THE DAY I WON THE LOTTERY

Even if your whole life has been nothing but luckless drudgery, the fact is you can never be completely sure what will happen tomorrow. Maybe the cards will finally turn in your favor. One crazy day, they turned in mine – a little bit.
For years, I’d always driven to the same convenience store at lunchtime to get a printout of the winning lottery numbers to check against my losing numbers. There was a ritualistic sameness to it as I’d sit in my car sucking on a 32 ounce drink, checking the numbers, tearing up my losing ticket, and cursing myself for being stupid enough to keep playing this sucker’s game.
But on this day, I quickly saw I had picked three of the numbers. I opened the car door to go get my $3, but fell back into the seat when I saw I had four numbers. I thought I had somehow gotten hold of two winning number printouts, but no, it was actually my ticket. And then I suddenly realized I had five of the numbers.
My shocky, fevered brain then determined that I had picked all six numbers.
The tattered remnants of my soul shot out of my body and flew over the Circle K. I was free in a way I hadn’t been since I was a barefoot five year old running around my backyard.
But then stern reality reimposed itself, and I realized that I had misread the sixth number. There was an immediate physical sensation of crashing back to earth. After a minute or so, I looked at the printout and saw that I had won $1063 for picking five numbers. It was a long, long way from the 20-something million that would have almost gotten me completely out of debt, depending on whether my wife had gone shopping that afternoon.
I went back to work and tried to play it cool, but the ticket was burning a hole in my pocket. Was this little scrap of paper really worth $1063? I told my boss what happened, and he gave me the rest of the afternoon off. I made a beeline for the lottery office on Corona.
I walked in the door, and the lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “Let me guess, five out of six numbers, right?”
“How did you know?”
“Because every other winner who walks in here is happy, happy, happy. The only ones who look like their dog just died are the five-out-of-sixers.”
I cashed the check and went to pick up my kids early from after-school daycare. You have to understand that the father of a 6 and a 9 year old spends most of his time explaining to them why he can’t afford to buy them the thousands of things they’re always wanting. So when they came running up to me, and I shouted, “Tell me what you want me to buy for you,” they both skidded to a stop and stared at me as if I’d been body snatched.
That night I was careful to tell my wife “$1063, that’s how much I won in the lottery,” in that order, because I didn’t want her to go through anything like my ordeal in the car.
Some hijinks ensued the next day after my kids told everyone at school that their dad had won the lottery, but we weathered it.
Overall, my advice is to play the billion dollar lottery. But, have somebody else check your numbers.

Just Another Childbirth, No Big Deal

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As I watched the most beautiful girl in her class walk across the stage to collect her college diploma, I thought back to the first time I saw her 22 years ago.

Her mother and I had driven to the hospital very early that morning, running red lights (!) the whole way, but the doctor sent us home because she wasn’t far enough along. So we’d spent the rest of the day trudging up and down hills and walking around and around our apartment complex trying to speed things up, but nothing  seemed to work. When I told her I’d read about a woman who had climbed stairs carrying two heavy suitcases until things started moving along, she made a face, rolled her eyes, and went to bed.

By then it was 10 at night, and I was hungry. I searched the freezer and found a lobster frozen in a tube of seawater that I’d bought months before as a joke. I dropped it into a pot of boiling water and instantly the entire apartment reeked like Boston Harbor at low tide. That did it. She came into the kitchen, green at the gills, and announced we were immediately going back to the hospital. (More red lights!)  We were broke and had no insurance, so the plan was natural child birth: in and out of the hospital in 24 hours.

At first it was kind of fun. They put us in a homey “birthing room”, MTV was on, and the doctors and nurses were laughing and making jokes. Then about 4 in the morning the laughter stopped.  The baby’s blood pressure was too high and there was some danger the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Suddenly the comfy bed turned into a gurney, and I was running beside it careening toward an operating room.

The doctor gave my wife one more chance to push. She tried, but she was too far gone. The half asleep anesthesiologist on call ran in, his bare feet covered by blue doctor’s footies. Trays and other equipment were quickly wheeled in, and several O.R. nurses appeared. The prep for the C-section looked like something being thrown together at the last minute, which is exactly what it was.

A nurse noticed my ashen gray, sweaty face, quickly grabbed my arm, and dragged me back to the birthing room. A low pitched, keening sound I’d never made before or since emerged involuntarily from the back of my throat. “It always looks like that,” she assured me, “but they know what they‘re doing.” She left, and after a few minutes of taking deep breaths and feeling ashamed because I’d left my wife alone, I staggered back to the operating room. I held my wife’s hand and tried to appear calm. There was a ripping sound, a baby’s cry, and the doctor happily shouted, “How about a girl?” Nurses rushed the baby off and I was led back to the birthing room.

After a while, they took me to see my daughter. There she was in a clear plastic basinet with a McDonald’s warming light overhead. The nurse picked her up and handed her to me. I stared into those sky blue eyes, and saw everything all at once: loving, smiling, sleeping, laughing, crying, crawling, walking, falling, rising, running, playing, learning, dreaming, studying, leaving, graduating, working, struggling, marrying, mothering, nurturing, worrying, aging, dying, and loving.

As for me, my beloved, insatiable, all consuming self shattered like a windowpane hit by a Nolan Ryan fastball, and all that remained was the perfect baby girl I held in my arms.

The Bad Dad Diaries, Volume I

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When the kids were little, I was badly sleep deprived, so I wouldn’t actually “wake up” until a half hour or so after getting out of bed. It was a weird, semi-dream state that left me incapable of communicating beyond grunting, nodding, and hearing every third word. My wife, on the other hand, was immediately wide awake and ready to organize the new day.

Every morning I’d rush – half comatose – out to the car, still fumbling with the buttons on my shirt, racing to get the kids to school on time. My wife would follow behind, herding the kids ahead of her while deftly fixing Erin’s hair or stuffing Matt’s homework into his backpack.

As I’d back the car out of the driveway, she’d hold on to the window frame sidestepping and shouting instructions like a NASCAR crew chief. “Pick them up from daycare at 5:30 and get Matt to soccer practice by 5:45. Erin needs to be at choir by 6, so it’s going to be close, and you know how they are if she’s late. I put an after school snack in their backpacks so don’t buy them any junk food. I’ll make spaghetti when I get home from work.” Watching her recede in the rearview mirror, I often thought I should buy her semaphore flags so she could get off one last signal before I turned the corner.

Amazingly, it usually worked. Except for that time when I got home about 7, and she asked, “Where are the kids?” Thinking it was some kind of fun, new guessing game, I smiled, looked around, and replied,” I don’t know. Where are they?”

“The daycare closed an hour ago,” she growled.

“I thought you…were…supposed…to…,” I quavered. Apparently I‘d missed a signal that morning. But, a quick trip across town to the daycare director’s home and a steep fine later all was well.

Most of the time though, thanks entirely to my wife, our morning routine worked well, and we all arrived wherever we were going on time. The first time she was out of town; however, there were a few snags.

I had no idea what she did every morning, but I figured waking up 10 minutes earlier would give me plenty of time to do whatever it was. After my alarm clock went off, I woke the kids, told them to get dressed for school, and went off to get ready for work. When I came back, I was surprised to find them in the living room sitting on the bottoms of their feet (as only those under 8 can do without requiring emergency dual knee replacement surgery) watching cartoons in their underwear. When I asked them why they weren’t dressed, Erin, without taking her eyes off the screen, said, “Mommy always gives us stuff to wear”

I ran to their rooms and found everything but Matt’s right sneaker. I tossed them their school clothes as I sped past them on my way to the kitchen, where I poured two glasses of orange juice, popped two glazed toaster pastries into the toaster, and hustled back to Matt’s room to find his lost sneaker. I’d looked everywhere and was looking there again when I spied it cowering in the black recesses of the farthest corner under his bed.

I was shimmying like Shakira under the bed and just managed to brush it with my finger when an alarm I’d never heard before went off. I lurched forward, banging my head on the underside of the box spring, and grabbed the shoe just as Matt yelled,

“It’s smoky.”

I again raced past them, their eyes still locked on the TV now blaring the Looney Tunes theme song, to find two bright orange tongues of fire from the toaster licking the underside of the wooden kitchen cabinets like twin flamethrowers. Forgetting whatever they taught me in Cub Scouts about fighting fires, I picked up the glasses and splashed OJ on the toaster. Fourth of July sparks burst from the toaster and the wall socket – but the fire was out. I pulled out the plug – more sparks – picked up the toaster and threw it into the sink.

That very second, my wife called. “Hi. You should have left for school 5 minutes ago.” Bang! I slammed down the phone and ran to the car dragging along two hungry, confused kids, their shirts on inside out.

Why I Hate Alzheimer’s

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He was a tall, good looking seller of printing supplies with a killer smile, a joyful laugh, and a quick, self deprecating wit. He grew up on the unforgiving streets of NYC, served honorably in World War II, married my mother, and raised the four of us. He lived a long, happy life with the exception of one dark cloud that dogged him: He had no mechanical ability whatsoever.

Our possessed garage door opener was a frequent recipient of his inept ministrations. I’d often see him standing on a rickety wooden chair puzzling over its latest malfunction, multicolored wires dangling down around his head, the tip of a table knife (he didn’t believe in screwdrivers) being ground into a Celtic cross as he tried to loosen a factory tightened screw. He’d always get it to work, for a while, but his faith in the power of shoelaces to hold metal objects in proper alignment and the inevitable loose and “extra” wires created the impression of a large, inverted New Years party favor presiding over the garage.

We moved from New York to Houston in 1973 when I was 13. My father took us to Lake Livingston to show us the wonders of the greater metropolitan area. We rented a very small boat with an outboard motor to tour the lake. My younger brother and I sat on either side of the motor as dad tried to start it. For some reason, the starter rope was very hard to pull. We could see that dad sensed there was something wrong with the motor and would have loved to attempt a quick repair, but, having no table knives aboard, he grabbed the rope with both hands and gave it a mighty heave. My brother and I watched dad fly overhead and pinwheel into the water as our boat shot out from under him: He’d started the motor in gear.

One Christmas Day my parents were visiting, and my wife gave me an electric drill. My father, who’d never held one before, hefted it wonderingly and held it up to the light at various angles. He asked me if I had any projects we could try it out on. His eyes lit up when I told him the latch on the fence was broken, and I’d recently bought a new one to replace it.

They were long screws that would have to be driven deep into the fence post, a two hour, three table knife, miserable job if ever there was one. My father held the screw in place with one hand and fitted the phillips head drill bit into the screw head with the other. He pulled the trigger and an instant later took a step back in mute bewilderment. From the expression on his face, you’d have thought he’d made the screw disappear. He turned to me, his eyes still wide, and said, “So that’s how they build all those big buildings and bridges.”

A few years later, the inevitable slide began to take its toll. He wound up in an Alzheimer’s facility. The first time I visited him there, he didn’t know who I was, but he knew I was someone he cared about very much. He wept and said over and over again, “It’s so sad.” I was basically in shock when I left and wound up in a Houston mall walking in a zombie-like stupor. Eventually, a kind security guard checked on me and led me to a fast food place where I sat for a long time thinking about how sad it was.

He died in April 2004. People had told me that his long illness would make his death easier on the family. It might have been easier, but it was nowhere near easy. I was in bad shape at the funeral mass.

Afterward, as his hearse was pulling out into lunch hour traffic on Bellaire Boulevard, it crashed to a stop when the driver cut the curb and the right rear tire fell into a large rut. It was such a sad sight that not even Houstonians could bring themselves to honk their horns as the hearse blocked the right lane of traffic.

Several of us grabbed the bumper and, with the driver gunning the engine, futilely tried to lift and push it out of the hole. Others ran to get large chunks of concrete from a nearby construction site to put under the tire, but that didn’t work either. Finally, someone driving by in a large pickup truck stopped, hooked up a tow chain to the hearse and pulled it free. As I watched it drive off, I whispered to myself,” My God, how he would have loved this.” And then, I swear, I heard him laugh for the last time. That is, until we meet again.

How To Survive A Bad Baby, Volume I

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Erin, our first, came along as welcome as a spring rain and as gently as the morning dew. She slept through the night, rarely cried, and gave us a smile when we needed one. Matt, our second, not so much. Among the many long, horrible nights he put us through, one still haunts my fading memory.

I was torn from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. by the blare of a 7-month old mini-siren and the mournful sound of my wife crying. Claire was standing beside the bed holding Matt, who had begun wailing when the obstetrician smacked him on the rear and hadn’t stopped since. Tonight, he was really rocking the house. When he was like this, we both knew the only way to calm him down was to take him for a drive. But I was too exhausted to get behind the wheel, and a co-worker had recently shared a brilliant scheme that she swore always worked with her baby.

I got out of bed, threw on some shorts, staggered out to the Subaru, returned with Matt’s car seat, put it on top of the clothes dryer, put the screaming kid in the car seat, and turned on the dryer. Miraculously, he immediately quieted down. I stared in prideful wonder at the vibrating baby, like Edison at his glowing bulb. Claire gave me a little hug, and we smiled contentedly at each other. Matt instantly saw that for the first time in his life he’d done something to make his parents happy, so he reared back and doubled the previous volume and intensity of his screams. Just then, our long-suffering neighbors in the apartment next door began banging on the wall.

Resigned to my fate, I carried Matt in his car seat to the Subaru and strapped him into the back seat. The tiny car’s acoustics gathered and focused the kid’s screams like a funnel; it felt like he was shrieking inside my skull. I cranked up the AC/DC- to make it a fair fight- and drove aimlessly through the moonlight.

I was dreaming of soundproof rooms and sleeping pills when I dimly perceived a tapping sound growing louder and more insistent. Squinting in the bright sunlight, I slowly woke from a perfect sleep the likes of which I hadn’t known since Matt arrived. A police officer was rapping on the driver’s side window. I quickly turned around to check on Matt; arms and legs splayed out, snoring softly, the little guy was sound asleep. I turned to the officer, put a finger to my lips, made a shushing sound, and rolled down the window.

The cop very softly whispered, “Are you OK?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Uhm.” I had no idea. I looked around, discovered I was in a Whataburger parking lot and, staring straight ahead, answered, “A Whataburger parking lot?” After hearing the whole story, the officer strongly suggested I take Matt home.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I realized I had absolutely no memory whatsoever of pulling into the parking lot: a clear-cut case of sleepdriving.

My sympathies to those dads being driven to sleepless despair by their own mini-sirens. But, if you can resist the natural impulse to head for the hills, in 20 years or so they may, as Matt did, grow into one of the finest people you’ve ever known.

Golf Is A Genetic Disorder

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Heaven knows we can’t help what we love, and my father was helplessly in love with golf. He naturally assumed that his teenage son would be too. But, as much as I liked being with him, I’ve always loathed the game, and it showed in the quality of my play. Of all our misadventures on the links, one lives on in my most vivid nightmares.

For the thousandth time, I stood forlornly over the ball as dad began his tireless litany, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then he’d shimmy like Shakira), backswing low and slow, swing through the ball.” It was like driving a car while reading the owner’s manual and resulted in a herky-jerky swing that produced a ball flight consistent only in its absolute unpredictability.

I was just about to hit my drive, when I noticed a course employee had stopped his maintenance cart on the path about 100 yards ahead of us. I waved him on, but he motioned for me to go ahead and hit. My father told me to swing away, there was no way I’d hit him.

Like a dimpled laser beam, the ball’s trajectory varied nary an inch in any direction. The worker dove head-first from the cart, like Pete Rose sliding into second. There was a loud clang as the ball hit the metal fender inches from where he’d been sitting. He quickly got to his feet, yelling and angrily gesturing at me.

I’d fallen to my knees as I’d watched the horror unfolding before me. Dad and I looked at each other in wide-mouthed wonder. I slowly collected myself and said from my knees, “If I’d wanted to hit him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.” My father, the astonished look still on his face, nodded in mute agreement to the absolute truth of what I’d just said.

Cynics say that parents, like my father, who push children in the direction of their own broken dreams are trying to live through their kids. The truth is, they want their kids’ lives to be perfect. And those childhood dreams of playing centerfield for the Yankees, dancing on Broadway, or playing on the PGA tour are still our ideal of perfection. So, push them we do. I ruined tennis for both my kids when they were little by doing just that.

And then one December day when he was 15, my son, Matt, announced he was going to try out for his high school golf team, despite the fact that he’d never played a round of golf in his life. I went into full parent freak out mode and bought him a specially weighted, caution-tape yellow, training golf club I’d found on the web. When I proudly gave it to him Christmas morning, he looked at it like I’d just handed him a new algebra book.

The next day, I dragged him to a driving range. As he stood forlornly over the ball holding the ridiculous yellow club, I heard myself, as if from a far distance, instructing him, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (and then I shimmied like Shakira), backswing low and….” I stared out at the horizon for a few seconds, told him I wasn’t feeling well, and walked slowly to the car where I sat and watched him flail happily away at the whole bucket of balls using my old clubs.

To Change A Tire

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Like Alice through the looking glass, the real world is disappearing through our computer screens. Work, play, education, shopping, dating, banking, books, letters, and conversations are all vanishing around us; all shoved aside and replaced by their cold, spindly, digital avatars.

And because of the increasing scope and power of the digital world, we’re becoming conditioned to pay more attention to it than to what’s actually happening around us. Just try having a meaningful conversation with someone holding a smartphone. Or try sitting next to them at the movies. This also helps explain why so many of us are suddenly insane enough to text and drive.

This mass migration to the digital frontier is also widening the divide between those of us who pondered the mysteries of building blocks in our playpens and those who surfed the web in theirs. Millenials seem largely unaware that they live in Wonderland, and they appear to prefer it there. That’s why I was almost glad one sunny summer Sunday morning to discover I had a flat tire.

Have you noticed cars don’t break down as often as they used to? Their onboard computers do a much better job keeping things going than the brainless vacuum and gravity fed contraptions of the past. And for reasons probably related to automated manufacturing techniques and computer-aided design, flat tires are also a relative rarity.

As I stared down at the flat, I felt young again. I’d rolled through the 70s on retreads, and every time I was late or on a hot date I’d have a blowout. I got to where I could change one blindfolded. So, here at last was a chance to teach my millennial son one of the hallowed rituals of the pre-digitized world: we’d change a tire together.

He emerged from the house blinking in the analog daylight and in a hurry to reinsert himself back into the matrix. “Where’s the spare?” he asked. I had no idea. We eventually found it, cleverly hidden by the manufacturer underneath the car.
I’d been looking forward to showing him how to work a big old bumper jack, until I noticed the car had no bumper. We eventually found a teeny toy jack, cleverly hidden by the manufacturer behind a seat. But the dinky little crank that turned the teeny toy jack was nowhere to be found.

It was hot outside by now and the siren song of ESPN was calling me back to my recliner. “Where in the world are we going to find a little crank like that?” I whined. My son whipped out his smartphone and, after a few finger swipes, said, “It will be here Tuesday.” So much for my lesson plan.

Two days later, we jacked up the car and unscrewed the lug nuts, but the wheel wouldn’t come off the hub. And each time we yanked on it, the car rocked perilously on the teeny toy jack. Hot and frustrated, my son ran to the garage and came back with a mallet. He proceeded to maniacally whack away at the tire until the wheel broke loose and fell off. I looked at him and smiled proudly: If all the lights ever go out some crazy day, he’ll be fine.