Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Happy (and Healthy) Birthday!

John Lawless sporting a birthday brocolli hat

NOTE: The following was written by Ryan Lawless, a 6th grader at my school. He and his dad attended a memoir writing workshop, and this story was the result. Originally it was planned that it would be published in book format, along with the rest of the participant's stories, but so few people saw their ideas through to the end, a book was not possible.  But since Ryan and his dad worked so hard on this, I felt their story deserved to be shared...even if it's just with you people!

Happy and Healthy Birthday
by Ryan and Rick Lawless

I had just finished eating my meatloaf and broccoli and was excited that dessert was coming.  My cousins, Jack and his sister, baby Sabrina, were visiting for dinner with their dad and mom.  Their dad is my Uncle Sean.  He used to be an actor and singer and coached the Red Sox Little League team that Jack and I played on.   As I helped my mom clear the table and get out new plates for dessert, Uncle Sean asked my older brother, John, what he wanted for his birthday. 

My older brother likes to play the guitar and is a decent skate boarder and he likes to be cool.  And when I say cool, I mean he likes to let me know that I’m the little brother  and he’s stronger, taller, and faster than me.  So when Uncle Sean asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he tried to be his cool self and said, “I don’t know.”

 I don’t know?”  asked Uncle Sean. “So, if I got you broccoli for your birthday, you wouldn’t care?”

                 The little flinch John made told me that he was shocked by the question.  But he was tough and strong and acted cool and said, “I don’t care.”

The next Saturday was John’s tenth birthday party and Uncle Sean came to our house carrying a good-sized birthday present in green wrapping paper. We had birthday cake that was scrumdiddlyumptious and then John started to open up his presents.  Uncle Sean’s was the last present. He had wrapped it in the funnies from the Sunday paper. 

With great excitement, but a gentle touch, John started to open it. Uncle Sean asked him to wait while he got out his video camera, but John couldn’t wait any longer and ripped the present open, excited to see what he got.  Inside the box were ten heads of broccoli, one for each year, and John’s expression went blank as he gave Uncle Sean a puzzled look.  I know he was thinking, “Broccoli? Are you kidding me?” 

                After everyone had a good laugh, Uncle Sean gave him twenty dollars in a birthday card as a consolation present.

For his eleventh birthday, John got a huge present in green striped wrapping paper.  He was excited to see what was in the huge box and quickly tore off the paper and opened the box.  Inside was a smaller box, wrapped in blue wrapping paper with stars on it.  He was surprised but determined to keep going.  When he opened that one, there was another box inside, wrapped in red paper. This went on and on for 10 boxes, until he came to the eleventh box.  He seemed a little unsure as he opened it, and inside, wrapped in a piece of tissue paper was one piece of broccoli.

On his next birthday, he got a pretty cool present from Uncle Sean.  It was a piñata in the shape of a football.  Sabrina is the youngest cousin, and she got to go first.  And even though she’s a girl and the smallest, she did a pretty good job hitting the piñata with the stick.  The middle cousins, Thomas, Michael and I, got to swing next.  I got a couple good hits in, but the piñata was still intact.  John and his older friend took turns till it was just starting to break.  John got to finish it off.  He took one big swing and the football popped open.           Everybody was running to get some candy until they realized that the piñata was spilling out a waterfall of broccoli florets.

John’s thirteenth birthday was at Daddy’s Extreme Sports.  After playing mini golf, laser tag and riding the go carts, we went into the party room and had pizza and cake and then presents were opened.  This time Uncle Sean’s present was first.  It wasn’t wrapped, but was just a bottle and an envelope. And came with a catch. 

Uncle Sean told John, “You can have what’s in the envelope…if you drink what’s in the bottle.  Or,  you could just have $10.”

                “What’s in the bottle?” John asked.

 “It’s a smoothie,” replied Uncle Sean.

 John thought about it for a minute and seemed reluctant, but everybody was telling him to drink it.  That was good enough for John and he said he’d try the drink.  He started strong and began to drink, but as soon as it touched his lips, his mouth twisted like he just had a gulp of sour lime juice.  Then his face turned green and he spit out the drink.

“It’s a broccoli shake!” Uncle Sean yelled over the laughter.  “I added a little apple juice to liquify it!”

 Later I had a small taste and it was so bitter and disgusting that I never want to have it again.   Lucky for John, the envelope had $20.

And while twenty bucks is a good present, my all-time favorite was John’s fourteenth birthday.  Sadly, Uncle Sean had to work and wasn’t able to be at the party.  At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, John’s friends started to show up.  There was Tristan, Kevin, Alex, Adonis, and my friend Connor. We had pizza and afterward out came a big birthday cake.  It was John’s favorite, chocolate with chocolate frosting and red writing that said, Happy Birthday John.  We lit all fourteen candles, sang happy birthday and then ate the cake.  Afterwards we went to the living room to open the presents. 

 “Too bad Uncle Sean’s not here,” my mother said. “He dropped off this video tape though.  Looks like you’re not going to get a broccoli present this year.”

My dad put the video tape in the VCR and Uncle Sean popped up on the TV.  He was sitting at his kitchen table and said, “If you’re watching this video, that means you’ve  already eaten your cake”   We watched as he pulled a food processer into view, followed by a tray of cooked broccoli, which he set on the table.   Then without a word he put the broccoli into the food processor and turned it on. 

“Whooshhhhh!”  went the machine as it blended the green vegetable into a smooth paste.  Next he opened up a can of chocolate frosting and spooned it into the food processor, blending them together.  Finally he pulled out the naked cake, got a spatula and smoothed the broccoli icing all over the top.  Then he turned and gave a big smile into the camera and the video stopped. 

The kids were all staring slack jawed at the TV, the parents all laughing and I screamed out, “Oh my God, I ate the frosting!”  

It took a year to get the taste out of my mouth. By then, it was John’s fifteenth birthday, and he got a red baseball hat with real broccoli sewn to the top. For his sixteenth birthday, he got a plastic piece of broccoli on a key chain.  The broccoli was about 4 inches long and Uncle Sean said it would be easy to find his car keys when he started to drive.

I’m not sure what Uncle Sean has planned for the next few years, but I’m sure he’s got something (green) up his sleeve to keep the tradition going.

And maybe by the time John turns 21, he’ll realize that being cool can be a good thing, but if you act like you don’t care when someone asks what you want, you might not be happy with what you get. 

On the other hand, you might have a good story to tell!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not So Fast!

You wouldn’t know it to look at me – in fact my wife was not even aware of it – but every so often I embark on a 3-day fast to try and teach my body who’s the boss. Spoiler Alert: It's Tony Danza. But I DO manage to make it through the three days without food, and for what it’s worth, it’s really not all that difficult.  A minor headache on Day 2 was the worst of my complaints this time– in fact, I felt so good, I added a fourth day just for shits and giggles.

Speaking of which….for the past year I’d been eyeing an unused colonoscopy “prep” kit that’s been hanging around our house (don’t ask) and was considering using it to really clean out the pipes after my latest fast. But after hearing all the horror stories, and unsure of the medical ramifications, I wimped out and settled on the Salt Water Flush instead.

It’s not as gross as it sounds. There’s no irrigation involved. You simply add a tablespoon of non-iodized sea salt to a liter of warm water and chug it. Then, soon after, nature starts calling like a telemarketer at dinnertime.  Simple, right?

That’s what I thought too. So, on my way home from an early dismissal day – we had to be back four hours later for conferences – I stopped at the local supermarket and bought the sea salt, a liter of Voss water, and a measuring spoon. Figuring I had plenty of time to get ‘er done before having to head back to school, I mixed the concoction in the parking lot and started pounding it as I drove home.

No sooner had the last of the brackish water poured down my throat, the Low Fuel light popped up on my dashboard. “Shit,” (no pun intended) I muttered, as I reversed direction for the nearest gas station. Knowing my F-150 wouldn’t get far without gassing up, I really had no choice – but – as I waited for the car in front of me to fill up, a rumble in my belly had me worrying about how far I could make it.

Why didn’t I just wait until I was in the safety of my own home, I wondered as the gas flowed into my vehicle at a rate I imagined the liquid in me was about to escape. As the pressure in my bowels built up, words from the cleansing website I had read up on flashed through my mind: WARNING: After drinking the mixture, do NOT attempt to flatulate!

At the time, I remember smiling, thinking, who attempts to flatulate? But I wasn’t smiling now. In fact, I was sweating. And it was salty.

I put in just enough gas to get me home and eased myself into the front seat. I turned off the radio so I could focus, and drove away. I made it about a mile before coming upon an elementary school that was getting out. And as luck would have it, the crossing guard had to stop me. Twice. The second time for a kid on crutches being escorted by his grandmother with a walker – who thought it was a good idea to stop in the middle of the road to converse with the equally elderly crossing guard.

I was tempted to toot my horn to “speed” them along, but was afraid the sound might startle my sphincter. So I just grit my teeth and clenched until they cleared the crosswalk and I resumed driving.

Of course I ended up behind a bus. An elementary bus, mind you, meaning it stops at EVERY house and WAITS for mommies to come out and collect their kiddies. And then waits for them to enter the house before pulling away  - only to stop twenty feet down the road and repeat the process.

This resulted in more gritting and clenching as I tried to ignore the kids thumbing their noses at me through the Emergency Evacuation door at the back of the bus.  Let’s go,” I hollered. “I’m the one with the emergency evacuation here!”

Finally the bus turned right, and I had a clear road in front of me. Funny how I never noticed all the traffic lights on my route before. Not funny when they all happened to be red.  And the car with the “Shit Happens” bumper sticker? Definitely not funny!

But I made it home without incident. I delicately slid out of the truck and hurried inside, grateful that no one else was around to witness what was about to happen. Which was…


Once in the comforts of my own home, all the discomfort I was feeling dissipated. So much so that I decided to mow the lawn, thinking the motion of the tractor might encourage things.

I did the backyard first, since it was closest to the bathroom. But thirty minutes later, I was done, and still nothing. As I steered toward the front yard, the thought occurred to me: What if it didn’t happen? Or worse, what if it started happening during conferences?

What the hell was I thinking? I thought for the tenth time that day. Maybe four days without food had muddled my mind. I mean, who does something like this when they’re meeting with parents in a few hours? The conferences were only ten minutes each, and I had scheduled them very tightly, so I couldn’t just excuse myself when I felt the urge.

But thanks to the moles and gophers, my front yard is very bumpy, and right about the time I was finishing, I could feel “something” happening. Thank you Jesus, I thought as I motored into the garage, getting a little taste of what it was like to walk on water as I hobbled into the house.

I'll spare you the details. but let's just say, thirty minutes later, I was ready for duty!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lying in Wait

Last Friday I met some of my coworkers for Happy Hour after school. Since it was a last minute decision, I emailed my wife to let her I was going to be a little late. Of course, it turned into a happy TWO hours, so I didn’t get home until much later than expected.  But that was fine, because thanks to facebook, she already knew I was running behind schedule.

Turns out I was “tagged” so she, and the rest of my friends and family, knew that “Ellen Connors was with Mike Wood and 5 other people at Bin 100 Restaurant at 4:36 on Friday”  - which for me wasn’t a problem -  but I couldn’t help but think that it could have been! What if I hadn’t told her where I was going? What if I had lied and said I was staying late to grade papers or something? What if I had blown off some other friends or obligations to go to a bar?

Not that I would lie (or grade papers) but still, don’t I have the right to? And even more importantly, don’t I have the right to some “private” time with my friends without the rest of the world knowing about it?

Apparently not.

As much as I love facebook, I have been finding it more and more intrusive lately. Not so much for me, as really all I do is post pics of my son, make snarky comments on my friends’ walls, and share funny status updates. But without even trying, or prying, I’ve been learning things about my friends that they would never willingly share.  I know that James is listening to ABBA on Spotify, Jeff just read an article about Posh Beckham’s bikini body, and Renee “likes” camel toes.

Interesting stuff, no doubt. But do they really want me knowing their business? And do I really want to know?

Apparently yes, on both counts.

But while I could go on and on about privacy and the over-sharing of personal information, I only mention them to get to my real point, which is that thanks to social media, lying is becoming almost impossible in today’s society.  Or, to be more accurate, getting away with lying is becoming almost impossible

For example, when I returned from the aforementioned happy hour, my wife was there to meet me at the door. I could tell she was upset, but since I wasn’t that late, I knew it wasn’t with me.  Nor was she angry that I was hanging out with Ellen Connors. Turns out she was freaking out over our daughter’s sudden change in prom plans.

The original plan was to go to a trusted friends house for an after prom party/sleepover, but that had recently changed to having a different group of friends coming over to our house instead. We were fine with either option, though my wife was secretly hoping they would end up here. But it wasn’t just disappointment that got her so upset when Plan C was sprung upon her, which involved Julianna going to a party at an unknown “friend’s” house, the details of which were vague at best.

So vague that it was pretty much decided before I got home that Plan C was not an option. But my wife was visibly upset that she was, in the words of my stepdaughter, “ruining her prom!”

In my wife’s defense, she had a variety of reasons for not liking the new plan. For one thing, not knowing the parents, or even the kid who was hosting the party, she was concerned about what might be going on at the house.  Plus, there was her own experience as a prom goer - such as the time she lied to her parents about going to a friend’s house, only to get caught at a hotel party.

But in my stepdaughter’s defense, I felt she deserved credit for being honest. I tried to explain to my wife that Julianna could have very easily lied and told us she was sticking with Plan A, and then gone wherever the hell she wanted. But she didn’t. She was being truthful, even though she knew the facts would sound sketchy to a suspicious mother

Now, I know she’s a good kid with a fairly decent head on her shoulders – but – she is still a teenager, and as much as I’d like to believe her sense of honesty stems from how well she was raised, I know it’s probably more a response to the facebook phenomenon than quality parenting.

With all the tagging and instant sharing of photos and automatic check-ins at locations, there’s nowhere, or way, to hide anymore.  Sooner or later (and most likely sooner) your whereabouts will come out, which makes lying about them a much riskier proposition. And by default, truth becomes the more viable option.

So I worked on my wife all night and finally convinced her to let Julianna go to the party – and since we’re telling the truth here, I should add that I did so with much trepidation. Because I’m “just” the step-dad, I really don’t have much say in certain matters, and by speaking out so strongly about this, I was really putting myself at risk.  If I talked her into changing her mind, and god forbid, something happened to Julianna, it would have been my fault. My wife would have divorced me and Julianna’s dad would have killed me.  But I spoke up anyway. Not because I thought it was so important that she go to this party, I just didn’t want to send her the wrong message.  She’s never given us any reason not to trust her, and it didn’t seem fair to start now just because we were less than honest in the past. Plus, I didn’t want her to feel like she had to start lying to get her way – not that facebook would let her get away with it. But still…

Monday, May 7, 2012


As much as I thrive on pop culture and the entertainment industry, I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Sure, some are sadder than others, but for the most part, I just shrug them off with a sincere, but hardly sympathetic, statement of, “That’s too bad…” before adding them to my New Year’s playlist (if they were a musician.)

Even the tragic ones, like Princess Di, or the unexpected ones, like Michael Jackson, barely register on my emotions. I suppose I do spend some time reflecting on their careers and contributions, and might make an extra effort to watch their movies or listen to their songs, but I don’t feel a real sense of loss the way I would for a friend or family member.

The last time I remember feeling truly sad over a celebrity death was when Tim Russert died. And the weird thing was, I hardly knew anything about him while he was alive, other than his famous election night coverage with the white board.  But after listening to the interviews, reading reflections from his peers, and watching all the tributes, I found myself feeling a keen sense of loss for a man I had never met, but from the sound of it, one I would’ve liked to have known.

Other than that, River Phoenix, Phil Hartman, and Jerry Garcia are the only others that come to mind as far as having an emotional impact. But even though I followed The Dead for years, and transformed my car into a mobile shrine to Jerry, I think I was mourning more for the loss of a lifestyle than for the man himself. 

So when Adam Yauch, aka MCA, of Beastie Boys fame, passed away at the much too young age of 47, I was surprised by how much it affected me. Certainly the shock had something to do with it, as I was under the impression that his cancer was cured, but there was more to it than that. And from the posts of friends and fans on facebook, I know I wasn’t the only one feeling it.

I was 16 when License to Ill came out. The perfect age to buy into the whole fighting for my right to party and not sleeping ‘til Brooklyn mentality. And buy in I did! To this day, I can still recite every lyric on that album, and do the voices. But like most people at the time, I didn’t consider the Beastie Boys to be particularly talented. They were an entertaining diversion, more like the Three Stooges than a real band. They were a flash in the pan. A one hit wonder.  And I never expected them to follow up the success of their debut album.

(Beastie) Boy was I wrong! Paul’s Boutique was released to great acclaim and much anticipation in the summer of 1989 - but I didn’t get to hear it until I was released from Basic Training a few months later. And as great as it was reuniting with my friends and family, hearing, “I’m Mike D and I’m back from the dead. Chillin’ at the beaches down at Club Med…” was what really welcomed me home.

It turned out that while Uncle Sam was doing his best to make a man out of me, the Beastie Boys had grown up as well. Granted, their lyrics were still silly (“Like Sam the Butcher bringing Alice the meat. Like Fred Flintstone driving round with bald feet.”) but artistically and conceptually, they had clearly stepped it up, forcing many of the critics who had dismissed them as a novelty act to take notice. And I couldn’t help but feel a kinship. When I stepped of that flight from Ft. Benning with my shorn head and sea bag, I looked to all the world like a responsible and respectable young man - little did they know I was pulling on a tie-dye and digging through a dime bag before we had even exited the airport parking lot.

By the time the hair on my head grew back, Check Your Head came out. I was 22, a full-fledged adult. And the Beasties were a full-fledged band, playing instruments on a studio record for the first time. It was like every time I took a step forward, they took a step forward. As my interests changed and matured, so did theirs. They were literally providing the soundtrack of my life – even if the songs themselves held little meaning for me.

I didn’t know Adam, from, well, Adam, but I feel sad about his death. He seemed like a good person who used his notoriety and influence to help others, such as his work with the “Free Tibet” movement. Artists as varied as Annie Lennox to Coldplay to the New York Mets have honored his passing with tributes and statements, and the rest of the world seems to have recognized the lasting contributions he and his band mates have made to music and culture.

In fact, the band was just recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Too sick to attend the ceremony, Adam wrote a message that was read to the crowd:  “"I’d like to dedicate this award to my brothers, Adam and Mike, who’ve walked the globe with me. To anyone who’s been touched by our band, who our music has meant something to, this induction is as much ours as it is yours. To Kate Schellenbach. To John Berry. To John Berry’s loft on 100th St. and Broadway, where John’s dad would come busting in during our first practices screaming, “Would you turn that fucking shit off already!” To my loving and supportive parents, Noel and Frances Yauch, and to our home in Brooklyn where we used to practice on hot Brooklyn summer days after school, windows wide open to disturb the neighborhood. But most of all I’d like to thank and dedicate this honor to my smart, beautiful, loving wife Dechen and our sweet, talented, loving daughter [Tenzin] Losel. Never has a man felt more blessed than I to be able to spend my time with my two soul mates. I love you guys more than you know. I wish I could name everyone who deserves naming, but of course there’s too many names to name. You know who you are, and I sent my love out to all of you. Your friend, Adam Yauch."

I like how he signed it, because even though I never met the man, he was my friend.

"Well I got to keep it going keep it going full steam/ Too sweet to be sour too nice to be mean/ On the tough guy style I'm not too keen/ To try to change the world I will plot and scheme"- MCA, on Intergalactic