Sunday, July 2, 2017

Exceptional Independence

It’s Sunday morning as I write this. Tuesday is the Fourth of July, our Independence Day. I was thinking about it this morning. Thinking about how much I love that day. I think, other than Christmas, it’s my favorite holiday. I love this country. I love it so much it brings me to tears sometimes. Tears of pride and of love mostly. Tears of pain and sadness once in a while. Only the things you love can bring out your emotions. And I love this country.
I love our history, and I love our uniqueness. I love that we are exceptional. For those unaware of what “American Exceptionalism” means (Including our prior president, Mr. Obama) I’ll explain. It doesn’t mean we think we are “exceptional” the way I think my daughter is exceptional. All citizens think that of their countries. At least most do. Citizens of despots probably don’t, although most despots cut their citizens off from the world at large so they wouldn’t know how anyone else lives anyway. 
American Exceptionalism doesn’t mean we think we’re better than any other country. It means we know we are unique. We do it differently. We have since July 4, 1776. We chose a different form of government. We have a different attitude. We value things that other nations don’t, and we disavow ourselves of systems and traditions that other nations adhere to. 
We’re The Exception. That’s how we like it. We treasure hard work and grit, and determination. We feel shame if we put even the slightest dent in that fierce independent streak we inherited from the signers of that document in Philadelphia.
We want to do it our way, because we’re confident that our way is best. Every craftsman, every doctor, every actor, every musician, every schoolteacher…none of us want to inherit some government job that removes the possibility of failure, and the risk of achievement. We want to rise or fall based solely on the strength of our work ethic, the volume of our blood, sweat, and tears, and the quality of our work. 
I work for a college in the IT department. As a side business, I also build decks. I’ve had decks in magazines. I could easily just slap together another square deck that looks like a boat dock -well-built though it may be- but I choose to create beautiful structures that stand out from all the rest. I build every deck as if it were going in my own yard. I sign my name to my work. I choose to be the exception. That's America.
We’ve been a nation for 240 years now. In that time, we’ve fought two world wars, eliminated slavery, (while literally tearing ourselves apart and then healing our own soul) lost presidents to assassination, death in office, and resignation. We elected a black man with a Muslim name, only 7 years after the biggest attack on our soil…by Muslims. (Proving that we are far too forgiving, and far too kind hearted. But we DO learn from our mistakes)
We tend to “Americanize” things. We have to. We’re the exception. Things that are just fine in Europe, won’t stand up to scrutiny here without some tweaking. To quote my favorite comedian, the late, great, Richard Jeni: “The French might have studied exactly how many flaky layers it takes to make the perfect croissant, but only the Americans could improve it by stuffing two pieces of ham and some processed cheese in it, and serving it through a drive-thru window in two minutes!”
He’s right. 
We drive to work and eat in our car. We work late. We don’t take afternoon siestas and late morning brunches. We grind and hustle. For the money? Perhaps. For the recognition? Maybe. The real reason is because it’s who we are. It’s pride. It’s our soul. When the photographer for the “Garden Lifestyles” magazine first approached me twenty years ago to photograph one of my decks, it wasn’t because I had sent him some pictures or promoted myself in any way. It was because I was building a deck for his next-door neighbor and he saw my work and was blown away. I didn’t even know who he was or what he did. I did the job as I always do it, and someone noticed. 
That’s America!  Contrary to popular belief…we AREN’T the Kardashians. We’re the Waltons. We’re The Sopranos, without the crime. 
We’re Exceptional.
Tuesday marks our 240th year. Our birthday. These last eight years I had my doubts that there would be another. I wrote as much on several occasions. Our previous president had us on the brink of ruin for almost his entire eight-year reign of terror. He was our personal King George. He mocked us and denied our representation. If we disagreed with him he held us out as racist. As if we elected this black man, just to have someone to hate. He destroyed the environment for business growth, tried to disable our dreams and crush our drive and ambition. He mocked those of us who started businesses and built lives on our own. He fiddled as Rome burned and then peed on the smoldering ashes. I believe, he intended to break us forever. He hates this exceptionalism we possess and he wanted to reduce us to “just-another-nation” status. 
But we ended that dream of his. Because we’re still exceptional. 
We didn’t lay down and drink the poison he offered. The poison of laziness, and government dependency, and mediocrity. We refused to believe we were no longer exceptional. No longer special. No longer God-blessed and God-centered. He wanted us to be less. The President of the United States, wanted his own nation to be something less. Just writing those words makes me furious. My president, whom I certainly didn’t vote for but who’s office I still respected, wanted my country to fail.
I was thinking about this as I thought about my grandparents. They were all immigrants except for my maternal grandmother, and even she was born here to immigrant parents. I don’t find my roots in aristocracy. I find them in Exceptionalism. I find them in Americanism.
My grandfather Joe, (Giuseppe) faked the age on his birth certificate and stowed away on a freighter from the port of Gaetti, near his hometown of Montecassino, Italy. He came here at 15. All alone. By the time he was done, he’d married, raised 13 kids, built his own house and his own business, and made his own way. He was an exception.
My father, Giuseppe’s son, just one generation off the boat, earned his Ed.D. A fifteen-year-old immigrant stowaway, has a son who gets a doctorate. Because we’re exceptional.
My grandmother grew up in South Philly, next door to a handsome young man with a beautiful voice, the son of immigrants. His name was Alfred Cocozza, but the world knew him as Mario Lanza. He was just a kid from South Philly, but he had dreams and talent and he worked, and he became the exception.
Our men have died defending this nation. Their families never turned against us, even as they grieved so great a sacrifice for an increasingly unappreciative community. Others have carried wounds from battle and silently went on with life, shrugging their shoulders at the respect and awe we hold them in. Because they are exceptional.
We invented cures for diseases, and put men on the moon. Because we simply couldn’t sit back and wait for some other nation…some older, more established country, to get there first.
Because we’re the exception.
We don’t want to be part of some globalist view. We don’t believe in “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” on a worldwide scale. We’re Us. You’re them. Let’s be best friends, but not adopted family. We like you, but we don’t want to be you.
We’re the exception.
We admire those who speak multiple languages. But we speak English.
We love travel and exotic locations. But our favorite place is our backyard, a grill, some friends from the block we live on, and that glorious flag waving in the breeze.
We’re the exception.
That’s who we are.
This Independence Day, for the first time since 2009, we have a President who is, himself, the exception. He's a patriot. Rough, vocal, passionate, often coloring outside the lines. He stood out from a crowd of political robots to put down the threat of Hillary Clinton and give us the chance to save ourselves. We voted for him because he wasn’t like the rest.
He was exceptional.
We are exceptional.
I don’t know how they celebrate Bastille Day, or Cambodia day or whatever the rest of the nations on earth do on their anniversary.
But Americans never forget what we are, who we defeated and why.
We’re exceptional.
God Bless America.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Natural

I’m almost afraid to write this. Afraid to see the words on the paper. Afraid to hear the responses that my friends will doubtless offer. Afraid to touch this portion of my heart.
But writing is what I do when I am carrying a weight inside. Sharing what I write is how I make sense of it. I get feedback that tells me that what I’m feeling is what others feel too. They appreciate how I’ve addressed it and maybe I’ve touched a nerve and said something that they wanted to say but were struggling to find the right words. Conversely, I might be taken to task and I realize that I hadn’t thought of a particular angle and it helps me process it further.
I don’t know what kind of response I’m wanting from this post. I don’t know how those who know me will react. I’m not out for pity or sympathy, let me say that here. I’m just trying to make sense.
I’m 53.
I feel lost. Adrift. I feel like everything that made up “Craig” has been stripped out in the past 18 years and I’m not sure what has filled the void. In honesty…it feels like the void is all there is.
18 years ago, I was a dad and a husband. By the end of that year (1999) I was a divorced dad, seeing my daughter once a week and every other weekend. I was 800 miles from home, trying desperately to make my way in a new town, in a new career, with a completely shattered heart.
Make no mistake…my divorce destroyed me. I loved my wife. I defined myself as a husband and a father. It hurt when she left. Hurt in ways I cannot begin to describe properly. Not with all my words. There were nights I slept on the couch because I couldn’t sleep in that bed. There were nights I passed out on the living room floor, because I had been rocking back and forth on my hands and knees, crying and praying to God that He would bring her back. That this pain would end. I would wake up stiff and sore with my fingertips bloodied from where I had clawed at the carpet so tightly in my grief, that the fibers cut into my skin.
I missed my daughter so much in the days between her visits that I felt as if I were dead when she was gone. I was a husband without a wife. A father without his child. A man without the things that defined him.
It took me two years to take my wedding ring off for good. All I had was my job, so I threw myself into it and got better and better at it. Until I was very good. I made money. I bought a house. But it wasn’t a home. Not when Daisy wasn’t there.
I lived like this for six years. Around 2005 I was finally coming back to life. Holly had remarried and there was no longer any chance for reconciliation. (In hindsight, I am eternally grateful for this. There are few people on this earth now that I would rather never be around more than her. But it took a long time to get there) But I was still lost. I was undefined. I was in the mortgage business but it wasn’t my passion. I was a dad but I only got my fatherhood about 30% of the time. I had the heart of a husband but I had no wife. I am a son, and neither of my parents have any desire whatsoever to have a relationship with me. (Thankfully, God brought another set of “adopted” parents into my life and they are more parental than my own biological family. But it still stings) I was living, but I was not alive.
I lost everything in 2008 and I lived in a Yukon for almost 6 years.
These last few months, I have been realizing that I am still homeless. I traded a Yukon for a 700-sf townhouse. I live indoors. I have my own kitchen and shower and washing machine. But in my soul, I feel like I merely moved into a bigger version of the Yukon. This isn’t a home.
This isn’t where my heart is. This is four walls and some amenities. I’m thankful for it, make no mistake. But my heart longs for something that I still haven’t found. And as each day passes now, I feel more and more that I won’t find it. It passed me by years ago. My rudder came off somewhere back in one of those early storms and all I do now is drift. I land in a harbor now and then, but the next wind fills my sails and blows me back out there on the high seas. My compass spins wildly and I wonder where I’m going to find myself.
I’m homeless. I long to be somewhere else. Somewhere familiar. Somewhere where I feel like I have strengths that matter, that I was “exactly the right guy for this job.” I’m good at what I do -make no mistake- but I feel as if I am just a worker bee.
I’m homeless. Home is where your heart is, they say. My heart is back in that neighborhood I grew up in. It’s on the backwater of Lake Como in Smyrna, fishing with my best friend, having a conversation. I haven’t had a real conversation in about 20 years now. Men don’t make friends easily after about age 22. Once you leave college, and you get out into the world, men put on their armor and never take it off. We don’t readily bond with other men, after a certain age. I have friends in Lynchburg, but none that I have had any kind of deep conversations with. None that I miss if a few days go by and we don’t talk. We “like” each other’s posts on Facebook and make inside jokes about politics and that passes as friendship. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just how we are.
I think about owning a home again. A real home with a yard and a deck and a man cave in the garage. Then I think to myself how there’s nobody I would really invite over to the man cave. Nobody who I think; “I think I’ll call __________ and hang out tonight.”
Instead I think how maybe after he’s done for the season on his crab boat, I can get my best friend to come down here for a few days and we can fish together and laugh and joke and be with someone who really knows the other guy.
I have been wrestling with the great question of men at my age: “What happens now?”
The worst thing in the world is having no answer. It’s worse than having an answer you don’t like. Because at least you know what’s going to happen, even if it’s not what you wanted. I’ve been feeling myself give up, a little at a time, a little more each day, for almost a year now. Not giving up on life, I’m not that desperate and I’m far too stubborn. But giving up on dreams. Not wild, crazy, reckless dreams, just dreams of any kind. Dreams of the family that I had so longed to create. Dreams of where the relationship would be with my daughter at this stage of life. Dreams of writing something important and dreams of leaving some small legacy of some sort.
One by one, those dreams are fading, like tiny light bulbs flickering and then extinguishing altogether, losing their battle with the dark.
Brennan Manning once wrote that there were three ways to commit suicide: Kill yourself, let yourself die, or live life without any hope. Numbers one and two will never be a consideration for me. But I fear number three because I already see it happening to me.
I watched “The Natural” the other day. When that movie first came out I was 22. The movie was a portent. It was a tragic view of a life that was marred by a few choices, some made by the protagonist and some made by others that affected him. I remember one scene that struck me, even as a young man. Roy Hobbs is sitting in a little luncheonette talking with his childhood girlfriend, Iris. They haven’t seen each other in 16 years and, while she knows nothing of his trials and the damage done to his life, she can see that he’s not the young man he was.
They make small talk and finally she looks at him and says, “What happened to you, Roy?” He pauses for a long time. The words pain him and finally he says, simply, “My life…didn’t turn out the way I’d planned.”
I remember being 22 and thinking how I hope that never happens to me.
I’m 53 and I’m afraid it has.
I watched it last week and it made me cry. Often.
My life didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. Not even close. And there isn’t much I can do about it now. I can’t get the years back that I lost. I can return my daughter to age 6 and somehow avoid homelessness and loss. I can’t seem to open up and let myself fall for someone and have a family. I won’t be calling my father this Sunday and reminiscing. I don’t go to my job each day thinking about how I can achieve greatness and see my gifts put to use. My job has its moments, for sure, but it’s not a passion for me. Not sleeping in my car again is a passion, so I do my job. I’ve taken steps to find some answers on this. I don’t want to have this be how I’ll face each day for the next 30 years. But it all happened so fast. I was 7 years old, riding my spider bike to Nonesuch creek to fish with my friends and the next thing I knew I was married with a daughter. I fell asleep one night and woke up divorced in a new house by myself. I left for groceries and came back to find my key didn’t fit the lock and I had to live in my car. I drove to Virginia, got a job, left for lunch and when I got back I’ been here 3 years and my job was flat. I was flat.
Mark and I were fishing one day, I blinked and we’re in our fifties and haven’t fished together in 25 years. Time didn’t pass me by…it latched on and dragged me down the highway as it raced to its destination. Somehow I worked myself loose and found myself deposited here, trying to figure out where here is…and who I am.

“I guess…my life didn’t turn out the way I’d planned.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

In My America... Remembering When Things Were Better

I want my America back.
I’m 53. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the suburbs of New Castle, Delaware, about 20 miles south. I grew up on a lower middle class, dead-end street. From where I live now, it’s about 285 miles, and 6 hours away.
But from where we all live, it might as well be a million miles.
When I was a boy, my friends and I would disappear from eight in the morning until dinner time and our parents never had to worry about us.
When I was a boy, I had a morning paper route. I was 11 years old. 11 years old and out delivering newspapers, door-to-door, at 5:30 a.m., and not only was I completely safe…there were about a half dozen other boys in my neighborhood who had routes as well. We all did it. It was a rite of passage.
I walked to school at 7 years old, about a mile each way. Sometimes with my neighbors and sometimes alone. I never felt scared. My parents never had to be concerned.
I played Little League baseball for 14 years. Sometimes I was good enough to be a starter, and sometimes I wasn’t. Nobody called my coach to pressure him into giving me playing time. There was no “continuous batting order” and no guaranteed innings. If I was good enough, I played. If I wasn’t, I worked harder until I was. This is how life is, and it prepared me for it.
My friends and I played hide and seek behind houses that mostly didn’t have fences…because they didn’t need them. We played tackle football in the public park we lived next too. We played street hockey. We never played anything like “The Knockout Game,” where we randomly punched strangers in the hopes of knocking them out cold. Someone would have all but killed us if we had even tried. But we never would have tried that game, because we never even would have thought about that. We respected our elders, because it was the right thing to do, because we were taught to respect them and, mostly, because we knew them.
We’d grown up in the same neighborhood. These were our friends’ grandparents, not some nameless, worthless blob of humanity that we thought it would be funny to punch.
We knew them, knew their stories, and honored them as one of our own.
We were a community. We didn’t sell our house every four years and move someplace else. Our parents bought a home with the intention of paying it off and living there until they died. Another generation called this “putting down roots.” In today’s America, nobody has roots anymore. We’re a nation of tumbleweeds.
In the America I grew up in, we were bullied. It was painful. But our dads took us outside, laced on the boxing gloves, and taught us how to stand up for ourselves. The next time we got bullied, we tried to make peace first, when that didn’t work, we met the bully in the bathroom, or behind the schoolyard and we straightened him out. We got bloodied in the battle but we set him straight and you know what? Usually we broke the bully of his bullying, and we both gained a friend. I know we gained self-respect.
Girls got bullied too. Girls can be mean and catty, especially in middle school. Fat girls got teased. Girls with pimples got teased. You know what they did? They dieted. They got some skin cream. They turned the bullying into inspiration and they improved and they wound up feeling ten times better about themselves. I know…some of them wound up with eating disorders and emotional scars. That’s tragic. It wasn’t perfect. But most of them found an inner drive and gained confidence., and learned the value of self-improvement.
We weren’t always friends. We had cliques. We didn’t demand that everyone accept everyone. Sometimes you were the new kid or the awkward kid, or the fat kid, or the bad athlete. But I can’t remember any of those kids not eventually gaining acceptance and becoming friends with the others. Because, while they were growing up and out of their awkwardness, the “cool” kids were growing up too. Learning to see the lonely ones and accept them. Nobody shot up the school or committed suicide.
In my America, it was acceptable to disagree with the President. But NEVER acceptable to attack him. Never acceptable to voice your desire to harm him. Even Nixon, who became a reviled figure, still commanded a modicum of respect because the generation of the day was taught to respect the office and our nation.
In my America, cops were respected and just a little feared. They had to be. It was proper. Nobody would have dared put out music calling for cops to be killed. Nobody would have put a “bounty” out on cops. They were there to help us and being a little intimidating was part of that job.
In my America, wherever you were, and whatever you were doing, you paused if the Anthem played, even on a radio, and you stood, hand-over-heart, and sang the words and thought about the meaning.
In my America, you didn’t need to show your patriotism because it was assumed you were a patriot. You were here because you love this place. You wanted her to be the greatest country on earth.
In my America, you were proud of your ancestry and your heritage, but you were an American. You were raised to feel lucky, blessed by God, to be here. Here was better than there, wherever there was. Even if you were poor here, working three jobs, living in a crowded little house…here was still better.
These days we have people whose lives have been kissed by fate. Whose existence is padded and bubble wrapped in what we have come to call “stardom.” Who have a life here they could have no place else on earth…yet they’re threatening to leave America if they don’t get their way politically. Threatening us, as if we’d all break down if they actually did leave. Threatening us as if America needs them in order to still be America. Meanwhile, the people who make them rich, the people who buy the movie tickets and the music downloads, beg them to get over themselves. We’re divided into two groups, it seems: The ones who buy into this faux royalty and “retweet” the latest gibberish from Rob Reiner or Leonardo DiCaprio about how bad America is and look to them as little gods, dispensing wisdom, or the ones –like me and my friends- who know that we are the real America. The ones who live in the middle-class neighborhoods. The ones who see a fabulously wealthy businessman and say “God bless,” not “You’re evil because you’re rich.” The ones holding the door open for those who threaten to leave, looking at hour watch and wondering “what’s taking you so long?”
We’re the ones whose grandfathers used to drive down the street in the “old neighborhood” and point out the houses where they laid the brick, or did the framing. They’d drive by the church and talk about how the parish got together and raised the money to have all that beautiful Italian marble imported, and they did without, and worked overtime, and helped build the cathedral where their families would worship and gather for generations.
In my America, other religions were certainly looked at with a questioning eye, but they were respected. And they respected us. We celebrated Christmas in public schools and nobody took us to court. We Had Easter vacation…not spring break.
In my America there was racism. It was ugly and terrible. But instead of passing laws and creating division, those who were its’ victim, dug down deep, head their heads up and slowly, over time, changed the hearts and minds of a generation. Yes…we looked at other races differently, mostly out of curiosity and ignorance. But once we accepted you, black, white, red or yellow, by God you were one of us, and nobody had better mess with you then. It happened naturally. Over time. It wasn’t forced and phony.
In my America, we stood for what was right, and rejected what was wrong. There was shame associated with lawlessness and with failure. You worked hard for what you had and if you wanted more…you worked harder.
In my America, patriotism was expected.
In my America, even in the disagreement and strife, there was community and peace.
In my America, we loved each other, because underneath it all, under all the politics, and wrangling, and good news and bad news and blaring headlines and quiet Sunday mornings…we all loved this country. Deeply, passionately, with our whole being.
In my America, we saw America as the greater “we.” She was the thing that existed from the sum of her parts, and you were as much a part of her as I was, and it was never about what she owed us…but what we owed her.

I want that America, again.