Monday, June 14, 2021

Force Play


It was your first practice, things will get better

Everyone else has been playing for years, of course they’re better than you

Stop stressing. It’s just a game. Games are supposed to be fun.

Finish the season, and if you don't want to sign up next year, then fine.

I said all the “right” things as we drove home from that first baseball practice, but as much as I hate to admit it, watching my son flounder on the field was embarrassing. I felt bad for him, but I was also personally ashamed and irrationally irritated. I’m not a jock in any shape or form, nor do I need to live vicariously through his actions, I just wanted him to do well to feel good about himself - but - it was frustrating for me to see him fail. And although I’m not one of those jerky dads yelling “encouragement” from the stands, in some ways, my silent judgement was even worse.

I knew deciding to start Little League baseball at age 12 at the LL Majors level, where all the other kids were perfecting skills started back in tee ball, was going to be rough, but, after a fun foray in the relatively relaxed Fall Ball, my son went to that first practice expecting The Sandlot, but left feeling blind-sided.

He didn’t say much about it over the following few days, but twenty minutes before the next practice, there were tears and complaints about not wanting to play anymore. My wife and I had to work hard to convince him to get his gear on and go, which, to his credit, he did. I doubt it was due to anything we said, as neither of us watch many sports movies, so didn't have much to say motivationally. All we said was he made a commitment to the team and they were counting on him, and that he didn't want to be the kid in the hall who “used to be on my team.”  

What wasn’t said was that quitting gets exponentially easier each time you do it, and should be used sparingly. I believe that each time you quit or give up on something, your definition of what’s “too hard” gets looser and looser, until you start to lose confidence in yourself to do even simple things. Confidence doesn't come from winning, it comes from recognizing that failing isn't the end of the world.  Those that quit before they have a chance to succeed or fail don’t get to experience either, and end up afraid of both. 

Obviously, that’s a lot for a 12-year old to process, so we just stuck with the whole, “you made a commitment” thing. There were no threats or promises or bribes. It was time for practice, and therefore time to go. End of story. I asked if he wanted me to stay for the whole practice, rather than do laps around the soccer field, and he said yes. With that settled, we set off to the field. 

I’m not sure who was more stressed that day, him or me.  Every time the ball was hit in his direction or thrown to him (or at him while batting), my heart would stop. But it also swelled as I watched him giving it his best, listening to the coaches, adjusting his approach, and ignoring the rolled eyes and sighs of his teammates. I couldn’t even fault them for it, as I get equally frustrated when I’ve got places to be and the person in front of me doesn't know what they’re doing. They were actually pretty understanding and patient, all things considered, but they were also kids, and can only hold back so much, so my hopes quickly shifted from Do Well to Don’t Mess Up! And for the most part, he didn’t. 

Not messing up gave him enough confidence to go back to the third practice without complaint, other than him admitting to being nervous. As was I. Again, I stuck around for the whole time, getting pointers from the other dads and mentally taking notes on what we could work on at home. 

Charge the ball!

Get that bat head up!

You’re swinging too early

You’re swinging too late

I soon found it is so much easier to say such things than actually do them. I’d bounce grounders towards him and give advice on what he should have done differently on the ones that got by, then he’d throw them back to me and they’d go right through my legs. I know you're supposed to crouch and center your body so if the ball takes an unexpected hop, it will bounce off your chest, or some even more vulnerable body part, and drop in front of you, but ouch! Who would willingly do that?

I’d toss pop ups and critique his form, yet dropped half the ones tossed my way. And even with the glove on, some hurt my hand. I called out adjustments to his batting stance, but when I tried to mimic the coaches by hitting balls to the outfield for him to catch,  I’d swing and miss every other time. I blamed it on being old. I claimed I wasn't giving 100% because I wasn't the one who needed the practice. But in reality, baseball is hard!

And that’s just the mechanics, the physical stuff. Come Game Day, when he has to add all the situational stuff, it gets crazy. The poor kid is out in Left Field putting all his energy into just catching or fielding the damn ball, but he also needs to know where and who to throw it to while listening for cues like Cut Two! Or Straight Through! At the plate, he’s focused on just making contact with the ball (and not vice versa!), but also has to keep track of balls and strikes while also watching the coach for bunt and hit signs. And if he does ever reach base, either via a hit or more likely a walk, he needs to know how many outs there are while keeping one eye on the third base coach for steal signs and the other on the pitcher, and somehow also watch his lead, track balls hit into the outfield, and then decide if he should stay on base, tag up, slide...

Good swing!

It’s starting to come together

That’s how you do it!

Just make contact  

Practices were soon replaced by games, but unlike soccer, where an incorrect throw-in results in a chance to try again, and offsides calls are explained the first time they occur before they start blowing the whistle for real, here there were no do-overs. For my son, it was out of the frying pan and into the pressure cooker. But the kid is a trooper. He honestly wasn't doing much better from a stats perspective, but he was doing so much to get better that even the kids on the field and people in the stands were taking notice. The outfield wasn’t backing up when he stepped to the plate, but there were calls of encouragement and supportive comments coming from the dugout.  A strong swing that resulted in a foul tip that went up and over the backstop elicited a legit cheer. He was gaining confidence, so much so that after games where he didn't get much playing time, he’d complain about not getting more at bats or balls hit in his direction. 

And the best part was, just as he was settling in, Karma came after MY ass! Even though I was frequently telling him how proud I was of him for sticking it out and putting himself out there, I still had a debt to pay for my initial irritation and unreasonable expectations at that first practice.  So one early Saturday morning, while he was with his coach learning  signs, I was literally hanging signs. Two dozen big, heavy, full sheets of 3/4 inch plywood painted with sponsors’ logos that had to be hauled out from storage to center field and hung along the fence line by me, the one parent volunteer who showed up that day to help the league manager. 

Before the third game, the coach came over to the bleachers and announced people were needed to man the concession stand. I assumed there was a group of trained parents with prior experience who would step up, but none did, leaving my wife and I to do it. I had never even bought a snack from the stand, never mind gone inside to run it! But suddenly I was in there, along with a flat grill, deep fryer, commercial coffee brewer, fridge full of eggs, burgers, and hotdogs, a freezer stuffed with mozzarella sticks and french fries, and no idea how to do anything except microwave popcorn...but no idea how much it cost or how to ring it up!

I need three burgers!

Where’s the mustard? The ketchup?

Oh, and three Powerades and a Blow Pop and gummy bears.

Speed it up, dude! My kids at bat.

 I could hear myself telling my son, “Charge the ball!” like it should be a simple thing, and now I was faced with similarly simple things, and totally stressed. How much do I charge for a soda? And does that include deposit? What do the hot dogs get served on? Do I hand them the ketchup packets or simply place the bin outside the shack? Which key opens the register? Is the fryer even on? How long do mozzarella sticks take? I was way out of my comfort zone, made even worse by the fact that people were counting on me to get the job done, and any screw ups would be instantly apparent. which made me think of my son, who was out there  worrying about dropping pop flies in the outfield while I worried about dropping french fries in hot oil.

My wallet was also taking a beating. While I never mentioned money as a factor for him not quitting, it did flash through my mind that the $300 registration fee was a lot to pay for one practice. But once he agreed to stick it out, I found myself shelling out even more for more and more stuff. We bought batting tees and training tools to help improve his swing, ordered extra uniforms, paid for a private session with a trainer, and started using  the batting cages...where one day I took a literal beating!

I thought I had prepaid for a cage with a pitching machine, but when we got there, it was just a cage with an L-screen and a bucket of balls. I get nervous when I’m out of my comfort zone, so rather than seek out an attendant, I decided to just pitch to the kid. As I also mentioned earlier, I am not an athlete! My first 20 “pitches” were low, barely making it over the plate. The rest were way outside. Before I knew it, the bucket was empty and the kid had not even made contact, the difference being, this time it was because I sucked! 

We collected the balls and tried again. This time, I noticed a dad, with nothing better to do while his kid was in the real cage, was watching me. And that got me extra stressed. I was already feeling like a failure, but now, I was a public failure, which did not improve my pitching. Stop stressing. It’s just a game. Game’s are supposed to be fun, I heard myself telling my son. But this was NOT fun. 

I finally figured it out by the fourth bucket, and the kid was hitting line drives into the upper nets, at one point hitting 27 in a row! We left feeling pretty good about ourselves...for about an hour, when my arm basically fell off of my shoulder. I did the math, and five buckets of 30 balls is 150 pitches, which is precisely 149 more than my max pitch count. For the following days, my neck was sore and my right arm useless. But the next game was when the kid hit the ball up and over the backstop, so it was all worth it.

Bend your knees

Good eye!

Wait for your pitch...

Take your base

It’s midway through the season before the kid finally gets on base, courtesy of a wild pitcher. And even that was an adventure, as the boy went from 3-0 to a full count before getting walked. Regardless, there he was, on first base. Metaphorically and literally...and I do mean literally, as he was attached to first base. All the other kids take leads, bop back and forth off the bag to distract the pitcher, fake like they're going to steal, etc. but my son had his cleat firmly planted like a pivot foot in basketball. We had both been so fixated on getting ON base, we never really talked about what to do next. But before there was much time to think about it, a loud crack of the bat sent him scuttling to second and he’s safe! Another walked batter advances him to third, and a hit batter sends him jogging home with a huge smile on his face. It wasn't the most Hollywood of endings, but scoring that run and finally being able to contribute to the team was a great moment for Eli Wood.

Time will tell if there will be more such moments.  Maybe more tears. Maybe more smiles.  Probably both. What I do know is my son’s foray into baseball has been building character and crushing spirits for both of us. I don’t care if he goes on to hit the game-winning home run in the play-offs, I could not be prouder of him than I am right now. Having the courage to take the field in a demanding world of unknown expectations and unfamiliar surroundings with undeveloped skills, while everyone else seems to know what they are doing, is incredibly brave.  

I know the skills and drills practiced and learned this season won’t come in all that handy in the real world, but knowing that he persevered and didn't quit will serve him well for the rest of his life. My friend, Rodney Walther,  summed it up best in his novel, Broken Laces:  "Whether playing baseball, coaching kids, or raising a son...don’t settle for making contact. Make impact."

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Not so Pretty Pleas...

So we’re all getting mixed messages, right? The national government isn’t providing much, and local governments are all on different pages. I’m not sure WHY there hasn’t been a national conference of governors yet (via facetime, of course), but as of right now, all we have are the media and business owners setting the tone. 

The media GAINS from eyes on pages, sites, and broadcasts, so yes, they will hype the shit out of this, while the majority of business owners stand to LOSE millions of dollars, customers, and employees. So I am following THEIR lead. 

When every major sport, concert venue, and ski mountain are VOLUNTARILY shutting down, followed by local small business like yoga studios and hair salons (people who stand to lose every thing) then I think we need to pay attention to them. THEY are the canaries in the coal mine, and if we wait for the government to admit and enforce that it’s time to stay home, their sacrifices will be for nothing. 

I’m not afraid of getting sick. The 3% fatality rate doesn’t scare me -BUT - that statistic does not include the millions of people who will be needing acute care in the near future for unrelated issues, like heart attacks, stroke, cancer, punctured lungs, pneumonia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, MS, broken arms, torn muscles, concussions, stitches  - all who will need hospital/ER care, only to find the doctors, nurses, and beds overwhelmed and overfilled with COVID-19 patients. Not to mention, first responders are not immune. What happens when a policeman gets sick, and spreads it to the force? Or a fireman? Or the people who run the power plants, cable companies and banks? Most won't die, but they won't be able to go to work, and there goes your protection, electricity, and precious internet.

So WE need to have patience so doctors can treat their patients.We need to be vigilant to protect the people that keep us safe. The fact that carriers can be symptom free for days means we're all potential carriers, and need to act accordingly. 

People keep downplaying this, saying its a plot to get rid of Trump, but last I checked, Trump was not president of China, or Italy, or France…are they all in on this plot too? We know Big Business really runs this country, and when I see Big Business running the other way, I’m turning around and following their lead. And so should you.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Still (Irish) Kickin'

Five years ago, I sat down to the unenviable task of writing a eulogy for a band that had been a big part of my life for close to twenty years. As someone with ZERO musical ability (seriously, I can’t even play the radio!) I considered myself extremely fortunate to have spent so much time in the company of such talented musicians, and there I was, trying to sum up their career while coping with them calling it quits. I understood their reasoning, but was still sad to think The Highland Rovers were playing their last show.

At the time, I tried consoling myself with old adages like All good things must come to an end and Dont be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened. But I was sad, from the bottom of my heart to the soles of my feet. Only my liver was heaving a huge sigh of relief!

I was sad that they wouldn’t be around to teach my then 5-year old son to dance to The Unicorn Song, or even how to swear, as many a young one has learned to shout “BULLSHIT” whenever they hear, “And his fate is still unlearned.”  And god help those who ask who Alice is!

My son didn’t know what he was missing, but I did. And it truly was a tough time as my friends and fellow fans talked about who could take their place. Answer: No one! And Irish bars in the area began laying off staff while Jameson distributors had to take on second jobs. 

And by sad time, I mean about two weeks, as the band changed their minds before playing the encore on their “final” show!  The Boys (and Girl!) were back, and all was right with the world...well, except for that Trump guy.

And in the five years that followed, a beautiful thing happened: we became friends. Sure, they were always friendly to me...well, except for the TWO times they broke my leg! More on that later. But until recently, I was just a fan and they were the band. Now, I’m doing yoga with Colleen, trading coats with Jimmy, exchanging gifts with Mike in Cape Cod, getting shout outs from Tommy, and commiserating with Al on facebook.  I even get to hang with their lovely wives and families. It’s like Groupie Heaven! 

And not only that, my son (now 10) has sang on stage with them, knows all the words to every song, and has made three trips to Cape Cod’s Irish Village to see them play.  The band now spans generations! Someday he’ll be telling his friends about his first show, they way I’m about to tell you mine:

I first saw the Highland Rovers before they even had a name. I’m not sure if it was their very first show, but they were definitely soliciting the audience at the brand new Gaelic Club for suggestions.  I admit, at the time I was more impressed with the discounted drink prices and incredible interior of the club, and frankly did not pay the band that much attention. But I was there! As were many others, who I would soon become quite familiar with in the coming years as they followed the band on their tipsy travels throughout the state…and beyond.

The first time the band got MY attention was with a funny sing-a-long to the tune of Do-Re-Mi… only it was “Dough, is what we pay for beer. Ray, the guy who pours the beer. Me, the guy who drinks the beer. Fa’, the distance to the bar. So, I think I’ll have a beer. La, la la la la la laaa! T, tanks I’ll have a beer. And that brings us back to Do, oh, oh oh…” What can I say? I was young and fresh out of college and used to playing drinking games, and here were a trio of guys who were basically a living, breathing drinking game. What wasn’t to like?

But I soon learned to appreciate them for their true talents. Whether it was spot-on renditions of Irish classics, truly original originals, or inspired covers of modern hits, the boys had talent. And their hilarious interplay between songs was worth the price of admission alone. They could sing. They could play. They could make you laugh. And they could drink! Again, I ask you, what wasn’t to like?

And I was not alone. The size of the crowds continued to grow with each passing show. And as word of the boys’ charms spread, the look of the crowd changed as well. No longer was it just wool wrapped, kilt wearing, tam sporting Irishmen and women, there were other people there too. Hippies and yuppies and rockers and jocks. It was like the Breakfast Club. Make that the Irish Breakfast Club, minus the black pudding!  And speaking of breakfast, the Rovers also introduced a new generation to the glorious, but overlooked, “classic” by the Fabulous Farquahr, “My Eggs Don’t Taste the Same Without You.”

I also did my part to introduce new people to the band. While it was not always easy convincing my friends to give up a chance to see established (and, let’s be honest, cooler!) acts like Simple Jim, Deep Banana Blackout, or Gargantua Soul, in order to check out those “Irish guys in vests” - but once they did, they were hooked. 

Unfortunately, no band is devoid of drama, and The Rovers had their “Behind the Music” moment when the trio became a duo (before remerging as a quintet, and ultimately a sextet!) But the changes added new life to the band and for whatever reason, seemed to push them to reach for new heights, both creatively and professionally. I wasn’t privy to the conversations, but imagine that the break-up was sort of a wake up call, where they realized how quickly things can change and that they needed to make the most of the situation. And did they ever!

As the years passed, the boys expanded their ever-growing fan base and journeyed further away from their home base.  And while we’re talking about bases, who can forget their gig at Shea Stadium? Or their nationally televised appearance on FOX? Not to mention their Marshall Tucker period, where founding member, Doug Gray, served as mentor and head cheerleader, inviting the Rovers to open for, and join, his band on stage.  But what impressed ME the most were their St. Patrick’s Day gigs, where they would play a full 3-hour set somewhere in Connecticut, complete with shots…and more shots, then jump on a bus and play another full set up in Boston!

On a more personal note, the band was somewhat responsible for the completion of my first novel, Alchemy. I had an idea for a story, and wrote the first chapter, back in the early 90’s, but it did nothing but collect dust until I tore my Achilles tendon dancing at a Highland Rovers show in 2004. Laid up for several months, and with nothing better to do with my time, I dug out the old manuscript and started typing away. A few years later, I was thrilled to be able to present them each with a copy of the finished book. 

Equally thrilling was kissing my wife, Sarah, for the first time…which, wait for it, was at a Highland Rover’s St. Paddy’s show at O’Neill’s! Technically she wasn’t my wife at the time, but she soon would be (coincidentally right around the time the band released a song called Sara, which, even though it was about the birth of a band member’s daughter, and missing an H, applied to my new-found love as well: “Sara, you’re the answer to the questions my heart has been asking…”

And then there was the wedding of my childhood friend, the VERY Irish Mary Callahan, who married the even MORE Irish Jimmy Kelleher, and naturally they hired the Rovers to play their reception.  The highlight of the evening, and one of my favorite memories ever, was when they played “Goodbye, Mary” – an original song about a guy who finds out a lost love is getting married, which while having no connection to the bride, was both funny and apropos as it sent them on their merry way with the refrain, “I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

And I want to wish The Highland Rovers all the continued happiness in the world as they roll into their 25th year as a band.  You guys (and gal) have provided me, and thousands of others, with wonderful music and memories for the past quarter century, and we owe you (and your patient families)  a debt of gratitude for continuing to share your gifts with us.

So let me end by saying thank you. Thank you all. Thank you, Tommy and Jimmy and Billy. Thank you, Al and Jeff and Michael. Thank you, Colleen and Turk and the Madden Group. Thank you to the Muscular Bongo Guy who I sort of forgot about! Thank you, friends and fans and families.  Thank you for the music, the mayhem, and the memories. And thanks again for snapping my fucking tendon, you bastards!!!!

I signed off my original eulogy with an apt line from The Parting Glass, but am so happy to end this one on a more upbeat note with a line from a Rover's original: "And so, it's the end of our show, but it's not the end, we'll meet again. When you're lost and alone, may God lead you home, all roads lead to here..."

The shirt says it all: LUCKY!

*Footnote (ha ha): At last year’s Irish Village show, I tore another muscle, in the same damn leg, dancing during the first set of the first show. It was nowhere as debilitating as a torn achilles, but still freaking hurt! 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The French Connection

I can’t believe I have to do this again, so soon after another beloved family member was taken too soon. Worse, when Mike Connors passed away, he did so knowing how much he was loved and appreciated, but I’m not sure if Steve French ever got that same feeling  As much as he hated it, much of Steve’s life was dependent on others, and I fear he died feeling more like a burden than a benefit.  And while 1000 words will not be enough to set the record straight, I’m going to try. To do so, I will focus on MY relationship with the guy, as to try and capture the incredible story behind my brother’s bond with him would take a book. In short, my brother Richard has done some pretty impressive things in his life: traveling the world, getting into top schools, becoming a doctor, running several practices - but what he did for, and with, Steve is what makes me most proud to call him my brother.

Back when I was 12, Richard was in a terrible car accident that left him with two shattered legs and a broken jaw, and during his year-long recovery, he spent some time at Gaylord Hospital, where a classmate of his was “recovering” from an even more horrific accident that left him in a coma due to a traumatic brain injury. His name was Steve French.

Prior to the accident, Steve was not what you would call a good guy. From what I understand, he was a bit of a bully with a mean streak and short fuse, and the Gold Glove boxing skills to back it up. So much so, that at the time of his accident, there were people saying it was karma, and he got what he deserved.

I’m not sure anyone deserves to go through what Steve did, but I do know that he came out of it a better man. Even while still in the hospital, he was making changes. I’ll never forget wheeling him through the hospital so he could deliver a daily orange to his friend Gary, who was in even worse shape than Steve was. It took ten minutes for Steve to pass the orange to Gary, who could hardly hold it, never mind peel it. Gary lacked speech, and his face was typically contorted into a grimace, but he always managed a smile for Steve. I have no idea what he did with all those oranges, but they certainly brightened his day.

So, regardless of what he was like before the accident, Steve left that hospital a good man. A true source of inspiration and living proof about the power of the human spirit.

He was also a pain in the ass!

From Day One, when I first met him slumped in a wheelchair (which in itself was amazing, as he spent weeks in a fetal position that doctors thought he would never come out of) he was a prankster. Mind you, I was 12, and unaccustomed to dealing with brain damaged people in wheelchairs, so I was nervous the first time I wheeled Steve into an elevator and pushed the button for his floor. Next thing I know, he’s screaming, with his finger apparently stuck in the door. I start to panic, and the guy pulls his hand away from the door and starts laughing, pointing the finger he faked getting stuck at me in a “Got you!” manner

That was the first of many.

After he graduated to using a walker, his favorite trick was to pretend to be falling. He’d flail his arms and yelp, and I’d come running to catch him. Every time. And every time, he’d laugh, happy that he had fooled me again.

And when he started driving, he’d convince me to check his oil, or windshield wiper fluid, or headlights. And EVERY time I stuck my head under the hood or on front of the grill, he’d beep the damn horn, causing me to jump and bang my head.

But it wasn’t just me. He had a knack for tricking pretty girls into groping him. His posture, gait, and garbled voice gave away that he had a brain injury, which made people more inclined to be helpful - so when he’d approach a stranger and ask for help getting his keys out of his pocket, many obliged. They’d reach into his front pants pocket, feel around, and come out empty. He’d then convince them to check the other pocket., then his back pockets, and so forth, until they caught onto the joke. Some never did!

I’m sure most of it was pure fun and games, but I think part of it was Steve doing whatever it took to feel in control. He had lost so much control over his own life, physically, mentally, emotionally, that it must have felt good to have some situations he could take charge of.

What I don’t think he realized though was how much of an influence he did have on me, and pretty much everyone he met. He was not easy to deal with. He was slow, hard to understand, and stubborn - and to this day, I attribute my fairly high level of patience and tolerance to him.

And he was equally tolerant. I've seen him in pain, but never heard him complain. For Steve, every thing was a struggle, but he insisted on doing everything himself, no matter how much extra time it took. And for someone who was never supposed to walk again, he sure got around. He traveled Europe, worked in a grocery store, frequented Danny O's, lived on his own, retaught himself how to drive, and had an active social life.

He was proud. Maybe even a bit of a bragard or show-off, always flexing his muscles and squeezing my hand in a death grip - and well, since that annoyed me, I learned to be humble! But the way he went about getting those hard-earned muscles; the hours spent in the gym, willing his body to do things deemed impossible by others, taught me about perseverance and dedication.

But under all those muscles, Steve was still a little mama's boy! He bought a house right next to his amazing mother, and when not visiting with her, was talking about her. Not that I needed any help in that department, but it was still nice to see their sweet relationship. Same goes for his siblings and nieces and nephews. He was constantly pulling out his wallet to show me their latest pictures and raving about their exploits.

I was a teenager during the years that Steve was an integral part of the family, and while I’m sure I was no less self-centered than your typical teen, there was never any resentment over him being there. Sure, I got frustrated and annoyed with him, like any brother, and I had to train my girlfriends not to fall for the “Find my Keys” trick, but he added so much more to my life than he took.. And really, all he “took” was a little more time, patience, and understanding; three things we should all be grateful to share. And in return, he taught us all that life truly is what you make of it. People can change. Adversity can be overcome. Friends and family are important. And when life gives you lemons, give someone else an orange.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Last Call

He went by many names, and worked at many bars, but I've only seen one expression on his face: a giant smile. And I do mean GIANT! Mike Connors was literally larger than life. Whether it was his raspy "Heyyy!' or gnarly handshake,  he enveloped people with warmth every time he greeted them. And it's beyond shocking that he is no longer with us.

I knew of Mike before I knew him. I worked in a restaurant across the street from The Black Duck, and there was much talk of Wolfie. I lived a somewhat sheltered life, and always thought of the Duck as a biker bar. And to tell you the truth, the first few times I ventured in there, he scared me. Quick with a wink and drink for the girls I was with, he was not as cuddly towards me. He was big, and gruff, and clearly In Charge, and, well I was intimidated.

But I quickly saw the softer side (and, really, the only side) of Big Mike...after learning he really did not like being called Wolfie by just anyone.  And over the years we went from being patrons to friends to family. Like actual family, as he ended up marrying my sister in law (technically former sister in law, but we don't play that way!)

Mike could not have been a better choice for husband and step-dad to Kelly and her kids. My brother loved his family and brought them much joy, but he also left them in sad shape, and Mike just picked them all up on his strong shoulders and carried them through some tough times. I feel very confident speaking for my entire family when I say we not only accepted Mike, but respected and felt indebted to him for taking on such a challenge and keeping the family together.

And that's what Mike did. He brought people together. I lost count of how many couples and marriages are attributed to his doings, but I've got two nieces who owe their significant others to his presence. I also remember being at Viva Zapatas, sitting on the patio with some friends, being annoyed by these young kids who were acting like obnoxious dicks - until Mike showed up, All of the sudden, there was a hush, and I could hear them whispering, "It's Coach Connors!" Without his saying a word, or even knowing what they had been up to, they changed their attitude and were on their best behavior for the rest of the night.

He was big, but his physical strength was no match for his emotional side. Looking back I truly don't remember him ever saying an unkind word about anyone. Well, anyone NOT wearing a Dallas jersey! He was big, but not afraid to show his love for his furry little hamster-sized dogs! He was big, but had the gentlest of touches for the frailest of Grandmas.

But as big as he was, the hole that he is leaving is even bigger. It's only been six hours since I heard the news, but I've seen his face a dozen times on the digital frame in my kitchen, and each time it pops up, I smile along with him, until it hits me that he is gone. I know that no one that big, that important, that involved in so many lives can ever truly be gone, but right now, that doesn't help.

 I hurt for his family. I hurt for his friends. I hurt for his former players and teammates and customers. It broke my heart having to tell my mother, as it felt like she had lost another son. And since he was technically not my bother in law,  I always jokingly called him my brother in love. But it was no joke. I meant it

Mike spent a lot of time in, and behind, bars (not the jail kind!) and made many a Last Call - but tonight, instead of turning the lights on, an incredible light has unexpectedly gone out :(

RIP Mike Connors

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Total Lack of Diplomacy

My town has made the news again. For whatever reason, the powers that be seem intent on making national news every May, even if it means making a mockery of things many hold sacred.  It started when James Tate turned the side of the high school into his own personal bulletin board, using masking tape to post a sign asking a girl to go to the prom with him. He was subsequently banned from the prom for his “vandalism”, but after pressure from the community and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and the Today show, the decision was reversed. A few years later, the school administration was back in the national spotlight, this time regarding an 11th hour dress code that suddenly surfaced regarding the style of prom dresses, threatening to ban any student who showed up in a gown that had cut outs, side-slits, or exposed backs. Again there was an uproar and influx of satellite trucks and news teams, and again the administration backed down, or at least softened their stance.  

In both cases, I found myself sympathizing with the administrators for trying to do the “right” thing. Sure, I was also shaking my head at the stupidity of their seemingly knee-jerk reactions and complete lack of foresight in not seeing how these decisions would blow up in their faces, but I could understand and appreciate where they were coming from.  

But their latest May headline grab is absolutely disgusting and indefensible. The Shelton High senior pictured above was recently killed in a car accident, and his parents were hoping he would be posthumously awarded his diploma at graduation, along with his classmates. They were told no.  No. No, we will not allow the name of your dead son to be read aloud with the rest of his classmates. No, we will not award a diploma, even though he was already accepted into college. No, we will not provide any sense of closure, comfort, or common decency.

And why? Is there some legal issue we are not privy to that would give them a legit reason for not honoring such a reasonable request? The answer is no. The excuses they are giving range from rhetoric about World War II and Korean soldiers receiving honorary degrees to the board of ed not being able to find anything in their records to guide them and are therefor unwilling to set a new precedent One BOE member even said “The implication was that others in the future would expect similar treatment” Really? And that is a problem, why? We won’t award your dead son an honorary diploma because then we’d have to give every kid who tragically passes away a diploma? Is paper that expensive? Is decency that difficult?

I truly don’t get it. This is not the first time Shelton has dealt with such a situation, and sadly, it won’t be the last. But in every other instance, they did the right thing. The only difference in this case are the people in charge – and to me,  if I can’t count on them to do right by a single dead student, how the hell can I trust them to make the truly difficult decisions that affect the thousands of kids still in the school system, including my own son? I mean, budget cuts are hard to make. Curriculum choices are very difficult. Safety and security concerns are extremely challenging. I would expect board of ed members to struggle with such decisions. But no one could have expected such a no-brainer “decision” to show a little common sense and compassion to become such a problem. And that is a problem. I have lost all faith, trust, and patience with this board of ed – and even if they repeat their May pattern of reversing their decision, it will be too late. The damage has been done. If they require past precedent in order to be decent, then we need some new people in charge.

I say this not just as a concerned citizen or upset parent, but as a teacher. One, who every year, gives his students the same advice: “Don’t be the kid they dedicate the yearbook to.” They look at me a little strange until I explain that, chances are, when they show up in September as freshmen, one of the kids in their high school will not live to see his or her graduation.  And while that kid will get a special page in the yearbook, and have balloons released in his or her honor, and have the school rock painted in their favorite color, and get the loudest cheer at graduation, you do NOT want to be that kid.

And you definitely don’t want to be that kid if you live in Shelton.

Monday, February 8, 2016

S'no Fun

As I sit home, courtesy of a “snow day” called hours before the first flake fell, and watch as the pitiful amount of accumulation finally approaches the one-inch mark, and it’s already well past noon, I have to wonder: How did we get to this point?  

Granted, I get it. Snow makes for dangerous driving conditions. And the safety of our kids really is our first, and second, priority. And I even understand the overabundance of caution mentality and safety first approach that has overtaken this country in light of some terrible tragedies.And I totally agree that even one life saved is well worth the inconveniencing of thousands. 

But what I don’t get is how that is any different than 30 years ago?

Did parents back then care less about their children’s lives? Did they not understand that snow+roads=slippery? Did society value education more than safety?  Were weather reports more accurate and reliable? Were vehicles and clothing better equipped to handle snow and ice?

Or did we turn into a bunch of titty babies?

I’m thinking it’s the later, as back then, we did not have Doppler radar and AccuWeather forecasts. Or four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes. Or the latest Nike dri-fit clothing. We had a daily newspaper and the 11:00 news for weather, rear-wheel drive with sandbags and bricks in the trunk (or kids sitting on the back over the drive wheel) for traction in the snow, and hand-knit hats and mittens that collected snow like lint-rollers, and kept out the cold about as well as a screen door.

I clearly remember leaving for school in snowy conditions that today would have caused the governor to close the roads and declare a State of Emergency. Yet I somehow managed to walk through the unplowed streets to the bus stop, where my fellow grade-schoolers were eagerly discussing the chances that the snow would keep coming so that maybe they would send us home early. Our conversations would be halted every so often so that we could assist a struggling motorist by pushing their rear-wheel drive cars up the hill. Sometimes it worked, and we would cheer as they fishtailed their way up the road, honking their horns in gratitude.  Sometimes it didn’t, and we’d jump out of the way as the out-of-control cars slid backwards into a snowbank.

When the bus finally came - it could be counted on to be up to an hour late (and we waited!), we’d place our bets (with our bodies!) on the spot we deemed most likely for the bus to skid to a final stop. If the roads were really bad, this practice turned into a rather dangerous game of Chicken to those who dared to hold their ground as the bus slid sideways down the street. But it was worth it for those rare times when the doors opened right in front of you, and you got to step right on the bus as your classmates slipped and slid their way from their ill-chosen spots. 

Now, the mere hint of snow is enough to cancel school. And while I sometimes appreciate the unexpected time off (say, on a day following the Super Bowl!), I can’t help but wonder what message we’re sending to our kids. Plus, I really miss the thrill of driving in the snow! 

Back in the day, it was expected that you went to work. We were ALL like the mailmen, making our way through rain, sleet, snow, and hail to and from our jobs (which apparently, were all essential back then. Now, roads are closed to all except emergency vehicles and douchebags.) Which makes me think that our kids are going to be ill-prepared for doing battle with the weather - even though their cars and trucks are 4 x better equipped (see what I did there) than ours ever were.  My fear is that what they have in four-wheel drive, they’ll be lacking in fortitude 

I’m not gonna lie, there is something thrilling and exciting about driving in the snow…but only when you have to. Taking the truck out and tooling around for fun just makes you a tool - but needing to get to work (or home again) makes you feel like a hero. 

I still remember the time, after working a double through the heart of a major snowstorm (at my “essential” job at Stop & Shop) and driving home in my trusty Chevette. I had trouble even leaving the parking lot. I put the car in reverse, and tried to back out, but the car refused to move. Thinking it was a snow bank, I floored it, and suddenly found my rear wheels off the ground and my nose pointing down. I got out to see what the hell happened, and realized I had backed over a shopping carriage that was buried in the snow. I somehow managed to extricate myself and continued on my way. Literally, 10 seconds later, I was rear-ended at the stop light at the exit of the parking lot! It was just a tap, and not wanting to get back out, I just rolled down my window, gave an “It’s okay” wave of the arm, and drive off. 

The flakes were falling so fast and heavy, it looked like warp speed in the Millennium Falcon through my windshield. I had, of course, turned the radio off (Guy Rule #1 in Stressful Driving Conditions)  and my knuckles were whiter than the snow, but it was exhilarating. I’d slowly pass the muted glare of snow-covered hazard lights of cars “parked” at odd angles on the shoulder, looking sharp for the slumped shadows of drivers who had abandoned them, wondering which of the upcoming hills and turns would be my turn. 

But somehow I made it home safely. I’m sure the fact that I was driving a shitbox made me less concerned, and perhaps a bit less cautious, but I couldn’t help but feel proud of my car, and myself, when I finally pulled into my driveway. Not only did I show up to work, when many did not, but I also made it home when others could not. Sure, it was scary, but it was also satisfying. 

So, yes, I sort of miss that feeling. I know, I’ve still got lots to be proud of, but nothing that involves real risk, you know? Not that I’m advocating taking foolish chances, mind you, or even saying that we should have had school today. In fact, when it comes to other people’s kids, I would always err on the side of caution. But I don’t want my own kid growing up to be intimidated by few inches!