Welcome Back, Mom

I’ve been at this a short time. Since October of 2019, to be more precise. Millions of other bloggers dutifully write words of greater depth on this day and have done similar, marvelous posts on days going back further than that. Year over year, they tell their individual stories. I walk along side some of them as they silently speak of their beautiful journeys. They are we-blog folks. Simple people who have something special to say on a particular day.

At the time of this post, there are an estimated 500 million blogs. Logging on the web, back in 1994, was a portal for Justin Hall and Peter Merholz who became quasi-household names to all the bloggers yet to come. Pioneers are they. The former considered the “founding father” of personal blogging and the latter who coined the term, “blog”. Technological credits aside – available for anyone willing to do the additional research – I’m simply amazed – after fifteen months of experimental digitry on my Dell keyboard and Samsung phone, primitive observational photographic skills, and basic grasp of grammar rules – I have followers of one kind or another. Either through email or a simple follow button, there are those of you out there in the blogosphere who enjoy reading my words.

We don’t say “thank-you” enough these days. Out of half-a BILLION blogs, you’ve chosen this one to read. Thank-you.

…and thank you, 2021. What for? Returning a little bit of normal to me I thought I lost months ago during a tempestuous, emotional 2020.

We didn’t lose mom in 2020. She died in 2012. Part of what she left behind was her music. Not just all the piano music I get a chance to play, but also her iPod Shuffle and various other devices with music downloaded she listened to while undergoing chemo treatments. I’m not sure my siblings, or my dad, miss mom the same way I do. We’re all different. We mourn her loss differently – even eight years, four days later. Pianistic connections are hard to let go between a son and mother. Duets played side by side, deeply felt, are not easily let go – and shouldn’t be. Remembering hearts entwined, while playing thousands of pinochle hands on cold winter evenings, trump this sad feeling of not having her around to help me deal with her absence across the table from me.

Facing another year without someone like her is hard. If you’re sitting with me, you know the fondness without the company of that person. A mom, dad, son, daughter, friend …they’re all so uniquely important to us. A memory just isn’t enough most times. We can pretend a sign from above is enough – and it is for the moment. But when that person is no longer here in person to give us a hug, or tell us they love us no matter what, we feel less-full, less-complete. Holidays, especially, are tough. Mom’s cookies. Dad’s Christmas traditions … all so important to us, right?

Here is 2021. Geesh, are we glad it’s here, or what? The election season was anfractuous. Yes, anfractuous, and as of this day, still hasn’t settled into a direct line toward a calm inauguration. The pandemic, of course, virtually split everything into parts previously unknown for a century. Racial tensions pulled apart our country. What a mess we were … and continue to be. How about we simply acknowledge a lot happened we weren’t too happy about and, privately, mourn our losses? If you suffered a tragedy, please accept my sincere condolences. 2020 wasn’t kind. “Happy New Year!”, I guess.

Mom didn’t need to be alive for any of this. It’s fortunate she isn’t around. There are too many people to hug and not enough time in the day for her. Distancing away from her family would be too much – as it is for so many other families – and not being able to be her wouldn’t be any kind of life.

Cancer sucks. The day she died, however, was one of my best days. I’ve said this since that sad March day in 2012. My biggest crutch in life was kicked out from under me. I had to grow up and become an adult on that very day. Losing her earbuds last year still hurt, however. Listening to music through her ears since she died was one of my connections. When they went missing, I lost a part of my mom. Last year took so much from so many, yet misplacing a simple pair of earbuds, to me, was living the 14th floor of UPMC Altoona’s palliative care wing all over again.

The connection was lost. I lost a small part of mom. Efforts to find failed. Drawers, closets, cars, clothes, etc … nowhere to be found. With regret and sadness, I gave up. Times of late night music sessions only for my ears silenced. I didn’t want to buy a replacement. There was no other. I know this sounds goofy, perhaps a bit featherbrained, but tickle my fancy and go with the emotional-logic here: there IS no emotional-logic. Replacing the earbuds meant I was, in a mystifying way, replacing my dear mom.

I don’t believe in signs from above. If there’s a divine being up there, I think there’s a better way to send us signals than birds and cloud shapes. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I’m always open to learning, however. Whatever urged these wonderful little earbud-dies of mom’s to show back up in my life yesterday … thank-you. Yes, they were jammed under the sofa … no surprise there because I probably hobbled them under there a while back flirting around doing something else.

As I type, for the first time in months, music flows again through my ears. Mom lives again. I’m listening to the top hits of 2020. Everything’s back to normal. Kinda. Still have a way to go because hanging close by are six masks and a schedule adjusted for semi-lockdowns and virtual teaching.

I’m thankful and grateful I can write along with my 500 million friends … and have something special to say on this particular day. Unique, to me, of course because of all the problems in the world lately, I may have been the only one who lost his earbuds within the past 6 months. Small in comparison to others’ tremendous losses this past year, my experience was, nevertheless, real to me … and heartfelt.

As I close, “Memories” by Maroon 5 finishes up on the playlist. Again, no pointing upward or sideways to a divine interventionist. I’m simply going to stop typing, sit back, and listen to the words. Thankful, for one last time, mom is talking to me again. Welcome, 2021.

New Year’s Derby Hats

As a part-time writer – and one who doesn’t claim to remember all the grammar rules from, let’s say, a few years ago while sluffing back in a hard plastic school chair – I’m fascinated by what comes out of my fingers sometimes. Just me, though. You don’t need to be. Only because I never paid a gnat’s attention to the instructions given out by well-qualified teachers … that’s why. Chief among them, my dad. He was on staff at the high school where I attended, but I never had him for English or Literature class. I would have traded forty minutes, five days a week for the constant gerund, lie-lay, dangling modifier meerkat, eye-rolling moments he flinged at us around the dinner table. Moments I remember only because the rest of us at the table dug our utensils deeper into mom’s daily casserole every time dad dissected dinner dialect.

It wasn’t just over peas and carrots, or noodle dishes prepared ahead. Breakfast presented its own paternal parental problems, parenthetically writing, here. Dad had a schedule. Of course he did. Up out of bed at 5:50 a.m. … and so forth. Mom, deciding early on not to accept a teaching job within the same school district in order to raise three little angels, was expected to prepare oatmeal, a glass of O.J., coffee, and toast. Mixing it up once in a while with some Raisin Bran cereal, mom really didn’t mind. Routine. Both of them in that comfortable space where dad had expectations and mom, being her wonderful self, went along with the plan.

Pre-dawn problems made an appearance along side angelic Doug. I, the ever-so non-agreeable child of the three, couldn’t stand routine. Well, let’s play all the flash cards here. By the time middle school came into my life, dad decided work came first – not studies … not music … not girls … not fun, etc … I respected my dad and pushed forward with all his wishes. Anything to make a buck – in his eyes – I labored on. Tiring as it was, I dad-did. As any young boy-man would wish to do, I rebelled. Not in a nasty way, of course. To this day, that’s not my nature. I’m a pianist, musician, and as much as I have an aversion toward the phrase, “people person” … that duo best describes me – and it sooo fit my mom. We were two of the same.

Dawning on me, mornings had to change. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. The days and weeks were wearing me down with work. I had work-a-day syndrome before my eighteenth birthday. Life wasn’t fun anymore. Mom looked bored doing the same thing over … and over. That same brick building, only a ten minutes walk away, could just disappear in the fog it always had lingering over it when mom drove me there. Yes, I insisted she drive me even though I could walk. Tired. Just exhausted. And, looking back, she was to. Routine, for us, was exhausting. Work. Rules. Wearisome.

So, the derby hats had to come out. Were these her idea, or mine? Not sure, but I do know we did the routine prior to their appearance on dad’s morning stage. Laurel & Hardy. Mom & I. Ironic, this use of routine. We turned the situation around to our benefit. We had to.

Leading up to this dramatic moment, dad stayed focused on his breakfast fare. His routine needed to be steady, predictable … as was his life to that moment. Staying on schedule is what we love about him to this day, actually. Since March, he’s done remarkably well being tossed about in an ocean of unpredictability. Without mom since 2012, he’s been through another death of a wife, some health issues, and as an octogenarian, is experiencing the usual mental issues associated with that decade of life. All that aside, a cantankerous teenager and his brilliant, bored mom didn’t look ahead that much. What we saw was a overly-grammared, stressed, casserole-killing, breakfast-timetable teacher who needed some shaking up. We were the perfect cereal killers for the moment.

Upon our heads sat the derbys a bit askew. “I don’t, Stanley.” … “What do you think, Ollie?”, began our routine as we entered the off-color, late 70’s styled kitchen where dad sat at the head of a slightly oblong, wobbly table. Not lifting his head even one, we got multiple degrees worth of grammatical tongue lashings from a guy who – by my best guess here – wasn’t in any mood for such shenanigans. Oh, and I think all the subjects and verbs agreed, btw. I don’t know what was worse: his language, or not recognizing our fine derby hats. We knew the routine well – having rehearsed it during leisure times prior. Fine tuning with the hats was a mere inconvenience. Adding the breakfast show for dad’s expected pleasure was a bonus feature. Yep. All work, no play.

Mom drove me to school that day. The school barely peeked through the dense fog once again. Dad was already in his classroom. He walked every day from our house – down the narrow, paved path through a wooded area – making sure to be one of the first teachers in his classroom. On schedule. I, of course, ran late into the band room late with my trombone case in hand, unfinished homework under my arm, and most likely a bad attitude. Life as an overworked teenaged who wasn’t having any fun.

It’s the last day of 2020 and I bet this is another day in the life of US. We’re upset teenagers who just haven’t had any fun lately because of a 2020 parent. Every day I get up anymore, I expect to see that dad of my teenage years sitting at my breakfast table. What’s he going to make me do today that I don’t want to do? What schedule am I going to be glued to prohibiting me from having joy in my life? Why did the parent I loved so much and connected with have to die? Where is that happiness and derby hat routine?

I WANT IT ALL BACK AGAIN!!

Another year is coming to a close. 365 days of missing my mom. Those derby hat days – and moments with her – are gone. It was only 30 seconds during a mundane, routine morning when we tried to break up another boring day. We understood the importance of work and responsibility. We also knew how important it was to have fun. To relax. To play. To throw pie in the face of stress and realize present progressive tense isn’t a state of being – it’s just a grammar rule.

Dad stops by my concession trailer almost every day and sits off to the side. I ask him grammar questions as I … work. Can’t avoid work. Ironic, huh? Forty years later, … in a kitchen of my own choosing, dad is relaxed, I’m stressed trying to fill orders to stay on a schedule. Maybe the lessons my dad tried to teach me – outside the classroom I never sat in – made sense after all. Nonetheless, I avoid lie-lay and who-whom as much as possible and any discussions about dangling participles are off limits.

Just the other day, dad said, “It’s my choosing, not me choosing…” to a customer. Fortunately, this was a good friend of mine. Rules and routines keep dad going. I’m so fortunate these two words supported him this year. They’ll serve him well as the calendar flips over tonight into a new year. My new year will begin as this one ends – missing mom and our derby hats.

It’s not just those hats. It’s everything about her and a life overflowing with fun, joy, and happiness. I know this year’s been tough on all of us with the rules. Our routines turned out to be one big mess as we meandered through lockdowns and virtual unrealities. Some did well, some struggled. A really hard year.

To say a simple turn-over of a calendar will bring this all to an end would be a fool’s promise. We have some work to do before 2020 can be behind us. As optimistic as my mom was, even she would admit two simple derby hats and a 5-minutes routine wouldn’t tamp down the long-term tension built up to this point. What she would do, however, is give us each a hug – one by one – and say, “It’s going to be o.k.”, smile, and ask if we want a chocolate chip cookie baked fresh with Crisco … followed up with a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Then she’d invite all of us to a humbly decorated, streamer basement to welcome in the new year. A new 2021 she won’t be here to enjoy, once again. I’ll put on an invisible derby hat in her honor and say, “What do you think, Ollie?” then call dad to wish him a Happy New Year.

B.A.D. in Delectably Virtuous Way

OK. So, we’re stuck here. Here? Yeah. Freakin’ 2020 … behind masks – out of our favorite restaurants and away from loved ones for many blips on digital calendars. That time being about nine months to date since the droplets hit our shores. Wow. What a tidal wave of emotions and opinions those little molecules turned out to be. This month last year, none of us saw the tsunami coming across magnificent oceans. Seemingly, we were immune from these viral outbreaks happening elsewhere.

Not so fast. Near Seattle, Washington state, then eastward bound … ashore it was – as we were unsure of our future. New York, hit hard … state-wide lockdowns, worry, concern for the elderly and immuno-compromised. All of it so new.

Firmly planted now with so much more knowledge and vaccines to help us, we still remember those lost in the mess of mis-understanding. They have no Christmas or holiday to celebrate with us because stubbornness overtook logic and reason, politics became a barrier – not a bridge, and habitual day-to-day living was too difficult a lane for some from which to turn.

This virus is a nasty sort. It takes from and gives very little back. We are in complete control of those facts. I also know you are aware life has a positive side, too. As we end 2020 – a year of absolute, mindbending twists we never knew possible – this seven day stretch between the 25th and 31st is absolutely B.A.D. in a delectably virtuous way. Remindably so every time a plateful of sweetness slides onto your decorated holiday table already stacked with fudge, brownies, cookies, and cakes lovingly baked by neighbors and friends.

It’s a season of giving, not of taking – the outright opposite of the selfish viral objective. It took so much from us; however bleak, our neighbors, friends, and loved ones are taking this week to turn that bad into a new version of BAD. A most excellent version all of us need.

Lovingly Bought. Acquired ingredients with you in mind. Sugar, spice, and everything nice … oh, and chocolate for sure. If not raw materials for scratch work, maybe time invested buying carefully selected candies from your favorite confectionaire? Whatever the outlay of kindness on your behalf, it was for you …

Lovingly Accepted. You can’t help that full feeling in your belly. Not the over-stuffed, jammed turkey graveyard push-away from the table at Thanksgiving full, but the overwhelming joy – smelling the deep, dark chocolate sitting only inches away. That snickerdoodle, powder cookie, peanut-butter icing waft-wonderful scent waving at you is too irresistible for you to not value the time and energy invested. Waving back through the cellophane or tin seems not enough at the moment. A return call or text within a week or so is appropriate, but first you must …

Lovingly, in a kindly gentile way, Devour. Head first, anything chocolate head of the line, no holds barred, all plates emptied by 12:01 a.m. January 1st, 2021. You’ve done your very best playing by the rules since March 15th. All of us have, and will continue to do so on behalf of our neighbors and friends. This week, alone with your family and that table full of sweetly chunkiness, dive in! Let the crumbs and sugar pieces fly. Rumba later.

For now, enjoy what’s in front of you. If that’s two cookies at a time? So be it. Be B.A.D. for once in your lockdown life this week – Oreo’d in between thorough, stiff rules designed, yes, for our collective safety, but really hard to emotionally handle. I get it. I’m right there with you looking at a tin , now happily half-full of chocolate covered popcorn and pretzels graciously sitting on a table only two feet away (within a comfortable three feet range from shoulder to tips of my very sticky fingers) Ugh. Those little sweet treats are so freakin’ delicious! Absolutley NOT going to last until 2021.

Oh, but don’t worry. I have more around, as I’m sure you do. Bags, plates, and pans – because I have to guess concerning your sweet situation. You’re not supposed to be good right now. I expect you to be bad in a delectably virtuous way. Eat all of it. Lick the plates with passion, tap every nugget, and don’t let this week pass without enjoying every single crumb.

Someone out there is mixing up ingredients for you to appreciate the moments. We can’t see what they’re folding for our futures, but we know there must be something special we can count on being magically injected into the dough. Gobble up a lotta love the next time they knock on your door.

I will because I have awesome friends who know my lack of restraint when piles of cookies remain open in my path. Heartfelt heaps that not-so magically disappear between the 25th and 31st of December. A week when all of us probably bought sugar and spice to make treats for those we love and respect as well.

Today is about giving of ourselves to others. Not only today, but also this week … this month … and especially this year. We’ve given our time, effort, resources, and love to those who need it the most. For some, the virus has been extremely cruel … all take and no give. That’s what it does.

We aren’t that. Our ingredients, mixed in, are virtuous, respectable, and shared in such a good way – on a plate for everyone we admire, and even those we may not. To give of ourselves is the highest honor one can grant to another. A goodness not found in one droplet these days, but found in a tsunami of sweetness as every wave of kindness comes ashoredly on our hearts this season – and across our palates in the form of delectable, really BAD treats.

But, oh they’re so good. Chocolate chip cookies with nuts … just in case you’re stopping by.

December Dogs, Too

A few days ago, my puppy pleasures were nearly complete – or so I thought. Too many posts and too much time staring into my gadgets, and now more cuteness added to the canine collage posted on December 19th here on Doug Hugs. I have lots of friends with, well, dogs … and they love to show them off on social media. This month, in particular. The holiday of all holiday months when a particular jolly guy shows up a week before a new year. Everyone is camera happy and the pups are overcome with outfits, impromptu poses, and loving glances from around glittered trees. All is growlingly, belly-tickingly satisfactory.

As it should be, I suppose. Everyone – including four-legged family members – should take this time to enjoy the holiday. Even Abby:

I’ve written wonderful words about her before today. She is in my life usually every week or so for a small amount of time. No, not an internet sensation by any stretch … this picture is of my own doing and she has no YouTube channel with treats of followers. I consider her part of my extended family and am the only one within her circle to frame her beautiful snoutful of charm online. This step is her happy place as I visit her humans. Every time, holiday or not, her happiness surrounds my legs and wiggles down through a white, rapidly moving tail. She stays warmly welcoming throughout my visit – always vigilant. Always kind.

With Abby, I’m adding to the copious amount of dog faces in the galleries we see walking virtually through the halls of our hand-held museums. These aren’t the velvet poker playing, cigar-smoking Bulldogs of our past. Today’s stars are elegant snow hoppers, slinky couch-dwellers, and sophisticated fur walkers who’ve matured into the 21st century lifestyle. They’re demanding food online that has a higher nutrition content than ancestral meal chunks full of filler. Special outfits, walking gear, colorful personalized leashes and customized treats round out the experience for some. Haircuts are more expensive and tailored to suit while nail cutting, veterinarian trips, and cone shaming, regrettably, still remain a constant.

Yes, they’re dogs and we love them. Chloe, Charlie, Abby, Jasmine, Vito, Sammie, and others like them in my life – they’re around my feet in the 3-D museum of my reality. Others I really enjoy seeing peek their way up from the bottom of my phone as I scroll down through the December days. Whether in a heap of trouble or just being cute, these knee-bender friends look to us for companionship, love, friendship, and a home in which to enjoy their lives.

I think, from what I see, that is being accomplished. So, so many brag on about their dogs … for good reasons, I may add. Look at those faces and attitudes. There was a whole lotta peaceful pleasures going on inside those brains when pictures were gladly taken and posted online. Can’t say for sure there were any words or structured sentences, but who cares? Sometimes words aren’t necessary.

Pictures are worth a thousand of them, anyway. December dogs know this, too. You could learn a few lesson from them while sitting around the tree opening your presents. They’ll be enjoying time with you – just being with you. Take a picture … then another. Enjoy them as well.

I’ll take my pleasure one silent, smiling picture at a time remembering Shopan who sits in frame overlooking our December festivities. His picture’s worth a lifetime of memories as the jolly holiday gets underway and a new year is just around the corner.

All will be belly-tickingly wonderful soon for us, too. I promise.

Ghee What a Ghal!

Ghosts and ghouls are past us by about two months during which gharries possibly arrived carrying ghastful gharials.

Admittedly, I knew three words starting with “gh” used in the above paragraph. The other two? Yep. Google. By the third grade – or sooner, if the chalk dust and marvelous marker smell has cleared my mind – I also knew these are the consecutive 7th and 8th letters of our 26 developed from the Etruscan alphabet sometime before 600 BCE (also Google 😄). It takes a bit of brain power to engineer opening paragraphs around the letters G and H and I’m not sure this little engine in my skull is puffing up hill effectively. Most likely won’t know until I’m looking down over my connected paragraph cars to the conclusion caboose. If everything is intact and there’s been no derailment, the G&H Line has been a success!

All I’m sure of is those two letters meant something to me today – and that’s all that really counts. So, hop aboard and let me tell you about my nice conversation today.

There’s a station in life where we stand. These weirdly words slapped on us are defined by society and there’s not much that can be done about it. We’re either married, or not. A pastor, or not. Have 12 children, one, or none. Maybe you’re one who employees hundreds, an employee, or not an employee at all. Ok, so we can do something about them, right? Get married, employed, or pregnant if so desired … but all these do is change the station. You’re still assigned a station in life, regardless. The life train comes and goes – in and out of your station … day after blessed day. We have to find a way to enjoy that station upon which we stand. Somehow enjoy the freakin’ show we see as people walk up and down, across and between our paths every. Single. Day.

I had that experience today. The happy human I conversed with is enjoying her station in life. Circumstances being what they are, I’m sure she would hope for better days ahead. Being careful on details for obvious reasons, I will bind this together like a coal car and engine gracefully tying their couplers for a wonderful journey ahead.

We met for less than an hour this morning. She, a purveyor of a service I needed to tie up a loose end for a holiday present, and I talked over health, religion, family relations, politics, music, and oddly enough, a little witchcraft. There is a small, friendly, historical connection between us as our pasts intertwine ever so gently. I do believe our chit-chat session could have extended beyond the time we spent before I had to leave for other engagements. This was, simply, a nice conversation with a nice, sincere person. Someone who is face-to-face with some real things as she stands on, and in, her station.

I drove away thinking about that. Moments later wrapping some presents … thinking about … that. Boy, what a waste of time arguing with a “friend” on Facebook when that time could be better spent talking to someone about their life’s struggles in person. Laughing (six feet away) from a relative stranger who needs a good joke rather than sharing a goofy meme seems to be far greater. In-person vs. Out-impersonal?

I know it’s tough, probably. My business affords me the chance to interact daily with folks. Without it, especially during this pandemic when we’re forced into distancing and lock-down situations, I’d be lost. Today’s wonderful conversation may have been a one-off’er because of the holiday need. Regardless, she certainly stepped up and lifted my spirits this morning while giving me a little hope in the midst of this rather bleak 2020.

She’s definitely on the right track for what she believes in and who she trusts. Her station in life is on pretty solid ground from the little I know, anyway. She believes in herself and trusts in herself to make the best decisions for herself. I’d say that’s a pretty good place to be. From where I stood, “Ghee What A Ghal” is pretty darn accurate…

…and her initials – engineered to be identical to the company name emblazoned on the side of her engine that CAN – is all the information you’re going to get as you watch her get up that hill. The “G & H” Line proudly steaming ahead as an example to all of us of what humanity, grace, and honesty looks like in the midst of life not being particularly kind.

Yes, two letters and not much of a start to any words, really. Didn’t expect them to be. Then again, I didn’t expect to be talking about broomsticks and Wickens this morning, either.

December Dogs

A little thumbing down my Facebook screen this morning. Every ten or so pictures. In between Christmas lights, cookies, snow, and silly jokes, … these guys and gals. December dogs. I could’ve filled the screen with more. Additional canine poses and smiles were plenty as I saw one after another touted in various poses for all friends to see. Yes, December dogs for now, but furry huggles year-round.

The urge to show them is, happily, too great for most. I completely understand. If our Shopan was still alive today, I’d have him posing his stupid little self in front of my Samsung as well. We have oodles of pictures from years ago, of course. Silly ones. Serious ones. This, from a gallery we should have titled, “Sit there and just do it … please!” done over a decade ago, is why I still miss him:

He didn’t want to pose, nevertheless did it anyway because he was – at his heart – a good dog. Years removed from losing him, and six days away from Christmas, this is the 19th day of December, 2020. A year when all of us get up every day looking for the comforts in life, dogs certainly add a joy to what’s been subtracted from us. Even when they’re not here anymore, the memories are.

Shopan was not a nice puppy. Stubborn? Oh, there’s no subtlety in that word. He’d grimace and growl at the least suggestion of behavior modification. His idea of playing? …Well, there was no puppy play, really. Maybe we misunderstood the rules as first time human owners, I guess? He squatted like a girl when doing #1 which, to me, suggested a slight confusion in his boney brain. Why not lift a leg like a normal boy puppy would do? Dunno. Maybe he saw “XX” dogettes doing their thing and his “XY’s” never fully engaged?

To add to the Magic 8-ball of his life, the vet coded his lineage some weird tag opposite of what he ended up being: 1/3 shepherd colors, 1/3 collie bark, 1/3 Rottie head and fully all ours from the time we picked this little runt out of the litter at the humane shelter back in 1995. This all black little fur guy sat in a newspapered, cold corner of an impersonal pen, all by himself, probably picked on by his bigger sisters – the ones who were most certainly going to be chosen first. No wonder he had a chip on his shoulder. I would, too. We had no choice.

After a week or two, he was certainly ours. Pain in the ass that he was, we were committed to the daily tasks of dealing with him. He didn’t pick us up. We leaned over and plucked him out. We started to believe he scammed us and, uhm, plucked us over … if you get my drift. He didn’t, of course. Dogs don’t have that ability to think resentfully like us stupid humans. They’re go along to get along creatures. Shopan was scared, confused, probably hungry, tired, unsure of us and very, very young.

All of us weathered the puppy years. Adolescent ones, as he grew long legs and his torso elongated, began to see a settling down of his excitability. Full of energy but unable to have stamina, which was an enigma until later years – he played flying squirrel across and around all the furniture. Yes, our bad for allowing him to be a circus performer especially hoping on top of my father’s dining room table when visiting one fine day. As an aside, I found this to be absolutely the funniest, most highly amusing, uproariously tear-filled moment in my life, btw… You need to know my dad’s history with dogs, I guess, to understand. (He wore oven mitts and used spatula-prods while disciplining dogs – as the poor puppies hid under sofas). No human or animal was ever harmed. Dad loved all our pets. He was frustrated at their lack of respect for his rules … oh, and he was heartbroken, in his own way, when they died…

As I was when we had to take Shopan on his final trip to the vet. He and I bonded during his last years. I came home in the mid-afternoon hours most days and we spent some time together. These moments weren’t the crazy times similar to all the years prior. Unlike the trips in the car when he nervously paced back and forth, slicing his paw on the iced snow covering one winter, patiently seeing his way through an amateur Westminster Dog Show video production, protecting his owner while walking in the neighborhood one spring day, or getting a “conveyor belt” dog wash to fool his grandmother, these were simple half-hour snuggles. The moments I miss now. Silent breathe-in, breathe-out seconds when we connected our lives in a way that surpassed the stresses of my life and let him know I was there for him. A person, a being, a friend. Someone in the cage with him who understood.

We drove home with only his leash. His last moment here at the house was one paw resting on the bottom step as if to say, “Thank you.”. He had enough energy to squat near the steps one last time as his heart failed him. Still couldn’t lift his stupid leg. For a puppy-guy who lived 13 years, he did all right by us. He put up with our failings as owners and we put up with his headstrong you-chase-me ball game in the yard. I made him do silly games and he made me a better person. We were good for each other.

That’s what pets do. That’s why my friends post pictures of their furry loved ones – especially now, in December. A holiday month for most. We feel so connected to everyone including our pets. Goldfish, parrots, hamsters, caribou, snakes, … whatever fills your stocking. Hug them extra tight.

I have pictures of Shopan. For now and the distant future, this is my December dog I’ll remember for the remainder of a year when all seems to be a bit disjointed. Yes, I enjoy all the Facebook pictures. Yes, I certainly enjoy Chloe – the rather cantankerous puppy across the street who seems to enjoy upsetting me off my rocker lately. I have this ability with puppies. Go figure. Chloe, as was the case with Shopan, will eventually come around. All these little pelted pissers do … someday.

The someday is special. In the meantime, if you have a December dog, give ’em a hug for me. Don’t make that trip back from the vet, with leash in hand, regretting any connecting moments you didn’t embrace.

Thankful Three

As has always been the usual treat, my dad brings way too much ice cream through the door. This. One gallon. Filled to the creamy brim with three distinctly delicious flavors – chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry – it is the all-in-one creme de cacao in his visiting glass of Neopolitan courteousness; Also, an over-sized contribution to the holiday to match his need … a need to belong. We welcome him in. Every time.

A holiday, three times a year event it is. Very seldom does he come by other times. Christmas, Easter, and today – Thanksgiving.

He’s an independent sort of guy, but wants to be a part of his family. We’re small since mom died eight years ago. Seldom will he turn down an invitation to be around, yet hardly ever he’ll call with an idea to go somewhere with us. Relatives are distanced or gone, for the most part, and his friend circles are closing in, save one who stays in touch every day. Walks are twice per day, routines are vital, health is extremely important, and my relationship with him is better than ever.

Today. Over the threshold, once again, one-hundred twenty-eight ounces of ice cream for three people. Again, it didn’t matter. An army of one-thousand Navy Seals or two toddlers skirting along in diapers, a gallon of neapolitan from the local market was coming through my front door today. This year, 2020, changed perceptions about a lot of things, for sure. When it came to my dad standing in front of an open freezer door with cold, frozen dusty air blowing across his masked generationally worn face? … everything had to remain the same! Good for him, I say. Good for him.

He came into a house where we positioned the seating arrangements 6-feet apart. A masked hostess greeted him at the door, took the precious gallon and placed it in the freezer next to all our frozen pizza slices, removed ham, potatoes, and green beans from the oven … and we ate. Three people, two sofa denizens and one love seat, tv tray dad discussed politics and grammar during a pandemic, Thanksgiving day, meal.

My dad, a retired English teacher, could probably correct some errors here. Surely he would find some. During dinner, we talked through gerunds, whom vs who, subjective vs objective pronouns, and why television personalities talk bad English, according to dad. He has his political views, I have mine … interrupted by the fortunate forgetful nature of his short-term memory as we’re on opposite sides of the national chasm.

Pumpkin pie time (whipped cream) with ice cream and coffee (the last of those three for the other two, not me … not a coffee guy) came quickly as it doesn’t take much for three folks to eat meat, a starch, and veggie. Ten minutes later, dad headed out the same front door he came in only one hour before – in tow, a partially empty one-gallon, three flavors tub of ice cream. As has always been the usual treat, my dad brings way too much ice cream through the door.

We never know, do we? This has been the most unusual Thanksgiving. So far, though, I’ve had my thankful 3’s. D-A-D; Chocolate, Vanilla, and Strawberry; Ham, potatoes, and green bean casserole; My wife, dad, and I together.

Small? Of course. Had to be this year. A short visit? Yep. Dad had to get his second walk of the day in.

We’ll wait until Easter to see what the world looks like. It’ll be different than today, probably. Numbers will hopefullly come down as a vaccine could be among us. A new administration, a new attitude, a new way of life? Who knows?

Tell ya what. When Easter is flipped over on the calendar and we open the front door, dad will be standing there with a gallon of ice cream. Assuming he’s eaten all of what went home today by Christmas, that is.

Prince Demetrius and the Leaves of Loretto

It’s a few short minutes drive up the mountain from home, but I don’t go often enough. Prince Gallitzen State Park. Named in honor of Prince Demetrius Gallitzen, a Russian nobleman turned Roman Catholic missionary priest who founded the nearby town of Loretto, the park is home to Glendale Lake – a 1635 acre man-made lake. This state park is near PA Rts. 253 and 53 close to Pattton, Pa. This picture is very familiar to my friend you’ve met here before … a skilled photographer with an eye for the beauty around us.

This location is familiar to me. Our family went there early on in my life. A significantly larger group than today’s remainder met there for smotherings of hugs and non-judgmental gatherings back when divorces were less common and death seemed less familiar to me. A space where old and young kin folks talked, laughed, and played games around checkered tablecloths on splintered tables, and swarms of bees chased us little ones into the woods. Bees that, unfortunately, are as distant as the memories I have to this day.

My dear friend sometimes captures these memories of mine as I look at her pictures she posts. This one above is one of many from her collection labeled, “Glendale Roadtrip 2020”. Her gift is walking along our memory lanes with us without knowing she’s beside our footsteps.

There are times she strides alone, I suspect. She, like all of us, need those days when no company is desired. A picture taken during a solitary saunter can mean a lot when life requires self-reflection from a pond of either regret or satisfaction. Her roadtrip reasons are for her, alone, to settle into her personal picnic basket of emotional needs. She feeds her soul without the need to justify any fruitful endeavor to us. We’re just the fortunate viewers of her gift.

This photographic journey trip to a princely park is worth writing about because today’s breaths are better spent on leaves and a wonderful friend’s keen eye than election what-ifs and presidential prognostications. A small, quaint Loretto, Pa, leafy fall picturesque lake only a few minutes drive from the hustle of Altoona is soul settling – even if only looking at it on a Facebook page. A railroad city where empty buildings sit – in contrast to empty park benches quietly remembering a family’s reunion forty-five plus years ago – can never replace the images in my mind. A grandmother, with her arm around me, saying, “Look at the lake. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Why, yes it is … yes, it is.

Over the benches and through the leaves, we see the reflection. Black against blue is my favorite contrast in all her photographs. There are no people in this photograph like there are in my memories stirred up by looking through her album. Granted, you can’t see my mom with her frosted 70’s hairdo, or my now bald dad with a crew cut back then. My sister, brother, and I together throwing a football, frisbee, or half-deflated ball from the Murphy’s five-and-dime store is a memory once locked up, but free again. Uncles, aunts, cousins, … all mostly removed from my life now due to unpreventable reasons. Events the trees at Prince Gallitzin and Glendale have seen over and over, family by family, generation by generation.

Life moves at a remarkable pace. Quicker than I ever imagined years ago staring out over a lake years away from my first driver’s license or first date. This is where life is.

I don’t know where you are, nor do I know what ever happened to Prince Demetrius. A quick Google search would turn up the answer, but I like the mystery of not knowing. We shouldn’t want to know everything even if everything is accessible and at our fingertips.

The mystery of the leaves of Loretto included.

I do know I have my memories and a well-respected friend who helps me reach back to grab them every now and then with her pictures.

Life is a shared journey. A Roman Catholic missionary, local State Park, picture, friend, my past, and I – all on the bench beside a calm lake are we … bound together by that unbreakable understanding that life is one picture at a time. One day at a time. One virtual hand-hold together down memory lane.

Today is a good day.

There Are Bones About It

This wonderful boney poker game is on display in a local neighbor’s yard. I’ve driven by at least ten times but haven’t been able to stop. Due to cars behind me occupied by drivers with impatience coursing through their veins, opportunities to take this picture have been rare – save one. Today was the day. I grabbed carpe diem by the ankles of its Latin legs and tackled it to the pavement.

What fascinates me the most here is a passerby – whether by car or foot – cannot, by any means, determine the gender or political leanings of either the four players or the dealer. Yes, THIS is my take-a-way from the hard work and imagination of a neighbor I don’t know. No player uncomfortably seated or unhappily handed has the slightest poker tell as to his/her liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Don’t Give a Sh*t agenda.

This isn’t a normal Halloween season. Every opinion, FB post, family meal, and/or spooky social commentary is sitting around a political or Covid table. Make no bones about it. Even I can’t drive by fabulous femurs without first figuring a way through this maze of viral thoughts and political posturings.

It’s where we are. It’s the hand we’ve, strangely enough, dealt to ourselves.

Today is October 31st and the t.v. in front of my 7 a.m. eyes is broadcasting prognosticating pretty polling predictions that may – or may not – come true next Tuesday. I’m weary from the deluge of information. Steve Kornacki, analyst usually seen on MSNBC, is quite fascinating. He presents state-by-state stats, digs into data, and creates charts I used to find artistic, colorful, and pleasing. Being Saturday morning, I don’t expect to see him until Monday … a few days into a new month, past this Halloween day, and in the midst of a barrage of election, bad-to-the-bone, 24-7 broadcasting.

This isn’t to fault them. I guess we need to be informed voters. But, how much is too much? If you don’t know Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden’s life and times by now, right? We need to know results over coffee on the 4th. That’s all we require at this point from our media. Who won … and who lost. Turning on my smart phone or the t.v. next Wednesday at, say, 7:12 a.m. – exactly 4 days from now – to see a President Trump or Biden – would be just fine by me.

… and it isn’t just the President-to-be.

It’s all in the cards we’ve been dealt and are holding – and, by extension, have allowed our representatives to play our hands. We voted in the senators who will lose, or retain, their seats, because of performance. The down-ballots are important, too. There are more than a handful of Republican senators who are in marginal to major danger of losing their seats because of their proximity to President Trump’s policies and personality. Thinking the ace-high flushes they held last year would be gold, they called a bet against the straight flushes held by their opponents …. and are in trouble. Jamie Harrison has a great chance against Lindsey Graham in S.C. He had a 17% chance in March and, now, is in a statistical tie with a guy who needs to go. According to Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks election forecasts, ” … other Republican senators who could lose their seats to Democrats after Election Day are: Arizona’s Martha McSally, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Maine’s Susan Collins, Montana’s Steve Daines, and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis.”

These are scary times that surpass even the gallows of the eeriest of medieval Halloweens. A once-in-a-century health crisis with a national case record of 99,000 just yesterday. We are not carving our pandemic pumpkins properly. They’re ugly. Everything is a mess.

Apparently the mail is messed up with (R) judges changing the rules while ballots have already been sent under a previously agreed upon, publicly posted, set of guidelines. Some states are allowing ballots to be counted after Nov. 3rd, some aren’t. All this gleaned from the news I’m frustrated with, anyway.

Today we walk through the last day of the 10th month of 2020. Three years, two-hundred, eighty-four days into the Trump presidency and here we are – holding the hand we dealt to ourselves. This is either to our fault or merit. I’ll let that decision up to you. I have election-weary.

After I vote in person, I’ll be changing my party affiliation. Make no bones about it. I haven’t changed who I am at all. What’s changed is who I choose to represent me going forward. There are no perfect systems or people, but there are expectations that can be strived for and I want those I vote for to at least try to get there on my (and our collective) behalf instead of feeding their own self-interests.

When I do eventually leave this earth and sit my boney self around a poker table with my friends, I want to leave this place better than the way I left it. I can’t do this alone. Any national policy worth dreaming up requires help from a person in politics and the news to help circulate the message. Can’t coat this fact with any less sugar than that.

For today, Halloween 2020, masks are more important than ever. Sugared candy IS important for socially distanced kiddos if you can somehow swing it for them. Wash your hands frequently in person (and from the news the next few days) … the former is for the safety of your neighbors and the latter for your peace of mind.

If we play our cards well, all this can turn the tables around. There are bones sitting about that require a sane, but fun, game of who has what. We make our bets on the future and hope for the best based upon what we know now. That’s all we can do.

You’re doing good and I’m glad you’re sitting here with me. Flesh and all. Happy halloween.

Simply, Roberto Clemente

He would have been 86 years old this past August 18th had a plane crash not taken his life. Simply one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. Period.

I’m a little too young to have ever seen him play in person. There aren’t enough film clips from the era to satisfy my curiosity about how his grace looked on the field. My dad, and older friends, who did see him play at Forbes Field in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, recall an athlete of refined talent, strength, and finesse.

I can’t conceptualize a man of such natural aptitude in this day of superficial sports strength. As well, I can’t imagine a more genuine human sports figure than this man who died in a DC-7 crash while being a true humanitarian – leaving Puerto Rico on a chartered flight after supervising aid delivered to earthquake victims near Managua. He previously chartered, and paid for, three planes to deliver much needed cargo to the area and felt a fourth was required – with his personality aboard – to oversee the operations due to possible seizing and profiteering by the local military. He lost his life on December 31st, 1972 one mile off the coast of Nicaragua … and the world lost a true humanitarian.

All this after collecting his 3,000th hit on September 30th, 1972 … his final at bat.

The baseball card above is my all-time favorite of his. It’s as beautiful outside as he must have been inside. The 1972 Topps baseball set ranks high among the enduring memories I have of my childhood. When I think of class and charm in the baseball card collecting world, these early 70’s little pieces of cardboard always hit a homerun with me. Yes, that is such a hobbling analogical word to use … and I apologize for the lame insertion, but baseball cards back then represented really cool bubble gum, easy to open wax packs, and trips to the local store up the street to buy some candy and, of course, cards. Simple.

Harry. He was a taller, stout man. Then again, for a little guy like me, everyone was. My sister and I walked along a dangerous two-lane road – not knowing it was, of course. Cars whizzed by at higher rates of speed than we knew was allowed by law as we entered his store, laughingly dusting off our white socks. Harry’s display case on the right always had the candy and the boxes with unopened packs of those great smelling cards inside. To the left sat soda bottles, bread, and newspapers we had no interest in reading. The object was to quickly throw our change on the counter so he would know how many packs of cards we could buy. He was gentle with us, but stern with math. Not a quarter more, or less, garnered us favor no matter how many times we visited his little store a quarter mile up such a treacherous road we had no business walking along.

Once back home, the little brown bag opened dreams. My sister and I quickly ran our little fingers down through the wax seal to open the packs that, seconds earlier, gently fell out of the bag. We knew, even then, to be extra careful at the start. Now, I would jam those same cards into my bike tires within the hour and she, being my older, wiser, thinking-ahead sibling, carefully placed sharp four cornered gems into a box for safekeeping well into her fifth decade of life. Today, I live in regret (happily throwing away my youthful gem-mint perfect rookies of hall-of-fame players / retirement money into ten-speeds and concrete walls, while she, never mind …). Regret can be a strong word. I absolutely loved my childhood, baseball card days … and I adored the 1972 cards. They were the charm during some of my rough years in life.

… and I harbor no regret. That was a tinge of sarcasm above. Today, my collecting is active and engaging. The hobby has changed. Kids don’t walk beside dangerous roads with excitement – hoping to see the next, new design on the cards.

I waited with enthusiasm every spring. Colors, lines, team logos, spacing, borders … all artistically flavored in a card dessert for the eyes. In 1971, Topps baseball cards, however, were a delicacy disaster. Here’s the 1971 Clemente (bottom) compared to the 1972 design (top)

Isn’t this the most depressing card design ever? Ugh. That was the Edsel of the card collecting years. I figure the guy sitting around Topps just gave up. Saying, “Hey, I know what! … I’ll go all black on the border, with block letters for all the writing, and go get a beer.”, the head designer was probably one paycheck away from retirement and didn’t see the bad decision rounding third base. Ironically, the cards from this amass of mundaneness – if found in pristine condition – are the rarest due to the black borders. It is the most condition sensitive of all Topps sets and is huge – coming in at 752 total cards. A mint-9 Clemente, for reference, recently sold for $14,500. Still, I hate the design. And yes, no apologies for using hate.

Enter 1972. Low expectations when I opened the first pack. I imagine, now, the 1971 head designer was sitting on the beach sipping a less-than-well deserved cocktail as a newly appointed, forward thinking, awesomely creative, artistically pen-wielding sports lover took the helm. Imagined beauty. Essence at my fingertips back then. Out of the blackness into the light.

Comparisons of life to sports in words have made many writers millionaires. In reverse, many sports figures, who are already millionaires, have written words about life – as it relates to sports. The connection, in my world, has been – and is – at the end of my fingertips when I hold a single 2.5 x 3.5 inch piece of thin cardboard. My age doesn’t matter. My memories do and when I see something as beautiful as a 1972 baseball card, or the recalled vision in my brain of a much younger self sitting on a front porch with a small paper bag, I feel better about the present moment. A peace.

Probably the same feeling Clemente had boarding the plane knowing he did something nice, once again, for his people in Nicaragua. He was a hero. A true sports-man of his generation who knew his beauty. Someone whose legacy and honor has lasted well beyond that fateful last day of 1972. A year when artistry bloomed out of darkness in the card collecting world, but we lost a gentleman, a father, an athlete of refined talent who I never saw play.

This is ok in my world. I have card #309 to remember his strength and humanity – two qualities in life for all of us to remember when opening packs of kindness in our hearts.