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Friday, February 21, 2020

The Many Ways I'm Not Superman

There’s a theory out there that claims the side of the head a man parts his hair on says all you need to know about his personality, his potential in life, and his success.

I heard about this “hair part theory” recently on a podcast, which is the new reading. It used to be that some schmo would have to write something down so others could begin sentences with, “I read recently that” blankety-blank. And then all the rest of us would automatically give it credence because the schmo wrote it down. Now, all anyone needs to do is say it out loud and everyone who hears them gets to begin sentences with, “I heard on a podcast that…” and they sound like Einstein.

Anyway, this podcast claimed the most successful and notable men always part their hair on the left side of their head. And that left-side-parters emit some sort of cosmic vibe that communicates their awesomeness to the world.

This theory isn’t new, apparently. It’s been around for some time. So long that the hairstylist for the movie Superman used this subtle difference in hair part to distinguish between Clark Kent and his Superhero alter ego.

Mr. Kent parted his hair on the right, and, when the big switch would occur inside a phone booth somewhere, Superman would emerge with his hair parted on the left. My own sub-theory is that, because Superman parted his hair on the left all those years ago, it further reinforced this notion of a dominant side on which to part your hair. But, what do I know? I don’t even have a podcast.

It just so happens that in recent weeks, I started parting my hair on the right side, like Clark Kent.

After years of parting on the left -- for no real reason other than I’d done it that way since ending my Tom Petty, part-in-the-middle phase in High School -- I finally gave in to the fact that certain cowlicks made me more naturally a right-side-parter. What a weird word cowlick is, by the way. I mean, how long did we have to share space with our bovine friends to come up with that one?

Oddly enough, since I made the switch to a right-side part, people have been complimenting my hair. Which is something that has never happened before in my entire life.

What it’s told me, however, is that – despite my visions otherwise – I am much more of a Clark Kent than a Superman.

This is the paragraph where I shift gears and head in a different direction, seemingly. You see, as this hair-part realization occurred, I unrelatedly but simultaneously came to the conclusion that the white whale I’ve been chasing quietly for the past decade might never get caught.

That was way too opaque. Let me try again.

I’ve got this affliction called writing. And I’ve got this dream about getting my writing published. But not published in magazines or major websites, as I’ve done that. But books. And not books like print them myself and sell them out of my van, but like lit-agent, publishing house type books. New York Times best-seller type stuff. Far-fetched, right? 

Well, with this in mind, I’ve written books: memoirs, and literary novels, and an MG realistic fiction. MG means middle grade, a genre I really liked reading these books to my kids. Heck, I even once wrote a picture book that I horribly illustrated about a kid who loses her balloon and imagines that it went to the moon. Balloonie Went to the Moonie. It was a metaphor for death and loss. It was cute. Way cuter than it just sounded.

These books were like my lottery tickets. One of them was going to be the answer to all our challenges. And the next one was going to change everything. My life’s dreams lived in each of them.

While everyone else has been waking up, or getting ready for bed, or pursuing their own hobbies that border on afflictions, I’ve been writing, and editing, and pitching literary agents. They call that querying. And the process sucks as bad as the word.

What querying means to most writers is random rejection. It’s not random in that it comes from nowhere, because you essentially ask for it. It’s just random in when it arrives. I’d be coaching a soccer practice and look down at my phone to see an email that says something like, “Thank you for sending your query. I read it with interest. Unfortunately, it’s not right for my list right now. But don’t fret, publishing is a subjective industry. Another agent might love it. Now, piss off.”

I may have embellished a bit. But, like that, rejection would arrive randomly: in line at the grocery store, or on a lunch break, or on a Saturday evening. Or on Christmas Eve. How cruel must you be to hit send at that point?

Anyway. The latest book I wrote was really going to be the one. It's good. And quirky. I had a bunch of agents ask for the full manuscript, which is like getting to first base in the publishing world.
Yet, in recent weeks, those full request have generated even more rejection. Deeper and more personal rejection. Quote, It didn’t pull me in. Your main character failed to grab me. The execution wasn’t what I’d need to see to champion this project going forward. Sprinkled in there were compliments, too. There's a lot to admire here. Your scene setting was commendable. Each rejection felt like the “it’s not you it’s me” kind of break up. And each makes you realize that you're not as good as you want to be.

 So, just as I’ve come to realize that my hair is of the Clark Kent variety, I’ve also begun to conclude that publishing might just not be in my future.

Another gear shift. In other news, my daughter this week went on her first college tour. She’s a junior, and ready to get out of Dodge and take over the world. She’s looking at big name schools with the perfect programs for all her dreams. I’m excited for her, but I can’t help but thinking about the cost.

It’s not just because I’m cheap, but rather, as my eldest gets ready to head off to school, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m still paying my own student loans. And there’s no way, with four kids, even with two decent jobs between us, that my wife and I will ever be able to pay for these types of schools.

I never thought that would be the case. I always figured something would break our way. Some big job would come along. Or some ship would come in. Or some book would sell. And it just hasn’t.

She’s not worried. She’ll borrow to make it happen. Which feels like defeat to me. Because, while I’ve rarely worried much about my own lifetime of student debt, I lose sleep worrying about my inability to prevent my kids from their own.  

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, all things considered. Realizing I’m not Superman, or publishable, or capable of paying for my kid’s college.

First world problems, if ever there were any. I know. 

Still, if you see me. Just tell me you like my hair. That it suits me.

I’m trying to embrace the fact that I’m not Superman and never will be.






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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Unstoppable Car Meets the Improbable Branch

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a cocktail meatball, I think I know.

Let me start again.

My kids and I have a little game I call, “What are the chances of that happening?” It’s not so much a game as a question I always ask after something random and highly unlikely happens. It’s a game because it has a set answer. No matter the actual odds, we always say, “100 Percent.”

It’s a dad thing.

Last weekend, however, something happened that was so unlikely that…

One more try. I’ll just say what happened.

Here goes.

On Saturday morning, I was driving my daughter to get the bus at the High School for an 8:00 am departure to the CNY Model United Nations event at Syracuse University. Yes. She’s an MUN nerd. But let’s not get sidetracked. We still love her.

So, we’re driving, and chatting, and I’m thinking about the fact that I had no real plans for the day, in part because it was ridiculously warm out for January in Upstate New York and all the usual things, like skiing, sledding, skating, building snow forts, etc., were not possible. Apparently, I'm a large child during winter. 

I’d even just opened one of my cans of Diet Rite as I drove, which is this no calorie, no sodium, no caffeine soda I drink – even in the mornings – which is probably awful for me.

Anyway, driving and chatting and sipping a crappy soda, and BAM!

An explosion! (It sounded like one, anyway).

Suddenly there was glass dust everywhere, and my daughter and I were just like, “Holy Crap!”

“You okay?!”

“I’m okay! You okay?!”

“Think so.”

We looked up at the now-fractured-into-a-thousand-pieces windshield and saw a branch sticking straight into the glass a solid ten inches. It poked through about halfway between us, just down from the rearview mirror.

For some reason, I kept driving. Probably because she had to be at school within minutes, and I calculated that she would miss the bus if we stopped -- One of the many things I thought about as my mind raced and processed what had happened.

We’ve had a bad string of luck with our cars the last year and a half or so. A bit less than a year ago, this same car got hit as it was parked on our street. A neighbor in a much bigger vehicle slid on some ice and took out the rear left corner. It probably should’ve been totaled. Instead, it spent three months in the body shop while I drove a rental, racking up thousands of dollars for the other guy's insurance to cover.

That accident was on top of the general car troubles you tend to have with Jeeps of similar age -- brakes, tires, ball-bearings, the transmission, even a battery that stopped working because some piece inside of it broke. Add to that four other incidents with the van in the same time frame. Those included my wife ending up in a snowy ditch; my wife hitting a curb and blowing out a tire; my wife hitting an actual bear on the Pennsylvania Turnpike; and my wife hitting a landscaping boulder at a mini-golf course.

I thought about this string of bad luck – and bit of bad driving by my better half -- as we chugged up the hill toward the school, peering through a windshield with a spiderweb of crack and a giant branch sticking out of it.   

As we drove, the branch, standing straight up in the air, began to lean in reaction to the wind and our momentum. As it did so, the shattered windshield creaked, raising concern that it might fall in on us and cover the car and its passengers with thousands of shards.

I grabbed the stick to stabilize it and kept going.

“That could’ve killed one of us,” I said, reflecting on the falling branch, as my daughter agreed and laughed. The only proper reaction.

We were lucky, to be honest.

After we parked and she darted toward the waiting bus, texting her friends about her brush with death, I got out and stared at this seven-foot-long stick that had fallen into our lives, and thought about the unlikelihood of what just happened.

Think about it. A car moving at 30 miles per hour, the wind blowing just enough to knock a branch loose, the branch falling on the perfect angle and with the right speed to spear the windshield of the moving car like an expert hunter.

If the branch had tilted a bit, it may have bounced off. Or if we were 2 seconds sooner. Or two seconds later. 

The math. The odds. The impossibility of it all.

What were the chances? I thought to myself.

The answer: I'm guessing 100 percent.



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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

There Are No Working Air Conditioners in Hell

I have no evidence about the existence of an afterlife, but I can confirm that Hell is hot. Really hot. And sweaty. And there’s lots of grumpy, arguing people. All of whom I’m related to, apparently.

This past week, my family and I completed our annual pilgrimage to Hilton Head. The day after we got there, the air conditioning in our minivan went kaput.

It just so happened that this southern vacation destination that we’ve visited annually the past few years was also experiencing a warmer than usual stretch. The typical high temperature this time of year is about 90 degrees. Each day beat that average by between 5 and 8 degrees. When you factor in the humidity, the heat index was pushing 110.

And, apparently, the heat index is directly related to how often my children fight with eachother.

This is the only shady road in South Carolina.
Okay, so it wasn’t actual hell. It was South Carolina in the summer with no AC. Which is close enough. And it was vacation. So, right about now, you’re rightly thinking these are a first-world problems, and I should get a grip.

Clearly, you’ve never been in a van with my kids as hot are blew out the vents and hotter air blew in the windows. I actually cried while driving and listening to the bickering. It wasn’t so much that moment as the thought of the 934 mile drive home we would have to endure at the end of the week.

That looming trip home made me curl up in a fetal position with a bottle of rum and want to melt away. Which almost happened.

When I hit rock bottom and ran out of rum and sweat to give, I turned to my old friend Google and taught myself how to recharge the AC with coolant.

The back story is that we knew the AC was having problems before the trip. It started to struggle a few weeks before when my wife was out of town with the van, and she had to pay way too much money for some service station to recharge the AC. That fix lasted a few days before the air being spewed through the vents warmed up a gain. That told us we had a bigger problem. So, we took it to our trusty car guys and they charged us even more money to change some leaking tubes, giving us the false sense of security to drive south in the beast.

When the car AC stopped working in South Carolina, I knew that an expensive fix from a local service station would not last long enough to get us through the week or make it home. Also, we were running out of money, thanks to some sale my wife discovered on our second day there that caused her to blow our entire budget on gifts for the year ahead. But that's a story for another time. Or for never.

About halfway through the sweltering week, I watched videos on how to recharge the car's AC unit myself. It was surprisingly easy. And not that expensive.

Over the final two days of the trip, I bought 4 cans of R-134a refrigerant. That cooled things down long enough for hope to grow that we could actually make it all the way home with this temporary fix. It’s only a 14 hour drive, after all.

However, in life, and in this particular experience, I’ve learned that sometimes hope is the enemy of acceptance.

On departure day, I loaded up on cans of refrigerant at the Walmart in Hilton Head, and we turned our ship for home.

If we were smart, we would have biked the 934 miles home.
The first can lasted about an hour into the trip. The second only lasted 40 minutes. And the air coming out after the procedure first wasn’t even all that cool. By the third time we stopped the car along the side of the road so I could top off the AC with refrigerant, there was no discernable change in the hot air blowing through the vents.

Hope was lost. And heat was our reality. 

for the next 12 hours over two days of driving, the sweating was epic. The fights were legendary.

And I can confirm that Hell is hot. At least, my version of it.




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Friday, March 15, 2019

Watching Your Kids Fall Down

Down he fell again, this time landing on his back. I could practically feel the rock-hard ice reverberate through his little body. Pads or not, that one had to hurt.

He hesitated, worrying me that he was actually injured this time. Then he rolled over, scrambled to his feet, regained his balance, and skated on — certain to crash land again in the moments ahead.

It was a cool November morning during his first hockey practice when I realized my son didn’t know how to skate.

We’d gone skating before as a family over the years, a few times at the outdoor rink downtown and once or twice on a pond near our house. But not often enough for my 3rd grader to feel truly comfortable on the ice. And it was showing.

Thud.

He fell again, likely the 50th time he’d hit the ice in the first half hour. Each time, I watched him, waiting for the tears to come, for him to skate off the ice — or crawl or crash — and announce that he was done with hockey.

He’s wanted to play hockey for years, bugging me to let him each year when I get obsessed with how deep into the NHL playoffs my team will go. This past year, my team won it all, and we watched every game we could. After they hoisted the Stanley Cup, he made his mom and me promise we’d sign him up for hockey in the fall.

So, we did. We just forgot to teach him to skate first.

One of the things I’ve always struggled with as a parent is watching my kids fail. What parent doesn’t want to protect them from some of the pain and disappointment life has for all of us?

I distinctly remember the feeling I had when I got cut from a travel soccer team in fourth grade. I was devastated. I don’t want my kids to go through that kind of rejection.

The boy, while not on his rear at hockey practice
As a parent, I often prepare my kids for potential setbacks, saying things before soccer tryouts like, there are so many kids that I’m sure lots of good players are going to get cut. Or telling them before play auditions that even getting a call back is something to be proud of.

That’s how I prepared my high schooler for her audition for this year’s school musical. Last year, she didn’t make it – as most freshman don’t. So, this year I prepared her for any potential disappointment.

“There’s so many talented kids, dear.”

And;

“All you can do is give it your best.”

Along with a few;

“No matter what happens, we love you.”

I was surprised when she expressed frustration with my attitude on the matter. She liked that it was hard to make the musical and just wanted me to believe in her.

I've begun to realize, I’ve been so worried about preparing my kids for failure, that I’ve been undermining their confidence.

It seems a strange thing to admit in an age when most parents do a disservice by filling their kids with too much confidence, convincing them they’re the best at everything, when they’re just average. And sending them out into a world that is going to level them with reality in the years ahead.

That’s a mistake in itself.

Parents can make that one even worse by further protecting their kids from that eventual leveling by stacking the deck in their favor. That’s become clear recently, as we’ve seen wealthy parents across the country who have been so concerned about protecting their offspring from life’s disappointment that they’ve spent thousands of dollars and resorted to cheating so they can get into the college of their choice.

What those parents did was wrong.

But I understand the instinct. Believe me, I do.

That morning in November, I wanted to run out onto the ice – or skate, or something – and pick my son up and give him the biggest hug I could.

And, if I could’ve figured out a way, I probably would’ve made sure all the kids who tried out this year made the high school musical, just to spare them all, and most importantly my daughter, from the potential pain. But I didn’t.

I suffered as they struggled, and I worried as they worried.

In so doing, I’ve come to realize there is a balance to be had. Kids need confidence, for sure. But they also need to know the hard work it takes to get better at things, whether it’s hockey, or soccer, or singing, or school. And they need to know it’s going to take a lot of hard work on their part to reduce the number of disappointments in their future.


If I didn't know this already, it became obvious watching my kids face their challenges.

In the months before the musical auditions, my daughter put in the hard work. She worked on her singing, and she spent hours in dance classes improving her skills and even learning a whole new dance style.

And, guess what. She made the musical. She even had a speaking role and was a part of a few big dance scenes, including the tap dance number. Who knew she could tap? I was so proud of her. To top it off, the show was amazing.

As for my son, after that first day of practice, the one where he fell countless times, he skated over to me waiting by the boards and exclaimed, “I love hockey!”

Then he looked at me, and said, "I got better. Didn't I, dad?"

Boy, did he.

Now he’s been playing a few months, and he’s improved so much. He rarely falls, and he's even been scoring goals.

I’m the first one to admit I don’t have this parenting thing figured out. But, I’ve certainly arrived at the conclusion that a bit of failure and disappointment doesn’t hurt kids all that much.

In the long run, it might even help.

Despite my instinct to protect them from even the smallest failures, I probably knew this all along.

After I got cut from that soccer team, I tried again. The next time, I made the team. Then I continued to play the sport through high school.

While I never forgot the pain of being cut that year, it made any success I had later that much better.

So, as hard as it is, let your kids fall down. And then watch them get back up.

You'll both be better for it. 





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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Long Way Home

“License and credit card please?” asked the uninterested woman behind the rental car counter outside JFK International Airport.

This was it. I was going to cover the final 250 miles of my quest in a rental. Four hours of driving rather than waiting two days for another flight? Fine by me. I love driving. In another life, I was probably a trucker. So, no problem.

Most importantly, I was going home.

After four days away and serious doubts about getting back due to winter weather disrupting travel across the country, I finally had a plan that would get me to my wife and kids.

I opened my wallet to retrieve the identification necessary to rent a car and … nothing.

My license was gone.
I rifled through other sections of the leather tri-fold holding the vital instruments for my livelihood. Nope. I felt around in my pockets. Empty.

“I don’t have my license,” I replied to the woman, and to everyone, and to no one in particular.
She blinked unsympathetically.
“I don’t have my license!” I repeated, patting myself down like a handsy TSA agent, my voice going up an octave and a few decibels, as panic welled up inside me.
My mind quickly flashed back to a real TSA agent and the last time I knew for certain I had my license, handing it to her at the security checkpoint in San Antonio, along with my boarding pass. She handed it back, and then I recall throwing it into a grey bin to be scanned, along with my wallet, my computer, computer bag, a tightly-packed carry-on, my belt, my shoes, and whatever loose items were in my pockets.
That damn license must be in Texas.
I’d been in San Antonio since Thursday for the latest Dad 2.0 Summit, a yearly conference for social media dads  which is way cooler than it sounds.
My quest to get home began on Saturday evening, the last night there. 
Walking between bars with another dad, a simple text from American Airlines delivered the news that my flight Sunday morning had been canceled, and I’d been rebooked on a flight on Tuesday, two days later than planned.
San Antonia was fun, but Tuesday? Really?
I just couldn’t do two more days in Texas, which would mean two more nights in a hotel room, two more days away from work, and two more days missing my wife and kids.
At this point, some people might think, you’ve got four kids four awesome, loud, quarreling, dish-dirtying kids. And someone just told you that, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, you had to spend two more days 1,700 miles away from them in a hotel. What’s the problem?
But, believe it or not, I really missed them.
When you’re at a dad blogger conference, you actually spend a lot of time thinking about your kids, and you really want to see them again.
Reading that rebooking text, my immediate response was: Hell, no. That’s when the Mission Impossible music played, which turned out to be the ring tone of some guy I was standing next to on the street corner. But, still.
Flights were canceled from Chicago to Boston 
due to severe winter weather.
Back in the hotel room, I began my own impossible mission. After two hours on hold and another hour of negotiations with American Airlines, I finally found a new flight home. Or, should I say flights.
I also learned from Google while on hold that it would take 27 hours to drive.
My new flight was a three-hopper – San Antonio to JFK; JFK to DC; and DC to Syracuse – leaving at 9:00 a.m. Sunday. That it didn’t get me back home until 11:40 p.m. didn’t matter. That it was a highly inefficient thing to fly to New York City then down to Washington then back up to Syracuse, didn’t matter. That one of the legs of the flight might yet be canceled didn’t matter. If I could get to New York City, that would put me 1,400 miles closer. I wanted to be home, after all. And that’s all that mattered.
At 9:08 a.m. the next morning, it was wheels up.
News of my second canceled flight came in another text, this one as the flight descended into JFK airspace. Probably karma because my phone wasn’t set to airplane mode.
The cancellation was due to 60 mile per hour wind gusts in Syracuse, and the agent at the airline counter told me it was affecting all flights into Syracuse. From DC, JFK, Philly, and Boston, all were canceled. Worse yet, flights the next day were either canceled or booked solid with rerouted passengers.
“You can fly standby on Monday, or I can book you on a flight Tuesday,” she said. Dominica was her name, and she was kind. Which I needed her to be.
It was then that it struck me how hotels in New York City are probably a lot more expensive than in San Antonio.
After standing at her counter for a solid half hour, doing my best pouty face and talking more glowingly about my kids then they likely deserve, we both gave up on the thought of me flying to Syracuse.
That’s when I decided my best option was to just rent a darn car.
I’d driven to NYC before, and I’d even driven to JFK, so I felt certain I could get myself home. Online I went, booking a car with Budget  both the company name and the reason I chose them.
And that brings us back to where we began, with me, at the car rental counter a solid mile from the American Airlines terminal at JFK, realizing that my license was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I said to the Budget rental car lady.
She shrugged. “I could call you a cab.”
A cab. A cab!
“To Syracuse?!” I replied.
She shrugged even less sympathetically.
I stepped away from the counter before I hurt someone – myself included and thought about all the ways I could get home that would be less expensive than a cab: like simply buying my own car and filling it with premium gasoline.
Then I thought about waiting until Tuesday and flying home – which would be impossible to do because I couldn’t get back through security without my license.
And that’s when the real desperation set it. Because. when you are in Jamaica, Queens, 250 miles from home, without the identification needed to rent a car, or to get back into the airport to board a flight in two days, certain things run through your head. Like, which bridge I was going to sleep under that night.
I felt like Jimmy Stewart running through Pottersville, except I was standing still, and reality was moving around me. I stood there for a while. Frozen.
Then I started moving again. I called the San Antonio Airport lost and found, nothing, who patched me through to the TSA, nothing. My next move was to go back to the American Airlines counter, outside the security checkpoint, to see if I’d dropped it on the flight, maybe.
As I walked that way, I turned to higher powers.
Now, I’m not an overly religious person. I’m a Catholic. But whenever I lose something important, I slip in a prayer to St. Anthony.
I also called my wife, who is my earthly version of the patron saint of lost things.
As expected, she did her impersonation of tech support asking if the computer was plugged in, which is exactly what I would do to her.
“Did you check your pockets?”
“I’ve been stranded outside JFK for 40 minutes looking for my license in every orifice I have, do you think I checked my pockets?”
She was unfazed and went back to the tech support manual.
“When is the last time you had it?”
“San Antonio!” I replied, only slightly yelling, consciously trying not to let my frustration and hopelessness cause irreparable harm to my marriage. I also tried to channel the advice we give our kids when they’ve lost something and say things like, I already checked there. Our line is, “How can we find what’s lost if we don’t check in places we’ve already looked?”
Still, being on the receiving end of the have-you-looked-here checklist can be very frustrating. So, I brought her up to speed on my status.
“I’ve checked my pockets. I checked both my bags. I already called the San Antonio Airport, I even spoke to a TSA agent there. He was very nice. And, I am so screwed!”
“Where is the boarding pass that was with it?”
“My pocket,” I replied, fishing it out and waving the practically translucent rectangle of paper in the air like a mad man. “No license!”
"And your computer bag?"
“Yes,” I replied, opening the front of my computer bag again, where my two other, now useless, boarding passes for canceled flights were carefully stowed. “I’ve checked there.”
Then I caught sight of a small pocket in the computer bag for business cards. And I vaguely remembered stuffing the cards I got during the conference, and the leftover “Ruddy Bits” business cards I didn’t distribute, into the pocket at some point during the past 8 hours.
I know what you’re thinking: What kind of dork has cards for their dumb blog? You’re right. But I realized after the first blogger conference I attended that cards were a useful thing to have. So, for ten bucks, I got 500 of them printed up. I’ve still got 450. I’ve also since learned that getting blog business cards is kind of like getting tattoos. You will have them forever.
I pulled out the cards belonging to myself and other bloggers I’d met and started shuffling through them like a one-handed black jack dealer.
And, holy shit, there was my license.
“I found it!” I yelled to my wife, into the air, and to everyone else. “It’s here!”
Relief poured over me like a model in a Sprite commercial.
I thanked my tech support, and told her I loved her, and that if all goes well, I’d be home tonight.
Then I went back to the Budget rental car counter to seal the deal on my ride home.
Yet, they had one more surprise left for me. They didn’t have any cars.
A rather rude manager explained to me that all these flights were canceled, and I was the tenth person in the last hour to show up and try to get a car that was booked just moments before. What did people think, that they have cars just sitting around waiting for people.
“You’re a car rental company. So, yes,” I replied.
She didn’t like my attitude either, and I wished I was talking to the uninterested counterperson again.
That’s when I must've prayed to the patron saint of rental cars, because another counterperson, who wasn’t uninterested or rude, intervened and asked how comfortable I was driving a van.
“That’s what I drive,” I told him, squeezing in the fact that I have four kids, so nobody thought I was a pervert. “You know, like a minivan.”
Not like a minivan, an actual minivan.
Notice the step needed to get in. Not a minivan.
Within minutes, I signed a contract, refused extra insurance, and had the keys to a rental van – a ginormous 12-passenger, people moving, shuttle van. It looked like a European ambulance without the emergency lights. And I was about to drive this behemoth through New York City and 250 miles north.

But I knew I could do it. I was born to do it. Not because I was a trucker in a former life. Because I was one of 8 kids. Not a typo. And, at one point in the 80s my parents bought a used, turtle-top, 15 passenger van with red and white stripes to get us around. The Ruddy Bus, as it came to be known, originally shuttled people from a Marriot hotel to a tarmac at some airport, and it had big black numbers on top (M-17) so the flight tower could identify it. That people-mover even had a bus door that went "PSHHH" when you pulled the lever. It's amazing what you can find on the secondary market if you know where to look.

In any event, I was ready to drive this big rental van home. It was in my blood. 
I spent the next hour snaking my way through Queens and across the Bronx, pondering the question, “Am I a car or am I a truck?” each time a sign on a bridge read, “Passenger Vehicles Only – No Trucks.”
And then, for the following three and a half hours, I chugged through New Jersey, Northeastern Pennsylvania, and into upstate New York driving the equivalent of a main sail in 60 mile per hour wind gusts, all so I could see my wife and kids.
Somewhere in New Jersey, I looked back and saw all the empty seats, and wished I’d tried to find any other stranded Syracusans who needed a ride. That took care of my guilt quota for the remainder of the ride – Catholic, remember.
And some 24 hours after my first flight was canceled, and 14 hours after the plane lifted off from San Antonio, a shuttle bus carrying one passenger pulled into our driveway.
A swarm of kids greeted me at the door. Mission complete.
Because, sometimes, you just want to go home.




Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Why You Should Always Make One Last Cast

I was done, having had no luck all day. I’d changed flies, tried different techniques, added weight to sink the midge lower in the water, taken weight off to let another float along the top. I’d matched the hatch and turned to my trusty never fail. I’d thrown everything in the bag at them over several hours. And nothing.

The kicker: it was a crystal-clear day on my favorite river, and I could see fish all around me. But they weren’t taking what I was serving.

Situations like this remind me of my favorite W.C. Fields quote: “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it.”

So, I was calling it quits.

Walking out along the creek, I decided to throw one more cast in the direction of a big brown trout I could see nestled behind a rock. It was my most half-assed cast of the day. I literally flipped the rod over as I walked and let the fly plop down on the water with a thud no respectable fisherman would aspire to.

And, WHAP. He took it.

Before I go any further, you should know now that this is not going to be a post about fly fishing. It’s about far a less interesting subject: the stage of success known as quitting.

Fisherman often claim that fishing imitates life. Just as golfers say it about golf, and knitters about knitting. But, in this case, it’s more about how life can imitate fishing.

As some people know, I’ve been writing this blog for quite some time now. I used to write here quite regularly. Even posted weekly, for a while. And, over the years it has been a fun outlet for my creative side and a fine place to chronicle our family adventures – now of great use to my increasingly forgetful mind.

It’s also opened some interesting doors. Because of this dumb blog, I reconnected with some old friends, met some new ones, and, one time, I even got our family a free ski vacation. One of the most interesting things to happen due to this whole blog thing has been my involvement with the Dadbloggers Facebook group and my attendance at the Dad 2.0 Summit – a yearly gathering of dad social media influencers and parenting writers.

One of the 2018 Spotlight Bloggers, Doug Zeigler,
 reading his blog post to the conference.
I’ve gone twice: 2016 in Washington, D.C., and 2018 in New Orleans. Not that I’ve ever influenced anyone. Heck, my kids don’t even listen to me. But I’ve had some great experiences at these conferences, picked up a few writing tips, made those friends I mentioned, and had a lot of fun.

As it happens, each year the organizers of the Dad 2.0 Summit recognize a few bloggers from across the country and have them share a post – as in read it – to the hundreds of people at the conference. It’s the Blogger Spotlight and it’s kind of a big deal.

To become a Spotlighter, a post has to be nominated (most often by the author) and then get selected from a few hundred submissions. And, for the past four or five years, I’ve had posts nominated (most often by the author).

I always wanted to get selected because I looked at it as validation from my peers that I wasn’t totally wasting my time. I also dreamed that it would be one more step on the way to other goals – like writing books, or early retirement.

Yet, it never happened. And, I started to figure it never would. 

Lately, I haven’t exactly been the most prolific writer, by any stretch. As time has marched on and sped up, the ideas just seem to come to me less often, and the opportunity to write passes before I have a chance to funnel my thoughts into a coherent thing worth putting into words.

To be honest, I’ve thought lately about letting this old blog just fade away. I always say to myself when I’m preparing a post, maybe this will be the last one.

I wouldn’t stop creating, altogether. I’d focus on the dumb book I’m halfway finished writing. And I’d tweet, which has much more immediate returns than blogging, from the positive feedback side of the equation.

Maybe it was time, I thought, to quit RuddyBits.

Then, in January, I got a text. Actually, it was a Facebook message – which is now considered old school. It was from one of the Dad 2.0 Summit organizers asking if I’d like to read one of my post as a 2019 Spotlight Blogger.

WHAP.

It made me think again about how, sometimes, it's right when you are ready to walk away that your luck turns around. Some people call it persistence. But it might be something else. But, whatever it is, it can change your perspective.

You know that time on the river, when my last cast of the day landed the fish? It ended up not being my last cast. I kept going.

How can you walk away after something like that, am I right?

So, now I’m headed to San Antonio to read a blog post on parenting. And I imagine, at some point, this damn fool will probably want to write about it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Chaos Theory of Parenting

A butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand, and I end up late for work.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely the butterfly’s fault. It really started, one morning last week, with my eldest daughter and her talent for sleeping through an alarm clock. Literally, this is her super power. An alarm clock could be buzzing right next to her ear, and nothing. Which probably has something to do with her penchant for staying up late to finish homework. Which may or may not have been on abstract mathematics.

Our typical morning routine has a predictable linear structure. (I know it is redundant to call a routine typical, as that’s the nature of a routine, but this is Science not English). Child 1 ostensibly gets up at 6:15 a.m., to be on the bus at 6:52. Children 2 and 3 rise from their slumber when child 1 departs, and they get on their bus at 7:40. That’s when child 4 awakes, his bus arriving at 8:12, which he dutifully boards.

I call this predictable structure the Ordered Family model. And it works well on paper. In reality, it rarely occurs.

Here’s a sample of our reality through the lens of one particular day last week when my wife just happened to be away on business.


And this was the best time of all.
The alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. as planned. Our oldest child didn’t move, however. Unplanned. Then it went off again. And again. When she did finally move, she announced she needed a shower because “it had been a few days.” We have an unwritten rule that we never stop a kid from cleansing themselves. Still, the shower was unplanned. And it ate up precious seconds.

Long story short: she missed the bus. So, of course, I had to drive her. I woke the two younger ones, who are just barely old enough to be left home alone, and ordered them to get ready as I took the eldest to the High School.

When I got back, the house was still standing and everyone was alive, but nobody was ready for the middle school bus, now just moments way. So, I quickly threw together their lunches, prodded them to brush their teeth and get dressed, and then I watched as the bus pulled away while they sat at our counter nonchalantly eating breakfast. Bus missed.

To take them to school, I had to wake the boy, as he cannot be left alone for everybody’s sake. Once his sisters were deposited at middle school. We went back home to get him out of his PJs and ready for his bus, which he missed. So, it was back in the car and to the third school of the day to drop off yet another child.

By the time I got home, I had exactly zero minutes to get showered, dressed and off to work. Needless to say, I was late. Like, really late.

That’s when it occurred to me the similarities between math's Chaos Theory and the way my wife and I are as parents: the Chaos Theory of Parenting.

This theory is not so much a planned philosophy or a framework as an observational reality. And it’s one that can be witnessed by spending even a single morning at our house… or an afternoon… or any given Saturday.

In mathematics, Chaos theory is used to describe dynamic systems where minor variations in initial variables can cause wildly different outcomes. It’s been popularized by the analogy known as the Butterfly Effect: A butterfly flaps its wings and that results in a hurricane half a world away. A little farfetched, I know. But smarter people than I claim it works.

I find it easier to understand Chaos Theory by thinking about the game Plinko on the Price Is Right. That’s the one where the lucky contestant drops a round chip down the Plinko board and it bounces around rather unpredictably until it reaches the bottom. In reality, the reaction of the Plinko chip to its surroundings is quite predictable, scientifically speaking, if you know all the precise variables, which include the speed of the chip, the friction of the board, the angle it hits the first peg, and the second peg, etc. The Chaos comes in when even the slightest variation in any one of those variables dramatically changes the path of the Plinko chip. I like the Plinko analogy because I feel like a Plinko chip going down the board on a daily basis.


The Plinko Theory of Parenting isn't as catchy
The difference is that in Plinko there are only five possible outcomes. While in life, and in parenting, there are infinite. Kid 3 could miss the bus. Kid 2 could leave without gloves and have to stay in for recess. Kid 4 could forget his homework, and his parents could get a call from the teacher. Dad could be late so often that he gets fired, and the whole family could have to move to another state. Anything could happen. All based on Kid 1 sleeping through her alarm and a host of other initial variables.

I tried to explain this to said kids in the car on the evening of the particular day in question.

“Have any of you heard of the Butterfly Effect?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the high schooler. “Isn’t that how a butterfly on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other?”

“Yes!” I responded, almost gleeful.

“Wait,” said the 12-yr-old. “I learned in science that the weather is caused by high and low pressure in the atmosphere?”

“It is,” I stated, trying to think how to marry the two thoughts. “This is before all that."

“What kind of butterfly?” asked the 10-yr-old.

“That doesn’t matter,” I replied.

“So, butterflies cause high pressure fronts?” asked the 12-yr-old, confused.

“I thought you told us once that hurricanes are caused by extreme low pressure,” said the high schooler.

“I did.” God save me. “I was just mentioning the Butterfly Effect to relate it to our mornings and making the bus.”

“What do butterflies have to do with the bus?” asked the 10-yr-old.

“Look, take our typical morning routine…”

“Doesn’t the word routine imply that it’s typical?” pondered the high schooler, in a condescending way.

“Ugh,” I grunted.

The 10-yr-old recollected, "Remember when we went in the butterfly tent at the fair?”

“Yes. Look, it’s just that if one of you misses the bus, it can make me late for work.

“Um. I still don’t get what this has to do with the weather,” said the 12-yr-old.

“You know what, never mind.”

“I have to pee,” said the 8-yr-old.

So, rather than accurately describing Chaos Theory to my kids, I showed them an example of it in conversation form.

Not that they need to be shown. Because, the truth is, you can look at almost any aspect of our lives and find discernable examples of chaos.

You could be observing us on what seems like an otherwise quiet evening when an unexpected (but predictable) variable occurs, like someone yelling, “Oh My God! We forgot soccer practice!”

And then we suddenly find ourselves scrambling to get our tween to her indoor soccer practice, and the whole plan for dinner is out the window and half our kids are crying because they’re hungry and haven’t started their homework. All because one of us had to run to the store after work to get an ingredient for the dinner we now aren’t making and, in the frenzy, simply forgot it was a practice day.

Come to think of it, the ingredient we were missing was chicken broth. And we were out of it because I'd made soup the day before. I made soup because it was raining. It was raining because of a big storm that had hit the whole coast. So, it may well have been the fault of a butterfly, after all.

Clearly, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the real Chaos Theory, however I’ve found that with proper use of vagueness and big words, anyone can sound like they’re an expert on theoretical mathematics.

Parenting, on the other hand, is not quite so easy.