Michael T. Dolan

Writings, Reflections, and Commentaries

“Don’t touch that dial!”

Posted on | May 29, 2015 | 4 Comments

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

Hall & Oates

At 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 …”


Field of Dreams

Posted on | April 15, 2015 | 3 Comments

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.


Celebrating Printed Book Day, Thanks to Gutenberg

Posted on | February 22, 2015 | 2 Comments

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.


As the snow falls, time to shut out the world

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | 14 Comments

“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.


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

Posted on | January 4, 2015 | 8 Comments

“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.


Step-Ball: Origin of the Game

Posted on | July 18, 2014 | 2 Comments

“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!”


A Tree House All Their Own

Posted on | June 20, 2013 | 5 Comments

“The Tree House: Every Child’s Home Away from Home” in Main Line Today (July, 2013).

Moms have their kitchens, dining rooms and living room—their porches, gardens and bedrooms. Truth be told, they have the whole house.

Dads have their garages and basements, or so they think. Such areas are really on loan from their spouses, giving wives time away from their husbands under the false pretense that we’re escaping them. Well played, moms, well played.

Children, however, can claim almost nothing as an exclusive domain. Theirs for 18 years, a bedroom comes with as many contractual obligations as a lease: Make your bed; wear clean underwear every day; don’t climb out the window or throw your sister’s dolls from it; no boogers on the walls. It’s enough to drive a child out of the house – which ultimately, I guess, is the idea. But if they’re lucky, outside of mom’s house children can escape to their very own space – the tree house.

Such a hideaway spot allows children to discover the world on their own terms. It fosters imagination, promotes independence and acts as a sanctuary from those dangerous creatures on the ground (moms and dads).

My children’s own sanctuary in the trees took shape over the course of the past year or two. Salvaged timbers, windows and stockade fencing were plucked from trash heaps and reassembled into an elevated 10-by-10-foot fort. Thousands of nails later, I watch my kids with envy as they disappear into their tree house.

One day, it’s a quiet spot to read a book or watch birds feast at the feeder dangling outside its window. The next, it’s a venue for a club meeting, accompanied by Popsicles and top-secret plans and adventures.

It is also equal parts hideout and headquarters for neighborhood superheroes. Noticing the ladder to the entrance missing one day, I inquired within. Seems it had been pulled up into the tree house.

“To keep the villains out,” my son explained.


When not playing host to a club meeting or the neighborhood’s pint-sized Justice League, the tree house often turns into a museum. Some days it houses a natural history exhibit of collected sticks, rocks and flowers. Other times, it’s full of paintings, drawings and colorings by aspiring artists. It is, by all accounts, a tree house all their own.

Like the American flag hanging from it, the tree house symbolizes freedom and independence. Me, I often look over at the fort and sigh. I have no basement. The garage is a mess.

Look out, kids! I’m moving in.


The Smiley Face Flag

Posted on | May 19, 2013 | 3 Comments

“Passing the flag to a new generation” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 19, 2013).

It hung from the house like a beacon. Unlike most flags on the block, however, it paid no tribute to country or ancestral motherland. Rather, it honored a state of being: the simple, yellow, smiley face flag, broadcasting its message of happiness. Regardless of weather, and sometimes even in spite of it, the flag flew, an eternal smile on its face.

Just as the lighthouse guides the lost traveler at sea, the flag hung proudly on the home for all to see. It spoke of the nature of the home, and the man who put it there.

It was also the first thing my children spotted when we turned onto the street. “We’re there,” they’d shout, their faces reflecting the flag itself. “Grandpop’s!”

Over many years and countless visits, my children learned that flag had many messages to share.

It was a pronouncement: Happiness found within!

As well as a commandment: Only smiles allowed!

And if you broke the commandment, it was also a prescription: Smiles and hugs heal!

Such were my children’s visits to that house with the flag – memories filled with smiles. After all, their grandfather insisted.

The flag not only greeted them upon their arrival; it was also the last thing they saw during their departure. Having taken the flag down from its perch on the house, their grandfather would stand in the starry night, waving the flag like a crazed signalman at an airport. It seems the flag had more messages to share.

It was a request: Remember the smiles!

As well as a directive: Go forth and smile!

And, waving that flag in snow or storm, it was a gospel proclamation: Happiness reigns!

Looking in the rearview mirror as we drove away, the man and his flag would follow, walking down the middle of the dark street and waving that smile for the world to see. Slowly, the yellow would fade away. The smile would not. Someday, I thought, my children would come to appreciate the message of the flag – and the crazed man waving it.

Sometimes, someday arrives sooner than expected.

It was a cold, winter day when the grandparents came to visit. Stories and smiles were shared, laughter heard, and bread broken.

When the visit was drawing to an end and my three-year-old son saw his grandparents gathering their things, his eyes popped with sudden remembrance.

Wait!” he hollered, then disappeared to the garage. He came back with a three-foot stick he had collected in the yard weeks prior. I wasn’t sure what its intended use was at the time of its collection – sword, bow, brother-whacker – but it quickly became apparent.

Dad, I need tape!” As I went in search of tape, he retrieved an oversized piece of paper adorned with impressionist-style crayon artwork.

Quick, Dad!

He rushed to tape the paper to the stick, grabbed his shoes, and hurried outside in time to give his grandparents a proper farewell.

I looked at the scene before me and smiled: the pint-sized boy and a flag just his height. He waved it in the winter wind. His grandparents pulled out of the driveway and disappeared down the street. The flag continued to wave until their car was completely out of view, broadcasting a message of its own:

Smiles are contagious.


“Indecisions, Indecisions”

Posted on | April 19, 2013 | 2 Comments

“Decisions, Decisions” in Main Line Today (May, 2013).

I stand in aisle nine and stare blankly at the toothbrushes. There are 97 different kinds to choose from – each one recommended by a different dental association. I pour over the options, weighing my mouth’s needs with each toothbrush’s specialty.

I find the one perfectly suited for me, but it only comes in pink. I can’t rightly go home with a pink toothbrush, so I go through the exercise again until I find the best runner up.

All told, I’ve burned 10 minutes and haven’t even made it to the toothpaste yet. And I’ll likely have a cavity at my next check-up anyhow (in which case I should have gone with pink).

The process repeats itself in aisle after aisle. 32 types of light bulbs; 21 different detergents; chocolate chips in 16 shapes, sizes, and flavors; and 1,289 pasta sauces (somewhere in this sea of red, there must be a jar that reads “marinara”).

By the time I leave the grocery store, the moon has replaced the sun and I’m left with heartburn, a headache, and an utter sense of uncertainty about the stuff I’ve just purchased.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average number of items carried in a supermarket is 38,718 (63 of which are likely kinds of shampoo). Not that it’s any better elsewhere: The home store has 86 kinds of caulk, the pharmacy 132 ways to get rid of a cold, and the shoe store at least 61 types of sneakers for a sundry of ambulatory activities.

Sometimes, I’ll bypass brick and mortar altogether and try my luck online. With the web’s untold options and countless opinions, I find these escapades even more fruitless – as in my recent request for a new potato peeler. Mary from Minnesota absolutely loved the peeler I was considering, while Bob from Idaho found it dull and mediocre at best. Idaho Bob should know too, but perhaps he’s just a potato peeler snob. Then again, renowned blogger Potato Patty gave it a four-spud rating on her website. “I would have given it five potatoes,” she wrote, “but it didn’t do such a hot job with apples.”

Three hours flew by, and I still had reservations about the potato peeler. Frustrated, I shut the computer down, having accomplished nothing.

Utterly paralyzed by uncertainty and frequently emasculated by choice, my daily life continues to be colored by the seemingly unending mantra: “indecisions, indecisions.”

Take away my choices ad infinitum, please!


Walking in the Air

Posted on | March 27, 2013 | 2 Comments

“The light is out there… somewhere” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (December 14, 2014).

I imagine a boy on a plane, flying through the night sky, holiday travelers sitting side by side and row by row. Save for a few overhead spotlights shining down on crossword puzzles and magazines, the cabin is dark. The muffled hum of the engines outside lulls the passengers to sleep. The child would not join them. Sugarplums could wait.

He looks around in disbelief: eyes shut, heads bobbed, pages turned. It seems he alone appreciates what could soon dwell on the horizon. It’s just as well, for in the quiet darkness, he feels as if he is the keeper of a great secret. Back at home, he often hides beneath a fort made of blankets and sheets, leaving the adults in their world while disappearing into his own. Such is the cabin now.

He turns to the window and watches. The red strobe on the wing slowly blinks, casting the only light in the dark sky. As he stares, the boy’s mind becomes a metronome, conducting the orchestra’s silent waltz:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

He surveys the darkness as he counts, looking for another red light.

It has to be out there. Somewhere. Even if I can’t see it yet. It has to be!

He hopes, prays, and watches.

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

The window fogs up with breath. The child takes his finger and traces his name backward in the condensation. If he appears now, he’ll know it’s me! Just as quickly, he squeaks the window clean with the side of his hand and refocuses.

The light is out there . . . somewhere. He is out there . . . somewhere . . . flying . . . with me!

The boy gazes.

Some 35,000 feet below, faith is just as strong in a young girl. The house is festive and noisy, but the hour is getting late. Soon it would be time to call the celebrations a night and head home.

“Do you think he’s close, Dad?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Let’s go check!”

With that I follow my daughter out of the house and into the wintry eve. Standing on the sidewalk, we look toward the heavens. The sky is clear and the moon new, giving the stars a chance to shine this holy night.

“Look, Dad! Look! There he is!”

I follow her gaze.

And there it is, a blinking red light making its way across the sky.

I kept time:

On-2-3, Off-2-3, On-2-3, Off-2-3.

My daughter stands transfixed at the awesome sight above her, stunned yet not surprised, in disbelief yet believing. After a magical minute or two, the light fades into the night. She quickly retreats into the house, excited to exclaim the good news.

I simply stand there and smile, thinking to myself, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”


The Blue Plane (Yes, THAT Blue Plane!)

Posted on | February 15, 2013 | 5 Comments

The Blue Plane in Darby

The famed blue plane perched on Skiles Fielding Montague’s roof in downtown Darby, PA.

“Taking Flight Lessons from Darby’s Skiles Fielding Montague” in Main Line Today (March, 2013).

It sat there for years — one of those oddities that gives a place character and becomes the stuff of legend: the tiny powder-blue plane inexplicably perched on a roof in Darby.

Parked atop a historic Queen Anne-style home on Main Street, the plane has commanded attention and demanded explanation for decades. It remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. Pre-Blue Route, it was the highlight of any trip to the stadiums, the Walt Whitman Bridge or the airport.

More recently, I penned a short letter expressing wonder over the landmark. I addressed it simply to “The House with the Blue Plane on the Roof,” Main Street, Darby, PA.

Two days later, a letter came from one Skiles Fielding Montague, flight simulator salesman. That blue plane, he said, was a GAT-1 single-engine simulator, and he’d placed it on his roof in 1977 to help advertise his business. The explanation was followed by an invitation: Would I like to fly one?

And so it was that I found myself on Montague’s doorstep. A giddy sense of fear overcame me. What if it’s all a farce?

When the door opened, I was greeted by a bearded guy who could’ve easily passed for Burl Ives. Montague ushered me into the backyard, pointing to a small building in the corner. “That’s where the flight simulator is,” he confided.

We opened the door, and there it was: a working model of the very plane over which I’d marveled. Montague opened the door of the tiny simulator. I climbed aboard, and he sat down next to me. The space inside was exceedingly tight, much like an enclosed roller coaster or one of those fancy four-quarter sit-down arcade games you’ve seen other kids play.

All the windows — including the windshield — were spray-painted white. “Anyone can fly when they can see where they’re going,” said Montague. “The trick is to learn to fly by using the instrument panel. This, my friend, is what it’s like to fly through clouds.”

For the next half-hour, Montague gave me my first flight lesson. Explaining the various gauges on the instrument panel, he taught me how to steer the plane using the foot-pedal rudder, while also keeping  an eye on the speedometer and altimeter. I proceeded to buck the simulator left and right, frontward and backward.

Had we been 5,000 feet above Darby in a real plane, we’d have crashed on someone’s roof within seconds. I was a truly terrible pilot, but Montague was patient and kind, reassuring me that the coordination necessary to fly takes time to develop.

Coordination or not, I was on cloud nine. I’d uncovered the mystery of the blue plane.


The History of the Universe in Eight Words (A Meditation on Eternity)

Posted on | January 30, 2013 | 3 Comments

Once upon a time after time stood still.


Building a fire in the snow

Posted on | January 27, 2013 | 2 Comments

Guest column in Delaware County Daily Times (February 27, 2014).

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 we make is an intrusion on that peace. The snow below talks with each step I take just as the snow above begins to 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 glorious 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 it 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 the front page: death, disaster, discord, and discontent. I grab the page with my fist and crumple. Then tucking the newsprint under the pyre as if making a deathbed, I reach for A2 and do the same. Fire and fuel join death and destruction.

One after the other, quickly the pages crumple and quickly the bed is made. He said-she said pages! Buy this-do that pages! Blame him-sue them pages! Pay me-watch me pages! Fear all-change law pages! Kiss her-want him pages!

In such heavy snowfall, I use almost the entire newspaper. Having read it all, the ensuing warmth will feel even greater.

I grab the last page of newsprint and pause. The characters of the comics stare up at me. I carefully fold the page 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.


Life lessons for the superhero apprentice: Lessons 1-6

Posted on | January 19, 2013 | 5 Comments

A repost, a refresher, and a revival – with more superhero lessons to follow soonish…

At 4 years old, my son has just one problem in life, and it plagues him night after night. Lying in bed, a never-ending debate runs through his mind over which superhero he should be when he gets big.

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk. Even Plastic Man remains a viable option. Each, after all, is unique, offering a child endless possibilities in the way of costumes, superpowers, weapons, vehicles and villains.

I may not be a superhero, but as a parent, I hope I’m providing him with the lessons he needs to become one. Here are six that were handed down to me:

Superhero Lesson #1: Things Just Happen: Sticktoitiveness and the Superhero

Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they crash—and it’s not always the cape’s fault. Or the villain’s fault. Or anybody’s fault, really. Things just happen. Superheroes don’t waste time blaming. If they crash, they brush it off and get back into the air.

Superhero Lesson #2: Trust Your Spidey Sense

Always trust your Spidey sense. If you’re ever unsure about a situation, it’s best to follow your gut. It could be what superhero move you need to make to capture the villain. It could be what to say to someone who is upset with you. Or it could be whether or not you should do something someone is asking you to do. Not sure what to do? Follow your Spidey sense. It’s why superheroes have it, and it’s usually right. With a little practice, and a lot of faith, you’ll learn to trust it.

Superhero Lesson #3: The First Step: Visualization

Visualization. To be successful in anything, first be successful in your mind. Visualize yourself making contact with that baseball before you even step up to the plate. Picture every moment of the event. Your hands gripping the bat. Your legs balanced and ready to step forward into the pitch. The crack of the bat as the ball flies through the air. Your legs darting out of the batter’s box as you sprint along the base paths. First picture it in your mind, and your body will know what to do when the time comes to face that first curve ball.

Superhero Lesson #4: Prayer: The Superhero’s Ultra-Top Secret Weapon

When you hear an abulance siren as it races down the road—be it close by or far off in the distance—take a second and say a little prayer for whoever is in need. Superheroes can’t be in all places at all times, but their prayers can be.

Superhero Lesson #5: Words

Choose your words carefully. Most mere mortals assume that the greatest of superhero powers come from radioactive accidents, genetic mutation, or intergalactic immigration. The truth of the matter is, superheroes master the most common and yet most difficult skills first. Chief among these skills is one’s ability to choose words carefully. For example, certain words should not be uttered by any superhero. These include the words “never,” “can’t,” and “I give up.” Other examples include words such as “hate” and “kill.”

Just the same, there are certain words in the vocabularies of all superheroes that should be said now and again, and sometimes these are even more difficult to master. Examples that fall into this category include the words “help” and “I don’t know.” The thing is, superheroes can’t do everything on their own, and they don’t know everything there is to know. Superheroes are aware of this imperfect quality, no matter how super they may be. Choose your words, and the words you choose not to use, very carefully.

Superhero Lesson #6: The Ultimate Lesson: Gratitude

Gratitude. If there’s one thing superheroes do well, it’s appreciating how lucky they are. After all, it’s not everyone that can fly, sling webs, or turn green with bulging muscles when danger looms. Superheroes are lucky, and they know it. That’s why they end each day with a prayer of thanks. So as you lay in bed at night, eyes closed and ready to recharge your body for another day of saving the world, spend a few minutes thinking about everything you’re thankful for. God. Your family. Your friends. Your home. Anyone and anything that made your day better. This is one of the most important exercises a superhero can do, and like all exercise, it makes you even stronger.

I look over at my son, fast asleep, and say a prayer of gratitude for this little superhero-in-training. My dream is that he achieves his. I say a prayer too for the superhero who shared these lessons with me – my father. Though he may be gone, he lives on. After all, superheroes are immortal.


Making Tracks

Posted on | November 29, 2012 | 2 Comments

“Along for the ride” in Main Line Today (December, 2012).

The burgundy engine hums to life with a subtle twist of the wrist, leaving behind fathers with suitcases and moms clutching the hands of children. Frozen on the platform, the tiny figures wait for a train they’ll never board.

The ride is corky smooth, over fields of green sandpaper and through snowy mountains with papier-mâché peaks. Orchard trees mix with tall evergreens. Boldly standing too close to the tracks, one tree is quickly uprooted and lies awkwardly on its side, a casualty of the passing Pennsylvania steamer.

Emerging from the picturesque countryside, the train descends into the valley and its town of lampposts, park benches, and stalled cars. Lights glow from the houses, church, movie theater, gas station, and hardware store. Townsfolk mill about; boys deliver newspapers; carolers sing; families skate on the mirrored pond. Some brave the cold to catch It’s a Wonderful Life at the drive-in. A nearby baseball field sits empty.

The tiny engine pushes on, past water towers, quarries, and factories; over trellis bridges and back to the station, where the dads with suitcases and moms with children still wait patiently. A quick engine switch, and the journey begins anew.

So it goes with the time machine that is the model train. No matter the engine – Conrail, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and the rest – the train has the magical ability to stop time. Frozen in the moment like the motionless figures on the platform, the conductor is freed from the future so that he may enjoy the present while reliving the past.

Women often question the allure of the model train for grown men. (If you’re a female reading this, I commend you for getting this far.) But the attraction is quite simple. As boys, it was a hobby that allowed us to fashion our own world free of the busyness and silliness we witnessed in the one ruled over by adults. We lived in the moment, and hoped it would last forever.

I’m convinced that it all goes back to the book of Genesis and our desire to escape God’s world and create our own. On the first day, boy created the platform and laid the grass. Day two brought the tracks; days three and four, the mountains, trees, and ponds. The fifth was dedicated to villages and their frozen inhabitants.

But there was something missing. Boy was lonely. And so, on day six, he invented the model train.

Years later, we’re still trying to create our own world, a refuge from that busy and silly adult world in which we now live.

Sadly, our fantasies are typically relegated to a small plywood platform in a cold basement or garage – and even then, it’s often just for the month of December. After that, it’s time to pack up our world into cardboard boxes again. Life must go on.

Still, we’re happy to vanish to the place of our banishment, so long as we can turn that knob on the transformer, send power through those tracks, and bring an engine to life.

You see, day seven is our day of rest. Eve has her world, and we have ours. And God saw that it was good.


Thanksgiving and the Quieting Season

Posted on | November 22, 2012 | 1 Comment

“Quiet Time” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 22, 2012).

Stepping out into the cold November night, I shut the door behind me and listen. Inside, muted voices laugh and reminisce; children holler; an uncle plays “Heart and Soul” on the piano. Outside, however, all is still save the winter wind. Trees sway, a honking goose passes by above, and the streets are empty. Society has gathered indoors this evening, giving thanks and stuffing hearts and bodies with the sustenance of family and food. Outside, the quieting season has arrived.

I breathe in the cool air on this smoke-filled night as chimneys exhale deep warm breaths. The fiery scent warms my soul. It is as if the night itself were one continuous benediction. I grab hold of the fleeting quiet, fearing its farewell.

For me, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the quieting season. The natural world slows down with the coming of winter; squirrels squirrel away their collections of nuts; frogs find refuge under a muddy bed of leaves; bears take to their dens; and trees stand bare.

As nature goes, so should we. The season offers us a chance to embrace nature’s quiet and turn off the noise that invades our every waking moment. When we quiet our lives, we give ourselves a chance to reflect, contemplate, and simply be. Quieting is essential to our well-being.

Sadly, while many embrace this practice on Thanksgiving, by day’s end the noise begins to encroach on the quiet. And the noise is everywhere.

There’s Black Friday noise, which once reverently conceded a day of quiet to Thanksgiving. Not anymore: “Hurry up and carve the turkey, Grandpa. Walmart opens in an hour!” The noise also hit our front steps this morning with the heavy thud of circulars crammed into the day’s paper, and the clamor and clatter will begin in earnest when the stores’ doors begin to open tonight.

Noise has many disguises, and some of it is actually quiet in form. It has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, and we’ve unwittingly embraced it all.

There’s Facebook noise. Postelection noise. Continuous Christmas-caroling noise on the radio. TV noise, even in checkout lines and at gas pumps. Cellphone and text-message noise. Weather-forecast noise. Hectic-calendar noise. Donald Trump noise. Talk-radio noise. #StopTheNoise Twitter noise. Remote-control noise. Spam noise. Self-help noise.

Like a virus, noise is transmitted to us unnoticed, infects our bodies, and reaches a feverish pitch that makes us ill. There is no medicinal treatment for it; our bodies are left to their own defenses. So it is with noise. No one is going to stop it; we must do it for ourselves. After all, we have chosen much of the noise.

Sometimes we just need to choose quiet. If you’ve ever stumbled upon public television’s yearly fund-drive showing of Alone in the Wilderness and found yourself drawn to Dick Proenneke’s simple life in the Alaskan wilderness, you know the yearning to choose quiet. Sure, Proenneke impresses us by whittling a spoon or a log cabin with equal ease, but what truly transfixes viewers is the hunger to live his poetic life of quiet simplicity, even if only for a little while.

That little while can be now. After we gather with friends and family and fill ourselves with food and memories to last through the approaching winter days, the quieting season is upon us.

Let’s seize the silence, mute the noise, and listen to the quiet of the soul. We might be surprised by how much it has to say.


Without a Trace

Posted on | November 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

“Mud and memories” in Main Line Today (November, 2012).

I stood on the front stoop, looking left and right. A sneaker dangled from each hand.

All was quiet. Too quiet.

Lawn mowers, blowers, and circular saws were silenced. The bouncing echo of the basketball faded. The Sunday sun was about to call it a day. My unseen neighbors were enjoying their suburban silence.

Summoning the courage to shatter the stillness, I stretched out my arms, paused briefly for dramatic effect, and then violently clapped my sneakers together.


As the sound echoed throughout the neighborhood, a day’s worth of dirt trickled to the ground like a dusty rain falling over the grass. Sneaker treads, having captured the earth in adventures on it, returned soil to its source in brittle, zigzagged molds.

I held up the sneakers to inspect. Both heels stubbornly held onto earthen souvenirs. I stretched out my arms again.


Dirt crumbled and caked off. A large patch of mud, dried into a partial footprint in a fossilized relic of muddy play, fell to the ground.

One more WHACK for good measure and the sneakers were ready for adventure again. The clap echoed in the stillness.

I stole a glance left and right to make sure I was not spotted. Suddenly, though, a police siren sounded in the distance. They’re coming for me! Disturbing the peace! Disorderly conduct! Creating a nuisance! Littering! Maybe even a charge of Tom Foolery too! I ran inside and slammed the door shut behind me.

All was quiet. Too quiet.

My heart jumped at a heavy rap at the door. I opened it a crack.

“Yes, officer?”

 “Sir, we received a call about a noise violation.”

“I don’t know anything about that, officer. All’s quiet here.”

The officer held up a fossilized footprint in his hands. “Sir, is this yours?”

I quickly tried to shut the door but he pushed it open. There I stood, caught Ked-handed. Sneakers at my side, I simply shrugged my shoulders and pleaded for sympathy. He would have none of it and immediately launched into a recitation of my Miranda rights. Barefoot, I was handcuffed and led past gawking neighbors to the back of the police cruiser.

As we drove to the precinct, I gazed out the window and watched clouds cover the sky. It began to rain.

Parents called out to children, hurrying them off green yards in a frantic bid to protect both lawn and living room from any potential source of mud. Brightly colored Crocs, incapable of collecting a day’s worth of play underfoot, were kicked off at the door.

“To the mudroom, children! Crocs to their cubbies!”

Such a sad shoe, I lamented. A child could conquer the world in a late summer day: climbing trees, discovering a wooded world beyond the manicured grass, and trolling for turtles by the pond. And yet, when done wearing Crocs, hardly a trace of the glorious day would return home. No muddy treads; no clapping Crocs. There is nothing more dissatisfying than the weak sound of clapping Crocs together. If it doesn’t echo, it can’t be a shoe.

The cruiser continued through town, and we passed a soccer match at the high school field. Lots of muddy cleats tonight, I smiled. As we drove closer, though, I saw the artificial turf and the smile faded. No mud in the mudroom tonight, I guess.

We pulled up to the station just as the soft rain turned to a downpour. The officer led me across the puddle-filled parking lot to the entrance. Before opening the door, he looked down at my grubby bare feet and gestured to the welcome mat.

“Wipe your feet, son.”


My daughter, the undertaker

Posted on | August 8, 2012 | 7 Comments

“Mysteries of life and the side yard” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

My daughter, the undertaker.

Pulling out of the driveway one recent morning, I noticed a lifeless squirrel on the side of the road. Whether it was tree branch acrobatics or my neighbor’s Nissan that did him in, I’ll never know. Either way, Mr. Squirrel was assuredly in dog heaven, running for his life all over again.

I drove off to work, leaving the squirrel and the task of his disposal for that evening. When I returned home, however, I discovered that my 8-year-old daughter had beaten me to it.

There she stood in the corner of the yard, her younger brothers by her side. Spades and shovels were strewn about, a mound of freshly dug dirt was at their feet, and a large rock marked the anonymous grave.

It seems I had missed the internment of Mr. Squirrel. I smiled at the children’s industriousness and independence, and a peculiar sense of pride overcame me. My fatherly role as Official Remover of All Things Grisly was coming to an end.

Just a few months earlier, a deer had wandered into our yard after an unfortunate encounter with a speeding vehicle and lain down in a pile of leaves, never to awake. The Pennsylvania Game Commission would schedule a pickup once the deer was on public land. So, under cover of darkness, I dragged the deer to the side of the road, hoping the state’s Remover of All Things Grisly and his pickup truck would arrive before my children caught a glimpse of the carcass.

No such luck. On discovering the deer, though, my children did not run in horror and disgust. Rather, they reacted as most children would – with curiosity, compassion, respect, and uncertainty.

The deer, the squirrel – they were simply part of the natural world, and their departures from it part of life. Such discoveries are opportunities to discuss questions both biological and eschatological as together we try to make sense of this world and the one beyond it. Given a little freedom, my children were exploring these lessons on their own terms.

Little did I realize it then, but my brothers and I explored the mysteries of life and death in much the same way. The side yard of our home was a veritable cemetery of critters who called it quits on our property: squirrels, birds, and bats, as well as salamanders and other amphibians and reptiles captured at the nearby creek and brought home as pets. Those that didn’t make it made their way to the side yard.

Holes were dug, miniature plywood coffins were occasionally fabricated, and impromptu services were held. The latter were equal parts Catholic funeral Mass and Native American tribal ceremony – or at least our boyhood take on those burial rites.

Excavating that side yard today would reveal the fossils of our childhood: a lost Matchbox car encased in dirt; the plastic egg never found in an Easter morning hunt; perhaps a Star Wars Stormtrooper or Han Solo action figure; and the relics of creatures laid to rest by a curious band of brothers.

Such enterprise is a natural part of childhood – not to be confused with inflicting harm on living beings, which is assumed to be a bad sign. I do confess to an unfortunate massacre of my older brother’s fish when I was 3, when it seems I inadvertently turned up the tank heater and boiled his collection of zebra danios, neon tetras, and red tail sharks. Forget the side yard – they were flushed into eternity down the American Standard.

My 4-year-old’s hermit crab also met a troubling end. Adopted from a boardwalk shop and complete with a Batman insignia painted on his shell, Henry John was a fine hermit crab indeed. Two weeks later the poor fellah grew listless and we laid him to rest, tears and all. It was only after the funeral that I learned about the molting life cycle of hermit crabs. One day, the kids may learn that poor Henry John may have been buried alive.

Until then, though, I will leave them to their investigations, for us learned adults know just as much about death and beyond as do our children. As they explore the natural world in their own way this summer, I’ll stand back and watch them grow, the words of Louis Armstrong singing in my head: “They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.”

Yes, I’ll think to myself, what a wonderful world . . . oh yeah.


Season of the Carousel

Posted on | July 22, 2012 | 6 Comments

“At Knoebels, the season of the carousel” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When faced with an autumnal deadline, and winter’s arrival just beyond that, summer sneaks its blessings into sun-soaked days and shouts to the world: “LIVE NOW!”

We join with the waves until one day in early September when they return to the ocean and come back too cold to hitch a ride. Fireflies, crickets, and cicadas seize these fleeting summer nights in a romantic game of “Marco Polo.”

And carousels come to life in traveling fairs and boardwalk escapes. Horses chase their tales to the calliope music, an eternal gallop against time.

Summer is the season of the carousel, and this year my family welcomed summer on top of the wooden horses of the Grand Carousel at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, PA. Carved, built, and brought to life in 1912, the Grand Carousel and its magical horses turned 100 years old this summer, and their gallop hasn’t lost a step.

The Grand Carousel was built by Kramer Carousel Works of Brooklyn and for many years lived at Riverview Park in Rahway, N.J. It was bought by Knoebels in 1941, and has been spinning ever since. It still dispenses steel rings for riders to reach out and grab — catch the brass ring and the ride is free.

The Grand Carousel and Knoebels itself are time machines not only to the past, but to one’s youth as well. Both simpler times; both calling to be rediscovered. Tucked into a grove of trees and home to a campground bordering the park, Knoebels is a throwback to a time when the world was in black and white. Admission is free, roller coasters are made of wood, and — in an age where insurance companies often dictate how businesses can run themselves — the park’s swimming pool actually sports two high dives. Nothing answers summer’s “LIVE NOW!” directive better than a cannonball off a high dive.

Knoebels opened in 1926, and its first ride was a carousel built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. (which also built one of the park’s two wooden roller coasters).

Generations of childhood memories can be attributed to the carousel and its Philadelphia roots. The first carousel in the country was set up in Germantown in 1860 by German immigrant Gustav Dentzel. The Dentzel family carved and built carousels in Philadelphia until 1928, when the Great Depression began to silence the music of the ride. If you’ve ridden the carousel at the Please Touch Museum, you can thank the Dentzel family. And if you take a spin on the horses at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City this summer, you can thank the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.

After our day on the rides at Knoebels, my family retired to our campsite for the night. We had asked for a campsite close to the park, and they more than obliged. Ten feet away from our tent was the fence separating us from one of the wooden coasters. Late into the night the train raced along the wooden tracks, its wooden cadence muffled only by the accompanying screams of its passengers.

When the coaster silenced for the night, and with my family asleep, I sat looking up at the wooden coaster and its moon-cast shadows. The spirit of the past was in the air, and the words and images of the late Ray Bradbury filled my soul. He died just a few days before, on June 5, at the age of 91. Something Wicked This Way Comes, his dark coming of age masterpiece about a carnival coming to town, sat on my nightstand at home.

The novel was published 50 years ago, and I was rereading it when Bradbury passed on to the heavens. The carnival’s carousel is more than it seems in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ride it forwards, it makes you older. Ride it backward, you return to your youth.

There is indeed magic in the motion and music of the carousel. Unlike its European forebears, American carousels typically run counterclockwise. I believe those Philadelphia carousel-makers knew what they were doing.

Like a time machine, the horses await, transporting us to our youth. So harness up, and hitch a ride, for the season of the carousel is fleeting and fall is never far behind.


Thoreau the truth-seeker

Posted on | May 6, 2012 | 4 Comments

“Thoreau the truth-seeker” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I can see it clearly: the American literature textbook from my sophomore year in high school, complete with faded red cover, frayed spine and a list of students who had rifled through its pages in years past. In it I discovered a kindred spirit, soul mate and best friend. His name was Henry David Thoreau, and he died 150 years ago today, at the age of 44.

I remember his first words to me:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

They were powerful words to introduce to a teenager, words that spoke to the longstanding vocation of teens everywhere: to question, to challenge, to rebel!

Thoreau went on:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.”

More teenage validation. I was hooked.

To me, Thoreau, who was born in 1817 in Concord, Mass., is one of the most important figures in American history. Some folks change how people do things. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs come to mind. Others change how people think. Thoreau falls into this latter category, and his influence goes far beyond how quickly we travel (Thoreau was a passionate walker and perfected the “art of sauntering”) or how easily our smartphones can map the route (Thoreau was an accomplished surveyor too).

Thoreau’s influence can be found in the inspiration his life and his writings provide to the world. In 1845, at the age of 27, Thoreau set out on one of man’s greatest experiments. Building a small cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, on property owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau spent two years and two months living in nature and chronicling his observations. The resulting text, “Walden, or Life in the Woods,” continues to inspire people and is considered by many the Bible of the environmental movement.

Likewise, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” written after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery, has inspired world-changers such as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau was many things to many people, and sometimes he is too easily placed into bumper-sticker purgatory, his evocative and biting one-liners used to advance a particular cause or agenda. Thoreau the environmentalist. Thoreau the naturalist. Thoreau the conscientious objector. Thoreau the transcendentalist. Thoreau the abolitionist.

Thoreau was all these things, but he was much more, and to put labels on him is to limit his legacy. Above all, Thoreau was an uncompromising individual who valued life to such an extent that he spent his entire existence examining that life. In other words, he was a truth-seeker.

Truth-seeking comes easily to teenagers, and there is no better time to discover Thoreau. Somewhere along the line, though, that teenager too often stops seeking the truth, and by the time adulthood rolls around, conformity takes hold and truth-seeking becomes a less noble and more challenging endeavor. It is then that the frayed American lit textbook needs to be opened one more time. Thoreau calls out from the pages, reminding the “grown-up” of the directive that so inspired many years before:

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Thoreau never let go of that urge to discover that there is indeed more than the pursuit of fame, fortune and the material possessions that often enslave us. Examine yourself, and follow the dreams found therein.

To the extent that we often spend our lives like hamsters spinning the wheel, traveling so far on the treadmill of life and yet discovering so little, Thoreau is the chanticleer calling us to wake up and discover the essence of life.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he told me many years ago, providing a grace note to Socrates’ famed admonition: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thoreau may be 150 years gone, but he continues to speak to the buried teenager in all of us. As we celebrate his life today, let us not forget to examine our own.


Facebook Infiltrates the Hundred Acre Wood

Posted on | March 9, 2012 | 9 Comments

“Yearning to go back to the ways of Christopher Robin” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Friendship,” said Christopher Robin, “is a very comforting thing to have.”

It is indeed, though I wonder what might have happened to those beloved friendships in the Hundred Acre Wood if Facebook had infiltrated Christopher Robin’s imagination.

Instead of a boy and his friends discovering the ups and downs of the world in their unhurried, innocent manner – learning to give, forgive, and just “be” along the way – I’m afraid Pooh Bear et al. would turn into insular creatures stuffed with fluff, but not much else. With their friendships hijacked by Facebook and the other temptations of the digital world, they would fail to grow, learn, and love.

A.A. Milne would have to rewrite his treasured stories – and what sorry stories they would become.

Tigger, once concerned only with doing what Tiggers do best, would become addicted to posting Facebook status updates on his latest adventures in bouncing. Before long, the addiction would be so strong that status updates would replace bouncing altogether. He’d soon forget that he was put on this Earth to bounce and brighten the days of those he encountered along the way, and the Hundred Acre Wood would be a much quieter place.

Simply reading “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!” in a status update can’t brighten anyone’s day.

Eeyore, meanwhile, would latch onto Facebook as a forum for wallowing endlessly in his misery. He would inevitably try to cajole encouraging posts from his online “friends” by sharing vaguely frightening updates: “The gloomiest of gloomy days . . .”

A flurry of comments would follow from the likes of Pooh and friends, but not much would change. Hiding behind his computer, Eeyore would never really discover the friendships he so desperately needs. An addiction to attention-getting updates would take their place.

Piglet, too nervous to venture outside, would confine himself to his beech tree and spend his days and nights as an online voyeur. Following the exploits and adventures of his virtual companions, he might occasionally summon the courage to “like” or “share” a post. He’d troll the Internet along with the bottom-feeders whose anonymity gives them the courage to post crude, callous, and unconstructive criticism.

And so it would be throughout the Hundred Acre Wood. Rabbit would post pictures of his dinner every night: a lonely plate of carrots. Owl would idly share boasts about the wonderful kind of tea he was sipping or how far he had flown earlier in the day.

And Winnie-the-Pooh? I picture Pooh and Christopher Robin sitting on opposite sides of a log, hunched over cellphones as they tap away at them. Neither one is aware of the other until Pooh “checks in” at the log. Christopher Robin, noticing on his phone that Pooh has checked in, looks up to discover his acquaintance on the log. Perhaps they even nod to one another before going back to their phones.

These scenes may seem ridiculous, but if we insert ourselves in place of Milne’s characters, we get an all-too-familiar look at where we’ve let our relationships go.

It is said that the value of Facebook’s initial public offering this spring could reach $100 billion. That enormous figure stands in stark contrast to the value we now place on our friendships.

Which is why today I am committing digital suicide by deleting my Facebook account. I encourage you to join me and venture into the Hundred Acre Wood. Perhaps we’ll cross paths, and – who knows? – maybe we’ll become friends.


The Deserter

Posted on | February 17, 2012 | 3 Comments

I look left, then right, and left again.

The road is clear and, pushing pedal toward the floor, I pull onto the winding road. As I accelerate into the turn, a hawk merges with me, flying a few yards both above and ahead of my vehicle.

For half a mile we keep pace with one another, flying along at a 35 mph clip. I shadow him, winding left and right as the road dictates. For a moment I am not driving, but rather flying.

The light ahead pulls my attention away from the beautiful bird. The light signals red, and my foot presses on the brake. The vehicle slows. The hawk does not.

As I come to a halt at the traffic light, the hawk suddenly changes course. It angles its outstretched body a few hours counterclockwise, deserting the road in favor of fields and forest.

Imprisoned in my vehicle, awaiting the go of green, I watch in envy as the hawk fades into the heavens.


Learning to live in a graveyard

Posted on | October 31, 2011 | 2 Comments

"The Line of Trees" (Arlington Cemetery, Drexel Hill, PA)“Learning to live in a graveyard” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I grew up in a cemetery.

Apart from the house I grew up in, the cemetery just four doors down from that house is home to the fondest memories of my childhood, my adolescence, and the pseudo angst-ridden years of early adulthood. In an odd way, it was a second home.

Known to my friends and me simply as “the Cem,” Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill played the part of both neighborhood park and teenage hideout.

As a young boy, the cemetery was a place to explore life and what lay beyond it. Peering through the stained glass windows of huge stone mausoleums, straining to read the names and dates of the folks therein, I remember wondering if I would want to be put in a mausoleum when I died. The thought frightened and yet intrigued me, and the existence of ghosts suddenly seemed quite feasible.

But the cemetery wasn’t all headstones and haunting. Its deserted and hilly roads made it the perfect course for high speed bike rides and testing out newly constructed go-carts. Years later, and for the very same reasons, it was the perfect spot to learn how to drive. On summer nights, it was the ideal shortcut to Dairy Queen for a grape Mister Misty Float. And its stone wall offered the perfect spot to watch the passing fire engines and tanks during the Memorial Day parade.

Just beyond that stone wall, and directly down the street from my house, lay the cemetery’s most prized piece of land. The grassy field, bordered on one side by a line of spruce trees, had remained untouched by the dead, making it the ideal football field. The line of trees marked one sideline, a cedar tree marked the other, and giant yews and arborvitaes provided a natural backdrop to both end-zones. For years that field was our home. Just about every afternoon, we battled it out on the cemetery gridiron: teams divvied up, plays designed on a palm, and a Wilson Duke football in tow. There was beauty in the simplicity of the ritual. Amid tackles, touchdowns and the occasional torn shirt, friendships were formed.

Throughout those years, young boys became lifelong friends. Casually tossing a football back and forth or simply sitting on the curb with a Big Gulp, talk ensued. It was the sort of talk that is universal to the young American male. Simply stated, it was minimal. In the silence, though, and in the profanity-laden barbs, truth dwelled ever so quietly. Truth that spoke of growing up, of trying to fit in, of figuring out how to deal with the opposite sex. It was the quiet of boys struggling for truth – boys struggling together. In any man’s life, it is the friends who struggled alongside you in adolescence that become lifelong friends. Perhaps you drift apart. For the fortunate few, perhaps you never do. In either case, the friendship is eternal, and no amount of time or distance can break that bond.

Unknown to us at the time, we dealt with adolescence in the only way we knew how: we drank. This too the cemetery witnessed. The line of trees bordering the football field provided a perfect bunker wherein we could spot any patrolling police car long before they saw us. When the headlights or spotlights came our way, we simply ducked behind the nearest tombstone, bush, or tree. The cops didn’t have a chance. There we stood, friends and shadows, conversing by the moonlit night.

When we all became of bar age, I fought to hang onto the cemetery as our watering hole of choice, but without much luck. There was a life to be lived outside the cemetery walls, and we couldn’t hide behind the line of trees forever.

Today, however, I realize just how necessary it is to revisit the cemetery. With lives that are ever connected to the busyness of life, we never take time to reflect and dwell upon the business of life – that is, to just simply “be.” As ironic as it may seem, the cemetery allows us one of the few places where we can actually live in the moment. Too sacred a space from which to check-in on Facebook or send that next meeting request, it puts life (and our phones) in proper perspective.

With two of those childhood friends having passed on to another cemetery, and my own father resting in the ground a few feet from that football field, today I long for “the Cem.”

October’s spirits fill the air, calling us to revisit the cemeteries of our lives, so that we may remember what it is like to live.

Yeah, I grew up in a cemetery. I suppose I still am.

Click here to read an expanded, earlier version of this essay.


Chester County Fiction

Posted on | September 27, 2011 | 1 Comment

Chester County FictionHello Friends:

A new collection of stort stories, Chester County Fiction, includes my short story “The River Runs Red.” Chester County Fiction, the brainchild of writer Jim Breslin, is a collection of short stories by – you guessed it – Chester County writers. You can get it on Amazon here. If you prefer to visit an actual bookstore, beginning next week you can pick up a copy at the Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester.

For details about the official book launch, which takes place October 2 at Baldwin’s Book Barn, click here.





On Eagle’s Wings

Posted on | September 9, 2011 | 2 Comments

“A place not yet touched by 9/11″ in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When the mood strikes and both the calendar and skies are clear, my children and I venture to the nearby Brandywine Valley Airport to catch a glimpse of the airplanes and helicopters in flight.

Watching these planes, my mind travels back to my own childhood, a time when a little boy could explore a major airport’s terminal and, with nose to window, gaze in wonder as the giant beasts ascended and descended more gracefully than seemed plausible. One moment it was here, a muffled roar later and it was gone, only to touch down in some far off place on the map taped to a child’s bedroom wall.

Peering through those glass walls overlooking the tarmac filled a child with awe. There, gazing eyes were close enough to read the plane’s numbers and admire each airline’s distinct detailing. Beautiful, slick beasts crawled along the tarmac, marionettes held captive by the air traffic controller above. “Which one was next?” the boy would wonder. Then, seemingly without warning, the tower gave word, setting a beast free. With engines blazing, it set off skyward.

Tarmac-gazing has long since disappeared, and along with it the spellbound eyes of countless young children longing for inspiration and adventure. Today, only those going off on the adventure itself get a glimpse of the tarmac’s beauty. Without a ticket, a child bids a relative farewell without ever seeing their plane lift off.

I imagine the ghosts of Wilbur and Orville Wright, having floated through security, standing in the terminal and peering out at the planes. Wonder must fill their hearts. Then, noticing no one else is doing the same, that wonder must turn to sadness. They look around, only to find themselves surrounded by hurried and harried white rabbits with eyes fixed on books, phones, and inventions beyond their comprehension.

All of which makes the quaint and quiet airport down the road all the more special. Here, a child can peer through and, yes, even sit atop the five-foot gate separating pilot from pupil. Sept. 11 hasn’t reached here yet, as this airport is more a playground for the weekend pilot (who once upon a time was a tarmac-gazer, I am sure) and a taxi depot for the anonymous wealthy and their equally anonymous chartered flights.

The scene goes like this: A car pulls into the quiet parking lot and, after exiting the vehicle, the driver proceeds to walk into the lonely airplane hangar. Within minutes an engine revs to life, controls and settings are checked, and the single-engine prop plane begins to meander out to the tarmac. I suppose there’s a quick radio conversation between the driver-turned-pilot and the controller inside. Something along the lines of:

“Hey, Charlie.”

“Morning, Johnny.”

“Good day for flying, eh?”

“Sure is. Anytime you’re ready, John.”

And with that the prop plane taxis down the tarmac, rounds the bend to the runway, and takes off.

Though not this morning. My 2-year-old boy and I wait patiently for any sign of life from the hangars, but hear none. The morning is deathly quiet, and perhaps the weekend pilots have taken the day off. After 30 minutes of inactivity, we return to the car.

It is then, having left the airport and waiting to turn out of the parking lot, that a single-engine plane soars into the air toward our right. We had missed the takeoff by seconds, and like that the plane was gone. Returning my gaze through the windshield, I find myself in wonder and awe at the sight before my eyes.

A bald eagle is perched atop the telephone pole across the road, looking larger than life in this suburban setting. Perhaps the beautiful beast was tarmac-gazing too.

I quickly pulled to the side of the road, parked, and together we crossed the street for a better look.

The scene brought me back to that September morning 10 years passed, when airports – and America – changed forever. I mourn the innocent lives lost that day, and the innocence our country lost in the process. The security theater of today’s airport, however necessary, has hijacked the awe and inspiration of humankind taking to the skies.

With my son in my arms, I gazed at our nation’s symbol and found myself grateful for its presence – and for this tiny airport not yet touched by 9/11.

It was at that moment three crows descended upon the eagle, cawing in unison and driving it from its roost. On silent wings, the eagle took flight and soared into battle.

I held my son closer. Once lost, innocence can never be reclaimed.


Small Talk: A Play in One Act

Posted on | June 28, 2011 | 1 Comment


How was your day?




Now was it a good day or a great day?




                    (MAN scoops GIRL up and holds her in his arms.)

When someone asks you how your day was – and it was a great day – tell them that. Okay?




All right, then. Let’s try it again. . .

So how was your day?




My Life is Password Protected

Posted on | June 27, 2011 | 3 Comments

“Identity Crisis” in Main Line Today (July, 2011).

I tried to tackle my to-do list today, but things haven’t worked out as planned.

1. Pay mortgage.

I went to pay my mortgage but couldn’t remember my password. After asking for help, I was told I first needed to answer the following:

“What is your favorite food?”

My first thought was pizza. Then again, I really like tacos. I took a guess:

“Cheeseburger, medium-well.”

Apparently not. Seems the computer knows my taste buds better than I do, and I’ll probably end up in foreclosure.

2. Buy a gift for Aunt Foo-Foo’s 90th birthday.

I searched high and low, hour after hour, looking for the perfect gift for my aunt. When I finally found it—a water-balloon slingshot—I passed along my credit card number and my address.

Seems that wasn’t good enough, though. I was told I must first establish an account. In order to do that, I had to disclose the color of my best friend’s sister’s eyes. Failure to do so, I was warned, would prevent me from easily purchasing water-balloon slingshots in the future.

I grappled over which best friend they were referring to, as there were several over the years. Finally, I had a hunch they were referring to Chris. He had five sisters, though, so I couldn’t be sure whose eye color they wanted. Too stressed to continue, I gave up. So much for water games at the nursing home.

3. Renew library books.

I wasn’t quite finished reading my loaned copy of Pride and Prejudice, so I went to renew it. They needed my library card number, which seemed reasonable enough. Then I needed to create a password that adhered to the following guidelines: 43 characters, including two numbers, one capital letter, an ampersand and an obscenity.

I spent an hour thinking up something I could remember. I was told to enter it again, at which point I forgot my password. Pride and Prejudice wasn’t all that interesting anyway, so I gave up on renewing it.

4. Order photos.

After spending a few hours whittling 537 photos down to 24, then removing the red-eye from each, I was ready to order some 4-by-6 prints for the first time in five years.

Before I could continue, I needed a user name. I tried the usual variations, but they were all taken.

I spent a good hour in deep reflection, trying to come up with something that captured my inner nature, my passions, my purpose in life.

Alas, it was already taken. I began to question who I really was.

5. Make an eye doctor appointment.

I was in dire need of new glasses. On a giant computer screen across the examining room was one of those reCAPTCHA windows you’re often confronted with when entering a password. Apparently, my doctor wanted to make sure I was still human.

“Read the first line,” he directed.

I fumbled to decipher the jumbled, wavy, crooked text, failing miserably. I explained that I was being held hostage by technology, all to protect whatever identity I had left.

“My life is password protected,” I pleaded.

He would hear none of it.

“No,” he replied. “You’re going blind.”


I Google Myself, Therefore I Am

Posted on | June 24, 2011 | 3 Comments

“I Google myself, therefore I am” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Under cover of darkness, with the shades drawn and the neighborhood fast asleep – save for a red fox making its rounds in search of prey – I went in search of myself.

The Google home page stood starkly before me and, like an addict unable to resist the urge, I Googled myself. I was afraid of what I might find. But I was even more afraid of finding nothing. After all, my life was at stake. If Google couldn’t find me, then my soul, my memories – even my very existence – were in doubt.

Googlo ergo sum? I was about to find out. My right pinkie hit “Enter.”

And there it was: my curriculum vitae spelled out before me in a list of some seven million blue links. Move over, Ralph Edwards. We’ve swapped the sentimentality of This Is Your Life for the narcissism of the Web. This is the 21st century, after all, and our egos have advanced greatly in the last 50 years. So, too, has the platform for sustaining that insecure little beast inside us. Today, the Internet and reality television alike proclaim, “This is my life!”

According to Google, then, here was mine:

I sell high-end homes in beautiful Big Bear Lake, in Southern California, and apparently I know what it takes to sell in any market.

When I’m not selling homes, Google says, I’m busy auditioning for movies in Hollywood. I even had a part in Biloxi Blues alongside Matthew Broderick. Now here was some digital validation: Since Broderick had a cameo in She’s Having a Baby, starring Kevin Bacon, that puts me just two degrees away from Kevin Bacon (according to the well-known rules of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”). Being so closely connected to the Footloose star is enough to make anyone feel better about his existence, but I continued the search.

It seems I also make custom guitars in Sonoma, Calif. That sounds like a pretty hip gig, which probably explains the cool mustache Google shows me sporting while showing off a sweet-looking electric bass.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, I’m a University of Massachusetts research professor who specializes in the taxonomy of the hindguts of wood-feeding termites and cockroaches. Kevin Bacon may be able to dance, but can he dissect hindguts?

The list of my accomplishments, careers, hobbies, and interests went on and on. I’m an insurance agent, an optometrist, a surgeon, an illustrator, the director of the Ohio Lottery Commission, and a politician to boot! I’m a modern-day Renaissance man.

But Google searches return the bad with the good. Evidently, I’m also a sex offender, an identity thief, and a personal-injury lawyer.

I suppose there’s no such thing as a skeleton in one’s closet anymore. The Internet sure took care of that, and any dirty laundry is hanging out there for the world to see, too. But at least it’s proof of my existence.

Except that none of the above really described me. Rather, these were the lives and adventures of many other Michael Dolans throughout the world. Without my own digital presence, I was forced to play Walter Mitty, imagining lives spent walking in my namesakes’ shoes.

Google had failed me. Or perhaps I had failed Google. Either way, eGo (the act of googling oneself) had dealt a permanent blow to my ego, and my entire existence was in question. Perhaps I was in need of a search-engine optimizer to assuage my digital anonymity.

Then I heard a harrowing screech outside the window, pulling my attention away from the screen. It seemed the fox had found its sustenance for the night.

I was still searching for mine.


A Father’s Retreat

Posted on | May 24, 2011 | 2 Comments

“A Father’s Retreat” in Main Line Today (June 2011).On the Pot

As a young boy, I never could quite understand how my father could spend hours each evening in that room.

The routine went like this: After arriving home shortly before 6 p.m., our dad would join his seven sons – and our poor mother – at the dinner table. Prayers were said, stories exchanged, brothers heckled, rolls thrown (with seven of us, any excuse to have a catch was acted upon), and food shared.

As dinner wound down, we all went our separate ways. Some to do the dishes, others to watch TV or perhaps shoot hoops before dusk turned to dark. Our father? He ventured upstairs to the bathroom. It would be the last any of us would see of him for quite some time.

The evening news would come and go. Wheel of Fortune would follow, with still no sign of life from the bathroom. Jeopardy! came next, and it was a rare sight indeed if Dad ventured out before Final Jeopardy.

What could compel a man to sit hunched over on an ill-suited seat for hours at a time? Perhaps it was the fact that the radiator adjacent to the toilet rivaled the local library in its offering of reading materials. The periodical section included rumpled issues of Readers Digest and Time, along with that day’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perhaps it was the news, or more often how it was covered, that prolonged the after-dinner indigestion and the duration of his stay.

Then again, the non-fiction section of the radiator library had any number of books: biographies of the Founding Fathers, motivational books (long before they came into vogue), and an entire section of Irish history.

Each book had its own bookmark peaking out at various stages. For our dad, reading was like playing a game of Parcheesi. You move all your pieces slowly toward the finish line at the same time, while occasionally getting sent back to the beginning in order to remember what the prior pages had to say.

Meanwhile, outside the bathroom walls, my brothers and I did what came naturally to a household of seven boys. The staircase became a bumpy ramp as we slid downstairs with pillows clutched to our backsides. Thumping against the house just outside the bathroom window signaled a game of wall ball was underway, leaving the house peppered with imprints from a dirty tennis ball. Water balloons dropped from third floor windows on unsuspecting victims below. The basement turned into the world’s noisiest skating rink as old metal roller skates clanked along the cement floor. The activities may have varied, but the end result was always the same: chaos.

Perhaps the chaos outside the bathroom is what kept our father inside. Long gone were the fairy tale ‘50s (if ever they existed as such) when a man could come home to a quiet dinner table and spend the rest of the evening with a newspaper and a glass of fine whiskey at his side. Instead, our father traded Ward Cleaver’s comfy living room couch for a less than cozy toilet seat. I can’t say I blame him.

In hindsight, that bathroom afforded our dad the only retreat he ever allowed himself. He spent his days at the office, and his time at home was anything but his own. Whether it was running to Little League games or the hardware store, volunteering at our church or making sure we got there, his life was spent in service to his family, his community, and his church. Given that, I suppose he could afford himself a little extra time on the pot.

As a father of three young children, I find myself appreciating even more the sacrifices our father and mother both made for us boys. Likewise, I now fully appreciate and understand our father’s daily retreats to the head.

For I find myself doing the very same thing.

Gotta go.


Get WALDEN as an eBook

Posted on | May 18, 2011 | No Comments

WALDEN by Michael T. Dolan

Get the WALDEN eBook.

WALDEN is now available as a Google eBook!

Google eBooks are compatible with most digital devices, including the Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and web browsers.

Kindle version still to come…

Click here to get the eBook.


An existential look at pranksterism

Posted on | April 1, 2011 | No Comments

“Dyed-in-the-wool fools don’t need a special day” in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I love practical jokes. Even before I could tie my shoes, I was tying unsuspecting family members’ laces together.

So began my career as a prankster – a profession that can sometimes prove hazardous to one’s health and one’s relationships, depending on the extent of the prank and the recipient’s supply of goodwill at the time of its execution.

Take, for example, the case of the kitchen-sink spray hose. Wrapping a rubber band tightly around its trigger causes water to shoot directly at any unsuspecting target who turns on the faucet.

When the target is your mother, who is fighting a migraine while preparing dinner for seven sons who just tramped mud through the house, said prank is not such a good idea. On the other hand, if the rigged spray hose happens to soak a sibling or a friend at a party, it can prove highly entertaining.

Pranksterism is all about timing, which is why it’s advisable to keep a handful of rubber bands in your pocket at all times. One never knows when the opportunity to rig a kitchen-sink hose will arise. Having a rubber band at the ready ensures that you never have to leave someone’s home without leaving a surprise soaking waiting for him.

Even more important than timing is knowing where to draw the line – or, better yet, where other people draw the line. I do my best to come as close to the line as possible without crossing it, but I must admit that I haven’t always succeeded. Sometimes I’ve even long-jumped over it, causing my conscience to play Monday-morning quarterback.

Whether or not I cross the line, I tend to get the same questions: Why do you do this? Where do you find the time? And: I’ll get you back!

Asking the first question is like asking a mountain climber why he risks his life on the rocky face of El Capitan. Why sneak away with a guest’s keys and move his car halfway down the street, changing all the radio presets while doing so? Because it’s there.

Like other vocations, pranksterism is part of one’s makeup. The prankster sees the fun in life and considers it his calling to remind others to do the same. When people take life or themselves too seriously, the prankster is there to put things in perspective.

Too often, we go through this world worrying about matters that are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. The prankster says: “If it won’t matter when you’re dead and gone, it shouldn’t matter to you now. Here’s a water balloon to lighten the mood!”

Where do we find the time? We make the time – and that’s the difference between those who suffer practical jokes and those who execute them. The former always threaten to retaliate after you set their alarm clock for the middle of the night, but they never do. Though they may have every intention of returning the disfavor, they just won’t make the time for it.

And even if they do prank the pranksters, we tend to appreciate the effort, because it means they’re playing our game now.

It’s April Fools’ Day, by the way. Why not join in?


Confessions of a Canine Curmudgeon

Posted on | March 25, 2011 | 16 Comments

“To put it bluntly, I don’t like your dog” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 25, 2011).

I have a confession to make: I’m not a dog lover. Never have been, never will be.

There, I’ve said it. Friends, relatives, neighbors, now you know the truth: I don’t love your dog.

For years, I’ve been putting on a friendly face, bending down with a fraudulent smile and pretending to enjoy combing my hands through Spot’s smelly mane. Or faking my way through a playful boxing match with Fido as he stands on his hindquarters to greet me at the door. Or pretending to enjoy putting my fingers into Sparky’s slobbery mouth to retrieve a tennis ball.

It was all an act, my fellow Homo sapiens. The truth is, I’m not too crazy about your adorable best friend.

I know this admission doesn’t bode well for my writing career. I’ll never be able to write that best-seller about my four-legged friend’s fellowship and frolics. I’ll never fill a newspaper column with stories about the time Charlie got skunked during a midnight bathroom break. Best-sellerdom is for the dogs, and I’m destined to a life of literary mediocrity.

That’s not to say that I have never enjoyed a canine’s company, or that I don’t appreciate the benefits of dog ownership. Dogs provide constant companionship, faithful friendship, and an opportunity for humans to make use of monikers they only wish they could give to their kids – like Mugsy, Maximus, Rocky, and Bandit.

All that being said, I still don’t want one. I know many people will find this curmudgeonly, blasphemous, and even un-American. That seems to be an especially common trait of dog owners: a failure to understand that there are some of us out there who just don’t love their dogs.

Hence the empty words of reassurance one often hears called across a field or sidewalk as a dog owner moseys over to retrieve her charging Rottweiler:

“Stop snarling, Chopper! It’s OK – he likes kids!”

“Oh, he may growl like a grizzly and have fangs like one, too, but that’s just his way of saying ‘Hello’!”

“Don’t worry, he won’t really bite. He just ‘nips’ when he’s playing!”

“Oh, he’s just a puppy. Get down, Killer!”

Tell that to your 7-year-old daughter as she clings to your leg in terror. Or the paperboy scared to collect his monthly fee because of the angry Doberman on the other side of the screen door.

Dog owners, take heed: Your assurances are not comforting to the rest of us. Yes, Fang may in fact be friendly, but if I wanted to be friends with him, I’d be the one running up to him and sticking my nose in his nether regions.

Dog owners could go a long way toward changing our opinions if they simply practiced a little more public relations for their canines. In addition to keeping the dog’s nose out of my private parts, a little due diligence in cleaning up after the fella would be appreciated. Neighborhood parks and nature preserves (not to mention my own backyard at times) have become doggy minefields. While I appreciate composting, I’d like to keep it out of the treads of my children’s sneakers.

And for those who do pick up after their dogs, while I do feel a bit sorry that you have to carry it around in a shopping bag, do you have to deposit it in my trash can? Things smell bad enough in there without a surprise souvenir on a sweltering July day.

Of course, not all dog owners are discourteous. But far too many of them are failing to recognize that some of us don’t want to be hounded by their dogs, or reminded of them by something on our shoes.

I suppose many animal lovers will think this sounds grumpy and irritable, and that perhaps the companionship of a pet would make me less cantankerous. Perhaps I could look into getting a cat. Unfortunately, though, I don’t like them, either.


Short Story Published in Book on Fate

Posted on | February 10, 2011 | No Comments

The Mystery of FateEver wonder why the chicken crossed the road? Now you can find out!

My short story “The Angel That Couldn’t Fly” gives the answer, and was published in The Mystery of Fate, a collection of real life stories that make you think twice about fate, common coincidence, and divine intervention.

You can order The Mystery of Fate here.


Going Mobile

Posted on | January 7, 2011 | No Comments

Conversari.com is now smartphone friendly, so now you can access these posts from your iPhone, Android, Walkie-Talkie, Speak & Spell, or what have you. Subscribe here and we’ll see you in the waiting room, on the train, on the pot, or wherever you may find yourself. Thanks for visiting, and do come again!


The Parable of the Smile

Posted on | December 24, 2010 | No Comments

To the casual observer she appeared quite normal. She met the required features of a little girl, which is to say she was cute as a button through and through. Fine hair, an adorably distinct nose, and eyes that smiled for the world. Any parent would be blessed to have such a child, which is not to say that her parents were not exceedingly blessed, for of course they were, but for as blessed as they were they were equal parts vexed. Behind all that cute-as-a-buttonness was a defect the likes of which the world had never seen.

The girl, you see, just wouldn’t frown.

“But isn’t that a good thing?” pleaded her parents when told of their child’s impairment by despondent doctors.

“I’m afraid not,” they would say. As well as, “I’m sorry” and “We’ll do the best we can do.” Some even offered a not so hopeful “Maybe she’ll grow out of it.”

But she never did. Days went by, weeks and months passed, and soon years started to take their turn. All, sad to say, without a single frown.

Each appointment with a doctor brought with it another test, another pill to try, another referral for another doctor who had another test and another pill and another referral, and so on. All without success.

The day-in, day-out struggles of living with such a condition began to take their toll of the family. Patience shortened and tempers heightened. Constant worrying begat restless nights with little sleep. Unable to capture slumber, let alone dreams, her parents often found themselves escaping into her room in the dark of night, hoping to catch a glimpse – just one tiny, little glimpse – of a frown.

It never came.

With no luck from doctors, the family began to fear a mental condition of some sort, perhaps a psychological shortcoming that prevented the most common of expressions, the frown. Psychologists came and went. Psychiatrists came and went. Alternative and new age practices failed as well. Wherever the child went, the smile followed.

When the child came of school age, her parents were certain the frown would soon emerge. School, with its homework, schoolyard name-calling, long division, and all the rest – surely, if a frown were to come into view, this was the place.

Soon enough the teachers, administrators, and parents began to notice a change that both startled and alarmed them. Not only did the frown never come, but it seemed to be disappearing from the other children in the school as well. Parents reported smiling children, teachers complained of smiling students, and before long panic set in. An emergency meeting of the school board was called, with a standing-room only mob of angry parents.

“My son refuses to frown!” hollered one mother.

“And my daughter hasn’t stopped smiling since last Tuesday!” called another.

And so the meeting went, with concerned parent after concerned parent demanding that something be done. By the meeting’s end, the exacerbated school board had no choice but to suspend the little girl until such time that her smile was no longer infectious.

Her parents, hiding their faces from the glaring eyes that confronted them as they left the school, returned home – weary, distraught, desperate.

They awoke the next morning to a news anchor knocking on the front door. Looking out, they found that he was not alone. The entire street was covered with news vans, reporters with microphones, curious neighbors.

“No comment,” was all they could muster, shutting the door and returning to the confines of their home. The little girl, curious at all the commotion, lifted the window blinds just enough to look outside, and, not knowing what else to do, simply smiled.


And so it was that the little girl’s photo made the front page of the New York Times the following morning. The headline, in big, bold letters, declared: CHILD REFUSES TO FROWN; EPIDEMIC FEARED!

Newspapers all across the country followed suit. The phone rang constantly with producers, reporters, agents, and directors calling with interview requests and contract offers. Occasional calls came from anonymous parents in the community demanding they leave the girl confined to home, lest she infect others. Helicopters swirled. Paparazzi camped out.

A month went by, with no end to the madness in sight, when the postal carrier delivered a large envelope via registered mail. Upon signing for it, the parents looked at the return address: International Institute of Frownology, New York City.

Sitting down together to open the envelope, they discovered with both fear and hope that the end to this smiling saga may finally be near. Together they read:

Dear Sir and Madame:

Upon reading about your child’s condition in the New York Times, I write to offer you an opportunity, and along with it, hope. I am the founding director of the International Institute of Frownology. Over the past 20 years, we have successfully treated literally thousands upon thousands of children similar to your daughter. I invite you to bring your smiling daughter to the I.I.F. for a full evaluation, and I can guarantee that we will have her frowning within a week’s time. Please contact me at your earliest convenience to set up an appointment.


Dr. Sidney Freidheinz, M.D.

And so it was that the very next morning the girl and her parents boarded a non-stop train to New York City. Dr. Freidheinz and a gaggle of camera crews and reporters were there to greet them as they got off the train at Grand Central Station. They were whisked off into a limousine and within minutes were seated in the evaluation room at the I.I.F.

After signing the necessary documents, the parents bid their daughter farewell. Tears filled their eyes as they shook hands with Dr. Freidheinz and said goodbye.

“Do not worry, mom and dad,” assured the doctor. “Your daughter will be returned to you in a few days, well adjusted and frowning.”

For the next seven days the little girl underwent countless tests and procedures. Her favorite doll was taken from her. She was berated for smiling. She was alternately shown images of smiling faces and broken toys so as to reprogram her mind using associative conditioning. She was taken on a tour of the streets of New York City to see selfishness in action. She was even forced to sit in front of a dozen television monitors, each playing a 24/7 cycle of news. This latter procedure she found curious, even a little bit neat, especially considering some of those very news programs showed her smiling face. She simply smiled back at herself!

Dr. Freidheinz grew more frustrated each day that went by without a frown. On the seventh day, resigned that he had failed, he sent the little girl away. An ambulance drove her all the way back to her home. The sirens were silenced, for this was no emergency. The girl was a lost cause.

That night, her parents sat in bed as distraught and desperate as they had ever been. The girl lay sleeping in the next room.

Nearly hysterical, her mother reached for the holy book sitting on her nightstand and read the first verse her eyes came upon. The words read:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

She closed her eyes and found herself imitating her daughter – a smile came to her face. It felt good, and she held it there. It had been so long since she smiled. Grabbing her husband by the hand, they ran to their daughter’s room and peaked down at her.

In the glow of the nightlight, they saw these words on her face, and they repeated them aloud:

“Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

“What is a smile but the body’s incarnation of faith, hope, and love?” they thought. Then they smiled, and went back to bed in each other’s arms.

When the child awoke at dawn, they took her by the hand and ventured toward the door.

No longer afraid, they opened it, ready to show the world faith, hope and love.

Their daughter’s malady may be infectious, and it may set off an epidemic of worldwide proportions, but that was a chance they were willing to take…


Coming Home

Posted on | November 25, 2010 | 6 Comments

“Thanksgiving and a Welcome Melancholy” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 25, 2010).

On a recent autumn night, I found myself sitting by the fire in the backyard. The moon and stars shone above while the fire danced and crackled below.

In the quiet, there was a distant sound. It was a solitary goose, its honks echoing through the night as its silhouette moved across the sky.

It was a melancholy sound, or so it seemed to me: a lone bird, separated from its flock, flying through the night in a frantic attempt to reunite with its brethren.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, I will think of that goose and feel a kinship to it. Perhaps we all should. Whether the holiday finds us traveling a few hundred miles, just a few blocks, or not at all, the destination we hope for remains the same: home.

For me, returning home evokes an almost tangible sense of nostalgia – a feeling of yearning for the past that can sometimes border on melancholy. But I think the word melancholy gets a bad rap. Yes, it may imply lasting sadness, but the same Thanksgiving nostalgia that begets melancholy can also beget gratitude and happiness.

Today, as I return to the home where my parents raised my six brothers and me, nostalgia will set in. I’ll long for the childhood games of football in the front yard, for chasing a hail-Mary pass down the street. I’ll miss sitting by the fireplace watching Charlie Brown try to kick that football. I’ll yearn for the old collection of Christmas LPs and my mom’s coleslaw. And I’ll miss the man who for so many years sat at the head of the table, our father.

Along with that nostalgia will inevitably come melancholy. The sadness will be short-lived, however, as it reminds me of just how wonderful the memories have been and how thankful I should be. A smile is sure to follow as I watch the present unfold.

My children and their cousins will take to the front yard carrying a football. They’ll sit by the fireplace laughing at Snoopy and Woodstock. They’ll discover the old Christmas LPs – not having a clue that music could emanate from such devices! They’ll feast on their grandmother’s coleslaw. And they’ll accompany their fathers to the cemetery down the street to say a prayer for their Pops.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the homesickness and the sadness. They are gifts reminding me that it has been a wonderful life. And as I look around my childhood home today, dodging children as they romp, I’ll be reminded that it continues to be a wonderful life, and the memories being made today are the nostalgia and melancholy of my future.

As we mourn the loved ones of our memories, let’s allow ourselves that sadness. It makes the ensuing gratitude and happiness more palatable. That way, tonight’s Thanksgiving feast will not only fill our bodies; it will also stuff our souls and lift our spirits.

A toast, then, to all those journeying home in body or spirit, and all those returning to their flocks: Godspeed, and safe home.


Rapping at my neighbor’s door

Posted on | October 28, 2010 | 1 Comment

“Halloween Fears” in the Harrisburg Patriot-News (October 28, 2010).

“Suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” Edgar Allan Poe penned these words in “The Raven,” the story of a lonely man hidden inside his home, so distraught over the loss of his beloved Lenore that an intruding raven sends him into hallucination. The story is replayed each October in our own sad interpretation of the poem.

Today, we are haunted by stories that Halloween is dangerous. Schoolteachers distribute leaflets promoting Halloween protocol. Reporters deliver their annual how-to articles on safe trick-or-treating. Such fears, advertised each October, are just as fictional as the ones that come wrapped in hockey masks and prosthetic fangs.

Joel Best, chair of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has scanned newspapers for more than four decades in attempting to track instances of tampered Halloween candy. During this time, Best has found no evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously injured from the candy.

Five deaths from tampered candy have been reported, but follow-up stories concluded that four were the result of other causes. The one verifiable tampering case, in fact, involved a boy whose own father had poisoned his Halloween goodies. And that was in 1974.

Even though the threat isn’t real, our fears are enough to decimate one of the few great community days of the year. It seems that our front doors see much less traffic on Halloween than in years past.

Years ago, as a young Spider-Man, gangster or ninja, I would join the throngs of masked goblins in the neighborhood for a night of rapping. Pillowcase in hand, I loved the excitement. The streets were alive with the chatter of neighbors, the creaking of doors and the musical notes of doorbells. Sure, sugar was the primary goal, but a sense of community came along with it.

Rap-rap. “Oh look, hon, it’s the Dolan boys. Wait a minute until Mrs. Smith comes, guys. She’ll love the costumes!”

Rap-rap. “Look — it’s the devil, He-Man and a ninja! Tell your parents we said hello, fellas!”

Rap-rap. “Come on in,” the vampire said, leading me through the most famous haunted house in the neighborhood, appropriately across the street from a cemetery.

That haunted house is no more, but it’s just as well, for today’s trick-or-treaters wouldn’t dare set foot into someone’s home. They’re better trained than that. “Stay on the front steps where I can see you,” our children are told. “And say ‘thank you.’”

Our homes have become like that famed haunted house in my childhood neighborhood — scary places that we don’t dare to enter. Like Poe, we’ve created a vision of fears.

We fear the unknown, and if we don’t know our neighbors, then we begin to fear them. If we were to get to know the people in our neighborhood, these fears would dissipate.

In the last two decades we’ve created countless ways to keep ourselves hidden behind our own chamber doors — the Internet, home entertainment systems, high-tech home security, attached garages.

Getting to know our neighbors is no longer a high priority. Sure, our homes are wonderful retreats, but they could be so much more. They could be places to share as well. We live in neighborhoods, and too often those neighborhoods lack what we look for in a home: community.

Perhaps if we were to realign those priorities and escape from our insular lives, then maybe we’d rediscover that community. Or maybe we don’t want to, and so we buy into the myth of poisoned candy as an excuse not to make the effort at community.

Even if I recognize the kid behind the little Harry Potter getup when he comes to my door, I probably won’t see him again until next Halloween. And perhaps I won’t see him even then. Unless, of course, I go gently rapping, rapping at my neighbor’s door.


The Invasion Part 2: Silly Bandz

Posted on | October 20, 2010 | No Comments

“Silly Bandz Invasion” in Main Line Today (November 2010).

The little critters started appearing in our house one at a time. Before long, they began to multiply. Fearing an infestation was imminent, I called the exterminator:

“Hello. I think I have any infestation in the works.”

“Can you describe the nature of the infestation, Mr. Dolan? Ants? Stink bugs? Click beetles? Creepy-crawlies?”

“Well, yes, I have all those, but they’re not the problem.”

“Then what is, sir?”

“Well, each one is different. They come in all colors and shapes. Some disguise themselves as farm animals and sea creatures. Others look like dinosaurs, and some seem to take the shape of letters and numbers. I even caught one trying to camouflage itself as a diamond ring.”

“I see, sir. This is bad. Do any of these critters glow in the dark, by any chance?”

“Why, yes! Some of them do. Not only that, I tried to release a few outside and discovered that some even change color in the sun.”

“Sir, please do not try to handle these creatures yourself. I’ll send someone right out to your home.”

“Why? Are they dangerous?”

“Mr. Dolan, you have an infestation of shape-shifters. They first appeared in Japan, but made their way to the United States two years ago by way of a manufacturing plant in China. They then immigrated illegally to a warehouse in Toledo, Ohio. From there, they’ve traveled by school bus to unsuspecting towns across the country.”

“But what are they?” I pleaded. “How do I get rid of them?”

“Someone is on their way, sir.”

This was worse than I suspected.

A few hours later, Clyde came to the door, armed with full body uniform, eye protection and a spray canister of toxic formula strapped to his back. I greeted him with a nervous smile.

“I understand you have an infestation of shape-shifters, Mr. Dolan,” he said.

“It seems that way.”

“Do you have young children?”

“Uh, yes,” I answered.

“Ages, sir,” prompted Clyde.

“Uh, 6, 4 and 1.”

“Hmm. This is going to be tough. Let me have a look around.”

Clyde made his way through the home, and it wasn’t long before he came across the first shape-shifter. There, sitting on the kitchen counter, was a blue letter “S.” Not far away some other letters had gathered—M, O and D.

Clyde pulled out a red bag labeled “Hazardous Waste,” then proceeded to pick up the shape-shifters with his bare hands. “Clever little critters,” he muttered to himself.

Clyde inspected every square foot of the home. They were under the couch, inside drawers, atop dressers, even in the bathroom sink. Clyde then examined my daughter’s schoolbag. Dozens of shape-shifters had attached themselves to the outside of it, and many more had burrowed themselves deep inside its pockets. The nest had been found.

Having cleared our home of the shape-shifters, Clyde handed me a bill for $100. I thanked him for his thorough work and watched him pull out of the driveway.

Just then, my 6-year-old daughter and her friend came running across the lawn. To my horror, dozens of shape-shifters had attached themselves to their wrists like parasites!

“Look Daddy!” she hollered. “More Silly Bandz!”

Clyde would be coming back.


The Invasion Part 1: Stinkbugs

Posted on | October 19, 2010 | No Comments

“Invasion of the Stinkbugs” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (October 19, 2010).

Drifting off to sleep, I’m roused by a faint buzzing from across the room. It quiets, and I start to drift off again. But it resumes, and this time it sounds like a helicopter coming in for a landing on my head.

I thrash, blindly reach for the invader, and find myself cupping it in my hands. I race through a nighttime obstacle course of furniture to the bathroom and hurl the noxious creature into the toilet.

Good night, stinkbug!

I return to bed unable to sleep, knowing that an army of foreign invaders is setting up camp throughout the house. All spring and summer long, the brown marmorated stinkbugs raided our home, and now they are settling down for a long winter’s nap in the eaves, insulation, and boxes of holiday decorations.

Perhaps longing for democracy, the stinkbugs hopped a flight or boat from China a dozen or so years ago, and now they’re quickly making themselves at home. It seems democracy suits them just fine, as does the absence of natural predators.

Yet surely the most powerful country in the world can find a way to combat these stench-ridden critters? Unless the political powers that be simply choose to look the other way. Maybe the invasion is part of a leftist conspiracy to popularize Obama’s “Cash for Caulkers” program, encouraging people to seal up their homes to keep out the bugs as well as the cold air.

The political ramifications don’t end there. With Election Day approaching, debates about securing our borders and giving stinkbugs a path to citizenship are sure to come up. Arizona lawmakers could make it legal for exterminators to detain all shield-shaped insects, regardless of odor.

While a government solution to the stinkbug invasion gets tied up in political debate, we are left to our own wits. And judging by the homegrown solutions being bandied about, we’re at our wits’ end.

Countless combinations of fluids, from hair spray to bleach to Mr. Clean, have been suggested by inventive homeowners. Rubbing dryer sheets on your window screens is supposed to help. So are giving your entire house a bubble bath, sucking the bugs up in a vacuum cleaner, dropping them in a mixture of water and broken-up cigarettes (I suppose tobacco will kill anything eventually), and doing the hokey pokey.

For farmers, the stinkbugs are more than just a nuisance; they’re feasting on apples, peaches, corn, soybeans, and more. And I’m afraid the needed help won’t come in the form of Febreze crop dusters or John Deere vacuum attachments.

I trust a solution will be found, but until then I’ll lie awake knowing I’m harboring the enemy. And should they decide to strike again, I’ll have a can of hair spray at the ready.


The red light

Posted on | October 16, 2010 | 2 Comments

Driving along the highway, my eyes lay on the road before me – the cars, the turn signals, and the race to wherever home may be.

“Hey, Dad!” calls the four-year-old voice from the back of the car. “Look at that sunset – it looks just like a red light!”

I turn to my right and see the giant, burning orb crashing into the westward horizon. The sky burns red and orange, an explosion of light before the arrival of dark.

And yes, it does look just like a red light.

As well it should, calling us to stop . . . and bringing us to a halt.


Black-eyed Susan and the sun

Posted on | August 31, 2010 | No Comments

The sun beat down on the growing cluster of black-eyed Susan as each flower below stretched skyward, a sea of yellow and black hoping to touch the fiery heaven above. Like looking into a kaleidoscope when gazed at too intently and too long, the colors danced in circles in my mind’s eye. The yellow and black swayed, circled and swam in a drunken dance of color.

A blink of the eyes returned focus to the flowers before me. Golden lashes reached out from dark eyes, tempting – beckoning – passersby.

As the flowers danced in the summer sun, I saw that they were not alone. Bees had succumbed to temptation, kissing their black and yellow brethren in the hurried task of pollination. Before long they were joined by a tiger swallowtail. The butterfly and its black and yellow wings fluttered in erratic flight, forced to drink the dregs the bees left behind. The evidence was clear: bees were built for work; butterflies were built for play. While one sings, the other stings.

Standing back from the black-eyed Susans, it seemed to me that the world isn’t black and white. It’s black and yellow, eternal lovers dancing in symbiotic song.


Living in the moment

Posted on | August 20, 2010 | 2 Comments

The four-year-old boy looks up from his bowl of cereal and declares:

“I love being four.”

He lifts spoon to mouth, and goes back to work.


The Beachcomber

Posted on | August 3, 2010 | 2 Comments

Just after dawn, with the sun still low on the horizon, a lone woman searches the shoreline. Her outstretched arms clutch a metal detector as its base moves side to side over the sand. Slowly, she systematically scours the sand for the flotsam and jetsam of long gone beachgoers. Soon they would be back, with their loose change and loose jewelry in tow, but for now the beach belonged to the beachcomber.

As the sun quickly rose to shine its sun-burnt face above the sea, I watched the woman’s fruitless quest. Back and forth the detector swayed, discovering nothing.

Get your head out of the sand, I thought. Look to the sea and the sun rising above it – there is your treasure!

I stood up from my perch on the boardwalk overlook and went on my way, discovering that I too had let the sunrise slip before my very eyes.


Life lessons for the superhero apprentice

Posted on | July 23, 2010 | No Comments

“Superhero in Training” in Main Line Today (August 2010).

At 4 years old, my son has just one problem in life, and it plagues him night after night. Lying in bed, a never-ending debate runs through his mind over which superhero he should be when he gets big.

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk. Even Plastic Man remains a viable option. Each, after all, is unique, offering a child endless possibilities in the way of costumes, superpowers, weapons, vehicles and villains.

I may not be a superhero, but as a parent, I hope I’m providing him with the lessons he needs to become one. Here are six that were handed down to me:

Superhero Lesson #1: Superheroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they crash—and it’s not always the cape’s fault. Or the villain’s fault. Or anybody’s fault, really. Things just happen. Superheroes don’t waste time blaming. If they crash, they brush it off and get back into the air.

Superhero Lesson #2: Always trust your Spidey sense. If you’re ever unsure about a situation, it’s best to follow your gut. It could be what superhero move you need to make to capture the villain. It could be what to say to someone who is upset with you. Or it could be whether or not you should do something someone is asking you to do. Not sure what to do? Follow your Spidey sense. It’s why superheroes have it, and it’s usually right. With a little practice, and a lot of faith, you’ll learn to trust it.

Superhero Lesson #3: Visualization. To be successful in anything, first be successful in your mind. Visualize yourself making contact with that baseball before you even step up to the plate. Picture every moment of the event. Your hands gripping the bat. Your legs balanced and ready to step forward into the pitch. The crack of the bat as the ball flies through the air. Your legs darting out of the batter’s box as you sprint along the base paths. First picture it in your mind, and your body will know what to do when the time comes to face that first curve ball.

Superhero Lesson #4: When you hear a screaming ambulance racing down the street—be it close by or far off in the distance—take a second and say a little prayer for whoever is in need. Superheroes can’t be in all places at all times, but their prayers can be.

Superhero Lesson #5: Choose your words carefully. Most mere mortals assume that the greatest of superhero powers come from radioactive accidents, genetic mutation, or intergalactic immigration. The truth of the matter is, superheroes master the most common and yet most difficult skills first. Chief among these skills is one’s ability to choose words carefully. For example, certain words should not be uttered by any superhero. These include the words “never,” “can’t,” and “I give up.” Other examples include words such as “hate” and “kill.”

Just the same, there are certain words in the vocabularies of all superheroes that should be said now and again, and sometimes these are even more difficult to master. Examples that fall into this category include the words “help” and “I don’t know.” The thing is, superheroes can’t do everything on their own, and they don’t know everything there is to know. Superheroes are aware of this imperfect quality, no matter how super they may be. Choose your words, and the words you choose not to use, very carefully.

Superhero Lesson #6: Gratitude. If there’s one thing superheroes do well, it’s appreciating how lucky they are. After all, it’s not everyone that can fly, sling webs, or turn green with bulging muscles when danger looms. Superheroes are lucky, and they know it. That’s why they end each day with a prayer of thanks. So as you lay in bed at night, eyes closed and ready to recharge your body for another day of saving the world, spend a few minutes thinking about everything you’re thankful for. God. Your family. Your friends. Your home. Anyone and anything that made your day better. This is one of the most important exercises a superhero can do, and like all exercise, it makes you even stronger.

I look over at my son, fast asleep, and say a prayer of gratitude for this little superhero-in-training. My dream is that he achieves his. I say a prayer too for the superhero who shared these lessons with me – my father. Though he may be gone, he lives on. After all, superheroes are immortal.


There’s an app for that

Posted on | July 12, 2010 | No Comments

Man looks down in his hands and taps on his toy, checking the weather and reporting his findings.

God already created an app for that, I think to myself. And I look toward the sky…

keep looking »