Tag Archives: family

The Lamentable Silence of the Doorbell

I get so excited when the UPS man comes. One of us is getting a package! Cool! But I also get sad. It’s just the UPS man.

I mean, he’s working. He can’t stay.

But…I could put some coffee on…

Is it my imagination, or did people used to…y’know, stop by and see people? Unscheduled? I know it’s not my imagination, because I distinctly remember being in the back seat of my Dad’s enormous Impala when he would say to my Mom, “Long as we’re in the neighborhood, let’s stop in and see Maishe.” And so we’d swing on over to Uncle Max’s, knock on the door, and spend a pleasant couple hours. My brothers and I would romp in the yard; the adults would chat over coffee and solve the world’s problems and figure the Steelworkers were asking too much this time and the Steelers, what are you gonna do with coaching like that, and no, haven’t seen Ernie for weeks.doorbell

The honors of visits such as these were not limited to family. In an age when the telephone still felt new to the Depression generation, talking was preferred face to face. Presence was the thing, not just the talk. Be it friends or family, homes were open and visitors were welcomed. There were loose rules — not too early, not too late, don’t stay too long, don’t impinge on meal times. But otherwise, there was beer in the fridge and coffee in the pot, and heck, we got some of this cheese log and some crackers…

Somewhere along the years, I remember someone saying soberly at the suggestion of a drop-in, “Oh. Oh no. We can’t just pop in without calling.”

Wha? What happened? How? Did things speed up so much and get so informal that there was no time, plus too much chance of finding someone in their sweatpants? Did the collegial habit of visiting require some sort of Ward-and-June, creased-pleat perfection?

I was disappointed. I still am. But the behavior is burned into my set of social rules. Even when I manage to overcome it and actually drop in on someone, I do so with trepidation.

What to do? Well, for one thing, start again — but with a tacit social understanding: if the visitee says, “Lovely to see you, but could we do it another time? I’m just jammed up here changing the filler in the Diaper Genie and Jessica has a fever…”, then the visitor must cheerily understand and postpone.

Why not? Shouldn’t every visit from friends and family be like a delightful Christmas gift? Aren’t our lives predictable enough? What brings a smile quicker than the approach of a friend you haven’t seen for awhile?

Lotsa questions. We should talk about it. C’mon by when you can; I can get a pot of coffee on…

© 2014 Adam Barr

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An Old-School Ladder Over the Wall of Deafness

Necessity’s son, invention, has a lesser-known brother. Around the house, they call him Re, but his full name is Reinvention. He quietly specializes in finding the remaining use in things thought to be defunct.

This is not how I do it, but this is how it feels.

This is not how I do it, but this is how it feels.

My parents, ages 90 (my Dad) and 87, now live in a nursing home near Milwaukee. My brother lives within 10 minutes; it’s a good situation for them, no matter how much my Mom complains about the food. They apologized for not coming to Florida to be near us instead, but they said they had no idea how long we’d be here. Indeed, we threatened to move back to Pennsylvania once, and another time my company talked about moving me to Seattle. Neither happened, but I could understand their concerns. No apologies were necessary.

But a gulf wider than 1,200 miles opened between us recently. Both my parents are losing their hearing; my Dad’s is almost entirely gone. Hearing aids, as anyone with elderly parents knows, are an inexact science. Where phones are concerned, their utility can be even more questionable. The upshot is a lot of “WHAT?” and “Speak right into the phone!” from their end and top-of-my-lungs, louder-than-a-ballgame yelling on mine. In the end, frustration closed the line. They couldn’t hear; I couldn’t make myself heard…so we just stopped talking.

I missed their voices. But what to do?

Simple. Go back to the old way. Yes, I began to write letters.

No, they aren’t quill-pen musings in my flowing longhand. Rather, they’re 16-point Times New Roman spread over as many as six pages, with photos interspersed. Naturally, they’re very grandchild-centric; my folks want to know all about what my 13-year-old son is up to. But they’re also downright prosaic, even bland, full of talk about the interminable winter up there and a nice pot roast I made last Sunday.

And why not? It’s the look into the daily normalcy that reconnects my parents with my life, even as theirs declines. My Dad did get me on the phone the other night, his land line (cell phones are impossible), and we were able to converse enough for him to thank me for the letters.

“Your mother has been down to my room to read the last one at least twice already,” he said in his old, but still firm, baritone.

I smiled.

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m gonna keep ’em coming.”

Our connection, reinvented.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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When God Closes a Door, He Opens for Lunch

I was upset when the Golf Channel dismissed me after more than 12 years, a formative time in the network’s history when my efforts enriched a great many people out of all proportion to what I was being paid. So it goes. But I also liked the job, and in the months after it was clear that my contract would not be renewed, it was hard not to feel negative. So it also goes.

In the throes of perceived loss, no one likes to hear that old saw about a setback being an opportunity or a blessing in some odd get-up. Doesn’t make it any less true, though, even if you believe for awhile that when God closes a door, he opens a window, and it’s -10ºF and windy out.

I have since moved into a much better situation, which has a lot of benefits. Not just the payroll deduction kind: I mean the lifestyle stuff. My company is in Japan, with a North American headquarters in Vancouver. In the age of airplanes, email, and Skype, it hasn’t been necessary to move. So I have stayed in the Orlando, Florida area, and I work out of an office in my home with only occasional travel.

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu!

I was out of soba noodles, but we did have this really good leftover sticky Japanese Nishiki rice. Oishi desu! (Tofu upper left with sriracha; steamed bok choy)

This enables me to be much more involved in the life of my family, especially my son, an only child who is 13. It’s always important to be there for your children, but as a former boy myself, this seems to me to be a crucial stage. As he learns to be a man, surely his mother is a big influence. But I have my role too: Example Man. I’m glad to do it. I went a lot of exciting places around the world when Joseph was young, but I also missed a lot. Augusta National was all well and good, but I would have liked to have seen him roll over that first time.

There are little things, too. As we know, they have a habit of adding up to big things. One is lunch. I meet friends for lunch occasionally, but the best restaurant I know is still right downstairs. And I’m the chef.  When I do travel, it’s often to Asia, where I have been fortunate to discover whole new universes of taste and texture.

As a result, on any given weekday, lunch may be soba noodles, braised tofu, and steamed bok choy, all topped off with Thai fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, and a healthy shot of sriracha-sauce heat. We have bamboo steamers from the Asian grocery, inexpensive workhorses of the kitchen which, when placed over boiling water in a wok, transform all manner of vegetables and leftover rice into hot-and-happy entrées. I’ve gotten so good at this that my wife will call from wherever she is and tell me she’ll be home for lunch. Throw on some extra udon.

As we found when we started making homemade pasta after an Italy trip, what once seemed arduous is really no big deal. Here’s a sample step-by-step:

1. Get a block of extra-firm tofu. In the morning or the night before, unpack it, drain it, put it in a baking pan, salt it, and bake it for an hour at 350º. Let it cool.
2. At lunchtime, wash and chop a bunch of bok choy. Put it in the bamboo steamer. Get water boiling in the wok. Plunk that bamboo badboy on there. Count five minutes.
3. Carefully remove the steamer (very hot) and throw three ounces of soba noodles into the water in the wok. Count four minutes.
4. Put a teaspoon of sesame oil and a shot of sriracha sauce in a bowl. Slice half the tofu into chunks; save the rest for later, unless your wife is coming home for lunch.
5. Drain the finished noodles; toss ’em in the bowl that has the oil/sriracha combination. Swirl ’em up.
6. Put the bok choy on top of the noodles and the tofu on top of that. Sprinkle with fish sauce or soy sauce, and squeeze a lime all over it.
7. Dig in. You’re about to eat around 500 calories of delicious stuff, chocked with protein, and you will be full.

Kinda all came together, didn’t it? Lost a job, gained a new one, learned some Asian cuisine, and I get to enjoy it. And share it with my family.

The next loss, whenever it comes, will likely smart. So it goes.

But I’ll make sure to have noodles and sriracha sauce around. So that goes.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Italy Arrival: More Than a State of Mind

I would like to be able to report that Italy is purely a portable chow-down for the senses, a magical land where cares vanish and all is sweetness, light, and beef that has not been treated with more hormones than Barry Bonds. But even Hemingway knew he was marketing Paris with that moveable feast stuff. There’s more to any country than what a vacationer sees.

Still, the news is good. Turns out Italy is a magical land. And a great many of my cares went into hiding while I was there. I found quite a bit of sweetness, ample light, and real beef. And charm? In abbondanza. But the real discovery upon touching down in Florence after a transatlantic redeye with Frankfurt connection was this: rather than being a state of mind, Italy is a product of the mind you bring to it.

Ah, Firenze. View from the hotel room.

Ah, Firenze. View from the hotel room.

Let’s face it: Italy is a modern country propped like a tarp over a natural amusement park of antiquity, a wonderland of art and history that even Disney couldn’t have organized. Small nation, part of a grand experiment uniting (under the banners of currency and mutual love of something like democracy) a continent whose people had, for about 1,000 years or so, spent a lot of time building walls and killing each other to satisfy tyrants and already-rich hereditary barons. Small nation, enormous taxes. Small nation, eyeing Greece and its economic debacle nervously. Small nation, to whom the idea of political stability is a government that lasts more than two years and is run by someone whose amorous affairs are at least entertaining.

Small nation, big heart. Everything you hear about the natural kindness of Italians is true. If anything, this has been underplayed. Yes, they spot tourists a kilometer away, and naturally they wouldn’t alienate dollars on the hoof. But by this age, I hope I can tell when people are being naturally decent and when I’m being played.

“Interplanetary. I’d like to smash this architect with seven truck angels.”

“Yes, good evening, Mr. Barr,” the desk clerk said. “Welcome to Florence. We have your family’s room ready.”

Actually, my Italian is much better than that, and I’m pretty sure I said something close to “Hello, I’m Adam Barr and we reserved a room for the evening.” But when you’re an hour into a new country and you love language, the initial attempts feel more like what I wrote above. The nice lady behind the desk responded in Italian, which I considered a great compliment, and switched to English only if it looked like I was having trouble — and never condescendingly.

Jet-lagged dinner with my bride and the kid, who was on lead camera

Jet-lagged dinner with my bride and the kid, who was on lead camera

And at once, I was at ease. I was able to throw open my mind and heart just as I threw open the shuttered windows of our hotel room onto the rooftops above Via Della Scala. The bells of Santa Maria Novella were ringing vespers. A Vespa zipped by below. A dog barked (in Italian!). I drank the air.

Yes, this is modern Europe, smack in the middle of Florence, in a tourist zone. But to keen eyes and open hearts, secrets were available around every corner. Some of them were 500 years old and more.

I know an inordinate number of otherwise reasonable people who insist that the best parts of any experience, travel especially, are the planning and anticipation. Some are even able to say it without allowing their voices to betray the bitterness or disappointment that has to be at the root of such an uncomfortable sentiment, and its natural conclusion that the event itself can’t possibly live up to its advance billing. I have rebelled against this notion my whole life. If that’s the case, why travel? Eat chocolate? Make love? Just plan it and anticipate. Jeez.

Jet-lagged and happy, looking out that window in Florence and thinking about dinner, I knew I would have no problem making — allowing — the thing to be better than its hype. Ho questa cosa. I got this.♦

After dinner, the stuff dreams are made of: my loves, the Arno, summer sunset

After dinner, the stuff dreams are made of: my loves, the Arno, summer sunset

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr

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Why One-Day Business Trips Are Better

In the end, it will be body language and facial expressions that save the airline industry.

Let’s face it: most experienced business travelers have cut way back on their airline time. The trips that have to be made still get booked. But gone are the days of, “Y’know, good old Maurice has been ordering steady. I’m tired of the phone; I’m gonna dash up there and call on him in person.” Nope; hardly ever happens anymore, unless Maurice’s account is in danger. The mere thought of voluntarily sipping the cocktail of humiliation and discomfort that is air travel is enough to send even million-milers running for the Pepto.

Relax. You'll be home soon.

Relax. You’ll be home soon.

But there are times when you need to get in the same room with someone. Times when phone, email and/or Skype won’t cut it. When you have to see a process while hearing the right voice explain it. This is why I endure two flights, three airports, two trains and 28 hours to get to Japan. Of course, when I’m going there, it’s to see people I like. Two flights, six hours, domestic, with checked bags for four days? I better like whoever is on the other end.

But there are happy exceptions. Done right, the one-day, out-and-back trip can feel like business travel ought to feel. As I write this, I’m waiting for the return flight on such a trip, this one from my home in Orlando to Charlotte, N.C. Here’s why such trips can work so well:

  • This was not a phone mission. It required in-person size-ups by me and the other guy. It went famously. Now, whether we do business this time or not, I’ve made a friend and created any number of potential futures.
  • By definition, for a trip to fit into one day, you really can’t fly more than three hours each way. Two is better. Less plane time, less stress.
  • Efficiency. Not much time; soon you’ll have to head back to the airport. Better get things done. Built-in excuse against, “Hell; we can do that tomorrow. Let’s get some beers and head to a strip club fulla people who like to take cell phone pictures and post ’em on Facebook!”
  • No checked bags. This is key. You don’t have time, much less the need, for anything you might have to check. If you have to bring samples or presentation boards, then you should probably be taking someone to dinner, in which case you need a room for the night, in which case you’re reading the wrong article. Kindly get out of the aisle and let me by.
  • But be prepared. A briefcase is big enough for a pair of underwear and your contact lens stuff, in case a day trip gets flight-canceled into an overnight. Just sayin’.
  • Dang computer is heavy. Well, you might need the notebook for a presentation; there’s no getting around that. But if not, a smartphone can hold you for a day. Right? Much easier on the shoulder.
  • Your own bed. This is hyuuuuuje. Whatever happens on the trip, good or bad, you have a better than even chance of lying awake worrying about it in your own bed, with a bedbug-free, firm, familiar-smelling mattress.
  • Morning wake-up: Dad’s home! Always better to not miss the family and be able to make breakfast for the kid.

Of course, overnights and hotel stays long enough to unpack and get laundry done will never go away. But we can reduce them, no question. You have a home for a reason. Take care of business, and take care of yourself. Hm? Oh, that was the announcement for my boarding zone. Ha! I don’t even need overhead bin space!♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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The Secret Lives of 12-Year-Olds

We all have troubles, but I really can’t think of a time when my burdens have exceeded my blessings. Two of the gems in my menagerie of good fortune are 1) my son Joseph, who is 12, and 2) the career change that allows me to spend more time with him at this crucial stage in his life.

If you have visited this space before, you likely know that I am very glad to be a parent, especially of this particular kid. That’s not to say that parenting is easy, or even pleasant every moment. Such is the way with many worthwhile pursuits in life. (Think of running or weighlifting. Multiply by 30ish. There you go.) One wants to be accurate about this, but I wouldn’t even describe the joys/tribulations of parenting as a dichotomy; that would require the coexistence of two markedly different things. The good and bad of parenting are so mystically melded that it can be hard to see where one ends and the other begins. It’s always a blurry, moving border.

An example: upon becoming a parent, it’s natural to want to establish as much solidity as possible in your life. You naturally want to do this job without being knocked off balance by the winds and earthquakes of adult life’s mounting uncertainties. You want to lash yourself to a rock of safety and decency, an island with a big harbor, safe from storms.

And most of us do a good job creating some certainty. But it’s less secure than we think, although not necessarily because of any failing of ours. No, it’s because of the nature of the task. The fact is, as parents, we have much less control than we think of our children. To a great extent, they raise themselves.

The dude his bad self, taking a brief break from studying.

The dude himself, taking a brief break from studying.

Don’t get me wrong. The boundary business is strictly ours to control as the moms and dads. We set the limits, the rules, the benchmarks of behavior and achievement that promote health, safety, self-respect and many other personal assets. But to allow ourselves to believe we know our children’s minds wall-to-wall is folly.

This revelation need not be an occasion for panic. But it does untether you from that rock. When we say, “What is he thinking?” we are usually wondering out loud which synapse failed to fire to keep a child from misplacing his math book again. But more and more, I find myself in moments of repose truly wondering, “What is on my Joseph’s mind? What is he thinking about? What conclusions is he drawing?” Of course, I talk to him as much as I can. But unless safety is concerned, my curiosity alone is not reason enough for poking my mental flashlight into every corner of his privacy. He has to be allowed to be his own person in his own brain.

Still, a parent wonders. We watch behavior for cues and clues the way a hunter in the forest watches the subtle turning of leaves in the breeze. And how do I know there’s even something to watch for?

Simple. Same as you. I was once him. At 12, I had a full-blown mental life, same as any 12-year-old. I had my views on what adults did and why, and whether it was smart (I was right about half the time). I heard the news and drew my own conclusions. I went out and got the information I wanted — before 12, I was riding busses by myself all over Pittsburgh, often to the Carnegie Library to get out books and listen to music. I walked five miles to the soccer field at the high school to play with my friends. When I wanted to, I bought Rolling Stone and National Lampoon and read things that my parents might have been considered contraband.

The fact that my son is less self-mobile than I was (times are not as safe) doesn’t change the overall analysis. He can use a keyboard better than I ever used a library card. He has all the info he wants, whenever he wants it. (Only rule: clear your History on Safari or Chrome, and you’re automatically grounded from electronics.)

So what are his views on….Syria? God? Abortion? Jobs? College? Girls? Sex? Ben Zobrist against lefties with runners in scoring position? Some of these things, it’s important for me to know, so I can be ready to help. But by this age, he has to meet me halfway. And if he chooses to build walls…I can’t stop trying, but there’s not much I can do about it.

Except…be available, be welcoming, and provide an example of enlightened parenting based on love and respect. This is a job that does not involve consistent daily reward, and takes more faith than just running or weightlifting. But so far, so good.

Here’s how I know. Joseph, who is ever-increasing in size and manliness, comes to his mother and me with questions. And he still gives, accepts, and asks for hugs from his Dad. One day I know the physical hugs may stop. I pray every day that the spiritual ones never do.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photo by Adam Barr

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Marital Political Science: Peace in the Valley

The longer a marriage lasts, the more its participants wonder what the central thread really is that keeps them together through the decades and the seasons of life (of which there are a great deal more than four per year). You will get all kinds of answers on this — the friendship, the mutual reliance, habit, laughter, touch, and on and on. You may even get different answers from members of the same marriage. (If this happens, take my advice: turn off the tape recorder and quietly leave the room.)

Whatever consternation may arise between my wife and me, I can tell you one thing it won’t be about: the division of marital labor. For some reason, we have never fought or even disagreed significantly about who should do what, when. I don’t think we’re any different than most couples in the marital skill department, but we definitely have this part down. (Also, I have a well-honed survival instinct.)

Us. That's not our house; if it were, she would be vacuuming it. But see how nice my shirt is?

Us. That’s not our house; if it were, she would be vacuuming it. But see how nice my shirt is?

Here’s how most things fall (or fell) out:

  • Laundry. She handles hers and Joseph’s. I do my own. Back in the Worsted Wool Age, I was particular about my shirts. So I did my own. It just never stopped. No biggie.
  • Cooking. I end up doing most of it because I like to. But if I say, “I’m crushed today; can you manage dinner?,” I never get an argument. Or we order Chinese. Either way, it works out.
  • Dusting. I may make an occasional feint at it, but she’s the maven here. I suspect there are particles from Biblical times reposed on some of the furniture in my office; who am I to disturb them?
  • Vacuuming. As some men are with their Lamborghinis, my wife is with her vacuum. It is hers. You can’t do it right. Get out of the way. I hate the noise anyway.
  • Kid to School. Me as often as possible. This is a holdover from the time when I was seldom home and wanted to maximize every minute with him. Now I get up early out of habit, and I like making breakfast for him. Besides, she likes to sleep.
  • Angus. She takes our dog to the park in the mornings, since I take the kid to school. I will occasionally fill in, but the dog says I don’t throw the ball like Mom.
  • Dishes. No clear rule, but often me while she walks Angus in the evenings.
  • Dealing with evil health insurance companies. Sorry; I was redundant. She does this. Thank the sweet Lord in heaven, she does this.
  • Decorating. I like her tastes. See note about survival instinct, above.
  • Travel planning. Her quote: “Tell me what the weather is going to be like there and where to be when it’s time to leave.” I got this.
  • Short game: She comes to me for putting advice. I try to hide my golf game under a rock, but she always finds it.
  • Lawn mowing. Me, of course. She’s no fool.

There’s more, but I can see you’re already calling your spouse on your maybe-I’m-not-so-smartphone. Kidding aside, we have seen some marriages nearly reach the cracking point on these issues. We feel fortunate that we never got onto those rocks.

In his excellent book Family Man, Calvin Trillin says that married couples doesn’t really have to share the same tastes, just the same values. Pitching in as a team is clearly one of those values. One of my single friends once heard me on the phone, wrapping up a conversation about scheduling kid pickup, groceries, and dinner. When I hung up, he deadpanned, “Hm. Running a household. Sounds so uplifting.”

Mister, you have no idea.♦

© Adam Barr

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