The Cultured Schmo (That never leaves home)

My great-grandparents would be disappointed in me.

In the early 1900s, they all left Poland for the United States. Each of them took a different route across the Atlantic Ocean, but they all traveled thousands of miles to start a new life in my hometown of Pittsburgh. They wanted their children and future generations to have unlimited opportunities for religious, educational, and occupational freedom. Their travels were long and arduous, and it took them weeks to get to their final destination. My great-grandfather Stanislaus had by far the coolest route to America: He took a train across Germany into Belgium, where he set foot in Antwerp-Central…when it was new. The architectural masterpiece opened in 1905.

If my ancestors could open a door and view their families in 2022, I believe they would be proud of many of their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandkids. We all lead modest lives, but we’re much better off than they were 115 years ago. Some of us have even completed our bachelor’s and master’s degrees (I got a bachelor’s! I know–crazy). An education beyond high school was not a possibility for my family until the 1960s.

But there’s a family secret that my ancestors are aware of from afar. I know what they are saying about me from beyond: “That Larry…he’s so open-minded, so adaptable to his surroundings. Yet, he never went anywhere. It’s a shame. I hope he gets a chance to see at least some of the world one day. I remember when he was younger–so eager to learn about the world, but too afraid to leave home and actually see it for himself.”

I somewhat agree, but there’s more to the story. This is another one of my tales, where my middle-aged self seeks perspective in the midst of assessing life at my odometer reading of 46.67 years old. It’s my lost journey–and in pure Larry fashion, I believe the journey is not lost after all.

My usual vacation destination…never “leaves” home. Get it?

WELCOME TO SLOP STREET

My father’s dad “Mej” was my oldest grandparent. Mej was born in 1908. In his early years, he lived on the South Side slopes, where indoor plumbing was not an option for many homes above the flats (the sewer lines weren’t completed there until 1923). When Mej told stories of his birth home, he called the street, “Slop Street”, because of the mud and the continuous stench of excrement in the air. I remember my dad relaying this famous tidbit from Mej about Slop Street:

“If you had to s***, you’d grab a pot, take a s*** in it, and throw it out the window.”

My other grandparents didn’t share any “fun” stories like that when I was around them, but I know none of them had any money. Both of my grandmothers were homemakers, and both of my grandfathers had modest jobs. My mom’s parents never owned a home, and my dad’s parents acquired their home after living with my grandma’s parents for 35 years. My father never left Pennsylvania until he joined the Navy, and when she was younger, my mother’s only venture outside of the Pittsburgh area was when she visited family in eastern Ohio. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe the furthest grandpa Mej went beyond the city limits of Pittsburgh was 15 miles. He lived until 79! I didn’t come from a very adventurous family, but at an early age, I recognized there were billions of people living many different lives beyond my simple life in the South Hilltop neighborhoods.

LISTEN AND LEARN

When I used to watch Sesame Street in the late 1970s, I noticed that Maria and Luis would speak to one another, but they sometimes used a different language than the English I knew. I also noticed that Linda couldn’t hear, and she used sign language to communicate. I began to wonder how many people in the world were like Maria, Luis, and Linda, and I started to take interest in the world outside of my family.

I liked sports growing up (I still do), and I watched The Olympics every time they came around. The TV stations would display the national flag of each athlete, provide maps to show where they were in the world, and most importantly, interviewed many of them–through a translator. Soon after experiencing the Sarajevo and Los Angeles games, I began to read kid books about the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Mexico. Other countries were also explored through the pages of my libraries, and I really enjoyed social studies class in my elementary school years.

When The Weather Channel started out on cable TV in the U.S., they did not continuously fill up their time slots with weather-related programming–they simply provided weather observations and forecasts at all times, and I couldn’t get enough of it. My mother thought there was something wrong with me. For hours, I would listen to the meteorologists talk about the different parts of the country and provide endless amounts of data and maps. I learned the locations of all the states and major cities, what states had to worry about tornadoes and hurricanes, and where the oceans and major bodies of water were in the U.S. Most importantly, I learned where I was on the map, and how large North America was in relation to me.

As I got into my teens, my dad gave me a complementary North American road atlas from his car insurance agent. When my dad’s friend was finished with his latest National Geographic magazine, he would give it to me to read. I barely went anywhere, and yet, I went everywhere in the world.

NO RISK = NO REWARD

As I mentioned 68 times in this blog of mine, I was an immature idiot when I was younger, especially before age 23. I could have entered the military to see the world, but I felt my free-spirited self would not do good in a structured environment. My friend John just retired from active duty after 20 years in the Army, and he probably set foot in at least 15 countries during his tenure. I could have taken a travel job to see the world, but I felt this type of traveling would involve too much stress and a lot less fun. Going to London to visit some corporate outfit, sell them a product that I didn’t care about, and then abruptly come back home sounds like hell. I’d rather spend a few weeks in the U.K., take in some local pubs, visit the White Cliffs of Dover, see the south coast, and attend some soccer games. Not Anfield, Old Trafford, and The Emirates, I’d rather see places like The Den, Loftus Road, and Craven Cottage. Perhaps I’d find the time to golf in Scotland, even though I don’t golf anymore!

Something I learned over time is that I’ve gained/lost the most from my life when some type of risk was involved. For years, I went to university part-time while working full-time. When I quit work and took out extra loans to finish my degree three years early, that was a BIG risk. After 18 months together, my girlfriend decided she was moving out of town to pursue her Doctorate degree. She was to be away for at least two years, and I decided to follow her. Now, we’ve been together for 18 YEARS (married for 13 years). When the pandemic hit, I resigned my job to stay home with our son. Apparently, my son excelled with me at home compared to other families. Yeah, we lost money, but my son never fell behind in school. We made the best of an unprecedented situation.

The armed forces would’ve hated my attitude and moderate values, but once they found out I could read a map and decipher radar, I would have been an asset instead of an ass. Well, I still would have been an ass.

THE WORKING STIFF

This past month, we took a family vacation with friends to Topsail Island, North Carolina, which is 600 miles from our home, and the first week-long vacation I have taken in 28 years. Yes–TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS. Why so long? Well, I never had money, and when I started a new job (which was the case MANY times over the years), I never had adequate paid time off. In the past several years, I burned many vacation days when our son was sick and couldn’t go to daycare/school. Now that our boy is getting older, we hope to at least take a trip to the beach once a year until he starts to become embarrassed of us. He absolutely loves the ocean, and I’m a big fan of hanging out at the beach in the hot sun.

I never had a passport, and I’ve never needed one. I hate cold weather, so I’m not missing Canada. Mexico seems so violent. I don’t understand how something can be deemed, “vacation”, when you are forced to stay on resort property for your own safety. The same goes for many countries in the Caribbean; why fly thousands of miles (and spend thousands of dollars) to be corralled on a resort beach when I could do the exact same thing in the U.S. for a lot less! I’ve only set foot in 12 U.S. states (and Washington, D.C.), and honestly, I am fine with this. When I look at a U.S. map, I only have the desire to see eight other states (Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, Colorado, and Vermont). Personally, the entire middle of the country seems like a complete bore to me. The furthest west I’ve been is to Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’m fine with that.

Now that I am going to take up a heightened interest in traveling with my son, I suppose I’ll take some monetary risks–and some employment risks, to visit places with my boy. For many years, I’ve been working hard to do what’s right for him, and maybe it’s time to occasionally step back and get away from Pittsburgh with my family. Voluntarily stepping away from work for ten consecutive days felt amazing, and we created some wonderful family memories in the process.

THE QUIET AMERICAN

When I hear other Americans talk to me about their overseas adventures, they usually mention the same locations, and they all sound so “touristy”. London, Paris, Rome, countries in the Caribbean Sea, cruise ships going to the Caribbean Sea, Dublin, and Munich come to mind from my past conversations. These are the places I assume I’ll find the most, “Ugly Americans” outside of the U.S.: The uncultured Americans that demand people to assimilate to their ways of life, even though they are visiting another part of the world that isn’t America.

Because of the Ugly American, I would probably hate guided tours of another country. Having the potential to be around closed-minded people for two or three consecutive weeks would not amount to an enjoyable vacation getaway. I would prefer to blaze my own trail through a foreign land. I would enjoy the company of family and friends, but if I had to, I feel I could pensively navigate the world on my own.

I’m proud of where I’m from, but the rest of the world doesn’t need to know this. In some places around Europe, I would blend right in, as long as I refrained from speaking. In other areas of the world, it would be obvious that I am visiting from another country. The world doesn’t have to be limited to the bookings from a travel agency, an auto club, or the websites/apps offering cheap flights and hotels. Our adventures can be limitless–we just have to be culturally aware of the world…and have money to spend!!!

IF I HAD SIX MONTHS TO TRAVEL, WHERE WOULD I GO? WOULD YOU FOLLOW ME?

Maybe one day, I’ll get my passport, get some money, get six months of time off from…life, and get my sterilized American microbiome fit for different soil. Where would I begin my journey around the world?

Unfortunately, I’ll have to start out at some crappy airport. Beginning in the spring, I’ll fly from Pittsburgh to New York, and catch a flight to Reykjavik. I’d like to stay there for at least a week before I would have to fly into…Paris (yuck). I hope to escape Paris quickly via train, and I would head to Copenhagen for my next adventure. Maybe I’d check out Malmo across the Great Belt, and possibly take a two-day trip up to Oslo while I’m close by.

After a few weeks along the North Sea, I’ll make my way to Prague. Then, off to Vienna, where the original rock stars played to packed houses in the 1700s. Heading west, I’d like to stop in Lucerne. I’m hoping to see the Swiss Alps without staying at the pricey resorts.

Monaco is too expensive for me (although if I was in my twenties, I would’ve made an effort), so off to Spain. A week in Barcelona, a few days in Valencia, and then a week in Madrid. Across the Strait of Gibraltar into Morocco, where a week’s stay in Casablanca awaits me. Next, I’ll take a quick flight to Tunis, when I’ll hang out on the beach again (and I don’t care!) for another week.

Now, I am close to Italy. Do I go to Italy next? No. I go to Malta. No Italy for me, unless it’s somewhere like Florence, Verona, or Turin. So, my next stop after Malta is the Greek Isles, right? Nope, I’m hiding out in Cyprus for a few weeks. If I can’t find a flight out of Nicosia going east, then I will have to go to either Rome or Athens to get one…although Istanbul could be an option. What’s my next destination? Dubai.

When famous clairvoyant Edgar Cayce claimed that he saw a lost, futuristic society in one of his trance-like states, he (and others) believed he saw the lost city of Atlantis. I believe he saw Dubai. Dubai is the real-life metropolis that the people of the early 1900s envisioned for the 21st Century. Since Dubai was built up from essentially nothing in 1980, there are no old buildings from the past. The architecture is all modern, which makes it so different from other large cities–and I’d like to see it with my own eyes.

ARE YOU TIRED YET? ARE YOU READY TO GO HOME? I AM NOT. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO SEE.

I won’t stay too long in Dubai. I hear it’s expensive. Since I’m close to Baku, I’ll catch a flight there, and stay for a week. Back down to Dubai, and then off to Tokyo and Seoul. I’m not big on Japanese and Korean culture, but I’d like to see what 37 million people smashed into a city is all about. It sounds terrible and fascinating. You know what isn’t terrible? Korean cuisine. I could eat Korean barbeque all day. All week. For a month straight.

Next is Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks. I don’t even care what I experience in Australia, as long as I don’t get bit or kicked by anything too large. If I’m lucky, I’ll see an “Aussie Rules” match, and playfully call a woman, “princess” with a poor Aussie accent at a local bar. Since New Zealand hates outsiders (tourists and land “developers”), I would probably love it there. Nobody would bother me if I sat around Matauri Bay and watched oystercatchers on the beach.

Then I’ll get a flight to Bora-Bora and loaf for a few weeks, taking in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean around me–unless I can find a roundtrip flight to Easter Island for a few days. It’s not too far away. After taking up space in the South Pacific, I will need to find a way to get to either Quito or Lima. I’d like to hang around the beaches of Ecuador and Peru for a couple of weeks, and possibly check out Machu Picchu. The altitude will probably hurt me more than the steady amounts of empanadas and Chupe I’ll be consuming by the coastline.

My final destination would be the Galapagos Islands, where unique birds and other creatures exist hundreds of miles away from the rest of the world. Like New Zealand, I would probably enjoy the solitude and detachment from humankind here. Don’t get me wrong–I love people. But I also hate people.

THE JOURNEY WITHIN ME

I grew up a lot from the time when I was a dumb city kid. My feelings of angst in my days of youth have been replaced with an appreciation for love and kindness. I understand moments of chaos, violence, and pain can still reach me and affect my life, but I hope to surround myself with positive people, who will help create many more wonderful moments for me.

I don’t have to travel the world to find love and kindness. I found most of what I’m looking for right here in Pittsburgh. I’ve enjoyed many moments of love in the past, not far from where I was born. Now as a dad, I’m doing my best to raise my little knucklehead, stubborn kid in the northern suburbs. His journey is more important than mine. Hopefully, he’ll have the outward journey I never had.

Being corralled in Pittsburgh for most of my life isn’t as horrible as it sounds. Life could be worse.

I could be living on Slop Street.

Pittsburgh’s Royal Lounge & Restaurant: A Requiem

In 2021, I got word that a place I loved to go to in my twenties closed their doors. “The Royal” was a simple bar and restaurant in the Whitehall section of Pittsburgh’s South Hills, but it was easily the place to go for Buffalo wings when the wing craze took off in the 1990s.

It was wonderfully dingy. It was a neighbor of TWO bowling alleys. For many years, The Royal served up whole wings for ten cents apiece…very, very slowly. It was the champion of cheap eats in suburbia, and on many Monday nights between 1997 and 2003, I was at The Royal.

ON A “WING” AND A PRAYER…BECAUSE THERE WAS ONLY ONE FRYER

When I went to The Royal, wing night was Monday. I remember this, because some of the old tube televisions always had WWE’s Monday Night Raw on (Unless the Steelers or Penguins were playing that night). I used to sit on the restaurant side, usually in a booth if one was available. I would go with a few friends each time, and if we had a large group, we would take up all of the tables and chairs in the middle section.

(The restaurant side that I remember well)

On most Monday nights, there was a group of 10+ people that would fill up the tables near the popcorn machine that never worked. They would get there early to sit near the tube TV that–if I remember correctly, sat on an old jewelry display case. The case had a very large arrangement of hot sauce bottles on the top of the counter. The Royal had an amazing selection of hot sauce options, compared to the food choices on their regular menu.

The wait time for wings was always over one hour, because the kitchen did all the wing orders on one fryer. I would sometimes order a Royal Melt or fries with my wing order, because I knew the kitchen would make my non-wing order in-between the queue of ten cent Heaven. Other times, I patiently waited for my usual order of “8 gold” (honey mustard) with 2 or 3 beers. Once, I ate 14 gold with 3 beers. I didn’t move very well when I left that night. I remember sweating a lot.

MY CONTRIBUTION TO WING EATING INNOVATION

One night early in my Royal residency, I went with two friends. After our usual destruction of cheap eats, we each hit the restroom up before we left. I went first, and I mentioned to my friends that the paper towels were out in the restroom. That was a rough hand washing for me before I peed, because I had honey mustard sauce caked to my fingers. Cleaning my hands with 1-ply toilet paper TWICE in one trip was messy and ineffective. After each of us were done in the restroom, we harassed the cook about refilling the paper towel dispenser.

We liked the cook. He was always smoking while cooking, and he had the smallest head I’ve ever seen on a grown human being. Before saying goodnight to him, we passively joked that they should put a pump jug of Gojo on the sink in the men’s room. We were just joking around, but we emphasized how impossible it was to remove wing sauce from our fingers without paper towels and the smoothness of gentle hand soap.

The very next Monday, there was a jug of Gojo in the men’s room with a pump dispenser on it. We immediately laughed that the cook actually followed through with our request, and the jug was promptly STOLEN after a few days. Eventually, The Royal had a Gojo wall dispenser installed, and I never had a problem getting their honey mustard or barbecue sauce off my hands again. We always shared laughs with the cook after that. He was always busy, and we loved shouting at him for a few minutes each night when we were there.

HOPING FOR THE RETURN OF “THE ROYAL”

The version of “The Royal” that I knew is dead. Hopefully, someone will come along and create their own successful restaurant in the very same space that I frequented for a short time in my life. I like to envision a bizarro Royal, where flat screen TV’s are everywhere, there’s a functional popcorn machine, and the wait time on wings is less than one hour…because they have more than one fryer.

Photo was obtained via Google Images, and is awesome. Whoever took this photo is a legend and a scholar.

Finding Contentment, Fighting Constraints, & Feeling Confused

As I age, I do a lot more reflecting on my past.

I think about both the positive and negative experiences I’ve had over my 46+ years. From my simple, closed-minded city upbringing to my current status as a suburban, world-weary parent of one, my life has resulted in a dazzling representation of comfortable mediocrity. Arguably, I’m living a great life compared to most of the 7.7 billion people on Earth, and yet, I feel like I’m wasting space on this dimensional plane that we are currently residing on.

I’ve had many blessings in life, but on the flip side, I ask myself why I haven’t accomplished more with the blessings I was provided. I’ve evolved from humble beginnings, but I’m still finding myself being pulled toward the heavy gravity of immediate family members who remain closed-minded. I seek clarity–and apparently, rocket boosters.

THE KID IS ALRIGHT

I have a healthy, smart, pain-in-the-ass elementary school son. Since he’s been born, his life has been my life. Parenthood has definitely resulted in a yin and yang of emotions from me, but my love for him is something that I can’t put into words. His well-being is more important than anything else to me, so providing him with a stable home environment outweighs anything else I do in life. Having a job with long hours or one that involved traveling never appealed to me after he was born. Time has always held more value than money. When his school went to remote learning in the beginning of the pandemic, my primary earner wife went to work, while I stayed home with my boy for 133 days of classroom time. Eventually, I had to resign my job since I missed so much time. Being a groundskeeper wasn’t a prestigious job, but it worked around my boy’s school schedule, and my wife’s schedule.

Dedicating most of my energy towards my son is what any unselfish, good parent would do. The sacrifices I made in my own life for the betterment of my son is comforting to my ambitious soul. The last few years have obviously been a little more intense than what I was anticipating, but like every other parent of small children in the 2020s, I need to make sure he’s alright–mentally and physically, putting him ahead of my own wants and needs. Soon, his age will hit the double-digits. I assume he’ll follow the same pattern of pre-teen boys: He’ll become more independent, he’ll start to distance himself from me, and I’ll get more free time to myself.

A lot of parents I’ve spoken to over the years expressed sadness when their kids got older. I won’t. I want him to leave the nest. I want him to be his own person, and not live in my shadow. Good luck and good friends will help him break away from his dependence on me, and I can’t wait for him to do it. Yeah, I’ll be sad when I get sentimental, thinking back to his early years, but at least I’ll be completely rested when I go back in time. Since he’s been born, I’ve been really tired.

I WANT TO DO THAT, BUT I CAN’T DO THAT

As my 50th year on Earth slowly approaches from afar, I have done the unthinkable. I have made new goals for myself. Some have been accomplished, and I am doing my best to keep up with my positive changes. Other goals have not been accomplished. Some have failed. Part of the reason I fail so much is that I try to push myself beyond the constraints that hold me back. All or nothing. Ride or die. Pass or fail.

To some degree, I’ve always been this way throughout my life. I made my high school basketball team, despite working 20 hours a week, while trying to find time to study. I wasn’t a very good player, and not having time to practice and exercise on my own led to the inevitable demise of my basketball glory. If I came from money, what would I have done with an extra 20 hours of free time per week? I daydreamed a lot as a youth, and in a way, I somehow knew that I wasn’t going to become an influential member of society. Dreams stayed dreams. At an early age, I knew where I wanted to go, but I never knew how to get there. It was rare that somebody escaped my old neighborhood and had a profound impact on the lives of others. We were a smart bunch of kids that just didn’t have the financial or emotional support to go beyond the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Many of us wanted to explore different cultures, learn about the world beyond our high school walls, and take risks to discover our capabilities and weaknesses. Instead, we settled for less. We had to play it safe.

Physically, I feel better than ever. I run further, I lift a lot of weights in my basement, I ride my stationary bike during the sometimes-eternal/stupid Pittsburgh winters, and I eat healthier. I made positive changes in my life, which could lead to new friendships going forward. I’ve never been big on employment networking, but I certainly would enjoy networking with fellow runners. I would certainly seek out more connections than the 13 I have on LinkedIn. Hobbies are always more fun to speak about than the workplace.

Mentally, I’m stuck in the mud. During my first 37.75 years on Earth, I always had at least one big personal goal that I strived to accomplish. Graduate from my chaotic high school…check. Find some stable employment…check. Go to college while working full-time…check. Move out on my own at 23, despite the cost of having no roommates to help pay the bills…check. Leave the South Hills of Pittsburgh…check. Attain my undergraduate degree by 30…check. Get married…check. Buy a house…check. Start a family…check. During the last several years, I have been maintaining, not expanding. Big picture thinking has been replaced with a continuous flow of short-term obligations. The prospect of not evolving as a person from what I am now reminds me of my high school days. Once again, I find myself settling for less, and playing it safe. It’s soul-sucking.

PASSION IS A CURSE

In my senior year at Robert Morris University, I took a strategic management class. My professor, Dr. Freymark, was a retired engineering executive. He shared with the class the many experiences he had involving the process of strategic business planning. He didn’t require a textbook; he taught the class through his real-world knowledge of the subject matter. Students who required a textbook as a guide were left flummoxed by his unconventional class structure. He forced everyone to be analytical and make decisions, without the safety net of checking for “correct” answers in a text. Until the day I die, his teachings will be used by me in everyday life. Each business is unique, and everyone’s life is unique; there isn’t a guide for having success that will work for everybody.

Dr. Freymark believed that successful strategic planning was rooted in three simple questions: Where have we been? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? His three questions can easily be applied to setting personal goals. Throughout my life, I have had answers for the first two questions. The third one? Not so much.

Part of me is happy. I am healthy. Everyone close to me is healthy. We have a nice home. Thanks to my wife’s income, I finally got a new pickup truck. We aren’t living paycheck to paycheck like we used to.

The passionate side of me is running on empty. Having passion has created exhilarating highs for me and has created emotional low points as well. My emotional stagnation in the 2020s has helped me realize that I still want to be a better person than I am now. I want to challenge myself to be better, and I’ll probably continue to fail at times.

Sometimes, I ask myself if I should stop pursuing new endeavors. Just give up. Stay the course. Accept my destiny. Find a nice rocking chair, get old, and wait for Death to ring the doorbell. According to societal norms, I’m past my prime, I’m set in my ways, and I have nothing new to contribute to the well-oiled gears of the modern world.

I don’t want to give up. I have more to give. I’ll find an answer to that third question.

I’ll get there.

My Dad’s Prison Speech

My late father was an alcoholic.

For the last 29 years of his life, he was an active member of a few Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups in his neighborhood. He used to attend one meeting every week for a few hours a night, and he rarely missed a meeting between 1984 and 2013. On many occasions–especially when I got older, I remember him getting dressed up for the weekly AA meeting. The more formal attire indicated that he was the designated speaker for the evening. On these particular nights, Dad delivered his testimony on addiction to all of the attendees at the weekly meeting.

Over the years, my father met many people who attended these AA meetings with him. Some of these individuals knew him for many years, while others only knew him for a few months. Whether they were there by personal choice or by order of the courts, Dad treated everyone the same, and did his best to provide an opportunity for people to improve their lives through his own story of addiction.

LEARNING THE 12 STEPS

In the beginning of my father’s recovery, he became acquainted with AA’s 12 steps of recovery, which were first published in 1939 by the founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. An older member of his first AA group became his sponsor. He was a man named Bill, who was a World War II veteran and one of the leaders of the meetings Dad attended. During his first few years, Dad started to open up to me about his experiences with his AA meetings. I was still a pre-teen at the time, but I could see a positive change in my father. He acknowledged his addiction problems, and vowed to be a better person for the sake of the family, and for himself.

I don’t remember when Dad “chaired” his first meeting, but I know it wasn’t too long after he started going to AA. His first group met in a church basement from 7:30 to about 9:30 on a weekday night. There were anywhere from ten to twenty people that would attend those meetings, depending on how many court-ordered individuals had to sign in to get their hourly requirements. Occasionally, a person from outside the local group would be brought in by the evening chairperson to speak. This person would be a member of AA, and the goal of doing this was to provide a fresh perspective and message, especially if the chairperson recently spoke to the attending members.

After a few years of attending meetings and becoming comfortable with speaking to others about his struggle with alcoholism, Dad was occasionally invited to speak at a rehabilitation house for members of AA that continued to struggle with sobriety. This particular place had apartments that provided men with temporary housing while they sought help. The building had a social hall attached to it, which provided a place for various activities, including AA meetings.

Dad’s connection to the rehab house was actually through his friend Bob, who knew my father since grade school. Bob would occasionally stay at the rehab house over the years, and Dad would always try to help Bob in any way that he could. Personally, I liked Bob. I remember as a child attending a few Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games with him, seeing him at picnics, and seeing him at our home if he stopped by to see Dad. Bob struggled a lot–and I never judged him based on his struggles. Dad didn’t have relapses like Bob did–but it was always a possibility. Dad always reminded me that despite their different outcomes, he and Bob were both struggling with addiction.

LIVING THE 12 STEPS

As I awkwardly stumbled through my teenage years, Dad shared more details about his alcoholism with me. Our talks were never pre-planned; we would find ourselves in a room together, just discussing how our days went. If there were worries–especially if I was concerned about something, Dad would try to help me get through a difficult situation. Many of the supportive words Dad spoke to me were based on the teachings he learned in AA. As I applied his encouragement and perspective into my own life, I soon learned that the philosophies of AA can actually change the life of people who do not struggle with addiction. Dad provided me with a “common sense” approach to facing each day, rooted in the intertwined relationship of cause and effect.

As I progressed into my twenties, I became less judgmental of others. I became less ignorant of my surroundings. I became more appreciative of the positive relationships I had in my life. Through AA, Dad taught me how to open my mind to new possibilities. He taught me to remember the past, but live in the present. Dad was deemed “flawed” by society standards, yet I learned more from him about understanding the intricacies of life than any straight arrow, clean living person could ever provide to me.

At some point early in his struggles–sometime around 1990, Dad was asked by a fellow member if he could speak to a group of inmates who were preparing to re-enter society. This particular member liked Dad’s approach to dealing with addiction, and felt he could be a positive influence on the inmates. Dad agreed, but he was a little concerned about what environment he would be walking into. He wasn’t sure if these inmates were being forced to attend the meeting, or if they actually wanted to attend the meeting. In his uncertainly, Dad decided to apply his mantra when preparing for this unique speaking opportunity: Even if he helped just one individual at a meeting, helping that one person with their addiction struggles was better than helping nobody.

SETTING AN EXAMPLE FOR OTHERS

One evening at the Allegheny County Jail, Dad gave his testimony to a group of male inmates. He didn’t know the exact number of inmates that listened to his words, but Dad told me it was at least 50. He mentioned to me that he could see that some of the inmates were not paying attention to him, but he pressed on, continuing to tell his story and make an effort to provide support to everyone in attendance that night. Upon the conclusion of his testimony, he received some mild feedback from the group, but not enough to convince him that he made an impact on the inmates’ lives that night. He turned to gather his belongings, and prepare for his walk back out of the jail.

Just before he could leave the meeting room, four inmates approached Dad. They each took their turn to thank Dad for coming down to the jail and tell his story of his struggles. They briefly shared their own stories of addiction with Dad, and they told him they would keep him in their thoughts going forward in life. Dad reminded them that help is everywhere, and if they ever wanted to attend AA meetings with his group above the South Side of Pittsburgh, they were all welcome to attend.

My father believed that when he spoke to smaller groups of individuals, the greater the impact his message had on others. Speaking 1-on-1 to an individual allowed Dad to give his undivided attention to a person that sought his advice on addiction. He felt that his testimony was diluted when he spoke to large groups, because he couldn’t engage with people individually. Dad wanted to learn from other people’s addiction stories, but couldn’t interact with meeting attendees like he wanted to when turnout was high. I remember him telling me how thrilled he was that four inmates had the courage to confess their faults to him, and he wished he was allowed to spend more time with them that evening. Dad was passionate about helping people that were facing the same truths that he once had to accept, and his example will always be a part of my life. Dad might be dead, but his teachings live on though me, and the many others he helped during his lifetime.

SOMETIMES, LESS IS MORE

Social media has skewed our thought process on impact. We measure success by how many see our thoughts, but we fail to recognize how many people actually put our thoughts to sensible use. Words are powerful, but I argue that action will always have a greater impact on society.

In my many moments of uncertainty over the years, I’ve had plenty of people offer kind words of support to me. I’ve also been blessed to have a few individuals in my life that have spent many hours with me, talking to me about my struggles–while sharing their own struggles with me. Some have been friends for over 30 years, while some were friends for only 30 days. The friends that were physically there for me in my times of need will always be with me. I will always remember their kindness, their perspective, their unselfishness, and their belief that I can become a better person after conquering adversity.

We all have different struggles that are unique. Arriving at a place of comfort in our mind where we can make an attempt to heal and find some semblance of normalcy again can become difficult. But if we have at least one person in our life that provides support–that creates a positive impact in our life, then there’s always a possibility that the days ahead will be better.

Dad would agree with me.

My Unexpected Year of Running

On January 3, 2020, I weighed 195 pounds.

I was used to gaining weight during the colder months in Pittsburgh, especially between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The consumption of cookies and pie were a usual occurrence around the holidays, and sometimes they were paired with a few donuts that I fancied. In past years, my usual weight of 175 pounds (I am 5’10”) would top out around 185 by mid-January, and I would slowly fall back to 175 by early April. No diet was planned; I simply ate less, and exercised my usual amount. After starting a family, my health became secondary, and my fitness routine became a light mix of cardio and weights. I did just enough to maintain my current frame, and I was content with it. With a small child, I was trying to find more sleep time than workout time. But in 2019, as I crept above my all-time high of 187 pounds before Christmas, I knew the holiday season was affecting me differently than all of the previous ones.

My clothes did not fit like they used to. When wearing jeans or khakis, I did not need to wear a belt anymore, because I was lucky I could actually fit into them. At age 44, it was clear that I could no longer eat huge amounts of food, and expect my aging self to burn off all of the calories like I used to. I knew that I now had to work harder to keep the weight off. Father Time was catching up with me, and I couldn’t outrun him. I couldn’t outrun him because I was heavier than I ever was before.

GOALS ARE GOOD…SO ARE DONUTS

During the first three months of 2020, my routine of losing my holiday weight was going along like any other year. I controlled my portions better, exercised my usual amount, and I lost 8 pounds by mid-March. It was certainly the heaviest I was at the beginning of spring, but I remained optimistic that I could get down to 180 by late May. I was walking about five miles a day at my job as a groundskeeper, and when the weather got warmer in past summers, I would always sweat a few extra pounds off in the heat.

I still ate a few donuts a week, drank a few beers or mixed drinks on occasion, and I splurged on fast food if I wanted it. I didn’t limit myself, but I stayed conscious of my eating decisions. There was never a set date that I had to lose the weight by, I just wanted to eventually get back down to 175–and never venture over 190 again. With the weather only getting warmer in April, I knew I would be working outside in the sunshine more often.

Except, COVID-19 had other plans for me. My 7-year-old son’s school was mandated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to switch to remote learning at the end of March, which meant I was going to be stuck in the house with him until further notice. Sweating off the pounds at work during the spring was not an option anymore.

REMAIN DISCIPLINED…WHILE EATING TAKEOUT

Staying at home with my son wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. We had some fun doing classwork, especially when we had to take a picture or make a video. I felt sorry for him, because he didn’t get a chance to complete his kindergarten year in school. I felt happy for him, because at least he knows what school is supposed to be like. The kindergarten class of 2020-21 hasn’t had that experience yet.

Since I was constantly in the house, I was afraid I was going to snack and drink my way back to 195 pounds. I knew I had to find ways to move around and sweat some pounds off. I had planned to rework my landscaping around my house when my son got older (hoping he could help me with it one day), but I decided to complete all of the tasks by the end of the summer. I started weeding and trimming back areas that I neglected over the last few years, and I stayed away from snacking. My weight held between 180 and 185, and compared to the winter months, I was starting to feel more stamina coming back to my body. I wasn’t tiring as fast when I was working outside.

I went back to work five days a week between June 6 and August 28, with the hopes that my boy would go back to a normal five day school week in the fall. My wife was able to switch her schedule in the summer so she could watch our son two days a week, while her parents watched him three. I got back to my usual routine at work, while continuing to work out in the yard. We had a dry summer, so I had no problem finding time to stay ahead on my projects. I also played in the yard with my son, so I unexpectedly found another way to sweat away some weight.

STAY FOCUSED…WHILE DRINKING SEVERAL BEERS

During the summer, my weight fell below 180. With the constant barrage of negative stories hitting my social media feed and on TV, I was searching for another way to release my stress beyond my usual means. I remembered when my wife and I first moved into our neighborhood in 2012. Before we had our son, I occasionally ran around our plan. I plotted a 2.6 mile course, with hills and flat streets spaced equally along the way. I would stop when I felt it was necessary, and I would start running again after a few tenths of a mile walking. By October 2012, I completed the route twice a night, two or three times a week. The longest I ever ran without stopping was 1.2 miles, and 4 miles overall. I was 36 at the time, and it was the first serious attempt I made at running since my freshman year of high school. When my wife became pregnant in 2013, I never ran again, and never made it a priority after our son was born.

In June, I bought a pair of running shoes, the first pair I bought since 2012. When my wife took our son to visit friends or to play with his cousin, I started running my old 2.6 mile loop again. On my first day, I stopped after 0.8 miles, because the giant hill at the 0.8 mile mark took all the available energy away from me. Out of the 2.6 miles, I ran 1.4 that first day. I was sore, but I was determined to run further than my 2012 results. As my endurance came back in slight increments, my weight occasionally dropped below 175 pounds. I felt much better physically, and I set a goal to run my entire 2.6 mile loop by the end of the year. I only completed one 5K (3.1 miles) in my life without stopping, and that was at age 14. At age 44, my body seemed to be recovering well from my runs, but the only way to find out if I could run a neighborhood 5K was to push through pain, and test my limitations.

My son went back to school in September, but it was only two days in-class, with three days remote. Since his in-class days were shortened by two hours, I had to take a leave from my job to get him on/off the bus, and to watch him during his three days at home. The frustration of being stuck at home again caused a great amount of depression. Watching the news on TV became unbearable. Social media became increasingly exhausting. When my son was at school, I found comfort in lifting weights, doing yardwork, and most of all, running.

THE ANGRY RUNNER

By the end of September, I was running two or three days a week. For the first time in 30 years, I was able to run at least 2 miles without stopping. As I kept up with my running routine, I was able to run even further without a break. My goal of running a 5K around my neighborhood was in reach, and I wanted to reach my goal before the weather turned cold again.

As my mental health continued to deteriorate, my running continued to improve. My weight stabilized around 175 pounds, and by the end of October, I ran my first 5K around my plan. As election day closed in, I pushed myself to go further than my planned goal of 3.1 miles. The results went beyond my perceived limitations.

On a nice, sunny Monday before Halloween weekend, I ran 4 miles without stopping. The next day, I decided to run again–just to see how far I could go after pushing myself to running 4 miles the day before.

Once again, I ran 4 miles.

Before the November cold set in, before the stress a of COVID-19 winter set in, before the stress of post-election America set in, I was physically in the best shape of my life. My mental exhaustion was balanced by my physical exhilaration. In early November, my weight was 171 pounds, which was my lowest number since 2012, and 24 pounds lighter than I was in January.

RUNNING AWAY THE PAIN

In February 2021, my wife took a voluntary step back from her physical therapy job, and accepted a work-from-home position. In March 2021, my son’s school went back to in-school classes five days a week. Without the constraints of having to stay home with my son, I am free to go work again. My first job opportunity after my stay-at-home dad responsibilities was an absolute nightmare, and resulted in my resignation during the first week. The resulting stress it has caused has been demoralizing.

Even though the cold, winter days are behind me, I haven’t been running in 2021. Finding work has become a priority, and the worry of not bringing in enough money to pay bills has blurred my focus on fitness. Once I do find stable employment, I hope to continue running around my usual loop. The time I spent running temporarily erased the broken, sad, and stupid state of American society that ate at my consciousness in 2020. In a year where hope was lost, I gained belief in my physical abilities. I ran far beyond my comfort zone, and the results were unprecedented.

Hopefully, my job prospects will take a positive turn in 2021. Right now, I have to push through the mental stress of finding suitable work. Certainly, I can’t run away from it.

The Chapters of My Life

I haven’t written in many months.

In the beginning of the pandemic, I wondered if I would be inspired to write many of my usual old tales, especially since I had to stay home with my 7-year-old son (and still staying home with him) for remote learning. It turned out that I am not inspired anymore. I had plenty of opportunities to create something new, but I chose to do other things. I felt that my usually light and pleasant posts had no place in a world filled with heavy feelings of fear, distrust, anger, and sadness.

As of this writing, I had to resign my position at my job of 4 1/2 years, because I have to stay home with my son. My wife tested positive for COVID-19, and was sick for a few days. My son and I didn’t get tested, but we stayed home for 11 days with her. He and I did not show any symptoms, even though we were around her all the time. For as much strain this pandemic has put on my family, I realize that it could be much worse for us. My wife has a job in the medical field; at least she is still working five days a week.

Hopefully in 2021, I can muster some swell musings to share on here. Sadly (it seems), many of the bloggers I’ve followed over the years on WordPress have given up on writing. I will never lose the love for writing, but if I wish to create “light reads” for people around the world to discover, then my mind must not be heavy with thought.

During my time away from here, I did a lot of reflecting on my own life, while navigating this bizarre time we continuously exist in. In the end, this thinking (accompanied with many beers and mixed drinks on my back deck in the summer months) actually created a blog post. It can be read below.

Take care to everyone who is reading this. I hope you can find joy in something as much as I find in writing. This writing hobby of mine has connected me with many people that I would have never known existed. I simply wanted a place to write down old tales before I forgot them, and it’s become much more than that. It’s a great feeling when people discover my posts each day from around the world–and all of this hasn’t cost me one dime. Never stop evolving.

***

I am ready for a change.

Even before the chaotic year of 2020 began, I could sense an uneasiness in myself. Another personal metamorphosis is on the horizon, but it has not come to fruition. As I march further into my 40s, I look back and realize that the person I was before age 28 is essentially no more.

About every seven to eight years, a new cycle of events begin in my life, while another series of events come to an end. It mirrors the feeling I get when I read chapters in a book. As a story continues to be read, the characters, setting, and plot evolve from the first chapter.

As of today, I can see my life broken up into six chapters. They all have their own version of me. Certainly, remnants of myself from earlier chapters are still a part of who I am now, but the person in chapters five and six reflect the current version of me.

Everybody has a story. For the majority of us, our story goes unwritten.

CHAPTER 1 — THE BEGINNING (1976-1983)

In the early years, everything I said, did, and ate was directly influenced by my family. The memories from this time are mostly forgotten, except for a few dozen experiences that I enjoyed as a kid. The steel industry collapse didn’t hit Pittsburgh hard until 1983, so I vividly remember the old mills that have since disappeared. I was lucky enough to have a few friends in the neighborhood to play with, and I still talk to two of them to this day.

My younger brother and I had fun in our little bubble. We started to make new friends when we started going to the local Catholic elementary school, and our social influence started to evolve beyond our street. In the middle of 1983, our parents informed us that we were going to be both big brothers in 1984.

CHAPTER 2 — GROWING TALL & GROWING AWKWARD (1984-1990)

After my baby brother was born, life became more complicated than I could have imagined. I started liking girls, but the girls didn’t like me. I grew seven inches in one calendar year, which probably contributed to my scoliosis. My body and my mind were causing me stress for the first time, and I had a hard time dealing with all of the adversity.

Being tall did have its advantages. I enjoyed playing basketball, which I became better at–courtesy of my newfound height. In my middle school years, I liked to walk to and from school alone. When I did this, I never had to worry about, “stranger danger”, because I looked two years older than my real age.

I started high school in 1990, which allowed dozens of new classmates to remind me of how socially weird I was. I was determined to find friends that I could relate to, without changing the identity of who I was at the time.

CHAPTER 3 — THE CLUMSY ERA (1991-1996)

After a disastrous freshmen year, I found a group of friends, but still no love from the girls. My poor acne might have had a role in their decision making process, but I was still socially awkward. In my senior year, the acne cleared up, and I started up a serious relationship with a girl. I graduated in 1994, she in 1996.

We stayed together as I started junior college, and she commuted to her college north of town. We didn’t see each other as much as we did in high school, but at least in my eyes, I was still happy in the relationship.

I started working part-time at a few retail stores in the suburbs for the first time. I never really knew how different I was until I became friends with people outside of the city. I guess the kids in suburbia thought I was cool, because I started hanging out with them as well. A new cluster of friends for an awkward city kid that still lived at home.

CHAPTER 4 — THE STRESSFUL ERA (1997-2004)

Living at my boyhood home became crowded and unbearable. My high school girlfriend and I started growing apart. Instead of breaking it off completely, we tried to save the relationship…three times. In 1999, I got an apartment on my own, and I asked a girl I was seeing if she wanted to move in with me, and she said no. She decided to stay with her boyfriend (Yes, I was planning on stealing away another man’s girlfriend). Shortly after this plan fell through, my high school girlfriend decided to move in. It lasted seven months, and I wasn’t trying for a fourth time to keep her around.

Going to college and working full-time left hardly any free time. In 2000, I started another relationship that lasted 3 1/2 years. Since I was so busy running from place to place, I failed to notice that this particular relationship should have not lasted beyond one year. She only lived with me for the last eight months, and it was eight months too long.

I regret that I wasted so much time trying to make two different relationships work, when it was clear that saving them wasn’t a real possibility. I often look back on these eight years and think of, “What could have been….”.

In 2003, I flipped my priorities, going to school full-time and working part-time. I didn’t date, and I finished school in 2004. That summer, I started dating my wife, which changed the trajectory of the next chapter in my life.

CHAPTER 5 — STABILITY & CONTENT (2005-2012)

In 2005, my wife and I moved in together. I had a stable job as a security guard, which I parlayed into a campus safety officer position north of Pittsburgh when my wife decided to attain her doctorate at Slippery Rock. We moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008, she started her career, while I hopped from terrible job to terrible job during an economic downturn. My work life sucked, but I was otherwise happy.

In late 2010, I landed a stable job as the “warehouse guy” for a local medical equipment company. We rented a nice, quiet townhome for 4 years, and we bought a house at the end of 2011. My warehouse job became even more enjoyable in 2012, and during this time, we finally got settled into our new home. On the final day of 2012, my wife found out that she was pregnant.

CHAPTER 6 — FAMILY LIFE, FATIGUE, & FAILURE (2013-Present)

2013 started out fine for my wife and I. Her pregnancy was going well, our jobs were going along alright, and home life was good. Then, within a span of 50 days, my father unexpectedly died, our house almost caught fire from a bolt of lightning, and our son was born. Her pregnancy was a little rough, so she experienced joy and a lot of pain. Our son has never slept as much as other kids, so his first two years wore us out a lot more than what we expected. Including naps, he only averaged about 10 hours of sleep per day (even now at age 7, it’s rare for him to sleep more than 9 hours).

When he started daycare in 2015, my director wanted me to continue staying longer at work without prior notice, but I could not. It was my responsibility to pick my son up each day. For him to be kept there beyond the 9 hours he was already spending there was not acceptable to me. In October 2015, I was asked to leave my warehouse job of 5 years, presumably due to me becoming an unreliable employee.

My self-esteem died during unemployment. I had to find work that fit around my son’s schedule, and it was difficult. I got hired as a groundskeeper at a local university, despite having no formal experience in the field. The job fit around my son’s schedule, and I literally learned something new on the job almost every day. The directors took a chance on me, and I am forever grateful that they did. I didn’t get paid much, but I was able to go get my son out of daycare every day (and later on, off of the school bus every day). The arrangement was perfect for my family…until COVID-19 happened.

In 2020, I only worked a full-time equivalent of six months out of the year. Since I had to stay home with my son for his remote learning, I worked part-time from March to early June, worked full-time in the summer, took a 12-week government aid deal while I stayed home in the fall, and was forced to resign when my 12 weeks was up. There is no definite day when my son will return to school full-time, so I remain at home, hoping for my unemployment checks to cash for at least six months. I thought about working different shifts someplace, but my son will never let me sleep during the day with him. If he was at school, it wouldn’t be a problem….

CHAPTER 7? — (Does it begin in 2021?)

Going into 2021, I certainly have an entirely new outlook on life. In my despair throughout 2020, I made some healthy changes to my life–both mentally and physically. I have kept a positive attitude, kept at least 20 pounds off since last year (It was 25 pounds before Thanksgiving and Christmas!), and I’ll eventually have a new job. It seems like a new chapter in my life is destined to begin.

But if chapter 6 continues on, that’s fine too. Maybe I’ll be 35 pounds lighter at the end of this chapter.

The Symbolism of Grandma’s Candy Dish

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I often hear about descendants of the recently departed fighting over the material remains of the fallen.  The items of grandeur usually involve money left in bank accounts, and property that was owned by the individual.  The many years of celebrating together as a family slowly morphs into litigation against one another.  Cherished family possessions are now claimed as individual possessions.

I didn’t come from a wealthy background, but within the outer orbits of my extended family as a child, there were always disagreements between brothers and sisters when the estates of their parents were to be divided.  From what my young ears would hear, it certainly sounded like there was to be a permanent family division.  I couldn’t understand why people argued about acquiring trivial objects, while they already possessed an abundance of goods in their own homes.

REMEMBERING THE LITTLE THINGS

When my maternal grandmother, “Grandma Ann”, died in 1987, there wasn’t much of an estate to divide up.  My mom’s parents never owned a house, and when her dad died in 1975, my parents got my grandfather’s olive green Chevrolet Nova.  When I was a boy, Grandma Ann lived in a second-floor apartment on South 19th Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side for the last eleven years of her life.

My brother and I had a lot of fun playing with many old toys that she had in a small bedroom.  They were the old toys of our one uncle, who was about twenty-five years older than the two of us.  Out of everything in that spare room, I really enjoyed playing the board game, “Sorry!”.  If I wasn’t playing Sorry! with my mom at the dining table in the kitchen, I would try to eat all the maraschino cherries in the refrigerator.  I also remember my grandmother always having a package of iced oatmeal cookies in the house.

The simple, small details of my visits to Grandma Ann’s apartment are what remain with me today.  When I play Sorry! with my son, I think of my grandmother.  When I see packages of iced oatmeal cookies at the supermarket, I think of my grandmother.  When I dip a spoon into a small jar of maraschino cherries to get a few out, I think of that time in my life.

THE HOUSE SALE

My paternal grandparents, “Pap Pap K & Grandma K”, didn’t have a lot of money either, but they did own a house.  It was the childhood home of Grandma K, and they bought the house off of her parents sometime in the 1950s.  It was a double-brick row house in Carey Way on Pittsburgh’s South Side, so it did carry some value, despite the house never being updated (It had one toilet and shower–both in the cold, unfinished basement, and no washer/dryer hookups).  My grandfather died in 1988, and my grandmother lived in that house on her own, until she died in 2008.

In his spare time, my dad cleaned out the house and prepped it for sale in 2009.  The home had quite a few antique items, so our family decided to advertise a house sale before signing an agreement with a real estate agent.  The sale was a success, moving several large items out of the house before the home was sold.

Before the final house sale, my mom and dad said each grandchild could have one item of our choosing, and whatever was left over from the sale, we could, “fight” over what remained.  I think they anticipated all four grandchildren to take something large to make use in their very own house.  I informed them that I was taking the old, plastic candy dish.

My parents couldn’t believe my answer.  “That’s it!?!”, they exclaimed.

HOLDING ON TO THE LITTLE THINGS

As a child, going to see my Pap Pap K & Grandma K was just as fun as my Grandma Ann’s apartment.  They had their own set of toys for me to play with, they had snacks, and they had a nice porch swing that was hung on the ceiling of an open-ended shed in the yard.  Grandma K would play bingo and tic-tac-toe with me at the kitchen table, and I would negotiate TV time with my Pap Pap.  The usual deal was this: I would let Pap Pap watch an hour of Perry Mason reruns, and I would get to watch Nickelodeon for one hour.

My visits to their house in Carey Way also developed a lost-lasting affinity toward certain foods and toys, just as I did with some items over at my Grandma Ann’s.  I always try to have a couple of cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup in my house.  When I eat a bowl, it reminds me of when I ate the same thing for lunch at my grandparents’ house, almost forty years ago.  My son likes the different flavors of Pepperidge Farm’s famous Goldfish crackers, but I prefer the original flavor, because my grandparents always had them at their house.  When I used to pick up my son from daycare, sometimes I would see him playing with wooden blocks.  In 1979, I was playing with the same style of wooden blocks at Pap Pap & Grandma K’s house.

From the time I was a toddler, up until the last time I visited Grandma K in the fall of 2007, she had the same candy dish, with a matching lid.  It started out as a gold and white striped dish, but over time, it developed various shades of brown and green from being picked up thousands of times over five decades.  Inside the dish was usually some type of hard candy, but when I was younger, the dish was always filled with individually wrapped pieces of jelly candy.  Grandma K and my dad always had to hide the dish after I would consume a minimum of ten jelly candies.  Opening that lid was always a new discovery for me, even when I grabbed my final few pieces of, “old person hard candy” out of it in my 30s.  I was glad to see that nobody threw it away when I arrived at the house in 2009.  In a house full of antique items, I felt that I secured a valuable memory of the house on Carey Way, a small piece of my childhood that can travel with me for years to come.

PIECES OF CANDY, PIECES OF THE PAST

For the last 11 years, my wife and I have used my Grandma K’s candy dish.  We’ve replaced the hard candy with chocolate candy, and our son loves to see what’s inside of the dish (which is why we keep it on the top shelf in a cupboard right now!).  Occasionally, I’ll hold the dish in my hands, and look at all of the blemishes around the outside of it.  A simple, faded candy dish is now a daily reminder of what was good in my childhood.  If I can’t revisit the physical places of my past, I’ll always try to preserve the memories of them in other ways.

Especially, if candy is involved.

 

 

 

Retail Sales, Tact, & The Dying Mother

For nearly nine years of my mundane existence, I worked in retail sales.  I playfully call this period of my life the, “Age of Enlightenment…& Retail Sales (1994–2003)”, since most of my life experiences during this time shaped who I am in the present.  The peaks and valleys of my emotional wavelength were at their steepest and most erratic curves, while I constantly had to wear a smile and remain positive when assisting customers.  I probably would have been a fine actor on Broadway.

In 1998, during an absolutely stressful, unfulfilling, and frustrating time in my life, I accepted a retail manager position at a store that provided a positive working atmosphere, even though I wasn’t feeling very positive.  Papermart was a locally owned chain of party supply stores in the Pittsburgh area.  Unless a customer entered the store to purchase a sympathy card, shoppers at Papermart were there for a positive reason.  We sold endless amounts of party supplies for birthdays, weddings, showers, theme parties, holiday parties, and a TON of balloons.  It was impossible to be miserable working there.

THE BIRTHDAY GIRL

One random afternoon in 2000, I was working in the front of the store near the cash registers, when an older woman walked by.  She looked to be in her late 50s/early 60s, and was wearing a headscarf.  She was about average height, but very frail.  I remember that she wanted to know where she should look in the store for birthday supplies and decorations for an 11-year-old girl.  I informed her where to look in the back of the store, and showed her some areas of interest near the register before checking out.

Based on appearance, the woman looked to be going through some aggressive cancer treatment.  I assumed she was a grandmother shopping for her granddaughter’s birthday.  I also assumed she was doing better with her chemotherapy, since she was not accompanied by anyone in the store, and was walking just fine on her own.  She possessed a quiet demeanor while in the store, and traveled through the aisles like any other customer did when searching for birthday gift ideas.

When she approached the registers, she asked if I could cut her some mylar banners.  We had a variety of these banners on rolls of 300 feet, and each variety had a congratulatory message on it that ran 36 inches in length.  Obviously, she was there for her granddaughter, so I was to cut a few of the birthday banners off for her.  When I began the process of cutting the banners, she started to go into more detail about the circumstances concerning her visit to Papermart that day.

A BIRTHDAY FAREWELL

The frail woman that I cut banners for that day was indeed fighting cancer.  And as we stood there near the registers, she confessed to me that she fought as hard as she could, but her inoperable brain cancer had started to spread throughout her body.  Despite this devastating news, she was trying to remain positive for her family, during her last months with them.  The party that she was planning was not for her 11-year-old granddaughter.  It was for her 11-year-old daughter.

I was very sad when she explained all of this to me.  She attempted to apologize for telling me all of this, but I politely waived her apology off.  I told her that I thought her attitude was wonderful, and I was disappointed to hear that her cancer couldn’t be taken out.  I kept the conversation going and changed the subject by asking if she needed anything else before checking out.  I didn’t want to dwell on the conversation too much, because I didn’t want her (or me) to break down crying in the store.

When we got to the register, she informed me she was to be paying by check.  In 2000, paying by check was a fairly normal occurrence.  We would ask the customer to make the check out to “Papermart”, fill out the check, and provide us with photo identification.  Usually, the customer showed us their driver’s license, and we wrote their state identification number on the top of the check.  We ran it through a system (ours was Telecheck) to make sure their account had money in it, and the transaction was validated.

When I was done bagging all of the items, I gave her the total amount due, and she started to write out the check.  She completed the check, and handed over her driver’s license to me.  What I saw next almost caused me to burst into tears right in front of her, but somehow, I did not.

Pictured in the driver’s license photo was a beautiful woman, with shoulder-length blonde hair, tan-colored skin, and a wonderful smile.  I looked at her birthdate–if I remember correctly, she recently turned 40.  I couldn’t believe that the person in the photo was the same person in front of me.  I was expecting her to say something to me about her difference in appearance, but she did not.  I finished up her transaction as fast as I could, wished her and her family the best during the time she had left with them, and she left the store.

Later on in the day when we were slower, I shared that experience with a few of my co-workers.  The feeling of empathy I had that day is something I never lost.  The 11-year-old girl, who lost her mother a few months after I met her, is now 31.  I never met her, I never knew her, and yet, I hope that she is okay today.

FINDING SOLACE THROUGH EMPATHY

When my father died, I didn’t have a chance to say a final goodbye to him.  One Saturday morning almost seven years ago, he simply didn’t wake up.  During the chaotic weeks after his death, I often thought about other people I have met over the years, and the stories they told me about losing a loved one in their life.  Some stories spoke of the pain of watching someone wither away before death, while others spoke of the shock of losing someone abruptly.

Twenty years later, the chance meeting I had with the dying mother still resonates with me.  Her family watched her wither away before her death, while remembering the healthy, beautiful woman they knew before cancer claimed her.  I remember her positivity in the face of death, and knowing that it’s possible to find purpose in our days, even when they are at their darkest of hours.

Twenty years after she died, and the nameless, dying mother is still teaching me about living each day.

***

Papermart had a successful run of 25 years in Pittsburgh before they ceased operations.  The owner was ready to retire, and couldn’t find a suitable buyer.  I worked primarily at the Greentree Road location, but I also worked at the Robinson, McKnight Road, and Baum Boulevard locations.  

 

 

 

When, “The Geek” Made The Basketball Team

My freshman year of high school was a disaster.

In elementary school, I was brought up in the protected existence of a Catholic education through the 8th grade.  After completing eight years of academic mediocrity, I was thrust into the unforgiving world of public school in the heart of Pittsburgh.  The homogeneous learning environment I became accustomed to was now annihilated by the variety of life experiences I had in 9th grade.  It became apparent to me very quickly in 1990-91 that I lacked the social and academic skills to achieve true success in high school.

Appropriately, I was labeled a “geek” by many of my fellow students during my freshman year.  The term was more of an insult that a voluntary badge of honor when I was younger.  I had no sense of style, I was very immature, and I had no social skills whatsoever.  I was aware that I was a very awkward kid, but it didn’t stop me from participating in sports or clubs at school.  I ran cross country (poorly) in my freshman year, and I would have tried out for more sports if I could.  My grades took a turn for the worse halfway through my first year, which made me ineligible for participation in varsity sports.

My forgettable freshman year ended in my guidance counselor’s office with my father.  The counselor outlined my academic standing to my dad, and informed him that I was being allowed to enter 10th grade, with the agreement that I would take over four classes–two during the summer, and two during the next fall semester in the evening hours, to complete my 9th grade credits.  I will never forget the look on my dad’s face, and I remember what he said to the counselor next.

“So…he just passed by the skin of his teeth.”

“Yes.  That is basically what I’m telling you.”

Surprisingly (and probably the only time both of my parents didn’t discipline me for such a blatant disregard for common sense), I did not receive punishment for my inactions.  They openly admitted that maybe the adjustment of going from private to public school was difficult for me, and they offered to help in any way they could.  Apparently my high school felt the same way, and I was put into a new program with forty other students, designed to help underachieving kids that were basically deemed smarter than what their current grades were showing.  My failings provided for a twist of fate, because many of the students in the program were my friends during my high school years.  We were all a bunch of smart, socially awkward students, and we found each other before our final three years of high school.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

My sophomore year started out much better.  My grades were up, I had an established cluster of friends, and my academic probation was going to end before the winter sports schedule was to pick up.  During a lunch period one day, a group of freshmen and sophomores were talking about trying out for the junior varsity basketball team.  This group of guys were somewhat awkward, and they weren’t the most athletic bunch, but I knew them enough to know that they understood the game.  They asked if I was trying out for the team, but I told them I wasn’t planning on it.  A few of the guys seemed stunned at my answer, and I was genuinely confused by their reaction.  Why do these guys care whether or not I show up at the basketball tryout?  And then it occurred to me why they cared.  This awkward group of guys knew me as an awkward sophomore–that possessed the ability to play a decent game of basketball.

I played basketball in elementary school between 6th and 8th grade.  I was okay enough to earn a spot on the Catholic League All-Star team in 7th grade, and I was invited to a tryout for a local travel team in 8th grade.  I wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t great either.  I played better outside of structure, so my fellow high school students probably saw me playing basketball during gym class, and thought the world of my game.  They seemed to believe that I could make the team, and felt that by having my presence there at the tryout, the other socially-awkward kids might also have a chance at getting picked to play on the team.

For the first time in my high school existence, I felt a true sense of belonging to a group of students.  It was the first time other students saw me as a role model, or at least some semblance of hope to a proletariat class of student structure.  I agreed to show up for the tryout.

THE THINNING OF THE HERD

Upon arriving at tryouts, it was clear it would be controlled chaos.  There were anywhere from 45 to 60 students–so many that I couldn’t tell if people were there to watch or try to make the team.  We were broken up into smaller sections to perform a variety of skills, and to RUN.  Not run–RUN!!!

It was rare that I was completely focused when playing a sport–which is probably why I never became a very accomplished athlete.  But for whatever reason–at this particular tryout, I was.  I knew there were about a dozen of my fellow geeks on the court with me, but I never remembered seeing any of them while I hustled all over the floor.  As the drills continued on, and as I moved from station to station, I started to notice that I had more space to move on the court.  The coaches called for a water break, and I paused to look around the gym.

Some of the students who started the tryout session with me were watching from under the baskets.  The junior varsity tryout that began with four teams worth of participants, was now down to about 20 kids.  I don’t know if the coaches pulled them off the floor, but all I know was that I was told to keep playing.  I could now see the faces of my geek friends, and all of them were watching me from under the far basket on the other side of the gym.

The coaches saved some running drills for the end.  The cross country running I did in my freshman year definitely helped me with enduring that day, but something more hilarious was probably the reason why I made the team: I was the most unassuming speed runner in the history of my neighborhood.

Years later, my friend John saw me running during a sporting event, and said I looked like a gazelle when I ran.  I liked that description of me, because by looking at me, nobody would have thought that I could run as fast as I did.  I’ve never been very muscular and I’ve never run on a track team, so the assumption was always made that I had normal running speed for a skinny teenager.

When we did the final running drills, I believe I finished first in every race.  It didn’t matter if the race was one trip down the court and back, or a series of trips.  I couldn’t be beaten.  If the coaches were apprehensive on selecting a geek for a spot on their team, I believe I erased their doubts with my running.  Twelve students made the team.  Out of the collection of misfit geeks that showed up for the tryout, I was the only one that made the final roster.

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, BUT ALSO BELIEVE IN OTHERS

If it wasn’t for my fellow geeks’ belief in my basketball skills, I wouldn’t have even entertained the notion of trying out for the junior varsity basketball team.  I always thought of myself to be an above-average athlete, but when I look back and reflect on my early years, my friends were always the voices who pushed me to do more with my talent.  They gave me confirmation that I was good at something, and that I did have the ability to become even better at whatever passion I pursued.

My talents growing up usually involved athletics, but there are so many more ways to become talented at something in this world.  The support of family, friends, and people in the community can ignite a passion within someone that can carry them to achievements that seemed impossible in their own eyes.

***

I had one good game in that JV year of basketball.  I mainly came off the bench, and played about half the game.  After about the 9th game, I got into a fight with a teammate who was on academic probation–who happened to be a gang member.  After that altercation, I quit.  My immaturity played a part in that little skirmish.

I played sparingly for a youth church league team in 11th grade.  I wasn’t very focused, so I wasn’t very good.  I quit around mid-season, and decided to flip even more burgers than my usual schedule at the local McDonald’s to make some extra money.

I started college late.  In my senior year at Robert Morris University–at age 27, I took an extra loan out to go full-time, and finish off my education.  I had some extra time in my schedule, so decided to try out for the basketball team.  They are in NCAA Division I, which means they usually have only scholarship athletes on their roster, so my chances of making the team were basically zero.  I didn’t make the team, but I was there at tryouts anyway.

The Fruit Throwing Incident of 1994

On a pleasant spring morning in my senior year of high school, I was sitting in class near an open window, allowing a gentle outside breeze to cool me off in a stuffy room on the older side of the school.  The original building from the 1920’s had large windows that opened all the way up the frame.  They had no screens, so somebody could have conceivably stood in one of the windows to jump out.  When considering the caliber of my high school’s student body and overall atmosphere for learning, I’m surprised this didn’t happen on the ground floor at least once.

Class was about over, and my next stop was the cafeteria for lunch.  Around five minutes before the bell, a car could be heard at the top of hill near the school.  This car was hitting their horn rapidly while driving, and I could tell it was approaching the street outside of my room.  A few seconds later, a silver Volvo station wagon with many decorations on it zoomed down the street, past the school, and made a left turn behind campus.  The horn was honking the entire time, and all of the students in class with me knew the reason behind the incessant noise: It was somebody’s “Senior Cut Day”.

CONFORM…OR BE CAST OUT

“Senior Cut Day” was a longstanding tradition for many high school students in the South Hills of Pittsburgh during the late 20th Century.  Attendance wasn’t monitored as closely now, so it was easy to “cut out” of school and not face the wrath of parents and guardians.  Seniors at city and suburban schools would choose a day later in the school year to collectively miss together, resulting in huge parties staged at various locations throughout the neighborhood.  Some students would decorate a car in school colors, fill up the car with five or more students, and drive to different schools, taunting their district rivals as they drove around their property.

The truth was that there were no huge parties.  Most people gathered in small groups to avoid being caught, and some people (like myself) just stayed home.  At the time, I determined that my absence would adhere to the social norms set forth by students in the popular clique of the student body, even though I wasn’t a part of a particular clique.  So at that time in my life, I was a conformist.  This is proof that I wasn’t always a wonderful person to be around.

The obnoxious Volvo doing laps around the streets of the school grounds was from a nearby suburban school.  There were three girls in the car, two in the front and one in the back seat.  When I descended the stairs and made my way to lunch, I lost sight of the car.  I assumed that the girls would drive a few times around our school, annoy all of my classmates and nearby houses with their antics, and simply drive off to another nearby high school.

After about fifteen minutes of consuming my usual cafeteria lunchtime staples of pizza, soft pretzels, chips, and iced tea, I decided to head outside until the end of my lunch period.  On nicer days in the pre-surveillance camera era, many of us would hide behind walls and steps to smoke cigarettes, and also play hacky sack just outside of the building.  There was always a good crowd loitering near the front steps on a sunny day, anywhere from 50 to 100 students per period.

When I opened the doors to go out, all was in disarray.  About twenty students were standing at the bottom of the front steps looking angry and helpless.  No hacky sack circle was initiated, since many of the people who played were also standing around the steps.  I was confused as to why everyone looked and acted so grumpy, until I heard the sound of a car horn.

Apparently, the same silver Volvo I saw twenty minutes prior was still circling my school, honking its horn and its three occupants still shouting at students outside.  Many of the guys I knew wanted to put an end to the car’s reign of terror, but they couldn’t figure out a way to alleviate the situation without resorting to violence or some type of property damage.  Until, I had an idea.  Not a great idea in retrospect, but an idea that would keep the Volvo from ever returning again.

Me, along with about twenty of my classmates, marched back into the cafeteria.  My instructions to them were simple:  Buy one apple or one orange, hide it from plain sight, and when the car comes back again, throw the fruit at the car.  I felt that the fruit would not damage the car like a brick or a hockey stick (Some of us were at our breaking point), but scare them enough to never return to our school.

As the car descended the street in front of school, all of the students “in on the job” were positioned on the front sidewalk below the steps.  We pretended to be in group conversations, with about six students nestled together in each cluster.  As the horn honking grew closer, and as the sun’s warm rays reflected off the glistening metallic streamers on the car, we spread out…and unleashed hell.

BOOM!!!  boomboomboomBOOMBOOMboomBOOM!!!

The girls in the car screamed and took cover the entire three seconds.  When they got to the stop sign about sixty feet from the carnage, they hit the gas pedal so hard it caused the tires to squeal.  Off they went around the back of the school.  Only this time, they were never seen again.

Even before the girls drove to the stop sign, a deafening laughter ensued.  All of my classmates were dishing out high-fives and talking about how everything went down.  The scene was all smiles…until the Vice-Principal came outside.

TIPPED OFF

When we all went inside to purchase the fruit, the lunch workers apparently thought we were going to start a food fight in the cafeteria.  The workers asked a school security officer to follow our trail, and the officer witnessed the tail-end of our path to glory.  The officer informed a Vice-Principal about what happened outside, and they met all of us just inside the cafeteria doors.  They had many questions, but nobody wanted to be the “rat”.

The Vice-Principal in this story is a man many of my classmates and I called “Mr. K”.  Mr. K was strict, but fair.  He genuinely cared about his students, and he often doled out “tough love” on students that he thought were worth rehabilitating.  A few of my friends that had disciplinary problems would have to check in with Mr. K every day.  I wasn’t known as a bad student, so my interactions with Mr. K were very limited.  So when he met with all of the students that were outside during the onslaught, he gathered up his usual suspects.

Since there was not surveillance footage to be obtained, Mr. K did not have definitive proof of who actually participated in throwing fruit.  When his usual suspects were asked who came up with the idea of throwing the fruit, some of them said nothing, while a few pointed the finger at me.  He then announced that whoever started the whole incident was to receive a 20-day suspension from school.  Again, I had a few people point the finger at me.  Frustrated, he let all of us get back to class, but he insisted that whoever orchestrated the fruit throwing will be caught.

GOOD (AND BAD) IDEAS CAN COME FROM THE MOST UNEXPECTED PLACES

My friends and I couldn’t believe that Mr. K didn’t bust me for our moment of triumph.  We drew two conclusions: Either he didn’t really care about the whole incident, and was acting like he did, or, he did–but wouldn’t believe that I was the ringleader of the operation.  To my knowledge, nobody was ever disciplined for hitting that Volvo.  A quiet, mainstream nobody was the mastermind of a hit on a car…using fruit as a weapon.