August and everything after

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The southwest shore of Rangeley Lake

That 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, especially since we are at Rangeley Lake, only a few miles north of where my uncle lived.

That fire should have changed my life, but it seems like I can never hold onto the lessons it taught me.

Burnin’ down the house

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Leonard K. Brooks

A few years ago, our family started taking a new route for our annual trek to Rangeley. That new route goes right past the house that my uncle Leonard once owned.

My uncle had already raised three boys and a daughter of his own. My older 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 after my parents’ divorce, sparing me from the chaos of that situation.

Leonard Brooks 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.

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 was a chilly Friday night in mid November. My uncle left with a few friends for a weekend hunting trip. I was not allowed to join because of my lackluster chemistry grades and a backlog of homework.

So, 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 needed 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 baggie of 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.

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, But I wanted to impress the girl, so out I came 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 was stoned beyond recognition and 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.

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.

Dead man walking

My uncle was going to kill me.  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 mortal coil.

I don’t remember much about that weekend other than the extreme sense of dread that draped over me like a heavy 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 of 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.

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 accelerent, 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.

A lesson learned?

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 boat looks exactly like the boat he owned.

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.

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.

Note: this is a condensed version of a post I published in July 2013. To see the longer version go here.

When All Else Fails

530261_3585526400072_1544507556_nWho do you turn to when all else fails? Who has your back? Who’s got your six?

It occurs to me that I have been blogging here for a little more than three years. We have covered a lot of topics, from politics to my ongoing struggles with a mental illness. I have posted humorous things and somber things. I have posted Pro Tips for aspiring candidates and explored my hometown’s recent economic revival. I have written about solid waste and about the effects of herring on lobsters.

That’s a pretty diverse list of subject matter, don’t you think?

But it also occurs to me that there in one subject that is too often left in the shadows.

Sure, I talk about my wife on these pages, but it’s usually as a passing reference point or to highlight her battle against multiple sclerosis as a fundraising tool for the annual MS Walk in York County.

But today, for a few different reasons, I want to talk more publicly about the woman who changed my life. The woman who is my best friend and my strongest ally.

IMG_0539When I first met Laura, she was running for a seat on the Old Orchard Beach School Board. I was the editor of the local newspaper, and thus I offered my readers endorsements of candidates. I did not endorse Laura. I mistakenly thought she was running for a seat held by an accomplished incumbent.

Laura sent me an e-mail just a couple of days after my endorsements were published. She pointed out the mistake, which I did not take so well.

For whatever reasons, we continued an e-mail exchange that was almost instantly flirtatious. She did not win her election, and we had our first date a few days later  – – on a cold November afternoon that I will never forget.

I was smitten, but I was also impressed by her strength and courage. She was a single mother, raising two boys without any support from their father. She worked long hours in one of the most stressful jobs you can imagine: a social worker for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in the office of Child and Family Services.

She bought her own modest home about a year before she met me. We dated several weeks before she would let me meet her children.

She is an awesome mother who would take her young boys frog hunting in the spring. She has gone skydiving and has never met a rollercoaster she did not like. Unlike me, she is a risk taker, always ready for the next adventure.

She is spontaneous and her laugh is more like a howl that consumes her entire body. She’s not into nouveaux cuisine or the latest fashion trends. Her favorite band is whatever is playing on the radio at that time.

268334_1896380292475_1330632899_31681248_3529053_n[1]She is mischievous and endearing. She is a voracious reader who loves animals (and owns too many, in my opinion).

She is down-to-earth and wears her heart on her sleeve. There is no pretense with Laura. What you see is what you get.

She is the consummate professional and has a hard time separating her emotions from the strain of her job. She loves the kids she works with almost as much as she loves her own.

She knows a thing or two about friendships. If you become friends with Laura, it is a life-long affair. She and her best friend have known each other since their freshman year in high school.

Laura is generous to a fault. She always wants to help, to give to others, to make others smile and feel loved.

Her chocolate cheesecake is world-famous (or soon will be).

She volunteers in the community and gets involved with causes left and right. She currently serves on the City Council’s Policy Committee and served two terms on the local school board. In her first election, she got more votes than any other candidate on the ballots, including the mayor and at-large city councilors.

Laura snores and will sometimes leave wet towels on the floor; so I suppose she is not perfect.

IMG_0668But here’s what I do know: she is an amazing wife. She is my primary caregiver, a trusted confidant and someone who will fight tooth and nail on my behalf.

I often wondered why she married me. It wasn’t money. I had none. It was not for my good looks. I am bald and overweight.

I suppose it doesn’t matter why she married me. What does matter, however, is that she married me.

So, when all else fails, I have something pretty special in my corner. And for that – – I am eternally grateful.

A short video montage:

‘Tis the Season

Another Christmas is right around the corner, and this holiday feels different from so many others that have come and gone.

I suspect some of you may be feeling the same way, considering the stress that too often accompanies the holiday season.

christmas-tree1I’m not sure why I am having a harder time getting into the spirit of the season this year. The awful part of this is that there is no good reason for my absence of holiday cheer. I am incredibly blessed; more than I should be.

I have a loving, beautiful and supportive wife (Don’t ask me how I pulled this off, because I have no clue).

I have two healthy, wonderful step children, a beautiful home, modern appliances and a good job with benefits, funny co-workers and a flexible boss.

I have two dogs that love me unconditionally and two cats that keep me on my toes.

I have an extended family that is more supportive than dysfunctional. Heck, I even have new tires on my truck, not to mention access to health care and a set of tools that I don’t know how to use.

So, why shouldn’t I feel jolly and bright as this holiday approaches? What has me feeling cynical and ready to scream, “Bah Humbug” at random strangers?

Maybe, just maybe, I have too much. Maybe, just maybe, I have forgotten why we celebrate this holiday.

This realization came to me as I began to reflect on Christmases past; on Christmas celebrations that did not come with so many expectations of the so-called perfect holiday.

As I contemplated these ghosts of Christmases past, it occurred to me that two particular Christmas holidays stood out as my favorites.

1.) Homefries with paprika

It was the Christmas of 1997, and I was 33 years old, virtually unemployed and living with three roommates on the third-floor of a Munjoy Hill apartment in Portland that was much closer to the bottom of the hill. I did not own a car, nor did I have a girlfriend.

I was, in every sense of the word, a loser.  At least, that was my opinion of myself back then.

These aforementioned roommates of mine were unruly slobs who liked to drink, stay up late and delighted in terrorizing my cat. They were lovable guys, actually; but it grew wearisome picking up after them and tolerating their frat-boy behaviors. On the other hand, they were covering my portion of the rent. So, there’s that.

Luckily, my three roommates were all headed to their respective homes for the holidays, and I was not. To me, this was the ultimate Christmas gift: I would have the entire apartment all to myself for a few days. I spent almost an entire day cleaning the place, lit some candles and then planned what I would do on my solitary Christmas.

Only a few weeks before, my sister gave birth to my oldest niece, Kaitlyn.  I had a little more than $20 in my pocket, so my Christmas shopping was going to be limited. So, on December 24, I trudged down Congress Street and stopped at the CVS store. I bought a rather inexpensive frame and some parchment paper; and then trudged down the hill toward the Hannaford store, where I bought a thick ham-steak, half-dozen eggs and some egg nog before heading home.

I loaded my word-processor with the parchment paper and drafted a poem for my niece; a poem to celebrate her first Christmas. Satisfied with the third version, I placed it in the frame and wrapped it.

I opted to attend Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and by the time I walked back home, a quiet peace and serenity enveloped me. I was exhausted, but content.

I fell asleep reading Ben Bradlee’s autobiography and awoke on Christmas morning happier than I could recall. I boiled some potatoes, setting them in a skillet with globs of butter, chopped onions and doused with paprika. In a separate skillet, I fried that ham-steak, while working to scramble some eggs and coordinate the timing of my toast.

It was a kick-ass breakfast that I washed down with a quart of egg-nog. I fell asleep again in front of the television, with my cat curled on my chest.

I had not only survived a solitary Christmas; I relished it.

2.) Reindeer tracks

It was the  Christmas of 2001. A few weeks prior, I met Laura Kidman and we began dating on a regular basis. She owned a small home in Old Orchard Beach and had two young sons that I had met just a couple of weeks before Christmas. I was the editor of a small, local newspaper. I drove a 1993 Ford Escort wagon with a really bad exhaust,

Between us, Laura and I did not have two nickels to spare, but I remember how warm and cozy her house felt when she invited me over on Christmas Eve. Looking back, the “cozy” feeling probably had something to do with the house being 550-square-feet.

The boys were still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Tim was six, and Matt was four. I bought them each several presents, which were wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree after they went to bed. Laura’s sister had helped me pick out a necklace, which I would give to my future wife on Christmas morning. But as midnight, approached, I opted to give Laura a more significant gift.

A few years earlier, my mother had given me the Nativity set that I had grown up with. From that Nativity set, I removed the Joseph figurine and wrapped it carefully. When I gave Laura that gift, I explained that I would do my best to match Joseph’s love for a child that was not his own.

Before driving home, I went out to the front porch and leaned over with a broom to create reindeer tracks in the snow.

I went back to Laura’s home on Christmas morning to watch the kids open their presents and to point out that the reindeer had landed in the front yard. They believed it for a little while, but were relentless in interrogating me about it. It was a magical day, and I felt as if I had truly turned some kind of corner that could never be reversed.

Neither of these stories are intended to diminish the wonderful and magical Christmases of my youth. My parents outdid themselves at Christmas. We decorated the tree as a family, listening to Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis sing about the magic of the season. There was always, and I mean always, a giant orange tucked in the bottom of our stockings; my sister and I were often given matching pajamas on Christmas eve. We each had our favorite ornaments to hang on the tree. Fond memories, that must adapt to changing realities.

And what I realized today is that the more I have; the more comfortable I am, the more the magic and splendor of Christmas escapes me.

Because Christmas is not about stuff, credit-card balances, news headlines or any of the other things that can weigh us down throughout the rest of the year.

Christmas is a reprieve for those who choose to accept it.

No matter where you are, no matter your circumstance or fortune, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas

 

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!