Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shove It Up Your Buddha

Once upon a time I was a fairly active guy. I played volleyball, softball, basketball, ultimate frisbee, golf, tennis and swam when I could find water. I mountain biked, backpacked and ran trails. I kept an arsenal of athletic gear and several changes of clothes in my trunk in case the mood struck while I was driving around. I had an enviable resting heart rate and cholesterol levels to die for. I was healthy. Physically.
Emotionally? Not so much. Married to the wrong woman. Hated going home — not that it mattered, since we barely talked to each other for the last years of our marriage. Not pointing fingers, just saying.
So, to summarize, healthy? Yes. Happy? No.
Then came Sandi and, soon after, Thomas (see last post). Happiness came with them (see last post again). But being a dad is, like, the definition of a full-time gig. Sleep deprivation sapped me of any energy that could or should have been dedicated to fitness, so my regimen lapsed as my free time waned. Then, as if to add gasoline to the fire of happiness, precisely 1 year and 30 days after Thomas’ birth, Ethan came. Memories of this time in my life are fuzzy, but I have vague recollections of watching a show about Navy Seal training and yelling, “Quit your whining, ya fags!” at the TV. Dudes, that’s fucked up right there: To be in the shit
so deep that you think Seal candidates have it easy by contrast.
Needless to say, my days of physical health and exercise were over. There was no free time. There was no recovery. There was no me. And the weight came. Don’t want to say how much because it’s really embarrassing, but I will say that it landed me comfortably in the “obese” category.
Now, 7 years down the road, life has started to ease up to the point where I can begin to get back in shape. I’ve started working out again and have seriously altered my diet. In the past 6 weeks I’ve lost more than 30 pounds. (Stop that whistling, I’m involved.) My wind is coming back as is my muscle tone. I still have a lot of work to do, but I feel so much better about myself that I’m not worried about sticking with it. I’m starting to remember what it felt like to feel good.
Except that I don’t really feel that good. Every yin has a yang, and if my yin is a thinner body, my yang appears to be extreme irritability. And not like “if you do that again so help me I’ll roll my eyes when you’re not looking!” irritability, but more like “I WILL RIP THE BEATING HEART OUT OF YOUR FUCKING CHEST AND EAT IT WHILE YOUR DIMMING EYES AND YOUR LOVED ONES WATCH!” irritability.
What’s really fucked up — and maybe I’ve just been too fat (ergo, jolly) to notice for awhile — but stressors/triggers are EVERYWHERE! Seriously, I find myself wondering if people have always been this fucking annoying and I just never noticed. Whatever the case, however they got here, they are legion and they apparently believe that while I slumbered in a Ben and Jerry's coma, they inherited the earth. Yeah, well I'm here to tell you that your reign of assholia is officially over, bitches.
And just to be clear, I’m not talking about garden variety assholia, like accidentally cutting me off because you didn’t see me, or bumping into me with your shopping cart because your kids distracted you. I'm not roid raging or anything. I’m talking about the guy who rides up on my ass in standstill rush hour traffic flashing his lights and beeping his horn because he can’t get by, who then gives me the finger when traffic starts moving again as if it’s my fault that somebody broke down a mile up the road.
Guess what, butt munch. Daddy woke up. And if you don't lay off that horn and get the fuck in line I will go so Grand Torino on you that you will believe a band of Gypsies has taken up residence in your asshole.
So now, like oil and water, happiness and health seem once again refuse to mix in my life. I know it's possible to achieve both. I have friends who live it every day -- one particularly amazing, peaceful, mellow gentleman who I'm proud to call friend who was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and now runs triathalons. With role models like him, I'm confident that I'll find a balance soon. But for now I feel like the best way to put this newly found hypersensitivity to assholia to use is to identify a few case studies so that one day when Thomas and Ethan get around to reading this, they'll be able to use it as a textbook. "Daddy's Official Guide To Asshole Avoidance And Maintenance." Subtitle: Or, Worst Case, How To Dispose Of The Bodies.
Next stop: The Little Fucker Next Door. Stay tuned.

"I be walkin' god like a dog, my narrative fearless. My word war returns to burn like Baldwin home from Paris. Like Steel from a furnace. Calm like a bomb." — RATM

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Wearing Of The Grin

In February of 2002 my life was utter shit. I'll spare you the details (for now), but will tell you quite seriously that because of the pain that had amassed over the years, I thought daily and seriously about taking my own life. It was bleak, it was relentless and it was intensifying each day.

In March of that year not only was the darkness gone, but I was surrounded by such an amazing light that I could barely remember what pain felt like. That month Sandi and I became a couple. She was (and is) perfection. My salvation. The thing that was missing in me for nearly 40 years. I had a hard time imagining my life could get any better.

In March of 2003 my life got better. Thomas came.

I was in the delivery room, holding Sandi's left leg as she pushed. I stared in awe as his head glided out. As the doctor turned him slightly to align his shoulders, our eyes met. Mine was the first face he saw when he came into the world. Nothing has ever come close to moving me as profoundly as that moment. Except every single moment since.
The night of Thomas' birth, St. Patrick's Day 2003, the weather was unseasonably warm. The moon was full and larger than I remember ever seeing it before. I felt so connected to every blade of grass, every budding leaf, every cricket. It didn't seem to me that I'd grown more sensitive to my surroundings so much as they had grown more intense around me. The world seemed to be screaming out to me, thanking me for fulfilling my part in it, and promising me the greatest reward it could muster.
Midnight feedings, diaper woes, panic-inducing mystery ailments and all the credentials folks cite to earn them a place in the parents' club ... they were all there. You file them under "Shit You Have To Do" and you move on. But those moments filed under "Life Altering Shit That Nobody But A Parent Could Understand" ... those moments handily slammed that other file closed. Most nights Thomas fell asleep in my arms in our big leather recliner as we watched Dora or Thomas the Tank Engine. And on the nights when sleep wouldn't come so easily, he and I would drive around listening to music for as long as it took. When we returned home, I would carry him in and put him in his crib, hating how much emptier I felt the second his weight was off my arms. He was (and is) my counterpart. We resolve each other.

Thomas, when I look at you I see me, but better. You are so, so smart. And kind. And beautiful. And funny. And talented. And generous. And sympathetic. And sensitive. You're the best big brother in the world and Ethan worships you. When you cry I want to pick you up and hold you, tickle you and make you laugh until you forget that you were crying at all. And when you hurt I want to find the thing that hurt you and kill it. I would lay down my life for you without hesitation. I would sacrifice anything for you. I tell you this because I know you'd never abuse the knowledge. I see just a hint of the man you will become and I am already so proud of you.
In the past 7 years I've had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about life and relearn it the right way -- with truth at the center. The lessons have been so hard that at times I thought I'd go insane, but Thomas, you're a good teacher. If you learn half as much from me as I have from you, you'll make Buddha look like Slingblade.
Thank you for all you've taught me. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for being perfection. My salvation. The thing that was missing in me for nearly 41 years. I love you so very much. Happy birthday.

"You're my first child. I'll do you no harm. I'll teach you my love."
-- Nil Lara

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Day Do We Get On Down At The Disco?

Friday has come and gone. And even though it was one of the longest days of our lives, I count it as a good one. Kinda Zen, hard to capture on video. A lot of synchronicitous stuff that didn't make it to the final edit, either because of time constraints or because it was just impractical to shoot it.
For instance, while in the waiting room (site of the infamous booger eating scene), a stunningly beautiful young lady -- 20-ish if I had to guess -- came up and, having noticed Ethan's ear, introduced herself. She had been born with atresia-microtia and had rib graft surgery with Dr. Brent at the age of 6. Unfortunately, she was not a candidate for atresia repair, so to this day she has no ear canal. But she graciously let Ethan and I look at her ear. Our conversation was cut short by a nice lady calling Ethan to come back to the exam room which sucked because I really wanted to hear about how her ear had affected her life. Still, I did learn a few valuable things in our brief time together. She said of her surgeries that at 6 she couldn't understand why her parents were doing that to her (rib graft can take 4 procedures), but she is now very grateful that they did what they did. I wondered if I'd have noticed her ear had she not pointed it out. She had the tell-tale ever-so-slightly crooked smile that seems to be the domain of atresia-microtia kids. Ethan has it, too. We learned in Psych class in college that symmetry is at the heart of physical beauty, but there's just something about that smile. Maybe it's more accurate to say there's something about the people behind it. Whatever.

Ethan and I burned several CDs for the trip, each song hand-picked by Ethan. We listened to the Monkees "I'm a Believer" no fewer than 20 times, but Eth found some new favorites on the ride, too. Like the North Mississippi Allstars "Shake 'Em On Down." He sings the Chris Chew line really well. Shake 'em on down/shake 'em on/shake 'em on down. Shake 'em on down/shake 'em on/shake 'em on down.
There were a lot of great things I had intended to show you, like the Smokey Mountains, but it was just too damn rainy. Visibility was lower than a mole's ass. And there were some white knuckle times with wind gusts in the 40-50 m.p.h. range.
But of the stuff that actually made it to the video, I'm struck by how tired I look to me. Plus, I feel the need to remind you that the camera adds 40 pounds. And makes you look like you have much less hair than you actually do. And makes you sound like a dick. But for some reason, it makes kids look really cute. And it helped me share the day with Sandi, and now you.
So thanks for watching. Unless you didn't, in which case fuck off. Kidding.

"What's the use in trying? All you get is pain. When I needed sunshine I got rain. But ... now I'm a believer." -- The Monkees

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Tomorrow Ethan and I head back to UVA to:
a) get (what's left of) his post-surgical packing removed,
b) get his first post-op hearing test, and
c) hopefully get a clean bill of health or some absolution that will allow him to run and/or jump and/or do SOMEthing besides sit quietly, eyes forward with his hands folded and feet flat on the floor.
Don't get me wrong, Ethan's been a real trooper about staying relatively still. But the weather's breaking here. The sun stays out just the tiniest bit longer each night. The air smells healthy, inviting. Millions of years of evolutionary instinct are urging him to fire himself upon the landscape -- probe it, master it, stake his claim to it. And it's killing me to have to stop him (even if part of the reason it's killing me is that I want to be out there, too). But it would kill me more if he ended up falling on his head and shaking some shit loose in there before it had a chance to heal properly. Having to go to Charlottesville twice was trying. Three times might break me.

For those who asked for an update on Ethan's progress, here are my layman's observations:


When Ethan could only hear out of one ear, he couldn't tell where sound was coming from. Most times it wasn't an issue, but once in a while I'd be standing right behind him and call his name and he'd look someplace else. I realized he was looking where he'd last seen me -- where he was expecting I'd be. In a white-noise-rich environment, he would often withdraw. Even in our own house when Thomas and Sandi were talking on the other side of the room, if he and I were 3 feet apart, facing each other, he would have trouble understanding me.
That has changed. Even with a substantial amount of dressing still crammed in his earhole, the difference is amazing. Of course he still ignores me when I tell him to do shit, but his brain is quickly learning how to locate the source of a sound even if he can't see it. So now he can willfully ignore me where I stand. He can also pick individual voices out in a crowd. He joins conversations. He tells jokes. He asks for things. He answers questions. His confidence is skyrocketing. He is engaged. He is ... normal. God, after tomorrow? Without the 6 pounds of gauze stuffed into his ear? Oh, it's so fucking on. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to our conversations on the ride home.
Speaking of the ride, most of our day -- about 9 hours -- will be spent on the road tomorrow while the actual appointments will take about an hour or so. That's one long-ass day, kids. I don't think I can go that long without doing something that's not driving. So here's my plan: I'm going to break up the monotony with the hand-held video camera I told you about before. With it, Ethan and I are going to make an homage to our road-trip. When I get home tomorrow I'll edit and upload for you all. Think Jack Kerouac, but with more substance. Jack Ear-ouac, coming soon to a bargain bin near you.
That's a long way to go to set up such a shitty joke. Sorry.

"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?"
-- Jack Kerouac

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 8:42 p.m.

March forth. Somebody pointed out that today's date offers a whole other phonetic subtext to our situation. Tell you what, it's pretty amazing just how accurate that subtext has been. We have marched way the fuck forth, led by my favorite 5-year-old boy.
I'll skip all the crap and get right to the meat of the story: At about 11:30 this morning Dr. Brad came to the family waiting area to tell us how it all went -- big, shit-eating grin on his face. As you can imagine, we had been on eggshells for the entire day, but one look at his face and I knew it went well. Out in the hall he whipped out a few pics he'd snapped while Ethan's innards were exposed and explained how the great ear gods had truly smiled on us all this day. As he spoke and pointed, I was amazed at how enthusiastic he was. Like a guy who had just won the lottery talking in great, excited detail about the trip to the store that yielded the winning ticket.
To put it lightly, the procedure went perfectly. My impression from Dr. Brad's account was that it was more like textbook on steroids. The stapes presented itself like it had been expecting him, the prosthetic bones were a perfect fit, the eardrum went in like it was custom made, the skin graft was the perfect depth, and on and on and on. Ace after ace after ace. And we smiled and got giddy and hugged each other and felt relieved and felt relieved and felt relieved. But the best moment of the day -- possibly the defining moment of this whole journey to date -- was yet to come.
After Ethan had been admitted to his room, Dr. Brad came to check on him. He lightly scratched his fingernail against the bandage on Eth's head and asked if he could hear it. And Ethan said yes.
Oh my fucking god, he said yes. He can hear. It worked.
I'll write more later, but for now wanted just to report the results: Ethan can hear. For a guy who loves language, I'm suddenly having a hard time finding words. Do tears count as words? Because those I got in spades. This has been one of the best days of my life.
Good night, world. I'm off to dream of whispering 'I love you's into Ethan's ear.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Danny and the Pretty Ponies

Danny lives in the house behind ours. He's tall and spindly with big teeth and the kind of bowl haircut that's the sole domain of those who are either too frantic or too humble to indulge in vanity.
2 summers ago Danny, Thomas and Ethan were inseparable. Our boys woke on weekends asking if they could quick get dressed and go see if Danny wanted to come out and play. Often, when we picked them up from school at the end of a weekday, the first thing out of their mouths was, "Can we play with Danny when we get home?" Yeah, nice to see you, too. Ungrateful little shits.
When the cosmos aligned and declared it playtime, we knew it would be hours before we'd see our sons again. And when eventually they did resurface, they'd be sweaty and panting, having ridden that mofo into the ground the way only little boys can. Truth, we were happy our kids had found somebody they liked well enough to spend that kind of time with. And I confess, seeing them reduce the boundaries of our adjoining backyards to peculiarities reminded me how lucky I was to have the childhood I had. We had owned our neighborhood. No, we owned the world. We wandered freely through the yards, climbing every fence, exploring every tree, making every pebble in every parking lot a bit player in whatever adventure we'd settled on that day. We were bound only by our physical limitations, thought nothing of walking or riding our bikes to neighboring towns -- or even states -- save for would we have the energy to make it back in time for dinner. It felt healthy to see our sons revel in that same kind of freedom, even if it was a drastically scaled down version of it because we're insanely fearful of abductions and pedophiles and all things Dateline NBC.
Yep, two summers ago life was wonderful. Then school came and, soon after, the cold weather. Indoors, homework, TV. Not much Danny gave way to no Danny.
When Spring finally came, the kids, who had been crashing at the gates like a doped thoroughbred, screamed through the yard to Danny's door only to return a few minutes later dejected and teary eyed. His mom said Danny couldn't come out. In fact, Danny wouldn't be allowed out for the rest of the summer. The whole thing smelled like a snub. Puzzled, we asked the boys if something had happened that might have made Danny's parents angry, but they couldn't think of anything. That was pretty much the last time any of us spoke.
We never knew why they chose to pull the plug on what we thought was a great relationship. Still don't. We have our suspicions, though: Danny is autistic and 5 years Thomas' senior. His mother had told us that Danny is classified as "highly functioning" and had responded very well to "mainstreaming." His teachers were making real progress with him and we all celebrated that summer when he took home 2 medals at the Special Olympics. He is a very special kid and we, all of us -- his family and ours -- seemed to have allowed ourselves to become friends without regard to Danny's autism. Still, we think the reason we no longer acknowledge each other is his autism and, if so, it's by their design -- not ours. When we looked at the three of them playing together, we saw kids having fun. When they looked, we now imagine they saw their son's progress possibly being thwarted by exposure to juvenile attitudes. Which is fine, if that's the way you feel. But I gotta tell you, just cutting the cord like that without the courtesy of a warning or an explanation really pisses me off. Give me something to tell my kids. You've been around them, you know they have the capacity to understand. Just tell me so I can tell them.
Nothing. I've seen Danny's father outside mowing his lawn. Not even a wave. Fine. Go fuck yourself. You're lucky I don't send you a bill for all the fucking shrimp your kid ate 2 summers ago.

And so it's been. Until Saturday. The boys and I were out running errands when Sandi called to say her class was about to be let out and maybe we should meet somewhere for dinner. We agreed on Applebees. (We have a soft spot for Applebees. The Riblets have twice sent Sandi into labor. Plus the kids call it Scrimplebees, which is just adorable as balls. Agree or I'll cut you.) So long story short, guess who we're seated next to. Right. Danny's family. I haven't seen him up close in 2 years, and while he has gotten a little bit bigger, the size gap has definitely closed. They smile vacantly, but soon I am amazed at just how much isolation a waist-high median can afford. I can feel your breath on my hand, yet your utter disregard for our presence makes me feel like I'm dining in The Hall of Presidents or some other animatronic attraction. So lifelike, yet devoid of feeling. Just like Ronald Reagan.

On the ride home I remember a moment from that summer: The kids loved SpongeBob. They played it all the time, taking turns being the different characters. That summer, Pest of the West came out and the kids watched it together a billion times. If you've never seen it, SpongBob traces his roots back to the old West where his grandfather, SpongeBuck, meets Pecos Patrick, the village idiot and grandfather of Patrick Star. Throughout the old west scenes SpongeBuck regularly refers to Pecos Patrick as his idiot friend.
Yeah, so anyway Sandi and I are hanging out in the backyard talking with Danny's mom as the kids are buzzing around.
Thomas and Danny run up to us.
We stop our conversation and turn our attention to them. Yeah?
Thomas looks Danny's mom square in the eye, points at Danny and yells, "He's an idiot!"
Danny waves, shyly.
The two run away.
I think I just shit my pants. What did he say?
As the blood begins to leave my ears and return to its rightful place in the rest of my body, I can make out the song they're singing, "Idiot Friends."
Oh, they're playing SpongeBob!
I hear myself saying too loudly, too rushedly, "THEY'RE PLAYING SPONGEBOB! THEY'RE PLAYING SPONGEBOB!"
Danny's mom's face loosens. I don't think she's seen Pest of the West, but I think she's starting to understand.
Sandi's face is still, to this day, locked in a look of disbelief.

And I have lost the ability to forgive people their peculiarities.


Hey, Do This For Me and I'll Buy You a Pony
OK, remember how Ethan only has one ear? OK, now remember how we'll need to spend, like, 3 weeks in California during his Medpor surgery this summer? OK, now you know how we have to pay for accommodations out of pocket and stuff? Well, that's where you come in.
Nope, don't want money. Don't need donations. Don't want a ride. Just want you to click on this link and vote for my story between March 2 and March 9. The winner gets to select their vacation, and the one I selected will solve our accommodations needs while we're in California.
Frankly, I think I kept it pretty reasonable. I mean, it's only Hermosa Beach and there's no hot tub or anything. But just think how happy little Ethan will be when he looks out the back door and sees his daddy CRUSHING in beach volleyball all day! Karch who? No, really. Who?

"And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." -- Friedrich Nietasche