Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Little Miracles

Recently, my son started his junior year of college. In March, he'll turn 21. My days these days are filled with working overtime in order to pay for that college. A few weeks ago, though, I took a day off to rummage through my attic storage space to thin out stuff that didn't get thinned out during our move to a bigger apartment a few years ago. I came across a reminder of another time and place.

In 1998, I had just finished two things: my elementary education teaching certificate and an ugly custody fight with an ex-girlfriend over my son. Neither were cheap.

My ex and I had fought to a bitter standstill. We shared custody, but as is the custom in the state I live in, I ended up paying child support.

Those days, in early 1998, were some lean times, to put it mildly. I remember having to take a jar full of coins I had from emptying my pockets of change from one of my past jobs, as a server. I took it to one of those coin counters in my grocery store in order to buy groceries for he and I one week. It was all the money I had.

As I searched for a teacher job, I scraped by working as a substitute teacher in the meantime. I also heard from an old friend whom I'd worked in the past. He needed a solid server at his restaurant, which I'd worked at before. Business was booming-- would I be interested?

Hell yeah. I was getting evicted from the apartment my son and I lived in. It wasn't necessarily the worst thing. I'd picked the apartment in a hurry after the woman I was married to asked for a divorce at the worst possible time-- as I was fighting another woman over my kid and getting ready for to  student teach, the final step in my journey to become a teacher.

He and I had toughed it out there. Because of all the one-way streets in the neighborhood, in order to get to our home we had to drive by an open drug market, with gang members out in front of the building hawking their wares. I was glad he was 4 and too young to realize what was going on. At night, there was gunfire. I kept music or the television on so that he wouldn't hear it.

We made the best of our poverty. At the time, you could ride the CTA, Chicago's mass transit system, for $1.50. For twenty five cents more, you could get a transfer, which was good for 3 hours and could also be used for a round-trip. Kids rode free. On some Saturdays, we would board the el at the station about a block from our home, and ride it to the end of the line, O'Hare Airport,  and hang out for an hour or so. This was pre-9/11, so we could go right into the terminal where the planes were. There was a playground in it, which he loved. He also enjoyed going up to the windows and waving to the pilots who were waiting for passengers to embark or disembark. They would unfailingly wave cheerfully back to him. It's funny now because he cites this as one of the funnest things he did as a child. I did it because I knew he loved airplanes and no matter how broke I was, I could always scrounge up $1.75, even if it was by rummaging through my apartment.

One day, right before I started my second job, as a server, we were in the grocery store near our apartment and he suddenly got very excited; "Dad! It's Tommy! Can I get Tommy?"

I knew that it was a character from a children's show-- "Rugrats." It was in a close-out bin for maybe 4 bucks. I had just enough to buy us 8 or 10 dollars worth of groceries, which I could stretch out for a week, and not enough for this inexpensive toy.  He rarely asked for specific toys. Trying to hide my embarrassment, I told him that we couldn't get it. When he asked why, I could not figure out a way to explain it to him. He was upset. I told him that maybe we could get it later. I knew this was unlikely; it was the only one in the bin, in a very busy grocery store. It would undoubtedly be gone by the end of the day. I hoped he would just forget about it.

A day or two later, I started working again for my old friend. I'd worked for years at the restaurant before I went back to school. Old regulars and I were delighted to see one another. People knew that I'd just finished teacher school, and some knew about my custody fight. They were generous with their tips.

I worked as a sub the next day, and after work went to buy groceries. It was a huge relief to have, for the first time in months, money to buy plenty of groceries, and even a couple of little treats for my son and I.

As I walked into the grocery store, I happened to walk by the sale bin. I was in disbelief. There was Tommy. I quickly grabbed him and threw him in my basket, thankful for this unlikely turn of events.

My son was, of course, later surprised and delighted to see Tommy.

As my son got older, he started asking questions about that time and our circumstances. He ultimately began to understand what had happened, and how my poverty was the price I paid in order to keep him in my life. For his part, he remembers this as one of the happiest parts of his childhood. He still remembers those trips to the airport with delight.

Over time, Tommy, toy cars and Lincoln Logs gave way to baseball, Monopoly and video games, but he always had Tommy on a shelf in his room, even after other things of his childhood had gone to younger neighbors or Goodwill. I think that it was a reminder of that time that was improbably happy for him. With our move right after I finished with one more career change,  nursing school, and right before he started college, Tommy finally went into storage.

These days, I'm happy with decisions I made. One was the decision, over 20 years ago, to stay in my son's life, no matter the cost. The other was the decision a few years ago to go to nursing school . I chuckle sometimes thinking that as a consequence, I'm able to spend more annually on his education than I made in a couple of those harsh years.

Pretty soon, Tommy will be going into the Goodwill bin, where he will eventually hopefully help some other young, struggling parent make their kid happy for a couple of bucks. But before that, I had to stop one more time and remember those times, and be thankful for timely little miracles. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Boy's Dream

"Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains."-- "Crash" Davis, "Bull Durham"

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, around 1968-1969, the baseball bug bit me. My family lived in Albany Park, a very ethnically mixed neighborhood on Chicago's north side. My friends in the neighborhood were a grab bag of ethnicities, nationalities and religions. Until just a few years before, Albany Park was populated mostly by Jewish people, mostly of Russian heritage. As they began the move to the suburbs-- a pattern that has remained to this day in this neighborhood no matter the ethnic groups-- new groups were moving in: baptists from Appalachia, Maronites from Lebanon, Irish, Hungarians, Polish and the first few Hispanic people. You name it, we had it

The one thing we all had in common was baseball. Our own little form of baseball. We played in the alley with a deflated playground ball-- it was the great leveler. The difference between the greatest hitter and the worst was pretty narrow. And speaking of narrow, we played in an alley. Our bases were utility poles, cracks in the concrete and by-the-way, watch out for the dogshit!

By 1971, my family had followed the Great American pattern that was emerging, and had moved to the suburbs for a split-level ranch and better schools. But I still loved baseball. In September of 1971-- specifically, September 11, 1971, I finally went to my first baseball game. It was my beloved Cubs versus the St. Louis Cardinals. 

I remember, to this day, nearly 43 years later, so much about the game. Juan Pizzaro pitched for the Cubs. Joe Torre, who was usually a catcher, was playing third base. Lou Brock, whom the Cubs had traded in 1964 to the Cardinal for pitcher Ernie Broglio, in what is considered to one of the worst and most lopsided trades in baseball history, was playing for the Cardinals. In all, I saw four future Hall of Famers play that day-- Billy Williams and Ron Santo for the Cubs, and Lou Brock and Joe Torre for the Cards. To my lasting regret, another future Hall of Famer, "Mr. Cub," Ernie Banks, was not playing that day; he retired about two weeks later. 

But my most memorable moment came with a player who I greatly admired-- a guy who was never going to make it into the Hall of Fame: Paul Popovich. 

Popovich had been one of the few bright spots in the infamous and heartbreaking end of the 1969 Cubs season. He was nicknamed "Supersub" for his ability to fill in ably at any infield position. He was only a lifetime .233 hitter, but he seemed to have a knack for getting the "clutch" hits-- hits right when they were badly needed. 

Popovich hit 14 home runs over his entire career (mostly with the Cubs) from 1964 to 1975. One of those home runs was that day, in the course of the Cubs' 7-0 victory: it was the one and only grand slam that Popovich hit in his career.

I never got to play little league ball, though I dreamed, as a little boy, of playing in the Bigs and hitting a grand slam. Instead, I grew up, went to college, moved back into the city and became a teacher, and then a nurse, and raised a son who is a baseball fan. We saw many games at Wrigley and he played six years of little league, something I hadn't gotten to do. He even pitched in his league championship his last year. He's 20 now, and in college. He told me a couple of days ago that he considers that pitching in the little league championship when he was in eighth grade to be the greatest memory of his childhood. 

A couple of weeks ago, the great pitcher Greg Maddux was inaugurated into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I saw him pitch many times, and during Maddux' second stint with the Cubs, my son saw him pitch. But for every Greg Maddux, there are hundreds of Paul Popoviches-- journeyman players who are talented and hard-working enough to make it to the major leagues, but who will never make it to the Hall. And for every Paul Popovich, there are 1000 little boys who can only dream of making it to "the show." To me, to see Paul Popovich living his dream-- and mine-- that afternoon in 1971, that will always be my favorite moment I ever witnessed in baseball. Except, of course, seeing my boy pitch in a little league championship.



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lean In

This weekend, my wife, my son and I went up to a reunion that my wife's family has every three years. At some point during the drive back, my son asked me about this blog, pointing out I hadn't written in it in a while.

Truth is that I had been planning for the last couple of weeks to resume posting. I missed it.

One of the big reasons I had slowed to a near stop in the writing was exhaustion. A career change, a move, getting a kid off to college, and then a couple of years of working as much overtime as I could stand-- I was fried most days, and still am. Still, I miss blogging more than I miss the rest.

So, anybody who reads this blog regularly knows, I changed careers. After getting laid off a teaching job that I just loved, I decided to go where the work was-- the healthcare profession. After flirting with the idea of becoming a pharmacist, a friend who was studying to be a nurse (and whom I took prereq classes with) pointed out that even if I went through with the plans to go to pharmacy school-- an unlikely event as it turned out, since there's only one in Chicago-- I'd be done with it around the time my younger child was done with college. The whole point was to be in a position to pay for the lion's share of my kids' college.

I was fortunate to get into the RN program of one of the Chicago City Colleges. Not only did it have a great reputation, it was relatively cheap.

Even so, the Recession started not long after I began the process. And then my wife was laid off her job the month I started nursing school.

She and I had a long discussion over a few glasses of wine one night about what we were going to do. We decided to tough it out and for me to stay in the program.

She worked a series of jobs, after a stint on unemployment, and I continued to work full time at a waitering job. I had to buck up, lean in, and know that I could sleep when I was done with nursing school.

I finished nursing school on my 50th birthday. My wife and kids threw a marvelous party. Most of my closest friends were there, including a surprise guest-- my old friend Viktor Zeitgeist, who flew in from Seattle on a redeye to be there. My mother came in for it as well.

I was fortunate to get a job ridiculously quickly. It was with the biggest dialysis company in the world. I knew next to nothing about dialysis; we'd talked about it probably all of ten minutes of nursing school.

I started training in early August of 2011. I bonded quickly with two guys in the class, Neal and Brent, who, like me, were middle-aged guys who were changing careers.

Brent had a kid in college, and I had one who was going to be there soon. I had a bunch of debts to take care of-- in order for me to finish nursing school, we'd done a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I had to take care of that.

In August of 2012, Brent, Neal and I sent one another texts caustically congratulating one another on our one-year anniversary with the company. We'd already grown a little weary of the job. It was a company in chaos. Still, the chaos resulted in a lot of overtime for Brent and I, so we dealt with it.

The next day I got a text from a co-worker about Brent; he was in the hospital. He'd collapsed-- a possible heart attack. I was a little incredulous. He was only 42.

I got ahold of his girlfriend's number. She told me he had collapsed at home. As it turned out, he'd had a brain aneurysm. At her request, Neal and I drove to the hospital to see Brent. We checked him for pupillary response-- we shone a light in his eyes to see if the pupils responded. None. He was intubated, breathing artificially, and his heart was beating, but he was dead.

We went to his funeral a couple of days later. His girlfriend and I have become close friends since then. Shared grief has a way of doing that. Neal eventually took a job at a hospital, but we've stayed in touch as well.

Nearly two years later, I'm still with that company. I've grown wearier of the job. Four managers in 3 years. Still lots of chaos, but still lots of overtime.

So now my son is half way done with college. My daughter will be a senior in high school this year. There will be a year where we have two kids in college. My daughter's birth father will apparently help some, but it's still going to be a strain.

But we've dealt with a lot tougher situations. As I look back at going to nursing school, and how it's worked out, I'm satisfied; the plan worked.

I look forward to the day I can move on to my next nursing job. Most of the people I treat should really not be alive. I'd like to be working with people who are going to recover. But for now, this is what's best for my family. I'll continue to lean in, and finish what I started.