Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"They say 41 is the new 27..."

Long time, no blog.

Some pretty serious events have taken place in my life recently, and my focus has been elsewhere. I just haven't been able to come up with the right words to post or comment during the past few months.

But, since today is my birthday--I thought it might be a good time to try to start. Plus, I was kinda getting tired of seeing that same old post from Christmas everytime I signed on...

I've checked the math several times to see if I made some mistake carrying the '1', but it would appear that today I officially turn 41.

At least, chronologically. In my mind, I still feel like I'm in my late 20's.

Last year, a few people asked if I was bothered by the fact that I was turning 40. I pointed out that by the time I was 29, I had already graduated law school, gotten married, had a child, was widowed, and became a single parent.

So, no-turning 40 wasn't such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. At this point, I figure my next big milestone is retirement at 65, and then it's a lifetime of discounted movie tickets...

Age is a state of mind--it might be a cliche but I really do believe that you're as young as you feel. And these days, I don't feel a day over 27.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my arthritis pill. My fingers are aching from all the typing on this new-fangled computer thing.

Actually, now that I think about it--it felt pretty good getting behind a keyboard again...

Monday, November 13, 2006

a new chapter...

When this blog started a year ago, it was meant to be place where I could write about humor & improvisation as a fun diversion. In the beginning I just enjoyed the chance to be creative again. But over time, writing also became a cathartic way to come to terms with some of the things that had happened in my life so far.

As the one-year anniversary approached, it felt like the right point to bring closure this blog. I'm going to take some time to work on some of these posts and bring them together into a single collection to send to an online self-publishing service. In about six weeks, I hope to have a professionally-bound book that I'll be able to hold in my hands and give to friends and family, or even make available for people to get online.

At some point, I’ll probably start another blog with a different name, but I will keep these archives and this email address still up and running. In the meantime, I want to spend more time visiting and commenting on the blogs of people who have commented here. I sincerely regret not making more of an effort to acknowledge the many encouraging and heartfelt things that have been written after these posts. It's something that I have already begun to try to correct.

Thanks to everyone who came by and spent some time here. It truly has meant more to me than words can possibly express.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

sunset

The dream would always be the same.

I never discover the purpose for the trip, but some random event brings me back to my hometown late one night in the middle of the week. For some reason I take a detour from the usual route and come upon my mother's car parked all by itself along the edge of the road, her winter coat left behind on the front seat. I follow a trail of footprints to find her lying there alone in the darkness.

I kneel down and wrap her in my arms, catching her in time before she slips away. I lift her from the snow and hold her close, bringing warmth back to her frail body. She begins to stir and I tell her that everything will be okay--I am there now and she is not alone anymore.

Then I would wake up and slowly realize that I was in my bed and she was already gone. I'd close my eyes again, and within the next fleeting seconds, try to hold onto the image of her face.

* * * * * * * *

As the oldest child, I took it upon myself to be the strong one for everyone else in my family. Instead of letting my grief out, I kept things buried safe beneath the surface. I had done the same thing after my wife Elizabeth had died, feeling like I had to pull myself together and quickly learn how to raise our three-year old son on my own.

Several years later, in the unlikliest of places, I finally began to come to terms with my feelings of loss. I was on a business trip to Tucson, and had a few hours of free time before my flight home. Arizona had been the furthest west that I had traveled at that point in my life, and I got directions to a national park outside of town to take a closer look at some of the incredible scenery.

I pulled my rental car into an observation parking lot at the base of a small mountain. The desert floor spread out for hundreds of miles before me, with another mountain range rising up in the distance at the horizon's edge. Several people were walking on a path that led to a ridge a few hundred yards above the parking lot. It looked like there would be even better viewing from that spot, so despite the fact that I was still in suit pants and dress shoes, I began to make my way up the gently sloping trail.

The view was definitely improved once I reached the outcrop, but then I noticed that the path continued to rise along the mountainside. I became determined to see what things looked like from an even higher point, and kept following the trail in several hundred-yard stages as it took a steeper route along the ridgeline. Soon it turned into a personal challenge, as I continued to push myself further after each plateau was reached. Every time I would rationalize that since I had come that far, I might as well keep going to the top.

During the last fifteen feet I had to climb hand-over-hand. As I finally reached the top, I was greeted by a young couple sitting upon a large, flat rock. At first I was a little disappointed to have to share the setting after finally reaching my private goal, but I'm sure they couldn't have been too thrilled either with the sudden intrusion of a dust-covered, out-of-breath guy in a business suit. After about ten minutes, they began to make their way back down and I had the summit all to myself.

I sat in solitude, taking in the magnificent scene. The sky above was a clear, deep blue that gradually shifted into vivid shades of orange, red and purple as it stretched into the distance. Everything was quiet and still as the sun lowered itself slowly towards the horizon. I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath.

The desert wind caressed my face, and the tension released from my back and shoulders. Without any warning, tears began falling. I'm not a believer in the paranormal or in ghosts, but at that moment I felt that my mother and Elizabeth were there with me on top of that mountain. I didn't have a vision or hear their voices, but I did feel surrounded by their presence and their love. It only lasted for several seconds, but when it was over I was left with the certain feeling that they were both all right, and that they were not suffering any more.

Instead of pushing my emotions down like I had always done in the past, I just let my feelings run through me without holding anything back. The tears continued to fall for some time, both in sorrow as I thought about how much I missed them and in joy as I recalled how wonderful it had felt to be with them once again, if only for a moment.

A sense of calm began to come over me as things kept working their way to the surface. The tears eventually stopped and were replaced with a smile. As I sat there in the warmth of the sun, I felt that everything was going to be okay. I felt that I was not alone anymore. I closed my eyes again, and was able to hold onto a feeling beyond those next fleeting seconds which has remained within me to this day.

I felt, once more, at peace.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

angels in the snow

“Your office has been trying to reach you all morning,” the court clerk said as she waved a note from her desk alongside the judge’s bench. I had just finished cross-examining a criminal defendant on trial for assault, and the judge had excused the jury for a one-hour recess before closing arguments would begin. I unfolded the piece of paper and considered its message for a moment. I had become friendly with the staff over several months during my assignment to that courtroom, and asked the clerk if I could use the judge’s phone to make a personal call as a favor.

Normally that area was strictly off-limits to attorneys, but the look on my face must have let her know that this wasn’t a casual request. She escorted me back to the judge’s chambers and then left me by myself in the empty room. I dialed the number and glanced down again at the words that had appeared in the note:

'Call your father ASAP'
I was grateful for the privacy as the phone began to ring on the other end of the line. I was pretty sure he was calling to tell me that my mother had finally succeeded in ending her life.
* * * * * * * *
Mom had been suffering for several years from a condition called gastroparesis, a nervous disorder that paralyzes a person’s stomach and causes them to feel nauseous and hungry at the same time. There is no known cause or cure for the disease. She had been in perfect health before being struck with a sudden onset of its symptoms at the age of 48.

At first, her mood had been positive and optimistic as she and Dad went around to a number of specialists to try one experimental treatment after another. Some of them gave her temporary relief, but she began to lose weight at a rapid pace. Her diet consisted of bland baby food and Ensure nutritional shakes. She had been tall and thin to begin with, and soon all of her clothes were hanging from her gaunt frame.

The constant feeling of nausea and hunger during every waking moment gradually took a mental toll on her as well. She had always been an upbeat person, but as she continued to struggle with her condition for months and years on end she became more and more despondent. I could hear the growing desperation in her voice when I would call during the week to check in with her and share a funny story about one of Brendan’s latest 5-year old antics.

Her spirit was finally broken in 1998 on New Year’s Eve, when she attempted an overdose by taking all of her medications at once. After my father had fallen asleep watching television in the living room, she went up to their bedroom and swallowed all of her pills. Dad woke up a short time later to find her lying in bed surrounded by empty prescription bottles and a note. She was rushed to the hospital, and was admitted to the psychiatric crisis unit for several days until her mental condition had stabilized.
* * * * * * * *
Three months after that first attempt, I received the message in the courtroom to call my father. Dad didn’t have many details, but apparently Mom had told him that she was heading out to the store for a quick errand at around 8 o’clock on the previous evening. When she didn’t return home after several hours, he contacted the police. They called him early that morning to report that her body had been found in a snow-covered field at the edge of town. Based on the single set of footprints leading from her car nearby, it appeared that she just stretched out and lay back in the snow, finally succumbing at some point during the night to hypothermia.

Dad had already called my brother Michael in Mexico City and was on his way to pick up my sister from college. He sounded completely drained and asked if I could be the one to tell my youngest brother Chris, who lived near me outside Philadelphia. I reached my brother at work and broke the news to him, and after he got over the initial shock we made plans to meet at my house to follow each other for the trip to our hometown.

I took a few moments to pull my thoughts together and then returned to the courtroom to give my closing argument. There was no doubt that the judge would have adjourned the case under the circumstances, but that would have meant declaring a mistrial and retrying everything all over again in several months. I didn’t want to put the victim through another 4-day trial when this one was so close to being finished. After the jury was sent out to deliberate, I contacted my office to have them send someone over to the courtroom to be present in my place when the verdict was eventually announced.

I was preoccupied with questions during the three-hour drive to Williamsport, as Brendan slept peacefully in the backseat. I would have to wait until the following morning to speak with the State Trooper in charge of the investigation to begin to get some answers. I kept imagining my mother laying down in that field all by herself and wondered what more I could have done to prevent her from reaching that point.

I became lost in my thoughts during the rest of my journey home. The world outside seemed frozen in quiet stillness. Within me, my emotions had become very much the same. My focus had been put towards other tasks, such as closing arguments and consoling others, so that I would not have to face my own grief. I had not shed a single tear yet, although that time would soon come. For now, my mind wandered aimlessly seeking numbness from the pain, as I traveled further into a landscape in which everything was covered with snow.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Taking the lead

"Gentlemen, it doesn't matter whether the music is cha-cha, rumba, meringue or salsa. There are two things you must learn for any Latin dance: how to get you and your partner IN IT, and how to get the two of you back OUT." Our instructor Jeanne spent the next section of class teaching us the proper way to 'introduce' our female partner to a new change in direction and how to begin an entirely different dance altogether.

I had been on the run all day, and had arrived at class still in my suit that I had put on twelve hours earlier. Even after the jacket and tie had come off, work was still very much on my mind for the first part of the lesson, along with a list of a half-dozen other things that would need my attention once I eventually got home. I had to force myself to concentrate on each of the particular steps that we were being taught and tried to push the other thoughts off to the side.

Before long I settled down and just focused on the music. Soon my legs, hips, and shoulders began to follow right along with the driving tempo. Without really being aware of it, I was no longer thinking about each individual step and had stopped counting out the beats in my head. Sandi, the assistant instructor who was my partner, flashed an encouraging smile as we started to move naturally through each of the dances that we had learned up to that point.

Her smile was soon replaced by a frown as she caught a glimpse of a husband and wife struggling to keep up with the rest of the class. Sandi assured me that I already had all of the steps down, and cocked her head over in the direction of the floundering couple. "I'm needed over there," she said with a wink. She cut in and started dancing with the husband to try to fix the problem at the source. His wife was sent over to become my new partner.

Her name was Marie and she was a very friendly woman in her mid-fifties. Things started off fine, but it turned out that there was one slight problem: Marie was a little too friendly. She meant well, but she was more concerned about making small talk than paying attention to the actual music. She chatted about everything from her children’s hobbies to their recent family vacation to a quick recap of the latest episode of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Her body kept trying to move in the opposite direction from where we needed to go for each step. That, in turn, was throwing me off of the rhythm, and I had to quickly shuffle my feet to get back in step with the music. It wasn’t long before I was counting off the beats to myself again.

I didn’t want to be rude to this woman who was a complete stranger, so at first I just smiled back at her and tried to listen with one ear. As she continued to talk I could feel my frustration growing, the easy movements from my dancing with Sandi all but forgotten. Marie and I became locked in a subtle tug of war, each of us trying to pull the other in opposing directions. She and I were definitely IN it. I recalled our instructor’s comments at the top of class, and realized that it was my job to get us both back out.

I took over with a sudden surge and changed my entire posture, locking my arms into place and tightening my grip on her hand and rear shoulder. The next time that the two of us needed to move forward for a particular step, I pushed off with my legs and drove Marie back on her heels while holding her firmly around the upper body. When it was time for us to go backwards, I pulled her in towards me with steady direction. When we needed to turn, I dropped one arm and placed my hand on her hip, spinning her off to the left with a firm push. Then I quickly twirled her back into position to start the next step.

Marie was naturally startled by the abrupt change in tone, and she quickly stopped talking as her eyes searched my face to gauge my mood. I smiled and gave her a look letting her know that everything was in control. I could see her shoulders relax slightly, and she stopped resisting whenever I began to lead her in a particular direction. Soon she was smiling as well as we moved easily along with the music from one dance into another.

Our teacher walked into the center of the floor as class came to an end. "Latin dancing is not for the feint of heart," she told us. American ballroom was about grace and poise, with the dancers gliding across the dance floor up on the balls of their feet. Latin dance was rhythmic and down low, with the body’s weight centered back over the heels. ”Stick with me and come to every class ready to work, and I promise you that by the end of ten weeks, you WILL know how to dance to any kind of Latin music."

I headed out of the high school gym towards my car, feeling completely refreshed and already looking foward to next week's class. I was going to enjoy moving to another rhythm for a change.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

(oh, Lord) of the Dance

"Before we begin let me make one thing clear right at the start," the instructor declared as class got underway. She began to pace the floor in front of myself and 50 other beginning students with her hands clasped behind her back, in a manner that called to mind General George S. Patton addressing a company of raw recruits.

"This is NOT ballroom dancing--if you are here to learn the waltz or foxtrot, you are in the wrong room..." Of course her similarity to the 4-star general pretty much ended with the tone of voice and body language. I've seen the movie 'Patton' over a dozen times, and this woman in her late sixties with bright orange hair standing before us in a flared skirt and 2" rhinestone heels looked practically nothing like actor George C. Scott.

"In this class you will learn Latin Dancing. We have a lot of ground to cover in ten weeks and we'll be working hard over the next hour without a break. Many of you will wake up tomorrow morning with sore muscles that you never even knew you had." Around this time I began to wonder what in the hell I was doing in a high school gymnasium at 8:30 on a weeknight, and what had ever possessed me to enlist for salsa boot camp in the first place. I tried to remember if desertion was still punishable by firing squad these days...
* * * * * * * *
Actually, I had reported for these lessons voluntarily. They were offered though a non-profit group that provided dozens of evening courses in language, cooking, fitness, and the arts to adults at several suburban high schools. Our class was being held in the gym, and the men and women had been told to form up in two seperate lines facing each other twenty feet apart.

Jeanne, our instructor, slowly turned and fixed her gaze intently on us guys. "Gentlemen, in Latin dancing there is ONE rule that you must never, ever forget. While you are out there on the dance floor, YOU are the one in complete command--the lord of the dance. It is your job to lead your partner at all times--the woman should never have control over what the two of you are doing." She paused, and qualified that last statement with a raised finger. "ONLY while you are out there on the dance floor..."
She got right to work teaching the male half of the class the basic steps of the Cha-Cha. Our weight would need to start over on the right side of the body as the move began with the left foot. We were instructed to just watch her first as she demonstrated it for us. "And its Forward...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha." Okay, that seemed easy enough. We ran through it a half-dozen times as a group. Our line lumbered forward rather stiffly as Jeanne counted out the steps aloud, with many of the men (myself included) looking straight down at our feet as we shuffled along the floor trying to keep up with her tempo.

Then she added the second part of the move. "Now its Backwards...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha." Uh-oh, suddenly this took some more thought. But after another six or more run-throughs, the majority of us pretty much had it down. After she had us combine the two moves together for another dozen repetitions, Jeanne was satisfied that most of us were safely on board with the program. She turned to the teach the same steps (in reverse) to the ladies.

During this entire period the women had been forced to stand still and just watch the men, their bodies poised in eager anticipation. A few had been swaying in place the whole time. Judging from the keyed-up looks on all of their faces, they probably would have broken into dance at the first notes of a Verizon ringtone. They put the men to shame by getting both moves down cold on the second try, with a touch of hip action thrown in as they gracefully cha-cha'd backwards and forwards. I'm sure in another turn or two they could have completely rubbed it in and finished up with a fully synchronized can-can routine.

Now that the men and women had learned the basic Cha-Cha step separately, it was time to bring both groups together. Jeanne called out, "All right, everyone grab a partner and we're going to try that to some music." She turned to walk over towards a CD player that she had set up on a folding card table.

A distinct feeling of deja vu came over me as I found myself standing in a high school gym watching members of the opposite sex move right past me to pair up with each other to dance. My premonition became fully realized after everyone had reunited with their spouse, fiance, or significant other and exchanged nervous laughter. I was the only one left all by myself out there in the middle of the floor. Jeanne was still flipping through her CD collection when her assistant Sandi hurried over to the table and whispered in her ear.

"What? We have an extra BOY?? This the first time that's ever happened in all my years....!!" I forgot to mention previously that Jeanne was wearing a wireless microphone to amplify her voice, and her cries of disbelief echoed throughout the gym. Several heads over in the Mommy & Me Bellydancing class turned in our direction to see what all of the commotion was about. I wouldn't have been surprised if the Conversational French instructor had later poked his head into the room to ask, "Excusez-moi. Permettez -nous arriver a regarder le solitaire garcon sans une fille?" ("Pardon me. May my students come to look at the lonely boy without a girl?")

Sandi, a short, zaftig, fifty-ish platinum blonde, hurried over to be my partner as the music began to play. She shook her head and commented that there had always been a greater number of women than men that signed up for these classes. She nodded over in the direction of several nicely dressed, white-haired gentlemen that were patiently sitting around the card table--male stand-ins that Jeanne had obviously pressed into service to pair up with an expected female overflow. She patted me on the shoulder and said with a wink, "That's okay, sweetie--a single guy who knows how to dance? There's a whole new world waiting ahead for you..."

At least I think that's what she said. At the time I was too busy concentrating: And its Forward...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha. There were still another thirty minutes left in class, with plenty more moves ahead yet to come.

Friday, September 15, 2006

table for three--(2nd course).

I was hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as I entered the restaurant with Brendan trailing behind me holding my hand. During the entire drive downtown I had tried to think of the best way to lessen the initial shock to Gretchen as I arrived for our date with my 3-year old son along as a 'plus 1'. I decided that the direct approach was probably best and that events from that point would either go pretty well or horribly wrong.

As it turned out, I had nothing to be concerned about. Gretchen was already inside waiting at the bar and her eyes certainly widened when she first saw the two of us enter. But then they became slightly misty as I began to explain the whole situation. After a quiet moment or two had passed, she told me that she completely understood and bent down to say hello to Brendan with a warm smile.

The waiter had been a little more non-plussed, but his reaction was understandable. The Astral Plane was a pretty intimate restaurant. The silk fabric draped across the ceiling and soft candlelight illuminating the room were designed to provide a single, unmistakable mood: romance. It is not the sort of place where either chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese had ever been featured among the day's specials...

In fact, it was not the sort of place that had envisioned booster chairs as part of its seating plan either. Two Philadelphia phone books stacked on top of each other and placed on Brendan’s chair did the trick. Gretchen took everything completely in stride, and made a point to say how handsome Brendan looked in his fancy suit. I appreciated her effort and graciously refrained from pointing out that there really had not been much choice for a suitable alternative, as all of the remaining items in my son’s wardrobe at the time prominently displayed either Barney, Elmo, or permanent juice stains.

I have to say Brendan really was on his best behavior that night. He could be a pretty finicky eater back at that age, so while I may have been pointing to the 'Linguine with Grape Tomatoes' in the menu as I placed his order with the waiter, I made sure that I referred to it out loud as just plain old "spaghetti". His table manners were even better than I could have hoped for. While he did begin to build a little fort out of the sugar cubes he discovered inside the sterling bowl at the center of the table, I decided to let it slide because at least that activity held zero danger of anything breaking, spilling, or staining—which in my book was a trifecta. The fact that I had to drink my coffee black that night was a small price to pay for keeping him quietly occupied.

Actually, there was one minor incident before the night was over. Midway through eating our entrees, a waiter approached the table next to ours with a four-tiered dessert cart. Brendan was transfixed as he watched each diner go around the table and pick out the dessert of his or her choosing. After everyone had made their selection, the waiter began to head off towards another group sitting over in the opposite direction from us. Brendan placed his hands on the table, stood upright on top of the phone books, pointed towards the retreating cart, and declared “I WANT CAKE” in a voice that rang throughout the dining room.

Gretchen burst out laughing and it was all I could do not to join in. I quickly shushed Brendan and sat him back down, and told him that he could have some cake as long as he behaved and finished up the rest of his lingui…err, spaghetti. Fortunately the rest of the meal went by without incident, and Brendan definitely earned every bite of his cake as a reward, even if the sleeves of his jacket wound up sporting brand new dark chocolate stains. At least they both matched on each arm...

We walked Gretchen to her car and she smiled broadly as she thanked us both for a wonderful evening. She gave us each a kiss on the cheek and then Brendan and I headed back to our house for a long-overdue bedtime story. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night for my initial return to the dating scene.

It’s been eleven years since that dinner--Brendan is now 14 and has just entered high school as a freshman. He doesn’t have a girlfriend yet, but I can see that it won't be long before one will be in the picture. I’ve been thinking that maybe a little karma might be in order when he finally goes on his first date. I could tag along in a spiffy new seersucker suit, prop myself up at the table with some phonebooks, and build something fun with the condiments. The only difference would be that since I’d still be the dad, I could get dessert even if I didn’t finish all of my dinner. Come to think of it…
I WANT CAKE, TOO.