The Night Andy Williams Did It My Way

Andy Williams and the Lennon Sisters

Andy Williams crooning with the Lennon Sisters.

As parents, we all experience moments when our little ones do things that are total head scratchers. Maybe they’ll color on a wall or drop a balloon in the toaster. On those rare occasions when Penelope does one of those colossally incomprehensible things that only a small curious child will do, I pause and take a deep breath.

And I think about Andy Williams.

I suspect most parents don’t do this, but I have a good reason.

I was a wee lad when my parents decided to take a big trip to the west coast that included two nights in Las Vegas. I don’t recall where we stayed, but I remember we saw shows both nights. My parents weren’t exactly the hippest duo out there so the first night we sat at a big round table and saw Vikki Carr with The New Seekers. (I had to look up The New Seekers: They are a British-based pop group, formed in 1969 by Keith Potger after the break-up of his group, The Seekers. They’re best known for the Coca-Cola anthem, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing.”) All I recall about that evening is knocking a pitcher of water onto my Dad’s lap during the opening act.

Unfortunately, that was also my opening act. The next evening we headed to Caesar’s Palace to see Lennon. Of course, I’m talking not about John but the Lennon sisters (I warned you my parents weren’t hip!) who were opening for Andy Williams. We sat in the very back of the cavernous auditorium. Lots of crushed red velvet and high-backed booths. When you sat in one of these booths, you sunk deep into the cushions. As a little kid, this meant I had a lovely view of the water glasses, a basket of bread and the crumbs on the table.

I nagged incessantly about my horrible view. Finally, my Mom grew exasperated with my complaints, and suggested I sit up on the top of the booth with my legs dangling down so I could see the show better. I sat perched on this spot for about 10 minutes, gazing out at the auditorium, Andy Williams on stage singing The Impossible Dream, while sneaking peeks at the waitresses scurrying into the serving room behind me.

I leaned back and rested my arm on what I thought was a long black rectangular table. When the table seemed to move a little, I didn’t think much about it. Andy launched into his renedition of “My Way,” really pouring a lot of 1970s-style lounge act into it. Kind of like maple syrup getting poured onto kitchen tiles.

I’m swaying slightly, rocking back and forth to the music in my head and the buzz of the place. Andy is roaring toward the big finish, the dramatic pause just before the closing words of this anthem . . .

. . . And I swayed just a little too much. That rectangular table I thought I was leaning on was actually a very long row of trays. Like dominos they began toppling. The crash and clatter echoed through the vast auditorium, loud enough to wake up Caesar from the dead. People everywhere started looking around to see where the noise was coming from.

I wouldn’t say I totally screwed up Andy’s song. He faltered a bit, lost his rythym for a second, but plowed on through. The last clear memory I have of that evening is my Dad’s big hand grabbing my shirt front and yanking me back into the booth, where I stayed hidden for the rest of the night.

No doubt I got in some kind of trouble, but I don’t remember exactly what. I suspect my parents just dropped a note in my bulging colossaly incomprehensible file and let it slide.

We never did go back to Las Vegas.

So, when Penelope fills up her battery-operated toy blender with colored water and hits the “on” button, I try to maintain a little perspective as I wipe off the bathroom ceiling: Well, at least she’s not interrupting Vegas night-club acts.

Reconnecting with Our Past

horse

The 1971 World Horsehoe Pitching Championships.

I grew up in a neighborhood where rectangular patches of black clay blotted the green grass of everyone’s backyards. With the center of my six-year-old universe being a suburban neighborhood that sprouted from a meadow in 1952, I thought all yards rang with the sounds of men tossing horseshoes, tossing insults at their partners and tossing back cans of Rheingold and Schaefer beer.

I suspect my Dad had the best horseshoe pits in the neighborhood because most summer evenings the men flocked there. He’d come home after eight hours of designing brochures for a printing-press manufacturer and after a quick dinner — something like pork chops, baked potatoes and Delmonte canned green beans — would change out of his work clothes. A set of horseshoes hung from a rack off a slate gray Sears Craftsman band saw in the garage. He’d grab a pair and would bang them together. The neighborhood men would come outside, sit on their front steps to tie their shoes. Soon they’d be climbing over the waist-high white picket fence that surrounded the yard.

About the time I hit the first grade, my hometown was hosting the World Horseshoe Pitching Championships. With horseshoe fever gripping the community, the town fathers scrambled to construct a large fenced-in horseshoe court in the park across from the high school, while the fathers in my neighborhood scrambled to hone their horseshoe pitching skills. I don’t believe any of them actually competed in the tournament, but the commotion undoubtedly stirred their competitive juices.

I remember watching the backyard hum with activity those summer nights in 1971. Sometimes I’d watch from my Dad’s second-floor art room, which offered a bird’s eye view of both pits. I’d watch the metal shoes float effortlessly in a lazy arc across the soft lawn falling with a dull thump into the clay.

An art room was another feature I thought could be found in all homes. On certain winter nights my Mom might be lounging in an arm chair after work, Baretta flashing colored shadows across the living room floor, while my Dad worked upstairs.  I would hear from his stereo turntable the smaltzy pop of Englebert Humperdinck, or the bleating country songs of Marty Robbins. I’d climb the stairs to watch him, hunched over his drawing board, glasses dangling from the tip of his nose as he worked with pen and ink or pastels. On the table behind the swivel chair would be an array of rubber erasers, razor-sharp exacto knives, colored pencils and his Leroy lettering set.

Over time the men stopped playing horseshoes. Some died, some moved away. Upstairs in the art room, the colored pencils and Leroy lettering set got packed away in cardboard boxes and shipped south when my parents sold their home.

And I learned that most homes do not have art rooms, most back yards do not have horseshoe pits. I would think about that once in a while. And then I got older and didn’t think about it at all.

I was walking the dogs in the park recently when I saw two guys throwing horseshoes in sand pits just beyond the trail, and for a moment the winter’s sun warmed to a June evening. The clang of horseshoes rang in the air, mixed with the popping hiss of freshly cracked Rheingold cans.

The next day, a Tuesday, I was walking across the creaky wide plank floors of the art museum where I work on site two days a week. Walking through the contemporary collage exhibition, my mind began to float back to Leroy lettering sets and exacto knives. I could almost hear the once-familiar strains of gunfighter ballads and trail songs.

When I got home that evening I looked around our house, at the history books and the William Jennings Bryan walking stick in the library. I thought about my wife and I writing in our office, putting together words and editing each other’s copy as we work to grow a home business. I wondered what Penelope makes of all this. Of the things that are unique in our household. I hope she appreciates it, and appreciates those things that are unique in the people she meets.

Growing Pains

cartoon-tooth-dental-clip-art-thumb3234653
Penelope hurried over to me, eyes brimming with tears, her thumb and index finger wiggling one of her bottom teeth. She told me her tooth was loose and started to cry.

I asked her if she was bleeding or did something that loosened the tooth, but she shook her head. “Does it hurt?” I asked, and again she shook her head.

“My tooth is coming out!” She looked confused. “What if all my tooths come out? I won’t be able to eat my cereal?”

Here’s the part where I kick myself a little, and wish I had said something truly helpful. The wife walks into the room moments later, and when she heard the news, grew excited. “Wow! Look at you? You’re becoming a big girl! How exciting! You’re losing your baby teeth, and new big-girl teeth will grow in their place.”

Hearing this not only eased Penelope’s fears, but she became enthused at the prospect of becoming a big girl and about all the interesting things that would happen to her.

So, what did I say when Penelope told me her fears of losing all her teeth and not being able to eat cereal?

“Well, your Grandma lost all her teeth, and she has no problem eating. You’ll be fine.”

God I hope her mother is home when she gets her first period!

The Caffeinated Kid and Other Parenting Mishaps

As someone who will slice up a bunch of jalapeno peppers and then immediately take out his contact lenses, or rub Ben-Gay on his wife’s back and then go to the bathroom, picking out five really bad parenting moves was no problem. Actually, it was a problem because I thought of 16 and had to cut.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five personal favorites:

Think before you sing. The other day I was driving to the supermarket with Penelope in the back seat. We were listening to a track by G.B. Leighton, an indie musician out of Minnesota, called “The Most Important Night of My Life.” I didn’t think much about it until after we returned home, and Bernadette asked me why Penelope was singing the first line of the chorus: “I’m going down to the liquor store.” (Ironically, if you watch the video link, Leighton warns about this very thing happening. If only I had seen the video sooner.) All I can say is thank God Penelope couldn’t decipher The Clash’s “Death or Glory.”

And, as a corollary I’d like to add that parodies of children’s songs are a really bad idea. Singing “the driver on the bus goes (insert farting sound here)” to the kid is a pre-K parent-teacher conference just waiting to happen.

Think before you practice. This week I started classes at Mix ’em Up Bartending School. (As an aside, I just want to say that the classes are fantastic, the instructors are terrific, and I’m happy to be adding a skill to my repertoire that can’t get outsourced to India.)

When I return home in the afternoon, I take a little time to practice what I’ve learned. Since I’m pouring liquid — really, water — from one type of container into another, Penelope suddenly finds me more interesting than the Kratt Brothers on PBS Kids. Later, Bernadette was giving Penelope a bath when the little one grabbed her plastic play cups and asked, “Mama, would you like an Alabama Slammer?”

Note to self: Practice making Sex on the Beach after 7:30 p.m.

Note to everyone: No matter how I phrase above sentence it always sounds dirty.

Opposites don’t attract. A recent conversation between Bernadette and I went like this:

Bern: Penelope is in this phase where she just won’t listen. You ask her to do something, and she won’t do it. Or she does the opposite.

Me: I know what we can do. We’ll just tell her the opposite of what we want her to do. So, if we want her to clean up her toys we’ll tell her to go watch TV.

Bern: Really? That teaches her to listen to us . . . how?

Umm . . . yea, good point.

Bedtime ain’t crazy time. I have a tendency to rile up Penelope right before bedtime. One example, and believe me there are many, was when I decided to act out one of her favorite books, “Sneaky Sheep” by Chris Monroe, complete with her stuffed sheep, wolf and Golden Retriever. Funny voices and bouncing animals all but guarantee a 7:30 p.m. bedtime isn’t going to happen. Penelope stayed awake several more hours, and was — how shall I put it? — an absolute joy when the sun rose the following morning. I’d like to publicly apologize to my wife, Penelope’s teachers, the woman who runs the playroom at Shop-Rite, several neighbors, my two beagles and a stray cat that wandered onto our property the next day.

The “new” new coffee generation. Recently I was working from home. I like to start each morning off with a cup of coffee or two or seven. On this particular morning I set my steaming mug down on my desk, shuffle back to the bedroom for a sweatshirt, then downstairs to drop a load of laundry into the washing machine, then into the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs. I carry my plate of eggs to my desk, set it down, reach for my coffee, but it’s gone. Since I have a terrible habit of leaving things all around the house, I pick up my plate of eggs and retrace my steps, but no luck and no coffee.

So, I call out to Bern who has a sixth sense for knowing where I’ve mislaid my car keys, wallet or the remote control. But she’s stumped. As I stand in the family room, scratching my head, a whirling dervish of a four year old careens past me, arms flapping in the air, yelling, “I’m flying!! I’m flying!!”

When I got back to my desk, my plate of eggs was missing. It was the beginning of the longest day of my life.

Dog Heaven Can Wait

I should never have refused to read “Dog Heaven” to Penelope. This book is supposed to help children — and adults, I suppose — cope with the death of a pet. It features big cartoon drawings of dogs sleeping on fluffy clouds and chasing geese in a park in heaven.  The book is one of Penelope’s favorites.

Bernadette’s childhood friend Stephanie gave her the book to console her after our Golden Retriever, Bailey, and elder Beagle, Hannah, passed away only four days apart almost three years ago. Bern deeply appreciates the book’s comforting message. I think the book is beautiful, but it makes me sad. So, one day when Penelope was choosing her bedtime reading and grabbed three books including “Dog Heaven” I told her no.

“This book makes Papa sad,” I explained. “You don’t want to make Papa sad, do you?”

She thought about this. I could tell because she tapped her index finger on her forehead and said, “Think, think, think.” (She gets that from “Winnie the Pooh” on TV.) She returned the book to the shelf and selected another.

However, the next evening, when I asked her to pick a book, an impish grin spread across her face. She ran to the bookshelf, grabbed “Dog Heaven” and waved it in front of me: “How about this one?” I again tell her how the book makes Papa sad, and back on the shelf it goes. This becomes a ritual with a different twist each night. One evening, Penelope hides “Dog Heaven” between other books. Next time its behind her back or under the covers. One night she slipped the cover of another book around “Dog Heaven.”

Finally one night I figure, “What the heck?” It’s just a story. Maybe if I read it, it’ll actually help me better handle the loss of a pet, something I’m lousy at. Back in the late 1960s, shortly after my grandfather died, my parents inherited his cocker spaniel. The dog’s name was Teddy (for Theodore Roosevelt).  When a four-year-old boy gets a dog, he thinks it’s perfect. He throws a squeaky toy around for the dog, pets it, chases it around the backyard. At least, that’s my image of Teddy.

For my parents, the dog was something entirely different. You see the dog was raised and trained by my grandfather: A cranky old man with a splinter’s talent for getting under someone’s skin. At least that’s how my father described him. Teddy mirrored my grandfather’s personality. If the dog only smoked cigars, the resemblance would have been eerie.

The dog ran away every chance it got. Take him outside and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom; bring him inside and he would immediately poop on the nearest bed. My parents eventually lost their patience and returned the dog to my grandmother, but told me it ran away. I spent much of that day looking for that dog. About two years later, my quixotic seven-year-old brain saw a dog with a slight resemblance to Teddy (the dog was actually a labrador retriever), and I — missing him still — chased him for a half mile.

I guess I haven’t changed much over the years: It’s three years later and not a day goes by that I don’t remember – sometimes fondly, sometimes sadly, often both – Bailey and Hannah.

So, I took a deep breath, tightened my jaw, screwed up my nerve, told myself I was being a total idiot . . . and promptly went to pieces. Damn book! At about this point I could feel my voice quivering: “When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.” I paused, took another breath, and plowed through the last few pages.

“Sorry Pop Tart, but I am never reading that book to you again. Sorry.”

Then something happened I will always remember. Penelope took the book from my hands, looked at it, then looked at me.

“Papa, you sad. Let’s read another book. You’ll be happy. Let’s read the Grinch. I’ll get it.” Penelope clambered off the bed, and grabbed “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” from a pile on her dresser. She handed me the Grinch book, and looked at “Dog Heaven” in her other hand.

“I’ll hide this. You won’t be sad then,” she said. She took the book and slid it behind her toy barn. “See. Gone.” She spread her arms wide. She climbed back in bed, settling under the covers. The she hugged me.

She curled up next to me as I began reading the Grinch. Just as a smiling Grinch raised his carving knife to the roast beast, I could hear Penelope’s breathing deepen.

And the next morning, I was just waking up when I heard Penelope reading “Dog Heaven” to Sammi and Rudy, current Beagles in Residence, as they lay snuggling in their bed. Which, by the way, is in our room.

Perhaps she thought the story might comfort them.

Musical Notes

Last Christmas, the school Penelope attends opened a store that sold inexpensive gifts that kids could purchase for their parents. Penelope decided to buy me a purple rubber duck for the bathtub and a key chain. The chain is five inches long and in white blocks spells out “I (heart) music.” Because I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra lately, Penelope tried to find me a key chain that read: “I (heart) Frank.” I’m glad she couldn’t.

Music has always been an important part of our household, and we’ve stuffed several binders with jazz, classical, rock, opera, Americana, blues (mostly the old eight-bar traditional blues of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf), pop, show tunes, gospel and older country. Everything but hip-hop and rap, which means, no doubt, that Penelope will likely embrace hip-hop and rap when she’s older.

Which is fine. I only hope the music she embraces is what touches her soul and fills her senses and her emotional and spiritual needs. I’d hate for her to gravitate toward some music simply because it’s popular or because her friends listen to it or because it’s rammed down her throat by a gaggle of corporate cranks who could be just as easily selling soap flakes as deciding what music gets marketed to the masses. But whatever happens, happens.

I think music forms the soundtrack of our lives. Many of my childhood memories revolve around music. I can remember drawing comic books on the back porch while my brother’s stereo speakers blasted Uriah Heep. I’m not exactly sure why my brother gravitated toward one of the worst metal bands of the 1970s. Just listen to this for 30 seconds — go on, I dare you — and after laughing your pants off at their pants and hair, you’ll understand why speculation is rampant that Spinal Tap was based on this band.

Another musical memory I have is wandering up to my father’s art room. He’d be hunched over his drawing board, working, and from his tinny speakers would bleat Marty Robbins’s “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” (which featured such cowboy classics as Big Iron and They’re Hanging Me Tonight).

Although the first album I ever purchased with my own coin was ELO’s “Out of the Blue,” I became a big Alice Cooper fan in my formative years. And while I don’t recall ever running about the house wearing mascara with a boa constrictor slithering around my torso, I can still remember my parents quizzical looks when I asked for “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” one Christmas.  I doubt bringing this record into school for Music Appreciation Day was the only reason my teacher requested a conference with my parents, but I suspect it made her top 10 list. I waited until my 12th birthday to ask for “Muscle of Love.”

Somewhat amazing in hindsight that I’m not receiving some form of psychotherapy these days. Then again, Frank Sinatra did sing an Alice Cooper song, so perhaps there’s some symmetry to my musical proclivities.

While Penelope enjoys “The Muffin Man,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Before They Make Me Run,” her all-time favorite song is “Down the Road Apiece.” I haven’t taken a car ride with her in the past month when she hasn’t asked to hear it. (Although this song has been performed by Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, she prefers the Bruce Springsteen/Joe Gruscheky version.) The only lyrics Penelope knows are: “down the road, down the road, down the road apiece,” and “Mama’s cookin’ chicken fried in bacon grease.” But she knows them real well and sings them quite loud. Perhaps she likes the song so much because it mentions food. That would also explain “The Muffin Man.”

I know the time will one day come when she hates my music. But for now, I’m perfectly free to cruise down the highway, arm banging against the car door in time to “Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra.”

Provided I play “Down the Road Apiece” first.

Miracle Worker at the Chinese Buffet

I met a miracle worker at a buffet table. Her name is Sun Lu, and she is the driving force of the Waiting Child adoption program in China. Since the program began she has helped match hundreds of special needs children with families in the United States. She is the woman largely responsible for bringing Penelope into our lives.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Penelope was born in southern China in the spring of 2007. Perhaps because of her cleft lip or her parents’ poverty or the country’s rules on child bearing, Penelope was abandoned near an intersection when she was two weeks old, her birth date printed on a slip of paper pinned to her blanket. She was quickly discovered and taken to a nearby police station. The police ran an advertisement in the abandoned babies’ section of the local newspaper, but the parents did not step forward. She then entered China’s adoption system and doctors repaired the cleft lip. (They did an amazing job too.)

She spent a little time in an orphanage, and then with a foster family. I understand they were an older couple, and I wish I could have met them because they obviously loved our little girl very much. Penelope would not be as special as she is without the attention, care and love her foster parents so unselfishly gave to her. Penelope’s file eventually came into the hands of Sun Lu, who forwarded it to Homeland Adoption Services. Then, one Sunday morning in March of 2009, Pam from Homeland called to tell us we had been matched.

I’ll save the story of that Sunday for another day. Shortly afterwards, several photographs of our future daughter were emailed to us. Bern and I looked into the sparkling happy eyes of this little girl and knew she had been loved without reservation. We looked at the photos, and I wished I could hold her right then.

Sometimes people are shocked when they hear the story of Penelope’s abandonment. “How can a mother do that? She must not love her child!” I couldn’t disagree more. I cannot imagine the difficult circumstances that confronted that woman who left her child in a place where she’d quickly be found.

I think loving someone so much sometimes means having to let them go, trusting in God and in the innate goodness that dwells in us all. This mother wanted her daughter to have a better life and in the ultimate act of love did what she did. And, I feel I have an obligation to that nameless, faceless woman to do everything I can to give this little girl a good home and a good life. I thank her every day for the great gift and great responsibility she has given us.

And I am equally grateful to China’s adoption program, Sun Lu and everyone at Homeland Adoption Services for their roles in bringing Penelope home.

That evening, I leaned against that buffet table watching as all the adopted Chinese girls were herded together for a photograph. And, I marveled at the power of one person to make such an astounding, life-changing difference in so many lives.

Penelope playing badminton in the backyard on her birthday.