DAT BATHROOM, IT WAS MAGICAL

Yesterday, Nell and Maggie and Jimmy and I were making the 200 mile drive on the New York State Thruway from Rochester to Albany. Almost to the halfway point, we passed a rest stop near Syracuse that jogged my memory of a classic Ball Family Story from years ago. Everyone was asleep in the van as I drove past the rest stop yesterday, so I had no audience for one of my favorite Maggie stories from when she was three:

In the winter of 2003, we were driving the same route back to Albany from Rochester when my three year-old reminded me of why I need to carry my writer’s notebook with me, AND WRITE IN IT, more often. Sometimes you just need to capture the small moments in life, right away, so you don’t lose them or forget them. Then you can develop them into bigger things about bigger ideas, better writing pieces about things that you really care about.

We had just stopped at a Thruway Service Area because Maggie announced that she had to go to the bathroom. This happens every 100 miles or so. Danny and I stayed in the car, as Maggie and Nell went in for just another routine pit stop. I was bored as we waited for them to return.  Traveling the thruway is not glamorous.

A few minutes later, Maggie came sprinting up to the car, saying something all out of breath, eager to share some news or observation with me. She could hardly wait to tell me what she saw inside, and she started almost yelling as she climbed into her car seat.

“Daddy, daddy…dat bathroom in dere…it was…MAGICAL!” she declared with bright eyes and a huge smile on her face. It was as if she had just walked out of the Magic Castle at Disney World.

 “Daddy, daddy…dat bathroom in dere…it was…MAGICAL!”

This, from the daughter of the man who makes his kids recite aloud his Golden Restroom Rule whenever they enter a public restroom, “DON’T. TOUCH. ANYTHING!” 

I had no idea what she’d seen in that Thruway Service Area restroom, but an image came to mind. I pictured a mystical toilet stall, something that could transport a child to different dimensions with each magical flush. Something akin to CS Lewis’ wardrobe, or JK Rowling’s secret train platform.

My next thought, almost as quickly, was that no adult would ever exit a public restroom (especially one on the NYS Thruway) smiling with elation, and purposely choose the word MAGICAL to describe the state of something seen within said premises.

I asked, “What was magical, Maggie?”

“Da sinks came on LIKE MAGIC! And dat, dat, dat TING wit the air…it blew on my hands, too!” She could not suppress her wonderment of the advanced technological devices that so clearly outshone the dreary devices of our bathrooms at home.

I smiled with Maggie and I wondered when the last time was that I was thrilled and convinced that something truly magical had just happened to me?

Was it on my wedding day?

Was it at the birth of my children?

These moments come so rarely, or better yet, are noticed so rarely by adults, and yet they happen so often to children.

I found myself envying Maggie and how she sees the world around her. I hope her eyesight and her perception don’t change anytime soon. I hope further that she can teach Nell and me how to see as well as she does.

There are just some things that little kids do better, and know better, than adults.

 

 

 

Family, Together

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Maggie, Jimmy, and Danny with their cousin Ellen – Easter, 2006.

Today, Easter Sunday, was the first major holiday in twenty years that we weren’t all together as a family.  Our oldest is away, a sophomore in college. There have been lots of ways, large and small, over the past two years that our family life has changed. But not enjoying a big holiday together just kind of snuck up on my wife and me today.

We joined my brother and my nephew at my parents’ house for a nice Easter brunch today.  It was great to see my folks and my brother and his son.  I love being back in the house I grew up in, too.

Being there for part of the past two days reminded me of the year that I moved away from my home, and my parents, and my brother.  It was 1989, and I was twenty-five years old.  My best friend, Michael, and I moved from Rochester, NY to Seattle, WA – a distance of over 2,600 miles.

I missed being with my family for every major holiday for about two or three years after I moved away.  Even though I wasn’t physically with my mom and dad and brother on those big days, I never thought for a moment that they weren’t with me emotionally.  Once a family, always a family, whether you are together in the same place or not.  It took moving away from home for me to realize that.

I wasn’t exactly alone for the holidays out in Seattle though.  Michael had extended family in Washington State.  His aunt and uncle and his cousins were nearby and they took great care to make sure we were always with their family during the holidays.  This made being away from my own family at holiday time much more bearable.

Thinking back on the first times I was away from my own family during the holidays helped me realize that today wasn’t the beginning of the end of our family of five.  We called Dan today, and we Skyped with him too.  But even if we hadn’t have done that, I know that we’re family, always a family…whether we’re together in the same place or not.  I just hope Dan realized that today, too.

 

Vinyl Memories

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My blog is called Always Going Home, and today, I went home.  I’m spending the weekend with my parents in the home where I grew up.  It’s Easter weekend and that has me thinking about Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  When I had a moment tonight, I leafed through my parents’ record collection looking for it, and the memories started flooding back.

The soundtrack album to Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970 when I was in first grade.  It was one of the first albums I remember choosing to play from my parents’ record collection, and it pretty much serves as my gateway album into the world of rock and roll when I was a child.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the artists on Superstar were also rocking out with Deep Purple, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and Eric Clapton.  It was these bands, and many others like them, that I grew to love in my teenage years.

Along with the soundtrack to Godspell, which was released in the same year, I learned a lot about Catholicism from these popular musical soundtracks of the 1970s.  There were many Easter Sundays in my youth spent flipping the four sides of Superstar over and over again on the record player. What’s the Buzz. I Don’t Know How to Love Him.  Superstar.  I can close my eyes, sitting in my parents’ living room, and imagine hearing these songs for the first time.  I flipped through the song lyric booklet tonight and was struck by how much it looks like a missal from church.

My dad was a big jazz fan back in the bebop era, and he had tons of vinyl he let my brother and me play.  He built the stereo we had in our living room from a kit he bought at Sam Goody in New York City in the 1950s.  There was often music playing in the house, and my dad let my brother and me choose freely and explore his collection.  I didn’t like the jazz as much as the musicals, but I was willing to give most of it a try.  It took me about twenty years, but I finally developed a love of jazz as an adult.

My mom was a fan of the women that were popular in the 1970s singer-songwriter scene: Anne Murray, Bette Midler, Linda Rondstadt, and Judy Collins.  I liked most of these artists too and I found I liked the personal and reflective songs they showcased.  I don’t listen to these artists much today, but as I scanned through the liner notes in my mom’s albums tonight, I noticed who wrote the songs: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, John Prine…all became favorites of mine eventually.

My parents love the musical arts; they pushed my brother and me into taking music lessons on guitar and drums and they often took us to plays, musicals, and concerts.  One of my first concerts was seeing  trumpeter Chuck Mangione play a free show outside the local PBS television studios.  My love of music comes directly from my parents.

Although my tastes have changed a great deal since the years I sat for hours sampling my parents’ record collection and listening to Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter Sundays, I can see the links and the progression of how I got here from there.  A friend of mine likes to say, “If you can’t brainwash your kids, then what kind of a parent are you…?”

I am happy my parents brainwashed me musically.

 

 

 

 

Bluebird Singing

 

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Her father called her Bluebird

when she was a little girl,

it being a symbol

of happiness and good cheer.

These were easy to see.

 

But the bluebird is known

for other things too,

that also fit the woman

she gracefully grew to be.

 

As a garden bird,

none are more helpful;

gardeners will do anything

to keep them near.

And the bluebird,

the female,

does the work

of building the nests

and incubating the eggs,

and looking out

for her brood.

 

And while some bluebirds

leave us

when they’re still young,

their song,

their beautiful song,

can be heard

even yet

in their chicks,

and in the broods

of their chicks,

that live on.

 

There are three bluebirds

on a windowsill

in our house.

 

I can hear them singing.

 

 

 

My mother-in-law, Barbara Malone, would have turned 80 this past Sunday, on the first day of spring.

 

Before the Dawn

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I’m always the first one awake in my family.  I usually have about an hour to myself before my wife gets up for work.  I read and I write, I walk the dog, and I enjoy what is the slowest part of my day.

This morning, though, Nell got up before I did.  I walked downstairs at 5 a.m. and saw her at the kitchen counter on her laptop typing away.  She was putting the final touches on some professional development materials for the digital literacy training she was leading today at her elementary school.  A teacher’s work is never done.

Our dog was awake too, and she needed to go out. With my morning mug of coffee in hand, Ginger and I set out for a walk around Colonial Acres, the one hundred plus homes of my neighborhood.  It was still dark and the air was crisp.  I don’t know what I did before I had a dog, but I rarely left the house before daylight.

I love where I live.  In some ways, it’s like being trapped in a time warp with the 21st century out there somewhere nearby, just beyond my neighbors’ yards.  There are no street lights in the Acres, just the glow of porch lights and lampposts.  At 5:15 in the morning, it’s rare to see any cars on our streets.  There is only one way in and out.  I’ve walked Ginger for more than half an hour at times and haven’t seen a moving car.  The homes were built in the early sixties, as was I.  There is a distinct feeling I get sometimes of walking back in time as I stroll down our streets.

I felt that way this morning as I walked Ginger in the dark.  As I sipped my coffee and slowly woke up, I traveled back in time.  I thought of two of my “boy” roles from long ago: paperboy and altar boy.  Both gave me reasons to be up before dawn in the little town of my youth.  My older brother John and I delivered the Democrat and Chronicle, a morning newspaper, every day of the week for about three years when we were in junior high and high school.  This meant waking up around 6 a.m. and walking or riding our bikes while we delivered newspapers to about one third of our town.

On a good day, delivering papers is boring and repetitive, but we made the best of it.  On one street, for three customers in a row, I went straight to Straight’s, left to Lefty’s and then right to Wright’s.  I’d hold my temples and pretend scream, “Stella!” like Brando when I put the Sunday paper on Stella Maddox’s front porch.  I learned that my teachers had real lives when I delivered the news to their homes.

I was an altar boy for ten years.  Two or three times a year, I had to serve a week’s worth of 7 a.m. masses with my brother.  These masses ended in half the time as the Sunday masses did, and they took place in a darkened church every weekday morning.  It was difficult to stay awake sometimes, even during the shortened mass.  I remember racing to finish my paper route and then scrambling to get to mass on time when my early morning duties crossed paths.  I saw faith and devotion in the hearts of true believers, a faith so strong it brought them together beyond Sundays.

While I had nothing more to do this morning than walk the dog, I thought of those busy mornings of my youth.  These days, a middle aged man in a car delivers papers to my neighbors and there are often no servers at mass, but that’s what was on my mind as the sun began to ease me into my day.  It was during those days long ago that I learned to wake up early and take advantage of the day before most of the rest of my world did.

During those early hours, my mind would wander and I’d dream of the person I might grow to be some day.  I’d drop a paper on a porch and wonder about the lives lived on the other side of the door.  I remember my neighbors leaving their garage doors unlocked for me and I remember taking shortcuts through their yards and I remember delivering the news of the world in the silent darkness before the dawn.  I remember.

That early morning time provided an opportunity for me, on a daily basis, to dream of an unknown future and to make plans to branch out and see the wider world beyond my paper route and my church.  It provided a time for me to notice and name things that made up my world and to invent things that weren’t in it yet.  Although I didn’t write down a word, those early morning hours of my youth helped me to become a writer.

This morning, as I walked a familiar path past neighbors’ homes, I could smell a hint of incense in the air and feel the newsprint on my hands.  A writer’s work is never done.

Following My Son

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He pedals on ahead,

turning a corner

as I crawl slowly behind

in the car.

Headlights cut the night,

showing him the way.

Hawaiian music drifts

from the radio,

something about rainbows

and a wonderful world.

 

It’s tricky,

keeping the right distance,

and as we near our house

I realize this perfect

little arrangement must end.

 

But

what if he blew past

our driveway,

and pedaled into his future,

with me guiding him along

from behind?

 

Could a father

follow his son

like this

forever?

 

I can see him,

embarrassed again,

navigating the maze

of middle school,

trying hard to ignore

the sound

of my side view mirrors

scraping against lockers

behind him.

 

And I can see him

holding an unopened beer

at a party

with me parallel-parked

near the fridge.

My hazards are flashing,

signaling the dangers to come,

even as they match the beat

of the music I don’t understand.

 

And I can see him

walking into an interview

as I idle next to the elevators,

listening to the receptionist cough

as carbon monoxide fumes

fill the lobby

and distract the other candidates

from their last minute preparations.

 

And I can see him

drying off his son at a baptismal font,

the congregation politely applauding

as a car horn honks wildly

from the reserved parking area

just behind the pews.

 

But I see him

slow down instead

and coast purposefully

into our driveway.

Home.

 

I signal the right turn,

humming along

with that ukulele,

watching

end

credits

roll

up

across

the

windshield

as our trip nears its end.

 

I’m following my son.

For now, anyway.

 

As I put the car in park

and turn the key,

darkness fills in,

but everything’s clear –

 

he’ll use his own light

to find his way,

to search somewhere

over those rainbows,

and to come to know

this wonderful world

on his own.

 

 

This poem was inspired from a night I followed my eight year-old son Danny home on his bike from a friend’s house in 2005.

I had written in my writer’s notebook that night a seed for developing later: a cool life moment: Danny in the headlights of our Dodge Caravan, riding his bike home in front of me. Slowly following him so he’d be safe. Cool music on the radio. It’s got that ukulele and humming in it and it’s from a TV ad. It was like a scene out of a movie.

 A year and a half later, I started the first draft of a poem at a Capital District Writing Project writing retreat. I’ve been revising it every so often for ten years.

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

This final draft was revised and edited again for the Slice of Life challenge, March 2016. Today is Dan’s 20th birthday, 3/23/16, and I have officially abandoned this poem.

Happy birthday, Dan! Keep searching somewhere over those rainbows…your light is already shining bright.          Love, Dad

No More Writing About Not Writing

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I started the Slice of Life Challenge on March 2nd, rather than on March 1st. I’m a day late and a blog short. So, I’ll be blogging daily though April Fool’s Day to complete my March challenge, but even so, it’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

I have learned so much about writing and blogging, and about the powerful motivation and support that a writing community can provide to writers. I plan on taking what I’ve learned this month and applying it to my classroom instruction. Hopefully, my students will have an opportunity to set up their own writing blogs and begin supporting each other very soon.

This daily writing thing really has me staying up late and waking up early almost every day.   It’s like being in graduate school and teaching full time again. It’s tough to put life on hold and get away for an hour to write. The Slice of Life Challenge really puts the pressure on at times, I’m finding.

One night a week ago, my wife and I were out to dinner quite late with some friends we hadn’t seen in years. While I loved our time together and our conversation, the copy desk editor in the back of my head was also yelling, “OK…OK…let’s wrap this up, people…you’ve got a blog to post by midnight.”

We’re two-thirds of the way through a month of daily Slice of Life blog posts.  Like signing up for a daily cardio boot camp class, the SOL Challenge is one of those things where after four or five days, the excitement and the newness wear off and the “What the heck have I gotten myself into?” thoughts start to flood in. Then the real work begins. But it is such good work.

Tonight, after thinking about the events of my day, and finding nothing much to write about, I was about to start playing around with a draft of a “Ten Things I’d Rather Be Doing Than Writing at 10PM” poem. But when I couldn’t really come up with anything much more than “sleeping” to put on the list, then I knew I was still going to be OK. I’ll make it through this challenge for the month of March. I intend to keep posting slices of life every Tuesday beyond that, too.

I’ve been searching for ideas to write about in my old writer’s notebooks at times over the past three weeks. I do find some excellent seeds for developing in there, but I also keep finding entries that say things like this one does from 9/24/2014:

I avoid writing all the time. I always think I need HUGE blocks of time to write something. There’s got to be a better way. I am sick and tired of not doing any creative writing.  The last time I finished a writing piece must be 4 years ago. I have ideas for essays, poems, and other pieces, especially about stuff from my childhood. But I never prioritize writing in my schedule.

Thanks to everyone at Two Writing Teachers and the community of writers involved in this year’s Slice of Life Challenge, I am now prioritizing writing in my schedule. And I’m not writing about not writing in my notebooks anymore.