Either Way, I’ll Be Okay

800px-Kauffman_Stadium_at_night,_2009I’ve been writing this post in my head for the last few weeks. I didn’t want to talk about it, because I didn’t want to jinx anything, but I have been caught up in Royal Fever like many of my friends and relatives who hail from Kansas and Missouri. Even now, I think I might have jinxed the team by watching the game, but I watched Tuesday night’s landslide game, so, well, one can see the trouble one gets into by overthinking stuff like this. In the end, the San Francisco Giants won the seventh game and the series. My Facebook feed is full of people expressing their pride and love and support for the 2014 American League Champions, the Kansas City Royals.

I really wanted the Royals to win. I don’t want to misrepresent myself, it’s not like I watched every game or even followed their trajectory for the majority of the season. Mostly, my Royals reports came only from my Dad. And I have to be honest, I really wanted my Dad to see his team win the World Series.

We were always a Royals household. Summer evening drives were accentuated by the sound of Royals baseball from the AM radio. When I was 6 or 7, we went to a Royals game and as we were leaving, a uniformed gentleman, singled me out and gave me a baseball that he told me was the one John Mayberry hit a home run with that night. The next day, we drove to a car dealership where Mr. Mayberry was signing autographs and he signed my baseball. It probably goes without saying, but when I think about baseball, I think about the Royals.

Two summers ago, I had a unique perspective. For the weeks that my Dad was at Kansas University Medical Center, most of that time was in a room on the 9th floor that overlooked most of the city, including Kauffman Stadium. My Dad wasn’t in such great shape in those days, but when there was a game, the tv was on. His bed faced west and the view of his room faced east. I would sit on a chair near the window, watching the game, watching my Dad and also look east to the dusky panorama that featured the stadium. Memories of those days are complicated, it felt so bleak, and there was something both comforting and vexing about the sights and sounds of Major League Baseball, the crack of the bats, the roar of the bleachers, the green, green field. While our lives as we knew it came to a complete halt, outside our window, life went on.

If you know the story, you know that my Dad did go home, he did get better. In fact, one of the things he credits for his return to health is the weeks watching the Royals play. There was something about watching their games that put him back into his own.

So if the Royals are even just one of the reasons my Dad is still with us, to me, it’s much bigger than winning a World Series. Last night, one of my high school friends posted a quote from one of my favorite movies, Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.” Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them this is one of my favorite movies, but it is. Besides being a love letter to baseball, it’s a love letter to a part of the country I cherish and most importantly, a love letter to dads.

On Tuesday, I called my Dad as I was driving to work. Game 6 was minutes away from starting. I asked him how he was doing and he told me, “Either way, I’ll be okay.” I laughed. We laughed. And last night, minutes after the game, I called him again. He was proud of his team, rightfully so, and was already looking forward to next season, hoping they could “keep this up.” While some might mourn the loss, my Dad was already looking to the future with optimism. That optimism has, for a lifetime now, served my Father well, so with any luck, it just might carry the Royals to a 2015 World Series victory. But either way, we’ll be okay.

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About Fathers and Sons

167445_10151027019872755_1950056074_nI posted a blog yesterday that had a big response. I received several comments as well as several private messages about bullying and even about my specific subject, a person I’ll call Karl Johnson. Initially, I used his real name and I’ve since tried to go through and change the name to Karl.

I have one more memory of Karl that I’ll share and then, I promise, no more. Maybe it will make you like him a little more or have some compassion. Maybe you’ll just think I’m even brattier for sharing more ugliness about my little town.

Karl was an athlete, a good athlete. His father was also an athlete, and a coach. His father was at every game of Karl’s, City Rec through high school, either as a coach or cheering from the sidelines. Well, maybe cheering wasn’t the exact word. Karl’s dad was that dad who always yelled at his son from the bleachers that he was being an idiot when he screwed up. His constant verbal abuse was expected at every game, habitual. His wife, Karl’s mother, always sat meekly by his side. Was she embarrassed for her husband? Did he yell at her like that too? Was he even meaner behind closed doors? I wondered. Do I remember the exact names and phrases bellowed at those games? No, but I bet Karl does. I bet it’s affected him his entire life.

In our adult, 21st century vernacular, we understand how the bullied become the bullies. It can be and often is a natural progression. In it’s way, me trying to tell an unsavory story about Karl from 35 years ago could fall into that category.

I remember my junior high self sitting in the bleachers at basketball games reacting to Mr. Johnson’s predictable outbursts with a mix of pity and thrill. At least somewhere on earth, Karl Johnson was getting the treatment he deserved, what he doled out to others.

Did he deserve, at 11 or 13 or 16 to be called an idiot or a screw up or worse by his own father in front of hundreds of people? I don’t think so. Did Mr. Johmson’s outbursts make Karl a better player? A better student? Maybe.

Karl Johnson had much better grades than I did. He went to a much better college than I did. (No offense, OCC, I do love you, though.) I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Johnson loved his son and was proud of his son’s accomplishments.

My own Dad’s approach to fathering was different. Because it was a small town, I always felt a pressure to play sports. I was almost always the worst player on every team. One evening, after the last game of the the Little League season, I remember riding with my Dad to his work, the gas station he owned. It was closed, but he had to pick something up. And I remember sitting in the front seat, eating a Hershey bar and we were talking about the season that had ended. My Dad told me he was proud of me. And trust me, like I said, I was horrible. And then he turned to me and said, “I think next year will be your year.”

In most ways, that did not turn out to be true. When I signed up the next year, I was as bad as the summer before, but still, my Dad (and Mom, too) sat in the bleachers and cheered for me anyway, never missing a game, never failing to take me for a root beer sno-cone afterward. At 12, I thought I was lucky to have the parents I had. At 45, I know.

Anyway, that’s it. How self-absorbed to start talking about my bully and end up talking about me! I will keep my promise, though, nothing more about Karl Johnson. I do have compassion for him. Just like for the rest of us, his life wasn’t always easy.

Guest Blogger, Michael Patrick Gaffney: Old Wallpaper

wallpaper 2My good friend Michael has written another guest blog, the first guest blog of 2014!  Partly because my parents have lived in the same, relatively unchanged, ranch style house since 1980, I can relate to this story.  And yet, since this is a story about constants and changes and our relationship to those things, I am sure everyone can relate.  

Old Wallpaper

In 1973 my dad moved us from Queens, New York to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Needless to say it was a bit of a culture shock for the whole family.  No one could understand what we were saying with our thick, New York accents and every time the lady at the Piggly Wiggly store said, “Ya’ll come back now, ya hear”, we would literally come back to the counter wondering what we had done wrong.  It was like living on the planet, Mars.  But one of the great things about our move was that we got to watch our house being built.   The first time my dad took us to our lot, all that was there was the cement foundation.  Once a week the whole family would pile into the new Ford, Galaxy station wagon and check out the progress of our house.  Soon there were studs up, then walls, then brinks and stone, and then the roof.

When it was finally finished it was the quintessential 1970’s ranch house, with avocado green, shag carpeting, burnt orange appliances in the kitchen, a wagon wheel light figure in the living room and lots and lots of loud wallpaper throughout. 

Flash forward 40 years!  My mother and father still live in that same house, minus the green, shag carpet, etc.  When I was visiting last summer they mentioned that they might finally take down the old, original wallpaper in the half bathroom off the garage.  “Oh, no don’t!  That’s all that’s left of the original design and it’s so cute”, I pleaded.   I made sure to take a picture of the bathroom before I left in case they followed through with their foolish plan.

This morning on the phone, my mother casually mentioned that they finally remodeled the half bath off the garage.  She also mentioned that they were thinking of finally selling the house and moving to a smaller place.  A four bedroom house was just too much trouble for a couple in their late seventies.  It was time.

 It was just old and worn wallpaper, hanging in the half bath off the garage. It was dated and silly and dingy so it was time for it to be torn down and replaced with a fresh coat of beige paint.  Preparing the house for the next family to take over perhaps.  What’s the big deal?

But that wallpaper was my youth, my memories and a link to the past.  When I would visit my childhood home, little by little things would change but I could always go into that half bath off the garage and I was immediately  pulled back into the 1970’s and my childhood.  

As a kid I probably spent too much time in that bathroom, sitting there trying to figure out the story of those characters on that red and white, kitschy wallpaper. There was the woman sitting at her vanity painting her fingernails.  The bald man drying himself off with the checkered towel.   The woman with the night cap on, checking her wrinkles in the mirror.  The man in his bathrobe combing his hair.  The mom brushing her little girl’s hair while she plays with her toy, with the cat watching closely.  The naughty poodle pulling the towel off the rack.  What did it all mean?  Pondering it now I guess it was just a simple story about a family living together and sharing a space on a daily basis.  It could have been any family I suppose, but I guess to me it was my family that I imagined on that wall.   I think that is why I find it so hard to let go of it completely.   So this afternoon I blew up the picture I had taken last summer, put it in a frame and mailed it off to my folks.  I want it to be a reminder I guess…or a monument really, to that young family from Queens, New York starting off their new life and adventure together on the planet, Mars.

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We’re Looking at Christmas!

loopedopen460eNo surprise here, I have been following Valerie Harper’s cancer journey since she announced it last March.  I remember hearing her tell the story of receiving the dire diagnosis and the effect it had on her, her husband and daughter.  At the time, it reminded me of something my family experienced about the same time one year earlier.  I’ve talked about my Dad’s cancer here and here, but hearing Valerie’s story last March reminded me of the day that my mother left a message saying, “We just got out of the doctor’s office.  Go ahead and give us a call when you get a chance.”  I knew my parents had gone to the oncologist and I knew that if the news had been remotely good, she would have indicated as much on the voicemail.  I called her when I was in my car, driving home, along Olympic.  She asked if I was driving, I said I was.  She asked if I wanted to pull over, I told her I was fine.  She told me that the doctor told them that Dad had cancer in his jaw and they were going to perform surgery to remove the jaw.  It was not a surprising call, my Dad had been bothered by a persistant sore in his mouth for a few months, but it was not a diagnosis any of us were prepared for.  And soon, we went into the saddest, longest, weirdest summer of our lives.  My Dad had his surgery and after 2 surgeries, 5 weeks of hospitilazation, 3 or 4 staff infections, countless cards, flowers and prayers, he was back home.  And then, with each week that passed, there seemed to be more hope that he would get better.

Valerie Harper was on the Today show today, the link to the article and video is here.  The cameras were with her when she visited her doctor recently and he told her that her cancer was “pretty close to a remission”.  It’s heartwarming to watch, but what tugged at me the most is toward the end when Valerie and her husband Tony Cacciotti are talking to the cameras and he says, “Going from having three months to live, or less; we’re into our sixth month, and now there’s even hope beyond right now we’re looking at….” and his wife finishes his sentence with, “we’re looking at Christmas.”

Of course it made me think of my parents.  After such a precarious summer, it was not until October that I thought maybe my Dad would be with us to celebrate Christmas.  And as he continued to heal, I looked forward to the holiday in a way, I had not appreciated it in a long time.  When he and my Mom picked me up at the Tulsa airport at Christmas, I could not believe how healthy he looked.  And I felt very lucky, all three of us did.

I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but whoever you are, there are the yearly events, often holidays, that mark the passage of time.  I realize that none of us have the promise of another Thanksgiving or birthday or Christmas or New Year’s, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to. It’s all about hope.

So, today, I celebrate Valerie Harper’s good news. I know how much it must mean to her family and it reminded me of a time when the bad news turned into better news and we, too, said to ourselves, “We’re looking at Christmas!”

My Father’s Garden

20130615-213737.jpgWith any luck, my Father’s garden will have a bumper crop this year. Already, it’s produced lettuce, radishes, strawberries, peas, green beans and spinach. The basil, bell peppers, banana peppers, tomatoes, carrots and more are on their way. Almost anytime I call home, unless the sun has already set, my mother wistfully says, “Your Father is in his garden.”

Now, I’ve written a bit about my father’s health before on this blog, here and here, but it brings me much joy that he’s thriving after a challenging year. It also brings me much joy that his garden is thriving as well. Last Summer, while my Dad was in the hospital in Kansas City, I drove down to Independence to spend the night and take care of some business matters for my parents. It was the first time, in a long time, that the house was empty and the quietness broke my heart and even frightened me a little. And my Dad’s garden, at the end of a markedly dry July, was dying. Though a few of his friends had made visits to water and pick the produce, it was failing without the regular attention, one might even say love, of its caretaker. For my dinner, I picked some peppers and tomatoes and cooked a steak I found in the freezer and it should have been a meal for a king, but I felt so sad, so alone eating it. At that point, I honestly did not know what the future held.

My Dad did get better, he did leave the hospital and gradually he has regained his health. And I think that is one of the reasons he has spent so much time in his garden this Spring and Summer, because he is thrilled to have the energy to work so hard. But also, between you and me, I think there is another reason. My father had cancer, in fact, he had jaw cancer. On July 10, 2012, the longest day I’ve ever experienced, he had a 12 hour surgery to remove the tumorous jawbone and replace it with a new jawbone created from a bone graft and titanium. He was hospitalized for five weeks and the rehabilitation process was arduous and lengthy. And while the doctors had hoped my father would be able to eat food again, he has had difficulties swallowing and he currently feeds himself through a tube in his stomach. It’s his daily routine and I know it must depress him sometimes, but I have never, ever heard him utter a self-pitying word. He has made progress, he drinks water and Sierra Mist and coffee and can eat a little ice cream or mashed potatoes. We have a hope that he will eat again, but we do not know when it will happen. It is a regular plea in all of our thoughts and prayers.

Some would say it’s ironic that the man who can not eat is on a mission to grow the most vibrant garden so he can feed everyone in his world. I actually think his fervor is his way of making sense of the situation. If he can’t enjoy his tomatoes, he can derive a little joy from how much you love them. Happy Father’s Day!
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Guest Blogger: Barbara Cameron

A couple days ago, my friend Barbara asked me if I was going to have guest bloggers. She said my post about pools prompted her to write something and wondered if I’d be interested in sharing it. I said I would be thrilled to post her piece. Not only is she the one person with whom I always talk books, she also recently won an award from the American Literary Review in the Creative Non-fiction category.

Enjoy:

Opening Ray’s envelope inviting us to join him in the pool, the visuals drew me right in. I was a swimmer my whole life. My father threw me literally in the ocean at age three and said sink or swim. I swam. Later, being on the Cherry Valley Swim Club swim team defined me in my early years, and I loved it because: I was fat and I was not an athlete. When we played baseball and football on my street, I was put in the most unnecessary position and constantly yelled at to “stop dancing around and daydreaming over there and pay attention.”
In the water, I felt thin. My body slimmed down and smoothed out, weightless. Every Saturday morning we had swim meets, and I won trophies because in the water as opposed to on land, I could move swiftly. One week, my father, strict, overbearing and one of the most amazing long distance swimmers I have ever encountered, must have gotten up from the sidelines because in the middle of a relay race, as I was doing my turn, twirling under the water, my favorite part – action specific to dance, gymnastics, which on land I couldn’t master gracefully, ready to press my feet against the cement and push off to give me that added advantage the “turn” gives all swimmers, I heard above me that bellowing voice from the man the entire neighborhood was afraid of, my father, yelling, “You’re losing time on your turns!”
It wasn’t an instant transition; it took building our summerhouse on the jersey shore, therefore, shifting allegiance naturally to the ocean, but by the time I was in high school I found myself saying, “I hate pools.” Why? I would say, “Too confining, no waves, nothing happens; it’s boring.”
Reading Ray’s piece I thought: no, too hard.
I fell in love with the ocean because I succeeded there, on my terms and on my father’s, because, like him, I was fearless in the ocean. And the poetry of this story is the same ironic poetry my father invokes in most stories I tell about him: the strictest father on the street, he trusted us, so we had no curfew. He had no rules in the ocean. He too stopped swimming in pools because they confined him; no cement walls, no lanes. He stopped swimming in the ocean while the lifeguards were there because – as he put it one day when they dragged it out and drove off with him in the beach patrol jeep because he refused to swim in front of the stand, “I’ll be damned if anyone is going to tell me where to swim in the god damn Atlantic Ocean.”
He took me out as far as we could go, almost unable to see the shore (terrifying my mother). He taught me how to get back to shore when we were caught in a rip tide together once. I fell in love with the waves crashing this way and that, getting out past the surf and floating, on a raft or on my body – bearing absolutely nothing and doing my favorite thing in the world: daydreaming.

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The Family Stone

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So, I love this movie. Diane Keaton. Rachel McAdams. SJP. I have two favorite scenes, one I won’t talk about, because it’s at the end and I don’t want to ruin the ending if you haven’t seen it. This is the other one. I saw The Family Stone twice in the theatres and the third time I saw it was in 2006 in a hotel room in Pismo Beach. That fall, I won a significant amount of money on a game show, and that year, my Christmas present to my parents was a trip up the California coast, on me. As a person who has mostly worked in restaurants, up to that point in my life, I had had few opportunities to splurge on my parents. We went to Hearst castle, ate nice meals, walked on the beach, visited Mission San Luis Obispo. We brought my two dogs at the time, Lucy and Mandy, who loved running on the resort’s expansive grounds. One night, after dinner, we were in the room, I may or may not have been drinking a couple glasses of sauvignon blanc, The Family Stone came on tv. I’d seen it before, I can’t remember if my parents had seen it before, but we watched it together, The Family Barnhart. Whenever I watch gay things with my parents I notice things I didn’t notice before. I seriously didn’t know how ribald Will and Grace was until I watched an episode sitting beside my mother. When I was in my 20s, I was in a gay play where every character got naked, but it wasn’t until my parents were in the audience that I realized, hey, they talk a LOT about sex in this play! But I digress. It’s 2006 and we are in this somewhat luxurious hotel room in a resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean and we are watching The Family Stone and THIS scene starts. And I lose it. LOSE IT. Oprah’s Ugly Cry. My parents are sitting on their bed, my dogs and I are on my bed and tears are bursting out of my eyesockets and I’m trying not to shudder for fear they notice what’s going on. Why did I react this way? In as few words as possible? Maybe it’s a gay thing, maybe it’s a not so successful actor thing, maybe it’s a working 25 years in restaurants thing, but I’ve always felt like I’ve disappointed my parents a little. But here I was treating them to this wonderful vacation that they deserved, it was in fact, overdue. And suddenly, I was happy and sad and wistful and proud and ashamed and tipsy and silly and all the other things that make me me. I don’t know if they noticed my blubbering (how could they not?), but they’ve never mentioned it. And time has eased the embarrassment when I recall the evening, it’s actually turned it into a beautiful memory of time spent with my parents. Fortunately for me, one of many.