Edmond

The Unmasking

October 27th, 2014

This golden, gorgeous October is one of the top highlights of my year, and it’s a year full of highlights. My brother’s wedding. (His joy radiates from him.) I have a sister-in-law! His bachelor party. My mom and her sisters sang the national anthem at Wrigley field. A Chicago park named after my great aunt Midge. My beloved godson’s wedding to a powerful, talented woman. Gay Romance Lit.

I wrote two books and two short stories out this year. Three dozen reviews written by people who took the time to read my books and thought they deserved their serious consideration when penning their words. Some of them hated it, but many of them loved it, and reviews are like love letters sometimes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Love letters. I got to be author-of-the-month for dear friends. Made ‘crush alert’ for one review site. Made new friends.

My heart is full.

Impossibly, it got fuller this October, my favorite month of the year.

I like to wander under colorful, sun-drenched foliage as most everyone does. I do not consider myself unique. We all love it. I took five hundred photos of leaves and streams and rocks and little glimmers of splattered red leaves against hard blue skies, including a great photo of a sunflower that seemed to wave right at the sun. And the sun waved back.

Everyone does this, too. We all take lots of dumb leaf photos.

In fact, there’s little that’s unique about my October traditions, but that’s why I like them because you love them, too, and it makes us more connected to know we all crane our heads at the eight shades of orange, maroon, firetruck red, and the most fierce slivers of marigold ripping through slender branches.

We’re agog.

The leaves are mostly gone now. The trees are all but unmasked. I have been drunk on falling leaves for weeks now. But we’ve reached that time in October to celebrate the chilly night, the Halloween scratches of brittle twigs with no colorful flags to wave. I now spend evenings wandering the streets, listening to music and thinking about life. It’s a good time.

Tonight, my cell phone rang while I was a dozen blocks from home. I contemplated not answering because autumn is my favorite time of year and this is my favorite kind of night and I felt drunk on fresh air. But it was Joel.

Joel is one of the very first friends I made when writing my first Vin Vanbly tale. (I had published the first stories in a free-stories website.) I had received emails about Vin’s story. More and more emails came in, asking who is this guy, Vin Vanbly? What kind of story was this?  Joel was an early email friend who said, “I read your story an hour ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s making my sternum vibrate. Why is that?”

We became email friends. Then, real email address friends. Then, phone friends. Once when I was in his city for work, we were in-person friends. I love Joel.

Joel called tonight and I realized he’d be the perfect companion on an autumn walk, so I happily answered and we instantly began chatting about sexual words we found distasteful to say aloud. This was our hello. I told him of a recent radio show where I was a guest and I ranted against the word ‘quim,’ like a freakin’ lunatic and we laughed and were silly and chortled. I kicked leaves and Joel was with me.

We shared stories about our lives right now, the milestones in the last month, the in-between-big-events stuff that is interesting to your best friends. I started a story about someone I saw recently and Joel said, “Oh yeah, I remember him. You told me about that guy once. Like two years ago.” Joel shared his recent news and we rocked it together, gently in a warm blanket between us, his happy relationship with his boyfriend. He didn’t know he would ever be this much in love.

So we held hands, metaphorically, and walked through the night. I pointed out a moment he was showering himself with king love and he said, “Yeah,” kinda softly. We were quiet with each other because that’s what love is sometimes. Quiet. And laughing about raunchy words.

The air got colder.

Joel and I had walked together for the better part of an hour. I could hear more branches clattering together in the cold wind. Turned my steps toward home. Our evening stroll was coming to a close.

Walking up my street, I saw two boys, maybe eleven or twelve coming toward me. They had passed my house and were in front of my next door neighbor’s home. I saw a flash of white as one of the boys held it to his face and the other one laughed. They were already stuffing it into the backpack as I drew closer. It was the standard, serial killer Halloween mask, white plastic with holes and eye slits so the murderer can see who he’s hacking to bits.

They had just stolen my yard monster’s Halloween masks. I just hung that up yesterday.

I spent all day in the yard yesterday, doing a half-assed job of preparing for winter. Trying to fertilize the lawn, something I should have done weeks ago. I mowed, gathered bag after bag of leaf mulch and grass, yanked out the tomato plants, moved giant pots to the basement, and yet still had time to find Halloween masks for the yard monster.

One day.

The masks lasted one day on the tree before these two little fuckers stole them.

I said to Joel, “Can you hang on for a minute?”

I let the phone fall to my side. The kids reached me, chuckling and zipping up the backpack.

“Guys, stop. You just took the masks off the yard monster back there.”

Both their eyes widened. “No!”

One shook his head in sheer disbelief that they were busted almost immediately after their caper.

I don’t want to be the neighborhood hard ass. My friend Jenna predicted that kids in the neighborhood will call me “Old Manning,” and I will yell at them in my bathrobe from the front yard, shaking a folding chair at them. The really cheap, light folding chairs.

I don’t want to be that guy.

But I don’t want to be a pushover and pretend like it’s okay.

Joel was in my hand, listening (I imagined) to my every word.

“Guys,” I said, “I just saw you. C’mon.”

They protested, but the little guy was breaking already, his eyes turning into terror. Would I insist we go to his parents? Was that what was in store?

I said, “Be cool. Let me have them.”

This was the second time I implied there was more than one mask stolen though I had only seen the one mask. But there could be more and I didn’t want to fight them on every mask. So I just decided to bullshit my way with confidence.

The smaller guy said in a mournful voice, “We’re sorry.”

Confession! Yes!

He began to unzip the backpack.

This is the first time in the history of me, my uttering the words ‘Be cool,’ ever worked on anyone. I almost wanted to yell, “Ha! Gotcha!” But that, um, wouldn’t be cool.

His chubby companion who was the first to deny any theft, clearly was not ready to risk fleeing by foot. He looked down and said, “Yeah, I’m sorry.”

He and his buddy were out enjoying this perfect autumn evening the way eleven-year-old boys do, mischief and talking trash, the way I was talking trash with my lifelong friend, Joel. Just guys out enjoying the glorious night. And in the end, these boys were relatively harmless.

I said, “Don’t sweat it. I appreciate your giving them back. I just want people to enjoy them for a few days. It’s my way of sharing with the whole neighborhood, so don’t take them again, okay?”

Together, they humbly said in unison, “Okay.”

The younger one pulled out a second mask, the really creepy clear one.

Ha! I was right. My bluff paid off.

As he handed it over, he said in a tone of sad appreciation, “This mask is so awful. What it does to your face.”

I said, “I know, right? It’s really gross. Worse than the hockey mask.”

He nodded and sorta smiled faintly.

We have the same sick humor, this goonie kid and I.

I said, “Tell you what. If you leave the masks on the tree until Halloween is over, you can have them both on Saturday. Just come and take them. You have my permission. But leave them up for a few more days, okay?”

They both brightened considerably and immediately promised, “Sure, no problem.”

I said, “Thanks, guys. Goodnight.”

They waved and said, “Thanks.”

We had conducted master negotiations.

Those two buddies resumed their walk and I resumed mine with my buddy.

He said, “Where were you? What happened?”

I conveyed the whole story, especially my excitement that I said the phrase ‘be cool’ and it worked just like a magical disarming spell is supposed to work. Joel though I was missing the point of the experience.

He said, “You showered them with king love.”

His saying this to me caused me to shower myself in king love, to scrub in this golden, five-shades-of-orange-and-yellow love into my body, remembering I don’t have to turn into Old Manning. I can keep love in my heart even with the punk neighborhood kids. I felt like I instantly, explosively showered in autumn leaves as they plummeted and swirled from the trees above.

Our friends unmask us, find the best in us, and witness the worst in us. If they’re really good friends, they help convert the worst in us to the best in us.

Tonight, I walked the neighborhood with Joel.

We unmasked each other.

 

 

 

Future Me Is A Little Bitch

September 25th, 2014

If I could time travel, I would travel right back to younger me and tell me things.

Yes, I know one of the big rules of time travel is that you don’t go back and mess up your own future. Or reveal winning lottery numbers. These are things that break the space/time continuum and create splinter universes where people have lobster claws instead of human hands because every little piece of history matters. Please. I’m not a complete idiot.

But I’m not good at remembering numbers. Or who won big sporting events. But Younger Me would worry about screwing up the space/time continuum (we are very good about keeping it tidy), so one of the first things I’d say to Younger Me is “Oh, don’t worry about my spilling the beans on anything. You aren’t important in the future, so there’s nothing to screw up. It’s all good. We can talk.”

See? Future Me is kinda rude.

But Future Me will remember thinking that an say, “Sorry, that’s not what I meant. You’re not vice president of the United States or head of a company or famous. In fact, neighbors who live two doors down will argue whether your real name is Leonard or Jim. See? Not important.”

Future Me is a big fucking tool.

But Future Me will continue and say, “No, I’m not a tool. Let me finish. You’re incredibly important to lovely, lovely people. You are so fucking loved that your heart is gonna explode in six different directions. You have family. Big family. Online family. You have goddaughters and a god son and they all turn out amazing. You will be in love and important in a few different men’s lives.  Friends in your life will change you forever. It’s incredible. You will know all kinds of joy.”

This sounds better.

“Yeah, life is good. Some days suck, of course, and there’s a little cancer scare ahead, so get those moles checked out.”

Oh god.

“Just be careful. Slap on the sunscreen every day. Don’t worry too much. After all, I’m here from the future, arent I? Just be diligent.”

And it’s true. He’s here.

“Oooo, guess what?” Future Me asks, but does not pause for my guess. “You become a writer.”

I will explain I am a writer already.

“No, you’re really not. You’re not that good and you don’t take it seriously. Some people get better in a year or two but you’re on the slow track, Champ. So keep practicing.”

I will ask Future Me, “Will I ever master commas?”

“No. But luckily, you will work with editors much smarter than you. More importantly, you meet so many great people and friends through writing. It’s amazing. And strange. You will post pictures of your stuffed dolls online and people will talk about them and be eager to meet the various monsters in your home.”

“I am a writer who posts pictures of dolls?”

“No, it’s okay,” Future Me will explain. “It’s a blast. It’s like recess on the internet. You will have friends you never met who are so unbelievably kind to you. And gracious. And people will read your books and write reviews that are like love letters from their heart right to yours. And some reviews are funny and saucy and short and three sentences, but right-at-your-heart sentences.”

“So, everyone loves me?”

“Oh, God, no. No, some people hate you as a writer. They aren’t shy about saying it. One reviewer said she’d rather chew off her own arm rather than read your books.”

Well, shit.

“No, that’s okay, as in really okay. In the future, you can accept their opinion as true for them and let it be. You might get stung, but the love, the crazy, outrageous sparkling love is gonna outweigh everything.”

That’s nice to hear.

“It’s better than nice. You threw a release day party for The Butterfly King and so many people came, and played, and started reading your book right away, and then sent you messages of love. It was amazing. It’s hard to express gratitude for that kind of love. And it’s equally okay if friends don’t care for your writing because they were honest and honesty is celebrated in the future.”

This is where I begin to suspect Future Me is full of shit.

“Well, we’re trying. People are still learning to be fully honest with each other, but the world changes a lot in the next few decades. Some ways worse. And in a ton of ways, better. More people come out of the closet in the future. Not just the gay closet. The mental health closet, the gender fluidity closet, the introvert closet, the I-like-weird-shit closet. People share more of their true hearts. We’re not perfect, but people are growing their compassion and kindness.”

I would tell these things to my seventeen-year-old self so he could start opening his heart now, start getting it ready to bear this future love, this love of friends and readers and family.

Future Me would also say, “The Chicago Bears win the 1985 Superbowl, so if you can, get some money in on that action. Also, I think the human race is about to get lobster claw for hands because I shouldn’t have told you that. You shouldn’t mess with the space/time continuum. My bad.”

It’s okay,” I will say, “because I am the forgiving type, especially when the man before me is so damn handsome.”

That’s right. I said it.

Younger Me will say, “I hope you’re going to find a way to thank all these people for loving all those readers who become your friends.”

Future Me will say, “I will find a way.”

“So, how did you get back here in the past? Who invented time travel?”

Future Me will say, “Huggstibles.”

“Who is that?”

With a smirk and that smug I-know-more-than-you-do expression, Future Me will say, “You’ll see.”

See? Future Me is a little bitch.

 

Illustrated Huggstibles

Resolutions in Poetry

January 1st, 2014

I resolve, I resolve, I say each January, trying to think forward to next December’s short cold days, a distant mirror.

Will I honor these resolutions come December?

Are they worth a year’s devotion?

Will they change me? Will I allow myself to be changed?

Or are they destined to become discarded, New Year’s party favors like funny hats and horns that unfurl? Will I find these resolutions balled up in the garbage come February and with distain say, “Oh, you. I remember.”

Dunno.

I might.

I love the drama of New Year’s resolutions.

I love the promise of renewal, that I might grow better at being me.

And buried deep in each promise, the dark wriggling worm of betrayal, allowing myself to forget and discard what I value.

2014: renewal or betrayal?

Like salmon swimming upstream each year, resolutions return, leaping gracefully from icy blue water, suggesting growing inner strength, a capacity for greater love, for living with less struggle and more fight. New Year’s Eve, I wade into this frigid stream, a shaggy bear swiping at resolutions, catching some in my meaty paw, delighting to feel them wriggle me alive.

So I resolve, resolve, resolve.

Cook more, say two delicious inventions per week. (More than sandwiches, more than microwaving.)

I will call mom twice a week and thank her for those home cooked meals I now miss dearly.

I will grill, steam, and gnaw vegetables more than last year. Don’t ask me to quantify “more.” We all know what that means.

I will befriend cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and maybe even vegetable smoothies for breakfast, wait–I’m not sure about smoothies. Let’s not make that a resolution, let’s call it a 2014 possibility. I’d rather jog naked around Lake Harriet in January than eat kale whipped into breakfast froth.

I will try to be open. I will try.

Some resolutions must be uncovered, discovered. I resolve to avoid roping every possibility into convoluted knots. I resolve to be open to new things, like kale smoothies, though I may end up barfing.

To start more arguments if I think they will strengthen friendships.

Write more.

Throw away more junk, both in my home and in my head, useless, obscure shapes that do not serve.

Read more.

And when I resolve to lose thirty-five pounds, I skip last year’s failures and shame  to better steel my gaze toward this year’s success, the possibility, hell, probability that I will succeed. One of the things I love best about me is my ridiculous faith. I will use this tired ol’ weight-loss resolution to cultivate ridiculous faith, my optimism, to stretch the boundaries of my power. I may not lose thirty-five pounds. But I will cultivate my faith in myself and I will learn from past mistakes.

Hell, I may lose fifty pounds.

Only next year’s December knows at this point and we are not yet in communication.

One day this summer, I will watch a butterfly for fifteen minutes to study its flight and wonder about it’s airborn life.

Speaking of, I resolve to get interrupted for things more important than me. I resolve to use this interruption to remember there are lots of people and events more important than me. I will do this twelve times, once a month. Who knows? Maybe more. There are many people and events more important than me.

Ride my bike 10 times this summer to feel chill breezes and the green blur whiz past me.

I resolve to make time for ten October walks in the woods. My favorite month. I resolve to gift these ten walks to myself.

I resolve to surprise myself at least five times.

I resolve to say internally “I can’t believe I just did that.”

Say, four times.

I resolve to create opportunities for me to win with myself so I can say the words, “Beautiful job, Edmond. You’re doing your best.”

Three times, I will listen to someone outline my faults and I will say “thank you” instead of arguing why they’re wrong. If I am brave that day I will ask follow-up questions, promising to give careful consideration to what has been said. I will assume they have insight which blinds me. They might be wrong. But I will listen first and decide later.

I resolve to wear my pants less.

I resolve to sleep more.

I resolve to sleep less and use that time writing.

I resolve to look at the contradictions in my life, which is really all a New Year’s resolution is, a promise to examine contradictions, our personal absurdities and say, “Huh. Look at me.”

To celebrate my contradictions, I think the best way to stratify and organize my bulleted New Year’s resolutions is in poetry. Something ethereal and silly, solid and sing-song, over-long and easily forgotten but using dancing words that zip around my candy cane consciousness.

To remember these resolutions and zipper them up inside me.

This, I resolve.

Fond Memories of the Manhole

December 6th, 2013

To celebrate my new book, I Probably Shouldn’t Have Done That (Kindle version here), I decided to showcase a few of the blog entries you’ll find in this book.

I hope you enjoy my stroll down memory lane.

***

Despite the ominous title, this essay is rated PG-13 for strong language. No nudity. There is one furious drag queen screaming in front of a Chicago leather bar, so yes, adult situations.

Two weeks ago, on a return trip to visit family, I wandered up and down Chicago’s Halsted Street, lost in reminiscing. I remembered dining at that narrow but long restaurant when it was Italian and not a French/Vietnamese cafe. I hung out a few times in that cruddy little bar when it proudly bore the name of the previous bar owner. It was a cruddy little bar then, too. I remembered some first dates, some last dates. A couple landmarks changed over the years but The Alley and that excellent comic book shop remained, as well as the Belmont Street Dunkin’ Donuts.

Glad to see that.

I was disappointed to observe the Manhole, a raunchy leather bar, had gentrified into something classier and pastel sounding: a bar called Hydrate. Although it was never a hangout of mine, still, I missed the Manhole. One sunny afternoon, I fought the most wonderful, physically abusive, domestic argument outside that bar.

At the time I lived in a northwest suburb and on weekends volunteered for a Boystown group called the Pink Angels. In response to that late-80s take-back-the-city movement, Chicago’s Pink Angels copied other successful groups’ mission and patrolled the predominantly gay neighborhood. Pink Angels jogged down dark alleys reporting drug deals to cops, helped drunks find cabs, and ran like hell toward any cry sounding like “Help!”

It takes a unique flavor of compassion to love people this way, to race to their aid down a dark alley. Groups patrolled from about 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. For one summer, I was a member but it turns out I am chunky and there was a lot of running involved. Still, for one summer, I ran the streets of Chicago.

We wore pink T-shirts and matching berets. I thank Hercules this happened prior to phone cameras’ popularity for I did not project “sexy strong gay” in my pink beret. I was a pink-tinged, jolly cake topper you’d stick on a German chocolate cake for a child’s first communion celebration. We never engaged in true fisticuffs that summer (which is smart—some of us undoubtedly imagined West Side Story and would have been mightily surprised when our attackers did not bring tap shoes), but I felt brave among them. I felt safe.

In the heat of August, we conducted training for the new recruits. After morning workshops on walking tough, non-confrontational de-escalation and how to observe street-smart nuances, the experienced volunteers broke into small groups to enact training situations around a ten-block radius.

My assignment was to stage a domestic argument in front of the Manhole. Our training director set the scene: I was to be witnessed verbally harassing and physically intimidating my assigned boyfriend in the bar’s front entryway, screaming at him, and he would, in turn, give the appropriate signs of intimidation, subtle and skillfully done. The Pink Angels would approach and demand to know if everything was okay.

Portraying the brutish thug, I would execute my line with menacing undertones. “He’s fine. Go away.”

The Pink Angels would insist on hearing from my partner. He would respond by saying, “It’s okay,” in an unconvincing tone. They might ask again for a clearer answer. I would stand close to him, pinning my boyfriend against the Manhole’s exterior, my arm blocking a view to his face. When they reluctantly withdrew and moved a few feet away, I would give him a hearty shove, which would trigger scene two: the dramatic return and de-escalation to remove me from the man I intended to beat down.

Our roles clear, my new life partner and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Sure. We can do this.”

As we walked toward the Manhole together, we exchanged names and short bio information. He lived in Chicago proper and while he expressed admiration for the greatness of Arlington Heights, he clearly looked down on me as a suburb dweller.

North Halsted was crowded, the regular Saturday flow of people living in north side Chicago, shopping, strolling, jogging, or generally fucking around under the hot August sun. The Pink Angels would not show for a few minutes, so we practiced my pushing him in a way that didn’t hurt but still looked realistic. I practiced yelling mean things. About three minutes before our patrol was due, during a faux shoving, we both jumped to hear a rich baritone voice four feet behind me.

“Oh bitch, you did not just shove that man.”

We both turned sheepishly to find a 6’2” African-American drag queen with her hands on her hips. She wore a leopard print miniskirt and had big RuPaul hair. She would claw my eyes out for not remembering her top, but I was so stunned I forgot to check out her breasts.

I was about to get my ass kicked.

“He’s fine,” I said in a pleading voice. Thinking the patrol could be here at any second, I added, “Go away.”

When she started yelling at me, threatening me, moving closer, I turned to my temporary boyfriend and said, “Tell her.”

In a completely unconvincing tone, he said, “It’s okay.”

On the plus side, we had accidentally practiced our lines and he hit the mark perfectly as unbelievable and in danger. I, on the other hand, could have used more authority in saying, “Go away.”

One or two people stopped to watch as she swore loudly. I tried to explain we represented the Pink Angels training team and could she please not let them find me spread-eagle on the sticky, scalding sidewalk with her black stiletto heel jammed into my fleshy neck. She was furious. Nervously, we did our best to persuade her.

Our furtive glances down the street in the direction of our soon-to-be-arriving patrol apparently lent more credibility than our actual words and she reluctantly agreed to step back a few feet. But she let me know she was not departing until this alleged training scenario played out and if I thought I could outrun a bitch in heels, I had another thing coming.

“Please,” I begged her. “Stand far enough away. Over there.”

She skulked away, but not far.

My partner and I got into position and we took a few deep breaths because the lady was not shy with swear words and could threaten some explicit possibilities. It takes a different kind of courage to be a Chicago drag queen.

“They’re almost here,” my faux-boyfriend said, eyes wide. “Go. Do your thing.”

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do you piece of shit,” I yelled in his face, jabbing a hard forefinger two inches from his eyes.

The Pink Angels appeared at my side and we played out our scene. My partner was said he was okay (unconvincingly, of course) so they reluctantly retreated. I shoved my faux-boyfriend with faux-rage. They returned and dragged me away using the proper techniques, though I had a few critique notes to pass along once we debriefed at headquarters. If anyone on the patrol team paid deeper attention, they would have noticed I was probably the more rattled of the two actors.

By the time the Pink Angels had resolved our drama and began jogging to the next scene, our drag queen had silently slipped away.

This is what I love about Chicago.

If you’re in a shop and overhear a conversation that’s not meant for your ears, chime in. It’s still your fuckin’ business. This city is where I learned to tell drunks, “Get out of my face!” and how to get seen when howling for a cab. If you think you’re gonna knock your boyfriend’s teeth out, you may have to answer to a self-policing pack of homos in matching pink berets or an African-American goddess who is not going to stand for any shit.

On the day I walked Halsted reminiscing, my fond memories from the Manhole were enough to make me want to stand at the corner of Belmont and North Clark, and, ala Mary Tyler Moore, throw a pink beret into the air screaming, “Fuck you, Chicago.”

I have no doubt someone, whether in a brownstone, at the Dunkin’ Donuts, or from the back seat of a cab, would yell back, “No, fuck you! What’s your fucking problem?”

And they’d really want to know.

Happy Moon Recession Birthday To Me

July 22nd, 2013

My older sister, Andrea, likes numbers.

She prefers prime numbers, so the best birthdays are those years when your age is not divisible by any other number except 1 x itself. She enjoys books about physics, reads articles about string theory, and she often sends me links to quantum theories, anomalies found in the galaxy and beyond. Oddly, she’s not into science fiction. Time and space are fascinating enough, making embellishment unnecessary.

Which is not to say she isn’t creative. Or inventive. Years ago when I was visiting my family in Illinois, she explained Moon Recession Birthdays and I foolishly believed for a few seconds this was a real thing.

Andrea explained how the moon retreats from the earth by 3.8 centimeters each year (for those of us who slept through the entire world converting to metric, that’s roughly 1.5 inches per year). If you, like me, have grown rather fond of that chunk of galactic dust and rock in the sky, this news is alarming. Of course, over your lifetime you won’t be able to notice the difference, but Andrea felt we ought to celebrate the moon’s proximity by honoring the birthday on which your height = the distance the moon has retreated from the earth.

When she finished explaining, she excitedly told me, “Your Moon Recession Birthday is the year you’re a living yardstick for how far the moon has receded.”

We were eating dinner at our parents’ home, so I turned to my other siblings who had already heard Andrea’s calculations.

Matt said, “Mine is coming up when I turn 47.”

My younger sister Eileen pouted. “I missed mine already. It was last year.”

I am 5′ 9″ and that means a total of 69 inches. How many years would it take for the moon to retreat by 69 inches? Forty-six years. This year, less than two weeks away, is my Moon Recession Birthday.

On a business trip years later, I explained the concept to some California coworkers. We were celebrating happy hour, cheers-ing each others’ drinks and laughing over the miniscule stories of our lives. I’m not sure how the Moon Recession Birthday topic came up. I mean, only I could have introduced it (since it’s not really a thing outside our family) but at the time it seemed relevant to our conversations.

Alcohol makes many stories seem relevant.

My coworkers listened in awe and the silence that followed was either deep admiration for my sister’s ingenuity or deep fear that they were sharing drinks with a psychopath. Hard to tell. Three work days later I decided they must have felt deep admiration because these California coworkers built a website called the Moon Recession Birthday Calculator and sent me the link. You type in your height, click Submit, and wallah:  your Moon Recession Birthday.

Of course, I sent the link to everyone in the family, promising our lives would be easier now that we could track this important milestone birthday. This past June, while celebrating Mom’s birthday/Father’s Day at Olive Garden, Andrea hinted over breadsticks, “I think someone‘s having a Moon Recession Birthday this year…”

She’s right.

Happy Moon Recession Birthday to me.

I’m not sure to celebrate.

It’s confusing for two reasons. First, this is a completely made up thing, so there really aren’t any rules. Do I instruct friends to buy me moon-related gifts? Do I have to stare at the moon until dawn? I can only assume a round cake, right? Secondly, big birthdays freak me out, the significant changeovers. I was never irritated by turning thirty or forty, but the year after those:  thirty-one and forty-one. Those were the years that meant ‘you’re really in this decade now.’ (Of course, Andrea would argue thirty-one and forty-one were some excellent Prime Number Years.)

I’m not sure how to spend the significant ones. I guess every birthday is significant, the older I get.

George Orwell said, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” Fifty seems like a significant birthday to me for this quote alone. I wonder about the face I’ll wear on that day. Wrinkled, sure. How will I feel about that man? Will he still love the world and feel its small wonders or will discouragement and disillusion scratch up my face into something unrecognizable, a face beat down by the world? Fifty isn’t that far away. Maybe who I am now is who I’ll be then.

Aging scares me. I’m worried I’m not strong enough to handle the things like degenerating cartilage in the knees or the disappointments of never being President of the United States. Never going to become a dancer. Never going to visit the Amazon rainforests. Never going to own an ostrich farm. It’s not that I wanted these things in life, but each birthday reminds me ‘this is your life, the one you’ve carved out.’

I like my life. I could book at trip to the Amazon tomorrow, but fuck that. There are some big fucking snakes down there. But growing older means receding a little from youthful possibilities, the years where anything could happen. My youth is receding, just like the moon. I am a living yardstick to the chubby tot I once was.

Once when I was a seven or eight, mom yelled at me from the top of the stairs and I was so enraged I stormed out the front door, trotted down the front steps just like a big boy and marched away from the house. I’d never stormed out like that before. I had no idea where I was headed. The screen door banged close behind me and Andrea immediately fell into a half-step behind me, begging to know what was happening. Where was I going? When would I return? Even at that age I recognized the worry in her voice.

“Are you running away?” she asked.

This question sliced through my anger and gave me pause. I hadn’t really considered running away, but I was sure headed somewhere. But where? Did I really want to run away? I didn’t even pack any sandwiches. I paused for these considerations and my anger dialed down.

Andrea walked next to me, little jogging steps to keep up with my furious march, and she promised me, promised if I didn’t run away, she would play Monopoly with me that night. But please, come home. Come home.

I turned around.

Came home.

It’s not easy to find people willing to play Monopoly.

Though I did not know my true intentions, nevertheless, I labeled that experience When Andrea Stopped Me From Running Away.

A few years later, Andrea headed off to Girl Scout camp for a week and I cried; I bawled my eyes out thinking of her not being in the house for a week. The night she packed her camping gear, I thought I was a brave little toaster, hiding my feelings, but looking back, my weeping trips to the bathroom for more Kleenex were more of a giveaway than I thought. She came into the bedroom I shared with my younger brother and in the darkness she said, “It’s okay. It’s only a week. You’ll be okay.”

She and I are not the same people back on the day When Andrea Stopped Me From Running Away. We’re not close. I grieve that, but I accept it. We see the world differently and some of those differences create division. But she’s always my big sister and when I think of running away from her, I remember that she kept her promise. We played Monopoly.

So I will celebrate my Moon Recession Birthday the best I can, waving goodbye to the retreating moon and my receding youth. I will do the best to remember who I was, who we both were, back when I thought I couldn’t live without her for one week. We may have grown apart, but we still make each other giggle. We challenge each other to timed sudoku contests. After mom cooks family dinner, we still fight over who has to wash dishes.

A few years ago, my friend Michael came to my house just as I grabbed the day’s mail. I had received a package. No return address. We opened it and inside found a small round cake, frosted completely yellow, a blazing sun of a cake. Also included in the box were nine intricately decorated cookies (bubble-wrapped very carefully), each decorated cookie very different from the others. One was covered with blue and green sprinkles, arranged in arbitrary shapes. Another cookie was a murky orange with cream-colored swirls and a red circle in its lower left side. One cookie sported three candy stripes of orange jimmies, carefully applied individually, piece by piece.

Michael said, “I can’t see the pattern. What are these supposed to be?”

“Planets,” I said, and I knew it was true. “That one is planet earth and that one is Jupiter with its red eye. This one, the red planet, is Mars. The one with stripes are supposed to be rings around Saturn.”

We used Google Images to confirm the identities of Uranus, Mercury, and Neptune. Michael was amazed at the intense fidelity between the cookie colors and the visual representations of those planets.

“This would have taken hours,” he said, amazed. “Who would do this?”

I knew as soon as I saw the blazing sun cake. I said, “My big sister.”

 

 

 

 

MOM!

June 20th, 2013

Mom called a few months ago to reveal significant news from our small town of Huntley: the post office lady retired. I don’t think any national news media picked up the story (twitter didn’t explode), but honestly, it was kinda a big deal for mom and I.

Ever since I left home for college, I’ve been writing letters or sending postcards addressed to MOM! or MOM & DAD! I like exclamation marks and you’re not supposed to use them in your fiction, so I splurge in personal correspondence. I sometimes addressed things as “HEY PARENTAL UNITS!” accentuated with fat, multi-colored markers and a healthy dose of dolphin stickers.

I like dolphin stickers.

Over the years, my dolphin/markers/all cap screaming mail attracted the attention of the Huntley post office staff. They had witnessed years and years of MOM! and HEY MANNINGS! packages and grew curious about the sender. Once while visiting home from Minnesota, Mom insisted we go in to the lobby area to meet the Huntley crew.

When I arrived, mom said, “This is him. He’s the one. ”

They each shook my hand. I felt like an odd celebrity.

One woman in her fifties said in an eager voice,”At first we thought maybe you were a special needs.”

I could see by the dirty looks, her coworkers didn’t love that revelation, so the woman who is my mother’s friend reluctantly explained the context. “For a while we speculated you were Peggy and Joe’s grandson, but at the time decided your parents were too young. But when the markers and stickers didn’t seem to, well, age over a decade’s time, we wondered if maybe you had special needs. We thought they moved you to a group home in Minnesota. But then your mom told us you were thirty four and actually had a real job.”

I looked at mom and she smiled widely, chuckling. I remember that moment vividly not because my home town post office thought I was mentally challenged but because mom was proud of me. She was proud of her weird son and his sticker/marker fetish.

Growing up in the small town of Huntley, we always had a post office box. We visited it daily to pick up the mail. Mom and Dad never had mail delivered to their home; the very concept seemed ridiculous. They socialized at the post office, connected with old school classmates, family friends, even close relatives.

While buying decades worth of stamps and picking up overly-thick MOM! envelopes, they all became friends and somehow aged twenty-five years in each others’ presence. When my dad died, the post office sent a sympathy card and everyone signed it.

I harbor a fondness for the Huntley post office and the people who are kind to my mom on a daily basis.

I myself don’t get to do many daily kindnesses for her.

I’m the kid who moved out of state. Yes, I chose to live here and most days I do not regret that decision. But I miss being close to my siblings and mom and every now and then I am aware that my distance limits the kind of relationship I could have with each one. Now that dad’s gone, all four of us kids metaphorically cling to mom insisting she not leave us anytime soon. We’re not ready to be orphans.

Mom and I have a tricky relationship.

There are parts of my life she isn’t crazy about and I’m not digging all of hers, to be honest. But we love each other and struggle our best to show each other that love. We talk books, weather, food, and home repair. We enjoy laughing together and over long phone chats, I sometimes share a few of my adventures, the PG versions. We now talk about dad pretty regularly and retell stories we have already heard. But we love to tell his stories and we love to listen to each other tell them.

We get cross with each other and when we feud, we both swing the same furious sword, mine forged in sharpness, just like hers. But after our fights, I remember a long-ago day when I brought her chestnuts that had fallen in a neighbors yard. I suppose I was seven years old.

I asked her, “What are these?”

She said, “I don’t know. Let’s look them up.”

We lay on the floor and spread open encyclopedias until we found an answer. I remember marveling that mom could ‘not know’ things about the world and be so at ease in admitting it. I also thrilled my question was so important it warranted stopping whatever she was doing to look up answer with me. I still envy her ability to say, ‘I don’t know’ with confidence and grace.

Some days I describe our relationship as tricky.

Other days, it’s not tricky at all.

She loves her son.

I love my mom.

A few months ago, mom said, “Did I tell you the lady at the post office retired recently?”

Mom sent her a card and a gift certificate to the Olive Garden, thanking her for all her years of service and friendship. Mom explained she’d miss their regular chats and retrieving boxes covered in marker flowers and sparkly stickers addressed to MOM!

In a dry voice, my mother said,  “Guess how I signed the card?”

Happy birthday, mom.

 

 

 

A True New Yorker

June 12th, 2013

I have warned family and friends that for the next six months, most of my stories will begin, “Back when I lived in New York…” Their job is to resist rolling their eyes, bite their lower lip, and live with it. Seriously.

Nobody gets to say, “Jesus, Manning, you only lived there a month.”

Look, I slept on a mattress on the floor and I am not a young man. I put up with nightly garbage stacked high in the streets, shocking new  urine smell distinctions I never knew existed, and a neighbor who hacked his lungs up into a cereal bowl every single morning. I decided he ate his lungs for dinner at night because every morning he did it again: coughed up painful, brown chunks on the other side of our shared bathroom wall.

I earned these story rights.

But as many stories as I could tell, the reality is, I was never a true New Yorker.

Oh, I had the New York experience. I explored the city daily via subway. I gave directions to tourists. When a car almost hid me in the cross walk one Tuesday, I pounded a fist on its hood and yelled, “What the fuck?” I jerked my my free hand at the WALK icon and screamed, “Watch the goddamn signs!”

Still, that didn’t make me a real New Yorker.

Read a book in central park.

Partied in Tribecca.

Partied at a street festival in the meat packing district.

Laid in trash bags somewhere on 7th Avenue. (These drinking and trash bag incidents are not connected.)

My college roommate came to town one weekend with his wife and kid. He and his business partner were taking public the company he co-founded many years ago when he was young and a dreamer. He started the day ringing the start bell on the New York Stock Exchange, and ended celebrating in a high-end Chelsea eatery, the kind where the chef prepares duck-flavored appetizers the size of a crouton.

Despite being 25 years older than when we ordered deep dish pizza and watched Twilight Zone marathons, we still giggled like kids over our naivete for fancy dinner etiquette. His beautiful wife was funny and a great conversationalist. Their kid is quirky and interesting.

New York City blessed all his big dreams. We toasted and laughed at how our lives turned out.

I don’t like to brag, but during the month I lived in New York, I myself picked up a few bucks on Wall Street.

Attended Broadway musicals.

Slogged through an ordinary downpour and grinned madly at all the other soaked Penn station subway patrons who dared to grin back.

Found the best chocolate chip cookie in all of New York.

None of it made me a New Yorker.

In preparation for my trip, I read a book of beautiful New York essays by Colson Whitehead. In it, he says, “Knowing facts about New York does not make you a New Yorker.” He gently argues that only realizing the city goes on without you makes you a true citizen. You’re a New Yorker when you walk a neighborhood and reflect on how everything changed from when you first saw it….that used to be a coin-operated laundromat. That used to be a bodega owned by the friend of a friend of your parents. Now, it’s a Duane Reede.

I find the idea beautiful, the soft insight that New Yorkers are there for the long haul. Short-timers like me can show up and love the city, sure,  but New Yorkers are in it to win. This ever-evolving landscape is their home, and they feel about it the way we Midwesterners feel about our comfy recliners or grilling backyard steaks before sunset on Sunday.

I’m sure others would argue with Whitehead’s definition. Don’t ask for an easy resolution to the simple ‘who is a true New Yorker’ puzzle because New York doesn’t give a shit about answering your questions.Also, contradictions are welcome there.

Speaking of interesting contradictions, I met one, one Sunday night near midnight as I strolled around Midtown, irritated that all the doughnut shops were closed. I thought this was the city that never slept? A nearby show lounge had apparently emptied out, maybe a glam-o-rama type thing because in the course of a few minutes, thirty gaudily-decorated, muted-but-still-flamboyant gay men and loud women passed me on the sidewalk, laughing, screaming, giving me dirty looks.

A young guy strode calmly toward eternity (and me), eyes frozen forward. This wasn’t a casual glance at the block ahead, this was a military stare, usually only seen on the dictator’s national flag. His hair was coiffed into a 1950s pompadour, tons of product. Glitter gold eyeshadow (and matching lashes), ascot, leather jacket and screaming across his chest, a gleaming gold-plated gun, a recognizable  Colt 45.

I was struck by his the bragging gold firearm, drag queen eyeshadow and bizarre Glamor Guy identity. Was this look something exotic he threw together the way one experiments in New York? Next week would he sport thick eyeglasses and cardigans?

Or was this real him, the true identity he self-accepted at age twelve? Perhaps he grew up in Idaho and impatiently waited to reach the physical age where he could move to the one city where he knew he’d be accepted. Maybe he spent his whole life surrounded by people who didn’t get him and now, now he was home.

Which was true for Gay Glamor Guy?

Never found out. New York does not offer answers.

Some nights I lay flat on my mattress eating chocolate Oreos, staring at the skyline through my window. I could always see the Empire State Building’s spire, that brilliant, glowing beacon of architectural achievement and grace. I would reflect how amazing it was that this day, the one now closing, millions of people agreed to share the same physical space and act decent to each other. They politely maneuvered around each other. Waited in line behind each other. Sometimes smiled at each others’ dogs. Maybe shared a cab.

New York is amazing.

Seriously, where else can you possibly find millions of people hellbent on being uniquely themselves while simultaneously agreeing to the invisible rules around entering a subway turn style and navigating a crowded sidewalk? Millions (think about that — millions) of people agree to the most basic kindnesses with each other, all done without discussion. It’s just what they do every single day. Sure, they fight. They can be terrible. Several gay man were victims of hate crimes while I was there. I’m not denying homelessness and sewage and rats. That’s true, too.

New York doesn’t mind contradictions.

But if you are desperate for hope in humanity, spend a Tuesday in New York. A Thursday works. (Monday in a pinch.) Every single day New York experiments with a concept called ‘civilization.’ They walk right past each other, not exactly ignoring each other, but not exactly interacting either. For millions of people, the flavor of this special love says, “Go live your life, Glamor Guy, or whoever you are at this moment. And I’ll go live mine.”

If New York is possible, then humanity can do fucking anything.

On my last night in down, I caroused from club to club with a new friend, a real New Yorker. I know he was a true New Yorker because within six seconds of our leaving the bar, he spotted a fat rat hustling across the street. I had been searching for a month.

“Right there,” he said, pointing. “Hey, we could get a taxi easier from 8th Street.”

The rat scurried into the meaty darkness and was gone.

Twelve minutes later, after a cab ride spent in hilarious cabbie political banter, we found ourselves a block from our drunken destination. We tipped our driver well and ambled down the sidewalks. Suddenly, my friend lifted his head and screamed. “EDMOND MANNING, EDMOND MANNING, EDMOND, MANNING.”

I was a mildly embarrassed and asked why he did that. He threw his arm around my neck and said, “Has anyone screamed your name in New York? Anyone screamed it three times?”

“No,” I said.

He said, “You’ve never really lived in New York until your name has been screamed three times in the city.”

This friend works as a Central Park tour guide when he isn’t making films and he confessed he sometimes embellished stories for tourists. So perhaps he was feeding me a line. But I did not care. I wanted to believe it was true, so I did.

I yelled my name aloud, right then, letting my voice hang in the inky night next to his, like shirts on a clothesline.

“No, no,” he said, scoffing. “You can’t do it yourself. It doesn’t mean anything unless someone else yells it.”

See? Even after a month, I still didn’t understand New York.

I may never be a true New Yorker, but now the city has my name.

 

 

 

The Best New York Sandwich

May 15th, 2013

When I announced I was visiting New York for a month, a number of friends advocated for restaurants and culinary experiences I simply had to try. I heard things like, “They have the best pizza,” or “Nobody knows about this place, but their curries are to die for.” Ramen noodles, cheese cakes, and donuts.

Gay ice cream.

It’s not surprising.

I think we all want to own a little piece of this mysterious mega-city, to know a secret spot for cranberry muffins or crepes or the best street vendors. To know a ‘best’ food item is to know New York in a way that that others do not, which means somehow New York knows you love her, so she let you find the best pierogies outside Poland.

I’m no different.

I wanted to have my own unique New York experience, to discover and love this city in a way others do not normally see.

That’s why I panhandled on Wall Street this morning for several hours, permitting a cardboard sign at my side to ask for money.

I woke up at 6:00 in my studio apartment in Chelsea, my home for the month of May, and dressed like I often do:  camo pants, gray shirt, flannel jacket. Looking around the city for the past two weeks, I discovered I already dress pretty closely to homeless attire, so really, I didn’t have to alter my wardrobe. I haven’t shaved in a few days, so I’m all kinds of scruffy and this morning I resisted showering. My cardboard sign said, “Anything helps,” and I drew sad little dollar signs at the bottom, a suggestion for those who didn’t understand my words.

I hopped the Downtown 2 Train to Brooklyn and by 7:00 a.m. got off at Wall Street. I wanted to be ready for morning rush hour.

My first location wasn’t great, so after a half-hour I moved to be right *on* Wall Street, near the subway entrance, down the street from Tiffany & Co. Across the street, a majestic colossal giant with stout Greek columns and a tuxedo’d door man wearing a tall top hat. Every now and then the door man would catch my eye and sternly communicate, ‘Don’t come over here.’ And I would glare back, ‘I will if I feel like it.’

I had grabbed a Starbucks cup from the trash and wiped it dry. Placed it front of me with my sign and waited.

People walked by.

I contemplated the best way to conduct myself. I kept my hands out of my pocket, fingers interlaced in front of me. I figured that made me look harmless. Vulnerable.

I sat.

Nothing happened.

New Yorkers on their way to work, clipped by. Cell phone chatter. People with coffee. Nobody really looked down at me. I noticed every cigarette butt in a 30 foot radius, every gum stain now a black circular tattoo on the city sidewalk.

I watched a clutch of moms bundle their kids into a school bus. I didn’t realize that – that New York kids got bussed to school. Huh. Interesting. I watched with curiosity and realized one of the mothers was deliberately keeping her back to me, standing between me and her kids, because, oh right. I was a panhandler.

When the first guy dropped money in my cup, I was stunned. I had forgotten why I was here.

He gave me $2.50 in quarters. He also gave me this big grin, as if he was delighted to see me. Then, he darted to the curb and into a cab. Almost immediately after that, an older man with silver hair dropped a dollar in my cup. He smiled big, too.

I hadn’t expected the smiling. I don’t know why.

A young guy, construction worker, whom I heard speaking in Spanish on his phone a moment earlier, dropped a dollar in my cup and showered me with this dazzling, unrestrained smile. It was a second date smile, the kind you get from someone who is happy to see you again and they want you to know it. I don’t know why I was shocked but I was. He moved four feet away and started a new phone conversation. He was in no hurry to get away from me.

A brown-haired woman veered off her linear path to pass me a dollar. She handed it to me seriously and turned to walk away. She was the first who didn’t smile. I wondered about her life and the kindness obviously in her that made her step my way. As she crossed the street, she looked over her shoulder at me and smiled big. She waved, as if leaving a friend after a coffee date.

A black woman in her 40’s gave me money and said, “God bless.” A Korean man in a pink shirt and white knit vest handed me a dollar and smiled shyly. He bolted away – it was obvious he was late for something – but he made time to stop for me. A woman with the most complicated bun and hair three different shades gave me money and murmured something like, “Mmmhmm,” before disappearing into the flow.

Black people. White people. Older. Young people. Casual dress. Suits. Everyone who contributed looked at me, looked me in the eye for a brief second.

A handsome young buck, sporting a burgundy shirt and silk tie handed me a dollar. He wore reflective sunglasses and like many others, had ear buds embedded in his skull. His hair was freshly shorn, stylish, very Abercrombie & Fitch. For some reason I thought I would see a smirk or a wrinkled judgment cross his face as he handed me the dollar. Something like, ‘Jesus, what happened to you, man?’

Nope.

His mouth was terse, like he understood the seriousness of my situation and he nodded at me. Respectfully. And then he was lost in the crowd.

Mostly everyone ignored me, walking by on their way to busy lives. I didn’t resent them. I’d walk right by me, too. I wondered about them and if they had given money on the previous block or the previous day, the way some people were generous with me today.

I took the subway to Times Square for a different audience and experienced the same kindnesses, people who looked me in the eye for a moment. Smiled. Nodded. A woman gave me two crumpled dollars and boarded her bus. An older man, possibly Japanese, stopped and pulled out his wallet. He made time.

A twelve-year-old kid raced up close to me, dropped in a dollar, and darted away, like a sparrow. I think he was a tourist and asked his parents permission to do this act of kindness. A toddler waddled by and seeing me at her eye-level, she burst into giggles. I waved and she screeched with delight, looking back as she and her mom moved toward the theaters.

A guy with frazzled hair, donning ear buds and smoking a dangling cigarette, approached and put $2 in my cup and stared into my eyes. Without words he somehow communicated, ‘I understand.’ I tried to fathom what he meant by that look, what he had gone through, his life experiences, but the only thing I got was him letting me know, ‘I understand.’

I cried when he walked away because he was so earnest and genuinely worried about me.

Best of all, I had the most amazing food today.

While at my Wall Street location, an Asian-American woman handed me an aluminum foil-wrapped square. After I watched her walk away, I noticed she was carrying a brown bag for her lunch. I unwrapped the tin foil to find her homemade sandwich.

She made it with processed cheese, the kind that remains imprinted with its individual plastic wrap. The meat was a thinly-sliced, cheap hybrid of ham and pastrami, rather difficult to name. Wheat bread. Mayonnaise. It wasn’t fully cut in half as the bottom piece of bread was barely perforated. A half-assed job done by someone in a hurry. I know. I’ve made sandwiches like that.

Obviously, she had made it for herself, but when she encountered someone who she thought needed it more, she did not hesitate. She gifted it to me and disappeared into the crowd of busy professionals.

I gave away all the money I collected to my fellow panhandlers, those who truly needed it. I made sure to look them in the eye and smile big. I now know how much that matters.

But I ate her sandwich.

Swear to God, it was the best homemade sandwich you will ever find in New York.

I consumed it slowly while sitting on a bench before the impressive Wall Street Exchange, reflecting on my own reasons to love this big city.

 

Valentine’s Day Car-ma

February 14th, 2013

My neighbor Rose called me early this morning to say, “Have you looked out your front window yet?”

I had not. I was still in my pajamas.

After a slight hesitation, she said, “My car is in your front yard.”

It was.

I do not know anyone with worse car karma than Rose and her family.  In the fourteen years we’ve been next door neighbors, some crazy shit has gone down. On three separate occasions, drivers zooming down Portland ave. smashed the rear view mirror off a van Rose’s husband used for his electrical contracting business.

The same van had been broken into twice while parked directly in front of their home. The second break-in was immediately after her husband had replaced the expensive tools stolen the first time.

Twice, drunk drivers sideswiped Rose’s street-parked car. A different time, a drunk driver rammed Rose’s daughter’s car so unbelievably hard from behind that it literally pushed the car under Rose’s suburban. Both cars were significantly damaged.

Looking at the scene from my front window the morning after this happened, I had thought Rose had backed her minivan over her daughter’s car.

Last night, someone rammed one of their cars again, this time pushing it from street-side parking into my front yard.

Of course, nobody left a note. They just drove away.

Nice way to begin Valentine’s Day, huh?

Rose, her daughter, and I did our best to push the car free. Minnesota’s weather conspired against us. The front left tire spun without traction. The snow and ice packed underneath the frame had frozen solid, making it impossible to free.

I jogged away to retrieve cardboard to place under the spinning tire.

When I returned from my basement, three men had joined Rose and her daughter. One man was older with black and grey dreadlocks pulled up behind his head into something like a bun. Another man seemed like he was in his early 20′s and his face wore surprise, like perhaps he didn’t know why he had stopped to help. The third man spoke with a Middle Eastern accent and he grinned at me when I returned, nodding at the cardboard. He said, “Good idea.”

As we struggled to push, pull, and dig out the ice from under the car frame, I noticed the Middle Eastern man wore white business-wear alligator shoes. Not boots.

I’m sorry to say that my first reaction was to think, ‘If I were wearing those shoes, I’m not sure I would have pulled over to help.’

Clearly, he’s a better person than I am in that regard, because he did pull over, despite not being perfectly dressed for the occasion. He did not hesitate for a moment to get on his knees to dig out ice and snow.

While the dreadlocks man attempted to rock the car from the front, he casually said, “I have to be careful pushing too hard; I have a bad back.”

A bad back? Why the hell did he pull over to help?

Again, another Samaritan who probably should have said, “Not me. I can’t help this time.”

But he did.

By the time we succeeded, and yes, we did succeed, I shyly marveled at these Valentine’s helpers. Ill-prepared for manual labor in the cold, they stopped. They got out of their cars on an ordinary Thursday morning because they saw a woman in trouble. Maybe they stopped because it was Valentine’s Day, a day we’re all supposed to remember the world is full of love, but I don’t think so.

I think these are men who would have stopped any day.

The young man who looked perpetually surprised seemed genuinely surprised (of course) we freed the car.

We all cheered and clapped our gloves, and Rose thanked them individually.

The surprised young man jogged back to his vehicle, a minivan, and as I waved goodbye to him, a cheerful woman in the passenger seat joined him in waving effusively. Obviously, he had somewhere to go as well, but he made time and his lady waited patiently while he performed this act of service.

I received well-wishes from near and far today, Facebook posts, text messages, and even homemade cookies from mom.

But nothing warmed my heart today, made me feel connected to the deeper love, like those three unlikely strangers who decided, ‘I can help. So I will.’

Happy Birthday To You

January 26th, 2013

A little miracle happened today. A tiny one, related to technology and birthdays.

During my siblings and my college years, our parents initiated the *eye rolling* tradition of calling on our respective birthdays and singing the traditional hymn. They preferred to catch us early in the morning, so by 8:30 a.m. if mom and dad hadn’t called on my birthday, then they were probably in prison. But even then, they would probably save up their one call for the next kid’s birthday.

Every year. Without fail.

As technology advanced, they sometimes caught voicemail and felt obliged to sing at every extension. If I missed Mom and Dad because I was teaching or working early, I would find singing on my home, cell, and work voicemails. They really were invested in making sure we were each well celebrated.

As my years (like technology) advanced, the tradition didn’t seem so ridiculous. In fact, I found I rather needed that phone call. I began to crave it. They sang with enthusiastic joy. They sang because they were glad I am in the world. The older I get, the less confident I am that I’m totally awesome. I have made enough mistakes to know this. I am clumsy with others’ hearts just at the moment I ought to be more compassionate. Some days when I lack the confidence to go out in the world, I need a few people to think I am so wonderfully awesome that I am worth singing about.

My heart needs that.

Luckily, mom and dad always felt I was worth song.

In 2008 when they called me at home, I deliberately let them go into voicemail. I knew they would sing their message and I could save it, listening whenever I needed to feel their love. Another year, a boyfriend was taking me out for a great breakfast and he wanted us to arrive before the restaurant got too busy.

“We have to hang around my place for a bit,” I insisted. (It was my day after all.)

I explained it was a huge deal to my parents to call and sing to me, while not admitting to him it was a huge deal to me. He suggested a touch of narcissism on my part to assume that my parents had nothing better to do–

The phone rang.

“Excuse me,” I said, grinning and blushing. “I better take this call.”

I think my favorite part of listening to mom and dad sing is that they always begin singing at exactly the same moment, which means right before they began they were staring into each others’ eyes, waiting for mom’s official nod. When I hear them sing, I remember that they met in the church choir where they fell in love. One of their flirty games was retrofitting church hymns with lyrics about their favorite card game, pinochle.

In our family, when we played pinochle, Dad would quietly sing under his breath, “Jack of Diamonds, Queen of Spades…”

Mom would sing her reply, “No, I do not have them…”

They cracked each other up, every single time.

Mom still calls each of us on our birthday, early-ish, and she sings with gusto and enthusiasm. With Dad gone, she’s singing for two.

For years I’ve been plotting to get their 2008 Happy Birthday To You off my home voicemail and onto my computer. I’m not very technologically savvy, so I kept saying, “There’s got to be a way to transfer this,” while not really doing anything about it. I listen to the message semi-regularly and end up smiling after they finish. For a few seconds, it’s my birthday and I am awesome.

A recent upgrade to my home security system means I don’t need my home phone line anymore. I can axe that bill and, of course, that means losing all saved voicemails.

Retrieving that particular voicemail is now a top priority, so I added it to my massive To Do list, the one I hide in my den. If you saw my three columns and twenty boxes per column, you’d think a crazy person makes my To Do list, and you’d be right. But I need the list. Work’s been busy. Book stuff. Writing. House projects. I need to organize part of my life.

Today was typical — an exceptionally busy day at work. I was lost in an irritating task, wrestling with work problems between four one-hour phone meetings, mildly frustrated, that pleasant frustration before a solution strikes you. A busy two weeks lay behind me and two busier weeks lie ahead. Work conferences. High impact facilitation. And in the middle of this, I have to drive to a water park in Wisconsin.

It’s not the best weekend for me to get away, but tomorrow my siblings and mom and converge at The Wilderness Resort in the middle of Wisconsin. My two sisters celebrate birthdays in January and early February, so we usually gather to celebrate the ‘winter birthdays.’

Amidst this work chaos and extensive travel, my old computer died, which has prompted several nights installing software that doesn’t quite work like it’s supposed to. I’ve been visiting the Geek Squad, soaking up their 15 minutes of free help several times a week.

Between meetings today, I logged into my email service provider’s website to get my email (it’s one of the casualties of the computer switchover). While visiting web email, I discovered how to download voicemail as an audio file. Despite my delight to discover this important task handled so simply, I decided that with the next conference call in ten minutes, I couldn’t afford to listen to the full singing at that moment.

Quietly thrilled, I emailed the audio file to myself to listen later, at home.

After work tonight, I was exhausted. But I dragged myself to the Geek Squad to soak up a rich 17 minutes of free problem-solving. I think we sorta fixed the email problem. I guess. After that, I knocked two other things off the To Do list.

Then, I got home.

Ate my takeout pasta and green salad.

When I dragged myself away from an hour of Hulu and cracked open email to check if tonight’s problems were truly solved, I found an email from my work self and an attachment I very much wanted to hear.

I opened it.

I listened.

My parents sang to me in their sweet-song tones, cheerfully bestowing birthday love that felt fresh and true. My dad’s voice is strong, his pre-cancer voice. My mom sings lightly and she has always had a beautiful voice. At one time, she sang professionally. She always sings beautifully.

Dad sang well, too. In fact, after he died, the young grand daughter of a church friend mom and dad saw at daily mass, a grand daughter who attended mass daily too, looked around one weekday morning and asked about my dad. She said, “Where’s the singing man?”

When her grandmother explained that he had passed away, the girl said, “Oh. The Singing Man is singing in heaven.”

I gotta tell you, for a non-Catholic, that’s a hard image to let go of. I really want that to be true. And I love thinking of my dad as ‘The Singing Man.’

Tonight, my parents singing rejuvenated me so I bought construction paper and made a huge sign to celebrate my sisters’ Winter Birthdays, which I will tape to their hotel room door. Then, we will put on our swim suits and mom will escort us to the pool area, where we will scream our guts out, dizzy, laughing, ridiculous kids on water slides.

My brother and I will giggle like when we were young co-conspirators. My sisters and I will share ‘what it was like for me’ stories as we march toward the stairs, headed back to the top. Just like we were when we were kids and mom and dad watched us run around and scream.

How often do you get to time travel like that? To visit the siblings of your youth?

I guess I’m getting two miracles this weekend.

 

 

 

If you need someone to think you’re awesome, so wonderful that you’re absolutely worthy of song, I invite you to listen to the link below. You can borrow my mom and dad’s love for a while.

mom and dad singing