within those 5 miles

Early on, my entire life occurred within the radius of 5 square miles. But within those 5 miles there were worlds of differences. Not one to dwell on the issue of class, but I think it’s the only way I can describe it.
First there was the lower-middle class life that played out in my house. I call it lower middle class because we lived in a section of town that we could barely afford but kept up with the proverbial Jones’s. My Dad worked all the time to afford it, to give us the better way of life that he never had. That life was still going on across town. The middle-lower part of town. “The Ave”.

“The Ave” consisted of 7 houses. All owned by some member of my family. A family so large that to this day I can’t remember who was related to who and how. 6 houses shared one thing in common, they were in very poor condition. The 7th was a overgrown lot that contained the collapsed remains of the house my father grew up in. His father had moved across town (within the same 5 miles) with his sister who he disliked. But I digress. The last house on the street was where his sister lived with her drunk wife-beating husband and my 6 cousins. The youngest was Mike. He was my age and my best friend. His house may have been absurdly overpopulated, with plastic on the windows and broken linoleum floors but I didn’t know better or didn’t care. I was there all the time. I can barely come up with an early memory that doesn’t contain adventures with Mike on “The Ave”.

3 miles away, in a different town lived my mother’s parents. It may have been a short journey but on it you can clearly notice that the houses looked better maintained, the yards bigger and lawns greener, the roads better paved as you drive. Just on the other side of the town line, on the left side were a row of houses that were dwarfed by the ones on the other. As if they didn’t belong. This town was big money. Pro athletes from all 4 major Boston Sports teams bought houses there. Along with bankers, doctors and lawyers. My grandparents owned one of those small houses. Like my parents they were barely clinging to their middle-middle class lifestyle.
But they belonged. My Grandfather was content, my Grandmother sometimes acted as if they were from that other side of the street, the one with the bigger houses. I would not go so far as to call her a snob, but she had her moments.

The parents

I was a happy kid. All kids are happy I suppose. Until the world sinks its teeth into our asses and fuck us all up. I was a product of the late 60’s and early 70’s when all of society was in turmoil. The highly unpopular Vietnam conflict raged both overseas and at home. The youth of America had stood up and defied convention, rejected the status quo and had asked hard and polarizing questions. We were divided as a nation and it wasn’t only on the Capitol Mall, it had metastasized into every community and neighborhood. Mine was no exception. We had neighborhood boys go off to fight, some at the urge of their fathers and some in defiance of. I watched the news, I didn’t get much of it but I saw more explosions and violence than in any of my Saturday morning cartoons. I can’t say that it affected me either way, but I knew it was there.

Vietnam was a formative event in my life and is essential to my story. In fact, my birth kept my father out of it. Don’t get me wrong, he had his shit packed and was ready to fight but my premature birth kept him home. As the story goes, my pregnant mom was living with her parents while Dad was stationed in Texas. My Grandmother was very careful about the evening news. The non-stop stream of violence was unsavory to her and she tried to protect my Mother from it. Despite my Grandmother’s effort to censure, my mother saw a newscast about our escalation in Vietnam and that our “Advisory” troops would soon double. It was said what bases would be sending troops. Fort Sam Houston was among them… Boom…Labor. I arrived.
My Dad never properly thanked me.
The cultural turmoil that occurred on the Living Room Idiot Box had permeated our lives also. Dad was a good “If you don’t like America then get the fuck out” American. Mom had peace signs on her Bell-Bottoms. Archie Bunker held tremendous sway with my Dad, Mom left the room when he was on, always muttering “idiot” under her breath. “Conversations” about the state of the country happened all around me. With them, when friends were over, even with family. I learned early on that people argue, shit can get loud, and how to block my ears.

When he wasn’t yelling, I worshipped my Dad. The dead mystique is a funny thing. Because he’s gone I tend to forget about the yelling. It wasn’t ok. I hated it. Mom hated it. But we forgave it because underneath it all he was a very good man. I was at his side like a loyal lapdog. He emitted strength and toughness. He was manly and I obviously had a penchant for that. I loved how hard he worked. Before I had ever heard the words “work ethic” I had dubbed him the king of it. It was so much more than how many hours he was out of the house; it was the times that he worked on our house, the times that he helped a neighbor or a friend with yard work or building something for someone. I learned at a young age that a man helps people, often as the right thing to do and not just for money.
Towards the end of his life my father, weakened and nearly destroyed by Parkinson’s, grasped my hand and asked me if it bothered me that he was out of the house so much. I told him the truth, I never had anything but respect for him for it. It saddens me that he had to ask me that. But I’m glad he did. It was just another moment that I found myself looking at him with unmitigated respect and admiration.

Especially when I learned about his childhood.

The good old days

It all starts with the childhood right? If my B.S. in Psychology taught me anything, it is that a Shrink would think that all Fucked Up Shitheads (from now on will be known as FUS) are the product of hating or wanting to fuck your mother. They would be wrong. I was the product of a loving home. I had honest and hard working parents. To my knowledge I never needed for anything.

My town was lower middle class at best. If I had to guess, we were on the lower-middle end of it. My parents bought our house when I was 3 and from that moment Dad spent every spare minute working on it. The man left the house at 5AM, got home at 6 or 7. Mom kept his dinner warm. I would sit and watch him eat, careful to point out that we had left the biggest piece of steak for him. Sometimes he was talkative, other times he was quiet as he ate. If he was in a bad mood he would still give me a wink to let me know it wasn’t me. When he was finished he put his plate in the sink and went to pound nails or cut some boards. God bless him, he was the hardest working man I have ever met. Ever.

Mom walked the tightrope between Gloria Steinem Feminism and the good housewife brilliantly. She wore her hair down to her waist (see Cher), opened her own doors and, once I was old enough, got her own job. But around Dad she was a traditional housewife. Don’t hate on that term, that’s what they called themselves back then. By traditional housewife I guess I mean that she cared for me, cared for the house and inexplicably took care of him as part of her marital duties. She did it because it had to be done and she wasn’t offended by traditional Gender roles. She had limits. If he got too “traditional” she would give it back. She was a very positive female influence.

We were a very social family. We were the house that all the ladies in the neighborhood would come to for coffee and conversation. They’d stop by with their kids in tow, looking for a cup of sugar and would stay for coffee and whatever baked goods Mom was able to whip up. It was great for me, my friends were hand delivered. I didn’t even have to leave the house. When there weren’t pop-in play dates, it was my Grandmother.

My mom and her mother had a great relationship. They were very close and spent a lot of time together. Because they were both married to workaholics, their time together meant more than I ever would have understood at the time. They were lonely together, if that makes sense? One thing that helped to pass the time was to dote over me. As it turns out, doting was my Grandmother’s specialty. She took me places and showed me off to her friends at the Senior Center. My memories of hanging with her go all the way back, and I attribute my love of Elderly people to her. We had nothing less than a wonderful and gratifying relationship. Unfortunately, my Grandmother’s doting was also the source of a huge rift in her relationship with my mother. A rift so large that it essentially molded my mother’s approach to me. To a degree, it would be a problem for me in my teen years.

They were good times.

Before it’s too late

Often when I take a break from blogging it is because I can’t think of a topic. Sometimes it’s just laziness. Sometimes I just get busy, I’m pretty active for a guy with nothing to do. Then other times I just don’t know where to start.

Last week I suffered so many slaps upside the head that I just couldn’t sort my thoughts. It started with the death of a dear friend, then another old friend of the family passed, and then to top off the shit sandwich that was my weekend I found out that my best friend in the world and his young daughter had contracted the Covid-19 virus. I was floored both metaphorically and actually. I didn’t know where to begin.

The death of my friend, a elderly Freemason whose company I have enjoyed so often and so greatly was not a shock. He was elderly and in declining health. Quarantine issues made it difficult to visit him and he wintered in Florida but I had no excuse not to talk to him more frequently and I am feeling guilt even though I don’t feel that there was anything unsaid between us. It is the worst part of losing someone, wondering if you knew where you stood with them. It is THE reason that I endeavor to always leave someone as if I will never see them again, on the level (as we Masons say) and free of anger and resentment. He was my buddy, regardless of our age difference and I feel that I am a better person for having known him. I miss him terribly.

The family friend was less of a blow. He was 92 and passed peacefully. But he meant something to me as a memory of my childhood. My parents used to Square Dance (mock away I won’t resent you) and they met many solid friendships through it via conventions at Campgrounds every Summer and retreats in Winter. I can think of 5 or 6 families that I met on those occasions and the many lasting friendships with their children that I cherish now. Frank was one of the ones that stands out in my mind the most. A father of 5 awesome kids and a all-around wonderful family man, he represents an era gone by to me. I was so upset that I wasn’t able to go to his funeral. Not being able to attend funerals is one aspect of the Pandemic that is hard to reconcile.

The news that my best friend in the world contracted Covid absolutely floored me. The news may have numbed us with all of the constant talk and actual people can fade into just statistics but by now most of us know someone who has contracted it. Sadly, many of us have lost someone to it. We always hear about those people in the high-risk category. My friend is in it. He’s a big, strong man but he’s overweight. He has a heart condition. He is always tired and his immune system is vulnerable. When I heard the news, I won’t sugarcoat it, I had some very bad thoughts about worse case scenarios. And for his daughter, whom I love like my own daughter…her diagnosis scared the ever loving shit out of me. Fast-forward to today, everyone is on the mend. That is a huge relief. But I was scared.

If you are reading this, I want you to know that I care about you and I hope you never have to endure a weekend like I had last week. Tell those close to you how you feel. Make phone calls. Send emails. Don’t put yourself in a position where you know that you could have done more. We’re social creatures and we need each other more than ever.

the dynamics of hope

“Have you ever thought of harming yourself?”
My favorite question of the Hospital admitting process by far. In the many times that I have been asked this, especially lately, I have answered with a knee-jerk and resounding “no”. Thursday, before I could stop myself I said yes.
My first reaction was to try to backpedal, but then I said Fuck it and went with it. Let’s face it, as little interest I had in talking to a hospital therapist or clergy, I hated the thoughts I had been having more.
The Social Worker entered my glass enclosed room mere moments after I said it and began asking me a million questions. I was guarded and tentative at first about answering. I wasn’t raised in a “talk about your feelings” type of household. I could better describe it as a “suck it up Buttercup” environment. Courtesy prevailed, however, and I endured. Apparently, my answers failed to raise any major red flags with her and after a declined offer of clergy or further discussion she left without incident. I closed my eyes and braced for the next shoe to drop.
“Hopeless”, the nurse exclaimed.
I opened my eyes. “What?”
“Sorry”, he said. “I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“I’m listening”, I said.
“You don’t want to end your life, you are just failing to find things that make you want to keep going.”
Wow, holy crap and WTF. He nailed it. We talked about it until he had to move on to his next patient.

I have NEVER been a suicide-minded person. I have also never considered myself a “happy” person I have perpetually danced on the edge of happiness and what I lack in joy I make up for in positivity and perseverance. I have never hated life and I have a huge problem with the selfish nature of suicide. I believe that if somebody doesn’t want to go on they don’t have to, but I also believe that it doesn’t end the pain, it only passes it on to the living.
But those dark thoughts have been creeping closer lately. The days are shorter. The sunlight is being coy. It’s cold. I’ve been in constant pain and sick more frequently. I live in a touristy area and it is the wrong season. I’ve spent many 3 AM’s sitting on the side of my bed, head in hands, looking for reasons to go on.
I’ve been in a bad place and couldn’t get out of my own head. I’d forgotten about hope.

I need to figure out how that happened and make sure it never does again. Did I just forget that I have children who love me? Friends that want me around? The good times yet to be had? The amazing and beautiful woman that has come into my life when I believed I would be alone forever? The gorgeous sceneries yet beheld behind the bars of my new Harley? Most important, have I forgotten that even if I’m not needed as badly as I, and all fathers I suppose, once was does it mean that I am not wanted around? All of these things are contingent on looking forward to tomorrow with a fresh and hopeful outlook.

I don’t know what happened to all of these things but I’m going to spend this current visit working on that list of things that await me when I get home.

I have NEVER projected hopelessness before and I don’t plan on doing it again. Hope springs eternal, pain is temporary, life is precious and death is permanent. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to refresh my outlook before it was too late.

Suck it up, Buttercup. You’re better than this.


listen

It was quite an eye opener for me, the first time someone told me to shut up and listen. I’ll never forget it. At first I was angry and defensive. Then I thought about it. I wasn’t really listening to him, I was clearly waiting for my turn to speak.
That’s not listening. Listening is not waiting for your turn conversationally, it’s giving the person in front of you your full attention. And I wasn’t doing that. Fortunately, I’ve improved in that department.

Today my listening skills were really put to the test, I can’t help but feel that I did ok. Not that I’m being graded, of course. I’m just looking back and I feel that I helped a little. I wanted to do something, anything but as it turns out all she needed was an ear. So that’s what I offered. For 2 hours and 45 minutes.

She is so conflicted right now. Her marriage, her job, her friendships, her surprisingly unsupportive family, and of course her demons are all right there front and center fighting for her attention. She feels alone in a crowded room, that noone understands her and on top of everything else, she feels that she has wasted her best years being good to those who took her loyalty and trust for granted. I can’t imagine what it’s like to question everything in life that I once thought was solid.

Today, as she waited for her ride, she asked me to stay on the phone with her. It was hard for me because I really don’t enjoy talking on the phone. But it was the only way I could talk to her and once her ride showed up I would be without her for a week. At Alcohol detox, the first thing to go is the phone.

She needs it, the week at the clinic. She needs to take a hard look at everything, sort out her demons and start to work on them in a healthy way. She doesn’t really believe she is an alcoholic. Nor do I. But she knows that her recent use of alcohol to deal with the increasingly abusive and insensitive behavior from her husband is not the answer. The week of not being around him and even the conflicting influence that I provide will be good for her.

I’m ok with it. All of it. While part of me knows that the advice she gets from a trusted therapist might not go my way. I fear, yet am ready to accept it if it happens, that she may be told that I’m the variable that has to go. Maybe I’m the straw on her weighted back. She may emerge from this to tell me that I have to go. And while the thought rips the very heart from my chest, I have to be ok with it. Because I’m crazy about her and I will do anything for her to be happy. Up to and including letting her go if it is the right decision.

I don’t know what is going to happen at the end of the week. I just know that whatever she chooses to do is fine by me. It has to be. Part of loving someone is wanting what is best for them. She is my friend. My lover. My ray of sunshine on a mostly cloudy day. She has been so good for me, just knowing her has brightened my life. I see a future for us, one in which I finally have someone to really want to live for.

I hope it’s me, I really do. But more than anything I just want her to be happy.

the proud dad

I could go on forever about how amazing my children are. I suppose all parents could. But I do not gush, rave or swoon or bloviate. Instead, I do what my father did. I compare my upbringing with theirs and gauge their “success” based on the metrics that applied to me.
Character? Check.
Integrity? Check.
Compassion, empathy, emotional intelligence? Check check check.
Are you seeing a pattern here? Yes, based on the listed criteria I care more about the quality of the person(s) that they have become over traditional metrics of College degrees, professional status, what rank they placed in their graduation class. I suppose those things are important but I’m a bit simpler on that front. In short, I evaluate people on the Asshole Scale. I am proud to say that I raised ZERO assholes. In that light, they accomplished everything I had hoped for them already.

Once it became clear to me that my marriage and family life was a fucked-up mess and not “normal” at all, it occurred to me that the example that I needed to set was to be reactionary to my worst fears as a parent. I feared, correctly, that I would not have the ability to send them to Ivy League schools. I knew that we were setting a terrible example of what a relationship is and should be. I knew that if I didn’t work at it my children would may hit the road at 18 and I would never see them except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I never cheated, despite how bad and sexless my marriage was, because I wanted to have the respect of my children. The spectre of my ex telling my children that their father was a dishonest man terrified me and she was certainly capable of playing that card.

Well, jumping forward to the present, I couldn’t be more proud of the results. 4 smart, motivated and happy adults who are in monogamous and long-term relationships, solid careers and are just wonderful people all around.

I struggled an awful lot as a parent. My personal demons, lack of maturity at times, financial and marital issues haunted me and I always worried that these would negatively influence my children. Yet I now realize that I have wonderful relationships with them and, while part of me sort of wonders why, I have to just roll with it. Maybe it’s something I did, maybe it isn’t.

But it doesn’t change the outcome, my offspring are great people and I am beaming with pride and purpose because of them.

decency

I walked in the door after finishing a job today and as soon as I saw Mum’s face, I knew something had happened. She was shaking as she held the phone in her hand.
“What happened?”, I asked her. As she explained, my blood began to boil.
She got a call. The caller identified himself as her Grandson. She asked which one. The caller, not prepared for the question asked, “which one do you think?” Big Red Flag. He did not know the name of my boys. The caller began to tell a tale of Covid testing, positive results, then a ensuing traffic stop which rendered my (supposed) boy in jail and in need of bailing out. She hung up on him and immediately called my son on his cell. He confirmed that he had made no such call. Meanwhile, the caller called another 4 times. All were ignored.

We’ve spent the better part of the afternoon calling the local and state police as well as the AG’s office. The number, traced back to Toronto, is on file and hopefully being investigated. The important thing is obviously no harm has come to my son. But my poor mother, having to briefly process the unthinkable. It infuriates me. How many times in my life do I have to ask the question,
“What is wrong with people?”

I don’t fear aging, I don’t worry about dying. I do, however, worry about being at a stage in life where I may become vulnerable to the ever increasing predatory scams perpetrated by people who will easily take advantage of the naturally protective and loving nature of people for the reward of a few dollars. It is daunting to realize that there really is no limit to how low someone will go to steal from another, and the bar is being set lower all the time.

For all of the advances we have made in society, we seem to lose another piece of humanity. If only people put as much effort into ways that we can be better as a society as they do into creating ways to defraud and cheat. The distrust that such behavior causes is irreversible and erodes at the very fabric of society. Want to see how bad it is? Say hi to a complete stranger in passing and watch their face, they will be 50 yards away from you before they recover enough from the surprise, ask themselves 35 ways to Sunday why you just greeted them (what do they really want!) and decide whether or not to respond. If you really want to mess with someone, sit next to them on a park bench or on public transportation. It will likely induce fear in someone.

Respect, courtesy and tolerance are all but gone in our society. Bad behavior is the norm. Volume is the new tool against logic, reason and listening. Facts are inconvenient and the truth is considered hurtful. But I know that many people, in their heart of hearts, want to believe in the good in people. They want to trust someone at their word and not have to assume the worst. Unfortunately, that basic desire is being challenged every day by unscrupulous and greedy people. Once trust is lost, I fear there is no coming back from that.

I will continue to try to see the good in people. One thing I have always believed is that there is good in everyone and I will always try to find it. I hope that I never lose that. It’s not an easy task, people test it every day. For now, I will say this.

I believe most people are good and that we only hear about the bad ones.

the Caretaker

My mom is 75. Up until this year she worked. Not because she needs to, she just likes to be busy. Working with Special Needs children here in town gave her so much satisfaction. But, with Covid being what it is, and my health (I’m in the most vulnerable category there is), she took a leave of absence.
I hate that she had to do that, knowing that she did it for me.

She has been relentlessly puttering about the house looking for something to clean. Something to sew. Projects to complete. It’s confusing to me because she has a RV ready to go in the driveway, a boyfriend that is always telling her that she should quit working (she does not need the money) and travel with him, and she has me to watch her house should she choose to go someplace.

A month in and she hasn’t spent any additional time with her boyfriend and she has made zero effort to make any plans whatsoever. The other day I asked her about it.
“What, are you trying to get rid of me?”, she asked.
I explained to her that I just want her to enjoy her retirement, to take advantage of not having financial constraints, to do all of the things that I long to but can’t due to the rigorous demands of my dialysis schedule. We talked about it and she was uncharacteristically quiet. I got frustrated and asked her why again. She spun around with a face on that I haven’t seen in years.
“Bill, do you remember what happened 2 years ago?” You would be dead right now if I hadn’t been here!” She was on the edge of tears.

There it is. The truth comes out, and an inconvenient one at that. Despite all efforts to the contrary, beneath it all I am a burden to her.

My mother is a Caretaker. She cared for both of her parents during their decline and she, with little help from the Teamsters, VA and Medicare, cared for my father as he succumbed to Parkinson’s over an eight year period. It took almost everything out of her. She put her life on hold for him. Once he passed, I had hoped that her caretaking days are over. In her eyes, clearly they are not.

I can see why she feels this way. You never stop being a parent, no matter how old your children are. I can’t imagine how she felt to come upstairs to my loft, after calling my name several times with no answer, to find me on the floor unconscious. Does it matter that I was 53 years old at the time? No, she was terrified and thought her only child was dead. It changed her, she is burdened with walking around with that image in her head. And she’s afraid that if she goes away it could happen again.

I’m smarter now about being honest about my health. I tried to assure her that I know enough to call 911 if I am in trouble. But she is standing firm. It is what I love and hate about her.

I want to be so many things in life. A burden is not one of them. I wish I could erase that whole ordeal from her mind. But I can’t. It happened and in her eyes she is permanently vigilant in the event that it will again.

I’m forever the burden, she’s forever the caretaker. That’s what being a parent is. If you do it right, it never ends no matter how old they are.

the bottle story

In 1981 my Great Uncle Cyrus died. He had a big house on Cape Cod, about 300 yards from the water. My family was tasked with cleaning it out.
My Great Uncle was a kind and giving man. On my 16th birthday he gave me his late wife’s 1964 Ford Falcon as a present. I was grateful yet conflicted, I barely knew the man. Amazingly, the distance between us and the Cape was enough to keep me from seeing him more than 5 times in my life. And there I was cleaning out his house, charged alongside my mother, father and Grandparents with deciding what was “junk” and what wasn’t.

There I was, a 16 year old exploring a old house. I meandered to the basement where I found a dusty tool bench with some really cool but unfinished wood working projects and a lot of unorganized stuff scattered around. I stooped to check out the bottom shelf and I saw a bottle. I blew an inch of dust off it and I studied it. It was a bottle of J&B Scotch, a fairly middle of the road blend and a very popular drink in its time. I was intrigued by the label “half gallon” and realized that this bottle was old. The stamp revealed that it was bottled in 1949.
“Hey Dad, check this out!”.
Dad came over and agreed that it was a find. We brought it home with us and stored it in my grandparents basement.

Saturday I had my installation ceremony as Master of my Masonic Lodge. Due to Covid restrictions we were only allowed to have 50 guests and we reached that number. My children and my mother, several brothers from other lodges that I became friendly with over the years graced me with their presence. One of them had told me 5 years ago that should I become master he wanted to be there. So I invited him. The remainder of the crowd consisted of lodge members and their guests who all came out to support the new line of officers.

It was an AMAZING ceremony, the same one that was conferred on George Washington in the 1700’s. Once complete it was my turn to say some words. I had it all planned out. In fact, I have had it planned out since the day I decided that I would move through the chairs to Master.
“Brother Marshall, would you retrieve my conversation piece?”
The crowd was intrigued.
Brother Marshall is my good friend and past master Basil who promised to help me in any way should I take the big chair. He winked at me and walked to the back of the building and came back with the bottle of J&B. He handed it to me with a wink and sat back in his seat.
I hoisted the J&B in the air and told the story.
“I am a lover of objects, for their significance and place in history. Objects do not contain memories but they have important associations. For example, I wear my grandfathers watch and cufflinks. I wear my fathers motorcycle helmet. They hold memories for me and mean something. This bottle is not just a bottle, it is a reminder of a different time”.
I told the story of cleaning out Uncle Cyrus’s house, who I later found out was an esteemed and beloved Freemason (it explained why he gave me a car) and how the bottle in my hand has fascinated me all along.
“This bottle has never been opened, it was bottled in 1949”. The crowd was hanging on every word now.
“This bottle was owned by a wonderful man. It was also bottled during the era of Harry Truman, my favorite President. Harry Truman, you may not know, was a Freemason. He served as Grand Master of the state of Missouri as Vice President yet he never discussed it”.
I asked the crowd if they knew that in a Masonic lodge everyone is treated the same regardless of social stature. I told of how Harry Truman went to a regular lodge as Vice President and later President and wasn’t greeted with fanfare and adulation…he was simply “brother Harry”.
“This bottle represents a simpler time and I hope to run this lodge as Harry did his own, with humility and honesty”.
It was a hit, everyone applauded. After, I rounded up all of the shot glasses I could find and I opened it. We toasted and took a drink. After 70 years in several basements, I finally shared my find with those people closest to me.
A week and a half later, people are still talking about it. They agreed with me that it wasn’t just a bottle.

It meant something.