The Note From A Girl: A tale of uncertainty from 1998

In May of 1998, I was going to community college in Pittsburgh and finishing up the spring semester.  I had four classes that semester, one of which was an advanced English literature class on Monday nights (When I say “advanced”, it was a sophomore year equivalent course at a four-year school).  Part of the final for the English class was essay, and I was a slow writer.  Out of the fifteen to twenty students in my class I was one of the last to leave class that final night.

On my way back up to my car in the top parking lot, I noticed something white was tucked under my windshield wiper.  As I got closer it was clear to me that the white object was a piece of notebook paper folded over.  I opened up the paper and something was written in blue ink.  The writing looked like it belonged to a girl:

“Hey Larry, it was great having class with you this year!!!  Give me a call sometime so we can meetup!  555-555-5555”

One problem–there was no name on the note.

Now, looking at this from afar, one would simply say, “Okay, so just call the number and see who it is!!!”  Yes, that seems like an easy solution.  But going by my gut feeling, that note could have been left by one of six women…and only one of them was worth the risk of calling.

“The One” was Jennifer.  Not Jen or Jenny–she was Jennifer.  If the note had this name inked into it, I would have called her as soon as I got home (Silly Millennials, this is 1998–not many cell phones in the 1990’s).  Since the note had no name, I had to proceed with caution because:

1) With no name, it might have been put there by my on-again/off-again girlfriend to see if I was cheating on her.  My girlfriend didn’t know the names of the women I talked to at school, so that is why I felt the note might have been a trap.  It was a low probability, but if I called that number and it was one of her friend’s numbers, I would have encountered WAY too much drama to stay in the “relationship”.  (SIDE NOTE: If you find yourself in an on-again/off-again relationship, turn the damn thing off and move on.)

2) Some of the other girls that showed interest in me were, uh, clingy.  I’m being nice here.  To be fair, I know many girls from my youth thought I was weird.  I just didn’t want to call the number, have it belong to someone I didn’t like and have to disinfect them out of my life for the next three weeks.  All of this WHILE DEALING WITH MY GIRLFRIEND DRAMA.  It wasn’t worth the risk.

3) I parked my car at 8 a.m. and didn’t return until 9 p.m.  That note could have been there all day.  If the note said, “…great having class with you on Monday nights!!!”, there wouldn’t have been any doubt it came from Jennifer.  It said, “…this year!!!” Shit, with all those exclamation points she sure seemed eager to see me again.

If it was Jennifer, the absence of her name on that paper drastically changed the course of her life and mine.  If I saw her name, I would have called.  I would have stayed with her if we liked each other’s company.  I would have dumped my um, girlfriend and would have saved myself another seventeen months of on-again/off-again with her that mercilessly dragged on far into 1999.

A few months later, I came across a student who knew Jennifer and I asked how she was doing.  Apparently she was dating a guy and got a job not too far from where I lived at the time.  The information I received gave me the opportunity to locate her and try to find out if she indeed put that note on my windshield.  But, it sounded like she was happy spending time with her boyfriend and excited about a possible future with him.  I didn’t want to spoil her happiness by abruptly reentering her life and seeing if there was a real shot for us to be a couple.  So I declined to go see her.

It wasn’t worth the risk.

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The Ghost Who Snuggled With Me

Can a ghost story be funny?  Over the years I’ve had my share of the typical scary encounters that many people write and speak about.  My father had a very nice encounter that perplexed him until the day he died.  In 2008, my wife and I moved into a townhouse that would occasionally produce unexplainable occurrences.  So of course, I will now try to explain one of those occurrences during our four years at this location.

To be clear, my wife has had at least one experience with ghosts, but at the townhouse, she claimed that she never had any strange happenings while being there.  Me?  I had a few dozen bizarre tricks being played on me there, and they all happened during DAYLIGHT hours, when I was home alone.  I know–how convenient.

In my forty-one years I’ve lived in six different locations and the townhouse was the only living space that produced paranormal activity.  The place wasn’t that old (it was built in 1971), but the structure acted as if it had a storied history where people had a tendency to “stay” even though they “left”.  Most of the hauntings were enough to spook me but not in a mean-spirited manner of behavior.  Huge swings in temperature, lights flickering on and off (while other parts of the house were fine), a woman talking (usually one word but distinctively within the walls of the house) and the feeling of being watched were occasionally observed or felt.  The most severe of the incidents happened in 2009, about eighteen months in to our time at the house.

My wife has always worked a typical daylight job since we’ve been together, but I have not.  At the end of 2009 I was working a 4 p.m. to midnight shift and I didn’t see my wife that often (Some men would call this paradise.  I’m kidding.  Really.).  I would be home alone each morning, but I would usually sleep throughout the morning and into the early afternoon.  The sunlight coming through the windows didn’t bother me and we didn’t have a cat yet to wake me out of a deep sleep just so they could put their ass in my face.  Sleep was abundant, peaceful and sometimes, unnerving.

Around 10 a.m. one morning, I woke up, but I didn’t get out of bed right away.  Once I saw the time I knew I had a few more hours of sleep to get in before heading off to work.  Eventually I drifted back to sleep, and the next thing I remembered seemed like a dream.  I remember my eyes remained closed, my arm was draped over what seemed to be a woman’s body in the middle of the bed, her hair in my face and the smell of perfume.  Not old lady perfume but a sweet, light, flowery fragrance.  By the contour of the body and the scents I encountered, it felt like there really was a woman in bed with me.  A slender, sophisticated girl was spooning with me into the late morning at the house.  Eventually I became more conscious of the situation, but I was afraid to open my eyes.  At this point I knew I was awake and I felt someone/something was spooning with me in bed.  Eyes still closed, I lifted myself up, knelt upon the mattress, and opened my eyes–I couldn’t believe what I saw.

In bed, next to the location of where I was sleeping, there was an indentation in the mattress.  There was no person there, but the mattress provided a perfect outline of a female’s body snuggled up right next to where I was lying in bed.  The smell of perfume still resonated through the room and it wasn’t anything my wife would wear.  She wears “Chance” by Chanel and that’s a smell I’ve been around since we started dating in 2004.  Even though I was frightened, I was at the same time flattered by the experience.  Instead of screaming out and trying to banish what I couldn’t understand, I thanked it.  I’m convinced it was a woman, and I thanked her for appearing to me in a loving manner.  I believed she liked being around me and I told her she can stay in the house.  But I also told her that spooning with me scared me, and that I now know she was there in the house–there was no reason to manifest into a form anymore.

In the remaining 2 1/2 years we lived there, I never had another ghost snuggle with me and the hauntings went back to the milder fare I became accustomed to.  Often I thanked the ghost for letting us co-exist with her while we occupied that particular space in time.  I’m sure one day I’ll find out who she was when I have the opportunity to walk through the invisible veil amongst us and into another dimension.

Unless she met someone else…probably moved to Maryland or somewhere further south.

 

 

 

Trixie: A moment of romance in an unlikely place

I assure you this tale is a clean one, but the location of where this story unfolded was not.

In the mid-2000’s I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the age of 28.  I worked full-time while going to school, so many semesters were one or two part-time classes at night.  When I got to my senior year, I took more daylight classes and was easily the oldest student among all of my traditional college-age classmates.  I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, mostly because schoolwork enveloped all of my free time and the 20 to 23 year-old women I attended class with wanted nothing to do with my “old man student” self.  Everybody was friendly and I got along with everybody at school, but it was amazing how five or six years of age difference–even in my twenties still provided a huge cultural gap.

During Saint Patrick’s Day weekend my senior year, a few friends I grew up with asked me to head down to Pittsburgh to drink with them and just be Irish for a day (I’m 100% Polish decent).  I agreed to meet them in the early afternoon on the South Side just after the parade traffic let out (To this day, Pittsburgh has the second-largest Saint Patrick’s Day parade in the United States, only behind Boston).  We met at one of our favorite taverns and proceeded to hop around to different establishments to check out the wonderful debauchery at each location.  I managed to pick up a green hat and some beads from a few sponsored parties, so after a few hours I fit the description of a typical reveler on March 17 in America: Drunk, Irish and wearing costume jewelry.  If I remember right, my hat had a Labatt’s logo on it.  That’s right, a Canadian brewery putting their name on green hats for Saint Patrick’s Day.  Awesome.

We eventually encountered a large gathering complete with outdoor stage, portable toilets, beer, food and LONG lines at the “porta-potties”.  The atmosphere was awesome, but after drinking a half-dozen beers in under two hours, I had to piss really bad.  Knowing the South Side well, I knew there were a few big restaurants and bars not far from the party in the parking lot.  They had no cover charge to get in, assuming they wanted to attract people to their establishments since the street party was taking away potential business.  I walked alone over to one of the restaurants with the plan of having a beer there in case they wanted rouge pissers like myself to patronize the place (Since people like me were running up their water bill).

I entered the restaurant and immediately stand in line for the men’s restroom.  The men’s line was only a few men outside of the door.  The women’s line was another story.  There must have been twenty women waiting just to get inside the restroom.  When I was the third or fourth guy waiting to get in the men’s room, a group of women jumped into the men’s room line and asked me and another guy if they could go in with us.  We had a good laugh about it and agreed to the proposal.  At that point I looked at the other women behind the one I was talking to.  One of the girls was “Trixie”.

Trixie went to college with me.  She studied under the same major as me, had multiple classes with me and barely spoke ten words to me at school.  It’s not that we didn’t get along, it was that we had nothing in common.  She was five years younger than me, athletic and from another part of the country.  We entered the restroom and I took a piss right in front of her and her friends while we continued to talk.  I washed my hands to just get out of their way so the girls had space to duck into the stalls.  I can’t remember which person first struck up the conversation, but I do remember it was basic.  I asked her how life was after graduating and she mentioned she was in town to party with her friends from college.  We were both laughing at each others’ festive attire when something changed.

I don’t know what spurred our next action, but right before Trixie was to enter the one stall, we faced each other, put our hands around our waists and we passionately kissed.  My emotions were everywhere for a split-second.  I could hear the few random guys in the restroom playfully hollering at us, then I remember her friends reacting in shock with the sound of gasps and laughter at the sight of us.  A few seconds later, I heard nothing.  It was as if my mind blocked out every outside influence and quenched every single second of my uh, romantic moment with Trixie.

Right after our kiss was over, I said, uh, um–I can’t remember what I said to Trixie!  I don’t know if I said something off putting to her or if her friends pulled her away from me (Maybe Trixie had a boyfriend?), but the next thing I remembered was walking back to the outdoor party to find my friends.  I didn’t tell them what happened because I felt they wouldn’t believe that I kissed a girl in a crowded men’s restroom.

I never saw or talked to Trixie again.  If I said something terrible to her that day she didn’t deserve it.  She was a nice girl and I’m sure she’s doing just fine with whatever she is doing these days.  Trixie and I created no memories of us at college to reflect upon, but we shared an unforgettable, spontaneous experience in the most unlikeliest of places…unless she was too drunk to remember.

Soothe: Nintendo lullabies, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and my young son’s love of them

There’s the old adage, “Write what you know.”  Many writers over time (Including Twain and Hemingway) have given this advice.  This tale can be titled Sing What You Know and/or Put On Music That Calms You Down When Calming Your Baby Down.  

My wife and I have one son who is age three right now.  When he was a newborn, he did the usual things a baby would do in its first year.  He woke up at night many times, pooped six times a day, required burping after bottles and wanted to be held the majority of the time.  We both worked during this period of his life so trying to get enough sleep was becoming more difficult.

I have a brother who is eight years younger that me, so I remember observing what my mother and father would do to calm my little brother down when he was crying.  Some would obviously work (Giving him a bottle because he was hungry) and some would not (Taking off/adding clothes when he just wanted held).  Over time my parents learned his cues and my brother didn’t cry as much as he got closer to his first birthday.

During those early desperate nights when it seemed we could not get enough sleep before going into work for a full day, we tried to understand our son’s needs in an attempt to get him back to sleep.  When it came time for me to take my turn in the waking up rotation, I wanted to sing my son back to sleep but I didn’t know any of the traditional lullabies people would sing to babies.  I wanted my wife to stay asleep, but I didn’t want our son to keep crying for thirty minutes.  I needed something to hum or sing that was repetitive, and there was only one type of music that came to mind in my state of sleep-deprived delirium:

Video game music from my old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The first night I tried using NES music, I slowed down the background music used in the above-ground levels of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.  It worked!  My wife would get so pissed that I could sing him back to sleep with the silliest method that would never be found in parenting advice books and blogs.  When our son didn’t want to hear the Zelda music, I slowed down the following music from other games (I challenge others to try this method to see if it works on other babies):

The podium win AND the “kick the can” music from Excitebike, above-ground music from Super Mario Bros., the game introduction/general background music from Bases Loaded and the count out/winner music from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  I added a few from other platforms, including the original “hammer” music from Donkey Kong.

As my son got older and started going to day care, I had a problem keeping him happy in his car seat on the way home.  I always had CD’s of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in the car, so I would pop one in to see if the mellow folk music of Drake or Cohen would calm him down.  I could tell he was listening to the different instruments and the words being sung in the songs.  It was a sound completely different from what he heard in his early life.  After a few tracks, he would go to sleep.  If I knew he didn’t sleep well during the day, I would keep the music on and drive around for an hour to let him rest.

Even at three, my son remembers some of those drives home and knows their music well.  He has his own special names for each of his favorite tracks and when I pick him up from day care, we usually have Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left on when we drive home.  Instead of tossing a child’s DVD in the car and my son blankly staring at a small TV screen while we drive home, my son and I sing “Time Has Told Me”, we listen for the strings to kick in on “River Man”, all while looking out the car windows, seeing the birds fly, viewing the turkeys pecking at last year’s corn crop remnants and marveling at the big construction trucks when encountering road work being done.

I loved my old NES and when I have time again, I know I will eventually purchase the recently released Nintendo NES Classic Edition.  I love the music of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen because their poetic songs bring calm to my worrisome existence.  The games and songs that have soothed my soul over the years have provided my son with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity in a unique form.

 

1917: A Discrimination Tale

 

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All of my ancestors that decided to come and start a new life in the United States during the early 1900’s came from Poland.  Yet, I have a German last name.  This is the story of how my great-grandfather created an alias to attain better job opportunities and avoid the overt discrimination that dominated American life during his time as a steelworker.

THE ARRIVAL OF “FRANK”

Between 1892 and 1909, my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way to the South Side of Pittsburgh.  With Polish diacritics in their surnames, they settled in the same pocket of town, married and started families.  My great-grandfather Frank Golebiewski arrived sometime in 1904 or 1905, and I’ve never heard of somebody calling him anything other than Frank.  Coming from Poland, there was no way his birth name was Frank.  My family was never sure if it was indeed Francizek.  Even before he settled into his new life across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was creating a new identity for himself.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Frank went to work in one of the many steel mills on the South Side.  In 1904, there were at least six that sat along the Monongahela River in the city limits and many more just outside of the city.  Frank worked for two mills: Oliver Iron and Steel Company and another owned by Alexander Byers.  The mills sat three city blocks apart and produced piping, nuts, bolts, rivets and many other specialty parts used in construction projects.  Working in these mills required a higher level of intelligence than most of the South Side factories.  Many machine operators had to have a basic understanding of math to create dies (metal forms), molds, production tools and other site specific items used in the manufacturing process.  Frank started out at Byers and basically held the same position for about a dozen years.  He was a ground level production worker with no authority.

Over the years Frank noticed that all of the higher level positions in the steel mills were controlled by mostly English or German men.  When job openings would be posted for such titles as, “Crew Foreman Wanted”, somewhere under the heading would read, “No Poles Need Apply”.  Other select ethnic groups would also be shunned in these advertisements, but the Poles were always included on these posters around the South Side.  Frank knew he was qualified for a supervisory role, but he also knew his last name was hindering his ability to earn more money for his growing family.

All of the Catholic Polish families attended church at Saint Adalbert parish and were members of the Polish Falcons of America, which is a fraternal society that has had its national headquarters in Pittsburgh since the 1910’s.  For years, “Falcons” (As my grandparents called it) had two buildings in the heart of the South Side.  Many of Frank’s Polish co-workers were also friends to him.  They drank, smoked and played the card game euchre with each other at Falcons or at their houses when they weren’t working at the mills.  Over time it became apparent to his friends that Frank wanted to move on from Byers, but he didn’t know how.  Even in 1917, “glass ceilings” existed at the workplace.

A CARD GAME, A NEW NAME

One Saturday night during the usual euchre game between the guys, a close friend and co-worker of Frank’s–a person that I have never learned the identity of, came up with a plan for Frank to get a promotion:  Frank had to get a foreman’s job at a different mill but with the German last name of Kress.  Employers didn’t check for proper identification until they were forced to by law in the 1930’s, so Frank simply could use the surname Kress as an alias.  Of all the surnames Frank could use, why was he instructed to use Kress?

I don’t know if it’s a generational trait or if my family was very uninterested in their family history, but I never got a straight answer as to why Kress was the consensus pick to obtain a job promotion.  Over the years I pieced together some facts about Frank, the name Kress and what the name meant to “Millionaire’s Row” on the other side of town in Pittsburgh’s North Side:

Kress wasn’t as common as other German names in Pittsburgh.  If Frank chose “Miller” or one of the many spellings of “Schmidt”, eventually one of the higher supervisors who did have the last name of Miller or Schmidt would have found him to be a phony.  In traditional German, Kress is spelled Kreß, with the eszett (ß) representing the “sharp S” and replacing the “ss” at the end of the name.  So if Frank was to be German, his friend sure picked a hardcore, badass southern German name for him to use.

Frank knew how to speak the German form of broken English.  Over the course of twelve years at Byers, Frank heard his German supervisors speak to the English heirarchy in English when the production process was discussed on the floor of the mill.  Frank had to have some experience with German culture when he grew up in Poland as well. Poland and Germany shared a border then (Poland was a territory of the Russian Empire) and they still do in 2017, so being exposed to German culture as a boy gave Frank confidence that he could portray being German in the “theatre” of steel mills.

Early automobile owners on Pittsburgh’s North Side relied on the Kress name to keep their cars moving.  The North Side and South Side of Pittsburgh are less than four miles apart, but to the people of 1917 Pittsburgh, they were very far from each other since automobiles were only owned by the upper class.  Many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families resided in what was deemed, “Millionaire’s Row”, a few blocks of very large mansions on the North Side that were primarily built along Ridge Avenue and North Lincoln Avenue (Many of them still stand today).  When the automobiles of the wealthy needed work done on them, servants were dispatched to handle the problems. The rich rarely interacted with the working-class, especially immigrant workers. For car tires, a man (Or a few men) with the last name of Kress provided good, affordable tires to the people of the North Side.  Their reputation grew from their roots as horse carriage builders and they eventually got their own automobile repair garage in the 1920’s. Pittsburgh’s elite might have not interacted directly with their tire repair and service shop, but the name Kress represented hard work and provided a good product on the other side of town.

DEEMED QUALIFIED (EVEN THOUGH HE LIED)

A few months after Frank’s promotion plan was outlined, he secured a foreman job at Oilver Iron & Steel as Frank Kress.  He kept this job until the mid-1930’s, when employees were required to provide legal documentation for work due to the Social Security Act of 1935.  Poles in 1930’s Pittsburgh did not suffer from the same level of discrimination as their ethnic group did twenty years prior, so Frank found suitable work as Frank Golebiewski until he retired after World War II.

I theorize Frank’s friend knew about the Kress family and their budding business on the North Side.  He also knew that the owners and higher managers would never strike up casual conversations with Frank.  Frank’s secret would be safe, and his plant supervisors could see that he was capable of supervising workers while delivering quality products.

Frank must have been well-respected by his friends and fellow co-workers, because I’m sure there were plenty of people that worked under him that could have “ratted him out”.  I guess all of the Poles that worked for him didn’t mind working for their “German” boss.

THE ALIAS AND MY FAMILY TREE

My grandfather (Pap), Frank’s son, was the only one in the family to legally change his last name to Kress in 1953.  I think Pap might have pissed his dad off when he made Kress his real name, because Pap never really gave me a good reason why he did it.  Personally, I love that Pap changed the name because it preserved this story about his dad and what he had to do to succeed in America.

Many other families around the world have similar stories to mine.  I even have a few more examples within my own family.  Solarczyk is another name throughout my family tree.  My grandfather who had this name had step-brothers who legally changed their name to Solar.  They also changed their last name to attain better job opportunities.

DIFFERENT ERA, DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, SAME STEREOTYPES

In 1917, immigrants that resided in the south neighborhoods of Pittsburgh came from many different countries in eastern Europe.  In 2017, the same south neighborhoods I grew up in still have an immigrant population, but from entirely different parts of the world.  Today, former citizens of Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Laos and Somalia seek the same opportunities that my great-grandfather Frank did.  The discrimination might not be as overt, but long-time residents seem to have a hard time accepting foreigners into their communities.  Long-time residents who have apparently forgotten the fact that their ancestors were the target of the very same abuse that they shell out on our 21st century newcomers.

The United States of America is known as a melting pot.  It was in 1917 and it is in 2017.  Hopefully in 2117, there will be another third-generation American sharing a tale about how their great-grandfather arrived in New York in 2004 or 2005 and found a way to succeed in an foreign country in search of a better life.  A third-generation American that is not a victim of discrimination, but remembers the stories from his family of when they endured it on a daily basis.

***

Thanks great-grandpap Frank.  The story of your drive to succeed, your emphasis on family and your courage to take risks to benefit your sons and daughters in the future is not lost in time.  I’ll make sure my son knows your story too.

Your great-grandson,

Larry Kress

(Image found via Google, traced to an advertisement found in “The Daily Free Press”, June 19, 1910.  Carbondale, Illinois had a newspaper under this name in 1910 and they have a rich history in coal mining.)

October 1997: The Party At “Slim’s House”

Nineteen years ago this month I arguably had the strangest house party experience of my life and it had nothing to do with sex, drugs, beer, fire or some form of property damage.

There was this guy my friend Amy occasionally hung out with and my circle of friends knew him because he would occasionally pop in when my group would go out drinking.  I’ll call him “Slim” for this story.  Slim was a fat schmo who was arrogant, condescending, sloppy, cheap and a consistent jerk for no good reason.  I still remember Slim going out for chicken wings with us and always ordering french fries with a water.  I’m a “go big or go home” type of person when going out for food and drinks, so I thought he was an asshole just based on his food order.  I was never the sucker who would buy Slim a beer.

My friend Dave and I worked with Amy and she told us that we were invited to go a party at Slim’s house.  Apparently Slim had a new house and my cynical self was telling me that Slim wanted to show off his bachelor pad to EVERYBODY HE COULD because he wanted everyone to know who was boss even though he looked like total garbage.  How ironic.  Even though Dave and I couldn’t stand Slim, we agreed to make an appearance out of pure curiosity.  At least Slim would serve all the french fries and water we could eat and drink.

The party took place on a Friday night in mid-October.  I drove with Dave in his car and we got to Slim’s about an hour after the party started.  When we got inside we saw Amy, Slim, a few other friends of ours and about fifteen other people that I didn’t know.  The home was built in the 1950’s, a typical small suburban ranch house like many that were carved out in Pittsburgh’s south hills post World War II.  It was a good size for Slim but it was very small to house a family in.  The strange part about Slim’s house was the decor.  I didn’t ask, but most of the furniture was old.  Not retro chic old but 1970’s tacky old.  I assumed the furniture came with the sale of the house, so I grabbed a beer and hung out with Dave, Amy, Jill (from the “Rocker Girl” tale) and Jill’s boyfriend Jerry (whaa whaaaah).

About thirty minutes in, Dave and I overheard a conversation from a few guys that were coming up from the basement.  Apparently the basement was finished with a large television down there, and Slim had a Sony Playstation hooked up to it.  Some of the guys were taking turns playing Madden 98, which was and still is the best American football video game franchise produced.  Becoming bored with the conversations upstairs, we ducked out and descended the stairs to see if we could play a game against each other.

The room was simple but nice, with plenty of seating and good lighting.  There were four college age guys sitting around, two playing the game and two watching the game play.  Since the 1998 version was fairly new, Dave and I wanted to view the game even if we killed the vibe in the room.  Usually when guys get together to play video games everybody is loud and throwing snacks at each other.  These guys were quiet and calm while we sat around with them.

After the game was complete, we were asked by the four guys if we wanted to play since they were all heading back upstairs.  We agreed to take over the game and decided to play the longest amount of minutes per quarter since we were anticipating a few more people wanting a turn.  We wanted to get our thirty to forty minutes in and be done with it for the night.

About forty minutes later Dave and I completed our game, but there was nobody waiting to use the game console.  Having lost faith in the atmosphere upstairs at Slim’s, Dave and I fired up another game.  An hour (and a few beers) later, we apparently started to make a noticeable amount of noise.  In our eyes, Dave and I were just being typical twenty-one year old’s playing video games.  Slim came downstairs to see what the commotion was about.

“GUYS!  I don’t care if you play down here, but you have to be quiet.”

Dave and I looked at each other, confused.  I spoke up.

“Slim, what’s the big deal?  We’re just down here by ourselves playing Madden.  Why does anyone upstairs care about how much noise we are making down here?”

“Because my grandmother is sleeping in the other room.”  Slim points at a door on the other side of the basement.

Dave and I looked at each other again.  Dave had this look of both confusion and amazement  while I could not wipe the smirk off of my face.  I tactfully replied for the both of us.

“Oh, okay Slim.  Sorry, we didn’t know she was there.”

Slim went back upstairs, and we immediately started laughing uncontrollably.  Of course, we were laughing uncontrollably QUIET.  We finished our second game and went back upstairs.  We wanted to share the hilarious news that Slim’s grandma was sleeping in the basement, that it wasn’t Slim’s house and the party was lame, but we didn’t say anything to our friends until the next day.  Me, Dave and some twenty-five other people went to a house party…at Slim’s grandmother’s house.

So the revelation of Slim’s grandmother holed up in the basement confirmed why all of the old furniture looked like something my grandparents would have owned, why those four guys were acting so reserved in the basement and that Slim was indeed a poser.  He made it sound like the house was his, and we discovered the truth when we played drunken video games in his grandma’s basement.  I mean WHO THROWS A HOUSE PARTY IN THEIR GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE!?!?!  Slim does.

Dave and I left the party pretty quick after our conversation with Slim.  We went to a local bar where a lot of jolly older guys hung out and told tall tales and laughed at each other for hours.  On this night we had our tall tale to share with them, and we didn’t disappoint them.  They never heard of anybody doing what Slim pulled that night.

 

 

Sending E-mails To My Late Father

A few years back, my father suddenly passed away.  Compared to other father/son relationships we had a typical bond but we were certainly two completely different minded individuals.  Despite this slight disconnect and as I found out later a lack of transparency, Dad and I always had great conversations about the day-to-day activities in our lives.  In those moments, Dad gave me great advice and peace of mind even though he struggled finding his own peace of mind for most of his life.

In the first year after his death, I often found myself talking out loud to Dad about many different events that occurred in my life since I lost him.  I found it very therapeutic when I sought his advice even though I knew I wasn’t going to receive a straightforward answer from beyond.

Shortly after Dad died, my wife gave birth to our son, which would have been his first grandchild.  I always brought my son up in the conversations with the air around me, hoping somehow that Dad could listen to what I was saying.  Life became busier and tiresome when constantly attending to a newborn baby, so my conversations aimed at Dad waned.

Two years ago this month on the day which would have been his 71st birthday, I decided to send an e-mail to Dad’s old America Online account.  I loved how he hung on to that account years after we all had those ubiquitous AOL addresses in the middle of the 1990’s.  With an e-mail address like that one would think Dad had no idea how to transition into the digital age.  He shall not be judged; Dad was a “Napster Master” at the age of 56 and later in life he loved his fantasy football online.  Dad drove my mom nuts with his hours of roster moves every week during the NFL season.

In the e-mail I talked about how I love my family, that I was proud to be his son and a few personal family details that Dad and I could only have a conversation about.  When I sent the e-mail, I could still hear his voice offering advice on the phone or when I used to visit home more often.  It turned out the e-mail address was still active because I did not get a delivery failure message.  I’d like to think he still checked his e-mail somewhere close to my presence.

Since that first e-mail I’ve sent four more in the last two years.  They’ve all kicked back to me so it seems Dad’s AOL account has been taken off of the grid.  Unless ALL of AOL is off of the grid!  But it doesn’t matter to me if Dad can’t read the messages I intended for him, what’s important to me is the peace I get in composing those e-mails.  Collecting my thoughts and sending them to Dad remind me of the nights we talked in my bedroom about the challenges of growing up while watching the old 12:30 Late Night With David Letterman show on NBC.  They remind me of the phone conversations we had when I first moved out on my own.  They remind me of the time when he found out he was going to be a grandfather.  Tangible words on the screen that I would have said to Dad in person.  Words that were fading from my consciousness due to a lack of sleep, an increase in children’s television viewing and the inability to simply find time to relax.

I miss Dad, but I was blessed to have him in my life all of these years.  Occasionally I will get a hint that Dad is watching me from afar but at the same time close by.  Other times I don’t.  I assume he’s downloading free music somewhere when he’s not around.  Pretty soon I’ll send him another e-mail since his grandson is going to turn 3 in less than a month.  I’ll talk about a variety of topics and ask him a few questions about the problems I’m facing in 2016.

If I don’t get a reply to my questions I understand.  It’s the start of fantasy football season.

Rockin’ The Dad Bod

When I’m in blog land or jumping on Twitter (Facebook free since 2013!), I find it humorous when I hear a parent complaining that they cannot find time to lift weights, run, do yoga, etc.  It’s not because I’m a hater, it’s because it sounds like the parents I speak of are going to transform into a slob overnight if they can’t find time to do what they want.  Those darn kids, they can really take up your free time!

Holy crap people.  Having kids means sacrifice.  Well, it’s supposed to anyway.  My wife and I both work during the day so when we have our son in the evening, we enjoy spending those four to five hours each day with him.  Even if he throws tantrums.  Even if he throws blocks at my head.  We take turns getting daily chores done, but we are always falling behind on a few tasks.  It’s not because we have a ton of things to do, it is because we would rather sit on the couch and read a book with our son.  I sit on the floor so much with my son I find myself sitting on the floor when I’m alone watching television.  We have fun with him and he has fun with us.  We are both there for him as much as life allows.

Before this post turns into an annoying rant, I’ll pump the brakes and have some fun regarding the first two paragraphs.  I’ll recall a moment in time when my wife and I were a couple, then compare that moment to a current situation now that we are a family.  Here I go:

August 2011 – My wife and I played tennis two or three nights a week.

August 2016 – My wife and I are weak from playing with our son two to three hours a night.

All of 2012 – I would lift weights in the basement using my new bench that my wife bought for me.

All of 2016 – My wife bought many things for our son in 2015 and stacked many items on top of my weight bench.  I think I can see it down there again since I moved some boxes from that area of the basement.

Most of 2012 – I would run around our neighborhood three to four nights during the warmer months.  Nothing crazy, about 10-15 miles per week.

Most of 2016 – I run around our yard with my son three to four nights a week during the warmer months.  It’s crazy, he’ll circle the house 10-15 times per night.

As I mentioned in some of my other posts, my wife makes the money and I find work that fits into our schedule.  I don’t make much money, but I rarely work weekends.  I don’t have a prestigious title at my job, but my job allows me to see my family every day.  In my first year of employment at my new job, I’ll have 21 paid days off.  In America, many people can work 20 years or more at a company and not get 21 paid days off.  These days with a young son growing up before my eyes, I’ll take time over money.

When my son gets older, I’ll work myself back into a decent looking shape.  I look forward to turning my man boobs back into fresh elderly pecs.  I know my abs are still in there somewhere, but I have more important responsibilities to attend to right now.  I’ll find my abs in 2021 or 2022.

When I was under age 25 I was chasing my dreams.  Between 25 and 34, I was chasing a career.  From 34 to 39, I was chasing the money.  Now at 40, I’m chasing my son.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Glance: An unexpected source of compassion

In late 1997 I decided one night to drive across town to drop in on my girlfriend at the time, the aforementioned “Peach”.  Peach was working an 11-8 shift at a local restaurant where she was a hostess.  At this time she started her sophomore year of college, and it seemed she was taking less interest in me.  She claimed she was just busy with work and school, and I didn’t question her reasons for ignoring me during the end of the fall semester.

When I arrived at her job, another hostess who I did not know asked why I wanted to talk to Peach.  When I stated I was her boyfriend, the girl had a stunned look on her face and immediately turned around to find Peach.  I overheard her say to another girl that she didn’t know Peach was seeing “other people”.  Hmm.  We’ve been dating for almost four years, so what was the other hostess talking about?

Peach saw me and immediately became agitated.  She was angry that I arrived unannounced and told me to come back when she was done at 10.  I told her I thought she was done at 8, but she claimed she had to stay a few extra hours.  In my head I thought she was full of shit but I could see she wasn’t happy and very uncomfortable, so I agreed to leave without saying another word to her.  You couldn’t tell me that a restaurant with minimal bar traffic needed extra help seating people after 8 p.m.  She was planning on being somewhere after work and she needed to weave her web of lies before seeing me again.

I was too far away from my parents house to go back and return at 10, so I decided to head to the local shopping mall to burn off the two hours I had to wait for Peach to “finish up at work”.  After parking the car I headed to the food court since I didn’t eat for several hours.  I got my food and sat alone at a small table, wondering why my relationship with Peach looked to be in jeopardy.  I barely touched the food and people-watched for the majority of the time.  It hurt that I was being lied to by the girl I loved, somebody who I gave the last four years of my life to without hesitation.

Around 9:15, just before the mall closing at 9:30, a group of three teenage girls sat a few tables away from me.  They were all about 14 or 15 and they were creating the typical laughter and early high school conversations that one would expect from girls of this age.  I continued to people-watch and didn’t look their way.  It was an awkward spot to be in since I was 21 going on 22, but I didn’t have the mental energy to stand up and go somewhere else.

Right around 9:30, I noticed the girls got quiet, and I assumed they were probably getting ready to meet whoever was taking them back home.  I took a glance over at their table and one of the girls was staring right back at me with intent.  Going by the look on her face, it’s like she could feel the pain I had in my heart.  She must have been watching me for a few minutes while her and her friends sat there, taking notice that a soulless older guy was a few seats away.  We exchanged hellos and smiles for a few seconds, and we both looked away from each other.  She continued on talking to her friends and I found some energy to finish off the rest of my food.  I was waiting for her friends to make fun of her for talking to an older guy, but that never happened.

About five minutes later, the girls got up from their table and the same one made eye contact with me again.  This time we exchanged goodbyes and smiles, and they walked out of the food court.  I remained there for some time trying to assess the situation, and I still think to this day the outcome of that moment with that 15 year-old girl went the way it should have.  And I think she knew that to be true as well.

Somehow, my 21 year-old self had a cerebral, esoteric connection with a 15 year-old high school girl, and we both knew in our hearts that we bumped into each other eight or nine years too early.  No matter what she wanted to say to me when I glanced up at her table, she already knew at her young age that it wasn’t going to create the possibility of a relationship with me.  The fond look on her face was telling, but in the end we told ourselves this will be our final meeting, at least for now.

Over the next two years Peach and I were on and off as a couple and I finally had enough of the instability.  Throughout my 20’s I wondered what my life would have been like if those three girls were college age at the mall.  We would have spoken to each other and maybe I would have started dating the girl I exchanged that moment with.  Instead, the outcome was something that Russian author Anton Chekhov would have written in the late 1890’s.

In the present, I’m happy, married and I have a young son.  I’m sure that girl I glanced upon at the mall found happiness somewhere out in the world as well.  When we meet again, we’ll have the same exchange and go our separate ways.  This time we’ll have spouses, kids, smart phones and many more responsibilities in our lives.  Lives that could have been interwoven into one if we met around 2005.  Reflecting on this moment in my life reminds me of what words Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

 

“Ode to a Nightingale”: A Contemporary Analysis

In early March of 1997, my English 102 junior college professor assigned everyone in the class a poem that we had to interpret, give a presentation based on our interpretation and finally submit a short overview of our interpretation.  I was assigned “Ode to a Nightingale” by the poet John Keats (1795-1821).  What started out as an impossible task of interpreting Keats turned into one of the best papers I wrote in college.

I was a terrible writer all the way through high school and it carried over into junior college.  I went to junior college in the beginning of my undergraduate studies because I was immature, a terrible student, too poor to afford traditional college and not sure what I wanted to go to school for.  At 21, I was just starting my march toward my degree when many of my high school classmates were preparing to march for graduation.

When receiving the news on drawing one of Keats’ famous odes, I quickly informed my professor that I needed another poem to work with since I did not understand much of the language that Keats used.  She informed me that I could not change the poem I was assigned and that she believed I could complete the assignment with good results.

The presentations were to take place later on in March so I started reading interpretations from professional writers on the subject of Keats.  They did not resonate with me and I thought they all sounded the same.  It seemed like nobody knew how to truly interpret Keats’ ode to a bird he witnessed in a tree, and I was about to be dumb enough to use their reviews as my own.

When it became my turn to give my presentation on Keats, the results were the worst I ever experienced as a student.  My professor actually left the room during my time at the podium.  When everyone noticed she left, my one classmate told me I could stop now in the nicest way possible without embarrassing me any further.  Ten days away from submitting the written part of this assignment and I had zero hope of turning in any credible work.

Two days after my most gut-wrenching moment as a student, I came to the conclusion that I had to put aside all of the professional interpretations and create an interpretation that represents my own, unique opinion as to what Keats was really saying in, “Ode to a Nightingale”.  I submitted my final draft with no expectations of a grade higher than a B- since my interpretation was far different than anything I ever read about that poem.

When I got the results back in early April, I couldn’t believe my final grade and what was written underneath the grade:

A

“A superb interpretation of a grand classic–well developed, much insight and well written.”

I only let one person from my class read that paper.  It was the student who told me to stop my presentation when our professor left the room.  She couldn’t understand how I crafted this unique take on a Keats classic after I completely screwed up during the presentation portion of the assignment.  She claimed that my paper was the best class paper she ever read, but since we were both walking in circles at a Pittsburgh junior college, I didn’t think her complement had a lot of weight attached to it.

Nineteen years later, I have decided to share this same paper with anyone who is having trouble crafting an assignment on Keats.  It is my own view on what Keats was actually expressing in “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Since I prepared this for an introductory course, the length is under 1,000 words.  At the end I included my works cited, and yes, one of the books I acquired information from was written in 1899.  Holding that book in my hands was a delicate process since I feared the spine of the book would peel away from the pages.

Before reading my interpretation, here is the poem. Read the first four stanzas on the left, then move to the top right:

ode-to-a-nightingale

*****

(Written on March 31, 1997)

In 1819, a friend of John Keats named Charles Brown described how Keats created “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Brown claimed that upon one sunny morning in the spring of 1819, Keats took a chair from his breakfast table out into the backyard and sat under a plum tree with pen and pad in hand.  Up in the tree was a male nightingale resting, for his day (which was night) was coming to a close.  By observing the bird, Keats was reminded of its graceful song and its carefree lifestyle, a life Keats wished he could lead.  From this wish “Ode to a Nightingale” was created.  The only way Keats could escape into the world of the nightingale was through his poetry as stated in lines 31 through 33:

Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

 In stanza one Keats tries to forget about his painful life caused by the early death of his brother Tom in December of 1818, and his discovery that he contracted tuberculosis from Tom while he was dying.  Keats uses words such as opiate (opium) and Lethe-wards (river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) to symbolize forgetfulness.  At the middle of stanza one Keats shifts his attention to the nightingale in the tree.  In line 9 the nightingale is described as having “shadows numberless” and in line 10 he sings in “full-throated ease”.  These two lines create an impression that the nightingale’s world is full of life and health.  These two qualities that the nightingale possesses are the same two qualities that Keats wishes for.

In stanza two Keats imagines that he can enter the world of the nightingale.  In lines 11 through 20 Keats would love to taste (experience) the countryside as much as he loves to drink a well-aged wine.  Keats continues this fantasy into stanza three, and at the same time reminds the nightingale in lines 21 through 30 why he wants to follow him into the countryside.  In line 26 Keats is believed to be talking about his deceased brother Tom, further emphasizing his need to release himself from his worrisome life.

In stanza four, Keats comes back from the imaginary world and back into reality.  Stanza four is simply the setting for stanzas five and six.  The moonlight in line 36 symbolizes Keats’ imagination toward the life of the nightingale at the twilight of the night.  The darkness described in line 38 symbolizes Keats’ belief that death will be upon him very soon in the future.  In stanza five Keats describes a funeral scene that may resemble his brother Tom’s ceremony.  In stanza six, Keats admits his preoccupation with death and calls upon spirits to take his soul away.

Keats enters the world of the nightingale for the final time in stanza seven.  Keats reminds the nightingale that humans do not hunt them for food (lines 61 and 62), but have enjoyed their song throughout the ages, especially in times of despair as Keats expresses in lines 63 through 70:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

For the eighth and final stanza, Keats returns to reality as stated in lines 71 and 72:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Lines 73 and 74 conjure up a belief that Keats’ long time love Fanny Brawne, is having sexual relations with another man:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Keats believes that she is not in love with him anymore.  Because of the tuberculosis, Brawne cannot receive the love she desires from Keats.  Keats is confident that this belief is true, and reflects this in lines 75 through 78:

Adieu!  Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

The nightingale’s fading song symbolizes the slow loss of life in Keats.  This is caused by Keats’ belief that Fanny Brawne has a relationship with another man and his bout with tuberculosis.  Keats now believes that he has no reason to live, so he shows this by the nightingale’s long journey to the forest (the symbol of life now far away).  In the final two lines of the poem (79 and 80), Keats wonders if the nightingale he saw in the tree was real or in a dream that he was having:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?

In line 80, Keats asks how he can hear the beautiful song of the nightingale once again.  If the encounter was in a dream, then Keats will go out and seek the nightingale’s song.  If the encounter was real, then Keats will dream about the beautiful song of the nightingale.

Stanza eight unveils the stage of Keats’ illness at the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Keats now accepts that he is losing his lady love and his life because of tuberculosis.  Keats enjoyed observing anything that reminded him of his wondrous, romantic lifestyle before his illness, including the beautiful melody of a nightingale’s song.

*****

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., et al., eds. 20th Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Bate, Walter Jackson.  John Keats.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Jacobus, Lee A.  Literature:  An Introduction to Critical Reading.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1996.  844-846.

“The Complete Poetical Works of Keats”.  Cambridge 7th ed.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.