Friday, August 30, 2013

Visiting Grandma Sue

I stood over my mother’s grave, holding my son and looking down while tears collected in my sunglasses.  When my thoughts failed to become words, I set Gabe down. He walked away and attempted to steal a balloon from a dead stranger. This was not the way I envisioned introducing my child to his grandmother.

I’m uncomfortable visiting my mother’s grave, and have only done so a handful of times in the 18 years since she passed. That is a long time to carry on a one-sided conversation, but I kneel and speak a few short awkward sentences, because beneath almost two decades of scar tissue, part of me is still the heartbroken 13 year-old who needs her to hear, even if the 31 year-old me feels ridiculous.

For years after my mother’s suicide, I blamed myself for not doing more to ease the pain she carried around. I would have given anything for the opportunity to go back and live with her, even if it meant leaving my friends to transfer to the school in her town. No matter what else was going on in her mind, if I would have done that, she might be here today. I still believe that.

But I would no longer give anything for the opportunity to go back and do it differently. I wouldn’t trade today or any of the days I have left to change the past. Not because I’m pissed or because I’m over her death – I'm not. It's because giving up one day of being the father I am would break my heart more than the baggage I carry over all the days my mother gave up.

So here we are - my wife and I – left to decide the appropriate strategy for teaching our son about the grandmother he’ll never meet. If you take your child to the resting place of a loved one, you want them to understand the meaning and remember it when they’re older. It’s like the shittiest possible version of planning a trip to Disney World.

I made the decision to stop at the cemetery, even though our son is too young for it to be impactful. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to introduce a toddler to the idea of a woman I only kind of understand myself, but figured the words would come.

With the exception of “No, that’s not your balloon,” in a raspy voice through muffled tears, the words did not come. My wife did her best to take the lead, managing, “this is where your grandma is,” before the moment proved easier to strategize than deliver. She decided to take our son back to the car and give me a couple minutes.

I kneeled down.

“I’m trying...”
“We’ll be back...”

“I really hope you can see him.”

When I got back to the car, I wiped my eyes and sighed that exaggerated sigh guys do when they want to move forward from an emotional moment without talking about it. As I put the car in gear, I told my wife these trips would get easier.

“I doubt it.”

Me too.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Hangover

I think most of us had the same reaction when we saw the trailer for the latest installment of The Hangover: please stop. That was also the message I shared with Gabe, as he screamed and banged on doors while I cried and vomited my way through latest installment of My Hangover.

I caught a glimpse of a disheveled, possibly-homeless, man in the bathroom mirror that day. I recognized those eyes. I'd seen this fellow years earlier, but he'd since gained weight, and looked much older. There was a child yelling through the bathroom door, as though he couldn't tell this man had been drinking craft beer until 2AM that morning. The broken man in the mirror believed the child was being a bit of an asshole. Where are this kid's parents, he thought.

I immediately started thinking of ways to help this poor bastard get back on his feet. I would start with a razor. From there we would sit down and come up with a comprehensive diet and exercise plan. Something told me this guy had recently gorged himself on skillet queso and cajun pasta at Chili's. It was palpable, really. You could almost taste it.

This was turning out to be a bigger job than I intended, so I thought it best to take a nap before we got started. When I woke up, that sad sack was nowhere to be found. Just the child who seemed so inconsolable earlier, happily playing with his mother, who I know had a lot of studying she should have been doing instead. She must have taken it upon herself to get rid of that smelly freeloader while I was sleeping. And now here she was looking after our son. What a great girl. I decided to let her get back to work and gave Gabe a bath.

After I cleaned him up, I sat back and watched Gabe play in the tub for a while. He was having the time of his life when things seemed to change suddenly. Without warning, it was almost as though he'd played too hard. 

He shit in the bathtub and looked at me with a blank expression. 

I recognized those eyes.

Oh no.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mary Louise Cratty 1926-2013

My wife was not particularly fond of me after one month of courtship. Her intention was to dump me and move on, but her mother didn’t know that and pressured Summer into bringing me to meet them at a local dealership where she was looking at a vehicle with her husband and mother.

Despite the fact Summer's father is built like a brick shithouse and her mother has the ability to size people up in a nanosecond, I was comfortable meeting her parents. Her grandmother was another story.

Grandparents don't sugarcoat their true feelings and it doesn’t take much to offend them. I was told her grandmother immediately disliked her previous boyfriend and her disapproval never wavered. I was sure I would be confronted by a weathered old broad who tries to smoke on airplanes and intentionally runs any stop sign that went up in her hometown after 1972.

Instead, what I saw at the dealership was an adorable unassuming woman strolling around the lot with light bouncing off the colorful jewels on her jacket, wondering aloud what she might look like cruising around town in a yellow VW Beetle. I loved her instantly.

I didn’t get dumped after all. I am sure her family’s seal of approval, including her grandmother's, had something to do with that.

I was blessed to share more than four years worth of experiences with Summer's grandmother. I watched an intoxicated woman excitedly lifted her off the casino floor at Excalibur in Las Vegas. I sat in my in-laws kitchen and listened to her give a spot-on breakdown of a Boston Celtics game when I didn’t think she even knew it was basketball season. While my in-laws were on vacation, we popped over to help with a few chores and I was delighted to learn the annoying ducks in her garage were purchased by Jerry “at the hillbilly auction.”

Summer, Seth, and Mary Louise in VEGAS!

We sometimes take these moments for granted. We assume each passing year will give way to another fresh slate on which we’ll write new stories. When you go to a car dealership hoping to win the favor of an elderly woman whose granddaughter may dump you within the week, you don’t take anything for granted. You appreciate each moment and hope it’s not the last you get to be a part of.

I love being part of my wife’s family for more reasons than I can count. One of them was getting to know her grandmother. Now, like the rest of her amazing family, I will tell the stories and enjoy the memories.

And I’ll smile every time I see a yellow VW Beetle, hopefully on it’s way to pick up ducks at the hillbilly auction.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Tom Arnold is the Coolest

There were two distinctly Iowan qualities in the woman behind the ticket counter at the Cedar Rapids airport Sunday morning; Midwestern friendliness and an enthusiasm for Tom Arnold. The man most famous to the majority of the country for his marriage and divorce from Rosanne Barr is revered in his home state. Iowans are like that; you stay loyal to them, they’ll stay loyal to you.

“There’s a celebrity on your flight!” said the woman, clearly excited to share the news.

Despite my Dallas-residing, too cool for school attitude, the Iowan in me was intrigued.

I walked toward security thinking, 1) I can’t imagine Tom Arnold appreciates airline employees alerting travelers of his presence, given the inclination of star-struck rubes to hassle people they recognize from television, and 2) my folks need to wrap up good-byes with their grandson ASAP, I gotta go find Tom Arnold!

Many people, especially from rural areas, approach celebrities for pictures and autographs. I do not. By leaving them alone I obey an unspoken code usually broken by those who rarely see celebrities in person. I used to work at a television station in Dallas and once shoulder bumped a diminutive fellow who turned out to be Richard Marx. Clearly, I can handle myself in the presence of megastars.

On this occasion, I was traveling with my 10 month-old son, meaning there was a good chance I would ruin Tom Arnold’s flight. To acknowledge the situation without breaking the code, I felt it appropriate to tweet him a hassle-free preemptive apology:

To my surprise and the pleasure of those seated around me, Gabe was a perfect little traveler. Over the two-hour flight, he didn’t have a single outburst. When he exited the plane, Tom (we’re on a first name basis) looked at Gabe, smiled and said, “Hey, Buddy!”

I had to admit it was a pretty neat interaction to tell people about. My Iowa friends would get a kick out of it.

Then on the way home, I received this reply to my pre-flight tweet:

Tom Arnold is the coolest. And not just because I’m from Iowa.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Flexible Traffic Laws for Babies

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living or how often you go to church, if you walk into a courthouse for any reason other than a 7th grade field trip, you are a criminal receiving your comeuppance, and the people who work there treat you as such.

I attempt to be as friendly as possible when paying fines. It’s my way of saying, “I’m a good person with a lot to offer, and despite the six cat-related trinkets on the desk behind you, I’m sure you are too. There’s no reason for this to be unpleasant.”

I don’t blame the cat ladies for emotionally boxing out my friendliness. If people have to walk through a metal detector to interact with you at your job, and you don’t work behind the controls of a 747, chances are you run across a lot of shitheads.

Until my most recent speeding ticket, I had given up on ever having a pleasant experience in a municipal courthouse. Then I walked in with a baby.

Some people thought it was a little shallow and off-putting when I referred to my dear child as a great fashion accessory. Raising babies is hard work. The sleep you’re accustomed to is virtually non-existent, intimate moments with your spouse are tougher than ever to come by, and at some point you are going to walk around in public with actual human shit on your clothes.

After all that, I am supposed to feel guilty about using my son as an emotional shield? I think not.

People love babies and if you're in public with one who is behaving, they will think you’re swell too. I don’t advocate lugging a toddler into the back room of a nightclub to discuss an extension on overdue gambling debts, but if you need to wiggle out of a petty traffic violation and don’t shamelessly flaunt your baby, you are under-utilizing your greatest resource.

My son even managed to charm the security guards, who are typically too drunk with perceived power to smile. My belt buckle triggered the alarm, causing one of the guards to scan us with the wand. When he ran it over the arm holding my son, Gabe took a swipe at it. This inspired me to joke about using my baby to sneak in a gun. 

Rule of thumb: don’t attempt to get a laugh out of security guards in government buildings by suggesting you have a firearm...unless you’re holding an adorable baby. If a random law breaker made the ill-timed joke, the would-be comedian may have earned a cavity search. But from the father of a baby, a little gun joke goes over like gangbusters.

From there it was on to the dreaded feline enthusiast with the rubber stamps.

Before I said a word, I was treated to a story about her daughter whose twins were born at 8lbs each. Since this was already the best interaction I’ve ever had with someone through bulletproof glass, I stopped myself from wondering out loud what havoc that must have wreaked on her daughter’s poor vagina. Instead, I said my preferred method of parenting is one-at-a-time. She enthusiastically agreed.

When I finally handed her my ticket, she offered a money-saving resolution.

Honey, you don’t need to pay this fine. I’m going to give you an extension and you just go ahead and register the vehicle when you can.”

The world would be a friendlier place if everyone were treated like a happy 10 month-old, but until this dream becomes a reality I highly recommend new parents use their babies to shield criticism as often as possible. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to Work

By Blake Friis

Tomorrow morning I will go to work. Under normal circumstances there would be nothing special about that statement, but there was nothing normal about the circumstances under which I was fired three weeks ago.

I was driving home, an easy residential drive I count among the many perks of my job, when I received a call from one of our HR representatives. She asked if she had “caught me at a good time”. I would later find that an interesting lead-in when calling to fire someone. I told her I was driving home, and she insisted we speak when I got home because she doesn’t like distracting people as they drive. As the father of a 9 month-old, the car is actually the best place to secure my undivided attention, but she was adamant we speak after I arrived home. There is no “good time” to receive news someone refuses to share while you’re driving.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of being fired from the job you love, over the phone, 45 seconds before walking into the house. It leaves you with no time to digest the news, search for a silver lining, and contemplate the best way to break the news to your wife. Instead you are left to shuffle through the kitchen, into the living room where your wife is ready to hand you a smiling baby, and drool the words down the front of a button-down shirt about to hibernate in the closet until further notice.

I just…lost…my job.

It’s devastating to be in that position. It’s especially difficult when you have no answer to the obvious question that follows.

What happened?!?

Actually, I had an incomplete answer. I failed a background check. I wasn’t sure how, but I had a hunch. An hour later I received an e-mail that confirmed my suspicion.

Seven years ago I was the victim of identity theft. The crimes flagged on the background check were committed by the person who stole my identity and was subsequently arrested posing as me. The events are still associated with me because my name is connected to the perpetrator as one of his known aliases. I guess this is a common practice if you have your identity stolen by your brother.

To my employer’s credit, they held a position for me pending a favorable result to a dispute filed over the results of the background check. The ensuing investigation cleared my name after two painstaking weeks. Two weeks is a long time for a husband and father to sit in a holding pattern, void of income, with the increasing weight of a mortgage bearing down on him.

It’s most important to count your blessings in the moments when it’s difficult to focus on anything but the struggles in front of you.

The healing power of family was on display every second of those two nerve-racking weeks. Despite the disappointment I may have to find a new job, and the awareness that bills need to be paid regardless of how hurt my feeling are, we managed to make the best of a bad situation.

Once the appeal was filed and the supporting documentation was sent to the appropriate parties, we took some time to enjoy being a family with free time, regardless the cause. We ate meals together, took long walks around the neighborhood, and tackled projects we may never have started otherwise. Above all else, we sat on the living room floor and played with our son. Not in shifts, together.

I’m in no hurry to experience joblessness again, but it had its moments. I would love to take another walk with my wife and son, but tomorrow morning I will go to work.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Best Accessory

By Blake Friis

I don't have a great eye for fashion. I buy the shirt and tie combo on the department store mannequin and call it a day. If it’s good enough to display at Kohl’s, it’s good enough for a spot in my work/wedding/funeral rotation.

I am not someone you would seek out for advice on accessorizing, but I picked up a piece last spring that has made ALL the difference. If you don’t already have a baby, you must get one. They go with everything and will genuinely change the way people look at you.

My go-to outfit of gym shorts, flip-flops, and a backwards baseball cap was rock solid, but there was gradual change in the way it was received beyond my mid-twenties. Many seemed to find it downright pathetic as I neared 30. I strategically paired the ensemble with an array of slow-pitch softball league runner-up T-shirts for gravitas, but the disapproval from the grown-up community intensified.

A baby wasn’t my first attempt to accessorize my way out of a sartorial shit storm. I wore a watch, but its impact fell short. I wore a cross necklace outside my shirt, thinking surely a man of faith would be given a pass on his choice in mere Earthly rags, but the pretentious dickwads didn’t budge. It looked like I was on the verge of retiring college sophomore chic for the world of khakis, button-downs, and styled hair, which would mean showering on Saturdays! If that’s growing up, consider me a Toys ‘R’ Us kid.

When I got a Toys ‘R’ Us kid of my own the game changed dramatically.

There are many great reasons to embark on the journey of parenthood. An uncharacteristically warm reception from the most judgmental people in the neighborhood is rarely listed among them, but it’s nice nonetheless. Some of the snootiest people I know are disarmingly pleasant when they see a baby in my arms.

An adult wearing sweatpants while not purposely breaking a sweat is branded lazy. Sweatpants paired with a baby indicate an active parent far too busy and selfless to be burdened with wardrobe decisions.  Kudos for putting your children ahead of such superficial concerns, Stranger!

Many view a backwards baseball cap on a 30-year-old man as a sad dose of Peter Pan syndrome, unless the 30-year-old is holding a baby wearing the same backwards baseball cap. That shit is just adorable.

The best in human nature is on display when you carry a baby in public. Everyone you encounter sends good vibes and totally disregards the fact your outfits are not appropriate for your age – unless of course you are a woman, in which case the same people who pardon my Pensacola Hooters t-shirt with the armpit holes think you look a little skanky and wonder if the man you’re with is even the father of your child. Sorry, Ladies.

Babies have a quality unmatched in their adult counterparts; they are incapable of being assholes. Now, mathematically speaking, many of your children will surely grow up to be assholes, but in the baby stage they possess a blank canvas quality that seems to bring out the best in people. Perhaps it is the inherent innocence or the endless possibility for a brighter future. That’s a little deep. It’s probably because babies have cute cheeks and “wook so ado-uh-bull in dare wittle hat”.

If you question society’s capacity for warmth and goodwill, I offer the same recommendation as if you requested feedback on your acid-washed jeans and a Who Farted T-shirt: you need a baby.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fatigue and Cheerios

By Blake Friis

Anyone who has been in great shape, only to cease working out for several weeks, understands the fragile nature of human conditioning.

Months of weekends alone with our baby should have prepared me for my wife’s three-night vacation. Summer attended clinical nurse training at the hospital every weekend throughout the fall. My confidence as a parent grew. I became completely comfortable bathing a baby and never missed a feeding, regardless of how much great football was on television.

When my in-laws invited Summer to join them for a weekend in Reno it seemed like a no-brainer. Of course I could man the fort while she was gone. I’d done it 12 consecutive weekends. You’re dealing with a pro here.

Have you ever jogged on a treadmill after a period of laziness?

You approach it like nothing has changed, until you look down and see you’ve run just .24 miles and question the machine’s ability to gauge distance. And are these the same shoes you ran in last? And for Christ’s sake, why can’t you find the right song on your iPod? Better step to the side rails and scroll through your library.

With Summer home for the holidays, our routine has been broken and my independent parent swagger has been shelved. I am only as responsible and ambitious as circumstances dictate. Give me the opportunity to kick my feet up and where do my feet go without hesitation? Up.

Dad, I'm trapped. Call Mom.
When Gabe and I took Summer to the airport – I drove, he just sat there and didn’t even offer a dollar for the toll – I realized my parenting legs had grown a little heavier than I thought over winter break.

I narrowly avoided an accident on the way home from the airport, a classic Dallas highway encounter. One driver slams on the brakes causing a chain reaction that ends with a speeding truck skidding toward me before swerving into the median to avoid a pile-up. I attempt to sooth Gabe, who woke up amidst the commotion. He cried for the remaining 30 minutes of our drive, making it feel like two hours.

Summer hadn’t made it through airport security and I was already counting down the hours until her return.

The first workout after a layoff can be brutal, but it doesn’t take long for your body to wake up and get back in the groove. I found my rhythm in the cereal aisle.

Growing up with three brothers, all cereal enthusiasts with healthy appetites, I became all too familiar with generic cereal. It hurts my heart to see my son learning to eat solid food with Toasted O’s, even if it makes economic sense and he doesn’t know the difference. I threw down an extra $0.79 for Cheerios and set the tone for the rest of the weekend. We may miss the occasional bath when Dad is in charge, but we smile like idiots and eat like kings.

By the time Summer returned I was in such great parenting shape I could have easily handled another couple days. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little conditioning and name brand cereal.

Never going back to Toasted O's