Dad

On this day, January 24, my father was born.  I don’t know the day of the week or the time of day.  All I know for sure is that it was 100 years ago.  My guess is that it was a home birth.  My grandfather, Michael, would likely have been pacing the floor of their modest home in Pittston, Pennsylvania.  My grandmother, Edna, would have been attended to by mid-wives and perhaps a nurse.  Then again, I don’t really know all these details for certain…maybe he was born in a hospital with doctors attending.  I just don’t know and it’s way too late for me to find out what happened…100 years today.

He lived one month past his 90th birthday.  He died in a nursing home in Sayre, Pennsylvania.  I had waited by his bedside until I felt that I had to leave.  Forty minutes after I got home, I got the call telling me he had passed.  Maybe he was waiting for me to leave before he left.  He was in a drugged sleep, so, again, I’ll never know.

He was a man with Dark Irish blood in his veins; something he was proud of.  He lived through the presidencies of Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.  He was born only a few years after the Wright brothers flew an airplane and he watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon.  His life spanned WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and the Gulf Wars.  He saw the birth of the computer age and he watched with interest when Viking landed on Mars.  He lived through the Great Depression (something he never forgot).

His parents were not well off financially so he dropped out of school and headed to New York City to work for Bell Labs in the west village.  He sent a few dollars home.  With what he had left, he went to the movies.  He watched the Empire State Building being completed.

After NYC, it was back to the farm.  He finished high school a year early.  He married my mother, Mary, in 1936.  He went to work for IBM in Endicott, N.Y. in the late 1930’s and retired in the mid-’70’s.  He loved golf, Ireland and Irish golf.  It was from him that I got the love of reading.

Sadly, he went through a period of loss that began in 1991.  He lost his granddaughter, his wife and two of his four sons (both were in in their fifties).  A year before he passed away, he learned that his youngest son (me) had survived leukemia…but he never lived to see my first book published.

I could go on.  But, I will only add that he loved cars…but only certain cars.  I don’t know what criteria he used in measuring the character of a certain car over another, but look into his eyes in the photos below.  Maybe you can see something I missed.

One more thing: at around the age of 86, he discovered ABBA.

What’s left to say?  He lived a long and interesting life.  Let’s hope we all do that.

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Losing King–Losing Thea

The email from my daughter, Erin, came on the evening of January 16.  It’s title was short and full of foreboding: “Thea’s gone.”  A few hours earlier she had written that she and her husband had taken Thea to the “doggie hospice”.

Now this.

She described how her big black lab mix, Thea, had to be put down because of the obvious pain she was in.  I replied with a note of consolation.  As if that would help.  I thought of my daughters heartbreak, then I began to recall a similar feeling of the loss of a loved pet that I experienced nearly sixty years ago.  I lost my dog, King.

Over the decades, I began to lose the memory of King and how, as a young boy of nine, I ran all over our back yard with him, played with him and laughed at him.  I had unearthed a box of old photos a year ago.  There was King, in the winter standing next to my igloo.  There he was in the summer sun of the backyard.  I remembered the time when he got into the garbage, somehow, and ended up with his snout stuck into an empty can of Campbells Tomato Soup.  He panicked and ran all over our yard while me and my brothers tried to catch him and free him of the can on his snout.  It took awhile before we cornered him by the garage removed the can.  I thought of the time when King got lost in the tall weeds in another section of our yard.  My brothers watched the path of moving brush and then, to get his bearings, he would leap straight up in the air and take a quick look around to locate us.

Now, with this sad news, I began to look for patterns and pitfalls of pet ownership.  Erin’s experience with Thea and mine with King had similarities, but also major differences.

In my experience, when a child loses a pet, two outcomes can take place.  Either the child cries, moves on and takes on a new pet…knowing now that there’ll be heartbreak somewhere down the road.  Or, the child can chose not to experience that pain…and proceed through life without a pet.  I chose the latter.  My daughter chose the former.  I have avoided these kinds of hurtful events (my heartbreak came in human form) for decades.  Was I any better off?  Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

Another major difference in these two events came to mind.  Erin is an adult and she took full responsibility in caring for Thea up to the end.  She was hoping she didn’t make the mistake of keeping Thea near her, hoping she would pass away quietly in her sleep instead of suffering.  But, she made the decision to give Thea the pain-free end to a long and fun-filled life.  My daughter got Thea from a dog pound when she (Thea) was about six or seven years old.  That was around 2008.  So, do the math.  Thea was an old dog.

King, on the other hand wasn’t that old.  His problems began when he was hit by a car.  We began to keep him in an extra room on our first floor.  His body functions were declining.  His hearing was affected and he would howl like an arctic wolf whenever the train whistle blew.  We lived about a block from the railroad and in the late ’50’s, the trains were frequent.  King didn’t need a full moon to sound like Lon Chaney, Jr.

We talked about doing something for King…I knew what that “thing” was and I put a stop to any talk of the matter.  King was, more or less, my dog.  I would make the calls about him.

But I didn’t.

I know my parents loved me, but they did something that was to affect me for a life-time.  I’ve only recently forgiven them.  They thought they were doing the right thing.

I had the flu, or a really bad cold.  I was bed ridden for about a week.  I ran a fever for days.  I was miserable.

When I was better after that hellish week, I was very busy trying to catch up in school.  A family friend of our drove a school bus for the district.  He saw me walking to class one morning so he broke the rules and stopped to give me a ride the few blocks.

“Sorry about your dog,” he said.

I looked at him.  “What do you mean?”

“Your father took him down to Doc. Phelps and had him put to sleep several days ago”.

I couldn’t believe my ears.  I rushed home at the end of the day and asked my mother.  She said they decided to do it when I was sick and they didn’t want to upset me.  So, the choice was taken from me and the truth was withheld.

I was angry because I had lost any control I had.  My chance for a “grow up moment” had passed.  I was a bystander.  My daughter was just the opposite, making all the right choices.

Even today, I will stop on the streets of New York City or Saranac Lake and see a dog that looks just like King.

“Look,” I would say to my wife.  “There’s King.”

Growing up, I had no vision of King except memories of soup cans.  I avoided looking at the Vet’s office for years.  King’s bones were buried in the back yard, not far from the railroad tracks that carried the trains that caused him the pain I could have freed him from.

My daughter knows that Thea is romping on a beach right now, cavorting with other dog friends.

I cried the other night.  I cried for my daughter’s pain, for King and for Thea.

Erin reports that her cat, Guinness, won’t leave her side.  I hope she never has to.

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The Maltese Stylus

I looked out of the port-hole and saw the contrails of 757’s heading east, toward LA or Frisco, most likely.  So, good for them, I thought, let them get somewhere fast.  Me?  I’m happy right here, in the small cabin of a tramp steamer heading straight into Nowheresvilleport.  Once I get there, I’m heading for nearest tattoo den to do something sexy, some design scratched into my flesh with a (hopefully) clean needle.  I would get something edgy, something that yelled “dangerous”, something that would set me apart from all the others and would be bold enough to show through the manly hairs of my chest.  I was leaning toward something…some image…some icon that would make lesser men stand back as I disrobed in the Turkish baths of Perth, or Rio, or Dkakarta…or even East Orange.  The image on my chest had to tell the guys in the shadows that stilettos would not help them, nor would knives save them from my lethal hands.  I thought of how a tat of Patti Page would go down in Macao.  Or perhaps a scary likeness of Donny Osmond.  I even gave a moments thought of having a naked Lady Ga Ga on my thigh, with her “delicate” parts covered with reproductions of Nixon/Agnew campaign buttons.  But, even I couldn’t go that far.  Even I had to draw the line somewhere.  I guess I would let Mingo, the bald albino tattoo artist from Dar es Salaam to make the final choice.

But I digress.

“Here have another”, I said, as I pushed the quart of rum across the rusty flat metal plate that served as our table.  Boris and I shared the “berth”, if you wish to call a 10′ x 10′ steel walled room a “berth”.

Boris was on the run…just like me, but from what, he never said.  Once after six bottles of Bud Lite, he broke down and mumbled something about failing the Revolution in Russia.  He seemed hurt when I told him that the USSR fell apart in the early 1990’s.  It was free-market now, I told him, no more black market in Levi’s.  He didn’t talk to me for a week, only mumbling something about Stalin during our frequent games of Canasta.  I warmed to Boris and he warmed to me during those long months at sea.  He taught me how to break the grasp of a black bear, kill it and declaw it with a dull Swiss Army knife.  In turn, I taught him a few new needlepoint stitches he wasn’t aware of.

He jumped ship on an island off Shanghai.  I hope he finds his revolution, or whatever it is he’s seeking.  I even hope he found a boat to get off that island.  And, I hope he didn’t get hurt jumping ship.  It’s a long way to the water or the dock when you jump off the ship.  I suggested he use the gang-plank but he smiled his brown-tooth smile through his thick back beard…and jumped.

I, on the other hand, would jump ship further along the line.  I didn’t care where as long as I couldn’t be found.

Not after what happened in New York City.  Not after what I did.

The sordid origins of what brought me to the South China Sea are now safe to reveal.  Safe, yes, even though I found myself with a new cabin-mate after Boris limped along the wharf and disappeared into the Asian western Pacific fog.  I had just completed my nightly stroll around the deck of the steamer.  When I returned to my berth, my new friend was sitting on the empty hammock that once held my Russian comrade.  Her name was Lisa and she was a defrocked nun.  I know that when a priest makes a serious transgression against the Vatican, they defrock him…priests wear frocks, see.  And I also know that a nun sports a habit…but I didn’t know what they call a “fallen nun” like Lisa.  Dehabited?  I don’t think that’s right.  She never told me what she did or thought she did to warrant fleeing a convent, in Paraguay, of all places, but it must have been pretty sinful.  I caught a glimpse of that sin when, after six shots of rum, she pulled up her black habit hem and showed me her ankle tattoo.  It depicted Justin Timberlake chained to the glass pyramid outside the front door of the Louvre in Paris.  You know the building.  Designed by I. M. Pei and was featured in The Da Vinci Code.

But I digress.

I revealed to Lisa my problems.  She heard my “confession” and was very forgiving.

I am, you see, an addict.  An addict of the worst sort.  I have sold my soul to feed my addiction and I know I will pay dearly when Old Scratch comes to collect his reward on the day when I should be taking the up escalator…and not the down non-stop elevator to hell.

My addiction?  Games.  Small games.  It started out with big games, but with changing technology, the games got smaller.  I was hooked on Scrabble on Facebook, Candy Crush Saga, Words With Friends, Pet Rescue Saga, Spider Solitare, Lost Bubble and worst of all, Angry Birds.  When I got deeply involved in these sordid activities, the devices got smaller.  I had a problem.

My fingers are thick and fat.  On a standard QWERTY keyboard, it’s not a problem, but when the keys are as small as ink blots, my problems got serious.  When I would text a friend, my message would be: “meet me at Joe’s bar @ 5” but what came out at the other end was “make my erasure large and hold the mustard” or “xkyjoihg kjnost kdjkkjdid, ow?”  Now that might mean something in a country that uses a language root far removed from any known by linguists today.

So I had to find an a solution  My scores in my beloved games plummeted.  I began to lose friends.  My Klout score fell faster than a greased brick on a Triple X ski slope in the Alps.  My Twitter followers walked away like I had herpes.  I was doomed to a lifetime of failure and loneliness.

Then, there at the counter of a Duane Reade drug store in Manhattan, I saw the answer.  It was a stylus.  Small and narrow like a ladies ballpoint pen.  It was only $5.00 so I bought one.

It helped.  My scores went up but not earthshaking enough to satisfy my craving for love and respect.  And, then the unthinkable happened.  I put my stylus down for four seconds to sip my Latte at my local Starbucks.  When I finished wiping the foam from my lips, I looked down.  It was gone.  Some geeky kid snatched it as he brushed against my table.

I was now in despair.  I went back to Duane Reade.  They were sold out.  I ran from store to store, darting in and out of at least twenty DR’s in the four blocks I covered.  Nothing.

I was finished.  I walked past a few sleazy bars and topless joints.  How was a cold beer going to help me know?

It was then when I felt him next to me.  I never saw him approach.  Never felt him sit so close.  I looked over at him.  He was wearing a goofy green plastic derby hat.  Then I remembered it was St. Pat’s Day here in N.Y.C. and he was clearly far off the parade route on Fifth Avenue.

I started to get up and put some distance between the two of us, when I felt his hand on my forearm.  He didn’t say a word for a very long moment, then he held out something that grabbed my interest…big time.  It was a small stylus.  It was of a green hue I had never seen before.

Its been said by some that there are 28 different shades of green in Ireland.  Others may argue.  But this looked like the 29th shade.  There was something strange about it.

“Here,” he said. “I hear you need one of these.”

“Who…”

But I never got to finish.

“It may be small, it may be green, but the spirits of the Old Country have been watching you.  This, dear Paddy, is your pot o’ gold.  It was hand fashioned on the island of Malta by a group of gay ex-priests, exiled from Old Erin by the Bishop of Cork.”

As soon as he placed it in my hand, he was gone.  What just happened?

I walked home, and on the way, by some weird bit of fate, I found a Duane Reade stylus like my old one.  I took them both home with me,  like I had just scored a 2 for 1 in the hooker department.

I sat down and began playing my little addictive games.  I won.  I scored the highest.  I blew the challengers away like a leaf-blower on steroids.  I was on top again!  I couldn’t believe my luck.  Just to check things out, I tried a few unimportant games with the DR stylus and it failed me.

I was making a name for myself.  I was gaining fame among the small gamers of the world.  But, the very fame and love I so desired, began to turn dark on me.

Groups began to form.  People stopped playing me because they knew I’d win and win big.  Some hacker found out my street address and crowds, small at first, began to gather across the street and look up at my apartment window.  The crowds grew larger until the street was blocked.  I began to get hate email.  The hacker had gotten into my email.  I was kicked out of Twitter for posting child porn, something I did not do…it was the hackers.  Someone even breached my WordPress blog site and began posting nutty, goofy and inane blogs in my name.

One afternoon, a brick came through my window.  Someone had made their way to the roof of the adjacent building and threw it at my window.  It nearly killed my Ficus tree.

I went down to the laundry room and took a few hallways that led to the back door.  I pushed it open, ignoring the alarm in the supers apartment.  But the crowd had anticipated my move.  Screaming people were all around…so I ran for my life.

The mob gave chase and from the side streets, more and more people were joining the mass of angry gamesters.  I made for Riverside Park.  But it was looking hopeless for me.  Even a few winos who were sleeping on park benches joined in the chase.  I was clutching the green stylus in my right hand like a relay runner with a baton.  Dogs were snapping at my ankles.  I began to pour on the speed with all the energy I could muster.

Then I saw them.  Ahead of me, blocking the walk, were about 25 NYPD.  Their guns were drawn and the squad cars were positioned to block any way for me to get by.  Each officers gun was pointed to my left shirt pocket, where I had pinned my Ozzy Osbourne concert button just this morning.

I was running full speed at the drawn guns.  I glanced back and saw several hundred hate-filled people screaming my name:  “Death to Paddy the Cheater!” was all I could make out.  There were some references to my grandmother, but I couldn’t make them out.

I had to do something.  The glocks were set to fire.  The crowd was closer on my heals than the dogs.  So I did the only thing possible.  I turned sharp left, leapt over a flowering scrub and fell down an embankment to the edge of the Hudson River.

I threw the stylus into the pristine waters of that grand old river.

In the resulting chaos, I managed to escape.  I took a lady’s arm and grabbed her dog’s leash and pretended we were typical Upper West Siders, just out for a stroll along the West Side Highway.  I dumped her and the dog on 91 st Street.  She seemed stunned by the whole thing, but as I ran off down Broadway, I heard her call out to me:

“Will you call me?”

“So, here I am, Sister Lisa.  That’s my story.  Now what’s yours?”

She dabbed a drop of perfume beneath her wimple, and opened a box filled with chess pieces.  Big, wooden chess pieces that I could get my fingers around.

As I opened with the Pawn to Queen 4,  an old crab man on the west edge of Staten Island pulled up his crab cage.  Clutched in the third pale white claw was a green stylus.  The crab man took it out and clipped it to his flannel shirt.

Now, maybe I can text my son in New Jersey, he mumbled to himself.

Styluspic

[The Irish stylus is on the right.  Notice the subtle difference in color.]

Percentages

It’s very cozy in an Upper West Side apartment on New Years Day.  In a short time I was to sit down to a late afternoon dinner of goose.  That’s right, goose.  Our hostess is a doctor.  She was born in Belgium.  Also present was a teacher friend of mine who instructs high school students in the finer art of Latin.  She is fluent in about seven languages.  My wife and I made up the foursome.  We were listening to Edith Piaf on our hostesses iPad.  All was right with the world.

Then I begin to think about percentages.

But first, you will need a little something we writers call “backstory”.  It sort of fills in the early blanks of a story so you’re not confused later on…if you get my drift.

I took a girlfriend of mine to Paris in 1984.  It was October.  We pulled into Montparnasse train station after a rapid trip from St. Malo where we had arrived from a port on the south coast of England.  We stretched on the platform as we detrained.  When we got to the concourse, I stretched again to show the Parisians that I was very nonchalant about being in the City of Light.  I didn’t gawk, I made a big sweeping stretch to demonstrate that this was just another of my many arrivals in Paris.

I spotted a bistro among the shops near the exits.

“Let’s have a drink before we go to our hotel,” I said, while pretending to yawn.

This was my chance…my first chance to impress my girlfriend with my fluency of French.  We sauntered up to the bar and I leaned against the bar with a casual intensity.

“Deux vin blanc, s’il vous plait,” I said, with authority.

“Deux vin blanc? Asked the bartender.

“Oui.”

I had nailed it.  My girl was in awe of my cosmopolitan demeanor.

The bartender pushed two Heinekens at me.

Ok, I thought, he has my number.  He knows what he’s doing.  He’s intent on humiliating me in front of my girl.  But should I turn the tables and refuse the beer or…what?  So, I decided to play it cool to let him know that I knew what he was up to.  That way I would come out ahead…I was now onto his game.

I grabbed the beers and we drank them as if they were really what I wanted to order all along.  Besides, my girl was about 0% fluent in French.

Me?  I took French in high school and German in college but it stuck to me like velcro that’s sewn on backwards.  I was an altar boy for years in grade school, but I can only remember “Mea culpa” (my fault).  Somehow that stuck with me.

So, I was maybe 10% fluent in German and 27% fluent in French.  I knew enough French to take my girl to a Parisian restaurant and enjoy a great meal as long as it consisted of bread, butter and wine.  Isn’t that what the French eat?

Back at the dinner party.  We were waiting for a male friend of our hostess.  His name was Jamie and he was an artist.

That’s when I began to think about percentages.

There were four of us: 75% were women and 25% men (me).  Two of the women were in health care which was 50%.  One was an active educator, 25%, but I was retired from teaching…so on one level, educators were 50% and on another level, only 25%.  My wife is perhaps 60% fluent in spanish, the other two women were multilingual.  I really couldn’t count myself as fluent in anything except the bowling scores of certain pros I followed on the circuit or the batting averages of the infield players of the Brooklyn Cyclones.  So, in foreign tongues, 75% of us were fluent in one or more languages.  Wait, there’s Jamie.  I can’t speak about his language ability but he’s an artist, which would be 25% of our group.  I’ve written a few books so 25% of us were published authors, unless you count the professional papers our doctor hostess probably authored…so that would put published members of our group at 50%.  And when Jamie arrived, the dynamic of the gender situation would change, it would be about 20% male at that point.  During the pre-dinner conversation, we all talked about shopping at Fairway…that would be 100%. And we all have visited Barnes & Noble, again 100%.  Nationality-wise, things stood like this: 25% of our crowd was Belgian, and 75% were born in the USA.  But my wife is about 50% Greek.  I’m 50% Irish.  I can’t speak about our teacher friend except that she was born in Binghamton, NY (so was I), so 50% of the group were native Binghamtonians.  My wife was from Astoria, Queens, so that gave our group a 25% real-life borough native.  I didn’t know anything about Jamie’s heritage.

As the afternoon wore on, 50% of the women (remember they made up 75% of the group) were drinking wine.  But only 50% (my wife) was drinking white wine while 50% was drinking red (the hostess).  I had no idea what Jamie was going to choose to drink and that he had no idea how he was going to skew the percentages when he arrived.

When the conversation paused for a moment, I attempted to redirect the topic to the impact of the percentages we were dealing with here.  After staring blandly at me, everyone began talking again about other stuff…like whether Beyonce’s career would last as long as that of Keith Richards.

Then the phone rang.  Being a doctor she used the phones a lot.  This was the land-line.  I counted three.  So her apartment was 100% covered with phones that used wires.  All the rest of us had cell phones, that would be 100%.  I suspected Jamie had one too, so that number was safe, for now.

The call was from Jamie.  He wasn’t feeling well due to his knee injury and, with apologies, he said he could not make it.

In a way, I felt relieved.  More goose for me and I wouldn’t have to re calculate the percentages again.

Percent

Throw The Lady a Sweater

Normally I’m not averse to looking onto a rooftop of a building and seeing an unclothed female.

Normally.

However, here it is on New Years Eve and the temperature in New York City is about 20 F, with a wind chill of -36 F.  The wind from the Hudson River a few blocks away can cut right through any fabric known to man or woman (except for stuff that NASA has hidden in airplane hangers in Nevada) or garments made from directions from some survival manual and manufactured by a guy whose screen name is “Skeeter” who lives in a trailer somewhere about three hundred miles from Las Vegas.

I’m staying in a friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side.  She’s in London visiting her daughter.  I’m recovering from back surgery and I’m getting pretty bored.  How many pages of Underworld by Don DeLillo, can you read in a day?  I was told NOT to do any BLT’s.  For those of you fortunate to still have the back you were born with, that would be NO Bending, Lifting or Twisting.  This is not any easy regimen when you’re laying on a pull-out bed and your torso wants to face north and your legs want to go south.  That’s the hard part.  The bending and lifting is something I’m glad to leave to someone else…like my wife.  Hey, she’s a nurse.

I shuffle over to the window and look down on the above mentioned rooftop.  So there’s an unclothed female.  Let’s not shy away from the obscene…she’s naked!  This is not a really huge surprise to me because, well, one can do pretty much anything in this Great City…and standing naked on a roof is actually no big deal.  I’ve seen it dozens of times (too bad I wasn’t awake during those dozens of times).

I tried to raise the window.  It was stuck…only open about three inches.  I braced my self against the sill and window frame.  I had to be careful, I was alone.  My wife had gone shopping at Fairway for some much-needed ice cream.  I asked for the Salted Caramel flavor.  Salt and caramel?  Salt goes on peanuts and roads and mashed potatoes…but with a sweet like caramel?  I dunno.  I didn’t care.  I loved it, and by the living God that made me, I deserved it.

The window.  I watched her with curious intent bordering on voyeurism.  I’m a man, am I not?  It’s in our genes.  Then I noticed that she held a horn to her lips. (I failed to mention that her back was to me, shyly, but without apology.)  She stood very still.  I couldn’t blame her, I was cold in the apartment.  She was demurely and partially hidden by a potted evergreen.  From where I stood, I think they were cedars…but I could be wrong.  In New York City, you never know.

I leaned over with some effort.  I was not bending!  I was hold firm to the window frame.  I put my mouth down to the three inches of openness and called out: “Happy New Year”.  She never acknowledged a thing.  But I’m used to that.  Clearly she was saving her breath to blow away on her horn, like a female Gabriel at the gates of heaven.  I stood up straight and stared.  She didn’t move.

Okay, ignore me, I thought, before going back to the TV to watch the ball drop in Times Square.  It was Ryan Seacrest in place of Dick Clark.  I studied Seacrest.  Yes, I now believe he will inherit the Rockin’ Eve Party for years…decades to come.  He has a mirror in his attic, just like Dick Clark did.  In about seventy-seven years, he will pass the mike to someone who’s not even born yet.

I went back to the window and yelled “Happy New Year” again.  Still she didn’t even glance over her beautiful left shoulder.

I’m being ignored by yet another naked female in New York City.  So what’s new?  I looked again at her shoulder.  The hue was that of weathered copper.

I studied her back, her hair and the hand holding the horn.  She never moved a micron, I’m sure.

She never will.

I was yelling “Happy New Year” to no one and to everyone.

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