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Blue Cart Below

2 Sep

Sometimes I feel like Will Smith.

Not “Fresh Prince” Will Smith or “Independence Day” Will Smith.”The Pursuit of Happyness” Will Smith—except for the tall, dark and handsome part.

Aidan’s mom and I haven’t stuck to the custody agreement much, but last night Aidan stayed with me as outlined in the agreement. Thursday nights, plus certain weekends, are supposed to be reserved for her and I. On our way to school this morning, I explained those details to her. I didn’t have to do any selling.

It’s heartwarming to know my daughter wants to spend time with me. She even says she wants to spend more time with me. That type of comment makes me smile since I am usually alone in taking her to school, pick her up by myself most days and spend hours with her many days a week. She’s the main reason I’m so tan right now, thanks to frequent trips to the pool.

The strong connection that comes from spending time together gets reinforced by conversations about real issues. This morning, as I carried her to school on my shoulders, we passed over a bridge. She looked down and saw a blue shopping cart. Although a shopping cart left in a seemingly random spot is not rare sight in towns like Lewisville, this particular one inspired a conversation that would last all the way to school.

It wasn’t only the cart that caught her attention, it was the blanket inside. I imagined that blanket providing a bit of comfort to someone last night. It seemed likely that a homeless person used the cart and the blanket and left them in that spot while remaining out of sight nearby or heading somewhere else for the day.

Aidan listened carefully as I suggested someone without a home may have needed the cart and blanket. As a person who who walks a great deal of the time, sometimes 6-8 miles in a day, I have crossed paths with hundreds of people living on the streets of Dallas and Houston. (I remember frequently being approached by homeless people outside the Walgreen’s on Montrose near Westheimer in Houston. Aidan’s mom and I would always give them money, whenever we had cash and change in our pockets.) I told Aidan that lots of people in cities all over America are homeless.

“Why can’t they build a place to live?”

I explained how a homeless person doesn’t have the money to get the tools and materials necessary to build a home. That prompted Aidan to ask how a person on the streets can make money. I explained how I’ve often observed homeless people collecting bottles and cans in order to sell them. Aidan said, “but that’s not enough money!”

She’s right, of course. Even without knowing what a person can make from selling bottles and cans, she instantly knew it wasn’t enough to sustain a life. I did say that places and people offer help to people on the streets, providing money or food, a place to stay, and clothes to wear. But Aidan returned to the topic of homes.

“But they need their own place to live.”

Just before reaching an intersection, the conversation shifted to homeless kids. I explained to Aidan that many kids are also living on the streets. As I looked to my left, a brother and sister walking to another school stood there, mouths opened, observing us. I’m not sure what stunned them more: my candid chat about homeless kids at 7:30 am or Aidan sitting on my shoulders on the way to school.

My daughter has a tremendous amount of empathy and understanding despite her young age. She explained how a child of homeless parents may have to ask for money to help the family. I have to wonder what she’s seen on TV or heard somewhere that made her sound so informed. She even said that if her mother and I were homeless, she would ask for money. She said a kid shouldn’t have to do that but “we do what we need to do.”

She may be an only child and she may be the only grandchild on both sides of the family, but my daughter is not spoiled. At times, she’s a typical six year-old, consumed by her own thoughts and feelings. But when she and I have candid conversations, she always demonstrates an ability to think deeply, show compassion for others, share her thoughts without reservation, and try to create solutions to what really are grown-up problems.

Come to think of it, Aidan reminds me of Jaden Smith—except there are no movie cameras rolling when she’s at her best.

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Ten Years in Texas

1 Sep

September marks my tenth year in Texas. The actual arrival by rental truck came on Sunday September 16, 2001. I had never been to Texas, although 2 years earlier the news director at KVIA in El Paso interviewed me by phone for an opening in the weather department. I began thinking I was destined to live here when, in the summer of 2001, Houston became a place for possible relocation.

At the time I was married and my radio news anchor wife interviewed for a job at KTRH. We didn’t tell many people about it. We had already moved so many times in the five years prior.

Ogdensburg to Watertown

Watertown to Rome

Rome to New Hartford

New Hartford to Albany

So we did our research of Houston, and didn’t make it known to most people that we could be leaving New York State soon. When the actual job offer came, and she accepted, then we shared the news. Some people we knew were happy for us. Others thought we were just moving on a whim.

In between her accepting the job and us moving, some significant things occurred. My grandfather passed away. Her mother’s health began noticeably failing. And then there was 9/11. The timing of our departure suddenly seemed horribly inconvenient, but there was no looking back.

Okay, there was some looking back after we arrived. On numerous occasions, my wife applied for radio jobs in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago. I also applied for jobs that would have brought us closer to home again. She and I even developed a pitch for a TV show that would be shot in her hometown of Alexandria Bay, New York. So we weren’t exactly settled here instantly and planning to stay forever. But the move out of Texas never happened, although a move within Texas did occur—first by her and then by me.

Ten years later, I can look back and examine my choice to move to Texas. I wanted a change, a big one. I was not satisfied with where I was, working as a noon news producer at a local TV station. It wasn’t my dream. It wasn’t even my chosen profession. It just happened.

Houston seemed promising in 2001. In many ways, the promise paid off. Opportunities that previously appeared out of reach were realistic in Houston. I discovered new professional challenges and creative endeavors. I stepped away from TV news, except for one part-time stint that lasted a year, and produced TV shows. I wrote my first TV commercials, and began acting in commercials and films. I even started writing books, which may turn into a lifelong pursuit.

My time in Texas has also provided me with another life-altering experience. The birth of my daughter in 2005 is the most memorable moment of my life, and the joy of raising her overpowers any other experience, personal or professional, in my life. As the family’s only native Texan, she is in a class all by herself.  For her, Texas will always be home.

There is also one more valuable aspect of my Texas experience that I must acknowledge. Since arriving here a decade ago, I have met some of the most inspirational and supportive individuals in my life. Some have served as role models and mentors—even without knowing it. Others have provided support in the form of kindness, praise, friendship, even transportation. Their devotion to bettering their own lives and the lives of those around them underscores an important point for me to reflect on as I celebrate ten years in Texas. In the words attributed to Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, whose controversial and comical works as a playwright and theatre director are popular in Italy: “know how to live the time that is given you.”

Support Through September

29 Aug

When I put Aidan to bed at night, the ritual involves a couple things. The first part is a bedtime story. Sometimes I’ll read several stories or make up a story to share. (Tonight’s story involved the toy box at my grandparents’ house and how wearing a vest from it gave us special powers.) The second part of the bedtime ritual is a series of questions for her to answer.

1. What did you accomplish today?

2. What do you want to accomplish tomorrow?

3. How can you help someone tomorrow?

I believe it’s important to remind her that we can make a commitment to help someone else every day, even when our own lives are busy and challenging. It’s an idea I lose sight of at times. Between finishing one book, developing another, auditioning, acting when booked, taking on writing assignments, looking for new clients, marketing my services, taking my daughter to school, picking her up, spending quality time with her, blogging about our experiences together, and making time for myself, most weeks seem to provide little time to focus on helping others.

But that’s not really true, is it? As one of my former clients likes to say, “what you focus on is what you get.” By consciously setting aside time to provide a helping hand, and selecting the individuals who are deserving of that help, I can incorporate problem solving, advice, aid, guidance and support into any week—regardless of how busy my life seems.

I want to go a step further starting September 1 by devoting time each day to lifting someone else up. This form of daily support will be dedicated to using anything within my reach to assist a friend, family member or colleague. Now I can’t drive you across the country or write a term paper for you. I won’t be able to handle the responsibility of telling your boyfriend or girlfriend that you want to end the relationship. And I certainly don’t want to tell an employee of yours that he’s fired.

There are numerous lists online that describe ways to serve others. One list I read contains 100 ideas, a great place to start for anyone who has not been living a service-oriented life. While many of the ideas are brilliant, I am going to focus on the top 5 ways I can provide support in September.

1. Writing a recommendation letter

2. Promoting someone else’s idea/project

3. Volunteering for a charity or an individual in need

4. Teaching a skill that I know well

5. Giving honest feedback

That’s not to say I’ll do one good deed a day and call it quits. I’ll continue to provide help whenever I can. But the mission of devoting one act of service a day to a specific individual will help me demonstrate to Aidan that helping others is an essential step in cultivating balanced and healthy relationships. It can also empower us by keeping our energy flowing in positive ways. Those are important lessons for an only child who still believes the world revolves around her.

When this works like I expect it to, my new tradition of helping people daily will have a long-term impact as my daughter carries it forward over the course of her lifetime. She’s already got the right nickname for the role. I can even envision the headline 30 years from now:

AID HELPS MILLIONS!

100 Goodbyes

9 Aug

I never saw reaction to a t-shirt like the one my friend Victor got in Lake Charles, Louisiana wearing a shirt featuring Redd Foxx’s face above his best-known phrase from Sanford and Son:

YOU BIG DUMMY

It caught the attention of strangers who stopped him just to share how much they liked the shirt. At times, I felt like they were just moments away from hugging him. Yes, the joy in their eyes was that apparent.

I thought about that shirt tonight as I put my daughter to bed. She would say “dummy” is a bad word, and she’s right. But the connection to Redd Foxx came from surveying her room once again. It could be mistaken for a carpeted junkyard. If the reference wasn’t lost on her, I would buy her that t-shirt in her size, or she could wear a larger size as a nightgown.

I kept those thoughts to myself, and I refrained from calling her room a “disaster” like I often do. With school starting less than two weeks away, I did mention the need to get her room cleaned and organized. It wasn’t a general mention; I got specific.

Me: We’re going to donate or throw out 100 items.

Aidan: That’s everything I have.

Me: Oh, that’s not even close. You won’t even notice the 100 items when they’re gone.

Aidan:  How about 21 items?

Me: No, 100.

Aidan: 21.

Me: If we rid this room of 100 items, you’ll have room for new things.

Aidan: How about 200 items?

Me: Okay, let’s not get overly ambitious.

I left the room as she and her puppy cuddled for a night of sleep. Of course, I’m up trying to devise a plan of attack. I could bring in a shovel and a wheelbarrow. But the idea is to remove only the items we want to donate or throw out so I’ll have to be more strategic.

Evaluating her wardrobe might be an easier way to start. Anything that she’s outgrown could get set in a paper grocery bag for easy drop-off to Goodwill. I bet we could easily find 30 items to give away.

Toys she no longer plays with or has outgrown might lead to another 30 items, to donate, as long as they’re in good condition. I suspect she has a lot more toys that will just go straight into the trash. I will face resistance from the girl who believes EVERYTHING can be glued back together.

Books may only provide a handful of additional items to donate, but the real opportunity may come from stuffed animals. Yes, those prized possessions of childhood are vulnerable here. She’s got so many stuffed animals, many of them spend their days jammed together in piles and containers. The view can’t be pretty. Thankfully, they don’t need air to breathe.

If we just focused on stuffed animals, saying 100 Goodbyes could happen in a few minutes. But there is no way she’s going to part with 100 stuffed animals all at once, even if she almost never plays with, looks at, or remembers they exist. I could suggest donating them to children who would be comforted by them. She would like that very much, but I suspect we wouldn’t get more than 10 donated.

Obviously I won’t wait for her to start selecting items. I’ll have to schedule a day for this massive undertaking. We’ll have pizza and ice cream and anything necessary to make the process a bit more tolerable. And I already have one item in mind that can go: the IKEA bed she no longer sleeps in. If I could convince her to donate every toy in the boxes that cover that bed, we would reach our goal 10 times over.

 

 

Timeshare Farm

3 Aug

As a kid, I remember a cousins’ plan to buy the LaBrake farm. The meetings typically would take place at The Farm on a holiday or a Saturday evening visit. As I recall, the discussions usually involved my brother Will, my cousin Stephen, my cousins Julie and Tammy, and on occasion we would allow younger siblings to attend these impromptu meetings. It seemed like we were discussing how all of us could live at The Farm at once, if I recall correctly. There were a lot of rooms in the 2-story house and lots of land around it so it’s reasonable to think we felt there would be room for everybody. Or maybe we talked about buying The Farm and taking turns living there. Timeshare Farm! I think anyone who took their turn in the summer would automatically be responsible for all the haying demands. Oh, I really wish I could remember the plan, and nobody ever wrote it down.

You can probably guess our Timeshare Farm idea never became a reality. As we grew older, The Farm still held a special place in our hearts, but the idea of buying it was never brought up. I suppose it was replaced by other interests we each had developed in our teenage and early adulthood years. Some of us got married. Some found a steady job in the workforce or the military. Others went through a string of relationships or bounced from job to job. By the time The Farm was being sold, not one of us had the funds or the focus to make that earlier dream come true.

This month marks ten years since I was last at The Farm.  My Grandpa died that month, and all 14 of his children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren came together to mourn the loss of our family patriarch. I didn’t want to leave. I knew that visit would be the last time I went into the house, as it was, and walked through the barn, as it was, passed through the machine shed and the garage. The whole place would be different eventually, and I wanted to absorb as much of it as I could.

The visit was cut short. While many relatives were still gathered inside and outside the house, I was getting back on the road with my wife. We would make the 45 minute drive from Lisbon to Alexandria Bay, leaving the Brown Road and taking Route 68 to Route 37 to Route 12. The emotionally-charged day would continue when we arrived at my in-laws home to discuss the health problems of my mother-in-law.  (It turns out, she would only live a little over two more years after that day.)

In the month following my grandfather’s death, my wife and I moved from Albany, New York to Houston, Texas. The distance away from family felt painfully long in the days following the 9/11 attacks, and made it difficult to visit home in the months ahead when the business of auctioning items from The Farm and selling the property was underway.

Later I would learn that my absence during that process was a blessing. Unlike my brother Will who was in the house after it was emptied, I have no memories at all like that. I can still  see how the furniture was set up in the living room and some of my favorite family photos on display in there. I can still see the large dining room table, with my aunts and uncles surrounding every inch of it on a Saturday night. I can still see the Christmas tree in the front room, beautifully decorated and visible to cars passing by. I can see it all as if it’s still going on right now. I could walk right into that house today and—

Of course, it’s not there to see. Sure, the house is still there but it’s not the same house, really. Someone outside the family owns it these days. I’ve been by it a couple times during trips to see my parents. I think I even took Aidan over there once when was very little so I know she has no memories of it.

Perhaps that’s the most profoundly sad part of the story for me. I can go to The Farm anytime, in my mind, but my daughter will never know the place the way I did. She was born almost four years after my grandfather died. But knowing her, she would have relished a visit to her great-grandfather’s farm. She would have wanted to explore every bit of it, just like her daddy did starting almost 40 years ago. I can see her wanting to help unload hay, just like her great-grandmother did for years. I imagine she would sneak into the machine shed, just her like daddy did, to play hide and seek and climb on equipment that we knew was dangerous to be around, just for the thrill of it.  She might even try to climb a silo, like her daddy and Uncle Will did—until Grandpa caught us and “convinced” us to come down. She would find some of the same books in the living room, from decades ago, and enjoy them like I did. She would mingle with her grandmother and great aunts in the kitchen, wanting to help cook the large meals necessary to feed so many people on a holiday. She would love every kid she met and ask every time if she could have a sleepover. She might accompany her great-grandfather on trips to the diner down the road and offer to help in the garden. She would have wonderful memories and the smell of Cedar trees anywhere else in the country would always make her smile and cry a little bit.

Now at least she’s been there, in my mind.

Please visit the fundraising page of my latest book project, Outside the Touch of Time, and consider making a donation. Your support will help us preserve stories of  the love, lessons and longevity of 14 siblings born between 1933-1955.

Outside the Touch of Time

1 Aug

The summer of 1955 marked the opening of Disneyland, the launch of the Guinness Book of World Records, and the fury of Hurricane Diane, which killed more than 200 people along the East Coast of the United States. The damage in its wake was estimated at three billion dollars, making it the first billion dollar storm. Although it affected parts of New York State, the heavy rain and flooding was not seen in the upper reaches of the state where my mother was living with her parents, sisters and brothers. No doubt, they heard reports of the hurricane, but the LaBrake family farm in Lisbon, New York was unaffected.

I look back to summer of 1955 because that’s when my mother was the same age as her only grandchild is now. Of course, six was very different back then. But available technology aside, the lives of my six year old and her grandmother-at-six are vastly different in other ways.

My mother at six had lived in only one house. My daughter has lived in three houses and two apartments, counting both the residences her mother and I shared and the ones we live in separately.

My mother grew up with 13 brothers and sisters. Because they were born between 1933 and 1955, not all 14 siblings lived at home at any one time. My daughter is an only child. She’s also my parents’ only grandchild.  None of the sisters and brothers with whom I was raised has a child yet.

My mother’s parents had been married for 23 years by the summer of 1955. My daughter has been experiencing the divorce of her parents for two and a half years now.

My mother had not flown by age six, whereas my daughter has flown numerous times between Texas and New York,  most recently flying from Dallas to Buffalo with her mother in July. Her first trip by plane occurred in October 2005 when we flew to New York to spend a week there.

At age six, I’m sure my mother wasn’t allowed to use the telephone. My daughter has been using a cell phone since she was a baby when she would occasionally call her grandmother by chance with the press of the right sequence of buttons.

While these differences are noteworthy, what’s more important is the shared family heritage. My daughter is a LaBrake, not by name but by blood. She has a right to hear the family stories and get acquainted with the family members. That’s been challenging to do while living in Texas. Most of the family lives in New York State and we rarely get visitors here. But there is a solution in the works.

No, I won’t be moving home anytime soon. I haven’t decided to buy back the family farm either. I’m also not petitioning the state of Texas to switch places with New England. However, I am developing a book project that will allow for a lot of family time for both me and my daughter.

The book, called Outside the Touch of Time, will share stories of the 14 LaBrake siblings, starting with their childhood and spanning decades until the present day. I plan to interview each person in his or her home in the coming months and finish the book in time for a launch in 2012, the year marking 80 years since my grandparents got married at the tender age of 18.

All 14 LaBrake siblings gather along the St. Lawrence River in Lisbon, New York during the family reunion of 2008.

Rather than conduct phone interviews, I plan to see my mother and my aunts and uncles in person. Trips to New Mexico, New York and New Jersey will be necessary as each of the 14 siblings lives in one of those states. Isn’t it odd that nobody lives in a non-New state?

Family photos will be an essential part of the book, and I’m sure I can find a relative to help coordinate that part of the work. I also plan to bring a professional camera to take new photos for the book and its marketing materials.

I’ll be bringing something else, too: a digital audio recorder. This will be the only time someone is capturing these stories in any kind of digital format and they must be saved for future use related to the book and future enjoyment by the family.

Oh, I plan to bring one more thing: my daughter. I can’t imagine making these trips without Aidan. After all, she is the next generation. I know her presence will help liven up each visit, and her own storytelling skills will be enhanced by participating in this experience. I might even assign her a few duties before, during and after each interview.

While family stories and fun facts are central elements for the book, the narrative will place their lives in the larger context of life in America. We’ll look at the rates for sibling survival in the U.S., and hear from a sociology expert about the unusual occurrence of more than a dozen siblings living past the age of 55. The research data will accompany professional observations about the factors that may have contributed to this kind of longevity in one family.

Even with a plan to self-publish, writing Outside the Touch of Time will require donations in order to get started. I have set up a fundraising page on IndieGoGo so anyone interested in supporting the project can give whatever amount is suitable for them. You’re also welcome to donate a camera or recording equipment. The deadline for reaching our goal is November 1, and interviews will commence once the goal has been reached. 

Your support is necessary in bringing this book to life, and I appreciate generosity of any kind. I know my daughter will be pleased, too. She may even want to send you a handwritten thank you note.

365 Days Of Six

17 May

Bye Five. You were a constant adventure, but your services are no longer needed here . Six takes over this week. Six is bigger. Six is better. Deal with it.

The night before Aidan turns Six, she already has set her sights on a bigger number: Ten. Seriously! After her bedtime story, we played a new game. As she tapped on my hands, I extended my fingers until all ten were outstretched. My little math enthusiast wanted to tell me the age she wants to be, and she needed my ten fingers to make her point. But I tricked her. As she said, “this is the age I want to be,” I quickly lowered nine fingers. She laughed hysterically as the age she wanted to be appeared to be 1. We repeated it over and over until I finally just kept all ten fingers up so she could claim an age she won’t reach until 2015.

Sorry 7. Pass the message on to 8 and 9. My sincerest apologies. She’s thinking double digits already. That’s funny to me because she was working on triple-digit math problems for homework tonight. Really. She needed some help, but by the end she knew what she was doing.

Okay, I will encourage her eagerness to learn more challenging math, just like she’s learned to read and tackled nouns, verbs and adjectives this school year. Thanks to Christmas gifts, she also got acquainted with the names of internal organs and bones. These things I strongly support. But I will not let her push past Six until it’s time. That means I get to enjoy 365 Days of Six.

Since her mother and I separated (and later divorced), there’s been periods of time that I didn’t see her or talk to her. Sometimes those stretches lasted for days; sometimes they lasted a couple weeks. That won’t happen with Six. She and I live in the same town, and I see her nearly every day when I’m in town and not traveling to Houston or anywhere else.

Knowing it and celebrating it are two different things. So I have decided to make Six more special by documenting every day of this new age. It won’t necessarily be a journal. It could be 365 photos. Or 365 quotes from my daughter. Some piece of every day to claim, highlight and remember.

Once they’re all put together, those pieces of Six will come together like a magnificent puzzle, just like puzzle of the United States that came from Aidan’s Grandma & Grandpa. As she eagerly put it together tonight, I started thinking about a future trip  she and I could take to see all 50 states. Maybe I’ll save that for her 10th birthday.

Aidan beams after finishing a birthday puzzle from Grandma & Grandpa.

Six arrives in the morning when she awakes in the 6 o’clock hour. It will be a full day of feeling extra special. It helps that she is going to school with some superior petite cupcakes to share with her classmates. Six have icing balloons on them. Six have icing ladybugs.  Six have regular icing with sprinkles for kids who hate balloons or fear ladybugs.

The celebration doesn’t end at bedtime tomorrow night. 10 days after her actual birthday, we’ll host a dinosaur-themed birthday party for her and her 15 closest friends in the Dallas area. Thanks to her mom’s excellent taste in stationary, the invites will be customized and printed at Party City.

I expect the first ten days of Six will be mainly devoted to adjusting to calling her Six instead of Five. Then, we’ll handle each new challenge as it comes. If I learned anything from Five it was that every challenge she faces amounts to two new challenges for me: figuring out how best to respond to it and then using it a teachable moment for her.

Okay Six, I’m ready. Bring it on, and let’s be best friends forever. Don’t believe anything that Five told you.