The zombie apocalypse is coming . . . maybe

The zombie chases me. He’s frothing at the mouth, his shirt and pants are ripped and he ― more animal than human ― walks with an uneven shuffle.

I run up the stairs to get away. Even with his limp, he keeps coming. He’s now about ten yards away. I run down the hall. He keeps coming. His grunting and growling sound like thunder in my ears.  I run faster, but he’s right behind me, maybe two or three yards away. I can’t get away.

The fatigue from the chase is catching up to me. I can’t seem to catch my breath. My lungs are burning and I can feel his breath on my neck. He’s reaching for me. His hand grabs the back of my shirt . . . and then . . . and then in the dead of night I wake up in a cold sweat.

Have you ever been here? Is this just me?

I get up and go the bathroom to wash my face and drink a glass of water. I stand over the sink, look into the mirror and shake my head. I spent another night watching The Walking Dead with my 16-year-old son and it’s coming back to haunt me.

I curse myself for being so silly.

Since I was a little kid, I’ve never been a fan of horror movies. I’ll watch Michael Myers from Halloween, Freddie Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even the stupid little Chuckie doll for a while, but eventually they send me running to another room.

Oh I’m fine with the stories, the suspense, and even the blood (and I hate seeing blood). My problem with stories about werewolves, vampires, wild psychopaths, and every other violent creature is my very own active imagination.

I look around me and every closet represents a hiding place for a suicidal murderer, every kitchen knife a possible weapon for a crazed lunatic, and every locked door, one less exit for my get-away. I love my imagination most days because it’s usually a blessing, but when it comes to horror shows or movies, my imagination is most definitely a curse.

Since I know what I’m getting myself into I normally avoid the genre, but Sean loves them and I’m trying to watch with him. You know . . . manly-man, father–son bonding time. So instead of watching the NFL match-up between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos or Madam Secretary or any other show this Sunday night, I’ll be tuned into the Series 6 Mid-Season finale of The Walking Dead. I’ll have one hand covering my eyes with my fingers spread just wide enough so I can continue to watch and my other hand holding tightly  to the arm of my chair, so tightly in fact that you’ll be able to see the veins bulging in my hand.

Yes, I know I’m destroying any respect anyone might have had for me . . . but I can’t lie.

I remind myself that it’s all make-believe. I remind myself too that I’ve faced bigger challenges than made-up zombies. However, when I see a character facing impending doom, I’ll still yell out for them to run the other way or to run faster. Sean usually shushes me to be quiet when that happens. He gives me a dirty look. He shakes his head as if to day: “Can’t take my dad anywhere.”

In the end, when a character falls and gets killed by the horde of the zombies. I want to look away, but I can’t. I know that I look foolish, but I don’t care. Whatever it takes to get through the show. And whatever it takes to spend time with my kids.

I’m convinced that watching with Sean is the right thing to do, at least until I wake up at 3 in the morning.

I wash my face one more time and promise myself that the first thing in the morning I’ll find another hobby for the two of us to share. Who’s up for some fantasy football? Target shooting? Bowling? Something tame like bird watching or stamp collecting?

The specific hobby doesn’t matter, just as long it doesn’t include zombies or crazed killers.

 

 

Finding joy in the little things

When I was a little kid, I used to laugh at what made my mother happy. To my little brain, she seemed to take a lot of pleasure ― too much pleasure in fact ― in something as small as a hot cup of coffee or a snowy day or even crisp, clean laundry.

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For example, she’d savior and relish the coffee like it was the best that she had ever tasted.  I teased her once on her simple ways, saying that I was sure that the Maxwell House coffee was “good to the last drop,” but couldn’t really be that good.

Another time, she took off from work to take me to a doctor’s appointment. When we came out of the small little office, she was absolutely ecstatic that the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. When I asked why she was so excited when it had been clear and sunny the previous five days, she scolded me for being ungrateful and small-minded.

But time has a way of changing us.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see the value like she does in the little things. For example, I feel extremely grateful and happy right now. Did I win the lottery? Did I find out that a long-long lost family member had left me millions of dollars? No, I’m happy because:

  • We’ve gotten great feedback from my sons’ teachers on their classwork and effort. They’ve worked their butts off and it was fun to see the boy’s teachers recognize their hard work in their first quarter teacher’s conferences.
  • I was able to take off from work and pick-up my daughter from school.
  • We were finally all under the same roof for the first time in weeks and able to enjoy a long, rambling family dinner.
  • And yes my coffee was hot and tasted pretty good.

I guess my mom has rubbed off on me and I’ve come to appreciate the little things too.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Movie heroes have the best toys

Everyone wants to be the hero.

Everyone wants to be James Bond, saving the world from impending doom. I get that, but I’ve always wanted something else: the heroes’ toys.

The hero ― at least the ones in the movies ― always have the best toys.

What do I mean? Here’s a few of the toys I wouldn’t mind having for when I need to save the day:

speed—I would start with every guy’s dream, James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5. The car was filmed in Goldfinger, Thunderball, and Skyfall and is a classic, with a 282 horse power engine and can travel zero to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Besides the car, who wouldn’t love the ejector gear shift button? I must admit that I can think of a few people I would love to take for a spin. Okay, I can think of lots of people. But even without the ejector button, the car would still be a gem.

—Captain Kirk’s transporter, the fictional teleportation machine that converts a person or object into an energy pattern and then “beams” it to a target. With a 45-minute commute to work each day, I must admit to fantasizing more than a few times over the years about having a transporter. You come up with some crazy ideas sitting in traffic five days a week for 52 weeks in a year. A transporter certainly has been tops on that list.

—Harry Potter’s wand. Every morning when I lean over to pull up my sheets and make my bed, I think of how much my back would thank me if I had a wand ― made of dragon heartstring or Phoenix feather, doesn’t matter what ― to help with the task. With a slight twist of the wrist and the recitation of the spell “Reparo,” my pillows, bedspread and blankets would magically fix themselves back to normal. I’d flick the wand again and our laundry room full of dirty clothes would wash, fold themselves and magically arrange themselves in my closets. With a wand, I just might start to enjoy the finer points of cleaning.

These toys are probably not possible, but I’ll keep dreaming for them.  Who knows, maybe one day?

Making sense of senseless actions

The American Embassy in Iran in 1979. New York, Washington and a field near Somerset outside of Pittsburgh on 9/11. And the attacks on Paris on Friday night.

While decades apart, I felt the same after each event — first shock and then deep sadness that the world had changed overnight and not for the better. In each event and a few others over the years, I’ve been surprised by the attacker’s callousness and their utter disregard for human life.

I’ve come away from each tragedy questioning how someone can injure, maim or kill the innocent and not feel anything. Do they not realize that the man or woman lying on the ground was just some innocent mother or father trying to get to work or get home to take their kids to practice?

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We’ve been fortunate in the U.S. in that we haven’t had to face the level of hostage-taking, bombings and challenges on our own homeland as the rest of the world. (Frankly one is too many, but we’ve still been fortunate that there haven’t been more.) However when I read about the beheadings in Iraq and Syria, see the footage of the bombings in Beirut or then in Paris, I worry first for our safety. Even more than that, I’m struck by the insanity of the situation. What makes a person kill someone who has done nothing to them? What drives that type of hatred? Where does that that level of anger originate?

I’m not naïve. I know the world can be a dangerous place. I know that we have enemies simply because we exist. I know they have a deep hatred for our way of life.

I have some simplistic tendencies, but I know too that my values are not uniform. I may respect life but that doesn’t mean you will too. I may pray or wish for your happiness, but that doesn’t mean you will wish for mine.

I know too that killing is as old as time. But I still question why. I can understand going to war to protect a homeland, to protect a people. However, I can’t understand killing just to bully or kill. I find it unfathomable.

And no, I don’t believe the killing would stop if we simply picked-up and left the Middle East. It would go on. It would continue onward, first to Israel and then the rest of the region. A bully is a bully.

In the end, I question humanity and if we have learned anything from history?  Did Nazi Germany not teach us anything? Cambodia? Bosnia? Have we not learned anything about the sanctity of life? In turn, I’m left to wonder what the future holds.

I come away with just two answers: The world has changed and it doesn’t always make sense.

So God help us all.

A look back on the reasons why I feared fatherhood

I was cleaning up some boxes in our basement the other day and I came across a short list that I had created nineteen years ago for Kathy right before we had Erin.

We had tried for a while to have kids and then finally after a lot of prayers Kathy had gotten pregnant. We were nearing the homestretch, only a few more weeks before her due-date, but a part of us still worried. Would we make good parents? Would we know what to do? Would everything turn out for the best?

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I was worried the most. There was no question that Kathy would be a great mom. So kind and generous. How could she not? Me, on-the-other-hand? The jury was still out. To help deal with the worry, I created a Top Ten list of my fatherhood worries. I figured a little bit of gallows humor would keep the questions at bay and maybe even cheer up Kathy as we made our last minute preparations.

I pulled the list out the other day and I couldn’t help but laughing. Nineteen years have passed, but they’re still pretty funny.

10. The baby in delivery room miraculous speaks his or her first words, “Let me back in, let me back in . . . right now.”

9. Soiled diapers.

8. Lack of sleep. I like to sleep. Will I ever sleep again?

7. Baby comes out of the womb, looking suspiciously like the mailman. Kathy’s coworker. Kathy’s long-lost grade-school friend. Kathy’s fitness trainer. You get the picture.

6. While in the doctor’s hands, the baby takes one look at Kathy, then one look at me and begins to furiously shake its head and cry.

5. Someday that tiny baby, softer than a cottontail, will stand 6 feet tall, have looks to kill, and will walk up to me and say, “Yo, dad let’s talk about the birds-and-the-bees.”

4. I look at myself in the mirror and see a baby looking back. Okay, I’m no baby-faced 21-year-old, but I certainly don’t see 28-year-old man on the verge of having his first child.

3. The baby comes out of the womb wearing a t-shirt that says, “My parents went to St. Joe’s Hospital and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

2. Biggest fear: I might actually have to grow up.

The drum-roll please . . .

  1. A baby’s daily routine: feed the baby, change the baby, put the baby to sleep. Feeding the baby again, Change the baby again. Giving the baby a bath. Where’s the time dedicated to zoning out to ESPN SportsCenter or going out for a romantic bite to eat? Uh-oh.

baby-203048_1280The list is off in spots, right-on in others. If nothing else, I was right to be worried about sleep. The last time I got a full eight hours of uninterrupted and unstressed sleep? Yea, you guessed it, right before Erin was born.

Despite it all, Kathy and the kids have somehow managed to survive. Me too!

I wonder if Kathy will pull out another Top Ten list from me in another twenty years laughing about how we once worried about college costs; keeping enough food on the table to feed the boys; the times we felt more like a taxi than parents; passing each other running from one event to another, etc., etc.

Who knows, but I hope so.

Looking for answers to the great mysteries of life

Why do some days feel longer than others?

I know it’s an off-the-wall question, but I’ve been wondering lately why one day flies by and the next flows like molasses. We all have days when every second on the clock seems to take ten years. And then other days, you look up from your work and wonder where the day went.

It’s one of those mysteries of life.

When the big guy (or woman) comes to tell me that my time is done, I’m going to have a few questions for him. My hope is that he’ll finally be able to shed some light on a few of life’s more challenging mysteries. I won’t ask for my money back. I certainly won’t yell or scream. I would just like to have some answers on why life is the way it is.

Some of my questions include:

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—Why the one day I go to sit down and eat a real breakfast, the milk is empty? Most days I’m rushing three different places before the clock strikes 6:30 a.m. So when I do have time for cereal, it’s a rarity (and usually on a Saturday when I’m in a ratty old t-shirt and sweatpants) and like clockwork, it’s those days when we’re out of milk.

—When I park in an empty parking lot, why does someone always park next to me? It could be completely empty, but someone will always pull-in next to me . . . guaranteed. I pull over for just for a second to quickly to read a text or grab a bite to eat, parking as far away from other cars as humanly possible. I barely look down and, of course, a stranger pulls-up next to me. Not five or six spots away, but right next to me. “Good grief, are you kidding me?” I shout to no one in particular.

—Why does the rain drop, but snow fall?

—I can live with a receding hairline. But when I die, I want to ask God why he gave me a son (with a full-head of hair, I might add) who finds extreme pleasure in pointing out how little hair I have left. Why God?

—Why everything I love to eat — everything from chocolate, Buffalo wings, expensive steak dinners, and to sugary sodas — is so bad for me?

—Why advertisers trying to sell me stuff on TV are so clueless with their pitches? Have you watched commercials recently? Have you really watched them? Can they get any worse? For example, some of the cell phone commercials leave me speechless. They’re spending millions of dollars on an ad that I’m going to forget in 20 seconds. I walk away remembering less about their brand and more about the countless ways they could have spent their money.

—Why is it that whenever I get into my car, my gas tank is always on empty? Always.

—Why does it feel like the older I get, the more behind I’m getting with staying up-to-date on the latest technology? Meanwhile, my kids know things about my phone that I’ll never know.

—I love spending time with the boys, but right when we start to have fun and relax on a school night, they have to get ready for bed and I have to get myself ready for another work day. Why does it always end up that way? Why?

—Why every time I turn on TV, I have to watch an entertainment story about one of the Kardashians? Really? That’s the best that today’s mass media has to offer?

—Why I sit down to write sometimes and the words seem to write themselves and other times I can barely put two clear thoughts together and my sentences read like “See Spot run.”

—Why does war, cancer, death, sadness, heartache, and pain exist? Yes a bit more serious than my other questions, but, when you’ve got God’s attention, you’ve got to go for it.

—Why have I done some of my best work ― some of my best professional work and even some of my best writing ― when I’ve been the most scared, most unbalanced?

sun-851590_1920—When I’m running late, on my way to work or to pick-up the kids, why does it feel like everything — including buses, garbage trucks, delivery drivers, and slow drivers — get in my way? I know that it happens to everyone, that it’s just my very active imagination, but it feels like it always happens to me.

—Why have the Philadelphia Eagles failed miserably in their attempt to win a Super Bowl? Yes, the Eagles have won three championships, but that was in the 60s. Why God?

—Why do I have all these questions “why” and why are the answers never easy?

If I have time, I might even get around to asking God the age-old question that every two-year-old known to man wants to ask: “Why is the sky blue?”

I’m listening God. Any answers?

Remembering a “guinea pig”on Veterans Day’s

Wednesday marks Veterans Day.

Every year this time I think of the many people ― including family and friends ― who’ve served in the Armed Forces. I’m especially thinking this year of a man I met in 1993, who as a 19-year-old Navy seaman was taken to a lab in Anacostia, Maryland and was exposed to mustard gas in secret military tests. Walter and the other soldiers in his small test group, most just 17 to 19-years-old, were told that they would be testing “summer clothing” and, in return, promised weekend passes. The soldiers were told to not tell anyone about the secret experiments and most kept quiet until the media and government started revealing more about the tests in the mid-80s.

IMG_7291When I met Walter, he was 68 and he told me how he was locked into a gas chamber and exposed to lethal mustard gas and Lewisite, a poison gas made from arsenic. He came out of the chamber nauseated and with blistering burns on his arms, scalp, shoulders, and back.

He called himself a “human guinea pig” and worried that the poisons that he’d been exposed to as a young man would make themselves known in more painful detail as he entered his retirement years. He was fighting for Veterans Affairs benefits.

The VA, of course, was denying his claims.

I’ve been thinking especially about Water in recent weeks as National Public Radio has run several stories on the tests and released the first public database of American veterans who were secretly exposed to mustard gas in military experiments during World War II.

In all 60,000 American troops served as test subjects, and about 4,000 were used in extreme tests that government studies have linked to illnesses including skin cancer, leukemia and chronic breathing problems.

“I said, ‘I’m burning. I’m burning up inside!’ But, once you were in the gas chamber there was no going back. You were stuck, you had to stay the full hour,” he told me for a story I wrote at the time for the Fauquier Citizen, a newspaper in Northern Virginia.

A few months after I interviewed Walter, I moved away from Virginia, but I’ve routinely thought about him over the years, his sacrifice, and how he was faring. A quick search shows that he recently turned 90 and still lives in the same community where I met him. As in years past, I wish him well and pray that he’s been able to get the medical services and solace that he was looking for when I last saw him.

US Flag1I pray too that our government has learned from its mistakes and never lies and harms its soldiers like it did to Walter and countless others like him.

Finally, I will remember too on this day, the thousands of servicemen and women who protect our shores both home and abroad. I’m thankful and appreciative for their dedication and service.  

The farmer: A message of hope even in a time of despair

I wrote this piece more than twenty years ago when I worked as a reporter at a small newspaper and was sent out to cover a house fire that had come across the police scanner.

The sad thing is that the piece never appeared anywhere – at least in the format that it now exists. Since the fire took place well outside my newspaper’s coverage area and happened so close to deadline, my editor directed me to write a small 250-word news brief for that day’s newspaper and move onto other stories.

The farmer and his message, though, was just too powerful. His message of hope stayed with me. I don’t want to sound too over-dramatic, but in a small way, it haunted me. A few months later, I had moved onto another job, but I went back and wrote what I saw that day.

The story has stayed with me still today. One day, I plan to use the farmer’s story of hope as the background for a novel that I have planned.

So more to come. In the meantime, let me introduce you to “the farmer.”


The weathered farmer kicked a charred piece of wood and looked at all that had been lost.

More than 40 years of hard work had gone up in smoke. The ashes still hot in places, smoldered in the background, crackling and creating small billowy clouds that spread out and covered the area like a deep fog.

Several firemen, helmets in hands, stood dumbfounded, not quite sure what to say to their friend and neighbor.

The elderly man and his wife didn’t have much, but what they did have, a few possessions, a rustic farmhouse and barn, went up in the fire. They built the farm in the Central Pennsylvania mountains soon after they had married in the early 1950s.

The couple farmed the land, milked a few cows, and raised three daughters on the farm. Despite all the hard work that had gone into it, the small farmhouse went up in flames with the snap of your fingers.

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The nearby barn, full of dried hay and straw, burned even quicker. Firemen arrived as soon as they could, but the fire had a massive head start and they were left with few options other than making sure that the fire didn’t spread to a thicket of woods. The farmer and his wife returned from dropping a basket of corn off to a neighbor to find the fire trucks leading up to their house and their belongings in ruin.

Everything the husband and wife had ever worked for, everything they had bled and sweat for, with one swipe . . . was gone. Fire officials planned an in-depth investigation into what caused the fire, but suspected that the heat from the hot summer sun on a patch of dry grass near one corner of the house played a key role in setting off the fire.

“I can’t believe it,” the man said, holding his head in his calloused hands. “I just can’t believe it for the life of me.”

The 67-year-old stumbled to a small area off to one side and shook his head at what had been his once-prized rose garden.

Gone.

He pulled open a drawer to a half-standing, blackened desk. His detailed farm records, some dating back 30 to 40 years.

Gone.

His wife’s famous recipe box, including her extra special chili recipe which helped her win numerous chili contests over the years.

Gone.

From out of nowhere in the stack of crusty debris, the old man pulled out a melted picture frame. He stared at the destroyed family picture and one lone tear trickled down the side of his face.

“We got this picture taken soon after we had Melissa, our youngest,” the farmer said, turning the frame over and over in his hands.

“My wife got herself and girls all spritzed up. She even managed to hog-tie me into going to get this taken.”

Pulling out a red handkerchief, the man, wearing a work shirt and stained overalls, quickly swiped the tear away from his face.

“I always liked this picture the most,” he said, flashing an earthy smile that disappeared as quickly as it came.

The farmer stepped away from the gathered firefighters and family members to mull his thoughts over, look at the rubble and collect himself. He was still shaken and even a bit wobbly a few minutes later, but the color in the farmer’s skin slowly started to return. He quietly walked over to his wife’s side.

She wept quietly on a neighbor’s shoulder underneath an old oak tree. The woman, a rock in her own right, kept the family together over the years and the farm running through the good times and the bad.

She suffered from arthritis, but performed the work of three people half her age. She would rise early in the morning and work late in the evening, somehow finding time to volunteer at the hospital, the women’s center and her church. She long ago had started to show signs of ageing — gray hair, wrinkles, etc — but her neighbors still talked of her grace and kindness.

In their time of despair, the farmer held out his hands to his wife and pulled her into his arms.

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“We’re still alive,” he said, rubbing her back. “We’ve lost a few possessions. We’ll live. It will be tough for a while, until we get our feet back under us, but we’ll get there, we’ll be happy again. I promise you.”

The farmer looked into his wife’s blue eyes and wiped away a stream of tears with his finger. “We’ll always have our memories and we still have the most important thing in this world — We still have each other.”