Changing Heroes

mr-mom-carriageIt doesn’t happen all at once, like finding the train set Santa was supposed to bring at the back of your parents’ closet, suddenly realizing the rumors you heard from the older kids were true.  It’s more of a gradual process like understanding that your dad isn’t the strongest man on the block, Superman really can’t fly and it’s okay for a fully grown guy to cry.

Morphing into a man can be tough enough but becoming a father can be downright confusing; kids don’t come with a manual, and even if they did, the instructions would be constantly changing.  That has never been truer than today, as family roles are revised and the definition of family itself, even marriage, is being rewritten.

Back when I was a strapping, rebellious youth there were two types of male figures a kid might find in his life … he usually had either a father or a dad.  It was a short menu.  A father was a more formal figure who cast his seed in the night, then sort of came and went between home, work and wherever else father-types spend their time.  A dad was the guy who actually stuck around enough to help raise the little darling.  He saw to the child’s needs, was there to wipe tears, patch up skinned knees and dispense his own brand of worldly wisdom.

Enter male sensitivity and political correctness to help turn confusion into chaos.  We now have subdivisions of fathers and dads, the most bewildering of which to me is “Mr. Mom”.  This is the liberated ‘hero’ likely to say things like, “WE’RE pregnant!”  In some instances the actual mom, who for nine merciless months never sang a single chorus of “I Enjoy Being A Girl,” now goes off to put pork on the fork while Mr. Mom stays home to nurture their progeny.  Only a few years ago it was shameful if a wife had to work at all.  There is even a movement in some circles to grant the male of the species maternity leave, so he can spend several weeks home from work saying things like, “Honey, Honey the baby’s crying!”

For my money it’s further proof of the eternal truth … the only constant in life we can count on is change.  Being a parent is no easy task and fathers, by any name, will always have a full plate.  The day I became a dad was the proudest of my life and that pride continues through the years without limit.  Just remember, regardless of how we mature men of maternity define our role within the family, old fashioned or new fangled, the most important thing is that we be there.


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A Cup ‘O Somethingorother

Santa had come and gone. The children were nestled all snug in their beds but the sugar plums that once danced in their heads had been devoured and, by now, the resulting ‘high’ subsided settling things back to a dull roar. Even the nastiest little crumb cruncher hadn’t received coal in his stocking and all was well. Or was it?

Here it was New Year’s Eve and each year the same two things always amaze me. The first is how the nature of my celebration has changed with time. The other is our tradition of getting misty-eyed over a song to which most people know the words but few know either the meaning or how to spell it.

For years I held that Christmas was the holiday for kids and New Year’s was the adult holiday. To prove it, I’d whip up a batch of lethal ingredients that became known to anyone who experienced the concoction as “The Brew.” It was my cup ‘o kindness. I’d simmer a 1/2 cup each of raisins and blanched almonds in a cup of vodka for about five minutes. Then dump the mixture into a large pot together with a bottle of Ruby Port and a bottle of Brotherhood Holiday Wine — heat until just short of boiling and inflict.

The result made you feel warm and secure all over. But the stuff was insidious. This is the kind of thing you’d serve to spies or quiet women who you suspected of having a deeper inner self. It was so delicious that you kept wanting more; you didn’t slur your speech and your mind seemed clear. But then, if you tried to stand up and walk, Gumby would have laughed at your perfect pair of rubber legs. Eventually, all the ingredients joined voices to provide a memorable lecture about the evils of drink.

These were the days when about twenty of us would chip in for a suite at The Robert Treat Hotel in Newark where we could party hearty and wouldn’t have to pick up in the morning — only bodies. After many of us married and acquired families, we became a calmer crew with calmer parties and bought homes to which we invited fewer people. In other words, we settled down — sort of.

As the years passed friends scattered, New Year’s celebrations shrank and pretty soon we began to prefer just a conversational get-together with another couple. “The Brew” faded into history and was replaced with modestly-priced Champagne, concerns about alcohol mixing with meds and a responsible attitude toward DWI. So, dust me off and prop me up, okay?

Through it all however, large party or small, after the ball in Times Square dropped at midnight, we always welcomed the New Year with a chorus or two of “Auld Lang Syne.” It was tradition — but what the hell does it mean? In case you’ve been faking it all these years like a lot of folks, who never learned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” either, here are the official lyrics:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

It turns out that “Auld Lang Syne” is an extremely old Scottish song that was first written down in the 1700s. Robert Burns is the person whose transcription got the most attention, so the song is associated with him. A little research tells me that a good translation of the words “auld lang syne” is times gone by. So [unless they’re blowing smoke up my kilt] when we sing this song, we are saying, “We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet for times gone by.” In today’s world it’s advisable to bring your own crockery.

As to the opening lines about forgetting old acquaintances, I can do without any number of people that have shaken my hand through the years and tried to steal my fingers, but friends are something different. I’ve had four good ones who have filled my cup with more than just kindness for a long time. Sometimes we get a bit out of synch but if one of them should decide to pack up and check out of this hotel before I do, rest assured he’ll never be forgotten — or auld lang syne.


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Closet Santa Claus

Christmas-PurpleShadow-PresentsSomeone I know once told her kids that Santa Claus was dead!  Can you believe that?  Now, this is the same person who didn’t allow costumes or trick or treating on Halloween because it was a celebration of “Devil’s Night.”  Talk about killing kidhood!  Halloween I can let slide because it has already been defiled by people inflicting their own evil-doings upon innocent little witches and goblins … but for me, the most magical memories I own have to do with strings of colored lights, a jolly old fellow in a fuzzy red suit, bright paper packages tied tightly with ribbon … with Christmas!

When I was in the neighborhood of four or five, I remember sneaking downstairs in the purple glow of morning’s first light for a peek under the tree.  Even back then, it was apparent that Mom and Dad weren’t raising any stupid kids.  One by one I would creep down the steps, keeping to the inside along the wall, where they were tighter and wouldn’t creek the way they did if someone stepped in the center!  It was important not to wake my folks but critical not to come upon Santa should he still be lingering over the milk and cookies I had left him.

There they were, spread wall to wall in the living room … I could see the presents between those round white thingies that support the railing!  The carrots for the reindeer were gone, as were Santa’s snacks and Santa himself.  The coast was clear!  The task now at hand was to read the tags on the gifts to see how many of them were for me.  The light was still so dim that the handwriting was barely discernable.  Still, if I really concentrated, I could usually pick out the letters “F-r-e-d” and ignore the rest.  The tags that said “Freddy” were a bit tougher and hatched squadrons of butterflies in my stomach, as I went back to bed for a little finger math, and the endless wait until my folks woke up.

Santa survived intact for many Christmases, with many early morning adventures in the purple light, despite the slings and arrows of other kids who insisted that he didn’t exist.  Some of their logic seemed impeccable.  The pressure mounted until the time eventually came when, like most kids, I really knew I shouldn’t believe anymore but I was afraid not to … or maybe I just didn’t want to part with the warmth and the rush, the excitement and anticipation, that were probably the best presents the jolly old elf brought every Christmas … or, maybe, I didn’t want to part with the thing that so much made me a kid and have to admit that I was growing up.

My neighborhood had changed to twelve or thirteen (yes, I held out that long) and the thing I wanted most in the world was a Lionel Santa Fe diesel engine.  As part of my plan to once and for all determine the truth about Santa Claus, I spread the word about the Santa Fe diesel far and wide, so even the chubby guy in the red suit had to put it on his list.  Hopefully, he would check that list twice, like he was supposed to … just once, or not at all, would mean that my parents had played a part in this wonderful fairytale and it would have to take its place beside Chicken Little, Cinderella and The Three Little Pigs.

It was the day of Christmas Eve and my folks were going out to do some last minute shopping.  It would be the perfect time for me to do some serious snooping.  I scoured the house from top to bottom, attic to basement, looking in every conceivable place except one.  Most Parents’ bedrooms are kind of holy places and off limits to kids.  The chapel in our house was no exception but I had to know … so in I went!  There didn’t seem to be anything very special about it, except that it had two closets instead of one.  I carefully checked through drawers, behind drapes, even under the bed.  Nothing.  That left only the closets.  The one on the left proved negative for anything but the usual shirts, pants, jackets, shoes and the old lamp Dad brought home the day Mom said something about someone’s dead body.

The one on the right was my last chance.  If I didn’t find the diesel there, it had to be coming by reindeer and sleigh, tonight!  The second closet seemed much like the first … except for the big, round hatbox on the top shelf.  I got a chair to stand on, climbed up and pushed aside a few nondescript items, then moved the hat box.  Behind it was a brown, oblong box that read “Lionel” on the side.  My heart skipped a beat, the butterflies in my stomach began to dance and I could feel my face flush with a kind of embarrassment.  It was exactly what I wanted but not really what I wanted to find!  Hovering somewhere between rapture and tears, my trembling fingers pried open the flaps on one end of the box.  A red and silver locomotive with a mechanical yellow smile stared straight into my face and said, “Santa Fe.”

The next year I discovered girls and the nature of Christmastime changed until I had my own kids … then it changed again.  But I’m happy to report that through the intervening years, I rediscovered my belief in the jolly old fellow with the fuzzy red suit and even learned that growing up isn’t so bad after all, especially if you don’t let it happen all the way.  Everything came together once I realized that my Dad wasn’t really the strongest guy on the block, Superman can’t actually fly and … I … am Santa Claus!  Oh, and that person who told her kids Santa was dead?  Even she believes now, too.

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Not Easy Bein’ Green

OldLadyfingerWhen at a store checkout the young cashier suggested to an older woman that she should bring her own shopping bags in future because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment.  The woman apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.”  The cashier responded, “That’s our problem today.  Your generation did not care enough to save the environment for future generations.”  She was right … our generation didn’t have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, pop bottles and beer bottles to the store.  The store sent them back to the plant to be washed, sterilized and refilled so it could use the same bottles over again.  Very literally, they really were recycled.  We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new one … and replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing the whole thing away just because the blade got dull.  But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day. Read the rest of this entry

Thanksgiving Gravy

TG-CabinFirst, let me categorically state that everyone has something to be thankful for, even if it’s only still being around to air their latest gripe and have somebody handy to do eye rolls! If my friend Bob could have seen me steering my way through our Thanksgiving feast he would have said, “Look at him, sittin’ there fat and happy!” and he would have been right. If one can strut while occupying a chair, clutching an overburdened fork in one hand and a gravy-soaked dinner roll in the other, then I was strutting.

The reason my chest was puffed up bigger than the turkey’s wasn’t so much the incredible meal, meticulously prepared by my incredible bride of some thirty-six Thanksgivings, or even the fact that I was surrounded by a small gaggle of kids and grandkids, only one of whom managed to spill anything that would repattern the tablecloth. It wasn’t even having my Mom, now easing her way toward ninety-seven, raising a glass of wine with us and providing a toast in her parents’ native Slovak. It was something much bigger, yet so small I don’t think anyone else even noticed.

Vigi had heaped the table with every imaginable Thanksgiving delight, to the point of overflow onto a convenient sideboard. With appropriate gratitude offered to the Lord and before I could even warn my taste buds, I found myself the salivating recipient of the turkey platter … Read the rest of this entry

A True Jerseyan

New-JerseyI am from New Jersey. I sometimes punctuate my sentences with certain words that outsiders may find offensive. I say, “Yo!” and “Youz”… often. I never had school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I don’t pump my own gas, I know what real pizza tastes like and I understand that a bagel is much more than a roll with a hole in the middle.

I judge people by what exit they get off the Parkway and navigate a traffic circle or jughandle with attitude. All good nights must end at a diner … preferably with cheese fries and a shake. That long sandwich is called a sub not a hoagie or, worse yet, a hero and I wash it down with soda, not pop.

I don’t go to the beach, I go down the shore … and boardwalk brawls or getting hit in the head with a stray football are just part of the atmosphere. I drink lots of cawfee. I know that 65mph actually means 80. Most of my life, I’ve lived within ten minutes of a mall. “Reaction time” is how long it takes to hit the horn after the traffic light turns green. When someone cuts me off they get “the finger” AND the horn … and they expect it. I am from New Jersey and guess I always will be, no matter where I live.

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The House On Harrison Street

Haunted-House---McNaughtonIt was a time when ghosts and goblins were real, penny candy was still just a penny and holidays like Halloween were an entire season, not just a single day.  Any kid who didn’t have a haunted house in his neighborhood probably also missed out on Three Musketeers candy bars, wax lips, chewy little Coke bottles filled with sugary syrup and those tooth-snapping colored dots on skinny strips of paper.  The wide-eyed trio toeing the edge of the curb, anxiously searching every window of the creaky old house across the street, had missed none of these things.

JoJo had a problem saying his “L’s” so lemon would come out “yemon” and his treatment of yellow was a thing of beauty!  Lenny had a limp, since he’d been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, and was a frequent recipient of the sort of kindness often bestowed upon any eight year old perceived as being different by his peers. He sort of tagged along with the other two because they didn’t seem to notice … at least they never said anything.

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