Nailed it! Then caulked and painted it!

I’ve found a kindred spirit that abhors all those home improvement shows as much as I do. And he’s written a hilarious blog post about it.

Trust me, more than 12 people read his blog, unless there are only 11 other people besides me who appreciate well-crafted sarcastic humor.

The entire post is here. You won’t list it, you’ll love it. And the rest of his Hitting the Trifecta blog posts are well worth checking out as well.

Attaboy, Billy!

Billy Bragg has always been one of my favorite folkies. (Or as I heard him describe himself in concert once: “a quasi-political punk-rock folk singer.”) His new song “The Sleep of Reason” is a great example of why I love him so. Check out the bitingly insightful lyrics.

And in the end, the greatest threat faced by democracy/isn’t fascism, or fanaticism, but our own complacency. 

The year without a Santa Claus

As I sit down to write this, it’s 10:40 a.m. on a Sunday. Normally I’d be at Mass right now, sitting in the same pew as my wife’s uncle Neil, and his wife Gayle. They were with us on vacation in Florida July 1-8, along with a bunch of Neil’s relatives, and everyone rolled back into town late last Saturday night. After every Sunday Mass, all the family members in attendance always gather and talk for a bit, with Neil at the center of the conversation.

A week ago, it was just Neil, Gayle and me. We chatted for a bit, and said our “see you next week” goodbyes… Neil had a heart attack later that day, and passed away on Thursday. Yes, he was 78, and overweight, and had already had a heart attack and heart valve replacement several years ago… but I still feel like he was stolen away from us way too soon. That’s the way it always is with great folks, and he was a fantastic human being.

There are so many stories I could tell about “Real Deal Uncle Neil” as I called him, but to me the one that best epitomizes his character and caring is this: for nearly 40 years, Neil would dress up as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and spend several hours visiting the homes of dozens of relatives, friends and co-workers, spending a few minutes at each house talking to the kids that lived there, having them sing a Christmas song, reminding them to go to bed early, asking them to leave a snack for his reindeer… totally getting into playing the part of Santa Claus. Our house was one of the stops when our kids were younger, and I’ll never forget the look on our kids’ faces when “Santa” showed up and spoke with them. Pure magic.

Think about that for a bit. For 40 years, Neil sacrificed his Christmas Eve to make others happy. It was no fun riding around dressed up in a sweat-inducing Santa suit, with heavy boots and an itchy beard… but bringing some magic into the lives of others superseded that.

Here’s the thing – the Santa suit was just a prop. Honestly, Neil was the type of person that brought magic into the lives of others every day – kids and adults alike. He had the Irish “gift of gab” and never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was comfortable talking to anyone and everyone, and always left you with a smile on your face.

In hindsight, as we look back at a few things Neil did on vacation that were a bit more sentimental than usual, we think he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close. We’ll miss him dearly. But I’ll also take solace in the words of Ray Bradbury, from his beautiful story about dying called “The Leave-Taking“:

Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. 

If it’s free, it’s for thee

The Craigslist “free stuff” section is where dreams go to die. Several months ago, we had two trees cut down in our yard, and one was a black walnut tree, which according to the tree company is a coveted hardwood. They said they’d leave a couple of 10-foot trunk sections intact and we could probably sell them to a lumber yard to recoup some of the tree removal costs. Ever the optimistic cheapskate, I believed them. After dozens of calls to lumber folks, and even an email to the Cincinnati Woodworkers hobby group, the trunks were still stuck in our yard five months later.

So I posted them as freebies on Craigslist – with the major caveat that they’d have to haul them away – and got a dozen replies within minutes of the posting. The “first responder” came armed only with a regular pickup truck and some chains… I thought there was no way that he’d be able to move the gargantuan logs. But he and his son pushed, pulled and dragged them out of our back gate, then set up some crazy scaffolding and a chain hoist to lift the logs so they could back the truck up underneath and gently lower them into the pickup bed. You go, Log Man!

The next item up for bidding (minimum bid: $0, maximum bid: $0) was four 10-foot sections of old wrought iron railing that we had removed from our 2nd floor deck about a year ago. My wife and I thought we could use them for some sort of decorative yard/garden project… but after a year of them sitting near our fence, it was time to let the dream go.

Again, we got dozens of calls within minutes of posting. I’m sure someone drove them right to the scrapyard, but scrapyard is better than our yard.

And finally, the pièce de résistance… or rather pièces de crapola. A bunch of weather-beaten old windows and two French doors from our sunroom.

   

I was hanging on to them in hopes that the local community garden could use them to build a greenhouse. But after a year of staring at the eyesores and no response from the garden organizer, it was time to let them go. The good news is the gentleman who picked them up does plan to use them for a greenhouse. So I’m sure they’ll be happy in their new forever home.

Now if only I could list the dog poop in our yard on Craigslist…

Work feels too much like work

Today is the first day back to work after a vacation (heavy, audible sigh).

I was off for two weeks, so it’s especially tough to get back in gear.

I suppose I could make this photo from vacation my computer desktop pic:

But somehow it’s not the same as being there.

Oh well, only 350 more days until I get to do it again.

Welcome to the working week
Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you
Welcome to the working week
You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it

 

Magic bus…er, minivan

I’ve been slacking on blog posts lately because I’m on vacation, so I’m slacking on everything that doesn’t involve a beach. But I do want to pay tribute to the mighty minivan that has taken us on our annual summer trip (or trips, depending on the year) since 2003.

Odyssey is an apt name for our van, because it’s been to Florida, Alabama, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Louisiana… anywhere the Dubbatrubba six-pack of people needs to go for summer fun. Last year the alternator died on our return trip, but other than that it’s been smooth sailing. We’ve been through so much together that I’m really going to miss ol’ Blue when he’s gone.

This year we brought a cousin along for our trip, so we took two cars. Usually we have the hard-shell luggage carrier (we call it “the turtle”) on top of the minivan, crammed to the gills with all manner of boogie boards, beach chairs and sun canopies. But with two cars we had more storage space, and I was able to take our kayaks instead. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put those kayaks to good use…

 

Summer’s not a bummer

Happy Summer! June 21 is the Summer Solstice, the official start of summer and the longest day of the year. It’s also the wedding anniversary for my lovely bride and me. That’s not a coincidence. I had to pick a day that I’d remember, and I love Summer so June 21st made sense. (It also helped that the church was available on that date.) I tease Tina all the time that “the longest day of the year” was also “the longest day of my life” – but really we both know it was the luckiest day of my life.

This year is our 20th anniversary. Two full decades. A “score” in Abraham Lincoln’s parlance. 1997 seems like a long time ago (4 kids will do that to you) but it also seems like just yesterday in many ways.

My man John Hiatt captures the daily adventures of married life quite well in this pretty little ditty. It has some great lines, like “I always thought our house was haunted  ’cause nobody said boo to me” and

“Now I’m in my car
I got the radio on
I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back seat
‘Cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts”

But my favorite lines are here:

Time is short and here’s the damn thing about it
You’re gonna die, gonna die for sure
And you can learn to life with love or without it
But there ain’t no cure

While we’re on an Americana jaunt, let’s keep the momentum going with a great duet from Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

 

Field of Dreams… Cow Pasture of Reality

Last weekend I went back to Arkansas for the first time in nearly 30 years, for a high school reunion. While I was there, I just had to drive past my childhood home in Hagarville, Arkansas (population: 129).  I hadn’t seen it since 1985.

It’s changed a bit.

You can barely see the front of the house from the road in front of it.

And there’s cattle fencing all around the house. Because my dad sold the house to the farmer next door, and when my dad moved out (circa 1999) to live with my older sister in Brooklyn, Farmer Ocil just extended the cow pasture that used to be next to our yard, and used the house to store feed and supplies. Ocil died in 2012, and whoever took over is just letting the place go to seed. So the house is abandoned, and falling down. I had to peek through the overgrowth by the fence line on one side of the house just to try to snap a few photos.

Did it make me sad to see my old childhood home in such a sorry state? Sure. But then again, it was never a showpiece, even in its prime. And in an “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” way, it’s fine. That house served its purpose for many years – as a safe harbor for Herb and his four young kids after his wife died. The yard was a place for us to play football, and basketball, and baseball, and catch frogs (and run from snakes), and feed persimmons to the horses next door. But we outgrew it, went to college in Boston and and Omaha and Cincinnati, and really never looked back.

Who cares if cows (and bulls) are now roaming our old stomping grounds?

The house can fall, but the home lives on. And that’s no b.s.

“Where does it lie this reverie

like a distant land

it shines forever in my heart

we all go home again…”

 

Wednesday the 14th, Part VI: Jason Lives

Do yourself a favor and carve out 40 minutes and 17 seconds today to listen to the new album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, called The Nashville Sound.

Jason’s been on a roll for the past few years, chronicling his sobriety, falling in love, becoming a dad… and doing it all with a unique perspective that comes from the crossroads of the Literary South and the country backroads of northern Alabama. The closest comparison I can make is he’s a male version of Lucinda Williams, and I adore Lu so that’s high praise in my book. His sound could probably be classified as “country” but his writing goes so much deeper than the truck tailgates and cutoff jeans of the “bro-country” set that you can’t even put them in the same category.

In the 1946 book “Confessions of a Story Writer” Paul Gallico wrote: 2

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

Jason’s been bleeding onto the page for years now… with fantastic musical accompaniment… and it’s music to my ears. His sixth studio album is another stellar offering.

Here he is rocking out:

… and here’s his softer side:

Watch the entire session to appreciate the full spectrum of Jason and the 400 Unit:

 

The other Memorial Day

May 30th was my dad’s birthday. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about him on Father’s Day. Since only 2 people knew of this blog’s existence back then, I’m doing a “rerun”:

I think of my own father, Herbert, who also was the father of four. His wife died at age 33, of leukemia, just a few months after the diagnosis. Dad was left to raise four children under the age of 7 all by his lonesome. How do you survive that gut punch, that heartbreak, that total meltdown of your world? In many ways, my dad never did fully recover. But he did the best he could. We moved from Jersey City, NJ to Hagarville, Arkansas – from the big city to the tiniest speck on the map in the foothills of the Ozarks. “Culture shock” doesn’t do it justice. However, it was a great place for us to grow up with a single parent, and has made my life experiences richer.

We were dirt poor, but our dad bestowed gifts upon us that were priceless: kindness, integrity, compassion.

Herb passed away in 2010. I miss him every day. To anyone who has lost a father, this beautiful song by Billy Bragg is for you.

And to add a bit of “bonus footage” to the rerun, there’s another great song about missing your old man below. My friend Tim Condron (check out his Second Takes blog) lost his father, a Norwood, Ohio firefighter, while we were in college together. His dad contracted Hepatitis B on the job, while coming to the aid of an overdose patient.

(You can read the entire article Tim wrote for Cincinnati Magazine here.) Tim and I took several classes together at Xavier, as we were both communications majors. Shortly after his father passed away, Tim put together a video of still photos of his father with this song as the soundtrack. It was one of the most moving pieces I’ve ever seen.

Here’s to you, Herb and Jim, and all the other good dads who are no longer here, yet always present.