When A Legend Dies

Rush In Concert At The Nokia TheatreLast week, one of the greatest drummers of all time passed away. While he didn’t make any huge humanitarian contributions to the world nor did he make any medical advancements, he made an impact on the lives of many socially awkward youth across the decades that he wrote and played music with his band.

As an aspiring musician in middle school, I was introduced to the music of Rush through my brother. As the younger brother, pretty much everything my older brother did for a time was cool to me. It was even cooler when I saw some of his friends donning the band’s T-shirts as they maneuvered their way through those awkward teenage years. All I knew is that this music didn’t fit neatly into a category. It wasn’t Top 40. It wasn’t metal. It resided within a realm that was outside of norms with lyrics that were far deeper than most of what was being played on the radio.

Having been indoctrinated to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) as a kid, my first foray into “Secular” music felt much like other forays that I would eventually experience, dangerous and risky but so exciting. To begin to open myself up to music outside the concentrated bubble that I had found myself in for years was more than just a new experience.

As I continued deeper down the rabbit hole that was Rush and their music, I found more kindred spirits among their fans. Eventually, in college, I found my way to see them in concert. On the brink of my 21st birthday, I dissed my brother and my best friend to instead treat myself and my girlfriend at the time to a concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

I honestly don’t remember it as much as I would like to remember it, not because I had drank too much or taken some kind of mind-altering drugs, but just because that’s what ends up happening when I experience something so new and mysterious for the first time. There was so much to take in that I feel like I probably missed half of it because I was putting too much pressure on myself to drink in the moment.

Years later, Rush remained on my radar, churning out music, reinventing themselves, but their earlier music had made a significant mark on some of the most memorable years of my life. Funny, the music that has been indelibly tattooed on my brain isn’t the greatest of their catalog but rather hit me at a significant emotional and spiritual moment in my life. It was the music and the moment colliding at that time that left the mark and listening to that music today transports me to another time and place, a time that seems far less complicated than today.

It’s funny how someone that you don’t know personally can have such an impact. It’s not so much what they did but what they represented. The death of Neil Peart meant more than just the end of an era for a band, it meant the death of a part of my youth. It symbolized my mortality, standing there as a poignant reminder that, in the words of Peart himself, “We are only immortal for a limited time.” While that doesn’t speak to my faith and belief regarding what lurks beyond death, it seemed a true statement for the moment in which I found myself last week.

Neil Peart and Rush represented youth to me, but so much more. Dreams. Aspirations. Change. Discoveries. These things and so much more. Within those notes and within those lyrics a new world was found. So losing a piece of that felt as if I was losing a piece of myself.

Days later, having immersed myself once again in their music, having watched countless videos of the band and documentaries about them, it’s as if I’m still grieving a family member. Again, that’s weird considering that statement comes from someone who has experienced a significant amount of loss. Just like pictures of deceased family members can transport you to the place and time the picture was taken, so music can do the same. As I close my eyes and let the sonic movements wash over me, I am transported to the first time I hear these notes, where I was, what I was doing, who I was at that moment.

Eventually, the initial shock of loss is normalized, the freshness wears off. While the impact remains, life moves on. We maneuver through the waves to find ourselves once again sailing through the waters of life.

And so, I continue on, hearing songs as if for the first time. I smile as I think about who I’ve become. Once upon a time, decades ago, these same notes hit me differently. An era has ended but there will always be that indelible mark, an almost everlasting reminder of what was. We’ll always have the music.


Long Sighs and Deep Breaths

mom and jon 1987Last Friday marked eight years since I lost my mom. As with so many significant dates since her death, the day was marked with long sighs and deep breaths. While I didn’t shed any tears, there was an ache in my being that will remain until I see her again.

On days like that, my mind is running full speed, remembering, wondering, grieving. My mind generally parks on a few memories that make their way to the top of the assortment that’s whirling around in there. That day was no different and I found myself remembering two moments that my mom and I shared in those last six months together.

The first moment was after a doctor’s appointment where a treatment plan was laid out for her. She had already received her bleak diagnosis and was doing her best to break out of her default mode of realism (some would call it pessimism) and find some bright spots and hope in the midst of the darkness.

As we drove in the back of my aunt and uncle’s mini van, I could see the fear and sadness in her eyes. I reached for her hand, grasping it and holding on, as if hope could be transferred in a squeeze or a touch. Somehow I hoped that I could muster up enough of that for the both of us.

I looked at her face and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. As I looked at her and asked, “What?” she just told me that she was scared. Those words naturally made me clasp on a little harder, squeeze a little tighter.

I honestly don’t know what else I said in that moment, but I remember thinking to myself, “Hell yeah you’re scared! I’m with you.” Words that I would never dare to utter to my squeaky clean mom whom I had never heard swear in my life.

But I admired her honesty. I was grateful for her showing me her vulnerability at that moment. That was a marker of our family though, being transparent and not hiding what was going on inside, something that I’ve prided myself on and desperately seek to pass on to my children as well.

The other moment was after she was released from the hospital for the last time. We all knew that she would be going home to die. Family gathered around in the small living room of their Williamsburg townhouse. Any conversation was a distraction from the reality of the situation, a detour to avoid the inevitable that was staring us in our faces.

I had already begun to write my mom’s eulogy, that was my way of processing things. I needed to mentally and emotionally prepare for my goodbye with words, my own therapeutic means of dealing with what would be the greatest loss in my lifetime to that point.

In my quiet moments of reflection and writing, I had come to the realization that it wasn’t every day that mothers and sons enjoyed the kind of relationship that my mom and I did. Some might poke fun, others might laugh at the awkwardness, but I rested in the fact that what we had was special and significant.

In her weakened state, my mom had simply closed her eyes as she sat up in the loveseat of their living room. I put my face so close to hers that our noses touched and I whispered, “You know, what we have is special, Mom. Not every mother and son has this.” She just replied, “I know.” As our noses met, I rubbed mine against hers in an Eskimo kiss, something that I’ve passed on to my daughter. It’s a moment that I feel like I not only share with my daughter but also that my daughter somehow shares with her grandmother whom she never had the privilege of meeting.

After that night and that moment, very few words were exchanged between my mom and I, not for lack of desire but for lack of strength on the part of my mom.

It’s moments like these that are eternally burned into my brain.They don’t only come to mind on command but can rush in like a torrent when I least expect them. But I welcome them, maybe not as warmly as I would welcome a trusted, old friend, but I welcome them nonetheless.

Long sighs and deep breaths, even as I write. As I push towards the decade marker since her loss, my mom continues to live her legacy through me and my family. She would be proud of where I am and what I am doing. She might not agree with everything, especially some of my brash and forthright ideology and language, but she would love me just the same.

In those moments between sighs and breaths, I choose not to live into moments of “What could have been” but rather “What can be.” I choose not to lament what was missed, but instead embrace what was and press into my own moments with my family, letting what could easily be swallowed in regret be formed into memories that will last a lifetime for me and my children.

Inevitably, when I share thoughts like this, people say the usual, polite things to me. They are sorry for my loss. They are praying for me. While I appreciate all of these things, writing about these does not mean that I still haven’t gotten over this loss (although I don’t think anyone ever completely gets over a loss). Writing about it keeps the memory alive, at least it does to me. Writing about me honors the time that I had and hopes to utilize the lessons learned for the way forward.

Yes, I miss my mom, but honoring her memory is best done in embracing what is before me rather than lamenting what is behind me. One day, when I see her again, I can tell her that and I expect that she’ll just give me that knowing look and say, “That’s my boy!”

What We Leave Behind

Last year, a family in the faith community that I was a part of lost their house in a fire. This family had experienced a significant amount of loss before the fire and it was heartbreaking to see them experience one more tragedy in their lives. It was even more heartbreaking because I stood with them watching their house burn.

It was one of those surreal moments where you scroll your social media feed and see something that stands out, kind of like “Which of these things is not like the others.” The wife had said her house was on fire. Before I knew it, I had a message from someone else confirming that it was true.

There have been multiple times in my life when I have felt completely helpless. Hearing my mom’s cancer diagnosis was one time. Knowing her treatments were done and her death was imminent was another. Standing with these friends in front of their house as it burned was another. I felt speechless and I doubted my presence there multiple times, wondering if they really wanted me there.

As the fire was brought under control, the firemen brought out personal items and it was excruciating. Family photos. Jewelry. Other items. The remnants of memories that had stood as markers were tainted. It was a hard thing to watch as it unfolded.

Last month, when news broke that Notre Dame Cathedral was burning, I had that same helpless feeling. It was hard to watch the flames uncontrollably lick the spire and roof of this centuries old cathedral, engulfing this sacred monument.

Through it all, I thought about legacy and what we leave behind. Buildings can burn, that became abundantly clear to me as I watched these buildings, but was that the limit of what was left? Memories are sometimes reliant on space, marked by some geographical location in which they took place. While those spaces and locations may change or cease to exist, the memories remain, they are imprinted within the very core of our being.

On a small scale, it begs the question to me, “What do I leave behind?” When I’m gone, returning to dust, what is left? Are there memories still burned on the minds of the people who are left? Did I make an impact, a mark, a difference?

I can’t help but think about this in the context of the Church as well. People were sad and heartbroken that Notre Dame was burning but I don’t think it was because a sacred space was gone or because they had experienced significant life change within those walls or even because hundreds of worshippers would now be forced to relocate. I think it was because a cultural icon was harmed, damaged, diminished (thankfully, not beyond repair).

When it comes to our local churches, what would happen if our buildings or meeting places were gone? What would be the evidence that we had once been there? Would we need to have pictures or a building or other tangible artifacts and remnants? Or would we find the evidence and artifacts on the hearts of the people whose lives had been changed by our presence there?

I want to be known for the difference that I have made. When I am gone, I don’t want people hanging onto only tangible things to remember. My hope and prayer is that the difference I made went far beyond the physically tangible and to the heart and soul.

Did I listen? Did I care? Did I love? Was Christ present in me? These are the questions that are significant to me, the ones that I hope can be answered in the affirmative.

What do we leave behind? My hope and prayer for myself and for the church that we are building is that what we are building goes far beyond a physical building. I hope and pray that we are helping to build a community with love, with listening, with care, and with Christ.


Hopeless Romantic?

I’m not sure just what it is, but every single time my kids have a school program, I’m trying to hold back tears.


Fall. Winter. Spring. It doesn’t even matter what time of year it is, I’m like a basket case in my seat as I watch my kids do things that surprise and amaze me, that make me smile and cry all at the same time 

It’s not like these programs are tear-inducing programs. No hint of Hallmark here, but somehow or another, they still find ways of hitting me right in the chest.

Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that during every single program, at least once, I am wishing that my mom and dad were there. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think it stems from the fact that there is pride (not the bad kind) that wells up within me as I see my kids doing things that make them stand out. How can a mom or dad NOT be proud of their kids when they’re doing what kids should be doing? 

I’ll be honest, it’s an emotional time of year for me anyway. All it takes is one song to throw me back about 30 years. I’m transported to my childhood home with smells and sights and sounds that have been eternally etched on my brain. I can picture everything. Christmas tree. Pajamas. Presents. Green rug. Hi-Fi circa 1975 or thereabouts. Evie singing “Come On, Ring Those Bells” from that Hi-Fi stereo, complete with the cracks and pops that only vinyl can offer.

But like I said, I well up any time of year. These kids always blow me away. I guess it’s yet one more picture of grace that I see in my everyday life. I realize just what I have that I don’t deserve. I realize how far short I fall from being who I really wish that I was, and yet my kids still manage to keep plugging along without the help of therapists…..at least for now.

As I sat there on the hard bench of the cafeteria bench watching my middle child perform in his holiday play, I was just blown away. The kid can act. The kid can memorize. The kid can work a room. The kid can make a joke. While my eyes welled up, so did my pride as I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s a time of year when you really see the difference between the “haves” and the “have-nots”….at least if you really look around. As much as I keep wanting, it’s a time of year that I am reminded just how blessed that I am 

Here we are, two weeks from Christmas, and I’m blubbering at the sight of an inflatable Rudolph in the neighborhood…..it might just be a LOOOOONNNNNGGGGG 2 weeks!

Deep down inside, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I guess I hide it well. Maybe it’s self-preservation and self-defense, but regardless, there’s way more emotion down deep than most people who just get a casual glance at me would really expect or imagine. I’m fine with that.

There are a lot of things to hope for during this time of year, but my biggest hope is that I can be half the man that my children and wife deserve. I am a blessed man, blessed beyond measure.

Now, let me go find a good Christmas movie to continue with my blubbering!!!

Grab A Hand

father-son-holding-handsI’ve been volunteering at my kids’ school as often as I can. My mom did such an incredible job of this when my brother and I were kids that she modeled it well. I consider myself fortunate that I have the flexibility to volunteer and I know that the window of opportunity for this is much more limited than most of us really consider.

Last year, my oldest son signed up for running club at the school. It’s an after school program that encourages fitness but also rewards kids for pushing themselves. The gym teacher who runs it gave out little colored running shoe keychains to mark accomplishments that the students had made in their own progress.

My oldest is fairly cerebral and would much rather read a good book or play a video game than throw a ball. He’s found some activities that he likes and we’ve done our best to encourage them. So, when he expressed his interest in this, I jumped at the opportunity to encourage him by not only signing him up, but by volunteering myself to be a part of it.

Over the years, I’ve watched those who have gone before me in their parenting styles and skills. I’ve done my best to glean good practices from them that I have seen and mark those other practices that have not proved to be quite as effective. One of the practices that I’ve seen work so well for parents of multiple children is “dating” their children. This just involves taking them out one on one to do special and fun things together.

The things that I’ve chosen to do with my kids haven’t been grandiose or extravagant. Sometimes it’s just a trip to Home Depot or Goodwill. Involving them in the most common tasks can easily help them to feel important and involved. Activities like this running club have proven to be super beneficial for my relationship with my son as well.

The other day, after the club had finished and we were all walking back from the field to the gym, my son walked alongside me and grasped my hand. At that moment, I felt like the child as I glanced around to see whether or not anyone else was looking. I wasn’t embarrassed to hold my son’s hand, but I was surprised that it didn’t seem like something that was even on his radar. We walked back to the gym, hand in hand, talking about the day and his run. As we walked, I took a mental snapshot, capturing that moment in my brain because I knew that moments like that were fleeting and I wouldn’t have them forever.

I was so thankful for that moment. I was thankful that I had established a relationship with my son where he felt comfortable, even in 4th grade, grabbing his dad’s hand with his peers all around him. I was thankful that the affection that I’ve tried so hard to pour out on him was coming back to me. Not that I poured it out to get it back, but the return was an added benefit. I was thankful that it gave me a glimpse of the future relationship between my son and I, when we move from being father and son to being friends.

It was only the grabbing of a hand, but it meant a lot to me. These are the moments that legacy is made of, how we are remembered and how we remember. They happen when we least expect it and they certainly can’t be contrived or created. I’m hoping for many more, but I won’t try too hard to make them happen, I’ll just seize the opportunities, make myself available, and hope that they continue to come towards me.

At the end of Lonely Street

IMG_2199My family and I toured Graceland the other day. It was kind of funny going from the Biltmore Estate and the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s not to say that Graceland wasn’t impressive, but it was just……different. Biltmore was home to a tycoon while Graceland was home to a king, but we all know that money can’t buy you love, or happiness, or all of the things in life that seem to matter more than possessions.

Walking through the halls and rooms of Graceland, I was mixed with both a sense of awe as well as a profound sadness deep inside. It felt almost like hallowed ground, and I hesitate to even use the term “hallowed” but there’s no other word that I can find to describe it. It was almost as if you could feel Elvis in the air, hear his voice ringing through the walls.

The tour didn’t include the upstairs, where Elvis is supposed to have breathed his last breath. We walked through the first floor of the house, into his dad’s office, into the trophy building, and to the racquetball building. His accolades, accomplishments, and acquisitions were on full display for everyone to see. In some ways, I felt as if I was going over a friend’s house and having him show me all of his treasures and awards, bashfully boasting, but not with an arrogance so much as in an effort to be accepted, to be loved, to prove something to me.

As I meandered through these buildings, taking in all the features, seeing Elvis’ achievements, awards, outfits, and more, I started to think about the fact that he died at 42, a year younger than me. There is no mention in the house of his broken relationship with Priscilla. There is no mention in the house of how he died and what he had gotten into by the time of his death. No, this was a place of homage to a king and one of the reasons why it’s good to be king is that people might only remember the good things that you did.

IMG_2102At the end of the house tour, you find yourself in the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are all buried. Standing there a day after the five year anniversary of my mother’s death, I thought that I was going to start bawling like a baby. But why? It’s not like I knew him, but like I said, I was overcome with a deep sadness as I thought about him, his achievements, what he had become, and what he might have been had he lived on. As I saw my children walking through the garden ahead of me, I choked back the emotions that were desperately trying to rise up within my throat.

I stood over his grave, thinking about this man whose end had come too soon. I thought about what he had accomplished in his short 42 years and I wondered what he thought and what he felt in those last hours of his life.

After walking through the house and garden, we walked through the Lisa Marie, his custom airplane. We walked past his cars, his motor toys, and a few of his motorcycles. I’m not sure that you could call it “excess” but he liked things that were nice and he wasn’t afraid to pay for them. He had the money, after all, and looking at it all, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to find something else with all this stuff, if he was trying to find the very thing that no amount of money could ever buy.

He had acquired a lot of stuff, had racked up lots of awards, he even had been quietly philanthropic with his money, giving to charities here and there without the usual self-trumpeting of most celebrities. He was the king of rock and roll, the man who had started it all with his swinging pelvis. His legacy was there before me, I had walked past it and I could hear it in the air, almost feel it.

Sure, he lives on, some may say, in his music, in this mansion, and in the hearts of all of his fans. But I wish that I could have jumped in a time machine and traveled back 50 years or so. I wish I could have hung out with him in the Jungle Room, picked up his guitar and jammed with him a little. In much the same way that Elton John sang about Marilyn Monroe, I think I could say the same thing about Elvis, I would have loved to have just had a conversation with him, to hear his heart a little bit.

I’m sure he was a fun guy, he liked to party, but I would have loved to have been there when the party was over, when his friends left, when there was quiet in Graceland, and when he was alone with himself. I wonder what thoughts he thought, I wonder what dreams he dreamed, I wonder whether he had any regrets running through his mind. I wonder who he really was when the lights were off, the cameras were gone, and he didn’t feel like he had to perform.

The day that we pulled out of Graceland, my son and I walked out to the entrance of the RV Park where we stayed and took the picture above. At the end of Lonely Street is the Heartbreak Hotel. Even if you turned off all the Elvis music playing around you, I think you might hear him faintly singing in the air.

It was good to pay homage to the King, a little sad, but he’s left a legacy, despite his flaws. And as we pulled out of Lonely Street towards our next destination, it was fitting that Elvis was playing in the car!

Gaming Together

When I was a kid, we just didn’t have a whole lot of money to enjoy some of the amenities that a lot of my friends had. Personal computers weren’t what they are today. Texas Instruments. Apple. Radio Shack. All of these companies produced computers but they cost a small fortune (for my family) and didn’t offer near the variety that computers and gaming systems offer today.


After being pestered by my brother and I for years, my parents finally broke down and scrounged together enough money for us to have a Texas Instruments TI-99-4A. I’m not sure how much my parents paid for it, but I’m sure they made some sacrifices to afford it.

The graphics were horrible, it was slow as molasses in January, you needed to connect it to the TV, and it probably froze frequently. But it was ours, we loved it, and we realized it was a privilege to have it and to play it. We never spent a whole lot of time playing on it, not the way that my kids and other kids today spend hours at a time on one game.

One of my most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood was game night at the Gibson house. As a pastor, my dad would often have to work in the evening. He would have counseling appointments, prayer meeting, more counseling appointments, and an assortment of other commitments that would take him out of the house frequently between Sunday night and Thursday night. The most memorable question to my dad was, “Dad, do you have to go out tonight?” A reply of, “No” to that question was always followed by an inner celebration of sorts for me. I’m pretty sure that among the next questions to escape my mouth was, “Can we play a game?”

Funny, the only game I really remember playing with my dad was Bible Tic Tac Toe. Needless to say, he pretty much won all the time. As he got older (and so did I) I think he migrated to an assortment of other games, most likely due to my mom’s influence. Still, when it came to games, my mom was the expert.

Yahtzee. Uno. Scrabble. Dutch Blitz. The list probably goes on and on, but those were the games that I remembered. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my mom got her love of games from her mother because I can remember playing Scrabble with my mom and grandma for hours. My grandma was a Scrabble fiend, I think she kicked my tail hundreds of time. Her reputation for Scrabble was such that I even remember my brother mentioning her love of the game at her memorial service after she died.

After my parents died, my brother and I went through their stuff and divided it between us. There wasn’t a whole lot of things that had significant monetary value, most of the items had more sentimental value than anything else. Among those belongings were my parents’ games. Having kids of my own, I wanted to have the chance to play some of the very games that I had enjoyed with my parents with my own kids.

It will be three years next month since my dad died and five years in July since my mom died. My kids are getting older, the two oldest being among the best readers in their classes. So, having endured hours and hours of video game playing by my two oldest, I thought that the time had finally come to dig out my parents’ Scrabble game.

I asked my wife where we had stored it and she told me. I’m not sure what was going through her head when I asked her, probably something like, “You can’t be serious!” It seemed a risky proposition to attempt this game with a seven year old, a nine year old, and a four year old (the four year old would be on someone else’s team), but we did it anyway.

The result was much more enjoyable than either of us would have expected. The Scrabble board was utilized much more expansively than either of us would have imagined. Other than the fussings of my four year old (which are fairly typical in anything these days), I think that we all had fun.

family Scrabble

My heart was warm!

Since my kids have been able, we’ve played games with them. Chutes and Ladders. Candyland. Headbandz. Yahtzee. Pie Face! Now we can add Scrabble to that list. And I’ve successfully begun to pass on a family tradition.

It’s funny, it was almost as if I had gone back in time as I played the exact game that I had played for years and years with my mom and grandma. I could almost hear them laughing, taunting, encouraging, and laughing some more. I even found some decades old scraps of paper with scores of played games between me and my grandma. I’m pretty sure she always won.

Yes, my kids still love their gaming system. Yes, they’ll still spend hours on end playing in front of the TV, but I’m really encouraged to know that it’s possible and even enjoyable to take a break from those gaming systems and pull out an old-fashioned game to sit around the kitchen table and laugh together.

After all, the family that games together, stays together, right?


Christmas Eve

Christmas with Steve and Jon-1No matter what’s going on in my world, it seems like the moment the calendar turns to December 24th, I become a child again. For as long as I can remember, this has been the case.

There’s something magical that seems to happen for me on Christmas Eve. Memories of Christmases gone by flood my memory, the sounds, the smells, the sights, they all come rushing back into my head. I can hear a song, see a picture, smell a smell, and I’m automatically transported back to my kitchen growing up.

I remember the records my mom would play as she baked and baked her Christmas cookies in the kitchen. She never had the greatest singing voice and she knew it, but there were certain songs that just inspired her to sing like no one was listening. When I hear those songs today, I can almost hear her behind me, singing along.

I think back to the presents that I gave my parents growing up and I can only now fully appreciate just how gracious they were. Clay creations made in school art class. Hamburger patty makers purchased at the local thrift store. Ties for my dad to add to his eternal collection, and despite what they may have thought when they unwrapped those presents, the outward expression that they conveyed to me was that they loved it, regardless of whether or not they were ever going to use it or not.

On Christmas Eve, once we were home from church, my mom would make mulled apple cider on the stove. She would stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from church because that was a Christmas Eve staple for us, munchkins and cider. As my brother and I got older, we either invited others into our little tradition, or we abandoned it to go be part of other traditions.

As I lay in my bed waiting for the time to be right, I could hear my mom and dad bustling around, wrapping presents, talking as they wrapped, and then they would bring all the presents under the tree. I’m not sure just how much sleep I would get when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Once everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of my room quietly and go see what wonders were waiting for me underneath the tree.

The tree….

In our large upstairs living room, we had one of the smallest trees ever. I’m not sure just how my parents came up with their tradition, but this little tree, while not quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s, was a wonder to behold. We never had a live tree in our house, I had too many allergies and Mom never wanted to think about having to clean one up, but here in this large room with cathedral ceilings was a three foot tree that sat atop my mom’s cedar chest. While others who came into our house may have looked at it quizzically, it was what I knew, what I had grown up with and it only seemed normal and like home to me.

Once I arrived to see what was waiting under the tree, I would begin to organize the presents according to recipient. I wanted to make sure that we were poised for maximum efficiency once the morning came. There would be no need for sorting and stopping once we got going, I made sure of that. I wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and that I would be able to tear into those presents without delay.

When I was satisfied that everything was well organized, I would return to my room. I didn’t really try to listen for Santa, I never really believed in him. In fact, when I was four years old, I told everyone in my pre-school class that he didn’t exist. I don’t think the teachers were very happy with me. Four years old and I had already begun my journey of being a contrarian, funny how that works.

Even now, when I stop to think about Christmas Eve, a smile spreads across my face. Mom and Dad are gone and there is still an ache in my insides because of that, but to know all of those Christmas Eves that we shared together just warms my heart.

My family has started our own Christmas Eve traditions. I think they may be a hybrid of a Griswold Christmas Eve and Ralphie’s Christmas Eve from “A Christmas Story,” at least, I’d like to think so. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t subject our kids to pink bunny suits but it has become a Christmas Eve tradition for the kids to all open a new pair of pajamas. No mulled cider and munchkins, just Chinese food after we get home from church.

Today is Christmas Eve, and the moment that I woke up, I felt the excitement building in me. The excitement that I once had to open all of my presents under the tree has now been replaced with an excitement to see my own kids open their presents. I’ll go through this day with that same excitement, anticipating what the next 24 hours will bring. While we’ll see most of our family next week, we will get to spend Christmas Day as I spent many Christmases growing up, driving to my aunt and uncle’s house and seeing some of my cousins.

Things are different, but I don’t think the magic and wonder that I once felt towards Christmas Eve has been diminished. While I can’t wait for our Christmas Eve service tonight, the highlight for me will be at the end of the service when we turn out the lights, light the candles (although they’ll be flashlights since we can’t have open flames in the school where we meet), and begin to softly sing “Silent Night” to end our time together. That will be the crowning moment of the day, celebrating the very thing that we celebrate on Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

I’m excited!

Merry Christmas!

The Force Awakens

force awakensIt’s hard to fully tell just what the Star Wars franchise meant to me growing up. For most, if not all, of my elementary school years, it was a huge part of my childhood. The first movie came out when I was 4 years old, the second when I was 7, and the third when I was 10. I had a Star Wars lunchbox, one of those metal kinds that come with the plastic thermos. I had the plastic guns and even tried on my mom’s knee high boots so that I could look like Han Solo (she wasn’t thrilled about that one). Star Wars was a mainstay to my generation and when we found out that episodes I, II, and III would finally become a reality, we began to dream about all the possibilities.

Needless to say, that didn’t go as expected. While you might agree that Episode III was a worthy effort, there are hardly arguments when criticism is heaped at the first two (if not all three). A generation who had become cynical based on what they were experiencing just found one more reason to maintain that same cynicism. The possibilities that seemed endless had actually ended with a less than stellar result.

Meanwhile, book after book was published about the characters to whom we were introduced in the original series. No one ever wanted to read about Jar Jar, but they could read about Luke, Han, and Leia until the cows come home. Stories were written and it seemed that every fan of Star Wars would be doomed to be left with the bad taste in their mouths after hearing that dumb Gungan speak his backwards form of English. At least Yoda’s backwards speak has an endearing quality to it, Jar Jar’s is just plain annoying.

Enter Disney.

In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars, for $4 billion. Some of the greatest loved characters of all time were now being combined together through ownership and many wondered what that might mean for Star Wars.

Well, if Star Wars was second nature to me as a child, it’s hard to describe just what Disney was at the same time. I grew up going to Disney World. I still have the 8MM films that I can play on my projector of our jaunts to Disney World when I was barely the age of my youngest child. While Star Wars was a mainstay in my life as a child, Disney seemed to be a permanent fixture as well, not only to my generation, but to my parents’ generation as well. It had an intergenerational connectivity and quality about it that was rarely seen by others. But we had been burned by Star Wars before and the thought of the House of the Mouse taking over at the helm of Star Wars seemed a bit worrisome.

At first, the connections were subtle. You go to Disney World and you see the hybrid of some of your favorite characters from both Disney and Star Wars. A little kitschy, but not a deal breaker, after all, Lucasfilm began the animated series “The Clone Wars” before Disney had made the deal. Then came the rumors…..rumors of another trilogy.

My son claims that I first mentioned the prospect of another Star Wars trilogy to him around 2010 or so (he claimed that he had been waiting half of his life for “The Force Awakens “ to become a reality and he was born in 2006). In early 2013, rumors that J.J. Abrams (of TVs “Alias” and “Lost” fame) would be directing the first in the new trilogy were confirmed, and the Star Wars universe went a little crazy. What had been dreamed of would become a reality.

Nearly three years later, “The Force Awakens” broke box office records by bringing in a record $238 million on opening weekend. Just two weeks prior to its December 18th release date, I took my oldest son, the one who had been waiting half of his life for this event, to buy tickets at the theater.

Standing there at the theater with my nine year old son, holding tickets to a first run Star Wars film seemed a bit surreal to me. Was this really happening? If it was, would it (could it) live up to the hype? Could millions of fans really be satisfied by the outcome of this? Should it even be attempted?

In 2009, J.J. Abrams had successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise, overhauling the cast and characters to bring them to a new generation. In geekdom, how would he fare at taking over another beloved franchise, not for a reboot but for a continuation?

When December 18th finally came, when I finally brought my boys to the theater, I wasn’t sure who was more excited. These kids got out of school early for this, not too early, and it was the last day before Christmas break, but early nonetheless. There was excitement in our house all week long. Even our beloved Tinsel Trooper (our own geek version of the Elf on the Shelf) had gotten in on the action. We were excited, there was no doubt about it.

I can’t remember the last movie that I saw in the theater where there was as much clapping throughout as there was in “The Force Awakens.” The familiar “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…..” appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Familiar characters appeared on the screen and the theater erupted in applause. Even X-wings and Tie Fighters got in on the action, not garnering nearly as much applause as the Millenium Falcon, but still it was applause.

We all say glued to that screen for the just over two hours that the movie ran, and as the final moments of the movie played, as I felt the action slowing to a stop, something inside me welled up. I realized that I was experiencing this with my boys. MY boys. I was sitting in theater, watching Star Wars with my two sons, and we were all seeing it for the first time. My eyes began to well up a little themselves and I put my arms around my boys as we walked towards the exit.

My oldest, always displaying the typical birth order characteristics of an oldest, announced his sheer approval of the film. He was satisfied. My youngest son, also fitting into all of the stereotypes of a middle child, cautiously opined over the film, expressing his approval, but not too much, just enough to still be safe should anyone else have anything not so positive to say about it.

We walked into the night towards our car and I still was processing what had happened both on and off the screen. It was a powerful moment for me, not one that will easily be matched or forgotten, that moment when I experienced this movie with my sons. I couldn’t help but think about my older brother and me walking out of the theater with my mom who had taken us to see the original trilogy’s second two films. The picture in my head made me smile while at the same time caused me to hug my boys just a little bit closer.

“The Force Awakens” was more than a film to me, it was an experience that held so much nostalgia. It’s almost unfair to tack so much weight onto something, but somehow it managed to hold that weight. My boys are still talking about it and I’m feeling the need to see it again with my wife just so that my middle child doesn’t explode at the prospect of keeping everything secret for any length of time. My four year old, she’s still got a little time before she gets there, but once Mommy sees it, for these boys, I think all will be right with the world…….and I just can’t wait!

Slowing Down

2015-07-24 09.39.48I am in constant need of reminders, be they subtle or not, to slow down and enjoy life and its little moments. I have heard the phrase on many occasions that we are human “beings” rather than human “doings” and every time that I hear it, it jolts me awake to the point of realizing that things are passing me by and I’m missing them. I need to be reminded that there is only one day like today, it will never happen again, I will never be able to relive it or recapture it, I will never be able to come back and pretend that I’m Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” replaying a day endlessly until I finally get the desired outcome.

Recently, I was on vacation with my family. We didn’t go anywhere exotic, unless you consider Connecticut exotic. We took nearly two weeks to spend time with our family. Over the course of those nearly two weeks, my wife and I attended both a wedding and a funeral, two life events that are almost certain to jolt you awake from any slumber of complacency that you might have been enjoying.

As we spent time at my in-law’s house, I realized that the daily routine that my kids had adopted at our house in Virginia had easily been adopted in Connecticut. They woke up and ran downstairs to sit in front of the television, ingesting all that Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel had to offer them. If there was no intervention, they could have easily stayed put like that for the entire day, allowing their brains to be numbed and melted by whatever meaningless drivel and fare that was being spewed out from the flat screen television.

At one point, I can’t remember which of us, my wife or I, had gotten fed up and turned the television off. The kids who are smart, creative, and funny, somehow forgot that there was a world outside of television. They had forgotten to use their imagination to find a world outside of one that was created for them. They had forgotten what it was to discover, to learn new things, to try new things, and it was most likely a result of me forgetting the very same thing.

The TV went dark and they began to complain about there being nothing to do.

It’s a dilemma that every parent who loves and cares for their children eventually faces. This parenting thing isn’t for the weak of heart, but for the courageous, the brave, and, sometimes, the stupid. In those moments as parents face those dilemmas, they need to think fast on their feet, generating new ideas and plans at the drop of a hat as they do their best to fend off the impending boredom that is sure to face their children (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

The sun was shining outside and there was a whole stack of paper in the printer, so, I thought, it seemed the perfect time to build paper airplanes. After all, their father was a paper airplane champion, to the point that I had been banned from the last day of my 7th grade Spanish class in our third floor classroom after having been involved with what my 7th grade math teacher had deemed “the beginning of World War III.” On the second to last day of school, I joined a few of my friends to fire paper airplanes out the third floor window of the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned.

I imagine that as my math teacher, as he stood three stories below, may just have heard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in his head as he watched the onslaught of paper airplanes descending upon the courtyard in which he stood. Needless to say, my friends and I, although expert airplane builders and flyers, were not welcomed back to our Spanish class for that last day but instead were forced to walk the school grounds picking up trash to pay for our transgressions.

But I digress….

As I recounted this story in my own mind, I grabbed some paper and began to fold and fold and fold some more. I helped my older two children as they followed suit, showing them the intricate folds that were required to construct our very own flying machine. The excitement was palpable as the folding came to completion and we ran into the driveway to test out these flying machines that we had made.

For the next hour or more, we stood in the driveway watching these airplanes zoom and swirl, spin and plummet. We laughed, we ooohhhh-ed and aahhhh-ed at the flight paths of these airplanes that had been created by our own hands.

We grabbed more paper and made more, altering the design here and there to see the difference that it made in the flight of our planes.

In those moments, those simple and innocent moments, we were all experiencing pure joy. It didn’t require electricity, it didn’t require a controller or joystick, it just took some paper, some time, and a little patience and imagination.

I was reminded once again that I can prepare and plan all I want to create an experience for my children that I consider to be awesome, but some of the best and most memorable moments and experiences are the ones that just happen, the ones that spontaneously emerge from “boredom” or from a fast from television.

I wondered to myself how I could rediscover this same joy and simplicity in all of the things that I do. In disconnecting, I found myself more connected. In being “bored,” we all found ourselves completely swept away in the excitement of the moment.

I think I’m going to have to find a copy of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” and try this again. Maybe a little background music will add to the excitement of the moment. Either way, I know that I’ll be capturing a moment, a moment that I’ll never be able to find again.