Rotary Installation Speech

I have a brother who traveled the path to heaven over 25 years ago.  While he blessed us with his presence in this existence he did so as a very gifted and talented young artist among other great traits that he possessed.

I remember, as a boy, Jimmy would set up his canvas and the tools of his talent in the basement of our home.  I would often watch the canvas transform from a blank slate, to lightly sketched shapes, to a smattering of paints and colors, to a masterful Monet-like scenery, Van Goh-like landscape or Rembrandt-like portrait and just marvel at its spectacle.  When finally it reached what I was sure was the point of completion, with envious pride, I would tell Jimmy just how wonderful I thought his creation was.  Jimmy would just stare at his art and, with annoyance at his stupid, younger brother, simply state, “It isn’t done.  This isn’t nearly finished.”  And he would mix some more colors, dip some more brushes and continue to paint.

Meanwhile, I would go back outside and play tackle the man with the ball with my friends, blow up the heads off my sister’s dolls with M-80s, do belly-flops in mud puddles and, inevitably, end up being chased by an angry, pancake-turner yielding mother determined not to spare the rod.  I would eventually, once again, seek the sanctity of our basement, which somehow seemed to serve as a miraculous safety zone from the wrath of angry parents.

I would peer over the shoulder of my brother and be amazed to discover that the painting I thought, just hours before, was as good of a painting as a painting could be, was, indeed, somehow, better.  I could not always tell exactly what he did, but the shapes would appear sharper, or the sky would have somehow come alive, or the flowers would have miraculously bloomed, or a sparkle would shine in the subject’s eye.  What I thought was perfection in the morning, was improved by the time the sun had set.  And, I would, once again, beam with pride for my brother and praise him with as much glory as a muddy, bloody, dirty, stinking, trouble maker of a young boy could.  And, Jimmy, once again, would look unsatisfied and announce, “It’s not done.”

Six years ago, Ralph Flick invited me to my first Midday Rotary meeting.  I was greeted at the front door by a sharply dressed and smiling Lorraine Green, my $14 was graciously accepted by a helpful Jean Smith and I immediately recognized the face of Scott Bush as a fellow Adventure Guides father in the group with our sons.  Laura stood behind the President’s podium dancing a Happy Dance and I marveled at the beauty of this picture and I thought what a wonderfully complete masterpiece this Rotary Club was.  But, I soon found out, it was not done.

Ralph Flick then improved upon the art by organizing the objects in the painting and explaining the intricacies of Rotary in a way that even I could understand; Scott Bush added a splash of spontaneity, humor and fun that brightened the images upon the canvas while losing a lot of weight in the process; Joe Urvina transitioned from a reluctant, nervous speaker to a confident and accomplished leader while teaching us more about ourselves through two truths and a lie, and the painting got better.  Mary Gorman added highlights of gratitude mixed with tears of happiness and empathy and the masterpiece continued to be improved.  And, Howard, throughout this past year, added all that stuff and things like that to whip us into shape and help us appreciate why it is good to do business with a Rotarian and the art got better, yet.

Now, it is my turn, and all I can do is marvel at the beauty of what I see.  Deep down inside I am proud of the masterpiece my brothers and sisters crafted right in front of my eyes and stand in awe of their talent, envious of their creativity.  I, however, am not an artist – but, I can certainly appreciate art and celebrate in its beauty.

So, I invite you to join me this year, in what I wish to make a Year of Celebration.  I think we, as a club, have earned the right to sit back a little bit, celebrate all that we have accomplished and marvel in this masterpiece we call Midday Rotary.  We should bask in the joy of the friendships we have forged; celebrate the good we have achieved; and be proud of the journey we have traveled together as a family of Rotarians; albeit, we may be a dysfunctional family, but we are family nonetheless.

Join me this year as we splash through mud puddles, somersault down hills of soft grass, and create mischief along the way, only to return each week to Anthony’s basement and marvel at the beauty of this masterpiece, celebrating the ever-improving art on what not so long ago was a blank canvas.

I will leave it up to those Presidents who follow behind me to once again improve upon the artistry of our club, but, for my year, I want to take the time to just … Celebrate, Celebrate, dance to the music.

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A Letter to My Sons

A Letter to My Sons

First of all, to my real sons, I wish to thank you for never having put me into the situation to have the following conversation with you that I will now have with my hypothetical son:

Dear Son,

If you ever willingly, unwillingly or while under the influence of alcohol or any other substance, inflict harm, injury or any kind of injustice upon another individual or individuals I would first expect you to apologize for your actions and offer to do whatever is necessary to right your wrong and/or assist the person you injured in their recovery.

Secondly, I would expect you to own up to the responsibilities for your actions and accept the consequences resulting from such.

Under no circumstance would I expect you to lie about the events that took place.

Under no circumstance would I expect you to make up excuses for your actions.

Under no circumstance would I expect you to attempt to transfer blame for your actions, especially not to the victims themselves.

Under no circumstance would I expect you to try to defend yourself through the re-victimization of the individual you harmed in the first place in an attempt to avoid the consequences that typically follow the actions you are responsible for committing.  And, under no circumstance would I expect you to blame your lawyer for making the decision to do so.

Under no circumstance would I expect you to beg for leniency after ignoring the advice above and suffering a verdict unfavorable to you following inflicting even more injury upon your victim in the process of attempting to defend yourself through lies, excuses, transfer of blame and re-victimization of the individual you harmed in the original action.

And, I expect you to expect the same of me in your support;

I will not lie for you.

I will not make excuses for your actions.

I will not attempt to transfer blame, especially not to the victim(s).

I will not support a strategy of re-victimizing the victim.

I will not blame the lawyer for that strategy if you decide to do so.

And, I will not beg for leniency if you do not follow the advice above.

I do understand that, sometimes, people are accused of crimes they do not commit.  But, if your defense is not based on a foundation of truth, then you have no defense.

I do understand that, sometimes, people make mistakes.  But, we are responsible for the mistakes we make and what defines us as decent human beings is how we handle this responsibility.  There is a difference between explaining why something happened and making excuses for why something happened.  That difference is in accepting responsibility for what happened.  I expect you to always bridge that difference.

I expect this behavior from you under all circumstances; no matter how minor or how significant the injury; no matter how trivial or how severe the potential punishment.

No matter what, I will always love you – that is unconditional.  But, the degree to which I support you along the way will be influenced by the degree to which you live up to my expectations in how you handle the situation and respond to unfortunate outcomes.

We can, of course, make things a whole lot easier on ourselves by not performing acts that result in such severe penalties in the first place.  (And, once again, I would like to thank my real sons for taking this course in their magnificent and accomplished lives.)

Your loving father,

Dad

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Because I wrote this in response to a recent, high profile news story and the social networking response, I addressed this as a “Letter to My Sons”, but the same message applies to my daughter, as well.

My Hero

I was in the fourth grade when I fell, face first, on the blacktop playground surface in the back of Saint Anthony’s Elementary School in Charleston, WV. As my teacher, Mrs. Moore, and a few nuns helped me to my feet, I think they fully expected that I would be distraught and crying as a result of the scrapes on my face and the bits and pieces of my front tooth that I was spitting out. Instead, they just stared at me like I was crazy because I was smiling and beaming with pride as I felt the sharp edges of my fractured tooth with my tongue.

I had always been into hero worshipping. One of my first heroes was Mighty Mouse. My real, first hero, my mother, always came to my rescue when my older brothers and sister tried to prevent me from watching the Mighty Mouse Show at the same time each day on our black and white TV set.

My grandfather tapped into my hero worshipping behavior as he would have me stand up on the kitchen table and tell everyone about his and my adventures fighting the Indians in the Wild West just like the cowboy heroes I knew from TV: Tom Mix; Wyatt Earp; Marshall Dylan, Will Rogers and others.

But, the smile on my face that particular day in the fourth grade was because I had just repeated a feat of my greatest hero of all. The one hero I did then, and for years to come, hold above all others also had broken half of one of his front teeth years before. Although I didn’t lose half the tooth, the chipped portion that was now gone was certainly obvious and I couldn’t wait to display this badge of honor to my hero, all of five years my senior, a freshman in high school at the time, my oldest brother, Johnny.

Although I loved my parents and certainly wanted to make them proud, the real driving force in my life, the one person that had the greatest influence on my behavior, that one individual that I most wanted to please was my brother.

I was the fourth child and third son of my parents, with two more siblings shortly to follow, before the baby of the family surprised us a few years after we thought the family was complete. By the time I came along, my father had gone through a lot of his father son bonding with my older brothers and was certainly busy with six and then seven children, so I didn’t, and couldn’t expect to, have that individual attention that some sons get from their father, but it didn’t matter. Everything my father had to teach me was taught to me second-handedly by my oldest brother. And, I was good with that; I wanted to be just like him.

Johnny was not only small for his age, but usually the smallest in his class and smallest of his peers. But, size notwithstanding, Johnny was a tenacious and fearless participant on the athletic fields and gymnasiums. I was small-ish, but not the smallest and was always disappointed when I had classmates that measured in shorter than me. I lacked the confidence and athletic skills of my brother but I tried my hardest to duplicate his spunk and effort in all sports.

Many times, during neighborhood and sandlot games of football, stickball or basketball, Johnny would allow me to play with him and his friends – all five years older than me – when the sides needed to be evened up. Johnny always used me as his secret weapon just waiting for the older, bigger kids to get tired of having to cover the little kid, before throwing a long touchdown pass to me or setting up a pick and roll giving me a layup to the basket. Nothing was ever more special to me, than to be on his team, playing with his friends.

When it came to discipline, my parents couldn’t possibly correct my behavior or change my wayward course with near the same effectiveness as Johnny. My mother’s disciplinary weapon of choice was the pancake turner, but, as harsh as that may sound, her maternal instincts never quite allowed her to strike with enough force to achieve her intended punishment. In fact, my mother’s attempts to strike fear in me with the pancake turner usually resulted in my laughter. She would, yell, “You think that’s funny, I’ll show you funny!” And I would receive the next spanking, biting my lip trying to prevent more laughter. I remember one time when my mother got so angry that her aim was impacted and, missing the seat of my shorts, hit the top of my bare leg leaving a deep, red welt. I could sense that this did, indeed, hurt her more than it hurt me and I was saddened by how bad I made her feel as my leg wore the red mark for quite some time. I only remember once being on the angry side of my father’s belt, but the reasons why or the impacts it had on me are lost in the haze of a long ago memory. But, none of this physical, corporal punishment could possibly come close to impacting me the way my brother could by simply uttering three words at me. To make me remorseful and determined to change my ways, all Johnny had to do was say, “Act your age.” Those three words had a devastating impact on me. I’d much rather have been hit by the pancake turner or beaten with a belt.

I guarded and polished that pedestal I put my brother on throughout my entire childhood and well into my adult life. Nothing ever made me prouder than to have someone tell me I looked like or acted like or reminded them of my older brother.

When I talked my parents into letting me join the Catholic School 8th grade football team when I was then in the Centerville, Ohio public middle school, I told the coaches I was a running back, even though I had never been a running back, because Johnny told me it would help get me noticed. When Johnny took up wrestling in college, I joined the wrestling team in High School. Johnny spent hours teaching me how to drive in his red mustang in preparation for my drivers license. I don’t ever remember spending one minute in the car practicing with one of my parents. When Johnny took up the guitar, I took up the guitar. I inherited his albums when he came home from college and became a fan of his favorite bands. Even as a growing, high school boy, varsity wrestler, every time Johnny came home from college for a visit and every time he left to return to college again, I had to secretly find a private place I could go to hide my tears of happiness or grief.

I learned about life as a young man and continued to try to emulate my brother by spending week-ends with him in the “Farm House” he lived in near the Salem Mall, caring for the property owned by a number of young Catholic priests who used this as their little retreat getaway. And, Johnny was there for me at three o’clock in the morning sitting in the hospital maternity waiting room after the birth of my first child, when I was still just a twenty-one year old boy.

Johnny was and is, in other words, my hero. And, the reason why I was elated to have fractured my tooth in the fourth grade.

The Process

You walk into the waiting room nervous and a little bit embarrassed but with a resolve to do this because you love her that much.  The room is crowded with men reading, or pretending to read, one of the “Golf”, “Sailing” or “National Geographic” magazines with a doctor’s name on the white mailing label on the cover page – anything to avoid catching another man’s eyes.

Very silently, in a barely audible whisper, you check in with the nurse at the front desk – also avoiding eye contact with her.

As the nurse calls another man’s name, you keep your eyes on your magazine, knowing what he is being beckoned for and pretending that you might actually be there for another reason.

When it is your name that is called, you put down the magazine you have been staring at for a half hour without ever reading a single word, and cautiously approach the front desk.  Although you have heard the instructions whispered to the dozen of men who went before you, you listen as if this is all news to you.

“You are in room three.  Here is a receptacle; here are the instructions; and, here is some soap and lubricant.  Please follow the instructions carefully.  When you are finished, place the receptacle in the cabinet door and press the green button on the side.  Make sure you place this label over the lid of the receptacle once you have finished sealing the container.

“Is the information typed on the label accurate?  Is that your information?  Is that you wife’s name?

“When you are finished, leave the door opened and go to room 272 down the hall and wait for someone to take you to your wife.  Any questions?  Good”, without waiting for an answer, “room three is just down the hall.”

You think to yourself, “What?  No good luck?”

As you confidently walk into room three, which is no more than a small bathroom with an E-Z Boy lounge chair  squeezed in beside the toilet and far wall, and a small TV with a video player mounted to the wall, your first thought is, “Which one of those guys was just in here?”

Your second thought is, “I hope she appreciates this.”

Then, you read the first part of the instructions: “Wash your penis and testicles with the soap provided.  Thoroughly rinse, removing all of the soap residue.”

Although this instruction sounds easy enough, you look at the toilet and the small, waist-high bathroom sink and wonder, “How?”

“How, exactly, do I wash and rinse my penis and balls?  Do I dangle them in the toilet and splash toilet water over them to rinse, or do I somehow climb up onto the sink and do it?”

This now explains why there was a mop and bucket outside the bathroom door.

Although you were not planning on doing this, you decide to completely take off all of your clothes so whatever wash and rinse technique you settle on you will not get your clothes soaked in the process.

After pulling a couple muscles and wrenching your back trying to wash and rinse your private parts, you read the next part of the instructions:  “Completely dry yourself off before applying the lubricant provided for the process.”

After chuckling over the phrase, “the process”, you now notice that there are no towels in the room.  This is when you become aware of the chest-high, hot air hand dryer mounted to the wall.  You try to imagine a way to move the E-Z-Boy chair close enough to the dryer for you to stand on to complete the drying process and realize that this cannot be achieved without opening the bathroom door to provide enough maneuvering room.

This is when you decide to use your underwear as a towel and wonder if you now just contaminated the parts you sanitized with that special brownish-yellow soap – and, then say, “The hell with it”, and move on to the next step in the process.

Even though you are now completely naked in a small bathroom, with soapy water all over the floor, the video tapes and magazines in the side pocket of the E-Z-Boy recliner are so raunchy they even make you blush.

“Really”, you think, “this is the kind of stuff they think is going to help me with ‘the process’?  I am here to try to help my wife get pregnant; can’t they offer something a little softer than hard-core porn?”

You now are wondering how long you have been in here, without making any progress on the real business, and get a better understanding of why your wait in the waiting room was so long.  You also picture your wife in the other room wondering what the hell is taking you so long.  So, you pop in any video without prejudice to the title or picture on the sleeve.

The video was not re-round and starts off right in the middle of some serious action.  This is when you realize you do not know where the remote control is and the TV volume is turned up to the max.  You slip and slide around on the pleather E-Z-Chair trying to get to the volume control on the TV and decide to simply unplug the set because you can more easily reach the electrical cord than the TV itself.

After relaxing enough to stop the sweating, you settle on a magazine and search for a picture that looks more like erotica than a gynecologist’s text book, before simply closing your eyes and just letting your imagination conjure up the images that make “the process” easier.

It is when you have just about achieved your objective that you realize you left the receptacle on the sink, out of your reach.  Trying to hold it in, but stay at the ready, you maneuver over to the plastic container and realize it is going to require two hands, now slippery with the special lubricant, to open the top.

After wrestling with the jar to open the lid, the urgency of doing so has faded.  You return to the recliner, open jar in one hand, and continue “the process” with the other, once again thinking, “I hope she appreciates this.”

Once you have completed your assignment and seal the container, you open the cabinet door and see that this “cabinet” has no back side and opens directly into a room that looks like a science lab.  All that was between you and this room of lab technicians walking around in lab coats was the thin, medal door of this medicine cabinet-sized window.  It is now that you realize you should have gotten dressed first, before opening the cabinet door.  You quickly shut the door upon seeing a lab technician walking your way because you prematurely pressed the green light and hope that you didn’t just knock your container off of the shelf.

When you get dressed again, you must go commando because your towel/underwear is soaking wet and covered with soap residue.  You coyly shove your underwear into the trash container in the hallway where you notice about a dozen other pairs of wet Haines.

You figure someone must have the job of cleaning up your mess before the next victim and you sneak off down the hallway to the appointed, next waiting room.  In this room, you find the same men that were in the first waiting room with their heads buried deeper into magazines then they were before.  You notice half of the magazines are upside-down because they are just being used as veils of embarrassment and the person on the other side has no idea which way he is holding it.

You tell this room’s nurse your name, knowing that she knows full well why you have beads of sweat still on your forehead, and pray that your wife gets pregnant this time so you never have to go through this process ever again!

Parallel Universes – A Strange Thought from a Strange Man

What if, each time we die, we enter into a parallel universe in which we didn’t die?

So, in one instance of existence, we did die and those people we knew, in whatever lifetime they are living, must continue without us, but in the new universe we enter into, we didn’t die and life goes on.

In our conscious existence, we may think we had some close calls with death, when, in reality, in a parallel universe it was not a close call … we really did die … and in that existence our loved ones continue without us, but in the parallel universe we moved onto we somehow survived and those same people, yet different parallels of them, continue on with us.

There may be multiple, clone-like, unconscious existences of ourselves, living in the parallel universes of people we know who died in our conscious world, but simply transitioned into their own parallel universes with a different representation of ourselves living with them side by side.

There may be parallel universes where the life expectancy is hundreds of years old and those who we thought died of old age, passed on into a parallel universe where they live on with many years still ahead of them.

And, those dreams we have that seem so real, are really small, unconscious portals that allow a peak into one of our parallel existences.

The you that I know and the me that you know, may not even be in the same conscious parallel; it may simply be the version of us that continues on in our consciousness, playing the part of the individual really living consciously in another parallel.

A hard concept to grasp … but … what if?

When the Dam Breaks

It has been about eight years now since I have come out of the poetry closet and started sharing my poems with the world – okay, TRYING to share my poems with the world; the world just isn’t that interested in receiving them. And, really, that’s okay.

And, yes, I understand, that with my addictive behavior, once I stepped out of this closet, my poems did not just trickle out, like from a garden hose, but came shooting out, like from a fire hose. Almost daily, and, sometimes, multiple times a day, I would post yet another poem. But hey, they have been building up inside of me, secretively, for over 50 years. When the dam breaks, the water does not trickle.

So, I realize I have created my new world order. I understand that it is my behavior that has changed your behavior. I am responsible for the fact that many of you now cannot help yourself from saying, anytime I am with you and something happens, unusual or routinely, “Hey, I guess Joe will now write a poem about that.” The closet I lived in was built by those kinds of walls, so I recognize them easily. I just don’t allow them to hold me in any more.

People do not intend to build the walls of one another’s closets, but that is what we do. Whether being gay and afraid to show it; or, sensing we should have been born the other gender but being afraid to live it; or, liking to dance but having no rhythm; or, liking to sing but being tone deaf; or, liking to collect stamps; or, play with dolls; or, dressing up; or writing poems. It is the reactions of those around us, often unintended and seemingly harmless, that construct our walls of secrecy.

Now, my closet did not hold a secret that others find offensive or amoral, but it did imprison a part of me that makes me whole and it was an enclosure of which I was always aware. I struggled for years with wondering whether or not I wanted to come out of this closet. Being a poet, or poet-wannabe, just did not mesh with the way the rest of me fit into this world. I knew it had the potential of making people see me differently – not always in a positive light. I knew it had the potential to create the not real flattering remark, “I guess Joe will now write a poem about that.” But, finally, at fifty years old, I tore down my closet walls and freed my soul of the burden of secrecy.

Not really that big of a deal.

But you know what it did do? It allowed me some empathy into what people that live in those much more controversial closets have to go through. Poetry, in reality, is a very small part of who I am. I can’t imagine what that closet must be like that imprisons the most significant parts of its prisoner. I can’t imagine the pain, fear and torment of having your heart and soul living in a closet with only a small façade of you being all that you feel safe to show. The horror of that closet is terrifying to me. And, the courage it takes to open those doors simply overpowers me.

And, I understand, why, when the closet walls are broken down, the water does not trickle.

To many, people coming out of a closet, no matter which closet that might be, seem flamboyant, over-zealous and in-our-face. But, try to imagine how you would feel when first coming out of a small, dark room that has held you captive for all of your life. You, too, would probably raise your hands high and shout out, “I am free, I am free. God almighty, I am free, at last!”

Some of you reading this may still be enclosed in one closet or another. I hope, one day, you find the courage to break down those walls, no matter how trivial or how controversial the subject of your prison may be. And, when you do, if I should ever unintentionally belittle your accomplishment or demean your passion in a thoughtless attempt at humor, feel free to let me know. The last thing I want to do is to be responsible for reconstructing walls that you so courageously broke down.

Just be aware, there will be some who love you now who will no longer love the you that steps out of that closet. But then, just like you were not being you, their love was not being love. And others, please be aware, when someone you love opens up a closet door that you, up until then, were never allowed inside of, you will be met with the force of a firehose, because …

… when the dam breaks, water does not trickle.

Watching “Field of Dreams”

At 57, I am not ready to say I am “old”, but I am certainly aware of the fact that I am growing old. There are just too many signs my mind and body give for me to ignore this truth.

Sure, I still get out there and play basketball and volleyball with a younger crowd, but I can no longer do so up to the levels I once enjoyed. I still dive on the floor after a volleyball, but I have a harder time picking myself up again. My back is sore; my knees ache; my shoulders are tight; my reflexes are slow. But, I am still out there.

I can still go on long hikes in the woods, mile after mile, but it takes me longer to complete the trail and longer to recover from the journey in the days that follow. I find it harder to move furniture around the house that my wife finds no harder in imagining looking better in another location. My teeth ache; my hair has long since departed; I eat Advil like they are M & M’s; more and more memories seem to be leaving me; and, … I cry.

No, not from the aches and pains – they don’t make me cry. Not due to forgotten memories or from the frustrations that accompany failed efforts that used to come easy for me. Passing Barber Shops without the need to go inside does not make me cry. Being too embarrassed to remove my shirt at the beach does not make me cry. No … now that I am getting older, movies make me cry.

As a kid, I was a cry-baby. I cried anytime I lost a game and every time my older brothers teased me – usually because I was crying from losing a game. But, somewhere before my teen years, I managed to turn off the water-works never to cry again … until recently.

I experienced many events that saddened me and made me quite solemn, but the tears had been packed away following many an admonishment from my father and brothers telling me I was too old to cry. Ironically, now that I am getting old, I cry once again … at the stupid movies!

And not just movies like “Steel Magnolias” and “Terms of Endearment”, those are designed to make you cry. No, last night I watched “Field of Dreams” and I cried.

When a young Archibald “Moonlight” Graham crossed over the line after getting his one at bat with the major leaguers to become old Doc Graham once again so he could dislodge the hot dog from Ray’s daughter’s throat, the lump started swelling up in mine. When Terrance Mann walks into the corn field to join Shoeless Joe and his gang of baseball-playing angels, the tears started to form. And, when Ray Kinsella finally had that catch with his young father, … Niagara Falls.

It’s as if those tears I never cried as a young man have all pooled up inside and must now find their escape. Tears I couldn’t find from my brother’s passing at such a young age; tears that abandoned me after my own father’s death; tears that eluded me ever since I was told not to be such a cry-baby, now flow as soon as I see movie characters experience emotions that I so stoically have suppressed since the time I was thirteen years old.

No, I am not yet “old” but I am getting there. And, that is something I wish you to consider should you ever be with me when I am watching a movie.