Old Christmas trees

christmas-tree-dry-211x300I can’t remember how it feels to squeeze into a rusty hand-me-down Jeep among friends I’d probably die for.

I do not recall how it feels to cheer its four bald tires toward gaining enough traction to climb an unplowed hill in Western New York beyond the “county maintenance ends here sign” in early January. We hoped it would reach the summit; we prayed we could make it safely down the other side without sliding into the forest.

And when we did, the lights of the big city – and its 18,000 residents – awaited us. There, we would find old Christmas tree after old Christmas tree by curbs in front of homes, waiting for city workers to pick up and take them to the dump. Some still had tinsel. A few still had lights. Most had only a 100 or so needles barely staying attached.

All were perfect for tying to the hitch of the Jeep and being dragged down the streets.

I also don’t know why this was so humorous to us. It was stupid, really, I say now as an adult. A multitude of bad things could have happened: we could have been pulled over and had to explain it before still getting fined, we could have hit a parked car with them and got caught, a car coming up quickly behind us might not have seen them and been sent into a fiery crash when it swerved to avoid the trees. People could have died!

But we laughed and laughed and laughed every time we’d pull up to a house with a tree out by the curb, run out of the Jeep, grab it and tie it to the train of trees we’d already accumulated. It wasn’t really stealing, right? No one wanted these old trees a week after Christmas. We were doing them a favor.

“All right guys, I think that’s all she can take,” Corey said, referring to the Jeep’s struggle to navigate the streets packed with snow atop a sheet of ice. We had about a dozen.

Suddenly, it occurred to all of us there was no way we were dragging this cargo back over the hill. Would we just leave them somewhere, victims of another night with nothing better to do because we didn’t have beer?

“Jake’s house,” Corey said. “Let’s drop them off there.”

Speaking of things I cannot fathom today, why this made perfect sense 18 years ago is one of them. Our friend Jake’s house was just outside of the city. That meant we’d have to drag them through busy neighborhoods and side streets for probably three miles, hoping we didn’t see a cop and putting our faith in Corey to navigate the makeshift train that was almost as long as a tractor-trailer but more difficult to control since metal trailers don’t twist and bend like a 30-foot snake.

But Jake’s mom was pretty high strung. Imagining her reaction the whole way there was almost as enjoyable as hearing the next day how it actually occurred. This explained why it was necessary to do this.

We could not resist this reward.

We arrived with our precious cargo one of the greatest rides of my life later. We stared out the rear window with every turn. We looked far down side streets for other headlights to avoid. We stayed aware of our location because we knew every inch of the city and had to keep in mind the nearest dark parking lot in which we could quickly pull if trouble came our way.

Somehow, when we arrived at Jake’s house, we were able to unhook every old Christmas tree – in terrible shape by now – and stand each one-by-one in the plowed snowbank along the perimeter of the driveway without anyone coming out to see what we were doing. If all went well the next morning, Jake would laugh, his dad would say “what the Hell” and his mom would tell his dad to get those the Hell out of there before calling Corey’s mom to complain. We would not tell Corey’s mom what we did, as her lack of explanation for Jake’s mom would add to our delight.

I don’t know what happened to those days – days when dragging old Christmas trees behind an old Jeep in an old town were all I needed to live a life fulfilled. I never would have believed it at the time, but one year later I would move away. Two years later, we’d only be together twice a year. Four years later, I’d be a father. Eight years later, I would own a home. Twelve years later, I’d barely know any of them anymore. Fifteen years later, one of our football coaches would pass away. Seventeen years later, our head football coach would give up coaching football.

Eighteen years later, I would be 50 years older.

And all of this would just be something I fondly – but sadly – recall when the house goes quiet on a Monday night.

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Smelling with eyes

People say the Bradford Pear Tree smells like fish. I’ve been cutting grass and mistaken their scent for wild mushrooms after they’ve been mowed.

Both are actually compliments compared to claims this tree smells like woman parts that haven’t been washed or have recently – very recently – been “used.”

PROBABLY THE THIRD comparison is most accurate. It would be used regularly if more people spent time with flappers and bus station skanks. The uptight folks just say it’s inappropriate, however true it may be.

“Ah, you know spring has arrived when the aroma of an unkempt whore fills the air.”

That will turn some heads. Surely, it is inappropriate for schools, church, work and 65 percent of remaining social circles. Plus it would be redundant, since whores typically are unkempt. But I digress …

THESE TREES TRIGGER nothing but happy thoughts in me – and that is no reflection of my social life. Is it an awful smell? Sure. But I associate it with my favorite time of the year.

Let’s be honest, though: the appearance of these trees is of postcard-caliber beauty. They decorate streets in town, spot yards out of town and line driveways in both places. They are constantly pruned like an old bitty’s hair just after a trip to the salon.

After daffodils, they are the first flowers to open in the new year.

When their petals fall to the ground, they look like snow – fresh, innocent and pure. Quite the opposite of comparisons conjured by their aroma.

LIFE IS SIMILAR TO these trees, from what I see. One must smell them with their eyes. There are bad things about good people; there are good things about bad. We welcome disappointment when we hold out for perfection.

Our jobs. Our relationships. Our families. Our house, our car, our pets … the list of things that will never be perfect also never ends.

Sometimes we must smell with our eyes. Taste with our ears. We have to look with our hands, sing with our thoughts and appreciate with our hearts.

ONE CAN BE IN the presence of a Bradford Pear tree and note only its smell. Or one can associate this scent with the coming of spring – the resilience of this tree to think only of blossoming while the rest of the natural world stayed preoccupied by the cold. Its thoughts were warm while others’ were frozen. For this, it deserves appreciation. For this, it should give hope to any man who smells with his eyes.

For our perception is how we measure beauty.

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easier to stay away

When I moved to North Carolina, there was no way I was going to stay. I’d finish college and return to Western New York – which would always be home.

These intentions were only solidified after two years in the Tarheel State. I hated it there. Hated the culture, hated the weather, hated the “wussy” things people did for fun. Oh, and Southern cuisine wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Fried food sucked, college football sucked, golf sucked, vanity license plates sucked … everything just, well, sucked.

But here I am, more than 10 years after graduating college. I’m even further from Western New York.

I WILL NEVER FORGET those all-night drives to New York while in college. I hated flying because it lacked the thrill that came from witnessing everything get better the farther north I traveled. Virginia felt more like home than North Carolina. West Virginia felt more like home than Virginia. Maryland, then Pennsylvania … and finally, New York.

One such night in college came as a surprise to my parents. I arrived in the middle of the night and the dog pissed all over the driveway when it saw it was his long lost running buddy who’d just got out of the car. Mom and Dad turned on their bedroom lamp, shot out of bed – confused at first before finally erupting into smiles. They actually got up and had a cup of coffee with me before we all went to sleep.

The rest of my family would see me always before I went back to the South and every old friend I had time to see would drink at least two beers with me (the closest ended up consuming much more than that). And the food – luscious, giant slabs of beer battered fish on Friday nights, pizza, REAL chicken wings, red meat galore, great Polish cuisine, above average Italian cuisine – it was always good to eat food the way it was supposed to be eaten.

THOSE TRIPS ARE FAR and few between today, though. Nothing is wrong with the place. Nothing has changed … literally. My family and friends who remain in the area, I miss dearly. The food is still great.

But you don’t have to watch out for fire ants when you’re barefoot in March. They don’t have old men who will hold you up for three to 27 minutes as you’re walking into a store because they thought you looked like someone they knew 20 years ago. They don’t have jasmine. Crepe myrtles aren’t in every third front yard. There aren’t signs in front of houses selling unshelled pecans for $5 per quart-size Ziploc bag. They don’t have magnolia. And they don’t have the sweet nectar of a trumpet honeysuckle.

I did not like North Carolina because in one case, I lived in a coastal city (I did not realize I hate the beach so much until I moved there), I was bogged down by a new career in another NC city and I was too focused on recently becoming a single parent to a 2-year-old girl in the third city to bask in its glory.

That third city in NC … it almost had me. Kinston was its name and I reflect on it presently with adoration. I lived with my daughter in a small cottage I rented surrounded by cotton fields. I remember in the fall, mice seemed like they were everywhere inside the house, so when I reported this to my landlord – an old, small-in-stature-but-large-in-personality Southern woman who always wore an apron, whose house always smelled like fried food and always had tea brewing on the stove – just said, “Well, they ain’t too bad this year.”

“This year?” I said. She made it sound like snowfall in Western New York.

“Oh, yeah,” she calmly replied. “When those boys start ta harvesting the cotton, them mice coming running out of the fields and into people’s houses.”

She gave me a stack of those paper mouse traps with one side that was all super-strength adhesive. She told me to just put these in cupboards, corners, along baseboards.

“When one gets stuck, you’ll hear it scream and scream ‘cuz it can’t get off,” she said with an evil laugh. “Then you just roll it up, take it outside and squeeze it real hard until you hear it crack, then they stop.

“Then just throw it in the trash so you don’t get blood everywhere.”

This was a different flavor of where I was from, but resembled its simplicity and strength. People just did what they had to do to live their lives.

I liked Kinston.

LIFE EVENTUALLY TOOK me to South Carolina, though. By then, I was more acclimated to the South and prepared for a version of North Carolina that was even less progressive. I’d advanced beyond critiquing locals’ treatment of black people (since much of the North still views the South as Ku Klux Klan sympathizers) as I learned if either side needs a lesson in tolerance, it’s the place I’m from. I no longer felt as if I were on a constant journey to gather information to take home when I left the South. On top of that, the Carolinas was where my daughter was from … it is her home, so it might as well be mine, I thought.

Not that it took much convincing.

South Carolina sealed the deal for me. It was all the good things about North Carolina without the vanity license plates on SUVs. I saw few plots of forest giving way to million-dollar homes creating neighborhoods with names like “Landfall” and “Trent Woods.” I saw more farmland that was always going to be farmland because it’d be a cold day in Hell before the old timers allowed the nephew of a guy they went to school with vote in favor of a land development at a county council meeting.

Even the cities were more my speed. I actually – on a rare occasion, but it happens, nonetheless – take my children, today, to visit cities in South Carolina. If I wanted to carry a loaded handgun in my glove box without some government paperwork, I could. I learned to appreciate the food because it wasn’t like anyplace else. I loved the privacy offered in South Carolina … folks would try to get to know you when you move somewhere or start a job, but once you made it clear you’d rather they did not, they’d leave you alone. Of course, they’d circle back to quiet stabs at getting you to their church, but even this was not aggressive.

I REALIZED ALL of this when discussing what our family would do for upcoming spring break. It hasn’t been unusual to use this time for a Western New York trip, but we did not do that last year and I don’t anticipate it happening this year. There’s just too much interesting nothing going on here to leave for a week. The sun is out every day. Flowers have been coming up for a month and I’ve already cut grass three times. My daughter is talking about everything she wants to plant in the garden and my son, who is 3, considers every weekend a major holiday because he gets to run around our fields, swing from tree limbs, slide for hours from his wooden swing set, cut trails through wildflowers in a trailer behind the tractor and “help” me in the shop, fixing little things around the house that may or may not actually need fixed.

The most resistance I anticipate to my proposal we stay home for spring break will come from Hollie, who is – interestingly enough – a Georgia native. She’s visited Western New York twice with me since we met and loves the place. Maybe we can compromise with a couple of days at the beach (which would be a compromise because – remember – I loathe any beach and the freaks who go there).

So this is the evolution of my definition of home. I think WNY will always be dear to me and conjure a host of memories, but my heart will forever be in the place I’ve found that is both vacation and home.

Yes, I believe my life has finally become a vacation. I have no desire to leave this place. Above all else, it is home.

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Among the fears

Among the fears I have for my son, one of the greatest is that he’ll limit himself to gender stereotypes.

I DO NOT WORRY about this with my daughter. She spent the majority of the years in which these are traditionally ingrained being raised by her father alone; she was by default exposed to everything I do that are considered, today, “man” things. My concerns with her revolve around typical ambition issues of a 12-year-old who thinks she is a 22-year-old heir to a wealthy throne. She may not do the things she’s learned, but she knows how to do them.

Maybe it’s the times and what’s going on in the world today; it could be part of me has bought into the latest wave of women’s suffrage movements, but I really don’t want my son to buy into this whole “men don’t do that” thing when it comes to behaviors and activities. I don’t want him believing men aren’t supposed to clean, cry, bake, sew, do laundry or be “overly” tender.

I SEE ON FACEBOOK all of the time fathers who clearly buy into traditional stereotypes and are well on their way to passing them onto their sons. I have no interest in judging them because, truthfully, my son is the only son who’s my responsibility. But just as I’ll be sure to post photos of Kalob’s hunting expeditions down the road, I’m also going to share photos of him baking cookies with me.

That’s right. I bake cookies.

My mother, a year or so ago, bought Kalob a simple baby doll with a toy bottle when he stayed overnight at my parents’ house. I remember her hesitation discussing the purchase when I picked him up. She was almost defensive when I saw it, seemingly convinced I was going to have a problem with it.

“Now Justin,” she said, “there’s nothing wrong with giving a little boy something to nurture and feel like he’s taking care of.”

If I had an expression on my face that reflected my feelings at all, it was more “that’s actually a great idea” than anything. Perhaps she misinterpreted this.

While his doll has accepted a role similar to the multitude of stuffed animals he’s lost interest in over time, he is still drawn to the thing when it pops up from out of a pile somewhere … nurturing, embracing and holding it just as he was the day I first saw him with it.

I BEGAN THINKING ABOUT these things tonight, as I sewed shut a tear in a small stuffed cow that was left in the yard and fell victim to our young, chewing dog. It is one of the few stuffed toys Kalob consistently loves. It cannot die at this time.

 

And while it looks like it was repaired by an EMT treating a victim in a bumpy ambulance on the way to the hospital, it gets the job done. My eighth-grade home economics class has finally paid dividends.

I believe it would be a disservice to my boy if I did not teach him things traditionally reserved for women. It would be a disservice to his future partner. It would be a disservice to society in general.

The world is full of tasks that require delicate hands – male or female.

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A milestone I don’t like to like

When Hollie goes to work early, I am the one who gets Kalob dressed and off to daycare in the morning. Today was one of those mornings.

Since he is 3, our routine for getting out the door is mostly his routine. All I am able to do to ready myself is put on my clothes, brush my teeth and arrange the dozen remaining hairs on my head with my fingers so I don’t look like a scumbag. The rest of my time in the morning is spent chasing Kalob, putting his clothes on, feeding him, wiping up his messes, putting away toys, etc., etc., etc.

I envy people whose routine consists of getting out of bed, eating, drinking coffee, dressing, freshening, hitting the road.

I HAD AN AWFUL REALIZATION this morning, though. One part of Kalob’s routine we no longer must do is put on a diaper or pull-up. He is about 75 percent potty-trained now, so the only time he wears a pull-up is when he goes to bed. It’s been a long battle to break this stubborn child of peeing whenever his bladder is full.

If anything, he’s running behind on the potty-training game. The daycare is set up so in his next classroom – the 3-year-old class, which he should have been in last month – there is no diaper or pull-up changing. But it’s pretty obvious Kalob is just being difficult here. He simply refuses to sit on the toilet the same way he refuses to put on his shoes in the morning, put his toys away and eat foods when he is told.

Yes, we have one of those kids who knows what he is supposed to do but won’t do it purely because he was told to do it.

I REMEMBER YEARNING for the day we no longer had to spend small fortunes on pull-ups. I remember hoping there would come a day we no longer had to change him because the novelty had worn off long ago and now it was just another task that required dropping everything to do. I remember seeing other children his age and younger wearing underwear and thinking, “Well, here’s Kalob … still rocking the pull-up.”

Now that the day has arrived, I’m a little bummed out.

Yet another part of the baby whose photos adorn the house walls is gone forever. No more bald head, no more eyelid that only works half the time, no more pacifier, no more crying in the night, no more “changing the baby.”

IT’S JUST HOW IT goes, though. Truly. I never realized these things with my daughter because she was my first. Now I’m really noticing them with Kalob. Once they are gone, they’re never coming back. Sort of like my hair.

Parents are lucky, though, to feel these feelings. To be so sad over happy things. In a demented way, this is the upside to being exhausted, overwhelmed and even feeling suffocated at times as you envy people who can just get up in the morning and go straight to work.

It is a milestone and an achievement. As difficult as it may be, I will try to be glad about it.

After all, I yearned for this day.IMG_4511 (2)

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Thoughts and Prayers

Sadly, there are cliches that have developed when it comes to school shootings.

(This is sad because school shootings should be so infrequent that each is remembered as a historic tragedy, like the Challenger space shuttle explosion, but just the opposite is true.)

First, people will call for thoughts and prayers. Then Facebook will develop a border for profile pictures that say something to the effect of “praying for (insert name of school that was recently attacked).”

Then the gun control people will start. They’ll be joined by the “we need help for mental illness victims” gang.

Next will be the “it’s too soon to talk about gun control” and “it’s disrespectful to the victims to make this political” crowds.

Right about this time is when the government starts discussing responses to the matter. Six months after that, some bill aimed at reducing the chance of another school shooting will be laid to rest … and we’ll all be back to square one.

But the one that happened in Florida today has triggered an entirely new response I’ve seen multiple times on social media: the mockery of the “thoughts and prayers” response. Yeah, I get the point. They believe we need to do more than pray, specifically at the legislative level. They want laws passed, etc., etc.

(I mock the idea of more laws helping anything, truth be told.)

 

It is true there is no way to stop a well-armed school shooter who has knowledge of the building layout and procedures school staff and students have rehearsed. Technology exists to help the building occupants’ chances, but school districts don’t have the money for these kinds of purchases. Arming teachers is a joke, too. A person has to have many hours of experience handling, using and embracing a handgun to be comfortable enough with it to respond swiftly and safely under pressure. A lot of people think they’d turn into a special agent for the FBI in the event of a bank robbery or if they came across someone getting mugged in the parking lot, but it’s easier said than done. Some weekend seminar on firearm safety isn’t going to be enough for the vast majority of teachers.

So don’t attack those who view thoughts and prayers as all they can really do about it.

We should never, ever stop praying in times like these. Seriously. No, I’m not the formally religious type. I don’t even know what religion to call my family and actually dislike the institution of church. But I will tell you what the lot of us has: faith. It may not be as strong as it should or could be, but there’s at least a little flicker of a flame somewhere inside. While it seems at times God is not by our children at school each day, protecting them and keeping them safe, He is. He must be. We have to believe this or we have nothing at all left on days like today.

My middle school-age daughter asked me tonight while watching coverage of this shooting if I thought her school was safe. I told her she’s at greater risk for mesothelioma (her school district was recently given an F on some report card for building maintenance) than she is being shot. And this is true.

So tomorrow, I will watch her get on the bus in the morning like she always does and know she will come home safely. I will give my son a hug and kiss goodbye as I leave him off inside his daycare classroom. I will be aware of Earthly threats, but confident God will provide the protection necessary and wisdom to teachers and administrators to respond should a threat arise.

hope we citizens – public and private – come up with a way to reduce the number of tragedies that are occurring in our schools, but I know God controls everything that will happen throughout the course of my children’s day, their mother’s and mine.

I can’t directly move a nation to action, but I can pray. I can keep people in my thoughts. This is something I can do. God listens.

And I will never stop doing this, no matter how ineffective it may seem to some or hopeless it feels to me at timesBBJ8X5S.

 

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Three

When people who do not have children think about having children, oftentimes money is near the top of the list of reasons they do not have children.

Money is also a man or woman’s No. 1 fear when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s even a concern when a happily married couple begins planning to have a child. This group may not worry about additional mouths to feed affecting day-to-day operations, such as paying bills and buying groceries, but substantial thought goes into “capital requests” down the road, including paying for college, a wedding, etc.

I AM GUILTY of this. I did not plan to have my daughter and certainly never thought I’d raise her on my own for so long. Back then, I was fresh out of college with a pretty much worthless bachelor’s degree. I worried too much about finances not enough about what she really wanted: my time. Now it’s too late. The opportunity to read more with her, paint her nails more and teach her how to use the kitchen set I bought her at Christmas one year are gone.

But, hey … at least she’ll be good for college and never had to worry about having food, right?

MY SECOND CHILD turned 3 last week. We had his party this weekend. I look at his sister, the myriad of complex 12-year-old girl emotions, interpretations and motivations she is and yearn for her to be like her brother: a little kid who doesn’t want to do anything without me or his mother. Having learned my lesson, I spend as much time interacting with him as possible.

It’s easy to consider my circumstances have changed since his sister was his age and presume that’s why money doesn’t matter to me as much. I’m no longer a single parent. My income has increased substantially since I was entry level plus his mother works very hard to provide financial needs (and wants) of the household. My job permits me a schedule that maximizes the amount of time I get just to be with my children.

While these two factors are helpful, time is what your small children want … not your money.

SO I SPEND LESS time worrying about Kalob’s college tuition (he’s 3 for God’s sake) and more time teaching him how to use his new Leap Pad interactive learning book. I turn down opportunities for bonuses at work if they require me to be away from my children. I even rejected a promotion that would have increased my salary by 50 percent because it would have been almost completely travel. While this one was tempting because of the money and because I really would have liked the assignment, it’s not like we needed any more money.

I would not have been benefiting my family at all by taking me away from them. Trading my role as a regular, constant fixture in their lives for occasional lavish trips to Disney World and foreign countries would not have been okay. 

I CELEBRATE MY son, my daughter and my Hollie in this post and the role they have played in teaching me about what matters. Those happily married couples waiting for financial reasons to have children should stop waiting, as the younger they are, the more energy they will have to give time to their children. Those like I once was – terrified having a child was going to make me destitute – should realize having a child only makes one richer.

People nearing death don’t think about ways they could make more money. They think about ways to maximize the time they have left with those they love.    

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