My bonnie lies over the ocean

Last week I dropped my only daughter off at college… in Scotland!

She’s studying psychology at the University of Glasgow. One of the “four ancients” in Scotland.

Parts of campus feel like Hogwarts.

Leah’s staying in a flat (don’t call it a dorm!) about 10 minutes from campus, with 11 other kids.

In hers, the WCs and showers are at either end, not in the middle.

Her building has 9 flats, and the student “village” has nearly a dozen buildings. So there are probably 1,000 kids (all students at the University of Glasgow) in her area. They hail from all over the globe, which can be a bit daunting, but also is pretty darn cool. It’s like a mini-United Nations.

Leah took no time at all to get into college mode. It was “freshers” week so there were a lot of planned activities for the incoming students.

She’d much rather hang out with her new friends than with her old man, and that’s as it should be for an 18-year-old. But it didn’t make any easier on her dear old “da” (as they say in Scotland). I wasn’t expecting the shift to be so swift. In theory, I’m all for the wee lassie leaving the nest… but in reality, it was really tough to let go.

I can vaguely remember my college days (too many years + too many beers) but I know the friends I met there are my besties for life. I really hope Leah has the same sort of experience.

In my heart, I know this is where she’s meant to be. But there’s also a big hole in my heart now. How many days until Christmas break?

Happy Other’s Day!

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, which really cheats moms out of 364 days per year of the respect they deserve. But it’s better than nothing.

My mom died young (she was 33 – I was 3), so I’d like to start my own little annual celebration called “Other’s Day” to honor all the folks who stepped into the Grand-Canyon-sized breach after my mom passed away.

The list is mostly women, yet it starts with a dude… but not because I’m trying to reinforce any sort of patriarchy. My dad had to take on both parental roles starting when his kids were ages 6, 5, 3 and 2. No easy task. He worked sporadically (at best) but was mostly a stay-at-home dad back in the day when “stay-at-home dad” didn’t really exist as a role, and certainly didn’t have the street cred it has now. God bless him.

We spent several childhood summers living with my Aunt Virginia and her family in Houston, Texas. She and her husband (Uncle Don) had five kids of her own, yet somehow managed to add my three siblings and me to the mix for three months of the year without missing a beat. God bless ’em.

We were as well-behaved as the kids in this clip…

My other Aunts – Pat on my dad’s side, Inez and Rosetta on my mom’s side (the Italian part of the family, in case you couldn’t tell by the names) also provided room and board (which included heaping helpings of love) whenever we’d head back to New Jersey for a visit. God bless ’em.

My sister Jeanne had to take on a lot of extra responsibilities as the oldest child (and oldest female) in a motherless home. Heck, she drove my older brother and me to high school every day for two years… which may not seem like that big a deal until I mention the fact that our Catholic high school was 60 miles away from our house. I’m no math whiz, but that’s a 120-mile round trip. Every. Friggin. Day. In a hooptie car, no less, like an ancient Chevy Bel-Air with the rusted floorboards and no heat. God bless her.

In grade school, the school “lunch lady,” Mrs. Rinke, used to surreptitiously slip us the peanut butter sandwiches that were leftover from lunch as we were heading to the public library after school. It was an unspoken acknowledgement that she knew cash was tight at our house. In hindsight, I’m not sure those sandwiches were really “leftover” at all… she probably made them specifically for us out of the kindness of her heart. God bless her.

In high school, I spent a ton of time at my best friend Mark’s house, often staying there for the weekend instead of making the 60 mile trek back to our house. Mark’s mom Dixie (if that isn’t an Arkansas name, I don’t know what is) put up with our high school shenanigans, offered wise counsel (which we usually promptly ignored) and treated me like a member of the family. God bless her.

After college, when I was living on my own in my sparsely furnished studio apartment (ah, the benefits of a meager radio station salary), there was Billie Jean (not the Michael Jackson one). She was (and still is) heavily involved in outreach for the church where I attended Sunday services. She quickly picked up on the fact that I was a “stray” in Cincinnati (my nearest relative was 600 miles away) and started inviting me over to join her and her family, not just for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but also for random family outings. God bless her.

Later, when I went from on-air DJ at a tiny station in Oxford, Ohio to glorified errand boy for a cluster of corporate conglomerate radio stations in Cincinnati, I needed a cheap place to stay (ah, the benefits of trading one meager radio station salary for another). My friend and co-worker Kate let me stay at her townhouse. In exchange for watching her dogs when she went out of town (she was in national sales ), I got my own bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, home-cooked meals, and my “rent” was so dirt cheap it was laughable. The townhouse was a half-mile from the stations too, so I could ride my bike to work. I was able to pay off my college loans and credit card debt and finally get on decent financial footing, all thanks to Kate’s kindness. God bless her.

There are several other “Other’s” who should be celebrated… the myriad folks who were kind to our family over the years. But I’ll wrap up here because my memory ain’t what it used to be.

Yes, Mothers deserve more kudos than they get… but for me, so do the Others.

Tore up from the floor up

We’re in the process of renovating our kitchen. I blame HGTV. My wife watches all those home improvement shows and thinks it’s easy to just blow out a wall or three, tear out drywall and plaster, and reroute electric and HVAC and plumbing. All of which are in progress right now.

To be clear, when I say “we” are in the process of renovating our kitchen, I’m talking about a sensible division of labor: people who actually know what they’re doing are doing the heavy lifting, and we’re writing a fat check.

This stuff scares me… and I’m not just talking about the exposed electrical wires.

I’m afraid that we’re messing with the home’s “aura.”

Our house was built in 1941. It’s had nearly 80 years to accumulate ghosts. Tearing out a wall might unleash the hounds of hell…

… or worse yet, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

But we moved in 20 years ago, and haven’t done much at all to the kitchen. It was overdue for a “reboot.” And if “Saved by the Bell” can do it, by gosh, so can we!

Once the work crew started tearing things up on “demo day” (thanks HGTV, for that term of endearment) we could see that the previous owner had autographed his updates, which were done waaaay back in 1992.

Our kitchen had a “Blossom” vibe to it.

The other thing that’s revealed in the process is that houses are really just “sticks and bricks.”

And just because things have “always been this way” in your tenure doesn’t mean that they’ve really always been that way. Our sunroom has always been a sunroom to us, but it used to be an outdoor porch. The wall opening between that room and the kitchen used to be a window. Now it’s going to be an entryway. We’re repositioning the stove… but once some of the ceiling was torn down, you can see that the stove actually used to be in that same spot!

A house is pliable. Changing things up doesn’t make it any less of a home. Unless you take out a load-bearing wall! (Don’t worry, we didn’t do that.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash some dishes in the utility sink by the washing machine in our basement. I can’t wait until the reno is over.

Semi-hillbilly and proud of it

When I three years old, my mom passed away. When I was six, my dad packed up his four kids (ages 9, 8, 6 and 4) and moved us from uber-urban Jersey City, New Jersey to really rural Hagarville, Arkansas. (Population: 300 if you count the cows.)

I like to call it a “reverse Beverly Hillbillies.” (Culturally, anyway… we never were rich.) I guess my dad wanted to get a fresh start of sorts.

I vividly remember the first day we went to our new home in Arkansas. The property was bordered on one side by a dirt road, and on another side by a cow pasture. There was a propane tank near the driveway… I thought it was a submarine. I got burrs in my socks from walking in the ankle-high weeds, and had no idea what they were. In some ways, I felt like I’d landed on another planet.

Like this, only with more chicken coops next door.

We gradually adjusted… I adopted the University of Arkansas Razorbacks as my college sports team, and I even had a slight Arkansas drawl when I moved away to go to college in Cincinnati.

But the “Land of Opportunity” never quite felt like home, mainly because we were “Yankees” and had no relatives within 600 miles in a place where so many of the ties that bind have to do with close kinfolk.

“Seems the land of opportunity for me is just a curse” – John Hiatt in “Tennessee Plates”

However, it was a good place for four motherless kids to grow up. We could be what I like to call “free range children.” Hiking, biking, fishing… exploring the world without adult supervision and learning more about self-reliance.

I’ve only been back once since 1985. Dad’s long gone, my siblings live elsewhere, and the house is slowly being reclaimed by nature (watch out for the burrs!). “There is no there there” as Gertrude Stein famously said.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for The Natural State. It’s where I went from a boy to a… er, boyish man (and not a “Mannish Boy”).

So when I heard a new tune called “Arkansas” by Chris Stapleton, I got excited. Especially because it rocks.

When I worked as a lifeguard for a couple summers at the city pool in Morrilton, Arkansas, the city employee who managed the pool would switch the radio station playing on the P.A. system from rock to country… and I’d raise holy hell. I remember him telling me “when you get older, you’re gonna like country music.” I still don’t care for mainstream country music (a.k.a. “bro country”) at all, but Stapleton’s not mainstream.

“Arkansas” is on Chris’ new release, which is really good from start to finish. The album is called Starting Over. That reminds me of Arkansas too.

Four on the (flour-covered) floor

Our youngest kid started his first real job this week. (I don’t count the weekly community newpaper route he had for a couple of years, because a parent had to drive him around for that.) He’s 15 and a half now, and he’s working at a restaurant. The same restaurant where his 17-year-old sister works. Oh, and his 19-year-old brother… and his 20-year-old brother as well.

Yes, we’ve got a real pizza parlor pipeline going on. (Uh, not like the hoax one in D.C.) Our oldest even serves as the shift manager a couple of nights a week.

My kids are all gainfully employed. I love it! (So does my wallet!)

Ramundo’s is about five blocks from our house — easy walking distance (although our kids rarely walk it). The business is still doing well during the pandemic (more deliveries, less dine-in), the owners are great folks and they treat their employees well. (“They’re making tons of dough!” #DadJoke)

Photo source: New York Times… that means it’s New York style pizza

There’s only one problem with this pizza payroll situation: some of the pizza slices that are left over at the end of the shift make their way into our house… and into my belly.

I suppose packing on a few extra pizza pounds is a small price to pay for having someone else pay my kids.

(Dis)connected learning

My kids started school this week – two in college, and two in high school. Everyone’s “remote learning.”

I’ve been buried in my basement for five months now, doing the ol’ “working from home” thing during the pandemic. It’s boring. It’s monotonous. It’s drudgery. (Don’t get me wrong, I do feel fortunate to still have a gig in a cratered economy.) But yesterday when I went upstairs and saw three of my kids staring at computer screens, my heart sank. They looked like mini-versions of me, zoning out during a boring meeting.

“Said no actual human ever.”

It’s one thing for an old man like me to be a Zoom Zombie for work. But school should be more lively, and more life-affirming. Their days should be filled with laughter, broken lockers, lunchtime sandwich swaps, PE in a gym with a freshly refinished floor, soccer practice, juvenile jokes (they still get those at home). They should be passing notes in class, and passing their friends in the hallway.

I know (or at least I hope and pray) that this is a temporary situation. And it’s the right call for their physical health. But this is making them old before their time.

C’mon science, let’s find a vaccine…

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