22 Nov

A Murder in the Backyard

“Autumn thoughts of roots and roosts” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2015).

The late November sky, cool grey as it begins to surrender to the approaching winter, hangs low, lonely, quietly foreboding.

The marching band, the loudspeaker, and the cheering crowds — they no longer carry across town as if one were eavesdropping on a party to which you weren’t invited. Snares and sax are packed and lugged away for the winter, and cold bleachers are left behind to hibernate beneath ice and snow.

Trees, naked, show off their form, reminding us that beneath their leafy cover is a raw, imperfect beauty much like our own. Woody arms grasping, bending, clawing for heaven, but with roots holding them back. The trees want it both ways — heaven and Earth. We all do. Reaching for one while grounded in the other — it is a lifelong struggle measured in the worn and ringed timeline found within.

And without warning, they begin to arrive, landing, lumbering on the limbs.

First, one comes cawing. Then two, and then two dozen. And dozens more. Within moments, a flash mob of countless crows descend upon the bare trees, taking roost, clamoring and cawing. The November sky shrieks and trees grow black with winged leaves. And still they come cawing.

Rake at my side, crackling leaves underfoot, I watch and wait. Those in their perch seem to do the same. Minutes pass and still more arrive, and as their numbers grow, tree after tree turns to crow, limb after limb alight with darkness. Their schoolyard chorus echoes through the air, each dissonant shriek a competing caw.

I picture their cousin, a wayward raven, roosting atop a lonely alcove high above Grand Central Station, looking down at the throngs of travelers far below. Trains and buses to catch, cabs to hail, and flights to make. The mob migrates with its own cacophony of hurried and harried voices while station announcements conduct their marionette movements. Homeward bound, thinks the raven, I wish I was. Soon the station will go still; travelers home, tracks silent. Separated from his flock, the lonely and lost raven will scavenge for fast-food flotsam, carrying a French fry or two to his cornice roost and eating the loneliest of Thanksgiving dinners.

I gaze at the roost surrounding me.

As suddenly as they came, the crows above me begin to take flight, as if one caw from one crow stood out from all the rest, conducting the raucous choir. Their maestro had spoken, and the murder takes off.

It seems my yard is just a stop on their travels, a rendezvous as feathered friends and family from far and wide gather together for the flight home. Trees go bare, branches once again show off their form, and the sky is peppered with thousands of thrashing wings. Soon the soaring congregation is but a thousand distant specks on the horizon. And before long, they are only echoes.

Their winter roost awaits. Gathered together with kin, they will find sanctuary high atop tree tops still stretching for heaven. A congregation, a community, homeward bound.

Silence returns to the yard.

I breathe in the incense of autumn’s decay, and a prayer of gratitude takes shape in the form of a solitary smile.

I give thanks for my kin, those rooted to Earth and those who have already taken the holy flight toward heaven.

I give thanks for my roost.

And I trudge through the leaves, homeward bound.

20 Sep

Rooming with The Muppets

Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog


“Muppets inspire us to make world a better place” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 22, 2015).

It’s time to get things started … again.

Kermit the Frog and company make their way back to network television when The Muppets premiers Tuesday evening on ABC.

I know where I’ll be: sitting in my family room, laughing and smiling along with the colorful creatures on the screen, just as I was nearly 40 years ago when the original Muppet Show aired (1976-1981). The gang is back together, and this time I get to share them with my children.

Shot in documentary format and complete with behind-the-scenes interviews and glimpses into the personal lives of the felt-covered stars (a la 30 Rock), this new incarnation of the show finds the Muppet gang producing a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy.

The premise harkens back to the original show, which likewise covered the behind-the-scenes antics of Kermit and friends creating a variety show. While the historic vaudeville Muppet Theater has been traded in for a television studio, the cast has not.

And it is the cast that has drawn generations of children and adults into the Muppet family, characters that are loving but not without fault, irreverent but not without kindness, hilarious but not without sincerity, and struggling but not without hope. It is a cast not unlike us, or the human hands that brought the Muppets to life — Jim Henson.

Henson was a childhood hero of mine and an icon in our family, an inspiration of creativity, hopefulness, and kindness, someone whose ambition in life, as he once stated, was to “leave the world a better place than when I got here.” When he did abruptly leave the world in 1990 at the age of 53, he most certainly had achieved that goal.

Shortly after his death, while sitting with my family on my childhood back porch and discussing Henson, I remember looking out the backyard toward our garage. I wondered aloud: “Wouldn’t it be great to paint a mural of the Muppets all along the side of the garage?”

To which my father, always one to prod, nudge, and support the dreams of his children, replied: “You can’t paint one on the garage, but you can in your bedroom.”

That was all we needed to hear. In the ensuing months, my brothers and I — with the much-needed assistance of a future sister-in-law who happened to be an artist — sketched and painted the Muppets on my bedroom wall. There was Kermit, of course, and Miss Piggy. Fozzie and Gonzo. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Even Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish made an appearance.

When finally finished, more than 30 colorful characters smiled from the plaster canvas that was my bedroom wall. Jim Henson, sitting in a director’s chair, was painted on the door. Not a bad group of roommates to have.

I was reminded just how special that wall was — or rather, how special my parents were for allowing us to paint it — when Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave his famed “Last Lecture” in September 2007. My father was dying of cancer at the time, and so was Pausch.

During his lecture, Pausch reflected on his own childhood and recalled asking his parents’ permission to paint on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. “I want to paint things on my walls,” he said, “things that matter to me.”

Pausch’s father, like my own, gave him the green light. “He encouraged creativity just by smiling at you,” recalled Pausch.

So it was that he set to work painting the things that mattered to him: a quadratic equation, chess pieces, a rocket ship, a submarine, and Pandora’s Box. Inside Pandora’s Box the young Pausch wrote the word hope.

To me, Pausch’s wall and my own Muppet mural embody what is at the heart of Jim Henson and his furry friends. They are lovers and dreamers, filled with passion and hope, working together to leave the world a happier place, and inspiring us along the way.

Tuesday night, when those rainbow-colored teenage roommates of mine come to life in our family room, I’ll watch in gratitude as Henson’s legacy inspires a new generation of lovers and dreamers.

I’m curious to discover what they’ll paint on their own walls.

13 Sep

On the lookout for Ole Snappy

On the lookout for Ole Snappy


“On the lookout for Ole Snappy” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (September 13, 2015).

A late summer morning, and the lake is still. The paddle pulls us forward as we glide across its surface, our kayak’s ripples the only sound on this glistening mirror to the heavens.

Armed with binoculars, my 6-year-old helmsman sits perched in the bow of the boat. He scans the lake, on the lookout for Ole Snappy, an elusive 500-year-old snapper turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and known to occasionally snack on the stinkin’ feet of unsuspecting swimmers. Never mind that this particular manmade lake is less than a century old. Boys, like lakes, deserve mythical creatures, and Ole Snappy is ours.

We paddle our way across the lake, ours the only boat on the water. For this moment it is as if the world has just begun, and we are its first explorers. We float along, daring young men in search of legends, myth-making, and immortality.

As we reach the other end of the lake, we spot a log jutting out from the water amid the reeds and lily pads that shroud the shallows. Binoculars confirm our suspicions: a family of turtles sun themselves on their own private floating dock. It dawns on me that we humans spend most of our vacations trying to be turtles. Shelled away by the water, we spend our days swimming, sunning, sleeping, and feeding on seafood. Turtles do this year round, and I begin to wonder who is more evolved.

With the tip of the kayak aimed at the turtles on their dock, I give one more stroke and then quietly place the paddle across my lap. We drift, ever so slowly, toward Terrapin Station.

All is silent as a soft, wind-blown current creeps us along.

We watch, and we wait.

As do the turtles.

Then, without warning, one of the four turtles on the log quickly shuffles off its perch and plops into the water. His companions follow suit, like paratroopers leaping from an aircraft in quick succession. They disappear, leaving behind only concentric circles rippling through the water. Quickly, they too disappear.

A shadow on the water draws our attention elsewhere. We look toward the shadow, then to its skyward source, and gaze in awe at the creature soaring just above us. A great blue heron wings across the lake. Its pterodactyl wings beat in prehistoric time, slowly and stately. Feathered slate never looked more majestic.

Our eyes followed the heron until it came to roost atop a pine tree far across the lake. Branches bowed as the bird seemed to dwarf even the tree itself.

There it would stand.

And watch.

And wait.

As would the turtles, safely hidden in the cool darkness of the lake.

Picking up the paddle once again, the boy and I slowly make our way back across the lake, leaving nature’s inhabitants to their patient game of hide and seek.

“Is Ole Snappy really real, Dad?” the boy asks.

I think of the turtles huddled together below the surface, wondering how much time is time enough. Chances are the same question is being asked there too.

I smile, and glance toward the great blue heron in his roost.

“He’s real, all right, son,” I finally answer. “He certainly is.”

And bringing paddle below water, I pull us toward home.

03 Sep

Share a Coke with a Commie!

Pepsi, better known as Satan's Swill, with Devils Tower (Wyoming) fittingly shown in the background.

Pepsi, better known as Satan’s Swill, with Devils Tower (Wyoming) fittingly shown in the background.

I have to hand it to the marketing folks at Coca-Cola. They’ve got me praying a lot more these days.

The “Share a Coke” campaign, with personalized labels of the 1000 most popular names in the country, is a stroke of marketing genius, one that has folks not only buying more Coke, but sharing the experience with others as well – both virtually and in person. Rifling through the soda case looking for a friend or loved one’s name, snapping a selfie with the bottle, then sharing on social media or through a text? Coke has somehow made purchasing a soda a shared experience. And in my case, a spiritual one as well.

When I reach into the soda case at Wawa and grab a Coke, I stand in line and ponder the name in my hand. Perhaps it holds the name of relative, an old classmate, or a childhood friend. The bottle suddenly brings back long forgotten memories and friendships, and I find myself saying a prayer for that friend while waiting in line at the register. I may not Tweet or text, but I do pray. I wonder how the marketing folks at Coke measure spiritual media metrics.

Recently, the bottle in my hand prompted me to “Share a Coke with Dennis.” The irony of Dennis’ name on a Coke bottle was not lost on me, and I flashed back to our fourth grade classroom.

There was Dennis, pulling out a can of Pepsi from his brown lunch bag.

“Pepsi?” I blurted out, astonished to discover that there were actually people in this world who drank such swill. I was raised in a good, Catholic, Coke family, and Dennis’ soda was an affront to my core values. “You like Pepsi?”

Dennis was matter of fact in his reply: “Yeah. Coke sucks.”

I sat there in disbelief. Dennis, raised by a Pepsi family, had insulted my beloved Coke in pretty strong words for a 10-year-old. I had to defend God, country, and Coke.

“You commie scum!”

This was 1985, with the waning years of the Cold War not yet fully given over to the coming threat of masked terrorists. Yes, G.I. Joe cartoons had begun to tell kids that its special mission force was dedicated to “defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless, terrorist organization determined to rule the world” (sound familiar, anyone?), but movies like Indiana Jones and Rocky IV told me that communists were still the enemy of choice.

Dennis did not take kindly to my socialist slur, and summarily threw down the obligatory challenge: “Call you out. 3:00 – Holy Child schoolyard.”

The fight was on.

3:00 came and went, though, and I sat nervously in my house with our mutual friend Kevin, trying to ignore the agreed to appointment. Perhaps Dennis will forget about the fight, I tried to convince myself. The doorbell rang, and my hopes vanished. This was Dennis, a kid literally from the other side of the tracks, and he might just be brazen enough to knock up for a fight.

Instead, he sent his representative. My mother answered the door.

“Mrs. Dolan, Dennis is up at Holy Child waiting to beat Mike up. Is he home?”

Kevin, my representative, went to the schoolyard to broker the peace. A deal was reached (an apology from me the next day at school), and a lesson learned.

“You have to be careful what you say to people,” my mother said afterward. “People believe different things. Be careful with your words.”

Indeed, people do believe different things. I was from a Coke family and couldn’t see that perhaps others felt differently. After all, passion runs deep when it comes to the sanctity of God, country and Coke.

It was just such passion that caused an outcry from Coke’s family of soldiers when the company decided to tamper with its secret formula in the spring of 1985. New Coke lasted just 79 days, thank God, and this summer marked the 30th anniversary of the return of Classic Coke to store shelves. I remember well those dark days 30 years ago. I was in a fourth grade classroom, calling a friend a commie.

Dennis and I remained both friends and adversaries over the years, running in the same pack of friends but never quite seeing things from the same side. We finally came to blows in our senior year of high school, a fight that had been brewing since my no-show 30 years ago. It was brief as far as fights go, and our friend Kevin was there to broker the peace once again.

Under the light of a streetlamp, Dennis and I leaned against the hood of a car and made peace for the last time.

“We never did get along,” Dennis started.

I agreed.

“I’m not sure why,” he continued. And then we both wondered aloud.

“Maybe it was the way we were raised.”

“We’re different people.”

“Our parents are nothing alike.”

“We have different backgrounds.”

“You love Pepsi. I love Coke.”

We laughed.

Acknowledging our differences did not necessarily lead us to respect those differences, but it did allow us to accept that there are differences. And that’s a start.

It gives one hope for the future – hope for a world furnished with love, with apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.

Indeed, I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

If Coke and Pepsi can co-exist in peaceful harmony, perhaps world peace is possible after all.

That, my friends and commies, would be something worth sharing.

29 May

“Don’t touch that dial!”

“Dad as DJ: Hear him roar” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 31, 2015).

Hall & OatesAt some point in time, somewhere between the departure of Hannah Montana and the arrival of Miley Cyrus, my kids got the mistaken impression that I am their DJ.

We haven’t even begun to pull out of the driveway when listener requests start to pour in from the rear of the car.

“Put on Q102.”

“Change that!”

“Go back!”

It’s bad enough simultaneously playing the role of taxi driver and referee, but to add DJ to the mix is where I draw the line. Parenthood involves many sacrifices, chief among them a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted trips to the loo, and quiet car rides. But it does not mean giving up Johnny Cash for some Katy Perry.

When carpooling, my kids’ friends find it completely foreign that their radio requests are swiftly and unequivocally denied. I steal a glance through the rearview mirror and find their faces filled with puzzlement. Perhaps it’s because they’ve yet to hear “no” from their parents during the course of their entitled lives, or perhaps their parents are just far hipper than I, singing along to Pitbull at the red light.

I am a few decades older than my children, though, so it stands to reason my taste in music lags behind by a few decades too. Truth be told, I’m just discovering the 2000s (Coldplay and the Killers rank as “new” to me).

When I was on the other end of that carpool, one of a throng of kids packed into the back of a station wagon in the 1980s, I don’t recall our parents catering to our musical stylings. Mom was the easy-listening type, with KISS 100 exposing us to an ongoing cycle of Rod Stewart, Dionne Warwick, and Whitney Houston. To this day I cannot hear “Total Eclipse of the Heart” without thinking I am in the backseat of a station wagon on the way to a dentist appointment. Thanks, Bonnie Tyler.

If Dad was behind the wheel, chances are the tape deck had a Bill Haley & His Comets or Glenn Miller cassette playing. Like it or not. And really, what was there not to like?

Such car trips were an unintended musical education, exposing us to artists and songs we would never voluntarily seek out. It’s not much different than the way a liberal arts education works, I suppose, which is why I take my role as musical educator of today’s youth very seriously.

Trapped in the car, my children are prisoners to their old man’s jukebox. Pink Floyd one day, John Denver the next — and never miss an opportunity to get both Beethoven and the Led out. Both rock.

Granted, that musical education can go both ways. In 1986, having just turned 11, I desperately wanted to tag along with my older brother to see Peter Gabriel during his historic So tour. Dad wasn’t having it, but fostering my love of music, he relented with one condition: “I’m going too.”

So it was that the three of us found ourselves in the second-to-last row of the Spectrum, where I discovered the true meaning of the word nosebleeds. I still recall Dad fist-pumping his way through Gabriel’s iconic “Biko” encore. As we left the concert that night, a Phillies game was just letting out across the street.

“Hey, old man!” someone hollered in our direction. “Who won?”

“I don’t know,” our father replied, “I was with you!”

And so he was, receiving a musical education of his own. That is not to say his DJ rotation of Irish folksingers and Broadway musicals ever changed, which in part explains my love of both today.

While today I will occasionally concede to a Taylor Swift tune, it is more often the case that my musical stylings result in groans from the backseat. Should those hapless passengers complain too much, I reach for the radio dial. Raising their hopes, I deflate them by stopping at the first Hall and Oates song I can find. While I am not particularly fond of the duo, they are from Philadelphia, so the kids should know them. A liberal arts education, I say! We suffer through “Maneater” together.

Peter Gabriel comes next, and the Rolling Stones inevitably follow soon after, offering a valuable piece of advice for the chirping peanut gallery in the backseat:

“You can’t always get what you want …”

15 Apr

Field of Dreams

Two boys and their field of dreams.

“One baseball field, two different dreams” on Philly.com (April 15, 2015).

Lying on the grass, heads perched on palms, the boys gazed through the chain link fence at the field before them. Older versions of themselves stood guard at their positions: adjusting caps, pounding fists to gloves, jawing on Hubba Bubba. An army of nine, ready to protect their turf.

Soon enough my boys would join their ranks. They would be the ones in the big leagues, standing tall as twelve-year-old boys and kings of their diamond domain. Baseball and boyhood are never better than at age twelve, a secret learned only long after one has retired from both.

At twelve, a boy darts from home at the crack of dawn, but just as eagerly runs toward it at the end of the day. The innings between seem to go on forever, for there is no time clock in baseball or in life. When one lives in the moment, the game is unending, for it makes the now eternal. Such is life at twelve.

For now, though, my boys could only watch and wait. At ages eight and four, the big leagues were still a few years off. In the meantime, they were sidelined to the smaller fields. Their dreams, however, were not.

I stood back, not so much watching the game before us as watching them watch the game.

The older of the two gazed intently. I did not need to guess what was going through his mind: the pitch count, the box score, where the ball would likely land, what the pitcher should throw, when the man on first would steal. “I’m gonna play on that field when I get big!”

Baseball is his life, and has been since his tiny fingers first fondled the stitches of a baseball. All his heroes wear numbers on the back of their shirts, and he collects their life stories in countless playing cards strewn about his bedroom. He follows their every move, falling asleep to the radio’s play-by-play each summer eve, and spending his days replicating those moves in the backyard.

The mechanical double-call of dads brought me back to the game:





A CRACK cut short the bleacher’s broken record, and a sharp line drive came our way, dropping in the gap in right-center. The centerfielder sprinted toward us, cut the ball off just before it could reach the fence, then turned and hurled it to second.

Stand-up double.

And a little front row action for the boys, hands still perched on palms.

It was not so obvious what the younger of the two was thinking. While his brother hit fly balls in the backyard, the four-year-old would be cutting that very same yard with his plastic lawn mower. Each hour spent by one at play was matched by the other at work. The lawn mower was followed by a toy weed-whacker, followed in turn by a rake to collect the imaginary clippings. While one collected calluses from a wooden bat, the other did so from shovels, shears, and spades.

What was he thinking? The little one did not keep me guessing long.

“Dad,” he said, jumping up and clutching his fingers around the chain link fence as he peered through.

“What’s up?”

“I’m gonna mow that field when I get big!”

I laughed, and then smiled.

Two boys. Two dreams.

They’ll make a good team, methinks, each making the other look better.

22 Feb

Celebrating Printed Book Day, Thanks to Gutenberg

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

“A day to celebrate books – the printed kind” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (February 23, 2015).

Librarians, bibliophiles, jaded English majors and editors, booksellers and writers – rejoice! February 23 is Printed Book Day, a day when endangered species the world ’round celebrate the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press.

Granted, for these types the celebration is a bit subdued and not unlike most days of the year, which typically consist of diving into the pages of Faulkner or Fitzgerald, a hot cup of chamomile tea at the ready. Introverts are not typically known for their raucous festivities, and Jay Gatsby makes for a more entertaining party guest anyway.

Printed Book Day marks the anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing of the Gutenberg Bible, traditionally held to have been on Feb. 23, 1455. It was the first Western book made with movable type, making Gutenberg’s press perhaps the greatest invention known to civilization outside of the toilet.

There are only 48 known surviving copies of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, one of which was just donated to Princeton University. A single leaf from a Gutenberg Bible can fetch close to $100,000, while a complete volume might attract up to $35 million if the distinguished universities housing the remaining copies ever decide to hawk them on eBay.

There’s a reason the Gutenberg Bible is so valued.

The movable-type printing press transformed society in ways incalculable. No longer were books, once copied by hand, relegated to the wealthy few who could afford them. Books, and the knowledge held therein, were now accessible to all classes of people. Gutenberg had leveled the playing field, and the world in turn evolved exponentially. The Internet is doing much the same today, as individuals in even the remotest parts of the globe can access porn and cat videos with equal ease.

Not everyone is excited by Printed Book Day, of course. Our woody friends the trees are up in limbs about the anniversary and would rather you forgot the entire observance. Borrowing a ploy from the Chick-fil-A cows and their “Eat Mor Chikin’ ” playbook, forests everywhere are campaigning for us to “Read More E-books!”

While the campaign got off to a promising start several years ago, it seems to be leveling out a bit. According to Nielsen Books & Consumers, e-books were outsold by printed books in the first half of 2014, with e-books nabbing only 23 percent of the market. Hardcover books and paperbacks made up 25 percent and 42 percent of book purchases, respectively. More distressing for the trees, e-books dropped to 21 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Perhaps there is room for both printed books and e-books in the new publishing paradigm after all.

That does not sit well with Shady Oak Tree, president of Treesters Local 413.

“Things are not looking up for us trees,” he told me during a meeting at a local park. “The housing market is starting to rebound, wooden bats are making a comeback in Little League, forest fires are on the rise and e-book sales are leveling off. The only thing we have going for us is the struggling newspaper industry. Curse Gutenberg and your Printed Book Day!”

“But what about your legacy?” I countered. “You’ll have to come down sometime. Maybe it’ll be lightning. Perhaps a chainsaw. Or a long and painful death brought on by invasive beetles. What will your legacy be? Wouldn’t you like to live on forever as the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses?”

The old tree creaked. “And be stuck on June 16 for eternity, with Leopold Bloom no less? I think I’ll pass.”

“But you could be the next great American novel!”

Another creak. “Or I could end up as the next Fifty Shades of Grey. No thank you. I’d rather be reincarnated as a roll of Charmin.”

I admit he had a point. Still, I am not ready to pick up an e-book and save the trees. The printed page, with its unique bouquet of dust mites, sawdust, forests and the past, all captured in one arousing pheromone, was my first love. I cannot betray her.

Some may abuse her by dog-earing their place in a book. Others may neglect her in favor of the latest e-model on the block. But the printed page, and the inspired order of letters inked on her canvas, is home to me.

And it is to the printed book I shall return each night, faithful till e-death do us part.

28 Jan

As the snow falls, time to shut out the world

Snow Mutes the Earth

“As the snow falls, time to shut out the world” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 28, 2015).

The night is silent save for the compression of snow as my shoes slog through the yard. God mutes the world with snowfall, and suddenly the slightest sound I make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take, just as the snow above begins to take its place.

I reach my destination and set to work. Wind-fallen branches have been stacked together, a depressed and discarded collection of woody arms that once reached out to the sky in leafy coats of color. I grasp and lift, bend and take; the branches give, crack, splinter, break.

Quickly a mound forms in the center of the stony circle. Stick by stick it grows. The higher the mound, the higher the flame.

But sticks alone will not do. With snow covering the earth, wetting the wood, something more is needed to help the spark along – perhaps the wood’s more opinionated offspring. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the folded newspaper. This will do.

First to go is the front page and its reports of death, disaster, discord, and discontent. Line after line of depressing ink shares stories of violent deaths, missing airliners, wrangling legislatures, and baying protesters. I grab the page with my fist and crumple.

Then, tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for section after section.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple, and quickly the bed is made. Terrorist plots, mass kidnappings, beheadings. Droughts, fire, toxic spills. In they go.

Next the talking heads of the opinion pages. Right-wing blowhards shout it out with left-wing malcontents, and never the twain shall meet – except in the fire. Common sense and compromise fall by the wayside as shouting voices forget that it takes two wings to fly a straight and steady course.

I grab them all and crumple their words.

The sports page provides no reprieve. Monday-morning quarterbacks critique and crucify, demanding perfection from coach, player, and owner alike. Perfection is a fable, and around these parts, so is winning.

I continue to clutch and crumple. Hollywood breakups, Twitter feuds, and mass hysteria about an actress’ new look.

TV listings and weather reports are of little use when snow descends upon the land. No better show can be found, and we are meant to join in it.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. Charlie Brown, the Foxtrot family, and Calvin and his snowmen stare back at me. I carefully fold the colorful pages and place them back in my pocket.

Then, bending down, I strike a match to the paper. Immediately the ink, the words, the letters, they begin to turn to ash; and within minutes the entire world has disappeared, replaced by the warmth and light of burning timbers.

I stand back and watch.

Snow is falling.

Flames are rising.

And the world is mute.

04 Jan

“Your Poor Mother…” Ode to a Mother of Seven Sons

“My poor mother: Seven sons should merit sainthood” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 7, 2015).

“Your poor mother. She must be a saint.”

These words, more than any others, have echoed throughout my life like a guilt-inducing broken record. They are usually preceded by two questions, asked in equal parts horror and disbelief:

“You’re one of seven brothers?”


“No sisters?!”

Nope. At which point the interrogator’s face contorts from one of revulsion to one of sympathy and despair.

“Your poor mother. She must be a saint.”

A deep sigh usually follows, along with some compassionate tears. They quickly pass, though, as horror, disbelief, and an accusatory head shake return.

“Your poor mother…”

It’s enough to give any young boy an inferiority complex. Hey, it’s not like we asked to be born! Is it our fault our parents couldn’t make girls? If anyone is to blame, it should be our father and the seven years he spent in the seminary studying to be a priest. One year shy of ordination, he jumped ship to marry our mother. More than likely, my brothers and I were simply paybacks from a scorned God who had a fish on the line but let him go.

“Thou shall pay me tomorrow for thy freedom today! Cursed be thou with foul-smelling boys until one of them dons thy collar!”

Alas, there’s not a priest in the bunch. That’ll teach God not to bargain with an Irishman. Seven sons and not one priest? I think that qualifies one for excommunication in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

But does raising seven boys really qualify our mother for sainthood?

Let’s look at the numbers.

If each of us averaged four or so diapers a day (a conservative estimate for a family full of small bladders) for the first two-and-a-half years of our lives, we’re looking at over 25,000 changed diapers. And given this was in the day of cloth diapers, that’s 25,000 washed diapers too. As per number of loads of laundry completed during our childhood, that is easier measured by the number of washing machines kicked to the curb despite our father’s best efforts to keep them going just one load longer.

Trips to the emergency room varied depending upon each son’s degree of enterprise, stupidity, and gamesmanship. We excelled at each, and the ER parking lot knew our station wagon well. Only Delaware County Hospital knows the exact number of visits we made, but there was that one year my frequent rendezvous with the ER helped us reached our family’s insurance deductible. I took a great source of pride in this as a child. Our mother? Not so much. Number of trips to the ER, then? Well, we can simply mark that one as “plentiful.”

As part of my research into our mother’s possible sainthood, I asked statisticians at Stanford University to calculate her totals for the following: gallons of milk bought; trips to the grocery store; chicken dinners cooked; times vomited on by a sick child; innings of Little League watched; parent-teacher conferences attended; flowers seen trampled; baths interrupted; migraines induced; number of Lego pieces inadvertently vacuumed; and times fallen into the toilet when the seat was left up.

Their results were a bit lacking.

“Seven boys?” the professors asked. “No girls?”

I confirmed the variables: “Yup. Nope”

They simply wrote back: “I’m sorry, but your poor mother… she must be a saint.”

Thinking maybe they were onto something, I decided to calculate one final statistic to see if their hypothesis was warranted.

Number of sleepless nights? That one was easy to tabulate. Since becoming a mother, all of them. Our mother turned 70 this month, and with the oldest of her sons turning 47 this year, that’s some 17,436 sleepless nights and counting (first pregnancy and leap years alike included!).

47 years of continuous sleep deprivation? That’s not a sound night’s sleep since before Nixon was elected president! I suppose all those guilt-inducing head-shakers may be right after all. I think I’ll go ahead and write Pope Francis a petition recommending our mother’s cause for sainthood. He seems like a reasonable fellow, so I’m sure he’ll be agreeable to the request. I know how I’ll begin the letter:

My poor mother… she must be a saint.

18 Jul

Step-Ball: Origin of the Game

“How to play Stepball” in Main Line Today (July, 2014).

In the early days of summer, boys and girls escape from school and seize the season with the pent-up excitement of a dog darting out the front door. They yelp, howl and yap, running through yards, hopping fences, pedaling through streets. June days belong to the pack as they fill their hours with Run-the-Bases and Goon-alarm, can-openers and cannonballs.

July arrives, though, and summer slows down. Baseball fields go empty, friends flee to the shore, and a special quietness envelops the days like summer haze. It was on just such a day that stepball must have been invented. It’s a game born of circumstance.

The child is inside, seeking shelter from the 90-degree heat. Perhaps he is nose-deep in a comic book. Or reruns of Dennis the Menace come through the tube. Maybe he throttles a joystick while Pitfall Harry navigates his pixilated jungle.

The mantra begins.

“Go outside! You’re not staying in here on such a beautiful day!”

“But it’s really hot. And no one’s around.”

“Go outside!”

“It’s 90 degrees!”


And so he goes. Sitting on the front stoop, he spots another banished comrade ambling down the street.

“Hey!” he calls.

“Hey!” the other answers.

“I thought you were on vacation.”

“Just got back. Man, no one’s around.”

“I know. Wanna play stepball?”


And the two begin their first game.

Standing just off-center from a set of stairs, the “batter” throws a tennis ball at the bullnose of a step with all his might. The rules are simple. If the “fielder,” standing a predetermined number of feet away, catches the ball cleanly – be it a grounder or a fly-ball – the batter is out. A misplayed ball leads to a hit. Balls shot over the fielder’s head lead to a double, triple or home run, all depending on the previously agreed-to landmarks reached. Anything that cleared the telephone wire across the street  was an automatic round-tripper on my home field (no running required!).

Standard Wiffle ball rules also apply: four fouls (tennis balls that either slam against the screen-door backstop or veer too far left or right) are an out; three outs an inning; and six innings to a game.

So the game began, and so it continues, summer after summer, for children in neighborhoods throughout the land, regardless of demographics or economics. Have a tennis ball and can find some steps? You’ve got yourself a game – and a perfect panacea for boredom on those steamy midsummer days.

Too few friends in town for a game of baseball or Getaway? Too hot to exert much energy? Banished from the house? Worry not.

Grab a friend, find some steps, and “Play ball!”

Copyright 2015 Michael T. Dolan.