Sunday, June 16, 2019

A fatherhood timeline

It was Father's Day today and the tributes to dads across social media can make a lesser mortal believe he could never be a halfway decent father. How could anybody live up to these testimonials?

Here's a secret, kids: we were just winging it. We'd never been fathers before and, sure, we learn a lot about being a father by our fathers but when we're young, we have only one goal: not to be our fathers.

And then kids come along and right around the time we think we could write a parenthood book, our kids turn into, well, the kids they're supposed to be at a particular age and we wonder what it is we did wrong to be so much like our father and could we please get a do-over and be better this time?

And eventually we reach an uneasy truce with each other and they go off to be the people they're destined to be and we're left with something not quite approaching satisfaction at a job well done, but an appreciation that they didn't die or -- if we're really lucky -- they didn't go to prison.

And then one year it's Fathers Day and they call or stop by and during a conversation on the deck over drinks when they acknowledge they didn't really bang up a car way back when by doing wheelies in the snow but took a corner too fast while drag racing and we don't care because they are alive, you love the everloving crap out of them, and we notice something else -- something different -- while we watch our children in their adulthood on the deck -- the ones who hold your DNA and then ones you picked up along the way: they're just the tremendous people the world needs desperately and we and our partner (again, if you're lucky) did a hell of a job.

And then they tell us that.

And then -- and only then -- do we get to experience the real euphoria of being a father.

All because we were just winging it and doing the best we could.

Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Coming up for air

Photo: Nate Ryan

A few years ago, when Meniere's Disease was leaving me in desperate shape and a doctor in Woodbury had pronounced that he had done all he could, which wasn't nearly enough, I sat in the office of a young (to me)  neurotologist who was my next best hope.

"I love you and Mary on The Current," he said as he walked in the door, just prior to introducing himself.

That's when I knew we'd become great friends.

A few weeks ago, "Bob" stopped by an open hangar door (I always leave the hangar door up to encourage people to come chat) at Fleming Field in South St. Paul. Bob is welder for Metro Transit. He's just a few years younger than me.

He likes airplanes.

And Mary Lucia.

On his last visit, he told me about listening to the 4:20 "newscast" while under his welder's hood, working on the busses that take you home.

And there you have the secret of The Current and, in particular, my friend, Mary:  there is no limit, no template, no pigeon hole into which its -- her -- listeners can be placed. Welders. Scientists. Old people. Young people.

Why? Because in an age in which we are a technological arm's length from each other, she breaks through our differences and stations in life and speaks only to us.

I know that when I talked to Mary in the few minutes we spent each day, I not only had her in my vision, I had Bob, and my doctor, and all the people who took the time to say "hello" over the years (and certainly drop messages to me the other day)  in my mind. I could see all of them listening, and it's always been that way whenever I was on the radio.

I've never asked but I suspect it's that way with Mary, too. How can it not be? Just listen to her. She's talking to you.

When Mary came down to my third floor cubicle the day she returned from her leave in November 2015, I didn't think it unusual at the time, even though she rarely -- never? -- visited the third floor.

So when she was wrapping up our time together last week and said that I was the first person she sought out, that was the first time I put the significance of her visit together. That was the moment I had to take off my glasses and wipe my eyes. That was the moment we lost it.

She pushed the button to start Ella Fitzgerald's version of "One More for the Road", turned off the microphone, and we hugged. We hugged for a good long time.

"Do you remember the last scene of the Mary Tyler Moore show," I whispered.

"The one where they all group hug to the Kleenex box?" she said. And we laughed.

We walked out of the studio -- I think Mary was heading for a well-deserved smoke break -- and there was the Current staff with champagne. I needed to hug again.

Photo: Nate Ryan

I'm not a hugger. At least I wasn't.

But being told you mattered during a person's worst times is an honor that I'd never felt before and, though I was already missing my time with Mary before our segment was even finished (note the last question in the interview she did with me a few weeks before our last show), it constituted a moment that sears into the soul.

It was the moment I learned I wasn't who I thought I was.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Last Bob and Mary

It'll take some time before I'm able to write properly about my penultimate day in the radio business, which culminated with a 2 1/2 hour broadcast  with Mary Lucia on The Current.

The entire day was like attending my own funeral and being able to hear the eulogies.

But as great as it all was, nothing was better than spending my last days I'll ever spend on the radio, with Mary.  You can hear the entire broadcast here.

We had our Bette Midler and Johnny Carson moment. It was real. It was perfect.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

In the shadow of a dying light

Last week I made public that I'm done with the business of radio, and my mother in law didn't recognize my wife when she showed up at the hospital to see how she's doing.

There's an intersection here, somewhere, though I  struggle to find what it is.

We moved Oralie to Minnesota last summer, her Alzheimer's had made living on her own in the Berkshires problematic, and while my brother-in-law can provide the kind of help and support only a man of his boundless decency can, only  a daughter -- at least this daughter -- can provide the kind of attention and love that a dying light requires.

In the six months since Oralie arrived, I've seen a grace in the dying that I hadn't earlier recognized, and with each bit of patience, with each  attention to detail, with each far-off look that told me Carolie is off with her mother's worries, I increasingly wondered what I'm doing looking for meaning in such trivia as daily news.

I've never had the kind of relationship with my employers that a lot of people do. I like many of the people I work with, loathe one or two others, and cash a paycheck every other Friday. It's a business, not a family.

I loved radio, I enjoyed writing, I found an occasional creative satisfaction in the turns of a phrase, read by by, maybe 1,000 people who'd forget it shortly thereafter. But the job of our jobs is to fund our lives.

"A paycheck is what you get in exchange for your life's energies," an author of a book on how to retire after 30 and live the good life in Vermont once told me on a talk show I was hosting on MPR.

She was mostly full of shit in her book (the secret to retiring in your 30s is to become a millionaire in your 20's), but not that. Your job is not your life.

My job was to make enough money so Carolie could do the things she does that changes people's lives.   This reality became clear years ago when she told me about her day; a young woman, possibly pregnant, addicted, and homeless -- if I recall correctly -- showed up at her office for help.  She was an  impossible task.But by the end of her day, Carolie had her housing, health care, and food.

"I wrote a blog today," I said.

Carolie no longer has that job; the county and hospital that ran the program for that sort of direct aid and results, decided there was better money spent somewhere else. She moved on to another job where lost causes can get a day's hope.

But watching her with her mom is clearly an extension of the goodness and love she brings to her job.  Her patience seems inexhaustible, though I can also see the damage of watching your mother slip away.

Mine is 97. And I haven't seen her in a year.   I write a blog. My performance review is based on page views. My workplace doesn't staff the blog when I'm gone.There are no page views when I'm gone.Ergo, I don't go away.

That's absurd and I know it's absurd, and yet, I let something insigificant define my place on the planet.

When my Meniere's Disease spread to the "good ear" in November, my "eureka" moment came during one of the wretched night of vomiting from the constant resulting vertigo. "What are you doing?"

The next day I told the boss that May 31-- my 65th birthday, the day I would be eligible for Medicare -- would be my last.  I can't do the things I need to do to write at a high level (involving phone calls I can't hear, and interviews I can't participate in).  But even if I could, it no longer serves an appropriate purpose.

I have other things I can do. I love ushering at Target Field. I love driving people with Lyft (every evening is like I'm doing a radio talk show with open lines again), and,  of course, I love building airplanes.

But what I really want to do is be a better backstop for a woman whose mother didn't recognize her last week. 

Oralie is a delightful, proper, polite yankee woman whose Alzheimer's is removing a filter one by one.  She had suddenly hit another resident in the  $7,000 a month  memory care facility that believes the answer to everything is to call an ambulance and send elderly people to the local ER and let it be their problem.

So for the last week, she's been in a geriatric psychiatric unit in St. Paul, getting the attention she needs.

That's where Carolie showed up the other day, and  announced to her mom that she is her daughter.

"You're my daughter?" Oralie replied, never quite making the connection.

An illness has broken out in the unit now, so everyone is quarantined.We can't visit.

When Carolie called yesterday, Oralie took the phone from the nurse and said, "I can't talk now, I've got a fishing rod in my hand and I'm reeling in a big fish. Bye!" [click]

My wife is good at resuming normal activities and if you weren't paying attention, you'd marvel at her resilience. But she is not resilient.  At least not that resilient.

After yesterday's matinee of Noises Off at the Guthrie Theater, we stopped into a nearby restaurant, and when the food was delivered and we started to dive in, her eyes said she was somewhere else.

"You OK?" I asked.

"My mom," she said, no needing to say anything more.

Though she's never said anything, I can hear what's going on in the mind of a daughter of a woman with Alzheimer's. "Is this what's next for me?"

I can't think of much that's more torturous.

In the coming weeks, we hope to move her mom to another facility closer to Woodbury, one that is better at putting the "care" in memory care.

What's coming will be tragic,exhausting, and, ultimately, full of grace, but require an investment of our life's energy that we exchanged for a paycheck.

I've still got plenty to spend.

Friday, February 19, 2016

When you laugh instead of cry

This week I found some of my old favorite pictures that were taken in the film-era and started digitizing them. Not surprisingly, it brought back plenty of memories for me, and, as it turned out, for my oldest son who saw this one on Facebook.

That's his grandfather, who died in 2009. Don was one of my son's biggest champs, particularly at a time when, kids being what they are and all, it was tough to find people to stand in your corner.

"This photo is my second or 3rd favorite with Papa, but only because he will always have that arm on my shoulder in support and unconditional pride," my son wrote on Facebook.

Then he wrote me a note about a slideshow tribute I created for him when his grandfather died.

"You told me the point of said death slideshow was to watch it until one day I smile instead of cry," he recalled. "When is that day?"

I don't know, I said, I'm not quite there yet myself.

It was 12 years ago on Monday that my own father died and when I was looking for pictures to digitize, I came across this one.

When I saw it, I burst out laughing. Because that was my father.

When is that day coming for you, son? Someday.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

On my son's 30th birthday

Old people tell young people all the time that life is short and passes fast and young people don't believe it. It's been that way since the earth started turning.

My son, Sean, turned 30 today and while it seems like it was only yesterday, more reflection reveals how much has been packed into those 30 years.

When he was a baby, Sean wasn't really into being held and rocked. As a toddler, when you picked him up to hold, he'd go limp so he'd slither back down. Sean was always in a hurry to be on his own.

Of my 62 years, I've spent almost half of them now thinking about Sean, off somewhere being on his own, and worrying about him and his brother. As I've written before, the Collinses come from a long line of worriers. It's what we do, even though it accomplishes nothing.

But your children are capable of constant surprises.

Like this one that occurred at Oshkosh this year (the picture above was taken at Oshkosh).

The night Sean and I flew over for the second half of AirVenture (his brother, Patrick, and I had flown over for the first half), we walked over to a restaurant on the other side of the airport, for which there was along line. We were invited to cool our heels at the karaoke bar outside; and so we did.

Sean, who I think is the type not to put himself "out there"(like his father, to a degree), grabbed the list of songs and searched for a proper victim.

I told him I was surprised he'd get up in front of people and sing. But he said he had a friend who took him to a karaoke bar not long ago and got up to sing. And he said if she could do it, then he could too.

And so he did, and while the Doors' People are Strange might not have been exactly pitch perfect, it was perfect, nonetheless.

And that's the way our children are. Like the rest of us, they are not perfect. And yet they are.

Friday, February 27, 2015

When times are perfect

Back when my two sons were very young (10 or 11 or so), I shared a pair of season tickets to the Minnesota Timberwolves with some people at work. It provided a good opportunity to spend some time with each kid.

At the time, the Timberwolves were a pretty good team, thanks primarily to a 19-year old kid named Kevin Garnett.

The games were fun, but incidental to the goal -- time. Good times.

On several occasions, the times were perfect. I'd be sitting watching my son -- both of them at different times -- full into the moment, late in a game, standing and cheering with the rest of a sold-out house.

"This is perfect," I would think to myself. "I want this feeling to last forever."

It didn't last forever, of course. Perfect times are few. We do the best we can, we deal the things life throws our way and we move along.

I've had season tickets to the Timberwolves for many years since, although I gave them up this season because the quality of the product hasn't been very good, even though the goal stayed the same -- spending time with my kids.

But last week, the Timberwolves made a trade, to bring Garnett, now almost 39, back to the city. And Sean, and Patrick and I had already made plans to attend the game on Wednesday night, days before we knew that for the first time in more than a decade, the good times were possible again.

We struggle to explain these moments -- and the Garnett return in particular -- to those who don't follow sports. Yes, it's about a game, but it's also about moments.

My oldest son, Sean, almost 30 now, dug out the foam finger with "#23 KG" scribbled on it. Garnett had given him the autograph when he was 19, when Sean was 10. Patrick, soon to be a 27 year old, brought his passion, which he's brought to every day since the day he was born, I think.

And together we went back in time. And as Garnett lifted the crowd for more than two hours, the crowd lifted us.

At various times, I watched my 30 year old and my 28 year old stand and cheer with the sold-out house. And I sat and thought, "This is perfect. I want this feeling to last forever."