Tag: life

Young As I Want To Be

Some may say that I’ve crossed over. That the torch had finally been passed along to me from my father, much the same way as his father and his father before him had passed it down to their sons. Yesterday, much like the way that guy in the comic books becomes The Incredible Hulk, I came very close to metamorphosizing into that dreaded three-letter word—old.

The truth is, I’ve never thought of myself as that three-letter word that I will no longer mention to describe me. That word is reserved for people who are much more advanced in age then I am. Those are the people who grew up having their milk delivered to them by a man in a horse drawn carriage, or someone who once wore saddle shoes while playing hopscotch with her friends. The same people who listened to Buddy Holly or Peter, Paul, and Mary on the radio and were forced to watch Lawrence Welk on Sunday evenings at their grandmother’s house. The same poor souls who claimed to walk two miles to school barefoot in ten feet of snow and had parents who gave them enemas at the slightest inclination of a stomachache. That word is reserved for them, not one for someone as cool, and young, as me.

Sure, I may have grown-up but I still do most of the same things I did as a child: I still play guitar, not very well but enough to amuse myself. I still enjoy reading the box while relishing bowls of Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch cereal. I still play video games, though not as often as I’d like, and am still a big fan of superhero and Godzilla movies. I even continue to do chores like mowing the grass and taking out the garbage. I’m still fourteen years old if you really want to know. All that’s missing is a little more hair on my head and the loss of the forty or so pounds I’ve gained over the years.

Ok, unlike when I was a child, I’m forced to do my own laundry and make my own meals. I have to go to work every day but I make my bed without being told and fix things around the house when they break instead of leaving it for someone else to do. I do all the things a grown-up should do, but that shouldn’t put me in the same league as those three-letter-word people, should it?

And I confess, when I look in the mirror, I do see a little bit of gray in the beard, but no one has ever said a word about it to me. Besides, I’ve done a pretty good job at covering it up. Just for Men is working just fine, thank you very much.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, the crossover to becoming that three-letter word. 

It happened yesterday when I was at my ten-year-old daughter’s softball league end of season celebration. It was a chance for a team of girls who had played hard all season to experience one final round of camaraderie together, along with some swimming and several slices of pizza. After dinner, the girls were even treated to a make your own ice cream stand supplied by their manager for a sugar rush farewell.

I’ve been conscious of watching what I eat, so I passed on the ice cream and sat down at one of the empty tables while my daughter and the others stood in line. I enjoyed watching the girls giggling with each other as trickles of soft vanilla ice cream from their waffle cones ran down their arms.

At one point, I recognized a woman who was standing in line for ice cream with her daughter. Someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It was a girl I’d gone to high school with, and I decided to go over to say hello.

It was a lot of fun catching up with my former classmate. We had a good time discussing what all of our classmates might be doing now, and the lives they all were leading. 

“Wasn’t it just yesterday that we all were in Mr. Kasperkowski’s science class?” I asked. 

“Oh, I didn’t have him,” she answered. “I had Mr. Opitz for science. I do remember both of us being in Mr. Siddons’ history class.” 

“That’s right!” I said, feeling a bit ashamed for confusing science with history. Then I asked if she could believe that next year was going to be our 25th class reunion. Looking back now, I think that might have been the precursor to what happened next, because once our conversation was over and I sat back down at the table, my daughter made a public service announcement to all in attendance. 

“All softball team members sit at this table,” she announced, pointing to the table where both she and I were sitting. A moment later, a stampede of ten-year old girls with half-eaten ice cream cones started sitting down at the table with us. It felt great to be enjoying a moment with my baby girl and her teammates. 

Unfortunately, one of the girls who joined us at the table thought something was a little out-of-place. The little whipper snapper pointed to another table where all of the parents were sitting. She measured me with her beady eyes.

“This table is for the girls,” she proclaimed. “THAT table over there is for the OLD people.” 

I quickly tried to think of something to say. You know, some sort of a witty comeback. Sadly, all I could muster was, “Hey, I’m not old, YOU’RE old!” But all that did was invite the rest of the girls on a sugar high to come to her defense. You’ve got to love the way teammates stick up for each other.

Realizing I was outmatched I finally conceded and slowly rose from the table to join the other men and women who were closer to my own height. But don’t think for a minute that me leaving their table is an admission that I actually am that three-letter-word, because I’m not. The truth is, I could have battled those girls all night with my grown-up rhetoric if I had more time. I just didn’t want to make them look bad in front of their parents. In my mind, I’m as young as I want to be, no matter what any ten-year-old girl thinks.

Later, on the drive home and while she was mindlessly looking out the window, I stuck the tip of my index finger into my mouth, moistened it with my tongue and then reached over and gently poked it into my daughter’s left ear. 

“DAD!! KNOCK IT OFF!” she screamed, as I manically laughed out loud.

There I go again, being childish.

Lightning Bugs

It was early in the evening of June 9th, 2022. I’m going to have to mark it in my journal so I don’t forget. I’d just spent the day working in the yard and doing everything possible to make it look presentable for another week. The truth is, no matter how much you mow, how much you edge, or how many weeds and dandelions you pull from the earth, you’ll inevitably have three to five days respite before the process will need to be repeated. Nature waits for no man.

As twilight was settling in, I slowly pushed my green John Deere lawn mower back into its usual place in the garage. Residual grass clippings, which had been pasted to the chassis of the machine for most of the afternoon, now began falling onto the concrete floor in small bushy clumps. By that point I was too lazy and in no mood to even think about sweeping them up. I was much too tired and they would have to wait until morning. Despite the thought of having to clean up the excess grass and being completely drained from today’s labor, the smell of sweat and gasoline that permeated my senses gave me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

I went inside, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and walked out on to the patio to admire my handiwork. As the first drams of alcohol hit the back of my throat, I could already feel the weight of the day leaving my shoulders. Tomorrow there would be sore muscles and excessive sunburn, but for now it was time sit at the patio table and enjoy the warm summer breeze that had picked up as the day was drawing to a close.

That’s when I saw them for the first time this year – June 9th, 2022.

 Lightning bugs.

I believe the correct term for them is Photuris lucicrescens. Some others might use the word “fireflies” in their vernacular, but here in the Northeast portion of the country, we refer to them as lightning bugs. A bug that even the person with a severe case of insectophobia will usually find attractive. Sure, the butterfly is beautiful and the ladybug is often considered a symbol of good luck, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing compares to the majesty of the lightning bug, and I’ll be happy to tell you why.

You see, there are certain things in life that remind you of the different seasons of the year. We all know that when crisp leaves begin to fall from the branches of trees, autumn is here. The first snowflake that appears in the cold, milky sky means winter is on its way, and when flowers begin to spring up from their deep sleep, we know that spring has indeed sprung. But when we see the first lightning bug of the year, it’s magical. Like welcoming home an old friend. One who’s been gone for months and has now suddenly come back with word that summer is finally here.

Long before I became experienced in the art of the lawn mow, my early summer evenings as a child were spent catching these illuminated creatures. Nothing could compare to spending an entire day swimming with friends from the neighborhood and then seeing how many of these flying creatures we could catch as dusk settled in. 

If I close my eyes now, I can still picture it. Me, running barefoot through the dark back yards of my neighborhood, wearing nothing but shorts and a tank top. My youthful skin glistening with chlorine-riddled sweat, the smell of crisp honeysuckle in the air, and without a single care in the world except for the task at hand. Summer had just begun and the arrival of the first yellow bus calling children back to school was a long way away. It was pure freedom. 

There was always a feeling of wonder after you’d caught one of God’s miracles of childhood. Then, as you slowly open your cupped hand, you watch its blinking body escape your palm and climb to the highest point of your extended index finger, where it would spread its wings and fly off into the night.

Sometimes my friends and I would poke holes into the lid of an empty mayonnaise jar and fill it long blades of freshly cut grass to contain our electric treasures. Then we’d all take turns marching through the yard with our makeshift lantern. When the lightning bugs became lethargic from being trapped inside of our glass house, we’d release them back into the sky to rejoin their winged friends. 

The most fun of all though was during what I liked to call the “magic hour.” This was usually around 9 p.m. and right before my parents would call me in for the evening. You’d notice the frenzied firestorm of lights in the yard as the lighting bugs danced in unison to nature’s song, but soon one bug would seem to burn bigger and brighter than the rest. It was the granddaddy of all lightning bugs making an appearance. 

Granddaddy was the coolest bug of all and, as you might imagine, was almost impossible to catch. Every time he’d land on a bush and you’d get close enough to grab him, he’d take off and hover just out of reach above your head. It was as if he knew the measurement of his assailant. I’m sure he was thinking, “Ok, this kid is four feet eight inches tall, so let’s hover six feet five inches off the ground.”  But if you were lucky enough to capture a granddaddy when he let down his guard, you were always the winner of the evening’s festivities. It was childhood summer at its finest.

I’d just finished my beer when the real firestorm of lights began. It was just as I remember from childhood but something I hadn’t so much as thought about for at least forty summers. 

Then it happened.

There, out of the corner of my eye, I saw granddaddy flying slightly above my head. I stood up and used my now adult-sized hand to make a grab for him. Still smart as ever, he calculated the precise distance of my five feet eight-inch frame and rose just high enough to be out of my reach.

I sat back down in my chair and smiled. The adult duties of lawn mowing vanished and I continued to think about those carefree summer nights of childhood. Then I wondered how there could possibly be any interest in watching television or playing video games during this magical time of year.

Especially when there’s so much entertainment right in our own backyards.

The Phone Call

Chicago has always been my kind of town. I’ve been there several times, mostly on business, and did not regret a single minute of it.  From the moment I enter the subway at O’Hare and take the Red Line south, there’s a familiarity about it that almost feels like home.

Here I am again, arriving alone for more training on a software application the hospital I work for uses. No one from work ever goes to conferences with me and, quite frankly, it doesn’t really bother me. I actually like flying solo on my business excursions, but never expected this visit to Chicago would change me in a way I never thought possible.

I had just finished eating my usual deep dish pizza at the original Uno restaurant when it happened. Yes, the Uno that started it all. Don’t even waste your time going to the chain ones you see. Those just aren’t the same. Corporate always has a way of ruining things. But I highly recommend the original Uno if you’re ever in town. For me, I like to sit at the bar and order the Chicago Classic. That and a Goose 312. The deep dish and beer is more than enough to put me into food coma for the rest of the night.

As I waddled outside into the evening twilight, I began to take in the whole Chicago vibe. The lights on the Harley Davidson store down the street caught my eye immediately, and although they don’t actually sell motorcycles there, it was a cool place to go to get some swag. A way to be biker even if you didn’t ride. I began to wonder how a store like that could stay in business in downtown Chicago. I surmised that just the presence of Harley Davidson in a big city is more than enough reason for a company to pump endless amounts of money into an unprofitable store.

I looked north and thought about the possibility of taking in a Cubs game this week if the software conference sessions got out at a reasonable time. That is, unless the sales guy decides at the last minute to take a bunch of attendees out to dinner. One look at my mid-section will tell you I’m not one to pass up a meal. I could easily find time to hob nob and chat with people from different hospitals all over the country, provided of course, that a free steak was involved. 

And that’s when I really noticed it.

It was something all too familiar but something I hadn’t seen for a very long time in it’s natural habitat. I found myself standing next to what was probably the last phone booth on the face of the Earth. One that has the word “Telephone” prominently displayed across it. One that Clark Kent might use in order to change into Superman. The ones I thought had gone the way of the dinosaur ever since mobile phones became all the rage was right in front of me.

As a child, I always loved using the old school phones. Even when I was around eight or nine and would occasionally receive a call from the neighbor kid across the street, the whole “telephone” process fascinated me. I loved how you just could pick up a receiver, plug your index finger into one of the small plastic holes and begin rotary dialing (remember, we’re talking old school here) a combination of numbers until someone on the other end of the line would answer. My aunt even had one of the first new-fangled, push button versions. She was really living large.

I suddenly remembered some of the fun things I used to do during my phone touting experience while I was growing up, like dialing zero for the hell of it, just to reach this person called an operator. Of course, when she would answer, I’d always giggle and then hang up. After about the third or fourth time doing so, my father would soon receive a phone call from the frustrated woman scolding him for allowing his children to dial the operator. Let’s just say that it didn’t end well for me but, sure enough, a month or so later I’d be right back it. Just like Dad’s Playboys hidden in the nightstand next to his bedside, there was something taboo about dialing zero that was too good to pass up.

And don’t even get me started about those old “Dial a Joke” Jim Backus commercials I’d see on television. “Just call 976-JOKE for today’s joke… CALL NOW!” Mr Howell would plead, and who was I to say no when the guy who also played Mr. Magoo told me to call him? I think at one point my bottom was red for a week when the phone bill had an extra $25 on it from me half listening to the stupid, pre-recorded jokes at 99 cents a minute.

Funny now, not funny then.

Even before Dad had passed away three years ago, I still remember us having a good laugh about my phone adventures at his bedside. As the IV’s slowly pumped morphine into him and despite his pain, something about me telling him the red ass phone stories made us both laugh out loud. And for a moment, I wondered if laughter could possibly be the unknown cure for cancer. It sure seemed possible.

But yeah, me and the phone go way back.

This particular booth actually still had the tattered phone book dangling from a small metal chains. I imagined how many people had let their fingers do the walking through it over the years. I had a strange urge to see what year the phone book actually said. My guess was somewhere in the late nineties, but before I could verify and claim a mental victory, the phone abruptly started to ring. Ringing and no one standing there to answer it. No one but me.

Ring one.

Maybe it was my childish subconscious telling me that it was Jim Backus calling that made the deviant young kid who liked to have his phone fun start making his way forward. Here I was in a big city, with no possibility of receiving a red ass and with absolutely nothing better to do until my software conference starts tomorrow. As I trudged towards the booth, I began thinking of interesting ways I could answer the phone.

Would I say something like, “Dave’s Pizza – We Deliver?” Nah, too predictable. Maybe I could talk in a Chinese voice and pretend to be the dry cleaner down the street. That was a possibility, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able pull it off without laughing. Either way, if I grew tired of the game I could just hang up the phone and head back to my hotel.

Ring two.

Just to be sure I wouldn’t be caught, I quickly looked around to see if any legitimate phone answerer was there waiting for a call. I realized I was alone and slowly stepped into the booth. I could immedialtey feel the claustrophobia and could smell the old paper, cheap beer and stale cigarettes from years of calling and receiving calls.

Ring three.

I placed my hand on the black receiver and, as carefully lifted it up to my ear, decided I was now a gainful employee of Dave’s Pizza on the south side of Chicago.

“Dave’s Pizza – We Deliver. Can I take your order?” I said, confidentaly.

That’s when my heart lurched inside of my chest. It felt like a vacuum had sucked all of the air out of the booth. There was a rush of vertigo and it became hard for me to breathe. I quickly realized Dave’s Pizza was out of business.

“Jimmy? Jimmy it’s me,” a weak voice on the other end of the line said.

Chicago faded into darkness as the whole world turned dull shades of black and white. Of all the things I could say, only one word came to mind.

“Dad?”….

Graduation Day (Part One)

After thirty-five years of trying, and subsquently putting it off for various reasons, today I finally graduate from college. There are so many emotions I’m feeling right now. Not just about the achievement, but my life’s journey over these last three and a half decades and how a global pandemic became the spark that would ultimately bring me to this day.

Me graduating from high school on June 11, 1987

In order properly tell this abridged version of the story, I first need to go back to April of 1987, when I was a senior at Easton Area High School and met with my guidance counselor to discuss my future plans. Plans which, as far as I was concerned, only included world domination as a rock star.

By that point, I’d already been playing guitar for two years and knew that it wouldn’t be long before Atlantic Records would be knocking on my bedroom door at home with a six-figure recording contract. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen, and before graduating high school, I ultimately decided to pursue a degree in music education.

I started out at Penn State, going to classes and getting all the student loans they would give me. Back then, they pretty much wrote you blank checks, and I used the money for important things, like guitars, amps and taking my friends out to expensive dinners. Side note: It took me until 2010 to finally pay off all of my student loans.

I dropped out of Penn State halfway through the fall 1987 semester for a reason now that escapes me. Although I bet it had to do with wanting to be a rock star. A year later, I decided to give it the old college try again, this time enrolling at Northampton Community College, before transferring to West Chester University. I received all A’s at NCC and made the move south in the Fall of 1989, where I continued to rack up every loan they handed out.

In the Spring of 1990, with $1.37 left to my name, I bailed West Chester to start a job at Easton Hospital, and by bailed I mean I just left. Didn’t tell anyone and didn’t even officially drop out. I guess you know what my WCU transcript says about that. If not, keep reading.

In the mid-90’s I went back to NCC to take a few science and computer programming classes but, that too, eventually went no where. Although I passed those classes I didn’t continue, and I wouldn’t even think about college again for the next 25 years

Fast forward to the fall of 2020. The world is in the early stages of lockdown for Covid-19, a pandemic that was killing thousands of people every day. I’m sitting at my dining room table recalling all of the terrible things that had happened in my life recently – mostly, the loss of my mother in March and being let go from my job just a month later. There was a lot of uncertainty.

My daughter, herself a recent Easton High School graduate, was looking into taking a virtual course at Northampton Community College and I helped her go online and schedule. As I was browsing the college website a strange thought popped into my head. I wondered how many classes it would take for me to get a degree — any degree at all.

It took some work but I was able to gather transcripts from Penn State and West Chester, the latter one allowing me to see all the F’s I’d earned thirty years earlier. I took all of the information and forwarded it to NCC. A few days later an advisor contacted me and told me that if I took five classes: Environmental Science, Geography, English II, Developmental Psychology and Nature of Mathematics, I would be able to graduate with an Associates in Arts degree in the Spring of 2022.

“Spring of 2022?” I thought to myself. “Who the hell knows where any of us will be by then?” Then I thought about it some more and said, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s go!”

I enrolled in the Winter of 2020 and, fortunately, was in a position where I wouldn’t need student loans. I’d take things one class at a time.

These last 18 months weren’t easy. I mean, how could they be, I’m a 50+ year old dude who hasn’t picked up a college textbook in 25 years, and also had to continue to navigate a full-time job, take care of a house and pay bills. Environmental Science and Geology were eye openers, Developmental Psychology was interesting and English II, which is right up my alley as a writer, was a piece of cake.

The last class though, Nature of Mathematics, nearly killed me. Believe it or not it was so hard that at one point I actually considered dropping out. But I’m so glad I was able to bury that give up attitude I had as a young adult because — well, today is the day I’m graduating from college.

Birthday Reflections at 52

October 5th, 2021: My 52nd Birthday

This is my tenth entry in this series of birthday posts. Something I started shortly after I began my writing journey in the fall of 2011. 

To be honest, and especially with everything that’s happened over the course of the last eighteen months, I didn’t feel like posting anything at all, but instead of rehashing all the gloom and doom about viruses, failed leadership and elections, I’ll try to remain upbeat. After all, it IS the greatest day of the year:

Birthdays are the one day where we, collectively, celebrate the individual, and by that I mean we don’t use the day as a reason to inundate social media with over the hill jokes, pay for lavish lunches, or give someone a number of spankings equivalent to their new age, plus an extra one to grow on. Although I do remember that was the best part about attending birthday parties as a kid in the 1970s, so long as you weren’t the one on the receiving end.

No, the real reason people blow out candles, consume large quantities of cake, receive greeting cards (hopefully, with a few greenbacks in them) and open whimsical presents is to commemorate the day you arrived on Earth.

You’re alive, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

For me, it seems like it was only yesterday that I was a youthful teenager; driving me and my buddies around in a beat-up, 1972 Toyota Corona (honest, there really was a car named “Corona”). Going to the mall on Friday nights after school, pouring my hard-earned, summer lawn mowing earnings into video game cabinets and drinking gallons of Orange Julius and wishing I could somehow muster up the courage to go over and talk to the cute girl who was standing with her friends outside of the Listening Booth record store. Ah, youth.

Wasn’t I the one who was able to go to rock concerts and stay up til the wee hours of the morning? Sitting in some dingy diner; smoking cigarettes and drinking gallons of coffee while talking to friends about what would happen when we took on the world and made all of our dreams came true? Now, I’m lucky if I can stay up til 10 p.m. most nights.

There’s an odd sense of immortality you have when you’re young that makes you believe time will always stand still, and that you’ll never be as old as your parents. But then, one day, you take a nap and wake up in their role. To give you some perspective, my father died at the age of 51. As of today, I’ve outlived him.

I promised I would keep things upbeat for this post so I won’t continue to rehash the past. Instead, I’ll talk about the future. In addition to continuing to do interviews for The Morning Call newspaper and Guitar World magazine, I’m also heavily in the writing process of several books. Something that has been put off for quite a while but something I am extremely excited about. I am thinking more of a collection of short stories — perhaps two novellas in one. More on that in the months ahead.

I’ve also been dabbling a lot in watercolor painting. Not only has it been a great stress reliever but it’s something you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money and where you can literally see your progress every day:

I called this one “The Road Beyond 50.” If you visualize yourself in it, the painting is a metaphor for life. You can’t see where you’ve been (the past) or the scars that you carry. All you can see is where you’re standing now and the road to what lies ahead of you. As in life, there is beauty all around us and a brave new world just waiting to be explored. I plan on doing a lot of exploring in the days, weeks and months ahead.

I hope my next trip around the sun, and walk down this path, brings all of us a sense of hope, peace and most of all, love. 

1000

My customary ritual every January 1st is to start each year by sharing the very first blog article I ever wrote. Regular followers of this blog know the one I’m talking about. That wonderful day when I almost burned the house down making pierogies.

This year I decided to change that because of something I noticed the other day after posting my most recent interview. So, instead of posting something on the first of the year, I’m going to post something on the last day of the worst year ever.

Here’s the big announcement:

The post you are reading right now is my 1,000th article on WordPress! That’s right – one thousand. What makes this monumental achievement even more special is that tomorrow, January 1st, 2021, also marks the 10th anniversary of the following resolution I made to myself:

Who would’ve guessed that over the course of these last ten years I would have achieved such a mind-boggling statistic, and that number doesn’t even include the interviews I’ve done for sites like Yahoo! Examiner and Technorati.

In addition to the articles and interviews I’ve posted over the past decade, I’ve also co-authored three children’s books with a dear friend, traveled as far away as Los Angeles for interviews, wrote my very first novel and contributed four interviews to Guitar World magazine and several features for a major newspaper.

Among these one thousand articles are some pinch yourself moments, like the time I interviewed REO Speedwagon in the dressing room at The Greek Theatre in L.A. and was given a side-stage personal tour of Dave Amato’s guitar rig while Don Felder [formerly of The Eagles] stood thirty feet away performing “Hotel California” to a screaming, sold-out audience. Or the time filmmakers invited me to the Hollywood premiere of their horror film, and I actually got the chance to walk the red carpet with a legend of the genre.

I’ve interviewed Colonel Oliver North in his hotel room while he was nursing a bum foot. I chatted with Ozzy Osbourne on the phone and actually understood every word he said. I even talked to Ace Frehley of KISS and thanked him for being the one who inspired me to pick up the guitar. The truth of the matter is I will interview anyone – from artists about their new projects to porn stars about their unfortunate #MeToo experience – because everyone has a story that needs to be told.

But perhaps the greatest thing that’s happened to me during these last ten years of writing has been getting to meet so many amazingly talented people: independent artists, actors, musicians, filmmakers, photographers. All who’ve inspired me with their own creative works. People who’ve gone from being just another interview to lifelong friends.

Like many of you, 2020 was the absolute worst year of my life, but I’m optimistic about the future. Some of the things I’ve done recently include taking up watercolor painting as a form of mental therapy. I even sold one of them to a friend who generously donated the money to the local animal shelter [just like I did with my children’s books]. I’ve also begun the process of going back to college to finally finish my degree. Next year will be the release of my brand-new novel. One that’s been in the works for a very long time. There is something very cool, and music related with it that I hope I’ll be able to pull off. Will require some approval by the artist but fingers crossed.

I hope that by reading this blog, or any of the other 999 that have come before it, has inspired you to make a similar resolution to the one I made on January 1st, 2011, and that is to make a promise to yourself for 2021. A resolution to do something you’ve always dreamed about doing. Just take the first sentence of my resolution and change the word “writing” to something you’re passionate about. Then go out and make it happen.

Here’s wishing you peace, love, music, art, writing….and all the best for the New Year.

Back To School

Me, June 11, 1987

Thirty years ago I had an epiphany. It was March of 1990 and I was in the middle of my second semester at West Chester University. My goal at the time was to major in education and, eventually, go on to teach young, impressionable minds about the only subjects I truly cared about: guitar and music.

Before we go any further, allow me to give you a little back story:

I had already graduated high school three years prior to this revelation but things didn’t turn out the way that I planned. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved music, but back then all I wanted to do was be the next Eddie Van-Halen. I knew that was something that wasn’t going to hapen overnight, so I decided to enroll at Penn State University in the Fall of 1987 as a music major.

I had no money set aside for school and my parents, who’d recently divorced, had no means of helping to fund my education either. So I applied for grants and took out loans. Quite a few loans if you really want to know. I was told at the time I wouldn’t have to worry about paying them back, at least not until six months after I’d finished school. It was almost too good to be true. I’d be rich and famous by then.

Most of my tuition for that first semester was covered by loans, and the people at the bank were kind enough to give me plenty of extra money as well. Checks made out to James Wood rolled into the bursar’s office faster than cars at a Chik-fil-A drive-thru, and every day I’d sneak down to the office in between classes to see if another one had arrived. Ones that were supposed to be set aside for schooling but instead I used to buy important things, like guitars and amps and treating my friends to coffee and cheese french fries at the local Perkins. I went to school three times a week, didn’t have to work and the money continued to roll in. I was living the life, or so I thought. Don’t believe me? Here’s an entry from a journal I kept back in 1987:

Journal Entry: Sept 2, 1987 while sitting in Psychology class.

By November, I was getting pretty tired of going to school. I just wanted to rock, and there was no one who could tell me otherwise or point me in the right direction. I dropped out of Penn State and spent most of 1988 working odd jobs while trying and failing, often miserably, at starting a band.

One day I received a letter in the mail informing me that, since I was no longer enrolled in college, the funds from my student loans would have to be repaid. The bill had come due. Not just for all the classes I dropped, but for all those guitars, amps and five-star meals I’d consumed. I needed a way out and fast.

I decided to attend the local community college with an emphasis on music education and an eventual transfer to West Chester University. This worked out well for me in two ways: First, it put the money I already owed on the back burner again. Second, and even more importantly, it allowed me to continue to take out more loans for tuition while pocketing the rest. By August of 1999 and my first semester at West Chester, I was already looking at some serious debt, and I was not even twenty-years-old.

“This is going to be worth it,” I assured myself.

Which leads me back to the ephipany of 1990 and to when I’d once again pretty much given up on college. Sure, I was going through the motions, but I wasn’t paying attention in class and was driving home almost every weekend. One day two of my roomates who, unlike me, had just finished studying, asked if I wanted to join them for a night out. When I reached into my pocket to see what funds were available, I fished out a single dollar bill and thirty-seven cents worth of loose change. It was all the money I had to my name. I reluctanly told them I’d have to pass.

That’s when I had the epiphany. Even though I’d given it the old college try, school just wasn’t going to be for me. I had to face the inevitable and do the one thing I hated most in life….. find and keep a job.

I decided to drop out of West Chester. Well, let me rephrase that, I didn’t actually drop out of school. I abandonded it. Yep, I packed my things, drove home and never went back. Eventually received the report card stating I had received all “F’s,” save for an English II course where the instructor was kind enough to put down a WP (withdrawl passing) for me. I would wind up spending the next ten years slowly making payments on my loan while working as a garbage man and pharmacy technician. I did try going back to community college in the mid-nineties and, although grateful my loan payments were again put on hiatus, once again never finished more than just a few courses.

Around the turn of the century (still blows my mind to say that) I decided to change careers and enrolled at the now defunct Allentown Business School where I received a quick diploma in Information Technology and have spent the better part of the last twenty years resetting passwords. Yes, I do a LOT more than that but don’t want to bore you with tech stuff. It took more than a dozen years but I even managed to pay back every penny I owed in student loans.

Journal Entry: September 1987

Recently, I had another epiphany. My daughter, now a high school graduate herself, enrolled at the same community college I attended. As I looked over her schedule it got me thinking about all the classes I’d taken over the years and how much I’d left on the table. All the money I spent on education, guitars and meals that went absolutely nowhere. Having not thought about such things for the longest time, I decided to find out what classes I had.

I started by logging onto the community college’s website and viewed my transcript. I was suprised to find that I had accumulated 51 credits in subjects ranging in everything from psychology and music to French and philosophy. This led me to check West Chester’s website where I discovered more than a dozen more I’d earned.

Hmmmmm…..

With newfound curiosity I decided to reach out to an advisor at the community college to see what this hodgepodge of classes might get me in terms of a degree… any degree… and how fast it could get me there. After reviewing everything I’d given her, the woman I spoke with told me that if I took an environmental science course over the winter and four other courses in Spring (English II, Developmental Psychology, Environmental Sustainability and Nature of Mathematics) I would earn an Associate in Arts Degree in General Studies and graduate in May of 2021. What’s more, all of the required courses could be taken completely online at my convenience, so it wouldn’t interfere with my current job.

So, guess what I’m doing after more than thirty years? …. I’m going back to school. It is an idea as frightening as it is thrilling.

What do I intend to do with this degree? I’m so glad you asked. Because that was the same thing the advisor wanted to know when I told her I wanted one as quickly as possible.

Initially, she asked me what prompted a 51-year-old man to consider a career change, noting that my answer would be crucial in determining which courses I should enroll in.

“If your goal is to move on to a four-year college and become a teacher,” she said, “you’ll definitely want to make sure you cover your education requirements.”

“I have no intention of becoming a teacher or even changing careers,” I told her. “I enjoy what I do.”

“Then why would you want to get a degree at this stage of your life?” she asked, curiously.

I thought about high school and the three colleges I attended. The classes I took, the guitars I bought, the meals I ate and the loans that were now long paid off. I was grateful to finally be in a position where I wouldn’t have to worry about taking out any more of them. Then I smiled.

“I want it for me,” I said.

Birthday Reflections At 51

October 5th, 2020: My 51st Birthday.

This is my eighth entry in this series of birthday posts. Something I started shortly after I began my writing journey in the fall of 2011. 

To be honest, especially with everything that’s happened over the course of the last twelve months, I didn’t feel like posting one at all. But instead of rehashing all the gloom and doom about viruses, failed leadership and elections, I’ll try to remain upbeat about it. So here goes:

Birthdays are the one day where we, collectively, celebrate the individual. And by that I mean we don’t use the day as a reason to inundate social media with over the hill jokes, pay for lavish lunches, or give someone a number of spankings equivalent to their new age, plus an extra one to grow on–although I do remember that was the best part about attending birthday parties as a kid in the 1970s, so long as you weren’t the one on the receiving end.

No, the real reason people blow out candles, consume large quantities of cake, receive greeting cards (hopefully, with a few greenbacks in them) and open whimsical presents is to commemorate the day you arrived on Earth.

You’re alive, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

For me, it seems like it was only yesterday that I was a youthful teenager; driving me and my buddies around in a beat-up, 1972 Toyota Corona (honest, I’m not talking about the virus. There really was a car called a Corona). Going to the mall on Friday nights after school, pouring my hard-earned, summer lawn mowing earnings into video game cabinets and drinking gallons of Orange Julius. Wishing I could somehow muster the courage to go over and talk to the cute girl who stood with her friends outside the Listening Booth record store. Ah, youth.

Wasn’t I the one who was able to go to rock concerts and stay up til the wee hours of the morning? Sitting in some dingy diner; smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while talking to friends about what would happen when we took on the world and made all of our dreams came true? Now, I’m lucky if I can stay up til 10 p.m. most nights.

There’s an odd sense of immortality you have when you’re young that makes you believe time will always stand still and that you’ll never be as old as your parents. But then, one day, you take a nap and wake up in their role.

I promised I would keep things upbeat for this post so I won’t rehash the past. Instead, I’ll talk about the future. In addition to continuing to do interviews, I’m also heavily in the writing process of my next book. Something that has been put off for quite a while but something I am extremely excited about. I am giving myself to the end of the year to finish. More on that in the months ahead.

I’ve also been dabbling a lot in watercolor painting. Not only has it been a great stress reliever but it’s something you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money and where you can literally see your progress every day:

I called this one “The Road Beyond 50.” If you visualize yourself in it, the painting is a metaphor for life. You can’t see where you’ve been (the past) or the scars that you carry. All you can see is where you’re standing now and the road to what lies ahead of you. As in life, there is beauty all around us and a brave new world just waiting to be explored. 

I hope my next trip around the sun, and walk down this path, brings us all a sense of hope, peace and love. 

 

A Silver Lining

2020 has been the absolute worst year of my life.

I know, it probably has been for you as well. But my streak of bad started way before the corona virus and debating the usefulness of masks while hating each other. For me, the black cloud hovering over my head began last October when I lost my beloved dog, Doodle, three days before I turned 50. That single event set the wheels of gloom in motion.

It really began in early March of this year when my mother suffered a fatal stroke and, a week later, the Covid-19 lockdown officially began. I do writing on the side and was grateful to be able to continue to work from home with my real job in IT.

Unfortunately, one month after quarantine began, I was told that my position had been eliminated, effective immediately. My company offered to pay me until the end of the month. This was contingent upon them overnighting all the things at my desk along with a box for me to return my laptop and other company equipment.

I used those two weeks to secure a contract position at another company. The bummer of it was, the new job didn’t start for eighteen days and there would be no pay coming in. So, like thousands of other people, I applied for unemployment benefits to fill the gap and was accepted. I won’t go into great detail about my experience with the Department of Unemployment other than to say that as of this writing, I still have not received one single penny for the two-weeks unemployment they owe me. I tried calling, emailing, voicemails… all met with constant busy signals or completely ignored. I had to dig into savings in order to pay bills. The fact they still owe me for two-weeks unemployment is unsettling, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like for others who are going through a similar process and still haven’t found a job.

Just when I thought there might be a break in the storm, this past week I had to say goodbye to another one of my dogs. Ginger Snap, a senior pup we adopted after she was rescued from a kill shelter in 2011, and who had spent the next four years living a life filled with love and luxury, told me it was time. She had been diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease a few weeks ago and I was giving her medication that was supposed to alleviate the symptoms that were ruining her quality of life. I came downstairs on Saturday morning to find her unable to get up. It will take me a long time to get over the thought that I failed her.

So, during a period of ten months, I’ve not only become mired in this pandemic but also lost my mother, two dogs and my job. Which kind of leads me to the title of this post – The Silver Lining.

The day after Ginger went to the rainbow bridge, I went to visit my brother, who had lived with my mom in the house we all grew up in. He had recently installed windows in places of the house where none previously existed. I marveled at the sun, gleaming through the new windows and showering the space that was once our childhood bedroom in bright, summer light.

As I admired his work, he mentioned how he should’ve installed the windows twenty-five years ago and how he wished our mom would’ve been alive to see them. I agreed.

After I left the house to go home, I walked past the huge blue spruce tree lumbering in the yard. Its towering branches reaching high to the heavens like it had always done even before I was born. I suddenly remembered how deathly afraid I was of that tree as a child, and how I would often have nightmares about it coming out of the ground at its roots to get me.

I decided I wanted to have a piece of that big tree to stick in my curio cabinet at home. It’s a place where I keep all of my childhood knickknacks of times gone by. I bravely reached for a low hanging limb and plucked off a tiny piece of branch. I held the small stem to my nose and breathed deeply, inhaling the faint scent of pine from something that forty-five years ago scared the living shit out of me.

That night as a lay in bed, I had a dream that I was back at my brother’s house. I can’t recall all the details, but I remember my brother and I were standing in the kitchen talking about something when in walked my mom. In the dream, she looked exactly as she did as when I was a boy, but in my heart, I knew she had died. You would think that I would be terrified at the sight of a ghost, but I wasn’t afraid to see her at all. Instead, there was something I wanted to know.

“Are you all right?” I asked. Meaning, is it ok when you die.

She nodded her head. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Everything is ok.”

The dream quietly transitioned into something else I can’t remember, but that revelation of seeing her still haunts me. It’s been years since I’d dreamt about my mother, and even when I did there was never a conversation that felt so visceral.

I’m not sure if what I experienced was the culmination of visiting my brother and all the things that have been happening to me in 2020, or that my mother really was trying to tell me that everything is going to be all right.

But if I had to make a choice, I like to think that it was the latter.

33 Years of Employment

Me, June 11, 1987

Who would have thought how much could change in a thirty three years? To think that at the time since I received my high school diploma in June of 1987 the world has become such different place.

I’ll be honest, when this picture was taken I figured it would probably only be a year before I’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, talking about my band’s debut album and world tour with Def Leppard. I had high hopes and wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.

Thirty-three years ago the only thing I wanted to do was rock. I’m serious. I mean that’s ALL I wanted to do. I really didn’t want to go to college, and I sure as hell had no interest in doing anything that resembled actual work.

On the contrary, my days were usually spent sleeping til around noon, noodling on my guitar and mooching money off of my mom and grandmother for such things as gas for my car and coffee and cheese fries at Perkins. After all, a man’s gotta eat, right?

“Borrowing” money from them soon began to get old and my options for disposable funds was starting to run out. I was worried that I might be completely broke before fame came knocking at the door.

What to do?

It wasn’t until I discovered that student loans were readily available that I began to have second thoughts about going to college. I mean, who wouldn’t want some free money? Money you wouldn’t have to pay back until after you graduated college!! Hell, that could take YEARS!! I quickly signed the first promissory note I saw and still have vivid memories of running down to the bursar’s office every day at Penn State Allentown to see if there was a big check for me. And what did I do with this windfall of cash you ask? The money I was supposed to use for books and tuition? I bought a guitar and amp and wound up dropping out.

This cycle inevitably repeated itself over the next few years as I applied to community college and eventually, West Chester University. I discovered that as long as I was enrolled in school I was “off the hook” as far as paying back the money. At least in the short-term. It wasn’t until I woke up one morning in my dorm, dug into my pockets and realized I had $1.37 to my name that I had an epiphany. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Here I was, twenty years old with $1.37 to my name and nothing more. The friends I’d graduated with were now halfway done with college and most were well on their way to bigger and better things. It was my wake up call. Rock and Roll would have to wait.

On May 29th, 1990 (thirty years ago as of this writing), I started working full time on the 4-12:30 am shift as the head garbage man at Easton Hospital. That’s right, I literally started at the very bottom. Any gum wrapper, cigarette butt or operating room bio hazardous waste was handled by me. I hated it with a passion. They even fucked up and spelled my name wrong in the company newsletter. Despite all of my self-doubt and embarrassment of being a garbage man, something inside kept me going. I knew better days were ahead.

A year later, a position opened up in the pharmacy. It was a 2:30-11pm shift but was the perfect chance for me to get out of garbage. I worked that position for eight years.

Eventually, I made the decision to go back to school and get my degree in computers, married, bought a home and became the father of a beautiful daughter. It took me fifteen years but I eventually paid back every cent of my student loan debt.

Perhaps the best thing of all was that my own rock star dream didn’t die. I now live it vicariously through my writing. The point being, we can do anything we want to do. Be anything we want to be. We just need to make a plan and do what it takes to get there.

As I look back on this picture, three decades after it was taken, I see someone who had big dreams. And someone who, thirty-three years later, found a way to make them come true.