The curator of my America

Nabokov called his talents “banal” and a waste of brilliant technique. The highbrow art critics called his work “bourgeois” and “kitsch”. He was unjustly called an illustrator instead of an artist. Norman Rockwell didn’t care. He painted what he wanted to and gave the people what they wanted in his idealistic, sentimentalistic portraits. Over the course of 47 years and 323 original works, his perceptive, nostalgic eye for his America graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Born in New York, he eventually made his way to New England. He first lived in Vermont and eventually landed in the small Western Mass town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He did most of his painting there, eventually immortalizing small town life through his ongoing commitment to illustrating the cover or The Saturday Evening Post, consequently showing the world his views on life through his works.

I was 12 when he died. I remember my Grandmother being deeply upset. It was then that I made the connection between the magazine covers that littered her coffee table and the wonderful artist behind them. An aspiring artist myself, I was fascinated by his technique.

As I got older I began to appreciate his work even more. I moved from admiring the technique of Rockwell’s work to the subject matter behind it. His portrayals resonated with me. The magic of Christmas…


Rockwell always brings me back to a time when Christmas was about family and neighbors. The one time of year when everyone was always nice to each other. When people Caroled, drank Eggnog and a gift was appreciated, be it a hand made pasta sculpture from a small child or a simple card. We weren’t valued by the extravagance of our gift.

Rockwell was most famous for his Christmas works but so many other of his recurring themes impacted me. The fun, and difficulties of being a child (and remember that his was a much simpler time…

young love
a boy and his dog
the runaway

He didn’t shy away from controversial subjects either and he took heat about it but remained unfazed…

He was once told that his depictions of racial relations would get him banned. He insisted to the Post that if he was censored he would walk away. He was allowed to continue. He was a man of conviction.

I was raised with his values of post-Depression, post-war frugality and conservatism. Waste not, want not was a daily mantra. My parents and grandparents fixed things when they broke, they didn’t throw them away. They “darned” socks with holes, they didn’t buy new ones. In a time of burgeoning rampant consumerism and pursuit of the next “new” thing, they were firmly planted in the “old times”; a simpler way of life that simply made sense. I truly loved that mentality, to this day I reject the “new is better” mindset.

Rockwell, during those times, stuck faithfully to the old ways, he continued too portray the America that he knew and likely sensed that he was to be a curator of them lest they be forgotten. When a horse drawn wagon rode alongside a new-fangled “car”. When children played in the street without fear of boogeymen. When people knew, respected and loved their neighbors.

I often muse that I was born in the wrong era. I would have loved to have grown up in Rockwell’s ’20’s.
Baseball was played for the love of the game, not massive contracts.
A time when men and women dressed in suits and dresses when going out in public.
A time when families ate dinner together every night.
A time when children played safely outside, in a neighborhood where people knew, cared about and supported each other.
A time when Doctor’s made House calls.
When civility and manners ruled the land.

I long for a return to these days but I know they will never return. That is why I have the Rockwell’s Coffee Table Books at the ready. As far as I’m concerned they have never been more relevant.

Little ones

Inspiration, as well as motivation often comes when you are not looking for it. Recently, while catching up with Lisa’s blog I found this beautiful poem on childhood. It’s no wonder I try to keep up with her work. This is brilliant.

I cannot be seen if I cover my face
There are scary beasts hiding under my bed
I cannot fall when my Daddy carries me
The Shadows in my room have horrid faces
I cannot be hurt if teddy is with me
When you turn off the night light terror finds me
I cannot get lost when Mummy takes my hand
Don’t leave me alone, I’ll cry. I can’t see you
I cannot grow up. I’m safe, when I’m not scared.

I’m feeling empty lately. I don’t have a lot to do. I haven’t been sleeping. There has been a lot of open time for the dark forces to attack my defenses.

I miss working, it made me feel productive. I was an important man at my company, always fixing problems and blessed with the opportunity to help people.
I miss having a companion, despite how unhappy we were. When we got along, I liked having a wife, the idea of being married. I’m lonely.
I miss my big, noisy house. I loved the chaos during the day and the closing of the door at night that alerted me that everyone was home and safe for the night. It is so quiet here at night, and I don’t have the luxury of knowing that everyone is home and safe. You don’t stop worrying about children because they are grown.

Where Lisa’s beautiful poem hit me in the feels is that, more than anything, I miss when my children were young.
When they were innocent and untainted by the ugliness of this world.
When a kiss on a boo-boo was a million times more soothing than any medicine.
When Daddy was a force bigger than life itself and could always save the day.
When I was needed.

23 years ago I was cleaning up the kitchen where I worked with my co-worker Tony. We were sipping beers and talking. I took a pull on my beer and said to him, “I need to stop this soon, my daughter will be born soon.”
“Why do you need to stop drinking?”, Tony asked. “You can’t be a father and have a beer?”
“I need to get this right, Tony.”
I hadn’t gotten much right at that point in my life, I needed this one.

I never did quit drinking. But I sure made an effort to get it right. When my beautiful daughter was born, I felt a joy unlike any other. I doted on her. I made sure I changed a lot of diapers because it is the best way for a dad to bond, they have nowhere to look but at your face while you do it. I raced home from work to catch bedtime and when I missed it I camped out on the floor of the nursery listening to her breathe. With 2, 3 and 4 I lightened up a bit but not much. I worried less and enjoyed them more.

There is so much about their younger years that I wish I had a redo on. Not blessed with a particularly strong skill set, I had a string of awful jobs with terrible hours and I missed an awful lot of pivotal moments. But when I was home, I tried to make the most of the time.

I missed a lot of dinner times, but I made a lot of bedtimes. I would come home to smiling babies, toddlers running to see me and an exhausted and grateful wife. I gladly helped with baths, we called them “tubbies”. I loved to read them stories, with my own little twists of course. Daddies “additions” to the story were the best part and if done properly would draw huge ear to ear, toothy (some missing) smiles and a chorus of belly laughs that defied the dimensions of their tiny bodies and still ring beautifully in my memory all these years later.

It was a source of frustration as parents to stay on the same page as parents and not contradict or undermine each other. I was guilty of it when it came to bedtime. Selfishly, I wanted more time, regardless of what the clock, or mommy said. It wasn’t unusual to sneak another show or video in, or have my daughter fake an asthma attack in order to get a Nebulizer treatment and an extra half hour with Dad. The end result was the same, I got to carry a sleeping child to bed, tuck them in and marvel at them as they slept.

For the first ten years of fatherhood, I was not a particularly distinguished career man. I didn’t make a lot of money or drive a nice car. I failed to earn any titles of importance. I didn’t care. Someone called me Dad, and it was the finest of all titles. My favorite job consisted of witnessing an amazing series of “firsts”, making silly faces, causing belly laughs, giving shoulder rides, rolling around in newly mowed grass, leaf piles or fresh snow. I experienced more than any man’s fair share of witnessing wonderment at things that adults are now bored of, like a butterfly or a sunset. I taught them about the world they lived in, answered ten million questions, magically healed boo boos by kissing them and slayed any and all dragons that dared occupy the space under their beds.

I had been minimized in all areas of my life, even my marriage. But in the eyes of my children I was a giant among men and a force to be reckoned with. I could make anything better just by being there and would do anything to protect them.

Sometimes, when in the presence of my children, I find myself staring. Part of me sees the fine adult sitting before me, but another sees the cherubic face of the beautiful baby they once were. After all, they will always be my babies no matter how old they are.

Now, as they are all grown and living their lives, I would give anything to go back to those days. I didn’t know that it would end up being the happiest time of my life.

I wish my friend Tony was still alive. I’d love to tell him, after all these years, that I got this one right.


3,2,1 Quote me…The Sad Clown

I woke up this morning to see in my notifications that Lisa of All About Life fame has nominated me for the 3,2,1 Challenge. She knows me, I love a good quote and I especially enjoy elaborating on why it means something to me.

I find it odd, perhaps a sign that this challenge comes on a day that I woke up in the mood to binge-watch movies of a man whose loss I feel deeply. The brilliant and manic comedian that brought tears of joy and abdominal pain from laughing.
The soulful and charismatic actor who created and portrayed characters that walk alongside me in real life.
The “sad clown” that laughed on the outside and cried on the inside but chose to make others laugh because he knew pain.
The man who left us way too early because his pain was just too much to bear.

I have been called a “Sad clown” before. I have been accused of making jokes to minimize pain. Of deflecting praise because I didn’t feel worthy of it. They weren’t wrong, I was deeply unhappy for a long time. But I did get pleasure out of making others happy. That’s what Robin did, so today I will provide 2 great quotes from Robin Williams.

Bad days are lessons. You can learn from them or dwell on them, it is your choice. I have had more than my share of bad days in my life but I always chose to smile through them when I was able, or smile after when it was over. Collectively, my bad days have taught me to appreciate everything, most especially the little things in life. The warmth of the sun, the smile and laugh of a child, the gait of a beautiful woman, the affection of a pet, the sunrise of a brand new day. We only have so many sunrises left and I try to enjoy them all. I don’t know how many days I have left, none of us do, but I refuse to die with regrets and unexpressed feelings.

What a wonderful take on wisdom. Wisdom is fleeting for some, nonexistent in others and always appreciated too late in the dispenser and wasted on the young.
Too often we dismiss the advice of others because we feel that we know enough already or that the giver is not qualified. Wisdom comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from making mistakes. Mistakes, better known as learning experiences make and shape who we are. How we handle them speaks volumes. At the very least, our mistakes teach us how to handle future incidents. At the most, they allow us to help others clear their hurdles.
Unfortunately, wisdom is acquired too late. The sands of time eventually fill the bottom of the hourglass and it dies with you. You can only hope that someone besides yourself learns from your slips and falls, the hills and vales and the walls that you hit so that they might not struggle.
But if they do, they will have acquired their own wisdom. Just another cog in the circle of life.

I nominate:
My bud Biff @ Biff, Sock, Pow. His blog is brilliant and funny and I would love to see what he comes up with. I would also be pleased if you would check him out. You will not regret it.
Sparky Jen. She’s positive, very wise and a true pleasure to read. Trust me.
Tom @ Tom Marches on. He’s been in a slump lately maybe this will get him writing again. Plus I would like to see what he comes up with.



The Reunion

When the 5th Reunion invite arrived I immediately discarded it. Likewise with the 10th. I wasn’t ready. The scars were still fresh and sore to the touch. When I opened my mailbox to see the invitation to the 15th, I decided I would go.

I arrived, with my wife of three years on my arm and a bad attitude. I had caustically joked to her in the elevator that “the same people that didn’t talk to me in HS can have the luxury of not talking to me tonight.” I left that night not knowing if I was right or wrong, her father had a heart attack and we hurriedly left after only an hour.

I skipped the 20th. And the 25th. I was too busy, too tired, too fat, too poor, too unsuccessful…let’s face it…too full of excuses. I just wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t prepared to talk to people about my life because I felt like a failure. I had visions of regaling people with details of my remarkably mediocre life and then sit in the corner and drink until it was time to slip out the door.

I went to the 30th with a slightly better attitude. I reconnected with a few old friends and made small talk with quite a few people. But I confirmed that I was still largely a Ghost. The people that didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then, my caustic joke  of 15 years before had proved correct. It would later occurr to me that I didn’t talk to them 30 years ago either. It was a sobering, powerful lesson. You get what you put into things. I decided that I hated reunions and would likely not attend another.

My terribly negative, yet persistent view of Reunions had clearly stemmed from my HS experience, or lack of therein. I left HS unfulfilled and unhappy. I had few friends, few prospects, and few memories. I tried too hard to fit in. When I failed to, I drew within. I walked the halls looking at my feet instead of making eye contact. I worked a lot. I dropped out of clubs and quit teams when I got the slightest bit of grief from classmates. I ran Cross-Country because it was a solitary sport.  For years to come I blamed others for my lack of fulfillment because I wasn’t yet mature or aware enough to put the blame squarely where it belonged, on myself.

It was liberating to stop casting blame. Reviewing my High School years with a clear, honest eye, I realized that it was mostly a giant missed opportunity. A regrettable one at that.

When I received the invitation to the 35th Reunion I immediately decided that I would go. It was time to cast the monkey off of my back once and for all.

When I arrived at “The Shoe”, the place was full. I took a deep breath and walked in. I wasn’t concerned with “measuring up” against others, and I was genuinely interested in the lives of my peers without the burden of jealousy or envy. Fully prepared to say, if asked:

“Hi, I’m Bill. You probably don’t remember me. I was the color of the walls in HS. I went on to have a unremarkable career and a failed marriage. I’m on Disability. I lost almost everything to End Stage Renal Disease and I may not be alive for the next one of these. But I have 4 amazing children that I live for.
It’s goddamn good to see you though. Hey, where are you going?!?!?!?!?”

I never had to say that. Here is what happened instead.

Everyone looked great. Everyone was happy. Drinks flowed and conversation roared. The people that I recognized, I talked to.  I had a few conversations with people that I didn’t know so well. I saw most of the people that I had hoped to and definitely missed opportunities to chat with some that, after 35 years, were still strangers to me. I mused to myself, as I sat in the corner nursing a beer, the old proverb “A stranger is a friend you haven’t yet made.” As true as it was, it was a bit late for that with most in the room. I needed to be OK with that.

I left early. I didn’t feel well and was struggling with light-headedness and headaches all night. But I’m glad that I attended. For so many years I actually thought that I was the only one who had struggled in HS. That everyone else loved High School and would all grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults but me. It was when I realized that life maybe didn’t turn out for them as planned, that they maybe struggled in HS, and life after as well, that I finally gave myself a break. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned. All I can say is, I struggled for years to find myself, until I realized I was me all along.

It was great to see everyone. I wish I knew you all better. I wish I had made more memories to laugh and reminisce about. Alas, as the saying goes…there is no second chance to make a first impression.

 

Song lyric Sunday

Some of you may know this song by heart, some may have never heard it. It is one of those songs that proves the adage that the music you listen to in your formative years will always be sentimental to you, if not remain your favorite music. The latter has proven true for me, and in times when I lack clarity or need a reminder of what drives the blood in my veins I play those songs.

Bob Seger’s Like a Rock is the title track of his ’86 album that cemented my love of Seger’s gritty, honest, relateable songs. This song, before it became a Chevy commercial at least, was a staple in my daily playlist.

Now, as I find myself weakened and looking for strength I love this song more than ever. It reminds me of the days when I was young, strong and carefree. Of the days when I walked with my shoulders back and my chest out. When I swung an axe in the crux of a cold October afternoon in just a T shirt, my brow sweaty and my muscles tight, plowing through the woodpile my dad and I had just created. My friends were all playing football but I committed myself to the task at hand. Like a rock.

I miss that feeling, I want it back. I hope to get it back. When I hear this song I am reminded of better days and given hope that they will return.

Give it a listen will ya?

Stood there boldly
Sweatin’ in the sun
Felt like a million
Felt like number one
The height of summer
I’d never felt that strong
Like a rock

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock

My hands were steady
My eyes were clear and bright
My walk had purpose
My steps were quick and light
And I held firmly
To what I felt was right
Like a rock

Like a rock, I was strong as I could be
Like a rock, nothin’ ever got to me
Like a rock, I was something to see
Like a rock

And I stood arrow straight
Unencumbered by the weight
Of all these hustlers and their schemes
I stood proud, I stood tall
High above it all
I still believed in my dreams

Twenty years now
Where’d they go?
Twenty years
I don’t know
I sit and I wonder sometimes
Where they’ve gone

And sometimes late at night
When I’m bathed in the firelight
The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white
And I recall
I recall

Like a rock, chargin’ from the gate
Like a rock, carryin’ the weight
Like a rock

Like a rock, the sun upon my skin
Like a rock, hard against the wind
Like a rock, I see myself again
Like a rock

Hot summer days

Those hot summer days
Basking in the sun’s rays
Outside, even when skies were grey
The knock on the door
Can Billy come out to play?
Cops and robbers in the yard
Shins and elbows always scarred
Streetlamp curfews
Wasted days were few
Wax bottles and candy cigarettes
Eight-track tapes and cassettes
Hot afternoons in the pool
Mirror shades, try to look cool
Leaf piles to dive in
Saturday night drive in
Sleepovers at camp
Motocross bikes, jumping that ramp
Swimming and fishing
shooting stars and wishing
Talking to my first cutie
Worried about cooties
Bad music and One hit wonders
School dances and social blunders
First day of school sneakers
Hi-Fi and Big speakers
The crack of the bat
My first baseball hat
First day of tryouts
Don’t make a flyout
Ground ball heading to first
Damn, I missed it. I’m the worst

Those days were the best
I just didn’t know it
Let me go back
This time I won’t blow it
I don’t want to play adult
Tell Zoltar to stop winking
I wanted to be Big
What was I thinking?
I miss my old house
I miss my first dog
I miss not worrying
About every damn thing
I miss feeling good
rugged and strong
I’ve lost my joy
My days seem so long
My longevity is fleeting
I’ve taken a beating
I’m tired of this, my downward phase
I want to go back to those hot summer days

the Lake Walk…conclusion A Mike Valentine tale

this is the third and final installment in a series. I hope you enjoyed it. To catch up, you can here and here.

As he got closer he could see that it was a boy, maybe 8 years old standing near his car. He must have seen Mike approaching yet he made no move to retreat or even acknowledge his approach for that matter. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up, something seemed off about this kid.

“Hey kid”, he called out when he was less than 20 feet away, “can I help you?”
The boy was gazing intently at the sky. Without looking down or away he replied, “no Mike, I’m just fine thank you.”

Shocked, Mike Valentine could only respond,” how do you know my name?”

“It’s not important”, the little boy replied, still not moving his gaze from the sky. Mike looked in the direction of the boy’s gaze and all he could see was the setting sun.

“What are you looking at like that, kid. You’re kinda creeping me out.”

The boy, without shifting his gaze, said, “I’m looking at the sky. Do you ever just look up at the sky? It’s quite beautiful actually. The clouds, the birds. The sun, the moon. Did you ever look at the top a tall tree and just wonder what it’s like to be a bird looking down?”

“That’s a lot of questions kid. And yes, I suppose I have. Well, I know that I used to.” Mike was reminded that he was talking to a stranger, an unaccompanied minor at that. “Are you lost? It is getting dark.”

“No, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

Stunned and at a loss for his next move, Mike leaned against his car to stretch his legs and assess the situation. It was more than just a little odd. He studied the boy. His clothes looked like they were from another generation. His hair looked like the “bowl cuts” his mom used to give him. It then occurred that the boy must have parents looking for him. But he sure didn’t seem scared or lost, he looked oddly comfortable.

He decided to play the quiet game and see who made the next move. He continued to stretch his tired body. Minutes passed and the boy said nothing. Mike was tempted to leave but his curiosity instincts were piqued and instead walked over and stood next to the boy. ‘Ok”, he said, “I give, what are you looking at?”

“Í told you, I’m looking at the sky. It’s quite beautiful isn’t it?”

“Yes”, Mike replied. “We’ve established that. But you haven’t looked away once. Aren’t you bored looking at the same thing?”

Without hesitation, the boy shot back. “Bored? That’s what kids today are. Always need to be occupied and entertained. Not me.”

Kids today! The statement resonated with Mike. Did he just say that!

“Aren’t you part of ‘kid’s today’?” There was something really strange about this kid. He was tempted to end this and take off. His phone had rung two more times since he got to his car and he knew that every ignored call was throwing logs on the shit bonfire that awaited him at home. In spite of this, he remained glued to his spot.

“Let’s just say that I’m here, but I don’t belong here” the boy deftly replied.

“Then where do you belong?” Mike replied, despite feeling that he was better off not asking.

“A different time”, the boy exclaimed as he lowered his fixed gaze for the first time, turned his head and stared directly at Mike. Mike felt as if he was staring directly through him. Spooked but insanely curious, Mike pressed further.

“OK, what time do you mean?”

“I asked you if you ever looked up at the sky a few minutes ago. I asked because I wonder if you looked up once during your walk. Did you even  notice what a beautiful evening it is?.” He studied Mike’s face.

He then continued, “I asked you if you ever wondered what it was like to look down from a high tree. You had no answer. Why is that?”

“Because I don’t know who you are, where you’re from and how you know my damn name!” Mike Valentine was getting angry. He almost felt bad about raising his voice to the young, albeit creepy kid.

Unfazed, the boy continued. “I asked you about the trees because from the height of the tall tree you must look small. We all do. Minor. Insignificant. Yet all you are focusing on right now is how big your problems are.” He paused.

“See, the world is bigger than the size of the screen of your phone or laptop. If you looked around you would see that. But you need the phone and the computer to make money. To buy stuff, stuff that you will put in your house. The one you don’t want to go home to. That stuff will further take your attention away from a beautiful day. It’s just stuff, but it’s ruining you.”

Mike was beside himself. What the hell is this kid talking about? “How do you know this?!”

The boy sat down in the grass Indian style. “Did you ever sit just like this?  Playing with Matchbox cars in the dirt until your mother called you? You hated to go home, right? Just like now. But then it was because you were having fun. That’s not why you don’t want to go home now, is it Mike?” His tone was less inquisitive and slightly sarcastic.

The matter-of-fact look on this kids friggin’ face was killing Mike. He was looking right through him again. Yet he had no reply.

The boy continued. He was on his back now. “Did you ever lie on your back like this for hours looking at the sky? Wondering about the clouds, the stars at night. The possibility of a Heaven. About God. Do you think about God Mike?”

“Not as much as I should.” Mike was powerless to question the utterly bizarre nature of this conversation.

The boy was standing now. “You used to be a happy kid, right? Lots of friends. You knew where they were without Facebook. You would look for the yard with all the bikes in the yard. Your mom knew where you were because you called from a phone in that house, a phone mounted to a wall, right? A phone that you didn’t feel the need to have in your hand all the time. The streetlight was your curfew, or maybe you were close enough to home to hear your mother call you.” He paused and looked at his feet.

“It’s not too late, Mike”, He continued. “There’s still time to be that happy kid again. Look up, look around. Chase butterflies, smell the flowers. Find happiness like you used to. Remember the view of the bird, to him you are small. Look down on your problems as the bird looks down at you. Small, insignificant. It will work out.” With that the boy turned and began to walk away.

Mike Valentine, who had been at a complete loss for words for what seemed like forever, finally blurted out what he had wanted to ask all along.

“Kid, How do you know this? I mean me. I mean, this is impossible! How can you possibly know all of these things about my childhood? Is this mere speculation or a theory of yours? Do you think or do you know all of this!”

The boy, turning as he walked, said, “I know it. Think about where we’ve met before”. He then winked at Mike and continued walking. For the first time, Mike Valentine noticed that the boy had an old-fashioned Slingshot in his back pocket.

He used to have one just like it!

He looked down at the ground, he then gazed to the night sky. It really was a beautiful evening. I’m going to get into a brawl when I get home. I may be out of a job tomorrow. I’d have to get two promotions just to be a broke asshole. But I do have this beautiful evening.

The kid was right about that much.

He got in his car and turned the engine on. He bathed in the AC and observed that he felt a little better. Despite the Episode of the Twilight Zone he just starred in. The conversation played out over and over in his head. The kid was weird, but in a non-threatening way. And he looked vaguely familiar. Shaking his head in disbelief, or to make sure he was indeed awake and conscious, he put the car in gear.

It suddenly occurred to him that he had some old school pictures to go home and look at.

He pulled out of the parking lot and headed home.