Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Little Frog Dying on the Side of the Road

My girlfriend, Christina, and I go for a short walk around our neighborhood just about every morning. It's the sort of thing I used to sneer at. 

"That's not exercising," I'd think, swearing I'd never stoop so low.

I guess never is now. These days, I relish our walks and the thoughts that bubble up, though today's bubbling bubbled over.

She somehow spotted the little frog and stooped to have a look, despite him being no more than two inches long and his coloring blending in with the pavement. He didn't immediately jump, so I bent to investigate as well.

I love frogs. I have since I was a little boy and don't even know why. I just think they're cute, I guess.

Nothing appeared amiss at first. He was just a bit slow to react.

But he was also in the road and that wouldn't do, so we found a stick with which to nudge him. He made a small hop on my first gentle poke to his butt, and everything seemed normal to me.

When Kris said, "I think he has blood on his mouth," I finally noticed everything was all wrong with this little guy (or gal). Not only was he bleeding as she said, but he was also missing parts of his left front and right hind legs.

Needing a pause, I looked away. When I saw the freshly cut grass, it hit me: he'd been caught by those whirling plastic weed trimmer threads and cut to shreds. Not surprising, since the incessant mowing and trimming is a near-daily occurrence in our neighborhood from April through October, but frustrating nonetheless.

I know the grounds crew is just doing the job they're paid to do, but I couldn't help being annoyed seeing the mangled frog and thinking about how humans have this obsessive need to control everything in our environments. Mangling things as we shape them to meet our selfish needs seems to me to be what we do best.

The only other similar incident in my lifetime was arguably much worse. I've blocked out the details of my awful lawn mowing encounter with a nest of baby rabbits years earlier, but I do know I killed at least a couple of them.

I knew this little frog wasn't going to make it, even if he'd managed to instinctively hop when I'd nudged him. I also thought one of God's creatures deserved to be as comfortable as he could for whatever short time he had left.

Kris helped me move him a short distance into the shade at the side of the road next to a bit of water. This wasn't perfect—probably not where he'd have gone to die had he been able—but it was better than laying out in the road.

We often joke about the amount of meat I consume. We've determined it's over a hundred chickens a year (two a week consistently) on top of all the beef, pork, and fish that I also regularly include in my weekly meals.

For the most part, at least until recently, I've thought nothing at all about this. Humans are at the top of the food chain and that's just the way it is in a violent world where survival and sympathy don't often mesh.

After going fishing with my friend Mike and eating a couple of the fish we caught, I had a tiny passing thought about the order of things. It's not like I've never fished before and eaten my catch, but I'm also not out there every weekend and have been especially scarce at the streams in adulthood compared to my youth. So the experience was newish enough that I had this rare moment of self-awareness considering how the fish at the end of my line had given its life to provide me a bit of sport and another meal.

On the heels of my fishing enlightenment, I read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, and the creaky old gears of my mind turned a bit more. Everyone I mention this book to says they've already read it but also never shared any of its wisdom with me, so thanks for nothing. I'll just figure things out on my own.

What I decided is that I won't be scrapping my carnivorous diet for some bean sprouts like Millman, but I did hear his words about the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. I'm starting to pay a little closer attention to those connections.

I'm trying to remember to say grace before meals, for example, just to give thanks for the animal that gave its life so a big fat ass like me can live a while longer. I remember about half the time, but that's better than not at all.

This little brown went back in the stream rather than onto my dinner table.

Like consuming my catch, interconnectedness isn't a new concept for me either. It's just another I hadn't considered in a while. 

My hard-drinking college English professor and coach of WVU's club rugby team, Dr. Fitzpatrick, lectured extensively about how "everything is connected to everything else." He also told me I looked like Sylvester Stallone one night after we'd both had a few too many beers, so consider the source.

I was too young and foolish to immersively read most of the books he assigned, skimming titles I'd have enjoyed like Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany only to extract the information we'd likely be tested on, but Fitz's words resonated with me then and they resonate with me now. That would be the words about connectedness; the ones about Sly didn't ring true with me or with any college women that I recall.

On top of saying grace half the time, I also read more now. Like Mike Tyson said, "Old too soon and wise too late." Or was that a lesser scholar named Benjamin Franklin?

Reading Millman's words about feeling his teacher's presence in the wind rustling through tree leaves—knowing that he needn't wonder any longer where the old man had gone because he was everywhere and had never really left—brought me some comfort. I thought about my daughter, Ruby, and my often desperate longings about where she might be, and that gnawing fear that I'll never see her again eased just a little. 

Maybe if I open my eyes, I can see a little of her now. Perhaps she's here with me all along this walkpart of the stream and the trees and the breeze.

That's why a little dying frog on the side of the road suddenly mattered. She's part of that little frog, too. We all are, and it's part of us.

I was tearing up a little as we moved the frog and promised to come back later. I'd like to say I didn't feel self-conscious about that, but it wouldn't be true. I tried wiping my eyes as we passed some other people continuing on our walk so they wouldn't see me sniffling.

My humiliation was fleeting. In the next breath, I got mad and thought, "To hell with them. I don't even like people. If it was them on the side of the road bleeding from their mouths, I wouldn't lift a finger to help."

I guess I still have some work to do on this idea of everything being connected because I sure don't feel nearly as strong a connection to my fellow man a lot of the time as I do to nature. Besides, if you don't want me to react violently, just like something wild, then maybe don't provoke me with your leering.

When Ruby's death was really raw a few years ago, I'd become infuriated hearing about someone taking the loss of their pet extremely hard. I was clouded by grief and had that all wrong. Nowadays, I roll my eyes harder at mourning the loss of most humans.

What are we compared to the loyalty and unconditional love pets freely give? Destructive and self-serving come to mind. 

We returned early in the evening as promised and found the little frog dead, just as we knew we would. We carried him about thirty yards on a piece of tree bark to a wooded area next to a stream, dug a small grave, placed him in it, covered it with dirt, and marked it with a couple of stones and some wood.

We even made a small cross from a twig before I mumbled something about him returning to his maker, but it's too short to see in the photo. Besides, a visible cross would attract someone to kick it over, and my dwindling opinion of human nature would dwindle some more.

A place to pause on my walks.

Looking closely now at the photo of the little grave we made, I see how it kind of looks like a frog's body with two legs drawn up to each side. We didn't do that intentionally—we were just trying to cover the earth and mark the spot—but I'm glad I noticed the resemblance.

This might all seem a bit silly and melodramatic. Surely I've encountered many dead animals in my lifetime and never took the time to bury them. That's true, but for some reason, I did take the time to bury this one.

Valuing life and recognizing that it matters can't be a bad thing. If we all could do just a little more of that, myself included, then maybe we'd start seeing a little more of the good in each other. 
Maybe I'd also develop a bit more compassion for my fellow man as I continue exploring this idea of interconnectedness.

Rest in peace, little frog. Thank you for the difference you made in my life one dreary day in May.

I'll see you again on a sunny day. I already do.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Water Weights, Billard Barbell, and Tim’s Basement: Memories of My Start in Weight Training

Since I yammer on so much about weight training, I thought I’d share a story about how I got started and why I've persisted for so long.

Every meathead has one of these stories. If you're a fellow meathead, I hope my story brings back memories of your own. If you're not, you still might enjoy reading about how I ended up such an oddball.

My first memory of lifting weights dates back to fourth grade. You’d think a guy who started that early would be really big and strong by now, but let’s just say I’m a slow learner.

I was playing pee-wee football by then. In my community, you could play that level for a couple of years before you graduated to Pop Warner. I wasn’t a bad player, but I was really small, so small in fact that in a school arm-wrestling contest one year the teacher made me go through the girls’ bracket before he’d let me into the boys’ bracket. I was a scrappy little kid, and I distinctly remember thinking I wouldn’t mind having a go at that teacher. Instead, I won the girls’ bracket to get into the boys’ and then did pretty well there too, but I’d had it with being a runt.

This would have been about 1978, and I was already watching a bit of football on television in addition to playing. The first time I laid eyes on Earl Campbell I was fixated on the raw power those tree trunk legs of his could generate. I think maybe the announcer commented that Earl must have been spending a lot of time in the weight room to build legs like that. My ears perked up, and I set out on a quest to build some legs like Earl’s.

Hang on for the ride. I never quite built legs like those, but I tried hard.

I asked my mom for weights for Christmas, and she got me a water-filled set from Sears. There’s a picture of me somewhere in an old album wearing blue footie pajamas and pressing my new bar over my head.

Unlike other kids, I lifted my weights. Maybe I wasn’t as dedicated as a mature athlete, but they didn’t just collect dust either. I don't know why I got hooked—I'm sure a psychiatrist would point to my small size and lack of a father figure—but regardless of the exact reason, the pull was strong right from the beginning. It wasn’t long before I’d done enough to outgrow them, so I went back to mom and asked for a real set.

My mom has always sacrificed for her kids. Raising me and my sister alone after our father died when we were young, she’s told me she felt like she had to be both father and mother to us.

One time in college I mentioned over the phone that I liked asparagus. The next thing I knew, a case of canned asparagus showed up on my doorstep. I guess she figured if her son would eat a vegetable to offset some of that beer he was probably swilling, she was going to make sure he had plenty of that vegetable on hand.

The lady in the middle bought us asparagus and anything else we needed.

So when she saw me take a genuine interest in lifting weights and stick with it as a child, she had no qualms buying me a proper set. Back she went to Sears, and this time she returned with a bench and a real set of weights. The bench was one of those flimsy models that were pretty standard in the 1970s—barely ten inches wide with a scant covering of vinyl and padding over plywood and narrow uprights that looked more like Olive Oil's spindly legs than anything capable of supporting substantial weight.

Why am I whining? Pat Casey did just fine on a bench no better than mine.

The weights, however, were a top-notch home set for the time—cast iron and made by Billard Barbell. I started training more regularly and keeping a training journal. I was proud of my weight set and invited friends over to train with me sometimes, though they never stuck with it like me.

“Whatever,” I thought. Training was my secret anyway.

Lacking squat stands or knowledge of lower body training, my earliest workouts were typical upper-body-focused bro splits. Though Earl was my inspiration, anything resembling his 34" thighs would not come for a few years. I did at least get some leg development from spending time outdoors every day playing neighborhood kickball games and riding my bike up and down the many hills in my West Virginia neighborhood.

I used my Billard set for a good three or four years into middle school, developing a love for home gym training that persists to this day. Though I remained small for my age, I also quietly became one of the stronger kids in my school even if I lacked some of their other athletic gifts.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to it. I guess maybe mom sold it when I went to college, but I wish I still had it. I don’t recall ever taking a picture either—remember when we weren’t all tethered to our stupid phones—and I’m afraid the best I can do is this photo I found online.


I’ll tell you who else wishes I had it, or at least the manual—my good friend, Jim Steel, does. That manual, you see, showcases none other than Jim’s boyhood idol, Randy White, demonstrating some of the lifts.

It featured three exercise models. There was a beginner model who I’ve forgotten. The intermediate model was Randy. Now if eight-time All-Pro Randy White was only intermediate, then who the heck was the advanced model? That distinction belonged to professional bodybuilder, Bill Grant. I was shocked in writing this article to learn that Bill is still alive and has a website with some cool photos you can visit here: Bill Grant Home.

In middle school—it was junior high in those days in my town, encompassing grades seven through nine—my training path went in a new, somewhat more serious, direction. I was a fairly nondescript kid to this point, not particularly noteworthy for much of anything.

I had, however, gained a bit of noticeable chest and tricep development from my regular workouts. Like the simpleton I am, I also liked wearing my t-shirts a little too tight and walking with my arms flared as if I was too big to put them down.

There was a small group of fellow meatheads who would crowd around our school's Universal weight set every day at lunch to get in a few quick sets of benches, dips, pulldowns, curls, and leg presses. The Universal sales rep must have been doing well back then, as I’ve talked to many other people around my age who also recall one of these sets in their school’s gym. Being one of the stronger kids in the small, lunchtime weight training cult may have furthered my burgeoning notoriety.

Does anybody in the over-fifty crowd remember this contraption?

Whatever the reason for my being “discovered,” a thick kid I didn't know well named Tim approached me one day after Algebra class and asked—more like told—me I should get a note from home to begin riding his bus a few days a week to lift with him. His nickname, derived from his stocky appearance, was "Stump" so naturally, I felt I'd found a friend who knew my secret too, or he'd found me.

Just like that, Tim’s arrival signaled the end to my regular workouts with my Billard set. Looking back, the change was broader than just ending those workouts. In the blink of an eye, I’d become a teenager, and a natural breaking away toward adulthood had begun.

Ready or not, I was now branching out beyond my safety net, even if many of these new friendships were based on my familiar interest in weights. Soon, the broader world would occupy a much larger chunk of my time.

In subtle ways, the small and loving family I’d grown up in began to take a backseat. As I became more immersed in my new adopted family’s routines, I frequently stayed at their home for dinner after training, gorging on Janet’s (Tim’s mom’s) delicious Italian fare.

It’s funny to me how these transitions in our lives often take place seamlessly, without our ever really being consciously aware. I certainly don’t remember the exact moment when my Billard weights began to collect dust in a corner, and I didn’t mourn their passing at the time. It just happened naturally, and I only look back now, wistful both for their demise and for the fleeting nature of time. Perhaps our lack of awareness is a blessing, as we might resist the natural order of things if we could see it coming.

Tim’s father, Gene, known affectionately as Gino, was an Assistant Basketball Coach at our high school. A few years after we graduated, he became the Head Coach and won our school’s second state championship in that sport in 2001.

Gene spent entire family meals sketching plays on napkins, never even glancing at his plate as he ate and mumbling half-hearted responses to questions we eventually stopped asking. A conversationalist he was not. The man was consumed by basketball and knew the sport inside out. I guess maybe he thought he didn’t know so much about short, wide kids who wanted to lift heavy weights to be even shorter and wider so they could run into each other at full speed.

Coach Randolph, another important figure who contributed to our success.

Instead of trying to coach Tim in football or weight training, he simply went out and bought him the finest home gym I’d ever seen and probably ever will see. I descended those basement stairs for the first time and my mouth dropped agape as I was greeted by a real power rack, an Olympic bench, an incline bench with a curved back that was more comfortable than any I’ve used in all my years since, a decline bench, a pec dec, a plywood deadlift platform, a chinning bar bolted into the rafters, a preacher curl bench, Olympic bars, an EZ curl bar, and probably 1,000 or more pounds of Olympic plates.


When COVID closed his commercial gym, Tim, still training today, built this primitive set-up.

You think West Virginians live in shacks and don’t wear shoes? We had York Barbell Club, or the next best thing to it, right there in my new best friend’s basement.

Tim and I were pretty evenly matched. Overall, he was a bit stronger than me, but I kept up well. We were both competitive and pushed each other to improve. Above the friendly rivalry, we were genuinely supportive of each other, each encouraging the other to succeed.

Completely absent from my memories is any adult instruction whatsoever. Perhaps Tim or Gene knew someone they never had a chance to introduce me to, but I don’t recall a single role model in my youth who trained or could tell me anything about how to do it—not even a coach—so I figured it out on my own.

I do remember Gene driving us up to Morgantown one cold Saturday in January for some sort of conference where high school coaches from around the state convened at Mountaineer stadium to speak about their weight training programs. There again, I guess he figured if he couldn’t provide what we needed himself he’d go and find it for us.

Winfield High, from several hours away in the mysterious Southern part of the state, stood head and shoulders above the rest. Their Coach was a legend named Leon McCoy who built the Generals into a football power with one of the state’s earliest strength and conditioning programs.

Coach McCoy (undated)

Our animated Coach, mostly by way of lack of animation, was an even bigger legend named Wayne Jamison. Coach Jamison had so many things right about life and football that he deserves a separate article, but in contrast with Coach McCoy’s visionary approach to weight training, Jamison retained the prevailing opinion from an earlier era that too much would make players bulky and slow. He didn't discourage us from training on our own, but he also didn't promote it through any formal program.

At a time when most schools lacked the funds for good training facilities, Winfield boasted a stellar weight room. We had a running joke, part of which undoubtedly stemmed from the truth, that the entire student body chipped in to build their equipment, with woodshop hammering nails into benches, auto repair casting weights, and math painting numbers on dumbbells.

Even in his mid-fifties, Coach McCoy struck an imposing figure forged from his grueling training as he spoke to us that day, and we hung on his words about toughness and commitment. As if his booming voice wasn’t enough motivation, I glanced out the window as the snow began falling and spotted Mountaineer fullback, Ron Wolfley, running the stadium steps alone. Wolfley would go on to a seven-year NFL career with the Cardinals.


Like pouring gas on a fire, we took that clinic as a sign that we needed even more work, never mind the fact we were already training nearly every day. Three-hour marathon sessions became the norm, as did tendonitis, trouble walking right, and trembling hands when we tried to write or answer the phone most days. In retrospect, wrapping Tim up like a mummy so he could walk 500 out and quarter squat it at 15 probably wasn’t the best idea either, but we loved training and train we did.


A couple of years later when we knocked Winfield from the playoffs in a 10-8 nailbiter on our frozen home field, I wondered if Coach McCoy’s inspiring speech might have contributed just a bit to his team’s downfall in that game. Regardless, when I recognized him at a WVIAC basketball tournament game in Charleston some twenty years later, I practically ran to his seat to shake his hand.

One summer, Tim even told his family he wasn’t accompanying them to the beach—Myrtle Beach I’m sure since everyone knows that’s where all West Virginians vacation—because he wasn’t missing a week of training. I even thought that was a little crazy, but at least I wasn’t in the awkward position of having to sheepishly ask for a key to their house!

Was this passion in my very nature or did my life experiences shape me? I think it’s a little of both.

You can probably teach just about anyone the “why” and the “how-to” of weight training and even help them develop the self-discipline to train with a degree of focus and stick with it long enough to see results. But this consuming love like I’ve had for nearly as long as I can remember? Maybe, like a game fighter, you're just born with that attribute or you're not.

With formative years like this, is it any wonder I’m still enamored with training in my fifties? It’s been such a part of my life I couldn’t possibly part with it. Even as I age and can only do a fraction of what I used to do, I’ll surely press on with a love for the process and the aura of the gym environment.

After four years or so in Tim’s basement that at the same time feel as close as yesterday and as far away as a lifetime ago now, I went off to college, got into powerlifting, and met other quietly determined training partners with stories worth telling as well. Those experiences were all special too, but the genesis for me was that great little football town of Bridgeport, West Virginia, where my water weights, Billard Barbell, Tim’s basement, and most of all, my childhood, all still live in my memories.

Many thanks to Jim Steel for originally publishing this article in his Squat & Hunt newsletter, Issue #1, April 2021. In another life, I hope we share the field together.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Thoughts on Criticism

I started this blog as an outlet for my grief after my daughter, Ruby, died. I haven't posted anything to it in quite some time because, while grief is still an important topic to me and one that plays a significant role in my daily life even some seven-plus years after her death, I've written most of what I want to say on the topic for now.

Rather than confining the blog strictly to grief topics, I've decided to broaden it. I'm quite an introspective person, perhaps too much so at times. I get in my own way with all this sitting around thinking and don't get as much done as I should.

Well, tough shit. Or as Popeye would say, "I yam what I yam."

I need a place to grapple with all this annoying thinking. Ah-ah-ah, don't even start with, "Why don't you just keep a journal, Chuck, rather than subjecting us to your inner musings?"

I already did that, and here's the problem. Some of these thoughts I write down rise above mere journal entries, at least in my not-so-humble opinion of myself. They're not really articles either though. Or if they are, I don't know who would run them.

So this is the new space in which my blog will operate. If I think it's better than a journal entry in that it has some shareable value, but it also doesn't quite rise to the level of a full-blown article, at least not one with a market, then it goes here.

You're certainly free to skip on past if the words don't speak to you, but hopefully, some of them will speak to some of you some of the time. I welcome any comments, and while I may not respond to all of them, it'll be nice knowing a few people are reading.

Now that logistics are out of the way, let's get to it with my first entry in the new format. T
he topic for this one is my thoughts on criticism.

Criticism stinks!... the TLDR version of my post.

I suppose if someone is being paid to be a critic, then they must do their job. Bosses, teachers, and parents can also rightly criticize from time to time in order to help someone live up to their potential but should do so judiciously, as we should also do our best to accept well-intentioned criticism graciously. Most other forms of criticism, to me anyway, are just jealousy.

Here’s Tom Brady’s pre-NFL draft criticism, written by a scout who was being paid to be critical, so I won’t, in turn, criticize him for writing it. I’m just sharing it as food for thought, and would also caution you to leave your own particular feelings about polarizing Brady out of your reading, lest you miss my point altogether.

"Poor build. Skinny. Lacks great physical stature and arm strength. Lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush. Can’t drive the ball downfield. Does not throw a really tight spiral. System-type player who can get exposed if forced to ad-lib. Gets knocked down easily."

Washington Post reporter, Sally Jenkins, shared that evaluation in a recent column and concluded with her own perceptive take on those aspects of character and will that are so much harder to measure: “From the outside, that is.”

For me, a few thoughts came to mind related not so much to this 
institutional criticism (talent evaluators, film and book critics, etc.) that offers some clear value but more to our self-criticism and criticism of each other. It's the latter that sticks in my craw and that I mostly rebuke.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t do something. Push the negative self-talk aside and just do whatever it is you want to do as hard as you can do it and let the outcome tell you whether it was possible or not. Even then, you may not want to give up after one or two unsuccessful runs at a goal. Regroup, learn from your mistakes, and make another push. Brady himself once went nearly a decade between championships.

Even more important than whatever you tell yourself, don’t tell your kids or significant other they can’t do something. You may think you’re protecting the ones you love, but you’re only handicapping their efforts right from the start and doing irreparable damage both to their psyche and to the relationship itself. Be a source of encouragement or at least shut the hell up. Let them find out for themselves what is and isn’t possible.

Before you open your hateful mouth to criticize a friend, coworker, or even someone you don’t know, do the thing better yourself. The hypercritical person is usually dissatisfied with something in their own life and takes some morose pleasure in bringing others down with them. They’re too scared to risk failure themselves, so they sit on the sidelines and criticize others.

Most of us are perceptive enough to see that sort of pettiness exactly for what it is anyway, so don’t be that person. Live your own life, drawing inspiration from others’ often-unlikely triumphs that can help you achieve your own goals, and don’t dwell so much on their failures.

In many ways, I’m not a very positive person. I even wrote a list of over fifty things I hate that got a few laughs. I prefer unvarnished truth and try not to sugarcoat much of anything I say or write. Overly positive-sounding social media influencers sicken me, because I know they’re frauds who simply want to build fake images in order to sell something. I also openly criticize politicians and systems I think aren’t working, sometimes even changing my mind and looking dumb later.

Despite my negative predilection, I try to walk my talk with the advice I’m giving here. If I see someone trying to accomplish something, I try to be a positive voice of encouragement. If someone brings a project to my attention they’re considering undertaking, I certainly don’t rain all over their parade with all the reasons why I think it will fail. I’ve been disappointed too many times in my own life by people who I thought would be in my corner taking a dump on my ideas that I don’t want to be that crushing blow to anyone else. I may point out something to consider or even that they might do better, but I do so in a spirit of wanting to see them succeed and hopefully they recognize the difference.

We have enough people who never put themselves out there to try to accomplish anything. We should stop tearing those down who are taking on difficult challenges and start building them up. And if we can’t find it in ourselves to do that, then at least do as an old saying my mom used to repeat often advises: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

Monday, April 13, 2020

Let's Call It Social Huddling Instead

According to my mom, my nephew Max is convinced he's "died and gone to heaven" amid the coronavirus-mandated social distancing restrictions. Apparently, the introvert gene is strong with that one.

For those of us, including me, who derive a lot of our happiness from our own elaborate little internal worlds, rather than from much of anything the external world and the people who inhabit it provides, I get what he's saying. If you think about it, a twelve-year-old lucky enough to have been born into a caring, middle-class family has just about everything he needs and wants right there at home.

He has a big yard complete with a nice above-ground pool. His brother, Harrison, is a bit younger but big for his age and rowdy enough to hold his own when they play together. He has plenty of video games for when he doesn't want to move from the couch. His mom's cooking is better than anything they're serving at the school cafeteria. And despite everyone's best efforts to keep the learning going, whatever homeschooling set-up they've arranged isn't likely to be as restrictive or demanding as a traditional school day.

What's not to love?

Quarantine wiped out the remaining school year, but these two aren't upset.

More to the point, what's really missing from this new existence? Social interaction with his friends is the obvious choice, but that's offset by more time with his mom and dad and he's still just barely young enough that they're the most important people in his world. If I had to guess, I'd say Max would gladly trade FaceTiming his friends for more time at home with his nuclear family.

If they haven't begun to already, priorities are about to shift. He's involved with sports, and that's only going to become a bigger part of his teenage life. Soon, girls will also start to play a more significant role. As late-blooming as I was, bloom I finally did, and that silly boy eventually will also.

Right here, right now, at this exact moment in time very well could be the last window of opportunity for Max to really bask in the love of his family and feel that he's completely fulfilled, or at least so close that a few missed activities pale in comparison. Yet what do I see many families with children similarly situated in those preteen years doing instead of taking advantage of this time that can never be regained?

In a word... complaining.

For every social media post I see about families snuggling up with a big bowl of popcorn and a movie and enjoying being together with no outside distractions, I see five where they're whining about how their kids are driving them nuts. They've had enough of this seclusion and can't wait for schools to reopen and life to return to normal.

These posts make me want to tear my hair out by the roots. Not really. I like my hair. It's rapidly graying, but I've been blessed to keep a fair amount of it. I think I'd rather pull the poster's hair out, or maybe do something a little tougher like grab him and try to shake some sense into him.

What are you talking about you're sick of your kids? You do realize they share your genetic makeup, don't you? Ergo, if they're that unbearable to be around, maybe take a glance in the mirror.

The way I see it, this is is your chance to really get to know them. Instead of sleeping through another boring Zoom meeting with Bob and Carol and Andy from the office, cancel that dumb meeting. 

Grab that baseball glove you haven't touched in twenty years and head out to the backyard for a catch with your kids. You might be surprised at the things they'll tell you about their lives while you're throwing a ball back and forth.

Tell Bob and Carol and Andy business sucks right now anyway, and since there's nothing to do about that you think they should go have a catch with their kids, too. They're probably just as sick of Zoom as you and will gladly zoom right on out of there.

The reason I have so little patience for complaining about being stuck with your family is simple. I lost a child. Cancel that. I didn't lose her. I roll my eyes when people use vague terms like that to be polite. I know right where she is, and she's never moving from that spot. So just spit it out. She died.

Call it what you will though. That doesn't really matter. I'm just providing some context for my perspective on this whole quarantine thing.

To me, all the wallowing and self-pity is simply short-sighted, self-centered, and downright soft—not gentle soft either, but spineless soft that nobody wants to be. You're supposed to want to spend time with your children more than anything else.

I'd trade anything, including your kid, to be stuck somewhere with my kid. We'd build a blanket fort and hunker down in it, just the two of us in our secret hideout while the rest of the world passed right on by. We'd bake some cookies. We'd make up stories about her stuffed animals' adventures. Who am I kidding... I'd break out my own stuffed animals for adventure stories!

We'd do anything and everything besides complain. I wouldn't let myself do that, and I wouldn't let her either. If things got a little tense or we grew weary, I'd hold her precious little face in my hands and I'd say something like this: 
You're my one and only daughter. You're my world. I love you the most, and we're fine. We're more than fine. We're whole and perfect and I selfishly don't ever want this to end. But when it does end one day, as all things do, and you're back out in the wonderful world, I want you to remember this special time we had together. When you hit a rough patch—and you will—I want you to know that I have your back no matter what. Be whoever you want to be. Change your mind as many times as you want. My love for you has no conditions. It is limitless and eternal.
I think a lot about creating my legacy. When I waste an afternoon scrolling social media and don't write anything, I get mad at myself because I didn't add anything to this so-called legacy and I'll never get that time back.

I'm right to a point, at least about time being our most precious resource. The reality for most of us, however, is that our legacy isn't about the stuff we do. We're not going to do anything memorable enough for it to be about that.

It's about the lives we touch. If you're a parent, far and away the greatest impact you'll ever have on the life of another human being is the imprint you'll leave on your own children.

That's your real legacy, and I'm trying to tell you not to blow it. Don't let yourself be distracted by work or friends or social obligations or charity or anything else. There will be time for those things or there won't. It doesn't really matter.

When I step back for a second, I do realize it's easy for me to sit here on my couch and play armchair quarterback. It's just me and my fiance, and we have it pretty good here. We have a large enough home with separate workspaces so we're not on top of each other all the time. We haven't suffered any drastic loss of income. We even have a killer home gym and can keep right on training as usual. Apart from me chewing through our groceries faster than she can order them, our stressors are pretty minimal.

So sure, I can tell you how I'd entertain my child all day in some blissful land of make-believe, but it's speculative. I'm not really responsible for doing any of that anymore. 

We talk about the "new reality" of the pandemic. I have a different sort of new reality that isn't really so new anymore after seven years, but that I'll probably never adapt to completely. 

In this reality, I spend my quarantine days watching exactly what I want to watch on TV rather than catering to a child's programming tastes. I fritter away my afternoons writing blog posts instead of morphing into a teacher for subjects that didn't even really interest me when I had them, much less many years later. I don't even have a full-time job to juggle from the confines of home-based isolation.

My situation is probably quite different from yours. In some ways, it's harder, but in some ways also much easier.

Lessons roll on, and you can even bring a stand-in to this school.

When you really think about what you were doing a couple of months ago though, do you even miss the rat race of running from one practice or activity to another, schlepping your kids around like some kind of parental Uber service? Doesn't the whole thing seem a little shallow and pointless? Surely there's a bit of relief in having a temporary—emphasis on that last word—break from maintaining that hectic pace.

I've heard folks describe quarantine as a version of the movie, Groundhog Day. I suppose I can see a bit of truth in that, but I see even more similarities with the furry rodent in the monotony of most people's ever-repeating workday and lengthy commute.

We'll all be back to that drudgery at some point. Then maybe we'll find ourselves wishing we were back here with the ones we love the most. That’s how life often works—longing to be someplace we’re not and only realizing after it’s too late that where we were is the place we always wanted to be.

Without being completely naive to the challenges of your situation, I'm simply suggesting a flip of the script. I've read some interesting viewpoints questioning the social distancing strategy, and perhaps a prolonged period isn’t even the right public health call, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt. Instead of seeing being sequestered with our families as complete drudgery, let's try using the time to connect with those we live with every day, but maybe don't really see as clearly as we should, in meaningful ways that might not be possible under normal circumstances.

We're not social distancing from all those people and activities we miss. We're social huddling with the ones who matter most.

The two interspersed photos are of my lifelong friend Stacy Bartlett's children. Stacy also shared an Easter poem he wrote for them that echoes the theme of this blog post. I'll end with that.

An Easter Message for Morgan and Schaffer

The Easter Bunny is sad to say
Coronavirus came his way...
I’ve been “holed-up” with family,
And could not make deliveries

To all the kids this Easter season,
Social distancing is the reason.
But have no fear as all is well!
To you both, I’d like to tell

How great you’ve been
while stuck at home -
When outside is where
You’d like to roam…

I know it’s tough
to be away
From friends and school
And to miss your Play…

And the Disney Trip
That you had planned,
Coronavirus
Sadly canned…

But think of all the fun you’ve had!
Being “trapped at home”
With Mom and Dad!

You’ve done school work from home,
Helped with chores-
Piano, singing,
Karate and puzzles galore…

Morgan made a movie
That I really liked!
And Schaffer learned
To ride his bike!

I hear you’ve been watching
The Masked Singer,
I thought the Rabbit (season 1)
Was a Ringer (that means I thought he was the BEST!)

And LEGO Masters
Looks like fun!
Which team, do you think,
Is Number 1?

Hours of Fortnite,
Haiku, and reading books-
Eating everything dad cooks…

Walking Luna-
Playing “Wall Ball”,
Glad to see you’re not
Bored at all!

Tornado watches, movies,
No A/C-
This too shall pass,
Just wait and see...

So, in the meantime
please enjoy
A couple of the gifts and toys…

That I could get for you
From your list -
If I’ve missed some items
Please don’t get....angry

Besides, it’s not about
Those kinds of things
That get you through
The day with wings…

It’s always about
the love you share each day -
How you show it,
And the things you say…

To those closest to you
Friends and family you love -
And don’t forget your God above!

Please make the most of this
Precious piece of “together time" -
I hope you both enjoyed
My Easter Rhyme...

Love,
-E.B. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Grateful

On May 18th it was six years to the day since Ruby died. She was two months shy of her sixth birthday when she passed, so she's now been exploring new worlds longer than she explored this one. If anyone could learn all the lessons this world had to offer in such a short time, it would've been her.

I'm sure I'd barely recognize my peanut now at almost twelve years old, though she may not find me too familiar either. My hair is whiter by the day, and I've thought recently about just letting it all grow long and crazy with a Viking beard to match. She'd like that.

I'm remarkably peaceful these days, though I hesitate to say that and jinx it. My children's picture book, a fine tribute to her, is finally finished and available for purchase. I just returned from a wonderful trip and Kris and I are already planning our next adventure. I don't have much of a career, but I like writing more anyway, and I do have a summer job as a camp recreation director that I'm looking forward to starting after visiting my family next week. It might even include a football instruction component. I'm still healthy enough to squat and deadlift even if not as heavy as at my peak, though I'm no closer to coming to terms with the idea of a day in the future when lifting might not be possible. Maybe I'll just fight that inevitability until the end. I'm in what I think is a healthy and mutually supportive relationship and have been now for several years, though I think it's probably bad karma to talk much about that.

All to say I'm in a pretty good place even with a gaping hole that will never close and that I wouldn't close if I could. I guess one can be incomplete and grateful at the same time.

Here's another short Ruby-inspired verse I wrote when she was just a toddler and recently tinkered with a bit. It's as I remember her—adventurous, independent, and free-thinking. I may have this one illustrated too so don't steal it or I'll come looking.

The Baby Who Likes to Take Showers

Most babies prefer a bath, but a shower is fine for me.
I'm not sure of the reason. I just like what I like, you see?

While they’re content to sit and play,
I stomp and splash in the misty spray.

Illustration by Jacob Below
I know by heart the creaking of the stall's door
and come running—pitter pat—tiny feet across the floor.

My excitement I cannot contain,
though mommy pleads with me in vain.

“Wait, my sweet. You’re still in your jammies, and the water’s so cold.
How on earth did I get this baby so bold?”

If the mischievous cherub could talk, she might say,
'Tis true I'm not dressed for the occasion. Who cares? I'll come anyway.

I never sit for more than a minute.
Running; jumping; always pushing the limit.

It's been this way right from the start.
I came early, small but mighty, with such a big heart.

I’m not much for a nap either.
Might miss something; no time for a breather.

I’d rather wrestle with daddy at night
than lay down my head and give up the fight.

Why slow down? I’m the only baby covered in perspiration.
So in I jump; head first, no hesitation.

Mom, when you've had enough and it’s time to clean up, please plop me in the shower.
Water droplets running down my rosy cheeks give me a feeling of power.

I’m a big girl in this small body,
and showering is this baby’s own unique hobby.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

For a Little While

Others around me seem so carefree.
I have to wonder what the hell is wrong with me.

Their naive happiness seems a shallow goal.
Searching instead for a way to save my wretched soul.

My disillusionment easily justified.
In these fools I find no allies.

Ignorant and unable to see
Basic truths so obvious to me.

But perhaps there’s another turn of this phrase.
Surely they’re not all skipping along in a blissful haze.

Maybe it’s me who doesn’t really care.
Their trivial problems and insecurities I can’t bear.

When the daughter I love is dead in the ground,
Others whining and complaining just isn’t profound.

The thing they don’t get
Is that this day-to-day crap doesn’t matter one little bit.

Posting those perfect photos of a fake life.
Self-esteem hangs in the balance of those coveted likes.

It's so easy to be an Insta-slut.
That ass shot isn't art; it's just smut.

Don’t forget to flash the bottom of those Louboutins.
Seen it all before; this tired act makes me yawn.

What they’ll find at the end of their time
Is that they’re a dozen a dime.

Praise from strangers they don’t even know.
As fickle as the direction a breeze may blow.

Gone at the first hint of trouble.
I’ll be the one to burst that pathetic bubble.

They keep right on ignoring those who really matter.
Consumed by social media’s incessant chatter.

Wasting precious time they can never replace.
All in this vain effort to win the rat race.

I dropped out long ago.
It wasn’t a hard decision to forgo.

I just had to be shown the light.
The key to it all hidden in plain sight.

Oh but what a stiff price to pay
To finally have something important to say.

This knowledge few will bother to heed.
Fame and fortune they think they need.

It’s those small moments that really matter the most.
Cherish them now rather than chasing a ghost.

That’s the big secret I’m trying to tell,
Though it doesn’t seem to matter how hard I yell.

My warning so easy to ignore.
They see me as a preachy bore.

Daughter gone yet my words ring hollow.
One bitter pill after another to swallow.

If only my simple truth they would hear,
Pain finds us all but guilt and regret might disappear.

My only choice now is to walk a few more miles.
Keep my fake smile plastered for a little while.

Just an Ordinary Day at the Park. That Smile Wasn't Fake.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Perspective, Five Years On

Dear Roo,

The five-year mark since you died is fast approaching. Hawaii didn't really exist for me before you died. I'd never been there, and I don't think I really even thought much about going.

But since you died, Hawaii has somehow played a big role in my life. By chance, I'll be there again this year on the actual date of your death, visiting the beautiful island of Kauai. Maybe that's as good a place for me as any on another tough day.

By this time next year, you'll have officially been gone longer than you were here. You moving further away from me like that is a scary proposition that's been repeated many times.

When they loaded you on the ambulance and shut the door, a small gap began to grow.

When they decided your condition was deteriorating and they needed to put you on the ventilator, it grew some more.

When they pulled your lifeless body from my arms, I felt you leaving.

When Mary and I sat by your casket, neither of us wanted them to shut it or to begin shoveling dirt on top. Both of those acts symbolized even more distance between us.

It's the same now with these damned milestones. Each passing birthday or holiday just seems to pull us further apart.

Even acknowledging your death date has that effect. What is it they call it to try and make parents feel better?... angelversary or something.

Fuck that. It's more insulting than comforting. You died. Why can't we just say that?

I don't know how I even made it this far without you. I still think about you every day - sometimes many times a day - and tell stories about you all the time.

I figure if I keep talking about you then maybe you're actually still here in some small way. I don't even remember these stories I'm telling all that well anymore, and I sometimes wonder which parts are true and which are made up.

I know you got up earlier than me one morning, quietly snuck into the kitchen, got the carton of eggs out of the refrigerator, and started rolling them around on the sofa cushion. I woke up to the sound of your giggling, and when I saw the egg carton I leapt from bed.

Holy shit!!! Did that baby get the eggs out of the fridge??? That's not going to be good at all!

Christ, I even made myself dizzy jumping up like that. There are reasons normal people have kids well before they're 38.

I was sure I was going to find a slimy mess of cracked eggs all over the floor. When I get to heaven, I'm going to want answers to a lot of big questions from somebody important. You know, all that stuff about why they needed you so soon.

But before I ask any of those, I just want to ask you, my little peanut, how the hell you managed to play with all those eggs without breaking any. That was weird!

You loved eggs like some kids love dolls. That story is true, and I can still picture you in your footie pajamas and that smoker's cough giggle of yours like it happened yesterday.

But I just don't know about some of these other stories. Did you really carry a gallon jug of cranberry juice by pinch gripping the lid with one hand or did I make that up? You were really strong, but I can barely do that myself after all these years of lifting weights.

If I made it up, I'm sorry. I don't need to invent stories to make you seem cooler or tougher than you already were.

You were tough with no embellishment needed. You really did shove that oxygen mask out of the way when your lungs were full of pneumonia so you could growl and make a muscle for me.

That happened, and I'll never forget it or you. But even if it didn't; even if every stupid story I tell is some product of my imagination; even if you were pretty much just an unremarkable child like every other who died before she had a chance to make any real mark on the world; you were still plenty good enough just the way you were. You were my child and that alone made you special to me.

I just love you and I miss you and I want to talk about you so maybe people will know you even when I can't remember anything to tell them. It's frustrating as hell that people I meet now never met you and will never know anything about you except through some dumb story I tell that might only be half right.

As anybody can see, I'm still struggling with lots of questions I'll never answer. I wallow and I'm angry and I think people who try to say something helpful usually haven't thought their comments through very well at all or they'd have realized how ignorant they really are on this subject and would have just kept their mouths shut. That stuff is probably never going to change.

But five years into this, I'm not quite so day to day with my struggle wondering if I'll be able to get out of bed. I've actually mustered the will to do just that something like 1,825 times and counting since you died.

I have a solid track record of gutting it out, touch wood. And so, I'm starting to look backwards at my journey so far and forward to what lies ahead. I guess I'm searching for a little perspective.

That word "perspective" usually makes my blood boil. The source, you see, is often some holier-than-thou asshole telling me I'm lacking it and that I need to look at things differently. Problem is, this so-called perspective mister high and mighty wants me to adopt almost always means I need to see things exclusively through his lens.

It's never, Hey, you're a little bit right but so am I and maybe we can meet in the middle. It's more like, You're an idiot. I'm all knowing. You better get with the program and see this shit my way.

Here's my concise little response to that:


That kind of all or nothing way of thinking is never persuasive to me. So, when I say someone has shown me a new perspective, it's a rare occurrence indeed.

My last blog post, Fine Again, was a bit of a hit that apparently resonated with a fair number of people and ended up my third most viewed. That was pretty gratifying - not simply for the views but because maybe I'm reaching a few people and helping them cope with their own losses.

In that post, I wrote about how someone can appear to be doing quite well and moving in a positive direction outwardly in the months and years after a traumatic loss even if they're struggling mightily internally. The world sees them as fine when they're anything but.

That message, and perhaps the caustic way I tend to put things, struck a chord with quite a few people. One of them was a friend I've known since childhood. Here's what he had to say about it:

Hey Chuck,

I've been reading your blogs and I've been wanting to say something to you for a while now. First, I can't even imagine the pain you went through and I'm not going to tell you I understand. However, I will tell you this, which is coming from my heart and being your lifelong friend. I want you to think about this from time to time. You had one thing I will never have in my lifetime and that was the opportunity to have a precious child and to experience what unconditional true love was all about. We're 48 now and I look back and wish that for one moment in my life, that I was you and I had a child - someone, who would love me no matter what; someone who would need me every day; someone who would want me around to laugh and play with. For one time, I just wanted to be able to hear that word when my child looked at me and said, "Daddy."

I know this doesn't compare to what you're feeling, but trust me, I envy the fact that you had the chance to experience that bond that only a parent can have with their child. I'll never get that chance, and knowing that kills me every day. I know you're upset and I don't blame you one bit, but when that pain comes over you just step back for me and take a moment to say, "I have memories that my buddy will never get a chance to experience in his life, no matter how brief it was, and one day I will get to see my little girl again and I will truly understand why God let this all happen."

I hope and pray you’re not offended by what I said, because that's not why I said it. I said it because I've never had the chance to even get to see the smile on my child's face at Christmas. I've spent them all alone. So, I hope and pray that you think about this when you’re feeling down and like shit. Just know that you had something I'll never get a chance to have - a child and all the glorious memories that come along with that.

God Bless!

Your Lifelong Buddy,

Incredibly Insightful Friend Whose Name I Removed Here

Whoa! I think I better just pump the breaks for a second, take all this in, and try to digest it.

That's about where I am five years into this thing. I still miss her like hell, but my eyes also don't turn red with rage anymore when someone coming from a genuine place of empathy gently points out to me how lucky I was to even know her at all. I'm closer to being ready to hear those words.

Even now though, maybe that sort of message couldn't come from just anyone. You have to earn the right to say something like that to somebody who's hurting.

In order for me to accept those hard to hear but oh so true words, I really have to know the person saying them. I almost have to have shared the unique bond of growing up with them in West Virginia to be open to their viewpoint.

This post started as a letter to my precious little one, and I want to finish that.

Dear Roo,

Perspective is elusive when the one thing you couldn't bear losing is lost, but I'm trying.

I've had a really interesting life these past five years. Things haven't always gone my way, but I've taken some chances and done some cool things I never even dreamt of doing.

You'd be proud of the way I leapt with both feet just like you so often did. For maybe one of the rare periods in my life, I don't have many regrets over missed opportunities.

And if I could do you over, I wouldn't change that either. My friend is 100% right.

Even if I could get rid of all the pain by not knowing you at all, I'd never choose that path. I'd choose you, just the way it went, with every bit of heartache.

Maybe the memories are starting to fade and get jumbled in my mind or whatever, but that doesn't really matter at all. I knew a kind of love many people will never experience.

I remember that feeling as if you never left. And when you occupy this much space inside my heart, maybe you never did.

Love Always,
Dad