Sunday, November 26, 2023


Mom and I had already crossed off every item on her pre-Thanksgiving looking-forward-to-Christmas shopping list when we arrived at the Marie Callender display at the end of the last aisle at Riesbeck's. Despite an overflowing shopping cart, we could not walk past a sale on Marie Callender's pies. 

I opened the refrigerator door to grab the remaining Razzleberry pie, my favorite. "Mom, do you want another pumpkin pie or the strawberry-rhubarb pie?"

We had been shopping for over an hour, so even though her 94-year-old hands gripped the shopping cart handle, Mom was still a child in a candy shop while taking stock of the remaining pies. "I have never seen that one anywhere. What is that one?" she asked, pointing to a pie at the top of the icy refrigeration unit. 

I reached up to pull down a Marie Callender Lattice Peach Pie and disbelievingly held the pie in front of her. "A Lattice Peach Pie? Is this really what you want?" Undoubtedly, Mom was simply experiencing the old age delirium that enveloped her near the end of a long shopping excursion at the local Riesbeck's.  

"Yes. This pie has peaches and lattices. I like lattices." Mom had not shown this level of desire for any item on her list for the past hour. Lord! We had endlessly debated whether to buy the Ocean Spray or the store brand of cranberry jelly. I never expected Mom to be this certain over pie. We had truly entered the season of miracles on this chilly evening at the grocery store. 

Two days came and went before we even considered baking the Marie Callender Lattice Peach Pie. We needed that evening and the day after to recharge our batteries after the holiday shopping trip. Neither of us possesses endless energy anymore. So two days later, I had made dinner and left a preheated oven available to Mom in case she wanted to bake her pie.

"Hey, Mom!" I called into the living room. "We don't have anything for dessert. Do you want me to bake that peach pie now?"

"Oh, I can do it," Mom said, awakening from a short post-meal slumber. She moved from the relaxed position in her reclining chair and slid on her slippers. An eagerness in her eyes sparked her steps as she slowly made her way to the kitchen, where she pulled out her baking sheet and silver-turned-brown antique pie crust guards. She has her routine, and I know when to sneak out quietly to let Mom do her thing.

To say that Mom and I struggle working in the kitchen together is a vast understatement. There is little room there for two grown adults to move around, so when one of us is a little bit slower and hesitant, and the other is faster and quite impatient, typically, the experience is less than wholesomely calm. 

I kept a watchful guard while doing random little projects around the house. I listened to the cookie sheet sliding onto the oven shelves and Mom's multiple attempts to set the timer. Once the numerous beeping sounds finally stopped, Mom returned to the living room and reclined back in her chair, waiting until the timer signaled the pie was finished.

Now that the kitchen was clear, I felt more comfortable going in there to clean up the pie box and dishes from dinner. I occasionally checked the timer and then updated Mom regarding the pie's progress. We can be a good team if we stay out of each other's way. 

Well over an hour later, I stood at the edges of the kitchen as Mom donned her oven mitt. The heat from the open oven door warmed the air as she pulled the pie from the oven and placed it on a cooling rack. Mom cautiously removed the pie crust guards and smelled the pie. She licked her lips and went for the cutting knife.

"Um...Mom?" I called from a distance. "Aren't you supposed to let that cool for a while?"

She didn't answer me and kept moving toward the steaming pie. I had not checked to see if she was wearing her hearing aid, so perhaps she did not hear me. I also considered the possibility she was ignoring me. I moved closer and held my hand before her to slow her progress toward the peach pie.

"Mom." This time, I was going to be clear and direct. "You need to let the pie cool before we cut it. You can't just cut a hot fruit pie like this."

"OK." She mumbled while moving past my outstretched hand toward the pie, staring intently, wanting the pie right now. She stuck the large knife into the pie and began to cut. Mom's stubborn German side would not allow me to stand in her way. 

More heat began to steam out of the sliced portion of the pie, which began to slide open with Mom's cutting. I knew this was wrong. I drew on whatever vestiges of a teacher's voice I had remaining. "Mom, please stop! That pie needs to rest. All of the peaches and filling are hot liquid right now. Everything is just going to run out. Let it rest for an hour. "

"I've let it rest enough." Mom finished the diameter cut and began to cut the pie into quarters. 

"A half an hour! Please stop!" This was hopeless. She wanted the Marie Callender Lattice Peach Pie now. Barring wrapping my arms around my 94-year-old mother and dragging her away, what could I do? "OK, then. Suit yourself. That is going to be really hot." I retreated back to the edge of the kitchen.

I watched in frustration and disbelief as Mom took two dessert plates from the cupboard. She is really going to do this. She lifted one-quarter of the piping peach pie to a plate using a silver pie server. The peaches and filling ran out from underneath the beautifully baked lattice top, molten liquid filling the small plate. 

As Mom silently loaded the remaining plate, I stepped forward to take account of the carnage. The heated filling continued to run out of the remaining half of the pie as Mom tried to push it back into the pie, eventually placing a fork underneath the raised hot pie pan's empty side in a futile attempt to let gravity take over. We cannot eat this now. We just can't, right?

"Hey, Mom. I think this is definitely going to need some ice cream. Lots of ice cream." I took a half gallon of vanilla bean ice cream from the freezer, grabbed an ice cream scoop, and began a desperate rescue operation. It was time for me to join Mom's adventure.

"Do you have some ice cream?" Her face lit up. "Oh, that will be good!" 

I dropped a big scoop of ice cream atop each slice of pie only to watch it begin to melt quickly, necessitating another scoop in a battle between the extremely hot and the ice cold. I was uncertain which would win as both small plates overflowed with peaches, hot filling, and melted ice cream. 

"Uh-oh," Mom announced as she looked at me from the overflowing dessert plates. I reached into the cupboard above us to grab a dinner plate while Mom grabbed a handful of paper towels and a soup bowl. 

"Mom, I will just slide this onto a dinner plate." The pie broke apart, and the ice cream began to melt but was no longer in danger of dripping onto the counter. Spots of peaches and vanilla ice cream slowly mingled on the plate, looking deliciously edible.

Mom dumped the other plate into a soup bowl, wiping the excess with paper towels. This worked just as well as the peach pie and ice cream blended into a thick and chunky soup of a dessert.

I still wish Mom would have waited for the pie to cool, but I am over my disbelief that she cut it so quickly. Mom will do what moms do, and I will always defer to her wisdom. I respect her spunk for attacking that Marie Callender Lattice Peach Pie as she did. I want to have this level of enthusiasm when I am her age.

Like this hot pie, life can be lived in the same way. We can wait for the right moments to arrive, and we will be none the worse for doing so. While devoid of instantaneous gratification, there is comfort in being patient. We can also dive right into the fray, not knowing what to expect, and occasionally be surprised by the outcome.

This is not an advertisement for Marie Callender Lattice Peach Pie, 
but do not let me stop you if you wish to try it. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023



Year after year, one season blends into another, beginning another chapter in our lives. That which once blossomed in the glory of the summer sun becomes seeds we plant for the future with the hope that the best of life can one day return to be experienced again.

This past summer was a remarkably green one for my porch. I cannot recall having such a wonderful blend of hanging baskets, potted plants, and flower beds. The yellow, white, orange, and red flowers became a virtual wall around my porch, letting in the light through open spaces while chasing away the night as string lights glowed around the dark edges of the porch. I had a quiet sanctuary where I would complete the day's crossword puzzle, read a book until I grew tired, and even start journaling again. A cup of coffee, my dog Charlie, and some pillows behind my back were all I needed for a comfortable mini-escape right here at home.

The weather began to change near the end of September; the days grew shorter and slightly more relaxed. I needed a heavy blanket and a small, portable heater to extend the life of my sanctuary. In my journal, I would ask myself how a person can make serenity last? We all struggle with keeping those beautiful moments as long as we can, but, like the flowers that bloomed in the pots around us, they eventually fade, turn brown, and become the brittle resentment of a life that simply goes by too quickly.

As I looked around the porch at the shivering vestiges of Portulaca, Lantana, and Marigolds, I glanced at my spider plants, Mom's Christmas cacti, and the red geraniums. In another week, I would take those last three inside, where they would survive the winter and find their old spots on the porch the following spring. But the other three, the shivering ones, seemed doomed to my compost pile down the hill. I have tried to keep annuals over the winter but with rare success. Yes, the green leaves last a while but lose hope once the flowers are gone and wither away forever. 

By mid-October, I had a plan. I began to remove the seeds from plants once the flowers died. As I did this, I learned more about each plant: how to cultivate the seeds, store them, and what I would need to do early next spring to grow them again. Retrieving and saving these seeds was a slow and methodical process. Some seeds were as tiny as a grain of sea salt, others looked like mini feathers, and others were as solid as a grape seed. Each told a different story for me. I remembered when I planted it, how I watered it, and how I moved it to the best spot for the sun where I could watch it produce throughout its life cycle. 

And here I am at the beginning of November with an empty porch. The seeds are in my new little seed packets with labels and directions for the following year. Cuttings line my window sill indoors, and the potted plants I have brought inside have begun to become dormant. The last plant is my yellow mum, but I heard those can be placed in the ground and survive the winter.

As I enter my winter dormancy, it is a time for closure, reflection, and asking questions. Gathering these seeds and caring for these plants has sparked a personal inner conversation that needs some of the same watering and care my sanctuary needed throughout the spring and summer.

Why was I focused on keeping these seeds? Why not simply buy seeds or seedlings next spring? It would be easier to simply toss away the plants no longer growing. I don't believe this, though. Am I simply being thrifty? Am I only trying to save a buck or two on some seed packets? Thriftiness is possible, but since I am being reflective, I may need to look elsewhere.

We spend time nurturing and selflessly giving of ourselves. We do this for family members, friends, pets, and even plants. We make a choice to offer the best of ourselves to the world. Can this be a sacrifice or a burden to us at times? Yes. But we still give unconditionally. This altruism is a gift that provides us the serenity we want in our lives, so it is understandable when we wish to relish in the fruits of our labors for as long as possible. 

Like many plants, moments do fade and, unfortunately, disappear. We wish they wouldn't, but such is life. Of course, the seed that rests at the heart of each moment still remains. It awaits the possibility of our nurturing sometime in the future. Collecting these seeds has reminded me that special moments may disappear for periods but always have the potential to return.

Sunday, October 29, 2023


My entertainment choices have always tended to be science fiction and horror genres. As I was growing up in the Ohio Valley, I often struggled to stay up late for Chiller Theater hosted by "Chilly Billy" Bill Cardille on Channel 11 out of Pittsburgh, disobeying my parents' wishes by sneaking down to the den where I would adjust the tv antenna so that I could watch those glorious B-movies until the early hours of a Sunday morning.

Nowadays, countless movies are at our fingertips. We can watch anything, anytime and anywhere. And there is just so much to watch: a Golden Corral movie buffet spread over cable, satellite, and internet with slashers, zombies, vampires, robots, and children's dolls wielding knives. 

I have spent most of October dedicating every evening to a "scary" movie. I have my big glass of water, Pez dispensers locked and loaded, and an occasional bowl of popcorn all ready to go in my darkened den. Each night, I search Xfinity On Demand, Prime Video, and Hulu, hoping to discover one gem I have never watched. More often than not, I find myself disinterested in the multitude of indistinguishable choices or watching the first half an hour of a movie contemplating whether or not I had already seen this particular one. 

I just want to recapture that elusive feeling of yesteryear. I want to be that kid waiting until midnight to catch a good scary movie. I long to relive the anticipation of watching something special, a movie that will haunt me forever. And so I dug through my alphabetized boxes of DVDs in search of the one film that takes me back: The Thing from Another World!
To build my anticipation, I let the DVD wait patiently atop an end table in the den for nearly a week. In the meantime, I kept thinking about the movie, reliving all the scenes as they replayed in my memory. What is it about this seventy-year-old movie that brings me back to it year after year around this time? Many critics acknowledge its rightful place in the annals of excellent science fiction. Rotten Tomatoes critics even have The Thing at 87%, certified fresh. But what about me? What do I love about it?

The plot is classically simple. The Thing from Another World is a 1951 science-fiction movie about a research team of scientists and military personnel discovering a flying saucer and a sizeable frozen being underneath the ice in the Arctic. Of course, the ice melts, and the battle between mankind and the unfrozen "thing" ensues.

Nothing elevates the action in a movie than a setting whose presence seems to create a character unto itself. I can experience the frigid cold of Antarctica with the lights out while wrapped in a blanket. Throughout the stark black and white movie, I accompany the research team as they huddle together on a plane, trudge across the icy landscape in sub-zero temperatures, and barricade themselves against the howling winds pounding at the door. Even better, I stand with them on the frozen tundra as part of an incredibly iconic scene in which they spread out in a circle, extending their arms toward one another while crudely creating the circumference of the saucer buried under the ice.

The characters are unapologetically stereotypical. Two groups embody the research team: the scientists and the military. Leading the research team is Dr. Carrington, a pretentious fellow who cares more about protecting the alien attempting to kill them than ensuring the survival of mankind. Carrington's counterpart is Captain Patrick Hendry, the level-headed military man who wants to kill the alien as soon as he realizes it is alive. The philosophical battle is fought through some glorious, well-written dialogue by today's standards. I always found it a really cool kind of party there in Antarctica where everyone smokes and drinks coffee; if only they weren't fighting for their lives and the very survival of the world.

The legendary James Arness, who was Marshall Matt Dillon for 20 years on Gunsmoke, portrays the humanoid "thing," mutely asserting his presence on the screen. Imposing is the only word that adequately describes the alien as he towers above every human he encounters inside and outside the research facility. Doctor Carrington's scientific curiosity over the alien consumes him as he learns more and more about the creature's genetic makeup. While clearly humanoid in appearance, the alien only looks like a person. In actuality, it is more of a vegetable, one that survives on our blood the way we depend on green beans and corn on the cob. A reporter on this adventure comically refers to the "thing" as a "super carrot." 

I know what you are thinking. A carrot? The writers call their own monster a carrot? This sounds stupid. Indeed, there are countless aspects of this 1950s movie that are silly in retrospect. I don't let any of this bother me; I relish the unique quirkiness as something more endearing rather than silly. 

This movie did not have the extravagant multi-million dollar budget that a movie produced seventy years later would have, nor does it need it. I am not here to justify some insightful message hidden in the movie. Nor am I claiming it to be a classic.  

When I rewatch The Thing from Another World, I am simply amazed at its ability to transport me back to an early time in my life, a time when the only worry I had while watching it was whether or not Mom and Dad would flip on the light and tell me to go back to bed before the movie was even over.

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Sunday, October 15, 2023


Five plastic pumpkin heads rested precariously atop my driveway retaining wall. Their eyes squinted in the bright sun of an early October afternoon. A soft autumn breeze whipped around me as I envisioned the plan while shaking a brand-new can of metallic gold paint. With endless time at my disposal, I departed my self-imposed daily routine to recapture fall traditions I may not have ever experienced.

My memories of Halloween fun are limited. I only have two specific memories of Halloween from my childhood. That's odd, right? Neither is particularly interesting, but the spirits have left them to dwell in my mind only to resurrect every fall as the days become shorter.

I remember traipsing around Dimmeydale with my father back when I was a young pup who did not really understand what Halloween was all about. My mother had dressed me up as something, I don't know what. I just remember being so hot. She had wrapped me tight to ensure her little baby did not catch a cold. The horrific part was the cheap plastic mask, the one with two holes for my eyes and a small breathing hole around where my mouth should be. A thin piece of elastic with two metal clips at each end stretched tightly around the back of my little head, holding the smothering mask against my face. I was a mini Jason Vorhees collecting candy instead of murdering troublesome teenagers.

"Dad, I'm thirsty." My father heard my whimpering cries for water. I was so pathetic that Dad was forced to ask a candy-pushing neighbor for a glass of water to shut me up. Dad pulled the mask up atop my head so that I could chug down the refreshing, tepid water. I stood between them as they laughed, finishing the last few drops and breathing some fresh air before Dad slid that infernal mask back on my face as we continued our endless trek through the dark streets of Dimmeydale.

We moved up to Bellovedere when I was 7 or 8 years old. Dad probably wanted to make the move because Bellovedere has one road compared to the multiple interconnecting streets of Dimmeydale. The one street made Halloween so much easier for all of us. Well, except for my younger brother Jim.

My brother had a temperature. Placing the back of her hand against his forehead, Mom declared little Jim was too warm to trick or treat with us. He had cried about not being allowed to go, so I had to carry two bags around the neighborhood, asking suspecting neighbors for some candy for my poor, sick brother, who was too sick to be out on a chilly Autumn night. To this day, I remember standing in front of Mr. Mulroy and uncomfortably begging, "Can I have some candy for my sick brother?" Mr. Mulroy stared down at me like a doubting teacher listening to an errant student proffering a lame excuse about missing homework. He looked from me to my dad, who stood a comfortable distance behind me. Once he had Dad's unspoken acknowledgment that this was not some sort of shady scam, Mr. Mulroy sighed as he begrudgingly dropped an extra piece of chocolate in the second bag. The street was short, but the embarrassment was excruciatingly long.

Despite my childhood angst, I grew into a reasonably responsible adult who abides by fall traditions. When I taught, I would decorate my classroom with warm orange lights from the first of October until Thanksgiving. Every Halloween, I have candy or snacks to hand out to little visitors, insisting they say "Trick or Treat" rather than standing silently with open bags. I will admit I like to buy extra treats, not because I expect thousands of guests; I just want some for myself.

This year, I chose to do something different that takes more effort than hanging some orange lights or buying giant bags of snacks, something crafty and goofy. 

I grabbed unsuspecting pumpkins from the wall and sprayed their insides with gold metallic paint. I felt that tiny rush at the outset of a project; I knew this would be good. I took a can of rustic orange paint to the outer bright orange plastic sheen of the pumpkins and then hung each on a tree branch to dry before I used a utility knife to carve out their eyes, noses, and mouths. As the afternoon October sun slowly faded, I strung my old orange lights through the pumpkins before placing them on and around a barberry shrub near my front door, where the orange lights stuff inside would shine from the eyes of the pumpkins for any passerby to see. 

I tried to think of a name for this display: Pumpkinhead Corner, Pumpkinville, or Land of Pumpkins. None of them worked for me and sounded juvenile. They were silly names. A thirsty little boy in Dimmeydale or even a two-bag candy scam artist may like them, but not a grown-up who is content to just hand out some candy.

Sunday, October 1, 2023


I have a hard time making up my mind. I could be shopping for deals at T.J. Maxx, believing that I have found an incredible buy on some random kitchen item, coffee mug, or, even worse, a candle, none of which I actually need. Imagine life when I have a more significant decision, like rescuing a dog, taking a vacation, or, most recently, retiring from a once-in-a-lifetime career. 

While reading the book How to Retire and Not Die, I followed Gary Sirak's friendly, at times amusing advice and constructed a bucket list. What do I want to do? Where do I want to go? All of that good stuff. At the top of my list was spending more time reading and writing, doing the creative stuff I love. 

I wanted to get back into some daily journal writing. The author of the book makes the excellent suggestion of taking stock of my life daily. I have about four or five unfinished journals in various areas around the house. A couple are standard composition books easily found at Dollar General; others are those neat leather-bound journals on display in a secluded corner of Books-a-Million.

I have a favorite leather-bound one that I had just barely started. I had written ten-fifteen pages worth of entries and then stopped. I had an inkling for over a week to start journaling daily again. The time was right. Of course, I had a dilemma: should I pick up this favorite journal where I stopped four years ago or find another new one, making this a fresh start for me? Of course, choosing a journal is not an earth-shattering dilemma, but it was a decision that prevented me from moving forward.

I remember being captivated by a video I had seen on social media. I rewatched this video countless times before I realized the message I had been formulating in my mind.

The video is simple enough. A small boat full of passengers glides down a watery passageway. A man stands at the back using a large pole to steer the boat. As the boat nears a shallow bridge, the passengers duck to make their way under the bridge while the person steering climbs out of the boat only to stride calmly over it. Once the boat moves from under the bridge, the passengers are amazed to witness the steerer jump back into the boat from the bridge. Short and straightforward. Amazing to watch over and over.

There has to be a message here, a metaphor intertwined throughout the Japanese music and beautiful locale.

In life, we find ourselves floating down our river. We know when the river runs wild and remains smooth and calm. We understand that it may run narrow and wide depending on the opportunities and choices we find in front of us. Often, an obstacle appears in front of us. In this video, it is the bridge.

The boat continues its forward progress as it rides the current. And so, in this situation, the passengers and steerer are faced with multiple choices. They can fight the current by thrusting their hands and the steering stick into the water to paddle against it, perhaps delaying the inevitable collision. They could abandon the boat by jumping into the muddy water to climb to shore. As the passengers do, they could duck down and ride the boat under the bridge. Or they could be the man with the steering stick, crawling over the bridge, walking calmly to the opposite side before jumping back upon the boat as it exits.

Regarding my journal dilemma, I settled on reading my four-year-old journal entries before making any decision. I revisited times when I had many of the same choices as the people on the boat.  

I found those instances when I wanted to prolong the inevitable, hoping that the longer I took to address it, the less sting or pain I would feel. I have had moments when I needed to abandon ship out of self-preservation; I needed a new path, a direction I had never considered. And oh! The countless stretches of my life when all I could do was duck my head and ride under the bridge, praying to God that I would be intact when I reached the other side! But I have had those times when I did what I thought was impossible. I climbed out of the boat and confidently crossed over the bridge, knowing I had what it took to jam the stick in the water and jump back onto the boat on the other side. 

We all have confronted obstacles in our lives. When we look back and consider the person who made the choices we made years ago, we should always do so with kindness and understanding. We didn't know then what we know now; we have grown from our experiences, becoming new and different people.

I left the video publisher there. Thanks, whoever you are.

Monday, September 4, 2023



I woke up early the day after the Fourth of July, quietly rolling my old body off the air mattress beside my grandson Justin's bed. His father, Robert, said we were all leaving by seven this morning, and I wanted to be ready to go before Robert began barking to "get our asses moving."

I take my yearly summer visit to see family in North Carolina in early July when Robert's job at Firestone shuts down for the July 4th week. Typically, this vacation involves hanging out and making up for lost time with Robert, Emily, and the grandkids, Justin and Kaylee. This year, Robert had something special planned for all of us.

I remember Robert's texting me while I was cleaning out my classroom for the last time at the beginning of June. He told me to bring some old clothes I would not be worried about ruining. "What are we doing, Robert?" I had to ask. I am always about control, not so much because I want to be in charge. But I have reached that age when the fewer surprises I encounter, the better my quality of life.

"You're going to Busco Beach with us."

"Shit." I thought to myself. I like to hear about other people's adventures but never wish to do them myself. I will say, "Oh! That sounds like fun!" However, I am already preparing excuses for a possible forthcoming invitation. I take no pride in being pathetically wired this way. It makes for a lonesome life sometimes. 

Robert has been doing this side by side thing for a while, sharing his stories and pictures at Busco Beach. People ride four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and side by sides around this immense man-made park filled with dirt and mud trails. It's a fun mess. Not my type of fun nor my type of mess, though.

I slipped into my get-dirty work shorts and a sleeveless T, dreading the day ahead. I wore my "I-ain't-sweatin-this" face for Justin and Kaylee, who had been teasing me about going to Busco. "I can't believe Grandpap is going to Busco with us!" 

I couldn't believe it either, kids.

Robert drove us down to Busco Beach through an early-morning drizzle. A mixture of Outlaw Country with Pop2K on Sirius kept my sighs and nervous trepidation from being exposed to everyone focused on the road ahead while I counted the quiet houses along US-13. Life was nearing 8:00 AM as I was doing the math quietly in my head: four hours until noon + one hour for lunch + three hours til three. How many times can I go to the bathroom? How many beers or Monsters will I need?

To the uninitiated, Busco Beach was a dystopian world. A beautiful green area of Eastern Carolina trees and landscape had accompanied us on our drive south. However, once Robert drove his Jeep and trailer into Busco, we entered a different world, which reminded me of Mel Gibson's Mad Max world from the Road Warrior series. 

A range of trees encircled the beach, a dry and dirt-filled stretch of land with large ponds of tan water that barely shimmered as the sun slowly peered through the clouds. RVs lined the side, full of campers still sleeping from the July 4th revelries the previous night. A group of ATVs with larger-than-life wheels roared by us, staking their claim to the surroundings, spewing billowing clouds of dirt to remind us where we were.

Robert wanted to be early to return to his traditional spot alongside a small pond resting at the edge of the trails. Kayle took me to the pond while Robert and his wife, Emily, unpacked the Jeep to set up camp for the day. It was a nice view. I can see why Robert liked it so much, as we had this entire stretch of the beach for ourselves. Maybe I had been too much in my head, overthinking and trying to control the experience when I should have embraced the moment. After all, I was in safe hands.

Robert's younger brother JR and his girlfriend Ashley arrived shortly after we had settled and joined us on the side of the pond, where we talked and relaxed before taking our first trip. Midmorning had barely arrived before Robert was itching to hit the trails. No one hesitated when our de facto leader, Robert, grumbled aloud, "I wanna get a ride in before it gets too hot." We all moved on Robert's command, grabbing our hats, packing the coolers, and readying the side by sides.

Robert and Emily sat in the front, with Kaylee snuggled in the middle of them both. Justin and I crouched into the back seats with both legs smashed against the back of the front seat. I could already feel the heat from the engine as it hummed. I knew the heat would only get worse once we really started moving. Robert returned to my seat to ensure I was buckled in tightly and advised me to keep my hands inside. He chuckled through his huge beard like some demented Santa Claus preparing a prank for a child who made the naughty list. I laughed in defiance. "I'm good. Let's fuckin' go."

And we did.

Both groups powered around through the woods, spitting dust from the dry paths and grinding through mud in the wet areas. Robert had his music mix of rebel country, rap, and alternative rock blaring through the speakers as the soundtrack for the day. I was scared at first; that much is true. My hands gripped the handles on the back of Robert's seat while I peeked past his big straw hat and shoulder to watch the direction JR was taking us. I found comfort in knowing where we were headed, but it took me a while to enjoy the crazy, bumpy ride I was experiencing.

I was poor Justin's worst nightmare in the backseat for the next hour. Over the years, I have grown to trust Robert's driving ability. That trust served me well as we sped along the trails, zig-zagging and sliding back and forth. "Grandpap!" Justin would yell. "You need to quit falling on me! Stay on your side!" He would use his arm to push me up against my door. I felt terrible landing on him, but deep down, I was blessed to have him there to break my fall.

We all arrived at another pond, this one much bigger and deeper than the one back at camp. As we navigated along the water's edge, the sun was now at the end of its morning glow. Robert and JR backed the rides up to the pond, where we all climbed out to let the hot engines cool down before the second leg of our morning ride.

Kaylee and Justin fearlessly waded into the pond, where the cool, foggy water washed the mud and dirt from their clothes, only to soak more back in again. I was at an impasse. Contrary to popular misconception, I do not mind getting dirty. I was wearing my old clothes, already dusty and muddy from the ride to this pond. Wading chest-deep would not make me cleaner, but standing there like an idiot was not an option either.

And so I waded.

The last vestiges of my aversion to this entire experience slowly washed away into the pond. I squeezed my toes tight to keep my new Crocs from sticking in the muddy pond floor. In his own moment of insanity, Robert had taken to swimming across the entire pond while JR and the women were tending to the side by sides. So I used Kaylee and Justin as my markers, going out only as far as they would venture. Slowly, ever so slowly, I waded deeper, crouched to let the water come up to my chest, and smiled.

Across from me, JR had already waded out to the kids. With his long hair and beard, JR was our own jovial redneck Jesus smiling as the children came unto him. Emily and Ashley stood in the water near the rides, where Emily could keep a nervous eye on Kaylee, who kept putting her head under the murky water despite her mother's stern demands that she stop. Not far from Kaylee, Justin joined his father, who rested atop a round inflatable meant for the kids, chilling in the warmth of the noontime sun. 

Life hits us so hard sometimes that we hesitate when a new opportunity or adventure lands in our lap. We may have been banged up and tossed around to the point where we all wanted to step away to catch our breath and heal our wounds. Regardless of age, we tell ourselves that we do not have it in us for one more adventure, but we know in our hearts that we do. So we grab some old clothes, complain a little but always smile, and then buckle up for the ride. Eventually, we will find a cool, calm pond where we can take a break until we decide what to do next.  

Sunday, July 2, 2023


I have fond memories of making my own "mix tapes." Going to exercise? I need a mix tape to pop into my Walkman. Driving a long distance? Gotta have a mix tape to start the trip on the right note. Feeling down? Mix up those slow songs that allow me to wallow in my misery or shuffle those upbeat songs to shake the blues away. My choice of artists and the styles of music were in sync with the ever-changing aspects of the soundtrack of my life.

My niece Emily, her husband Michael, their son Enzo, and their dog Lambo are heading south. New job and new adventures - that sort of thing. Of course, the weeks leading up to the move have been exhausting, as anyone who has moved a long distance can attest. But I knew I had the perfect small gift to help them on their journey, so I texted Emily with this message:

I cannot fault Emily for laughing at the idea of a mix CD of Bruce Springsteen. I do strange things like this occasionally. Perhaps she doesn't even listen to the Boss. Poor Emily probably doesn't even know what a mix tape is, not having the pleasure of using those sweet plastic cassettes with a collection of music favorites. I actually wonder if she has ever held a cassette in her hands. More than likely, Emily knows what a CD is, but she found the entire idea of a mix CD strange, particularly one her beloved Uncle A.J. made. Even Emily's sentimentality has its limits.

Springsteen's song "The Power of Prayer" captures the spiritual attributes of music and the idea that music is a companion throughout many significant moments in our lives. We all attach songs we have heard to life's moments, whether comedic or tragic, celebratory or transitory. Songs can become concrete parts of otherwise fleeting feelings, grounding them in our souls.

As I was growing up, I can recall the tedious yet magical process of creating mix tapes. This was long before Apple or Spotify streaming services could create playlists for you, making them portable so you never carry anything with you. But you simply can't touch a physical playlist or mix the way we could back in the day. 

I had those glorious colorful Memorex plastic cassette tapes I stuck in the recording slot on my Aiwa sound system. They were full of songs I copied from my stack of cassettes when I painstakingly lined up the songs to make a perfect recording. I slowly handprinted the list of songs on the small cardboard sheet in the cassette's carrying case. Hours later, I had created my own mix tape, which I could put in my pocket, share with a friend, or give as a gift. I had something special then, something real and tangible. I couldn't bring it up on a cell phone I did not have nor download it from the web. It was my mix tape. 

When I chose the songs to put on Emily's mix, I relived my past as I meticulously chose relevant songs about change, dream chasing, friendship, and love. I wanted this mix to be perfect. "Darlington County" simply had to be the opening song because that's literally the place Emily's family is going. It is a song about two guys heading south for jobs and finding nothing but trouble. The song is about the excitement and unpredictability of going somewhere new and discovering more about one another on the journey. 

The rest of the CD is filled with songs about life's journey. "Thunder Road" and "Kingdom of Days" follow one couple just beginning to chase their dreams and another older couple reminiscing on the remarkable life they have shared together. Other songs speak about trust, adversity, loss, and hope, fulfilling my plan for a song for every occasion Emily may encounter. 

Emily doesn't know this, but I hid her Mix CD in her glove compartment before she left. Kids these days don't always know what's good for them. However, I am positive Emily has her own music she enjoys, so I don't need to be too worried. Still, I will feel more comfortable if she has a Springsteen Mix CD personally curated by someone who took a journey similar to hers over thirty years ago, a Mix CD full of songs and lessons for life's journey.

Best wishes and safe travels on this special journey, 
Emily, Michael, Enzo, and Lambo. 
I am sure it will be quite the adventure.

Hartsville Drive YouTube Mix 😉

Sunday, May 21, 2023


I have realized that this day has been coming for a while now.

Thirty-three years ago, I drove south to North Carolina in my maroon Dodge Shadow, excited and incredibly anxious about beginning my first year teaching at Ralph L. Fike High School in Wilson. I drove that Dodge Shadow until the engine began to smoke and the paint began to lose color. I left the comfortable confines of the Ohio Valley with sadness and joy, unaware of how my entire teaching adventure and life would unroll. Wondering how the teaching adventure would eventually end was the farthest thing from my mind. 

Eleven years ago, I drove back north, returning to West Virginia, in my powder-blue Ford Explorer, the ride my brother Jim said would be perfect for me. I returned to my alma mater Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, where the world of the Ohio Valley and I were still similar yet completely different. I knew this was the last stop on my teaching adventure. Honestly, what better way to end than life coming full circle? Wondering exactly how my adventure would end weighed at the forefront of my mind and the bottom of my heart. 

Five years became six. Six become seven, eight, nine, and then ten. Here I am at eleven years, seeing the signs, reliving the memories, swallowing the blood pressure meds, and wondering about all things existential.

Braden was one of my students this year. In March, he sent me this email from the Stoic website he follows. He thought I would enjoy it. I don't know why. Was it something I said in one of our conversations or how I talked about life in classes? Who knows. Does it even matter? We cannot anticipate or even question the vessels God chooses to send us messages we need to hear.

So I read this quote by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a Stoic philosopher:
“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction.

And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor:

“But I’ve only gotten through three acts . . . !”

Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.

So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”

This quote is from the last chapter of the great philosopher's Mediations. He refers to death; we have only a certain amount of time in this world, and we should understand that we have no control over when it ends. But the quote can find its rightful place in many conversations about life. 

As a teacher, I always look at each year as a different story to be experienced. This is one of the enduring cool things about being a teacher. New students. New experiences. New struggles. New celebrations. Life is always a roller coaster from August to June. And so I have filled these huge poster boards with pictures from previous years. These posters have hung prominently in my classroom, my corner of the world, for the past eleven years. Current and future students always look at them, wondering where they will be on the board once they graduate. 

I see the pictures on the board differently from my students, though. I see the pictures of students I have taught. However, I also see them for what so many have become: lawyers, chefs, members of the military, doctors, businessmen, teachers, physical therapists, welders, and so many more. Much like their parents, I am amazed how each grew from being such a quiet worker, a crazy knucklehead, or an honor roll student into this incredible adult. I am immensely grateful to have been a part of the great stories I have witnessed over the years, each unique and special in its own way.

School is more than desks, chairs, Chromebooks, and bells sending us from one place to another. I have been blessed to be a part of two wonderful school communities at Fike High School and Central Catholic High School. I have had many colleagues with whom I have shared incredible experiences, growing as educators and friends. I have taught so many students that my picture boards are filled to their capacity. I am blessed. Truly blessed.

Braden and I are both "citizens in a great city," and time and destiny have brought us both to the same place where we make our graceful exit. Braden is our salutatorian this year and is hopefully planning his graduation speech as I write this. He is heading to the University of Notre Dame upon graduation, where he will continue his story. I am heading to my porch to read a good book, tend to my yard full of plants and flowers, and take Charlie-Bear for a long walk in the cool morning. I can hop in my newest Explorer to visit the grandkids in North Carolina or wherever the road takes me. I will be carrying plenty of memories and stories along with me as my journey continues.

Thanks to the Class of 2023.
You made my last year truly special.

Thank you, Betsy and Ann.
You two helped me through a challenging year.
Your love and support means so much.
(I know you both hate this picture,
but we all look terrible from a round-trip
bus ride downstate. )