Eight days a week

1712_001I am simultaneously annoyed and grateful.

It’s that time of year again, and I still want to ignore it. I still want to wish it away, block it from my reality.

But this will be the fifth consecutive year of having family and friends gather for a walk in nearby Kennebunkport.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, what would we be doing on Saturday if Laura didn’t have this fucking disease, this disease I try to ignore?

So instead of yard work, shopping excursions or puttering around the homestead, a group of us will drive –caravan style — to the Consolidated School and register for the annual MS Walk.

On that day, I am surrounded by people with MS, and it is impossible for me to deny that the disease is also eating away at Laura, my wife . . .my best friend, my advocate.

Laura has her own system of denial. She is not as good as me, but she does a pretty good job of keeping the disease hidden from public view.

You almost can’t tell… unless you watch a climb a set of stairs.

Right here, right now

According to the National MS Society, more than 2.1 million people have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

We are luckier than most of these people. We have good health insurance, and Laura still has most of her mobility. She is not in a wheelchair.

Not yet.

And that’s the part that gets me: knowing that it’s just going to get worse; knowing that every day I lose just a little bit more of the person I love most in the world.

We generally don’t talk about MS or the way it impacts our boys, our marriage . . . our lives.

But each year — even if it’s for just one day — we tackle this disease head on by participating in the annual MS walk, an event that raises funding for continued research and the ongoing search for improved treatments or maybe a cure for MS.

Laura was diagnosed with MS a little more than five years ago, and each year we have been blessed by watching Team Seaver grow in number and spirit. It is encouraging to see other families living with MS; to witness their courage and determination.

But it is also haunting to see so many other people dealing with MS in their own families, especially when their loved one’s illness has progressed so much more. It’s sort of like seeing your own life 10, 20 or 30 years into the future.

I cannot afford to worry about the future, nor mourn the past. Thus, I have to focus on what can be done today . . . right here, right now.

So, at the risk of annoying friends, acquaintances and colleagues, I offer this link to the Team Seaver page. Here, you can make a small donation to help fund ongoing research and support for people with MS.

No gift is too small, and all are very much appreciated. Thank you.

Silver and Gold

WP_20140301_18_36_50_ProI don’t know what metric you use to measure your life, but I learned something valuable last night as the hours counted down toward my 50th birthday.

Despite all the material benchmarks and the conventional wisdom about what a man should accomplish in the first 50 years of his life, there is no better metric to determine success than to experience the love and companionship of friends and family.

Apparently, when you celebrate the silver anniversary of your life, you are rewarded with bundles of gold.

Given my self-destructive tendencies, the Vegas line on my getting to 50 has always been a bit dicey. But the payoff when I got there was beyond compare.

How incredibly blessed am I?

WP_20140301_18_33_15_ProAs the clock refused to slow, I was surrounded by the most incredible (and diverse) group of people. If I ever doubted my success, I no longer have the luxury of doubt.

We are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend, said Romain Rollard; and I agree.

How do you measure success in your career? when former and current colleagues are willing to drive more than 100 miles just to sip beers and eat pizza in celebration of your birthday. When former and current professional competitors walk into that same room with smiles and a warm embrace.

How do you measure your success as a husband and a father? When your teenage sons voluntarily give up a Saturday night just to hang with you and other “old people.” When your wife spends weeks coordinating and planning a party to celebrate your birthday, baking cupcakes into the late hours of a work night.

WP_20140301_18_51_43_ProHow do you measure success among your peers? When you can count friends you have known since the Carter Administration, and newer friends who would gladly answer the phone at 4 a.m. if you really needed them.

That so many people wanted to be there, and so many others — limited by geography and the other constraints — sent warm greetings, affection and regret.

As I fell asleep, it occurred to me that I have exceeded my own expectations; that I am wealthier than I could possibly imagine; that I am fortunate beyond belief.

As a species we celebrate our common benchmarks (weddings, funerals, anniversaries and birthdays) because it is the stuff that makes the day-to-day drudgery worthwhile. We are all in this together, and it’s always so much better with companionship and the gift of friends.

WP_20140301_18_22_45_ProThank you so much!

Lie to me

My wife had to buy a cane yesterday.

It’s taken almost five years to get to this point – – and try as I might — I can no longer ignore the impact that MS is taking on her body, her spirit.

Worse yet, there is not a goddamn thing I can do to stop it or even slow its progress.

Against this disease, I am useless.

Laura 9Despite the lies that the boys and I tell ourselves, despite all the distractions: the self-inflicted chaos, the thousand other natural shocks that flesh is heir to, the disease has a one-up on us tough guys.

Every day, in just the smallest, almost invisible of ways, I lose a tiny sliver of the woman I adore; and she loses little pieces of a still vibrant and blessed life during a steady creep toward loss of mobility.

By now you think I would have developed better coping skills, that I would be better equipped to face the reality. You would be wrong.

I am still a prick, thinking too often is selfish terms like right now. Not much better than the way I reacted when I learned of her diagnosis.

I talk about it because it warrants conversation. Because I have to publicly own my shitty performance in dealing with my wife’s MS.

Laura is stronger, smarter and far more courageous than me. She once jumped out an airplane. She is more spontaneous, easier to get along with: daring, loving, funny and kind.

Some days are better than others. Yesterday was a good day: Yeah, she bought the cane but we also laughed during a wonderful dinner with friends in Portland.

We all have our crosses to bear. I just wish sometimes I could ignore it a little while longer.

To learn more about MS and how you can help fight the disease, check this.

My Son, Facebook and Five Dollars

My son Tim with his girl and his Caddy...lovin' life

My son Tim with his girl and his Caddy…lovin’ life

This is a story about my son, Facebook and a “crisp $5 bill”

It is also a social media wake-up call.

There are a lot of articles out there about the use of sarcasm in social media, but this piece by Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal is exceptional in both its clarity and lack of pretense.

A couple days ago, I decided to give my oldest son, Tim, a shout out on my Facebook page. It generated a lot of reaction, mostly positive. It also reinforced my earlier thoughts about how to drive your social media analytics because of its wide reach and connection with my intended audience.

To save you time and for those who are not my Facebook “friends,” I have included the original post here:

I am so proud of my oldest son, Tim!
 For the first time ever, Laura and I left him alone at the house for a few days while we leisured at Moosehead. He will be 18 in just a couple weeks.
Our wonderful neighbors were on full-alert.
Shortly after we left the house, the hot water tank failed and began leaking. Tim cut-off the water, used adhesive putty to seal the leak and cleaned up the basement.
He also went to work each day and took care of our dogs, the cats, the rabbit, turtle and three fish tanks.
The house looked awesome when we got home.
I did not hesitate to offer him a token of my appreciation: A crisp, $5 bill

Most people received the post as intended: my overwhelming pride in a young man who continues to amaze and impress me; and a humorous comparison to me (his step-father).

Many of those who commented on that post jumped on me for being a cheap skate or assumed I made a typo. Neither one is true, but most of my real friends already knew that and were just teasing me about my skimpy measure of gratitude. But some other folks thought I was being serious.

Whoa!  Did I just say “real friends?”

Yes, I did… so deal with it. Despite what my Facebook page portrays, I do not have more than 640 friends, and neither do you. It’s impossible.

I am blessed to have more than my fair share of real friends, and I cringe when I think about how the word “friend” has been distorted.

What is a real friend? A real friend is someone you can call at 2 a.m. for bail money. You can talk openly about otherwise embarrassing stuff with your real friends. Go take a look at your friends list on Facebook. Have you ever been to their home? Have they been to your home? Do you know the names of their children?

I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago. Back then I only had 240 or so Facebook friends. But enough about our abuse of the word friend.

Social media outlets such as Facebook are powerful communications tools. They can be used to topple governments, achieve justice and raise global awareness.

But like any other power tool, you need to be careful. Because as Ms. Rosman points out above, sarcasm remains elusive to the data-encrypted networks that are becoming an increasingly important part of the way we communicate.

On a final note, take a good look at this picture of my son with his latest girlfriend, Gina.

He will be 18 in two weeks. He owns and drives a fully loaded Cadillac. He has high-speed internet access in his bedroom, not to mention a flat-screen TV and access to more than 500 channels of satellite programming. He has two part-time jobs and runs his own business.

More importantly, he has a growing relationship with his biological father and his half-brothers. He has the world’s most awesome mother; and a step-father who continually pushes him to excel.

Now you tell me . . . you would kill to be Tim, right? Right.

 

 

 

 

August and everything after

20120709_202235That fire, like so many other fires, started as an accident.

Sitting here now, only a few feet from the southwest shore of Rangeley Lake, it seems strange that I would be thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago.

The sun has barely risen, and it cuts across the lake like a sheet of diamonds. But my thoughts remain with that cold November night and the fire that would become a defining moment of my rather unremarkable life.

Laura and the kids are still asleep, oblivious to the gentle sounds of the frantic chipmunks, some lovesick chickadees and the distant hum of an old two-stroke outboard somewhere across the lake. It is so tranquil, and now the cry of an early morning loon is all that separates me from my persistent thoughts about the fire.

The sun is now beginning to creep through the boughs of the white pines, birches and poplar trees that surround me, shield me from the reality of my normal life…the day-to-day of the real world.

Day One of our vacation and I am already anxious about returning to the rattle and hum of the mundane.

So I choose to think about the fire, and I am compelled to write about it right now, even  though my fingers tapping the keyboard seems like the most intrusive of noises and distractions during an otherwise perfect morning.

That fire should have changed my life, but it seems like I can never hold onto the lessons learned or the love I experienced as a result of it.

______

I try to pass on those lessons to my own kids, but I fail miserably whenever I try to execute the wisdom imparted to me by one of the greatest men I have ever known.

But still, when I tell the story about that night, the kids dutifully do their part: listening intently each time to the story as if they are hearing it for the first time.

Instinctively, somewhere far beneath their thoughts about girls, fast cars and their I-Pods, they know that the story has merit, meaning and purpose. They respectfully, though reluctantly, pay homage to my past. I think they appreciate my candor as I describe myself back then: back in 1980, when I was the same age they are now.

Those days when I had a permanent hard-on and a black-light in my bedroom, the days that every father should remember if he sets about to raise sons.

Invariably, I tell the story about the fire on the first night of our annual Mecca to Rangeley Lake.

Sometimes, the story is told right after we get the campsite set up. Other times, I recall the night of the great fire while the family is gathered at the dinner table at the Red Onion, the downtown restaurant that has become as much a tradition on our first night of camping as anything else, including whatever horror stories that occur when we attempt to put Beulah in the water at the boat launch.

I know why I remember the fire when we come here, and I know why I tend to forget about the fire’s lessons while I hold myself hostage and pretend to live a life with meaning back home in southern Maine.

I know why I always feel better when I travel west of Farmington or north of Bangor.

I just wish my own kids could have met him. What better men they would be if they could have known him for just five minutes.

A road less traveled

In the early years, we brought only one vehicle to Rangeley Lake, recreating memories from my wife’s own childhood. Until I met Laura, I had never eaten at the Red Onion, searched for gold in Coo’s Canyon or frolicked in the frigid waters of the Sandy River.

So, each year, in the midst of July, I would load the Jeep with our camping gear and we would ride for what seemed like days along a vaguely familiar route: up the Maine Turnpike to Exit 75, and then through the outskirts of Auburn along Center Street to the middle of the Cities of the Androscoggin.

At this point, I would start feeling the pangs of nostalgia, and my hostages in the Jeep had no choice other than to hear me ramble about a distant time, when dinosaurs still roamed and Jimmy’s Restaurant and Truck Stop in Auburn was still open for business.

We would continue along Center Street, past the gas stations, the fast-food joints and an endless string of car dealerships.

The one constant in an ever-changing universe is my perception of Auburn, one of the weariest cities in Maine, where aesthetics seemed to be an afterthought at every turn. It has not changed much in 50 years. Despite the municipal marketing campaign, nothing much seems to be happening here.

But our moods would improve as we passed Lake Auburn on our left and crossed the invisible line into Turner. The air became cooler and the sun-scorched homes along the road became less frequent.

By the time we would cross into the hamlet of Livermore Falls I was completely oblivious to the kids in the backseat as they argued about Ninetendo, GameBoys, Pokemon or a million other things I would never understand.

Instead, the projector in my mind was playing reels from 40 years ago, and the nostalgia was kicked into high gear.

No, I never camped at Rangeley, nor fed the ducks at the pond in the village. But I knew where I was. I traveled this road more times than I could count, usually in the back of my parent’s station wagon, on the way to his house.

The house where the fire happened. . . or at least close enough.

Every picture tells a story

During those early years, we camped rather simply. The Jeep was loaded with just a tent, a canoe and some hand-me-down camping gear.  For the boys, it was a great adventure into the wilderness. For Laura, it was a chance to recapture some fleeting moments from a contented childhood. For me, it was an opportunity to be master and commander: a chance to prove that I was capable of taking care of others far beyond the conveniences of the microwave, my mechanic and a nearby supermarket.

By this point in the trip, we would all grow increasingly anxious about getting done with the driving. My foot would get a bit heavier on the accelerator, and we would zip along Route 4, past Bear Pond Variety and on toward Farmington, right past the intersection of Route 108 — as if that long and sometimes lonely road through Canton and Peru were nothing more than an alley into the unknown.

But I knew differently.

Before long, we would arrive in Farmington, where I would invariably point out various landmarks to my hostages: the hospital ( the one where I was born is no longer there), the meager apartment where my parents brought me home from the hospital. The university and the dorm hall, where my father lived back in the dinosaur days.

My hostages knew that my uncle and my favorite grandmother were buried at the cemetery that slopes down the hill and away from the shoulder of Route 2 in Wilton, but we never stopped there. We just kept driving west.

A series of small towns like Phillips, Strong and Avon would fade quickly in the rear view mirror before putting the Jeep’s transmission to the test and climbing heavenward (and west) to Rangeley.

____

Of course, the years went by like they always do. The boys got bigger and the Jeep got sold. Before long, we began bringing two cars to Rangeley Lake. After all, we now were towing a boat and pop-up-camper. Never mind the two kayaks, the same canoe from Laura’s childhood, and about 30 coolers that somehow seem absolutely necessary to enjoy seven days in the mountains of western Maine.

The camping gear is certainly newer these days, and lately our campsite now looks a lot less primitive and a lot more like something that was orchestrated by General Schwarzkopf on the outskirts of Bagdad.

We also began some new traditions.

For one, each of the boys would bring along a friend for the adventure. Thus, we required a lot more infrastructure, and a lot more cash and lot more alcohol. Spending a week with four teenagers, a Golden Retriever and a 1977 outboard requires more patience than most men can spare.

We also started taking a new route to Rangeley. Sure, there is still the Turnpike and the tedious exercise of passing no fewer than 12 traffic signals on the three-mile stretch of Route 4 through the center of Auburn, but there was major difference that always pulls at my soul in the most bittersweet way.

Sure, the new route involves some white-knuckled driving, especially along the winding and steep stretch of Route 17, where breath-taking views at the Height of the Land could be deadly if you fail to navigate some hairpin turns.  But the new route also includes an element that I find both haunting and reassuring: turning left onto Route 108 in Livermore.

Every year it is the same. The weather is perfect and I am leading our caravan down that familiar road that serves as gateway to the River Valley. My hands ease on the wheel as my truck hugs the turns into Canton. I know this place.

It will be only a few minutes now.

I glance in the rear view mirror. Laura is only 40 paces behind me with the kayaks mounted on the roof rack of her SUV. She is towing the boat, and its trailer lumbers behind her dutifully, anxious in its own way to once again to be free of its 50-year-old cargo.

I have the satellite radio cranked in my trunk. A perfect day only gets better when the next song comes on the radio: Smokin’ in the Boys Room.

My fingers tap the wheel. What was that girl’s name?

When I see the sign for Worthley Pond on my left, I know that I am close. It will be 58 or so minutes before we arrive at camp, but fewer than 10 minutes before I see that house on the hill.

This year, I am driving alone, towing the camper, the dog, six camp-chairs, a grill and a propane tank. I look in the rearview mirror , and I can see that Laura’s SUV is holding up just fine. She has Matthew and his best friend riding with her and towing the boat that is older than all of us.

Behind Laura, is my oldest son with his best friend, Henry. I know that Tim is frustrated with the heat, the drive and his mother’s pace ahead of him, but he is happy to be driving and away from Matthew’s taunts.

We come around the bend, and the hills on the horizon are painfully familiar landmarks. The road straightens and we approach the center of West Peru. The cemetery on the left affords an unobstructed view, and there it sits.

____

001Built sometime in the early 1900s, the red brick cape sits high atop a hill, some 300 yards or so left of the fire station at the intersection of Route 108.

I hold my hand out the window, pointing left over the cemetery. I can only assume that Laura knows why.

That is the house. That house, where I first came home drunk. That house, where I learned everything necessary to becoming a man. And the house that I suspect he never loved as much as his first.

I cannot afford the luxury of daydreaming now. Our caravan turns right toward the ugly green and rusted bridge that crosses the Androscoggin River. On my right, Blaisdell’s Variety blurs past, and I am comforted that it seems no different than it was more than 30 years before. I imagine it still smells the same.

Past the store, on the right, is the American Legion Hall where we celebrated his 50th birthday party.

Jesus, I am going to be 50 soon. I was sixteen then. What happened?

Leonard was my mother’s brother, and the uncle I knew best. He was 16 years older than my own parents and, in my mind, he was nothing short of the all-powerful and mighty god Zeus.

My parents finally divorced in 1980, some 15 years later than they should have. Maybe it was the delay or the frustration associated with trying so long to live under the weight of false pretenses, but their divorce, like so many other divorces, was chock full of chaos and an emotional battlefield that raged without hesitation.

I was the most impossible of teenagers. My grades disappeared off the charts. The police brought me home on a regular basis. I was full of rage, and my mother was alone with the battle and the added burden of raising my younger sister.

To this day, I credit Leonard Brooks with saving my life. On those frequent occasions when I consider suicide, one of the things that prevents me shuffling off the mortal coil is the reminder that I have a debt to my uncle that likely can never be repaid.

He would not approve, so I trudge along.

Leonard had already raised three boys and a daughter of his own. My cousins were heroes to me when I was a young boy. They were hippies, rebels and the funniest people I ever met. They knew everything about small engines, Jimi Hendrix, guns and dope.

My uncle took me in as his ward so that I could attend high school there without paying tuition. Back then it was Rumford High School, and our mascot was the Panthers.

There should be a law against changing the name of a high school or its mascot.

Leonard was incredibly intelligent and self-reliant. He towered over most people and had broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes and a disposition that encapsulates everything you can imagine about a grumpy, old guy.

He was a champion of common sense. He suffered fools lightly and had little use for flatlanders, rock n’ roll and anything south of Lewiston, especially my father.

He worked as the director of student teaching at the University of Maine in Farmington, where he was held in the highest regard for his incredible teaching skills.

_____

Unlike my father, Leonard rarely, if ever, raised his voice. He conveyed his displeasure with a silence that was pure torture. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you listened.

So it was, during my second year of living with Leonard that the fire happened.

It happened on a chilly Friday night in mid November. Earlier that day, Leonard had left with a few friends for a weekend hunting trip. I was not allowed to join them because of my lackluster chemistry grades and a backlog of homework that was the result of my own procrastination.

There I was: stuck with my aunt and my youngest cousin, Cathy, who still lived at home and was five years older than me. The weekend certainly looked bleak, and there was a cord of firewood that would need to be stacked in the basement before my uncle’s return home on Sunday.

Cathy, however, made plans to have a much better night. With a half-baggie of some half-assed, homegrown weed and a six-pack of Budweiser, she invited one of her girlfriends over for a back yard campfire. My aunt was oblivious and already in bed.

Honestly, I don’t remember the girl’s name or even what she looked like. But I was 16 and she was 20, and I was determined to impress her.

Maybe it was because they were completely baked, or maybe it was because the wood was too green for burning. It didn’t matter, their fire was not much more than a spark and a cloud of smoke until I came along with a one-gallon can of what I thought was kerosene.

It was not kerosene. It was gasoline. If you do not understand the significance of that distinction, there’s no point in my trying to explain it.

Sure, I stood back a few feet, but that was the only smart thing I did that night.

It was like an explosion, and I panicked. The flame traveled right up to the can of gasoline in my trembling hands. I did the only thing I could at that moment. I threw the can away from me, across the backyard and, in retrospect, far too close to the snowmobile and picnic table that were parked nearby.

Cathy panicked, but could not stop giggling. “Fire, fire, fire,” she chanted, before darting into the house for a glass of water.

Pouring water on a gasoline fire? Not too smart. But she was stoned, and I was a 16-year-old driven by hormonal instinct.

____

The damage looked much worse in the morning. The bulk of the backyard was scorched and reeked of gasoline. The picnic table was destroyed, and the snowmobile cover had melted and was now bonded to the charred remains of my uncle’s beloved Polaris sled.

I was dead.

I would never graduate high school. I would never get laid. There was nothing more to my future than the 36 hours until my uncle would release me from the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, the law’s delay and all the other trappings of human existence.

Dead man walking

I don’t remember much else about that weekend other than the extreme sense of dread that draped over me like a heavy woolen blanket on a hot July afternoon.

My oldest cousin, Steve, stopped by the house to pick something up. He made no effort to hide his amusement about the damage, but he offered some sage advice:

“The only shot you have at survival is to just man up and own it without excuse,” he said before adding the most important part. “You should also wait until he has had a chance to settle down and have a couple shots before you tell him.”

With that, Steve was gone, taking cover from the impending storm.

Finally, it was Sunday evening. I shook hands with the grim reaper as I watched my uncle’s Dodge pickup ramble up the gravel driveway in front of the house.

I followed Steve’s advice, waiting until Leonard had settled in and able to enjoy a a shot of his preferred Scotch, Vat 69, an awful dime-store blend of rot gut that Leonard somehow seemed to enjoy.

I was shaking when I approached the kitchen table. Cathy hid upstairs in her bedroom, quiet as a church mouse.

He peered at me over the rim of his bifocals. “Yes, young fella?” He seemed to sense my dread and probably noted my ashen complexion and trembling limbs.

“I had an accident while you were gone, “ I said with as much courage as I could muster, my voice cracking.

He stiffened in his seat. “An accident?”

“Yeah, in the backyard,” I stammered, wondering how I was keeping my eyes open. “It was a fire.”

“Well, let’s go take a look,” he said evenly, without trace of any emotion whatsoever.

Together we stepped off the back porch, and he surveyed the damage quickly.

“Let’s go back inside,” he said softly.

I followed him back to the kitchen table, ready to vomit at any given moment. He grabbed a pen and the back of a discarded envelope, drawing a rather primitive diagram with a circle and an arrow.

I sat down and he explained the diagram. “When you build a fire, you always, always know which way the wind is blowing,” he explained. “Always keep your back to the wind. If you are going to use an accelerant, do so before you spark anything,” he emphasized. “Do you understand?”

I could only nod in the affirmative.

“Alrighty then, “ he said as stood up and headed to his favorite recliner in the living room.

I was in shock. “What is my punishment,” I  inquired.

“Punishment?” he chuckled with his blue eyes sparkling. “What possible punishment could I give you that would be worse than what you have put yourself through over the past two days? Just don’t forget the lesson.”

And that was that. He never talked about the incident again.

____

My uncle died in 1997, four years before I met Laura, Tim and Matt.

I wrote his eulogy.

The world shrank, and my 50-year-old Starcraft looks exactly like his boat.

I know exactly what he would say to me today. “The only thing you need is common sense,” he would say. And with that, he would sprinkle some salt in a mug of Budweiser and put his feet up on a tattered ottoman, content that all was well with the world, at least in the world he knew.

And that lesson is priceless, the one I cannot seem to convey to my sons.

Leonard would have loved my boys. He would most certainly approve of Laura, her carefree spirit and her lack of airs.

He would shake his head in dismay if he found out that I cannot back a boat down a ramp or build a bookshelf.

But none of that would really matter to him because he knew, and still knows, that I know how to build a fire.

And if you can build a fire, everything else is going to be okay.

 

Dime Store Mystery

There are two sides to every story, and I have done my best to ignore both of them.

TRAYVON_MARTIN_NEW_PHOTO_1Despite the media’s insatiable appetite for the George Zimmerman murder trial, I am proud that I have managed to avoid watching even one second of the trial. I know practically nothing about the case except that an unarmed teenager was fatally shot by Mr. Zimmerman in a Florida gated community.

I also know that the teenager was an African American and that his assailant looked white, or at least white enough to ignite another uproar about racial tensions in the United States.

What strikes me as odd about this case is the way in which it has become a hotbed of political discussion on social media, at the office water cooler and among political pundits.

Liberals, generally speaking, seem to believe that Trayvon Martin was doing nothing at all to provoke Mr. Zimmerman’s actions. Conservatives, on the other hand, raise questions about everything from what Mr. Martin was wearing to the time of day that the shooting took place.

I also wonder why this case has garnered so much publicity or why the President of the United States felt it necessary to weigh in, by saying, “If I had a son, he would look just like Trayvon Martin.”

Apparently, what we look like matters a lot these days.

President Obama’s comments set off a firestorm of reaction. Like many others, I wondered why he felt compelled to make those statements.

After all, President Obama, by all accounts, is a superior father who knows a thing or two about the important role of fatherhood in a child’s life. The Obamas are reportedly strict parents with high expectations of their children. I’m not so sure that the president would allow his teenage son to be roaming around a neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours, wearing a hoodie.

Before you crucify me for raising questions about Trayvon Martin’s parents, please allow me to disclose that I know raising teenage boys in today’s world is no easy task.

I hear repeatedly from leading members of my own community about how polite my son is; about his incredible work ethic; about his kindness, generosity and his amazing gift of empathy that far exceeds that of most 17-year-old boys.

Like Mr. Obama, I am also a strict parent with high expectations. But despite all best efforts, my oldest son also seems enamored with the whole “gangsta-image” thing, from his choice of music to his choice of clothes.

Laura constantly reminds me that our son is exceptional in so many ways, and I have to agree, especially when people who meet him report back their impressions to me.

But I do worry about the image that Tim likes to portray.

I unfairly judge my son about his clothing, his vernacular…. his appearance. “The world is not fair,” I tell him. “Most people have no interest in learning who and what your really are. They will judge you in a nanosecond simply based on how you look.”

Although I believe that it is appropriate for fathers to wrestle with their sons over these issues, I have a much bigger confession to make: I sometimes wonder if I am really so worried that people will judge my son; or if I am more worried those same people are judging me and my parental shortcomings.

Every year, hundreds of innocent young black men are unjustly murdered in this country. Maybe if MSNBC or FOX spent just as much time covering those murders and those trials, we could have a national conversation about a much larger problem that is left largely ignored.

At one point, Trayvon Martin was an honor-roll student with a promising future, but there is mounting evidence that he also had human flaws, and that he was suspended from school and engaged in some troubling behavior, according to this story from the New York Times.

With the exception of his race, Trayvon Martin looked a lot like my son.

And maybe that is why I cannot stomach watching this trial.

Get off of my cloud

There is nothing I can do to stop it.

I am completely powerless. No matter how hard I work, how much money I earn or how hard I pray . . . I cannot stop it or even slow it down.

But I do a damn good job of ignoring it; of keeping myself distracted.

Over the past few weeks, I have been working extra long hours. I have four important projects consuming my career pipeline. Fortunately, the extra work provides me with an abundance of opportunities to remain distracted. There is always something to do; always another call that needs to be made or another e-mail patiently begging a reply.

Although I find a lot of satisfaction in my work, the recent uptick in demand has its consequences. I become too easily irritated and resent any of my other responsibilities.

530261_3585526400072_1544507556_nThus, even though I intellectually know that an invisible disease is slowly eating away at my wife’s brain, I expect her to be normal again; to have enough energy to get through the day without being tired.

Laura has one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Every day she works with families in complete disarray. She is charged with protecting innocent children from predatory monsters and is required to develop plans to help these families become whole again. She sees things that most people cannot imagine.

She could tell you stories that would curl your toes. She gets up every morning and faces each day, knowing that she is going to cross paths with the devil, who can take the form of a stepfather that gets his rocks off by molesting a three-year-old.

When she gets home, she thinks about dinner for her own family. She helps the boys with their homework; and she patiently listens to me complain about public policy issues that are as dry and uninteresting as a bowl of sand.

Before the disease took hold, Laura had boundless energy. Her laugh is still  infectious. She would take the boys for long walks through the woods in search of spring toads. She is intimidated by nothing and was always ready for the next great adventure.

She can tile a floor, fix a taillight or set up a campsite and still have time left over to make a banana cream pie.

Laura has her own system of denial. She is not as good as me, but she does a pretty good job of keeping the disease hidden from public view.

You almost can’t tell… unless you watch a climb a set of stairs.

01According to the National MS Society, more than 2.1 million people have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

We are luckier than most of these people. We have good health insurance, and Laura still has most of her mobility. She is not in a wheelchair.

Not yet.

And that’s the part that gets me: knowing that it’s just going to get worse; knowing that every day I lose just a little bit more of the person I love most in the world.

We generally don’t talk about MS or the way it impacts our boys, our marriage . . . our lives.

But each year — even it’s for just one day — we tackle this disease head on by participating in the annual MS walk, an event that raises funding for continued research and the ongoing search for improved treatments or maybe a cure for MS.

Laura was diagnosed with MS a little more than four years ago, and each year we have been blessed by watching Team Seaver grow in number and spirit. The annual event is held simultaneously at locations all over the country. Here in York County, the walk is held in Kennebunkport. It is encouraging to see other families living with MS; to witness their courage and determination.

But it is also haunting to see so many other people dealing with MS in their own families, especially when their loved one’s illness has progressed so much more. It’s sort of like seeing your own life 10, 20 or 30 years into the future.

This year, or team is hoping to raise $1,500. And here’s where it gets fun.

If you would like to join us in our ongoing fight against an almost invisible enemy, please visit the Team Seaver page.

Our team’s largest donor will receive a gift certificate for a full day (eight hours) of services by Seaver & Sons; whether it’s cleaning up your yard or using our truck and trailer to clean out your basement or attic.

Despite the snow on the ground, it is spring and think how nice it would be to have your windows cleaned or your deck stained once the warmer weather arrives.

The top-three donors to Team Seaver will all be invited to one of our famous back yard barbecues that includes lobster, steak and my own special blend of frozen cocktails.

Please help spread the word. Share the Team Seaver page with your friends and family, and please consider joining us on Saturday, April 27.

A slow turning

Our relationship has always been somewhat strained.

There is an edge, a certain wariness. Something that neither of us talk about.

Sometimes, we just struggle through it. But more often than not we just let it hang in the air, a cloud of mistrust, fear and the evolving realization that we are more alike than either of us can imagine.

Today, he seems different. More confident, relaxed.

Me? Not so much, save for a recent dose of clarity.

Today is his 15th birthday, but it was earlier this week that Matthew became a man; that he became what I always knew he could be.

And  I could not be more proud of him.

It was a warm day, a holiday. There was another lawn that needed to be mowed.

The Rent-A-Teenager program we started just a few days before was flourishing. The phone was ringing off the hook, and both Tim and Matt were adjusting to the sudden influx of responsibility and the world of work.

Tim, my oldest son, was grumpy and tired. He was dragging and stalling.

I did what I do best: I got frustrated. “We committed to this job,” I barked. “When we say we’re going to do something, we do it!”

Tim shrugged. It was a job he committed to, but he was not feeling well and wanted some more time to wake up before leaving.

I had my own struggles. I had planned a window of time to help the kids with their business, but I had lots of other plans and the clock was ticking. There was a barbecue with friends, bills to be paid, laundry . . .

Another 10 minutes went by, and I loaded the mower in the truck. Tim was sullen, angry. “If you won’t do it, I will,” I huffed.

Matthew watched the exchange between me and his brother without commentary. He had the day off. He had his own holiday plans.

As I was backing the truck out of the driveway, he flagged me down. “I’ll do it, Dad,” he said.

We rode to the job site in our typical silence. I was concerned. It was a good-sized lawn, and I assumed most of it would fall on my shoulders.

I was judging Matthew the boy. I did not realize then that I was riding with Matthew the man.

We got to the site, and I gave him the instructions. He listened carefully before helping unload the mower, the trimmer and a push-broom.

To stay on schedule, I started the trimming, but kept a careful eye on Matthew with the lawn mower. I have high expectations. I am demanding.

But Matthew never wavered. He was sweating in the direct sun, but kept the lines straight. His eyes were fixed on the ground before him, carefully watching for rocks. He never stopped. He never paused. He never complained.

When he finished the mowing, he carefully inspected his work before sweeping the walkway without me telling him to do it.

He wanted that lawn to look good, perfect.

We returned home in silence. Two men who just finished a job. A father and a son.

The silence was comfortable, familiar for both of us.

I snuck a glance at him in the passenger seat of my truck. He was smiling. And then it dawned on me: He had become everything I wanted him to be: a hard worker, honest, ethical and polite.

I have known Matthew since he was four years old. God had given me an amazing gift. I just saw a boy become a man, and that is a rare thing to witness.

Matthew saw a job that needed to be done. His family needed his help. Without question, without hesitation, he stepped up and delivered.

Matthew and Tim are brothers, but they are not the same.

My relationship with Tim has always been easier, less awkward . . . more natural.

Tim is instinctively courageous and confident. He can fix anything. He is handsome, tough and cool. The self-appointed defender of the weak who is always ready to push the envelope.

We call him “Fonzie.” He is everything I was not when I was 17. Just ask my classmates.

I secretly admire him, even when he pushes the envelope just a wee bit too far.

Matthew? Think Richie Cunningham. A bit more shy and not as confident. A gifted writer and artist. Someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. A model student, polite, clean-cut and destined to be anything he wants to be.

Matthew is the kid you want your daughter to date. He is funny, exceptionally smart and ready to blow the SATs out of the water.

Tim embraced me as his father almost immediately. It was not the same with Matthew.

Matt clung to the idea that his biological father and Laura would reunite. He had little use for a demanding stepfather who can lecture with the best of them.

Matthew and I clash because we are both perfectionists, dreamers, procrastinators. We are both overly sensitive and a tad needy at times.

When I saw Matthew,  I saw a mirror.

I’m stupid like that. Matthew is not my reflection. He is his own man. Whatever I could teach him has been taught. He is more than ready for whatever lies ahead; great things, I’m sure.

Happy birthday, Matthew! You are an exceptional man, and I am so very proud of you!

The needle and the damage done . . . again

Team Seaver 2011

For those of you who think I am a world-class prick, what you are about to read should only confirm your suspicions.

It is a recounting of my reaction, more than three years ago, when I was about to learn that my wife, Laura, was diagnosed with MS.

The only way I can even begin to assuage some of that guilt is to do what I do…tell a story, share that story and hope that maybe you will feel compelled to help . . . just a little bit

If the following story moves you, if it makes you angry or if it makes you sad . . . please consider clicking this link.

If my words about that crappy day, full of self-righteous indignation, make you smile or laugh . . . please consider clicking that link.

If my words make you wonder how a world-class prick can end up with such a wonderful wife. . . well, you get it. . . click that link.

Enough of this…here’s the story one more time . . .

December 2008

It is paper-thin and measures only 8 by 3-1/2 inches, but it scares the hell out of me.

It has been sitting on the dashboard of my truck for several days, just there. Always visible. Always reminding me of what I cannot escape.

It is a placard that allows parking in disabled parking spaces. You know the one. The little, gender-neutral stick figure that sits in a wheelchair against a crimson-blue backdrop.

I have been struggling with writing this post for the last several days because I am terrified of both its content and the potential reaction from those who read it.

The reason I have the placard is because Laura was diagnosed with MS in December 2008. Since then, she has experienced fluctuating levels of mobility; and I do my best to ignore it. To brush it off. To think it will eventually go away.

Some days are better than others.

That’s how it goes with MS, people tell me. I try to pretend that Laura is just tired or maybe a bit depressed. Maybe if I work just a bit harder, just a bit more, it will go away. That is a child’s thinking. That has been my thinking.

Make no mistake, Laura is lucky. Her MS is fairly manageable. She is able to go to work each day and leads a more than productive life.

But still, I wonder. Me, the eternal pessimist. This disease is slowly, but deliberately, taking away a little piece of my wife each day, no matter how much I try to deny or ignore it.

I still remember the day she was diagnosed. It was just a few days after Christmas. Laura had been experiencing a strange numbing sensation on her face. She made an appointment with her doctor. He recommended that she see a neurologist. At the time, we both thought it was no big deal.

I was home and knee-deep in ethernet cables when Laura called me on her way back from the doctor’s office.

I didn’t take her to the appointment. My mother-in-law drove her to and from the neurologist’s office.

I regret that decision to stay and work on hooking up my kids’ computer to the internet. But I don’t regret that decision nearly as much as I regret the things I said to Laura when she finally got me on the phone.

“Hey,” she said in a soft-spoken tone which belied the news that should have followed. She wanted to tell me in person, face-to-face.

“What,” I shot back, only half paying attention, much more focused on the twisted mass of blue wires wrapped around my feet.

“I was wondering if you could start a pot of coffee,” she asked.

I was livid. I had already done three loads of laundry, paid the bills and vacuumed the living room. The computer wiring was near the end of my “to-do” list and the thought of one more thing sent me over the edge. Idiot, that I am.

“You want coffee? Make it yourself,” I barked. “Do you know what kind of day I’ve had? Pick up a cup from Dunkin’ Donuts or whatever, but just leave me alone.”

Silence.

“What’s your problem?” I continued. “You’ve been out shopping with your mother, and you want me to make the fucking coffee? Could you be any more lazy?”

“Sorry, ” she said. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll take care of it myself.” And the phone went silent.

She arrived home maybe 20 minutes later. I was still up to my knees in tangled cords. She brought me a cup of coffee and asked if we could talk.

I was still exasperated. “What?”

“They diagnosed me with MS,” she said, trying very hard to hold back the tears.

I let go of those silly cords. We sat down at the dining room table and began our latest adventure.

If you think I was a prick then, I can assure you that I haven’t done much better since.

I avoid conversations about MS. I avoid the annual MS Walk. I don’t want to think about it. I want it to go away.

Every other night is “shot night” at our home. Every other night, Laura injects herself with Betaseron to keep the illness at bay. Every other night, I turn away and find something else to occupy my thinking.

I love my wife. Honestly, I do. And I know she needs my support. Again, some days are better than others.

So today, marks the first day that I used the placard. We took Laura’s mother to Wal-Mart. We parked in one of the disabled spaces. Betty was moving through the store like a speed demon, anxiously making her way toward what would hopefully be her new television. She is 66 years old and she left me in the dust.

Instinctively, I paused, and turned back to check on my wife. I could tell that Laura’s energy level was dropping quickly. “Are you okay,” I asked.

“Yeah, she nodded. “I’m fine.”

I knew it was a lie, and once again…I played along.