Monday, December 31, 2007

So, How Was YOUR Christmas, Paul? Part 1

“So, Paul, how was your Christmas?”

“Oh, not bad. Saw family, watched the kids open presents, dealt with family drama, totaled my car nearly killing myself and family, spent Christmas Eve in the police station and hospital, nearly went broke, had oral surgery, didn’t eat for 2 days, in-laws’ house got broken into and ransacked. Pretty uneventful…”

This will go down in history as the Christmas from Hell in my family. I must append that statement with gratitude to God that we’re all alive and (relatively) well despite it all, but Murphy’s Law was in FULL effect all week. Want the full story? Okay, you asked for it. Buckle up, kiddies, it’s a bumpy ride…

Christmas Eve started about the same as always. I got off work a couple hours early and headed home to help Sonya get the final touches finished and kids ready so we could head out to Ida and spend Christmas Eve with my side of the family. The gathering is usually a high point of the season for me, as it represents a certain amount of stability and tradition over the years. I have spent the majority of my Christmas Eves with the same gaggle of about 15-20 family members for most of my life. I was excited and happy.

Earlier, while I was at work, my mother called me to ask for a ride, as my grandfather and uncle were heading up early and she felt she needed a nap first. I said it’d be tricky with the whole family in the car, and we wanted to take Sonya’s compact instead of my gas-guzzler to save some gas money. Nonetheless, I told her to call me if she couldn’t make other arrangements. By 4pm (our anticipated departure time) I hadn’t heard from her, so I gave her a call. She’d decided not to attend.

This would make the second family holiday in a row she had decided to skip for whatever reason. I was livid. After calling my sister to see if she had left yet and relay the news, she said she was almost to Ida already. She was deciding to turn around, as our mother’s withdrawal from family events had gotten her too pissed to enjoy Christmas. I told her to keep going, grab a drink to calm down, and that I would bring our mother to Christmas, come Hell or high water. I then drive out to Bloomfield Hills to talk my mother into attending.

When I arrive, she’s sitting in her recliner (one of only 2 places in the house one ever finds her) talking to my sister on the phone. After a little additional encouragement, she decides to go and spends the next hour and a half getting herself showered, dressed and ready. As she’s extremely overweight, diabetic, asthmatic, etc., these things take her a long time and there’s no rushing her.

We finally hit the road about 6, pick up Sonya and the kids, and head out to Christmas Eve. I’m fairly pissed at this point, because since Sonya wants to leave at 9:30 at the latest to get the kids in bed, it means only about 2 hours of festivities and curtailing my drinking to maybe 1 beer – 2 with a big meal, maybe.

We still manage to cram a lot of fun into 2 hours. My cousin Lori digs out the dinner makings for us to reheat and I have a good meal. Wonderful comfort food like turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash, rolls – good traditional stuff. We watch the kids open their gifts from the family we won’t see later in the week, sing some carols, and chat. It was everything I love about Christmas Eve with my family – just truncated a bit.

About 10pm, we hit the road. It’s drizzling a bit, but nothing major – or so I thought. After a few minutes, everyone but me is asleep in the car. About 10:30pm, we get to Outer Drive or so on I-75 and hit a patch of black ice. The car skids to the left median wall, bounces like a pinball across the freeway to the right shoulder wall, hits a small abandoned car, sending it flying about 30 yards on the ice, and comes to a stop with kids screaming and all aboard frightened and confused.

I look around the car’s interior to assess Sonya and the kids’ conditions. Sonya is okay, but startled, Liam is wide-eyed and crying, and Courtney’s face is bloody, but she’s conscious and alert. Panicking, I attempt to get out of the car and help Courtney from her door. Sonya stops me, reminding me it’s not safe and proceeds to clean Courtney up with a spare napkin. Just a bloody nose – nothing broken or teeth missing. However, as Sonya is contorted around helping Courtney, another, larger SUV barrels at us on the same trajectory we took and careens into us at full speed. It hits our back corner, spinning around us, and landing in front of us. If Sonya hadn’t stopped me from getting out of the car, I’d be dead.

Sonya calls her parents in Flint and our dear friend, Leigh, who both immediately jump in their cars to come to our rescue, while I call 911 and am told to wait for the State Police. Meanwhile, we’re all sitting in my totaled car, unable to move, watching car after car skid out around us. Liam is in the back seat, praying, “God, I don’t care about presents! I just want us to all get home alive!” We saw at least 7 other cars narrowly miss us in the HOUR we waited for the State Police – who, despite a SECOND 911 call, NEVER SHOWED UP! Thankfully, the Lincoln Park Police, who just happened to be driving by, saw the pile-up and closed the freeway, got EMS out, and helped as much as they could. It was not their jurisdiction and they shouldn’t have had to, but they weren’t going to leave people helpless in a crash zone. God bless them.

After some debate with EMS about the seriousness of Sonya’s back and neck pain and whether she should go with EMS to the hospital or just wait for our ride to drive us to the ER on our own, she is finally put in the ambulance and taken to Oakwood Hospital. I pile the kids and whatever toys they could carry into one of the officers’ police cars to go to the Lincoln Park Police Department. By the time we get everything situated, both of our cell phones are dead. We get to the Police Station and an officer is nice enough to plug my phone into a squad car to charge, as I only had my car charger with me. Meanwhile, the kids have calmed down and are both simply grateful that we’re all alive. They play with the toys they brought while I try and tame the mood further – for the kids AND myself – by playing some Christmas tunes on my ukulele.

I get the phone back after about 20 minutes and call the in-laws and Leigh. Leigh is a few minutes away and comes to pick us up. I swear, as she opened the door to the police station, I could see a cape around her neck, fluttering majestically in the breeze – our own personal superhero.

Leigh gathers us up and after getting some directions from the officers at the station, we head to Oakwood Hospital to check on Sonya. We get there and are directed to her room. She’s been there an hour with no attention form a doctor. She’s still in pain, but the initial exam seemed not to indicate any serious injuries (i.e. nothing broken, bleeding, or punctured). We all hang around until her parents arrive, trading off visits to the room to observe the 3-visitor limit. When her parents arrive about 2:30am, we decide it’s best to get the kids home and in bed and try to regain some normality to the holiday.

Leigh piles us in her car again, while Sonya’s parents stay with her in the ER, waiting for the x-ray results. We drive home and, not surprisingly, the kids fall asleep on the way. Leigh drops us off, helping to get our salvaged presents and the kids in the house and settled to bed. This wonderful woman woke up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, braved driving in the dark in unfamiliar territory (2 of her biggest phobias) to come rescue us in our darkest and most frightening hour without a second thought. If that isn’t the definition of a true friend and hero, I don’t know what is. God bless you, Leigh.

I spent the next 2 hours wrapping presents, calling the State Police to get the whereabouts of the remains of my car, and calling Sonya to get updates on her condition. Sonya gets home about 5:30 with a pronounced slowness to her movement and prescriptions for a muscle relaxant and an anti-inflammatory. The prognosis is still good. They didn’t find any breaks and she SHOULD be fine in a few day – or so they seemed to think. We sort out the details of the presents and wrapping for the kids’ stuff and hit the hay about 6am.

A very heartfelt and enormous "God Bless You!" to our personal super hero, Leigh McLaughlin and the Lincoln Park Police Department, without whom we might not have made it to Christmas Day!

God willing, this is the LAST of the drama for the year.

Heh. Yea, RIGHT!

Coming up next: So, How Was YOUR Christmas, Paul? Part 2

Monday, December 17, 2007

Driving In A Winter Wonderland...

Here I sit in the Train Station in Windsor, waiting to pick up a colleague of the dolts at my work and the train is running an hour late due to this pre-Christmas pummeling by ol’ Mother Nature. The wi-fi connection here is about $12/hr, so what do I do instead? Blog. Only thing there seems to do to pass the time, as I seem to have left my ukulele at Blockbuster.

The kids have the day off at school, but as I have to do crap like this to bring home the proverbial bacon, I don’t get to enjoy it with them and bake cookies, see Santa, go sledding, and do all the fun “snow day” stuff I’d like to with them. Snow days in this part of the country are rare, as we hardy Michiganders regard snow with a certain degree of apathy. We’ll get a foot of snow, grumble and complain a bit after the awe of its beauty have faded, then haul out the snow blowers and shovels and dig ourselves out to go about our business. The municipalities seem to usually get their act together pretty quickly and, as most of the area seems to drive gas-guzzling SUVs (myself included – I know, bad liberal!), a good dumping of the white stuff doesn’t deter us for long.

I’m always amused by friends from similar parts of the country who have relocated to warmer climates and their frustration at their respective new communities’ reactions to snow. Most seem simply aghast at how entire urban regions can virtually shut down at the slightest trace of snow. I used to think that way until I was caught in a winter storm on the East Coast, attempting to journey back to the Mitten State.

I was staying with my dad in Jersey for a few months in the winter of ’93. A friend had planned a huge formal party for Valentine’s Day in a pathetic, over-the-top attempt to win back his ex-girlfriend. Motives aside, it sounded like it was likely to be a great party and enough impetus to make me finally decide to brave the 10 hour drive and come home to spend the Hallmark Holiday with Sonya.

The day of my departure, there was a big winter storm predicted. The weather forecasters had been ranting and raving about several inches of snow. My obvious reaction, being a Michigander with all of 3 winters behind the wheel under my belt was, “Pffft! Snow!!? C’mon! You guys don’t KNOW snow!”. So, naively, I set out at the beginning of the storm, determined to show these Central East-coasters a thing or two about how to handle the roads in, what they deemed to be, a “massive” snow-maker.

All was fine for about 2 hours. I drove cautiously, but purposefully amidst the piling precipitation and was making reasonable time, all things considered. Then it finally occurred to me: When East Coasters talk of large snow accumulation, not only are the road crews NEVER ready for it, but they aren’t talking about our white, fluffy, cold, Northern snow. Noooooo. They’re talking about the wet, heavy, SLUSHY stuff that creates a 4 inch deep film of translucent treachery on the roadways. As I began to slow my speed a bit more to accommodate the increasingly bad driving conditions, I started to go around a curve – that is, my FRONT end did, anyway. The tail end of my car continued on the previous trajectory, spinning my car a full turn-and-a-half, resulting in my facing the WRONG WAY on the interstate.

You can guess what happened next. Yup. I got in a head-on collision on the freeway. As catastrophic as that sounds, my momentum was still going the correct direction and the other driver was slowing down as best he could. Thankfully, my grandfather had instilled the seatbelt rule in me very well, so the worst that I suffered was bumping my head on the steering wheel and ending up with a nice shiner for a few days. The other driver’s airbag deployed, so he had nary a scratch on him. A State Trooper wasn’t far behind, so he stopped to make sure all parties were okay, surveyed the situation, and chalked it up to no one’s fault – just bad road conditions. He was going to see this kinda stuff all day.

The other driver was none the worse for wear. I apologized repeatedly, but he dismissed me with a smile, saying that it was a company car, and I just got him the day off work, as he wanted in the first place, and proceeded to thank ME!

My car, unfortunately, wasn’t as lucky as I. The front 2 feet looked like pug dog. I had it towed to the nearest auto place. Now, any of you who have driven the PA Turnpike know that there is NO SUCH THING as the “nearest” anything. The first 5 miles of free towing don’t do much good on that stretch of road. So I spent 45 minutes in the cab with the toothless tow-truck driver, gave the auto shop my contact info so they could contact me with an estimate (which I had no illusions of being anything I could afford) and walked in the miserable weather to the train station. From the train, I took a cab to the bus station. From the bus, I had a friend drive me back to my dad’s.

All tolled, it took about 6 hours and almost every penny I had saved for the trip just to get me back to where I started. As my friend pulls in front of my dad’s place to drop me off - broke, exhausted, demoralized, and sporting a shiny black eye - he says, “Hey, today’s Anthony’s birthday and some folks are going to play pool. Wanna come?”

I stare at him with an overwhelming look of incredulity, pause for a moment, think, and say…”Sure! Why not!” I had just had one of the worst days of my life so far. I might as well end it on a positive note!

Since then, I have learned to respect the local forecasters a bit more. They still overreact, but they know the response times of their localities a lot better than I. Winter weather is nothing to mess with. One of the hard lessons every teenage driver has to come to terms with, I suppose.

The rail crew is battening down the hatches for the train’s arrival now. I’m not looking forward to getting back into the US with a Canadian citizen with a heavy Slovakian accent in my car. If you don’t hear from me in 4 days, assume I’m enjoying the fresh air and warm climate of sunny Cuba! Gitmo, here I come!

Buckle up, folks. We’re in for a LOOOOOONG winter!

Friday, December 14, 2007

He’s Makin' a List (etc.)…

Usually I have an ongoing wish list that I simply update a couple times a year (usually Christmas & birthday). Often replete with CDs, books, and movies, this list has been going on for about 8 years or so with some of the items still on there, others removed after being received, and a few removed due simply to waning interest or lack of further necessity.

Everyone has their “baby elephant”, as my grandmother used to call it, on their list. Some item that is unrealistically expensive, wholly impractical, or just plain silly. For my grandmother, it was a baby elephant. She knew she’d never get one, but asked for it ever year, regardless. For me, it’s been a 1976 Bach Stradivarius 42BO trombone. When I started requesting it in about 7th grade or so and throughout college, it was fairly practical for concerts, juries, and my music studies. I never got it, being a good $1500+ for one in decent shape, rather difficult to come by, and fitting well into the category of “unrealistically expensive” for my loved ones. Now, as I’m playing less and less, it’d likely just sit in my closet gathering dust anyway, which would be a downright crime for such a fine instrument.

This year, I find myself going over my wish list and noticing something. I just don’t need or want most of the stuff on there much anymore. Oh sure, some of the stuff would be nice to have, but I just don’t have the time to appreciate most of it anymore. So as it happens, I find myself in the odd position of not having much of a fun list this year. Most of the stuff on it is practical in nature or essentially some form of financial bail-out. I’ll give you an example:

Paul’s Christmas List

  • Car Repairs (front brakes, EGR valve, transmission flush, tune-up)
  • Tuition Money (I still owe nearly a grand to Wayne State and they’re getting mean)
  • New cookware set (ours is about 11 years old)
  • New glassware set (ours is a mish-mosh of mason jars and odd leftovers)
  • New back door (ours leaks like a sieve and the threshold is rotted)
  • New tub/shower wrap
  • 120G or better external Hard Drive for my laptop (got lots of media to store)

Those are on the top of the list. The rest of the items on my list are kitschy or frivolous items I’d like to have, but are fairly unnecessary…

  • Book - Star Trek: Collision Course, by William Shatner
  • DVD - Family Guy, Volume 5
  • Digital camera with video mode & 1G of memory
  • DVD – Kids in the Hall, Seasons 2-5
  • DVD – Monty Python & the Holy Grail
  • DVD – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
  • DVD – Scrubs: Seasons 1-4
  • DVD – Spiderman II & III
  • DVD – Star Trek: Insurrection – Collector’s Edition (wide screen – any video store)
  • DVD – Star Trek: Nemesis – Collector’s Edition (wide screen – any video store)
  • DVD – Strange Brew
  • DVD – Superman Returns
  • DVD – The Great Muppet Caper (any video store)
  • DVD – The Muppet Movie (any video store)
  • DVD – The Weird Al Show

So, if any of you suddenly discover you’re a long-lost relative of Bill Gates, there’s a few ideas for you. Otherwise, a nice card or blog comment will do nicely!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Inconvenient Irony...

Anyone else see the sad irony in the fact that 7 years to the day from Al Gore's concession speech to the Commander-In-Thief, the now Nobel Prize winner, Al Gore comes out with this: Al Gore Blames Bali Stalemate on US?

Time to draft Al Gore for the Presidential race...

Ah, the unrealistic dreams of a liberal idealistic me.... Gad, I'm such a lefty.

Trees, Trinkets, and Traditions...

So it seems I have a few minutes here as I sit at my favorite repair shop to have my brakes looked at.

Sunday we set up the tree. Sonya and I have the same debate every year: real vs. fake tree. We’ve had an artificial tree in our shed for several years since our friend, Leigh, donated her old one to us. It’s been through the ringer a bit, after several previous owners, but it still has all of it’s parts and most of the branches are intact. Still, we don’t get it out every year.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having a real tree in the house. The traditional feel and the scent definitely add something to the holidays. In our house, however, it just doesn’t always make sense. I’m not a fan of the prep and expense involved in getting a decent real tree. First, there’s going out in the freezing cold, checking multiple lots for selection and prices, and spending well over an hour once we find a lot we like choosing a tree we can agree on. This one’s too skimpy, that one has a bald spot, the other leans too much, and most are just too fat and have too big a footprint for our tiny house. Then there’s the expense of a decent breed. We (okay, I) don’t want a Scotch pine anymore, despite their rock-bottom price. They were fine when we were young, but they’re too bushy, the ornaments don’t hang well, and they dry our a lot faster. We always go for a spruce, which of course, is about twice the price.

Once we finally find one we like and can afford, there’s tying it to the car, hauling it home, hacking off the end of the stump, wresting it through the door, lifting it onto the stand, and of course, the subsequent clean up of needles that seem to find their way into every crevice and hang around for months. That’s not even mentioning the maintenance of watering and trying to keep my brother-in-law’s visiting dogs from drinking it dry. We also have a nasty habit of procrastinating on getting the things down, so it’ll often stay in our living room, drying out for several weeks after Christmas.

Artificial trees are so much easier. The one we have is fairly tall and thin, and thus has a pretty small footprint. Liam just adores the assembly of, as he calls them, “puzzle trees”, and it gets him more involved in the decorating process. There’s also the wonderful feature of being able to position branches to fill in empty spots and create spots for ornaments to hang better. Clean-up’s a breeze and there’s no worry about the fire hazard of a dried-out, formerly live tree once we’ve forgotten to water it for a couple weeks.

I won (or more appropriately, she acquiesced), and we did the artificial tree this year. Money and time are tight, so it just made sense this year. We assembled the tree Sunday with some welcomed help from Leigh, put the lights up Tuesday, and decorated it last night. We invited Leigh over for some FABULOUS pea soup (courtesy of Sonya) and to help with the decorating.

Decorating the tree used to be one of my favorite parts of the holidays. I always dread the necessary loading and unloading of the stuff, but the actual placement of the ornaments really gets me in the Christmas mood. This year, however, I spent much of the time on the couch. I put the star on first, being the tallest in the house, but with our tree tucked into a tight corner of our living room and 2 eager kids, Sonya and Leigh going at it full force, I just sat back on the couch and watched most of it. I reserved my set of resin Victorian marching band statuettes to put on after the crowd had dissipated.

As I sat there munching on a candy cane, the XM Christmas Traditions station piped through the stereo via my laptop, I caught that Christmas Spirit once more, but for different reasons. Watching my kids, now old enough to be efficient help rather than slow down the process and get in the way, I started to appreciate the holidays on a parental level. This is the magic time. Both of my kids still believe in Santa and the magic of Christmas. I don’t care how jaded you are, watching kids get into the Christmas Spirit is infectious.

Later, after the kids had been in bed for a while and Liam was sound asleep, my daughter got up and was whimpering a bit. She wanted to fall asleep in mommy & daddy’s bed. She does this on occasion, appreciating the softer bed and roominess. I direct her to a potty break on the way (her accidents are few, but truly frustrating when it’s in our bed) and prep the covers for her. As I pull up the comforter, she walks in with a sheepish look on her face, knowing it’s well past bedtime, holding a Christmas Advent book with flaps and pop-ups she can flip.

“You want me to read that to you?”

Her sheepish look fades to a delighted grin and puppy dog eyes. “I duss wanna Trissmas book so I tan doe to sleep”

I give her a warm smile. “Okay. Hop in and snuggle up.”

She excitedly hops into bed and nestles close to me. As I snuggled with my baby girl, reading a Christmas book and recalling images of my kids gleefully attaching baubles and kitsch older than they are to our “puzzle tree”, I had a moment – a moment of parental pride and Christmas cheer. Despite how tight our budget is this year, I am more appreciative than ever of the greatest gift a man can have: his family.

Maybe we'll get a real wreath for some fresh pine scent for the holidays, after all.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night…

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How'd He Git To Write So Much Gooder?

I've received several compliments on my writing style, which is one of the reasons I chose to move my blog venue to a more independent forum. Many have wondered how I became so well spoken and articulate in my prose (nice verbiage, eh?). Well there are several contributing factors to my propensity towards superlative writing. Here are the two biggest inspirations:

Procrastination and laziness...

Let me explain...

I hated homework. Dreaded, absolutely LOATHED homework. I was notorious for missing assignments and/or turning in incomplete work. I would always put it off until the last minute, if at all. My teachers would try and cut me as much slack as they could, given my (with all due humility) obvious intelligence and test scores, but eventually, there would come a point where my grade would be teetering on the brink of failure due to my overwhelming apathy toward doing work outside of the classroom.

So, I started doing my assignments - at least more often. Oh, I still procrastinated and did as little work as possible, I just started finding every shortcut I could and usually did them on the ride to school or in the scant few minutes before class started. Particularly with essays, reports, and English papers, I learned quickly what would win over the teachers and get me the same grades on assignments that the dilligent bookworm crowd received...

Bullshit. Lots and lots of bullshit.

Ah, the grand olde "Gift of the Blarney", as they say. The same skill that has elevated simple Arkansas hicks to lofty governmental positions of power and acquitted award winning athletes of murder for eons. While my aspirations of simply not being hassled by parents and teachers were modest by comparison, the fine art of Bullshit is an essential life skill that, when used wisely, can embolden the meek, feed the hungry, relieve the downtrodden, and save your lazy ass a LOT of unnecessary work! I became a master at turning 2 lines of facts gleaned from an encyclopedia into a glorious 8 page tome on the entire socioeconomic system of Australia.

I remember having to do a book report in 3rd grade on a book of our choosing that was to have a set minimum of pages. The day before it was due, I picked up a "choose your own adventure" book. This met the minimum page criteria, but required I only read a fraction of it to get a full story to report on. I wrote a full report (that is to say, fulfilling all of the prescribed requirements) and presented it. The teacher recognized my ruse, and confronted me with it. Using my expertly honed bullshitting skills, I convinced her that I fulfilled the requirements by reading a book that had the proper page count, but the stipulation of having to read every page was not relayed to us. Must I report on the cover page as well? What about the empty filler pages at the back? No - just the story was required by the letter of the assignment. point set and match - Keiser. Needless to say, I didn't get away with that again, but it got me through that one.

My bullshitting skills, I found, had applications far beyond the classroom as well. In 5th grade, I was cornered by a gang of local bullies. They were all a couple years older and several times stronger (if not bigger) than I. I smelled certain doom in the air, when my mouth just began flapping. I started using words I'm not even sure *I* knew the meanings to, as though I had been possessed by some literary demon and was speaking in tongues. As such eloquent phrases as, "Huh?" and, "Wha?" came drooling out of the mouth of my prospective nemesis, I began to realize the full spectrum of my power. As he stood there, being made to look like the intellectual equivalent of a rutabaga to his peers, he began to back away, babbling something about how he "needed a dictionary to even beat this kid up". It was then that I realized that the pen (or vocabulary) was truly mightier than the sword (or ham-sized fists).

There were, of course, other less dramatic factors that contributed to my way with words. Having a mother that was blind from birth, I learned to read well from an early age. I was called on to read mail, directional signs, etc., to assist my mother in the day-to-day and navigate us through bus stations and the like. Oddly enough, I rarely - if ever - read for pleasure in my youth. Those books I did were geared toward much higher reading levels. I read Last of the Mohicans and The Hobbit in 7th grade for school with no trouble, and Jean Sheppard at age 10 for fun. Other than that, I didn't pick up a book of my own accord until I was about 20.

Now granted, if you let loose an English teacher on my blogs, he/she would likely have a field day with the dreaded "red pen". Were it not for the spell checker on the computer, my blogs wouflld looiok somethinmg lkioke thias. My handwriting is atrocious and my typing skills are shoddy at best. I proofread my blogs probably a bazillion times and still manage to catch spelling errors, punctuation mistakes, and tweaks that need to be made virtually every time. Nonetheless, I pride myself on my ability to string words together in coherent and articulate sentences. Maybe it'll do me some financial good someday. That seems to be the only part of my life where my bullshitting hasn't quite filtered down to yet.

So, in closing, if you want to write better, here are my tips:

1) Procrastinate.
2) Be lazy.
3) Oh, I'll get to the rest of my tips later....

Friday, December 7, 2007

Why Isn't Paul More Political?

Most who know me, know I have fairly strong political views. I can rant for hours about the Commander-In-Thief, his Penguin-esque puppet master, and the vast Right-Wing, corporate-led conspiracy, yet somehow these topics seldom - if ever - make it into my blogs.

I'm a rabid leftist. I was raised with fairly Libertarian governmental views and liberal social views, and they've stuck. In high school and college, I attended protests, boycotted products and companies, and espoused my leftist views at the drop of the proverbial hat. I still wear my beliefs on my sleeve, but these days, my coat usually covers my sleeve as I dart out the door to my next commitment to keep my family and life afloat.

My beliefs haven't changed much over the years. Particularly in these harsh economic times, I have become a bit more economically conservative, but my social and governmental perspective hasn't wavered. On the contrary, I think they have been reinforced as I manage to get older and (arguably) wiser, yet seem to not progress much financially. What has changed is my eagerness and ability to be the strong voice of change that I once was. This has happened for several reasons:

1) The discourse has degraded. With the advent of Fox News and the subsequent (and on occasion, sadly similar) liberal backlash, the political climate has deteriorated into a din of noise I simply can't tolerate, and just don't want to be a party to. It's like watching a serious debate turn into a WWF cage match with the entire audience flooding the ring and choosing sides. In the end, it just becomes a useless, bloody mess that resolves absolutely nothing. Sure, I could likely join in the fray and do some damage (as many of the participants on the other political side are the mental equivalent of Pee-Wee Herman in an inflatable muscle jacket), but I'm not exactly a Hulk Hogan when it comes to debate, myself. Words I can do. Fact-based arguments, however, are not my forte.

2) Fundamentalists. By that, I mean people so mired in their belief structure (political, religious, or otherwise) and its perceived righteousness that they are incapable of changing them or accepting that others' perspectives can be different and valid - perhaps even better. While I have a system of beliefs, I pride myself on being flexible enough to recognize and acknowledge a good argument when I hear it, rather that plugging my ears and chanting "Na-Na! I can't HEEAR YOUUUU!", as many of the fundys seem to do. There is no debating with these people and their ranks seem to be growing exponentially - on all sides.

3) Choosing "sides" on any given issue/candidate isn't as easy as it (seemingly) used to be. I know that's naive of me to say, but as government has grown in depth and complexity, our resources for easily discerning the facts about how it truly operates have diminished. As black and white as either side of the media would like us to believe the political climate is these days, the simple fact is that it's not always easy to tell the good guys from the wolves in sheep's clothing.

Everyone has heard the line, "What publicly funded group has 29 members accused of spousal abuse, 7 have been arrested for fraud, 9 have been accused of writing bad checks, 117 have bankrupted at least two businesses, 3 have been arrested for assault," etc. The answer, of course, being the US Congress. The simple fact is, most politicians are hypocrites and/or bought and sold by major corporations and interest groups. Finding the true motives of most politicians and legislation is virtually impossible these days. Politicians and government officials hire ruthless professionals to hide their dirty laundry and humiliate their opposition, legislation is made so incredibly verbose and replete with "legalese" as to make it impossible for even the most educated and well-intentioned legislators to make an educated decision on, the Spin Machine has made deciphering real news from "infotainment" virtually impossible, and REAL investigative journalism has gone the way of the Edsel. While the internet seems to have made all of the relevant public records readily available to anyone who can get to a computer, finding and filtering the pertinent information can take days or weeks, even for an experience research assistant. Which brings me to my final point...

4) Time. There simply ain't enough hours in the day. You've all heard me whine (practically in every blog) about how busy I am. Jobs, kids, school, family commitments, etc., all consume almost every minute of my day. The scant few I have remaining simply are not best spent rummaging through all of the information and becoming an unpaid investigative journalist. That's not my job (though some have suggested it should be). My virtually non-existent "free time" is better spent with my family and sorting out my own thoughts (here, for example) to maintain my sanity within my own microcosm. I could go on for pages about this, but if you want an idea of how busy I usually am, just read some of my older blogs.

In the end, it likely seems that I'm just another jaded non-voter who has lost faith in the American way of life. Not so. I still vote in virtually every election. I have not missed either a federal or state election in my entire voting life, that I can recall. I support my pet causes to the best of my ability. I have even considered running for public office myself on some local level, with the possibility of making public service (NOT politics - there's a BIG difference) my life in some way. I believe the system we have is quite possibly the best in human's just broken. It can be fixed, but it'll take more than a few people with signs to initiate change.

It will take a mass movement - a revolution, perhaps - that hits those in power where it hurts them most. No, not money - power. Sadly, money equals power in most situations - as it always has, it seems - but that's what motivates humanity: the power to control. Not necessarily the power to control others, but the power to control one's own destiny. It will be a matter of taking the power away from those who continually thirst for more. If hitting them financially doesn't work, then it must be accomplished by other means. I'm not the one to lead the charge, but I'll gladly be a foot soldier in the war to fix our country.

Coming up next: How'd He Git To Write So Much Gooder?!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

My Dad, my friend...

Time for one of my occasional forays into broader philosophical topics...

I always knew I would be a father someday. Not because it seemed a natural progression of life or an expectation of some patriarchal or traditional view of a man's role, it just seemed something I was destined - and wanted - to do. I have always been great with children and have gotten immense satisfaction in being a role model and mentor. That's probably why I wanted to become a teacher. But beyond that, I wanted to impart my wisdom (sketchy though it may be at times), and the lessons I have learned on to the next generation in hopes that my progeny would do their part to make the world a better place. For a brief time in my youth, I wanted to be all the things my dad wasn't able to be for me.

It's no secret that my mother and I have always been close. We can talk to each other about almost anything at almost any time, and being totally blind from birth, she was always at home and available to talk to and bond with. My dad, however, was a bit more detached. We didn't have a bad or even strained relationship, we just seemed rather ambivalent about it. We did what was expected of our respective roles and we connected on occasion, but nothing particularly deep or meaningful.

Aside from working long hours to maintain our (though I didn't realize it at the time) meager lifestyle, when he was home, he was often absorbed in his some project. From fiddling with ham radios in the basement, to doing chores to help my blind mother keep up with 2 messy kids (and boy, were we messy), to developing his BBS in the 80's, he always seemed to have his head buried in some intense and personal endeavor. In retrospect, he had his own demons to deal with at the time and was likely looking for an escape from them or a way to think and deal with them on his own without burdening the family with his own personal conflicts. I can relate to that a bit now, being a busy father myself. We still had fun together, took "Paul & Daddy Days" on occasional Saturday afternoons for adventures, and shared some great memories, but little on a deeply personal level. He wasn't absent, just preoccupied.

My parents separated when I was 12, and I chose to go with my mother back to Michigan. I was the fat, picked on, bully-target of the neighborhood. Given the sudden revelation of my dad's true inner conflicts leading to my parents' split, rather than give the bullies further ammunition for their assaults, I thought it better to start a new life and hopefully turn my social situation around. This wasn't a comment on which parent I preferred, but more a proactive step in bettering my own situation.

My father and I had an amicable relationship for the next several years. Not good or bad, just understated. He was always there when I needed him, but I never got in the habit of needing him for much, emotionally. We rarely fought, and the repercussions of those squabbles rarely had much effect past a day or so (and the occasional sarcastic needling years later). He could hold a grudge with the best of them, but his fuse got a bit longer over the years as he became more comfortable in his own skin.

He was initiating changes in his life that most would find difficult to understand and thus (myself included) couldn't comprehend initiating themselves. Being raised, as I was, to be a tolerant and loving individual, avoiding judgment of others, the changes themselves didn't bother me. The effect it had on my family, however, was inescapable. My mother was an emotional wreck much of the time, our financial footing was almost always precarious at best. My sister had a brief (and rather silly, really) run in with the law, attempting to 'rebel' in her own limited way. Worst of all, however, being 600+ miles away, I wasn't able to develop my relationship with my father as much as I would have liked at a pivotal time in my maturity. It always seemed to be put on hold until the next time we could connect, which was brief and rare. This was during my angst-ridden teenage years where talking to parents was typically avoided anyway, and when long-distance communication was logistically difficult (i.e. before cell phones, e-mail, and instant messaging, and when long-distance calls were expensive).

When I was 18, a few months after I graduated High School, I decided to pack up and move in with my dad in New Jersey for a while. We were able to spend more time together and get to know each other a bit better. I didn't see it at the time, being the new, slimmed-down, social butterfly I was, but it seems in retrospect that my dad was making a concerted effort to reconnect with my sister and I. My sister had visited around her birthday, and on her birthday itself, decided to head out with me for an all-day road rally with my friends. We came home to a bitter note that said there was birthday cake in the fridge.

We felt horrible. We hadn't expected this. Our father had never been big on sentimentality or Rockwellesque depictions of family. Hell, we'd NEVER fit into that mold, even if we tried. Not on my dad's side of the family, anyway. But here was our father, sad, a bit bitter, an extremely disappointed, because all he wanted was to spend my sister's birthday having dinner and cake with his kids...and we blew it.

Since that time and as the years have passed, I've looked at my father in a different light. He was no longer the emotionally distant father, just trying to get by and not emotionally scar his kids more than he could realistically avoid. He was a parent on the emotional mend, desperately trying to hold on to the emotional family ties he had remaining. Beyond that, I saw a window of opportunity to finally have the relationship with my father I had always wanted. No, I wasn't going to head into the backyard with him and toss the ol' horsehide around - sports were never my bag anyway - but I could talk with him and start connecting on a deeper, more personal level than I had ever thought I possible.

Now, my father is retired, settled comfortable in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, and beginning to realize the freedom to reshape his personal life that that freedom affords. My dad used to grudgingly attend whatever concerts or performances I had in middle school, to be supportive of my musical aspirations (let's face it, ya don't go to middle school band concerts for good music). This past October, he drove over 700 miles to see me perform in my first quartet competition. He was the first in my family to show this kind of support and enthusiasm for my quartet activities. That meant the world to me.

My dad and I are so much alike in so many ways. Our communication, to the outside observer, would seem rather unchanged over the past several years. If one were to listen to our conversations or read our e-mails, you wouldn't think much had changed. Being of similar minds (and equally twisted senses of humor), we can communicate volumes in a mere few sentences and the tone of our abbreviated communiques - even in simple text - have taken on a whole different feel. I thought this may have been all in my mind until I received an e-mail from him a few weeks ago:

You are my son. Indisputable. I function as a Dad whenever you want me to. But the thought keeps cropping up that, more than anything else, you’re one of my best friends! I really like that part!"

That made me absolutely melt and confirmed what I had hoped to have for years: My dad and I have a connection that has strengthened beyond father-son. We don't need to see each other often - or even talk on the phone all the time - to know that we love each other. That thought has filled a void in me I rarely acknowledged.
We'll never get those years of my youth back, but ya know what? I don't need them back. I have what I need: a loving father I can talk and relate to.

I don't resent my father for anything, and never have. He always did the best he could to take care of us in every way he could. I've never questioned that. Once I understood the full spectrum of the situation, I never had the thought, "why couldn't he have done..."

I love my father, and I have no regrets.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Remembering Old Friends...

Yesterday I went to the "Gift of Life Celebration" (AKA memorial service) for Jason Michael Bradley. It was a bit of a sobering experience. I got to hear about and understand my friend more than I had considered.

I had helped his sister, Sarah, a bit by scanning a few of Jason's old pictures to have them available for the family and to present in a slideshow for the reception following the service. We met over coffee and perused my MP3 collection to come up with an appropriate soundtrack. An hour and a half of music, and we hadn't even gotten through the 'R's in my pop/rock folder yet. Sonya spent about 11 hours and was up until 8:30 in the morning arranging them all and setting them to appropriate songs (cussing at my laptop the whole time for not working the way she expected it to).

The testimonies provided by his family, friends, even our old choir director Rick Hartsoe, gave a greater insight to the man I knew, and all of it confirmed what I had known about Jason for years: that Jason was all about love and joy. Here is a man that lived more in 29 years than most could in a century. He had seen more of the country by the time he was 25 than most would see in their lifetime, yet he still had the time to make everyone in his life feel like the most important person in the world. No one could recall a single harsh word or emotion from him. This big teddy bear of a guy embodied unconditional love - and it was felt by everyone there.

My writings aren't usually this disjunct, but it would take me days to compile and organize my thoughts on this event and my subsequent feelings about Jay. Suffice it to say, the service wasn't sorrowful or regretful. One always regards the death of someone so young as a tragedy and with a certain amount of regret, but with Jay, there was none. Tear, yes, but not regret. He lived an AMAZINGLY full life and blessed absolutely everyone whose life he touched. So much so, that rather than focusing on what might have been, everyone was focused on how grateful they were to have known him at all.

Everyone's familiar with the concept of "Pay It Forward" by now. Well, jay was the impetus for more kindness, love, and smiles paid forward than most anyone I can think of. He inspired everyone he knew to be cheerful, helpful, and loving.

The world is more indebted to Jason Michael Bradley that it will ever realize...