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 one.  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.

 

My Sentimental Attachment to IKEA

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Most of the defining moments in my early life are centered around my childhood home, the neighborhood I grew up in, and the schools I attended.  As I entered my 20’s, other influences had an impact on what choices I made as I grew older and more independent.  Places that I worked, the friends I hung out with, and how much money I had in my bank account determined my life path moving forward.

And what little money I had.  I bought a car at 17–with cash.  Probably the dumbest $2,406 spent in the history of Larry Kress.  I grew up in the city limits of Pittsburgh.  The buses ran every 10 minutes.  My high school job was within walking distance of my house.  The city’s junior college I attended had a campus on a bus line.  Me at 17 thought “in the moment” instead of thinking “big picture”.  I also spent a lot of money on my high school girlfriend–which was overall a good experience, but I probably should have saved the money for future endeavors.

As I poured money into a car I really didn’t need, and as I poured money into buying items for my girlfriend, I developed the urge to move out on my own.  Being an introvert, I really didn’t want to have a roommate.  I understood that living with two or three people would make it easier pay the bills, but I knew it would not allow for me to have my own space to decompress.  Having four other family members in a three-story house was chaos, so I couldn’t imagine living with a few people within a two or three bedroom apartment.  Even though I knew I wanted to move out of my parents’ house at 19, I didn’t have the finances to make it happen–especially if I would rent without roommates.

At 22, I started to save up a little bit of money.  It was enough to provide three or four months of “rainy day money” if I decided to get my own apartment.  I was working full-time, so as long as I had a steady paycheck coming in, I knew this was my chance to finally have my own space to be.

PLANNING MY ESCAPE

My parents didn’t think I could make it on my own.  I was determined to make it work for my own sanity, not because I wanted to prove them wrong.  I started crafting my plan to move out by creating space in their basement for boxes and small household items.  As I started to build my neat pile of goods to be placed in my car one day, I had a money-saving thought: Instead of paying for a moving van and furniture deliveries, I should go to IKEA and find inexpensive furniture that I could build on my own.  I could easily fit the flat boxes in my car when moving day finally arrived.

To this day, IKEA has one Pittsburgh location.  It is in the West Hills, and has been there for 30 years.  In the fall of 1998, I spent many evening hours making the 15-mile drive from central Pittsburgh out to Robinson Towne Centre.  Each trip, I would buy a few big, flat boxes of furniture, slide them into my 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and head back to Pittsburgh.   Eventually, the basement back home had many neatly-stacked cardboard boxes tucked into a small corner.  IKEA provided me with efficient furniture at a reasonable price, and I didn’t have to worry about delivery fees; I could now build my apartment furniture on my own.

After sharing my strategy for independence with my friend Dave, he volunteered his time to help me on moving day.  He borrowed his dad’s Ford F-150, and between my car and the truck, we smashed everything into ONE TRIP.  I had acquired two big living room chairs, three lamps, clothes, kitchenware, one TV stand, one TV, a coffee table, a 5-piece dining set, and two end tables.  The only two items I had to have delivered was a new sofa sleeper and a new bed.

At this time 21 years ago, I was building my IKEA furniture while listening to my CD’s, and enjoying my very own place.  It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life; a chapter that lasted 6 1/2 years, full of many memorable moments and its share of forgettable moments as well.

A NEW CHAPTER, SAME IKEA

The picture in the beginning of this post was taken by me at the very same IKEA I used to go to all those years ago.  This is the “IKEA Family” section of the store as seen in 2019.  My wife and I took our 6-year-old son out to IKEA for the first time.  It was only my third visit back there over the last 14 years, because we have always lived more than 30 miles away from the store.  This time around, we were there for our son.  We purchased a kiddie desk, a small chair, a standing two-sided blackboard/whiteboard, and a wall shelf for organizing his art supplies.  The familiar smells of the 2nd floor café and the downstairs warehouse drew me back to a time in my life when I was starting my journey into adulthood.  The careful stacking of furniture boxes into our SUV took me back to my evening drives to this very same place in the fall of 1998.

Today, my son sits at his desk in his bedroom, creating his own artwork and enjoying his new space.  His room was once just a place for sleeping; a place with numerous stuffed animals and random toys that he asked us to take downstairs into the family room.  He can’t convey his feelings about feng shui yet, but based on his behavior, my son’s room is now a peaceful and creative place for him.  A new chapter of his life is beginning, and a shopping trip to IKEA played a part in his transformation.

THE NEXT CHAPTER AWAITS

If The Fates allow, my son will have many more chapters in his life story.  When it is time for him to leave our house and find his independence, perhaps a shopping trip to IKEA will be involved.  Hopefully, my wife and I will be here to support him along the way.

And if he gets the opportunity to listen to his father’s “old man stories” about his broken-down high school car, and his sometimes broken relationship with his high school girlfriend, he’ll have a lot more money to start this chapter sooner than his father did.

***

After buying new furniture over the years, I have one item left from my IKEA purchases in 1998: A now-wobbly chair from my 5-piece dining set.  We use it as an office chair, and my son sits on it when he plays video games with me.  It’s just a chair, but knowing when/why I bought it–combined with my son sitting in it, reminds me how far my own life story has progressed.

 

 

My Unrelenting Love for Presque Isle’s Beach 11

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In the summer of 1982, my mom and dad wanted to take the family on a short road trip, but they weren’t exactly sure where to go.  At this time, I was 6-years-old, my brother Dan was 4, and my brother Greg wasn’t born yet.  Up until this point, we always enjoyed going to amusement parks around the greater Pittsburgh area, but my parents wanted us to experience a beach environment that offered plenty of activities for a couple of rambunctious little boys.

One day at work, my dad was explaining his vacation dilemma to a few co-workers.  One of the listeners was his supervisor Earl.  Earl told my dad to take the family up to Presque Isle State Park along the shores of Lake Erie for a few days.  He mentioned how many different activities the park had to offer, and he also gave him some ideas on what to do in the city of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Earl went into detail about the different beaches that were at Presque Isle, but he was adamant we visited Beach 11 when we arrived there.  He explained that Beach 11 was on the inlet side of Presque Isle, which didn’t produce waves that could potentally injure little kids.  Beach 11 had lifeguards on duty during posted beach hours, and all of the swimmers had to stay close to shore–in an area where the water depth stayed below five feet.

Between 1982 and 1984, we spent one weekend in Erie as a family.  Before Erie had many of the corporate-owned hotels that are there today, I remember arriving there and staying at different locally-owned motels.  The one motel that remains from my early visits to Erie is the Flamingo Motel, which is now the Steelhead Inn on West 12th Street.  It was a short drive from the beaches, and it was near a 36-hole minature golf course we frequented every time the sun went down.  I know it was around the motel, because I still remember all of the airplanes coming and going from the nearby airport.

Beach 11 in the early 1980’s looked the same as it does now.  The size of the beach, the restrooms, the concession stand, and the huge grass/gravel parking lot haven’t changed that much over time.  My brother and I really enjoyed our stay there.  We swam in the lake, built sandcastles in the sand, made our parents take us to the restroom 26 times, and watched all of the different boats pass by along the inlet.  Even though my family started going to other destinations for our vacation time, I always remembered how much fun I had in Erie.  Beach 11 might not be situated next to the ocean or some glamourous resort, but to a child, a beach is a beach.

MY GROWN-UP RETURN TO BEACH 11

In May 2011, my wife wanted to take a weekend trip up to Lake Erie wine country.  We stayed in the town of North East, Pennsylvania, which is…wait for it–northeast of central Erie.  The North East area had plenty of wineries to visit, and after we collected our haul of wine bottles to take back to Pittsburgh, we decided to check out downtown Erie and Presque Isle.

I told my wife about coming to Beach 11 as a boy, so it was our first destination when we got into town.  When I made the right turn onto Coast Guard Road, it was like I was transported back to 1982.  All of the memories came back to me from that time long ago.  We parked in a grassy spot in the lot, walked up to the beach and ventured out into the sand.  The beach had all of its sand this particular year, but it wasn’t ready for the summer season yet.  There were many large tree branches scattered throughout the water and on shore, and the high water line from the recent spring thaw was still evident halfway back from the water.  The smells, the sights, and the sounds were the same as I remembered.  It was wonderful.

We returned to Erie in late 2012 with a few friends to attend North East’s wine festival.  Even though our friends weren’t as enthused to check out a beach on a mild autumn day, I was steadfast in my journey to say hello to my childhood friend.  My wife and I were planning on having at least one child in the near future, and I wasn’t sure when the next time I would be back at Presque Isle.  Our grown-up winery trips were coming to a temporary end, and my sister-in-law goes on vacation to destinations in Florida, Maryland, and New Jersey.  Would we be vacationing with her family once we had a child of our own?

MY SON’S LOVE OF BEACH 11

My wife and I welcomed a son in 2013, and during the summer of 2016, we decided to take him up to Erie for a few days.  We wanted him to experience playing in sand by the water, instead of a cramped sandbox in the backyard of our house.

Upon arriving at Beach 11, it was apparent that our little boy fell in love with the place from the minute he stepped onto the sand.  He kicked around in the water, played in the sand, laughed at the mischievous seagulls, and looked upon the lifeguards in awe when they blew their whistles.  He enjoyed it so much, that we came back for several hours the next day.  I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to show my son a place that was such a pleasant memory from my childhood several decades ago.

Since our first trip as a family in 2016, we have gone back to Erie one weekend every year for the last 4 years.  The torrential rains of 2018 and 2019 have been rough on the beaches of Presque Isle, but we still enjoyed our time there.  In 2019, the algae blooms spared Beach 11, but there was a high amount of seaweed in the water.  Flooding caused an E. coli advisory in 2018, but there were still hundreds of people enjoying the hot July temperatures while swimming in the water.  Hopefully, Mother Nature will be kinder to Presque Isle in 2020, and give engineers the opportunity to repair the beaches back to their 2017 appearance–their normal appearance.

THE PLEASANT SURPRISES OF JULY ON PRESQUE ISLE

In July 2018 and July 2019, we accidentally encountered two annual Erie events that provided fun and discovery for my son and my nephew, who came along with us the last two years.

In 2018, we booked our trip during the same weekend as Presque Isle Days, a sponsored event that celebrates all of the fun activities Presque Isle has to offer.  On our second day at Beach 11 that year, we arrived around 4 p.m. on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  When we drove through the entrance of the park, the enormous amount of car traffic was noticeable.  Signs throughout the park displayed the activities and their locations during the weekend.  A large police presence blanketed the park, providing traffic assistance and enforcing illegal parking violations.

I was fearing when we got to Beach 11, the parking area and the beach would be completely full.  To my relief, it was not.  The empty fields near the Beach 11 entrance–an area that I had never seen a vehicle parked in, easily had 100 cars parked in it.  Since we arrived at dinner time, many cars that were parked in the main parking area were leaving.  After we parked in our usual spot, we noticed an area near the beach with large inflatable slides for children, tents set up with dozens of picnic tables inside, about fifteen food trucks with various dinner and dessert options, and about fifteen booths dedicated to crafts and other businesses from the Erie area.

A local radio station set up on the back of Beach 11 in the shade, playing music and setting up games for beachgoers with the chance to win prizes.  The boys really loved the atmosphere; playing on the beach until 6 p.m., then going over to see what the party in the parking lot had to offer.  We ate food, checked out the slides, bought some shave ice, and stayed until the activities closed at 8 p.m. (The park closes at sundown, so the vendors needed time to close up and leave the park before 9 p.m.).  It was an unexpected good time, and I recommend anybody with children under 11 to experience this event.

In 2019, we booked our trip during the same weekend of the final year of Roar on the Shore, which was the largest motorcycle rally in the region.  I was again fearing a traffic nightmare around Erie, but the city and the rally organizers couldn’t come to an agreement on a venue.  So the rally moved outside of town to Lake Erie Speedway, which apparently didn’t go very well.  In November 2019, rally officials announced there will be no rally in 2020.

Many bikers stayed at our hotel, parking their bikes under the roof at the front entrance.  The boys admired the different colors and styles of the motorcycles that were neatly lined up at all hours of the day.  The riders we encountered were all friendly, and traveled around Erie in groups from as little as three to as many as fifty.  Many businesses we went to were very welcoming of the bikers, and we benefitted from the food and drink specials “geared” toward them!

During our time at Presque Isle, the boys enjoyed watching the bikes growl around the park, and some of the bikers were at Beach 11 with us one afternoon.  They talked about how they missed having their rally in downtown Erie, and were hoping that they could come back to Perry Square one day.  Hopefully the much smaller motorcycle rally, Gears & Grub will gain some momentum next year.  They were in Perry Square in 2019 instead of Roar on the Shore, and it didn’t cause any traffic nightmares.

MY IMMORTAL MEMORIES OF A FRAGILE PLACE

I have enjoyed my time at Presque Isle State Park, and I am blessed to have my son experience a great time at the same beach I loved so many years ago.  Hopefully in the future, a combination of government and non-profit organization leadership will continue to preserve this wonderful place.  Without essential maintenance each year, Presque Isle will become an island again, and an important asset to wildlife, tourism, and recreation for Northwest Pennsylvania will be lost.

It’s too cool of a place for this to happen.

***

I obtained information for this post through the websites Erie News Now, GoErie, Wikipedia, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

My family visited other fun places in Erie.  Two other places that I recommend for kids are the children’s museum (called the expERIEnce Children’s Museum), and the Erie Zoo.  The children’s museum is ideal for kids under 8, while the zoo is ideal for kids under 108.

I earn 27% less than my 2015 salary–and I couldn’t be happier.

October 16, 2015 was supposed to be one of the worst days of my life.

It was a Friday–another typical day working in a warehouse for a small health care company in Pittsburgh.  I started working there in 2010, not long after my wife and I got married.  We rented a townhouse at the time, and we were saving our money for a down payment on a house.  The hours were wonderful:  7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with occasional overtime when approved by management.  I received three weeks vacation immediately upon hire with two paid sick days.

The pay was good and it was about the same as some of my previous employers.  During the late-aughts, my wife went back to school to receive her doctorate in physical therapy.  We moved a few times during her time at school, which forced me to find different work each time we moved.  Before landing this warehouse position, I worked a variety of jobs just to pay the bills:  A campus safety officer at a college, a kitchen fire suppression system installer/repair person, a mortgage processor, a desk clerk at a vehicle impound lot, and at a freight brokerage.  The three years of nomadic living we dedicated ourselves to did not allow me to cement any type of longstanding promotion.  At every place I worked, I started at an entry-level position and ended each job in the exact same role.  Now that we were back in Pittsburgh, I wanted to establish some career stability while my wife took on her first physical therapy job out of school.

The job itself was very predictable and monotonous.  I had a cubicle in the office area when I had to do purchasing work, receive inventory into a computer application, manage e-mail, and when I had to–interact with branch offices.  The warehouse area–where I spent the majority of my time, was loud and dirty.  All day long, I would check in off-the-shelf merchandise and items for patients, and send out all items requested by the branch offices.

FAMILY FIRST

Shortly after my wife and I got settled back in Pittsburgh, our lives started to change dramatically.  In 2011, we bought a house.  In 2013, our son was born.  She was making good money, and I had a steady job for the first time in almost ten years.  We didn’t have to worry about daycare during our son’s first year.  My mother-in-law offered to watch our son five days a week, allowing us to keep him in a safe and trusted environment while we continued to work our usual routine.  I usually picked our son up at the end of my shift, but when I had to stay late, my wife would pick him up about an hour later than normal.  It was a perfect arrangement during his first year with us, and it all abruptly came to a crashing end on November 17, 2014, when my company decided to abandon the user-friendly inventory system (that was customized for the business), and replace it with a poorly developed integrated inventory/billing system.

Work became difficult, time-consuming and very stressful.  Incoming orders that took one to two hours to check in on a daily basis became three to four hour jobs.  The purchasing aspect of the job also became nearly impossible, resulting in a cost-of-goods increase of 17%.  Lag time in the new system resulted in many rush orders to meet deadlines, which caused our shipping costs to skyrocket.

Before we had our son, working late without any prior notice wasn’t a problem.  Most of the time, I would only have to work an extra hour or two to get caught up during a spike in order demand.  But going into 2015, working every single day after 3:30 was not an option anymore.  I was grateful that my mother-in-law was watching him for free, and I didn’t want to abuse the care she provided to us.  I needed to leave at 3:30, and on many occasions during my last year in the warehouse, my director demanded I had to stay.  Almost every time this request was made, I refused, and left for the day.

In early 2015, our son started going to daycare a few days a week.  Since he is an only child, we wanted him to be around other kids his age so he could learn how to socialize with them.  As his attendance increased at daycare, my time at work decreased.  It didn’t matter what chaos was taking place in the warehouse–when 3:30 came on the clock, I was off to pick up my son from daycare.  My mindset was this:  It wasn’t my fault that the company took out a perfectly suitable computer application and replaced it with a poor product.  I could have taken up residence there, and nothing was going to get better.  Bringing the stress home wasn’t going to do any good, and I wanted to see my son as soon as possible.

YOU CAN’T SPELL STABILITY WITHOUT ‘STAB’

Inevitably, my time as a “warehouse guy” was coming to an end.  My plan was to work through 2015 and into the first few months of 2016.  Knowing from past experience, finding work around the Christmas holiday season was very tough compared to the first six months of the calendar year.  Many of my previous employers would hold off hiring new staff until the beginning of the fiscal year, which was usually January 1, June 1 or July 1 (Schools that I’ve worked for close out/start up their financial records during the summer semester).  I felt that if I subjected myself to eleven months of this working hell, another three months wouldn’t kill me.

But, my director had other plans.

On that fateful Friday afternoon on October 16, 2015, my director sat me down in the conference room, explained to me that, “it wasn’t working out”, and said they were, “letting me go”.

Five years.  I did the same job for five years.  During the first four years, I received good (or great!) reviews for my work.  After the computer application change–the absolute reason for my production slowdown, my work had become unacceptable.  I was given two weeks severance pay and was paid the one week of vacation that I never had the chance to enjoy.

For about two seconds after hearing the news that I was unemployed, I had a panic attack.  It felt like somebody took a knife and ripped my stomach open.  As fast as that feeling came on, it went away after taking a deep breath.  I gathered my belongings, shook my director’s hand, and left.  When leaving the facility, I remember nodding my head and saying to him, “I’ll be okay.”  This of course was a lie–the place that granted me job stability just took away my job stability.  I had a gut feeling that finding a new job that worked around my son’s schedule was going to be impossible.

YOU CAN’T SPELL IMPROBABLE WITHOUT ‘ABLE’

Immediately after being terminated, I started receiving unemployment compensation.  During this time, there were many mind-numbing days of searching for work while other days were filled with joy.  The joy was caused by my newfound ability to watch my two-year-old son more often than I had been able to before my job loss.  Since I was home, my mother-in-law didn’t have to watch him on his non-daycare days.

During the colder months, my son and I stayed home most of the time.  If we ventured out of the house, I would take him to the local mall to run around in the children’s play area.  In the warmer months, we would take trips to the local park, where he insisted that I push him on the swings for sometimes hours at a time.  If I remember correctly, I watched him for a full day on 26 occasions during my time off.  26 wonderful days I would have never had if I was working full-time.  Our finances suffered, our bank account was becoming empty, but my heart was full.

Six months passed, my unemployment benefits ran out, and I couldn’t find a full-time job that had the same hours as my old job.  I started checking into full-time seasonal summer jobs, with the intent of getting at least some money back into the household.  On a local college website, I noticed they were hiring “Student Summer Help” for their buildings and grounds department.  The pay was terrible, but the hours were exactly the same as my old job.  Even though I wasn’t a student, I applied for the job.  In my cover letter, I stated I was looking for employment between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to work around family obligations, and that I believed I could easily run the large tractors and dump trucks once I was shown how to operate them.

Within thirty minutes, the assistant director of facilities contacted me and set up an interview.  He mentioned that a full-time groundskeeper just submitted his resignation and wanted me to re-apply for his spot, which I did.  My interview went well, I accepted the full-time position, and I started the following week.

Three years later, and I am still at the same place.  Despite the low pay and the unenviable task of doing snow removal, the job provides five weeks paid time off along with eight sick days.  During my son’s early years, I used dozens of these days to stay home with him when he was sick, or when his daycare was closed.  Staying with this groundskeeper position has resulted in a tremendous amount of monetary losses for myself and my wife, but the amount of time gained with my son in his preschool years is priceless.  I see him every day–and if he needs me to be with him all day, I have the ability to meet those needs.

INTO THE UNKNOWN

Usually with two working adults who do not receive help from a relative, neighborhood friend, or a nanny, one of the parents makes sacrifices in order for the other to sustain a career.  In my case, my wife has the career, earns a very good salary, and I make the necessary sacrifices to make sure our son has someone available to him at all times.

Our son will start kindergarten soon.  One of us will have to get him onto the school bus, and one of us will have to be there when the school bus brings him home.  My wife usually works somewhere between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., so she can make sure he gets to school.  I will have to be at the bus stop by 3:30 p.m., and my current job does not guarantee that I will get there in time, even if I left at 3:00 p.m.  We know our son will not want to go to the after school program that is offered at a different daycare than the one he has known since he was fifteen months old.  We do not want him to go to the after school daycare, because we do not trust the people in charge of the facility (my wife went for a tour a few years ago and despised the place).

Including part-time and seasonal jobs, my next place of employment will be my 24th.  Adaptability has always been my strongest attribute.  A new environment will once again commence, another basic paycheck will be cashed, and humility will quell the burning ego inside me.

I know I can lead.  I know I can innovate.  But right now, I know my son needs me to be in his life.  Right now, the title of “Dad” is more important than the title of “Senior Manager” or “Director”.  There are many talented, capable parents all around the world that have made the same choice that I have; parents that hold strong to the belief that time spent with their children is more important than time away at the office.

And this belief…is a lot of work.

 

 

 

 

 

The Moderate Party of the United States

In 21st Century America, government and its citizens have become more polarized than ever before.  A proverbial line in the sand has been drawn, and people all across the country have chosen their side.  The “gray area” has become more “black and white”.  Choose an allegiance, or be cast out.  Liberal or conservative?  Reform or status quo?  Revert or broaden?

Contrary to what is projected on television, social media and the many other channels of communication, there are citizens among us that support LGBTQ rights while really enjoying Chick-fil-A.  Citizens that support gun rights that don’t necessarily have a cache of weapons in their house.  People that believe in America, but are alienated by the incessant bombardment of childish arguing by both groups of people that are divided by the line in the sand.

A growing fraction of people on both sides of the line have had enough of the current rhetoric that doesn’t represent their ideology.  All of the distraught from both sides are taking their proverbial ball, and going home to start anew.  The Moderate Party is born.

THE LOGO–THE OWL

 

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This is just a free-hand sketch.  It doesn’t have to look like Richard Nixon.

Usually the most important attribute of a political party revolves around its ideology.  Since Moderates have varying stances on a variety of public policies, a defined ideology would only provide for an excellent oxymoron.  There are other ways for Moderates to develop an identity, and a fun way of displaying their affiliation would be with an animal, symbolically representing a given ideology.  Democrats have the donkey, Republicans have the elephant, and Libertarians have the porcupine.  According to me, Moderates should adopt the owl.  Since Thomas Nast (1840–1902) isn’t around to provide a drawing, I decided to draw the Moderate Party logo myself…poorly.

So…why the owl?

Owls have excellent vision.  Owls have excellent hearing.  Owls are found in most regions of the world.  Owls are symbols of wisdom in modern Western culture.  These are four noble reasons why the owl would be an excellent choice to represent the Moderate Party.  A fifth reason for the owl is not noble but hilarious, and something I have experience with from looking out into my backyard in the middle of the night:  Owls love to perch on fences.

Moderate voters are usually defined as a group of people that see both sides of a policy, so it would be appropriate to be symbolically represented by an animal that sees, “both sides of the fence”.  Also, the addition of the owl logo will cement the Moderate Party as a legitimate organization of voters and government officials.  To prove my point, look no further than the Green Party.  They do not have a symbolic animal representing their ideology, and nobody really takes their political party seriously.  Of course I’m just kidding Green Party, but not really.

THE COLOR PURPLE

On television, online, in newspapers, and on political advertisements, the major American political parties are usually represented by the same colors.  Democrats are blue, Republicans are red, Libertarians are yellow, and (if anybody notices) the Green Party is shown as…green!

If Moderates are always portrayed to be some hybrid mix of Democrats and Republicans, then it would only be appropriate to be represented by the color purple.  The only un-American part about the color purple is that it has always been associated with being the color of kings and queens.  I’m sure trolls on social media would try to stir up some insane conspiracy theory that Moderates will turn the United States back into a monarchy based on the color they identify with.  I’m sure 99% of the population wouldn’t read too far into the color choice.  Every American should know we were founded on renouncing the English crown, and at the same time knowing that we love Burger King a little too much.

POTENTIAL CAMPAIGN SLOGANS FOR THE PRESIDENCY

When the time comes for someone to run for President on the Moderate Party ticket, it will probably be assumed that the Moderate candidate will reveal an ideology that sometimes leans liberal and at other times more conservative.  Campaigns, along with their accompanying slogans, will predictably be safe and appealing to a wide audience.

A vast array of presidential slogans have been virtually the same over the years, and some can be updated to reflect the issues that voters will potentially be focused on in 2020.

A slogan that could cater to liberals and conservatives:

Herbert Hoover (1928) — “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage.”

Modern Version — “Legalization of Pot and Two Guns in Every Garage.”

A candidate/incumbent at some level of government needs to use this slogan simply for the media buzz it would provide.

A slogan that calls for change, but acknowledging that not everything in America is bad:

James Cox (1920) — “Peace.  Progress.  Prosperity.”

Modern Version — “Reform.  Reliance.  Responsibility.”

A slogan that reflects a changing America heading further into the 21st Century:

Al Gore (2000) — “Leadership for the New Millennium.”

Modern Version — “Leadership for the Modern America.”

Or perhaps a new creative slogan that acknowledges liberals and conservatives:

“The Only Candidate LEFT to Make the RIGHT Decisions for America.”

This slogan proves that marketing firms, consultants and advertising agencies do not have to be hired and be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with a clever slogan.  If anybody uses this one and a multi-million dollar company claims this as their own genius, we the people need to cry shenanigans.

MODERATES ARE GARNERING ATTENTION

I’m old enough to remember political humor.  Now in America, (unfortunately) political humor is an oxymoron.  Both groups divided by the line in the sand constantly shout across the line at each other, pushing agendas, ideals, and values on people that have completely different interpretations of what is important to humankind.

The United States of America.  It sounds so regal, so organized.  Truthfully, we have had many decades in our nation’s history where we fought against each other.  We don’t have to go far back in time to witness our own in-fighting.  Vietnam.  The 1968 Race Riots. The Civil Rights Movement.  Prohibition.  Polarizing times in our nation’s history, all of which took place in the last 100 years.

***

The owl is perched on a fence at night.  On one side, a donkey is kicking the fence with its hind legs, belting out a steady, “HEE HAW!!!”.  On the other side, an elephant is trumpeting its own powerful sound, flapping its ears and stomping around.  Meanwhile, a porcupine walks quietly on the ground among the chaos, going back-and-forth between sides of the fence through a small hole in the bottom.  It is a witness to the commotion, but takes a, “Laissez-faire” approach when navigating the situation.

Suddenly, a light comes on.  It is shining from the back of a neighboring house.  A man opens a back door to the house, takes a few steps outside, and faces in the direction of the animals.

“WILL ALL OF YOU SHUT THE HELL UP!!??!! IT IS THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!!!  WE ARE ALL TRYING TO SAVE OUR ENERGY FOR THE NEXT DAY!!!  I SUGGEST ALL OF YOU HEED MY ADVICE!!!”

The man slams the door behind him, the lights go out in the house, and quiet is abound.  The elephant, still stunned at what just happened, looks at the owl on the fence.

“Wow!  I guess he does have a point.  I’m going to bed.  Who was that guy anyway?”

Baffled, the owl keeps his eyes on the house while replying to the elephant.

“I don’t know.  But he looked a lot like Ralph Nader.”

Roller Skating With Sheila

On a warm autumn day in 1983, I was running around playing with my fellow second grade classmates during recess at my Roman Catholic elementary school.  The light jacket that I wore to school in the morning was tied around my waist while I dodged would-be grabbers and ran toward the end zone during a game of tag football.  The recess bell soon rang to end our outside time, and all of the students lined up so the parent playground volunteers could steer us back inside the school like a herd of cattle coming back in from the fields.  While I stood in line awaiting my turn to start heading back up the hill to school, a girl in my class grabbed my hand.  Her name was Sheila, and as we begun our journey back to school, she turned to me and declared that I was now her boyfriend.

Being an 8-year-old at the time, I didn’t quite know what being a boyfriend meant, but what I did know was this was my very first girl friend outside of my neighborhood block.  Sheila never spoke more than ten words to me in kindergarten and first grade, so it was quite a surprise that she thought highly of me.  We exchanged phone numbers at the end of the day and I resumed my usual routine with my friends as we walked back home.

For the next two weeks, Sheila and I talked on the phone, held hands at school and even sat next to each other in church.  My parents were amused at our arrangement and they kept our time on the phone to a minimum.  I was fine with how things were going between Sheila and I, but about two weeks in, I knew my life was going in the wrong direction.

My grades started to suffer.  I started alienating my friends.  I didn’t want to talk on the phone as long as I did in those first few days.  The delicate balance of my second grade life was abruptly knocked into disarray and I knew if I didn’t end the relationship soon, things would continuously get worse.  Appropriately, the big “break-up” came at a very grown up place:  The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

PROBLEMS AT HOGWARTS

Before Harry Potter came into existence, The Cathedral of Learning was Hogwarts.  The interior looks like the movies could have been filmed there.  My second grade class was there on a field trip to tour the international rooms that are still in the building to this day.

As my class weaved our way through the various ethnic-themed classrooms, Sheila and I held hands the entire time and sat next to each other…while holding hands.  After about an hour of this, the boys in our class started to give me a hard time over our behavior while the girls gave Sheila similar treatment.  Eventually, I saw how much fun the boys were having without me, so I broke away from Sheila, telling her that I didn’t want to be her boyfriend anymore.  She became mad at me, and barely spoke to me the rest of our second grade year together.

Third grade came along, and Sheila barely spoke to me.  Fourth grade arrived, and any type of interaction between us was brief and often forced upon us due to the arrival of more group projects.  The awkward few weeks we had together in 1983 was fading out of my memory, and just as I was about to accept that Sheila would never be my friend again, something unexpectedly happened.

THE COUPLES SKATE

Toward the end of my fourth grade year, my class along with the third grade class took a field trip together.  I cannot remember where we went for the first half of the day, but I do remember where we went after lunch.  The old Bethel Roller Rink in Bethel Park was closing their doors for good in the near future, and my teacher wanted us to experience the place before it went away.  I never roller skated before, so I was curious how I would fare compared to my classmates who had skated prior to our visit.

I kept my balance well, and only pushed off on my right skate for speed.  I probably looked ridiculous, but I was able to turn and keep a respectable pace around the floor.  Other kids noticed I was doing better than most of the beginners, including Sheila.  Toward the end of the session, the music slowed, and it was announced that the last two skates were going to be “couples skates” only.

As I pushed off on my right skate to exit the floor, I was suddenly grabbed by Sheila.  She wanted me to be her partner for the couples skate.  Stunned, I agreed, and she dragged me around the rink with her effortless form, holding my hand as I pushed off on my right skate to keep up with her.  When I held her hand that day, it didn’t feel burdensome.  I felt comfortable, and it was the first time I experienced a loving, genuine moment with a girl.  We skated those two songs while many of my friends watched from the benches, and afterwards I voluntarily sat next to her on the bus on the way back to school.

When we got back to school, Sheila and I said our goodbyes to each other, and went our separate ways.  Things between us suddenly returned to normal.  We didn’t talk to each other every day at school and we did not talk to each other outside of school.  What did change was our comfort level with each other.  We couldn’t comprehend our connection to each other at such a young age, but we both knew we had one when we were together.

THE FINAL MOMENTS OF US

Fifth, sixth and seventh grade carried on just as third and fourth grade did.  We spoke to each other, but we really didn’t get together outside of school.  We got along fine during those years, but Sheila stayed with her girl friends and I hung out with my boy friends.  When seventh grade came to an end, our relationship with each other was predictable and very distant.

Summer came along, and our annual church festival was just up the street from Sheila’s house.  I was working there as a stock boy moving prizes from a house we were using as storage to the vendor booths.  Since I was there every day of the festival, I spent time with Sheila four consecutive evenings.  I was not supposed to play games, but I played games to win stuffed animals for Sheila.  I was not supposed to get on the rides, but I remember riding the Ferris wheel with Sheila.  We were a couple again–a little older and a little more aware of what type of relationship we were portraying to our friends and family.

We talked on the phone for a few weeks after the festival, saw each other one day with a group of friends, and then, nothing.  We went back to our former ways of just seeing each other in school while passing through the hallways.  We never expressed any negative words to each other, we just both decided to spend our time with other people.

In eighth grade, I chased other girls around…poorly.  We went to high school together, but Sheila joined a cult, otherwise known as band.  The band had class together, ate together, practiced together and traveled together.  In four years of high school, I probably spoke to Sheila ten times.  We were going in different directions since grade school, and we never spoke to each other after the age of eighteen.

REMEMBERING AND RECONNECTING

Today, I do not have many friends.  There are many reasons and excuses I can give for this outcome, but at age 42, I have bigger life concerns involving family and work that take precedence over gaining new friendships and mending old ones.  I miss my good friends, and when I do see them, I cherish the time we have together.  I might not see them for years, but I want them to know that they were an important part of my early life, and I still want them to be a part of my life despite our ever-growing distractions of adulthood.

Sheila taught me early on that people can be friends despite years of separation.  We sat next to each other in class for years, but we were miles apart.  In the twelve years that I knew Shelia, we rarely spoke to one another.  But for about one month and one day in that time frame, I was her boyfriend and she was my girlfriend, even if we didn’t know what that really meant.

 

 

Pittsburgh’s Green Valley Golf Course: A ghost in the middle of progress

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When my late father first brought me to Green Valley Golf Course in 1987, there were a few homes near Green Valley’s white barn along Lowries Run Road and nothing else.  Over the next 16 years, a major highway, office buildings, shopping centers and hundreds of new homes were constructed while Green Valley remained the same.

And then one day, in the fall of 2003, Green Valley closed for good.  The parking lot and house across the street from the barn were razed and a hillside of dirt 150 feet high replaced them.  Mount Nebo Pointe shopping center was created high above the dirt.  Roads were widened, traffic signals emerged and the land Green Valley sat on was purchased by Allegheny General Hospital (AGH).  Everyone anticipated a suburban medical building to be constructed–a suburban setting for the hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

It’s now 2018.  The planned medical tower was never built, even though AGH still owns the property.  Overgrown fields of grass provide wildlife and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts an outdoor playground among the ever-increasing traffic coming and going near Interstate 279.  The young and the newcomers to Pittsburgh drive by the white barn today and probably assume it is abandoned farmland.  Green Valley Golf Course was simple and dangerous, and out of all of the courses I golfed in my youth, it was my favorite.

“A VALLEY OF NIGHTMARES”

I remember longtime Pittsburgh golf writer Gerry Dulac reviewing Green Valley in the early 1990’s.  His review was very accurate and gave the course 1.5 out of 4 stars.  The headline for his review read, “Greens are nice, but the rest is a valley of nightmares”.  It did not have established fairways so everything was either low-cut rough, sand or the awesome postage stamp greens that were maintained as well as any other 3 or 4 star golf course.  The nine holes were smashed together on about 90 acres of the property and the fairways and greens ran parallel to each other in many situations.  There were large trees between Lowries Run Road and Green Valley before the road was widened after the course closure.  Despite the natural barrier to keep golf balls from hitting passing cars, players found a way to smash their balls through the trees, denting vehicles and breaking windows.

Despite the quality of the course being sub-par, it was a very popular place to play golf.  The lack of public courses in the North Hills of Pittsburgh contributed to its appeal, but it also had qualities that two nearby nine-hole courses lacked.  The now-closed Franklin Park Golf Course had terribly small greens, and Clover Hill Golf Course (which is still open) is arguably the shortest nine-hole course in the United States.  Green Valley had short par 4’s, but two long par 5’s (480 and 472 yards).  The course variety and the nice putting greens kept my family coming back, and it was short enough where most people walked the course.

LEARNING THE GAME OF GOLF

My father enjoyed Green Valley over other local courses for several reasons.  We both grew up in the heart of Pittsburgh, but the city course in Schenley Park  had a few holes that had a road going through the fairway.  Dad thought I might hit a few cars and might cause me to not enjoy golfing.  The now-closed Crafton Golf Course had strict rules for a public course.  South Park and North Park were too long for a young kid.  The now-closed Holly Hill Golf Course had many blind shots, which resulted in thirty minutes of unnecessary ball searching for every nine holes of play.

Green Valley was wide open.  Seven of the nine holes were slice-friendly for right-handed golfers like myself.  The sight lines were very good, so searching for balls was left to a minimum amount of time.  Compared to other courses, I rarely lost golf balls at Green Valley.  I could hack a nine-hole score of 65 at age 12 and not lose one ball on the day.

The course owners and workers were nice, the fees were reasonable and the patrons enjoyed golf without the country club atmosphere.  It had an intangible, magnetic quality that I haven’t been able to duplicate on a golf course.

THE FUTURE OF GREEN VALLEY

In 2013, there were a few articles in local newspapers that mentioned AGH was giving up on the property, which is still up for sale as of 2018.  Shortly after AGH purchased the property it was determined the ground was not stable enough to support the construction of a medical building.  This decision of AGH to abandon the property was also due to their construction of their Allegheny Health Network “medical mall”, which was completed in nearby Wexford around the time they decided to sell Green Valley.

There has also been consideration for the McCandless Township Sanitary Authority (MTSA) to purchase the land and construct a water treatment sequential batch reactor.  The discussion of implementing this plan is in the early stages and remains a well-known rumor.

Richard Cook wrote an article titled, Sewer Treatment Plant Proposed For Old Green Valley Golf Course for the North Hills Patch on June 19, 2013.  MTSA Executive Director William Youngblood stated that, “If approved, we would have to acquire the property, and the permitting process could take up to five years.  The goal would be to have the plant up and running by 2026.”

Five years after Cook’s articled appeared, Green Valley still remains the same.  The “FOR SALE” sign still sits prominently at the intersection of Lowries Run Road and Mount Nebo Road.  The trees continue to overtake the land that sits quiet among the suburban sprawl that has transformed this former rural pocket of Allegheny county.

REMEMBER THE WHITE BARN

One day, the white barn will come down.  The overgrown brush on the nearby practice green and the path from the old parking lot will be cleared.  When I drive by Green Valley, I always take a quick glace, remembering what it looked like all of those years ago.  A part of my youth is gone, and somewhere in my heart it always hurts to see Green Valley fall into decay.

It was basic.  It wasn’t sexy.  But to me, Green Valley Golf Course was perfect.

***

If you played Green Valley, here are some memories from me:

Hole 1:  In 1987, there were two small red maples between 1 and 2.  My first-ever tee shot rolled between them.  One is still standing.  It’s pretty big now!

Hole 2:  One foggy morning, I was holding a 7-iron near the creek, hit the ball, and promptly flung the club into the creek.  Dad fished it out with the ball-retriever.

Hole 3:  Once out of the sand trap, I CRUSHED the ball over the green, hit the tree with the white stripe on it square, and the ball came back and landed near the green.

Hole 4: One of my very first birdies.  I hit my drive probably 300 yards.  It landed about 50 yards right of the pin.  I chipped within ten feet and rolled in the putt.

Hole 5:  When I was 12, I hit my tee shot within fifteen feet of the pin…on the 4th green.  Whoops!

Hole 6:  The moment I learned my own strength.  The short par-4 played about 250 yards straight and slightly uphill.  I hit my old persimmon driver off the tee, and the ball hit halfway up the first blue spruce adjacent to the green on the right. If I hit that ball the same way to the center of the green, I would have hit the cart bridge to the 7th tee on one bounce.

Hole 7:  Playing with three other guys one evening, I hit my tee shot over 300 yards and hit a 5-iron to sixty feet of the pin.  My first chance to make eagle.  I then 4-putted the hole for a 6.

Hole 8:  My friend Jason BOMBED a drive down the 7th fairway and the ball landed at the base of the huge hill below the 8th green.  With me watching at the top of the hill, he hit a 9-iron SKY HIGH, and the ball landed on the green within five feet.  One of the best shots I ever saw with my own eyes.  He missed the putt.

Hole 9:  If anyone ever wondered how the red stone tee marker broke in half, I was there when it happened.  A guy in the group ahead of me was hitting from the white markers, and his tee shot hit the red marker flush.  The ball came back flying at all of us while the marker exploded into several pieces.  It was awesome.

And the last memory is from my late father (Hole 9):  Dad and my Uncle John were playing when I was a baby.  John hit his tee shot into the sun.  He hit it good, but he couldn’t see the green because of all the sun glare.  When he and Dad got to the green, they couldn’t find the ball.  They assumed it went over the green since John got all of it.  The group that just finished told them it didn’t roll beyond the green and told John to check the hole.  The ball was in the hole.  Uncle John got a hole-in-one, and he didn’t even know it until the moment had passed.