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…”

 

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.

 

This was their finest hour! (Actually, make that 19 hours.)

It wasn’t much of a story, really, just a brief blurb buried in the Cincinnati Enquirer on a few changes that Xavier University is making to their on-campus basketball and volleyball arena, The Cintas Center. But man, did it open a giant can of memory worms for my old XU crew.

Xavier is installing a new craft beer bar in an upper corner of the basketball arena, and the bar they are installing is the same 35-foot cherryback bar that was in The Norwood Cafe, a legendary hole-in-the-wall bar just off campus that was demolished a decade ago when Xavier expanded their campus footprint.

“The Woods” as it was called, was a throwback from a bygone era, when the city of Norwood had a General Motors plant. The bar would open at 5:30 a.m. for those GM third-shifters looking to have a beer — or a famous “Double Beamer” of coke and whiskey — before their morning bedtime. Long after the GM plant quit making Camaros, the bar hours remained the same. For Xavier University students, “opening the Woods” became a thing, a badge of honor, bragging rights: you’d stay up past the closing time of Dana Gardens (the other XU watering hole) at 2:30 a.m., and find something to occupy your time until you could stumble into the Woods at 5:30 a.m. for a nightcap that was really a morning cap. But there was also a legend (or myth) about a few hardy Musketeers who had both opened and closed the Woods – staying there from the time the bar opened until the time it closed… 19 or so hours. Well, straight from the “it seemed like a good idea at the time” book, my friend LJ and I realized that our senior year exam schedule would allow us to complete that feat. Challenge accepted!

L to R: yours truly and LJ. Men on a mission.

We knew we had to pace ourselves, so we limited our alcohol intake, and we also spent most of the daytime hours playing darts and doing yearbook-style legacies/prophecies for all of our buddies. When they showed up that evening, we had an impromptu ceremony, with the reading of the legacies and a gift exchange where each guy brought article that was unique to him. We pulled names from a hat and whoever’s name you picked, you got that person’s keepsake. Which is how Paul from Cleveland wound up with my treasured and oh-so-stylish “Hawg Hat” that no true Arkansas Razorback fan would be without.

Haters gonna hate the Hawg Hat

Bill Clinton has been called a pig by many.

When I read the article about the Woods bar being installed at the arena, I emailed a link to “the gang” figuring it would be good for a chuckle or three. But the response was overwhelming. Nearly every guy weighed in — including our friend Matt, breaking his self-admitted “radio silence” of several years. They brought up memories not only of that night, but of other notable events during our time together on campus.

 

Matt giving Ned his patented “helicopter spin”… he let go a couple seconds later.

I’ve read that women’s friendships are based on shared emotions, and men’s friendships are based on shared experiences. Or as this Wall Street Journal article puts it:

Researchers say women’s friendships are face to face: They talk, cry together, share secrets. Men’s friendships are side by side: We play golf. We go to football games.

Some of my best friends in the whole wide world are in the photos above. Just a bunch of kids from Cleveland and Akron and Strongsville in Ohio and Tampa and Middletown, Connecticut and Louisville and Indianapolis and the West Side of Cincinnati… and Clarksville, Arkansas, of all places. Thrown together in a dorm and learning how to get along. Doing some stupid stuff, but living to tell about it. And living to re-live it… even at our advanced age.

So thank you, Cintas Center, for installing the bar from the Norwood Cafe in your arena. As a season ticket holder for men’s basketball, now I’ll be reminded of good times spent with great friends at least 16 times a year. Maybe I’ll even have a Double Beamer to celebrate. But not 19.

 

Make every day a Ray Day

I work from home on Tuesdays, and if the stars align, I’m able to sneak in a workout at the Mt. Washington Recreation Center near my house between the time my oldest son heads to high school and the time I have to wake my youngest for grade school.

I used to go to the Rec Center nearly every weekday morning, back before my kids started high school and had an earlier wake-up call. There was a morning crew of about five to eight “regulars” at the Rec back in those days, including an elderly gentleman named Ray Neyer. He was a friendly chap, always smiling, sharp as a tack even in his 80s. Ray became the unofficial mayor of our assemblage.

Yesterday morning I went to the Rec, and one of the other morning workout warriors had made some muffins and brought in some oranges to celebrate “Ray Day” – because he died on May 23, 2015 at the age of 86. Think about that for a moment: someone who only knew Ray from their gym time together each morning was so impressed by him that they were celebrating his life two years after he passed away. That tells you what kind of person he was. His obit certainly shows that he led a fulfilling life:

Ray was a graduate of St Xavier High School (’47) and University of Notre Dame (’52). He was a decorated Korean War veteran. After an honorable discharge Ray worked in and owned the family business Al. Neyer, Inc. with his father, uncle, brothers, sons, nephews & niece until retirement. He received numerous industry awards and held various industry association officer positions. Ray was an active (to say the least) volunteer with The Children’s Home of Cincinnati, Mt. Washington School, North Fairmount Community, Meals-on-Wheels, and Mercy Hospital. In retirement, he was also a regular patron and friend at Mt. Washington Recreation Center. He was also a Board member/Trustee at the Reserve of Turpin Condo Association. Ray received numerous community and organizational awards due to his many contributions and accomplishments: St. Xavier HS’s Insignis Award, the ACI Spirit of Construction award, the WCPO Hometown Hero award, and the AARP Andrus Award for Community Service among others. His final act of giving was to donate his earthly being to the University of Cincinnati. He was an exemplary son, brother, husband, dad, father-in-law, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend, mentor, sounding board, citizen, and all-around great guy. He always left everyone with a smile on their face. 

May we all be so lucky. But it’s not really luck, is it? Ray could’ve stayed home watching Matlock reruns, but he chose to stay active, he chose to get involved, to give back… and he put in the effort to leave folks with a smile on their face. We can do the same, in our own way, to brighten the lives of those around us. Let’s make every day a Ray Day.

 

End of the (car) line

Our youngest child, Andrew, turned 12 this past Thursday.

Older sister Leah is not impressed.

A week from today, he’ll wrap up 6th grade at Sands Montessori, the same school his three older siblings attended (and the first public Montessori school in the United States!).

We’ve had kids there since 2005, and have made great friends with fellow parents over the years. It’s hard to believe that a week from now, we won’t be “Sands parents” anymore. It’s the end of an era, the closing of another chapter in our lives.

I work from home most Tuesdays, and drop Andrew off at Sands in the morning. I won’t miss the school drop-off line – for some inexplicable reason I fully expect preschoolers and grade schoolers to disgorge from their parents’ cars with the swiftness of WWII GIs leaving their Higgins boat during the D-Day invasion… a sure recipe for frustration.

  

But I’ll really miss my time with Andrew in the morning – waking him at 8 (I call him “Lieutenant Lazybones”), serving him a nutritious breakfast of… whatever sugar-laden cereal happens to be handy…

… listening to music on our three-minute ride to school, giving color commentary on the other cars in line (“look at this one, stopping only halfway through the circle… c’mon, your snowflake can walk an extra 20 feet!”)…

… sending him on his merry way with a quick “love you!”… and getting back a “love you too” because he’s not a jaded teenager yet.

Come August, he’ll be getting on a bus with two of his older siblings, headed to Walnut Hills. He’ll still be my boy, he’ll still be our baby… but baby boy has left the building. And I really miss him.

 

Howdy, Non-Stranger

This blog is usually about as far as I venture into the realm of social media. I have a Facebook account that was created by one of my co-workers years ago — without my knowledge or consent. (We’ll save that story for another blog post.) And I never really have “activated” that account so the only two FB “friends” I have are the dude who created the account (thanks Gopal!) and my co-worker Jason, a great person and fellow Xavier grad (that’s redundant).

Since I rarely visit my own Facebook page, yesterday I stumbled upon a message written by Jason a month prior. But the suggestion he has for all of us still applies:

So that’s our mission for the day: say hello to someone you normally wouldn’t. A simple way to make the world a bit kinder.

 

 

Cinco de Mayo is Quinto maggio to me

I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t feel like celebrating today. Not only is it a dreary day in Cincinnati, but 5/5 was my mom’s birthday. As most of you know, she died when I was quite young. Three years old, to be exact. Leukemia stole her away from her husband and 4 young kids, at the age of 33 (a.k.a. the “Jesus year”).

Let’s get the easy answers out of the way first:

  1. No
  2. No

Sorry, I forgot this isn’t Jeopardy. The questions are:

  1. Do you remember her?
  2. Did your father ever remarry?

Those two questions are usually the ones I get when I tell someone about my mom’s untimely departure from this world. #1 is a lot tougher to wrap my head around. Trust me, I’ve tried my best to remember her, but to no avail. So how do you miss someone that you didn’t really know? It’s a weird feeling, for sure.

I know the time from birth to age three is a crucial period, and so my mom was my first/best teacher. But when I try to conjure up some sort of happy memory, a warm glow from those halcyon days… nothin’.

I’ll tell you what I do know. My mom was a first generation Italian-American.

She too lost her mom young… and a sister as well. She played basketball in high school. (We had her b-ball jersey at our house in Arkansas… long after we moved from Jersey City, where my mom and dad met and married. I studied that jersey like it was the Shroud of Turin.)

When she went into labor with her third child (yours truly), my dad took a route to the hospital that featured a few cobblestone streets… and my mom gave my dad some good-natured grief about that. (The extra bouncing might also help explain why I’m wired differently.) When she was trying to teach me how to tie my shoes, I got mad and kicked off one shoe, and it flew up and cracked one of the window panes in our front door… or at least that’s what my older siblings told me… or something like that. It’s been too long.

 

There’s a Superchunk song call “Void” that expresses my feelings very well:

I look for you
And all I see, all I say
Is a void
All I see, all I say
Is a void
“Pity? Party of one? You’re table’s ready.”
OK, I’ll stop wallowing now. Cinco de Mayo’s for celebrating, right? So rather than focus on the negative space, I’ll celebrate the fact that my mother laid such a strong foundation in our short time together that I do miss her to this day, even if my “miss” is different from most. Diamonds are forever, but so are DNA and “imprinting.”
I’m far from a masterpiece, but my siblings and I are her masterpieces.  Superchunk, bring it home:
Don’t go wait for me,
No, don’t go Wait for me
Because I don’t believe
I don’t believe everything I see
No, I don’t believe
I don’t believe everything I see

Happy Earth Day to You

Hey, it’s Earth Day, the one day out of 365 (or 366) that we actually give a damn about the planet we all share. Each year is the hottest on record. Smog is getting smoggier. Rains are turning to floods. Earthquakes are a fracking nightmare. A 94-year-old engineer may be our last hope.

OK, maybe I’m being overly dramatic. But I’m also being overly Dramarama…

What Are We Gonna Do? – Dramarama from Damian John Spooner – Upton on Vimeo.

What are we gonna do? Here are some ideas.

Happy Birthday, Planet Earth!

Trying to make sense of the senseless

I usually like to keep the ol’ dubbatrubba blog rather light and fluffy. But when the largest mass shooting in the U.S. this year takes place a few miles from your house, it’s hard to ignore it.

Cameo nightclub. My kids used to play soccer games in the fields next to it.

The typical NRA response to a mass shooting is “make sure more people have guns.” Shootings in a movie theater (see: Aurora, CO)? Arm the movie-goers. Shootings in a community center (see: San Bernadino)? Arm the workers. Shootings in a school (see: a school in almost every state in the country)? Arm the teachers.

Map of school shootings since 2013. Source: https://everytownresearch.org/school-shootings/

 

But isn’t the Cameo nightclub a prime example of what happens when more folks have guns? Here are a couple of quotes worth pondering, from Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley:

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? If you have a dispute, and you have guns, you might wind up with a Wild West gun battle inside a crowded nightclub that leaves 2 dead and 15 wounded. And these sort of shots-fired altercations are much more prevalent than terrorist attacks. Just ask Chicago. Or look at this tracker of the last 72 hours.

I grew up in rural Arkansas with friends who went deer hunting, duck hunting, rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting, and gun racks were pretty much standard equipment on pickup trucks. I’m not a “take all the guns away” person. But I also feel very strongly that it should not be easier for someone to get a gun than it is for them to vote, or drive a car… or even buy Sudafed.

If you are a responsible gun owner, this nightclub incident (and all the other ones like it) should sicken you. You should want to work to prevent atrocities like this in the future. There has to be some rational middle ground between “all sorts of guns for any sort of person” and “no guns for anyone.” Between “no regulations” and “outright ban.” Can we have a respectful, responsible adult discussion, please? Lives are at stake.