive home that was hard. Abbi nearly lost it. Yesterday I bought tickets to see the band “The Black Keys” during a presale for registered users of the band’s website, and since I’d gotten their latest album on presale for Abbi for her birthday they gave me a password to order tickets early. I’d gotten three, one for me and the girls, who love the band. On the way home, her friend had informed her, after her very short period of bliss, that the concert was on the same night as the Prom. The Prom which Santa had gotten a very expensive, very nice designer dress that was an insane amount of stress and difficulty for both me and the re-suited fat man!

“Maybe I’ll just skip the prom. Nobody’s going to ask me anyway, and I want to see the Black Keys!” was her response. I looked at her and had to say something.
“You know, I can’t say for certain that the Black Keys will be around in 20 years, but I can say that if you skip the prom, you’ll have to deal with that forever.”

Her response is one I’ve heard and told myself countless times. “I won’t get asked” or “I’m always second in everyone’s mind” or “I’m a good friend but they never think of me as a date” all things I don’t agree with, but what can I say? I was the same way. All I could say was how, even in my youth, when I was shy, quiet, lacking self-confidence, I asked a girl to the prom. I never took a date to Homecoming, Sweetheart, none of the other dances. I always went, but I never took a date. The Prom . . . prom was different.

You have to understand why this was such a big deal for me. I’ve recounted before how I couldn’t ask a girl out easily. I had paralyzing fear and shyness. I’d dial 6 numbers and never get to the 7th. I’d ask then panic wondering how I could have gotten myself into the situation. I think they were going out with me because they felt sorry for me. None of these things were true, at least I don’t think, but I thought them nonetheless. But I overcame that, just long enough, to ask a girl I had a crush on to the prom. I rented a tuxedo, talked with friends about what they were doing, and then asked, quite unsuccessfully, my father if I might drive the convertible to the dance. (I knew the answer, but hey, you gotta ask!) I may have been an outsider, so to speak, but even I asked a girl to the prom. Me, the geeky, lanky, shy boy. Abbi’s none of those things. She’s outgoing, happy, funny, and smart. One of the good things, I thought, of going to this public school was that she’d get to have a social life and interaction with boys, much as that bothers me as a Dad. She gets a taste of real life, to live her own John Hughes film.

The boys then asked the question that started the philosophical thinking in my head: “did you know mommy when you asked this girl to the dance, Daddy?” Of course, I didn’t. I lived in Nebraska, Andrea grew up in California, we were literally a world apart. I was in a small town she was in Sacramento, a large town trying to act small.
“What happened at that dance, Daddy?” I couldn’t lie. Sure, I got the courage to ask someone to the dance. Didn’t change that I was still shy, geeky, lanky, and not the most confident of people. Not the shining moment that I would have hoped, but I went. I asked someone, and good or bad memory (it’s not all bad, take it from me) I went.

Then they asked what I’d been thinking: “but Mommy didn’t have a bad time when she went out with you?”
“No, she saw something inside me, something I don’t know I even saw myself, kiddo.”
“So what did she do?”
“She was you Mom, guys. She showed me who I could be. She didn’t let me be shy. She was tall, beautiful, and funny.” Abbi looked my way and saw I’d noticed and she turned away. The boys asked . . . “so is that why you married her, Dad, and not that other girl?”

“I don’t know that marrying anyone else was ever on my mind, kiddo. I loved your Mom, and she loved me…all of me, she didn’t even see the things I worried about, she just blew past them and brought me up next to her. It’s like she’d known me all along, even if I didn’t know the person she saw, she let me be who I’d always wanted to be. She saw who I really was . . . even if I didn’t…”

I could feel my eyes welling up and I was glad it was dark.
” …and I miss her. I miss her a whole lot.”

When I got home the reminiscence didn’t stop. Abbi was still horrified at her luck of losing the concert to the prom. So I solved the problem. I got tickets to the show the night before, with the little I had saved for new pickups for my guitar. I told her to find kids who would want the Sacramento tickets, the presale for Oakland hadn’t ended and we got tickets for there instead.

“Mom always said that you were the best at solving problems,” Abbi told me. Andrea did used to say that. She thought I should have been an ER doctor, or some other high-stress job because she always thought I thrived on the problems and coming up with ways around them. She’d once said that if we’d had to fight on the battlefield that she knows I’d be more like the guy who took the reigns when the Colonel was killed and got his men out of harm’s way. I still feel like I’d reverted to being the kid who barely asked the girl to the Prom.

While I made the cookies for school the next day, running the dishwasher full of old dishes Hannah had neglected, I had the TV on to a random channel. On it, a person brought up a very old saying: “the main thing is to leave this world a little better than when you entered it.” It’s a saying I’ve heard before, one that I always liked, but it really made me think.

There’s the what-ifs . . . how many more amazing things could this beautiful woman have accomplished in her time? What more could I have expected from just being in her sphere of influence? I don’t lie when I say I am the man I am today because of her. Then I started to think about everything.

When we met, I was a technical guy. I did the occasional reporting, but more than anything I was a photographer, nothing more. Now, I’m an investigative journalist. I’ve won awards, I’ve met world leaders, I’ve seen amazing things. I would never have done any of it, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today, if not for the woman who never bothered to look at me as less than I was. She just saw . . . me. I so wish I could have seen what more she would have done, what she would have given the world. The Alzheimers drugs she’d helped research in school. The lives she might have saved catching drug interactions. The materials she might have written in some sort of drug research.

But in the end, she did leave the world better than when she found it. At least my world. I’m here, today, writing and solving the “Manoucheri curse” yet again because she showed me I could.

When I came up to start writing I checked my Facebook page and saw my daughter had posted a message:
“Who has the best Dad in the world?! I do!!!!”
Really, that’s all I needed. She’s more like her Mom than she ever realized.


That’s Powerful Stuff . . .

Powerful Stuff by the Fabulous Thunderbirds

Sometimes there is powerful stuff (to quote the Fabulous Thunderbirds) out there that you can’t avoid.  I can avoid what I can’t see coming.  It’s the stuff I didn’t know was out there that get to me.

There are a few things that I must admit, even though we enjoyed them as a family, I was able to retain possession.  I lost several of my favorite Clapton songs.  “Wonderful Tonight” I simply cannot hear on the radio, television or even Muzak.  Our first dance, first kiss, wedding dance, all were to that song.  Cannot hear it without losing it.  “Layla” kills me, though I’m at a point where I can finally listen to it.  I don’t watch any of the vampire shows she loved so much.  I can’t see many of the dramas.  I don’t order from one particular pizza chain . . . they’re things I simply have to avoid because they’re parts of my life she stole away when she left.

But I retained one particular television show, a Sci-Fi program decades old and my favorite as a kid.  She hated the ’60s-’70s version for its bad special effects and liked the new one but didn’t make it a point to watch it every week.

Yes.  I’m a geek, a troubled, self-conscious, certified hard and fast Whovian.  I love the TV show Doctor Who.  (For the hardcore fans, you’ll notice I didn’t use Dr. I spelled it out)  I mean, as a kid, I was obsessed.  I had the giant scarf, the rumpled brown hat, just needed the curls and the teeth.  When they re-booted the show I was aghast and enamored at the same time.  The special effects had reached modern day and the writing was brilliant.  I had to convince my wife to watch with the kids because she actually had full disdain for the program.

This isn’t a commercial for the show, bear with me, there’s a point.

The writer and executive producer of the current incarnation is brilliant.  But I didn’t know how brilliant.  Some people just get it, if you know what I mean.  My situation is certainly one where people don’t really understand and it seems easy to just say you’re sorry and that things will be OK.  By the way, telling someone like me that I shouldn’t worry, it’s all for the best, there’s a plan, a foretelling or a future that I just don’t know about . . . worst possible thing to tell me.  Why?  Because I hate the idea there’s a “plan” that involved me marrying an amazing woman only to lose her when I needed her most.  Screw the plan!  What happened to my free will in all this?!

But back to Who.  I love the show and my kids love it, too, which makes me happy.  My oldest . . . well, she doesn’t.  Or perhaps she does but doesn’t want the cool people to know that she does because, in England it’s the highest rated program and here it’s a cult hit.  I can watch it, possibly because it changes so much from year to year or episode to episode.

Every Christmas they put on a spectacle that’s over an hour long and involves some sort of catastrophe.  We wanted so desperately to watch it on Christmas day but time, relatives and reality just got in our way.  We ended up waiting until last night.

It’s the only time I’ve walked out in the middle of an episode.

Understand, it wasn’t that the episode was terrible, it was great.  But it’s called “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.”  A woman loses her husband to WWII at the beginning of the picture.  Midway through they’re visiting an old manor house to get away from the bombing and she hasn’t told her children that their father isn’t coming home.  She yells at them at a particular moment in the episode and says she doesn’t know why.  She doesn’t want Christmas to be forever known as the day their father was taken away.

“They’re just so happy and . . . ”
“. . . and you know once you tell them they’ll never be happy like this again.”

Or words to that effect.

The writer producer, Steven Moffat, in one phrase didn’t just twist, he wrenched the knife in my heart.  Without speaking or writing those words myself, the program had hit the point perfectly.  Not only was I the bearer of bad news, I was the harbinger of disappointment.  On March 26th I walked in and even though there was no choice in the matter, I was ripping a large part of their innocence away.  I knew that every bit of happiness from this point on would be touched with a shadow.  A spot of regret and misery that would filter into everything.  It would dim, for sure, and maybe disappear occasionally, but don’t you believe it goes away for good.  The shadow stays forever and I knew that the moment I walked in and said I had to tell them all something that the shadow would start to grow.

It’s back to something I’ve said many times before.  The big things like Christmas Day, birthdays, holidays, songs, all those things we know will hit us.  It’s the stuff from out in left field, the line in our favorite show or the picture or the worst thing – smells – that throw me into a tizzy.  You just never know what’s going to hit you.

I walked out into the hallway until I could pull myself together.  The kids didn’t know anything, how could they?  They weren’t the ones who had to tell someone their Mom wasn’t coming home.  If the writers and producer of that program haven’t suffered this kind of loss I don’t know how to explain their getting it so beautifully right!  It’s a sci-fi show, an effects laden extravaganza with an impossible plot and improbable ideas.  It’s why I love it so much.

I don’t pretend to be able to cope.  I can’t go back and un-watch a show any more than I can go back and stop Andrea from dying.  I can see these things for what they are, and that’s getting something the way it really is, getting it right.  For every post I put here, shows like this who tell people what that sadness really is, not a simplistic tragedy that can be whitewashed with platitudes but a powerful thing that can have an impact on our whole future.

I don’t hide those emotions, I hide those tears.  It’s OK for my kids to know they can feel these things and deal with them.  But they also need to know their father is strong enough to shoulder their burdens, even if it’s just so much smoke and mirrors as the sci-fi show they’re watching.  At least they know, they have someone who can help them.

There’s someone who can help them deal with the powerful stuff.

A Dad by Definition . . .

"Dave" in an early definition: pre-war photographer

Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephant (This is for all you who think I only have songs made before 1980 on my playlist!  Plus it’s appropriate for the subject matter . . . )

I am going to make a lot of people very angry, just to let you know, when I criticize the following statement:

“I am my kids’ Mom/Dad”.

I don’t dispute its accuracy, I am my kids’ Dad.  It’s a fact, a statement, a truth.  But what bothers me is the use of that phrase as if it’s the end-all be-all of a person’s life.

Now, don’t hang me up on the cross yet.  I don’t say this to offend nor do I say it in order to belittle parenting, single-parenting, parenting alone by necessity (that would be me) or life as a stay-at-home Mom or Dad.  What bothers me is the fact that some people make this statement as the only definition of themselves.  I think it does a disservice to any child when they believe that they are the center of the universe, that they are the definition of their parents.  I wasn’t.  In fact, if I had been, I’d have been spoiled rotten.  (OK, maybe I was a little spoiled, but I wasn’t mean, I don’t think)  I had chores.  My two brothers and I did the dishes every night.  EVERY night.  Not just loading them into the dishwasher and leaving, but cleaning up the table, wiping everything down, cleaning the pans, running the dishwasher and then unloading it when it was finished.  If it was on the fritz, which happened, we had to wash it all by hand.  I mowed the lawn, trimmed the trees, watered the garden, watered the lawn and trees, used a weed eater on the areas around the hedges, pulled weeds, all of it.  In winter I shoveled the sidewalk and driveway.  I salted the drive.  It was my responsibility to make sure that the block heaters in the car (if you don’t live in a cold climate, nevermind, will take too long to explain).  We cleaned our own bathrooms, folded laundry, vacuumed the carpets, all of that.

This, my friends, is not unusual nor is it an inordinate amount of work.  I lived, I survived, and I never tell my kids I walked to school in the snow uphill both ways.  I just drove in the ice and shoveled the walk.

My Mom stayed at home.  It was her and my Dad’s choice, but at no point did I think that she was defined solely by the fact that she was our Mom.  We were never ignored, it was like it was her job, but they lived in a beautiful harmony that I only hoped I’d get a piece of.

My kids don’t do near as much as I did.  It’s not a complaint . . . well, yes it is, but not my point . . . it’s just to say that we have to survive through working together.  As much adjustment as I’ve had to make, some of the kids still have to accept their own adjustment, and I know it’s not easy.  They don’t have my Mom, staying home, making sure they’re on track.  But it’s not the quantity of the time, it’s the quality.  (I can’t believe I wrote that, I know, it’s cheesy, but it’s so damn correct I can’t find a better phrase!)

Here’s the thing, I came home yesterday, and after being at work for a mere 8 hours, they home after a half-day of school, the house looked like a bomb had gone off.  The main room, the place with the dining room table, the Christmas tree, my office and gear . . . was a mess.  The kitchen is full of dishes.  (yeah, yeah, smart ass, it’s supposed to be full, of dishes, these are DIRTY dishes)  The boys and Hannah’s rooms look like demilitarized zones.  All in less than a few days’ time.

Now, I have a hard time changing those roles.  During the morning hours, I’m Dad.  I’m cook, breakfast maker, barrista, juicer, clothier and sock darner.  I am parental and sign the homework folders.  In-between I find my laptop and gear for work, check the emails in case I need to go somewhere before heading to the office or have a source I need to meet to get a story.  Then I turn into chauffeur or taxi driver (the real kind, not DeNiro).  I spend the day as reporter, producer, legal expert, kind ear, shoulder to cry on, philosopher, writer, desk associate, and investigative journalist.  I come home and have to take those hats off again, turning into massage therapist (for the daughter who’s started exercising again) drill sergeant – because NONE of the chores are done – laundress, mathematician, uncle, brother-in-law, Santa’s helper, cook, chef, baker, lunch lady, bartender (for the lunch drinks), boy scout, fire pit fire starter, listener, and both Mom and Dad.  I take on both those roles, and it’s not easy changing from one to the other.  I don’t know how my parents did it individually.  If I’m lucky, at insanely low volume, in the depth of night, I become musician for a few, playing and writing a bit more of my songs I’ve started, and then go back to writer for this blog . . . and then coma patient.  I wouldn’t call what I get sleep.

I’m not alone in this, by the way.  My Dad wasn’t just my Dad.  He was a Pharmacist.  He was a boss.  He was funny, Persian, tall, bearded, classy, smart, a collector of old cars, a restorer of the Austin Healey he owns, a carpenter, a lover of music and my Dad.  None of those was higher on the totem pole than Dad, for sure, but he was Dad.  Mom was a genealogist, researcher, census searcher, cemetery surveyor, historical society president, historian, baker, chef, cook, tailor, and also Mom.

To use that silly, singular, “cute” phrase: “I am my kids’ Dad” is so limiting.  My definition of myself is ever-changing.  When I left O’Neill, Nebraska for college, I was not a confident person.  I was gangly, scared, lacked confidence, geeky, lanky, and probably a little mean without wanting to be.  Then I met Andrea, and my definition changed.  I was none of those things any more (well, geeky, I still had to love my Doctor Who and Clapton records).  I was so out of my depth, a geek who deserved far less and ended up with the pretty, California sun-drenched blonde.  I was her boyfriend.  I was her fiance.  I was . . . her husband, and all that came with it: love, shoulder to cry on, pillar of strength, weak in the knees, infatuated schoolboy, enamored lover, best friend . . . and heartbroken widower.

You see, our definitions change.  If I’m defined only by being Dad, what does that say to my kids?  Parenting is the greatest, most noble and wonderful thing I do.  I do it alone because it’s worth it! But it’s not all I do, and I want my kids to know they are the sum-total of what they become, not the singular things they do.  If I was only Andrea’s husband, my life would be over, the kids would suffer, and I’d either have died from the wound in my heart that is still bleeding or I’d wish for the end to come.  There are days I’m there, but most days I see those four amazing kids and I strive to be better in everything else.

So sure, I’m “my kids’ Dad.”  I’m also musician, journalist, baker, chef, researcher, genealogist, Jeff and Kathy’s son, Mike and Adam’s brother, Amy and Amy’s brother-in-law, angry son-in-law, tenacious muckraker, scared home renter, kid project co-artist, pie maker, butcher, baker, sometime candlestick maker . . .

I am who I’m meant to be today.  I am the writer of my story.

I’m not perfect nor am I meant to be.  I’m Dave.  I don’t fail if I try to be more than I am now.  I only fail if I try to be someone else.


Technology hasn’t killed us yet . . .

Hangin’ Around the Observatory by John Hiatt

There are those who feel there’s too much inter-connectivity. That we shouldn’t have those smart phones, the internet and email and everything at our fingertips. It’s too easy to look up something when we should take the time to go to the library, look it up, find the answers.

But technology is my savior. It truly is.

I live in a state where I didn’t grow up, don’t have family and really had no connection to until I met my wife. Once she passed away, I couldn’t see placing my kids in that very same situation. Their Mom is now here, permanently. Their grandparents, cousins and aunt are here. In the weeks after Andrea died I was within just a day or two of packing everyone up in a Ryder truck and moving to Nebraska, living with my folks in their house, and figuring out what to do while my oldest daughter finished high school. I’d been told that my work was looking to “make a change” and cutting my salary by an insane amount of money. I would not be able to survive and even though I’d already begun looking for a different job by then, I didn’t have one. I got lucky. I have a job, an amazing one, that allows me to do what I do best – tell stories.

But here’s where technology comes in. Go back to just a couple days before Andrea died. I got the call Andrea had gone into respiratory arrest. My wife, Dad and brother are pharmacists. I know what that means and know that it’s really, really bad. I was in a panic. I needed help but I had none. My parents, you see, were on their way to visit my older brother in Texas. Twenty years ago, I’d have been screwed, hyperventilating in a car in the rain on the way to the hospital with no hope and no help.

But it wasn’t 20 years ago. It was in March.

I called my Dad’s cell phone. He answered, even though it was roughly 4am there – in Norman, Oklahoma, where they had stopped for the night. This was a random motel, a random choice, and there would have been no way I could have gotten hold of him. While I was on the phone, crying, worried that she was going to die that night, he had already silently told my Mom to pack up and they were in the car, turning West, heading my way. Had there been no cell phones, I’d have had to wait until they got to Texas, the next day, letting my brother tell them.

Instead, they were on the way. When they got to California, they arrived at the house an hour after I told the kids their Mom had died – precisely when we needed them.

Go back farther: when Andrea first went into the hospital, in the ICU, everyone wanted to know what was happening. I used my Twitter feed to give hourly updates. My cell phone had been dying, I couldn’t keep up with everyone and I quit trying to be nice. I told them I was sorry, but unless it was her parents, sister, or my family, they could get updates on Twitter. It was perfect. Every hour I posted what was going on.

When she died, after the appropriate calls were made, after I had started to crawl back up to my own feet, I let the rest of the world know on both Twitter and Facebook: “We lost Andrea this morning. It is our 18th anniversary. I asked her to stay for it. Guess she just couldn’t hold on. I miss her so much.”

The Twitter feed, March 26th, 2011

That was priceless. Why? Because what people don’t realize – particularly the ones who haven’t spoken with Andrea or the loved on YOU lost, in a horribly long time, is that every call they make to make themselves feel better about having been out of the picture is like taking a bottle of lemon juice and pouring it into the wound. Make no mistake, particularly that close to the hour it happened, you are in pain, serious, physical pain. There are those you have to tell. Your parents, her parents, you kids, obviously, and then the very close friends and relatives.

But every time you take that call, get that “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, what happened?” question, you have to go back . . . two steps back . . . to the very moment all over again. You break down, even though you don’t want to. You are dehydrated you cry so much. You are in a fog because you haven’t slept for days. You are, quite simply, a freakin’ mess.

Technology made those days so much easier. We got amazing notes; fantastic comments; beautiful sentiments of 180 characters or less. Technology helped me to heal without reliving all of the pain more than I had to.

That’s not the only time it helps.

I talk to my folks daily. I use my cell phone, calling them in down time, on the drive home, when I see something amazing, whenever I need them. They are the pillars holding me up while I boost my children.

My daughter, an amazing, brilliant child, still has her times of hardship and difficulty. I became a journalist because, let’s be honest, I suck at math. Never was good at it. My older brother, though, is a mathematical genius. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s just a true statement. (He once tested and was accepted to MENSA, only to turn them down because he thought it was silly they wanted him to pay them to certify him a genius. He already knew that. Not arrogance, just truth.)

When she has problems with math and I can’t solve it? She scans in the homework, emails it, and her two uncles, brilliant men in two different states, use text, email and scanners to help guide her to her answers. When Hannah wants to know how to play a song, we record it on the phone, text it to her uncle, and he lets her know what he has done. When I write a new song I save the settings, FTP it to his server, and if it’s a great take we can keep it. Otherwise, he can learn it, and we cut rehearsal and recording time in half.

When a friend of Andrea’s – who lost her husband – knows what I’m going through and wants to find me, she got me on Facebook and we’ve become even better friends since. I know someone out there has been where I am and has the joys and frustrations I have, and doesn’t tell me how to go through this, just understands that I am.

When I need to let someone above the age of 16 what I’m going through, I can write . . . here . . . and feel a little like I’m getting someone to hear what I’m going through.

Yes, in the Lady Gaga and Katy Perry world of today, Video did kill the radio star. Janice and Jimi would have languished by today’s standards. But don’t blame the technology for the end of the world.

It saved mine.

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

A while back I mentioned the things I felt Andrea had stolen from us when she left. It’s not that I think she’s a thief and had any kind of malicious intent, nothing like that. It’s more that she was part of me and as such had access to the most intimate, deepest loves, fears, traditions, all of that.

But she stole Christmas. Not like the Grinch, though it might be an apt simile, but she took it and it will never be the same.

My family doesn’t just like Christmas, we really live for it. Not like Clark Griswold, (though my Dad get razzed that airplanes might land on our lawn because of all the lights once, but we lived on 3 acres in the country…) just that overall, happy, almost bubbly feeling. I think the adjective “joyous” is over-used, but it really does fit for the holidays in our house.

It always was that way for me. I put stockings up in my apartment when I was in college, even if I was going home for the holidays. I bought presents, no matter how cheap, just to give something to my friends and family. We always had a big dinner, opened presents late on Christmas Eve and then went to Midnight Mass in order to get to bed. My brother and I would get up at 3 or 4 and sneak down, flashlights in hand, and look for what Santa brought us and then sneak back up, trying not to wake Mom and Dad, just so we knew. We just couldn’t wait. One year my Mom took us out into the country where my grandparents owned some property: an old farm that was now abandoned. I didn’t know at the time that it was because we didn’t have a lot of money, we just thought it was fun. We had thermos of hot chocolate, we had on big, poofy snow pants and coats, gloves, whole nine yards. When we got there we looked in the shelter belt for a great tree. We did find one, too. We sang “O Christmas Tree”, drank out cocoa, and each took a turn with the saw on the tree. We cut it down, took it home, watered it, all of it. Even shook the snow off the needles before we took it inside. It was probably pure necessity for my Mom, but it was magical to us.

It took a little while for that to hit home when I got married. The first Christmas I remember with Andrea started off really poorly. Getting our tree wasn’t at all like the search above. We picked up her sister, who lived with us in Omaha at the time, and went to look for the tree. It didn’t start well, and at the time I just didn’t get it. I was SO happy. I was married, we were together, we were on the way to get a tree and look for everything. We were getting new ornaments. I already had presents. Hell, we even had stockings.

Andrea and her sister weren’t having it, though. The moment we left the house something was wrong; horribly wrong. Andrea looked at me with all I can describe as disdain. I hadn’t really seen this. I mean, we’d had arguments. If you don’t have disagreements or arguments as a couple you’re not really in a healthy relationship. But this was just pure, unadulterated anger. My driving was wrong. I was going too fast. I didn’t open the door for her and her sister to get in the car. Why was I choosing this tree lot? What is wrong with you, this kind of tree won’t hold ornaments right! Andrea and her sister started yelling at each other, in public, at the lot. Not making a scene, just mad. Arguing. Poking at each other to see who reacts first.

I couldn’t take it.

“What the hell is wrong with you two?”
“What do you mean,” was likely Andrea’s answer, and I remember she had the look of someone who didn’t want to admit there was a problem, but knew there was, digging in and holding her ground.
“You two have been at each other’s throats, yelling, it’s like you’re trying to get into a fight and I don’t get it. This is Christmas, it’s supposed to be happy. I love this stuff! If you can’t do this then go to the car, I’ll get a tree and you can help decorate it when I get home.”

Later they apologized. You see, Christmas, holidays, none of that were fun or positive experiences for her. Her memory for every Christmas was getting in fights, her parents yelling at each other on the way to the tree lot or a tree farm. Her sister and she getting into fights then getting spanked. Her Mom yelling at her Dad and telling him to knock it off. Christmas wasn’t fun in her house. She dreaded it, and that had carried over to me, even though the catalyst for their animosity wasn’t there.

Both of them saw that they’d never had a good memory of getting ready for Christmas. They loved the day, had great dinners, all of that, but the season . . . they didn’t have a connection. That’s where we came in. After that first Christmas, Andrea joined in, hook-line-and sinker. Where we got out of control, she became the decorator. Matching ribbons and bows on the tree instead of tinsel. We still had our little homemade ornaments, but by the time we’d hit last year Andrea was just as giddy and happy in the season as we were. Santas on the ledge. Everything. Like so many things in our house, she made it . . . perfect.

The perfection is hard to live up to. Like I said, she became part of the holiday. Now, we can’t go get coffee at Starbucks without her. The music in the background is that old Christmas music, the Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole that Andrea used to play in the car. My oldest broke down on Friday because she couldn’t take it any more. Andrea was part of the season and the season was surrounding and overwhelming her. I can’t blame her, I feel it too.

I took the kids this weekend to get a tree. They were all really excited, but I could see it was weighing on them. The arguments started. The boys started fighting with their sister – and not the normal amount, every boy hates their sister when they’re a kid, but they still love them a lot. This was reminiscent of the first Christmas with Andrea. It only got better when we finally went to get the tree. They all lost their anger and stress and raced through the rows of trees to find one to cut down. It was up in the mountains at this little place we found by accident last year and they wanted to go back. We even bought a tiny little tree in a pot that looks like the Charlie Brown tree just so they’d have something more.

I got out all the stuff to decorate, ornaments and all. We plan on putting those on tomorrow night. (Monday) Today we did outside lights and garland, all the stuff that Andrea left behind. The kids are ecstatic about doing the decorating but they’re so tenuous about it they just can’t help but poke at each other. It gets to me and makes me lose my temper.

Then tonight, as they were drifting to sleep, I put the stockings up on the fireplace. We had these stocking holders, the metal kind that have a hook that hangs down from the mantle, spelling out the words “NOEL”.

We had stockings with all our names on them. I didn’t know what to do. There are six. Abbi, Hannah, Noah, Sam, Dave . . . and Andrea.

I actually stared at her stocking for quite awhile trying to figure out what to do. I really didn’t know. Still don’t.

It has so many things wrong with it. If I put it out, what happens then? Santa put stuff in everyone’s stockings. Even Mom and Dad. So put the stocking up and Santa doesn’t fill the stocking – it reinforces that Mom’s not here. Fill the stocking, it confuses them and they won’t know what to make of that. If it’s empty it really does represent an emptiness for them, their Mom’s not here for Christmas. But leave the stocking off and you’re making it real. It’s really Christmas, it’s actually here.

And it’s actually here without her.

I know, you think I put too much thought into this. It’s too much philosophy for a stocking. But look at what the season alone has done to these four wonderful kids. It’s tugging at them in ways they can’t describe, not like their oldest sibling, and they act the only way they can. They act out.

So I left the stocking off, as much as it hurts. I never shared this decision with them, it wasn’t something that we needed to do together. Sometimes you have to do things that hurt because they’re what’s best for everyone.

Like I said, she took Christmas with her. I didn’t want to leave her out, but somehow I had to try and steal it back.

The five remaining stockings...