Monday, October 23, 2006

Dimwits and lightbulbs

For a large part of my adult life, I have offered wondered where people get the time to do the things that people do. You know, stuff aside from raising kids and schlepping off to work everyday etc.

Occasionally a few folks will pass through the newsroom on their way to the studio to do a talk show on their recent four-month expedition to the Arctic Circle. Who can get four months off from work?

I've often thought that maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just not willing enough to not know where the next paycheck is coming from, to take that many risks. Heck, I can remember a time when I decided not to go into politics because there's no job security. Looking back, I realize that, sure, you might lose an election, but between lobbying and patronage, those folks are never out of work.

Stupid me.

So why do I bring this up today? This is why:

Yep, it's a lightbulb, and yes, that's an image from this site, which
provides a live Web camera of the light bulb. This isn't just any lightbulb, however. This is one that has burned for more than 100 years in some fire station in Colorado.

OK, so who has time to periodically look at a stinkin' light bulb in Colorado on a daily basis?

Unfortunately it's, ummmmm, me.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The toolbox

My son, Sean, turned 21 a few days ago. I don't know how it happened, but it happened and it beats the alternative of not happenning, which happened -- or didn't -- to my best friend's son a year ago, when he was killed in a one-car crash while driving home early on Sunday morning in Providence, Rhode Island.

I haven't heard from my best friend since and there has never been -- nor will there ever be -- something I can say to ease my friend's pain, even if I were able to make contact. The only thing that bonds fathers... are sons and daughters.

The utter frustration of life is fathers and sons cannot understand each other until it is too late -- or nearly so. My son loves me and I love him and both of us have known it forever, but that didn't stop us from often behaving like, well, fathers and sons.

As he is not yet a father -- thank God -- I thought long and hard about what to give him on the occasion of his 21st birthday. And then his brother, Patrick, called and said he needed to change the light bulbs in his car and didn't know how to do it. "Oh, and all of the lights except for one are burned out, it's night, and I have to drive home," he added. So I gathered some tools, and headed into St. Paul to change his light bulbs. It was there in a dark garage with nowhere near enough tools to do the job that I realized the gift I'd give.

The next night, I went to Sears, bought a toolbox and then -- and you have to understand I want my ashes spread in the hardware department when I die -- raced around to fill it with the right tools to start.

Then I came home and wrote him this letter to put inside:

Dear Sean:

Many years ago -- probably about 16 -- I was trying to get at some water pipe that was frozen below the kitchen at our house in Sheffield. I didn't have the right tools so I just took a hammer and whacked at the cabinet floor covering the pipe. "Mom, Dad's breaking the house," a young child said. That was you, with an early -- yet precise -- assessment of my handyman skills; this, on top of my historical lack of success with tools (See attached).

I don't know when it was that I started getting interested in tools; perhaps it's a "guy thing" that develops sometime, you just don't know when. I was a late bloomer. And since you are like me, this gift will probably mean nothing to you. But someday it will. And just as your grandfather (Papa) gave me my first toolbox, I give this to you, including a few to get you going. Rest assured: you'll need more.

I think tools are a metaphor for life in general. You start out with barely enough to get by and when you try to use what you've got, well, sometimes you end up breaking the house. But you keep at it and you just keep adding more tools. You add more tools first because you might need them someday, and then just because tools are cool.

I give you this with these few words of advice, metaphorical or not:

1) Don't buy cheap, crappy tools. No matter what kind of deal it seems like, no matter how much -- or how little -- you spend, when you get home and open the package, you've got cheap crap. Buy good tools.

2) Don't throw away tools. Find a good home for them instead.

3) Build something someday. It doesn't have to be anything big. It could be an airplane, it could be a birdhouse. Just build it as well as you can and it'll serve as a reminder to all that you were here.

4) Don't be afraid to break the house.

5) If you have a son -- or daughter -- someday, give 'em a toolbox when they turn 21. And then someday later, give him your tools. One at a time, so that when you're gone, they're still building things that remind people that you were here.

That way, when your kid uses a tool you gave him, he'll be reminded that his Dad loved him like there was no tomorrow.

As I love you.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lucky 21

My oldest son, Sean, turned 21 today. So today I celebrate his ascension to adulthood and mourn the loss of a damned good tax break.

I wish I had a really great picture to post here, but alas, Sean is one of those people who doesn't like to have his picture taken (pssst.... there's one back in one of the entries in July).

Sean has always been in a hurry. Always. He was born a month early and has been go-go ever since. We lived in White Plains, New York at the time and when my wife said it was "time," off we raced to the hospital. Only it wasn't time, it was too early. So the docs -- we had two great obstetricians -- did what they could to delay his delivery because they weren't sure he'd be fully developed.

So Carolie had to put up with contractions for something like three days. It was a, ummm, interesting time.

I remember the Cardinals and Dodgers were playing in the National League Divisional Series, so Carolie would sleep between contractions and I'd watch the game. But they had a fetal monitor going and it would also show a number that seemed to indicate a contraction was coming.

I thought it was a cool machine, and so a couple of times I'd notice the number on the machine going up, so I'd whack Carolie awake and say, "it says you're having a contraction." I only did that twice.

Eventually Sean was born at 4:36 (or was it 5:36 Eastern Time?). He was colicky and didn't like sleeping much and didn't like us sleeping much either, apparently. Then he had to go back to the hospital for jaundice. Tons of fun, and we thought we were -- as most new parents do -- the first people on the planet ever to have a baby.

We had lunch together today and tonight his friends are taking him out and I'm guessing they'll do some bar hopping because isn't that what you're supposed to do on your 21st birthday?

Alas, I don't want to know. He's an adult now. And I'm not supposed to worry.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What time is it?

This is my mother, you met her some months ago -- July 4th, to be exact -- a day she considers the last day of summer. She's sitting, I think, on a beach in the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island (Newburyport, Mass.) looking at... well, I don't know what she's looking at. Probably nothing.

If I were there, I'd be doing the same thing. Staring at nothing but the water rolling in and rolling back out. Over and over and over again.

Fire is the same way. Light a fire at campsite and you'll sit and look at it burning, doing nothing.

Why? It's hypnosis? Why? Where does it take us when it whisks us from the land of S'mores and boogeyboards?

My mother's favorite time of the day at the beach is around 4 or 5, when people leave it. She's sitting at a beach in October. She thinks summer ends on July 4th.

Wherever we go when we consider fire and water, there's no calendar or clock there.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Life in the wind

This is one of those fall days in Minnesota where you begin to realize what a man feels when taking his dying breath. The sun is warm, the trees are golden, the baseball game is on TV and the air has the faint aroma of fallen leaves spiced with everything good that happened to you when you were young.

Breathe deep and savor it; tomorrow we die. Winter's out there somewhere, moving this way.

And so I raked my suburban lawn today and then knelt into the pile of leaves to gather them into a trash bag...small handfuls at a time, like a man looking for something lost.

For me it's 1967. I was 13 years old with time on my hands. The Red Sox -- the Impossible Dream team -- were playing the Minnesota Twins on the last weekend of the regular season, with a chance -- a poor chance when you think about it, but a chance just the same -- of winning the American League pennant back when it meant something; back when there were 10 teams and no divisions.

I spent much of that last weekend with a glove, a tennis ball, and a radio... listening to the Red Sox game and throwing the ball when Ken Coleman said, "Lonborg winds and throws..." Thump. The ball bounced back and I, now Rico Petrocelli, would field it to end the inning against the dastardly Twins, who were also playing for the pennant.

For the next inning, I moved to the side of the barn just up the street, because it had a tall roof and if you throw the ball just so, it would bounce at the end of the slate roof, and fly back.... back.... back to the five- or six-foot-high stone wall of Mr. Murray's house; the one that protected his prize gladiolas.

It played well the part of Fenway Park's left field wall. And I was now Carl Yastrzemski. Except that Yastrzemski never had to deal with pieces of slate falling from the sky.

And so it went, until the game ended, or the Murrays chased me away from the gladiolas, until finally the Sox beat the Twins, and the team captured the American League pennant.

Eventually the Sox went to the World Series and fell in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals and -- though I was a bigger Cleveland Indians fan than a Red Sox fan -- joined the ranks of New Englanders who'd gone before, heartbroken in the fall by a team they followed.

It was many years later -- 2004 to be exact -- when the Red Sox finally won their World Series. "It'll be the worst thing that ever happened to those people, " I said to a friend. "They don't realize that their joy is born from their heartbreak." Take a Red Sox fan's heartbreak away, and you've taken away their soul.

But like fall, Sox heartbreak returns every year. And the true New Englander learns to savor both.

Breathe deep. And find your youth.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The days I always wanted

When my kids were growing up, I didn't really dream of them becoming president of the United States, or changing the world with Nobel prize-winning research (although I've always believed -- and still do -- that either one of these kids could change the world.).

My dream? Having my kids call me in my older years and say, "let's go to a ballgame."

How tough would that be? Every dream can be dashed and I have to admit at times I thought this one would be too. My oldest son had an illness that kept him out of school in the last few years and at times I wondered if he'd be able to survive on his own. The youngest son always seemed to be ready to snap the leash and never look back.

Kids are like that and the moment you realize that they're not going to grow up to be president, you begin to think it'll be a great thing if they just stay out of prison.

Give a parent a brain, an imagination, and the ability to project the future, and they'll screw it up every time. Ask me how I know.

My oldest son moved out and onto his "own" more than a year ago and I spent a few late nights looking to the southwest (he moved to Richfield) sending my "Dad messages" by telepathy. My youngest son moved out not long after graduating high school earlier this year. And just like that, I had myself an empty nest and a telephone that didn't ring, and a bucketload of guilt that when I moved out of my house after high school (and off to college), I didn't go back home or call more often. When you're 18, 40 miles seems like a long way away.

But a funny thing happened, son #1 enrolled himself in community college; him with his 145 I.Q., to get his various computer and networking certifications. And when an internship opened up in the information technology department of Minnesota Public Radio, he applied for it and -- on his own -- got it. I work at MPR, but I had nothing to do with it. And I told him that mentioning my name around MPR is as likely to get a door closed in your face as it is to open one up.

My best day in 30 years in the radio business. The day my son called me from his cubicle and whispered, "I feel like an adult." And in the months since, from what I can tell, he's become a valuable member of MPR. I hope they hire him fulltime sometime.

He stops by the newsroom once or twice a day and I think, "how good is my life?

I also begin to realize why my Dad, a successful insurance agent, tried to get me to take over his business as he neared retirement. For a time I did work with him and I was OK at it, but fathers-and-sons often don't mix well and radio came calling. I'll bet the day I started in his business was one of the best in his career. I'll bet the day I left was not. Kids.

Son #2, currently the youngest EMT and first responder in Minnesota, is also in community college (by the way, community college is simply the best bargain in higher education as near as I can tell) to get higher certifications and become a paramedic and whatever comes after that.

This week, he started with the Allina Health System, operating a unit that transports people to and from hospitals. He stopped by MPR yesterday, in his EMT uniform, parking his unit at the front door and like my other son, looking every bit the young man I dreamed he'd be.

I showed him around the new MPR digs and eventually he and his brother connected and then his brother started showing him around the MPR digs, paying particular attention to the technology that's all around the buidling that he can explain, but which sounds like another language to me.

In minutes the two of them were hopping from place to place as I began to fall back, and watch my two boys in my workplace, one being proud of who he's become, the other becoming prouder. And occasionally I'd stop to introduce son #2 to an MPR exec with the words I love more than any other -- for either boy: "this is my son."

Later, as they left to go grab something to eat together, it was hard for me to remember that these were the same two kids that occasionally tried to kill each other.

Last night the phone rang. It was son #2 asking me if I wanted to have dinner at Mickey's, a famous diner in downtown St. Paul (you may remember it from The Mighty Ducks), that neither one of us has ever been to.

So today, after I finish the newscast on the Current, he'll swing by, we'll grab son #1 and my boys and I will go to dinner.

"At Mickey's," I said to my wife this morning, noting that it's not exactly Kincade's.

"These are the days you always wanted," she said.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Explain this to me

I can't really say I'm a big fan of organized religion anymore. I haven't been to church in a few years, pretty much since my wife left her job as church secretary and started saving the world one by one. But that's not to say I don't believe in God; I just don't think you need a middleman and I see too many churches getting built and too few hungry people being fed. I don't think God gives a rip whether I actually go to church; I think that's something blared by, oddly enough, churches. Go figure.

I don't need someone to help me talk to God. So pardon me for just a second while I hold a side conversation here.

God, what the hell are you doing?

I get the whole "mysterious ways" thing, which -- between you and me -- is code for "beats the heck out of me." I understand the concept of free will. I even understand the George Burns concept when he said in Oh, God!, "I don't worry about the little stuff, kid."

You know what I don't get? I don't get how some creep walks into a school -- and not just a school, God, an Amish school -- and lines young girls up against the blackboard and executes them.

I may be wrong, God, but that's not a "little thing." Where were you?

I watch NASCAR every now and again, God, and I see Jimmy Billy Bob hop out of his souped up car after winning and thanking you for winning the race, so I figure you had something to do with it. So why NASCAR and not little girls?

The fact I'm mad at you at all, it seems to me, ought to be enough to show I believe in you. If I didn't think you existed, I'd just be railing against some jag-off in Pennsylvania. Besides, I watched "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" last night and saw a bunch of volunteers build a house in 56 hours for a a woman with 6 kids in Michigan, who lost her husband last year... although -- now that I think of it -- what's the deal with taking a young man -- a firefighter no less -- on Christmas Eve?

I know you exist, because otherwise it's all just random acts of ... whatever. And coincidence isn't powerful enough to account for me and my wife, not to mention the two kids involved.

But, girls in an Amish school. What was that all about? To make a point? You used to make it with tablets and burning bushes, now it's guns in a school and little girls?

I've seen all the Albert Brooks movies, God, so I know that when I die -- and by the way, I'm staying out of Amish country for awhile -- I have to "defend my life."

But you know what? You've got some 'splaining to do too.

It's enough to make me want to go build someone a house, and stop watching NASCAR.