Playing the hand that’s dealt you… or thrown at you

Ain’t it funny how time slips away. And ain’t it funny how some isolated, seemingly trivial incidents from your childhood get lodged in your brain for decades?

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In December of 1976, I was a wee lad of 11. And even in the three-network universe of my youth, pretty much anyone with a pulse could get a TV special or even a summer replacement series (looking at you, Shields & Yarnell). In that fateful winter month of our country’s bicentennial year (remember the red, white and blue fire hydrants?), skinny, buck-toothed magician Doug Henning appeared in his second TV special, the appropriately titled “Doug Henning’s World of Magic II.”

Most Famous Magicians - List of Famous Magicians in History

Michael “Little House on the Prairie” Landon was the guest host (Doug wasn’t much of an emcee.) And one of the guests was fellow magician/illusionist Ricky Jay, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. It’s been 42 years since that show aired, but I vividly remember the segment with Ricky throwing playing cards into the audience.

My siblings and I were so enamored with that trick (and Ricky’s showmanship) that we tried to replicate it… with absolutely zero success. But the concept of throwing playing cards seemed so weird that it became a running gag for us. In the ensuing weeks and months, we’d pick up a playing card, shout “Ricky Jay!” and throw it to the four winds… or at each other.

Image result for peanuts playing cards

(It goes without saying that in the ensuing weeks and months, we could no longer play traditional card games because we managed to lose several cards from every deck we owned thanks to our Ricky Jay impersonations.)

Yes, we were easily amused… and maybe that’s the point. Throwing cards seems so tame (or, to use the current parlance “lame”) in a post-Jackass, Red Bull Stunt Team, Call of Duty, VR goggles world. But making your own fun can be the most fun of all. It’s the most memorable too… I guarantee you that if I picked up a playing card in front of my siblings and shouted “Ricky Jay!” it would still coax a smile out of them, four decades later. And that’s pure magic in my book.

 

P.S. Ricky Jay was quite the Renaissance man – in addition to being a master magician, he was also an accomplished author, actor and businessman (he and his business partner created the wheelchair that made Gary Sinise look like a double amputee in Forrest Gump). Check out his obit from the New York Times and the trailer of his documentary below.

Young and… let’s just call it restless, shall we?

As far as I know, there’s only one official “Olan Mills” portrait style photography image of my siblings and me.

Wait, that’s not the right photo. That’s one from the Awkward Family Photos website. I’ll wait right here while you spend the next 20 minutes looking through all those awesome shots….

Aaand, we’re back. As I was saying, there’s only one official family portrait photo of my siblings and me. And the only remaining print of said shot is in the possession of my older sister. (Don’t start looking for any birth order subtext or issues… I’m fine with this arrangement.)

I recently asked my older sister to text me a photo of the photo, if that makes any sense. Here it is in all its late 60s black and white glory:

That’s me in the lower right.

They say “every picture tells a story” (and by “they” I mean “Rod Stewart”), but you have to be careful with that today, because anyone and everyone can be a photo editor. You may look at that shot and say “what a lovely bunch of kids.” (You’d better, because it’s true!)

However, you’re not getting the full picture with the picture above. Why? Well, because when we four wee tykes posed for this photo, one of them clearly had to go wee-wee. Please note the placement of my hands in the full shot:

Nature was calling, but I couldn’t answer because the photographer charged by the hour.

I could be sad about the fact that in the one and only official siblings photo we have, I’m a bit too “hands on.” But I’m an optimist, and I’m going to look at the bladder as half-full instead of half-empty. Because this is really a photo of a trendsetter. Yes, it’s true, decades before Michael Jackson made the crotch grab part of our visual vernacular, I was doing it.

MJ was the King of Pop, but I was the King of Having to Pee. Long may I rain.

 

My life is a comic strip

Now that our oldest son is a college freshman, this Pearls Before Swine strip from Sunday perfectly sums up our relationship:

And since we’re already talking about slang, how about some Beach Slang:

 

Remember, remember, the 9th of November

Yes, I know Guy Fawkes Day is November 5th, commemorating the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. There’s even a nursery rhyme about it:

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!

But November 9th, 1968 is the day that blew our family to smithereens. It’s the day my mom passed away. It’s been half a century… and nearly all of my lifetime. I was 3 years old. My siblings were 6, 5 and 2.

My mom was 33. My dad was 37. He was never the same. Nothing was ever the same.  

I’d like to light a match and blow up leukemia. Instead I’ll light a candle and pray for a cure.

Well, I’ve cried me a river, I’ve cried me a lake
I’ve cried till the past nearly drowned me
Tears for sad consequences
Tears for mistakes
But never these tears that surround me

Alone in this place with a lifetime to trace
And a heartbeat that tells me it’s so
I’ve got these tears from a long time ago
These are tears from a long time ago
And I need to cry 30 years or so
These are tears from a long time ago
These are tears from a long time ago
I’ve got these tears from a long time ago

Knocking out sticker shock

Yesterday The Man was trying to beat me up and keep me down, but I bobbed and weaved and counterpunched my way to a couple of wins.

First to feel my frugal fists of fury was Big Pharma. My son needs acne medication, and if we got it through my employer’s health care plan, with my prescription “discount” card, the price tag was a whopping $532… for a single month’s supply. No mas! Thankfully the dermatology office did some digging (at my behest) and found a speciality pharmacy in town that’ll get us the generic equivalent… hand delivered to our home within a day… for $90. TKO!

That was just the undercard, though. The main event was Dubbatrubba vs. Car Dealer. The “check engine” dashboard warning light was on in our 2003 Honda Odyssey, which our oldest son has been using since he got his license a couple of years ago. We dropped it off at the dealership Monday night, and Tuesday morning they sent the diagnosis: it needs a new transmission. Here’s their estimate: 

Looks like Dubbatrubba (and his ancient minivan) are down for the count. But wait, he’s getting up off the canvas and… he’s reminding the dealer that they have a “lifetime warranty” on the drivetrain (including the transmission) if you get all your routine maintenance done at the dealership – and he has 15 years’ worth of invoices to prove he’s eligible. What a counterpunch! The dealer is stunned, staggered, reeling… the ref calls a standing eight-count. And now the dealer is throwing in the towel… they’re gonna rebuild the transmission for free!

I’m surprised that my punch-drunk brain actually remembered that “lifetime warranty” spiel from the salesperson lo those many years ago.

Yes, I realize the car is ancient and this is merely a slight reprieve. Heck, we may not even hang onto the minivan. Our teenage son has been a sport about driving it, but now he wants something a bit sportier/newer/better on gas (since he’s paying for gas now and he has a job delivering pizza). However, it only has 150,000 miles on it, which is low for a Honda, and every extra mile we get out of it is money in the bank. Besides, it’s sweet revenge for all those times we’ve had to pay “dealer prep” on a car.

Score one for the little guy!

And now, the Song of the Day, Joy Division doing “Transmission”…

 

 

 

 

Playing soccer just for (penalty) kicks

My youngest kid plays soccer for the junior high team at his school. This past weekend, they won the city tournament, capping off an undefeated season. The finals came down to penalty kicks, and his team’s goalie, who is also our carpool buddy for practices, made a great leaping block of one PK to seal the win.

My son also played for the squad last year, as a 7th grader, and they won the tourney that year too. Which is certainly exciting, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Can you pick him out of the photo below?

Probably not. Because it’s a team sport. And the life lessons that come from that are what really matter. Last year, he didn’t get much playing time. Even this year, as an 8th grader and one of only five returning players, he wasn’t a starter. Because that’s how life works: nothing is handed to you. You have to work hard, get better, earn it. Which he did. Besides, a player can lead without being the leading scorer — he excelled at that.

The team’s practice jerseys have “Team over Self” written on the back. A not-so-subtle reminder of how to play.

I’m happy for the team, but not because they’re “champs”… because they’re a great group of kids who get along well with each other. Long after the trophies are collecting dust in a corner of the basement, the friendships he’s formed will remain. That’s a much bigger win in my book.

 

Being trained to love Germany

Mrs. Dubbatrubba and I recently ditched the kids¹ and took a week-long trip to Germany. Our whirlwind tour took us to Frankfurt (home of the frankfurter… but not Dr. Frank-N-Furter), Rüdesheim (a lovely little town — and I’m not just saying that because it has an umlaut in its name) along the Rhine River, Berlin, Nuremberg (home of famous trials!), Munich (home of Oktoberfest… too bad it’s in September), and Rothenburg ob der Tauber (a walled medieval village that was the inspiration for the village in Pinocchio!).

We had fun at every stop along the way, but for me, there was just as much joy in getting there, because we rode trains. After our typical air travel experiences getting to Germany (i.e. being herded like cattle, stripped of our shoes and belts, scanned, patted down, waiting in endless boarding queues and being crammed into seats that would be cozy for Billy Barty), it was thoroughly refreshing to roll into a train station ten minutes before departure and stroll right onto a train where the “second class” seats were more spacious and comfortable than most plane seats, with free wi-fi and a place to charge your phone. Our 344-mile trip from Frankfurt to Berlin took four hours. Sure, you could get there a bit quicker by plane (one-hour flight + one-hour check-in + random delays) but our entire trip was stress-free.

I was able to buy a seven-day “twin pass” (two travelers) for under $400, and it was money well spent. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn national train system is well known for its efficiency. Traveling by train is also a great way to see a bit more of the country, and I was impressed by what I saw. Beautiful little villages and tree-lined hills… and plenty of solar panel arrays and wind turbines! Germany’s Energiewende program has helped them get 35% of their energy needs from renewable sources. Why the frack can’t the US do the same?

Other random observations:

The food is a total sausage fest. Not many choices for two vegetarians…

…so we just ate pastries instead!

German has a lot of words that are funny to someone with the mind of a 12-year-old boy (i.e. me):

    

You gotta love a country with beer in their vending machines.

They also have a miniature street grid for kids to practice riding bikes on the roads. Genius!

I’m cuckoo for Germany

Even if the last syllable of my last name is on toilet paper packages.

Auf wiedersehen!

¹ They were with Grandma – don’t call Children’s Protective Services on us.

Gone but not forgotten

T.S. Eliot said “April is the cruellest month” but September and October have been pretty darn harsh for my college friends. We’re in our 50s, which means our parents are in their 70s and 80s, which means The Grim Reaper has been making a lot of house calls.

First to leave us over the past month was Alice, the mother of my friend Vinnie. Because I work in communications (and have always been good about keeping track of email addresses), I’m usually the one that gets the call (or text or email) and is saddled with the very un-fun task of letting the rest of our gang know about the “celestial discharge” as my wife and her nurse friends call it.

Two days after the celebration of life for Alice, my friend Robin sent word that her father Gil (a.k.a. “Gil The Thrill”) had passed away. When I sent out the note about Gil, my friend John emailed back to let me know that his mother Marilyn had gone to a better place. When I sent out word about Marilyn, I got an email and text back that our friend Jeff’s father had died rather suddenly. I’m starting to fear that my email notes are like those old chain letters, but in reverse. “If you DO pass this along, bad things will happen.”

I don’t want to be a complete Debbie Downer about it. All of these parents led full lives and raised great children. But I know firsthand that losing a parent is brutal.

My favorite author is Ray Bradbury. My favorite short story of his, The Leave-Taking, is about death… but it’s as far removed from morbid as can be. If you’ve lost a beloved parent or grandparent, please take five minutes to read it. And remember what Ray says: “No person ever died that had a family.”

My friend Vinnie’s brother John wrote a wonderful tribute to their mother, and shared it at her celebration of life gathering. He’s given me permission to post it below. But first, the backstory: Alice and her husband had seven kids, six rowdy boys and then a baby girl. When their youngest was still an infant, her husband left her… and she was left with the gargantuan task of raising seven children all by herself. The fact that all seven have been successful is great, but the fact that they are wonderful human beings is even more important.

                                         Our Renaissance Mother

           Mom marched to the beat of several drummers—each uniquely her own.   Referred to as “The Duchess” in the Farrell family household back in Philly, she was not only captain of her field hockey and basketball teams in high school, but also homecoming queen. She drew high honors in her academic endeavors at Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy and at Trinity College.  She walked down the fashion runway as a model back in the day, and was an artist who picked out the perfect shade of yellow for our family’s front door on Stratford Road. A Jill-of-all trades; she turned an old cast iron claw foot tub into a flower garden, cooked homemade meals for people in need, and started a sharing library for her neighborhood at her last home in Severna Park.  Mom was somehow always transforming herself, never being ashamed or too proud to do so. She inspired us all to do the same.

          We all could sit here for weeks on end and tell stories about this lady. But I guess that is why Mom wanted this party–so we could share those stories and maybe create some new ones.  There is nothing more honorable than having your wisdom passed down in a story, and Mom (or “Grandma,” or “Aunt,” or “Sister,” or “Friend,” or just “Alice”) had thousands of them.

          Mom once told me she was born too early, and if she had come of age in this day and time she would have been a doctor, or president of a company or even of these United States.  While those titles could have been impressive, I am so grateful and honored to call her Mom. She often sacrificed her own dreams and goals for her 7 children, 19 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.  Mom was our first caregiver, our first friend, our first teacher who helped shape and form all our strong foundations. Teaching us that there is no substitute for higher education, independence and a good upbringing, she passed down her wisdom, her values, her manners, her strength, her dedication, and her determination using tough love (and the occasional bar of soap in the mouth) helping prepare us all for what existed outside our front doors.  And by “all,” I mean every one of us gathered today since Mom was a true believer that “it takes a village to raise a person.” The tough part, she once told me, was knowing when to let go and let us all live our own lives.

          The whole family meant everything to Mom and she did everything in her power to keep it together.  The glue at times grew thin and dry, but Mom made sure it never broke. When I was young, she took night classes to acquire a second college degree in accounting to help keep the powdered milk on the table and the heat set at 52 degrees.  Even in the end Mom was thinking and giving of herself to her world family. She was always ready to send a small check to support various charities, and she asked that the final one be written to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She recently told me an interesting story about why she had wished her body to be donated to Johns Hopkins University Medical School.  Mom told me that her father had applied and was accepted to Johns Hopkins many years ago, but his family could not afford to send him there. Her grandfather (his father) was a coal miner. Her father eventually graduated from Temple University and became a doctor. But Mom wanted to make sure her father got to Johns Hopkins one way or another.

         Mom was always a task-oriented person — one who did not find fulfillment at the end of the day unless a project was completed or new one was underway. Well Mom… you have done your job and you have done it well.  Sit back and relax. We will take it from here and we will pass along your wisdom and unconditional love so the next generations can build upon it. Something you and the world will be proud of.

We will love you and miss you forever.  May God bless you and keep you.

 

 

And then there were none

Got a call from my cousin Tom yesterday, letting me know that his mom/my aunt had passed away over the long weekend. Aunt Pat was one of my dad’s two sisters, and never really strayed far from her Jersey City roots. She and her husband (a.k.a. Uncle Vince) lived in Verona, NJ for most of their adult lives. After Vince passed away a few years back, she moved to Virginia and moved in with her daughter and son-in-law to be closer to family. She loved her kids. She adored her grandkids. She was over the moon about great-grandchildren.

Aunt Pat was pushing 90, but you’d never know it. “Young at heart” fit her to a tee. I remember when she was in her 70s and several members of our family had gathered at my older sister’s place in Brooklyn. My sister’s kids were riding Razor scooters on the promenade along the Hudson River, in the shadows of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Aunt Pat promptly commandeered one of the scooters and took it for a spin, as fun-loving and carefree as any teenager. That was Aunt Pat in a nutshell – when her peers were riding Rascal scooters, she was on a Razor.

Aunt Pat loved Seinfeld too…

She had a joie de vivre that always came through, with a smile on her face and a joyous lilt to her voice. Now she’s gone – the last of that generation to leave us, preceded by Uncle John, my dad, Uncle Vince, Aunt Virginia, Uncle Don… and my mom, Uncle Remo and Zia Inez on the maternal side of my family. Which means I’m now part of the eldest generation of the Dotterweich/Osellame family. The connective tissue with the greatest generation has been severed… we still have the stories they shared, but it’s not the same without them here.

There’s not much we can do about it, but we can live the rest of our lives like Aunt Pat lived hers – with fearlessness, with a fun-loving attitude, with a smile on our face and a joyous lilt in our voice. Aunt Pat never let us down, and there’s no way I’m letting her spirit fade away. Hand me that scooter and get out of my way.

 

Going, going… gone

A couple of days ago, I helped our oldest child move into his freshman dorm room (and it was on the 11th floor, and the elevator line was too long, so we hauled his stuff up 11 flights of stairs… and it was snowing… wait, now I’m mixing up my hardship stories).

He’s not going far from home. He’s enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, which is about 8 miles from our house. But if home is where you hang your hat, he’s now living “away.” It’s been a long goodbye. He started checking out when he moved into his own room a few years ago. (It’s the one above the garage, the former guest room, a.k.a. “The Fonzarelli Suite.”) Then he got a job at a swimming pool one summer and was away even more. He added another job at Ramundo’s Pizzeria, and started driving, and hanging out with his friends more, and spending the night at their house quite a bit on the weekends… but that slow fade from our house doesn’t make his departure any easier. He doesn’t have to check in anymore, doesn’t have to text when he arrives at a friend’s house. He’s on his own… at least until laundry day (which for an 18 year old boy could be months).

As an alum of crosstown rival Xavier, I can’t help but feel that I’ve failed in my parenting. Then again, Xavier doesn’t have an engineering program.

His room at home has been empty most of the time for the past few months. But now it’s a different kind of empty.

It feels more hollow… in a way it mirrors the hole in our hearts, the void in our lives. I’m so happy for him as he starts his next adventure, and I’m trying to focus on that part of the equation. But it’s tough.