Wise Words on a Cardboard Box

131_9802_01_o+131_9802_february_1998_letters+envelopesA few months shy of the third anniversary of my Dad’s death, my sister, brother and I gathered in the house my Mom plans to sell. We met to clean out my Dad’s art room. Toward the end of World War II, my Dad illustrated cartoons for Stars & Stripes Magazine — he also served in an Artillery Brigade on Okinawa — and for decades he worked as a technical illustrator for a printing-press manufacturer.

In the years before the term “man cave” was invented, my Dad had one. This particular “cave” was filled with Marty Robbins cassettes, comic books, books about comic books, and bulky Dean Martin VHS tapes. He had files and files of art projects in various stages of completion and, cut out from magazines and newspapers, photographs he intended to draw. When you start following the paper trail of a loved one, you are bound to meander down a path of surprises, and my Dad’s was no exception. I learned that after retiring, he intended to learn how to cook. The only time I remember my Dad near a stove, he was clutching a fire extinguisher and dousing a grease fire he’d started while cooking hamburgers.  But here I stood leafing through a collection of recipes from a short stack of late 1980’s Somerset Press newspaper cooking inserts.

My Dad’s presence was everywhere in the art room. I wasn’t all that surprised when the woman hired to paint the interior of the house rolled through the rooms quickly until she started working in this one. There she felt slightly unnerved, and shared her concerns with my sister. Later, the painter re-entered the room and said softly, “I’m not here to do any harm. I just want to pretty the room up a bit.” Then she finished the job.

I was cleaning out the art closet when I found a cardboard box on a shelf. I read the brief note written in my father’s strong, neat script — written before Parkinson’s Disease would strip him of his ability to draw and paint — and held it up for my sister to read. “Hmmm, oh boy,” she said.

We carried the box out to the living room coffee table, and I opened it. Inside were three thick bundles secured in thick rubber bands. I handed a packet to my brother and sister, and kept the third for myself. I carefully removed the rubber band without poking my own eye out. I balanced the pile on my lap and started to slowly leaf through the contents: Dozens of birthday, anniversary and Christmas cards my Dad had saved from Mom, us kids and the grandchildren. Notes written in loopy child-like scribbles — we must have been about Penelope’s age when we gave him some of these cards.

I glanced over at my brother sitting next to me on the couch. He was sorting through a batch of amusing notes and cards from friends and relatives that must have tickled Dad’s funny bone. Uncle Archie sent him a photo of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow sitting on a lawn chair in his front yard with a long note that began, “I’ve been sitting out here waiting for you to come visit…”

My sister had a pile of thank-you notes my father received for favors that, for the most part, I never even knew about. Teachers’ bulletin boards he decorated, a sick nun/teacher he visited in the hospital, cartoons he drew for picnics or parties: People whose lives he touched in some small way who remembered his kindness. I even found notes from the five exchange students I befriended in college who stayed at my home one spring break. Also in the package were two identical notes written in pencil on small white pieces of paper: “Be in front of Grants at 8 p.m. I’ll be there at 8:01 p.m.” The night my parents first dated, we suspect.

When Penelope gives me a drawing, or a note, or a scribble, I can’t seem to throw it out. At times, I curse my sentimentality. I’ll feel flickering moments of melancholy brush past that fill me with happiness and sadness at the same time. I may struggle with understanding why I feel that way, but I know from where it comes.

I looked again at the note Dad wrote across the top of the cardboard box: “More important than money.”

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The Games People Play

Picture of "Operation" game.

Looks Painful! The 1980s edition of the Milton Bradley game “Operation.”

My sister gave Penelope the game “Operation” for Christmas this year. I think I was more excited than my daughter because it’s something I recognize from my childhood. So, yesterday when Penelope pulled her Barbie fairy doll out of the box and asked me to snap on the wings, I said, “Gee Pop Tart, I’m having trouble getting these wings on. Let’s play Operation!”

Instead, she slid across the living room floor and opened a box of make-your-own Friendship Bracelets. “Papa, can you help me with this?” I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Sure, but don’t you want to play Operation first?”

Eventually, the kid caught one of my subtle-as-a-flying-mallet hints, and we opened the game at the dining room table. The whole time we were playing I had this gnawing feeling that the game had changed. I seemed to recall playing cards and money, none of which were in this version. Sure enough, I found this, which may me feel better about my memory. I’m not sure whose idea it was to create a game that involves children poking a naked man with a pair of tweezers, but it’s rather fun if you overlook that.

I realized later that I am a phenomenally bad board game player. It’s almost a talent: Stay Alive? No, I can’t. Clue? Haven’t got one. Skittle Bowl? Umm, let’s just rename it “Try not to take out my cousin’s eye with a wooden ball swinging from a chain.”

I don’t know if I’m the only person who remembers these, but I loved “Landslide” and “Why?” Both games are no longer produced. “Landslide,” a Parker Brothers game from the early 1970s that challenged players to get elected president, gave me a splendid opportunity to impersonate Alton B. Parker and Adlai Stevenson. This game shouldn’t be confused with “Lie, Cheat and Steal.” (Feel free to insert your own joke here.) “Why?” was an Alfred Hitchcock mystery game where “detectives” with names like Sherlock Bones and Charlie Clam roamed a haunted house collecting ghost cards. The biggest mystery to me is how I managed to lose the darn game. Looking back 40 years, it still bugs me!

Electric football game.

Electric football game. Notice the running back in this photo appears to be heading in the proper direction.

Without doubt, my favorite game as a kid was Electric Football. Whenever I played it, “NFL Films” music would rumble through my head. My parents bought it for my brother and I around the time I learned the truth about Santa Claus. (A friend’s Dad spilled hot cocoa on himself, which set off a very unSanta-like fit of cursing, which in turn sent his kids scurrying down the stairs to discover the unfortunate truth. I remember sitting with my friend behind my garage as he relayed these events. When he finished telling me this story, he added….”And if you believe in the Easter Bunny….boy, are you dumb!” Yea, he sort of killed two birds with one stone that day!)

This was the Superbowl V version of Electric Football with the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. The version we played featured plastic players that slid into plastic bases. The bases had prongs underneath that a player was supposed to manipulate to enable the football men to move around the vibrating field the way you wanted. I never quite mastered Electric Football. Running backs would spin around in circles, wide receivers would run out of bounds, offensive linemen would attack their own quarterback. There was a foam football the size of a Bayer aspirin, and a left-footed kicker who could never seem to get the ball over the goalpost.

Playing Electric Football should have prepared me for years of frustration as a Cleveland Browns fan.

I’ve been discovering — or rediscovering — that one of the many cool things about being a parent is the chance to re-live your own childhood memories. As we grow older, there are certain chapters in our lives that we close, forget about and move on. We do this not because we need to forget, but because so many other things crowd our lives. I’m glad to have a Christmas where the magic and memory of being a child again can fill an afternoon.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my little five year old kicked my tail playing “Operation.”

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!

Budding Artist

Love this photo. It brings out Penelope’s independence and style. Oh, and her fondness for cake!             (Photo credit: Kacy Jahanbini)

One evening before dinner recently, Penelope decided to start an art project. She headed into our home office, grabbed some black construction paper and declared quite firmly that she was going to make a Santa Claus. I had just finished a phone interview, and I took a break from deciphering the cuneiform in my reporter’s notebook to watching her rummage through her desk drawers for a pair of kiddie scissors. In a heartbeat, papers, pipe cleaners, crafts and crayons are flying about the office. By the time her scissors are snapping happily away, the room looks as though a pair of overzealous FBI Agents ransacked the office after mistaking me for some kind of drug kingpin.

Then Bernadette rang the dinner bell. And since we don’t actually have a dinner bell my wife just bellows “DINNNNNERRR!” from the kitchen.

Typically, dinner time means all play and work ends, we wash our hands and head to the table to eat. No electronics, no TV. But this night was a little different; I felt reluctant to drag Penelope away. And, although Bernadette has re-embraced her detox diet which means she cooked some unpronounceable ancient grains wrapped in cabbage, my hesitation had less to do with my wife’s menu and more to do with my daughter’s mien. It also had a lot to do with the phone conversation that just ended.

I recently undertook the role of communications consultant at the Hunterdon Art Museum. I had just ended a phone call with a terrific artist, Raven Schlossberg, who has three collages on exhibition at the museum. I asked Raven about one particular collage titled “A Moonlight Apparition,” because the piece simply astounds me. Whenever I wander about the second floor of the stone mill which houses the museum, I freeze when I approach this work.  Every time I stop I see something new in the collage that evokes a different emotion.

And, that’s precisely her intent, she told me. The piece, cutout illustrations of discarded children’s toys and household items against backdrop of houses bathed in moonlight, aims to trigger childhood memories that are both personal and universal. And, for whatever reason, this piece connects with me on a personal level.

I was curious about the cutouts and Raven said she’d been collecting magazines for over 20 years. She’s a lifelong pop archeologist, and began cutting out illustrations and creating collages before she hit kindergarten. “I started when I was around three years old. My bedroom was filled with magazines and books. I was an only child and I learned how to entertain myself,” she said.

Fifteen minutes later — the artist’s words still ringing in my ears — I sit at my desk watching Penelope hovering over her black construction paper, her lower lip jutting out as she concentrates. For the moment, I can’t stifle the creative energy I’m watching.

I don’t necessarily anticipate my daughter’s future artwork will grace the walls of a museum, however, her black Santa Claus looks beautiful hanging precariously from a single strand of scotch tape on our filing cabinet drawer. Santa has one thin eye where his earlobe should be; the other rests comfortably on his shoulder. There’s some line near Santa’s mouth. I’m guessing it’s a Lucky Strike.

On some occasions you just need to throw the rules out the window. For a 10 minute delay before dinner, I now have a precious memory.

P.S.: If you’d like to check out Raven Schlossberg’s work, go here. Better yet, go to the Hunterdon Art Museum where the collage exhibition runs until early January. Or, if you’re in NYC in February, she’ll have a solo show at the Pavel Zoubek Gallery, 533, West 23rd St.

Superheroes, super aches

Super Penelope channeling her inner Batman at a friend's birthday party.

I learned some new things playing superhero at the park with Penelope:

  • The proper superhero flying pose is to make a fist and extend your right arm. Your left elbow should be held tight against your ribcage.
  • Superheros work on “school days” but not on “home days.”
  • Superhero duties include: chasing bad guys, helping kids in trouble and feeding dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaurs live under sliding boards and eat pebbles, but only pebbles from the area of the park farthest from the sliding board.

Penelope is running across a field toward a pebble-strewn track. I’m chasing behind her and dragging along our eldest beagle, who would prefer the comforts of her bed to playing the role of Superdog this chilly afternoon. I worry that Superdog’s only super power will be the ability to poop on my pillow while I’m in the shower. We gather a few choice pebbles and skip back across the field to feed the dinosaur. Penelope puts her hands to the side of her head: “Oh no! We need more dinosaur food!”

Oh boy! I take a gulp of air. This endeavor was supposed to wear the kid out, but I’m the one who’s likely heading to bed early. Back across the field we go. I’m huffing and puffing like a steam engine in pants. We make several trips collecting dinosaur food until Penelope pronounces the imaginary beast sated.

Galloping across the field, I suspect I’m providing a good chuckle for anyone looking out from one of the windows of one of the houses abutting the park. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind a bit. One of the unheralded bonuses of having a four-year-old is the chance to be a kid again yourself. If I tried skipping across the open fields without a kid, somebody would probably be chasing me with a net.

One other thing I’ve learned cavorting around the park this day: No matter how good I am about shunning Easter candy, there’s no way my caboose is wending gracefully down the sliding board. Nor will it fit comfortably on a swing. And, while we’re on the subject, didn’t any of these playground planners consider making the plastic tube that serves as a passageway from one side of the play set to the sliding board just a little bit larger?

By the end of the afternoon, I’m feeling my age. My knee joints ache, and my back is barking at me. I strap Penelope into her booster seat and hoist the beagle into the back where she can plot her revenge. I pour myself into the car, grunting a half-hearted vow about getting in shape. But as I back out of the parking space, I catch a glimpse of Penelope smiling in her car seat. And suddenly, I feel super.

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.